7 Apr 2009

We're Wild Inside: Shepard, Coming Home to the Pleistocene, Ch.8, subsection 1

Paul Shepard

Coming Home to the Pleistocene

Chapter VIII: Wildness and Wilderness

Subsection 1

We're Wild Inside

There is a difference between wildness and wilderness.
Wildness is a genetic state. Wilderness is a place we have dedicated to that wildness, both in ourselves and in other species. The home of our wildness is both etymologically and biologically wilderness. Although we define ourselves in terms of nationality, race, profession, and so on, it is evident that the context of our being in the past is wilderness -- to which, one might say, our genes look expectantly for those circumstances that are their optimal ambiance, a genetic expectation of our genome that is unfulfilled in the world we have created. (131b-c, emphasis mine)
We are currently developing technologies that will allow us some day to identify and perhaps eliminate deleterious genes from the human genome. We pursue this genetic research out of a drive for total health and perfect crops. However, "at a less conspicuous level this research is also defining the genetic basis and reality of the 'normal' or optimal human individual" (131d) [see Siep's article for further discussion.] Studies are showing that human traits we for long thought to be learned through culture and education are really inherited genetically.
At last we approach the hard truth: being human is heritable. (131d)
Even if we are born and raised in the wilderness, we still have all our human traits. So to what extent are we wild creatures?

Contemporary Western culture regards the wilderness as a beneficial realm of purification. It provides us "solace, naturalness, nearness to a kind of literary, spiritual esthetic, or to unspecified metaphysical forces, escape from urban stench, access to ruminative solitude, and locus of test, trial, and special visions." But all these valuations derive from prior traditions. Really we never left the wilderness.
True, wilderness is something we escape to, a departure into a kind of therapeutic land or sea, a release from our crowded and overbuilt environment, healing to those who sense the presence of the disease of tameness. We think of wilderness as a place, a vast uninhabited home of wild things. It is also another kind of place. It is that genetic aspect of ourselves that spatially occupies every body and every cell. To "go into" that wilderness is something we do constantly. We are immersed in it. Our consciousness and our culture buzz around it like tiny lights, not illuminating a great darkness but drawing energy that makes a self possible. (132c, emphasis mine)
To better grasp the nature of our wildness, we should contrast it with the concept of "domestication."
"Domestic" means a "breed" or "variety" created by the deliberate manipulation of a plant or animal population's reproduction by humans with a conscious objective. We ourselves are genetically wild rather than domesticated. (132c, emphasis mine)
We further distinguish "tame" from "domestic."
We are also tame, for almost any animal can be conditioned to accept the human environment, domestic or not. The tameness of captive wild animals is like our own tameness: it is conditioned to appropriate behavior in the household. Our tameness not our domestication, makes us at home in domesticated landscapes, in the sedentary life surrounded by household artifacts and the romance of the hearth and homestead, restraints in the interest of civic order that cloud the definition of "domestic." None of these affects the human genome and therefore it is wildness. (132-133, emphasis mine)
We are tamed. But that does not change our genes. They have retained their wild tendencies.

When we domesticate plants and animals through selective breeding, we also produce rapid genetic changes that exaggerates both selected traits and unintended ones as well. One gene might cause deleterious characteristics. Yet it might also be a part of a more complex web of interacting genes that function "like a safety net." For example, someone might have a gene bearing a recessive trait that makes him more prone to a certain disease. And yet he will be immune. For, other dominant genes protect him.

We have also selectively bred plants to bring out desired traits. Often this is done by pairing recessive genes. In doing so, the plant becomes less adaptable to its living conditions. We then need to compensate by taking extra care of the plant using artificial means. In other words, domesticating plants and animals weakens their genes and makes them more dependent on artificial human interventions.

We live in artificial structures that we designed and built for ourselves. But we also have selected certain plants to occupy our surroundings. We have chosen certain breeds of grasses and, grains. Even such 'weeds' as dandelions are "successional forms" of these chosen breeds. The human landscape seems durable. But this is an illusion. It is not in ecological equilibrium. Rather, it is an "ecological suppression caused by human and domestic animal pressures." (133bc) And yet, at the margins of the domesticated ecosystems are vegetation, microorganisms, insects, and animals that maintain their wildness. They do not need artificial support.
None is bound strictly to the mosaic of domestic plants and animals in order to survive in the way that domestic life forms are. (133c)
These domesticated landscapes cause us unease. We worry that such homogenization and artificiality threaten our well-being.
The radical implication is that we, like the other wild inhabitants, may actually be less healthy in the domesticated environments than in those wild landscapes to which our DNA remains tuned. (133d, emphasis mine)
We often find rural landscapes beautiful. This is probably because they "superficially resemble the savannas of our evolution." (133d)

But even these agrarian regions are not truly wild.
Our domesticated surroundings are human inventions -- the results of empirical technology over the past ten millennia and scientific technology during the past three hundred years. (134a)
But even though we have become accustomed to our domesticated surroundings, our human potential is better actualized in the wilderness where our wild genes belong, "where we are realized as mature individuals and communities of generous and peaceful character." (134b)

In fact, we cannot live without the wilderness.
Modern life conceals our inherent need for diverse, wild, natural communities, but it does not alter that need. (134b, emphasis mine)
So we become deprived of our essential need for wilderness. We see symptoms of that deprivation as the prevalence of psychic stress and social disorder. And we pretend that we do not need the wild. This is our "universal act of modern denial."

One mistaken belief about the human species is that we can survive even if our environment changes drastically. The dinosaurs could not. So they became extinct. But we are a "generalized" species that will outlast all the other ones that are too "specialized." (134c)

We delude ourselves in these ways. At the height of our self-deception is our belief that the human brain, "the magic means of our intelligence and mastery, is the instrument of our exception from the biology that has burdened and exterminated so many other species." (135cd)

But this very same human brain has "scarified" whatever new ecosystem it migrated into.
What was a good (and very highly specialized) brain for positioning a terrestrial primate in a Pleistocene niche is evidently maladapted for life in the throes of its own glut of people and barrenness of nature. (134d)
Thus we are not a generalized species: "human ontogeny -- the intricately structured, human life cycle -- is, like our central nervous systems, a delicately equilibrated biological complex." (134-135) We have for long thought ourselves to be universally adaptable to all environments. Really, we have adapted the environment to us, so to create ecological prosthetics that compensate for our genetic deficiencies. And doing so is not merely making the world more hospitable. Our alterations to the ecosystem now threaten to completely alter the ecological balance of the whole globe. The 21st century will probably bring us to the brinks of our adaptability. We will find that our bodies and minds can only adapt so much to a changing environment. But we will also learn that our culture is perfectly flexible to be able to adapt any which way it needs. What will guide these cultural changes will be the ways our cultural choices reward and punish us according to our "given natures." Our genome evolved as part of a very specific ecosystem, the African savanna. This genome kept us in its proper subsystem for three million years. It was only ten thousand years ago that culture really started to "evolve" away from our genome. During this agricultural revolution, we stopped being hunter-gathers and instead began the systematic husbandry of animals and plants. But although we domesticated many natural species, we spared ourselves from this genetic pruning. Homo sapiens has not evolved an "agrarian" genome. We are still hunters. We are still wild. So we can expect that if the modern form of our cultural heritage begins to threaten the species, we will return to a life more suitable to our genes.

Shepard, Paul. Coming Home to the Pleistocene. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1998.

No comments:

Post a Comment