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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

E.O. Wilson in New York

It was Saturday morning and I was in the offices of the New York Academy of Sciences on the 40th floor of 7 World Trade Center. The view to the East was spectacular. We could see the Brooklyn bridge and the 59th Street bridge with Brooklyn and Queen's in the background.

I love cities, I love the tall buildings and the hustle and bustle of the street life.

E.O. Wilson was about to kick off the opening session of The Two Cultures in the 21st Century. I had never heard him in person so I grabbed a good seat and settled down.

Most of his talk was about imaging the brain, behaviorial psychology, and evolutionary psychology. His main point was that scientists are learning a lot about how the brain works and this brings together the humanities and science. E.O. Wilson favors consilience.

Let me give you one example from his talk to illustrate the concept. Wilson talked about a study that was done to determine the ideal environment for humans. People were asked to identify their favorite scenes and the results were used to derive a composite view of what the ideal human environment would look like.

Wilson illustrated it with a slide taken from the third or fourth floor of the John Deere headquarters in Illinois. The view showed extensive grasslands with some water in the foreground. The trees had large branches that were almost parallel to the ground. Massive abstract sculptures evoked an image of large animals.

According to Wilson, this idealized environment is an ancient memory of the environment where we evolved. Our ancestors lived in caves on a cliff side overlooking a savanna full of large animals. The trees of the savanna have branches that are almost parallel to the ground. We like to have water nearby. This is why the typical modern human prefers that type of environment. Science and beauty come together.

Here's how Wilson describes it in The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth pp. 66-67.

…Researchers have found that when people of different cultures, including those of North America, Europe, Asia and Africa, are given freedom to select the setting of their homes and work places, they prefer an environment that combines three features. They wish to live on a height looking down and out, to scan a parkland with scattered trees and copses spread before them, closer in appearance to a savanna than either a grassland or a closed forest, and to be near a body of water, such as a lake, river, or sea. Even if all these elements are purely aesthetic and not functional, as in vacation homes, people who have the means will pay a very high price to obtain them.

There is more. Subjects in choice tests prefer their habitation to be a retreat, with a wall, cliff, or something else solid to the rear. They want a view of fruitful terrain in front of the retreat. They like large animals scattered thereabout, either wild or domestic. Finally, they favour trees with low horizontal branches and divided leaves. It is probably not a coincidence that some people, I among them, consider the Japanese Maple the world’s most beautiful tree.

These quirks of human nature do not prove but are at least consistent with the savanna hypothesis of human evolution. Supported by considerable evidence from fossil record, this interpretation holds that human beings today still choose the habitats resembling those in which our species evolved in Africa during millions of years of prehistory.

I realized then and there that I was a strange sort of human. My love of cities must be some kind of aberration. I also realized in an instant that all of my mother's ancestors from the past 2000 years must have been desperately unhappy. They all come from Northern Europe where they lived in clusters of small farms in rolling hills covered in dense forest. The only thing they had going for them was the presence of large animals in the barns. How sad.

[Photo Credit: ©John Deere (John Deere Attractions)]


TwoYaks said...

You're probably right on this instance of behaviour, but your reasons are fairly wrong. Your argument is akin to saying that Spotted Weevils don't burrow in the sand, because you found a few that burrow in rock. There is variation in almost any biological situation, but that does not prevent averages from being potentially informative. If we were to apply your threshold for importance, virtually all behaviour would be off limits, including highly stereotyped behaviours. Because a few sandpipers remain residents, does that mean that migratory preference is not of evolutionary significance? It's a bad argument, and you know it.

And who's to say you aren't some sort of monster, twisted by some mutation, or enviromental induced malady into your particular phenotype? Just think how much higher your fitness would be without your love of cities.

Anonymous said...

Wilson is a nut. Don't listen to a thing he says unless it's about ants.

Anonymous said...

I'm envious. Wilson is one of my favorite authors. Did he mention ants at all?

Anonymous said...

wilson is an armchair biologist
just like you
talk is cheap
so is blogging

Timothy V Reeves said...

These quirks of human nature do not prove but are at least consistent with the savanna hypothesis of human evolution..
I don't see any reason to get uptight; Wilson seems to be just trying out ideas. In any case just what are your feelings toward the sort of "ideal" environment he describes? Has he got it right?

Are there parallels here with your "bah humbug!" take on spirituality where you clearly differ from a sizable chunk of the human population?

These quirky/foible aspects of human behavior may have parallels with sexual preferences: Clearly a good measure of heterosexuality is required to support a breeding population but selection pressures may not be so critical as to eliminate variation; now I'm sure you know a lot more about that sort of "genetic drift" argument than I do.

Veronica Abbass said...


Three posts - please clarify What are you saying in these three posts?

Timothy V Reeves said...

"I don't see any reason to get uptight"

I must have misread Dr. Moran's post; I don't see where he is getting "uptight." However, Joseph Carroll, a proponent of 'Literary Darwinism,' is one of Wilson's disciples.

Timothy V Reeves said...

When does Larry not get uptight about evolutionary psychology?

Larry Moran said...

Timothy V Reeves,

I don't see any reason to get uptight; Wilson seems to be just trying out ideas. In any case just what are your feelings toward the sort of "ideal" environment he describes? Has he got it right?

No, he does not have it right. The whole concept is absurd.

There are no genes (alleles) that determine what kind of environment you find attractive. Even if there were, the scenario that he postulates is ridiculous.

What he's advocating is a situation where the alleles for savanna preference became fixed in the population of our ancestors because people who had other alleles (e.g. preference for jungles or mountains) didn't survive as well. Over the past 100,000 years or so, those savanna preference alleles have dominated the human population even though our ancestors have long since left the savanna to inhabit other parts of the world.

They migrated out of the savanna in spite of the fact that they were genetically predisposed to prefer that environment. Furthermore, the other alleles (e.g. lakes and forests, the sea) didn't rise in frequency over that time frame.

We are soon going to have the sequences of 1000 human genomes. If they exist, it should be easy to find the genes that determine one's preference for certain environments. It will be trivial to detect the alleles for savanna preference and the alleles for those who prefer mountains.

Does anyone want to make a bet on whether we will find such genes?

Timothy V Reeves said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I have heard that there are no genes for walking, but only for growth of legs. Given the physiology of legs and trial and error learning walking then sort of "evolves". Ergo, failure to find "scenery" genes may not prove much. We might be set up genetically in such a way that learning easily (but not necessarily) trips a preference for "Wilson Scenery".

Bayman said...

Does this also explain why I like the smell of fresh LB broth so much?

A preference of my single-celled ancestors?

Larry Moran said...

Bayman asks,

Does this also explain why I like the smell of fresh LB broth so much?

A preference of my single-celled ancestors?

You should definitely publish that. In the current climate, that kind of "fact" is at least as scientific as other things that pass peer review.

However, I suggest you act fast. If people like me get their way then those kinds of publications will be recognized as garbage that should never see the light of day.

I'm taking my own advice and writing up a paper on why humans like water so much and why they like to swim. My idea is that we went through a stage in evolution where we lived in the ocean and that's why so many humans don't like deserts and savannas.