Brave Genius

I am reading a book entitled ‘Brave Genius’ about Albert Camus and Jacques Monod, their fight against the Nazis with the French resistance, their subsequent life long friendship, and their careers in which both won the Nobel prize, Camus for literature and Monod for medicine (shared with two colleagues).  While secretly working with the resistance, Monod lived and worked in Paris.  Once the gestapo came to his lab at the Sorbonne to search for incriminating materials.  They had previously searched his house without success (from their perspective).  Monod reports that they were very leery of the laboratory equipment, especially the petri dishes etc where he was  experimenting with bacterias and sugars, so they left after a cursory look, missing what he had hidden behind the equipment.


As it turned out this series of experiments started him on the trail to understanding the molecular chemistry of cells, how genes interact with RNA to produce proteins and enzymes to build the cells and then carry out their functions.  Monod found that bacteria prefer some sugars over others.  When he mixed two sugars in the medium, he found that the bacteria ingested the preferred sugar first and then the second less preferred one and that there was a gap in between as the cells shifted their metabolism to the second.  He asked colleagues about this and they said they thought it was ‘enzyme adaptation’ but they did not really know what that was or how the cell recognized different sugars and then changed their chemistry to metabolize them.  Monod went on to study that and helped to found molecular biology as we know it today in doing so.  Wow.

And Camus?  What was Camus doing during this time, the philosophically inclined want to know.  He was helping to put out a newspaper for the resistance while recovering from a second bout of tuberculosis as he completed The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, and The Plague.  Wow again.


Elephants comfort each other

Researchers, including Frans de Waal, studied Asian elephants for a  year in their native habitat and observed clearly that they respond to another’s distress through vocalizations and reaching out.


 Not a surprise, says Frans de Waal, who documents their empathy and social structure in his book Age of Empathy.  They pass the mirror test of self recognition, are excellent parents who raise their young for several years, maintain a matriarchal society, and have specialized large cells in their cortex, like humans, apes and cetaceans,  thought to play a role in self and empathy.  Good news.

Bonobos can dance


Reuters reports a fairly ecological study showing bonobos have a sense of rhythm:

Bonobos are closely related to chimpanzees and humans, sharing around 95% of our genes.  Theirs are rearranged a little bit.  Their behaviors are different from chimpanzees though as bonobos have been found to be a bit more peaceful, matriarchal in status, very empathetic, socially oriented and highly sexual in their interactions.  They are geographically isolated from chimpanzees by the Congo river, thus their independent evolution (neither are good swimmers).


Rhythm matching occurs with animals in very many ways and now researchers have found that bonobos drum and match rhythms, certainly one of the basic behaviors  generating social synchrony and music.  Oh, and bonobos communicate vocally a good deal though we do not understand what this entails. We do recognize facial expressions however as in



Hippocampus again


The hippocampus is one of the earliest cortical areas to appear in evolution.  Actually it is at the top of the limbic system and at the bottom of the cerebral hemispheres, folded deep inside.  It receives connections from the posterior perceptual areas and then sends out connections to the frontal areas involved in planning.  I read about it first in the late 70s and found it fascinating because it detects novelty and then organizes around that new salient perception.  More recent research cited by Jaak Panksepp confirms the view that hippocampal theta indicates active processing of salient stimuli.  Theta waves are longer, slower waves.


Delta are the slowest and signal sleep.  Theta are slow rhythmic waves indicating a new response set.  Once started they slowly increase in frequency and become choppier (alpha), much like an ocean swell does when the winds and currents intensify.  I interpret this to mean that the initial orienting gestalt is filled in with the particulars and the new becomes old and useful in planning.  Hippocampal theta appears in some birds when their heads bob, e.g., chickens when they walk or stand still move their head and each move brings about a new orientation.  Rats show this theta when they walk.  Cats show this theta when they orient, e.g., they hear or see something interesting.  Apes do not show this theta that often but do when they expect something which does not happen, e.g., they push the lever for food and nothing appears.  Humans do not show this theta much after early childhood.  These last two examples suggest that the primate hippocampus is more involved in processing mental events than perceptual ones, that we are subjective creatures not originally but now primarily. 




Here is link to study showing another cortical area distinct to humans:

This is a small area in the ventrolateral frontal cortex likely involved in planning and flexible implementation.  It is well connected with language areas in the temporal cortex.

Homologies are structures which are similar across species because of common if distant ancestry.  This area is not homologous with other animals; it is ours.  I recently read that dolphins, whose brain size in relation to body size matches ours, also have their own structure, the rather large paralimbic cortex.  Extrapolating from human studies it would appear to be involved in social and emotional communication.  Given its proximity to the hippocampus it may also help with spatial mapping.  Dolphin brains differ from primate brains in another way.  Their cortex is not layered like ours is.  Instead the cell types are intermingled and without the layered, columnar organization.  I saw a study late last year brilliantly done by Scottish researchers demonstrating that dolphins call each other by names and that Scottish dolphins seem to have a different sort of dialect than ones off the Azores.  Who knew?  But brilliant.

Speak, memory

Here is a link to an interesting study that has received much publicity over the past few weeks:  The experimental protocol was relatively simple, using a spatial memory task on the computer screen while brain activity was recorded using MRI. Basically the subjects’ memory of the object’s location on the screen was manipulated by changing the background.  Under one protocol they all misplaced the object given the new background and then when later asked to recall the correct position, they remembered their mistake as the right place.


The primary area involved in this spatial recall task is the hippocampus, a very curious bilateral structure so named because of its resemblance to a seahorse.  I will say much more about it in the next posts. The researchers were surprised because they observed the same activity when the subject responded correctly or when making a mistake. The take-home interpretation here is that our memories are dynamic, integrating new data or circumstances into old, whereupon recall summons the changed version.

This task used spatial mapping which is a basic, evolutionarily old function of the hippocampus; it is very active when rats run a maze.  In humans it is also critical for the consolidation of episodic or autobiographical memories.  This research highlights what law enforcement, therapists and some writers have known for a long time:  Memories change over time.  Eyewitness accounts vary in recall.  One important facet of effective therapy with abused children is helping them develop and retain as accurate and as consistent a memory of their abuse as possible, because they have a strong tendency to remember with minimization, even denial, especially if the abuser were a loved one.  And today’s title is from Nabokov’s autobiography, in which he consciously endorses imaginative elements.  We are, even in our facts, a creative species.

Mystery, post script


I realized that I may have jumped to a wrong conclusion in following Mr. Anderson’s and others’ characterization of our universe as cold, lawful and valueless.  Analogous to our valuing the rare metals, e.g., gold, platinum, for their special properties, perhaps the universe does present us with a value, life.  Not a great deal of it around, as far as we can tell and it does seem to be precious.  Perhaps our quest for extra-terrestial intelligence, or at least life, is simply a manifestation of our seeking that treasure, that value.  The scale of the universe seems to contravene any hope of success for the SETI projects but life will out, one way or another, and it is out there, if not elsewhere in our galaxy as depicted above, then in the countless other galaxies.  To think otherwise would be to make the same old mistake of believing our club is somehow exclusive and superior.  And thank you, Carl Sagan, for helping me understand this.


Let the mystery be, please


My wife alerted me to a well written, thoughtful op-ed piece in our local paper, The Roanoke Times, by a minister/philosophy teacher, George C. Anderson, about, yes, you guessed it, the differences between the atheists and believers. (Roanoke Times, 2/2/14, “Must faith be a fairly tale?”). He dismissed recent non-believers, such as Chris Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, as little boy atheists unlike the big boy ones like the existentialists, Sartre and Camus. These latter, Anderson writes, faced a cold valueless universe and still affirmed the need and place for justice. The former he concludes are too vituperative, cherry pick their facts to support their positions, and fail to appreciate the religious good for supporting justice. In conclusion, he affirms his belief in god, a loving god and that I appreciate very much, saying that the cold, lawful but valueless universe is real but not all.

But the context, what about the context? Certainly Sartre and Camus are giants and came to face a meaningless universe while intimately, and please consider the full meaning and power of that word, fighting off fascism and its belief in its own superiority delusional enough to take pride in genocide. It is impossible to understand or accept that evil in any satisfying manner. Dawkins sees religious fundamentalism once again seeking control through any means possible from manipulating elections to murdering doctors performing legal procedures to terrorist violence to genocide. This is current history and Dawkins is concerned that our culture, this Americanized version of western thought, is becoming increasingly anti-scientific. Note America’s loss of standing in STEM subjects, science, technology, engineering and math. Note the acceptance of the validity of intelligent design as science. Note the continued widespread disbelief of the science and data found through studying evolution and climate change. These all reflect a science IQ below freezing. Not that America is alone in this, nor even the leader, thank heavens, as religious fundamentalists around the world kill aid workers who provide immunizations, continue to see females as property and as unworthy of education,  doubt that AIDS is a communicable disease, and the list goes on.

Chris Hitchens until his death in 2011 pretty consistently showed rare and much needed courage in reporting world events, from the disgraceful US support of Pinochet to the hypocrisy evident in much of the standard press and society at large. Note his book and movie on Mother Teresa. He did not shy away from visiting dangerous and war torn areas nor from reporting it as he saw it. He protected his friend, Salman Rushdie, from a religious fatwa issued because he wrote a satirical and profound novel, a work of delightful fictional imagination, despite warnings from our own government. The only difference between this fatwa and the religious acts of violence by religious terrorists in this country and around the world is in name only. And Chris Hitchens is one of our times’ best writers and most productive essayists. Little boy indeed.

Because my science IQ is above freezing I am not going to address issues of ignorance evident from the Scopes trial on. I am going to assert that between God and a cold, lawful though valueless universe lies life that is local, warm,wet and caring. All of our cultural beliefs and knowledge have their roots in our biology and the evolution of our brain and mental capacities. And life produces its own values of fairness and justice because, at least on our planet, life has evolved and higher forms succeed and depend upon empathy. For some of the data, I refer you to Frans de Waal’s interesting book, The Age of Empathy, summarizing a life time’s study of animal behaviors. He reports a variety of findings showing that chimpanzees will refuse to participate in an experiment when the procedures are unfair and that they will willingly engage in procedures where a partner is rewarded more than themselves. He tells of an elephant who inadvertently broke a human observer’s leg and then stayed around protecting, even comforting him, from the wild savannah to the point of refusing initially access by the human rescuers. Tales of caring among cetaceans and between them and humans go far back in history. And speaking of injustice I have seen a video of a male blue whale charging the harpooner’s perch after its mate was killed only to meet its own demise. In this regard humans are notable for our violations of fairness and empathy which some seek to justify by their presumed superiority. Yes, we are in a class by ourselves and some of us want to resign and join another.

Another important implication I see growing from our biological roots lies in how our minds reach out to understand. We can feel in the present moment but we otherwise are caught in considering information as old or new. Even our consciousness of now is, as William James so aptly put it, a “remembered present.” Efforts to develop understanding, then, can be based upon feedback, relating new to old, or feedforward, relating old to new. Both are useful and no robust mental operation is exclusively one or the other. The difference can be illustrated in the two major types of remembering (this based upon declarative knowledge). Recognition involves new being recognized as old and recall involves old being produced as new. Religious fundamentalism relies heavily, maybe exclusively, on feedback and recognition. I make a differentiation here between those whose beliefs are perhaps more vital and nuanced like Mr. Anderson’s and then fundamentalists. Mention anything and they understand it in reference and evaluation to their god; it is all in the plan and for the best though beyond our comprehension sometimes. Science, good science, relies more on feedforward processes. Test that hypothesis and revise the old understanding accordingly. Benefiting as I do from the accoutrements of modern society (needing antibiotics and other medications to breathe and stay alive as I write this), I must claim that our brains’ understanding through scientific means is most helpful.

What we cannot comprehend through feedback nor feedforward is our own after death. We cannot, strictly speaking, recognize it nor recall it (except for certain religious beliefs endorsing reincarnation). What we can do is empathize and then render that into meaningful discourse and art. Consider John Donne’s poem, No Man is an Island: “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”. Our universe is cold, lawful and yields no values EXCEPT where life gains a foothold, keeps the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics and entropy in abeyance while yet we live, and cries in joy and sorrow with the other. Finally, listen to Iris Dement’s song, Let the mystery be, wherein she sings about “how everyone is talking about what and where we all came from/ everybody’s worrying about where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done/ but no one knows for certain so it’s all the same to me/ I think I’ll just let the mystery be.” She later affirms what I have taken as my credo, “Oh I believe in love and live my life accordingly/ but I choose to let the mystery be”. Make it so, please.