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!

The Shimmer of Life

I was there. I saw it one day, the shimmer – “the brilliant shimmer of the biosphere.” I saw it in leaves after the rain – later, in a fishes’ scales and an animal’s fur, in the iridescent skin of my own infant daughter.  I saw it and drank it in, in wonder and desire and gratitude.  Mostly wonder. 

Shimmer is what I care about.  I didn’t have a word for it until I read Deborah Rose Bird’s essay: “Shimmer: When Everything You Love is Being Trashed” in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet

Trees and stars are masters of shimmer, that is why trees are beyond value. 

You can’t know when it will come upon you, it’s like grace that way but more wild. Wild as any newborn, wild as any animal.  You know it is shimmer because it’s all that you can see (or hear or smell or touch or otherwise sense.) It’s more than you can sense – a revelation or a vision – but it’s just there in the fleeting moment and the ordinary thing that you passed a hundred times but now it is revealed to you as if it were the burning bush or the shining void.  Or the melody that the world is making that you hear and yet don’t hear. That is playing through you.  Or the smell of a memory that echoes through the rooms of time. 

Shimmer is the world being itself and for once you happen to be there with it.  For once, you see it. 

Yes, shimmer is love.  The appearance of love to a mortal being through some kind of miracle.  

And shimmer is what we stand to lose. 

****

Thank you to the indigenous people of Australia for their gift of shimmer, and to Deborah Bird Rose for carrying it into English. 

Trans-species Pidgins

Why ask anthropology to look beyond the human? And why look to animals to do so? Looking at animals, who look back at us, and who look with us, and who are also, ultimately, part of us, even though their lives extend well beyond us, can tell us something. It can tell us about how that which lies “beyond” the human also sustains us and makes us the beings we are and those we might become.  – Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human

One of the most frustrating things about Western civilization is its relentless anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism.  Most of us modern, Western, scientific humans think that we are the only truly conscious beings, the only beings that can think, feel, and communicate.  Itʻs a form of blindness or self-mutilation, in my opinion, as if we deliberately bound our feet or shut down one of our senses in order to belong to Team Civilization. Certainly such blindness makes ruthless exploitation of the natural world a lot easier on the conscience – if you consider all of it to be mindless matter then why not bring on the bulldozers?  Continue reading “Trans-species Pidgins”

Metamorphic: for all the Wild Ones

For we cannot think like Indians; at most, we can think with them.  – Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Cannibal Metaphysics

As far back as I am able to think, to remember, which is a kind of thinking, there are memories of places, of plants and animals, of a kind of light and air, the smell of water on leaves, root and dirt, the strange sight of lava flows reaching the sea, the band of white coral touching blue ocean, of roads leading through orchards, of flowers against the sky, of moss-covered rocks and river pebbles.

I have these myths.  These are my myths.  Continue reading “Metamorphic: for all the Wild Ones”

If you cannot catch them, stampede em over the cliff

Thanks Chris for pulling on this thread so to speak

Perhaps these photos are just of excesses of the past, of things we label charismatic megafauna, then promptly tend to forget, whereas the bugs and bees fallen to pesticides, and the fish eaten for survival do not seem to evoke the same feelings of loss.

See also today’s news about a recent paper describing the human impacts on the larger mammals: https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/04/19/604031141/new-study-says-ancient-humans-hunted-big-mammals-to-extinction

Wonder how many babies this female had every year…

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.

Nickering

I’ve heard that the Bedouin celebrate the birth of a foal as an event second in importance only to  of emergence of a poet, which seems an admirable way of looking at things to me.  After weeks of anticipation and nervousness, I am celebrating the birth of a tall, black filly with one white foot and a star on her forehead. Continue reading “Nickering”

Pastoralist Propaganda

Of late, I’ve been under the spell of the Mongolian film-maker Byambasuren Davaa.  She has made three movies: The Story of the Weeping Camel, The Cave of the Yellow Dog, and The Two Horses of Genghis Khan (Das Lied von den Zwei Pferden).  I’ve only seen the first two of Byambasuren’s movies, the last was not released in the US.  Her movies are a fascinating blend of fiction and documentary; the actors, humans and non-human, are themselves, they don’t even play themselves, they live their own lives but there is a movie camera and a story that they act in.  Sometimes they think of the camera for a split second, as real people would do Continue reading “Pastoralist Propaganda”