New Clear Vision


constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted


Thinking Small

July 12, 2012 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, Ecology, Family, Nancy Mattina

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“Go to the Ant, O Sluggard”

by Nancy Mattina

Thinking small doesn’t come naturally to an American. Even in straightened economic times we urge ourselves incessantly to swing for the bleachers, reach for the stars, be ready for the big break. In the Far West, our daily landscapes conspire with our propensity to dream large. We get ten-gallon-hat ideas about life and liberty whether we are hiking above the clouds in the Rockies or streaking across the limitless deserts in our half-ton trucks.

With just an average amount of human imagination, it is easy to extract a can-do spirit from towering volcanic cones, glaciated valleys, and great canted slabs of the Earth’s crust. Never mind what must be done merely to survive, the preoccupation of all of the non-human species that surround us. We yearn to be so much more than mere survivors.

You could say that grandiosity itself is eclipsed by the majesty of the American West. Novelist and historian Wallace Stegner famously described our western wildlands as being part of “the geography of hope.” A modest man with a legendary work ethic, Stegner figuratively explored this territory in dozens of stories and essays including The Big Rock Candy Mountain, the cautionary tale of his father’s all-too-human delirium in the face of so much earthly promise. Living in the West, land of mythic heroes and gargantuan dams, you do have to step back, away even, sometimes, to take in the big picture. Even Stegner left the West most summers to hole up in Vermont. Me, I retreat to Sicily, thousands of miles east of my home in Arizona.

Sicily is big for an island, the biggest in the Mediterranean Sea. It shelters over five million people nestled strategically in mountain villages or crowded seaports, many of which were first settled in the Late Bronze Age. Yet at just under 10,000 square miles, Sicily would fit many times over into any western state I’ve lived in for the last 35 years. Since marrying 27 years ago, I have travelled often to my husband’s Sicilian birthplace, Palermo, to spend weeks at a time in the nearby seaside town of Cefalu’. Getting there requires many hours strapped into a winged bullet. All pretense of a classless society is banished in that flying machine. My view of life shrinks to the upholstered headrests ahead and behind for long hours as we glide blindly over the Atlantic ocean.

The tedium of the trip may explain why, when I step out onto the tarmac of the Falcone-Borsellino International Airport, I don’t remark on the shift in physical scale of the scene before me. There are petite but sinewy men in headphones, sunglasses, shorts and neon vests slinging luggage into dainty trolleys. Some days later I remember them as insect-like in their efficient, synchronized movements. The Fiat 500 we rent should fit in the cargo bed of a Ford F450. Still, neither the noisy clatter of glazed demitasses in the airport bar nor the subtle maneuvers needed to negotiate narrow bathroom stalls get me thinking about relative size.

Once settled in our apartment in Cefalu’ the proportions of daily life — physical and metaphysical — gradually become topics for conversation. The kitchen is a miniaturized model of the American culinary ideal: dual-fuel stainless steel stove and hood flanked by paneled cabinets that tactfully conceal the bother of meal-making. The Yankee dogma of the kitchen work triangle is superfluous in a space this small. It is one step or less to all kitchen destinations, including a corner banquette that would delight a pair of six-year-olds setting out a tea party with their dolls. Beyond la cucina, several door frames and a shallow stairwell threaten to knock my head. I instinctively adjust my posture downward.

The apartment was lately fashioned out of the ruined interior of a 15th century palazzo, which was itself built atop medieval foundations along Roman-era pavements. The weight-bearing walls are a solid meter thick. The others divide the square footprint into five separate compartments that serve different functions, based on their considered furnishings. Tiny shuttered windows allow me to peak out into two shaded courtyards where the neighbors keep pots of basil and jasmine beside their scooters and mailboxes. Close quarters by American standards. The effect is an aura of concentrated habitation, an absorbent interiority and conclusive space you try to imagine when you visit equally ancient but abandoned cliff dwellings of the American Southwest. Here you can still occupy the space and feel its buxom embrace in your cells. It relaxes the mind.

From the street, our apartment is subsumed by a single patched but stout masonry structure that fills the entire block, some 120 meters long but just 30-40 meters wide from street corner to street corner. One narrow pedestrian lane and a couple of open archways pierce the façade of this three-story compound. Otherwise, the outer wall is a continuous mezzo-rilievo: sculpted lintels, wooden doors with hand-forged pulls and hinges, shallow balconies draped with curtains or laundry, modest shop windows, PVC drain pipes and electrical conduits, kiln-fired house numbers, wrought iron wall lanterns, and hand-cut stones peeking out from the layers of stucco, whether by art or accident. Restrained, not a riot of craft or color like you might see in the Far East. But there are clear signs of human bustle and enterprise going back centuries.

A huge set of elaborately embellished wooden doors on our side of the block mark the former entrance to the aristocratic home dozens of regular folk now inhabit. The palazzo was built, stone on stone, by malnourished peasants — leathery men, many no doubt bent from fishing, tilling, or battling their landlord’s foes — to precise specifications. The ground floor was shaped for animal stalls, carriage berths, an iron forge, food and water storage, privies, brick-lined ovens, and vermin-infested servants’ quarters. This was the staging area that materially supported the brocaded and perfumed life of the Sicilian nobles wintering above.

Hundreds of years of incremental social change and state-sponsored despoilments later, the padlocked palazzo doors hide what hasn’t been converted into modern apartments; the last few blackened beams and crumbling ceilings must still belong to rueful descendants. What you surmise from leaning back in the warm shade of the adjacent building is a sense of slow but steady human progress. That the common man has won out over the pitiless forces of oppression to which human society inclines. Our way of organizing ourselves seems better than it once was.

Like all the other multi-family buildings in Cefalu’, or anywhere else in the world for that matter, this defensible habitation would never have been built were it not for the fact that even before Homo sapiens spread out of Africa into Europe some 90,000 to 70,000 years ago, humans were a eusocial species. Only eusocial species, according to biologists, maintain fortified nests containing multiple generations. To sustain the nest, individuals in the colony divide the labor. Some may even sacrifice their lives in defense of the colony, a behavior that runs counter to the natural instinct for self-preservation. Few species that have populated the Earth have evinced eusociality or its concomitant, altruism. Most evolutionary biologists don’t view altruism as something spiritual that sets humans apart from the animals; it is merely the flexible expression of certain genes that cause us to interact with our environment in a particular way. When altruism increases a group’s ability to thrive, that species or group is rewarded with time.

Ants are the eusocial insect par excellence. Everyone knows that certain species of ants gather themselves in carefully designed underground pueblos that they defend ferociously from interlopers. Some members of the ant colony forage for food, while others tend to the needs of the young, the queen, and the working caste back home. They communicate by means of pheromones and are a model of predictability and social order, with little evidence of widespread deviance regardless of the size of the colony. They evolved into existence more than 150 million years before H. sapiens did and are going strong on every continent save Antarctica, despite relentless competition from humans and other species for territory and resources. We know these facts, in part, due to the efforts of entomologist and natural historian E.O. Wilson, who has been studying insect and animal behavior for most of his 83 years.

As Wilson makes clear in his latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth, humans didn’t learn eusociality from the ants. We came by it the old-fashioned way through random mutation and natural selection. Due to fundamental physiological differences between insects and mammals, our path to eusociality depended on distinct evolutionary forces. Once some early hominins began to gather around fixed campsites and establish extended-family groups, our distant ancestors became subject to what Wilson and his colleagues call multi-level selection. “Survival of the fittest” applied not only to the individuals within a colony or nest, through individual selection, but to the group as a whole, through group selection.

Over time — lots of time — the ever-changing environment favored groups with a particular genetic make-up that allowed them to be more successful than their rivals in a given place. That’s what happened when H. sapiens strode into Europe some 42,000 years ago and became neighbors to Homo neanderthalensis. Group selection was decisive in this case: we wiped out or absorbed our sister species in 15,000 years or less. Since then, as the sole surviving species of our clade, we’ve been blasting other species off the planet with staggering abandon.

How did our H. sapiens forebears vanquish our meat-eating, tool-using, language-speaking rivals and conquer the Earth? Writes Wilson:

To play the game [of survival] the human way, it was necessary for the evolving populations to acquire an even higher degree of intelligence. They had to feel empathy for others, to measure the emotions of friend and enemy alike, to judge the intentions of all of them, and to plan a strategy for personal social interactions. As a result, the human brain became simultaneously highly intelligent and intensely social. It had to build mental scenarios of personal relationships rapidly, both short-term and long term. Its memories had to travel far into the past to summon old scenarios and far into the future to imagine the consequences of every relationship. Ruling on the alternative plans of action were the amygdala and other emotion-controlling centers of the brain and autonomic nervous system.

It’s pretty sobering to consider the consequences of our empathy, judgment, and out-sized imaginations. The same neural equipment that allows us to paint the Mona Lisa and marvel at the Grand Canyon holds the key to our demise. For while multi-level selection has allowed humans to act both selfishly and selflessly, to both cheat and cooperate on the way to conquering the Earth, the other player in the game of life, the Earth itself, will not fold.

Perhaps that explains the hollow ring of slogans like “Save the planet” and “Protect the environment.” Both the fossil record and our deepest instincts tell us that it is not the planet that needs our assistance. It is our species that is imperiled, as ever it has been. The Earth was born 4.9 to 4.5 billion years ago and the evolution of life began not long after. Mammals began to flourish 65 million years ago and the average lifespan of a mammalian species is between just one and ten million years. Compared with the insects, Earth’s mammals have been particularly vulnerable to climate change. While humankind has been a recent natural disaster for other species, that role doesn’t protect us from losing the game of life as did the Neanderthals before us. We may do ourselves in through internecine warfare rather than wait for another species or environmental change to annihilate us. Either way, the world will look very different without us. But it will go on.

Being human, we may have mixed feelings about that scenario.

The ants, whose combined weight Wilson estimates to be equal to the weight of all living humans, even though an average ant weighs one millionth of an average human being, are instinctively, altruistically focused on their group survival every day. They have conquered the invertebrate world by evolving with it, slowly insinuating themselves into new ecological niches without simultaneously destroying them. They are unconcerned by the fate of life on Earth. Nor are they hellbent on re-imagining it.

So when I walked into my diminutive Sicilian kitchen one morning with Wilson’s book on my mind, I was delighted to see a thin line of miniscule, nearly transparent ants hoisting fingernail-sized sheets of orange pith across my countertop. I admit I killed a few, defending my state-of-the-art nest from a competitor. The fact is, my individual life depends directly or indirectly on the deaths of many individuals of numerous species every single day. There’s no sense pretending that I am not a natural-born killer, like every other creature who eats to survive.

What I and my fellow humans might consider, though, is that our grand dreams — of scaling huge peaks, saving the planet, making the desert bloom, conquering space, or even radically transforming our social order — helped to get us in the pickle we face today. Once in a while we can use our big, nimble brains for a moment’s meditation on our actual puniness relative to the history of life on Earth. We won’t resolve our biological inheritance of selfish and selfless instincts by doing this. Yet thinking smaller may be an art that we need to cultivate to help keep us alive, remembering the ants.

Nancy Mattina, Ph.D., teaches writing and linguistics at Prescott College in Arizona.

2 Comments to “Thinking Small”


  1. Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.
    Albert Einstein

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  2. Thinking smaller; eating less; drinking a few litres; not wasting water in machines; working where we live; protecting our nests; living in cooperation ; not trying to assert our superiority, but accepting our interdependence.
    All this will involve major changes to our ways of life.

    go to http://www.kelvynrichards.com
    A Discourse: Social Ecology

    2

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