Untimely Observations



I am beginning to think that the notion of left-brain/right-brain cognitive lateralization, so enthusiastically espoused by psychologists a few decades ago, might have something in it after all.

The notion, you may recall, was that the two hemispheres of the human brain have (through evolution) functionally differentiated, the left half becoming specialized for logical, analytical thinking and the right half, for intuitive, creative thinking -- or something like that. Nobody seems exactly sure where the idea originated, but it was picked up by pop-psychology writers, who produced a slew of self-help books intended to help us optimize our dichotomous grey matter by resolving "conflict" between left and right thinking styles.

The theory has been largely undermined by brain imaging studies showing higher cognitive functions to be more spatially diffuse than previously thought. Recently though, I have begun to wonder whether there is after all some truth to compartmental theories of mind, because I keep encountering evidence that certain individuals -- usually highly educated and of a leftish disposition -- are able to simultaneously hold pairs of interconnected ideas in their minds without the connections ever manifesting in consciousness.

This phenomenon, or should I say psychological condition, has been strongly manifested in environmental debates in Britain, debates that will be given added impetus by a new book due out next month entitled Silent Summer. The 600-page book, containing a foreword by the renowned TV naturalist Sir David Attenborough, is a compilation of scientific articles documenting the causes, character, and scale of environmental degradation in Britain and Ireland, and its effects on vertebrate and invertebrate populations.

Amongst the worst affected creatures are the 59 butterfly species that regularly breed in Britain, most of which have fallen sharply in number; also moths, of which at least 20 species have declined by more than 90 percent. Mayflies and other river insects are also in decline, and the loss of these and other insects has affected the birds and small mammals who feed on them. Populations of starlings and swallows, both insect eaters, are down by two-thirds since the mid-1970s. And according to scientific projections, hedgehogs could disappear from the British countryside by 2025. Even allowing for the alarmist tendencies of some environmental scientists, it is clear that something is seriously wrong.

Early reviews of Silent Summer show a common thread running through many of the ecological studies. Surprisingly, this common thread is not fashionable man-made global warming, but (unfashionable) overpopulation. Evidently, whichever damaging phenomenon the scientists examine -- whether it be the destruction of ancient woodlands and other wild habitats, the emptying of rivers, the side-effects of intensive farming, air pollution by cars or marine pollution by untreated sewage -- all are greatly exacerbated by rapid population growth. As more and more people are crammed into these already densely populated islands -- demanding new homes and roads, needing water, food and other natural resources, and contributing to the sum total of waste and pollution -- nature bears the brunt. Anticipating a population increase of at least ten million over the next two decades, the book's editor, Professor Norman Maclean of Southampton University, warns:

In the face of such expected population increases, it is hard to be optimistic about the future of Britain's wildlife.

Meanwhile, on the front page of this week'sSunday Timesis a report of a new study by Migration Watch UK, the respected monitoring organization, which has calculated the number of illegal immigrants in the UK at around 1.1 million, substantially more than last year's figure of 860,000 calculated by the London School of Economics.

The calculation is difficult, because the British government has not kept records of people entering and leaving: its figures have been derived from sample surveys conducted at ports and estimates based on National Health Service patient registers. Even senior ministers admit that they have little idea of the number of illegal entrants, where they are or what they are doing. Asked how many illegals were in the UK, immigration minister Phil Woolas said recently, "Its a question that no immigration minister can answer."

Migration Watch has a reputation for statistical caution, so its figures are as likely to be underestimates as overestimates.

In addition to illegal immigrants, there are the legal ones, whose number has soared under the present Labour government. According to Migration Watch, net inward migration (immigrants minus emigrants) quadrupled to 237,000 a year between 1997 and 2007; three million immigrants have arrived since 1997, taking the known population of the UK well above sixty million. Growth shows little sign of slowing, especially when the high birth rate of foreign-born women is factored in: they produce around 2.5 children on average, as compared with around 1.8 for British-born women.

Whether or not people trust government statistics, most have witnessed the loss of wild spaces to urban development, and the contraction of insect, bird and small mammal populations. And many have seen stark changes to their own towns and cities as immigration, especially from the Third World and Eastern Europe, has accelerated over the past decade.

So we have here two distinct concepts, backed by evidence and by common experience: the first, that continuing rapid population growth is wreaking havoc on British wildlife and threatens to extirpate many native species of plants and animals; the second, that the primary cause of population growth is uncontrolled mass immigration (both legal and illegal) coupled with high immigrant birth rates.

Now to you and me there is a clear connection between them, from which one conclusion effortlessly follows: that a simple, cost-effective way to ease pressure on the natural environment (with the aim of stopping and reversing damage to native flora and fauna) would be to stop mass immigration.

Curiously, the liberal or quasi-conservative brain, though able to hold both sets of ideas simultaneously, evidently lacks the neural connectivity to bring them into conjunction, and to make the obvious associations and inferences.

Here's an example of what I mean, from the editorial page of the same issue of the Sunday Timesthat critically reported the big increase in illegal immigration:

Surely it is possible to develop land for housing and roads in a way that allows people to coexist with animals and birds, not grind them into extinction. Unless we do things differently we will end up with a land devoid of wildlife.

Here's another example. Published policy statements of the Liberal Democrat party (the third contender in next month's general election) lament the loss of irreplaceable natural habitats:

Bird, animal and plant habitats have been destroyed. We're polluting the air and seas. This isn't fair for our children and grandchildren who deserve to inherit a country worth living in.

But whilst they preach the need for habitat creation and pollution reduction, the LibDems simultaneously draw up plans to "regularize irregular migrants" -- in plain English, grant amnesty to illegals -- which could increase the permanent population of these islands incalculably (since each amnestied migrant would be able to invite at least one family member into the country). As the LibDems know perfectly well, this couldn't be achieved without concreting over vast tracts of green space to build new houses, roads, shopping malls, and so on.

Here again, there is a recognition of the migration problem and of the environmental problem, but no hint of recognition of the link between them, nor any thought of tackling them together by deporting the lawbreakers (for that is what "irregular migrants" are) and calling a halt to uncontrolled mass immigration. The two sets of ideas seem mentally dissociated and irreconcilable. All they can think of is yet more building.

It is possible that my analysis is wrong, that liberals do, indeed, have the capacity to draw rational conclusions from intersecting concepts, but for some reason just refuse to acknowledge them. Could it be that they are afraid of speaking the truth? Or is it that they love immigrants more than they love butterflies and hedgehogs? We will probably never know, for the liberal brain is truly a perverse and mysterious organ.