Technology in deep time: How it evolves alongside us

Tom Chatfield writes:

Plenty of creatures can communicate richly, comprehend one another’s intentions and put tools to intelligent and creative use: cetaceans, cephalopods, corvids. Some can even develop and pass on particular local practices: New Caledonian crows, for example, exhibit a “culture” of tool usage, creating distinct varieties of simple hooked tools from plants in order to help them feed.

Only humans, however, have turned this craft into something unprecedented: a cumulative process of experiment and recombination that over mere hundreds of thousands of years harnessed phenomena such as fire to cook food, and ultimately smelt metal; as gravity into systems of levers, ramps, pulleys, wheels and counterweights; and mental processes into symbolic art, numeracy, and literacy.

It is this, above all, that marks humanity’s departure from the rest of life on Earth. Alone among species (at least until the crows have put in a million years more effort) humans can consciously improve and combine their creations over time – and in turn extend the boundaries of consciousness. It is through this process of recursive iteration that tools became technologies; and technology a world-altering force.

The economist W Brian Arthur is one of the most significant thinkers to have advanced this combinatorial account of technology, especially in his 2009 book The Nature of Technology. Central to Arthur’s argument is the insight that it’s not only pointless but also actively misleading to do what most history books cannot resist, and treat the history of technology as a greatest-hits list of influential inventions: to tell stirring tales of the impact of the compass, the clock, the printing press, the lightbulb, the iPhone.

This is not because such inventions weren’t hugely important, but because it obscures the fact that all new technologies are at root a combination of older technologies – and that this in turn traces an evolutionary process resembling life itself.

Consider the printing press, the invariable poster-child for anyone wanting to offer a quasi-historical perspective on the dissemination of information. The German inventor Johannes Gutenberg was, famously, the first European to develop a system for printing with movable type, in around 1440. Yet he was far from the first person to realise that using individual, movable components for each character in a sentence was a good way to speed up printing (as opposed to laboriously carving every page of text onto wood or metal).

Printing using individual porcelain characters had been developed in China in the 11th Century, and using metal character in Korea in the 13th Century. Gutenberg benefited, however, from the far smaller number of letters in German; from his knowledge of metal-smelting as a blacksmith and goldsmith, which helped him create a malleable-yet-durable alloy of lead, tin, and antimony; and from his insight that the kind of wooden presses used for centuries in Germany to make wine could be repurposed for pressing type against paper (itself a technology developed in China 1,500 years previously).

Wooden wine-presses, metal alloys, the Roman alphabet, oil-based ink, paper – every piece of the puzzle assembled by Gutenberg and his collaborators was based in a pre-existing technology whose origin could itself be traced back through previous technologies, in unbroken sequence, to the very first tools. [Continue reading…]

Jacinda Ardern at Christchurch memorial: Only through our common humanity can we confront extremism

 

New Zealand PM, Jacinda Ardern, said:

To the global community who have joined us today, who reached out to embrace New Zealand, and our Muslim community, to all of those who have gathered here today, we say thank you.

And we also ask that the condemnation of violence and terrorism turns now to a collective response. The world has been stuck in a vicious cycle of extremism breeding extremism and it must end.

We cannot confront these issues alone, none of us can. But the answer to them lies in a simple concept that is not bound by domestic borders, that isn’t based on ethnicity, power base or even forms of governance. The answer lies in our humanity.

We need contact with nature for the sake of our sanity

Jonathan Lambert writes:

The experience of natural spaces, brimming with greenish light, the smells of soil and the quiet fluttering of leaves in the breeze can calm our frenetic modern lives. It’s as though our very cells can exhale when surrounded by nature, relaxing our bodies and minds.

Some people seek to maximize the purported therapeutic effects of contact with the unbuilt environment by embarking on sessions of forest bathing, slowing down and becoming mindfully immersed in nature.

But in a rapidly urbanizing world, green spaces are shrinking as our cities grow out and up. Scientists are working to understand how green spaces, or lack of them, can affect our mental health.

A study published Monday in the journal PNAS details what the scientists say is the largest investigation of the association between green spaces and mental health.

Researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark found that growing up near vegetation is associated with an up to 55 percent lower risk of mental health disorders in adulthood. Kristine Engemann, the biologist who led the study, combined decades of satellite imagery with extensive health and demographic data of the Danish population to investigate the mental health effects of growing up near greenery. [Continue reading…]

No marine ecosystems left that are unaffected by plastic waste, study suggests

The Guardian reports:

The world’s deepest ocean trenches are becoming “the ultimate sink” for plastic waste, according to a study that reveals contamination of animals even in these dark, remote regions of the planet.

For the first time, scientists found microplastic ingestion by organisms in the Mariana trench and five other areas with a depth of more than 6,000 metres, prompting them to conclude “it is highly likely there are no marine ecosystems left that are not impacted by plastic pollution”.

The paper, published in the Royal Society Open Science journal, highlights the threat posed by non-biodegradable substances in clothes, containers and packaging, which make their way from household bins via dump sites and rivers to the oceans, where they break up and sink to the floor.

The impact of plastic in shallower waters – where it chokes dolphins, whales and seabirds – is already well documented in academic journals and by TV programmes such as David Attenborough’s Blue Planet. But the study shows this problem is far more profound than previously realised. [Continue reading…]

Is a more generous society possible?

By Leah Shaffer

In January 2016, Cathryn Townsend set out to live among “the loveless people.” So named by anthropologist Colin Turnbull, the Ik are a tribe of some 11,600 hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers living in an arid and harsh mountainous region of Uganda.

Turnbull studied the Ik in the 1960s and famously characterized them as “inhospitable and generally mean” in his book The Mountain People. He documented how young children were abandoned to starve and how people would snatch food from the elderly. Townsend, a Rutgers University anthropologist, visited the Ik decades later to see how a culture that supposedly lacked basic kindness operated.

Her interest stemmed from an ongoing, multidisciplinary investigation called The Human Generosity Project, which examines why and how human cooperation, in the form of generosity, threads its way through different cultures. The project began in 2014, through a partnership between Lee Cronk, a Rutgers University anthropologist, and Athena Aktipis, a psychologist at Arizona State University. Together, the pair wanted to investigate the cultural and biological factors behind generous behavior. Today, through this project, more than 20 participating researchers use an array of tools, including economic simulations and computer modeling, to study altruism and cooperation at nine field sites.

In certain communities, giving to those in need, with no expectation of return, is normalized and expected. The project researchers have found such behavior around the world, including among herders and hunter-gatherers in East Africa. And findings thus far suggest that such generous societies are more likely to survive during difficult times.

If that pattern holds up, lessons from The Human Generosity Project could be vital as the world faces a multitude of unpredictable challenges from the onslaught of climate change and increasing economic inequality. “Ultimately, it would be nice if we could encourage higher levels of cooperation and higher levels of generosity,” Cronk says.

Townsend, a member of the project, went to study the Ik to find a counterexample to generous cultures. She and her colleagues wanted to see how an allegedly “selfish” society operated. But when she arrived, she found something different: Even among “the loveless people,” there was a thriving tradition of generosity.

[Read more…]

World’s food supply under ‘severe threat’ from loss of biodiversity

The Guardian reports:

The world’s capacity to produce food is being undermined by humanity’s failure to protect biodiversity, according to the first UN study of the plants, animals and micro-organisms that help to put meals on our plates.

The stark warning was issued by the Food and Agriculture Organisation after scientists found evidence the natural support systems that underpin the human diet are deteriorating around the world as farms, cities and factories gobble up land and pump out chemicals.

Over the last two decades, approximately 20% of the earth’s vegetated surface has become less productive, said the report, launched on Friday.

It noted a “debilitating” loss of soil biodiversity, forests, grasslands, coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass beds and genetic diversity in crop and livestock species. In the oceans, a third of fishing areas are being overharvested.

Many species that are indirectly involved in food production, such as birds that eat crop pests and mangrove trees that help to purify water, are less abundant than in the past, noted the study, which collated global data, academic papers and reports by the governments of 91 countries.

It found 63% of plants, 11% of birds, and 5% of fish and fungi were in decline. Pollinators, which provide essential services to three-quarters of the world’s crops, are under threat. As well as the well-documented decline of bees and other insects, the report noted that 17% of vertebrate pollinators, such as bats and birds, were threatened with extinction. [Continue reading…]

Humans cannot survive without them yet within a century the world’s insects may be extinct

The Guardian reports:

The world’s insects are hurtling down the path to extinction, threatening a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems”, according to the first global scientific review.

More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, the analysis found. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. The total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5% a year, according to the best data available, suggesting they could vanish within a century.

The planet is at the start of a sixth mass extinction in its history, with huge losses already reported in larger animals that are easier to study. But insects are by far the most varied and abundant animals, outweighing humanity by 17 times. They are “essential” for the proper functioning of all ecosystems, the researchers say, as food for other creatures, pollinators and recyclers of nutrients.

Insect population collapses have recently been reported in Germany and Puerto Rico, but the review strongly indicates the crisis is global. The researchers set out their conclusions in unusually forceful terms for a peer-reviewed scientific paper: “The [insect] trends confirm that the sixth major extinction event is profoundly impacting [on] life forms on our planet.

“Unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades,” they write. “The repercussions this will have for the planet’s ecosystems are catastrophic to say the least.”

The analysis, published in the journal Biological Conservation, says intensive agriculture is the main driver of the declines, particularly the heavy use of pesticides. Urbanisation and climate change are also significant factors.

“If insect species losses cannot be halted, this will have catastrophic consequences for both the planet’s ecosystems and for the survival of mankind,” said Francisco Sánchez-Bayo, at the University of Sydney, Australia, who wrote the review with Kris Wyckhuys at the China Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing.

The 2.5% rate of annual loss over the last 25-30 years is “shocking”, Sánchez-Bayo told the Guardian: “It is very rapid. In 10 years you will have a quarter less, in 50 years only half left and in 100 years you will have none.” [Continue reading…]

Rising temperatures could melt most Himalayan glaciers by 2100, threatening the water supply of 25% of global population

The New York Times reports:

Rising temperatures in the Himalayas, home to most of the world’s tallest mountains, will melt at least one-third of the region’s glaciers by the end of the century even if the world’s most ambitious climate change targets are met, according to a report released Monday.

If those goals are not achieved, and global warming and greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rates, the Himalayas could lose two-thirds of its glaciers by 2100, according to the report, the Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment.

Under those more dire circumstances, the Himalayas could heat up by 8 degrees Fahrenheit (4.4 degrees Celsius) by century’s end, bringing radical disruptions to food and water supplies, and mass population displacement.

Glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalayan Region, which spans over 2,000 miles of Asia, provide water resources to around a quarter of the world’s population. [Continue reading…]

David Suzuki: ‘It’s very, very late and urgent’ to take climate action if we want to prevent human extinction

 

Global WEIRDing is a trend we can’t ignore

By Kensy Cooperrider

For centuries, Inuit hunters navigated the Arctic by consulting wind, snow and sky. Now they use GPS. Speakers of the aboriginal language Gurindji, in northern Australia, used to command 28 variants of each cardinal direction. Children there now use the four basic terms, and they don’t use them very well. In the arid heights of the Andes, the Aymara developed an unusual way of understanding time, imagining the past as in front of them, and the future at their backs. But for the youngest generation of Aymara speakers – increasingly influenced by Spanish – the future lies ahead

These are not just isolated changes. On all continents, even in the world’s remotest regions, indigenous people are swapping their distinctive ways of parsing the world for Western, globalised ones. As a result, human cognitive diversity is dwindling – and, sadly, those of us who study the mind had only just begun to appreciate it. 

In 2010, a paper titled ‘The Weirdest People in the World?’ gave the field of cognitive science a seismic shock. Its authors, led by the psychologist Joe Henrich at the University of British Columbia, made two fundamental points. The first was that researchers in the behavioural sciences had almost exclusively focused on a small sliver of humanity: people from Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic societies. The second was that this sliver is not representative of the larger whole, but that people in London, Buenos Aires and Seattle were, in an acronym, WEIRD.

But there is a third fundamental point, and it was the psychologist Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania who made it. In his commentary on the 2010 article, Rozin noted that this same WEIRD slice of humanity was ‘a harbinger of the future of the world’. He had seen this trend in his own research. Where he found cross-cultural differences, they were more pronounced in older generations. The world’s young people, in other words, are converging. The signs are unmistakable: the age of global WEIRDing is upon us.

[Read more…]