I stumble through and bump my head

For a couple of years now I have been reading various works from Asia and pondering how Eastern thought contributes to our understanding of ourselves and our world.  This includes specific ancient texts, like the Tao te Ching and various sutras, as well as commentaries thereon, and ancient to almost modern poetry.  Lovely stuff!  I have also been going through The Gateless Gate  (an old collection of Buddhist koans—paradoxical statements meant to help one along the way to enlightenment, like “What is the sound of one hand clapping? Or one of my favorites:  What was your primal face before your parents were born?) very slowly and marveling at how Buddhists can confound linear thinking.  While I learn much from all of these texts, I also have had a nagging quibble that seems important but difficult to articulate  . . . .

. . . Until I read a statement of some hybrid beliefs involving Buddhism and Gaian theory and my quibble crystalized into a coherent structure.

More context before my quibble.  I was reading a book not about Eastern thought but one about Gregory Bateson, a very interesting fellow.  He comes from a self-described family of atheists, himself being the fourth generation of skeptics.  In Gregory’s youth they hobnobbed with some of the great thinkers of early 20thcentury England such as the Huxleys and Alfred North Whitehead.  His father was instrumental in spreading the ideas of Gregor Mendel, the monk who worked so assiduously on plant genetics, integrated with Darwinian ideas; indeed he was one of the first to call this study of heredity “genetics” and Gregory was named after the monk.  The father seems to me a prime example of being in the right place at the right time with a mind prepared to grow the opportunity.

Gregory Bateson was a mostly independent scholar who worked across many disciplines.  As a young man he married Margaret Mead and they did research together in the south Pacific islands.  He then had a long and influential career studying cybernetics, psychiatry, semantics and communication theory, as well as anthropology.  I had heard mention of him over the years without remarking upon him very much until recently, and then his ideas seemed quite relevant to mine and important in general, so I read Understanding Gregory Bateson:  Mind, Beauty and the Sacred Earthby Noel Charlton (a decent read though Mr. Charlton spends much energy evangelizing for Bateson’s ideas—they are good but this is not how change comes about.  I may get around to a more thorough review of this book later).

Bateson saw all of nature as a series of nested minds, ours being nested on some intermediate level, so that all of our ecology is actually one mind composed of many minds.  He saw that in our separating ourselves from nature, we had lost ‘grace’ and were harming our world and so also ourselves.  The way back to grace is to engage with the sacred or the unitary grandness of life on our planet (oh, I am simplifying here a great deal—read more for yourselves) through aesthetics, the beauty of nature, and human art.  If you follow my blog you can understand why I wanted to know more about his work.

In the penultimate chapter Charlton reviews how other thinkers were influenced by Bateson and how other ideas meshed with his ecological views.  One of these was Gaian theory, of course, and one of these thinkers was a Buddhist-Gaian scholar named Joanna Macy. This seems a natural confluence here, and you know I like confluences.  When I read Charlton’s rendition of Macy’s ideas, I realized what my mind had balked at as I read other ideas from the East.  Specifically I struggled to understand the notion that enlightenment involves experiencing the unity between objective and subjective or the truth that there is no self.  Yes, I do accept that in meditation such boundaries can and do dissolve but once again, anyone who experiences enlightenment is a biological creature and that entails certain corollaries.

So Charlton says this of Macy’s ideas:  “Similarly, in both Buddhism and General Systems Theory (Macy uses this term interchangeably with ‘systems cybernetics’), the self is a process that cannot be abstracted from its context in nature and society.  It is an ‘open system’ and it is impossible to distinguish self from non-self.  Any division is arbitrary; the individual self is a fiction” (p. 189). Oops!  Sure self is a process on many levels but it can and is abstracted from its context; indeed, at a very basic level anything we use words to discuss is already abstracted from the flux and phantasmagoria of experience.  My question is always about the adequacy of the abstraction, i.e., does it capture the primary structure and its history along with its inter-relationships and dependencies with its soma, its ecology and its its ancient past?

The self, like its soma, is not an ‘open system’ and can certainly be distinguished from non-self, just like the soma is understood to be a life form. These are not ‘open systems’ because a soma, a brain and its MEMBRAIN maintain their integrity through control of the membrane functions, passing information in and out, keeping information in and out. The self follows along with this pattern.  Sure the soma is a wonderful composition of different life forms—the biome is a necessary adjunct to its healthy vital operations, and the self is also a complex composition dependent upon social interaction for its derivation.  I maintain that that the basic features are an autobiographical sense of its life and a sense of its agency, but secondary features abound, e.g., roles, selves associated with those roles, an apprehension of conscious subjectivity, etc.  Again, an adequate abstraction must also include what supports these features that operate below the limen of awareness, and also what the self keeps out of its ‘self-definition’.  For example, I am myself a father and husband, which are clearly within my self’s bounds, and I know the alphabet and basic math, but those are not a part of myself. Is this a fiction?  Why yes it is as a construct in the mind, but as Dumbledore told Harry, it is still true.

Somehow my mind likes Eastern philosophies; I find a good deal of truth and wisdom in their approach.  I think Buddhist enlightenment is a worthy goal, of sorts.  As I say in my creed, I follow an ethic of knowledge, and this leads me to explore the mystic boundaries within and beyond myself.  I find there a most agreeable landscape to wander (yes, yes, remember that not all who wander are lost).  But read the third chapter of The Gateless Gateabout Zen Master Gutei who always answered any question about Zen by raising one finger.  When he heard that his young assistant answered a question about his master’s teaching by raising his one finger, Gutei cut off the boy’s finger with a knife. The boy ran away.  Gutei called him back and raised one finger, and “the boy was suddenly enlightened”.

Somehow this enlightenment came with the experience that the self is a fiction, that his finger was part of what separated him from this realization, and that he understood that his self was a fiction and experienced reality as unitary and without conceptual distinctions—finger or no finger is a distraction.  Oops and ouch!  I have reached a mystical boundary and bumped my head in finding it.

With any religious school of thought and discipline my skepticism finds antiquated constructs, and there one is.  My ethic of knowledge keeps me grounded in my biological roots.  So enlightenment is a biological notion (maybe a rock or tree is enlightened but they, not some human being, would have to communicate that to me and I do listen out as I wander the farm.)  The self is an outgrowth or feature of life; it bears many relations to all that surrounds it now, past, and future, but a life has an onset and termination.  Some spiritual and religious traditions maintain the self is independent of those events, and I myself wonder about that, i.e., about how it could be true in my cosmology which is devoid of the supernatural. (Remember my motto: “If it is, it’s natural.  If it isn’t natural, it isn’t, except as an imaginative dream).  But the self and its soma is not an open system nor a closed system but a gated system operating to sustain the negentropic balance of energies working at the heart of life’s vitality.

How we understand life and cherish Gaia and structure our participation in this transcendent reality is important.  Bateson and many others know that we as a species are not doing a good job of this. How do we find and follow a better path? I do not know, but I think, like Bateson, that engaging with natural beauty and the vital experience artists render for us is very important.  I also think following an ethic of knowledge and seking a knowledge of ethics is important, e.g., appreciate our science and our human relationships with each other and Gaia.  As the previous post put it, “sometimes human beings are stupid”.  And sometimes we are smart.  I wonder about the cultural rhythms of wisdom and ignorance and travel on seeking a better wave.  But I cannot hold up one finger to indicate the one true way or condone mutilation in the interest of religious purity or spiritual realization.

Since human beings are frequently stupid . . .

As I read I am always on the lookout for another great book. I found in this way Pierre Boudrieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practiceand Susan Oyama’s The Ontogeny of Information among others.  Now I am reading another one, The Social Construction of Reality by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, touted as one of the 5 most important books on sociology last century (and there were many).  I am reading it slowly both to enjoy the ideas and to understand them as best I can.  Early on I kept saying to myself, “Is this how sociologists think about things?” because their level of analysis is so different from what I am used to (mostly psychological, biological and neuroscientific).  Social Construction is quite abstract and analyzes how we humans as a society form institutional knowledge and cultural forms almost on a step-by-step basis, beginning with dyad, then a triad, and then a larger group thereby creating and institutionalizing human culture.  It seems quite austere in its analytical and logical approach and I imagine required quite an effort to write so and supercede in the main the messiness of human biology and psychology.  This is a really good book.

Berger and Luckmann  write with insight albeit from their different perspective on many topics I have pondered. I particularly appreciated their arrival at understanding and stating oh so clearly that all of human culture is a human (and to me that means biological and organic) creation: “The origins of a symbolic universe have their roots in the constitution of man. If man in society is a world-constructor, this is made possible by his constitutionally given world-openness, which already implies the conflict between order and chaos.  Human existence is, ab initio, an ongoing externalization.  As man externalizes himself, he constructs the world intowhich he externalizes himself.  In the process of externalization, he projects his own meanings into reality.  Symbolic universes, which proclaim that allreality is humanly meaningful and call upon the entirecosmos to signify the validity of human existence, constitute the farthest reaches of this projection.”

Well said, eh?.  My perspective is that we humans have an umvelt, i.e., an inner world, filled with self generated information much more than perceptual or even remembered information, and that this umvelt has come to be dominated by culturally transmitted information, i.e., what Berger and Luckmann call a symbolic universe.  To say that we externalize this umvelt and that we project our meanings into a self-, or better, selves-created reality is, I think, quite apt.

Berger and Luckmann also discuss how we reify these creations.  A good word that, ‘reify’, meaning to make something abstract real and solid.  One example of this comes from psychology where researchers might pose a construct and then assume it is real; any number of examples exist like Freud’s ego, a vague and ill-used concept that many think is a real thing.  Another example comes from physics where theorists derive some mathematical objects that may describe reality but are not in fact manifest in reality, like quarks.  Berger and Luckmann write that we humans create and populate symbolic universes and then forgetting that they are our own selves-creations, assume that they are real, i.e., we reify our our arbitrary forms and ideas into something thought to be actual, to truly exist independently of our minds.

I see a good example of this on my drive to town.  A sign advertising a church program says that “The universe follows god’s will”, but I think it is more accurate and less reified to reverse the terms, “God follows the universe’s ‘will’.”  As a way of illustrating this, a recent wind storm blew the church sign down.  Was the universe following god’s will or vice versa, was god’s will following or mirroring in some people’s minds the universe’s particular action?  Attribution is best done, I think, carefully and without reification.

I am also thinking a good deal these days about the frailty of cultural transmission (like how is it that so many Americans accept our President’s character as healthy and his actions as just and true?  We certainly lost something somewhere in the transmission of common moral and ethical sense).  Berger and Luckmann discuss a couple of reasons for this.   One is that socialization is rarely complete.  Well, yes, as I posted recently, I rejected the socially transmitted value specifying that beatniks are bad and racial discrimination is okay (see post 5/21/19).  The glory here is that each generation generally accepts what the previous one passes on but specifically examines certain aspects that seem out of kilter with current understood realities (remembering that these realities are selves-created).  We might call these critical moments (a metaphorical reification?) inflection points, and these come about for many reasons large and small, and especially through contact with people who think differently.

Another reason is that cultural transmissions sometimes involve information of some complexity, subtlety and nuance, and this necessitates that the transmission is simplified, because, as Berger and Luckmann write, “since human beings are frequently stupid, institutional meanings tend to become simplified in the process of transmission”.  Some may not be able to understand the deeper lessons learned by our ancestors because of some intellectual or emotional lack (perhaps, say, for example, they have grown mentally lazy due to anti-intellectual attitudes or they spend too much time and energy watching sports or reality shows, or they have become too entitled to think they need to work at thinking, just for some examples). Maybe they think that their world is so different and that they are so special that old wisdom, e.g., like the truth and value of character, is garbage.  This is important because, say Berger and Luckmann, cultural progress is institutional change (institutions in a very general sense) and that is not irreversible.  So yes, fascism can return and yes, that is bad, and no, we are not powerless here because this is our own selves-creation, but we do have to pay attention to some basic principles and act and think working at intellectual integrity (remember the words Sam sings in Casablanca, “the fundamental things apply as time goes by”).  Travel on.

A cultural shift or variation? Cowboys and the Confederate flag.

On today’s edition of cultural shifts in my lifetime I want to talk first about cowboys and then the Confederate flag as we ponder whether these have been progressive cultural shifts enlivening some value, e.g., historical truth, or simply a widening cultural pool more inclusive of realistic imagery.  (While I would hope humans are getting ‘better’, I am afraid the data do not support that thesis at this time).  And personal disclaimer:  I am not a cowboy; I have ridden a horse only twice in my life.  But I have been learning about them ever since I grew up in the 50s and watched TV.  In those early days cowboys, at least those who had starring roles, were upstanding, polite gentlemen mostly in white hats, e.g., Hopalong Cassidy (his was the first TV brand lunchbox), Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Cisco Kid, etc.  I personally always preferred their sidekick, Gabby Hayes, maybe not so conventionally upstanding but authentic and honest, a gentleman in all but speech and there he may have been a mite ‘cantankerous’, and whose hat was tolerably battered and dark.  However, he was a loyal friend to our hero and he could cook.  Yes, cook, and you never saw our hero stir a pot, much less wash it.

Roy Rogers was very popular.  Again I liked Gabby or his sidekick, Pat; they were a bit off kilter.  Roy was a force for orthodoxy; consider this code for his cowboy club:


  1. Be neat and clean.
  2. Be courteous and polite.
  3. Always obey your parents.
  4. Protect the weak and help them.
  5. Be brave but never take chances.
  6. Study hard and learn all you can.
  7. Be kind to animals and take care of them.
  8. Eat all your food and never waste any.
  9. Love God and go to Sunday school regularly.
  10. Always respect our flag and our country.


Well, let’s think about the reality of some of these. Cowboys were not neat and clean by the standards of many; they lived, after all, with cows on the trail, far from baths, etc.  And they had some reputation for, shall we say, rough behavior.  I remember an old show Rawhide (where Clint Eastwood first made his name as Rowdy Yates) where all the cowboys were clean shaven, wore clean clothes, etc., yet they lived out on the trail.  And they were all on their best behavior.

I particularly took exception to number 3: always obey your parents.  Always?  Sure, I think young children should obey their parents, but cultural progress requires disobedience, as does adulthood, come to think of it.  (Remember my recent post on beatniks and think about how we achieved civil rights, e.g., female suffrage and equality under the law for Afro-American, for all in this country, against the wishes of many parents).  Of course newer manifestation of the cowboy way has been their stubborn moral independence—think about Robert Redford’s role in Electric Horseman, his respect for his horse, and his revolt against corporate immorality.  Number 8 got me in trouble because I ate all my food and became fat kid.  Number 9 ignores the truth of skepticism and number 10 asked us to be willfully ignorant of our contemporaneous immoral actions abroad in the 50s and 60s under the Dulles brothers and then our corruption in waging the Viet Nam war in addition to the reactionary forces marshaled against civil rights.

So I deemed that Roy’s cowboy way was inadequate to dealing with the complexities of reality and growing up and neglected the reality that cowboys are gritty realists.  We have had many iterations over the years, thinking about TV shows, Gunsmoke and Bonanza, and movies, High Noon and 3:10 to Yuma (the original) but eventually producers and writers began to embrace a more realistic view, so that we have the spaghetti westerns leading to Clint Eastwood’s magnificent film, Unforgiven. Cowboys were dirty, both physically and morally; not bad, mind you, just messy.  I recently learned from Wikipedia that many of these films are considered ‘revisionist westerns’; they portrayed cowboys as the complex creatures they were and are (and as we all are).  Even Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid showed our heroes as on the other side of the law, as lovable as they were.

It seems that more recently the image of cowboys has become even more realistic, even rebellious, gritty and dark.  Think about the Highwaymen with Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson.  Consider the novels by Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men. Blood Meridianand All the Pretty Horses. Now real cowboys, not drugstore or suburban cowboys, have probably changed little over the years except as the culture in general has changed, e.g., mechanization, availability of information, etc.  They still treasure nature and life outdoors, they still prefer the solitude of wide-open spaces, and they chafe at constraints and interference.

In terms of our cultural representations, my question is whether the changes in this expansion from the sanitized visions of my childhood to the more realistic versions of today constitute a progressive shift or merely a more inclusive variation as the pool of images expands?  I tend to think the former because the naïve versions cannot be repeated, at least not without a heavy dose of irony or parody.  Consider the original TV series of The Lone Ranger and the recent movie The Lone Ranger (with Johnny Depp as a mystical jester in Tonto).  A show depicting a hero of yesteryear would be hopelessly naïve and laughable.

The cultural differences between a shift or a variation in cowboy imagery are not really a serious matter, more a literary interest than anything else, but now consider the imagery of the Confederate flag.  In a recent conversation someone uttered the old phrase that history is written by the winners and I disagreed, saying look at our Civil War, then the racist flood that wiped out Reconstruction (watch Henry Louis Gates’ wonderful 2 part documentary on PBS if you want to cry over the possibility for an equitable and just society that America threw away with the birth of Jim Crow and the Klan), and the continuing narrative even to today that the Confederacy was an heroic society and morally correct cause.  (This is currently a big deal here in southwest Virginia after the Charlottesville neo-Nazi march and the ongoing effort to keep the Rebel flag in public displays like the annual Christmas parade.  Jeez.)  The defeated South re-wrote that history in order to reinstate white supremacy bolstered by the image of their flag representing the noble people and their cause.  And for a long time that has been orthodoxy written by amoral losers, not winners. To be clear, after watching Gates’ documentary, I understand that the winners buried their moral authority under political expediency and wrapped in their own racism.  And I understand from this development that the Confederate flag was not a big deal until the period from the 1890s to 1930s when Southern leaders promoted segregation and racial injustice by erecting many monuments and flying this flag, and then the flag was again rejuvenated to combat civil rights and more recently, cultural diversity and justice.

So consider the cultural evolution (manipulation?) of the Confederate flag, progressive shift or expanding variable pool? For a brief time recently I thought that the flag and its accouterments were being relegated to historical museums. The old argument that the Civil War was over states’ rights had finally been clearly debunked through excellent historical research and the morally repulsive reality of slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, etc. was finally being broadcast in the light of day (see my post about The Half Has Never Been Toldon 7/31/17 & 11/23/18). However, now with the resurgence of a racist nationalism here and in Europe, I have to wonder if we have only expanded the cultural pool to include more realistic narratives and the old distorted narratives continue to thrive albeit in mutated form.  Racism is like the measles; it lives on and will spread dangerously unless many of us are inoculated against it.

Earlier I said that we could not go back to the days of naïve cowboy imagery; The Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy can only ride again in satire.  I had trouble thinking of analogous renderings of Confederacy and white racism but my wife reminded me of Spike Lee’s excellent film, BlacKkKlansmanand then I remembered the treatment of the Klan in the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?   Read, if you haven’t already, the surreal satire by Paul Beatty, The Sellout.  A bit later I went further back in time to remember Mel Brooks’ wonderful and early satire, Blazing Saddles.

My final point here is that I will be certain we have made progress regarding the Confederate flag when fictional narratives about that facet of American life and history can only be carried forth in parody and satire, when we can no longer take seriously, only satirically, the claims embodied in the Confederate flag, and along with this, the violence by its proponents disappears under the heavy, heavy weight of moral condemnation.  You say I am a dreamer?  Well, I am not the only one, as my friend John used to say.  Or as Captain Picard said so well, “Make it so”. Travel on.

Post script to our wandering cousins (and their genetic streams)

Shortly after I posted about our wandering cousins, intrepid NYT science reporter Carl Zimmer posted story about a newly identified population called Ancient Paleo-Siberians:  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/05/science/native-americans-genetics-siberia.html?action=click&module=Well&pgtype=Homepage&section=Science.  The story is a lengthy one and I do not have the time to render it clearly here, but the gist is that geneticists looking at different populations in Siberia and in North America have found a complex story of migration, populations mixing, populations disappearing, etc.  By and large the current Siberians have little genetics in common with Siberians of the long past or with native Americans today.  Geneticists have found a group from 40,000 to 10,000 years ago that seem to have played some role in peopling the Americas called the Ancient Paleo-Siberians.  Current native Americans derive about 75% of their DNA from this group who have largely disappeared.

The geneticists and anthropologists and paleontologists are working on different explanations and wondering how to gather more data to resolve their differences. Very difficult to find fossils in that area, especially since after the last ice age the land bridge between Asia and North American is underwater and the rest is frozen.  But given the recent news stories I began to ponder the facts of populations arising and subsiding through multiple migrations back and forth.

In prehistoric times we are talking about changes over thousands of years; in modern times we are talking about days, months and a year or two.  The prejudices against breeding between groups may have lessened in some places but continues on in others, and I suspect that much of the reaction against migrants and refugees is more about sexual mixing than economic realities.   Immigrants contribute to social and economic vitality in short order, even making important contributions on many levels, so the complaints about them using resources etc. must be a smokescreen for other concerns, e.g., group racial identity.

Only problem there is that group racial identity is more a political instrument for gaining and consolidating power than a valid concern over any genetic differences which are at most miniscule.  So I wonder if Ancient Paleo-Siberians, Neandertals, Denisovans, Ancient North Siberians, Inuits and Mayans back in the day before their cultures established political structures and functions showed concerns over the influx of a new group.  Siberia to us seems rather forbidding but back in prehistoric times was a resource rich environment.  Plus there were just not that many people back then; the overcrowding we experience as normal was not known.  So long as hunting grounds were separate or even shared like the Native Americans did in our own valley here in SW Virginia, I doubt that many problems erupted.

Another pondering:  The story of Romeo and Juliet is iconic for the triumph and tragedy of love between groups. As our species evolved, when did emotional bonds and attachment surmount sexual attraction to become a dominant force in which the love between two people erased their concerns about group differences?  I think that was a great day in our history, even if different problems then arose.

One of the tropes characterizing modern times is the speed with which cultural change takes place, and I think that also applies to group mixing, whether ethnic or racial or cultural.  Groups adhere together only so long, whether it is a decade or a millennium, and then boundaries begin to blur and break down as they mix with another group. That seems to me a basic fact of life on Gaia.  Only physical isolation stops this process and even then not for long.

So when the nationalist cretins march to promote their own group’s solidarity (as they did in Charlottesville) and, by implication at least, superiority, I know that they are doomed to in-breeding catastrophes.  Indeed, they are already in-breeding catastrophes of the cultural sort.  Our hope is that humans continue as they have done since the dawn of our kind, wandering and meeting new people, learning and developing new ideas, and sharing the planet as best we can (which is better than we are doing now).  As always, travel on.

Our wandering cousins

Two research reports add to our knowledge of our wandering cousins, the Neandertals and the Denisovans.  Both of these populations have disappeared but some of their genes have carried on through modern populations.  Many of European extraction have some Neandertal in them, and that makes sense because Homo sapiens cohabited Europe with them for some thousands of years.  I previously posted about Denisovan genes found in a Himalayan population that helps their blood adapt to high altitude living conditions (see post 7/20/18).  How did this happen?  We know about the Denisovans because of archeological findings at a cave in central Russia, and now scientists have uncovered Denisovan fossils in the Himalayas.  Evidently these cousins wandered a good deal as well.  The grass is always greener, as they say, at least until you reach the high Himalayas, and then the snow is quite white. Anyway, a Buddhist monk found the Denisovan fossil in a cave and reported it to the science authorities, who have confirmed it as Denisovan (see Science News edition from 6/1/19).

A remarkable suite of scientific analyses focused on a ancient campsite has indicated that Neandertals visited there periodically for many years probably as a part of seasonal migration.  Now the science involved here is daunting.  Chemical analyses of varied and complex sorts showing the age of campfire remains, foodstuffs, etc. If interested check out the PLOS article even if you, like me, cannot follow their methods fully.  It is something else again to consider how sophisticated their analyses are. So our ancestors wandered and migrated according to the seasons, like any smart mobile mammal.


I wish we could go back to the Alps next summer. Good hunting and gathering, plus that cute homo sapiens girl.

Go to:  https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0214955.

For some reason I have a yearning to finish this post with passages from Tennyson’s great poem ‘Ulysses’ about our aging hero taking off on a last voyage, having grown tired of mundane life without the adventure of wandering afar. Was Lord Alfred channeling our cousins or just carrying out our own genetic mandate to see what’s about? Anyway, here are some excerpts (but read the whole poem—it will stir your blood to travel on).


Come, my friends,

Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

. . . .

Though much is taken, much abides; and though

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,–

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.


How we conceptualize thought and emotion matters

I have finished Mama’s Last Hug by Frans de Waal.  What a great read about animals’, including humans, emotions and feelings and about how we humans understand them.  I will guess that most people have thought that rationality and its epitome, logic, are ‘superior’ to emotions.   This assumption has been a bulwark of men presuming their superiority over women, western nations presuming their superiority over ‘less civilized’ nations, a logical argument wins over an emotional appeal, and humans are ‘superior’ to other animals because their minds are based upon emotions and we are ruled by rationality.  Over the course of history some few bright people have understood that our conceptualization here was out of balance and the brightest of those have understood that they are not separable—both rationality and emotionality depend upon the other, indeed flow one to another almost inseparably, to operate optimally.

One way to achieve ‘balance’ is to lower our notion of rationality’s importance and reliability.  One example here is the wonderful work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman who demonstrated that even trained logicians fail to follow their logical rules and rely on heuristics the same as all the rest of us (see my post on 10/12/17). Another way to achieve balance is to show that our cognitions are dependent upon our emotions—that is the motivation behind Antonio Damasio’s last few books (see my post s on 5/13/19 & 12/9/18).  Yet another way is to study as did Jaak Panksepp the enormous neural complexity of emotions and affect, neural structures that we share with many animals and virtually all mammals (see post 8/19/17 for example).  Of course Susanne Langer understood that art conveys the ideas of feelings, i.e., we abstract our feelings to reveal the vital import of life experience.  Art, in other words, is a high level intellectual operation using feelings. (An aside:  I am reading a biography of Picasso who famously refused to say what his paintings meant—his art was his statement, all of it and complete. The author there, Patrick O’Brian, cites Isabella Duncan, famous modern dancer, saying, “If I could explain it with words, I wouldn’t have to dance it”.  Exactly).

Another way to right our conceptualization of thought and feeling is, as Frans de Waal does so very well, to show that we humans share the same emotional life as do all other mammals, especially primates, cetaceans, and elephants.  In Mama’s Last Hug he examines various aspects of emotions and feelings; he dedicates chapters to empathy, humor, shame, guilt, disgust, desire for power, emotional intelligence, etc., showing in each one that other animals are quite human-like.  This is important because this distinction of thought and feeling is critical in our culture. I see two major ways we denigrate the mentalities of other animals.  One is the ancient bias that humans are special, you know, at the top of the divine tree of life, and so our abilities are god-like.  That bias has been transformed by science ever since we discovered that the earth was not the center of the solar system, but it still exists in muted forms.  The other way is to see animals as unthinking organisms bent only on survival.  Humans are special evolutionarily because we are civilized (oops!  Go see Auschwitz, read about the Inquisition, review the increasing destructiveness of wars and weapons, study the entrenchment of racism, the destruction of our environment as we subjugate nature to our profit, etc.).  Here we treat other animals as engaged in battle for survival of the fittest and we see nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’ to justify our violent quest for power.

The important thing here is that both these views are essentially propaganda (see a final aside below) for certain religious and political schools of thought. Rigorous study of animals shows that, as de Waal writes, they (we) “struggle far more against their environment or against hunger and disease than against each other.”  De Waal cites a naturalist, Pyotr Kropotkin, who asked in 1902, “Who are the fittest: those who are continually at war with each other, or those who support one another?” and decided it was the latter.  Kropotkin “was way ahead of his time.”

De Waal is especially astute when he explains the research showing that animals have a grounded sense of fairness, right and wrong, and even free will (as best we can know, but then do we have free will?  Consider his quotes:  Isaac Bashevis Singer “We have to believe in free will; we have no choice” and Roy Baumeister “Perhaps, ironically, free will is necessary to enable people to follow the rules”).

De Waal gives example after example of expert observations and experimental results that demonstrate the truth of his thesis.  A couple of favorites:  An American neuroscientist, Jim Coan, believes that emotions are interindividual so that testing a solitary individual does not reveal much.  When he studied an individual’s neural response to a signal announcing a mild electric shock, he saw areas of concern and worry (anxiety or fear) light up.  When, however, the individual was allowed to hold the hand of someone close, e.g., a spouse, the worry response dissipated—the upcoming shock was a minor stimulus.  Brilliant! Another:  When young elephants in southeast Asia are given a bell around the neck to help the humans keep up with them, the elephants stuff the bell with grasses so that they can wander undetected.

De Waal wants all of us, especially scientists, to understand the importance of emotions and feelings.  He cites Antonio Damasio as a fellow champion of emotions, as I have recently in a post on 5/13/19.  De Waal also gives a special mention of Jaak Panksepp and I very much appreciated this portion of the book.  As regular readers will know, I think Panksepp’s book is the best text I have ever read.  What? An astute and very intelligent reader wants to know why I think that.  Let me tell you why:

  • Affective Neuroscience: The Foundation of Human and Animal Emotionsis a textbook, not one written for the general reader. Look at the detail of research cited, etc.
  • Panksepp gives a comprehensive yet still detailed review of the research literature.
  • He has integrated this information so that he provides solid generalizations.
  • He is careful to distinguish between data based inferences and more speculative thinking.
  • He takes us on brief excursions into what might be true given this data, extending some ideas into the cultural realm.
  • He writes in marvelously clear prose, sometimes even inspired, about very complex issues.
  • His organization and perspective are enlightening. This is not stultified orthodox science but science pushing for greater understanding.

Enough said?  Now when I previously read his book, and re-read portions, I thought that Panksepp’s ideas were obvious and well accepted.  Oh, no, they were not, I learned from de Waal.

De Waal relates an exchange he had with Panksepp shortly before he passed away. Panksepp encouraged de Waal to be more specific and explicit about animals’ feelings and de Waal says he was right to do so.  Further, he says that Panksepp had to fight for his views all his life, resisting ‘establishment forces’ while placing “human and animal emotions on a continuum” and he was “the first to develop a neuroscience covering all of it” as he himself founded the field of affective neuroscience.  He was ridiculed and had trouble obtaining funding and still he managed to “make animal emotions a respectable topic.”  So Wow!  Now I cherish that book even more.

I could go on for a long while about how much I appreciated finding reinforcement for some of my ideas, e.g., the distinction between sentience and consciousness, the basic properties of all organisms, etc., but I want to move on to emphasize the cultural importance of all this.  We humans seek authority for our beliefs and especially our values. De Waal shows clearly that such authority can be found in our biological heritage.  (As does Michael Tomasello in his book, The Natural History of Human Morality).

My culture, western culture, has valued rationality and logic at the expense of a fuller understanding of the roles emotions and thought play in our intellectual operations.  Rationality and logic are not all that we thought they were and emotions and feelings are much more important than most give them credit for.  This constrains our science, our philosophy and our cultural worldview.  Consider, for example, how females are ignored because some (males?) think they are more emotional.  Ugh!

In my former life as a speech-language pathologist, I gave a popular parent workshop entitled “How to argue with your child”.  Catchy idea, huh?  I had found that much of the standard parenting advice was anemic and while parents might use these tips to help their children behave compliantly, they did little to foster a proper sense of discussion and sharing of ideas.  So I explained that parents should not argue over the inarguable, e.g., limits for safety and health, but should argue appropriately when the topic was arguable.  A good argument happens when both present thoughtful reasons and are passionate about their perspective.  We all need to learn how to argue based on reasons, beliefs and data, and how to maintain our composure when differences become divisive.  I even suggested having silly arguments about the color of the sky, for example, because children love and learn from silliness and they need to win an argument once in a while.  (Don’t we all?)  I still think this advice applies, though when I look at our political discourse, I know some powerful forces are working to derail ‘good arguments’.  My point is that our over-valuing logic and under-valuing emotions is counter-productive; both are needed and important.

Here is my final aside as mentioned above that is relevant in today’s world. Consider propaganda and pornography, both of which manipulate our feelings (and thoughts/behavior) but how? I do not think that they do so simply by virtue of their emotional appeal, but because their emotional appeal is based upon corrupted rationality, e.g. propaganda uses selected distorted and errant facts, pornography uses fictional accounts laundered of critical elements like intimacy or the feelings engendered in a relationship.  James Joyce considered any art pornographic that ended by moving the emotions because true and fine art is achieves stasis, an epiphany from the insight generated through artistic import.  And Hannah Arendt has shown us the pathogenic properties of propaganda and totalitarianism.  Some understand these distinctions and cherish the authenticity of fine art and real political discourse, but all too many have fallen down through the media hole to a world where curiosity focuses on sports and celebrity and the only perspective that matters is the one through personal tunnels. And the sequelae of poor art?—I don’t have the time to go there right now.  Ah, well, the world has gone a different direction, much to my dismay, and there is no way to go but forward.  Travel on and find a better path, one where the intellect based upon respect for both rationality and feelings is the grounded (and orthodox) assumption.  Better pack for a long journey and be sure to follow reliable guides such as de Waal, Damasio, Panksepp and Langer.  See you on the Way.