Book review: Inferior

I liked this book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research that’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini; it is not, perhaps, the most sophisticated or conceptual review of sexual differences focused on the brain but she exercises due diligence in seeking out the scientists who are studying the matter and writes well about the historical development of the field. Her self-set goal is to explore the scientific basis first for saying male and female brains are different and second that one (yes, you know it is the female one) is inferior in some respect, thus the title of the book.

Some time ago around a dinner table with a diverse group of people discussing the art and artefacts we had seen on our tour of southern France, I made what I thought was a pretty non-controversial subject, that male and female brains are different. Whoa, several young ladies who were undergraduates objected, I think, on social justice grounds. I have no problem with that, but I do think our brains are different. The difficulty, which Ms. Saini documents very well, is that the cultural biases about and against females is very strong. Orthodoxy is not just conservative but its biases are also insidiously pervasive, so that even our basic conceptualization can be distorted. I would add that we have this rather stupid proclivity for quantifying and comparing, thus saying something is more or less than another thing, when there is not a valid basis for doing so. We talk about not comparing oranges and apples and then do just that all the time. It’s ugly, really.

So I think male and female brains are different, an apple and oranges sort of thing. Ms. Saini actually cites one clear difference but does not make enough of it. When comparing male and female IQs there is little difference manifest at the top of the scale; men and women are both very intelligent and talented. The difference comes at the bottom of the scale where more males have lower IQs and this is because of increased developmental disabilities. That is a key difference because it reflects the heightened vulnerability of male brains especially as our brains are shaped early on by higher testosterone levels. This I learned from Norman Geschwind long ago and that result has held up.

Now Ms. Saini cites Dr. Geschwind also reaching a rather stupid conclusion (or at least trying out a stupid hypothesis) from this data when he argued that because testosterone slows the cortical maturation of the left hemisphere in particular, males would have a stronger right hemisphere. No, males have a weaker left hemisphere and many of their developmental disabilities are language based. Correlated with this, remember that a higher percentage of males are left-handed than females; this is not a sign of stronger right sided functions but of compensatory adjustment for that left sided delay. So at my dinner conversation a few years back I was talking mainly about the hormonal influence on brain maturation that results in a statistically significant level of cortical disorganization more in males than females; the increased incidence of learning difficulties in males is a reflection of this.

Ms. Saini also reports another finding that fits with this line of thinking. Research into the connectome using ever increasingly sophisticated technology shows a small male-female difference in connectedness. Males show slightly greater connectedness within each hemisphere and less between hemispheres while females show more connectedness between hemispheres. I think this manifests in a couple of ways but this is only my thinking; to be frank our ignorance of brain functioning makes any statement a tenuous hypothesis. Nonetheless, my understanding is that the right hemisphere is dominant for processing information derived from the current moment, especially for the kinesic communication and empathic functions supporting social skills (Theory of Mind stuff or as I prefer, Empathy Central), while the left is dominant for displaced, verbally abstracted information (both sides do both so please remember that dominance is quite relative and also quite variable in the population both male and female). Females from a very young age show more engagement in social interactions of various sorts, and I think they are more engaged because their brains function in a more integrated manner between immediate Empathy Central and displaced abstractions. Along with this consider that females are more resilient in recovering from brain trauma, e.g., areas in the other non-damaged hemisphere are better able to compensate for the loss because of the inter-hemispheric connections.

Anyway, I think male-female brains are different in some significant but subtle ways. Much of what the scientists told Ms. Saini reflects this, i.e., any differences are mostly hidden by the great variability among individuals of both sexes, variability increased by the plasticity of the brain over a life-span. The signal of significant differences is difficult to separate from the background noise due to traditionally very low statistical power, a criticism made powerfully by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. What Ms. Saini reports on very well is how society and scientists have misused these results to confirm biases against women, e.g., that they are less intellectual, less talented, less sexual, less whatever. She documents how popular science writing often misrepresents what a study actually finds, blowing it up to hype the drama. She also documents how these misconceptions and misrepresentations underlay horrendous practices such as female genital mutilation. I had no idea of its prevalence, wow.

Inferior is a good read. I had an early quibble when Ms. Saini says that studying human infants is difficult, almost “like working with animals.” Oops! Then a few days later I saw an article by David Premack, a preeminent pioneer of simian research, entitled, “Human and Animal Cognition: Continuity and Discontinuity”. As I was saying, some categorical errors are embedded in the habitus in an insidious pervasive manner. So while still a quibble, it seems a small one indeed.

I realized at the very end why I liked this book. Ms. Saini is following, probably without knowing it, Monod’s prescription for an ethic of knowledge leading to a knowledge of ethics. To quote her last sentences, “The facts are what will empower us to transform society for the better, into one that treats us [females] as equals. Not just because this makes us civilized but because as the evidence already shows, this makes us human”. Well said.

I despair for my country. I think America last election jumped into the toilet and pushed the lever down and that shows, I think, our culture’s intellectual integrity is cracked, perhaps fatally, but time will tell whether my pessimism is justified. I am encouraged about my species, however, as we begin somehow to treat females with equality and respect. Thus, from the past women’s suffrage and the right to own property  and not to be property and now, Malala Yousafzai’s efforts for female education, recognition of women who contributed mightily to major scientific efforts without adequate credit before now, even Saudi women driving cars (please see movie Wadja) and most recently, the light of day shining so strongly on male sexual harassment and assault showing that it is unacceptable, give me some hope. Maybe someday soon women will be paid equally for equal work and all cultures will value female babies enough not to kill them and refuse to treat girls and women as chattel even lower than cattle. Ms. Saini’s book helps us along this path and I am happy there to travel on.

4th Anniversary: the view from here

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 while blogging here I have worked assiduously on my book and I near the completion of this, the fourth and, I have promised myself, final draft (I want to go on to other projects). I have changed it substantially since that first draft around 3 years ago, in which no one was interested and I did not feel like self-publishing. The draft now reflects what I have learned since then and I will self publish maybe late next year (still have to finish last chapter on ethic of knowledge). Chapter 3 is entitled “Selves Within MEMBRAINs Sharing” that reflects the journey to find our roots in empathy and symbolization that grow to flower and fruit in culture, especially the aesthetic aspects. Here are its concluding paragraphs that capture, I think, where my intellectual journey has led me so far and the view from that vantage point:

“Now we can survey how selves within MEMBRAINs share information, i.e., how embodied minds communicate incidentally and intentionally amongst one another and so create a social (though the term seems less than apt I know of no other one) organism. (Perhaps ‘social being’ is better, our counterpart to the bees’ swarm or Star Trek’s Borg. In any event while each soma maintains its individual embodiment, each soma and its brain participates at an essential level in the MEMBRAIN). Begin with the Umvelt, so that each soma has a common experience/construction of reality, initiate conspecific relationships through sexual reproduction which begins the evolution of powerful empathic abilities evidenced in child-rearing and further development of kinesic communication enabling more complex interaction and cooperation (and competition too, I guess), then with the increased awareness of the other’s subjective self and mind coupled with a highly developed and deep seated empathic altruism, develop signal and symbolic communication. This provides the skeleton of the social organism; the evolution of greater means, e.g., memory, maps, social objects, and symbols to control and displace information that serves to enrich each individual mental domain, then provides the muscle for the social organism to act as a unity. Finally the development of social constructs, forms shared more or less invariantly, upheld and inheld by each individual created culture, e.g., the habitus of shared predispositions, i.e., information shared and inculcated as a matter of socialization and acculturation, e.g., a group ‘mind’.

This reveals the complexity of one mind embodied within a MEMBRAIN in a brain within its own soma. A mind whose consciousness is continually composed from sentient awareness of the ambient and conscious contributions from its own sources, e.g., memory, imagination, etc., information old and new, invariant and variant, immediate and displaced; a mind also serving the self arising from a sense of agency and autobiographical memory, the self allocating volitional and intentional energy to its actions; consciousness organized through various systems which contribute and organize the results of subliminal processing, e.g., Ff: feedforward (constructive), Fb: feedback (corrective), and Fs: feedsideways (intuitive); a mind keenly engaged not just with social communication but also with social existence including empathic, symbolic, and cultural domains; and finally a mind whose unity of consciousness in a specious present and whose independent subjective singularity based upon the integration of many temporal operations and loops is its ultimate illusion.

Out of this complexity comes our sense of time, life span, experience, past, present and future. None of how we experience ourselves and our world is determined or ruled by any logic other than the chance and necessity of our evolutionary past. Our minds are islands in an ocean of reality and we experience the tidal shifts and the waves glistening and breaking to wash up on our shore. Time flows but is not linear—we have only to listen to music to apprehend the multi-dimensionality of our temporal sense. A life rises and ebbs—we have only to reflect upon our own basic autobiography and our feelings for those who have come and gone to apprehend the singular act our life comprises. Experience is a construction from many disparate parts or systems—we have only to meditate to apprehend the challenge of mindful peace. The future flows backward through the present into the past—we have only to appreciate art to apprehend a moment from another life and share a brief feeling of the tides, waves and winds on the banks of that other’s island nearby or far off in the distance in seemingly the same ocean of experience.

Finally, our biological heritage leads to an ethic of knowledge. A soma carries the genetic material into the next generation; to do so it must mitigate exigencies and exploit opportunities. Its brain evolved through the genetic flow from the SWP watershed to process ambient information and retain its experience in some form that help to meet the exigencies and possibilities of a wider world. With the CR watershed and the increased flow of empathy, the MEMBRAIN formed within the brain to engage with its conspecifics and so transmutes the individual challenge of each soma to live and reproduce into a social effort, or better, a communal one, and going further, a conscious one. Human intellect is only one of the many paths leading into the future world. Our heritage has led us to this point where we understand that understanding is the key to our successful adaptation and survival, and our empathy is key to our understanding. Thus our intellectual imperative is to pursue and honor an ethic of knowledge with some assurance that this will lead to a knowledge of ethics, that our ignorance of ourselves and our world, whatever our knowledge of them may be, is the source of all mysticism and of future intellectual progress, and that our loneliness, felt from within the mind’s isolation and with the memory of those who are gone by, is the measure of our engagement and love of others within the limits of this particular life. With a true ethic of knowledge we both stand on the shore and ponder the ocean’s currents, winds and waves and walk inland to gain a renewed mystic apprehension of our world. That is what enables us to enliven our bond with other, even unknown, life.”

Travel on.

 

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: 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.

susannelanger

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.

Wm_james

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

no more anthropodenial

One week from today will be my self-proclaimed holiday “Mammalian Heritage Day” that I started last year. I will re-post from those posts next week but today I want to refer you to 2 news reports that illustrate the remarkable path the earliest mammals started us down on some 300 million years ago.

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In this new tree of life mammals would be found in the green projections in lower right corner.

The first report is about the empirical support now in for the ‘cultural’ brain hypothesis’, i.e., essentially that our brains, especially as primates and before that as mammals, enlarged with our increasing sociability, meaning the rich domain of information our empathic and signal communication contributes to our lives and experience. Over the past several years researchers have documented deep similarities between human society and cetacean society. Check out this story from Earthsky.org: http://earthsky.org/earth/whales-dolphins-live-human-like-lives. This list covers some remarkable evolutionary developments that have culminated with primate and cetacean species. Consider that we all are

– Working together for mutual benefit
– Teaching others how to hunt and cooperative hunting
– Using tools
– Complex vocalizations -‘talking’ to each other – including regional group dialects
– Signature whistles that are unique to individuals
– Name recognition
– Interspecific cooperation (working with humans and other species)
– Adult animals looking after youngsters that aren’t their own
– Social play

The second story comes from researchers who have documented that chimpanzees, both in human captivity and in the wild, show stable personality traits quite similar to ours, to which we now say, “of course”. Consider this NYT story: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/24/science/chimpanzees-goodall.html. This report accompanies the release of a new documentary about Jane Goodall’s early research. What a brilliant human she is, first as a scientist with immense vision and courage developed through the most rigorous fieldwork imaginable and now as a wise and astute advocate for Gaia and especially its creatures under duress of extinction. When she began her studies back in 1960, her findings were belittled as anthropomorphic projection. Now we have Frans de Waal cautioning us against anthropodenial by which we deny and ignore the evolutionary continuities between ourselves and the rest of the animal kingdom (especially mammals like primates and cetaceans). Our similarities run deep from our shared genetic heritage up to, as research continues to demonstrate, our social selves and groups. Makes me glad to be alive, so I think I will travel on with a little swing to my step.

 

2 genetic studies and a bit of poetry

One study demonstrates how an ethic of knowledge leads to a knowledge of ethics, and the other demonstrates, gee, I don’t know, the value of humility in scientific reasoning? For the first see NYT:  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/12/science/skin-color-race.html.  These researchers studied which genes influenced skin color across several populations. The details are interesting so please read the article for more. Basically they found that we, including Neandertals, all have many of the same genes for lighter and darker skin, but they express differently in different populations because of other genetic factors. The gene promoting the lightest skin tones are actually very recent, appearing, they think, roughly 30,000 years ago primarily in northern European peoples and have spread because of the advantage conferred by the ability to absorb more ultraviolet light that is more limited in northern latitudes.

Their search for understanding also leads them to an important conclusion about ethics. Skin color is not a good indicator of racial differences; I don’t know what is but it is not our skins because we all share so many of the same genes influencing this particular trait. The scientists here have contributed importantly to the growing understanding that our definitions of race are based more on our proclivity for defining in-group/out-group in a discriminatory, defensive manner and not on any significant biological facts. To paraphrase Te-Nehisi Coates: the concept of race is an invention of racists, i.e., one group of people wants to define another artificially in order to rationalize their own greed for power and exploitation. (See post here on race 5/17/17). As Monod hoped, an ethic of knowledge leads to a knowledge of ethics. I wonder when our ancestors first used skin color to define in/out-groups—I bet it was relatively recently. Remember Homo sapiens interbred with Homo neandertals some 35,000 years ago so that speaks to some inclusion.

The second study is a bit more puzzling to me. I have seen it reported a couple of places such as earthsky.com: http://earthsky.org/human-world/aging-breakthrough-mainz-genes-autophagy.   These researchers studied the aging process. Why is it that our molecular mechanisms begin to break down after a relatively predictable amount of time? They found some genes, studying a worm, that promote autophagy, the process whereby the body eliminates damaged or malfunctioning cells and allows new ones to regenerate the systems. This functions very well in young organisms but falls off after reproductive age and even more with older age. It is important to note here, I think, that we humans have a relatively long juvenile pattern before our reproductive age and we do seem to live long after that age has passed. This research is an important contribution towards understanding and treating neurodegenerative diseases and such.

But I have a quibble here. Aging and death are described as a “quirk” of evolution because according to their rendition of Darwin’s theory, living longer would enable more of one’s genes to be replicated and passed on: “In theory, this should give rise to individuals with traits which prevent aging as their genes could be passed on nearly continuously. Thus, despite the obvious facts to the contrary, from the point of evolution aging should never have happened”. Ah, now, if this is orthodox, let me put forward the heterodox. From the point of view of evolution, longer lived individuals would slow down the evolving adaptability, so that as conditions changed but the genomes remained the same, the organism would be left high and dry, so to speak, and less well adapted. There is no “point of evolution” except to hold off entropy and continue the genetic line into the future. To do this the soma must ameliorate exigencies and exploit chance. Nothing here speaks to long life as a necessarily positive trait and everything else speaks to evolutionary change as an important facet to life passing by on Gaia. Consider what the longer life spans and increasing survival rates of humans mean for our increasingly overpopulated planet. Consider the dysfunction of monoculture in agriculture. Consider the lack of genetic change over 50 million years in cockroaches with their prolonged adaptability. This is what the ‘quirk’ saves us from.

Clearly a limited life span is an integral part of evolutionary mechanics and not a quirk. With the rise of human consciousness and the realization that our life is but one act with a beginning and end, some humans have sought to escape those bounds. Consider the idiotic superstition of Ponce de Leon, then the dignity of an Inuit elder who, in times of famine, wanders off into the snowy land so that younger ones have a better chance of survival. Consider the death with dignity movement nowadays. We are better when grounded in the knowledge that death is natural even as we promote health. And while an ethic of knowledge can lead to knowledge of ethics, that can also go astray. The vital impulse to live is strong but limited. The spark of life shines and burns to an end; that is life and that is the universe. Best we remember that.

I remember a statement by Charles Sanders Pierce around 1900 that should we live forever, everything that we know would pass, that institutions and groups would break down, and we would be left with an ongoing and growing sense of loss. Instead, said Pierce, we have death. Finally remember the bears and then travel on while we may:

 

I am some bears,

One at a time per occasion, if you catch my drift,

But still I am some bears,

Like polar or black or panda or grizzly or teddy

Or Kodiak brown or koala;

Oh yes, I am.

 

On occasions of white and my world harsh with cold,

I pad about on grainy sharp ice,

Protected by fur and fat from the fury of a young arctic storm,

Mindful ever that the possibilities and necessities of life

Crystallize briefly on earth.

 

When beneath the gloriously coloured forest,

I splash and swim to feast on fish and plant,

When tickled by the warm bright sunlight near summer’s solstice,

I roll on my back and bare my belly

To the world’s richness.

 

After such occasions, slowed by the sweet tastes

of berries and nuts

I amble through thickets and savour the lushness

of plant and fruit

Until I sleep in the heat of the season,

Sweetly complacent about winter’s approach,

Dreaming of life’s possibilities and necessities.

Oh yes, I do.