Nathan Dunn has a hilarious and thought-provoking guest blog at Nature Bats Last called “Reflections Upon Conservative Education.” The meaning of conservative in his essay is not the political one but the naturalist one, which hardly anyone uses or recognizes anymore. I heartily recommend reading the essay. One of the curious things Dunn has to say is that we face the wrong direction at a campfire — toward the fire — and as a result tune out nature’s fecundity in the enveloping darkness beyond the circle of warmth and light. He suggests this orientation says plenty about our narcissism and alienation from nature.
Somewhat serendipitously, I found a brief review in Outside of E.O. Wilson’s new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, which gracefully isn’t about Facebook or Mark Zuckerberg. The book review singles out the campfire as “one of the founding pillars of civilization” in part for its role in adding meat to the human diet but more importantly for being central to establishing sociability in human relations. Wilson introduces and develops the idea of eusociability, which refers to forming “groups containing multiple generations and perform[ing] altruistic acts as part of our division of labor.” Wilson also argues for greater reliance on group selection than kin selection, reversing and overturning consensus thinking in sociobiology. I have not yet read Wilson’s book and so can’t comment on its thesis. However, I’ve blogged before about Wilson and judge his thinking and writing to be far superior to most. His books of the last decade (or more) have taken ambitious risks summarizing significant bodies of knowledge, which is befitting someone of his stature, but they may nonetheless lack the power to convince anyone who doesn’t possess similar wherewithal (and some who do). Notably, Richard Dawkins refutes Wilson’s thesis in a long review in Prospect. I lack the scientific background to referee such disputes, and what I believe is of utterly no importance.
Still, support for Wilson’s thesis (as I understand it) comes from another book I’ve been slogging through slowly: The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist, which is informed by McGilchrist’s own remarkable breadth of knowledge coming from different scientific disciplines. At pp. 251–255, McGilchrist rolls out a thought experiment to demonstrate that in gene-culture coevolution, genetic selection is overwhelmed by cultural evolution (largely accomplished via imitation and socialization), at least when the attribute under consideration is more strictly behavioral than physiological. McGilchrist’s discussion, even in hypothetical form, is more convincing than the typical armchair theorist arguing for biological factors underpinning behaviors purported to offer advantages in the game of survival and evolution. I pause to note that while evolution is an ongoing process, it may take tens of thousands of years — a glacial speed — to observe substantive changes to the phenotype, especially with species such as homo sapiens having long breeding cycles. However, changes to human culture proceed at comparative lightning speed. We share all of our biology with humans of 100,000 years ago, but our cultures are fundamentally different. So when discussing evolutionary biology and sociobiology, it might be worthwhile to clarify which frame of reference is being used. I find it quite ridiculous to suggest that social mores stemming from, say, the 1950s notion of the nuclear family, have a powerful influence over genetic evolution, which won’t be observable until the human phenotype has in fact evolved, probably still thousands of years from now. On the other hand, the effect of that highly discontinuous idea of normative family values on American culture has been enormous, which can be seen even now after only 50 years.
If Dunn and Wilson offer different takes on how the campfire might best be understood and/or construed, both are easily trumped by my own direct boyhood experiences sitting around campfires, mostly as a Boy Scout. Even when not used for warmth or cooking, the campfire exerts a powerful pull, which I suspect is primarily because it’s a source of light. When on a camp-out, a flashlight or oil-burning lantern may serve the same purpose, but the appeal of watching stuff burn slowly is elemental. Further, behaviors associated with campfires — primarily singing and storytelling (including joke telling, which is essentially the same in the case of shaggy dog stories) — possess considerable entertainment value and promote social cohesion. Those who could spin a good yarn or sing well earned high admiration. Similarly, the serious business of consensus building and strategizing in Native American culture, or for that matter cowboy culture, is typically depicted as occurring at night in the calm, steady quiet around the council fire. Ritual dance and celebration also center on the fire circle in aboriginal and indigenous cultures. Even modern city life is replete with depictions of the dispossessed huddled around 50-gallon drums with contents set ablaze to provide warmth. That may by now be a mere cinematic cliché, as I’ve never actually witnessed such a scene, but it could become commonplace again.
Perhaps it’s too easy and obvious to rely on personal experience as the proper lens through which to filter experience and understand the world. However, that’s how life is lived, and the abstract, disembodied character of rational inquiry and scientific understanding is inert and almost wholly without interest for those who don’t work and operate within such a context. No one needs to be told, for example, why they desire to have sex and reproduce. The instinctual demand is there, which contributes to our survival fitness, but knowing that on an intellectual level does little to influence the minutiae of moment-to-moment life except for those who live in their heads. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why higher levels of education correlate with lower levels of reproduction.