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Early Environment And Animism

In addition to sustaining life, the environment has been a major factor in the shaping of life (vegetal, animal, and human) from its origins. For example, some plants produce chemical substances called alkaloids, known for their therapeutic properties; in some cases alkaloids have a toxic effect, interpreted as an adaptive response of the plant to a stress from the environment, specifically predation. Through their negative action on animal physiology (producing intestinal disturbance or even death), such substances aim at provoking an adaptive reaction in predators (avoidance of grazing), defending the plant species against animal aggressions and reducing the risk of or avoiding extinction.

Human beings are so deeply shaped by environment that not only their behavior but their individual physical characteristics have been interpreted as adaptive responses to environmental parameters. A science of the impact of external factors (including but not limited to the social environment) on individual physical features developed as early as the fourth century B.C.E. in ancient Greece; physiognomy dealt with the description and interpretation of individual physical characteristics. In its original form, it consisted in comparing human and animal characteristics, and in interpreting the former with respect to a resemblance to the latter. Although this science did not explicitly appear before the fourth century B.C.E., it certainly predates that time: already in Homer's Iliad, which related historical happenings dating back to the twelfth century B.C.E. and was probably written during the eighth century B.C.E., warriors are frequently compared to animals. In one of its most evolved forms, such theory aimed, principally with the Italian physician Cesare Lombroso (1836–1909), at predicting the behavior (especially deviant) of individuals on the basis of the observation, measurement, and type of their physical characteristics, as they were considered to be almost totally determined by environmental factors, particularly but not exclusively of a social and economic nature.

Although the earliest history of the conceptualization of environment cannot be reconstituted, anthropology throws some light on the subject by means of a comparison with contemporary Aboriginal societies. Australian Aborigines, for instance, believe that the environment was created by ancestor beings who are still living in the physico-geographical peculiarities they created (mountains, rivers, deserts, and so on). As a consequence, the environment cannot be modified, for it is charged with totemic value. Similarly, humans belong to and are shaped by their environment (not vice versa). This is so ingrained in Aboriginal thought that individuals consider that they cannot be separated from their territory.

Another approach is provided by analytic ethnobotany and ethnopharmacology—that is, the analysis of the constitution of botanical and pharmacological knowledge in the so-called traditional culture (in fact, non-Western ones). Discovery on the part of human beings of the properties of environmental constituents (for example, the nutritive and therapeutic value of plants) is interpreted as having occurred in two different and opposite ways in the general context of a learning theory by trial and error: (1) by biological transmission from animal to human (namely genetic vertical transmission in the tree of life); or (2) by cultural acquisition through at least two possible procedures (neither of which is exclusive): human imitation of animal behavior (for example, that of bees gathering pollen), and human assessment of heads of poppy as remarkable influenced human cultivation of poppies for medicinal use.

Aboriginal thinking was not absent in the Western tradition. In the cultures of the Near East (Mesopotamia), human diseases were understood to be caused by spirits living in specific areas. Ponds, for instance, were supposedly inhabited by bad spirits generating illness, perhaps what a later age would determine to be malaria. Animistic conceptions of the environment lasted until the classical period, as the treatise On Sacred Disease, attributed by tradition to Hippocrates (c. 460–after 377 B.C.E.), shows: the author, probably a physician of the second half of the fifth century B.C.E., argued that epilepsy resulted not from spirit possession but from an internal physical malady.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Electrophoresis (cataphoresis) to EphemeralEnvironment - Early Environment And Animism, Materialist Conceptualization And Pharmaceuticals, Environment And Theology, Contemporary Approaches, Bibliography