Reflection

At some point in our evolution we began to reflect on our experiences.  I posted long ago wondering when we first noticed the beauty in scenes like these clouds:

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When did we see the luminous?

This seems preliminary to me to any spiritual apprehension.  Of course the converse also happened in our history; some Greek person walked up Mt. Olympus and saw nothing beautiful or supernatural, just a practical, natural reality, and so skepticism was born.

Along with this reflection on the luminous comes reflection on our lives, our selves and our experiences.  Suzanne Langer thought that humans became truly conscious when we realized that each life, our own life, was a single act with beginning and end because that signals the possibility of profound reflection.  Now a recent discovery from Israel contributes to this picture.  A statue from 3800 years ago was uncovered of a human figure pondering with chin in hand, much like Rodin’s The Thinker.  Check it out:

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Israel Antiquities Authority/Clara Amit European Pressphoto Agency

The figure is perched on a jug but the report does not say if it once contained a reflection stimulating drink, say a Middle Eastern vintage from long ago.  If so, maybe the person felt like he or she was sitting on top of the world.

Of course I bet other animals reflect on their experiences in some manner.  Consider my usual picture of a chimpanzee:

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If only I had . . .

And now we see Neandertals as also reflective creatures, not brutes:

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Who are these new skinny people coming to our lands?

Finally, some may see these postures as expressing worry, but I think Mose Allison, who recently passed away, captured an old wisdom in his lyric, “I don’t worry about thing because I know nothing is going to be alright”.  Travel on.

Picketty’s r>g

Follow up on art and science in my last post:

In my last post I discussed Balzac’s prescient understanding of evolutionary science evident in his story Pere Goriot. I was reading Balzac because Thomas Piketty stimulated my curiosity in his admirable book Capital in the 21st Century. To illustrate the changes in capital and distribution of wealth from the 18th century until today Piketty cites authors from back then such as Balzac and Jane Austen who wrote frankly about the moneyed classes, how much income they needed to live well and the amount of capital needed to sustain that level independently of any work they might do, because, as Piketty explains, the income from work alone would support only a meager existence. Piketty’s book was well received when it first came out in 2013 in part because he gathered a monumental data set from historical and modern sources in order to analyze the evolution of capital since the 1700s and in part because his analysis is erudite and cautious in values yet strong in its conclusions. Thank you, Monsieur Piketty.

Thus he was able to confirm the economic basis for Balzac’s and Austen’s portrayals (and though unmentioned Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and much of Dickens as well). Capital was a difficult book for me as I lack any education in economics; Piketty helps by keeping an historical frame and emphasizing basic concepts in several ways. For the 18th century he shows that, in short, to live “comfortably” required an income of 50 -60 times the average income of that period and that could not be achieved through merit by working hard and smart in a profession but could by amassing capital either through inheritance or through commerce, as old Goriot did but then gave away for his daughters’ dowries. In post-Napoleonic France the top 10% held 60-70% of the wealth (the aristocracy), the next 40% held the rest, while the bottom 50% had virtually no wealth at all—they lived day by day in a state of perpetual poverty and near starvation.

Piketty contrasts this state of affairs with ancient hunter-gatherers where equality was the more the rule. The tribal leader and warriors might have gotten the choicest cut of meat but resources were shared and not accumulated because wealth is hard to transport. In an agricultural society like England and Europe in the 18th century wealth was accumulated as farm land and then the industrial revolution marked a transformation of capital from agricultural resources to ones for industrial production, e.g., factories, transportation, control of natural resources. This did not mark any change in the inequalities of wealth. What did affect the inequality were the two world wars, which decimated much of the old wealth (for awhile) and allowed a middle class to develop. The bottom 50% still had next to nothing but the 40% above that had more and the highest 10% held just a little less. I do not think the top 1% or .1% suffered much loss at all.

Now consider modern times when the top .1% holds 20% of the wealth, the top 1% holds 50%, the top 10 % holds 80-90%, leaving the bottom 90 % to hold, if they can keep it, the remaining 10% (this part of the middle class owning their own homes). The bottom 50% as is historically the norm holds nothing. He further states that the trend in the 21st century is to increasing inequality of wealth soon to approach the extreme levels of 1910 (think Downton Abbey before WWI initiated a period of change that temporarily lessened the gap between rich and poor).

These changes reflect what Piketty calls a basic (ah, both simple and complex) law of economics, r>g. ‘r’ is the rate of return on capital that historically Piketty shows runs from 3 to 10 per cent (the rich get the greater return while the rest of us make do with the lesser). ‘g’ is growth and may comprise increased population, education and skills (that lead to increased productivity), or technological innovation. Piketty demonstrates that while increased ‘g’ is a force for equality, the power of ‘r’ is a force for inequality and ‘r’ is growing in political and economic power as I write. Piketty presciently says that the rising ‘r’ and inequality from globalization would result in an upsurge from those left behind of isolationist nationalism and that is a large part of the story of western civilization this year, ain’t it?

I appreciate anyone who marshals extensive data sets for analysis and development of their ideas and Piketty did all of that. Having finished the book, I began to think about the r>g law of economics and wondered how it might play out from the perspective of sociobiology. I mean, a law is a law and could be expected to reflect some important underlying dynamic that contributes to the viability of a population. Piketty shows how the transitions from hunter-gatherer to agricultural to industrial to information-age global societies reflect this law; now how about its roots in our evolution? Frans de Waals and others document social structures in other primates and how these affect the distribution of resources. Certainly rich natural resources supports population growth that then affects the sustainability of those resources. Rich or scarce natural resources may also engender conflict and competition with other groups.

Piketty’s main argument from this law r>g is that it leads to inequality and that there is no necessary counter-balance to keep wealth distribution equal enough for social viability. Capitalism can run amuck unless democratic processes exert some controls. Certainly dictatorships like North Korea and oligarchies like Russia create and maintain huge inequality to the detriment of most. While humans gather and hold wealth in our own special ways, other animals also do so in their special ways. Consider squirrels and nuts, bees and honey, rodents and grain, etc. Many animals develop technologies, e.g., apes use sticks to gather termites and rocks to smash nuts. Are there corollaries of r>g for other species? How are alpha males curbed so others have enough? De Waals documents gender differences and dynamic alliances in primates. How does mammalian social organization based upon empathic connections distribute resources? I will re-read some of de Waals in the future with an eye to this facet. Travel on.

Science mirrors art?

I am a big fan of Frans de Waals and his approach to finding the roots of our humanity by understanding other animals. This was Darwin’s great contribution in 1859 with On the Origin of Species and then in 1871 with the Descent of Man. I tend to think of this as a more recent idea in our culture, which until the 16th century, was governed by religious precepts—you know, humans, especially the males, are specifically blessed by god. I have read, though, that even some ancient Greeks climbed Mt Olympus and not finding the gods, conceived of a natural reality rather than a supernatural one. Ah, well, just a minority. Western civilization’s weltanshauung of humanity, however, was based upon a monopoly on spiritual transcendence (lucky white people, ain’t that a coincidence!?) and that continues to be the case more than we might estimate today.   It took modern science until Darwin to gather in that any and all humans are biological and evolved and evolving (well, maybe). That was 1859.

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Honore de Balzac

Well, now I read in Honore de Balzac’s 1835 novel Pere Goriot this sentence, “The bold philosopher who shall investigate the effects of mental action upon the physical world will doubtless find more than one proof of the material nature of our sentiments in other animals”. He is talking specifically about the ultra-altruistic parenting instinct old father Goriot shows for his daughters who, though rich because of his sacrifice, have abandoned him to poverty and ridicule. Balzac’s prescient metaphor is amazing; a realist writer intuitively understood the truth of such an idea and used it to show the depth of parental love in the midst of a rich narrative about a rather vain shallow society. Science came to this revolutionary formulation some 20 years later, but then, when I consider the knowledge and wisdom of agriculturalists, such a way of thinking was surely commonplace, albeit framed by the religiously defined ladder of life. If art mimics life, then science mimics art, and I mean that literally—see my posts about memes and mirrors. And where does religion fit in? Just a conceited imagination running away with you, necessary perhaps but not good or bad necessarily. Travel on.

Return to invariance for the holidays

I had another thought about invariance/variance yesterday as I reflected on some recent experiences. One aspect of life I find entrancing is the rich chaotic activity it seems to be, like an estuary, yet in the constant flux, amid the “buzzing, blooming confusion” we find channels of activity both variant and invariant. Consider again the rendering of the connectome,

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Connectome picture

remembering that neural structures are only the substrate of much dynamic activity, including electric action potentials, neurochemical messengers and actors, and a plethora of protein action. Recently I have written here about the structures and functions of language, invariant (words, stock phrases, syntactic structuring) and variant (sentences and conversational flow), but there are different and larger invariant structures we all have that shape our personalities.

So consider the tapes that play in our head, the consistent (invariant) worries rational and irrational that occupy our thoughts. Some are fairly adaptive such as goals and motivations (these change adaptively with circumstances) and some less so, inflexible neurotic anxieties that compose our responses to similar situations even though they are out of date and no longer relevant really to what is going on now. And then consider that neurosychiatric disorders might be seen as monolithic stone in an otherwise vibrant landscape, e.g., the depressive thoughts and feelings that stay the same as life goes on and even gets better, or as liquidities of a dissolving mind rendering reality testing rather impractical, e.g., the hallucinatory escapades of a thought disorder. The ancients knew that a healthy life depended upon balance; here I am saying the balance holds functioning from swinging to far towards petrification or diarrhea of mental life. Our patterns of balance and imbalance are multitudinous and vary from culture to culture and from family to family. So this holiday, when one of your family members re-enacts the same old schtick or becomes drunkenly mercurial (even without imbibing), be thankful you have flexible enough balance between variant and invariant processes to see the difference. Travel on.

Mammalian Heritage Day

Today, November 2.

Mammals might be the newest branch on the tree of life but their warm-blooded, live bearing, family bonding have somehow prompted the ongoing evolution of brains. Bacteria, insects, reptiles, and birds have been around longer, much longer, than mammals but the newest kid on the block has produced an increasingly powerful intelligence over the past 300 million years. We are not the crown but the beneficiary, so take today and give thanks by, for example, taking a mammal to lunch or out for a walk. Travel on.

And check out the newly revised tree of life as shown here. One link would be: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/12/science/scientists-unveil-new-tree-of-life.html

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Find the mammals? We are a small branch indeed, even a twig, compared to the rest of life on Gaia off Eukaryotes branching labeled the Opisthokonta (bottom bottom right in the green).