art and cultural shifts

When I was 8 or 9 years old and judged mature enough to see some adultish movies my mother and sister took me to see South Pacific (two years later they refused me admission to Psycho which was probably just as well) and I loved it. Some of the romance was bit mushy for a boy my age but the cynicism of Ray Walston’s character, the spunkiness of Mitzi Gaynor playing Nellie Forbush modeled from, I just knew, my idol of Mary Martin (think Peter Pan) who had performed the role on Broadway, and the matchmaker with the name of Bloody Mary made me wonder what that was all about, as did the young lieutenant’s night sojourn on Bali-hai, but I figured it had something to do with love, magic and spirit, and all that made the mush bearable. Plus it was about war, sacrifice and victory. I can remember being upset when Nellie Forbush rejects marriage with the rich widower, Emile, because of his children with a Polynesian woman and very relieved that in the end she embraced everyone’s humanity. A few years later I became aware that not everyone accepted the humanity of different races. I was a military brat and saw different races work together and went to school with everyone’s kids; that let me maintain my naivete for awhile but then, being dispositionally oriented to reality, I figured it out.

So it is 60 years later now and I read about Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein making of that movie in a fine article in Vanity Fair. The general theme is that their frank treatment of racial prejudice posed a challenge for them to render and for audiences to accept. One specific was that their song “You’ve got to be taught” was controversial and many critics rejected it:


You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear

You’ve got to be taught from year to year

It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear—

You’ve got to be carefully taught.


You’ve got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made

And people whose skin is a different shade

You’ve got to be carefully taught.


You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late

Before you are six or seven or eight

To hate all the people your relatives hate

You’ve got to be carefully taught.


Oscar Hammerstein’s original lyrics went on to praise love, but Rodgers thought it became too didactic or heavy-handed and so this was left out:


Love is quite different

It grows by itself

It will grow like a weed

On a mountain of stones

You don’t have to feed

Or put fat on its bones;

It can live on a smile

Or a note of a song

It may starve for awhile

But it stumbles along

Stumbles along with its banner unfurled

The joy and the beauty, the hope of the world.


The play opened in 1949. Rodgers and Hammerstein based this musical on James Michener’s Pulitzer winning book, Tales of the South Pacific, about his experiences there during WWII. Indeed, many Americans there developed loving relationships with Asians; they did as well in the European theater, as they did in Korea and in Viet Nam. Love will find a way (or not—many babies were war orphans abandoned by American fathers).

Some important cultural changes gathered momentum during this period. Jackie Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Brown vs the Board of Education was in 1954. The fight to extend civil rights to all humanity picked up steam. To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960. Sidney Poitier would soon be the first Black actor to win an Academy Award. Muhammad Ali would soon show us how to be a just champion on his own terms, accentuated by his doggerel.  You can remember all this or you can get the idea pretty easily these days.

In thinking about art I have pondered about how an individual artwork reflects and encourages cultural change, and the enormous popularity of South Pacific on Broadway (“the Hamilton of its day” VF calls it) and at the cinema gave me pause. Of Jewish descent both Rodgers and Hammerstein faced prejudice and their children suffered from it as well. They relished their success in part because it helped their children face less rejection. When I was teaching 5th grade in a small North Carolina town all the kids, especially the African-American ones, loved Kid Dynamite from the tv show Good Times. They would come in the day after the new episode mimicking J. J. Evans lines from the night before, and “dy-no-mite!” was their own great exclamation. Remember what a lovely movie Brokeback Mountain was with its frank depiction of cowboys in love? Go even further back to consider the role Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin played in mobilizing the forces of emancipation. Examples of artworks contributing to the waves of progress go on and on. I will only mention in passing that some artworks asserted the status quo, like the movie Birth of a Nation. Norman Rockwell’s illustrations for the covers of The Saturday Evening Post were restricted to depicting minorities only in positions of servants, as in redcaps on a train; that was not his choice, it was the magazine’s.

We move forward bit by bit, waves rise and fall, tides ebb and flow. Hollywood is today seen as ‘liberal’ for its attention to diversity and gender justice. In my youth Hollywood was seen as quite conservative, even reactionary, as depicted in the movie Trumbo. One of my favorite movies from the last year or so is Wadja, about a Saudi Arabian girl who wants to ride a bike (oh, the horror!), made by a woman who had to direct from a van hidden from the world. And of course we now have the Black Panther showing the dignity of an African people. Fantasy? Why, yes it is, just like all the other artwork being mentioned. Truthful? Absolutely, just like the rest of artwork, though it happens to be more important than some of the other movies out there.

The interplay between art and culture is quite complex and to make sense of it while I pondered the biological roots of these features of our humanity I had a vision of culture and art arising in waves across the ocean of experience. Hmm, a wave theory of art and cultural shifts? Maybe another post is needed here.

The demands of the growing season are upon me and will soon ramp up. That affects my time and energy for writing so posts may become even more sporadic but I will still be writing as best I can. Travel on.

Neanderthal update

I like Neanderthal stories for two reasons. First, this research shows science at it best in the development of technologies to date artifacts, the diligent search for ancient clues, and especially, the fact that our conception of who the Neanderthal were has dramatically changed as new data have come in. Since their discovery over a hundred years ago we have gone from thinking them brutes barely different from gorillas to now almost completely human like us. Changing minds through new data is to be much appreciated. The second reason is that genetic studies prove that my ancestors mated with them and I do not want to think of my people long ago mating with brutes of little intellects and no symbolic capabilities. I would hope they were more discriminating.

So the most recent update comes from this story in the NYT:

Evidently some paleoanthropologists were holding up their admission of the Neanders into full humanity because they said the evidence allowed the possibility that their use of tools and their art making were copied from Homo sapiens. That objection has now fallen as art and tools have been found and dated through new, refined technology to time periods way before modern humans entered Europe. Hmm, maybe Homo sapiens copied tools and art from them?

My latest thinking on the inception of symbolic thought, both discursive (language) and presentational (art) forms, is that our heightened empathic abilities led to a rather robust intimacy, a mind to mind connection through kinesic modalities wherein we sensed and knew the other’s subjective mental domain, coupled with the increasing power and specificity of mirroring systems serving communication (think arcuate fasciculus). This yields the view that an intimate connection of immediate sensing of another’s mind coupled with the invariant structure of surface behaviors produced the first symbols.

In this light consider why early art is so often found in caves, and not just close to the entrances but sometimes way back in there. We visited one site in France where an electric railcar took us maybe a mile back into the cave to see etchings of mammoths and other animals on the ceiling. Why? Some say that art rose in association with animist magic, that these paintings were a mystical participation with the animal spirits and communion with Gaia. Read Kim Stanley Robinson’s excellent novel Shaman to see the truth of this possibility. But magic has both public and private aspects. Yes, shaman protected their mysteries (and for good reason because sometimes they were not so mysterious once initiated) but they also performed public rituals. Indeed, magic would not be very useful if not public.

Here’s another thought: Art came about when the need arose to extend intimacy beyond the circle of familiars, art being a personal expression of some vital experience, and so the first artists were a bit shy about their productions and protected their privacy by painting deep in caves. As we learned more about art and more came to appreciate the beauty therein, we moved it out into the public domain and cultural identity took on another feature. Even today while some artists open their studios to audiences, many keep their creations private until complete, and some, like Leonardo da Vinci, keep their most precious pieces in their possession. Leonardo kept the Mona Lisa with him for 20 years, working on it a little bit now and again, and died with it in his room, never giving it to his patron. Personal, private, it was.

Anyway, I really like my hypothesis about the inception of art here; it feels fit to me, this combining empathic intimacy and mirrored communication. (You heard it here first). Time, now, to travel on.


That sapiens guy copied my bison drawing. Good grief! Did a good job though. These new kids may have some talent.

Leonardo da Vinci biography

At the top of my blog is a picture of the Vitruvian man by Leonardo da Vinci. He drew this when he was about 38 years old around 1490. He was not the first to draw such a figure trying to arrive at the correct proportions of height, arm span and leg length to fit into a circle or square but he studied such measurements with detailed diligence and his drawing skills are unsurpassed, so his is the one to remember.

I have finished a slow, pleasurable read of a Christmas gift, Walter Isaacson’s most excellent biography of the wondrous Leonardo da Vinci. I read his excellent biographies on Ben Franklin and Einstein some time ago and I very much looked forward to his work on da Vinci. Extensive historical research, close consultation with modern experts and his own keen appraisal of Leonardo’ work, all rendered in fine prose, make this book a true pleasure to read. Go get it now and wonder at the close portrait of a remarkable human, artist, scientist, engineer, dramatist, entertainer, raconteur, and the list goes on. Isaacson shows us how Leonardo’s great powers of observation and intuitive connections of phenomena and patterns over many interests and his entire life span that he recorded beautifully in thousand of pages of journal, both drawings and writing in his famous mirror script, mark him as a singular genius.


His portrait by his adoptive son and student, Francesco Melzi. Imagine him a younger man with curly locks, bright complexion, and athletically vigorous, who was bright and creative and very social.

I knew that Leonardo was gay, but I did not know that he was a great dandy, known for his fine clothes in pink, lavender and other such colors, that he was regarded as quite handsome, that he was arrested twice as a young man for the religious crime of sodomy but was released when proof was lacking, that he was regarded as the true life of the party for his wit, parlor tricks, and imaginative sharing of his knowledge, that he left unfinished many commissions because he lost interest, found their completion too difficult, or he kept them for himself. He worked on the Mona Lisa for decades, refusing to relinquish it to his sponsor, and carrying it with him around Italy and finally to France where he died.  He was a vegetarian and pacifist, even when he worked for the notorious  Borgia clan (he resigned after several months evidently pretty disgusted by his close up experience of internecine war).

I did not know that he was one of the great anatomists of his day and very likely ours. He dissected many pigs, horses, and humans, recording his observations in beautiful drawings and precise prose. I wondered at his gaining access to corpses because I thought that the all powerful church at that time frowned on such practices, but he seemed to escape censure there. This was probably an early facet of the Renaissance whereby curiosity about the natural world became valued over religious orthodox prohibitions. Leonardo also moved about with some serendipity. He left his native Florence to live and work in Milan for many years; during his absence Savonarola took and lost power in Florence. This religious fanatic made bonfires of the vanities famous as he organized the burning of books and artwork (remember this is Florence, one of the great centers of medieval and Renaissance art and intellect) as well as prosecuting many for prohibited sexual practices. Leonardo’s tenure in Milan ended with the defeat of his princely patron after a long time and so he returned for awhile to Florence after the Savonarola craze had ended.  Such a loss was avoided by this circumstance.

Consider this example of his diligent genius. He wondered why the heart valves of the aorta closed so as to prevent any blood from regressing into the heart once pumped out to the body. The common assumption that continued up until the 1960s was that the weight and pressure of the blood once the aorta was filled pushed the valve closed. Leonardo looked at human and pig hearts, even watching a pig heart beating and later making a glass model to observe fluid flow. He did not accept the assumption because his observations showed that the weight and pressure would only collapse the valve’s membranous flaps against the sides. Instead he thought that the turbulence caused by the flow through the valve from one space to another pulled the valve shut. Once we had the modern technology to image a working heart, we discovered that he was right. Wow!

Leonardo’s religious beliefs were not explicit; he certainly followed the church and was not in any way heretical or was not even obviously heterodoxical (ignoring here his sexuality). He wrote at one point that he would not “write or give information of those things of which the human mind is incapable and which cannot be proved by an instance of nature”, “leaving such matters to the minds of the friars, fathers of the people, who by inspiration possess the secrets.” He was one of the early modern and greatest empiricists and an artist of fertile imagination who combined art and science into a life’s work, including putting on spectacles and plays for his patrons, for which he was maybe best known in his lifetime. Go figure.

Now time to travel on.

An odd (?) and provocative (!) finding

Many members of my generation (born 1950) were the first in our families to go straight from high school to college and then to expect our children to do the same. Some of my friends quite wisely rejected college to pursue other career paths about which their parents were not keen. And some of my daughter’s generation also rejected higher education and some of them faced heightened pressure to continue on, such as hearing about the research on lifetime earnings between high school and college graduates to outright emotional rejection if they failed to carry on the college tradition. The reasons I heard then were primarily of two sorts, the preparation for a more lucrative career and the rite of passage into adulthood as college helps youth to engage with their peer group, develop a mature identity to carry them forth from the bosom of their family, etc. I rarely heard an argument for intellectual development and appreciation of the world of ideas, and then mostly when I listened to myself and other nerds.

Now I gather from a NYT story that scientists are searching for a genetic influence (of course) in who goes for further education: This began evidently a decade or so ago and the results have not been very elucidating, but recently a group of researchers looked at the genomes of parents to see if some clue could be found there as to whose children pursued more education, and voila, there was. I really like this research effort with its odd and provocative results, and I also have to wonder about the relative contributions of class, wealth and other family traditions that are, of course, also genetically influenced. I still remember my first team meeting at an internship in clinical psychology at a teaching hospital and learning that 6 of the 7 psychiatry residents were the children of physicians, a couple of them 3rd or 4th generation. Almost a caste or hereditary guild system there.

So the genes in their families helped impel these scions to further education? Maybe. The theoretical basis for this, I think, comes from Richard Dawkins and his concept of the extended phenotype. (I hope I have understood this correctly and can explain it properly). Basically idea of the extended phenotype is that genes act beyond their synthesis of proteins, etc. in their own soma, i.e., body, to affect other somas and the environment and that this extended action also promotes the continuation of select genes. Dawkins marshals considerable evidence for this hypothesis, so it is quite natural to think that parental genes affect offspring’s behaviors not just through the progeny’s genetic inheritance, say for intelligence, but also through parental behaviors that influence the next generation’s adaptation. Indeed, to me this is exactly the genius of our mammalian heritage; attachment and bonding, mirroring and social learning, cultural transmission, etc. are all biological actions carried from soma to soma (you know, our humanity’s biological roots in empathy and symbolization).

I have a younger friend here in the mountains of SW Virginia who comes from an eminently practical and mechanical family; they can build and fix almost everything. The uncles and cousins all live in houses they built together by pooling their talents. My generation in this family all finished high school reluctantly and went on to successful careers in industry, rising through the ranks because of their mechanical intelligence, good sense and work ethic. My younger friend recently shared that his 5 yo son does not want to start school because he would rather accompany his father on his job working with machines. The father is proud of that and don’t most fathers want sons to follow somehow in their footsteps; I think this might be a fairly invariant feature of human culture, at least in recent civilized history where trades and professions have become more clearly specialized and defined. My own father insisted futilely that I follow him in the military.

But is there some genetic basis for not insisting that your child follow after you in a trade but rather pursues more education? Is part of genetic ‘success’ and human evolution the tendency of some parents to promote their children’s going further or in a different direction? I would think that the human path from prehistoric to ancient to modern intellectual culture, progressing from animism and magic to science and engineering, over the long slog of history would have required such a genetic flow and current, even if it is a result of chaotic, random mutations building upon the genetic roots of our beings. And now this research may provide an entry into exploring how such progress was served by the extended phenotype in which parents promote greater intellectual understanding in their children through further education and not just following along with traditional ways, content with the orthodoxy of old.

Consider the past half million years or so as our ancestors developed a human habitus and conserved the old ways by resisting much of the new. I have read much history and fiction which show historically that children used to follow almost religiously their family tradition in work, class, etc.; indeed in many cultures and periods they had (& have) little choice. This notion may seem alien today, at least in the USA and western world where the ‘dream’ is of a better, richer, more technologically advanced way of life (and this, by the bye, is being challenged with the rise of other countries from the ashes of our imperialism), as we think progress is inevitable because of the increasing power of our science and technology. I believe that is, oh, so wrong. Balance is important in all matters, especially between material gains and social justice, and devolution waits just around the corner. Ask the survivors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima; watch as our democracy now faces a severe test because of anti-scientific bias, impoverished critical thinking, and neglect of fairness in economic rewards. (I will not bring up a catastrophic loss of electricity due to meteors or other calamities). Consider our own (American) falling rankings on measures of happiness, health, education (especially STEM subjects), gap between rich and poor, etc. We may indeed have genes for helping our children to appreciate further education, even ones for promoting their curiosity and progress in discovering new and better ways that have helped power our evolution for thousands of years or genes that led to greater intellectual progress. These genes would seem to help us accept, even insist that our children cherish an ethic of knowledge and the new understanding it brings and question our knowledge of ethics to seek a more just world. At least I hope later generations feel this benefit.

A good study, then, with odd and provocative results; such findings are sometimes our best hope for knowing ourselves in a changing world. Travel on.

Science headlines miss the mark (and some of the fun)

Here are two interesting stories about two bits of interesting research, both of which have headlines that miss the particular import of the science. The first headline is from the NYT: “Dolphins show self-recognition earlier than children” about some research that shows that dophins recognize themselves in a mirror, a cetacean version of the mirror test wherein a mark is put on the animal’s head where it can not be seen directly and then the animal is shown a mirror to see if they recognize themselves and the anomalous mark. Humans do so quite readily, dogs don’t, and elephants do as Frans de Waal showed quite creatively by using an elephant sized mirror (other researchers had found negative results using smaller mirrors but de Waal understood the animal well enough to try again with the appropriate set-up).

The NYT reports that finding that dolphins recognize themselves by age 7 months while humans do so by age 12 months. But here is my concern: direct comparison of developmental age between the two species is specious because humans have a longer altricial period, the time from birth to independence and reproduction, than dolphins. The NYT headline is thus misleading even as their story reports that the researchers were quite aware of the different maturational pace. Humans generally come to reproductive age between 11 and 16 years, females a year or two earlier than males. Dolphins evidently vary a good deal across species and locations, but seem to average out at females around 5-6 years and males 10-11. (Why? Maybe because evolutionary success benefits from younger and longer female reproduction and from older males who have demonstrated hardiness). Reproductive age is an important developmental milestone that marks the last spurt of bone growth, the strengthening of muscular systems, and a slowing but not by any means stopping brain development.

So the data show that dolphins recognize themselves in a mirror earlier than humans by calendar age but the data do not necessarily support an earlier maturational age. A fascinating aspect of this story though is what dolphins do when they recognize themselves in the mirror: they like to have some fun. Their antics include swimming and moving dramatically in front of the mirror; some look into their mouths and wiggle their tongues, but my favorite is the dolphin who repeatedly turned upside down and blew bubbles. I am sure we could be great friends, but back to my point—I think a better headline would have been “Dolphins have fun with their mirror images”. What do you think?

The second headline comes from the Duke Chronicle story on research done by Brian Hare and a graduate student name of Christopher Krupenye: “Our closest relatives prefer jerks”. I know some of Dr. Hare’s research and it is quite good and interesting (check out his work on dogs—very nice), so I am pretty confident that his methodology is worked out carefully, but here is my worry: the experimental manipulation involves showing bonobos videos and I find human-video interaction quite complicated as to what is understood, felt as import, mirrored, aversive/reinforcing or mindless drivel. I did not know that simians cared the least about TV and I hope this report signals a brief flirtation with the medium and that the bonobos much prefer actual life rather than virtual, unless of course it is decidedly artistic or at least intellectual. Anyway, here is the experimental set-up as reported.

They showed bonobos animated or live action videos of someone being helpful to another, e.g., helping them up a hill or helping them reach a toy, or hindering them, e.g., pushing them down a hill or taking a toy from them. Then they showed cut-outs of the two characters, each with an apple slice, to see whether the subject would take an apple from the helpful or the unhelpful. The bonobos preferred the unhelpful one because, the humans conjectured, they prefer relationships with the dominant one and the unhelpful one, being a bully, appeared dominant.

I don’t know about this one. Bonobos will help strangers for no reward; they form alliances with many non-dominant in their tribe; their social group is led by females and males who get too aggressive get attacked by the ladies. They are simians however, and Michael Tomasello, who is, I believe, a colleague of Hare’s at Duke, says the data show that simians are more competitive and humans more cooperative. But the reasoning here could be quite different or dissociated from dominance. Perhaps they took apples from the dominant ones as means of balancing the outcomes; simians do show a sense of fairness and will balk at cooperating when things are unfair and will act to balance things out. Perhaps they figure that the bully can always get more while the less dominant beast might have to struggle. I am sure Hare and colleagues will work further to clarify. In any event the headline saying bonobos prefer jerks is an anthropomorphic projection, and while I quite understand that anthropodenial is a problem because we do share many attrtibutes with our kin, anthropomorphism is still the more frequent problem with us. Different beasts, different Umvelts and different cultures—show some respect. Dominance and jerkiness are not the same thing.

Back to the issue of videos. We humans are so tuned into the electronic manifestations of cultural features that videos seem naturally to reflect some reality, even though as I said above our relationship with the virtual presentation with what we see is very complex. Simians do not have such a culture. I find it very interesting that they watch and understand to some degree what they see. My in-laws swear that their dog watches tv and prefers human action like sports to watching other dogs run around. Who knows? But how other beasts interpret the stories depicted virtually must be related to their Umvelt and the context they bring to it. I wonder what the result would be if analogous studies could be done in a more ecologically valid manner, like watching a video of their familiar being helped or hindered and then who they take the apple from or if given other options for action, how they might intervene. Complicated beasts, aren’t we all? Travel on.


Yes, we bonobos much prefer PBS. Those chimps and gorillas, I don’t know.

A cultural question about our biology

So after watching, crying and flying with Oprah’s speech accepting the Cecil B. Demille award at the 2018 Golden Globes, I pulled out my check book to write a check to her presidential campaign. After a night’s sleep and more reflection, I pushed my check book to the side, still in reach mind you, and considered the scope of change she most powerfully and eloquently envisioned for us. A world where sexual behavior by mostly males is not used to violate the social mores of intimacy in order to instrumentally boost the perpetrators’ sense of power, their own power, not the female’s nor society’s. The current debate focuses on the sexual violence of the already powerful, but I am reminded of a video, last year I think, by a woman walking the streets of New York City, documenting more than one catcall and gratuitous sexual reference per minute of time travelled. These workmen were not the powerful and still they reveled in glorifying their sexual verbiage used to degrade the lady’s personhood walking by.

The scope of change here would (will) be remarkable even in this country, and then I consider the status of females in other countries and cultures around the world. Scandinavia looks more equitable and respectful; Iceland even enacted a law making it illegal to pay women less than men for equal work and demanding that employers with more than 25 workers prove that they remunerate equitably. Many French and Italian women also endorsed this movement and many men there complained that their seductive behaviors are not abusive but in the service of love. Many activists in the Arab world, in Africa, Asia and South America carry on the struggle for women’s rights, from the right not to be killed at birth and the right not to be sold or mutilated for marriage and the right to drive and work to the right of full citizenship in voting and holding office.

If you want a metric to assess the progress of humanity, measuring the rise of female civil and cultural rights and justice would be a fair one. When in a cynical mood (hard not to be these days), I wonder about the learning curve of a just equality. I think about the evolution and development of our humanity over the past 50 to 100,000 years, of the paucity of matriarchal systems surviving into the recent history of humans, say around 15,000 years ago, and how biological roles determined by child-rearing have morphed into subservient social status in so many cultures. I just re-read the Iliad and the Greeks, credited with conceiving democratic governance so long as you discount slaves, non-property owners and of course, females, treated women as chattel. Agamemnon gives favored warriors women they have captured as slaves. Trojan women, including Queen Hecuba, know that their fate is to be enslaved by the Greeks after the men are slaughtered. The narrative shows that some women adapted to their enslavement by becoming treasured concubines, thus Achilles is greatly attached to his captured slave, Briseis, and refused to fight when Agamemnon takes her. Once returned she becomes a comforting bedmate for Achilles.

My point here is that male usurpation of female personhood is long standing and that, I imagine, a case can be made for its entrenched place in our human habitus (that’s culture, if you are new here to the blog) based upon the biologically driven male aggression. Bonobos are wonderfully amazing because their female dominated society stands in stark contrast to that of chimpanzees and other simians, indeed of many other species. What about cetaceans? I don’t know. Elephants? I think females are pretty central but still run when the bull is mad or aroused.

I have written before on my blog about differentiating what is cultural from our biological predispositions (see post 5/23/15: “gender, culture and biology” ), and I think our current arrangement is not an outgrowth of our biology but for the social biological convenience of males wanting to control paternity and property. With some developments in the modern world that contribute to the loss of social coherence based upon authentic relationships, this ‘convenience’ has grown uglier and uglier. And I will not even begin to consider here the interplay between classes, rich or poor, educated or not, advanced or primitive.

When I voice my cynicism about deep change aloud, my wife likes to remind me about the success of tobacco cessation programs instigated by many researchers and non-profits standing together with the Surgeon General to lobby Congress to enact laws curtailing tobacco sales while still helping the farmers and others dependent upon that income and push the CDC to act to reduce highly addictive behaviors. (Don’t you grow angry that our Congress has forbidden the CDC from studying gun violence with a focus on harm reduction? American culture is a special case here, folks). And of course the struggles for civil rights and suffrage have changed our society much for the better. (Again, our ‘special’ American culture now allows reactionary moves against people of color). In all of this, I must cherish the thought that deep change is possible albeit not easy or linear by standing together.

Oprah’s promising vision of a world where girls and women meet respect and justice is one beautiful flower of this moment in time and cultural egress leaving a stultified domain of male privilege and entering one refreshed by the inclusion of females in a new and refreshing view of their humanity, the acknowledgment of their personhood and the refusal by everyone to abide by any violation of this inalienable right. I have several other associations to finish this piece off. First I remember my readings of Celtic society where women were accorded many rights, including control over their own sexual relations. Consider the fierce Queen Medb’s requirements for a mate: not jealous of her other lovers, brave enough to fight and win against any of their challenges, and generous. Another one is of James Hilton’s 1933 book Lost Horizon (and a pretty good movie as well) wherein Shangri-La exists as an isolated utopian community hidden away in the high Himalayas. The change we seek is utopian, not in a secluded and protected environment but in the wider world. Of course, some would call this a dream, but others would call this awakening from a nightmare. Then we have John Lennon’s song “Imagine”: “You may say I am a dreamer, but I am not the only one”, and that is a not so secret weapon we dreamers have, standing together. So I will now travel on. And Oprah, I still have my checkbook beside me on the table.

Let’s talk doxa, science, and humanity

Recall from my 6/7/17 post on Pierre Boudrieu’s writings that the doxa comprises the entire realm of possible discourse; anything outside the doxa is difficult to discuss—it is ineffable or inchoate. Within the doxa the dominant paradigm or pattern of beliefs and knowledge is orthodoxy, which mostly controls the domain of discourse, while deviant thinking would be heterodoxy. In religion heterodoxy may become heresy, e.g., the Pelagian heresy that one can attain salvation through good works. In science heterodoxy can fall by the wayside if it fails to account coherently and productively for the subject phenomena, or it can replace orthodoxy because it eventually is found to provide a more robust explanation. The classic example is Thomas Kuhn’s scientific revolution in the shift from the Ptolemaic earth-centric universe to the Copernican heliocentric one.

A more modern example comes from Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s book, Merchants of Doubt, about a small group of scientists who act to obscure the valid findings about hot issues, such as tobacco’s carcinogenic effects or the human contribution to global warming. The question they raise is how to tell a fraud from a crank, who may or may not be on to something wrong in the orthodox realm of discourse (see post 3/7/16). Oreskes has discussed the eventual acceptance of plate tectonic theory, 50 or more years after Alfred Wegener proposed it in his 1912 book. Evidently the theory was accepted in Europe long before it was accepted in the USA, where Wegener was seen as a bit of a crank; here in the USA they could not imagine a meteorologist like Wegener developing a valid theory about earth’s geology, so Wegener was seen then as a crank whom we now understand had a good idea. And the climate change deniers are still the same old frauds from the tobacco scam.

Now the study and understanding of our humanity has likewise undergone some great shifts; some of the most profound transformations from heterodoxy into orthodoxy came with the Enlightenment and science’s assertion that humans were a proper subject of study outside of religion, Darwin’s assertion that man was just an earth-bound animal, Freud’s assertion that conscious life is a construction of non-conscious processes, etc. More recently Norbert Weiner’s initiation of cybernetics revealed the structural similarity of control systems between biological man and machine, a gap that grows increasingly smaller as science progresses. I would also include Jacques Monod’s assertion that our biology in its foundation of molecular genetics can account for life without any recourse to supernatural creators, thank you very much, so that his understanding of spirit looks to the generations of life over the past 4 billion years on Gaia. That would be his mystic beyond, not Olympus or heaven or whatever (see post 3/25/17).

I would like to think that one particular heterodoxical idea is also usurping some of the orthodoxy in cognitive psychology, but alas, I do not see a tectonic shift happening here. I do remember when cognitive psychology was heterodox, back in the days of behaviorism’s puritanical orthodoxy, and then psychologists had the good sense to admit that we had minds, that we actually thought and that our thoughts had purpose and effect. Now cognitive psychology seems to exert its orthodoxy through control of the doxa, especially through its alliance with information science and focus on algorithms. Everything mental is thinking more or less logically, you know, in the cortex, while affect and emotion are lower. Thus the predominant and errant metaphor of ‘hard-wired’ as we neglect intuition, feelings and emotion.

But consider some seemingly disparate ideas. I first caught a glimpse of an alternative seeping into the doxa when I read Susanne Langer all these years ago. The title of her last work gives us a hint, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, in its last word, ‘feeling.’ She arrived at her examination of mind as biological through her study of art, understanding that art is a different kind of symbol, i.e., presentational, than language, i.e., discursive. Its structure is different because its elements of composition are different, and while both types of symbols have surface and deep structures, the latter for art is better termed aesthetic import in contrast to linguistic meaning (see post 11/10/17). Peruse some books addressing the evolution of our minds and see how often art is considered as an important phenomena in its own right of our humanity. Daniel Dennett’s recent one briefly addresses Bach and his music not so much as art but as an example of cognitive design. Patricia Churchland’s 1989 Neurophilosophy mentions music twice, art and symbols not at all. Trying to expand my own doxa is one big reason I read books like Kandel’s on art (see post 7/23/17) and plan on reading one by Ramachandran soon. This is why I think the development of an instrument to reliably study our emotional response to art, Aesthemos (see post 10/31/17), is an important step forward.

Consider also how maybe 50% of an important neurotransmitter, dopamine, is synthesized in the gut, how even more serotonin is found there, and how our gut microbiome affects mood and thinking. Consider the work by Tversky, Kahneman and others showing that our minds are not clean cognitive operations but filled with heuristics that generally satisfice in most circumstances but lead us astray in some important others and emotions play no small role in that. Consider Gavin de Becker’s Gift of Fear underlining the importance of paying attention of our feelings of danger. Consider how disrupted attachment, you know that basic emotional bond, affects thinking in the social realm, hindering social perspective and empathy, and in cognitive realm, hindering understanding of cause and effect, sequencing, etc. Consider how the Texas tower shooter, Charles Whitman, sought medical help repeatedly when he felt something was wrong with his mind because murderous thoughts were so prominent and intrusive, how doctors dismissed his concerns any number of ways, e.g., just depressive feelings, and how autopsy revealed a fast growing tumor on his amygdala, an emotional control center affecting thinking and behavior. All of this suggests that feeling is coequal with thinking, or at least, that both are important functions in the nervous system responsible for our mind. This idea is what Langer promoted at the end of her career.

I have just finished Michael Tomasello’s book, The Natural History of Human Cognition, following up on my reading of his book on human morality (see post 7/31/17). Both books compare simians and humans to see wherein we are different, i.e., what makes us human. This one hypothesizes how we developed more or less objective thinking over the past 100,000 years of our evolution. It is interesting and thought provoking, albeit written in an academic and somewhat tedious style. He focuses pretty exclusively on human cooperation, which is assuredly distinctive in the animal realm, and how our thinking developed “collective intentionality and agent-neutral thinking”, going from an individual perspective taking to group perspective taking to thinking objectively, i.e., valid from any perspective. (Yes, I have foreshortened his arguments terribly but I want to get on to another point).

Tomasello does not really address very directly the issue of human feeling, but he comes close several times. And to be sure at the end he makes a strong statement that our cognition is socially based and that our culture, including art, is based upon the development of human cognition with some semblance to his outlined hypothesis. Before that we read statements hinting at the importance of relationships (and feelings?).

  • As distinct from other great apes, early humans began mating via pair bonding, with the result that nuclear families became newly cooperating social units.
  • [Other great apes do not have] human-like joint goals; there is no cooperative communication for coordinating actions.
  • Great ape cognition and thinking are adapted to this social, but not very cooperative, way of life.

Tomasello argues that this cooperative way of life, developed in response to ecological variations, led to “Thinking for cooperating”.

To be clear, I think Tomasello’s arguments are quite robust as far as they go albeit with one caveat, and that is reflected in his statement, “Humans have thus constructed learning environments within which their own offspring develop”. That we have learning environments is true, to be sure, but that we ‘constructed’ them elevates our ability of rational control above rational limits. Even our modern child rearing arrangements are based upon cultural evolution by historical accident, and while we think we know what we are doing, we also know that unforeseen consequences are unavoidable and that much of our success in promoting child development comes from attending to the basics of emotional attachment, group relationships and play. Yes, cognitive skills are important there, both to develop and for developing, but the contextual process is not one of ‘construction’; our rationality is quite limited in its intentional power because so much is unconscious. (Consider Daniel Kahneman’s quote in Thinking Fast and Slow from Herbert Simon, “Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition” of what rises for conscious presentation from subliminal processes and feelings play a larger role in those processes than some might expect or include in their discourse).

With that caveat expressed, I want to expand on what I think the context is, i.e., what lies beyond where Tomasello’s argument falters, or more to the point, what our current orthodoxy seems to neglect in its discourse. Once upon a time, a long time ago, in the early 20th century, before information theory and molecular biology transformed biological, including psychological, science, some intellectuals focused on symbols. As I hinted above, topics like feeling, art, and symbols are not well represented in more recent books, and there we have lost something. I came of age appreciating C. S. Pierce’s and Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory of semiotics, Ernst Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms and his notion of man as a symbolic animal, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, Noam Chomsky’s theory of mind and linguistic structure, and of course, Susanne Langer’s keen and profound insights on presentational and discursive symbols.

When Tomasello writes that children and apes have “very similar cognitive skills for dealing with the physical world” but that even very young children already have “more sophisticated cognitive skills [than apes] for dealing with the social world,” the question arises why? How is it that humans have developed a more cooperative umvelt along with symbolization? I would argue that our empathic abilities motivated concerned, prosocial action, but the key issue for me here is how the powerful relationships between surface signals and deep structures, e.g., semantic meaning for discursive symbols and artistic import for presentational symbols, developed. My intuition over the years has repeatedly presented for my recognition the idea that human intimacy and symbolic forms are indeed related and that between the two, intimacy is primary. Here’s the deal:

To progress from signs and signals with their isomorphic referents to symbolic surface and deep structures requires a more powerful sense of what exists in another’s mind. Consider these distinctions:

  • between a raven’s caw when chasing a hawk and a person shouting fire
  • between the raven’s roosting at evening and a person watching the colors fading at dusk
  • between skipping a rock across a lake and cracking a nut with a rock
  • between a green light at an intersection and the green light on the dock at Daisy’s house Gatsby sees across the bay.

In each case the first example involves a signal with acutely circumscribed significance and the second involves a metaphorical vehicle with a tenor of deeper significance. (Consider that Lakoff and Johnson develop a useful epistemology through symbols and metaphors in their book, Metaphors We Live By.)

Consider now the ontogeny of human relations in the important basic development of attachment and emotional regulation that leads to adaptive prosocial relationships. This is primarily a function of the right side of the brain, as the research summarized by Alan Shore shows, and it is here that a sense of self initiates hopefully to become one of empathic cooperativeness. With further development a neural center serving the higher or extended functions empathy in the right hemisphere around the OTP (occipital-temporal-parietal) junction (what I call Empathy Central or EC and the orthodox call Theory of Mind or ToM—see post 10/31/16). This is analogous to the left sided OTP area known as Wernicke’s area that serves semantic meaning, so the right-sided OTP would analogously serve empathic or social-emotional significance. That would serve as the basis for aesthetic import that arises, I think, in a much more complicated manner through a more widely organized system. Humans have a highly developed sense of self and empathy with another self, and while this enables cognitive perspective taking, it remains a function based on feeling, just like the left sided grammatical functions are based upon grammatical feelings of fitness, e.g., this feels right and that doesn’t as in Chomsky’s “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” is grammatical but meaningless and Yoda’s “A jedi will you be never” is not grammatical but meaningful. (Compare also phenomena of handedness; cross your arms right over left and left over right and one will feel more comfortable or fit. Same with clasping fingers with right or left thumb on top or throwing a ball with right or left hand.)

The idea here is that human attachment paves the way for intimacy and a keen sense of another’s mind, that this is primarily a right sided function that matures before the left sided language and that the two sides communicate with each other in the coordination of communicative behaviors. Consider next the arcuate fasciculis, a long fiber tract that on the left side connects Wernicke’s and Broca’s area and is a part of the mirroring system. The arcuate fasciculus facilitates verbatim repetition of what was just heard, i.e., it helps connect the auditory signal constituting the surface structure to the motoric plans for saying that same surface structure (see post 4/24/14). No meaning is required, but here is the catch. Remember a time when you heard someone say something but did not quite catch the total message. You probably rehearsed silently using the arcuate fasciculus what you heard until you were able to decode and complete the surface structure and so glean its meaning using both your analysis of the communication signal and your composition of context, including knowledge of the other person and the situation.

This example demonstrates, I think, a basic insight into the development of human symbols. A signal, i.e., surface structure, carries its deep structure through our empathic apprehension of another’s mind and its presumed contents; we ‘know’ more is there and can even surmise what it might be through EC. Without that evolutionary step symbols could not develop. (Hey, what a perspicacious title for my blog, eh?) That deep structure may be conventionalized and carried by lexical items as in discursive language or not conventionalized, its formal or aesthetic import carried by the presentational art symbol. Without the active inclusion of both symbolization and empathy in our doxa, orthodox discourse will have difficulty bridging the gap between, as Tomasello quotes Donald Davidson, human evolution “from ‘no thought’ to thought’.” The heterodoxical statement, “No thought without feeling” may be heretical but should still be part of our discourse as we strive to bridge that gap.

And now travel on with feeling. Happy New Year.