feeling crowded or communal?

Staying up late a few weeks ago and talking with friends (don’t get around that much these days), somehow I brought up the subject of the microbiome and the recent findings that each of us has as much non-self DNA as our own DNA from all the microbes that inhabit, mostly symbiotically, our bodies along with us. (Now you understand how exciting it is to rap with me late at night and why it might be important to have an open bottle of decent wine handy). One friend was aghast and felt creepy knowing that, while I rejoiced in being a community, but then I have always liked a bit of a mess and believed that the seeming chaos of an estuary is needed for creative fertility. I also think that life as it has evolved on Gaia is based on such symbiotically complex environments that include other life forms. I recently read a report that the most astounding variety of life forms is found in the turf of a meadow, which I happen to have out my front door.


Many life forms live under the surface of the meadow grasses and soil health depends upon this.

But back to humans. We have long known that the flora in our guts were important for efficient digestion and recent studies say what our gut friends influence whether we are fat or thin. Now I see a report in Science News (April 24, 2016) that researchers have found a link between mental health and our gut flora as they influence our mental states, e.g., the experience of depression. Indeed, when the flora from a depressed rat (don’t ask) were transplanted to a happier one, that one then showed signs of depression. Rats reared free of bacteria had different development of brain areas. Researchers are now working on the hypothesis that the flora affect the metabolism of hormones and neurotransmitters in the gut (where by the bye most of our dopamine is synthesized) and the flora also produce  neurotransmitters that we share. So it is important to eat and drink vital biotic foods such as live vinegar, fermented foods, yogurt, etc., and especially after a course of antibiotics.

This morning I was looking at Wikipedia about lichens, a true symbiosis between algae and fungus, that live a long time, grow steadily albeit slowly, can withstand harsh conditions, etc., and followed a reference to the word ‘holobiont.’ Like holograph, where a piece of the picture contains the whole of the image, holobiont refers to an organism as an integral community that evolves together. We and our microbiome comprise one hologenome with parts evolving differently and affecting our survival and contributing to the whole’s reproductive success. We and our microbiomes have evolved together and some of the positive traits we have are due to our little buddies. Now that is one delightful mess of chaos with direction. Yes, it takes a community to raise a child, and yes, it also appears to take a community to be a child. This seems so congruent, so in keeping with the nature of life here on Gaia and it affirms this old farmer-philosopher’s belief that we need to respect the organic world more and mistrust humanity’s rather ignorant efforts in the darkness to control our environment through chemical, especially genetic, manipulation, yet still enjoy our burgeoning knowledge of ourselves and Gaia.

So find some good wine made the old school way without additives and chemical manipulation, share a glass with friends (and all of their inhabitants), and together travel on.

Conscious or not?

For some reason several news stories have popped up questioning whether other animals are conscious. Try these links:




I like these stories because they bring up the issue of what kind of minds our fellow beasts have. Of course some scientists and philosophers reserve consciousness for animals with symbolic capabilities, which restricts it to humans, but I think other factors are involved here. The earthsky article says that animals, like Inky the octopus who smartly escaped his aquarium, are intelligent enough to be conscious, but if intelligence were key, that would rule out some people I know and some politicians I read about.

Long ago I posted about the difference between sentience and consciousness. Let me review: They are not synonyms. Sentience is the alert perceptual awareness of your environment, internal as well as external. When you sleep, then you are insentient. Sentience would seem to me an inherent property of all life because all life must sense and find resources. Sure sentience comes about in many ways, from the amoeba’s sensitive membrane, the lobster’s vision and chemical senses, or mammalian perception along with the sleep-wake cycle. So all life is sentient (yes, even trees in this view—don’t their leaves follow the sun? don’t  they communicate with chemicals?); one facet of their intelligence is how sophisticated their sentience is .

Now consciousness is a different matter. We can be sentient but unconscious as when we are hypnotized or drive too long fatigued and experience what is called highway hypnosis. We can be insentient but conscious as when we dream. We can be both sentient and conscious as I hope we all are as of this writing and reading or we can be neither as when we fall into deep, non-REM sleep. (It has occurred to me that dissociative processes can involve being both sentient and conscious in a disconnected way, e.g., PTSD flashback). Consciousness, then, is a quality dependent upon our internal subjective awareness. I have posted before about the claustrum that Crick and Koch think is the conductor organizing mental or conscious processes. When the claustrum is momentarily ‘turned off’, the person remains awake but unconscious and remembers nothing of the experience; our subjectivity is disrupted.

We humans are able to monitor and control (to a lesser degree than some might think) our thoughts because of our symbolic capacity, so it does seem that symbols are important to our consciousness. While other animals may not communicate symbolically, some must have some proto-symbolic processes that facilitate mental control. (So as not to ignore what ‘proto-symbolic’ entails, please consider how animals control information displaced in time and space mnemonic or imaginative but beyond the current situation). I think that something else is important to whether or not an animal’s sentience also develops into consciousness (hint: the title of this blog).

Consciousness arises in animals who are social and have an empathic awareness of another’s mind and so an increased awareness of their own. (This is close to the basis of object relations theory in psychodynamic psychology.) In this view consciousness is a matter of degrees, not all or none. How empathically tuned is the animal and how robust are its symbolic or protosymbolic capabilities? Our human consciousness is a paragon here because our roots of empathy and symbolization have joined mightily in the evolution of our lineage.

Yes, some old fogeys want to keep consciousness as one of humanity’s special traits, but don’t you buy it. That is, in de Waal’s terminology, anthropodenial. On the other hand, yes, your dog is conscious to some degree, but a different one than ours or simians or cetaceans. In one of his books, Frans de Waal utters a challenge for anyone to interact with a bonobo or chimpanzee, look into their eyes and then deny they are conscious. Can’t be done if you yourself are conscious.

Which brings me to consider whether or not some politicians who utter repeatedly an ill-considered script and show an utter disregard for the empathy required for normal interactions are conscious. Could NIMH study them? Maybe better to follow the path set by Inky. Travel on.


So you think you are conscious and that it somehow matters, eh?

cephalopod freedom & simian captivity

I am guessing that one our traits with early roots is to capture and own and study and have different plants and animals.  Let’s call it the trait of domestication.  Long years ago I took a class in comparative neuropsychology in which we all had to do a  paper on one researcher’s efforts to study a particular species.  Somehow or another, I am not sure how but do believe it affected me for the rest of my life, better and worse, I was assigned a researcher (can’t remember the name now 38 years later) who spent a career trying to train, i.e., behaviorally condition, an octopus.  And he did, getting the beast to move to one side of the aquarium or the other after a stimulus.  To do so he persisted over some years in exploring what the octopus could and would perceive as a salient stimulus and what condition would cause it to move and how to get the beast to ‘associate’ those two.  I guess he proved Pavlov could have used an octopus or Skinner a squid; I am not sure of much else.  In the intervening time biologists have considered the large eyes of the octopus, its 8 legs and suction cups, its ink and mobility by jet wash, and its beak in a much more ecologically minded way and so we understand better now the intelligence of the octopus.

But wait, what is this news story?  An octopus we named Inky busted out (literally) from an aquarium in New Zealand, crawled down or through a drain pipe, and escaped to the sea.  I gotta admire Inky’s spirit and have to wonder about his kin–would they all take advantage of the opportunity for freedom if presented?  Or was he particularly bright or rambunctious to break out of his enclosure?  If you see him, ask.

And then we have an escaped chimpanzee in Japan, I think, who did all he could to evade recapture.  Of course, a dangerous animal like that had to be shot with a sedative dart and re-interred in the zoo.  Google this story (the one about Inky too) and see a picture of the chimp atop power lines (yes, power lines) struggling to escape his keepers and look at his expression.  I think he and Inky shared the same opinion about captivity.

Yes, I do anthropomorphize here but only to emphasize what is obviously the natural inclination of these animals and then to say that we humans share it.  If you disagree, I guess you are, in Frans de Waal’s term, in anthropodenial.  Travel on.


de Waal admits tickling chimpanzees

Please read Frans de Waal’s op-ed in the recent NYT entitled, “What I learned from tickling chimpanzees.” Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/10/opinion/sunday/what-i-learned-from-tickling-apes.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-right-region&region=opinion-c-col-right-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-right-region&_r=0

It is a brilliant and clear statement of how many scientists and others think wrongly about our own species and how we can go about understanding our place in the biological world more fully. Ah, this is a subject dear to my heart, not just that humans are animals but our thinking, religion, culture, art, science, etc. are all products of our biology.   Two of his points are most memorable at the first read (but read all of it, not that long and full of insight). One is that we continue to follow Aristotle’s classification of higher and lower animals and of course you can guess which animal is on top. Western religion adopted this wholesale in the great chain of being, if you took and remember some English literature classes, where God appoints the pope, king and nobles and then each class in its turn. Anyone who rebels against his ‘place’ is guilty of breaking the great chain. Learning from Darwin and evolutionary genetics we understand that there is no chain but rather many streams of genetic speciation, some similar, some related, some both, and some quite divergent. He says it better.

The other memorable point is his explanation of the proper place of anthropomorphic thinking.  Many scientists are phobic of using words normally used for humans to label the behaviors of other animals, thus the ‘tickling’ chimpanzees which results in laughter (you know, the positive affectively charged hooting with lips retracted but not showing teeth). Of course folk wisdom and culture attributes many human attributes to animals, e.g., cats are aloof, dogs feel guilt, horses paint artistic pictures, etc. but the misuse of such attributions is no reason to deny the continuity of abilities and functions across species, including us. Yes, birds and humans do sing, their songs differ in many regards yet are similar in others and we can learn about music from understanding these biological roots. De Waal offers another term ‘anthropodenial’ to denote the refusal of some to recognize our commonalities—read what he has to say.

I have written several times about what I have read in 2 of de Waal’s books, The Bonobo and the Atheist and The Age of Empathy. One story from my post on March 9, 2015 “Memory and regret”, de Waal tells of a bonobo that accidentally bit off the finger of scientist-caretaker and immediately showed all the signs of realizing his transgression.   When that worker returned for a visit some years later after taking another job, the bonobo ran to the window in greeting and recognition and kept trying to gain a view of the hand he had bitten. To deny he remembered his action and felt bad about it would violate empirical observation. My question back then, unanswerable without engaging in symbolic communication with the bonobo, was if the bonobo over the years had recalled, not just recognized, his misdeed, say in a reflective moment or falling asleep or waking with insomnia, the memory held invariantly through guilt as we humans are wont to do, or only remembered in recognition of the worker and the associated memory based upon the mechanisms of recognition. A big difference.


Well, that is certainly a mystery to me too.

I will say more about this in a few days as I begin my discussion of Ellen Dissanayake’s book Homo Aestheticus, which opens making just the point de Waals makes, that humans are distinct and have special abilities, as do every other species, and that these have common biological roots in our evolutionary past. Our notion of human exceptionalism misleads us from a better understanding, in her instance of art.  For now though, read Dr. de Waal’s piece. He is one of my champions and I say once again, “Thank you.”