Only Natural

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

Entries for October 2023

Photo of
                mossy forest that shows no evidence of purpose
What is the purpose of this? 
October 30, 2023

  Quick Thinking May Be Too Fast

Unfortunately, when speaking about nature and evolution, even informed theorists sometimes use language that implies purposes behind natural processes. For popular consumption, they might say something like "nature is very clever", or "nature can be sly and cunning when humans attempt to control it/her". "Her", even. As in "Mother Nature". Long, complex stochastic natural processes might seem difficult to communicate in a popular format, but the use of anthropomorphisms will be counterproductive.

The nebulous notion of "Mother Nature" seems to have a diverse appeal, providing a range of functions - from underlying elaborate mythologies revolving around an embodied, self-aware "Nature", to usage in the trivial sense of a maternal force looking after...something. It ranges from complicated stories to faith-based assertions, or even common trivial usage. Sometimes you hear throw-away lines about the weather like, "Well, Mother Nature just threw us a curve ball". Metaphors are just so handy.

One problem with habitual, unexamined use of metaphor in thinking is that it makes understanding complex processes more difficult at the same time that it makes pseudo-knowledge more accesible and acceptable. It makes it tempting to imagine some sort of purpose driving natural, non-human processes. People who share unexamined metaphors can agree that they "know" things when they actually do not understand them. If you want to understand natural processes, it seems that you should be careful about the stories you share.

Photo of
                forest several years after wildfire
Not at all clear cut 
October 23, 2023

Long Story Short

There is a simple story about human interaction with nature that used to be more popular with North American forest managers a few decades ago: the story that proclaimed "clearcuts are just like natural forest fires". Since forests have evolved with wildfire, the story goes, clearcutting actually mimics natural processes. If fire somehow benefits forest growth, then clearcuts must do the same thing.

There is an additional substory about humans and mimicry - the idea that if humans do something that looks enough like a "natural" process, then that action must be benign. Of course, only we get to decide what is "natural", and we decide long before any resulting evidence arrives. Our notions of mimicry are based on whatever way it seems to us that something works, and the additional belief that we can simulate that process adequately.

If you live most of your life in an urban environment, you might not realise how much variation there is among forest types. The species mix can vary with slope orientation, elevation, precipitation, soil characteristics and localised temperature ranges. Some forest types are more prone to wildfire than others, and different types can respond differently. And fires are not all the same - each fire behaves differently.

The photo above shows an area of forest a few years after a wildfire. Unlike a clearcut, most of the dead trees are still standing and will have a function in future recovery. Unlike a clearcut, random patches of forest are typically missed by wildfire, and regeneration will be natural rather than from genetically selected high-monetary-value nursery-grown seedlings. So a simplified story proposing that clearcuts are the equivalent of "natural" wildfires obscures or ignores many significant details. Stories are generally created for purposes, and may deserve closer examination.

                  of tall buildings with so many stories
Such a lot of stories
October 16, 2023

Stories Based on Stories

After calling attention to some problems with how we interact with stories, I might as well make it clear that I am not suggesting that we should, or could, "do away with them". There are many things that humans consume that they might be better off without, but prohibition has proved to be  mostly a foolish goal. Counteracting the underlying compulsions might make more sense, but is generally more complicated than societies can manage. In this context, the story of Don Quixote might come to mind.

Is there a cautionary tale about stories to be found in stories? We might think of simple stories as being simply attractive. When they correctly reflect some partial element of reality, they may offer a convenient way to organise and communicate thoughts. But they could be composed of misunderstanding, or even outright lies, and still be attractive. It seems to be the simplification that attracts.

Nature is not really understandable with simple stories, despite the myriad examples that appear to try that. Physical attempts to simplify nature through human infrastructure projects backed by simple stories have resulted in current environmental crises. If it seems difficult to think about natural processes without resorting to storytelling, that is a result of our educational system.

Neat, tidy stories devoid of evidence, however emotionally attractive, can have unexpected mental and physical costs. As with other potentially debilitating things humans like to consume, simple stories should be approached with scrutiny and caution.  

Photo of yellow leaves with holes from
                        insect predation
Nature doesn't have purposes
October 9, 2023

Telling Stories About Stories

Perhaps it would be helpful to think of scientific investigation as generating a partial, evidence-based, description of reality, rather than creating stories. This might help neutralise extreme relativist claims that all stories are equally valid. To summarise: stories do not require evidence, do require an author-designed "plot", attempt to greatly simplify and condense aspects of reality, and are mostly completed packages of ideas. Sophistry aside, it seems completely misguided to claim that science is some sort of "ongoing story".

The fact remains that most people spend much of their time interacting with stories - stories are integral to societies and cultures on many levels, and have influenced major positive and negative social changes, including public health initiatives, wars, migrations, religious movements, and so on. The extent to which stories channel and restrict people's ability to think is an interesting open question.

We know, for example, that over long periods of time, some plant species have evolved in ways that have made them less palatable to predators, and that predator evolution has also tended to counter that. This has sometimes been called an "evolutionary arms race" - evoking associated concepts from a familiar kind of story. That human story includes coordinated, persistent social goal-oriented actions. But only humans actually engage in arms races. Plants that vary in ways that are more resistant to predation are just more likely to survive and reproduce over time. Predators that vary to counter that are also more likely to survive and reproduce. It is a mistake to think of this process as goal-oriented: neither group has any intention to evolve. Calling this random process a competitive "arms race", and implying a familiar human story, can mess with our ability to reason - and even the ability to observe natural processes.

Stories are familiar and attractive in ways that can be comforting in their simplicity. Attempts to understand evolution and other processes in nature might seem threatening to some people due to the inhuman essence of random events. Simple, familiar stories cannot adequately convey the results of multiply contigent events if we are searching for more than a childish understanding of nature.

                  of garish cupcake surrounded by defending plastic toy
Taking the cake
October 2, 2023

Telling Stories

It doesn't take much observation to notice that we are surrounded by stories, short and long, grand and small. Several weeks ago I considered a metaphorical narrative and pointed out some problems with it. That was one sort of story - a simplified, highly compressed narrative relying heavily on symbolism. Stories necessarily simplify and condense descriptions of reality. On a much broader scale, in a 1996 book titled "The Literary Mind", Mark Turner made a case for considering the human mind as fundamentally structured by stories. Hmm...maybe that's our problem?

A number of thinkers have claimed that stories are the way humans attempt to make sense of the world, and some even characterise scientific investigations as a kind of story formulation. It seems to me that this can be a significant source of misunderstanding.

Stories are a package deal: they have that satisfying, characteristic "Beginning, Middle, and End" quality. Yes, they might refer to a broader universe, or fundamental themes, or fabulous speculation, but they do have an "ending", even if it claims to be just a "Beginning". Scientific inquiry, as a continuing process, cannot be packaged like that. Well, popular reports often attempt to describe it like that, and to focus on discrete "discoveries", but the result is misleading and contributes to the common misunderstanding of how scientific inquiry is properly accomplished.

A story about the results of a scientific investigation does not mean that science generates stories. People generate stories. The scientific process can gradually produce verified results that lead to greater understanding of aspects of reality - for people who have learned enough to recognise the significance of those results. Results, and so-called "facts", do not exist in isolated independence - they have to be integrated and consistent with many other related results and "facts". And they may have to be refined over time in order to remain consistent if future verified results raise new questions. If people create stories about the results of this process, that does not mean that the process is made up of stories. It's an important distinction. For one thing, we are accustomed to picking and choosing the stories we like, and that approach would make science unworkable.