Category Archives: Nature

Darwinism (or DarwinIsADouche.com)

I have a love/hate relationship with Darwinism. I love the idea, application and process of evolutionary theory – one can’t, and won’t, deny the beauty and mind bending revolution of Chuck’s vision (especially taking into account the arse clenching theology of the Victorian era). Yet I hate with profound passion the ubiquity of it as a metaphor (incorrectly, more often than not) and the misplaced faith in that metaphor as an ultimate endorsement. As a metaphor it’s usually employed to prop up lazy reasoning and convenient beliefs; Darwinism intoned in the hope that through its power it will lend an argument credence, a statement validity or, more commonly, imbue some cynical societal prescription, guaranteed to cure our indulgent ills, with the power of evolution’s place in the firmament of scientific and intellectual certitude.

Again, I’m not picking a fight with Darwinism, rather the casuist plodders who employ it as a wagon of expedience for their preferred convictions. That Mr. Darwin coined the term ‘Survival of the fittest’ to describe his theory makes me want to weep and rage in equal measure. Ironically On the Origin of the Species suffers from the same problem the Bible does in the hands of their respective fundamentalists; a problem anchored in the refusal to recognise how embedded in the assumptions of the times the writers were. Darwin was a product of Victorian England, at the height of an empire that sought to benevolently conquer the world for its own good, because, obviously, the English were the pinnacle of civilisation. It was their duty as the highest representative of the human race. The believed cultural supremacy of the times is perfectly captured in the penultimate sentence of Darwin’s most famous tome: “Thus from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of the higher animals, directly follows.” The arrogance and assumption, not to mention the hideous anthropomorphism of nature in its entirety, contained in that one sentence is quite staggering. But, and this is quite important, in our relativist wisdom we are quite capable of contextualising that statement within the prevalent cultural standards of Darwin’s lifetime, taking from it that if you stick monkeys in one end of a habitat, given an opportune environment, you might get Andy Warhol out the other. Which is my point – it isn’t the survival of the fittest, it is the survival of those with the most opportune mutations in that environment.

The word fittest is highly dependent on context, deeply in need of qualification. The way we use it has far too much of the smell of triumphalism about it; that those that fall are unworthy, and those who remain are right. It is putting the cart before the horse on a quite impressive scale, leading to conclusions based on a syllogism; they didn’t make it, we did, thus we are superior. A beautiful example is capitalism vs. communism, as Norman Manea wisely said, “Yet on the other shore, a self congratulatory society took the collapse of the other side as a vindication.”

Our vesting ‘Survival of the Fittest’ with power beyond its context has given us some pretty fucked up ideas of what the survival of a thing actually means, not to mention the context it survives or dies in. We have to save the ecosphere due to our biological need of it, because we’re quite important, being a higher animal, but the lower animals that can’t hack it in our climate altered wake, urban environs, polluted waters, fenced rural landscapes and zoos kinda deserve to die, coz, like, it’s survival of the fittest, right? Except for rats, as no one really likes rats. And pigeons, of course, being, as has been demonstrated, just airborne rodents… though what do we do with the fucking flying foxes? Is an actual flying rodent somehow exempt from our wrath simply because it doesn’t, y’know, fuck so much? The specious logic applied to sustain this illusionary narrative leaves us chasing our own brains round the inside of our skulls, demanding of us the unsavoury necessity of a shorter syllogism: we’re atop the food chain, thus the fittest, so we can’t be wrong. So… pandas? Fuck ’em.

We are the pinnacle of evolution, we are the duly ordained of nature; accordingly it’s our duty to show the way to the rest of the ecosphere… Hang on, I’ve heard that reasoning somewhere before… wait, wait… if a table has four legs and that thing I’ve been sitting on has four legs, then the thing I’m sitting on must be a table.

Okay, I feel better.

It’s a bit weird attributing, in a fundamental way, such high importance to being able to do some neat things with our thumbs and neo-cortex. Maybe it’s because we’ve come to see evolution as a kind of race; if we’re at the front of the pack then we must be doing well – though it’s a bit much that we’re refereeing the race we’re running in. Quid Pro Quo, Clarice… no, shit, I mean Quod Erat Demonstrandum… No I don’t… Ah, fuck it, caveat emptor, assholes.

The sublimely ridiculous thing is that most of the stuff we do – economics, science, even much of our art – works against a fundamental tenet of sustainable evolutionary practice: they consume more than they produce – a fine case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. As Daniel Quinn observed of the folly of our cultural practices: natural selection doesn’t eliminate you immediately, it eliminates you eventually. Our problem is that we’ve got our timelines all mixed up, making us unable to see over the chronological horizon.

Survival of the fittest indeed.

So we use the shortcut of ‘survival of the fittest’ to bless arguments with the power of  Evolutionary Theory while, with deep irony, practising behaviour that only promises to make of us a case study for the next species that happens to grow thumbs. Evolutionary Theory still remains a beautiful and true description of what we see in the biological world around us, but ‘survival of the fittest’ as a metaphor sucks. It sucked then and sucks now. I quite like the idea of setting up a website dedicated to the failure of Darwinism as a metaphor: DarwinIsADouche.com, for all the Darwinarcissists out there. Though, on consideration, I’m pretty sure the server would immediately crash from the sudden surge of Dawkinites and other, less articulate Fundamentalists.

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Chicken Tractor

This is a Chicken Tractor (capitalisation required) and is just as cool as it sounds (a nice relative statement).

Chicken Tractor

I totally built it.

Which is a bit of a lie – significant help was given at different stages (big ups to Sara, Chris, Sven and, especially, Leen).

This is what the area looked like before any work started:

The pre-existing raised beds were pretty big and had been there for almost 10 years. Deconstructing them was really hard work (we saved as much of the wood as possible so we could re-use it in other parts of the garden). We had to move tons and tons (that is a very literal statement) of earth in order to clear the way. It was far harder and took far longer than I thought it would – this was the result:

The bed on the left was built using the reclaimed wood and is a long-term bed for such things as brassicas and potatoes and the like. We left a lot of the earth in place so we could essentially carve out the patterns of the chicken tractor beds, thus minimizing shovel work and so forth. It was a semi-successful idea.

The following photos show the rest of the construction:

Like the Marshall Plan, only cheaper.

Ugly but planting underway

(The huge pile of dirt in the distance is all the top soil from the previous beds. This would eventually go onto the new beds and other growing areas)

Not too pretty, but starting to take shape

There are many other in-process shots, but I’m sure you get the idea.

I built a second long-term bed further towards the garage, again using reclaimed wood:

These ancillary beds are planted with perennials like asparagus in the back two lots (companioned with tomatoes) with rotational crops in the front.

An interesting comparison is the building time. This bed took me a casual weekend, maybe 10 or 12 hours from scratch to finished. The chicken tractor gardens took roughly 4 months of part-time work, 3 days a week on average.
Now on to the money shots:
You can see the space between the two garden areas here, filled with composting and worm farm wonders.
The basic intent of the tractor is a rotational garden that is sustained by and sustains a population of chickens. The chicken run is lifted and transferred around the raised beds every 6 – 8 weeks, so the chooks can turn the soil, eat, shit and play (while shooting heaps of eggs out their fannies for we, their garden comrades) and replenish the soil. Basically it is designed to be a closed loop system – nothing needed from outside and no waste produced.
There’s heaps more. The amount of food this baby will yield will be staggering. Now that it’s complete and has been getting its act together it has become almost terrifying how fast everything is growing.
It was built on permaculture principles and is sustainable, organic and pretty bloody sensible.
The sunrise design of the beds is pretty cool, I think. The wooden sidings are untreated macrocarpa sleepers. Most other untreated timber would rot significantly within a few years but these sleepers will last for years and years and years. It’s worth mentioning that they are very heavy. Very, very heavy.
Each bed is 3.8 metres long and 1.2 metres wide. the length was dictated by the space available but the width is a good guide line for raised bed construction, basically enabling almost anyone, excluding the tragically short, to reach any point in the garden without having to step on it, thus compacting the soil.
Under each of the macrocarpa sleepers is a one foot deep trench filled with gravel; this is to retard rotting from the wood sitting in pools of water while also raising the water table under the beds themselves.
The spaces between the beds (wide enough for a wheelbarrow) are filled in with gravel, insuring it will drain well when it rains, feeding the trenches under the sleepers and supplying the gardens with plenty of rainwater. Also stops the place turning into a bog.
You can’t see my parents house  to the left of the gardens, but it’s very large with a huge roof area. I’m going to hook up a water collection tank from the roof which will ultimately feed the garden.
Also some grey water systems off the kitchen – but that’s another thing altogether.
There’s still a little more garden building to do – where the topsoil pile is is going to be a rock garden, I just have to move the remaining topsoil to another garden, on another property, I’m putting together. Plus a few fancy touches to make it ever so much prettier (I know, how can that be possible).
I can’t express how much time and work went into this, I have muscles and calluses that barely hint at it. It’s invisible now but in order to dig the trenches and make sure there was an adequate depth of soil under the beds I had to dig out 80-year-old compacted gravel from the old driveway. Apparently if gravel is left to its own devices it evolves into concrete.
It is quite a remarkable thing for me to look at and think, I did that. This was all done at my parents’ house (and was financed by them – at least the materials, I did the work for free) in an effort to put into practice some of the things I had learned while getting my Permaculure Design Certificate in February ’09. Permaculture is, and the course I took in it was, an amazing thing I’m deeply glad I got involved in, also something I recommend to anyone curious about it. I’ve been meaning to write something about it for ages but have been daunted by the scale of it in my head; I’m sure I’ll get there in the end though.
I’m quite proud of this whole thing.

Nature me not your Nurture

In my teens I became obsessed with what I was. I wanted to understand what made me me. If I could understand the pieces, where and how they fit, my personality would become my playground. Things would become governable, I’d be able to take the pieces that made me socially awkward and inept, move them around and, voila, dapper and charming. I’d craft myself to any and all situations, alleviating building pressure that would crush my comprehension of myself (strangely I thought I comprehended the world) and be an improved person. I would become a man of emotional and intellectual Lego, removing and adding pieces until I was better, stronger, faster – like Steve Austin, just on a budget.

So I would read little bits and bobs about brain function and so forth, write them down and slowly piece together the machine that was me. It’s safe to say that I was a devotee of the mechanistic universe, a cheerleader for Descartes, Bacon and the Scientific Method. A Lego cheerleader shaking nature’s breasts as pom-poms.

And for a while I thought I’d done it – figured myself out. I’m a Stabile Introvert, you see. Also an INTJ. And some other stuff. I knew which cups the peas were under, all I had to do was move them round fast enough to dazzle the crowd. Needless (I hope) to say, things have changed.

I often wonder what my younger self would make of me now. I’m pretty sure there would be the embarrassed shuffling of feet and furtive avoidance of eye contact. We’d probably have to talk about our hair and what happened to it just to save ourselves from Older Me ranting about interconnectivity, systems theory and the folly of believing the universe a controllable machine, requiring only sufficient understanding of the parts to reveal its secrets, something that would no doubt be followed by Younger Me calling me a chicken-shit hippy wannabe that can’t grasp the elegance of a rational, truthful and unforgiving cosmos. Something like that. The younger me would eventually ask, in a hushed and horrified voice, if I believed in God now. I’d probably say yes, just to fuck with him.

The change in my perception of such things came about through various shards of knowledge, more and more found pieces shaping those that came before them, leaving me hopelessly confused. Until, with great relief, I gave up my need for a mechanistic universe or, more to the point, mechanistic people (the latter obviating the argument for the former). Let me try to walk you through some of my headache:

Extraversion and introversion are commonly understood traits but there are physical causes for them that aren’t widely known. The extra/intro traits have been traced back to a group of brain cells in the brain stem called the ‘ascending reticular activating system’, these cells ultimately determine levels of arousal (activity you dirty bastards) in the cerebral cortex. Physiologically speaking, extroversion is linked to resting states of low cortical arousal and introversion is linked to resting states of high cortical arousal. So when at mental rest the extrovert’s intellect is in neutral while the introvert’s, in the same position, only gets as low as second gear.

The outward displays of being an extrovert or introvert come about because the cortex inhibits the lower centres of the brain, and when it (the cortex) isn’t aroused (extrovert) actions become dictated more by the impulses and desires of the lower centres of the brain. If the cortex is aroused (introvert) then those same impulses and desires don’t get through as often as they have to go through the active filter of the cortex. Extroversion = uninhibited, introversion = inhibited.

An excellent demonstration is the effect of alcohol on the two kinds of traits: Alcohol lowers cortical arousal, thus promoting excited and uninhibited behaviour – a drunk extrovert is usually just an amplified version of themselves but a drunk introvert will often behave very differently to their sober character.

It is important to point out that one’s natural cortical resting state, be it high or low, doesn’t dictate levels of intelligence in any way.

Now. Stabile and labile are less well known but just as concreted by empirical evidence. An individual’s brain can be dominated by either the sympathetic or parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system, this is the area of the brain where thoughts and actions are initially processed.  The sympathetic branch (labile) responds to outside stimuli and alerts the organism (being the brain and body) to immediate action. If dominated by the sympathetic branch a person is excitable and tends to act quickly on hunches, best guesses and experience. Labiles can make pretty awesome sword fighters.

The parasympathetic branch (stabile) habituates the organism to stimulus and restores the body to balance very quickly, thus stabiles tend to be more placid and react very calmly and thoughtfully to events around them. The result of this is that in an emergency it’s safer to be standing next to a stabile but somewhat more exciting standing next to a labile.

It’s worth noting that while labile traits and extroversion along with stabile traits and introversion often come as a package deal, it isn’t a physically dictated relationship; that person you know who is charismatic, a natural leader and kicks arse in fights with ninjas yet remains cool, calm and considered under pressure will most likely be a stabile extrovert – that sort of person can sometimes be identified by the adoring crowds that follow them around throwing underwear.

Okay, as far as personality types that’s fine, there’s more in that area (sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic) but that’s getting more general and into the area of effect rather than cause.

The cause and effect of brain and personality function is essentially the nature versus nurture debate, a debate I think is largely over-hyped by our blind obsession with binary relationships and dichotomies. In terms of the brain I think confusing the hardware and the software is where the problems start, something compounded by our cultural confusion over ‘civilized’ and ‘primitive’ behaviour and our quest to define ourselves as culturally and historically unique. The One or the Other! The universe must adhere to our determined dichotomization! (maybe dichotomization is more about an inherent cultural mechanism rather than a functioning universal or biological truth… Bob Loblaw).

That’s not to say that the hardware and software (nature vs. nurture) don’t interact and inform each other in hugely significant ways, that is kind of the point of their relationship. Habit formation is proof of that: by doing a thing or thinking a thought repetitively you burn a neural pathway, a pathway that once burnt is quite hard to reroute. The ability to form that pathway is the brain’s learning hardware (nature), but the formed pathway represents the cultural software (nurture).

It’s easy to see the hardware but questioning one’s software is ridiculously hard because it is, quite literally, the way we think (not how). We burn our pathways as children, when we’re learning junkies (nature) but as adults look at our hardware through the eyes of our software, deciding, obviously, that we were always meant to be this way, making ourselves fated beings, imagining that our brains are made up of memes and genes and that, thanks to evolution, what will come from us is nigh on unavoidable (a round of applause for Mister Dawkins!). It’s essentially the same process as believing that J.C. is going to pop up at some point in the near future and usher in Judgment Day; it’s all a matter of belief in principles and rules that use their internal architecture of reasoning as the standard of measure of all other beliefs. Nurture defining nature, at least in effect.

Biology isn’t fate, no matter what our software tells us. Biology is interactive and fun, like sex. But our software has become so self-obsessed that it now believes it is hardware (nature). Our software (nurture) is our culture informing us of it’s operating principles, its rules and dictates, and that culture is the medium we use to transmit our beliefs and practices down the timeline through our children’s children’s children, etc. (assuming our nurture hasn’t totally screwed with our sex lives, that is).

One of the obvious problems this dysfunctional relationship between our hardware and software is that we have become cultural supremacists, totally devoted to the premise that the way we live is the one right way to live (sure we can tweak it but generally we’ve pretty much got it nailed). No other way will be tolerated (for evidence of this see any and all colonial ventures in history). To make it confusing, look at it this way: our nurture is convinced it is our nature, (which is why we’re convinced memes & genes are the same thing) thus we deny that our culture is a made up thing. We make ourselves fated beings by defining ourselves as a natural force, something undeniable, something inexorable (and probably ineffable), a thing that we consequently don’t need to make excuses or apologies for. We have done for the biosphere what Ptolemy did for astronomy.

Brains, like the universe, construct stuff from found things. Stuff and Things. Tinkering with ideas and implications, a bricolage from the rummaged notions and manifestations of the surrounding world, is, in its totality, an uncontrollable process. If you accept the resulting mosaic as truth unbending and absolute you’re abdicating responsibility in the hopes of control. If you’re unwilling to question your parts as a bricoleur then all you end up building is a cage.

Leaks

Ever since I completed my Permaculture Design Certificate earlier in the year, with all the attendant nurtured by nature philosophies, I have changed or am seeking to change a number of things in my life. A not unimportant element of these changes involve my toilet habits. (Don’t fear, what follows isn’t particularly graphic, and doesn’t involve any solids).

I was out in the garden, working on my current project (a chicken tractor – poultry locomotion being a new found area of importance to my mum), when the need to empty my bladder came upon me. Having muddy boots on gave me ample reason to stay outdoors and give my vital nutrients to a nearby tree (they do so love pee – as a future project I want to plant two trees and pee on just one of them and see what uneven prosperity flourishes). The tree I chose as the beneficiary of the day was near the corner of the garage, meaning I was standing just under the eaves of the roof (which was nice as it had been raining for some time and the respite was appreciated). Mid-stream the guttering above me seemed to spring a small leak and drip very cold water down the back of my neck. Maybe it was something to do with the act I was in the middle of, the immediate fear of some higher power injecting some sort of commentary on my actions, or just the fear that my mum’s psycho-cat was peeing on me from the roof as some form of maniacal revenge for me throwing a rolled up sock at it the previous day (it was deserved) but the horror my nervous system greeted the sensation was almost very messy, and certainly high pitched. All things considered I would rank that icy dribble as one of my all time horrid sensations. I actually felt violated.