Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Konrad Lorenz's vision of the challenges facing humanity

Lorenz also predicted the relationship between market economics and the threat of ecological catastrophe. In his 1973 book, Civilized Man's Eight Deadly Sins, Konrad Lorenz addresses the following paradox:
"All the advantages that man has gained from his ever-deepening understanding of the natural world that surrounds him, his technological, chemical and medical progress, all of which should seem to alleviate human suffering... tends instead to favor humanity's destruction"[8]

Lorenz adopts an ecological model to attempt to grasp the mechanisms behind this contradiction. Thus "all species... are adapted to their environment... including not only inorganic components... but all the other living beings that inhabit the locality." p31.

Fundamental to Lorenz's theory of ecology is the function of feedback mechanisms, especially negative ones which, in hierarchical fashion, dampen impulses that occur beneath a certain threshold. The thresholds themselves are the product of the interaction of contrasting mechanisms. Thus pain and pleasure act as checks on each other:

"To gain a desired prey, a dog or wolf will do things that, in other contexts, they would shy away from: run through thorn bushes, jump into cold water and expose themselves to risks which would normally frighten them. All these inhibitory mechanisms... act as a counterweight to the effects of learning mechanisms... The organism cannot allow itself to pay a price which is not worth paying". p53.
In nature, these mechanisms tend towards a 'stable state' among the living beings of an ecology:

"A closer examination shows that these beings... not only do not damage each other, but often constitute a community of interests. It is obvious that the predator is strongly interested in the survival of that species, animal or vegetable, which constitutes its prey. ... It is not uncommon that the prey species derives specific benefits from its interaction with the predator species..." pp31–33.
Lorenz states that humanity is the one species not bound by these mechanisms, being the only one that has defined its own environment:
"[The pace of human ecology] is determined by the progress of man's technology (p35)... human ecology (economy) is governed by mechanisms of POSITIVE feedback, defined as a mechanism which tends to encourage behavior rather than to attenuate it (p43). Positive feedback always involves the danger of an 'avalanche' effect... One particular kind of positive feedback occurs when individuals OF THE SAME SPECIES enter into competition among themselves... For many animal species, environmental factors keep... intraspecies selection from [leading to] disaster... But there is no force which exercises this type of healthy regulatory effect on humanity's cultural development; unfortunately for itself, humanity has learned to overcome all those environmental forces which are external to itself" p44.
Lorenz does not see human independence from natural ecological processes as necessarily bad. Indeed, he states that:
"A completely new [ecology] which corresponds in every way to [humanity's] desires... could, theoretically, prove as durable as that which would have existed without his intervention (36).
However, the principle of competition, typical of Western societies, destroys any chance of this:
"The competition between human beings destroys with cold and diabolic brutality... Under the pressure of this competitive fury we have not only forgotten what is useful to humanity as a whole, but even that which is good and advantageous to the individual. [...] One asks, which is more damaging to modern humanity: the thirst for money or consuming haste... in either case, fear plays a very important role: the fear of being overtaken by one's competitors, the fear of becoming poor, the fear of making wrong decisions or the fear of not being up to snuff..." pp45–47.
In this book, Lorenz proposes that the best hope for mankind lies in our looking for mates based on the kindness of their hearts rather than good looks or wealth. He illustrates this with a Jewish story, explicitly described as such.
Lorenz was one of the early scientists who recognised the significance of overpopulation. The number one deadly sin of civilized man in his book is overpopulation, what leads to aggression.
[edit]Philosophical speculations
In his 1973 book Behind the Mirror: A Search for a Natural History of Human Knowledge, Lorenz considers the old philosophical question of whether our senses correctly inform us about the world as it is, or provide us only with an illusion. His answer comes from evolutionary biology. Only traits that help us survive and reproduce are transmitted. If our senses gave us wrong information about our environment, we would soon be extinct. Therefore we can be sure that our senses give us correct information, for otherwise we would not be here to be deceived.

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