An insomniac’s reverie

Nights can be full of adventure for an insomniac living in the country. I recently connected some dots on a side trip from my main journey, thinking about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin for the first time in a while, Dissanayake’s book Homo Aestheticus which I reflect on periodically, and Monod’s Chance and Necessity, which is a daily meditation. When I finally did fall asleep I descended through a lovely vision of Gaia covered with artistic impulses flashing, some darkly and some lightly, strongly sensed by some of us here on earth, perhaps hardly seen from a distance into space. Art has migrated from its inception around communal fires, deep in caves and ‘making special’ many activities and objects (thank you, Ms. Dissanayake for documenting the ubiquity and importance of art) to illuminating the noosphere with its luminous light.

Remember that colorful priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who helped discover Peking Man and whom the Vatican prohibited from writing and teaching philosophy? (See post 12/17/16). He developed a conception of Gaia as first a geosphere, the dynamic rocky planet earth, then a biosphere as life evolved and spread over our planet, transforming it into Gaia, and then the noosphere, where human knowledge analogously covers the planet. Some say his vision contained the world wide web in its view, but at the least he thought that we humans would continuously connect and those connections would self-organize into a more inclusive society. (Never mind about his theory about we are evolving to join with the divine at the Omega point. I don’t think that he would have thought that if he had known about how civilization would foment the conflicts and wars over the last 70 years or the degradation of American politics today).

Monod propounded a brilliant version of the biosphere when he wrote about “an intuitive global picture of living systems whose phenomenal complexity defies assimilation”. Consider the variety and spread of life here from single cell organisms on up through multi-celled ones including us: the soil on our farm is full of microbial fertility (as are we—check your biome), many of our trees are herd creatures needing conspecifics nearby for vital resiliency (see The Secret Life of Trees), fungi inhabit the earth’s surface in a astonishing net of somas and spores, etc. Consider the number of cellular generations over the past 4+ billion years and Monod’s idea “of the extent of the vast reservoir of fortuitous variability contained with the genome of a species—again in spite of the jealously guarded conservative properties of the replicative mechanism” when he estimates for modern humans with a 1970 population of then some 3 billion “there occur, with each new generation, some hundred billion to a thousand billion mutations.” Wow, that is some ‘reservoir’ of chance and necessity that supplies our evolution.

No wonder, then, that he can say, “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’ 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.” I will only add the comment that Monod here fulfills Chris Hitchens’ dream (before he even had it—see post 11/17/14) of bringing the noumenal out of the supernatural realm into the natural one. If it exists, it is natural; if it is not natural, it does not exist except in our imagination, which of course is natural.

Now remember an image of all the lights we have on earth at night as seen from space, you know, the maps showing cities as bright blotches, rural areas as darker, and North Korea as unilluminated. Now consider that every organism, small and large, comprises many energetic transactions in the course of its life, each a chemical spark of vitality brightening its drops of water, and you can glimpse how Gaia glows in the cosmos, our precious blue ball hurtling through space. Finally imagine all the human endeavors creating art that make the noosphere glow with a luminous aesthetic as we share our complex vital experiences of life’s opportunities and hard exigencies. You might ken then an old farmer-philosopher’s insomniac reverie while watching the land on a snowy spring night.

Book review: The telltale brain

Book review: The Telltale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human by V. S. Ramachandran

This book has a lot to recommend it. I don’t have much time or energy right now but wanted to get something new posted before I slip out of harness here for awhile. Ramachandran is a scientist-practitioner of the highest order, both treating patients with neurological problems and running experiments both to improve treatment and to understand the mind better, so he has a wealth of experience, knowledge and insights into the mind.

He uses clinical anecdotes to illustrate neurological conundrums and he then considers some hypotheses for their explanation.   If he can test these, he does. If they help with treatment, even better. For example, he discusses the possible mechanism for phantom limb. When a limb is amputated the patient often feels like it is still there and some even feel excruciating pain in that limb. How do you treat physical pain that arises from an illusion? Ramachandran and colleagues tried using mirrors to present an image of the missing limb based upon the other intact one and this visual feedback facilitated the brain learning that the limb is actually gone and the pain also disappears. They then extended MVF (mirror visual feedback) to treat other conditions. Ramachandran goes on to discuss many examples of various syndromes as a way of elucidating brain structure and function. This is creative clinical neuroscience at its best.

Most significantly for me, he discusses not just mirror neurons but mirror systems and finds that they probably play a role in many domains from motor skills to empathy to culture. (Now you see why I like this book?) Even better he is one of the few to include the concept of symbols in his theorizing about language and art and to identify neural systems for meaning. For example, the visual system processes ‘seeing where’ and ‘knowing what’ is seen through different subsystems, and humans have an additional ‘so what’ circuit for processing its significance. And two chapters on art is two more than most have.

I did find, given my particular perspective, some exasperating passages. He says in an aside at one point that it is possible to overdo the concept of an “embodied mind”—I would like to know how. Of course he uses the term ‘hard-wired’ as a stand-in for the complicated structuring of neurochemical connections but I am not going to quibble much about that. I found his use of the term ‘semantic’ at times errant. He does not seem to have much sense of deep vs surface structure or that syntax is how we transform meaning to phonemic strings and back again. I also think he misunderstands Chomsky’s notion of a grammar as a biological phenomenon, but I do not know to what context he is referring when he asserts such things, so I do not want to be too picky about linguistics here when he has so much to offer.  I was not surprised that he does not mention Langer’s distinction between presentational symbols carrying import and discursive ones carrying meaning.

At the end though he gives a brief hint that art comes about maybe through the connection of ‘doing’ circuits with ‘feeling’ ones, i.e., of motor habits with intimacy, and that I will take as some affirmation of my thinking here. Anyway, try this book out if you want to see a detailed explication about the biological roots of our humanity and travel on.

art and cultural shifts

When I was 8 or 9 years old and judged mature enough to see some adultish movies my mother and sister took me to see South Pacific (two years later they refused me admission to Psycho which was probably just as well) and I loved it. Some of the romance was bit mushy for a boy my age but the cynicism of Ray Walston’s character, the spunkiness of Mitzi Gaynor playing Nellie Forbush modeled from, I just knew, my idol of Mary Martin (think Peter Pan) who had performed the role on Broadway, and the matchmaker with the name of Bloody Mary made me wonder what that was all about, as did the young lieutenant’s night sojourn on Bali-hai, but I figured it had something to do with love, magic and spirit, and all that made the mush bearable. Plus it was about war, sacrifice and victory. I can remember being upset when Nellie Forbush rejects marriage with the rich widower, Emile, because of his children with a Polynesian woman and very relieved that in the end she embraced everyone’s humanity. A few years later I became aware that not everyone accepted the humanity of different races. I was a military brat and saw different races work together and went to school with everyone’s kids; that let me maintain my naivete for awhile but then, being dispositionally oriented to reality, I figured it out.

So it is 60 years later now and I read about Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein making of that movie in a fine article in Vanity Fair. The general theme is that their frank treatment of racial prejudice posed a challenge for them to render and for audiences to accept. One specific was that their song “You’ve got to be taught” was controversial and many critics rejected it:

 

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear

You’ve got to be taught from year to year

It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear—

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

 

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made

And people whose skin is a different shade

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

 

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late

Before you are six or seven or eight

To hate all the people your relatives hate

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

 

Oscar Hammerstein’s original lyrics went on to praise love, but Rodgers thought it became too didactic or heavy-handed and so this was left out:

 

Love is quite different

It grows by itself

It will grow like a weed

On a mountain of stones

You don’t have to feed

Or put fat on its bones;

It can live on a smile

Or a note of a song

It may starve for awhile

But it stumbles along

Stumbles along with its banner unfurled

The joy and the beauty, the hope of the world.

 

The play opened in 1949. Rodgers and Hammerstein based this musical on James Michener’s Pulitzer winning book, Tales of the South Pacific, about his experiences there during WWII. Indeed, many Americans there developed loving relationships with Asians; they did as well in the European theater, as they did in Korea and in Viet Nam. Love will find a way (or not—many babies were war orphans abandoned by American fathers).

Some important cultural changes gathered momentum during this period. Jackie Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Brown vs the Board of Education was in 1954. The fight to extend civil rights to all humanity picked up steam. To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960. Sidney Poitier would soon be the first Black actor to win an Academy Award. Muhammad Ali would soon show us how to be a just champion on his own terms, accentuated by his doggerel.  You can remember all this or you can get the idea pretty easily these days.

In thinking about art I have pondered about how an individual artwork reflects and encourages cultural change, and the enormous popularity of South Pacific on Broadway (“the Hamilton of its day” VF calls it) and at the cinema gave me pause. Of Jewish descent both Rodgers and Hammerstein faced prejudice and their children suffered from it as well. They relished their success in part because it helped their children face less rejection. When I was teaching 5th grade in a small North Carolina town all the kids, especially the African-American ones, loved Kid Dynamite from the tv show Good Times. They would come in the day after the new episode mimicking J. J. Evans lines from the night before, and “dy-no-mite!” was their own great exclamation. Remember what a lovely movie Brokeback Mountain was with its frank depiction of cowboys in love? Go even further back to consider the role Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin played in mobilizing the forces of emancipation. Examples of artworks contributing to the waves of progress go on and on. I will only mention in passing that some artworks asserted the status quo, like the movie Birth of a Nation. Norman Rockwell’s illustrations for the covers of The Saturday Evening Post were restricted to depicting minorities only in positions of servants, as in redcaps on a train; that was not his choice, it was the magazine’s.

We move forward bit by bit, waves rise and fall, tides ebb and flow. Hollywood is today seen as ‘liberal’ for its attention to diversity and gender justice. In my youth Hollywood was seen as quite conservative, even reactionary, as depicted in the movie Trumbo. One of my favorite movies from the last year or so is Wadja, about a Saudi Arabian girl who wants to ride a bike (oh, the horror!), made by a woman who had to direct from a van hidden from the world. And of course we now have the Black Panther showing the dignity of an African people. Fantasy? Why, yes it is, just like all the other artwork being mentioned. Truthful? Absolutely, just like the rest of artwork, though it happens to be more important than some of the other movies out there.

The interplay between art and culture is quite complex and to make sense of it while I pondered the biological roots of these features of our humanity I had a vision of culture and art arising in waves across the ocean of experience. Hmm, a wave theory of art and cultural shifts? Maybe another post is needed here.

The demands of the growing season are upon me and will soon ramp up. That affects my time and energy for writing so posts may become even more sporadic but I will still be writing as best I can. Travel on.