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Posts Tagged ‘anthropocene

“Everything / is not itself”*…

Toward an ecology of mind: Nathan Gardels talks with Benjamin Bratton about his recent article, “Post-Anthropocene Humanism- Cultivating the ‘third space’ where nature, technology, and human autonomy meet“…

The reality we sense is not fixed or static, but, as Carlo Rovelli puts it, a “momentary get together on the sand.” For the quantum physicist, all reality is an ever-shifting interaction of manifold influences, each determining the other, which converge or dissolve under the conditions at a particular time and space that is always in flux…

The human, too, can be seen this way as a node of ever-changing interactions with the natural cosmos and the environment humans themselves have formed through technology and culture. What it means to be human, then, is not a constant, but continually constituted, altered and re-constituted through the recursive interface with an open and evolving world.

This is the view, at least, of Benjamin Bratton, a philosopher of technology who directs the Berggruen Institute’s Antikythera project to investigate the impact and potential of planetary-scale computation. To further explore the notion of “post-Anthropocene humanism” raised in a recent Noema essay, I asked him to weigh in on the nature of human being and becoming when anthropogenesis and technogenesis are one and the same process.

“I can’t accept the essentially reactionary claim that modern science erases ‘the Human.’ Demystification is not erasure. It may destabilize some ideas that humans have about what humans are, yes. But I see it more as a disclosure of what ‘humans’ always have been but could not perceive as such. It’s not that some essence of the Human goes away, but that humans are now a bit less wrong about what humans are,” he argues.

Bratton goes on: “Instead of science and technology leading to some ‘post-human’ condition, perhaps it will lead to a slightly more human condition? The figure we associate with modern European Humanism may be a fragile, if also a productive, philosophical concept. But dismantling the concept does not make the reality go away. Rather, it redefines it in the broader context of new understanding. In fact, that reality is more perceivable because the concept is made to dissolve.” 

How so? “The origins of human societies are revealed by archaeological pursuits. What is found is usually not the primal scene of some local cultural tradition but something much more alien and unsettling: human society as a physical process.

All this would suggest, in Bratton’s view, “that cooperative social intelligence was not only the path to Anthropocene-scale agency for humans, but a reminder that the evolution of social intelligence literally shaped our bodies and biology, from the microbial ecologies inside of us to our tool-compatible phenotype. The Renaissance idea of Vitruvian Man, that we possess bodies and then engage the world through tools and intention, is somewhat backward. Instead, we possess bodies because of biotic and abiotic ‘technologization’ of us by the world, which we in turn accelerate through social cooperation.”

In short, one might say, it is not “I think therefore I am,” but, because the world is embedded in me, “thereby I am.” 

Bratton’s view has significant implications for how we see and approach the accelerating advances in science and technology.

A negative biopolitics, so to speak, would seek to limit the transformations underway in the name of a valued concept of the human born in a specific time and place on the continuum of human evolution. A positive bio-politics would embrace the artificiality of those transformations as part of the responsibility of human agency.

Bratton states: “Abstract intelligence is not some outside imposition from above. It emerged and evolved along with humans and other things that think. Therefore, I am equally suspicious of the sort of posthumanism that collapses sentience and sapience into an anti-rationalist, flat epistemology that seeks not to calibrate the relation between reason and world, but is instead a will to vegetablization: a dissolving of agency into flux and flow. Governance then, in the sense of steerage, is sacrificed.”

To mediate this creative tension, what is called for is a theory of governance that recognizes the promise while affirming the autonomy of humans, albeit reconfigured through a new awareness, by striving to shape what we now understand as anthropo-technogenesis.

In the political theory of checks and balances, government is the positive and constitutional rule is the negative. The one is the capacity to act, the other to amend or arrest action that could lead to harmful consequences — the “katechon” concept from Greek antiquity of “withholding from becoming,” which I have written about before.

An ecology of mind, in the term of anthropologist Gregory Bateson, would encompass both by re-casting human agency not as the master, but as a responsible co-creator with other intelligences in the reality we are making together…

The Evolution of What It Means To Be Human,” from Nathan Gardels and @bratton in @NoemaMag. Both the conversation and the article on which it is based are eminently worth reading on full.

Pair with: “Artificial Intelligence and the Noosphere” (from Robert Wright; for which, a ToTH to friend MK): a very optimistic take on a possible future that could emerge from the dynamic that Bratton outlines. Worth reading and considering; his visions of the socioeconomic and spiritual bounties-to-come are certainly enticing.

That said, I’ll just suggest that, even if AI is ultimately as capable as many assume it can/will be– by no means a sure thing– unless we address the kinds of issues raised in last week’s (R)D on this same general subject (“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way”) we’ll never get to Bratton’s (and Wright’s) happy place…  The same kinds of things that Bratton implicitly and Wright explicitly are mooting for AI (as a knitter of minds in a noosphere) could have been said— were said— for computer networking, then for the web, then for social media…  in the event, they knit— but not so much so much in the interest of blissful, enabling sharing and growth; rather as the tools of rapacious commercial interests (c.f.: Cory Doctorow’s “enshittification”) and/or authoritarians (c.f., China or Russia or…). Seems to me that in the long run, if we can rein in capitalism and authoritarians: maybe.  In the foreseeable future: if only…

* Rainer Maria Rilke


As we contemplate collaboration, we might send mysterious birthday greetings to Alexius Meinong; he was born this date in 1853. A philosopher, he is known for his unique ontology and for contributions to the philosophy of mind and axiology– the theory of value.

Meinong’s ontology is notable for its belief in nonexistent objects. He distinguished several levels of reality among objects and facts about them: existent objects participate in actual (true) facts about the world; subsistent (real but non-existent) objects appear in possible (but false) facts; and objects that neither exist nor subsist can only belong to impossible facts. See his Gegenstandstheorie, or the Theory of Abstract Objects.


“Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie”*…

Charles F. Kennel and Martin Rees argue that the Anthropocene demands a massive realignment of priorities…

Our Earth has existed for 45 million centuries; and humans for a few thousand. But this century is the first when our species is so numerous—and so demanding of energy and natural resources—that we risk collectively despoiling our planet. It’s surely an ethical imperative that we should not deny future generations the wonders and beauty of the natural world. Policy must, in the words of the Brundtland Commission, “meet the needs of the present—especially the world’s poor—without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This requires a massive transformation in our lives—how we derive our energy, and how we feed ourselves. It’s an inspiring challenge for the younger generation, and an investment crucial for the future of humanity—and indeed all life on Earth. But it requires a massive realignment of priorities in all nations—a change in individual attitudes, as well as in public policy.

Planet Earth is on a perilous course. Society’s delayed adjustment to Anthropocene dynamics has amplified risks to global, regional, and local human security and threatens a comprehensive crisis, especially if risks materialize in reinforcing ways. This, the Crisis of the Anthropocene, is likely to be most acute when world population peaks—according to U.N. demographers this should happen before the end of the century. The number of humans at risk will therefore be largest when resource consumption and stress on eco-environmental systems are maximal and extreme climatic events disrupt ecologies at their most vulnerable. Since threats we presently think distinct are the most likely to interact and cascade then, we will not have the luxury of dealing with them one at a time, as we are trying to do today.

The nations of Earth need to transform their economies in little more than one human generation to meet the challenges posed by Anthropocene dynamics…

Read on for their prescription: “Two Distinguished Scientists on How to Rescue Humanity,” from @kennel_charles and @LordMartinRees in @NautilusMag.

* Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well


As we face the future, we might send precipitant birthday greetings to atmospheric scientist Bernard Vonnegut; he was born on this date in 1917. While he was not as well-known as his novelist brother Kurt (nor in some circles, as his architect father Kurt Sr.), he is nonetheless widely remembered for his discovery that that silver iodide could be used effectively in cloud seeding to produce snow and rain.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 29, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Sharks. I never saw that coming.”*…

While many land-based predators (like wolves) avoid cities, scientists tracking sharks in Florida’s Biscayne Bay found the fish spent just as much time near Miami as away from it. Warren Cornwall explains…

Certain kinds of wildlife are notorious for thriving in urban settings. Think rats, rock pigeons and even the occasional coyote. Now, Florida scientists have added another creature to the list: sharks.

While many large predators show little appetite for city living, an intriguing project tracking the movements of sharks as fearsome as hammerheads revealed the fish are unexpectedly tolerant of life up close to the 6 million humans of greater Miami.

“We were surprised to find that the sharks we tracked spent so much time near the lights and sounds of the busy city, often close to shore, no matter the time of day,” said Neil Hammerschlag, director of the University of Miami’s Shark Research and Conservation Program.

Ecologists group animals into two main categories when it comes to their tolerance for human development. Some, like raccoons or rats, have figured out how to capitalize on the trash we make and the nooks and crannies we build. They are “urban exploiters.” Then there are the animals like mountain lions, lynxes and wolves that generally give human infrastructure a wide berth, often abandoning habitat where roads or buildings encroach. These are the “urban avoiders.”

As that list suggests, on land, big, toothy predators generally keep their distance from the din of the city. But less is known about their aquatic counterparts. So, a group of researchers set out to see if the sharks of Miami’s Biscayne Bay might shed some light on the matter…

The new wildlife in town: Sharks,” from @WarrenCornwall in @AnthropoceneMag.



As we hug the shore, we might send deep birthday greetings to Robert Ballard; he was born on this date in 1942. An oceanographer, explorer, retired naval officer, and professor, he noted for his work in underwater archaeology: maritime archaeology and archaeology of shipwrecks. He is probably best known for his discoveries of the wrecks of the RMS Titanic in 1985, the battleship Bismarck in 1989, the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown in 1998, and the wreck of John F. Kennedy’s PT-109 in 2002. But he believes that his most important discovery was the existence of hydrothermal vents.

Ballard at TED, 2008


“The beaver told the rabbit as they stared at the Hoover Dam: No, I didn’t build it myself, but it’s based on an idea of mine”*…

Of all the things that humanity builds from concrete or stone, there are few structures that influence the surface of Earth quite as profoundly as a dam.

By blocking the flow of a river, we dare to defy gravity’s pull on water from mountain to estuary – and influence the trajectory of geology itself. A dam does so much more than submerge a valley to create a reservoir: it transforms a river’s natural course, accruing silt and sediment at an artificial barrier, and dampening water’s erosional force downstream

Their vertiginous walls, striking shapes and deep foundations will also leave a unique archaeological imprint. Some of these engineered monoliths are so enormous that they may be preserved for millennia.

Meanwhile, dams can also bring deep changes for the people who live nearby, and the generations that follow them. When a government in a distant capital decides to exploit its rivers, destruction of local homes, farmland and livelihoods often follows. For example, while the rest of the world focused on Covid-19 earlier this year, an entire ancient town in Turkey was lost to rising reservoir waters. Long after we are gone, future archaeologists will study such submerged settlements and may wonder why we let them go for the sake of short-term politics and energy demand.

The effects can be felt a long way from home, too. Damming rivers that wind through continents, like the Nile in Africa, can withhold valuable water and power from countries downstream, forever changing the trajectories of those nations…

Few human structures can change a landscape quite like a dam– a pictorial essay: “How dams have reshaped our planet.”

* Nobel laureate Charles H. Townes


As we interrogate interruption, we might recall that it was on this date in 1570 that the All Saints Flood broke dikes and overwhelmed the Dutch (and parts of the German) coast. At least 20,000 people were drowned and many times that many left homeless; livestock was lost in huge numbers; and winter stocks of food and fodder were destroyed. In Zeeland the small islands Wulpen, Koezand, Cadzand, and Stuivezand were permanently lost.

Drawing by Hans Moser in 1570 of the flood


Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 1, 2020 at 1:01 am

“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change”*…




In the near future, we will be in possession of genetic engineering technology which allows us to move genes precisely and massively from one species to another. Careless or commercially driven use of this technology could make the concept of species meaningless, mixing up populations and mating systems so that much of the individuality of species would be lost. Cultural evolution gave us the power to do this. To preserve our wildlife as nature evolved it, the machinery of biological evolution must be protected from the homogenizing effects of cultural evolution.

Unfortunately, the first of our two tasks, the nurture of a brotherhood of man, has been made possible only by the dominant role of cultural evolution in recent centuries. The cultural evolution that damages and endangers natural diversity is the same force that drives human brotherhood through the mutual understanding of diverse societies. Wells’s vision of human history as an accumulation of cultures, Dawkins’s vision of memes bringing us together by sharing our arts and sciences, Pääbo’s vision of our cousins in the cave sharing our language and our genes, show us how cultural evolution has made us what we are. Cultural evolution will be the main force driving our future…

An important essay by Freeman Dyson, emeritus professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton: “Biological and Cultural Evolution– Six Characters in Search of an Author.”

* Leon C. Megginson (often misattributed to Darwin, on whose observations Megginson based his own)


As we agonize over the anthropocene, we might recall that it was on this date in 1968 that James Watson’s The Double Helix was published.  A memoir, it describes– with manifest hubris– “perhaps the most famous event in biology since Darwin’s book,” the 1953 discovery, published by Watson and Francis Crick, of the now-famous double helix structure of the DNA molecule.

Crick, however, viewed Watson’s book as “far too much gossip,” and believed it gave short shrift to Rosalind Franklin’s vital contribution via clues from her X-ray crystallography results.  It was originally slated to be published by Harvard University Press, Watson’s home university,  Harvard dropped the arrangement after protests from Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins (their supervisor, who shared the Nobel Prize);  it was published instead by Atheneum in the United States and Weidenfeld & Nicolson in the UK.

In any case, the book opens a window into the competitiveness, struggles, doubts, and human foibles that were baked into this landmark in science.

220px-TheDoubleHelix source


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