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Something I have wanted to write about for a long time is the uncanny way in which human societies are analogous to ecosystems.  Furthermore, the roles within these societies grow and change and wink out—just like species in different ecosystems do–and yet they hew to certain broad generalized templates over time. This seems so self-evident to me that almost doesn’t need to be talked about, and yet when I do talk about it, I realize that it is difficult to explain comprehensively.

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There are many ecosystems—like rainforest, arid scrubland, deep ocean bottom, steppe, or coral reef.  The creatures in these ecosystems are designed by long, long generations of competition and gradual mutation to use the resources of the ecosystem to survive.  Thus a sea anemone eats plankton that the current wafts into its tentacles…and then a clownfish evolves to live protected in the stinging tentacles and look after the anemone…and then a sea turtle evolves which eats anemones and so on.  The larger ecosystems are connected too.  For example, the pelagic ocean depths engender huge quantities of plankton which wafts onto the reef.

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There are many niches in ecosystems—like arboreal fruit gatherer, lurking swamp predator, or planktonic browser.  Convergent evolution causes the shapes of creatures adapted to these roles to take on many similar characteristics:  thus arboreal fruit eaters (whether they be iguanas, tarsiers, or cockatoos) have cunning grips, small agile bodies for precise balance, & acute depth perception; planktonic browsers have huge mouths, filter membranes/apparatuses, and a shape build to conserve energy; and reef building organisms are sessile with grabby arms and a calcium carbonate skeleton they can retreat into (even if they are not corals).

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Of course there are always generalists like raccoons or rats or pigeons which have a number of useful traits that allow them to flourish in a city, a field, or a forest, or wherever…but truly complicated ecosystems engender flamboyant specialists like frogs that live in bromeliads or saber hummingbirds with beaks longer than the rest of the bird’s body.

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A jungle might support a few tribes of generalized hunter gatherers (who literally live off the rainforest in the manner of jaguars and toucans), but humans build our own jungles which we call cities.  In the city there are niches for jaguar people who take what they want and for toucan people who are colorful and pick fruit from the tops of trees that others can’t even get to.  Let’s imagine them respectively as business magnates and art curators. Resources are plentiful in cities.  They arrive in raw forms from other places like farms, mines, or forests and then are processed and synthesized by the city which creates secondary and tertiary tiers of specialists who live off of individual refinement steps which might not even exist elsewhere.

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A farm town might have farmers, millers, bakers, bailiffs, carters, and a few thieves, as well as a single baron and a mayor. The city has grain merchants, food factory workers, pastry chefs, bicycle police, teamsters, catburglars, legions of dukes, and a whole vast city hall bureaucracy (and all the other roles in between).

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As the niche change through time so to the roles change, but there are underlying similarities. Farriers, lectors, and lamplighters have died away but we now need mechanics, voiceover actors, and electric engineers. Some jobs, like bricklayer or toymaker endure for thousands of years.  Some, like wartime airplane detector exist only for a particular moment in time (after airplanes but before radar).

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If you look at society from a distance you can see how technological and social changes mirror the changes of evolution. Cartwrights generally are replaced by automakers (although there were probably not may individuals who made that career change).  Indeed, our manufactured objects themselves illustrate this change (as you can see by looking at a history book of cars and watching fins and fenders grow and shrink, even as the overall cars become lighter, faster, and safer).

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Just as the natural world is more dynamic, beautiful, and robust when there are may sorts of environment with many different creatures, human society is more prosperous when it has lots of different sorts of settings including places of enormous diversity with all sorts of specialized roles.  The interchange is complicated in the human world.  How many theatrical make-up artists can Iowa support? Yet the collagen in the makeup came from Iowa farms…and perhaps the makeup artist herself (and maybe the actors she works on too) originally came to Broadway from little towns in the corn belt.

This metaphor is useful in looking at the arc of history (which is really hard to comprehend from a human-length temporal perspective).  Additionally, it ties the world of natural history/paleontology together into a seamless narrative with the world of history/sociology (we will get back to this in later posts).  It becomes easier to see how thoroughly we humans are part of the natural world—we are sophisticated colony primates not some aberration from outside biology (or clockwork children made by a crazy god). Beyond these vast perspectives of deep time, biology, and macro-economics, however, it is useful to look at society as interlocking ecosystems because it reminds us to be more careful of one another since we need one another.

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There can be no city without the countryside! And who would farmers sell their barley to without cities? (and where would rural hospitals get doctors or malls get new fashions)?  Likewise the farmland needs the forest. The fishing village needs the ocean. In this red-blue era where people from the country and the city apparently despise each other (!) we need to recall it is a false distinction. Everyone needs each other.  The world is a web.  If you touch one thread the whole thing vibrates. And it is changing so fast that we little spiders and flies must also change so swiftly that it is barely possible to figure out who is preying upon whom anymore.  We will come back to this concept, but right now take a look around you and squint.  If the clerks, and stockbrokers and stockboys don’t start to seem more like termites and tigers and tapirs…if the dairymaids and cows don’t seem like ants and caryatids, well let me know. I’ll write it all down a different way.  But I will be surprised if you don’t see it.

Such an Age of Mechanical Progress!

Such an Age of Mechanical Progress!

My first job when I left college was working as an assistant curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History—“the nation’s attic” where great hoards of objects from our collective past have been (and continue to be) carefully squirreled away for the edification of future generations.  A miniscule percentage of the museum’s collection is on display and the rest gathers dust in enormous WWII era aircraft hangers outside Washington DC where all sorts of jackhammers, graphite urns, failed rocket cars, threshing machines, whalebone bustles, (and everything else) are stored.

I honestly couldn't find any photos of vintage machines that looked as scary as any of the real ones I saw...

I honestly couldn’t find any photo of a vintage machine that looked as scary as any of the real ones I saw…

On my first trip to the storage facility in Suitland, I eagerly ran up to the nearest Quonset hut to peek inside. The giant building was filled with pointy overly complicated machines which did not make any sense to the untrained eye.  One typical device had been hauled outside to be cleaned.  Looming in the sunlight, it looked like an extra from a Steven King movie.  It was about 8 feet tall and was made of gray steel with big dangerous foot pedals and alarming fly wheels.  A person operating the monstrosity would lean into a whirling maw of metal gouges, hooks, and razor sharp metal spikes.  Since it dated back to the end of the nineteenth century, there were no safety features: a moment of inattention would cause the machine’s operator to lose various fingers, hands, or feet.  I was transfixed—what amazing purpose did this hellish device serve?  The senior curator and I shuffled through the index cards till we found its acquisition/accession code:  it was a machine from a long defunct factory in Waterbury which was designed to make tiny metal buckles!

Nineteenth Century buckles look kind of sharp too

Nineteenth Century buckles look kind of sharp too

Whenever I lament the state of the contemporary world economy, I think back to that hulking buckle-maker and I imagine what it would be like to work on it ten hours a day (pretty much like dancing a complicated quadrille with a demon).  Thank goodness that horrible…thing… is in a museum and my livelihood does not involve years spent slaving over it in fear and tedium!  Today, automation becomes more and more prevalent and the majority of the world’s goods are being made by fewer and fewer people.    Industrial jobs are being outsourced to poor workers in the developing world, but even in China, Bangladesh, and the world’s worst sweatshops, the excesses of the industrial revolution are gradually being tamed.

I am bringing this up because I want to look forward into the economic future.  Even today, we could work 15 hours a week and have the same standard of living, but we don’t because, well… nobody knows.  Your pointless job of ordering widgets, looking at meaningless spreadsheets, and pushing awful HR papers around will be gone in 50 years and belong in a museum’s never-looked-at storage room (along with that gougetastic buckle-maker of yesteryear).   But what stupid thing will we be doing instead?

Assuming history isn't cyclical...

Assuming history isn’t cyclical…

Today we head back to Gotland for another ancient knotlike symbol.  The Saint John’s arms is a square with loops at each edge.  The shape is actually not a knot but an unknot: if you pulled at it you would discover that it is a torus which has been twisted.

Fornsalen Museum, Visby ( Gotland ). Picture stone with Saint John’s Arms Knot (photo by Wolfgang Sauber)

The symbol appears carved on a 1500 year old image stone from Hablingbo, on the island of Gotland (a Swedish Island in the Baltic Sea).  Ever since then it has appeared throughout the Scandinavian/Baltic world to demark sights of interest.  Although it is especially common in Finland (where it gained a reputation for warding off evil), the Saint John’s arms can be found blazoned upon cultural attractions throughout Belarus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Lithuania, Norway, and Sweden.

Rana museum, department of Natural history in Mo i Rana (Nordland, Norway)

From its obscure Scandinavian roots, the Saint John’s arms vaulted into international fame during the 80s.  Originally Apple computer utilized the “open apple” and “closed apple” as its command keys (I even remember these from my old Apple IIe and my halcyon days of adventuring in the realms of Ultima).  In 1984, when the Macintosh personal computer was introduced, Steve Jobs decided that using the apple for shortcut commands was denigrating the brand.  According to Apple insider Andy Hertzfeld, when Jobs saw how many apple commands were in an early version of MacDraw he peremptorily told the design team, “There are too many Apples on the screen! It’s ridiculous! We’re taking the Apple logo in vain! We’ve got to stop doing that!”  The bitmap artist, Susan Kare, flipped through her dictionary of international symbols until she found one that easily translated into 16 bit-resolution.  It was the Saint John’s arms symbol—which the symbol dictionary said indicated camping grounds in Sweden.

So today the Saint John’s arms, a mysterious Viking symbol carved on a weird rock on a haunted island, is in use everywhere that Apple computers are.

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