Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Long View of Old-Growth Cultures

Looking north, predawn, March 19, 2016.

In our study of Good Stories, in addition to reading print versions of the stories, the primary text has been Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Standing out to me from his survey of the dynamics among his subtitle’s three forces are two essential themes: cooperation and reciprocal altruism. In order to survive (evolution), in order to advance thinking and consciousness (cognition), and in order to engage, to imagine, and thus to advance culture (fiction/story), good guys need to work and play together (cooperation). In my simplified paraphrase, Boyd even asserts that for the good guys to advance culture and civilization, they must be willing to punish those persons who share with the goons. To put it even more starkly: altruism has to be strategic; new-agey unconditional love gives away too much to the haters. Boyd says:
Cheaters will thrive in exchanges with altruists unless altruists discriminate against—refuse further exchange with, or actively punish—cheaters. . .
For altruism to work robustly a whole suite of motivations has to be in place: sympathy, so that I am inclined to help another; trust, so that I can offer help now and expect it will be somehow repaid later; gratitude, to incline me, when I have been helped, to return the favor; shame, to prompt me to repay when I still owe a debt; a sense of fairness, so that I can intuitively gauge an adequate share or repayment; indignation, to spur me to break off cooperation with or even inflict punishment on a cheat; and guilt, a displeasure at myself and fear of exposure and reprisal to deter me from seeking the short-term advantages of cheating. We can reverse-engineer the social and moral emotions so central to our engagement with others in life and in story. Rather than merely taking these emotions as givens, we can account for them as natural selection's way of motivating widespread cooperation in highly social species. (pp. 57-58; Kindle, 686-691)

         A refreshing complement to Boyd has come in reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of PlantsKimmerer, a botanist and the director of the Center forNative Peoples and the Environment, also shares her vision in a 2012 TED talk: Reclaiming the Honorable Harvest Perhaps her text will soon be added as required reading for Good Stories. Reciprocity strands through Kimmerer’s scientific accounts of plant life and her reflections on the teachings they offer for sustainable living as well as for depth of meaning, extending even into the spiritual realm. I continue to be moved by her grace in re-member-ing our country’s colonization of the “new world” and its many native inhabitants: stone, plant, animal, and human.
         One particular section contributes especially to the prospects for cooperation. In her study of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, she underscores a kind of bittersweet hope for us in our time of endangered global warming.
         When resources begin to run short, as they always will, cooperation and strategies that promote stability—strategies perfected by rainforest ecosystems—will be favored. The breadth and depth of these reciprocal symbioses are especially well developed in old-growth forests, which are designed for the long haul.
         Industrial forestry, resource extraction, and other aspects of human sprawl are like salmonberry thickets—swallowing up land, reducing biodiversity, and simplifying ecosystems at the demand of societies always bent on having more. In five hundred years we exterminated old-growth cultures and old-growth ecosystems, replacing them with opportunistic culture. Pioneer human communities, just like pioneer plant communities, have an important role in regeneration, but they are not sustainable in the long run. When they reach the edge of easy energy, balance and renewal are the only way forward, wherein there is a reciprocal cycle between early and late successional systems, each opening the door for the other. (p. 284)

         In my own experience, I’m cautiously hopeful in voluntarily taking less while increasing gratitude and seeking more deeply while expecting multiplicity. Love, for example, comes in so many colors and textures. In sleeplessness at two a.m., love invites meditation. A touch of pain advises adjusting motion: slow down while weeding and hear the birdsong. Hurt feelings expand care and prioritize inner understanding over external approval.

         And stories, the good ones, open windows to rooms capable of holding all this. Our next one might be “The Mechanical Horse” because it pushes us to realize the dangers of demanding immediate gratification. The eye wanting it right now loses the soft gaze that attends to hard wisdom found in old-growth cultures.