GULF COAST ZEITGEIST
Musings on Island Biogeography
What magic is there in the pronoun “my” that should justify us in overthrowing the decisions of impartial truth? —William Godwin, English journalist/ political philosopher (1756-1836)
As far as I know, English is the only major language that treats two prominent pronouns unequally: I is always capitalized and you is always lowercase. That self-centered bias needs to be balanced; likewise, the selfishness of Godwin’s my can be corrected with the pronoun ours. Just such a decision was made here by islanders almost a half-century ago: The zeitgeist of our coastal living expresses the impartial truth that this habitat (land and surrounding water)
belongs to all who are at home here—the plants and animals as well as the people who manage it. It is OURS.
A respect for the dignity of life is inherent in all the classic religions; the additional challenge for humans to be stewards of creation is central to the philosophies of the Middle Eastern Hebraic tradition and the Chinese teachings of Confucius. While many wish we could do the job, skeptics these days don’t have much hope for our planetary or social environment. They believe that people are basically selfish and not altruistic. I recall this pointed little poem from Beth Lang, an old friend and professional Girl Scout leader: Be kind to all dumb animals, and give small birds a crumb. Be kind to human beings, too—they’re sometimes pretty dumb.
Yet we can point to some impartial truths that are hopeful, indeed. From non-theological perspectives, where first-rate science is being practiced, come these observations:
“Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.” This is a joint statement from two scientists: David Sloan Wilson,* one of the world’s leading evolutionary biologists; and E.O. Wilson** (no relation), the “father” of sociobiology and biodiversity.
“Troubled as the world may be today, it is incontestably less poor, less unhealthy, and less hungry than it was 30 years ago. And this positive association between world population growth and material advance goes back at least as far as the beginning of the 20th century.” This quote from political economist Nicholas Eberstadt is affirmed by Harvard professor and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker (an agnostic), who argues that violence in human societies is in steady decline. He elaborated on these ideas in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature.
3“Happiness is not simply dependent on a person’s genes. It is a set of skills that can be taught and, with practice, developed over time. Happiness and altruism are intertwined—doing good is an essential ingredient to being happy, and happiness helps spur kindness and generosity.” Those words are from the mission statement of the Greater Good Science Center (UC Berkeley), which studies the psychology, sociology and neuroscience of well-being and teaches skills that foster a thriving, resilient and compassionate society.
Off-island there are more and more places where self-centeredness does not prevail, and where the pronoun ours creates a sense of belonging in which the reality is more than the sum of the individual creatures living together. Back here we navigate by what E.O. Wilson calls “island biogeography”—when it comes to keeping in touch with our fellow flora and fauna, we could go down a Hallmark Cards aisle and not be surprised to find on the display of “I LOVE YOU ONLY” cards, a hand-written sign that says: “Now available in multipacks”!