Category Archives: ecology

On Evolution

History and Evolution (from biology) are somewhat similar in that both are quite descriptive, and involve in their description some events that cannot really be predicted from any known first principles. Indeed, it will not be too much of a sin to say history is evolution of some kind by itself.

This being the case, there are atleast two ways in which one can approach evolutionary topics, which can complement or (probably more common) confront each other. All evolutionary topics that we are interested in always suffer from a lack of complete data about them. As mentioned a couple of posts back, this has motivated people to assume an underlying ‘model’, and use it to string a story through the facts which seems plausible. Another, equally interesting method to deal with the same would use the notion of a ‘constitutive absence’.

‘Constitutive absence’ is simply a way of saying that what is absent from the data collected or story woven is as important as what is present. This motivates us to ask the question ‘Why not this?’, as opposed to the question ‘Why this?’. It is my suspicion that looking at history and biological evolution in this manner will be able to structure our thinking about these subjects in a more constructive manner. For example, instead of asking ‘Why do birds have two wings?’, it may be more constructive to ask the question ‘Why are there no birds with six wings?’. It may just so happen that we have missed finding these flying critters, or there is some other reason. This to me is more in line with the theory of natural selection — Natural selection can only select against, not select for. To select for something implies evolution should ‘know’ what to select for, which is obviously nonsense. In the game of natural selection, there are no winners, only survivors. However, most biology literature seems to try and explain why a particular trait is present in an organism. Schrodinger came to the conclusion that the molecules that carry life (The structure of DNA was unknown then) must be large by asking why cannot there be small molecules of life (Answer being related to the fact that at smaller scales, Brownian motion dominates and smaller the molecule, the more suspceptible it is to change (mutation) by bombardment of other molecules).

The picture that this provides us with is not of an all-encompassing Story of Everything, but about the constraints that are put on organisms which prevent any other possible scenario from being viable. It is somewhat like trying to understand how water flows — If you look at water in a large river, trying to follow one blob of water may be hopeless, but in a stream you may have better chances. The constraints of a narrower channel makes this easy for us. Even so, you may not be able to predict precisely how the blob of water flows, but you know that it will remain within a confined boundary.

However, you will need to admit that beyond a certain stage you can’t really be sure about things when you take up this approach, whereas the Big Story approach will try and explain everything.

History is no different. Instead of asking ‘Why did the Europeans have an Industrial Revolution?’ one can ask ‘Why did the Indians and the Chinese not have an industrial Revolution?’. Instead of asking ‘Why is India mainly vegetarian?’ one can ask ‘Why did not Indians develop a meat dominated cuisine?’. You can probably see how just framing the question differently leads one to think very differently about the same problem. If you appeal to the physics of complex systems, then you are acknowledging that the trajectory of any complex system is inherently hard to predict, but constraints on the system make certain trajectories highly unlikely, and everything that happens does so within the phase space that is still viable. Historically we hoped to find laws of Nature and Society that would enable us to see forward and back in time. Unfortunately, we know now that these laws, if they exist, are probably too complicated for us to comprehend, and so a ‘constitutive absence’ is a more sensible way to move forward.

Moral stories in the age of computers

All of us have been brought up listening of reading some or the other kind of moral stories –  Panchatantra, Aesop’s fables, Bible stories and so on. They are part of our standard training while learning to live in the world. All moral stories are motivated by some ultimate aim of human life, though these are never explicit or overshadowed by talking animals and trees. Our morals do not develop in a vacuum – they are shaped strongly by our socio-cultural and geographical locations, and moral stories are among the more effective means towards our ‘shaping’. Not only that, like everything else in the world, they evolve, though not necessarily in the Darwinian sense of the word. Aristotle and Plato may have condoned slavery, but not Adam Smith and his ilk. Even then, considering that Aesop’s fables and the Bible provide relevant advice even to this day, there seem to be some things that are eternal, like numbers.

From where do we derive our ethical codes? The most abundant source is of course our own history. When viewed from a certain lens (which comes from a certain metaphysical position about man and his relationship with other humans and the rest of the universe), history can give us all the lessons we need. Which is why it is said that people who forget history are condemned to repeat it – not that we have progressed linearly from being barbarians to civilized people, it is just that we are animals with an enormous memory, most of it outside our heads and in books, and preservation or changing of such a legacy necessarily requires engagement with it. Therefore, ethics and epistemology have always gone hand in hand.

Our times are unique from any other in history simply due to the predominance of science in determining what we know – Ancient Greeks or Indians would do physics and metaphysics simultaneously without necessarily putting one or the other on a pedestal. Scientific method and mystical revelation were both valid ways at getting to the truth. Nowadays, of course, the second would hardly be considered a valid method for getting at anything at all, let alone the truth. Hard to say whether this is good or bad – evolution does not seem to have a sense of morality.

The Newtonian and Darwinian revolutions have had important implications for the modes of moral story telling: First, they remove the notion of an ultimate purpose from our vocabulary. Newton’s ideal particles and forces acting on them removed any ideas of the purpose of the universe, and the correspondence between particle<->force of Newton and Darwin’s phenotype<->natural selection is straightforward. Thus, biology or life itself lost any notion of ultimate purpose. Economists extended it to humans, and we get a human<->pain/pleasure kind of model of ourselves (pain/pleasure is now cost/benefit, of course). All in all, there are some kind of ‘particles’ and some ‘forces’ acting on them, and these explain everything from movement of planets to why we fall in love.

Secondly, history is partially or wholly out of the picture – at any given instant, given a ‘particle’ and a ‘force’ acting on it, we can predict what will happen in the next instant, without any appeal to its history (or so is the claim). Biology and Economics use history, but only to the extent to claim that their subject matter consists of random events in history, which therefore cannot be subsumed into physics.

If life has no ultimate purpose, or to put it in Aristotle’s language, no final cause, and is completely driven by the efficient cause of cost/benefit calculations, then why do we need morals? And how can one justify moral stories any longer?

The person of today no longer sees himself as a person whose position in life is set by historical forces or karma, depending on your inclination, but as an active agent who shapes history. Thus, while the past may be important, the future is much more so. He wants to hear stories about the future, not about the past.

This is exactly where computers come in. If we accept a particle<->force model for ourselves, then we can always construct a future scenario based on certain values for both particles and forces. We can take a peek into the future and include that into our cost-benefit calculations (using discount rates and Net Present Value etc etc.,). Be it climate, the economy or the environment, what everyone wants to know are projections, not into the past, but the future. The computation of fairytales about the future may be difficult, but not impossible, what with all the supercomputers everybody seems to be in a race to build.

The notion of a final cause is somewhat peculiar – it is the only one which is explained in terms of its effect. If I have a watch and ask why it is ticking, I can give a straightforward efficient cause saying because of the gear mechanisms. On the other hand, If I ask why are the gear mechanisms working the way they do, I can only answer by saying to make the clock tick – by its own effect. Thus, if we see the future a computer simulates and change our behavior, we have our final cause back again – we can say to increase future benefit, we change our present way of life. The effect determines the cause.

Corporations, Countries, Communities are faced with the inevitable choice of using a computer to dictate their moral stance. However, one can always question the conception of a human being (or other life for that matter) as doing cost benefit calculations as their ultimate goal. If we need a more textured model of a human, writing an algorithm for it remains an impossibility to this day.

For example, one can argue that the ultimate pupose of life is to live in harmony with nature or that we should ‘manage’ nature sustainably. The former does not need (indeed, does not have at present) a computer model, whereas the other does. One is within the reach of every person, the latter is only accessible to a technological high-priesthood. Which should we choose? at a future time, which one will we be forced to choose?

Therefore, in this post-Darwinian world, can we imagine an ultimate purpose for ourselves that will enable us to act on our own, or will we be guided by supercomputers simulating caricatures of ourselves? Time will tell.

This Fissured Land – Review

My second book by these two authors – Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha, ‘This Fissured Land’ is as much an exercise in understanding systemic biases against those who rely on their local ecology for sustenance as it is a history of India from an ecological point of view. It also makes clear the ecological roots of the various tribal/peasant vs. forest department conflicts that continue to plague India to this day, nowadays very much in the news due to the Naxalite problem.

The agenda of the book is to understand usage of resources by various types of communities, which are classified from lowest impact (hunter/gatherer, pastoralist) to the highest (Industrial/urban dweller), and the conflict that these usage patterns have caused and who eventually won. It also examines the belief systems, technological capabilities that made each type of community what it is. In short, the hardware and software of coexistence and conflict of very different human communities are examined here.

Books such as these are as important now as when they were written, just to give some historical perspective on what seems extremely ‘odd’ or ‘natural’ in our society today. For example, shifting cultivation terrifies ecologists as much as wildlife sanctuaries reassures them. While shifting cultivation may no longer be a sustainable practice nowadays and wildflife sanctuaries may have no alternate, it is instructive to understand under what circumstances this has come to be the case. Most opinions about tribal poaching and Naxalism are held without any historical context, and thus the actual problem is never identified. This leads to strange prescriptions like ‘kick the tribals out of the sanctuaries’ and ‘send in the army to wipe out Naxalism’, which are not assured of positive results but will definitely increase the suffering of those who are already at the brink.

The book  starts off interpreting prehistorical societies in India as being shaped by their environment and technologies, and given ecological explanations for the rise of the heterodox traditions of Buddhism and Jainism, and finally an interesting explanation of caste as a system to prevent resource conflicts. It then comes to the Colonial Era and outlines the major changes in the belief systems especially with respect to the utility of forests, whom they belong to, and the inevitable clashes when traditional users of the forests were excluded from them in the name of British interests.

It then outlines how a change in administration did nothing to change the forest policy of the State, with British interests being replaced by State and industrial ones. The subversive acts of those who were denied what their ancestors assumed to belong to them are then highlighted and this seems to be the only thing that people outside seem to care about.

Reading this should ensure no one ever blames tribals for the present state of the environment in India. Its strong focus on equity and its insights into understanding how conservation is not a value-independent notion, but stems from a certain world-view are useful take aways from the book.

The problem with nonlinearity (AKA why I cannot predict the weather)

Being from an engineering background, and having mainly engineers for friends, I normally get asked why I cannot predict tomorrow’s weather, and jibes as to how weather prediction is a pseudo-science etc etc., Thus, I decided to just rant about how life is so difficult for me.

Engineers of all kinds like to work with computationally friendly methods of analysis. One way to ensure this is to use mathematical maps that are linear in nature, and preferably orthogonal. What I mean by this is that it should be representable by a matrix, and all columns should have a zero inner product with every other column but itself. The classic example is the Discrete Fourier Transform. One of the most important properties (atleast to me!) of a linear system is that of superposition, i.e, if x and y are any two ‘signals’ or vectors, and F is a linear transform, then F(x+y) = F(x) + F(y). This property tremendously simplifies the analysis of the behavior of the transform. It is easy to identify ‘problematic’ vectors and do away with them.

For example, if im building a music system and I have a linear amplifier which I know goes nuts if I input music containing the 2 Khz frequency, I can remove that frequency in advance so that there are no problems in performance. Thus, a signal localised in a certain frequency band will not ‘leak’ to other bands. The case is not so in nonlinear systems. There is a transfer of energy from one part of the spectrum to another (eg: the Kolmogorov spectrum in turbulence), and thus there is no guarantee that your amplifier will be well behaved for all time.

This also implies that the superposition principle no longer applies. Since energy in one frequency invariably finds its way to other places, there is interaction between different frequencies and thus the resulting behavior of the system is not just the addition of the behavior of the system with the individual frequencies as inputs, i.e, F(x+y) \neq F(x) + F(y). Thus, the resulting behavior is not easy to predict in advance, and pretty much impossible if the number of interacting components is huge, like in an ecosystem or the climate. This is called emergent behavior, since it cannot be predicted by looking at the individual components themselves.

If losing superposition was a problem, the problem of chaos is as bad, if not worse. Chaos is a fancy way of saying that nonlinear systems are extremely sensitive to their inputs and their mathematical formulation. For example, if you had perfect knowledge about every quantity but not a perfect model of the phenomenon being observed, you will make errors in prediction, which are huge. Similarly, if your models were perfect, but you were not able to measure accurately enough, the same fate. In real life, both are true. We don’t understand natural phenomena well enough (Of course, dam builders will disagree), nor do we have measurements that are accurate enough. Thus, even the fact that we can say whether tomorrow will be cloudy or not with reasonable confidence is a testament to how well weathermen have learnt to live with nonlinearity.

And if all this was not enough, there is the problem of phenomena occuring at multiple scales. A typical cyclone has a horizontal extent of around 1000 km, while the convection that drives it is of the order of 1 km. There are planetary waves that have a wavelength of 10000 km, and they are dissipated by turbulence acting at the micrometer level. Any model that tries to incorporate the largest and the smallest scales will probably tell us about tomorrow’s weather sometime in the next century!!

And coming to the worst problem of all, rain.While one can say with reasonable confidence about whether it will rain or not, since that is constrained by the first law of thermodynamics and behavior of water vapor, it probably is next to impossible to predict when or how much. Quite amazingly, there still does not seem to have been found a sufficient condition for rainfall to occur: the necessary conditions are known, and still we don’t know when it will rain.

Interestingly, average behavior is more predictable, since averaging ‘smooths” out the nonlinearity in the system, and thus we are able to reasonably estimate climate, which is a long time-average of weather. The constraints of thermodynamics, which seem to be the only thing that will never be violated, are stronger as we go into longer and longer time scales.

Handling nonlinear systems is hard, but we are getting there! (In a century or so.)

Field Trip to Kaggalipura

For some unknown reason, was invited by the Regional Museum of Natural History, Mysore to conduct a field trip for the children who were attending their annual summer camp. I was to speak about ‘pollution in a water body’, but thankfully was able to do more than just that.

Morning sky
Thank you water vapor!!

The day was perfect for a field trip, overcast from the morning. The plan was to make the children take a hike around the (almost dry) lake and make a list of what animals/birds/plants/trees/insects they see. We then used the data that they collected to try and make some sense of it from an ecology framework.

Insect hunters!

Birders!
Botanists!

They found that there were far more small organisms (plants, insects) than large ones (birds, trees). We tried to figure out why this was so, and this led to the concept of survival of the one able to reproduce fastest. They saw birds near the lake had different beaks and legs compared to the ones in the field, and this led to the concept of adaptation.

We then had a discussion about the food web, and why the nutrients in the soil never get over even though plants keep consuming them. This led to the concept of a nutrient cycle, and the importance of decomposers in any ecosystem (and the importance of sweepers and housekeeping (as compared to the IT crowd) in any city!).

Fortunately, the discussions stopped before the children were bored, and then we were off the Somanathapura for lunch and then headed back.

Can't get enough of it!
Intricate, beautiful...
Curiosity has no favorite subject!
The gang at state of least entropy!!

Seems like the best way to teach children anything is to actually take them to where the action is. Since they have enough energy to burn, unlike me, they need to work on some activity which keeps them both mentally and physically busy. Then, rather than shoving concepts down their throats, it is best to ask questions so that they come up with the concepts themselves, or suddenly understand what their textbooks had mentioned. Thankfully, this theory worked well with this bunch of kids, since they were actively answering and participating in the discussions. It never works with older people. Guess questioning is now only a bastion of the child!!

Bridging Nature and Humanity

I personally find it quite strange to think of humans as apart from nature and vice versa, but after many interactions with people who think otherwise, it seems that I’m in a minority. If evolution is to be believed, we as a species (Dawkins would say individuals!) have evolved mechanisms to improve our survival rate, to the extent that we are now the most dominant species in terms of geographical reach and resource use.

However, our genes seem to have forgotten to encode limiting behavior, atleast with respect to resource utilization, which would enable us to live sustainably. Therefore, we have to resort to non-biological notions like stewardship and animal rights to keep ourselves in check. From where such notions arise, one really does not know. Nevertheless, questions in ethics, epistemology and ontology have interested us as much as questions in physics, math or chemistry.

Ancient scholarship, both Western and Eastern, never viewed either category as seperate from the other and, to quote a friend, did both physics and metaphysics. It is only recently that our world view has taken a schizophrenic turn, looking at billiard balls using differential equations (bottom-up) and guiding human behavior using teleology (top-down). It has been notoriously hard to reconcile these world views and thus each developed practically independent of the other.

No doubt, there have been attempts by one to encroach upon the other’s turf. Dawkins and like minded compatriots went one way, while the Christian Right in USA and Astrology try going the other. All in all, it seems unlikely that one or the other will have total dominance anytime in the near future.

Thus we are stuck with quarks on the one hand and The Goal Of Human Life on the other. For example, mainstream economics ignores nature by invoking the Axiom of Infinite Substitutability (One kind of good can always be substituted for another, thanks to human ingenuity), so if rainforests go, then we can always conjure up something to take its place. Marxist thinking takes the view that all human development is the result of economic processes, so trees and animals don’t even merit a mention – they are simply unimportant as far as human society’s development goes. On the other hand, we have climate models which put in a large amount of CO2 into the model atmosphere and see how things change, as though humans are just passive CO2 emitters who cannot recognize calamities and adapt their behavior (This seems ominously probable nowadays!). Each approach has value, no doubt, but it is obvious that neither economics nor climate modelling can actually solve the problems we face today.

One solution is for people with different outlooks to sit down and reach a consensus. My last experience with such an experiment was not very encouraging, and the recent spat between Rajendra Pachauri and Jairam Ramesh did nothing to to encourage anyone about interactions between politicians and scientists, I’m sure. The other solution, of which one is more optimistic, is for researchers to break  the new barriers and go back to a world view where one can engage with physics and metaphysics without being called a witch-doctor. Natural and social sciences are ripe for such a synthesis — we have finally reached a state where our metaphysics (explicit or otherwise) is affecting the earth’s chemistry and biology, maybe even the physics: while I don’t think we can change the Gravitational Constant anytime soon, but a few thermonuclear warheads here and there could change g=9.8 m/s2 to something substantially smaller!

Little known but impotant steps towards such a synthesis are being seen — ecological economics is bound to be mainstream before we kill ourselves, social ecology is bound to be important in the future too. Scientists seem to be getting more comfortable doing politics outside their institutions and politicians are learning some thermodynamics, thank heavens. The principle of  learning two subjects well, one closer to quarks and the other closer to the God side of the spectrum of human thought will serve researchers well in the future. Oh, and present day economics does not count on either side of the spectrum.