Sept. 20, 2012

I love E.O. Wilson, the myrmecologist (person who studies ants). He won a Pulitzer for two of his books: On Human Nature (1979) and The Ants (1991).

E. O. Wilson

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E. O. Wilson

October 16, 2007
Born June 10, 1929 (age 83)
Birmingham, Alabama, United States
Nationality American
Fields Biologist
Institutions Harvard University
Alma mater University of Alabama
Harvard University
Thesis A Monographic Revision of the Ant Genus Lasius (1955)
Doctoral students Daniel Simberloff
Donald J. Farish
Known for Coining the term ‘sociobiology’
Epic of Evolution
Character displacement
Notable awards Pulitzer Prize (1979)
Crafoord Prize (1990)
Pulitzer Prize (1991)
Kistler Prize (2000)
Nierenberg Prize (2001)

Edward Osborne Wilson (born June 10, 1929) is an American biologist, researcher (sociobiology, biodiversity), theorist (consilience, biophilia), naturalist (conservationist) and author. His biological specialty is myrmecology, the study of ants, on which he is considered to be the world’s leading authority.[1]

Wilson is known for his scientific career, his role as “the father of sociobiology“, his environmental advocacy, and his secular-humanist and deist ideas pertaining to religious and ethical matters.[2]

Wilson was the Joseph Pellegrino University Research Professor in Entomology for the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He is a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism.[3][4] He is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.

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Yesterday’s L.A. Times had an interview with Wilson by Patt Morrison. Here are some highlights:

~~ On sociobiology (the study of social organization as an aspect of evolution): the whole “kin selection” theory, which said organisms sacrifice themselves to preserve their own genetic legacy, has been rewritten by Wilson and others. Now, they say that “it’s not just relatives but groups with other common goals (besides genetics) that inspire self-sacrifice, an insight that provides an evolutionary basis for all kinds of human collaboration.”

~~The U.S. is “still a frontier country,” according to Wilson. Unlike much of the rest of the world, Americans are often hostile toward science. As frontier-dwellers, “They have no guidelines except one — faith in the literal acceptance of the holy Bible… and that’s what fundamentalism is.”

~~Expanding the “kin selection”paradigm (with the “multiple-level” or group selection concept) upset many people’s apple carts.

~~Wilson likes Schopenhauer’s idea: “every new idea is greeted first by ridicule, then outrage, then “That’s just another way of saying what I knew all along.”

~~”I’s not cool to want to go out and watch birds or collect snakes the way it used to be. That’s a big problem. It should be a primal part of growing up… The important thing about learning is the kinesthetic sense of it. If you learn by doing it, handling it, making it, you know it. That’s what we haven’t been doing. That’s what natural history does.”

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People in Western societies are subject to The Cult Of the Individual. I didn’t make this up; I read about it. It means that we venerate and glorify individuals as though they accomplished everything by themselves with no one’s help. That’s ridiculous. Everyone has many, many helpers from the day we are born (and even before, during Mom’s pregnancy). The ego is comforted and enlarged by this Cult.

The illusion of control is fostered by The Cult Of the Individual. We think we have control of our environments and our lives because we live in houses, and when not indoors in our houses and offices and the stores we frequent, we are in our cars. In each of these places, we, as individuals, attempt to exert the most control we can. Usually, the more money and social power we  have, the more control we can have.

The illusion of control (and safety and security) is thus maintained. But it’s an illusion. Like the “guru” whose ashram I visited a few weeks ago here in Ojai, the illusion of power over the forces that move our lives (like death) only exists within certain carefully designated areas. Once that so-called guru steps outside his house, he’s in another reality where he is not only not seen as a guru, but where other paradigms and truths hold sway.

Individuality as a socially- and personally-desirable goal has benefited me immensely. I can live the way I want, say and think what I want, and not be forced to conform to many social norms, beliefs and mores. Until very recently, I have lived with a modicum of fear because I am “different” and because I am often seen as a harmless, but weird social outsider. This is changing with my awareness that fear makes me MORE vulnerable (to others’ rules, punishments and opinions) and fear makes my life much less free.

Pema Chodron writes that freedom is acknowledging that life is never totally okay. We try to ground ourselves and feel safe and in control, but there is no control over the real forces of life. People like to say “it’s all good,” but it’s NOT all good: life is full of problems and, of course, we die.

I am finally starting to watch for animals more that constantly hiding from people when I’m camping. This is a big shift for me. Catherine Reid writes about how people shut themselves up in their houses and never see or hear all the wildlife right outside their doors. And these animals and birds — Nature — is one gigantic, imposing, uncontrollable thing we humans know very little about and have very little contact with. BECAUSE we shut ourselves up indoors, away from nature, we think we have control over our lives. Nope. It ain’t like that.

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I am free and independent. I have enough money to live on. And I am very active (walking, going to the gym, traveling). My generation, Baby Boomers, are changing the definition of “old age.” In Coyote, Reid points out that Darwin was wrong: mutations can take place very quickly in a species, even from one generation to the next.

Mutations like Asperger Syndrome, which has definite benefits for our human species, happen fast. “Species don’t stand still. You can’t ‘preserve’ a species,” writes Rosemary Grant (in Reid). We have become so civilized in America; I love visiting countries which are not nearly as civilized just to see and experience the differences. Do we really know anymore what it’s like to live in a less civilized way? We know even less what it’s like to live outdoors and be a real part of nature. We have shut ourselves up in artificial environments; we have constructed our lives against and away from nature. This is (like) a mutation; it must have effects that are actual genetic mutations.

My anxiety,  my fear about living outdoors (in a tent or on the ground; and not in a designated campground) here in oh-so-civilized Ojai, California, centers around my fear of punishment for being different. Possible punishments include a ticket from the police or forest rangers, anger and some kind of reporting procedure taken against me by landowners and “concerned citizens,” or an actual physical attack by men who hate anyone who a.) evades social strictures better or more than they can, and b.)  is living in a wild (close-to-nature) way that they deem criminal, lawless, and lazy. These people feel they have the moral (and often legal) right to take action against people who live among them, but who don’t conform to what they think is acceptable.

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I have been scattering my pee around my camp. This alerts animals to my presence. Living outdoors, one is constantly aware of the need to communicate with other species. The extent of coyotes’ ability to communicate with each other is obvious to those people who study the animals, but we still don’t know exactly what they are saying to each other. What does a howl mean? A yip? It’s like this with all the animals: they talk to each other, but we can’t understand them. We don’t listen; we are shut up in our houses and cars and other indoor places.

People in hot climates are becoming unable to survive without air-conditioning. We are forming an indoor, away-from-nature world that is an anomaly, an illusion, an ego-based imitation of actual life.

In Of Wolves and Men Barry Lopez paraphrases Henry Beston “about animals not being ‘brethren’ or ‘underlings,’ but ‘other nations, caught with ourselves in the web of life’ ” (from Catherine Reid’s Coyote). Yet our lives are intentionally lived well-separated from these other nations and from ANY concept of community — even with other humans, in order to better glorify ourselves as individuals.

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The brains of people with Asperger Syndrome retain more of the ancient, animal brain (see below). In the current reality of people shutting themselves away from nature, I see the Aspie brain as a positive, beneficial mutation.

 

the anterior cingulate gyrus.

(This is) very important for Asperger’s Syndrome, and nobody’s even heard of it! So here’s the basics.

The cingulate gyrus is a banana-shaped section of brain, located in the centre of the brain. It surrounds the corpus collosum, which is the band that links the left and right sides of the brain. It’s part of the ancient brain, the unevolved, primitive, basic brain that we inherited from our animal ancestors.

The front part  is called the anterior cingulate gyrus. The back part is called the posterior cingulate gyrus. No surprise there.

 

Why is the anterior cingulate gyrus important in Asperger’s?

There are brain experts out there who believe this is the part of the brain responsible for Asperger’s syndrome. All or most of the issues associated with ASD come from issues with the cingulate gyrus, both front and back.

But the anterior part is responsible for fight or flight. When it’s running too high, the result is anxiety problems. Anxiety can take many forms — obsessions, inflexibility, emotional hypersensitivity, fearfulness, worrying. And these are key ingredients in Asperger’s syndrome.

Which is why said brain experts mentioned above believe that in Aspies, the anterior cingulate gyrus is overactive.

 

Anxiety is very useful in nature. Especially for prey animals. In the controlled, individual-centered, artificial environment most of us live in today, anxiety is considered dysfunctional and undesirable. Of course, unnecessary, useless anxiety (and fear) are not good, but a measure of anxiety is not only natural but good — a positive thing — for those people who (like animals) spend their time outdoors in nature.

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Catherine Reid and her partner get a kitten. Reid writes, “That’s when I know she’s too wild to be an indoor cat, too willful to be docile or contained.” That’s how I am. That’s how many of us are, but we have to wait for the right moment, the right situation to allow ourselves to be free and not indoor cats. If we go for it too soon, our society will punish us.

Reid writes about a long canoe trip she took. For weeks she and a friend passed all kinds of wildlife.

…it’s the lights of house after house visible through the trees, and here I am, passing, as do the deer and coyote, foxes and bobcats, unheard and unseen by the nearby residents… I’m struck again by how often our backs are turned to these scenes… We saw only a few old men as we passed, fishing near broken piers or resting under bridges. Everyone else was invisible and contained.

I don’t want to be contained; I don’t want nature to be invisible to me; nor do I want to be invisible to the animals, birds, etc. I want to be out there in it.

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