3B.6 Perfect Adaptation in Climate Change

Monday, 18 July 2011: 4:45 PM
Swannanoa (Asheville Renaissance)
James I. MacLellan, York University, Toronto, ON, Canada; and G. Koshida and I. Burton

The meaning of the term ‘adaptation ' is presumed to be self-evident, even tautological, given the current socio-political milieu surrounding human-induced climatic change. In actuality, adaptation is an ambiguous concept that signifies nothing more than a response to, or anticipation of a change in climate. The term was borrowed from the natural sciences (Winterhalder 1980), predominantly evolutionary biology, but has also been applied to economics and sociology (Smithers and Smit 1997). It is promiscuous insofar as it lends itself to most any human action, artefact , or behavioural trait, including human cognition (Potts 1997). Unfortunately such wide applicability has the effect of engendering systematic misconception, and corresponding misdirection of the strategic research and policy initiatives intended to ameliorate the effects of climate change (Pielke 2005). Part of this confusion, is that the concept of adaptation itself holds its' own expectations within it. The term implies that a pre-existent form, problem, or ideal exists to which organisms are fitted through a dynamical process (Levins and Lewontin 1985). Accordingly there exists certain problems that are to be solved by organisms and by societies; extant forms of biological and social organizations are seen as solutions to these problems wherein the parts or elements of organisms or societies are in harmony with each other so that the organism as a whole was in harmony with the environment (Levins and Lewontin 1985). In other words, far from representing an open ended process, adaptation presumes that ‘solutions' exist which need only be found by agents. This underlying presumption is quite explicit in Fisher's (1930) heuristic of perfect adaptation (Figure 1). Fisher uses this analogy to describe the actual position of an agent within a multi-dimensional state space, versus an ideal of adaptation. Fisher's primary point was to show that undirected changes in either the environment or the organism will generally lower an organism's level of adaptation with the probability of improvement inversely related to the magnitude of change. But the heuristic also raises interesting questions about what it means to be adapted, not only in the current time frame, but in the future as well. There have been numerous and repeated objections to the use of adaptation or fitness landscapes as initially employed by Wright (1932) and Fisher (1930); nevertheless, the heuristic appears to have survived (Wilkins and Godfrey-Smith 2009). One of the most important criticisms is that the heuristic assumes that agent has a static linear relationship with the environment (Levins and Lewontin 1985). In reality the agent is not only affected by its environment (i.e. climatic change) but affects its environment as well (i.e. climate change). Such circularities are inherent to the question of climate change and reflect the unsatisfactory distinction that has been made between climate mitigation and climate adaptation within the literature (IPCC 2007). The problems of adaptation do not end here though; humans are a part of both un-intentional (i.e. economic markets and biological evolution) and intentional systems (i.e. proactive planning systems) which strongly influence each other (see Dennett 1971). Human behaviour is therefore not easily represented; humans are reflexive (Giddens 1992)) and can systematically seek goals they feel are important. Oddly, this intentionality presumes humans understand (i.e. believe) their impacts upon the environment and can respond to them. This suggests they are cognizant of the environmental effects of their actions, and can alter behaviours producing those effects. Beck (1990) would suggest though that this is the fundamental dilemma facing modern risk society (i.e. the difficulty in identifying economic externalities. To be able to identify a development pathway (i.e. perfect adaptation) we therefore need to know, not only what perfect adaptation is, but how our actions either contribute to, or diminish our movement towards it. This presumes we understand the full implications of our modern industrial actions and how the location of this goal is changed given our modern industrial activities (i.e. carbon emissions). Thus, in a larger interpretation of adaptation, we are both changing the location of ‘goals of development' and we are responding to where those goals lie. How do we resolve this dilemma? If we accept the language and premises that the Fisher heuristic is grounded upon, it is clear that our focus should be upon defining system goals. The literature suggests that this meta-level process is critical to the process of finding solutions. “The initial representation of the problem may be the most crucial single factor governing the likelihood of problem solution”(Posner 1973). Not only is this important on a case by case basis, but determining how goals affect, and support relate to other goals is critical to understanding solutions in the adaptive landscape. We suggest a program of problem framing (Bardwell 1991) be undertaken within a framework of reflexive scientization as defined by Beck (1992) and Giddens (1990). REFERENCES Bardwell, L.V. 1991. Problem framing: A perspective on environmental problem-solving. Environmental Management 15(5): 603-612. Beck, U. 1992. Risk Society: Toward a New Modernity. SAGE Publications, London. Dennett, D.C. 1971. Intentional Systems. The Journal of Philosophy. 68: 87-106. Fisher, R.A. 1930. The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. Variorum ed. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Giddens, A. 1990. The Consequences of Modernity. Standford University Press, Stanford CA. IPCC. 2007. Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report. Cambridge University Press, London. Levins, R., and Lewontin, R. (eds). 1985. The Dialectical Biologist. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. Pielke, Jr. 2005. Misdefining "climate change": Consequences for science and action. Environmental Science and Policy 8(6): 548-561. Posner, M.L. 1973. Cognition: An Introduction. Scott Foresman, Glenview Illinois. Potts, R. 1997. Humanity's Descent: The Consequences of Ecological Instability. Avon, New York. Smithers, J., and Smit, B. 1997. Human adaptation to climatic variability and change. Global Environmental Change 7(2): 129-146. Wilkins, J.F., and Godfrey-Smith, P. 2009. Adaptationism and the adaptive landscape. Biology and Philosophy 24: 199-214. Winterhalder, B. 1980. Environmental analysis in human evolution and adaptation research. Human Ecology 8: 135-170. Wright, S. 1932. The roles of mutation, inbreeding, crossbreeding and selection in evolution. Proceedings of the Sixth International Congress on Genetics 1: 356- 366.

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