Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Baboon Metaphysics

Baboons are a fascinating branch of the family tree.  We humans have big brains, complex language, and a staggering collection of tools.  Yet, with smaller brains, grunt communication, and no tools, baboons have brilliantly lived sustainably for millions of years — like every other species of animals, except you-know-who.

Long ago, primates began as cute insect eating tree critters.  Climate change has always been a mischievous rascal, periodically redefining the rules of survival.  Two to four million years ago, east Africa, the “cradle of humankind,” became cooler and dryer.  Rainforests shrank, and grasslands expanded.  Many forest species went extinct.  Chimps and bonobos were lucky.  They remained in the forest and managed to adapt to changing conditions.

Baboons are interesting because, like humans, their ancestors moved out of the forest and adapted to savannah-woodland ecosystems.  They have managed to survive in a rough neighborhood that includes lions, hyenas, leopards, cheetahs, crocodiles, and trigger happy farmers.  Baboons demonstrate that primates can survive in a dangerous habitat without spears, fire, complex language, or throbbing big brains — and they can do this without causing irreversible degradation.

Baboons evolved in a tropical ecosystem.  They don’t need protective clothing or shelters.  They have a year-round supply of food, so they don’t need to hibernate, or stash nutrients for lean seasons.  Their diet majors in plant foods, including palm nuts, jackal berries, figs, and sausage fruit.  They also consume animal foods like insects, rodents, fish, shellfish, hares, birds, vervet monkeys, antelopes, and human infants.

Anyway, my muse gave me a dope slap and told me to pay more attention to baboons, so I read Baboon Metaphysics, by Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth.  The authors have joined the animal intelligence crusade, and are working to discredit the common misconception that nonhuman animals are little more than mindless stimulus-response automatons.  Their research was performed by intruding into wild baboon communities and performing annoying experiments on them.

Modern humans have been lobotomized by their extreme disconnection from the living world.  If folks spent their days in continuous contact with wild animals, no research would be needed to certify their obvious intelligence.

Metaphysics is defined as “the part of philosophy that is about understanding existence and knowledge.”  This is much like intelligence, which is intellect, the faculty of understanding.  Cheney is a biologist, and Seyfarth is a psychologist.  Their objective is to persuade readers that nonhuman animals, like baboons, supplement their instincts with aspects of genuine intelligence.

My focus is ecological sustainability, and I see “animal intelligence” from a different perspective.  All wild nonhuman animals adapt to their ecosystem and go with the flow.  They have lived sustainably for millions of years.  What could possibly be more intelligent?  It doesn’t seem intelligent to knowingly destroy the ecosystem, and radically destabilize the climate, whilst stumbling around staring at glowing screen thingies.

Here are three reasons why there aren’t seven-point-something billion baboons in the world.  (1) They didn’t exterminate most of their predators.  (2) They made no effort to increase the volume of food produced in their habitat via soil mining; they adapted to the wild food supply provided by nature.  (3) They lived as evolution had prepared them to live, wisely avoiding the toxic tar baby of innovation and technology — the express lane to extinction.  Birds evolved to fly; baboons did not.

All nonhuman species live in accordance with these three principles, whilst the human population continues to grow explosively.  It is out of control because modern folks generally lack foresight, and the wisdom to practice mindful self-restraint.  They lack the intelligence to comprehend the ecological foolishness of relentless campaigns of predator extermination.  Naturally, living in vast crowds conjures a new class of predators — infectious diseases and degenerative diseases.

Meanwhile, baboons have no need for wisdom.  They enjoy the management services provided by Big Mama Nature.  Predators happily keep their groups stable.  In the great dance of life, we all feed one another.  The authors note, “Predation accounts for the vast majority of deaths among male, female, and juvenile baboons.”  Baboons do not spend the last years of their lives decaying; they feed the lions.

Baboons intelligently avoid predators by sleeping in trees, or at the top of steep cliffs.  In daylight hours, they return to the savannah to forage.  (YouTube has many fascinating baboon documentaries.)  Males are much larger than females, and when predators visit, it is their responsibility to rush in and be as loud and belligerent as possible.  Males have large canine teeth, and predators are careful to avoid being wounded; they prefer sneaky low-risk surprise attacks.  Males hold off predators whilst the females and young try to escape.  The lives of males are nasty, brutish, and short.  Females can live 20 years.

Powerful aggressive males encourage group survival.  The alpha male baboon is the primary sperm donor in each group.  His evolutionary mission is to father as many offspring as possible, but his time in office is usually brief.  A new alpha, on average, is master of the harem for just seven to eight months.  Consequently, he promptly tries to kill the offspring of all lactating females, so these mothers will be freed to produce offspring with his genes.  This infanticide custom provides a secondary control on population growth, and encourages the production of badass defender daddies.

Like many other species, baboon society is hierarchical.  There are many levels of rank in the group, and every individual knows his or her current position.  Among female baboons, ranking is fairly stable.  They spend their entire lives in the group of their birth.  Males, on the other hand, migrate to other groups as young adults.  The arriving young lads are a threat to the status of the current alpha.  Challenges usually involve macho posturing, loud shrieks, and high-speed chases — not injurious beatings.  An individual male’s rank can change frequently.

Paul Shepard once asserted that ground monkeys (like baboons) are “the most aggressively status-conscious creatures on Earth.”  I wonder if humans are even more so.  Baboons play the status game without rubbishing their ecosystem.  Modern humans devote their entire lives to hoarding manufactured status trinkets.  Countless landfills are piled deep with discarded trinkets, thrown out to make space for our newer, bigger, flashier, trendier foolishness.  We cannot wean ourselves from habitual car driving, because travelling intelligently would take a huge toll on our social status (sorry kids!).

We are not doomed by faulty genes.  We’re doomed by mindlessly marching to the beat of screwy beliefs, but belief is voluntary.  We do not have to shop till we drop.  Thinking outside the box is a sign of intelligence.  It’s OK to question consensus reality.  It’s OK to stand strong against the powerful currents of our insane culture.  It’s OK to leap over the fence and pursue a meaningful and rewarding life.  This may be the only life you ever live.  Live well!

Cheney, Dorothy L., and Robert M. Seyfarth, Baboon Metaphysics — The Evolution of the Social Mind, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2007.


Tuesday, January 3, 2017


Tikopia (tik-o-PEE-a) is a wee island in the Pacific, quite close to the middle of nowhere, the remains of an ancient volcano.  Its area is 1.8 square miles (4.6 km2), much of it steep rugged hillside.  The closest neighbors live on Anuta, 85 miles away (137 km), a long and dangerous voyage in a dugout canoe.  Tiny Tikopia is eleven times larger than Anuta. 

Humans arrived in Tikopia maybe 3,000 years ago, and brought along pigs, dogs, fowl, rats, and the seeds of Polynesian foods.  For a while, folks ate well, dining on the abundant birds, fish, and shellfish.  As abundance faded, slash and burn agriculture gained momentum.  Deforestation crept up the slopes, and eroded soils washed down, accumulating near the shore.  Efforts were made to stabilize and expand the shoreline.  As a result, Tikopia’s land area is now 40 percent larger, and the reef area is 41 percent smaller.  There is much more land suitable for raising food.

The crater of Tikopia’s volcano used to be a saltwater bay linked to the sea, home to plentiful fish and shellfish.  Soil deposits have now blocked the connection to the sea, turning the bay into a lake.  This sharply reduced the marine life that formerly thrived in the bay.  The villages that depended on this food were screwed.  Around 1700, they exterminated a village having fertile land.  Another village fled in fear, paddling into the ocean, almost certainly drowning.  Conflict is hunger’s shadow.

The lake water is too salty to drink, as is the ocean.  Drinking water is obtained from springs flowing out of the hillsides, coming from sources above the villages and latrines.  Ashes, excrement, and kitchen wastes are used to return nutrients to the gardens and orchards.

Over time, folks planted more food-producing trees.  Eventually, they developed a clever three-story system of arboriculture, mixing tall, medium, and short tree species.  These included bananas, papaya, coconuts, sago, chestnuts, and almonds.  On the ground, they grew root crops, like taro, sweet potatoes, yams, and manioc.  This system maximized food production, reduced erosion, enriched the soil, was less vulnerable to cyclone damage, and did not require endless toil.  Pigs swiped too much human food, and were eliminated before 1800, as were the dogs.

Nature kept life interesting by sending drought years and frequent cyclones.  These could hammer the food supply.  Because Tikopia was so far from anywhere, importing food from elsewhere was not an option.  Folks preserved calories for famine years in two ways.  (1) They dug pits and fermented taro, breadfruit, and manioc into glop called masi, which could be stored for several years.  (2) The pith of the sago palm was dried and ground into storable flour.

Each house was assigned specific garden plots and orchards that comprised their primary source of nutrition.  If you ran short, you starved.  Carrying capacity expanded and declined in synch with food production.  When conditions got tight, older males in the household would set limits on reproduction.  The families complied, because everyone understood the painful consequences of having too many mouths to feed.

Because it encouraged social stability, population management was intelligent and ethical.  It was done in several ways.  Junior members of the family might be expected to remain bachelors or spinsters.  Everyone practiced coitus interruptus.  Efforts were made to induce miscarriages to end unwanted pregnancies.  Newborns were promptly suffocated.  It was usually OK to have two sons, but subsequent male offspring were strangled, to avoid conflicts over land inheritance.  Unmarried males sometimes jumped into a canoe and never returned.  Others swam out into the open sea and fed the sharks.  When all options failed, it was time to fetch clubs and go on the warpath.

I invite you to watch The Island of Tikopia, a pleasant 53-minute video.  It shows us cool people living in a tropical paradise.  Tikopia is blessed by being tiny, isolated, unsuitable for industrial agriculture, and having no valuable resources.  Hence, they have not been obliterated by modernity.  They will never suffer from automobiles or cell phones.  Even today, Tikopians live in functional communities, and enjoy an easygoing way of life that is unimaginable to frantic consumers thrashing through life in Crazyland.

The video does not focus on how contact with civilization has impacted their society.  On a different island, the Sentineli welcome all visitors with a shower of arrows.  They have learned from painful experience that outsiders can be bad juju.  Tikopians had no fear of visitors, because anyone who paddled in was a mellow islander like themselves.  Whites were different; following a visit in 1828, a quarter of the population died from disease.

Missionaries began to wash ashore in 1857, occasionally visiting the island.  Within 50 years, they had made a few converts.  Half were baptized by 1928, and by 1955, most were nominally Christian.  Chiefs who agreed to be baptized were rewarded with metal axes, knives, adzes, and other amazing stuff.  Heathens who preferred the ancient path were rewarded with self-righteous intolerance.

More destructive than dysentery, pneumonia, measles, and influenza was the deliberate introduction of European morality.  Much of the traditional culture managed to survive, but Christians were especially uptight about sex, family planning, and which deity to worship.  Naturally, the stern prohibition of premarital sex was disregarded by almost all youths, including horny young Christians.

Naturally, the mission’s opposition to population control had negative results.  Population soared 37 percent from 1,288 in 1928 (too many), to 1,753 in 1952 (way too many) — just in time for a devastating cyclone, and a bloody plunge into helter-skelter.  This drove anthropologist Raymond Firth crazy.  Christian culture was obsessed with compulsory conformity, but disinterested in the predictable results.  Tikopians had evolved a remarkably competent culture that adapted to the ecosystem and mindfully lived within limits.  Leave it alone, he shouted.

Anyone who has studied European history knows that this irrational morality of unrestrained growth has, over the centuries, led to the death of hundreds of millions via wars, famines, and epidemics.  Is this truly more ethical than intelligent family planning?  The principles of carrying capacity and overshoot apply to both tiny islands and the entire planet, as we are now in the process of discovering.

When the first humans arrived in Tikopia, there were no mammals.  There were no wild herbivores to freeload on their food supply.  The only man-eating predators were sharks, which swam outside the reefs.  In the absence of large predators, humans were the dominant animal.  There were no lions, jaguars, or hyenas to provide essential population control services.  Thus, a culture of mindful restraint was the preferred path to sustainability.

Today, Tikopia is one of 900+ islands in the nation of Solomon Islands, which is 95 percent Christian.  The Tikopian population crisis has been addressed by sending folks to establish colonies on other islands — islands that have been depopulated via exposure to the diseases of civilization.  Other Tikopians enjoy rewarding careers in manual labor at coconut plantations on larger islands.  How much longer can the consequences of European morality be sidestepped?  Sea levels are rising, cyclones are intensifying, and low-lying islands in the Solomons are vanishing.  Good luck islanders!

Firth, Raymond, We, The Tikopia, American Book Company, New York, 1936.

Firth, Raymond, Tikopia Ritual and Belief, Beacon Press, Boston, 1967.

Kirch, Patrick Vinton and Douglas E. Yen, Tikopia — The Prehistory and Ecology of a Polynesian Outlier, Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu, 1982.

Winter Solstice 2016

December 21, 2016.  Merry monsoon season!  I wake to the music of gentle rains, bike to the library in the rain, take long evening walks in the rain, and float off to dreamland to the sweet sound of splashing droplets.  Occasionally, a brilliant sunbeam blasts through the clouds and frightens everyone.  Occasionally, we are blessed by the sight of a breathtaking double rainbow, bright and beautiful from one end to the other.

Following the normal passage of many months with little rain, the Willamette River is now flowing high and fast, roaring over the rocks, an inspiring symphony of dancing water.  The monsoons have filled the Grass People with ecstasy, and the parks and lawns are screaming green and intensely alive.  The trunks of the older trees have grown a gorgeous green fur of moist moss and delicate ferns.  Even my scruffy Funkytown neighborhood looks a bit like Fairyland.

I wrote those words a week ago.  Since then, there has been an incredible ice storm, which put a thick coat of glittering ice on everything, creating a Fairyland of sparkles.  Countless tree limbs snapped off.  A number of grandmother trees were unable to bear the weight, and tumbled to their deaths. 

I had no electricity for two nights and a day — no heat, no cooking, no lights, no computer, no radio, no freezer, no reading.  Dressed for a cold winter day, I sat beside two small candles, having ancestral memories of times when life was simpler, the climate was stable, and the polar bears were fat and happy.  Ancestors would gather around the burning hearth, and enrich the long dark hours with songs and stories.  Today, the rains have resumed, the ice is gone, and I’m staring at a glowing screen, typing news to folks in faraway lands.  Howdy!

In the rituals of my life, there is a sacred land on the south side of a freeway, a power line easement.  This holy place is called The Mile of Blackberries.  I travel there every year in July, at the crack of dawn, to fill my buckets while it’s still cool.  The berries are top quality, abundant, and easy to pick without excessive loss of blood (from razor sharp thorns).  At home, I can cases of jam and sauce.  This morning I had blackberry sauce on my oatmeal, with chopped walnuts that I also gathered.

This year, I biked over there to check on the ripening berries, and the berries were gone!  The entire mile had been bulldozed to make an exit ramp or something.  It was heartbreaking!  The soils and climate of this valley are ideal habitat for the Blackberry People, and they grow everywhere, usually in tangled, impenetrable briar patches.  Most patches do not produce generous quantities of large juicy grade-A berries.

After a few days of hopeless despair, I hopped on my bike, and embarked on a voyage of discovery.  Hooray!  I found several excellent blackberry nations, and my annual tradition survived for one more year.  These prime locations are far off the beaten path, not accessible by automobile.  Foraging for berries always triggers ancestral memories, filling me with a profound sense of wellbeing.

I was amazed to discover that wherever I explored, I also found homeless camps.  They’re sleeping in their cars, under every bridge, in every park, in the carport below my apartment, and even in isolated locations along highways.  The American Dream now needs a cane and hearing aids.  There really are limits to growth — a truth as obvious as the sun and moon — but impossible for our culture to accept.  Limits don’t care whether or not we accept them.  Limits are amused by how oddly we utilize our legendary big brains.

Charities feed the homeless thousands here.  Unlike Oakland, Detroit, or Chicago, the scene here has yet to deteriorate into routine violence.  I’m not afraid to walk most places at night.  But one evening in September, as I was beginning a bike ride, I heard loud noises that didn’t sound like cherry bombs.  When I returned from my bike ride, the whole neighborhood was a busy crime scene.  A lad was shot dead in the alley at the end of our driveway.  Stepping outside my door, and looking left, I can see where he died, 100 feet away.  No arrests have been made.

This has been an encouraging year for my creative work.  In May, I published my third book, Understanding Sustainability, a collection of book reviews related to ecological sustainability.  My social network of virtual comrades continues to expand, including folks in France, Thailand, New Zealand, Australia, South Korea, Pakistan, India, Germany, Ireland, Britain, Canada, Hungary, Sweden, Croatia, Belgium, Tunisia, Iran, Russia, and the United States.

My blog has gotten much busier this year.  In the first half of 2016, views averaged 3,000 per month.  By late October, they were over 8,000.  In mid-December, they had soared to 11,341.  Apparently, my reviews are rising in Google’s search rankings, becoming more likely to appear on the first page of hits.  I also suspect that my work is being used more in classrooms, which delights me.  Ignorance is curable!

Anyway, it’s been a satisfying year.  I’m doing meaningful work, and there are people who appreciate it.  I continue working on my fourth book, currently a daunting disorderly mob of 110,000 words.  It would be fun if I could finish it in the coming year, but that’s what I thought a year ago.  It’s not easy being a wordsmith, but it feels good.