Triangulating 3 reports

I find myself somewhere in the noosphere and will use three news stories to triangulate my location. The noosphere, if you recall, is a term from Teilhard de Chardin’s writings. He thought it a last stage in human evolution leading up to the omega point where and when we merge with a god of some sort. Alas, that teleology is unsupported by anything other than mystic wishing, so instead the noosphere is better defined as the sphere of human knowledge, and like our atmosphere, is full of local events. To find my place today I consider three stories, one about an ancient event, one about a modern one, and one about the genetic flow streaming down to our genome.

The ancient story is from the NYT about cave paintings in northwest China that indicate the people some 10,000 years ago used skis for winter transportation. The current people there who keep the old ways still make their own skis in the traditional manner, splitting and planing narrow planks, then boiling one end to help curve it upward for easier traverse. Of course the Chinese government is now exploiting the region by building huge ski resorts so the old timers watch their way of life fade. Prior to this find cave paintings in Scandinavia indicated that people there skied 8,000 years ago. This is instrumental skiing, not for sport but for hunting and transportation. (I don’t know when the sport sort appeared.) It is a good story: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/19/sports/skiing/skiing-china-cave-paintings.html   If you want to see a movie about hardy, self sufficient people who make their own skis, try Werner Herzog’s well done documentary Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, very worthwhile viewing. The ingenuity of our species is really remarkable.

And speaking of that, the modern story is that in the next few days, the Cassini spacecraft will begin a series of maneuvers between the rings of Saturn, eventually to fly into the planet itself. More than a decade in design and construction, Cassini launched in 1997 and traveled millions of miles flying by Venus and Jupiter on the way, indeed using Jupiter’s gravity to sling around and pick up speed, before arriving at Saturn in 2004. In December 2004 Cassini released a probe, name of Huygens, that landed on the moon, Titan. Huygens sent back data to Cassini that relayed it back to earth. Since that time Cassini has been assaying Saturnian phenomena and now its nuclear fuel is running out so the last data will be collected on a suicide mission. Over 13 years of data gathering! That is truly remarkable ingenuity. Consider one more detail. Huygens landed on Titan within a kilometer of its planned site 1.2 billion kilometers away from Earth after a 7 year trip. Some people with excellent math skills worked together very hard to accomplish something incredible.

And speaking of working together, Carl Zimmer of the NYT does a fine job summarizing some well done research into the genetic influences on monogamy: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/19/science/parenting-genes-study.html  Briefly, scientists found two closely related mouse species, one monogamous and one polygamous, and through a diligent methodology explored the influence of parenting behaviors in contrast with genetic influences and then isolated some of the genes definitely influencing mating styles. Males in the monogamous mice participated more in constructing elaborate nests and in nurturing the young, keeping them warm, clean, and safe in the nest. The other mice built less elaborate nests and the males did less parenting. Going further (how long did all this take? I don’t know but a good while I am guessing), they found a genetic loci that controlled the use of a hormone, vasopressin, and then injecting vasopressin into the polygamous males found they increased their parenting participation to be like the monogamous males. Remembering from one of my favorite texts, Jaak Panksepp’s Affective Neuroscience mentioned here many times, I think vasopressin plays a variety of roles in the hormonal system that also includes oxytocin, a well known stimulator of parenting and prosocial behavior.

Triangulating these three stories we find a place in the Noosphere where humans, neither monogamous nor polygamous but certainly parental, work ingeniously to survive in different locales and climates and also to work together in a long term committed fashion to explore our universe and contribute mightily to the Noosphere. We should, given an ethics of knowledge (following Monod), be able to govern ourselves better than we seem to be doing at this moment. Travel on.

Natural noumenal? Thanks, Hitch

On April 13, 1949, Christopher Hitchens was born in Portsmouth, England. He was a brilliant essayist and exercised a keen intellect. I recently looked him up on Wikipedia and marveled at the number of people listed as his influences; that he took in so deeply from so many, I think, was critical to the quality of his writing and thinking. Today on this April 13th I want to remember him for something he said in a Youtube video of a conversation with his buddies, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris (evangelical atheists the lot of them popularly known as the 4 horsemen of atheism). In response to a question from Sam Harris, he diverged from the rest a bit to their surprise when he said that he would not re-write history to purge religion in part because of the art inspired therefrom (this from a man who wrote a book God is Not Great, to which his friend Salman Rushdie whom he had protected from the fatwa replied that the title was too long by a word). He followed up with the statement, and this shows the independence of his intellectual mettle, that if he could change history, he would separate the noumenal from the supernatural (see my post on 11/17/2014). He maybe did not manage to achieve this in his lifetime but did plant a seed in my mind. Now consider in this light my 3/25/17 post on Jacques Monod who did do just that when he defined the soul not in terms of an supernatural immanence but in scientific terms: “What doubt can there be of the presence of the spirit within us? To give up the illusion that sees in it an immaterial ‘substance’ [god] is not to deny the existence of the soul, but on the contrary to begin to recognize the complexity, the richness, the unfathomable profundity of the genetic and cultural heritage and of the personal experience, conscious or otherwise, which together constitute this being of ours: the unique and irrefutable witness to itself.” We have only to make it so.

Wandering the wilds of Wikipedia I came across the ‘Brights’ vs. the ‘Supers’. Evidently some people of the atheist persuasion have banded together to call themselves the ‘brights’ and the believers the ‘supers’ (for supernatural), in the effort, I think, to be defined by what they believe and not by what they don’t. Commendable except they chose a term that implies the ‘supers’ are dim. They say, oh no, just like not being gay means you are straight and not somber, being bright does not connote others being dim. A couple of the 4 horsemen endorse this position, but not Chris Hitchens who said that for athiests to”conceitedly” self proclaim they are ‘brights’ is “cringeworthy”. I have to agree with Hitch on this one, but still to be defined by what you don’t believe does not make sense—it is a falsely constructed category, like someone who believes in the right to life, as some term themselves, could still be pro-choice for women. Being pro-choice does not entail being against one’s right to live.

As I read about our efforts to understand our world and universe, I always value those who acknowledge, even appreciate, our ignorance and these are mostly scientists because after all, science is based on the objective, i.e., not directly knowable, nature of the cosmos, so that even our most rigorous empirical efforts result in knowledge that is in some real sense conditional and therefore limited. I recently read in James Gleick’s interesting book on information that Curt Godels theorem essentially demonstrates that even our mathematical understanding is messy and incomplete and will always be so (again with contextual conditions). Remember Richard Feynman’s assertion that no one understands quantum theory and that saying you do understand it is proof you don’t—the half joke of a certified genius. I continue to follow efforts to understand dark matter and energy, efforts that seem to meet much frustration as we know ‘bright’ and not dark matter constitutes only 7-10% of the universe. We are ignorant of the other 90% even though many have good ideas. Still we don’t define scientists by what they don’t know or believe.

So back to those who hold, like Hitchens and Monod, that everything is natural, that even noumenal terms like ‘spirit’, ‘soul,’ and other ‘things in themselves’ that are unavailable to objective examination, and that, in short, what we call supernatural, when properly understood, is that facet of nature that we can apprehend but understand objectively only with great difficulty. What can we call ourselves? I propose the catchy term, ‘natural noumenalists’. I think that is a properly constructed category. And I further propose that today, April 13, be known as Natural Noumenalist Day. I will go now and enjoy our day. No need to travel on, just meditate on the quantum realm and get in touch with your ‘spooky’ entangled self. And say thanks to Hitch when you meet him.

Genetic Watersheds

I thought I had already presented the idea of our genetic watersheds in more detail when I did my recent post on Monod, but alas, I had detailed it in another context. I want to correct that omission. The idea here is to visualize how genes flow down through evolution and accumulate to generate new somatic structures that perform old functions better or can then be induced to perform new functions. Monod’s “reservoir of variability” mentioned 2 posts ago here is a watershed landscape littered with random springs of new genetic forms; many springs appear and disappear with little consequence while a few others contribute to the flow down through the ages—these mutations find a friendly fit with the rest of the genome and also contribute to improved adaptability. So here goes, first with a bit of contextual ground and then the figure.

The planet Earth formed some 4.54 billion years ago (bya) to become the ground for Gaia’s seed. The moon was struck off the planet by an asteroid a short time later around 4.53 billion years ago. I read a while back that scientists thought Earth’s water arrived via asteroids and comets 4 billion years ago but more recently I have read that they think most of our water was here early on as a product of the planet’s coalescence. Evidently at least some water from comets is now known to have a different chemical signature than our water here on earth. In any event virtually all the water on earth was present by 4.4 billion years ago. The earliest evidence of life found so far is about 3.7 billion years old and soon Earth metamorphisized into Gaia.

I identify two major features of life that have advanced speciation and increased complexity. Edelman and Tononi use the term ‘value’ to denote evolutionary value; that is, once a structural or functional feature has appeared in evolution and is found to be adaptive, further evolution tends to elaborate upon that value (see post 7/7/16). So these two features, rivers of genetic flow if you will, represent two major evolutionary values. First, any definition of life must include a metabolic process for energy and finding/ingesting nutrients. This is what I call SWP for Solving the World Problem, i.e., exploiting resources for survival in the world outside the integral soma. Over the past 3.5 bya countless chance events have contributed to mutating the genome in ways that improved the soma’s ability to find nutrients, such as improved sensory/perceptual, e.g., eyes and ears, and motoric capabilities, e.g., pseudopodia, fins, tails, legs, arms. Each chance mutation is a spring in the watershed of SWP; some springs appeared and disappeared because they did not contribute to fitness while others contributed genetic changes that have continued flowing down the ages. This flow I call the River Sentience (RS) because that is what sentience is, ambient awareness that facilitates finding nutrients and avoiding being food for other somas. The RS is the primary flow of genes accrued since life’s inception somewhere beyond 3.5 bya.

Now 1.2 bya ago a new sort of spring promulgated a special watershed that also contributes an important value to our evolutionary past and present, and that is the watershed of Conspecific Relations (CR). This incipient spring started sexual reproduction, making necessary the finding and cooperating with a suitable mate. That the flow from this spring became so prominent is due to the effects sexual reproduction has on increasing the mix of genes not through mutation but by combining genes from sperm and egg thereby increasing the variability in the gene pool and opportunities for evolutionary advancement. What is also quite relevant here is that finding mates becomes enabled through signaling, e.g., plumage, song, strength, and, please do not forget, signs of parental aptness. Somewhere around 500 million years ago (yes that would be .7 bya later from the inception of sexual reproduction) a genetic spring arose for the production of oxytocin, the beginning of a hormonal system supporting parenting behaviors. Oh my, but that is important because now evolutionary success is advanced by child rearing, attachment and bonding. Now these springs from sexual reproduction on down to family bonding contribute to a large flow I call the River Empathy (RE) because essentially CR (Conspecific Relations) promotes the emergence of social relations based upon the empathic communication amongst conspecifics.

That is the contextual ground; now we focus on the important figure which began to develop some 315 million years ago and finally became clear with the evolutionary appearance of mammals. I have posted before about what makes these kinfolk of ours so special (see posts on 10/16/16 & 11/2/16 about Mammalian Heritage Day). To bring this post to a conclusion though, consider that with mammals 315 mya, even more so with primates 50 mya, then simians over 8 mya, and finally with Homo say around 500,000 years ago, that the evolutionary genetic flows of the RS from the SWP watershed and the RE from the CR watershed merged, so that Solving World Problems became a social affair and that Conspecific Relations became a world problem to be solved (and I hope we do it soon because otherwise . . . .). This confluence of RS and CR from their respective watersheds created a new river, the River Consciousness (RC) as we became aware of our conspecifics’ efforts to solve world problems, i.e., we became conscious of another’s subjective mind, their intents and plans. Then our evolution progressed, fed by yet other springs to the sharing among minds through enlightened empathy and powerful symbolization, thus the name of my blog.

Each of us is a witness to the eons of flow down from these watersheds. Each of us is also a witness to our own particular life as subjectively experienced. So as I have mentioned before (see posts 7/25/15 & 6/26/15), our individual genome resulting from this genetic flow upon ontogenesis deposits a soma (with its brain and MEMBRAIN) like a river delta where the flow meets the ocean of experience Obviously much more to be said but now is the time to travel on.

ReReading Monod: part 2

In the current debate between the religious side and those arguing for science, at least as I see it generally represented in the media and at local events, the former stand on the need for divine guidance and validation of values, else we devolve into uncivilized and evil acting animals (I am still not sure how that would be different in many instances), while the latter argue for the evolutionary basis of values derived from our ancestral past (ancestry defined broadly). Jacques Monod had something intelligent to contribute to this debate in 1971.

Monod saw that with the advent of science human epistemology changed because science, with its axiom of objectivity, separated knowledge from values, i.e., science contributes knowledge about this objective reality but values must come from human decisions and actions because, looked at objectively, the universe is more machine-like than god-like with no absolute or divine values to be found. Before the 16th century both knowledge and values were generally from one domain labeled religion with perhaps a tad of secular philosophy thrown in by Plato and Aristotle. Since that time we have developed a powerful practical means of knowledge (I hope all would agree that science is eminently successful in solving problems and extending our capabilities) that indicates that our ethical values are “sociobiological” in origin and are an emergent feature of our extended and extending conspecific relationships.

Monod goes further with this analysis, saying that actually the distinction between values and knowledge derives from the Catholic distinction between the sacred and the profane. As human society shifts from animistic to scientific, an ethics of knowledge will develop that will include a knowledge of ethics. (Consider the current outcry against the American Trump administration for their desertion of the ethics of knowledge). To be authentic (and here is a modern civilized value), then, requires one to think and act clearly about value held/acted upon and judgments based on knowledge. Jumbling the two results in inauthentic action and thinking. (Now consider again our current politics in a more general sense whereby many elected officials assess reality according to their political and economic convenience in contrast with others, including bureaucratic data driven stalwarts, who assess reality in order to intervene on a factual basis and move society towards adaptive and democratic values).

Does this sound so arcane as to be trivial? Consider the ‘debate’ about whether substance abuse problems are a matter of character/spiritual flaws or an illness. Consider the incorporation by legal authorities of neuroscience findings indicating that the adolescent brain is not fully mature or functioning rationally for fully responsible action. Consider the issues raised in Simon Baron-Cohen’s book The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (see my posts on 5/11/14, 7/15/2014 & 7/28/2014).  Consider the changing approach to autism spectrum disorders, especially in how and what supports we fund for our fellow citizens over their lifetime. Finally, changing tack a bit, consider the remarkable economic data covering 300 years that Thomas Piketty gathered and analyzed for his book, Capital in the 21st Century, and the analysis and values he offers in contrast to so many others who talk about economic and tax policy based upon political dogma (see post 11/25/2016).

Monod argues for a society organized around an ethics of knowledge and a clearly asserted presumption of values. In this he leans left towards civic governance that ensures that the essential needs, including adequate wealth and medical care, of all citizens everywhere are met. He says he knows this will be seen by some as utopian but asserts that this is our choice, if ever we can rise to such a conscious choice, and in this he echoes his old comrade in the French resistance, proponent of clear social responsibility unsullied by claims to the divine, and fellow Nobel laureate, Albert Camus.

A final word about skepticism and existentialism vs god. (In our free country, you may believe in any god you wish; there are plenty to choose from, though quantity does not imply quality. What is not free at the moment is to require non-believers to think and act as you would like.) I recently heard again the old argument that without faith in god, humans would do whatever they want and that is not good, but it seems to me, again looking objectively around the world and through history, that even with faith in god, humans still do whatever they want, oftentimes not good, only now they feel righteous. Oh, and I have posted about righteous indignation before, see post on 5/16/2014. Well, time to travel on.