November 30, 2011

Another link on Human Ecology

This is from the website of plant taxonomist Arthur Haines and the Delta Institute of Natural History--

"... a source for New England plant taxonomy and nomenclature, wild food and medicine instruction, primitive living skills mentoring, and natural history lessons."

November 28, 2011

The Ultimate Human Ecology: Questions, Conservation, and the Meaning of Life

Here is one of my takes on Human Ecology:

I struggled through three years of ambiguity until I finally heard College of the Atlantic’s (COA) founding president define Human Ecology. As Ed Kaelber said at Convocation 2010, “[No] matter how good you are in your chosen field, not much will be done unless you can figure out a way to work and find others who have different points of view and equal expertise from a different direction, and work with them. And I think that’s probably a reasonable definition of what we mean by Human Ecology.” Human Ecology is a way to “save the world” by learning as much as we can about something, and then learning to reach out and connect with other disciplines, bringing them together. Applying multiple disciplines allows for a panoramic view of an issue. Since most problems are multifaceted, we must solve them by using multiple disciplines. It is a simple but useful definition that I look forward to applying in my life after COA.

But this is not enough for me. Human Ecology is about solving problems, but how does it apply to my day-to-day life? I have found a way to apply Human Ecology internally, as a way to better understand the world. There are ultimate roots to all disciplines and beliefs, and these roots are the foundation for my theory of the "Ultimate Human Ecology."

Through the classes I have taken at COA—in addition to my own life experiences—I have noticed two paradigms at the root of all disciplines and beliefs. The first is scientific, logical, and causal; the other is spiritual, intuitive, and transcendental. One or the other is the basic worldview of any discipline or belief. Examples of the former include: the sciences, history, math, and social studies—mostly with external applications. Examples of the latter include: most art-based disciplines, emotions, and faith-based beliefs—mostly with internal applications. From hereon I will refer to them as the “spiritual (footnote 1)” and “scientific (footnote 2)” worldviews. Applying both worldviews is what I call the Ultimate Human Ecology, or the internalized form of Human Ecology.

The fire analogy can be used for certain aspects of our inner worldview--we each have our own "fire" to tend. I may go more into the role of "fire" in another blog post.

Historically, these two worldviews have been separated and people have taken sides, one usually prevailing over the other. Organized religion was the first prominent word of authority, science more recently replacing that. But there has always been a great tension between the two, often leading to arguments regarding what can be taught in schools or the quiet death of an aboriginal culture. But this societal as well as internal conflict only exists when these worldviews are forced together.

Another way to explain these two worldviews is by presenting an allegory using symbolic extremes. Here is an example:

The sky was darkening as a Monk and a Scientist were traveling through a snowy forest. They paused for a moment as they heard something crunching through the wet snow to their right. A white tailed deer approached, getting close before darting off with an abrupt and sudden snort.
“It is not often we come so close to a deer,” the Monk voiced. “What a wonderful gift to see one with such beautiful antlers! Truly it must mean we have been good today.”
“The deer probably didn’t hear us because it was having a hard time walking through the snow and the wind was blowing the wrong way for it to have smelled us,” the Scientist replied. “Plus, the chances of running into a deer this time of day are much higher—but did you see that it still had its antlers? It is amazing to find a male deer that still has its antlers this late in the season! I wonder if that is because of hormonal imbalances.”

The Monk and the Scientist represent examples of the two worldviews on the same encounter with a deer. The Monk views the deer from the transcendental perspective that explains the occurrence of the deer based on feelings and unquestioned belief. He gains a fulfillment because he sees the deer as a sign that he has been good. The Scientist views the deer from a logical and questioning perspective that explains the deer encounter based on his prior knowledge and logical deduction. Nonetheless, he gets an equally satisfying reaction from his discovery of an anomaly in nature. In their own contexts, neither of them is inherently wrong since the Monk makes a claim that is useful towards his inner growth and the Scientist makes a claim intended to be used by others. But responding to the Monk with a scientific framework or responding to the Scientist with a spiritual framework could result in conflict.

There is no need for this age-long conflict between science and spirituality, but we cannot successfully incorporate these worldviews by melding them or compromising—that’s when the conflict arises. Each one is a different worldview; therefore it is important to view each one through its respective context. Context is key to any interdisciplinary approach, and it is especially important when dealing with these two extremes. As mentioned above, the Monk and Scientist each had separate applications for their claims. This is one way in which both worldviews can be applied to Human Ecology.

Human Ecology is about saving the world. But one of the keys to saving the world is the Human Ecology within us—or my theory of the Ultimate Human Ecology. The Ultimate Human Ecology is inherent in all of us, but most have slipped into one worldview and forgotten about the other simply because of the dominant worldview with which we were raised. Realizing our tendency to live with only one worldview is the first step towards successfully applying the Ultimate Human Ecology. The next step is to be aware of it with every decision we make.

An example of applying the Ultimate Human Ecology can be seen in the debates surrounding conservation biology, where decisions must be made. Once an animal or plant is labeled as endangered or threatened, the first question that should be asked is: why conserve it? This question is sometimes only covered by scientific reasoning, but sometimes ignored all together. Vaughan et al. (2005) presents an example of this in a paper about the conservation status of the Scarlet Macaw. Never once does Vaughan et al. directly say why it was important to save the Scarlet Macaw. Some papers do tell why it is important to save an endangered species, but it is usually explained with the scientific reasoning that the organism is important for the “proper (footnote 3)” functioning of the local, regional, or global ecology. But this is still just one worldview. Having been fortunate to see one in the wild myself, the Scarlet Macaw is a magnificent bird. Its colors are astounding! So of course I’d want to save this bird, but in scientific literature it is hard to justify conservation based on beauty. Aesthetics are part of why conservation is important.

Scarlet Macaw

It all comes down to both worldviews. We want to conserve animals and plants for food, for medicine, for their utilitarian value, for their beauty, because conserving them will in turn conserve lots of other organisms and biodiversity is something we like, and maybe sometimes it is as simple as conserving an organism because it feels right—whether or not we know why.

The Ultimate Human Ecology can also be applied outside of conservation biology. Ecologists try to solve ecological mysteries because it is a fun challenge. They also may be interested in solving ecological mysteries because they believe that the knowledge will be important to others in the future. These are just some examples of our roots of decisions in science. But as mentioned above, decisions in science begin with the questions we ask.

Tracker and survivalist Tom Brown Jr. presents a way to ask questions that can make it easier to apply the Ultimate Human Ecology. He suggests that there are two questions to every question one asks. The first one is, “What happened here?” which can be generalized as the “who, what, where, when, why, and how.” These types of questions lead to hypotheses that can then be elucidated using observation or experimentation. Examples include, why are there lots of moths in a certain area?  A hypothesis could be that the moths are attracted by the many white flowers in the area. Why is chlorophyll green? Why does the sun rise in the east? Why is there a war between countries X and Y? What can I do to decrease the rate of global climate change? These are all "What happened here?" questions, scientific worldview questions. The second question is "What does this mean to me?" What does it mean to me to know why there are so many moths in a certain area? What does it mean to me to know why chlorophyll is green or why the sun rises in the east? The answer to this question may be as simple as curiosity, or as complex as the motivation towards informing future decisions. At its root, though, this question arrives at the spiritual worldview where we can acknowledge our inherent humanness. Acknowledging our underlying humanness and being conscious of the reasons behind our questions and decisions is the Ultimate Human Ecology. Realizing this is a humbling notion regarding our connection to the world.

The same way that the spiritual worldview explains the underlying meaning behind our decisions and questions, it could also be taken to the underlying meaning of life. For example, we can say that we exist as a result of evolving DNA, but we can also appreciate the gift of that evolution. Thus our presence in the world has two sides: evolution and gratitude. Further examples of applying both worldviews can be shown through the allegory above. The Scientist might show more gratitude for the beauty of an encounter with a deer along with his scientific backing, and the Monk might show more appreciation for the factors like wind direction that led to the deer’s direction of travel along with his internal expression.

The Ultimate Human Ecology is recognizing both the transcendental and scientific qualities of each issue in the world. By recognizing them both we can learn from each and see the two without conflict. Good human ecologists should be aware of both worldviews and take whatever they can from either, acknowledging that these paradigms are not mutually exclusive but simply different ways of viewing the same world.

Stephen J. Gould provides a similar perspective with his principle of Non-overlapping Magisteria (NOMA). Gould (1999) describes NOMA in his book “Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life.” His argument is similar to mine although he uses the term “religion” where I use the term “spirituality” even though “religion” is much more encompassing. Religion can include beliefs that extend beyond the personal level—beliefs that dictate what one should do. This allows religion to cross the planes between the scientific and spiritual worldviews. I respect religions and much of what they offer, but they require a much more complex debate in preventing worldview conflicts. That said, Gould’s principle of NOMA is similar to my theory of the Ultimate Human Ecology and I suggest his book as an important resource in this discussion.
The Ultimate Human Ecology is important to science. Good science requires scientists who are both passionate and humble about the enormity of the world and its mysteries. Good scientists should always be posing questions to better understand these mysteries. Understanding why they ask the questions that they do is critical for understanding the ultimate significance of what they do, and is therefore important for choosing what questions to answer. Remembering to ask Tom Brown Jr.’s second question of “what does this mean to me?” is an simple way to apply the Ultimate Human Ecology. Acknowledging that science is just one way of viewing the world, a scientist would gain a humility regarding our current knowledge, as well as allowing him or her to find another level of meaning to their work.

Exploring the mosses of my backyard in New York. I might never publish a scientific paper about these mosses, but my satisfactions with learning about them is all I need. Sometimes it is important to recognize that curiosity for its own sake is not necessarily a bad thing. More on this in another post.

Finally, the Ultimate Human Ecology may also be essential to bridging the gap between modern science and ancient cultures. Using the Ultimate Human Ecology would allow policy-makers, economists, anthropologists, planners, and scientists to protect disappearing aboriginal cultures while simultaneously gaining humility and a better understanding their human values. Questioning why the policy-makers, economists, anthropologists, planners, and scientists want to help, and then what it means to them, would clarify if the underlying reason was profit or just good intentions. But even good intentions are not enough. Using the Ultimate Human Ecology would help them be observant enough to recognize whether the aboriginal culture wanted anything from them in the first place. The “Western” or scientific-worldview-based world has often imposed itself on aboriginal cultures without really understanding their values. Recognizing the non-tangible spiritual worldview of old cultures is important for preventing this. Bridging this gap between cultural values would result in a reciprocal advantage to both cultures—Learning from age-old ways of life as well as helping preserve these cultures in an ever-industrializing world.

The Ultimate Human Ecology is not easy. It can be difficult to grasp, and it treads on the sword edge between science and spirituality. But that sword edge is actually quite blunt. Science and spirituality are just different ways of explaining the same world. They cannot be combined because they occur on different planes. They are both integral parts to all of the decisions, questions, and beliefs in every discipline. The interdisciplinary approach of Human Ecology would be significantly improved by applying the Ultimate Human Ecology.

A once "ornamental" northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) on someone's lawn, now grown amongst a forest of other trees (Pinus strobus to the right). The nearby foundation of the house is still visible (Compass Harbor, Bar Harbor, Maine).

  1. I use The New Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of spiritual: “of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.”
  2. I define scientific as the “logical or physical” aspect of the world.
  3. Whatever that means…

-       “Spiritual.” Def. 1 The New Oxford English Dictionary. 2001.

-       Vaughan, C., Nemeth, N.M., Cary, J., Temple, S. 2005. Response of a Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao) Population to Conservation Practices in Costa Rica. Bird Conservation International. 15: 119-130.

-       Gould, S.J. Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. New York: The Ballantine Publishing Group. 1999.

November 18, 2011

Defining Human Ecology

Human ecology is an interesting concept—something becoming especially important in the world right now…

But… what exactly is this "Human Ecology!?" 

It turns out to be a bit complicated. Some argue that human ecology is by definition undefinable—whoa. Some firmly believe this because as humans are unique, so should the definition of human ecology be for each of us. Frankly, I think saying this is just an excuse from having to define it. I fall somewhere in the middle. I think human ecology can, and should, be defined, but it would also benefit from our unique contributions.

Here are some of my attempts to define it:

Here is a parsimonious definition, going on a word-by-word basis:

Human ecology is analogous to ecology as used in the scientific sense of the word. Where ecology is defined as the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings, human ecology is this, plus humans.


Human Ecology is the relations of humans and other organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings.

This definition can then be further extrapolated... 
The definition of ecology implies the recognition of all living and non-living processes, thus human ecology implies the similar recognition of living and non-living processes. By recognizing all these processes, human ecology recognizes all disciplines. Aha! 

So one might stretch this to say that: Human Ecology implies the recognition of an interdisciplinary world.

But, is human ecology the practice of this interdisciplinary approach? If so, how does one practice an interdisciplinary approach? Or, is human ecology merely the study of interdisciplinary approaches? Now you see why it has gotten so complicated. Lets see how others define human ecology. Here is the perspective from several “urban ecologists:”

Boyden (1977), Boyden and Millar (1978), and Vayda (1983) define human ecology as: the discipline that inquires into the patterns and process of interaction of humans with their environments. McDonnell and Pickett (1990) follow that “Human values, wealth, life-styles, resource use, and waste, etc. must affect and be affected by the physical and biotic environments.” They continue by saying that “The nature of these interactions is a legitimate ecological research topic and one of increasing importance.”

Human ecology in action?
Another way to define something is by seeing it in action. What better place to see human ecology in action, than at College of the Atlantic (COA), in Bar Harbor, Maine. This small liberal-arts school yields a single major—human ecology. I recently graduated from this college—hence my interest in the subject matter. Students created a website called HumJournal as a place to post their projects and classwork at COA. Visit the site, and see some examples of human ecology in action.

A graduation requirement for COA is to write a several page paper describing your definition human ecology—also known as the “Human Ecology Essay,” or "HEE."

Here is the challenge: Write your version of the Human Ecology Sentence. How would you define it in just one sentence? Post your response below. It will be interesting to see what trends emerge.

November 17, 2011

A Renaissance of Botanical Proportions

Alright, here it is.

I am ready to push this blog through a revamp--it's time to wind back up.

You may notice several changes in the coming days and weeks, but don't be alarmed...

I will expand this blog to include (in no particular order):

  1. Open-source Natural History--WHAT!?
  2. Ecological awareness and its role in our society (Nope, not green energy or permaculture)
  3. Topics in plants, ecology, and natural history, including discussions about the latest research
  4. Reviews about interesting books or articles relevant to plants, ecology, and natural history
  5. Stories and personal anecdotes from...       ...the wilderness...
  6. Continuation of experiences learning about, identifying, and using plants
  7. More about my research interests

That's about it for now.