Tag Archives: environment

A constructive conversation about population-environment problems

I have drafted a quick activity to get input that extends this multi-party conversation from 2000 about “How do we know there is a population-environment problem?” to bring in the following additional 3 discussants:
Novelo–Novelist concerned that climate change has been omitted from most literature
Futuro–Sci Fi writer concerned with gender and race as well as the usual fantasizing about scientific and technological developments
Litero–Interpreter of literature who is prepared to branch out from fictional literature to all discourses about knowledge.
I welcome comments on this blog post so as to a) glean ideas to weave into a Part 2 of this multi-party exchange and b) begin to address the issue Activo points to at the end: what are the “conditions make interactions among people from different fields as open as our were today”?  (This activity relates to Project 2 in a course on gender, race, science, and literature.) Continue reading

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Nature-Nurture? No (now available)

Almost every day we hear that some trait “has a strong genetic basis” or “of course it is a combination of genes and environment, but the hereditary component is sizeable.”  To say No to Nature-Nurture is to reject this relative weighting of heredity and environment.  This book shows that partitioning the variation observed for any trait into a heritability fraction and other components provides little clear or useful information about the genetic and environmental influences.

A key move this book makes is to distill the issues into eight conceptual and methodological gaps that need attention. Some gaps should be kept open; others should be bridged—or the difficulty of doing so should be conceded. Previous researchers and commentators have either not acknowledged all the gaps, not developed the appropriate responses, or not consistently sustained their responses.  Indeed, despite decades of contributions to nature-nurture debates, some fundamental problems in the relevant sciences have been overlooked.

When all the gaps are given proper attention, the limitations of human heritability studies become clear.  They do not provide a reliable basis for genetic research that seeks to identify the molecular variants associated with trait variation, for assertions that genetic differences in many traits come, over people’s lifetimes, to eclipse environmental differences and that the search for environmental influences and corresponding social policies is unwarranted, or for sociological research that focuses on differences in the experiences of members of the same family.

Saying No is saying Yes to interesting scientific and policy questions about heredity and variation.  To move beyond the gaps is to make space for fresh inquiries in a range of areas: in various sciences, from genetics and molecular biology to epidemiology and agricultural breeding; in history, philosophy, sociology, and politics of the life and social sciences; and in engagement of the public in discussion of developments in science.

Available as paperback through online retailers and as pdf

NNN_digitalcovers-Front

The Pumping Station

Almost every day we hear that some trait “has a strong genetic basis” or “of course it is a combination of genes and environment, but the hereditary component is sizeable.”  To say No to Nature-Nurture is to reject this relative weighting of heredity and environment.  This book shows that partitioning the variation observed for any trait into a heritability fraction and other components provides little clear or useful information about the genetic and environmental influences.

A key move this book makes is to distill the issues into eight conceptual and methodological gaps that need attention. Some gaps should be kept open; others should be bridged—or the difficulty of doing so should be conceded. Previous researchers and commentators have either not acknowledged all the gaps, not developed the appropriate responses, or not consistently sustained their responses.  Indeed, despite decades of contributions to nature-nurture debates, some fundamental problems in the relevant…

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How do we know we have population-environment problems? A journey from simple models to multiple points of engagement to contribute to change (Day 8 of Learning road trip)

On day 8 of the Learning road trip I led a workshop for the School for Designing a Society on “How do we know we have population-environment problems? A journey from simple models to multiple points of engagement to contribute to change.”

People consume resources and pollute the environment, so the more people, the more environmental problems we have–right? Not so fast! In this interactive workshop you will disturb that simple model. By the end you will be mapping multiple points of engagement through which you contribute to change in your particular circumstances. Along the way, you will consider how people marshall scientific knowledge to persuade others of the seriousness of the population problem, how inequalities among people qualitatively alter how “we” respond to the title question, how you can bring in social considerations to explain or interpret the directions that are taken in science, and how you can work with a perspective of being partly and jointly responsible for what is happening in society and the environment.

For more details on this workshop, see companion blog.

Representing Vulnerability and Environmental Policy (Day 6 of learning road trip)

“Representing Vulnerability: Maps, Narratives and Political Processes,” a workshop hosted by the Social Dimensions of Environmental Policy program in the Beckman Institue at the University of Illinois Urbana, was designed to address

social scientific and humanistic perspectives on vulnerability to social and environmental change as it is represented in maps, narratives, and political action. Vulnerability mapping is a widely used method to assess the sensitivity of different social groups to environmental, political, and economic processes that threaten to push people into poverty, hunger, dislocation, or poor health. It is increasingly used in the climate-change literature to assist policy makers and donors in focusing their adaptation interventions to specific regions and populations. The utility of these maps rests on the theoretical framework that informs the selection of indicators, the quality of the data, and the socio-spatial resolution of the results.  (more details)

What happened:

Car problems delayed our arrival at the workshop, so anyone interested should contact the organizers to get copies of the papers presented.  One question stuck out for me during the time I was present:  Can seasonal climate forecasts help agriculturalists and herders?  The sense was that early warning systems do not have sufficient resolution to help framers, but might help herders, whose movements average across some of the variability or uncertainty in the forecasts.  Yet, given that commodity markets are strongly influenced by speculators or merchants, and that both groups will have better access to information and more of a chance to process it, seasonal climate forecasts can disadvantage those who make their livelihood from the ground.  (This reminded me of the story that I think Susan George told in How the Other Half Dies of how US Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, passed on to grain futures traders information from satellites about the imminent failure of the Soviet grain crop c. 1970.  Farmers were pleased to sign on to a guaranteed price for their crops, but did not know what the buyers knew, namely, that prices would soar once the Soviet crop failure became known.)

(Start of road trip; Day 6, afternoon)

A modified three E’s for sustainable development: Economy, Equitable governance, Engaged populace

Ten years ago the Three E’s were promoted for sustainable development: environment, economics, equity.  I applauded the equity goal, but I wondered what its logical connection was with sustainabilty.  What follows was my take, as prepared for an education for sustainability initiative in 2003 (which proved not, alas, to be sustainable).

The vision of sustainable economic and social development expressed in the 1987 United Nations’ Brundtland Commission report, Our Common Future — development that “meets the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

In this spirit, we envision three interrelated strands of sustainability:

  • a sustainable Economy, ensuring that members of future generations have equivalent — or enhanced — capacity for living, being healthy, making a livelihood, gaining environmental services, and harnessing natural resources.
  • Just and Equitable governance — decision-making procedures and institutions that do not permit one group’s access to resources to be ensured at the expense of others.

(Equity is linked with sustainability because, if we are concerned not to degrade the conditions for people in future generations, it makes sense to be concerned with improving the conditions of other people with degraded conditions in the present. Movement towards a sustainable, equitable society impels us to resist any growth of the gap among the capacities of different groups.)

  •  an Engaged populace, one in which people’s commitment to sustainability and equity motivates them:
    • to appreciate and monitor the state of the environment, social structure, human health;
    • to understand linked social and environmental processes;
    • to transform practices that makes those processes unsustainable and inequitable; and
    • to cross boundaries and collaborate with others in the pursuit of understanding and transformation.

The challenge of integrating ecological dynamics into evolutionary theory III, analysis of function & timing

What is needed to demonstrate that change and the resulting characters were produced by a process of natural selection? (Recall the end of the last post in the series: “we need not to assume natural selection when we speculate or interpret observations, but to demonstrate that some actual observed character change was produced by a process of natural selection.”)

Brief answer: It’s very difficult to do so, because:
a) There are no selectors in nature–it’s a metaphor. (What we observe is as if there were a Selector.)
b) Careful definition of natural selection (see previous post):
Organisms (interactors) enjoy differential (survival and) reproductive success because of the effect of some heritable characteristics they possess (i.e. the apt characteristics increase in frequency in a population).
c) Natural selection is not differential representation of the character. (Differential representation is a promissory note for a natural selective account.)
d) To demonstrate natural selection requires demonstrating both a functional and a temporal correlation between the character and the differential reproductive success, i.e. analysis of the character’s effect and its consistent origin in time with respect to the environmental circumstances/ stress/ challenge.
For example, imagine that the angle of a flower and of its hummingbird pollinator coincide. One could find experimentally that perturbing the flower angle lowers the seed set of the plant. But what if the closest relative of the plant has the same angle without having a hummingbird pollinator in its environment? (Or if the closest relative does not have angle, the hummingbird pollinators are in its territory?) In a cladistic diagram:

(The rise of the cladistic approach to classification since the 1980s has led to precision being demanded in claims about historical branching)

What is needed to demonstrate that change and the resulting characters were produced by a process of natural selection? The short answer: It’s hard work to establish evidence for natural selection. The next installment will discuss how, in practice, people don’t undertake that work or seek out or imagine special conditions that increase the chances of natural selection serving as an explanation of the historical change in the frequency of one character.