Monday, March 28, 2016

Universe 25

Imagine a group of humans confined in a place of fixed but commodious dimensions, well-tended and wanting for nothing. They have plenty to eat, plenty of water, plenty of places to live, and only the dimmest sort of apprehension of a larger world. They might even think of "the outside" as a kind of malicious fiction perpetrated by malcontents. It's a circumstance not unlike the one "sustainable development" is supposed to create for us. Also, it is not unlike the “universes” of John Calhoun's rats.

Laboratory animals often substitute for humans in tests of hazardous environmental factors. Their use in the study of cancer-causing and toxic chemicals is almost universally accepted. Their responses can, and do, give insight into human behavioral psychology. They are useful as models for humans precisely because their repertoire of behaviors is simpler than that of men and women, and so it is easier for scientists to control the variables. This also gives us the latitude to say, when we don't like the results of such tests, that humans and rats are different.

And that is why, when ecologist John B. Calhoun passed from the scene in September of 1995, The New York Times noted in his obituary that his work had often met with "studied disregard." He had spent his life studying the behavior of enclosed rodents.

The term "enclosure" has a specific meaning different from crowding. Calhoun's animals were not just thrown together in a cage. They grew up in confinement, generation after generation, without the ability to imagine an escape.

The research began at Johns Hopkins in 1946 and continued through the '60s, when Calhoun, then a research psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health, published a report of the work in Scientific American. What fascinated students and readers of this research, then and now, is that the rats, mice, and voles in Calhoun's experiments developed social pathologies similar to the behavior of humans trapped in cities. Among the males, behavioral disturbances included sexual deviation and cannibalism. Even the most normal males in the group occasionally went berserk, attacking less dominant males, juveniles and females. Failures of reproductive function in the females - the rat equivalence of neglect, abuse and endangerment - were so severe that the colonies would have died out eventually had they been permitted to continue.

Before going on, it is especially important to be clear on this point: None of Calhoun's experiments began with throngs. All of his populations started out small, with superabundant resources, and grew after many generations into a state of crowding that approximated 80% of carrying capacity. That is to say, 80% of the nesting boxes in the enclosures were occupied at the peak population. 

Appropriately, Calhoun called his confinements "universes," since the animals inside them knew nothing of an outside. Full details of Universe 25 appear in a 1970 paper titled “The Explosive Growth and Demise of a Mouse Population.”

A few salient points from the paper:

• The mice in Universe 25 developed a social system with a fixed number of places. In nature, the excess population emigrates to what, in human terms, would be a frontier. But in Calhoun's rodent Shangri-La, the possibility of emigration was excluded because ecologists define emigration as a "mortality factor." It is therefore not utopian. Rejected males gathered in "pools" on the floor of the universe, where they fought frequently. Females not accepted in the social structure withdrew to less-preferred nesting boxes in the higher reaches of the universe.

• Dealing with large numbers of maturing competitors overtaxed the territorial males. In response to the invasion of nesting sites by interlopers, females became aggressive, taking over some of the defensive duties of the males. This aggression generalized to their young. A pronounced rise in preweaning mortality marked the end of social structure in Universe 25.

• With the end of successful reproductive activity, the population plunged exponentially and the age distribution shifted into senescence. The remaining individuals of reproductive age had, by this time, lost interest in courting. Calhoun dubbed these males "beautiful ones" for their obsessive grooming. 

• It had been expected that the population would rebound after declining to a few remnant groups. It did not. What's more, healthy young individuals from Universe 25, transplanted to an empty universe of their own, failed to develop a social structure or engage in reproductive activity.

It seems clear that, for rodents at least, the absence of frontiers leads to what Calhoun calls "death of the spirit." This first death leads to species extinction, the "second death." A study of the headlines over the last thirty years or so yields some interesting parallels with the human condition, but there's no room for that here.

A final observation: Calhoun's work remains unfinished. His experiments could be extended to include a frontier, or an unlimited succession of frontiers, by linking a populated universe with a string of empty ones. The path to each new universe would have to be made arduous, say by a maze, or by an electrical grid designed to deliver painful but non-fatal shocks. Even more interesting, for computational types, would be the creation of digital life forms complex enough to check out frontier theory analytically. 

Those of you readers interested in such things, do try. One might say your life depends on it.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Frederick Jackson Turner and the Closing of the American Frontier

At the end of the 19th century, American historians were still beating to death the idea that slavery, with its importation of alien peoples from Africa, was the central struggle and theme of the American past. Perhaps the reader can imagine the courage it took for a young historian from a backwater university in Wisconsin to stand before a convocation of distinguished academics and tell them they were wrong.

Frederick Jackson Turner delivered a paper containing the seminal ideas of frontier theory before a meeting of the American Historical Society at the University of Wisconsin in 1893. You can read the full text - it isn't very long - at the University of Virginia American Studies site. According to Turner, it was not legal tradition, not place of origin, not religious creed, not race that made Americans inquisitive, practical, inventive, restless, individualistic and indomitably free.

"These are the traits of the frontier," he said, "or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier."

Turner's little monograph, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," touched off a controversy which continues even now. To understand why, check out Cornell's Making of America collection. In particular, I am thinking of an article published in the May 1893 edition of Atlantic Monthly titled "European Peasants as Immigrants." Here, one N.S. Shaler tells his readers, "We have suffered grievously from the folly of our predecessors in recklessly admitting an essentially alien folk into this land."

He is talking about Africans, but he soon carries the argument over to peasants of European descent, for, you see, he is concerned about the "problem of immigration" from places other than England and, perhaps, Germany.

If this writer's perceptions seem extreme, consider that they may have been brought about by a very fresh wound. The Superintendent of the Census for 1890 had recently announced that the American frontier had officially closed. That meant that, from now on, there would be fewer opportunities. Land proprietors could wall off resources, creating the condition of enclosure in America. What had happened in Europe, including the development of a cast system and all the attendant evils of enclosure, must have seemed close. Immigrants could no longer be tolerated.

From the absence of frontiers comes the dread of just about everything. It is a kind of death. Frederick Jackson Turner introduced us to the idea that America had become another name for opportunity because of its frontier. The frontier environment demands adaptation and invention as well as physical toughness. In return, it furnishes unlimited opportunity and an avenue of escape from the bondage of the past. 

So who are these “Americans”? Are they the ones who hide behind steel fences, metal detectors, and x-ray machines, who quake every time some guy with a beard and a deep tan shows up at the front door? Can this be “the land of the free and the home of the brave”? Not likely.

The meaning of “American” has changed. The new Americans are globally distributed. They are the ones who risk their lives or their fortunes, or both, on an idea: That the world needs an exit, and the only way out is up.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

First Principles

When the USSR folded its tent in 1991, some historians called the news "the end of history", since history's prime mover, the conflict of ideologies, had vanished with the supposed triumph of capitalism.

Historians needn't have worried. An older conflict has emerged from the shadows to take the place of the Cold War. It is a clash that has raised up and crushed empires, built civilizations and toppled them, made fortunes and beggared nations. It burns in the human soul. It's a Jimmy Durante tune that you can't get out of your head: "Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go, but still had the feeling that you wanted to stay..."

For a certain Spanish admiral from Genoa, the explorer's side of this conflict was an article of faith. Thomas Jefferson built a political career on it. Karl Marx mistook it for a conflict between labor and capital. Charles Dickens saw it as a clash between want and greed. Most of us probably recognize it as a struggle between those who propose "sustainable development" because it gives them regulatory power and those who just want to be let alone.

Back in 1984, when “Spaceweek” was a thing that made people remember the Apollo flights to the moon with nostalgia, hardly anyone had heard of the "greenhouse effect". Anyone who took seriously the idea that human activity could warm the atmosphere was considered a crackpot. There was no ozone hole. But other things were going on. Toxic plumes from landfills and storage tanks contaminated ground water. Developers built houses and playgrounds over buried drums of poison that leaked to the surface. Cancer-causing asbestos fibers and flakes of polyvinylchloride floated through the air of residential communities. The operative word was "cleanup".

Viewing these developments with alarm, as well they should, environmentalists have taken up the cause of saving the Earth. They have developed a formula, which you can find in Al Gore's book Earth in the Balance, that expresses the impact of human activity in terms of the product of population and affluence. It drives Mr. Gore to the conclusion that the industrialized nations must moderate their affluence in order to boost the economies and restrain the birth rates of the developing nations.

That's a conflict. People want "stuff". They'll rape the Earth to get it. They will moderate nothing, give not an inch, even under the hammer of the law. Will the struggle produce political Armageddon, some kind of deep green terrorism? It's hard to tell. That's what gives this story suspense.

One thing is certain. It's going to get harder to make good. Why? Take a look around you. Chances are, unless you're looking up, virtually everything you see is owned. Not only do most of the things you see belong to someone else, but social roles are becoming closed as well. It used to be, and not so long ago, either, that a high school education was adequate to begin an apprenticeship in many careers. You could run for public office without owning a mint or selling your soul. The leading roles are not as solidly cast as they were in, say, the Middle Ages, but they will be. 

That's because of enclosure, a term used to describe the walling off, literally or figuratively, of a resource. English law gave the term its meaning when, in the 19th century, that country concluded its transition from agriculture based on tenant farming to the cultivation of huge consolidated holdings with hired hands. Enclosure normally results in migration away from the epicenter of want to new lands, if there are any new lands. If not, then the population itself is enclosed.

Ebenezer Scrooge, the miserly protagonist of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, was fond of the phrase "surplus population", which he used to describe his neighbors. The expression became popular in 1834, when English manufacturers proposed to the Poor Law Commissioners that they send the surplus population of the agricultural districts to the north, so that "the manufacturers would absorb and use it up." This strategy, arising from enclosure, resulted in the abuses that created communism. Karl Marx, the political economist who was communism's chief theorist, and Charles Dickens were contemporaries.

Enclosure cheapens both life and labor. Marx observed that, although the Americans had invented a stone-breaking machine for clearing boulders from agricultural land, the English did not make use of it because of the ready availability of cheap labor. "In England, " Marx wrote, "women are still occasionally used instead of horses for hauling canal boats, because the labor required to produce horses and machines is an accurately known quantity, while that required to maintain the women of the surplus population is below all calculation."

By 1863, the massive emigration of factory workers to the frontiers of America had become Britain's saving stroke of luck, at least for the workers. Some 6 million, a quarter of England's population, left those shores in a span of 25 years. Wages in the old country soared. Scrooge must have been beside himself.

On March 24, 1863, The Times of London published a letter that became known as "the manufacturer's manifesto". It argued that the emigration of labor power from England should not be encouraged and, perhaps, not allowed.

Whether to stay or to go. Whether to allow others to go. It's a conflict that rages among us and within us as we consider whether to open a new frontier in space. For human beings as a whole, there is no easy choice. The way will be difficult. Yet go we must, or find out what the history of England would have been without America. Scrooge is back. 

When I say to my friends, "Let's go", some of them would rather not. They don't want to leave their families, their homes, their comforts. Some of them don't want me to go. They're afraid. Of what, I can't say.

We can't all leave the earth. We don't all need to. The individual decision depends on a personal balance of forces, the elemental conflict: Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go, but still had the feeling that you wanted to stay...