Sunday, September 07, 2008

Notes on Landscape and Prospect-Refuge Theory:

Click to enlarge

I'm going to venture into territory I have no right invading other than the excuse that reading other blogs can get you to thinking about new things. Mostly, it will be tangential to Prospect-Refuge Theory. I got there by way of the Growelry who directed me to JSBlog’s: landscapes in mind.

The Prospect-Refuge Theory proposes that:
"at both human and sub-human level the ability to see and the ability to hide are both important in calculating a creature's survival prospects . . . . Where he has an unimpeded opportunity to see we can call it a prospect. Where he has an opportunity to hide, a refuge. . . . To this . . . aesthetic hypothesis we can apply the name prospect-refuge theory." (p. 73 Jay Appleton, The Experience of Landscape. London: John Wiley, 1975)

The first reason this is so interesting is that it melds the continuously emerging science of evolution with an observation on the basic ascetic drives of humans. I got sucked into evo-devo (evolutionary development) by stumbling across the blog Pharyngula one day. (This was before PZ Myers got wrapped up in his defense of atheism). He mentioned a book by Sean Carroll (Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom.) It is a little rough going but worth every second of it.

Recently my faith in evolution has been strengthed.


To make a long story short, I think that evolution of social response, in a manner similar to what Carroll and Meyrs describe for animal (including human) form, is a cogent hypothesis. I suppose that this is subsumed under the fieldof evolutionary psychology)
“Evolutionary psychologists argue that much of human behavior is generated by psychological adaptations that evolved to solve recurrent problems in human ancestral environments.”

I wish I were a young biologist and could look forward to how this will work out over the years. In any case, Project-Refuge theory also seems like a cogent hypothesis.

Where I would like to come into this discussion is at the level of the human infant. First of all, we should note on a morphological level that human development , i.e. growth of the fetus, goes through some pretty unusual stages. We don’t, contrary to Sarah Palin’s belief, start out as little people.
This is the embryo at 26-30 weeks gestation:


At the same time that these unusual changes are taking place in the embryo (tail and all), controlled by the tool box genes, there are primitive neural networks being formed in the embryonic brain. Of course until we really sort out neural physiology, we won’t have a clue what genes control this formation. It gets into a sticky wicket (I can’t believe I just said that) that involves gene repressors, all that “extra DNA” that we thought was evolutionary detritus, and a full, secondary collection of biological concentrations and kinetics. To assume that these evolved over the eons is still pretty amazing, but it is the best theory that we have to date.

In any case, this development continues until we have the final, adult human who stands on the verge of a prospect and is a peace with itself because he/she can see for the distance and retreat in to the woods. Sounds plausible. Sounds like that is probably how it happened. But what about infants and children?

I can guarantee you that we are not born with a fully developed Prospect-Refuge mentality. While I feel certain that the neural pathways that allow the adult to express this behavior are there in some kind of Ur-network way, infant behavior is rather different as any parent can tell you.

One of the confusing aspects of human development is that we are born quite a bit before our quadrapedal relatives. The reason for this, according to “The Singing Neandrathal” is that when humans began to stand up and became bipedal, the female pelvis was narrowed, not allowing the large headed human to pass easily through the birth canal. Indeed, many cesarian sections are done for failure to progress. This occurs even though the skull bones of the infant can override significantly during birth. But, we survived rather than the Neanderthal because of our bigger brain.

(One observation is that we have probably progressed to as large a brain as we can develop evolutionarily. In other words, we might well be at a dead end as a species. A little frightening but, hey, it won’t happen for a few million years at the earliest. We are much more likely to go out with Dick Cheney’s or Sarah Palin's machinations.)

So, the first year of human life is really in an external womb. As we all know, most animals get kicked out of the nest or hive pretty quickly. Once you are out, you need to have all of your evolutionarily derived skills intact, including the Prospect-Refuge sense. It is interesting about humans, though, is that they are fearless for quite some time. Somewhere about the 8 month to one year age they start being afraid of strangers. But fear of predators? Well, who are the predators of our suburban savannah’s? For one thing they are automobiles, and I defy you to find a child who is afraid of running out in front of automobiles.

Children also seem to be fearless of heights, something one would think would be as ingrained as the Prospect-Refuge sense. (I am afraid of heights; but I relate it to an experience where my father held me over the edge of a dam to see the spillways when I was about six.)

In summary, human children take a long time to develop an appropriate awareness of their surroundings that will enhance their survival. Many would argue that teenagers in particular act as if threats were non existent. Using the counter argument that they have to “test” the enviornment in order to learn seems to defeat the purpose of built in evolutionary instincts. But, of course, no one understands teenagers.

I really like prospects. There is something that lulls the human roiling in a landscape. So, I am particularly thankful to my friend across the pond for putting me on to such interesting places as Some-Landscapes.

We definitely don’t pay attention to this in modern America. A while back I was trying to generate some interest in the powers that be at a major educational institution (where I was on the faculty) in constructing their next big building using human oriented ideas rather than a big concrete and brick box. I guess I was influenced by an article in the New Yorker on Frederick Law Olmstead and how he designed Prospect Park in Brooklyn where the vista at the top of this post comes from and, of course, Central Park. Olmstead had an intuitive feel for the Prospect-Refuge concept, and embedded it into the design of his parks and other city scapes.

2 comments:

Poor Pothecary said...

Thanks for the mention. Evolutionary psychology occasionally gets discussed at the Bad Science forum. The big weakness is always that we have no access to how our hominid ancestors perceived the world or organised themselves socially. Assumptions at the level of, say, "a cave would obviously appear as a refuge" are dubious: equally a cave might be the hiding place of large predator. And socially, they might have been as different from us as, say, chimpanzees are from bonobos. But then, again, our near-relatives show how such evolution can work. I don't think there's any doubt that the radically different social mindsets of chimps and bonobos are the product of evolution.

Dr. C said...

This is an excellent point of discussions. That is, whether we can work back in mental/behavioral evolution the same way we did in physical evolution with the information becoming available on genetic lineage. Stay tuned.