social ecology

In the scale from hasty sketch to finished masterpiece, this is definitely a few scratchy lines of pencil on scrap paper. The psychology in it is an amalgamation of my personal experiences and vague recollections of psychological concepts. Most of all, if you know of anything that has been talked about in this realm I would love to hear about it.

Using the Social Brain to Understand Ecosystems

As social animals within a complex society, we have an evolved ability to navigate complex relationships between individuals, between groups, and between groups and individuals. A lot of this social intelligence seems to come from an intuitive place, from emotions and “gut” feelings. This can make our thinking process difficult to characterize but it is nonetheless an important part of how we understand other humans. Combining emotions and logic, a lot of our social experience can be talked about with words and concepts- stereotypes, more official psychological concepts, and the day to day gossip that is extremely context dependent. All of these concepts inform our own behavior and our understanding of other peoples’ behavior.

My interest is in whether there is a way to apply our instinctual and well-practiced social abilities to our understanding of ecosystems. I’ll discuss a bit more about what I mean by social abilities and then mention some ideas about how to mix this with ecology.

Social abilities

We grow up in society, we learn over time the more subtle aspects of how to interact with, manipulate, and tolerate other human beings. Many of us are experts at this (to different degrees). We have many many successes and failures, and if we grow up paying attention, we become more able to make fairly good decisions in very complicated situations.

We also classify and understand behavioral patterns for individuals, who are complex and context-dependent. As a kid, one might be surprised when their uncle, who always seems happy, suddenly seems angry. As an adult, however, we don’t immediately think “Oh no! Our theory about Fred was wrong!” We might re-evaluate our perception of Fred, but we also probably think “Oh I wonder what specifically happened, what made Fred angry.”

We are constantly striking a balance between developing predictable principles about people (Fred always tries to recognize the positive in any situation) and developing context-dependent explanations about why the current situation is the way it is (Fred forgot to eat lunch, so he’s grumpy).

In addition, when it comes to understanding people, we sometimes try to develop sweeping generalizations about humans in general (all people named Fred are positive, happy people). A conscientious person, I think, will recognize that these generalizations don’t always apply, but that there is often a reason we come up with certain patterns. How do we navigate which patterns hold true and which are entirely unfounded? In the realm of social life, this is often done primarily with continued experience and re-evaluation, as opposed to statistically valid experiments.

In my experience one can also develop ways of recognizing telltale signs of different kinds of people, or even different aspects of personality. As opposed to saying “all people named Fred are positive” we might recognize that there appears to be a pattern where certain features are associated with people who also display a certain more broad-scale trait. In other words, instead of deciding that if you have characteristic B you must also have characteristic A, we can develop the concept that overarching characteristic A tends to be associated with a suite of characteristics B, C, D, E and F. If we start to notice that Fred has three or four characteristics out of that suite, we might be more convinced that Fred has characteristic A. This is sort of like doing an instinctual PCA and figuring out which variables best predict certain key personality traits.

What are the signs and/or measurements? Outward appearance and actions (facial expressions, fidgeting, pitch of voice, body language, clothes, etc) as well as the information we receive via communication with that person. For the latter, we don’t have a good analog in ecosystems, because we can’t listen to them. However, there are certainly a whole range of potential outward appearance and action variables (species composition, evenness, temperature, SOM content, soil texture, parent material, latitude, and on and on) that can inform us of an ecosystem’s “personality.”

Ecological applications

Many studies use PCA and other multivariate techniques, and as you mentioned we are developing a better understanding of context-dependence. Perhaps we are already using our social brains to understand ecosystems. But for now, I’d still like to consider the question: what could this framework add?

One potentially hare-brained possibility is to anthropomorphize ecosystems and explore where the analogy holds up and where it breaks down. This could mean naming ecosystems (You know Liz? Liz is that diverse shrubby patch down by the rivershore with lots of happy waterfowl…) and trying to assign personalities to them. For example, one could apply traits such as “extrovert” and “introvert” and say that extroverted ecosystems are ones with lots of energy exchanged with nearby ecosystems, while introverted ecosystems are ones with lots of energy transfer going on within, but not as much external exchange. I think this angle is more useful as a thought experiment and not much beyond that.

Another possibility is to change how we describe ecosystems. Instead of having what are essentially stereotypes – on a broad scale, “boreal forest, deciduous forest, grassland, etc” – one could use a suite of traits to describe location-specific ecosystems. This puts the focus on ecosystems having traits as opposed to being certain kinds of systems.

This would be equivalent to saying Fred seems to be a positive person in addition to other traits, as opposed to all Freds being positive. For example, “This specific ecosystem here in the Kootenays seems to have great carbon storage abilities, but doesn’t have much diversity in the understory.” To my knowledge, we know a lot of this information already, but it’s in the angle of perception that we might find new patterns. The BEC zones may be a good example of this way of thinking (though it would be great to incorporate change over time). It’s also totally possible that we already do this in many ways and I can’t think of more specific examples. Again, to some extent this may be what multivariate analyses do from a more statistically sound perspective.

What I like in particular is the concept of having “ecosystem personality traits.” (Which may just be another name for ecosystem functions, in the end.) These traits could be applied to ecosystems, and some traits would tend to be found together.

The more I write about this the more I think we’re already doing these sorts of analyses. Many of these directions seem to be relatively new, though, and perhaps that’s why having an overarching goal of exploring ecosystems using a social perspective seems interesting to me.

The difficulty of communication

The primary problem I can see with trying to use our social cognitive abilities to understand ecosystems is in the communication of our understanding. Would it really add anything to think of ecosystems from a context-dependent, social way, unless we can’t communicate our certainty using widely accepted metrics? Maybe not.

Gossip is not evidence, and intuitive ideas about whether or not Fred is a positive guy may not necessarily stand up to a test of statistical significance, yet we use these abilities to navigate complex systems with great success.

At this point I’m curious if you think there is anything interesting in this or if it’s all just a re-statement of things already said.

~ by academicadventurer on April 9, 2013.

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