Genetic Programming, Cultural Programming, and Self-programming

image of axons in the human brain
Axonal nerve fibers in the brain as determined by the measured anisotropy (directionality) of water molecules inside them.  Image Credit: Connectome

David P. Turner / March 13, 2022

There are many specific prescriptions about how humanity must change to restore a hopeful future (e.g. a global renewable energy revolution), and implementing these prescriptions will require new pro-environmental behaviors by individuals along with shifts in societal values.  In this post, I briefly examine four aspects of a simple psychological framework that shapes the personal sphere of social transformation, and I consider how adoption of that framework could inspire pro-environmental behavior.

A common first approximation to explaining how humans behave is by reference to “nature and nurture”.  I will add a third factor – the influence of self-determination, i.e. the products of self-directed thought.  My fourth factor in this framework is one’s personal experience, which of course can crush us or enable us to blossom.

1. Nature refers to our genetic inheritance.  Neurologists broadly understand the genetically-based architecture of the brain, and the role of neural circuity in brain function, but they are still working on how processes like memory and consciousness actually work biophysically. 

Studies of brain function associated with specific activities show that certain areas or modules of the brain (genetically derived) perform particular functions, e.g. mathematical operations or making music.  Psychologists and neurologists generally believe that humans are born with genetic predispositions in how we feel, think, and act (presumably related to the wiring of our brain).  Some examples include our attraction to sweet foods, our fear of snakes, and how readily as children we learn a language.  

Without going overboard (i.e. espousing that genes alone determine behavior), we might use a computer programming metaphor to indicate significant genetic influences on behavior.  Sociobiologist E.O. Wilson opined that “genes hold culture on a leash”, referring specifically to the influence of genes on values. 

Regarding our feelings and behaviors related to the environment, it is important to recognize that some genetically-influenced traits – while being the product of millions of years of biological evolution – may be obsolete in the context of our contemporary high technology civilization.  We are much better at paying attention to rapidly changing threats (e.g. a charging rhinoceros) than to slow onset threats (e.g. climate change), yet now we must attend closely to threats in the long-term future. 

On the other hand, some proposed genetically-based traits – such as biophilia (love of nature) – may be particularly helpful in the context of fostering pro-environmental behavior.

2) Nurture refers to the influences of our cultural environment on how we think, feel, and act.  The success of Homo sapiens is attributed in part to our capacity for social learning.  Children mimic behaviors of their caregivers and tend to adopt their belief system.  As adults, we continue to learn from a variety of cultural sources.

Learned behaviors (e.g. hunting in a hunter/gatherer society) are often adapted to the local environment, and learned cultural beliefs help bind us to our local social group.  Here again, I think the term “programming” is appropriate if used in a metaphorical sense.  We are culturally programmed in some respects. 

Richard Dawkins referred to the units of cultural inheritance as memes.  Note that memes do not have to be true to be useful.  A mythical narrative of tribal origins may help create a sense of tribal identity, which could strengthen within group solidarity in the face of inter-tribal rivalry.

As with our genetic influences, some of our cultural influences may be obsolete or need modifying in the context of on-going environmental change, e.g. the current emphasis on consumerism in the developed countries.

To complicate things, we have significant biases (going back to our genetic programming) about what we learn.  We are particularly likely to believe or imitate leaders (prestige bias) and tend to believe what is believed by a majority of our peers (conformity bias).

3) Self-determination (self-programming) is an overlay on genetic and cultural programming.  Mature human beings can consciously consider alternative views and reflect on what to believe and how to act (albeit there is always a lot going on unconsciously).  This capacity introduces a sense of agency and inspiration.

Self-determination is certainly impacted by emotions, thoughts, and information that originate from genetic and cultural programming.  To some degree, however, impulses from these sources can be consciously recognized and over-ridden

Education is in a sense cultural programming, but training in critical thinking and more broadly learning how to learn, can open the door to robust self-programming.  The firehose of information now available through the various media (some true and some not) makes this kind of thinking especially relevant now. 

4.  Personal Experience.  Many genes are expressed only under particular circumstances, and learned behaviors can only be acquired when there is exposure to a relevant example or information.  Additionally, the degree to which learned information is internalized and begins to affect behavior depends on other psychological factors.  Motivation to learn is stimulated by a) a positive connection between teacher and learner, b) a sense of autonomy or self-direction rather than being controlled, and c) a feeling of competence associated with accomplishing a well-designed gradation of tasks and getting approval from significant others.

Let’s consider two cases of pro-environmental behavior in which the three types of programming and experience interact.

Slowing Population Growth.  Historically, most cultures encouraged high levels of reproduction, which is certainly predictable in the face of the kind of intergroup competition common in human history.  More group members make for stronger groups.

Considering the importance of reproduction in biological evolution, it also makes sense that there is a strong genetic influence in favor of reproductive behavior (e.g. mate seeking and sexual pleasure in humans). 

For a woman or couple to decide to have few or no children for pro-environmental reasons (potentially in the face of their own instincts and pro-natal cultural policies) would require significant self-programming.  Growing up (experiencing) a society that values education and opportunities for self-actualization other than parenthood would make the choice easier.

Global and Planetary Citizenship.  Global scale problems, like anthropogenic climate change, require humanity to work collaboratively towards changing the current dangerous trajectory.  However, we seem to be genetically primed to identify with a social group of some kind, which also implies a tendency to classify everyone outside the group as suspect. 

Our local society inculcates a unique language and a belief system that differentiates us from outsiders and may induce xenophobia.  Nationalism is on the ascendency these days, but it is not the limit of what a society can be. 

Thus, becoming a global citizen requires some degree of self-programming.  Individuals must learn about issues of global environmental change and deliberate on how to participate in ameliorating the problems.

Besides identifying with humanity as their tribe, it will be important that people identify with the Earth system as their home, as a whole of which they are a part

A common model for societal change begins with an early adopter minority that inspires broader uptake of new values, leading (with some help from prestige and conformity biases) to a majority view (e.g. the broad adoption of anti-littering in the U.S. in the 1960s).  The early adopter minority may come from people who recognize the possibility that the majority view is wrong, and then begin to envision and act on alternatives.  It is encouraging to see a bubbling up of pro-environmental minorities nearly everywhere on the planet now that could grow in an organic manner to become a pro-environment majority.

Is the Technosphere Underconnected?

Image of planet Earth with technosphere connections.
Figure 1.  Transparent Anthropocene.  Image Credit:  Globaia.  https://globaia.org/geophanies. Creative Commons License.  The image includes Global Roads, Global Human Impacts on Marine Ecosystems, Global Urban Footprint, Open Flights, Open Street Map, and Submarine Cables.

David P. Turner / September 14, 2021

Think of the entire global human enterprise as a system − what Earth system scientists are beginning to call the technosphere.  It consists of all the material artifacts and energy flows associated with our global high technology civilization, as well as all the social bonds and institutions that tie us together.  A high degree of connectivity is evident in the technosphere (Figure 1), and it is worth asking if more connectivity (e.g., a stronger United Nations) or less connectivity (e.g., effects of anti-globalization) would help in the struggle for global sustainability.

Systems are often specified in terms of parts and wholes, and in terms of interactions between the parts that help maintain the whole.  The quantity and nature of these within-system connections have long been of interest to systems theorists because of their influence on system stability.  The connectivity concept offers a lens through which to view technosphere structure and function.

In the ecological literature, (eco)system connectivity has two aspects.  One is geographic (2-dimensional) – as in corridors across a landscape that allow movement of animals or dispersal of seeds.  High connectivity is important because, for instance, after a disturbance such as fire, early successional species must find their way to the disturbed patch.

The second aspect of ecosystem connectivity relates to the way processes are coupled.  In a highly connected forest ecosystem, the processes of decomposition (which releases nutrients) and net primary production (which requires nutrient uptake) are coupled by way of a network of fine roots or mycorrhizae.  In a weakly connected tree plantation, where a significant proportion of nutrients are provided by fertilizer, that coupling is missing.  High connectivity of processes usually means more effective system regulation.

In the technosphere, geographic connectivity is maintained by the transportation and telecommunications infrastructure.  Process-based connectivity relies on coupling between sources and sinks of energy, materials, information, and money. 

Technosphere connectivity has grown increasingly dense over time (Figure 1) with a corresponding rise in technosphere mass and energy throughput.  All that global connectivity has helped raise standards of living for billions of people.  But the technosphere is showing signs of self-destructiveness, and it is worth asking if it is in any sense underconnected or overconnected.

Ecologist C.S. Hollings has argued that late successional ecosystems become overconnected.  In his panarchy model for ecosystem development, a four-stage cycle (Figure 2) begins with a catastrophic disturbance (Release phase).  The disturbance stimulates decomposition of dead organic matter and frees up resources for colonizing species that seed in and rapidly accumulate biomass (Reorganization Phase).  As the ecosystem fills in (Exploitation or Growth Phase), the connectivity increases (note the x-axis).  In contrast to earlier theories of ecosystem dynamics, Hollings suggested that ever increasing ecosystem connectivity may ultimately be destabilizing because nutrients get locked up in biomass, and a high density of organisms means strong competition that stresses the organisms and makes them vulnerable to disturbance (Conservation Phase).  Eventually, the stressed condition of the biota allows another major disturbance, such as an insect outbreak (Release Phase), that sweeps across the ecosystem and restarts the panarchy cycle.  The Reorganization phase is a period of low connectivity, leaving the ecosystem susceptible to degradation.

The panarchy cycle.
Fig. 2.  The panarchy cycle. The symbols r and K refer to species that are adapted to early or late stages of succession (Pianka, 1970); α (first letter of the Greek alphabet) refers to a beginning; Ω (last letter of the Greek alphabet) refers to an ending. The tail labeled x refers to the potential for the system to undergo a regime shift (Gunderson and Holling, 2002). Copyright © 2002 Island Press. Reproduced in The Green Marble by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

The technosphere system is like an ecosystem in having a throughput of energy (mostly fossil fuel) and a turnover of its components.  It has certainly gone through a growth phase (often referred to as the Great Acceleration) and is now accumulating connections rapidly as it matures.  Let’s place it somewhere between the Exploration and Conservation phases in Figure 2.  It might be underconnected in the sense of weak links between different geographic areas (e.g., in the face of global scale problems like climate change) and limited coupling of critical processes (e.g.,   mobile phone manufacturing and mobile phone recycling).  The opposite concern is that it may at some point become overconnected and vulnerable to a major disturbance. 

Let’s examine ways in which the technosphere could be considered underconnected.

1.  An underconnected technosphere is one in which global scale coordination is unable to meet the challenges of Earth system maintenance.  Lack of connections allows global scale problems to escape technosphere control.  The situation with global climate change evokes this sort of underconnection.  In broad terms, we have inadequate institutions for global environmental governance (not to mention global economic governance).  The shambolic global response to COVID-19 is also indicative of underconnection; a better coordinated global vaccination program would have been in the best interest of everyone.

2.  The technosphere is causing massive disruption of the biosphere and Earth’s climate.  These impacts on the Earth system are associated with failure to fully recycle technosphere “waste products”, e.g., the production of carbon dioxide by fossil fuel combustion is not connected to the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by some other industrial process.

3.  A renewable energy revolution is clearly needed to mitigate climate change, but the sources of renewable energy (e.g., wind and solar) may not be co-located with the demand for energy (urban areas).  Hence, a more robust grid (nationally and internationally) for distribution of electricity is required (along with other energy infrastructure upgrades).

4.  We think of the global Internet as foundational for global connectivity.  And, in fact, the Internet facilitates the kind of global coordination that is needed to address global environmental change issues that threaten the technosphere.  However, nations such as China and Russia have built national Internet firewalls that prevent their citizens from freely accessing the Internet.  That kind of fence raising promotes nationalism, but not the planetary citizenship we need to create a sustainable future.

The case for an overconnected technosphere is less compelling.  The rapid spread of the 2007-2008 financial crisis around the planet is suggestive of fragility in the global economy.  And the crush of 7.8 billion people striving for a high quality of life is contributing to widespread stress in the biosphere (upon which the technosphere depends).  Ironically, solving these problems may require greater international connectivity.

We are still in the early stages of technosphere evolution, and my sense is that greater global connectivity is desirable.  With regard to the global environment, we are in dire need of 1) a well-connected circular economy that recycles all manufactured products, and 2) new international institutions for global environmental governance that coordinate monitoring, assessments, adaptation, and mitigation of global environmental change problems.  The anti-globalization movement calls for less connectivity but the proliferation of global scale problems points to the need for more connectivity.

Recommended Reading:  Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization. Parag Khanna. 2016. Random House. My review.

Celebrating the Solstice

Stonehenge on the Summer Solstice. Image credit: //commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stonehenge_(sun).jpg

David P. Turner / June 13, 2021

Every human being on the planet will experience an astronomical event on June 20 (2021).  I refer of course to the June Solstice, the point in Earth’s orbit around the sun when daylength begins to shorten in the northern hemisphere and to lengthen in the southern hemisphere.  The astronomical orientation is reversed in the December Solstice.  Our ancestors were very attuned to these annual events, as evinced by the alignment of the megaliths at Stonehenge and at other ancient observatories.  Most Earth dwellers now live urban lives and may give little thought to the orientation of Earth to Sun.  I propose thinking about Solstice events in a new way – as a celebration of planetary citizenship.

Especially since the late 1980s, scientists have produced a drumbeat of reports documenting a range of global environmental change threats, notably climate change.  The sum of environmental impacts from 7.8 billion people is driving the Earth system towards a condition that will cause vast human misery, and perhaps imperil civilization itself.  Humanity clearly must begin to act collectively to mitigate our impacts on the environment.  But we live in a world that is highly polarized and seemingly getting more so.

Humans are social animals, and generally identify with a circumscribed social group.  However, because global scale problems require global scale solutions, we Earthlings must now begin identifying with humanity as a whole − quite a challenge for a species whose social instincts evolved when social groups were small bands of hunter gatherers.  A unifying feature of a society is its shared culture, including myths, beliefs, and rituals.  The new importance of the Solstice lies its contribution to an emerging global culture. 

Several features make the Solstice a unifying event.  One is that it is clearly a global phenomenon: everyone experiences it (albeit more strongly at high latitudes).  The celestial mechanics of the Solstice are fairly simple, and contemplating the event stimulates thinking about global scale structures and processes − something which we certainly need to be doing to address the environmental challenges ahead.  

A second relevant feature is that our understanding of the Solstice is science-based.  Whereas the early celebrants at Stonehenge knew from their long-term observations only that the sun had reached its northernmost circuit on Summer Solstice or was beginning its return from the south on Winter Solstice, we can chart Earth’s orbit around the sun and understand that our planet is tilted on its axis, hence the pattern of seasonality.  More broadly, we understand Earth’s climate system and how it is regulated by solar geometry, as well as greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  For the purposes of a needed common belief system, the scientific worldview wonderfully fits the bill.  The advance of science now provides a growing intellectual heritage that all of humanity can share.

As to how the Solstice might be celebrated, most people on Earth can walk outdoors at sunrise or sunset on June 20th and note where on the horizon that the sun appears or disappears.  The time of day and angle on the horizon are different at every location on Earth, but we all know it is a special day for the planet. 

In a complimentary sense, this action would also help invigorate the local sense of place.  Every year at any location, the two Solstice events will repeat − kind of a comfort really. 

Traditional ways of celebrating the Solstice include decorating trees and lighting candles (Scandinavia).  Occasionally, the media take notice.  This year, wish everybody a happy solstice!  Perhaps we can eventually make it a global holiday.

In this era of growing nationalism and anti-globalization, when the gathering storm of global environmental change means that the society composed of all humanity should be strengthening rather than weakening, we must search for unifying experiences and beliefs.  Attending to the Solstice, be it the one in June or the one in December, is a way to relate to our planetary home and be reminded that we are all in this together.  

Recommended Audio: Seasons by the Steve Miller Band.

Planetary Citizenship

David P. Turner / March 7, 2021

The developmental task of building a personal identity is becoming ever more complicated.  While some aspects of identity come with birth, others are adopted over the course of maturation.  Increasingly, each person has multiple identities that are managed in a complex psychological juggling act.

Citizenship − generally defined in terms of loyalty to the society within a specified area − is a key component of personal identity.  National citizenship most readily comes to mind, but the term is also used at other levels of organization.  Members of a tribe, residents concerned about watershed protection, and neighbors attending to local quality of life all qualify as citizens.

The concept of citizenship at the planetary scale is rather new, in part because our global governance infrastructure (environmental, geopolitical, and economic) is rudimentary.  However, if there is to be a purposeful (teleological) attempt to mitigate and adapt to global environmental change, we residents of Earth must become planetary citizens.

The impetus to identify as a planetary citizen typically comes from growing awareness of planetary scale environmental threats to human welfare.  The result is a commitment to rein in the human enterprise (the technosphere) and work towards global sustainability

Earth system scientists generally reject the Gaian notion that the planet is in some way self-regulating or purposeful.  But if humanity indeed manages to join together and intentionally reverse the trend of rising greenhouse gas concentrations and mass extinction, the Earth system as a whole (Gaia 2.0) would in a sense gain purpose.

Embrace of planetary citizenship is a pushback against unbridled individualism.  In the widely held neoliberal belief system, individuals are viewed most fundamentally as autonomous consumers who live in a biophysical environment that is a limitless source of materials and energy as well as a limitless sink for wastes.  In fact, the human impact on the global environment is a summation of the resource demands from the 7.8 billion people who now inhabit the planet.  The cumulative impact of humanity has clearly begun to induce changes in the Earth system that endanger both developing and developed nations. 

Rights and Responsibilities

Planetary citizens have rights, in principle.  As noted though, the global governance forums for establishing those rights are weak.  In the realm of environmental quality, a planetary citizen certainly should have a right to an unpolluted environment. 

Correspondingly, a planetary citizen’s responsibilities include understanding their own resource use footprint, and endeavoring to control it (e.g., having fewer children).  Understanding the environmental impacts of their society and advocating in support of conservation-oriented governmental policies and actions (e.g., by voting) is also essential.

Because global change is happening so quickly and persistently, a commitment to lifelong learning about local and global environmental change is a foundation of planetary citizenship.

Identifying with any collective evokes a tension between personal autonomy and obligations to the greater good.  Thus, the addition of planetary citizenship to personal identity creates psychological demands.  Mental health requires that those new demands (e.g., pressure for less consumerism and more altruism) be calibrated to individual circumstances and to the state of the world.

Collective Intelligence

Possibilities for the emergence of collective intelligence and agency among planetary citizens at various scales have grown rapidly as the Internet has evolved.  Besides the general sense of a global brain emerging from the mass of online communication, various online groups now specifically address global environmental change issues, e.g. the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence sponsors a crowdsourced web site aimed at finding solutions to climate change.  

Civil society organizations like 350.org, Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere, and Wikipedia are testaments to the power of collective intelligence among planetary citizens.  Participation of planetary citizens in self-organized groups of activists creates a sense of agency, which can be hard to find when a person confronts the enormity of global environmental change on their own.  What is glaringly missing is a planetary forum for global environmental governance, something like the proposed World Environment Organization.

Global Citizenship

It is worth making a distinction between planetary citizenship and global citizenship.  Both concepts are relevant to building global sustainability, with planetary citizenship more focused on the biophysical environment and global citizenship more concerned with human relationships. The global perspective is fundamentally political.

Global Citizenship is often discussed in the context of Global Citizenship Education (GCE).  GEC theory commonly calls for “recognizing the interconnectedness of life, respecting cultural diversity and human rights, advocating global social justice, empathizing with suffering people around the world, seeing the world as others see it and feeling a sense of moral responsibility for planet Earth”.

Traditional GCE theory may be oriented around experiential learning by way of immersive experiences in other cultures, often including volunteer work.  However, persistent concerns that the relationship of visitor to host replicates the colonial model of dominance have led to more critically oriented versions of GCE theory.  Here, the emphasis is on examining injustices and power differentials among social groups and evaluating effective means to foster greater equity. 

The thrust of the global citizenship concept tends towards differentiating the parts of humanity and fulfilling the obligation to address injustices of all kinds; the thrust of planetary citizenship is on humanity as a collective entity playing a role in Earth system dynamics.  A comprehensive approach to teaching global citizenship would emphasize both  aspects and even transcend them.

Pedagogy

Since identity as a planetary citizen is a choice, the question of how education can be designed to foster that choice is significant.

The idealized outcome of education for planetary citizenship is a human being who understands the impacts of the technosphere on the Earth system and has a willingness to engage in building global sustainability (Go Greta Thunberg!).  These individuals would share a sense of all humans having a common destiny.

Two disciplines are particularly relevant. 

The field of Big History covers the history of the universe leading to the current Earth system.  It juxtaposes cosmic evolution, biological evolution, and cultural evolution to give perspective on how humanity has become aware of itself and come to endanger itself.  A recently developed free online course in Big History aimed at middle school and high school students nicely introduces the subject.  My own text, The Green Marble, and my blog posts such as A Positive Narrative for the Anthropocene, examine Big History at a level suitable for undergraduate and graduate students.

The field of environmental sociology is likewise important.  It explores interactions of social systems with ecosystems at multiple spatial scales.  The concept of a socioecological system, composed of a specific ecosystem and all the relevant stakeholders, is a core object of study.  Nobel prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom helped elucidate the optimal structural and functional properties of socioecological systems at various scales.

Conclusion

Identifying as a planetary citizen means seeking to understand humanity’s environmental predicament and trying to do something about it.  An important benefit from this commitment is the acquisition of a sense of agency regarding global environmental change.  The aggregate effect of planetary citizenship across multiple levels of organization (individual, civil society, nation, global) will be purposeful change at the planetary scale.