2012-09-18

Small Islands

E.O. Wilson’s Biophilia argues that humans subconsciously seek connections with the rest of life. Consider the elements of a savannah habitat: open spaces with clear views, scattered clumps of trees, and a smattering of lakes and rivers.
“Put these three elements together: it seems that whenever people are given a free choice, they move to open tree-studded land on prominences overlooking water. Psychologists have noticed that people entering unfamiliar places tend to move toward towers and other large objects breaking the skyline. Given lesiure time, they stroll along shores and river banks…. When people are confined to crowded cities or featureless land, they go to considerable lengths to recreate an intermediate terrain, something that can tentatively be called the savanna gestalt” (110-11)
In addition to scattered trees or shrubs, and the occasional pool or fountain, the savanna had one other feature that we have come to be genetically encoded to be attracted toward: abundant and diverse life.

Cyril Smith compared the most attractive patterns of the physical world and technology to artistic representations of plants and animals.
"People react more quickly and fully to organisms than to machines. They will walk into nature, to explore, hunt, and garden, if given the chance. They prefer entities that are complicated, growing, and sufficiently unpredictable to be interesting. They are inclined to treat their most formidable contraptions as living things.” (116)
We have an "urge to affiliate with other forms of life," and we need lots of diversity of life around us. This means, it turns out, that the idea that we could do quite well living in space stations is problematic. Wilson explains in some technical detail why smaller islands in the ocean necessarily have less diversity than larger islands. It takes a lot of space to allow for the initial species to interact enough in ways that create further niches for new species.

In other words: imagine a space station. It's not hard to imagine that, more-or-less with our present technological capability, we could create a space station with artificial gravity (from the the centrifugal force of spinning), eternally cycling water, microorganisms, and plants. We could create a stable ecosystem in space that could sustain a small human population indefinitely. We could survive. We could not, however, Wilson argues, be fully realized as human beings in such a setting -- not unless it were a very, very large space station.
“People can grow up with the outward appearance of normality in an environment largely stripped of plants and animals....Yet something vitally important would be missing, not merely the knowledge and pleasure that can be imagined and might have been, but a wide array of experiences that the human brain is peculiarly equipped to receive.” (118)
If we don’t occasionally glimpse a swallow-tailed kite, or a fox – or at least an alligator, robin, and squirrel -- if we aren't exposed to a wide variety of life forms -- we can still live, but not flourish. Small, isolated islands cannot develop or maintain much diversity. Our psyches, our spirits, crave to be around more complexity, more different forms of life than any space station smaller than, say, Vermont could sustain.

Within the evolutionary story, then, there is a moral. It is a story about what kind of being we are, and in what our flourishing, healing, wholeness, reconnection -- that is, our salvation -- consists. It is also a story that calls for a conservation ethic arising from our inborn spiritual need for nature’s diversity. Without more intentional conservation, we are losing species diversity: even our largest land masses are becoming as small islands. Wilson writes:
“...if no country pulls the trigger [and begins a nuclear war] the worst thing that will probably happen – in fact is already well underway – is not energy depletion, economic collapse, conventional war, or even the expansion of totalitarian governments. As tragic as these catastrophes would be for us, they can be repaired within a few generations. The one process now going on that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us.” (121)
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This is part 5 of 6 of "Soteriology: Biophilia"
Next: Part 6: "The Path of Salvation"
Previous: Part 4: "Soteriology and Biophilia"
Beginning: Part 1: "Drawing the Line"