Friday, March 21, 2014


In their chapter “Seven developmental myths about agriculture”, Levins and Lewontin talk specifically about specialists and generalists and assumptions that seem to drive ever increasing specialization, in their 6th myth.  I here quote that myth and then add some comments that I think could be relevant to modern food systems (and other subjects too).

“Specialists are modern, generalists backward. The rational kernel in this view is that there is too much to know within every discipline for anyone to know everything. The history of European thought has been an increasing subdivision of knowledge from the days of the philosopher-scholar-theologian, through  general “scientists,” to the present multiplication of specialties within previously coherent fields of study.  For example, genetics, a part of biology, now includes molecular genetics, cytogenetics, population genetics, quantitative genetics (for plant and animal breeding), as well as further breakdowns by kinds of organisms studied.  Developing countries speak with pride of the numbers of specialists who graduate from their schools.  Uncritical admirers of specialization propose that groups of specialists working as teams can solve problems related to the subdivision of knowledge within a field. However, specialization prevents the researchers from seeing the whole picture, both because of the narrowness of their training and because the ideology of expertise makes it a matter of pride to consider only precise quantitative information as real science while the rest is “philosophy” (a bad word among positivistic scientists) or “not my department.” The training of specialists rather than the education of scientists encourages the combination of micro-creativity and docility that permits scientists to work on the most monstrous projects of destruction without attention to their consequences.  The great failings in the application of science to human well-being have come about not because of the failure to examine the system in its complexity.  The strategy of the Green Revolution is solving many and difficult technical problems of plant breeding, but the geneticists did not anticipate problems of pest ecology, land tenure, or political economy, and as a result increases in production are sometimes associated with increases in misery.  The Aswan Dam was an engineering success in that it retained the water it was intended to retain.  But by stopping the seasonal flooding that provided renewed soil fertility, the dam made farmers dependent on imported chemical fertilizers; the reduced flow of water into the Mediterranean Sea increased salinity and adversely affected fisheries; the outflow of the Nile was reduced to the point that it could no longer offset the erosion of the coastline; the irrigation ditches became the habitat for snails that transmit liver flukes.
            It is a common experience that in large programs of development the ministries of health and agriculture do not talk to each other; thus it come as a surprise when the expansion of cotton production increases malaria.  Cotton is very heavily sprayed.  The natural enemies of the mosquitoes are killed, allowing the mosquitoes that transmit malaria to thrive in habitats created for them by the clearing of forest.  The immigration of a labor force not previously adapted to malaria allows the parasites ideal susceptible hosts.  There is a vast oral tradition of such cautionary tales.  The point is that most of these “unexpected” outcomes are predictable, at least in principle.  There is no longer any excuse for planners not to ask the obvious questions about a program, such as: what will it do to the position of women?  New technologies are usually handed over to men, and traditional women’s occupations are displaced.  For instance, the use of herbicides displaces women from weeding.  How will vegetational changes alter the biology of potential disease vectors? Will the new productive activity be compatible with the water needs of the people? Will the production of export crops make the food supply more vulnerable?
            The outcome of short-sighted specialization is that each department takes as its starting point the products of the department next door.  Crops are bread for their performance in monoculture because the machinery was designed for operations in pure stands of a single crop.  The engineers design machinery for monoculture because the agronomists inform them that it can replicate what farmers do.  The farmers plant monocultures because their varieties and machinery are suitable to monoculture.  Each party is making rational decisions given the constraints imposed by the others, giving the whole trajectory of technological development the appearance of inevitability and necessity, while nobody looks out for the process as a whole.”

Resolving the 6th: The move towards interdisciplinarity, promoted as a goal in US universities for the past 10 years, is an implicit acknowledgement that what L and L say here is correct, yet the university’s response is lame. Embarrassingly, the group of scholars with whom I affiliate seems to mimic the lame approach of the university.  In planning a project it is normal, and thought to be wise, to seek out experts from across a broad intellectual spectrum. While it is difficult to criticize such an approach, it is in the end an intellectually lazy approach. Interdisciplinarity is, in and of itself, an intellectual challenge that is only dodged by assembling a team of experts. Indeed, historically we see the emergence of great creativity when disciplines are merged and then deepened, rather than deepened and then merged. When biochemistry emerged as an independent science it was not because of a university program that encouraged chemists and biologists to talk to one another.  It emerged out of independent scholars asking questions at the interface of those two classical disciplines. The department of Women’s Studies is clearly an amalgam of sociology, literature, psychology, and many other mainly social science disciplines, and emerged from independent scholars asking questions, unified by an interest in issues specifically attached to gender, at the boarders of their traditional disciplines. Similar narratives can be easily constructed for Biophysics, African American studies, American Culture, Complex Systems, and many others.
            In contrast, the continual splitting of intellectual disciplines is the other dynamic component of intellectual phylogenies. We now have two biology departments (Cell and Molecular and Developmental Biology (MCDB) and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB)), but that split was of a department that had originally been a merger of two others (Zoology and Botany).  I have been here long enough to watch both the merger and split, and I would not be at all surprised to see further splits and mergers as both knowledge increases and as petty intellectual territoriality evolves (splits frequently happen because faculty are sometimes like kids in a sandbox).
            Since all intellectual activity is located in metaphor and simile, in thinking about the problem of interdisciplinarity, we need an appropriate metaphor. A lake has depth and superficial extent, pretty good potential metaphors.  There are those who have extremely broad knowledge (Jack of all Trades,, etc. . . ), covering the entire surface of the lake, and there are those who have very deep knowledge, extending to the depths of the lake, but only within a narrow section.  For those (like me) who appreciate a graphic, figure 1 is useful for further discussion.

Figure 1. A metaphorical lake basin containing all “truth” about a subject (the shaded area) and the various pieces of “knowledge” we have of that truth (hatched area).

Both generalist and specialist knowledge is legitimate, to be sure, but, like all knowledge it is incomplete. What is special about the incompleteness is its fixed nature. If the specialist understands his and her limits, and, true to the specialist ideology, is forbidden to transcend those limits, it is almost inevitable that interdisciplinary teams will fail to cover much of the “truth space” with “knowledge.” The interdisciplinarian, although less broad than the generalist and less deep than the specialist, combines disciplines so as to sometimes take note of critical overlaps in the knowledge space. And, evidently, the team of interdisciplinarians, with such overlaps continually exposed and, hopefully, acknowledged and pursued will eventually cover the truth space with knowledge, perhaps quicker and with greater efficiency.

Thursday, March 20, 2014


John Vandermeer

            In Wallerstein’s masterful “The Growth of Knowledge” he contrasts the “intent” of the various social sciences as on a scale ranging from nomothetic to ideographic. Depending on their history, particular social sciences locate their epistemological positions near to or far from Newton. The Newtonian revolution has been characterized, both adoringly and critically, as casting reality as a machine, thus providing a strong metaphor, known today as “mechanism,” that is thought to provide an understanding of that reality. Kant was the first to distinguish ways of knowing as falling into a dichotomous epistemology that later Kantians referred to as nomothetic versus ideographic, the natural sciences generally falling into the first category the social sciences into the second. Wallerstein takes issue with such a simple classification and notes that the continual tension between these two epistemologies has not been completely resolved in many of the social sciences. 
            Economics, for example, at the micro level seeks to establish a general theory on which all economic data can be rationalized, a nomothetic position, while at the macro level seeks to study the detail of particulars, real economic activities operating at some time and in some space, effectively an ideographic position. Sociology seeks general principles, theories that predict social phenomena much as the inverse square law predicts elliptical orbits, while anthropology elaborates the details of particular cultural formations. It is somewhat ironic that at their most basic level, sociology and anthropology seek to understand the same reality (human societies), yet their epistemologies have evolved along dramatically distinct pathways.
            A remarkably unusual field is history, idiosyncratically finding itself lodged neither in natural nor social sciences in most epistemological schema, but rather, somewhat incongruously categorized as a subject of the humanities. Nomothetic themes are certainly observable (e.g., Marx’s class struggle, Foucault’s discourse), but most practitioners are dramatically ideographic, struggling with the complicated socio/economic/politico/cultural structures that they use to construct their narratives.  And it is taken as a kind of badge of honor that those narratives are situated in the particularities of time and space and absolutely not to be squeezed into some nomothetic construct.
            There is little debate on this issue in the natural sciences, the assumption being that all are nomothetic. Research programs are normatively thought to be contained in some theoretical framework, and usually are so situated even when not explicitly stated as such.  Yet all would have to admit when viewing their field historically that it had its ideographic moments (precise positioning of the stars in early astronomy, collection of fossils in early evolutionary biology, random combinations of chemicals in alchemy, the precursor of chemistry).  The process of induction so readily acceptable at certain stages of the methodology of the natural sciences can be ideographic in practice if not ultimate intent. The process of developing theory and deducing predictions therefrom is, contrarily, clearly nomothetic.
            Ecology, as a natural science, is automatically assumed to have a nomothetic epistemology. Yet, most ecologists (at least those with direct connection to field work) acknowledge the complexity and contingency of the subject, frequently lamenting the fact that all ecological theories are spectacularly over simplified. Yet the underlying assumption is that there certainly must exist (in the same way the physicist assumes there certainly must exist) a machine that operates in precisely the same way as observed reality. That is, there is a “mechanism” that provides understanding of the reality, or at least that is the normal assumption. But does this nomothetic assumption accurately characterize what ecologists have been doing since their discipline was named by Haeckel in the late nineteenth century? And, more importantly, is the unquestioned assumption that ecological epistemology should be nomothetic a useful assumption? Can there be, should there be, an ideographic ecology? Would the current community of scholars self-identifying themselves as ecologists accept an ideographic epistemology as legitimate?  Or is their almost religious commitment to the Newtonian “machine” (their famous “mechanism”) a 100% effective firewall?
            I take my own prejudices as an example.  I believe (and the religious connotation is probably quite appropriate) that ecological communities are collections of coupled oscillators forced by periodic environmental conditions (Vandermeer, 2006; also see, especially, King and Shaffer, 1999), a hard-line nomothetic position (with about as much empirical support as string theory).  Yet my field work on the coffee agroecosystem emphasizes the contingent, the nonlinear, the stochastic, the particular, the temporary, the chaotic, in short, the ideographic storytelling which harkens to pre-Darwinian naturalists (e.g., Vandermeer et al., 2010; Perfecto and Vandermeer, 2014). Do I force everything I see into the coupled oscillator framework, thus creating a constraint on possible ways of envisioning what I see, or even preventing me to see what is before my eyes?  Or, do I utilize the coupled oscillator framework as a scaffolding to provide insight into my observations and interpretations of their deeper meanings? 

Saturday, February 9, 2013


            Revisiting Isadore Nabi’s famous essay on the tendencies of motion, I am struck with today’s rapidly accelerating statistical methodology and its ability to measure, with precision unheard of just 20 years ago, the greyness of the swan.  But a philosophical question associated with this remarkable trend comes to mind, namely “who gives a shit.”  Now that is perhaps a bit harsh.  It is, without doubt, important in everyday life.  I am extremely pleased that the pilot landing the 747 on which I am travelling has an instrument that can measure with great precision the distance between the runway and the plane’s wheels.  And when my house was recently remodeled, matching the paint on the outside walls was not done by the painstaking methods I used when I tried to match paint in my first apartment many years ago, but rather with an automatic measuring device that translated the complex reflection spectrum of the current paint to parameters that the local hardware store could punch into its automatic color dispenser in its paint department.  These are good things.
            Yes, it is frequently important to know exactly what shade of grey sits on the feathers of the swan.  But like the spontaneous laughter when hearing a new and clever joke rather than the retelling of an old one, regardless of the artistic flair of the teller, when I see one of those black swans --- yeesss!
            Should the scientist keep with the program and work on even more sophisticated R code to measure with ever increasing precision the greyness of our beautiful swans?  Should we reward the scientist who comes up with the next level of precision? And then the next? And then the next?   Or should we encourage her to strike out and search the world for the black ones. 
Perhaps it is a matter of personal choice.  But certainly that choice should be made through a rational choice model, not by slithering down well-worn ruts.

Thursday, April 12, 2012


            As eloquently articulated by Walter Benjamin,

“A religion may be discerned in capitalism – that is to say, capitalism serves essentially to allay the same anxieties, torments, and disturbances to which the so-called religions offered answers . . .

Capitalism is the celebration of a cult sans réve et sans merci (without dream or mercy). There are no ‘weekdays.’ There is no day that is not a feast day, in the terrible sense that all its sacred pomp is unfolded before us; each day commands the utter fealty of each worshiper . . .

It adds to our understanding of capitalism as a religion to realize that, to begin with, the first heathens certainly did not believe that religion served a ‘higher,’ ‘moral’ interest but that it was severely practical. In other words, religion did not achieve any greater clarity then about its ‘ideal’ or ‘transcendental’ nature than modern capitalism does today.”[1]

Thus ironies of religion, of beliefs that preach kindness and concern but promote war and violence, for example, are well known. The ironies of Capitalism perhaps merit as much comedic jousting as religion justly receives.

            A case in point is the current obsession with oil prices. Three facts combine to generate a delightful irony.  First, corporate profits in the oil business are dependent on “oil in the ground,” which is to say, investment in oil companies is based on an evaluation of their future worth more than their present performance[2]. Thus, the market value of Exxon stock, for example, is based on investors willing to cough up large sums of money only because they are secure in the supposition of Exxon’s future ability to pump oil and the faith that oil will be the go-to energy source forever. Indeed, the bulk of the current value of that company lies in its apparent ownership of oil in the ground, not in its current performance in any sensible marketplace. This fact explains the initially perplexing fact that oil companies vigorously oppose efforts at promoting alternative forms of energy even though they themselves could easily make investments for favorable positioning in those new energy markets. Much of their current profit stream stems from the assumption that they will get to bring the rest of the oil in the ground to the market.

Second, opportunity costs for alternative energy, especially wind and solar, remain large but are declining rapidly. Currently the cost of electricity generation, for example, is nearly cost competitive for wind (depending on location, of course) and is nearing competitive status for solar. The fear of the oil industry is that emerging industries will soon conclude that filling the roofs of their factories with solar panels will be more cost effective than purchasing electricity produced with oil, that the Volt and the Prius will become even more popular, that Germany and Denmark will continue with their successes in wind and solar power. All of those things are partly a consequence of the very high price of oil, which is why environmentalists cheer when the price of a barrel of oil continues to rise.

Third, the actual price of oil is not exclusively determined by either the amount in the ground or the amount being produced, it is also a product of speculation. The cost of extracting a barrel of oil is about $11 while the cost in the international market is over $100. There are so-called “pure” speculators, men and women whose activities in the oil business consist of exchanging pieces of paper, or, these days, computer files. Oil futures are traded at a greater rate and by more people today than ever before. According to Congressional testimony in 2009, it is routine for over a billion barrels of oil to be traded per day, in a world in which only about 85 million are actually produced. “This means that more than 90 percent of trading involves speculators’ exchanging ‘paper’ barrels with one another.”[3]

It is a rather delicious irony for environmentalists. The corporate capitalists seem obliged to promote a system that drives the price of their commodity up to a point where it generates attractive new opportunity costs for alternative energy sources. But those alternatives cannot be allowed because profits are tied up, not so much in the present physical reality, but the future fantasy of proven reserves eventually coming on line. Yet that fantasy is what keeps the speculators speculating. This multi part opera creates long-term disaster for their business, but may be an unwitting ally in the struggle for the post hydrocarbon society. As speculation increases, prices rise. As prices rise, alternatives become more rational. As alternatives increase, profits for oil companies drop. Speculators don’t care, since they make money no matter the actual price of oil, but their behavior continues driving the price up. The proverbial fish starts eating its own tail and ends up devouring itself. 

We have long had the slogan, “For the sake of the planet, keep oil prices high!” I now propose we adopt a new one “long live the new glorious deity, oil speculators!”

[1] Quoted in Steenstra, Sytze. 2010. Song and Circumstance: The work of David Byrne from talking heads to the present. Cotinuum Iternational Pub. Group Inc. NY
[2] McKibbon, Bill.  2012. Why the fossil fuel community fights so hard.  Posted at
[3] Kennedy, J. P. 2012. The high cost of gambling on oil. NYT, April 10, 2012.

Friday, March 23, 2012


            Of the many challenging documents of the Enlightenment one stands out as particularly enlightening. Its author is widely presumed to be John Toland, but it was formally an anonymous treatise with the confrontationally challenging title “The Treatise of the Three Imposters.”  The three were Moses, Christ, and Muhammad and one can easily imagine why the piece caused such a stir. Authority then, as now, was vested in lies mostly, and this piece challenged one of the biggest, the very legitimacy of the two transcendent authorities of the time, kings and popes. King, of course stands for the whole system of divine-sanctioned monarchy and pope for the equivalent in organized religion. The essential tension between king and pope was one of the driving dynamic forces causing human social and political evolution throughout the late Middle Ages extending into the Enlightenment to be sure. But what was ordinarily assumed to be beyond the reach of criticism was the fact of divine authorization. One could love or hate king Richard, but if you really wanted to dethrone him your justification had to be that God had grown tired of him.
            The Three Imposters went beyond the normal popular criticism of the foils of the king or church, to the core of their institutional legitimacy. It lampooned the three key figures of the Judaic tradition (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), casting them as regular men whose claim of providential authority and ultimate wisdom were as legitimate as would be a court jester’s claim to the same. Debunking the lie was pulling the rug from under the structure that kept the whole society functioning. If the king were king by a flip of a coin and the pope pope by accident rather than providence, why not just dispense with them?
            There was a fourth imposter waiting in the wings. Adam Smith wrote about him (or perhaps we could institute a female imposter here – doesn’t make a difference).  Although Smith’s most important writing was about the importance of the social contract, it is the divinity of the invisible hand for which he is best remembered. Free market fundamentalism is so basic to the core of how the modern world is organized that it takes on the characteristics normally associated with king and pope. The invisible hand is to the free market what God was to the King and Pope. Political parties offer sacrifices to quell its anger, failing states offer prayers (in modern terms, bailouts) to try and coddle its favor, the largest communist party in history adulates its grandeur and seeks its blessings.
            Much as the three imposters before her, this fourth imposter creates the conditions for wealth and authority to accumulate unabated. Today’s rulers, be they standard billionaires and their lackeys, or the new class of corporate persons, gain their privilege and rulership prerogatives through divine right.  This much is agreed, although the divinity is the invisible hand they all talk about. Could we imagine what might happen if people began thinking about that fourth imposter, they way people began thinking about the first three imposters in the 18th century? That would be a brave new world, in a good sense.

Thursday, March 22, 2012



I am motivated once again to write about the size of the human population. Nothing has really changed about the analysis, but I keep getting comments from friends and comrades who think that nine billion is a really really large number, like Al Gore always points out, implying that we could solve the global warming problem if we only had fewer people in the world.  I’m sure the ExxonMobil person is quite pleased to see the problem focused in this way.

OK, I admit, it is a really big number (although there are bigger ones, I’m told).  Yet the issue is the same as it was many years ago when folks like Ester Boserup and Bill Murdock took up the issue to note how wrongheaded the Malthusian and neo-Malthusian positions were.  There are two independent issues that should be considered: 1) how many people are needed to get a job done and 2) how many people will benefit from that job. I’m not sure what could be more universal when thinking about numbers, whether of ants or people.

As I noted in an earlier post, not that it is in any way an original idea with me, humans live in a socially structured world and the goods and services they need to survive are delivered by that world. There is a certain minimal population size needed to maintain that structure. That is what I have referred to as the “necessary” population.  Yet it is also the case that the operation of that technology can maintain only a certain number of people, what I refer to as the “sustainable” population. It almost seems silly to point out the obvious fact that if the actual population is above the sustainable one we are in trouble. But it is equally true and urgent that if the actual population is below the necessary one, we are also in trouble. Many examples of both problems could be cited.

The political issue here remains as always. The specter of Malthus is brought out to obscure political facts. It is really difficult to worry about how French and US racist Imperialism drove Haiti to the condition it now finds itself. Better to note that if there were just, say, 10% of the current population the scarred landscape could produce enough food for them. Seems obvious. Institutional slavery and its long enduring consequences are irrelevant. No need to concern ourselves that Napoleon’s righteous racism violently turned aside the first true revolution in the Global South and set the stage for horrendous US Imperialism to continue torturing the racially inferior people inhabiting that country. No need to even know who is Aristide, the legitimate president of Haiti, elected through the very “democracy” the white European philosophers hailed so much for themselves but so violently reacted to when lesser human beings tried to use the same rationale. No need to understand why the US led a military coup to oust this leader, then continually pressured the world to keep him, not only out of his own country, but even outside of the hemisphere in which his country was found, so dangerous was the idea of democracy to the Imperial state. No need to understand any of this, because there is a much easier understanding to be had.  Just go to Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” where you will learn that overpopulation is the problem with Haiti. It’s really quite an elegant solution to the problem. One that requires, shall we say, less contact with unpleasant facts.

As I noted in my previous post on this issue, the actual NUMBER of people is an important issue, but not for the reasons the Malthusians say. The economist will say you need MORE people to do more things and provide more services. And he or she is right. The ecologist will say you need FEWER people so the goods and services produced will be sufficient to satisfy them. And he or she is right. You need enough people to make the society work so that it can provide the goods and services to sustain the population. There is a NECESSARY population and a SUSTAINABLE population and they are not the same thing.

The neo-Malthusian position takes its toll as intelligent young scholars are deflected from serious political analysis that incorporates the complexity of the modern world by the simpleminded recipe that there are always too many people. Detroit has half the population it had 50 years ago, so I guess that means that Detroit is much better of now.  Japan with approximately the same land mass as Botswana has over 60 times the population so I guess the Japanese must be massively starving and living in destitution.  The actual size of the population anywhere has little predictive value for anything. And the simple idea that one human generates one ecological footprint so we can just multiply that footprint by the number of people and come up with the overall impact, is daft. The problem is that the 99% in this world are not the ones consuming natural resources at some unsustainable rate. The ecological footprint of the rich and very rich is the elephant in the room and the ghost of Malthus only serves to keep everyone’s eyes diverted.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


            Scientists of the late 17th century were faced with a major conundrum.  The physical world, including cannonballs and planets, was evidently representable with mathematical precision, and the epistemology emerging as standard was that all knowledge would eventually be understood with the same precision.  God remained essential, although the growing ideas of deism, the idea that God originally set the universe running but then let it alone, were becoming ever more popular.  The continuing effort at understanding the world was buoyed by the new materialism, given the success of its application to certain physical phenomena such as gravity and the visible spectrum.  The world of mountains and seas and of animals and plants, it was thought, could be cast in the same framework as planets and falling apples, as eloquently summarized by Bennet[1].
            Two facts (or, “facts”) dominated much of the thinking on these issues.  First, the accumulating fossil base indicated that many organisms that formerly existed, no longer did, and second, one of the major transformative events in world history was the flood (for which Noah built the ark).  The physical facts of fossils could not be denied, but neither could the biblical fact of the flood.  In other words, they had to deal with what we moderns would call a physical fact, within the constraints of a particular world view.  The problem was, and remains, it is only with great effort that the constraints of a particular world view are visible to those immersed in it. With the wisdom of hindsight we can easily judge negatively for the flood and positively for the fossils.  But what of our contemporary metaphorical floods and fossils?
            It is tempting to conceptualize the methods and philosophy of the scientist acting as judge and jury, unpassionately examining the “facts” and adjudicating negatively when they fail to stand up to our latest version of what constitutes adequate measurement and evidence. Pursuing such a program is naïve to be sure.  Yet acknowledging the likely truth that our contemporary vision contains “knowledge” that future generations will liken to the flood of the past provides a different kind of lens through which we can view the scientific process. Which is flood and which is fossil?
            In pursuit of an epistemology acknowledging that much of what we believe to be true today is wrong (the floods), does it not seem evident that some, perhaps most, of contemporary knowledge should be simply discarded? Unfortunately this point of view takes on an antagonistic and frequently naïve critical consciousness, seeking in every published or proposed-to-be-published result the key error that will lead to its rejection.  Yet a moment’s thought suggests that this is largely a pointless exercise. If history serves us well, most of what is published or proposed-to-be-published is wrong anyway, and picking apart the details of that wrong is not difficult and usually pointless. As Richard Levins said many years ago, the true intellectual challenge is to find the kernel of truth.  Put in the context of the present metaphor, almost all science is flood interspersed with an occasional fossil.  Our challenge is to identify the fossil, not continue pointing out the floods.

[1] The Living Rock: Natural, human and sacre histories of the earth, 1680 – 1740.  PhD dissertation, Stanford University.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


The scientific community is generally quite atheistic, at least that is a common self-appraisal.  Yet scratch the surface and a relatively empty cauldron seems to appear.  Contemporary atheism sometimes takes the form of snarky snipes at organized religion in general, easy targets due to outlandish positions apparently derived from political exigencies, especially in Christianity and Islam in recent years.  Authors who seek to be taken seriously, such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, although raising serious and important issues, in the end look a bit like comedian Bill Maher in his humorous, but in the end cowardly film “Religulous.” As Terry Eagleton has noted, those of us who have been politically engaged with opposition to US military intervention or struggles of the poor world-wide frequently find ourselves marching side by side with nuns and priests, rarely with evangelical atheists.  As an atheist myself , this is troubling.
            If the contemporary scientist is serious about atheism, some reflection and study would seem to be in order.  Newton, for example, was not in any respect an atheist, and probably the vast majority of men and women who lived prior to the writings of T. H. Huxley were similarly non-atheists.  Is it that Newton and his compatriots perhaps did not have at their disposal the deep thinking of atheists like Dawkins, Hitchins and Harris? Certainly not.  What they did seem to have that many contemporary scientists seem to lack, is a commitment to examine the issue seriously. Atheists of the eighteenth and nineteenth century were proposing an idea that yet today is challenging and should, in my view, be taken seriously.  If the atheist position (which I embrace) is to be more than throwing darts at human beings thought to be intellectually inferior, it needs to be examined as carefully as scientists examine the results of their scientific experiments.
            It is first necessary to carefully distinguish among Theism, Deism, and Atheism, not as easy as it may seem.  The Theistic/Atheistic dichotomy is a red herring today, even though it may have been extremely important in the seventeenth century.  The debates in those days, incuding among Newton and his contemporaries, was between Theism and Deism, the latter perhaps identified in later writings with what is today called Atheism.  The Theism/Deism dichotomy basically refers to the current activities of God.  True theists have it that the omniscient being that created heaven and earth continues his activities and could, if he wished, at any time simply change the rules.  The reality of miracles made the utility of prayer evident.  If God really could make the wheat grow taller, it made sense to do whatever needed to be done to get him to do so, whether conducting strange rituals or simply requesting he do so (prayer). 
            Theism was in the end not convenient for political power.  If God could be persuaded to simply change the rules, how could the king or queen claim sovereignty?  If that sovereignty was not absolute, which it could not be if a serendipitous God could cancel it at will, could not the rabble all get together and pray very very hard for a change in the rules of sovereignty?  Indeed, in the seventeenth century there were mystical challenges emerging constantly with claims of authority not convenient to power.  An alternative was needed.
            Deism was indeed that alternative.  Yes God created all of the universe, including the rules by which it ran.  However, once his creation was complete, he stepped out of the way.  The “God hypothesis” is still there, but the supernaturalistic ideas of miracles and response to prayer were dramatically diminished, if not eliminated almost entirely.  Newton and contemporaries were Deists.  Indeed, Newton’s continual claim to seek an understanding of the mind of God was not in any sense metaphor, but rather an abiding faith in the Christian God who indeed did create not only the physical world but the laws of physics that governed it.
            It is worth reflecting on how philosophical principles were developing at this time.  Thinking deeply about the difference between Theism and Deism it becomes evident that science is difficult, perhaps pointless, under Theism.  What scientific laws are we trying to discover? The way God has decided to have them work today, but perhaps not tomorrow.  And if we figure out that objects are attracted to one another according to the square of their mass, will they be so attracted  according to the cube tomorrow?  In order for the scientific project to proceed at all, Theism needed to be superseded, which is precisely what Deism did.  But let us not confuse the need to reject Theism with Atheism itself.
            Many self-proclaimed Atheists today are in fact Deists in disguise.  Hitchens cannot really claim without doubt that the attack of the US on Iraq was justifiable, except as a truly religious commitment to some sort of belief that the current (and quite temporary) discourse of the West is clearly superior to that of the Middle East.  And Harris’ condemnation of Chomsky’s careful analytical critique of the Israeli treatment of the occupied territories can come only from a religious commitment to some sort of Zionist dream, even as he rejects Judaism as formal religion.  The list can go on with the most famous contemporary spokespersons for Atheism.  Hoisted on their own petard, they’re analysis is not wrong in its critique of organized religion, but naïve in its suggestion that it is true Atheism.
            More difficult to criticize is the more recently evolved “nature” religion.  E. O. Wilson gives us a naïve deterministic version (Pleistocene people who loved nature were competitively superior to those who didn’t and thus “biophilia” arises as a consequence of natural selection), which in the end excuses him for shallow thought about conservation.  Yet who can deny the feeling some of us get from the natural world, vast expanses of landscapes either directly experienced or filtered through the lenses of romantic painters, the elegance of relativity theory, even, for some, Godel’s theorem (Wiles was brought to tears when he recalled the moment he had the insight that allowed him to prove Fermat’s last theorem).  It is, as Karen Armstrong notes in her “The Case for God,” as imponderable as the almost physiological reaction one feels upon hearing a fine piece of music.  Can my ecstatic feeling upon hearing a Paul Desmond saxophone solo or seeing for the first time a silky anteater, be understood materialistically?  When, as a youth, I “accepted Jesus Christ as my savior” I had similar feelings.
            The sense of wonder and ecstasy that is part of the human experience may in the end be so enigmatic that the Atheists’ dream of making it all make sense without resort to religious-like principles may fail.  Indeed we seem much like naïve Europeans.  In eighteenth century Amsterdam Picart and Bernard produced “The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of All the Peoples of the World,” nothing really more than an anthropologist’s treatment of the world’s religious beliefs.  Yet given the times, it was profoundly seditious. It suggested that religious beliefs were somehow equal to one another and that neither Christianity nor Judaism were anything particularly exceptional. Understandably, those who wielded power were not pleased, yet the faith of Christians and Jews never regained hegemony.
            Are those who today unquestionably elevate science or nature not similar in their arrogance to the Europeans who could not see alternatives to Judeo-Christian traditions?  It is true that ignorant rejection of science by anti-evolutionists or climate science deniers suggests that all we scientists circle the wagons.  It is also true that assuming the natural world needs to be decimated for the needs of capitalism seems to compel us to defend the utility, if not beauty, of the natural world. But philosophically, is our assumption tenable that Science and/or the Natural World should be defended without question? And if it is, how is that different from Yahweh or, for that matter, your favorite poltergeist?

Saturday, September 10, 2011


In recent debate concerning the relationship between agriculture and biodiversity a rather contentious issue seems to have emerged, the contradictory normatives involved in the so-called land sparing versus land sharing (wildlife-friendly farming) positions.  This debate is not very useful if your concern is either the production of food or the conservation of biodiversity.  On the other hand, if the concern is with the expansion of lands devoted to the industrial model of agriculture with the immense profits due to agents such as Syngenta, Monsanto, ADM and the other giants, this framing of the debate is indeed quite useful.  Indeed, it is not surprising that it is in Europe that this debate has largely been concentrated, with Monsanto especially anxious to obtain access to European markets for their GMO products.  The land sparing debate is a winner for them and, as has been noted by Chomsky and others before, setting the terms of the debate is far more important than the debate itself.  And the land/sparing versus land/sharing framework is a marvelous example of setting the terms of the debate so that one side is almost certainly going to win (interestingly, even with this framing, it is not a slam dunk).
The notion that the framework you chose can frequently generate enormous bias is an accepted fact in serious sociological work, yet in politically charged situations (like the present example) partisans pretend that it somehow does not matter -- that “the science speaks for itself.” Of course the science does speak for itself, but what you hear that science say is filtered through your framing.
The classic example of this phenomenon is the often cited work of Kahneman and Tversky (1984).  A group of experimental subjects was posed the following problem:

“Imagine that the U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people.  Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed.  Assume that the exact scientific estimates of the consequences of the programs are as follows: If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved.  If Program B is adopted, there is a one third probability that 600 people will be saved and a two-thirds probability that no people will be saved.  Which of the two programs would you favor?”
72% of the subjects chose Program A.

Alternatively a group of experimental subjects was posed the following problem, after the same initial setup:

“If Program C is adopted, 400 people will die.  If Program D is adopted, there is a one-third probability that nobody will die and a two thirds probability that 600 people will die.”
22% of the subjects chose Program C (which, of course, is the same as program A).

In other words, neither your concern for people dying from the Asian disease nor your ability to read the relevant “scientific” evidence was the major determinant of the decision.  Rather, the precise way in which the problem is framed is almost exclusively responsible.  Many other examples of this framing problem can be cited.  Indeed sophisticated psychological industries associated with marketing have evolved to take advantage of this particular human foible.  Scientists seem particularly vulnerable because of their naïve belief that theory and data are politically neutral.
As an archetypical example the recent summary, Phalan et al., (2011) repeat the errors made by Green et al., in their original Science piece (Green et al., 2005; also see the critique by Vandermeer and Perfecto in the subsequent issue of Science and the response of Green et al. therein).  In an attempt to summarize their position, they present the framework presented in figure 1, as if it were an ideologically neutral framing. 
                        Figure 1

If you were concerned with biodiversity conservation and natural habitats, it would be difficult not to conclude that the land-sparing option is best.  Ironically, in this same piece, the authors also make a strong case that ideological biases be excluded from the analysis of this important issue.  Of course I disagree.  Ideology is an inherent part of any academic analysis, from the choice of topic to the method of analysis to the standards of proof.  The framework of figure 1 could easily be redrawn from a different ideological point of view, as I have done in figure 2.
                        Figure 2

Focusing on figure 2 it would seem foolish to conclude that land sparing (promoting expansion of industrial agriculture) was better for biodiversity conservation than wildlife-friendly farming (construction of high quality matrix).  It is naïve to suppose that either figure 1 or figure 2 is non-ideological – both are.  The relationship between ideology and academic pursuits is not easily cancelable, given the social nature of our species.  The honest way forward is to be open and aboveboard about one’s ideological position.  I, for example, believe that figure 2 is more consistent with my own ideology, born of the basic tenants of the Enlightenment (e.g. , social justice and participatory democracy), and I do not apologize for that position.  However, while ideology certainly constrains the formulation and analysis of a problem, scientific fact within those constraints nevertheless drive (or should drive) normative prescriptions, a point hardly requiring assertion. 
            The land sparing/sharing framework is based on a set of sometimes explicit, sometimes only implicit, assumptions.  First, among the frequently implicit assumptions is the need to produce more food globally, at least in the near future.  The problem with this assumption is that the production of calories in the world already can accommodate the future population expected to stabilize at about nine billion sometime in this century.  It is true that more than a billion of the current population remain hungry and malnourished, but it is widely acknowledged that such a state is due to the distribution of food, not to how much is available worldwide.  Then, the assumption of the need to produce more food should be stated with the qualifier, “assuming the state of access to food remains the same or gets worse.”  Focusing on the overall supply of food traps us into ignoring the current reason that one segment of the population goes hungry while another segment of the population arguably eats too much for its own health. 
            Second, the negative secondary environmental consequences, the collateral damage so to speak, of the industrial agricultural system are tacitly ignored.  Just how much more of the world’s oceans are we ready to sacrifice to dead zones?  How many more aquifers will we permit to be poisoned with pesticides? How much more soil will we allow to be washed away?  While agroecological techniques are also implicated in some negative consequences, these are trivial compared to the massive consequences generated by the industrial system.
            Third, the negative secondary social consequences of the industrial system are minimized.  As documented in many studies, intensification along industrial lines can lead to further erosion of natural areas.  For example, if a development plan promotes easy availability of chemical fertilizers in one area, it is most natural that migrants will thus be encouraged to come to that area and, if only natural areas remain uncultivated, there will be a tendency to claim those areas for agriculture.  While such consequences could also be imagined under an agroecological framework, previous evidence suggests that the industrial system is far more likely to engender such patterns.  On the other hand, those of us who promote agroecological solutions need also remain mindful of the sometimes technology-neutral secondary negative consequences (excessive nitrogen runoff is excessive whether it comes from the Haber-Bosch process or Rhizobium).
            Fourth, increased per area productivity is always to be encouraged.  Although this proposition apparently seems obvious to many people, it is not evident when viewed in a larger historical and social perspective.  In many areas of agriculture today the most pressing problem is over production, and has been so for many years.  Dealing with this problem, frequently under the generalization of supply management, has captured a great deal of analytical thought over the past century.  That Brazil, in the early 20th century purchased and subsequently burned almost 50% of its national coffee harvest is only an extreme form.  The famous coffee cartel of the Cold War, instituted as a part of the West’s struggle against international communism is another.  And subsidy structures for maize production in the United States even today, allows giant grain companies to purchase maize at a price considerably below the cost of production, allowing grain exports to be competitive with even peasant producers in developing countries.  While the desire to increase production by an individual farm may be universal, the knowledge that overproduction by all farms is destructive to all those farms is not information lost on farmers, even if some economists may have trouble fully appreciating it.
            A somewhat more complicated issue is suggested in recent land sparing literature.  The notion of “sustainable intensification” has emerged as a solution to the negative issues involved in standard assumptions of industrial intensification.  The idea is that the environmental consequences of pesticides, excessive runoff of nitrogen and the like, can be mitigated through technological advance, yet high productivity can still be pursued.  In many ways the notion of sustainable intensification appears almost the same as agroecological production (and thus the invention of a new term perhaps questionable).  Yet both frameworks enter the debate with previous baggage.  The sustainable intensification side of the debate emerges from the earlier ideas of intensification, which is to say substitute natural pest control with pesticides, natural soil fertility with chemical fertilizer and so forth.  Most recently that debate has ben entered by giant seed companies eager to find entrance to reticent markets for their transgenic products.  The agroecological side of the debate emerges from ecological ideas associated with natural systems agriculture where the structure of local ecosystems is taken as a system of cues as to how  the agrecosystem should be designed and from farmer-originated ideas of agroecosystem structures that would sustain farming systems into future generations.  The intensification framework carries the baggage of attempts to enter agricultural production as an extension of generalized investment opportunities, the agroecological framwork as an extension of attendance to natural processes – in short, the intensification argument gains most support from economics the agroecological from ecology.  When they come together, as they appear to some workers, is that background baggage lost?  Perhaps, but I doubt it.
            Finally there is a slightly more complicated problem with the sparing/sharing framework.  A tacit linear assumption is made regarding the ecological dynamics of biodiversity.  If an area is divided into fractions that are devoted to 1) natural vegetation, 2) intensive agriculture, and 3) wildlife-friendly agriculture, the total biodiversity in that area is assumed to be given by B1 + B2 + B3, and total food production given as P2 + P3 where Bi is the number of species and Pi is the production contained in the ith habitat type.  It is then assumed that B1 is greater than B2 or B3 and that P2 is greater than P3.  Given these constraints it is a trivial exercise to construct, at least in theory, an “optimality” model that will almost surely demonstrate that reducing the area devoted to wildlife-friendly agriculture is the best strategy. As in the case of the Asian disease, the data don’t really matter much once the framework has been set.  The problem with this assumption is that biodiversity does not really work this way in the real world.  Determining the biodiversity in each of the three areas and then summing is known, from elementary facts of community ecology, to be misleading at best.  Biodiversity does not accumulate in a linear fashion.  Yet more important, this assumption fails to recognize the dynamic nature of landscapes with regard to the community structure contained therein.  Spatial structure is now recognized as an important component of community dynamics, with metapopulation and metacommunity theory developing rapidly and largely negating the simple linear assumptions. 
            In the end, I argue that the framework of land sparing versus land sharing is more obfuscating than enlightening.  I would urge that we begin with a simpler framework, rooted in the elementary ideas of landscape ecology.  There are those areas that are largely untouched by humans and they exist in a matrix of human-dominated areas, the latter of which are largely agricultural.  In most areas of the world the untouched areas are highly fragmented so it makes sense to talk of natural fragments in a matrix of agriculture. Local extinction is a natural process that cannot be detained by politics.  Extinctions, local ones, will happen and they will happen more frequently in smaller fragments.  The focus should not be on stopping local extinction, a fool’s errand, but rather on insuring that migration among fragments is sufficiently large that the equilibrium condition retains the species extant in the landscape. My position is that the untouched areas should largely remain untouched, and the main question is how to make the matrix as high quality as possible, with the definition of “quality” a negotiable issue, highly dependent on local factors. The overall landscape (or countryside) then becomes this simple combination of fragments of natural vegetation within the matrix, and the key guiding question should be “how do we make as high quality matrix as possible?”  The combination of corridors of natural-like vegetation and archipelagos or biodiversity trampolines can certainly be part of that matrix, but most important is the promotion of agroecological techniques of food production that do as little harm to biodiversity as possible and that aim at sustainability as a goal that supersedes the productivist mentality.     
             Once we acknowledge that the quality of the matrix is the major goal in pursuing a biodiversity rich landscape (or countryside), it naturally follows that we ask who constructs that quality.  On the one hand, it is clear that certain levels high up in bureaucratic structures determine many of the background characteristics within which the structure will emerge (e.g., “decision makers” will decide on zoning or tax structures or roadway construction), but the ultimate decisions about land use will normally be local, decisions that individual farmers, farming families and farming communities make.  How to generate sociopolitical structures that will encourage ecological thinking in reaching those decisions is not completely obvious, but clearly necessary.  Should one concentrate on those upper bureaucrats who appear to hold all the cards in decision making, or should one concentrate on the farmers who actually work the land and thus do the job of transforming the matrix?  Do we try to influence the architect or the stonemason?  It is a question deeply riddled with ideology.

Kahnenan, D., and A. Tversky. 1984. American Psychologist, 39:341-350.

Phalan, B., et al.  2011.  Food Policy 36:561.

Green et al., 2005. Science 307:550.