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Nature as other
Posted by Tony on 21st April 2013 at 23:18:25
The humanist project seems to have reached a critical mass of civil society who no longer regard any of the other seven billion of us as "other", save for corner cases too often inflated through intellectual laziness. That is not my subject here beyond the implicit background that the notion of other, in other times and places, was traditionally applied to the band in the next valley.

My own interest has long moved to extending our ethical embrace across species boundaries to those who continue to be seen by many of the best humanists as definitively other, in and far beyond the spirit promoted by once local philosopher Peter Singer, his arguments largely confined to our closest primate relatives and thus implicitly endorsing the false notion of evolutionary direction. Beyond the original four pillars of transhumanism which I talk about enough elsewhere, and beyond my fifth "humans as transitional" pillar, this, my sixth pillar, wants to apply the noble notion of humanity way beyond its currently implicit species boundary to embrace other creatures and creations[1] with compatible values.

The explicit discussion at Thursday's Melbourne Collaborative Meeting of those with an interest in biomimicry[2] and other Living Future programs was about the generic concept of nature being seen as other, rather than as the guide and inspiration it is to some of us. But here I want to focus on that specific subset of the natural world which shows as clear a capacity for intentionality and voluntary action as we assume for ourselves. (For those not familiar with my thinking, I have a particular allergy to the notion of, especially homo sapiens sapiens', "consciousness" as anything other than an exemplar of supervenience, that is an emergent property which constrains/focuses/organises the actions of the unavoidably complex system from which it emerged, so that is another c word I try hard to avoid using inappropriately.) And while there are doubtless many other examples of capacity for intentionality and voluntary action in at least the submarine and eusocial worlds, for now cases amongst birds and mammals, as more familiar yet long separated and comparably productive branches of the tree of life, will serve my purposes sufficiently.

According to Wikipedia:

Mammals are the only living synapsids. The synapsid lineage became distinct from the sauropsid lineage in the late Carboniferous period, between 320 and 315 million years ago. The sauropsids are today's reptiles and birds (...)

In the discussion that follows, I am particularly informed by a view of other ways of knowing within more traditional h.s.s. societies which is informed firstly by the likes of John Bradley and the Yanyuma's efforts to recapture the storylines and associated ceremony which conveyed detailed understanding of their natural environment from generation to generation via intertwined geographical journeys and extended familial relationships. That I have more recently come to situate in the world identified by Bill Gammage as The Greatest Estate on Earth in which the most resilient and persistent h.s.s. culture in prehistory passed on its Law of taking stewardship of the complete continent, a culture so strong it persisted on both sides of Bass Strait through 11,000 years loss of contact due to rising sea levels of the current interglacial, at least until the Tasmanian genocide that followed the successful British invasion of 1788, an expedition at that point of the wealth bubble from new manufacturing industry which Gammage insightfully compared to the US moon landing, save that the Brits were able to pick up enough clues from the locals to maintain occupation. Unlike authoritarian religions, such traditional knowledge has no conflict with science, but rather fills in details where science contains itself to silos of generalisation.

Let me start with my ever increasing fascination with Sulphur Crested Cockatoos (Cacatua galerita), a story that from memory may have started with its cousin, the Little Corella (Cacatua sanguinea), calling in at Dimboola to catch some of a representative cricket match on a typical hot summer day and propping next to the Wimmera River so the dogs could cool off near a River Red Gum full of Corellas engaged in conversations that I found indistinuishable in some aggregate tonal quality from what I was familiar with as an occasional visitor to the Uni cafeteria during my mature-aged Masters studies. Ever since I have taken more and more notice of Sulphies and their relatives, from the mobs along the Maribyrnong, to those that further brighten my mostly monthly evenings in Kyneton, to those who paid a home visit in the days after my mother died.[3] On returning from a couple of years in Sydney and resuming my annual pilgrimage to Cumberland River, I was pleased to notice bright white flocks ever further down the coast, though not till the summer of 2011-12 as far as Cumbo. Lorne had lost its enchantment of younger years when spag bol at The Arab was a staple and we sometimes talked surreptitiously about ordering waitress on toast, when friends like Ken Telford and Mac Campbell would lower their boats by crane from the pier to haul in crays or coutta, and when the Lorne Theatre ran through all the year gone's movies so you could rely on it to catch up, so in the new millennium I mostly opted for the much longer trip to Apollo Bay for supplies, in part as excuse to revisit fondly remembered dive spots en route. Then in January 2011 I was in Lorne briefly for something and spotted some Sulphies in an almost orderly line up on an upstairs balcony near The Arab. Having started to play with video recording in the interim, suddenly I had one more obsession to add to my mix, even more so when the flock became frequent visitors to Cumbo the following summer. While still mentally working on a video to be called Table Manners involving a few other species alongside, a visit for a Great Ocean Road Coast Committee public consutation session that winter presented me with sulphies demanding to be recorded. A month later an invitation to make a presentation in what turned out to be a hopelessly noisy environment provided excuse to pull together a video from that and earlier footage and to include a teasing reference to my by then favourite birds as an option for the most recently neglected of those first four pillars of transhumanism. Even more recently, some Lorne locals have started to tire of some consequences of sharing their town with such bright white indigenous Australians, so it will be interesting to see how they come to an accommodation that recognises at least their appeal to visitors with cameras. Similar prejudices have long been commonplace amongst Cockies, as we affectionately refer to our farmers.

My early leanings towards enhanced relationships with our fellow travellers in the animal kingdom had started to crystalise by the early 1990s when a never finished story set a couple of decades ahead, i.e. about now, included an elephant and an orca amongst the members of a product development team which primarily interacted via cyberspace terminals. (I was always over optimistic about timescales but generally at least heading in the right direction with respect to the potential of the online world.) If I was now as many months ahead of a career decision as I am now months beyond the pensionable end of being paid to work on others' agendas, I reckon there is opportunity to push our device and user interface technologies towards forms which work for other species. Debate stepped up a notch last month with the publication of famed primatologist Frans de Waal's The Bonobo and the Atheist with points finally being made that even our jungle relatives outperform us when we replace anthropocentric tests with ones, like face recognition, appropriate to their species. While we chase resolution of the Fermi paradox "Why aren't they here?" we might make a practical start by developing a level cyber playing field for all species which can be convinced to participate, moving that problematic notion of other out towards the point where beehives might be arguing over communication with flowering plants.

[1]Today this should be read in the context of other partners in Kevin Kelly's Technium. Tomorrow it is likely relevant to our dealings with autonomous artificial intelligence, be it cyber- or robot-resident.

[2]We are working towards a Melbourne Biomimicry Swarm. Fortunately I'm not in the driving seat, but I was invited to explain that my interest in biomimicry was more at the level of whole systems than its more familiar applications in materials technology and architecture, the slides for which have been clearly my most accessed, despite blank pages inserted by the Keynote conversion process which I've since learnt and bothered to work around for other presentations.

[3]While I have some other short bird videos on Vimeo, there is a serious editing backlog, much from the dead top branches of our back gum tree, especially of rainbow lorikeets. The visiting Sulphies were just one of many I failed to capture as they swooped between the back and front trees while I was deep in funeral preparations which their visit made that bit easier.

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