Enough Behavioral Flexibility to Persist in a Disturbed Landscape

The Story So Far

Well, I thought I’d be able to get another issue of Five Futures out last weekend. But then my job took a lot more time and mental energy over the next two weeks than I anticipated. The intervening weekend was full of chores that all took a little bit longer than I planned. And, well, here we are: Two weeks late again.

Except this time I haven’t even had the chance to read enough to put together a double issue, and I’m not all that pleased with what I do have. But I’ll be damned if I let three weeks elapse between issues 4 and 5.

Anyways, enough about me! I may not have as coherent a tale to tell about the future as I usual do, but there’s still a signal or five to discuss…

Sex is a Disaster Recovery Plan

“While the benefits of sexual reproduction tend to be subtle and become evident only over many generations,” Jill Neimark observes in a recent issue of Nautilus, “its costs are heavy and immediate.” Sex is a pretty complicated thing even for single-celled protozoa. Why should the earliest eukaryotes have invested energy in a behavior that provided no immediate advantage over the decidedly non-sexual bacteria and archaea?

It turns out that the origins of eukaryotic life may have been something of a Faustian bargain. Sex, it would seem, is less about out-competing your neighbors, and more about staying one step ahead of the devil within…

The Surprising Instability of Gender Norms

The ever wonderful Atlas Obscura has a fascinating mini-biography up of Chevalier d’Eon, “who left France as a male spy and returned as a Christian woman”. What makes d’Eon’s story remarkable is that it is set in the waning days of the 18th Century, more than 200 years ago.

Despite its relative modernity, there are important points of departure in d’Eon’s story from contemporary conceptions of individual autonomy and social progress. d’Eon’s transition appears to have been equal parts radical ethical statement and palace intrigue. Christianity is used as an argument for proto-feminist principles and gender fluidity. d’Eon’s gender is publicly reassigned by royal degree… And then people just seem to accept this (imagine something similar occurring today).

Modern conceptions of gender tend to view it as either innate or socially constructed. Both viewpoints are, I think, incomplete (though I’m certainly more sympathetic to the second). Yes, the vast majority of gender’s context is social, but some is not. Different phenotypes provide individuals with different (and far less mutable) biological contexts. But human phenotypic differences are small (and have gotten smaller over time, so for us social contexts dominate.

d’Eon’s very public transition is an important to reminder that gender’s social context is a moving target. Even a few hundred years can produce a surprising amount of drift.

Data, Politics, and Storytelling

Over the past month, Native American tribes and their allies have been working to block the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a project perhaps best described as “Keystone XL v2.0”. While the pipeline has not yet been stopped, the tribes won a significant victory recently when the Obama administration temporarily halted its construction.

Within the federal government, the #NoDAPL fight pitted the EPA against the Army Corps of Engineers. The key point of contention between the two agencies was the question of how to best determine DAPL’s environmental impact. The Corps used county-by-county and state-by-state data, while the EPA believed that finer-grained data from “census block groups or census tracts” was more appropriate. By assessing DAPL’s impact over larger areas, the Army Corps of Engineers obscured its effects on the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

1) You need to read @mckennapr’s piece on the Dakota Access pipeline. And there’s one spot in particular to notice. (Maggie Koerth-Baker) (Twitter)

2) Army Corps says Dakota Access has no environmental justice probs. EPA disagrees. Why? Because they’re using different measures (Maggie Koerth-Baker) (Twitter)

3) @mckennapr points out that Army Corps enviro justice analysis was county-by-county or state-by-state. EPA looks for “census block groups” (Maggie Koerth-Baker) (Twitter)

4) Basically, Army Corps says no enviro justice problem on Dakota Access bc they looked at demographics in way that diluted Native presence (Maggie Koerth-Baker) (Twitter)

5) This is what I mean by “numbers aren’t objective”. Numbers come from a story. If you don’t know the story, you don’t really know numbers. (Maggie Koerth-Baker) (Twitter)

6) Army Corps numbers say Dakota Access doesn’t disproportionately impact Native Americans. But that’s only bc of way they measure. (Maggie Koerth-Baker) (Twitter)

Subtle changes in how data is gathered and aggregated can lead to huge differences in the story that data tells. Unfortunately, there remain significant gaps between those telling our stories and those writing them.

Algorithmic Propaganda

It turns out that Google has been algorithmically identifying potential ISIS recruits and manipulating their search results to surface “deradicalizing” content. Now that program is set to be deployed against right-wing extremists within the US.

Now, I’m happy to see non-violent approaches to dealing with potential terrorist threats. But sanctioning corporations to manipulate our information environment for political ends gives me pause.

What other programs like this are out there? Who decides which populations are targeted? Who decides what information they should be “nudged” towards? How do we hold programs like this accountable?

And perhaps most importantly, can we hold programs like this accountable at all?

Humans Are an Ecosystem Service

Hermit crabs in Okinawa have begun using trash generated by the island’s human population for their homes. Which might seem terrible at first, except that solitary bees in Canada are doing something similar, and may actually be finding the new building materials beneficial.

Something that I think many in the environmental movement still struggle with is the idea that humanity is part of, not apart from, “nature”. The cities we build, the waste we produce, the landscapes we change… For many of our fellow travelers on Earth, human civilization is an unmitigated catastrophe.

But for others, our cities and waste are just another ecosystem service.


A visualization of anticipated species migration driven by climate change.