Monod on spirit, Oyama on ontogeny, and a zen koan

If you have followed my blog for any of the last five years you will recognize my reference to Monod on spirit.  Jacques Monod in his 1969 book, Chance and Necessity, presented an account of biological processes that he (and I agree wholeheartedly) believes yields a more realistic sense of what spirit is.  Following a suggestion by Chris Hitchens, I characterize this sort of spiritual view as natural noumenal, i.e., a reality that is not phenomenal but noumenal, not supernatural but natural.  Monod refers to the wondrous world of Gaia with its incredible heritage of biological processes proceeding through billions of years of random events that formed the shape of genetic flows into the gene pools of today.  Here is his account:  “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.”  As I wrote in my 3/25/17 post, “To appreciate the soul, then, travel back upriver to the springs of our genetic watersheds.”  And one more reference to render in another way the musical organicity of our spirit, to borrow a phrase from James Joyce’sFinnegan’s Wake, “accidental music providentially arranged” by unknown happenstance beginning long, long ago.

In her book, The Ontogeny of Information, Susan Oyama took issue with Monod’s gene-centric view (and Richard Dawkins’ as well) by pointing out that genes are only one component in a balanced system of biological controls and that what actually proceeds down through the ages are developmental systems composed of the organism, its genes and its ecological niche. Put in my terms used here, ontogeny is but one phase of spiritual happenings as Gaia continuously transforms. So today our rocky, watery planet (research indicates that even more water exists below the surface that we find on it in our rivers, lakes, and oceans—who knew?) teems with life forms in every imaginable niche, from deep in the crust to the skies above and from jungle to polar ice and down to sulfurous deep sea vents.  And even more remarkable and fortunate for those like us who live during this time, humans have figured this out.  As I have wondered about in the past at some point on this blog, the chemical processes comprising living organisms on our planet constantly spark with energy release in ways we may not be able to see but can still appreciate, all of them in almost infinite numbers over billions of years.  Spirit as natural noumena.

Zen koans are short questions or puzzles that can stimulate our meditations towards enlightenment.  Probably the most famous is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”,  and many more have been created by the sages over the past several centuries.  I read a rather curious one recently in a book, The Gateless Gate:  The Classic Book of Zen Koansby Koun Yamada and Ruben L. F. Habito.  The pithy version of it is:  What was your primal face before your parents were born?  I want to consider this koan from the perspective of my spiritual understanding, remembering that rational deliberations are, when all is said and done, irrelevant.

‘Primal’ per Webster means primeval, essential and fundamental.  I think (and admittedly I am not a real student of Zen) that primal face in the context of this koan refers to the enduring spirit of each of us that links our individual existence to the infinite universe.  But translating, or better, transmuting to natural noumena, I find myself wondering about the depth and particularity of the myriad estuarine events that led to the appearance of my 8 great grandparents, 4 grandparents, and then my parents births in 1919 and 1922.  I use estuary to signify the messy, muddy complexity of fecund life in which we are all born and that comprises not just the genetic flow per Monod and its ontogenetic ecological niche per Oyama but also the cultural compost of natural noumena left by the social and cultural milieu of piedmont Virginia back in the day.  Who was I during all of this?  What was my primal face as circumstances of persons, comings and goings, family alliances, developing affections, sexual couplings and daily happenings advanced without direction towards my birth?  Is this my own personal koan?

Better travel on to my happy meditation place.


Film review: Jane (+commentary on objectivity)

I finally got around to seeing Jane, a documentary film about the great Jane Goodall using film made by her first husband back in the day and more recent interviews with her about her life and work. What a dedicated lady and what a life! This film leaves out her second marriage once she divorced her first husband and also does not cover any of the scientific controversies her methods instigated.  Both of these omissions are probably just as well.

Her first husband was Hugo van Lawick whom National Geographic sent to film her earliest work; they were something of soulmates in cherishing Africa, its animals and landscapes.  They married and eventually had one son.  Hugo’s film project lost funding so he had to find other work and Jane supported him in that as much as she could, given her deep commitment to her own research. They filmed extensively in the Serengeti and Hugo became one of the world’s most renowned wildlife video- and photo-graphers.  Eventually their work pulled them apart and they divorced.  She then married Derek Bryceson, who worked to protect her Gombe project from tourism and other encroachments through his positions in the Tanzanian government.  He died of cancer 5 years later.

Jane Goodall was sent out by Louis Leakey to study chimpanzees in the wild, something that had not been done before.  She had no formal education, training or experience in this area, but she had always loved animals and especially animals in Africa, so off she went to the Gombe forest on a shoestring operation.  The chimps there were naturally wary of her and she was worried she would not be able to gather enough data to justify her project’s continuance, but she did by being a keen and very patient, quiet observer, eventually identifying a dominant male who was confident enough of his prowess not to run away from her.

This contact started a 50 year project following this group with whom she became quite engaged as they became ever more comfortable with her and other humans, even visiting their camp and stealing food and clothes, etc.  Now this is where some scientific controversy started that the film does not really address and that I think is an academic dispute that borders quibbling in this specific instance, thought the issues here are important.  The main issue is how to be objective or what objectivity means here and how does a researcher protect their stance as an observer and not a participant.  One complaint is that Dr. Goodall named her subjects rather than assigning numbers—not that much of a problem I should think.  Goodall and company successfully gained enough trust with the apes that they would come into camp and steal clothes and food and destroy things.  The apes also fought amongst themselves for goods. Goodall’s solution was to set up feeding stations outside the camp and so redirect their energy there.

Other scientists later criticized this move, saying that this affected how the chimps foraged and that this then affected social behaviors.  And indeed, some years later, the film shows how the ‘tribe’ split into two factions and eventually one group killed the others over resources. I guess the critics say this kind of lethal warfare is not usually seen in the wild and that the humans’ interventions contributed to this.  Maybe. I have seen other documentaries done less intrusively where intergroup violence was quite pronounced, so maybe not. And while I am sure that the chimps’ foraging practices were affected, I wonder how much.  Feeding birds at a feeder only adds another stop in the daily foraging routine. I would think that the chimps’ were adapted and engaged with their ecological niche to such an extent that they continued to exploit the natural resources thereabouts.

This is actually, I guess, a complex issue.  I have in my head the saying that the act of measuring changes what is measured. This is true in quantum physics where you can measure the velocity or position but not both.  In my clinical psychology practice, I understood that my assessment and initial interactions with my patient were part of the patient’s experience and so they might very well respond differently to other assays and situations (that’s life, as Frank sang it.)  I put great stock in the fact that Jane Goodall was a pioneer and her findings have helped shape further research and advocacy.  She had no model to follow so she made up her own based upon her curiosity and love of the animals.  She was, perhaps, less of an ethologist and more of an anthropologist, who also struggle with their own effect on their subjects but still engage with them, necessarily so, sometimes living with them and certainly forming relationships.  And all the while she took meticulous notes and gathered objective data.   Dr. Goodall followed this group through several generations for over 50 years; some of her knowledge was gained through a precious intimacy and that I think is oh so very important.

Yes, others who came later took precautions to minimize their impact but read about Washoe and Kiki and scientists’ like Frans de Waal research and you will see that they understand how closely related we and chimpanzees are. When the Gombe chimpanzees suffered a polio epidemic, Goodall’s team did what they could to mitigate its effects even as they watched and mourned the deaths of those too debilitated by the disease to survive in the wild.  And they changed their protocol to curb any physical contact so that they would not spread any more contagion.

This reminds me of the related issue of journalists’ objectivity that crops up once in a great while (and maybe should be discussed more openly besides). Consider a journalist covering a war where the people they are engaged with are killed or injured or they are covering people suffering from famine or drought.  Do they do nothing except witness and report?  No calls to medics, no offering bottles of water or a sandwich? Like a psychologist they must maintain the mental boundaries needed for objective work and avoid the ‘entanglements’ of a personal and no longer a professional relationship, but this is not a black and white issue and certainly not one where such distinctions are absolute. To constrain one’s humanity in the effort to strike an objective pose seems altogether pretentious, and in some cases, immoral.

Jane Goodall entangled herself with the Gombe chimps and her research has produced important findings and led to advocacy and inspiration to protect and cherish these fellow creatures.  She documented chimpanzee tool use in the wild, and of course many (mostly male?) disbelieved her at first—good thing a videographer came along for the ride.  The early footage of Dr. Goodall (and her mother who came along for a while to help manage the many tasks) is precious.  It evidently went missing for a while and was only recently found, so this documentary could then be made.  And the interviews with Dr. Goodall show clearly what a wonderful, spirited human she is.  We are lucky to have her on our side and fortunate to watch this film.  Travel on.


Jane? I miss her. She is my friend.


Aloha, Opportunity

We are all saying a fond farewell to the martian rover, Opportunity.  Designed to function for 3 months, it explored for 15 years, traveling many miles.  Here is one of the last pictures it took, looking back where it had come from, its tracks leading down to a valley that stretches out far away.  Sometimes we humans get it right, eh?


Quick music review

Once in awhile I am lucky enough to attend a concert that goes beyond remarkable into the marvelous, say by Rodney Crowell, Emmy Lou Harris, Leonard Cohen, Joan Osborne, Richard Thompson, and Rhiannon Giddens (twice).  Last night this old man lucked out again with a jazz performance by pianist Alfredo Rodriguez and percussionist Pedrito Martinez.  Wow!  Their musical talent seems boundless, they are clearly both virtuosos, and they clearly, luminously play together with wonderful joy.  How humans can do this always amazes me, but some manage to do so.  Wow again.

Here is the deal specific to them:  My heart filled with joy with their music and their engagement together and with us. This is music from the earth and its peoples who rise above mundane existence.  Both are from Cuba and draw upon their heritage as well as many other sources (one encore included a riff on Michael Jackson’s thriller).  Their friendship and collaborative passion shine through their performance.  Enough said. They are just starting a tour so check out their websites, and, for dates, then see and hear for yourself what power their art has to elevate the mind. Travel on to there.

How we might think about biology and beauty

I have been thinking about this article in the NYT for a few weeks now.  I feel I should write about it but what?  So here goes. This is another story about the orthodox notion that beauty is not actually a product of evolution, but wait a minute, maybe it is:  Ferris Jabr wrote this longish piece and it is worth reading.  He highlights a number of examples of beauty in the animal world and one scientist in particular who believes that some other animals besides humans have a sense of aesthetics.  Most other researchers scoff at this notion because beauty seems to play so little a role in evolution, believing, I guess, that what we perceive as beauty in nature is more a simple byproduct of other adaptations.  This falls, then, into one of my favorite categories these days, that of an evolutionary spandrel.

What is that, I hear some ask?  The concept of a spandrel is borrowed from architecture where it denotes the space between an arch, ceiling and any supporting pillars.  As such a spandrel does not contribute to the structure, though architects soon learned to fill the space with decorative art.  Here is a diagram:


So an evolutionary spandrel is an ontogenetic structure that does not contribute to the organism’s successful adaptation and continuance of the genetic stream.  A simple example I have read is the color of our blood.  The redness has no adaptive significance; it is a spandrel to the use of iron-based hemoglobin for oxygen transport.  If we were a lobster, that has a copper based blood, we would have green blood.

A prominent example under discussion here is the bowerbird.  The male builds an elaborate nest that is used only to attract a female’s attention and not for egg laying.  Once the female approaches the male’s nest, and they are elaborate with many bits of shell, pebbles, and whatever can be found to decorate the approach, the male must then dance successfully enough to entice the female to copulate.  Then another nest is built.  Does the male bowerbird’s nest building contribute to its reproductive fitness, albeit by increasing chances of mating, or is it a spandrel?  Nest building is metabolically expensive and this kind attracts predators as well as females.  Could it be an anachronism left from an earlier adaptation wherein the male actually built a functional nest, i.e., used for egg hatching and young rearing, which was replaced by a behavioral dance?  That is the tenor of this debate.

Orthodox theory has it that sexual ornamentation, which can be quite extreme, e.g., bird of paradise and peacock tail feathers, and sexual signaling, e.g., the grouse dance, indicates the robust health of the male, i.e., a better mate. This would mean these features contribute directly to evolutionary fitness and so would not be a spandrel. To say, as Richard Prum does, that these features are a contribution to the evolution of beauty elevates beautiful features to a non-spandrel level.  And surprisingly, I learned from Jabr’s article that Darwin himself did not think that evolutionary fitness was useful in explaining all adaptive features. He thought that besides natural selection, sexual selection played a significant role in shaping organisms; indeed, that males developed ornamentation and signaling behaviors to fit or match the females’ “standard of beauty”, as Darwin put it.  There you have it, from the godfather of evolutionary science himself, though most scientists beginning even back then through today scoff at the notion.

There are two issues for me here.  One is the nature of beauty, of how we perceive it and what makes something beautiful, and the other is the nature of art, which I take to be a symbolic form, i.e., it has a surface structure composed by us (could be other species’ partake of this effort as well like the whale songs from last post) and a deep structure of some vital import about our experience.  Now consider Jabr’s words:  “There are really two environments governing the evolution of sentient creatures: an external one, which they inhabit, and an internal one, which they construct. To solve the enigma of beauty, to fully understand evolution, we must uncover the hidden links between those two worlds.”  Oh boy, that is exactly the issue here, i.e., the hidden links between surface and deep structures.

Consider seeing something beautiful in nature, like a sunset or storm over the sea or a striking bird.  Here are some photos of mine to ponder:


Odysseus watched the sunset from Calypso’s isle yearning for home.


Odysseus struggled through storms to reach his home on Ithaca.

The surface structure is the image but what is the deep structure?  What is the basis for our aesthetic appreciation of such scenes?  Further, how does a poet, e.g., Homer, transmute this into a beautiful image composed of words?  Here is another of an indigo bunting that visits our farm in the spring-how is it we see its beauty and how do the female buntings view it?


A handsome and rare indigo bunting

To be clear, I do not know the answer here, but I have adopted two canalizations for my thinking about these sorts of issues.  The first is, of course, Susanne Langer’s notion of art as a vital form, symbolic certainly but what makes the form art is its conveyance of vitality, e.g., the experience and energy of a particular life.  The second I extrapolate from Jacques Monod’s understanding of life processes as furthering itself through fitting components together, i.e., a molecule fits with another and contributes to energy control.  Many molecular combinations fit with others to contribute to life’s complexity, and to further the stream of life, each fitting must fit with many others in a sort of closure achieved by completing an image, like the Necker cube, only this closure is the underlying form of a biological organism.  Showing even more complexity, following Susan Oyama, the organism’s form and place in the hereditary stream is a complex fitting of a developmental system comprising life and niche, the means by which ontogeny progresses along “life’s journey, its cascade of complexity downfield into the future” like a musical symphony advances some grand waves of temporal experience through auditory forms.

Vital import and fitness certainly seem relevant here, but consider another concept, that of intentionality, because it plays an important role in the linkage between surface and deep structures.  Now I gather that ‘intentionality’ in philosophical parlance is a loaded term (first clue: Daniel Dennett wrote a book on it), but I want to use the term more as a contrast to ‘incidental’.  We act sometimes incidentally, e.g., our intent is to get a glass of water and we have to walk incidentally to the kitchen.  I distinguish between the two by asking with what intent is our volitional, i.e., for initiating behavior, energy mobilized.  We can formulate an intention and plan for its implementation but enactment starts when volitional energy is summoned.  From this perspective I guess you could call incidental actions behavioral spandrels but they would clearly be instrumental.  So indeed all spandrels are, just that, instrumental; it is just that by definition evolutionary spandrels do not contribute (directly) to adaptive fitness—they are, shall we say, instrumental gaps.  (Blood’s redness here is more an incidental reflection of the instrumental iron). But by Darwin’s reckoning some do serve to facilitate reproductive success, so something must be working here.

At any rate, art certainly requires intentionality in its production—intentionality is a necessary feature of our shaping the art form to express our intended import.  Again the surface form belies the complexity of our import.  But does the apprehension of beauty, by us or any other species, require intentionality?  Consider again the images above of a sunset, storm and bird.  I hope you agree that they are beautiful but beyond the glory of nature, what might be their import?  And does fitness of even some vague sort contribute to their loveliness?  While they are not produced intentionally, we may attribute some intentionality to these images in a mythic function, like we say they reflect the glory of nature or god or we see some notion of life’s temporality rendered thereby or interpret what we see as an immanent portent. In this regard I think the sunset or a peacock’s tail is beautiful but not art.

The question Jabr reports on is how other animals see natural phenomena like another’s plumage, song, or dance. He writes, “Sometimes beauty is the glorious but meaningless flowering of arbitrary preference. Animals simply find certain features — a blush of red, a feathered flourish — to be appealing. And that innate sense of beauty itself can become an engine of evolution, pushing animals toward aesthetic extremes.”  And further, “Unlike natural selection, which preserved traits that were useful ‘in the struggle for life,’ Darwin saw sexual selection as exclusively concerned with reproductive success, often resulting in features that jeopardized an animal’s well-being.”  Is this really a sense of beauty?  Again, I don’t know.  I have asked several birds around here but they have not answered; the clouds, though, they say ‘yes’.  That some perceptual features ‘fit’ another’s sense of  ‘appealing’ is fact.  But consider bird song where ornithologists studying male song measure its power by counting the number of copulatory postures elicited in the female.  The more postures seen the better the song is presumed to be.  A song, thus is boiled down to hormonal activity.  (Don’t want to go so long here but consider if dreaming is adaptive or spandrel, and remember that other animals do seem to dream:

I have long wondered when it is that a bird stops building its nest but have never seen any research on this.  If indeed they do have some sense of aesthetic, I would assume that the bird builds until it is satisfied with the construction.  If not, I would guess that the bird builds until the eggs are laid. Likewise consider the bowerbird. Does he work continually on his nest until he attracts and mates with a female, or does he come to a moment when he feels the nest is just right, sort of like us decorating the walls of our house, e.g., these pictures and tapestries do the job?

Finally I just read an article about a Duke researcher, Steve Nowicki, who tested the hypothesis that the more complex a bird song the better the bird brain has developed.  Knowledgeable females then would pick the male with a more complex song because of his greater intelligence.  So far, Nowicki’s research has not shown this to be the case.  Good songs from good brains do not win the day.  I remember from way back research showing that some birds raised in isolation sing the best songs, i.e., the females respond with more copulatory postures, but that other males then attack this prime singer, who can survive if he is the best fighter or if he modifies his performance and sings a lesser song.  There is a lesson for us all in this finding about the importance social niche plays in our development.

In the whole wide world many things fit together.  Some fit with the spark of life shining forth.  Each life shines with its own energy and some shine brightly beyond their own time and place.  Life, as we know, abides by the 2ndlaw of thermodynamics with its own particular slight of hand.  Life is an energetically exuberant process controlled as it advances ecologically in time. And, it seems to me that this exuberance manifests in many ways with each life form and generation rising.  Finding beauty in our surrounds shows our sensitivity to this and art is a supreme expression of that exuberance. That this metaphor seems a bit out of the loop empirically, I think, is only because so many fail to recognize some features of reality, e.g., finding beauty and artistic experience given and taken, as facts worthy of study, believing that the orthodox constraints to our science are more important than our imaginative seeking beyond what we know (always I come back here seeking a balance).  Read Jabr’s article about the beauty debate and see for yourself.  This is what I had to say about it.



Or could it be that even spandrels, those empty spaces in our structure, contribute to life’s vitality?  That elements that contribute empty spaces are important to life’s functioning?  What does the Tao Te Ching say about that again?  Say in chapter 11?


Thirty spokes

Meet in the hub.

Where the wheel isn’t

Is where it’s useful.


Hollowed out

Clay makes a pot.

Where the pot’s not

Is where it’s useful.


Cut doors and windows

Make a room.

Where the room isn’t

There’s room for you.


So the profit in what is

Is in the use of what isn’t.


(Many thanks to Ursula K. LeGuin for this version) With that it is surely time to travel on.

fluid culture

A shorter post here before a longer one.

Several news outlets have recently posted stories updating our research into whale songs.  We have big questions here:  Why do they sing and why change their songs over time, do their songs travel underwater for thousands of miles with purpose, etc.  Whales are intelligent, conscious creatures, of that we can be sure, and still we are caught trying to understand them between anthropomorphism and anthropodenial.   Our rather weak conceptual basis for understanding their psychology depends upon their being mammals, big brains, once land animals, social, etc.  The difficulty comes from the usual mystery of another’s species’ mind and from their lives in the ocean; what must that be like?

I have several stories that I remember when I ponder their lives and minds. Their world is getting more polluted by human trash and noise.  Our navy performs underwater sonar experiments that are excruciating to them, yet we blithely complain that our diplomats in Cuba suffer brain injury due to sound waves.  We have hunted them cruelly for oil and meat, and indeed, Japan recently pulled out of a treaty banning whaling so that its ships could harvest more, they claim for research but what has been published? and besides they value and sell the meat as an expensive delicacy.  I have seen a video of a whaling ship killing a female blue whale, and then when its mate came charging at the ship, they killed him with their exploding harpoon gun. Remember that the story of Moby Dick was based in reality as a large sperm whale destroyed the whaler Essex in 1820.  That it was whitish is explained by the more recent finding that blue whales grow whiter with age, so Moby Dick was a vengeful elder.  Some whales feast on plankton, others on small animals, even seals for the orcas.  Some cooperate to blow a cylindrical ring of bubbles to corral the fish for their feeding. And many frolic and play.

My favorite story is the one a few years back when divers discovered a large humpback whale fatally encumbered by tangled fishing lines.  They teamed up to cut the whale free and when they had succeeded, this whale, remember now it is 20-30 tons of graceful and fluid power, went up to the divers and tapped its nose on their face mask in what the divers saw was clearly an expression of gratitude.  Google ‘whale gratitude’ and you will see several examples of similar actions.  Finally consider that whales have been known to support sick brethren in reaching the surface to breathe and that they are capable parents.

So this new research shows that whale songs develop over time:  Consider this quote:  “Male humpback whales within a population tend to sing the same song type, but it’s continuously changing and evolving over time,” said Melinda Rekdahl, the study’s first author and a marine conservation scientist with the wildlife society. “It’s thought to be one of the best examples of cultural evolution in the animal kingdom.”

While their songs seem to be specific to each group, there are indications that songs might be shared between groups or that they influence each other.  Some whales travel long distances through several oceans, singing away through the deeps, so a cross pollination of sorts is easily conceivable if hard to document.

And now for something really interesting.  In one paper, Jenny Allen, who was a doctoral student with lead investigator Dr. Noad, found an unexpected pattern among humpbacks. Once their songs reach a certain level of complexity, humpbacks drop that tune entirely and pick up a new, simpler one. Her study, the first to quantify the complexity of the songs, was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. So like the best jazz musicians, whales begin a song simply, develop it to a crescendo of complexity, and then drop back to the simpler, perhaps more lyrical pattern.  (Yes, I did see this very thing with the fabulous Joshua Redman quartet in concert last night and they are some of the best jazz musicians playing together with such artistry—catch them if you can).

Art, says Susanne Langer, is an expressive symbolic form rendering some portion of the vital experience of the rhythms of life.  In her later work she explored at length how organisms are born of rhythms, so of course, art, especially music because it presents a virtual image of time lived, portrays waves rising, building to crest and roll over to break and foam, subside and begin to swell anew.  I don’t know exactly why whales sing but I bet their songs express in some cetacean way their experience living in the ocean, and that, whether your bias is against anthropomorphism or anthropodenial, must be considered beautiful and a cultural sharing of their lives with their kin.

My next post, I think, will be a longer one about a debate among biologists about beauty and evolution.  Listen carefully while you travel on.