4th Anniversary #4: Some of my basic lessons

I look at what we humans do every day all day long in the course of living and see biological marvels. Over the course of these past four years I have learned some wonderful basic lessons. Some have come directly from my reading. I re-read Langer’s Feeling and Form to gain more insight into art and presentational symbols. I re-read her Mind, vol. 3, and understood more about two important dialectics. The first is within the individual between the need for reality orientation and the pleasure of unbounded symbolic creativity. The second is within society between its need for each member to commit resources for group maintenance and to carry traditions forward for continuity and the need for individuals to be creative and innovate to maintain social vitality.

I understood from Chris Hitchens the possibility of the natural noumenal, i.e., a noumenal realm filled with the shadowy ideals and mystic forms not in some supernatural domain but in this positivistic one. And of course, this past year I re-read Monod’s Chance and Necessity to find that the ethic of knowledge directs us to the natural spirit inherent in the descent of genetic forms evolved through countless random events beginning with the appearance of life on Gaia. Along with that I read Tomasello’s The Natural History of Human Morality that confirmed two ideas, that an ethic of knowledge leads to a knowledge of ethics and that our cultural values, while distinctive, are based upon some continuity with the rest of the animal world. Our humanity is indeed rooted in empathy and symbolization.

One of my evolving lessons comes from long efforts at understanding how our mind works. Since my first stint in graduate school in speech and language pathology in the mid 1970s, I had pondered the role of old and new information, beginning with hippocampal functioning but going on to how our brains define or create the categories and how they are transformed, i.e., old becomes new and new sometimes becomes old. Over the past four years I have realized that these processes are actually embedded in the larger functions producing variance and invariance. Remember William James’ characterization of consciousness as the “remembered present” or someone’s phrase the “specious present”. It takes some short passage of time before information from the retina or cochlea or skin reaches the brain and then is processed enough to be available for sentient awareness. (Another of my lessons is that I came to differentiate sentience as deriving from perceptual impact and consciousness as deriving from autogenic, i.e., self generated, information). Thus the information of which we are aware is necessarily old. New information comes about when we notice change; this is seen perhaps most importantly in hippocampal processing where change=new information (or sometimes no change violates expectations for change and that also equals new) which triggers theta processing, i.e., a new focus and situation is engendered. Along with this remember that recognition occurs when new information is ‘recognized’ as old and recall occurs when old information is ‘recalled’ as new, and that this is based on memory, i.e., past experience is held as an invariant form.

I have come to understand that variance/invariance is an extremely basic, even essential, concept for our understanding of life. I started down this trail upon reading a research article on the dual loop hypothesis of language. The loops are a dorsal one composed, I think, of cortical tracts that maintain primarily invariant information and a ventral one composed of cortical tracts involved in the processing of variant information. Consider the writing process or any example of verbal composition. Some invariant bits, e.g., words, are assembled according to syntactic rules to convey a new and variant message. This has always impressed me, that while we have formulaic speech for social purposes, e.g., “How about this weather?” most of our utterances are novel. While maybe the sentence’s propositional form follows an old/new pattern in subject/predicate or topic/comment, this serves the basic ongoing hippocampal processes of contextual generation of usefully defined situations, which for linguistic performances, must be a relatively rapid process in order to facilitate the intentional guidance of expression.

But variant/invariant can operate independently of temporal parameters, e.g., old/new, and so is important for our mental displacement of information divorced from current time and space. This seems to me now to be yet another manifestation of the basic biological processes underlying life. As we humans have extended our knowledge by understanding larger and smaller scales, e.g., cosmic and quantum, we again come around to Herodotus’ dictum that you can never step into the same river twice. Change and flux seems to be the basic order of the universe as it runs down to some entropic end. Life’s vital processes hold this procession in abeyance, the soma a protected environment where flux is background noise. We have come to understand that life is defined by our genes holding still as invariant forms, albeit with important random and rare mutations, replicating through generations. Thus Monod characterizes the forms of molecular biology as irregular crystals. That our minds operate to hold information in invariant forms, e.g., memory, is only another version of that tale.

Monod starts his book giving us the source of his title from Democritus, “Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.” This from the man who around 400 BCE understood that atoms were a basic element of our universe. Monod found that evolution proceeds through chance or random events but that once a new gene passed two challenges, fitting into the coherent whole of the genome and then promoting adaptability of the organism, the new structure continues by necessity. Our brains and MEMBRAINs carry that feature through our mentality. Life in essence operates to mitigate exigencies and to exploit opportunities. No surprise that our minds do the same. Consider this example from current events: once we form an opinion we tend to preserve it despite new contradictory information. Invariance is naturally a conservative process. Cultural orthodoxy, especially religious, maintains invariance; rebellious hereterodoxy promotes variance until it succeeds in transforming views. The beauty of science lies in how it handles errors, i.e., variance, in its practice and theory and in how it institutionalizes the disjunction between our conceptual world, i.e., the doxa, and reality or nature, thereby making the empirical process necessary for objective and reliable understanding, so the need for our ethic of knowledge.

As I have studied our roots, some questions have come unanswered. What was the chemical process initiating life? How did sexual reproduction start and take hold? What were the genetic springs that fed the streams leading to humanity? Were the dominant ones for empathic and cooperative relationships or ones for control of displaced information? Are our distinctive mental faculties based upon cognitive advances, i.e., the orthodoxy, or are these advances really to serve a remarkable blossoming of empathy, i.e., heterodoxy? How is the self composed from the soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN? Why were some of the earliest artworks hidden deeply within caves? What led to our awareness of a noumenal domain and then to its reification as supernatural? And how is it so much ugliness is tolerated by a species that developed such a keen sense of aesthetics?

In the course of writing these anniversary posts I realized more explicitly than I had previously why I have always written “soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN.” While the MEMBRAIN understood simply and basically as an exaptation of the brain, the MEMBRAIN is strictly speaking not of the soma or its brain. It is rather a construction based solely on social interaction; it is necessarily a social organ embodied in many conspecific somas. It comprises the self of social individuation based upon attachment and socialization and not just the self of agency and autobiography. It comprises the self as presented socially through various roles as well as the self hidden behind those presentations. Of paramount importance it comprises the self’s adoption of the habitus, the cultural mores and practices that knit the social organism together.

One final lesson for me from me: the dialectic between positivism and mysticism that operates as my mind finds its way to understanding. In these posts I have focused more on the former and now I will conclude with the latter. The ancient Greeks thought that the universe was composed of 4 elements: water, fire, air, and earth, and this conceptualization served them well for a time. Before I travel on, here is a scientifically transformed elemental prayer.

Elemental Prayer

Let me hold this water I use today

Remembering its earthly passages

And wondering how it came here.

Let me burn this energy I use today

Remembering its finitude between earth and sun

And wondering at its myriad forms.

Let me breathe this air I use today

Remembering that I am a human

And wondering how the fire burns within.

Let me walk this path I find today

Remembering those here and passed

And wondering at Gaia’s kindness.

4th anniversary #3: soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN

I look at what we humans do every day all day long in the course of living and see biological marvels. So I have found that a summary, i.e., a brief conceptualization encapsulating a developed set of ideas and data (you know, information), is helpful (to me at least) in thinking and talking about our biological roots. I have two main ones for rendering my ideas. I posted about the genetic watersheds previously and here is the second, the soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN. The basic idea is that the soma (the body) and its brain have evolved as the genes flowed down from the Solving World Problem watershed to our pool and so shaped our current evolutionary form. With the additional flow from the Conspecific Relations watershed that began with sexual reproduction, the brain began to develop special abilities related to mating, communication, child rearing, and group formation and maintenance. These new exaptations specifically supported social relations and eventually brain systems became dedicated to these functions, and in doing so became the MEMBRAIN of the mind. The brain thus developed a MEMBRAIN because family, tribe and group relations turns out to be a very powerful factor promoting evolutionary adaptability. (This underlines the prominent place of mammals, including us, in the evolutionary tree of life—see recent posts about Mammalian Heritage Day).


Where is the self? the habits? Oh so many more questions.

A cursory glance shows how somas have evolved through the eons of life on Gaia. Changes in sensory and perceptual capabilities along with changes in motoric abilities have yielded many varied life forms that cover the planet and its many niches. One of my favorite examples is birds migrating thousands of miles attuned to the seasons and guided by geography and the magnetic field of the earth. Another is that fish can be frozen and thawed out some time later, then brought back to life, their biological clocks picking up where life’s rhythm left off. Insects are incredibly prolific, diverse and successful. Cockroaches have maintained essentially the same form for many millions of years. Butterflies range from drab to brilliant. Oh, the list goes on to include all of the living organisms on our planet from the net of fungus and other microorganisms thriving just below the surface to humans as we leave for other worlds.

Similarly, brains have evolved to greater and greater complexity thereby enabling more powerful capabilities. The modern evolved brain still interfaces with the somatic external boundary for the ambient, i.e., the sensorium, and within the soma internally through proprioception, its autonomic systems, i.e., sympathetic and parasympathetic, and chemical systems, i.e., hormonal and neurotransmitters. The nervous system, central, peripheral, and autonomic divisions, maintains homeostasis and vitality. The central nervous system with its increasing encephalization generates contexts that are deep in purview and broad in scope. These then form the basis for complex intentions and plans that guide increasingly sophisticated behaviors. Over the course of evolution, then, brains enlarged perceptual processing and integration, memory systems, motoric control, management of impulses and implementing complex purposive behaviors. And all of this is contingent upon emotional control and stability, i.e., nervous homeostasis.

With the rising evolutionary importance of conspecific relations, extant systems in the brain were dedicated to social interaction through exaptation that led to further development of systems to form the MEMBRAIN. Recognition of individuals, coordination of mating and child rearing practices along with signal communication appeared early on. The advent of live birth, altricial young and a prolonged juvenile period increased the importance of parenting, cooperation and communication. Systems operating with empathic communication through kinesic channels developed from facial recognition and increased with social agency. Neurologically this resulted especially in enlarged parietal and temporal lobes that increased the complex interplay between occipital and frontal lobes. The momentous developments of attachment and individuation based upon a powerful empathic sense of others led to a sense of self, and then culminated in symbolic communication to share information displaced in time and space, i.e., mentally and not perceptually generated information, among each others’ minds. The MEMBRAIN, then, initiated with social interaction, became the organ controlling mental information, and finally constituted a interpersonal shared organ supporting or comprising the habitus and cultural learning, i.e., the social mind composed from many individual minds.

This summary shows the constancy of what I call the 4 membrane functions: keep material/information in and out, pass material/information in and out. Even the first soma fulfilled these four functions in order to solve the basic world problem of obtaining nutrients and eliminating wastes and keeping toxins out while keeping metabolic machinery protected within. This is all in keeping with mitigating exigencies and exploiting opportunities (chance and necessity). Early somas’ membranes evolved in more complex organisms to become skin that then fulfilled these same functions. The evolutionary appearance of brains continued these operations, and it makes perfect sense that neurological tissue develops in the embryo from the same tissue as skin. With the powerful transformation enacted by CR the MEMBRAIN appears and these specialized systems fulfill the membrane functions for social/mental information. It is all of a piece.

This synopsis of the soma-brain-MEMBRAIN evolution shows the biological roots of our humanity from deep in mammalian evolution through primates (50 million years ago) and then hominids (500,000 years ago). And that led to cultural evolution of the past 100,000 years or so, especially the most recent 15,000 years since the advent of agriculture. Time to travel on to #4: some things I have learned from doing this blog.

4th anniversary: Post #2 Genetic watersheds

I look at what we humans do every day all day long in the course of living and see biological marvels. I watch from the perspective of two metaphors, 1: the genetic watersheds of SWP (Solving World Problems) and CR (Conspecific Relations) and their confluences into RS (River Sentience), RE (River Empathy), and their confluence into RC (River Consciousness; and 2: the Soma, its Brain and the MEMBRAIN. These ideas contribute importantly, I think, to understanding how embodied minds form and then come together to create the social mind of culture, a distinctly biological phenomena. Today I will summarize the watersheds. Next post will be about the soma-brain-MEMBRAIN.


Genetic watersheds of SWP (solving world problems) and CR (conspecific relations)

The flow from two main genetic watersheds fills our gene pool. Consider that life’s evolution progresses from “a vast reservoir of fortuitous variability”, to use Monod’s phrase, and this variability comes from the uncounted chance mutational events erupting from the ground, most rising and disappearing without consequence, contributing nothing to the watershed’s flow, but some rising to pass muster first as fitting coherently with the other segments of the genome and then as increasing adaptability; these then contribute to the flow down to proceeding generations.

The timeline is quantifiable and unimaginable. Our planet Earth coalesced around 4.54 billion years ago (bya), our moon formed by one or more big asteroid strikes 4.53 bya, our planet’s water was here from the beginning or arrived by more asteroids by 4.4 bya, and evidence indicates that life had begun by 3.7 bya. With that the transition from planetary Earth to vital Gaia began. Incipient life forms began evolving further means of SWP, Solving the World Problem of finding and using nutrients, and speciation developed as life forms spread into new environments and evolved the capabilities needed to exploit the opportunities in new niches. The metamorphosis to Gaia continued until the main phyla extant today appeared by 500 million years ago (mya). The genetic springs in the SWP watershed contributed the increased ability to sense and move and to use different nutrients, all in the service of mitigating exigencies and exploiting chance (these the functions of all life’s existence), and this led to life developing sentience. Thus, the main confluence flowing down from the SWP watershed I have named the River Sentience.

Back upstream a new watershed appeared around 1.2 bya instigated by a powerful spring for sexual reproduction. The flow from this spring enabled a new source of genetic variability, not that of chance mutations but from the recombination of existent genes leading thereby to a more diverse set of individuals from generation to generation. Along with this really monumental development, this spring added on the value of conspecific relations because the search for a proper mate from amongst the great variety of individuals took on an obvious importance. The genetic watershed that developed I call CR for Conspecific Relations. Furthermore, the value of CR increased from the necessity of mate selection to the opportunities of parenting. The springs of the CR watershed began to increase the prominence of cooperation, so that around 500 mya (when the main phyla were settling in) hormonal systems developed that included oxytocin and vasopressin to promote more powerful parenting feelings and behaviors. The genetic flow from CR produced signaling among conspecifics, leading to attachment and bonding with young, the formation of families, and finally, the incipient social relations permitted by new communications among kin and kind. Thus, the main confluence flowing down from the CR watershed I have named the River Empathy.

These two great rivers, RS and RE, flowed down to the ocean of experience, upon the shores of which genotype becomes phenotype, i.e., each species procreates through its individuals, and there we have arrived at the estuarine rebirth of generational life. Here one more important development occurs as a result of the confluence of RS and RE, a confluence made possible by the evolutionary appearance of symbolic thought. The advancement of empathetic communication about the animal’s feeling states of intent, affect and cooperative engagement coupled with mirroring action and intent led to signaling and then symbolic communication about subjectively processed information. As explained elsewhere, with the empathic sense of each other’s mind comes the impulse to share some of the mind’s contents, thereby empowering a new level of social interaction. Now solving world problems (SWP) becomes a shared socially organized activity and conspecific relations (CR) becomes a world problem to be solved. With this development symbolization and empathy interact and initiate human consciousness and culture (the habitus), and so I name the river resulting from the confluence of RS and RE the River Consciousness (RC).

This first metaphor captures the long evolutionary descent of genetic flows that contribute to our species-specific form and renders this remarkable number of infinitesimal chemical and energetic events into two primary flows, SWP that carries out the mitigation of exigency and exploitation of chance in order to gain from the environment what life needs and CR that creates social domains that enlarge Gaia in organizational, informational ways. From this phylogeny we travel on to the ontogeny of each individual soma, its brain (precursor to complex) and the MEMBRAIN in 4th anniversary post # 3.


4th Anniversary: 1-Heroes

I look at what we humans do every day all day long in the course of living and see biological marvels. My heroes are the guideposts steering me to scenic overlooks. I will present 4, William James, Susanne Langer, Noam Chomsky, and Jacques Monod and mention incidentally Christopher Hitchens and Pierre Bourdieu. Though not mentioned I also thank Claude Shannon, Jaak Panksepp, Jerome Bruner, A. R. Luria, L. S. Vygostsky, Wilder Penfield, the pioneering ethologists, the great primatologist Frans der Waal, and many, many more, including artists like James Joyce, more indeed than my old self can recall at any one moment and many more than would be interesting to read.


Susanne Langer

I first wandered down this path reading Susanne Langer’s Mind: An essay on human feeling, volumes 1 and 2. It validated my vague sense that I was an animal and that my mind, including its contents and my cultural surroundings, was biological. Easy to say and seems obvious, but I have found a surprising number of instances when talking about such matters, i.e., our humanity, that people balk or skip over that detail. If you have followed my blog for much time at all you know that is my primary pet peeve is the catergorical error when anyone, and most everyone does, says, “humans and animals”.

Langer’s earlier books, Philosophy in a New Key and Feeling and Form, ultimately have interested me more in recent years. (And this winter I will start her text, Symbolic Logic, that she wrote early on in her career). Her examination of aesthetics I find profound in its simplicity, and yet as I read more of aesthetics, especially those claiming to be biologically oriented, I rarely find her mentioned. Even more puzzling is the absence of her work on symbols. Langer explicated two types of symbols, presentational and discursive. The former are exemplified by art, the work is all of a piece or a unified gestalt, its elements have no meaning outside of that gestalt, and the complexity of thought cannot be translated into simpler linear forms. The latter, exemplified by language, is linear, its elements (words) have meaning independently of the current form (sentence), and its thought can be expressed in many different ways. Presentational symbols carry import, Langer says, to differentiate it from linguistic meaning.

Langer’s work followed in the tradition of those who sought to understand symbols like C. S. Pierce’s semiotics and Ernst Cassirer’s development of symbols, because they are key to understanding our humanity. Prior to her comes William James whose broad understanding of psychology, philosophy and biology was astounding given his time period around the transition from the 19th to the 20th centuries. While he realized that our conscious was really a “remembered present” and so his psychology reflects that insight, I also remember him for his book Varieties of Religious Experience, where he examines the data of religious experiences, not in terms of belief or disbelief, but in terms of psychological implications. His empirical rigor led him to say that while we cannot know what happens to a ‘person’ after death, we have a responsibility to understand what happens up until that moment.


William James

In the last decades of her career Langer worked on Mind, the 3rd and last volume published in unfinished form after her death. These volumes were then and still are not well received and I understand a bit why. Her research predated most of the transformation of biological science by the insights of genetics and information theory/technology. These left her last books with a certain quaint status.


Noam Chomsky 1977

Beginning in the 1950s and exploding in the 60s, Noam Chomsky revolutionized linguistics and biology. His early book, Language and Mind (1967), pushed Skinner and his radical behaviorism to the side of the road (though that did not stop some in clinical psychology from denying that we have a mind for many years; fortunately they discovered that we do have a mind some time in the late 80s, wow, really good work there). Chomsky formalized all three branches of linguistics, syntax, semantics and phonology, in ways imbued with information science. His work led to the realization that language was innate in some shape or form and biology has more or less upheld that thought. In my blog I depend on his differentiation between surface and deep structures of symbolic thought, deep being the meaning (or import though he does not apply this to art) and surface being the phonological form uttered (or the artistic medium used for art creation). Syntax is important because it governs the transformation between deep and surface structures. This is a very helpful notion.


Jacques Monod, Resistance hero and great scientist and philosopher.

Now I come to Jacques Monod, a prime example of why re-reading a work years later is important. I read Chance and Necessity (1970) shortly after it came out and understood its solid argument that life and mind is a biological phenomena based solely upon the chemical machinations of DNA and proteins. I read it again last year and understood as well this time the paradox that an ethics of knowledge yields a mystic view, e.g., apprehending our genetic history resulting from countless random genetic events over 3 billion years brings us to encounter the true mystery of life and humanity and not any of the mythic versions out there over our history.   This might also be the time to remember Chris Hitchens not only for his wonderfully clear prose but also his unorthodox casting of the noumenal in natural light, no longer relegating it to the supernatural because the supernatural is no longer closely related to any truth based on objective reality, instead being only a truth from our cultural imagination. (And no, our discernment of reality based truth is not a culturally imagined one; it derives from an ethic of knowledge that ensures we understand that in the realm of possible discourse [doxa] we do not mistake culture for the ‘true’ state of things, as well analyzed by Pierre Bourdieu.

So many minds bent on the same destination and offering guideposts to us all. Travel, really travel, on.

4th Anniversary: Prelude

I look at what humans do every day in the course of living and see biological marvels, then I try to understand them here on this blog. December 5 will be the fourth anniversary of my blog (who would have thought, yet I learn too much to give it up) and I have prepared a series of 5 posts as a celebratory summary.


2-Genetic Watersheds

3-Soma, its Brain and the MEMBRAIN

4-Some Basic Lessons Learned

5-Happy Anniversary

Over the past 4 years I have posted 255 times that were read 2244 times from 10 countries. My most popular post, ‘Arcuate Fasciculus, mirror neurons & memes’ has been viewed 242 times. Travel on but stay tuned.

Movie review: The Red Turtle and some reflections on aesthetic appreciation

The Red Turtle is a 2016 animated fantasy feature from Studio Ghibli by Dutch animator, writer and director Michael Dudok de Witt. It is a beautiful movie and I hope that, if you haven’t already seen it, you see it soon. The film is particularly noticeable because it has no dialogue, just lovely animation with expressive animals, including humans, and scenes of nature, both beautiful and powerful. I write about it today as a follow-up to my recent Aesthemos post and to consider some issues it raised in my mind, e.g., the difference between aesthetic emotions and those emotions depicted or evoked, aesthetic judgment, and the difference between linguistic meaning and artistic import. Travel on then.

The plot is simple and spare. The movie opens with a man struggling in a stormy sea with no context for how he came to such a dire strait. He somehow manages to land on the beach of an isolated tropical island and frantically discovers that he is all alone and that no other land is in sight. He tries to leave the island several times via a raft and each time something rises up underneath and smashes the raft. He discovers this to be a large red turtle. When it crawls ashore he wreaks his anger on it, killing it, though then the shell cracks open and a beautiful maiden emerges. They join together in a paradisiacal life and have a child, who grows up to befriend other turtles in the sea, help his parents in many things as they age, even saving his father when he is washed away along with much of the island’s forest in a tsunami. Eventually the son swims away with his turtle friends and the couple grow old together until the man dies, and then the woman returns to her turtle form and the sea from which she came.

Other events are important, like the father and later the son falling into a cave, the only possible escape from which is to swim through a narrow underwater outlet to the ocean. Many of the events are witnessed by sand crabs scuttling around the beach with humorous expressions. All told, then, the simple tale stands alone as a symbol with other symbols contributing to its artistic import. I use Langer’s term for the deep structure of artistic communication and not the word borrowed from language, “meaning.” I think there is an important difference between, when after watching this beautiful and somewhat enigmatic movie, you ask what it ‘means’ or what is its artistic ‘import’. Both can be explicated further, but the former presumes a concrete clarity already socially sanctioned and so governed by some semantic standard, while the latter presumes that any linguistic rendering of the emotions, aesthetic, evoked, or depicted, and of the symbols’ compositions and implications, is only an approximation to the vital experience symbolically realized and conveyed. That is the essential difference between Langer’s discursive and presentational symbolic forms.

Aesthetic judgment relies upon, or it should, the feelings and symbolic form expressed. In these modern times, meaning the last 15,000 years, I think the pervading power of our civilizing impulses sometimes clouds these facets. Consider Aristotle’s dictum that art, e.g., drama, depends upon the temporary suspension of disbelief. I have friends who would not bother with this movie because it is a cartoon, which, I presume, places it beyond their suspension of disbelief. I have other friends who focus on the details drawing their critical attention, e.g., it is cartoon and so for kids, it is a realistic live action movie but cartoonish (as if that was a bad thing), the actor did not fit their preconception, or something happens that does not fit together, etc. In the Red Turtle I can tell you the tropical island had a single seal (unreal) and one time the moon set over the ocean facing the wrong way (and the rest of the times its depiction was astronomically accurate), but while noticed, the artistic enchantment held together.

In talking with my more persnickety friends I have come to rely on the phrase ‘critical appreciation’. Some people are so bent on being critical they forget the appreciation and others appreciate without much thought. Most, I believe, combine some level of both, and as naturally happens, when they like something and view or hear it repeatedly, their criticism diminishes and their appreciation dominates until with perhaps too many repetitions, the feelings subside to be recalled again when old and grey.

The Red Turtle (RT), to me, is high art. Using Aesthemos’ taxonomy of aesthetic emotions, RT strongly presents some prototypical aesthetic emotions, e.g., beauty (of several things, events, relationships and nature), fascination with the characters and events, especially the continually composing import of the film as a whole, feeling moved by their isolation and mutual support, awe in the face of nature’s power and beauty, etc. Pleasing emotions are evident with the flippant humor of the sand crabs, the joy of life and their child, and the energy/vitality of their survival. Epistemic emotions also arise with surprises of the red turtle’s changing role in the story, interest in what will happen next and finally, and the challenge to grasp the insight into life offered by this film with no words. Other emotions are depicted, e.g., fear, anger, and evoked, e.g., sadness, isolation, etc.

Aesthetic judgment is a complex process joining aesthetic apprehension and experience of aesthetic emotions, critical appreciation, the comprehension of plot, characters, and emotions depicted and evoked, and above all, the successful reception of the presentational symbol conveying the felt vital experience. Regular readers here know I am fond of Joyce’s taxonomy, drawn from Aquinas, of aesthetical appreciation of beauty: the integrity of the whole, the coherence of its elements, and the illumination the art from provides. Joyce goes further to say high art comes to a static resting place, i.e., nothing else is desired and the consumer rests in the light provided; that is the Joycean epiphany. Lower art is dynamic, i.e., the consumer is left aroused and wanting, as in didactic or pornographic (loosely defined to include car chases, explosions, and scary scenes as well as sex) art. That art, both its expression and reception, is an intellectual endeavor of great scope and depth is, I hope, evident here today. Amidst all the activities of daily life and society’s functioning (maybe over estimating that given our current politics), art as a prominent and essential feature of our humanity is often lost (and some even abandon it) amongst the dynamic welter of what we still call civilization. Remember, though, William Carlos Williams’ lines from his great poem ‘Asphodel, That Greeny Flower’:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.


Once again I come to one of the main motivations for this blog: understanding our humanity, especially our art, as a biological phenomenon. I am preparing a series of posts in celebration of publishing this blog now for 4 years; never thought about going this long but I learn too much to let it go fallow for long. Travel on.

Mammalian Heritage Day

Today, November 2, is Mammalian Heritage Day.  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.

We humans in our evolution find ourselves benefitting fully from our mammalian heritage. Mammals appeared on the scene around 500 million years ago and have diversified into many different forms since. Consider their (our) primary characteristics. Being warm blooded confers a crucial independence from ambient conditions, an independence humans have taken to an ultimate degree. It is not just that mammals have adapted to many different environments around Gaia, including returning to the ocean, but we have further enhanced our independence by controlling and changing these ambient conditions, perhaps to own detriment but then no species continues forever.

Consider another characteristic: live births. This is especially important for three reasons. First, infants born viably but immaturely permit an incredible amount of post-partum growth. The benefits of this are astounding: increased brain growth and size and critical periods of maturation where experience affects brain development in deep ways. Second, parenting becomes a lot more than regurgitating food into infant mouths and then kicking them out of the nest. Oxytocin, a most important hormone for parenting energy and prosocial behaviors, has been around, according to some estimates, for over 530 million years. Over the course of evolution mammalian brains developed the capacity to respond more powerfully to this hormone—parenting and family life became more prominent in any adaptive success, and that leads us to the third reason: If you want to raise more intelligent children and pass on to them the benefits of prior generations’ experience, birth them live and immature, maintain a nurturing family structure, and extend their juvenile period so that they do not begin to reproduce until they are a decade or so old, and then watch them surpass their education. The discovery of controlling fire was not really that big of a deal; the passing on of this technique, however, was; just ask Prometheus.

Our immediate (relatively speaking) ancestors who showed the culmination of these characteristics are the primates who appeared around 53 million years ago. That means mammals evolved for 450 million years before our large brained, visually oriented, socially engaged, and quick intelligence kinfolk appeared and then simians appeared a few million years after that. Our line split off from the great apes around 8 million years ago and our partners, the dogs, appeared around 3 million years ago. Fire was important because it furthered this trend. Cooking food releases more calories, making digestion more efficient, and more energy from food powers increased brain capacity. Fire warms us and draws the family group to the hearth. Civilization began at the hearth (and it looks like it will die in committee).

So this November 2 take a moment to reflect on our genetic heritage and thank a mammal, any mammal, all mammals for continuing this genetic stream and tend to your hearth.