Darwin, Mallory and civilization

In The Descent of Man Darwin discusses our evolution through natural selection and also examines the changes wrought by “sexual selection,” changes differentiating the sexes like those in bird plumage but also across many flora and fauna.  His meaning by sexual selection seems to be that these changes may affect natural selection indirectly but there is no reason to think they would increase their frequency in the gene pool otherwise.  He cites several differences between the males and females of Homo saoiens and goes on to present anthropological studies about how strong men ‘get’ and keep desirable women, so weaker men ‘get’ none or have the undesirable ones from which to choose.  (He has already discussed the males greater initiative in seeking a mate).  He then adds, “With civilized people the arbitrament of battle for the possession of the women has long ceased; on the other hand, the men, as a general rule, have to work harder than the women for their joint subsistence.”  The latter clause about work is now classed a bad “oops”.

It was the first clause about civilization caught my eye.  Thomas Mallory wrote M’orte d’Arthur” in the late 1400s; it was the first rendering of the Arthurian legends in English and contributed to the development of chivalry and noblesse oblige and knightly valor.  In it one knight, Sir Tristram (as brave and virtuous a knight as ever there was, excepting maybe Launcelot himself) is challenged by another knight to a contest for their women–the winner to take the more desirable one and the other woman would have her head cut off (now that’s chivalry).  Of course this other knight put the ladies to contest first.  Sir Tristram’s lady (now there is a whole other tale) was clearly the winner, so in his primacy Sir Tristram cut off the other lady’s head and the other knight’s after he refuses to yield.

Darwin’s writing in 1878, Mallory 1485; during this time some civilizing change happened.  Now between Darwin and human mating today?.  Though words may change, the tune remains the same. There seems another evolutionary change at least culturally in that women now have a more equal status and are not marital property of the husband as they were around Darwin’s day.  At least in some countries.   And so we travel on.

mysteries 4.1

Just to be clear about my favorite mysteries cited again in the last post, the origin of life and the beginnings of intellect (and so our humanity) in lower animals. Didn’t Darwin see beyond the facts (a lot of them too) to some very helpful and thus enduring truth? One facet of our humanity is our fascination with mysteries. This fascination is also a mystery because we fabricate them in our minds, i.e., the interior of the MEMBRAIN, so why are they mysteries, as opposed to unknown but knowable or the unknowable? The mysteries explored by ancient peoples were mainly deemed unknowable until the Enlightenment, when we began to develop a more intellectual understanding of our earth, our universe and ourselves, empirically based, treasuring errors and their correction, and providing an increasingly powerful basis for interacting with our world. The unknowable shrank and the knowable grew fatter. I like my favorite mysteries because they pose questions whose answers are unknown but knowable and because how we do answer them can lead back to the ancient thread of all mysteries, well articulated by William James, the mystic experience, our sense of what lies beyond the North wind, our sensory experience which we can only apprehend but do not and maybe cannot comprehend, the prime unknowable.

So to be clear about where these mysteries originate, here is a rough diagram of mine.


From the 4/17/15 post:

“Call the body of any organism its soma; to remain vital a soma must ingest food, etc. Organisms with somas in which brains have evolved have been quite successful—they have spread, grown larger and more complex. While much of the brain remains dedicated to somatic vitality, certain parts have evolved to form what I call the MEMBRAIN of the mind. These structures surround and create a virtual interiority, larger on the inside than outside, constructed with information old and new”.

Somas exist ‘for’ genetic transmittance and they exist by metabolism; they take in nutrients, use them, vent the wastes and move around to sustain and replicate. All of this is done in real, i.e., immediate, present or non-displaced, time. Somas with brains begin the sentient evolution powered by the nervous system’s transduction of ambient energies and guidance toward or away from what is out there, all very much in service to their somas. This is the basis for an embodied mind, the organic one, the one with an inherent, not external, power source. From the beginning the transduction of ambient energies leads to displacement, i.e., they are transformed to be processed as old/new information. Nervous processes involve at least this displacement of information.

Now, according to my way of thinking, the MEMBRAIN evolved as the embodied self was able to co-opt sentient processes independently of the current ambient and process information autogenically (to use Langer’s term) or autonomously (to use another term). MEMBRAINs began with recognition (new becomes old) and recall (old becomes new) and then, with the social opportunity of intimacy increasing, moved on to symbolic formulation and control and communication of the interiority. So where are these so called mysteries?

Well, they exist within the MEMBRAIN’s interiority but they arise between MEMBRAINs, in their interstitial communication back and forth, so to speak. This highlights, perhaps, that the unknowable mysteries are the limit of consciousness in apprehending the present embodiment of the mind and the limit preventing us from apprehending what is in another’s mind. And somewhere between these two limits, these two mysteries, we find the mystic sense. Travel on.

on Darwin’s Descent of Man

I am reading Darwin’s Descent of Man, published 12 years after Origin of Species when he felt the atmosphere was more conducive to including man in the animal kingdom.  It is a curious book in many ways.  I did not know what a thoroughly knowledgeable naturalist he was; his knowledge of anatomy across the animal and plant kingdoms is encyclopedic (Look at his bibliography on Wikipedia).  And he was corresponding with many others who informed him of many particulars.  He has some of the prejudices of his age, like dark skinned people have keener senses and are less adaptable than light skinned people.  And he retained the belief attributed to Lamarck that extended use of an organ causes changes in that organ to be passed on to the next generation (think giraffes extending their necks to eat higher leaves have progeny with longer necks).  However, he also recognized the genius (Darwin’s word) of Francis Galton and incorporated his many ideas into his own thinking.  Now I can vaguely remember learning about Galton as the originator of statistical correlation, regression towards the mean and the normal curve of statistical distribution of intelligence, but when I looked up more on him, wow, this was one great pioneer thinker (much like Darwin). Galton came up with the phrase ‘nature versus nurture’ (of course now we know it is both), the first weather maps, the idea of fingerprints as identification, and others.

So anyway Darwin wrote in one chapter of the Descent of Man that his object was “to show that there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties,” a lesson often lost over these many years, I think, in the fog of a religious prejudice about the (human) soul’s supremacy.  Darwin does this by showing how completely we are related to all of life as he covers many details from various disciplines.  I will end this post by citing two of his observations and plan on another post, Darwin 2.0, later.  He says that human and other animals abilities do differ in one way, that a beaver can build a dam and a bird a nest without imitation or practice while a human must imitate, improve and practice to form an axe or canoe.  And he addresses my two favorite mysteries thusly: “In what manner the mental powers were first developed in the lowest organisms is as hopeless an enquiry as how life itself originated.  These are problems for the distant future if they are ever to be solved by man”.  Indeed, and so we travel on.

Here's the young man himself.

Here’s the young man himself.

phonological history inferred

We know about our tool making beginning over 2 million years ago (see post from last week), art and burials maybe 40,000 years ago, and written language (glyphs) maybe 6,000 years ago (see post 10/12/14) because we find tangible artifacts that can be dated.  The history of language is more difficult because oral traditions leave no artifacts.  Some believe human language emerged in the last 50-60,000 years, thereby changing consciousness, and others believe language emerged much earlier.  Some enterprising linguists have devised a manner for estimating the development and change in phonemes, the sounds of a language, that yields some estimated dates for language’s origins.  Here is the link:


Their method is analogous to scientists using measures of genetic change to estimate dates at which species diverged, for example, humans from chimps, or how long ago a hypothetical Eve, the mother of us all, meaning the earliest Homo sapiens female, lived.  The linguists looked at historical records of language change and also at the more recent colonization of some SE Asian islands, which initiated some grammatical changes as well.  Think of the changes from old or middle English to today’s forms, like Chaucer:

‘Wepyng and waylyng, care and oother sorwe
I knowe ynogh, on even and a-morwe,’
Quod the Marchant, ‘and so doon oother mo
That wedded been

Vowels were quite different then, letters silent today,(initial k, final e) were pronounced aloud, etc.  Grammatical structure, including phonemes and phonology, by nature must be conservative; change must be gradual and slow.  So these linguists, using a method others can replicate to test its reliability, used linguistic data to show the origin of language came during the middle stone age, or roughly with the advent of shaped tools roughly 2 million years to a half million years ago, certainly not a recent event like 40,000 years ago.  Our cave painters talked a good deal.

This study indicates that all of our ancestors used language for communicating.

This study indicates that all of our ancestors used language for communicating.

I like it.  It may be impossible to establish the validity of such a study but it does use rigorous methodology and linguistic data.  And this fits with other archeological evidence and with the sense that our intellect come from deep and old rivers of evolutionary change.

female chimps with weapons

A couple of weeks ago I saw a story about a female chimp in a zoo who threw sticks at visitors with good accuracy.  Now I see in the NY Times a story about a population of wild chimps where the females use sticks to hunt and the males respect their catches by not stealing them.  Look here:  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/15/science/hunting-chimps-offer-new-view-on-evolution.html?ref=science&_r=0

These chimps live in a mixed savannah-forest area where food is not as plentiful.  The females hunt other small animals with sticks while the males go for larger ones that need catching, so speed and strength matter and no sticks involved.  An anthropologist believes early Homo evolved under similar circumstances and then wonders if females originated tool use (and what? then males liked it so much they took it over?).  The other part of this is that males often take food from females but leave the food caught with sticks to them.

Respect the ladies? Why, yes I do, especially if they carry sticks.

Respect the ladies? Why, yes I do, especially if they carry sticks.

Who knows?  And what about bonobos, those friendlier apes? Food sharing and social organization are complicated matters and our burgeoning symbolic capabilities eons ago made them even more so.

3 reviews

A longer review of a book and two shorter ones of movies, all about our humanity.  I finished reading The Cave Painters by Gregory Curtis about the cave art in southern France, a very interesting read.  I did not know that there are many, many caves with thousands of paintings, etchings, and even some sculptures in these caves.  Mr. Curtis tells the story of how they have been discovered and studied by modern people and what few conclusions may be drawn therefrom.  The animals are mostly horses, bison,bulls, mammoths, elk, etc. bigger animals, not rabbits or such like and few if any birds.  Humans are represented but are generally more schematized and not rendered with the flowing artistry of the other animals.  There are also many marks of various sorts and hands in both positive and negative images.  These were made over a period of 10,000 years with generally the same technique, so, as Mr. Curtis points out, this artistic tradition is a conservative one, one that served its cultural purpose well for a long time.  The cave art stopped being made when the glaciers receded and humans began to wander northward.


Scholars have noted that the finest paintings are generally in the larger front chambers and that more etchings and smaller paintings are in the back harder to reach sections.  The former are stunning works of art, very dynamic and vital.  Consider these horses.


The latter images deeper in often overlap with each other, suggesting multiple individuals tried their hands at the task.  A most interesting point is that the artwork seems to have been composed based upon the outlines presented by the cavern walls.  Some lines were painted or etched to complete a figure otherwise presented by the rock formations.  Other figures were sculpted from the wet clay on the cavern floors, such as these bison.


Other figures were broken or melted back into the clay by the cave’s moisture.  Mr. Curtis reports that many hypotheses of the art’s meaning or cultural function have been proposed and contradicted by further study, such as the hypothesis that these served some magical ritual for hunting.  One hypothesis is not contradicted by any data but the purists correctly assert that we cannot ascertain its truth.  This is that the front chambers were public places for many people to gather and engage in ritual excitement and then the back chambers were where individuals expressed their own inspiration.  This is based upon our understanding of shamanic religions, so of course some scholars would take exception to this modern interpolation.  But it seems quite reasonable to me; there is a shaman like figure in one cave and several figures that combine human and other animal forms.  What really stands out to me is the composition process of finding the figures in the rock or of placing their hand prints on the rock as if it were a way of discerning another reality, the one emanating from the underworld.  This seems to be the basis of the novel Shaman just a few years ago.  Anyway, an excellent read.

Now two brief reviews of movies.  The Imitation Game tells the story of Alan Turing, the difficult genius who broke the German enigma code in WWII and also conceived of a universal thinking machine, i.e., the computer, who was prosecuted for being gay and committed suicide because of the debilitating effects of court ordered chemical castration.  Now I am glad that Western society has caught up with its science about sexual preference and gender identity and that we are beginning to accord LGBT individuals their full rights.  And I hope the rest of the world follows along soon because being LGBT in many modern societies is still a dangerous proposition.  I also want to say that I worked with many kids like Alan, not that bright maybe, but bright enough and still without a clue about human relationships and their coin of emotional transaction.  This is now called autism spectrum disorder, used be called pervasive developmental disorder, and many were known to have Asperger’s syndrome after a German doctor in the early 1900s who first noted the pattern.  What this movie shows very well is how such individuals can be at a complete loss as to what is going on between people empathically.  They can be and are mistaken as sociopaths but they are very different; read Simon Baron-Cohen’s book, The Science of Evil.  Long ago I read an autobiography of one such individual who said clearly that he thought ‘normal’ people had ESP because they seemed to sense a different and to them unseen world.  Sort of like the shaman artist seeing a powerful beast emerge from the cave rock.  A good movie.

The next movie is Love is Strange, beautifully acted by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina.  You want to see a movie about human dignity and love shining through the struggle with human foibles?  Enough said.

One more painting, this one more recent from a man-made cave.


my book

I have written a book with the familiar title of The Biological Roots of Humanity:  The evolution and development of empathy and symbolization. It has not been published yet nor do I have an agent yet.  If anyone out there knows of an agent or a publisher that might be interested, please pass on this summary.  They can find me here.  Thanks.


What we call our ‘humanity’ comprises many facets: our treatment of each other, our cultural achievements in the arts, religions, and science, our civic governance, our languages, morality, etc. Likewise we see the lack of humanity in our disregard or exploitation of others and even more in the sadistic enjoyment of others’ suffering such as is evident in war. This book examines the biological roots of humanity in the evolutionary past and the current development of the human mind. The two main roots here are our mammalian heritage of empathy-based conspecific relationships and the trend in primates for intimacy and intellect that has culminated in our symbolic capabilities. Our humanity is most assuredly a biological phenomenon, and we can see its roots in our studies of neuroscience, linguistics, evolution, psychology, and other fields.

How is it that our minds have become so much bigger on the inside than on the outside? Call the body of any organism its soma; to remain vital a soma must ingest food, etc. Organisms with somas in which brains have evolved have been quite successful—they have spread, grown larger and more complex. While much of the brain remains dedicated to somatic vitality, certain parts have evolved to form what I call the MEMBRAIN of the mind. These structures surround and create a virtual interiority, larger on the inside than outside, constructed with information old and new. We can see through our evolution and development how humans have come to fill our interiority with information displaced in time and space, information not just about the concrete world immediately in our surrounds but very much about what has been remembered, abstracted and created by the MEMBRAIN and held together by the Self. Upon these developments our humanity depends. My book is about that.

My book is different from most others in a couple of ways. I see the totality of the human mind and culture as biological phenomena. While most focus primarily on cognitive issues, my goal is to move toward understanding symbolization as manifested in language, art, and cultural memes; this is to me the holy grail of neuroscience. Understanding this necessarily entails the study of empathy and mental connection. In this I am guided by the philosophical writings of Susanne Langer whom all too few seem to know. My thinking is also informed by a wide and varied sampling of our intellectual heritage from William James through the linguist Noam Chomsky and the great neuroscientists like Paul MacLean and Gerald Edelman and on to the established neuropsychological theories based upon understanding humans as social and symbolic animals, exemplified in the writings of Kandel, Damasio, De Waal, and others. So my book is, I believe, distinctive for its integration across various disciplines as organized by my idea of the MEMBRAIN, that part of our brain that acts as a membrane surrounding the mind, and my understanding that displacement of information in time and space is ubiquitous in mental development.