Only Natural

Nature, science, language, values, feral beliefs...

Entries for February 2024

Photo of a window
          opening in abandoned ruin with a wall fragment surrounding
Inside and outside the frame
February 26, 2024

  Text Generated Un-realities

Almost a year ago, during the initial hype campaign for Large Language Model (LLM) based text generators, I noted some of the dangers such a misguided technology posed for nature, and human society. That technology has steamed along since, and recently a derivative that can output video from text prompts has been announced. Soon enough, I expect, we will see even more videos of animated creatures, singing, dancing, and speaking English. Maybe even big-eyed, big-lipped zooplankton...why not?

Of course we have had animated films and videos of talking creatures for some time, so why worry? The dangers to nature and society seem to be inextricably connected. As societies become degraded by technologically-boosted lies and pathological propaganda, nature will also become degraded - and that in turn will further degrade societies dependent upon it. When people are bombarded with attractive falsehoods, they can lose the ability to identify truth and cease trying to apply critical thinking. Critical thinking in a population is not highly valued by most regimes.

But surely, you might think, what harm could a few more endearing, animated talking creatures cause? Isn't this overreaction? So far, much of the alarm expressed about "AI" ("Artificial Intelligence") and LLM based text generators has focused on machines learning to be "more intelligent" than humans, and potentially deciding to do away with us. That is overreaction, and certainly misplaced focus. As some  more reflective critics have pointed out, "AI" is not, and cannot, become intelligent in the sense that we attribute that concept to humans. You need to be a human, and have human experiences, to acquire that kind of intelligence. Machines could be programmed (by humans) to decide to do away with humans, but that is quite different (and it would have nothing to do with intelligence). (Indeed, various military forces are currently working on perfecting robots that can kill enemies. Are robot proxy wars coming up when multiple nations have robot armies fighting each other?)

What videos of cute, animated talking creatures do is occupy developing minds with completely false portrayals of reality. When effects of early exposure to fake anthropomorphised creatures are reinforced with continuing later exposure to lies and pathological propaganda, it is no wonder that humanity's interdependence with nature is misunderstood and ignored. Until more resources are provided to help developing humans experience actual nature than are currently devoted to cartoon characterizations, this is unlikely to change.

Photo of a
          forest with a large windfallen tree trunk
Fallen trees are an essential part of a forest
February 19, 2024

  An Old Anthropocentric Question

Not if, but when, a tree falls...

During the last few centuries, some humans have been entertained by the goofy question: "If a tree falls in the forest, and there is nobody (human) there, does it make any sound?" I think the question is as thoughtlessly anthropocentric as it is revealing.

We know that pressure waves in air produce the sense of sound in our ears. We've known that for a long time. The definition of "sound" is central to the tree falling question. Some people have even claimed that "sound" is "what humans hear". However, if that definition is used, the question is trivially circular. Obviously if "sound" requires a human and none are present, that sort of "sound" won't exist.

It is just as obvious that sound as pressure waves in air will exist when a tree falls. That's simple physics. A human observer is not necessary to establish that. All of the other creatures living nearby in the forest will experience the sound of the falling tree. Humanity has shown very little concern for the effects of sound on other creatures.(Of course, it has also shown little enough concern for the effects of sound on humans.) But the historical debate about the question of sound from falling trees provides another example of the self-centeredness of human contemplation of nature's complexity. (And the narrow self-centeredness of previous attempts to define what it is to be human in the surrounding world.)

That debate about falling trees and sound has traditionally entangled concepts of reality in implicit and explicit dependence on human awareness and observation. In that framework, not only would nature not exist when not observed by humans, nor would the rest of the universe, somehow. In a sense, socially, that is reality for many people. Nature might as well not exist when people carry out their business as usual. That has apparently worked (however poorly) for a few centuries. But we know that many millions of years of complex biological evolution took place without a single human observer.

Photo of a forest
          recently cut with a few trees left standing
Each alteration can be called insignificantly small
February 12, 2024

  More Unnatural Nature

I'm sitting in an automobile, surrounded by nature. Well, except for the road. Ah, and the automobile. And...yes, all of the invisible social/industrial infrastructure and operations that make the road and the automobile possible...

In significant ways, the impact of humanity's collective activities have effectively made the world much smaller. It is happening at a rate that is imperceptible to most people - reflecting the amount of knowledge they have acquired. It is not even surprising that masses of people flying internationally who look down at spreading civilization are so little impressed by the visual evidence. But of course, there is in-flight entertainment.

When people travel and see what looks like a lot of "empty space", or a "lot of trees", they rarely wonder about how they acquired the assumptions that underlie their sense of scale. Some creatures - birds, mammals, fish - once existed in uncountable numbers, as a result of co-evolving slowly with their environments. Now they would be completely incompatible with the world humans are remaking. (It is difficult - okay, absurd - to imagine vast herds of wild bison thriving in contemporary North America. And who would want them?) Seemingly limitless numbers have been no guarantee of continued existence, and "empty" spaces have (quickly) become occupied.

I guess this could be called the (Ineffective) Implicit Utilitarian Argument - the warning that we might lose currently useful or attractive species through careless actions. Most people don't feel personally affected by declining populations of wild species - not with all that in-flight entertainment. Social pressures (feasting previously, and now monetary gains) among humans have long over-ridden any serious considerations of conservation.

Those who do have grave concerns about vanishing species, and have a sense of even greater impending loss, are left to observe the relentless campaign of human progress, and attempt to appreciate what still remains. Realism can be depressing. Why, it's almost enough to drive a person to Existentialism. But for those who learn something about the complexity of what we call nature, appreciation can still have significant rewards.

Photo of a very
          tall giant sequoia on a street corner in Victoria
Not quite a street tree in an urban forest
February 5, 2024

  Unnatural Nature

I'm thinking about the giant sequoias that are growing in and around Victoria, again. There are hundreds of them scattered about, and they look healthy. A few have been growing for a century or more, although most are younger. Will any still be alive a thousand years from now? In their natural habitat far to the south, trees of this species can live for 3,000-4,000 years. It's probably silly to wonder what Victoria might look like in 3,000 years. Long before that, the giant trees planted in people's yards will have become too large (or have been declared too dangerous) for their surroundings.

All kinds of exotic trees are planted around Victoria, and many of them appear to be doing well despite their unnatural location. Some exotic species (not giant sequoias) are used as street trees - which add greatly to the livability of the city, from a human perspective. Although many factors shorten their lives, it is impressive that street trees can grow even as well as they seem to in such unnatural conditions, smothered by buildings and pavement. Of course, many other enclosed creatures manage to stay alive for relatively long periods in confined captivity.

Considered in context, with a world continually beset with international conflicts, economic crises, periodic pandemics, and a side order of climate disintegration, it is understandable that people rarely wonder about the "well-being" of trees. After all, trees are replaceable - there are plenty more where those came from. Trees, habitats, ecosystems...aren't they all "replaceable"? Maybe the assumptions behind our ideas about "replacing" things would merit some closer examination.