We are not alone

I’ve been investigating the connection, if it’s there, between the substrate of human emotions and the ways we respond to climate change, and trying to do so from an orthodox scientific perspective.

There’s plenty of peer-reviewed work out there framing climate change in terms of people’s values, attitudes and behaviours. It’s generally presented for the purpose of encouraging better methods for communicating how urgent the threat of climate change has become and/or better measures for mitigating and adapting to that threat. But I’m looking for something about people that I believe springs from deep within, deeper than values, attitudes and behaviours. There’s also a decent body of literature on our psychological and emotional responses to climate change, but it lacks the grounding in hard science, hard enough to chip your teeth on, that I need for a credible academic study. It seems that ’emotions’ are slippery terrain, easy(ish) to describe in commonplace terms, but difficult to pin down in the form of findings that can be systematically and falsifiably tested.

So I found my way to the work of the late neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp (I’m sad to say he died last year), who meets my criteria for a rigorous but not entirely dispassionate master of the field. And it’s drawn me off on a bit of a tangent. Here’s what I learned:

Feelings such as grief, rage, playful joy, loving care and several others live deep within the mind, and can be observed – via brain-imaging – in the deepest, oldest parts of the human brain. They can also be artificially aroused using ‘deep brain stimulation’. Panksepp dedicated his research to compiling evidence for the existence this handful of core emotional systems, which appear to be the source for the many complex social feelings that people generally experience and talk about as ’emotions’. His studies indicate that the fundamental, underlying packages of emotional feelings are not only innate to us, from birth, but that we also share them with our mammal cousins, and to varying degrees with other creatures too. Which is to say they are experienced, in the minds of creatures great and small, as bona fide ‘feelings’.

That won’t come as news to anyone with an empathetic interest in living creatures. Or to children, or I gather to members of most indigenous societies in the world. The kinds of people for whom the personhood of animals has never been in doubt. And for Panksepp it’s just an unsentimental fact, supported by a preponderance of neuroscientific evidence. Our fellow creatures have feelings too – and by extension they experience consciousness in ways not so very different from ourselves.

But by a quirk of neuro-biological science, conclusions (no matter how rigorously arrived at) which undermine (no matter how unintentionally) the conceit of human exceptionalism, are considered unsophisticated and therefore can be quietly marginalised and disregarded. As if that whole business with Darwin and the monkeys didn’t teach us much at all. Consciousness and the capacity for feelings make us unique among all life-forms, so the story goes. So Panksepp’s work, while not exactly heretical, isn’t yet mainstream.

Maybe it would just be too inconvenient for a science which has been in thrall to behaviourism for the best part of a century, to let go of the notion of non-human creatures as, in effect, mindless automata – experimental subjects (no consent needed!) and living demonstrations of the efficacy of the “reward and punishment” approach to behavioural control. There’s also the conundrum of trying to explore the pre-linguistic depths of the mind using science, a language-based system of reason. Science seems intrinsically happier grappling with the topic of cognition, a language-based function of the human brain, rather than dealing with deep emotion, which is an evolutionary feature of potentially all animal minds (despite the workings of deep emotion being in some sense more rudimentary and easier to evidence than the freakish complexities of cortical-level cognitive consciousness). In fact, the dominant discourse in neuroscience would still deny that word ‘mind’ – associated with subjective consciousness – to any vessel of non-cognitively experienced feelings.

I’m certain, however, that the rest of the field will, in time, catch up with Panskepp on this. And I’m hopeful that there are links to be explored between the deep emotional substrate of human life and the story of climate change.

To sign off I’d like to share this extract from the coda to Panksepp and Biven’s The Archaeology of Mind: neuroevolutionary origins of human emotions:

Animals…are sentient beings, and their affective capacities [ie ability to experience subjective feelings] arise from the same type of neural soil as we have. Humans may be abundantly more “rational,” and more “reflective” about their states of mind, but mammals all experience emotions affectively. And as the clinical studies of Merker (2007) and Shewmon et al. (1999) have revealed, those feelings arise from very deep regions of both human and animal brains. Obviously, we humans can dwell on the existential aspects of our lives more deeply than other species. After all, we can speak and think symbolically. But this does not give us privileged access to raw affective experiences. What a terribly empty and lonely world it would be if we humans were the only conscious creatures within the inextricably interwoven fabric of life. What a wonderful relief it is when we realize that there are bubbles of consciousness wherever our fellow animals roam the earth.

We are not alone. How wonderful indeed!

What do we tell the kids?

Words don’t begin to

But then that’s all we’ve got. Words, and the stories we weave of them.

I’ve been wondering about this in connection with the study I’m putting together for my MSc. I’m asking pairs of friends who are also parents to record a conversation about climate change, how they feel it may affect the lives of their children, and what if anything they feel they should do about it.

I’m not sure we’ve got a language yet for dealing with these questions. It seems we don’t have the stories we need that would help us navigate this terrain. Continue reading “What do we tell the kids?”

A spatter of rain

It cooled for a while this evening, then an unsatisfying spatter of rain, no more than a few specks here and there, then back to how it was.

The satellite photos above, from NASA, show England and Wales at the start of May, and a few days ago.

It’s been hot and dry for that entire period. The driest early summer since records began, but hot with it too. Hot in a way that’s not right. 

There are certain protocols to the weather in these islands, and we grow up with those protocols in our bones. We indulge the rain and leaden skies because we know they won’t last. We’re always unprepared for snow, but the snow won’t last either, so why bother organizing defences. And we’re always surprised by sunny days, the better to seize on them with  bonhomie and glee.

Heatwaves are not unknown – there is a place in the protocols for such treats.  A heatwave may last a long weekend, or longer, up to two or three weeks in one of those legendary summers we all recall and still speak of. But not like this one. This one had outstayed its welcome by late May.

Where’s the fun in gabbing about the weather – our famous national pastime – when its presiding spirit is no longer playing along?

We had a disproportionately heavy and bitterly cold dump of Siberian snow across the land one weird weekend in March, which ironically stripped the supermarkets of chilled meat and fish and dairy products for up to three weeks. (A surprising sign of how unresilient our food supply chain is.) And now this.

So, these days, my heart sinks a little every morning when I draw the curtains and see today’s sky will be the same as yesterday’s, and the day before’s. For a while I was pleading, wishing in my mind for rain. I miss it. The playing fields and roadside verges converted to baked earth and straw appear to me like something from an alien land. But rain will come eventually, the land will green again. No-one is going to die for lack of a mouthful of clean water on this island, not this year. Maybe there’ll be lasting damage to agriculture. I don’t know. What I’m really wishing for is for this climate change thing not to be happening. But the weather is telling me it’s not a bad dream. This is really happening.

In public, there’s an unspoken accord not to connect the “heatwave” with climate change. Even though this is exactly what the long-term forecasts have been saying would happen, for years now. Intensifying extremes. The arctic overheats, the jet stream gets disrupted and slowed, and air masses stagnate in place. Once-in-a-hundred-year weather events become once-in-twenty-year then once-in-five-year events. And like when steroid-pumped Roger McGwire and Barry Bonds were smashing the home-run records – what was going on was clear from the mounting tally of homers, even though no individual big hit could be pinned on the drugs.

So, that’s how it is here, this summer, on this patch of the northern hemisphere. How’s it where you are?

 

Big questions

Dad, what’s the purpose of life?

It was asked with the same kind of uncomplicated curiosity as when he says to me: what’s the fastest anyone’s ever been on a skateboard? or (this morning on the way to school, out of the blue): Dad, can a town square be a circle?

He and his tribe of nine-year-olds devote their days to exuberance, with breaks for food and drink, preferably sugared. In their waking hours they seem to have a ten-to-one ratio between good times and  bad. The bad times are felt intensely, but pass like an ocean squall.

So I responded in the spirit of the enquirer: the purpose of life is to have fun…and (thinking for a moment) to be good to others. That last bit spoken from the pulpit of the responsible parent. Blind hedonism’s no good if it hurts others, or yourself. And anyway goodness is its own reward.

But it did get me thinking, this question, and I realised how hard it is to answer without resort to values that are themselves in question. After all, how much of what I’ve been conditioned to accept, and to believe is right, can I trust? How much of it should be viewed as suspect, to the degree that it enables our kind’s shameful hegemony over the natural world? Any “purpose” to life that furthers that hegemony, surely isn’t worthy of the claim.

The starting point has to be that all of it is suspect until proved otherwise.

Being good citizens, accumulating wealth, supporting charity, pursuing happiness, acquiring wisdom, keeping our families safe, providing them with food and shelter, procreating (the purpose of life is to, er, create more life), solving world problems, extending the boundaries of knowledge, loving and being loved, giving ourselves to God and country,  striving for Heaven or the next life (the purpose of life is to not be alive?), saving lives, taking lives…. all suspect. All compromised by association with the course we’re on.

How then to pick out values we can trust not to drive us further down the trail of self-destruction?

Well, we could do worse than start by looking at the nine-year-olds, a friendly tribe not yet wholly inducted into the ways of civilization.

The gift for joy they retain from when they were even younger.  Their endless curiosity. Their ready appreciation of what is and isn’t fair. Their love of kindness in others and desire to be kind in return. Their ability to conjure a game from thin air, the more barmy and hilarious the better. Their willingness to do almost anything in return for an ice cream. And the way they still infuse much of the world around them, animate or inanimate, with a spirit and life-force that is as buoyant and bright as their own.

A few days after that question about the purpose of life I realised that I’d missed the opportunity to ask him back, so I did.

He looked out the window of the train for a few seconds and pondered, then said: maybe there isn’t a purpose – life is just something that happens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When you tug a thread

I tore this picture from the newspaper last month and put it on the shelf behind some books, but the image didn’t let go. The sorrow it engendered seemed disproportionate. I follow the news and know that human lives and hopes and dreams are being extinguished all over. Children’s lives and hopes and dreams. Why bother about a hundred-year-old photo of some extinct animals?

They are Tasmanian tigers, or thylacines, in a zoo in about 1910. They were hunted to extinction in the wild around that time, and the last of their kind – though there are occasional unverified sightings to this day – died in captivity in 1936.

The thylacine was a marsupial. It raised its young in pouches like a kangaroo, and evidently evolved to fill a dog-shaped hole in its environment. “Convergent evolution”, zoologists call it. I guess because of some conditioned affinity for dogs, I’m more moved by those faces than I could be by any image of a dodo. See those curious, questing, intelligent eyes. And the physiognomy, so familiar and yet so strange. What a dreadful loss.

I’m not sure if we ever carried out a proper accounting for this loss, and I believe we need to – for our own well-being if nothing else. Our ancestors wouldn’t have allowed such a thing to pass without appropriate acknowledgement. Without mourning.

I’m talking here about our deep ancestors, way back when our kind still lived and died amid wonder and mystery, both as a part of Nature and apart from it. Way back before wild grasses were tamed on the silty flood plain. Before wild creatures were hobbled and roped into our enclosures. Before settlements, property, hierarchies, laws, slaves, money, taxes, royalty, God, soldiers, politicians, bureaucrats and the execution block. Before we had to indulge wealthy simpletons boasting about their plans for colonies on Mars and everyone living to 100! Before all the generations of stunted minds and lives. Back to when our distant but actually not so distant kin were strong and alert, and well aware of how deadly our gifts of fire and tools and storytelling could be for the magical web of life on which it all depended.

We could consider the thylacine just another twig snapped off the Darwinian tree, one of many. After all, those who study these things tell us that 99-point-something per cent of all species ever have gone extinct, that’s how evolution works. So… chill. But no. Tug a thread, and then another, and pretty soon the whole fabric comes loose. That must have been clear as daylight to our ancient kin, for whom every waking morning was a reminder of how blessed they were and how dependent on Nature’s grace. It was clear to Shakespeare (“For nothing so vile that on the earth doth live / But to the earth some special good doth give”) and it’s clear to a lot of us today. It’s an important truth yet one that’s glossed over in the narratives that drive our global, urban-agro-industrial culture. So the threads go on being tugged out, one after another.

Scholars of the Sixth Mass Extinction report that species are now blinking out at between 100 and 10,000 times the background rate of extinction. No time to mourn them all, of course. In fact, no time to mourn any of them. Our culture of extraction and consumption has to keep pressing forward, eliminating obstacles along the way.

Stop now and it all collapses.

Carry on and it all collapses.

But at least let’s account for what we’ve done and where we’re at. Even though it hurts. Our deep ancestors, if they came among us now, would surely look at us – their own distant progeny – with eyes of affection, and admiration, and sadness. They’d know full well the price that is paid for injuring Nature, and they’d understand the thylacine can’t be brought back. The thread can’t be pushed back into the fabric, no matter how hard we might wish that.

I believe they’d also consider it the responsibility of our kind, once Nature’s favourite child, to face up to what’s done, to take on that burden – not bury it – then live with it as best we can.

What story shall we tell?

The community in which Jedek is spoken is more gender-equal than Western societies, there is almost no interpersonal violence, they consciously encourage their children not to compete, and there are no laws or courts. There are no professions either, rather everyone has the skills that are required in a hunter-gatherer community. This way of life is reflected in the language. There are no indigenous words for occupations or for courts of law, and no indigenous verbs to denote ownership such as borrow, steal, buy or sell, but there is a rich vocabulary of words to describe exchanging and sharing.

This is not a fable from a galaxy far, far away. It’s from a study by researchers at Lund University in Sweden. Jedek is spoken by a small community of people in the Malaysian highlands, and the language features described above are not uncommon among cultures not yet swept aside in the civilizational deluge. They are part of our human heritage.

It’s been known since forever that words both reflect and determine how we perceive the world, and what’s more, that it is possible to instrumentalise that tendency of language to determine perceptions. The relevant techniques are routinely learned and applied by advertisers, demagogues, preachers, storytellers and cognitive therapists, to name a few. What is less widely known, though, is the invisible way that a language’s deep-down warrants — what it does and doesn’t permit, what it privileges and what it plays down, what it values and what it disdains — shapes its speakers’ understanding and expectations of other people and themselves.

Now, contemplate for a moment what it means to live within the confines of a language-culture which values ownership and transactional self-interest to the extent that ours does…and wonder what that might do for our capacity to recognise and share our common interests. Our capacity to play, not compete. Our capacity to love.

I’m sure a healthy culture fills minds with a rich vocabulary for sharing, supporting, exchanging, listening and understanding, and offers only a meagre selection of words for those other things, best forgotten. A healthy culture wouldn’t even have words to express esteem for a “great deal”, or for obscene wealth, or for the act of blasting a junk automobile into orbit to attract “likes”, because those would be beyond all possibility of being esteemed.

But back to the speakers of Jedek. Their world is not a utopia and it’s not a new-age fantasy. They’re real people leading normal lives, albeit normal in a way that people from our culture would typically dismiss as less than cultured. But that reflects a deficit in our language and values, rather than in theirs.

As one of the Lund University researchers writes:

There are so many ways to be human, but all too often our own modern and mainly urban societies are used as the yardstick for what is universally human. We have so much to learn, not least about ourselves, from the largely undocumented and endangered linguistic and cultural riches that are out there.

Fish in a tank

A few evenings ago he was sitting up on his bed looking troubled. His cheeks seemed blotched and his eyes were flicking and blinking, almost as if he was going to cry. But he’s nine, and I think it’s a point of honour with him never to cry. He said quietly, as I bustled around getting ready for lights-out, “Daddy, there’s something that bothered me today…”. I paused for a proper look at him and asked what’s up? “On the way back we stopped in the Chinese supermarket. There were all these fish in the tank. There were so many they could hardly move…”, and that’s where he tailed off. His expression told the story. Continue reading “Fish in a tank”