chimp audience monitoring

Here is a brief story while I work on a longer post. The NYT tells of a study of chimp communication that contradicts much of what I read and indicates that they, too, have a Empathy Central (or Theory of Mind to you orthodox).  Check it out:  The researchers (humans, that is) put a plastic snake on a path the chimps used regularly and waited for one to come along.  As the chimp approached the humans played a recording of either a chimp giving a resting call or a danger call.  When the walking chimp saw the snake, he or she, of course, gave a danger call.  If they had just heard the resting call, they gave more danger calls and looked around for others to make sure they knew about the snake.  If they had just heard the danger call they reiterated that but did not enlarge upon it.  This demonstrates pretty well, I think, that chimps monitor their audience and adjust their communication accordingly.  This is a high level skill, perhaps in an incipient phase, but still demonstrates awareness of what is going on in another’s mind and then to communicate accordingly.  Still to be examined is if some male chimps ‘mansplain’ and go on and on boring the others with irrelevant incoherence.


I knew all this already. Why does he go on and on?


Book review: Inferior

I liked this book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research that’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini; it is not, perhaps, the most sophisticated or conceptual review of sexual differences focused on the brain but she exercises due diligence in seeking out the scientists who are studying the matter and writes well about the historical development of the field. Her self-set goal is to explore the scientific basis first for saying male and female brains are different and second that one (yes, you know it is the female one) is inferior in some respect, thus the title of the book.

Some time ago around a dinner table with a diverse group of people discussing the art and artefacts we had seen on our tour of southern France, I made what I thought was a pretty non-controversial subject, that male and female brains are different. Whoa, several young ladies who were undergraduates objected, I think, on social justice grounds. I have no problem with that, but I do think our brains are different. The difficulty, which Ms. Saini documents very well, is that the cultural biases about and against females is very strong. Orthodoxy is not just conservative but its biases are also insidiously pervasive, so that even our basic conceptualization can be distorted. I would add that we have this rather stupid proclivity for quantifying and comparing, thus saying something is more or less than another thing, when there is not a valid basis for doing so. We talk about not comparing oranges and apples and then do just that all the time. It’s ugly, really.

So I think male and female brains are different, an apple and oranges sort of thing. Ms. Saini actually cites one clear difference but does not make enough of it. When comparing male and female IQs there is little difference manifest at the top of the scale; men and women are both very intelligent and talented. The difference comes at the bottom of the scale where more males have lower IQs and this is because of increased developmental disabilities. That is a key difference because it reflects the heightened vulnerability of male brains especially as our brains are shaped early on by higher testosterone levels. This I learned from Norman Geschwind long ago and that result has held up.

Now Ms. Saini cites Dr. Geschwind also reaching a rather stupid conclusion (or at least trying out a stupid hypothesis) from this data when he argued that because testosterone slows the cortical maturation of the left hemisphere in particular, males would have a stronger right hemisphere. No, males have a weaker left hemisphere and many of their developmental disabilities are language based. Correlated with this, remember that a higher percentage of males are left-handed than females; this is not a sign of stronger right sided functions but of compensatory adjustment for that left sided delay. So at my dinner conversation a few years back I was talking mainly about the hormonal influence on brain maturation that results in a statistically significant level of cortical disorganization more in males than females; the increased incidence of learning difficulties in males is a reflection of this.

Ms. Saini also reports another finding that fits with this line of thinking. Research into the connectome using ever increasingly sophisticated technology shows a small male-female difference in connectedness. Males show slightly greater connectedness within each hemisphere and less between hemispheres while females show more connectedness between hemispheres. I think this manifests in a couple of ways but this is only my thinking; to be frank our ignorance of brain functioning makes any statement a tenuous hypothesis. Nonetheless, my understanding is that the right hemisphere is dominant for processing information derived from the current moment, especially for the kinesic communication and empathic functions supporting social skills (Theory of Mind stuff or as I prefer, Empathy Central), while the left is dominant for displaced, verbally abstracted information (both sides do both so please remember that dominance is quite relative and also quite variable in the population both male and female). Females from a very young age show more engagement in social interactions of various sorts, and I think they are more engaged because their brains function in a more integrated manner between immediate Empathy Central and displaced abstractions. Along with this consider that females are more resilient in recovering from brain trauma, e.g., areas in the other non-damaged hemisphere are better able to compensate for the loss because of the inter-hemispheric connections.

Anyway, I think male-female brains are different in some significant but subtle ways. Much of what the scientists told Ms. Saini reflects this, i.e., any differences are mostly hidden by the great variability among individuals of both sexes, variability increased by the plasticity of the brain over a life-span. The signal of significant differences is difficult to separate from the background noise due to traditionally very low statistical power, a criticism made powerfully by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. What Ms. Saini reports on very well is how society and scientists have misused these results to confirm biases against women, e.g., that they are less intellectual, less talented, less sexual, less whatever. She documents how popular science writing often misrepresents what a study actually finds, blowing it up to hype the drama. She also documents how these misconceptions and misrepresentations underlay horrendous practices such as female genital mutilation. I had no idea of its prevalence, wow.

Inferior is a good read. I had an early quibble when Ms. Saini says that studying human infants is difficult, almost “like working with animals.” Oops! Then a few days later I saw an article by David Premack, a preeminent pioneer of simian research, entitled, “Human and Animal Cognition: Continuity and Discontinuity”. As I was saying, some categorical errors are embedded in the habitus in an insidious pervasive manner. So while still a quibble, it seems a small one indeed.

I realized at the very end why I liked this book. Ms. Saini is following, probably without knowing it, Monod’s prescription for an ethic of knowledge leading to a knowledge of ethics. To quote her last sentences, “The facts are what will empower us to transform society for the better, into one that treats us [females] as equals. Not just because this makes us civilized but because as the evidence already shows, this makes us human”. Well said.

I despair for my country. I think America last election jumped into the toilet and pushed the lever down and that shows, I think, our culture’s intellectual integrity is cracked, perhaps fatally, but time will tell whether my pessimism is justified. I am encouraged about my species, however, as we begin somehow to treat females with equality and respect. Thus, from the past women’s suffrage and the right to own property  and not to be property and now, Malala Yousafzai’s efforts for female education, recognition of women who contributed mightily to major scientific efforts without adequate credit before now, even Saudi women driving cars (please see movie Wadja) and most recently, the light of day shining so strongly on male sexual harassment and assault showing that it is unacceptable, give me some hope. Maybe someday soon women will be paid equally for equal work and all cultures will value female babies enough not to kill them and refuse to treat girls and women as chattel even lower than cattle. Ms. Saini’s book helps us along this path and I am happy there to travel on.

4th Anniversary: the view from here

I look at what we humans do every day all day long in the course of living and see biological marvels. Over the course of these past four years while blogging here I have worked assiduously on my book and I near the completion of this, the fourth and, I have promised myself, final draft (I want to go on to other projects). I have changed it substantially since that first draft around 3 years ago, in which no one was interested and I did not feel like self-publishing. The draft now reflects what I have learned since then and I will self publish maybe late next year (still have to finish last chapter on ethic of knowledge). Chapter 3 is entitled “Selves Within MEMBRAINs Sharing” that reflects the journey to find our roots in empathy and symbolization that grow to flower and fruit in culture, especially the aesthetic aspects. Here are its concluding paragraphs that capture, I think, where my intellectual journey has led me so far and the view from that vantage point:

“Now we can survey how selves within MEMBRAINs share information, i.e., how embodied minds communicate incidentally and intentionally amongst one another and so create a social (though the term seems less than apt I know of no other one) organism. (Perhaps ‘social being’ is better, our counterpart to the bees’ swarm or Star Trek’s Borg. In any event while each soma maintains its individual embodiment, each soma and its brain participates at an essential level in the MEMBRAIN). Begin with the Umvelt, so that each soma has a common experience/construction of reality, initiate conspecific relationships through sexual reproduction which begins the evolution of powerful empathic abilities evidenced in child-rearing and further development of kinesic communication enabling more complex interaction and cooperation (and competition too, I guess), then with the increased awareness of the other’s subjective self and mind coupled with a highly developed and deep seated empathic altruism, develop signal and symbolic communication. This provides the skeleton of the social organism; the evolution of greater means, e.g., memory, maps, social objects, and symbols to control and displace information that serves to enrich each individual mental domain, then provides the muscle for the social organism to act as a unity. Finally the development of social constructs, forms shared more or less invariantly, upheld and inheld by each individual created culture, e.g., the habitus of shared predispositions, i.e., information shared and inculcated as a matter of socialization and acculturation, e.g., a group ‘mind’.

This reveals the complexity of one mind embodied within a MEMBRAIN in a brain within its own soma. A mind whose consciousness is continually composed from sentient awareness of the ambient and conscious contributions from its own sources, e.g., memory, imagination, etc., information old and new, invariant and variant, immediate and displaced; a mind also serving the self arising from a sense of agency and autobiographical memory, the self allocating volitional and intentional energy to its actions; consciousness organized through various systems which contribute and organize the results of subliminal processing, e.g., Ff: feedforward (constructive), Fb: feedback (corrective), and Fs: feedsideways (intuitive); a mind keenly engaged not just with social communication but also with social existence including empathic, symbolic, and cultural domains; and finally a mind whose unity of consciousness in a specious present and whose independent subjective singularity based upon the integration of many temporal operations and loops is its ultimate illusion.

Out of this complexity comes our sense of time, life span, experience, past, present and future. None of how we experience ourselves and our world is determined or ruled by any logic other than the chance and necessity of our evolutionary past. Our minds are islands in an ocean of reality and we experience the tidal shifts and the waves glistening and breaking to wash up on our shore. Time flows but is not linear—we have only to listen to music to apprehend the multi-dimensionality of our temporal sense. A life rises and ebbs—we have only to reflect upon our own basic autobiography and our feelings for those who have come and gone to apprehend the singular act our life comprises. Experience is a construction from many disparate parts or systems—we have only to meditate to apprehend the challenge of mindful peace. The future flows backward through the present into the past—we have only to appreciate art to apprehend a moment from another life and share a brief feeling of the tides, waves and winds on the banks of that other’s island nearby or far off in the distance in seemingly the same ocean of experience.

Finally, our biological heritage leads to an ethic of knowledge. A soma carries the genetic material into the next generation; to do so it must mitigate exigencies and exploit opportunities. Its brain evolved through the genetic flow from the SWP watershed to process ambient information and retain its experience in some form that help to meet the exigencies and possibilities of a wider world. With the CR watershed and the increased flow of empathy, the MEMBRAIN formed within the brain to engage with its conspecifics and so transmutes the individual challenge of each soma to live and reproduce into a social effort, or better, a communal one, and going further, a conscious one. Human intellect is only one of the many paths leading into the future world. Our heritage has led us to this point where we understand that understanding is the key to our successful adaptation and survival, and our empathy is key to our understanding. Thus our intellectual imperative is to pursue and honor an ethic of knowledge with some assurance that this will lead to a knowledge of ethics, that our ignorance of ourselves and our world, whatever our knowledge of them may be, is the source of all mysticism and of future intellectual progress, and that our loneliness, felt from within the mind’s isolation and with the memory of those who are gone by, is the measure of our engagement and love of others within the limits of this particular life. With a true ethic of knowledge we both stand on the shore and ponder the ocean’s currents, winds and waves and walk inland to gain a renewed mystic apprehension of our world. That is what enables us to enliven our bond with other, even unknown, life.”

Travel on.


4th Anniversary #4: Some of my basic lessons

I look at what we humans do every day all day long in the course of living and see biological marvels. Over the course of these past four years I have learned some wonderful basic lessons. Some have come directly from my reading. I re-read Langer’s Feeling and Form to gain more insight into art and presentational symbols. I re-read her Mind, vol. 3, and understood more about two important dialectics. The first is within the individual between the need for reality orientation and the pleasure of unbounded symbolic creativity. The second is within society between its need for each member to commit resources for group maintenance and to carry traditions forward for continuity and the need for individuals to be creative and innovate to maintain social vitality.

I understood from Chris Hitchens the possibility of the natural noumenal, i.e., a noumenal realm filled with the shadowy ideals and mystic forms not in some supernatural domain but in this positivistic one. And of course, this past year I re-read Monod’s Chance and Necessity to find that the ethic of knowledge directs us to the natural spirit inherent in the descent of genetic forms evolved through countless random events beginning with the appearance of life on Gaia. Along with that I read Tomasello’s The Natural History of Human Morality that confirmed two ideas, that an ethic of knowledge leads to a knowledge of ethics and that our cultural values, while distinctive, are based upon some continuity with the rest of the animal world. Our humanity is indeed rooted in empathy and symbolization.

One of my evolving lessons comes from long efforts at understanding how our mind works. Since my first stint in graduate school in speech and language pathology in the mid 1970s, I had pondered the role of old and new information, beginning with hippocampal functioning but going on to how our brains define or create the categories and how they are transformed, i.e., old becomes new and new sometimes becomes old. Over the past four years I have realized that these processes are actually embedded in the larger functions producing variance and invariance. Remember William James’ characterization of consciousness as the “remembered present” or someone’s phrase the “specious present”. It takes some short passage of time before information from the retina or cochlea or skin reaches the brain and then is processed enough to be available for sentient awareness. (Another of my lessons is that I came to differentiate sentience as deriving from perceptual impact and consciousness as deriving from autogenic, i.e., self generated, information). Thus the information of which we are aware is necessarily old. New information comes about when we notice change; this is seen perhaps most importantly in hippocampal processing where change=new information (or sometimes no change violates expectations for change and that also equals new) which triggers theta processing, i.e., a new focus and situation is engendered. Along with this remember that recognition occurs when new information is ‘recognized’ as old and recall occurs when old information is ‘recalled’ as new, and that this is based on memory, i.e., past experience is held as an invariant form.

I have come to understand that variance/invariance is an extremely basic, even essential, concept for our understanding of life. I started down this trail upon reading a research article on the dual loop hypothesis of language. The loops are a dorsal one composed, I think, of cortical tracts that maintain primarily invariant information and a ventral one composed of cortical tracts involved in the processing of variant information. Consider the writing process or any example of verbal composition. Some invariant bits, e.g., words, are assembled according to syntactic rules to convey a new and variant message. This has always impressed me, that while we have formulaic speech for social purposes, e.g., “How about this weather?” most of our utterances are novel. While maybe the sentence’s propositional form follows an old/new pattern in subject/predicate or topic/comment, this serves the basic ongoing hippocampal processes of contextual generation of usefully defined situations, which for linguistic performances, must be a relatively rapid process in order to facilitate the intentional guidance of expression.

But variant/invariant can operate independently of temporal parameters, e.g., old/new, and so is important for our mental displacement of information divorced from current time and space. This seems to me now to be yet another manifestation of the basic biological processes underlying life. As we humans have extended our knowledge by understanding larger and smaller scales, e.g., cosmic and quantum, we again come around to Herodotus’ dictum that you can never step into the same river twice. Change and flux seems to be the basic order of the universe as it runs down to some entropic end. Life’s vital processes hold this procession in abeyance, the soma a protected environment where flux is background noise. We have come to understand that life is defined by our genes holding still as invariant forms, albeit with important random and rare mutations, replicating through generations. Thus Monod characterizes the forms of molecular biology as irregular crystals. That our minds operate to hold information in invariant forms, e.g., memory, is only another version of that tale.

Monod starts his book giving us the source of his title from Democritus, “Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.” This from the man who around 400 BCE understood that atoms were a basic element of our universe. Monod found that evolution proceeds through chance or random events but that once a new gene passed two challenges, fitting into the coherent whole of the genome and then promoting adaptability of the organism, the new structure continues by necessity. Our brains and MEMBRAINs carry that feature through our mentality. Life in essence operates to mitigate exigencies and to exploit opportunities. No surprise that our minds do the same. Consider this example from current events: once we form an opinion we tend to preserve it despite new contradictory information. Invariance is naturally a conservative process. Cultural orthodoxy, especially religious, maintains invariance; rebellious hereterodoxy promotes variance until it succeeds in transforming views. The beauty of science lies in how it handles errors, i.e., variance, in its practice and theory and in how it institutionalizes the disjunction between our conceptual world, i.e., the doxa, and reality or nature, thereby making the empirical process necessary for objective and reliable understanding, so the need for our ethic of knowledge.

As I have studied our roots, some questions have come unanswered. What was the chemical process initiating life? How did sexual reproduction start and take hold? What were the genetic springs that fed the streams leading to humanity? Were the dominant ones for empathic and cooperative relationships or ones for control of displaced information? Are our distinctive mental faculties based upon cognitive advances, i.e., the orthodoxy, or are these advances really to serve a remarkable blossoming of empathy, i.e., heterodoxy? How is the self composed from the soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN? Why were some of the earliest artworks hidden deeply within caves? What led to our awareness of a noumenal domain and then to its reification as supernatural? And how is it so much ugliness is tolerated by a species that developed such a keen sense of aesthetics?

In the course of writing these anniversary posts I realized more explicitly than I had previously why I have always written “soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN.” While the MEMBRAIN understood simply and basically as an exaptation of the brain, the MEMBRAIN is strictly speaking not of the soma or its brain. It is rather a construction based solely on social interaction; it is necessarily a social organ embodied in many conspecific somas. It comprises the self of social individuation based upon attachment and socialization and not just the self of agency and autobiography. It comprises the self as presented socially through various roles as well as the self hidden behind those presentations. Of paramount importance it comprises the self’s adoption of the habitus, the cultural mores and practices that knit the social organism together.

One final lesson for me from me: the dialectic between positivism and mysticism that operates as my mind finds its way to understanding. In these posts I have focused more on the former and now I will conclude with the latter. The ancient Greeks thought that the universe was composed of 4 elements: water, fire, air, and earth, and this conceptualization served them well for a time. Before I travel on, here is a scientifically transformed elemental prayer.

Elemental Prayer

Let me hold this water I use today

Remembering its earthly passages

And wondering how it came here.

Let me burn this energy I use today

Remembering its finitude between earth and sun

And wondering at its myriad forms.

Let me breathe this air I use today

Remembering that I am a human

And wondering how the fire burns within.

Let me walk this path I find today

Remembering those here and passed

And wondering at Gaia’s kindness.

4th anniversary #3: soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN

I look at what we humans do every day all day long in the course of living and see biological marvels. So I have found that a summary, i.e., a brief conceptualization encapsulating a developed set of ideas and data (you know, information), is helpful (to me at least) in thinking and talking about our biological roots. I have two main ones for rendering my ideas. I posted about the genetic watersheds previously and here is the second, the soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN. The basic idea is that the soma (the body) and its brain have evolved as the genes flowed down from the Solving World Problem watershed to our pool and so shaped our current evolutionary form. With the additional flow from the Conspecific Relations watershed that began with sexual reproduction, the brain began to develop special abilities related to mating, communication, child rearing, and group formation and maintenance. These new exaptations specifically supported social relations and eventually brain systems became dedicated to these functions, and in doing so became the MEMBRAIN of the mind. The brain thus developed a MEMBRAIN because family, tribe and group relations turns out to be a very powerful factor promoting evolutionary adaptability. (This underlines the prominent place of mammals, including us, in the evolutionary tree of life—see recent posts about Mammalian Heritage Day).


Where is the self? the habits? Oh so many more questions.

A cursory glance shows how somas have evolved through the eons of life on Gaia. Changes in sensory and perceptual capabilities along with changes in motoric abilities have yielded many varied life forms that cover the planet and its many niches. One of my favorite examples is birds migrating thousands of miles attuned to the seasons and guided by geography and the magnetic field of the earth. Another is that fish can be frozen and thawed out some time later, then brought back to life, their biological clocks picking up where life’s rhythm left off. Insects are incredibly prolific, diverse and successful. Cockroaches have maintained essentially the same form for many millions of years. Butterflies range from drab to brilliant. Oh, the list goes on to include all of the living organisms on our planet from the net of fungus and other microorganisms thriving just below the surface to humans as we leave for other worlds.

Similarly, brains have evolved to greater and greater complexity thereby enabling more powerful capabilities. The modern evolved brain still interfaces with the somatic external boundary for the ambient, i.e., the sensorium, and within the soma internally through proprioception, its autonomic systems, i.e., sympathetic and parasympathetic, and chemical systems, i.e., hormonal and neurotransmitters. The nervous system, central, peripheral, and autonomic divisions, maintains homeostasis and vitality. The central nervous system with its increasing encephalization generates contexts that are deep in purview and broad in scope. These then form the basis for complex intentions and plans that guide increasingly sophisticated behaviors. Over the course of evolution, then, brains enlarged perceptual processing and integration, memory systems, motoric control, management of impulses and implementing complex purposive behaviors. And all of this is contingent upon emotional control and stability, i.e., nervous homeostasis.

With the rising evolutionary importance of conspecific relations, extant systems in the brain were dedicated to social interaction through exaptation that led to further development of systems to form the MEMBRAIN. Recognition of individuals, coordination of mating and child rearing practices along with signal communication appeared early on. The advent of live birth, altricial young and a prolonged juvenile period increased the importance of parenting, cooperation and communication. Systems operating with empathic communication through kinesic channels developed from facial recognition and increased with social agency. Neurologically this resulted especially in enlarged parietal and temporal lobes that increased the complex interplay between occipital and frontal lobes. The momentous developments of attachment and individuation based upon a powerful empathic sense of others led to a sense of self, and then culminated in symbolic communication to share information displaced in time and space, i.e., mentally and not perceptually generated information, among each others’ minds. The MEMBRAIN, then, initiated with social interaction, became the organ controlling mental information, and finally constituted a interpersonal shared organ supporting or comprising the habitus and cultural learning, i.e., the social mind composed from many individual minds.

This summary shows the constancy of what I call the 4 membrane functions: keep material/information in and out, pass material/information in and out. Even the first soma fulfilled these four functions in order to solve the basic world problem of obtaining nutrients and eliminating wastes and keeping toxins out while keeping metabolic machinery protected within. This is all in keeping with mitigating exigencies and exploiting opportunities (chance and necessity). Early somas’ membranes evolved in more complex organisms to become skin that then fulfilled these same functions. The evolutionary appearance of brains continued these operations, and it makes perfect sense that neurological tissue develops in the embryo from the same tissue as skin. With the powerful transformation enacted by CR the MEMBRAIN appears and these specialized systems fulfill the membrane functions for social/mental information. It is all of a piece.

This synopsis of the soma-brain-MEMBRAIN evolution shows the biological roots of our humanity from deep in mammalian evolution through primates (50 million years ago) and then hominids (500,000 years ago). And that led to cultural evolution of the past 100,000 years or so, especially the most recent 15,000 years since the advent of agriculture. Time to travel on to #4: some things I have learned from doing this blog.

4th anniversary: Post #2 Genetic watersheds

I look at what we humans do every day all day long in the course of living and see biological marvels. I watch from the perspective of two metaphors, 1: the genetic watersheds of SWP (Solving World Problems) and CR (Conspecific Relations) and their confluences into RS (River Sentience), RE (River Empathy), and their confluence into RC (River Consciousness; and 2: the Soma, its Brain and the MEMBRAIN. These ideas contribute importantly, I think, to understanding how embodied minds form and then come together to create the social mind of culture, a distinctly biological phenomena. Today I will summarize the watersheds. Next post will be about the soma-brain-MEMBRAIN.


Genetic watersheds of SWP (solving world problems) and CR (conspecific relations)

The flow from two main genetic watersheds fills our gene pool. Consider that life’s evolution progresses from “a vast reservoir of fortuitous variability”, to use Monod’s phrase, and this variability comes from the uncounted chance mutational events erupting from the ground, most rising and disappearing without consequence, contributing nothing to the watershed’s flow, but some rising to pass muster first as fitting coherently with the other segments of the genome and then as increasing adaptability; these then contribute to the flow down to proceeding generations.

The timeline is quantifiable and unimaginable. Our planet Earth coalesced around 4.54 billion years ago (bya), our moon formed by one or more big asteroid strikes 4.53 bya, our planet’s water was here from the beginning or arrived by more asteroids by 4.4 bya, and evidence indicates that life had begun by 3.7 bya. With that the transition from planetary Earth to vital Gaia began. Incipient life forms began evolving further means of SWP, Solving the World Problem of finding and using nutrients, and speciation developed as life forms spread into new environments and evolved the capabilities needed to exploit the opportunities in new niches. The metamorphosis to Gaia continued until the main phyla extant today appeared by 500 million years ago (mya). The genetic springs in the SWP watershed contributed the increased ability to sense and move and to use different nutrients, all in the service of mitigating exigencies and exploiting chance (these the functions of all life’s existence), and this led to life developing sentience. Thus, the main confluence flowing down from the SWP watershed I have named the River Sentience.

Back upstream a new watershed appeared around 1.2 bya instigated by a powerful spring for sexual reproduction. The flow from this spring enabled a new source of genetic variability, not that of chance mutations but from the recombination of existent genes leading thereby to a more diverse set of individuals from generation to generation. Along with this really monumental development, this spring added on the value of conspecific relations because the search for a proper mate from amongst the great variety of individuals took on an obvious importance. The genetic watershed that developed I call CR for Conspecific Relations. Furthermore, the value of CR increased from the necessity of mate selection to the opportunities of parenting. The springs of the CR watershed began to increase the prominence of cooperation, so that around 500 mya (when the main phyla were settling in) hormonal systems developed that included oxytocin and vasopressin to promote more powerful parenting feelings and behaviors. The genetic flow from CR produced signaling among conspecifics, leading to attachment and bonding with young, the formation of families, and finally, the incipient social relations permitted by new communications among kin and kind. Thus, the main confluence flowing down from the CR watershed I have named the River Empathy.

These two great rivers, RS and RE, flowed down to the ocean of experience, upon the shores of which genotype becomes phenotype, i.e., each species procreates through its individuals, and there we have arrived at the estuarine rebirth of generational life. Here one more important development occurs as a result of the confluence of RS and RE, a confluence made possible by the evolutionary appearance of symbolic thought. The advancement of empathetic communication about the animal’s feeling states of intent, affect and cooperative engagement coupled with mirroring action and intent led to signaling and then symbolic communication about subjectively processed information. As explained elsewhere, with the empathic sense of each other’s mind comes the impulse to share some of the mind’s contents, thereby empowering a new level of social interaction. Now solving world problems (SWP) becomes a shared socially organized activity and conspecific relations (CR) becomes a world problem to be solved. With this development symbolization and empathy interact and initiate human consciousness and culture (the habitus), and so I name the river resulting from the confluence of RS and RE the River Consciousness (RC).

This first metaphor captures the long evolutionary descent of genetic flows that contribute to our species-specific form and renders this remarkable number of infinitesimal chemical and energetic events into two primary flows, SWP that carries out the mitigation of exigency and exploitation of chance in order to gain from the environment what life needs and CR that creates social domains that enlarge Gaia in organizational, informational ways. From this phylogeny we travel on to the ontogeny of each individual soma, its brain (precursor to complex) and the MEMBRAIN in 4th anniversary post # 3.


4th Anniversary: 1-Heroes

I look at what we humans do every day all day long in the course of living and see biological marvels. My heroes are the guideposts steering me to scenic overlooks. I will present 4, William James, Susanne Langer, Noam Chomsky, and Jacques Monod and mention incidentally Christopher Hitchens and Pierre Bourdieu. Though not mentioned I also thank Claude Shannon, Jaak Panksepp, Jerome Bruner, A. R. Luria, L. S. Vygostsky, Wilder Penfield, the pioneering ethologists, the great primatologist Frans der Waal, and many, many more, including artists like James Joyce, more indeed than my old self can recall at any one moment and many more than would be interesting to read.


Susanne Langer

I first wandered down this path reading Susanne Langer’s Mind: An essay on human feeling, volumes 1 and 2. It validated my vague sense that I was an animal and that my mind, including its contents and my cultural surroundings, was biological. Easy to say and seems obvious, but I have found a surprising number of instances when talking about such matters, i.e., our humanity, that people balk or skip over that detail. If you have followed my blog for much time at all you know that is my primary pet peeve is the catergorical error when anyone, and most everyone does, says, “humans and animals”.

Langer’s earlier books, Philosophy in a New Key and Feeling and Form, ultimately have interested me more in recent years. (And this winter I will start her text, Symbolic Logic, that she wrote early on in her career). Her examination of aesthetics I find profound in its simplicity, and yet as I read more of aesthetics, especially those claiming to be biologically oriented, I rarely find her mentioned. Even more puzzling is the absence of her work on symbols. Langer explicated two types of symbols, presentational and discursive. The former are exemplified by art, the work is all of a piece or a unified gestalt, its elements have no meaning outside of that gestalt, and the complexity of thought cannot be translated into simpler linear forms. The latter, exemplified by language, is linear, its elements (words) have meaning independently of the current form (sentence), and its thought can be expressed in many different ways. Presentational symbols carry import, Langer says, to differentiate it from linguistic meaning.

Langer’s work followed in the tradition of those who sought to understand symbols like C. S. Pierce’s semiotics and Ernst Cassirer’s development of symbols, because they are key to understanding our humanity. Prior to her comes William James whose broad understanding of psychology, philosophy and biology was astounding given his time period around the transition from the 19th to the 20th centuries. While he realized that our conscious was really a “remembered present” and so his psychology reflects that insight, I also remember him for his book Varieties of Religious Experience, where he examines the data of religious experiences, not in terms of belief or disbelief, but in terms of psychological implications. His empirical rigor led him to say that while we cannot know what happens to a ‘person’ after death, we have a responsibility to understand what happens up until that moment.


William James

In the last decades of her career Langer worked on Mind, the 3rd and last volume published in unfinished form after her death. These volumes were then and still are not well received and I understand a bit why. Her research predated most of the transformation of biological science by the insights of genetics and information theory/technology. These left her last books with a certain quaint status.


Noam Chomsky 1977

Beginning in the 1950s and exploding in the 60s, Noam Chomsky revolutionized linguistics and biology. His early book, Language and Mind (1967), pushed Skinner and his radical behaviorism to the side of the road (though that did not stop some in clinical psychology from denying that we have a mind for many years; fortunately they discovered that we do have a mind some time in the late 80s, wow, really good work there). Chomsky formalized all three branches of linguistics, syntax, semantics and phonology, in ways imbued with information science. His work led to the realization that language was innate in some shape or form and biology has more or less upheld that thought. In my blog I depend on his differentiation between surface and deep structures of symbolic thought, deep being the meaning (or import though he does not apply this to art) and surface being the phonological form uttered (or the artistic medium used for art creation). Syntax is important because it governs the transformation between deep and surface structures. This is a very helpful notion.


Jacques Monod, Resistance hero and great scientist and philosopher.

Now I come to Jacques Monod, a prime example of why re-reading a work years later is important. I read Chance and Necessity (1970) shortly after it came out and understood its solid argument that life and mind is a biological phenomena based solely upon the chemical machinations of DNA and proteins. I read it again last year and understood as well this time the paradox that an ethics of knowledge yields a mystic view, e.g., apprehending our genetic history resulting from countless random genetic events over 3 billion years brings us to encounter the true mystery of life and humanity and not any of the mythic versions out there over our history.   This might also be the time to remember Chris Hitchens not only for his wonderfully clear prose but also his unorthodox casting of the noumenal in natural light, no longer relegating it to the supernatural because the supernatural is no longer closely related to any truth based on objective reality, instead being only a truth from our cultural imagination. (And no, our discernment of reality based truth is not a culturally imagined one; it derives from an ethic of knowledge that ensures we understand that in the realm of possible discourse [doxa] we do not mistake culture for the ‘true’ state of things, as well analyzed by Pierre Bourdieu.

So many minds bent on the same destination and offering guideposts to us all. Travel, really travel, on.