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Mon, Aug. 18th, 2008, 04:09 pm
Lola with mouse


Lola with mouse
Originally uploaded by William Lachance

Friedrich caught another mouse this morning. I think that makes two for him, tying him with Lola (pictured) for number of vermin killed in the Côté/Lachance household.

It's incidents like this that remind me that cats are actually insanely useful animals. It wasn't too long ago that rodents were a huge menace to public health and the food supply. In order to prosper, we needed some way of controlling their population, and the domesticated feline provided.

Perhaps the development of civilization can be attributed not just to ourselves, but also the organisms that we have a relationship with. Not only cats, but domesticated crops, dogs, bees, and innumerable other things. Following this metaphor, perhaps the human animal can be likened to the nerve cells of a much larger organism: necessary for its development perhaps, but hardly sufficient.

Surely I'm not the only person to have thought of this.

Mon, Aug. 18th, 2008 07:14 pm (UTC)
sabotabby

Perhaps your cats. Mine don't really advance civilization at all. Luna sometimes catches centipedes and has been quite effective in containing our rubber band infestation, but Marinetti is lucky if he can find his own tail.

Mon, Aug. 18th, 2008 07:23 pm (UTC)
wlach

Historically I think cats like Marinetti were likely to meet an unpleasant fate at the farm. Lucky for him we live in such enlightened times where cats can enjoy state of the art dental care, heart surgery, and chemotherapy while performing no useful social function whatsoever.

Mon, Aug. 18th, 2008 07:49 pm (UTC)
cloquewerk

Perhaps the development of civilization can be attributed not just to ourselves, but also the organisms that we have a relationship with. Not only cats, but domesticated crops, dogs, bees, and innumerable other things. Following this metaphor, perhaps the human animal can be likened to the nerve cells of a much larger organism: necessary for its development perhaps, but hardly sufficient.

Definitely. The human being is a system, but human societies are much larger systems that involve much more than just humans. One of the hallmarks of civilization is sedentary agriculture, a new system which was made possible when we realized we could collect seeds and plant them in one spot rather than collecting our food from the wild (foraging/hunting). Without this technology, it seems unlikely that division of labour would have achieved the levels it needed to in order to provide for centralized leadership, academic study, slavery, and other such civilized things. Furthermore, this new relationship was a full system with feedback loops, changing all kinds of things in our environments (both physical and social) that caused further changes in us, many of which being rather unexpected.

Many systems theorists, such as cyberneticists (particularly second-order cyberneticists) emphasize that where we draw the boundary between a system and its component entities is fairly subjective. There are good reasons for defining a human system as ending at its skin, for instance, but we're realizing that including humans (and other things formerly conceived of as completely distinct entities) into larger systems generates a lot of interesting insights. But even this isn't anything terribly new, being refined ways of looking at ideas that were popularized by idealist thinkers like Hegel and Schopenhauer.

Dunno if you'd be interested, but I found a journal called Constructivst Foundations a while ago that focusses on some of these issues. I found many of the articles to be quite accessible, even to an amateur like me.

Mon, Aug. 18th, 2008 08:42 pm (UTC)
wlach

Re: Your comments about agriculture. This is exactly what I was trying to get at in my post, not sure if that was clear or not. If it wasn't, I guess your comment fills in some of the blanks.

Anyway, yes, your post reminds that cybernetics (and general systems theory) probably has much to say on this topic. Do you know of anything which deals with what I'm talking about specifically? And what on earth do the German idealists have to do with all of this? ;)

Mon, Aug. 18th, 2008 10:25 pm (UTC)
cloquewerk

Yeah that's what you said; I just expanded a bit.

I don't think I've read anything specifically about the intersection of systems theory and anthropology, but I would be surprised if there wasn't anything out there. Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson were both anthropologists and cyberneticists, so that would be a good starting point, although I've read embarrassingly little of their work.

As for idealism, one of its central tenets, as I understand it, is that the objective world is one big indescribable "blob" with no necessary distinctions within it, and hence no independent objects. The primary act of a conscious mind is to create distinctions within it, defining what we refer to as objects. These distinctions aren't necessarily arbitrary; they are made for various biological, psychological, and social reasons. However, they are subjective, in that the subject imposes them on an objective world. This is, by the way, how idealists cope with the thing-in-itself problem, by essentially sidestepping it--there is really no thing-in-itself (except the universe as a whole), since we create things themselves.

I see incredible parallels between the idealists' view that we construct the world around us and the cyberneticists' view that boundaries between systems are mere conveniences and not objective, immutable truths. I still haven't really seen any literature expressly comparing the two or tracing one's evolution from the other, but then again I don't know much about where idealism proper went after Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

Mon, Aug. 18th, 2008 11:13 pm (UTC)
wlach

Hmm.

The proper intellectual heirs of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche would probably be Heidegger and Sartre, among a cast of more minor characters. I don't think those two have had much influence on cybernetics or anything else at all practical, though some rogue cognitive scientists find Heidegger interesting.

I think you really mean Kant when you talk about all those other guys. :) Your summary (which was indeed fairly ingenious) could almost have been taken from him verbatim. In any case, I can see the relation now that you express it more fully.

Mon, Aug. 18th, 2008 11:51 pm (UTC)
cloquewerk

Indeed very interesting. Perhaps I'll write my thesis someday on idealism and systems. :)

And yeah, I realize Kant was the father of these ideas, but I've read precious little of his work so I am hesitant to reference him. My real introduction to idealism came with my course on Hegel, followed by a course on Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, hence why I drop their names. :) I hope to take a course on Kant next year.

I just remembered another interesting example of the intersection between cybernetics and idealism: cyberneticist Francisco Varela's calculus of self-reference was based on G. Spencer-Brown's Laws of Form, a system of logic and mathematics based on the idea of distinction. Unfortunately the latter is a brutally difficult book to read.

Mon, Aug. 18th, 2008 09:53 pm (UTC)
sfllaw

What a good kitty! :)

Tue, Aug. 19th, 2008 02:58 am (UTC)
swestrup

Jared Diamond and his book "Guns, Germs and Steel" explicitly mentions that civilization first appeared where it did because of the quality of the available plants and animals for cultivation and domestication.

Places where they had everything but the good plants and useful animals, mankind never got much beyond the stone age.

Thu, Aug. 21st, 2008 06:32 pm (UTC)
wlach

Aha, yes, I heard of that one a few years ago, though I never read it. Perhaps that's what distantly inspired the musing.

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