Langer on the rise

The big news about Langer is that a new book about her work has been published.  Written by Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin, The Philosophy of Susanne Langer:  Embodied Meaning in Logic, Art and Feeling explores the roots of her philosophizing, which were primarily European, Henry Sheffer, Ernst Cassirer, Ludwig Wittengestein, and Alfred North Whitehead, even as Langer expanded the American tradition of pragmatics from John Dewey and C. S. Peirce.  Langer was able to read some of these European sources before many others in the USA could because she was fluent in German; indeed she translated one book by Cassirer before most over here had read anything by him.  This new book is expensive so I must save some pennies before buying it, but I have read excerpts from the introduction.  Two things stand out.  First is Ms. Chaplin highlights the challenges facing Ms. Langer as a female in the male dominated world of philosophy.  She attended Ratcliffe College because Harvard did not admit females back in the day so Ratcliffe was a way for them to access Harvard’s resources; thus she was able to work with and learn from the likes of Alfred North Whitehead when he came to Harvard.

The second thing is how her emphasis on feeling was (is?) a challenge to some readers.  In a letter to a colleague in the art world she bemoaned his response saying she had hoped she had expressed herself better.  The confusion centered on the colleague’s reading of ‘feeling’ as emotion and that generally led to understanding art as emotional catharsis and that is quite counter to Langer’s ideas.   Langer clarified that ‘feeling’, not withstanding its use in general parlance, referred to the broader notion of responding to some sensation from without or some action from within.  “How does that feel?” then can refer to blinking in the sunlight having emerged from the cinema, being slapped in the face, realizing you are loved or betrayed, realizing you have understood a poem, thinking about a special childhood haunt, expressing some wise lesson learned, etc.  The point being is that ‘feeling’ is a broad concept, and Langer spent much of her career to clarify and specify how human feeling evolved to be a rarefied intellectual and high form of nervous response.  So I will buy this book ASAP.

In the mean time I have finished re-reading Innis’ fine book on Langer’s philosophy and so have much to ponder.  In re-reading Langer now, I am not as comfortable with how special and distinctive she sees humans.  I don’t exactly disagree with her, but I find some of her ideas marked by anthropodenial, to use de Waals’ term for refusing to see animal actions in their true light because humans do these same actions routinely.  Langer was an early and clear proponent of humans being in line with our mammalian ancestors; she also refused to engage in reductionism and instead pursued a conception of mind adequate to the reality, both human and non-human.  I now have the benefit and privilege of integrating the work of Panksepp, Damasio, de Waal, Tomasello, Varela, Lakoff, Johnson and all of those working to develop an understanding of the mind as embodied.  (And I suspect she would have appreciated these developments oh so very much).  And animals, all of us, are really special creatures. But Langer insisted that biographical memory was heavily dependent upon language, so that a non-verbal species would not have a robust ability to recall past experiences.  Frans de Waal refutes that with a lot of research and study.  Consider his example of the bonobo who accidentally bit off a handler’s finger and then clearly showed memory of and remorse for the act several years later when the handler returned for a visit after having moved away (see post 3/9/15).

One of Langer’s primary theses is that while humans have evolved from and along with other animals, our evolution has led to symbolic capabilities that transformed our minds and enabled us to transform our world.  Sort of undeniable, isn’t it? But while most focus on our cognitive abilities, Langer’s focus on feeling and her understanding that our intellect derives from highly evolved modes of feeling is one that helps us understand the embodied mind in a deeper way.  It presages the affective revolution that I perceive is happening through the efforts of Panksepp, Damasio and many others. Indeed, I have started a 1997 book, Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology and the Sciences of Mind by Evan Thompson, who collaborated with Francisco Varela and Eleanor Rosch to write The Embodied Mind.  I am amazed to read conceptualizations that Langer postulated 30-50 years ago though without any recognition of her work.  Thompson lists several of these as concepts basic to his thinking:

  • Organisms are autonomous agents, self-organizing and enact cognitive and overt behaviors (Langer in Mind devotes much energy to biological action enactment).
  • The nervous system does not compute and process information but rather creates meaning (Langer develops this in her early works, The Practice of Philosophy, Philosophy in a New Key, and Feeling and Form, all completed before 1953–and she was following up on Ernst Cassirer).
  • The concept of experience, as the phenomenologists have understood it and psychologists abandoned it, must be understood biologically if it is to be adequate to the task of furthering our notions of mind (again this integration across disciplines was a major focus of Langer’s life work).

Thompson, Varela, Rosch, and others have come around to Langer’s clearer understanding of what and how our minds are through their own traditions and studies.  That Langer was there, I think, from the beginning and throughout her long career shows her prescience even more fully (as Donald Dryden said in his article “The Philosopher as Prophet and Visionary” 2007 J. of Speculative Philosophy). That a new book about her has come out shows, I very much hope, that her influence is rising.

The human hippocampus, the dialectic of experience and sacred landscapes

Remember the hippocampus, so important in memory input and recall? (See posts 5/31/16 & 12/24/15)  We know that the hippocampi form and hold maps that code information about spatial locations, experiences and their temporal arrangements, and objects such as food resources, dangers and perhaps most importantly for primates, social objects, i.e., conspecifics. (See posts 5/27/16 & 9/8/14)  Thus, we can recognize or recall a great variety of places, times, activities, and associates.  Now one of my puzzles has been how human hippocampi changed in response to our symbolic capacities.  In rats and dogs, etc., the hippocampi code information pertinent to their umvelt, so each species’ has a different mixture of perceptual data, directions, visual cues, etc. that enable them to move about the material world more effectively.  But what about the human umvelt, where so much of it is created symbolically without regard to any material geography?  Our umvelt comprises several geographies:  earthly terrain, social objects, mental space and mythic cosmology.  How and when did that come about?  See my puzzle?

Reading Inside the Neolithic Mind by David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce, I found a curious idea relevant to my thinking here.  They see in the transition from hunting-gathering to agriculture a curious and relevant development.

They describe a mental ‘articulation’ (a better term, I think, is ‘dialectic’) between the material and conceptual environments.  As Neolithic people developed a culture befitting agriculturalism with its requisite changes in population density and civic organization, they also, as Lewis-Williams and Pearce understand it, developed a different relationship with the land.  Specifically they went from wandering around in perhaps a seasonal pattern dictated by land and climate to the notion of a homeland, and this entailed the firming up of religious landscapes and ritual locations and, much later, boundaries to the land thought of as being under their control.  Likewise, their conceptual environment developed into a cosmology composed of 3 domains, upper (sky and spiritual realm), middle (the land and mundane activities), and lower (a realm especially important for the dead).

Much of their book focuses on the archeological evidence for these 3 realms as seen in the earliest known structures, buildings and art as well as evidence from anthropological studies of more recent shamanistic societies.  The role of a shaman is virtually defined by the ability to traverse these three realms through alterations of consciousness.  Lewis-Williams and Pearce also argue that this ‘spiritual’ power was accompanied by changes in social stratification and authority.  So big changes here, and I would have to say, one change would have to be the inclusion of symbolically constructed domains that were transmitted culturally and still mapped out mentally using the usual neural resources, e.g., the hippocampus and its mnemonic structures. They assert that the dramatic turn in Neolithic peoples was the coupling of religion and land, and further, that the prehistoric structures in the Middle East, e.g., Ain Ghazal and Jericho, and in western Europe, e.g., Stonehenge and Newgrange, were models of their cosmological realms that enabled them to act within and exert more control on their mythos. A lot there to ponder.

While this implies that hippocampal mapping took on these cultural-mythical realms fully maybe 15,000 years ago, I think it is also to be understood that such a cultural development was a long time in the making and I am sure our hippocampal circuits have been essentially in place and stable for much, much longer—maybe from 500,000 years ago.  The salient point remains that our remarkably expansive cultural evolution depended upon our somatic evolution, e.g., the hippocampal circuits.

A final word about this dialectic between the material and conceptual environments.  In a way, Piaget documented this in our ontogeny as children developed their cognitive powers through accommodation and assimilation, i.e., sometimes the mind adjusts its conceptions to meet reality, sometimes understanding reality is adjusted to fit ongoing conceptualizations. (A poor rendition, perhaps, but you get the idea, I hope).  Susanne Langer also saw this dialectic as integral to human intellect (oh the vision of this lady).  Consider these two quotes of hers cited by Innis as he explains her view that our mental life is a symbolic projection:

 

“This symbolic projection is essentially, as we have seen, bipolar.  It is the objectification of feeling, resulting in the ‘building up of a whole objective world of perceptible things’, and the subjectification of nature, which involves ‘the symbolic use of natural forms to envisage feeling, i.e., the endowment of such forms with emotional import, mystical and mythical and moral’” . . . “The dialectic of these two functions is, I think, the process of human experience.”

 

And later from Langer: “So the theory of art is really a prolegomenon to the greater undertaking of constructing a concept of mind adequate to the living actuality.”

 

The adoption of some landscape as home to the sacred involves the objectification of feeling and our deepening attachment to such landscapes is the subjectification of nature.  The dialectic between the two enables the creation of a cosmology over and above (and below) geographical terrain and our incredible hippocampus and associated structures sustained this cosmological mapping in our minds.  With this, the human umvelt and habitus took on its modern form, and since then, we have used art to understand the variegated reality of our total experience and then developed science to control the material realm to fit our conceptualizations.  Travel on.

Humans dreamt before we awakened

I am reading some dense books:  Susanne Langer in Focus (again) by Robert C. Innis, Signs and the Play of Consciousness also by Innis, and Inside the Neolithic Mind by David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce.  The two by Innis are firmly in a philosophical tradition and so out of field and more difficult for me, though my knowledge of Langer helps with the first.  I have just started The Neolithic Mind and find it very interesting because of its eclectic approach and their insistence that our efforts to understand our ancestors must include our understanding of our brains.  Hallelujah!  Innis’ Signs covers John Dewey, C. S. Pierce, Karl Buhler, and Ernst Cassirer as Innis focuses on the search for the origins of meaning in our minds.  (All of these important sources for Langer’s thinking). While these philosophers are all (including Innis) deep thinkers, they do not base much of their analyses on neuroscience—granted that neuroscience in their day was a far cry from today’s, and giving Buhler credit for his grounding in biology.  Of course, as I re-read Innis on Langer I come again to her biological grounding.

As I read, trying to understand more and ponder what I do comprehend, I keep returning to an observation by the great Jaak Panksepp and his imaginative speculation about the evolution of being awake and dreaming.  I have mentioned this before but let me give the basics again.  Deep in the brainstem are two structures that exert control on waking and dreaming.  It is generally true that the lower the structure the earlier it appeared in evolution.  Jaak Panksepp noticed that the dreaming center is lower than the waking center and wondered about the implication, then, that dreaming appeared before waking.  His hypothesis to explain this is that when animals began to develop nervous systems the earlier lower center served an incipient consciousness.  As the brain evolved in complexity and developed a wake/sleep cycle shaping diurnal activity, this higher center took over the consciousness function and the lower center became the center for REM sleep and dreaming as a holdover from its incipient consciousness function.  Makes good sense.

But let me frame it just a wee bit differently.  Again as I have written before, I understand the words ‘sentience’ and ‘consciousness’ to mean two different things and believe that in doing so I am parsing the phenomena more accurately than those who confuse the two terms as nearly synonomous.  Or as Robert Innis might say, I am carving nature at the joints, like a good butcher should and not making artificial sections by sawing through bones.  So, sentience is a basic function of all life—the sensing of what lies outside the organism—basic because all life needs to take in selectively what it needs to sustain its living.  Consciousness can include sentient processing but is essentially what the organism brings to the table autonomously regardless of the external ambient and more responsive to the internal milieu and vital processes.  In Langer’s terms, sentience is the organism’s response to impact from outside, i.e., its exogenic response.  Consciousness is self-initiated activity, i.e., endogenic or autogenic actions derived from the ongoing matrix supporting life’s integrity.  (While mostly ignored, it is important to remember that the brain is never silent nor still—it is always carrying forward vital operations, mental life and intentional behaviors.)  Langer puts it another way as well:  The environment determines what is given (known through sentience), the organism determines what is taken (organized through consciousness)—the parenthetical remarks are mine.

Returning even deeper into the weeds of my swamp, sentience and consciousness, being two different phases, contribute to differing mental states depending upon whether they are in an active or positive phase.  In the chart below we see that when both sentient and conscious, we are fully awake. When sentient but not conscious, we are in a hypnotic state (more below).  When not sentient but conscious we dream (called REM sleep), and when neither sentient nor conscious we are in deep sleep (called slow wave sleep).

S        _____________________________________________________

E        |   +/+                             |   +/-                                               |

N    + |        awake                  |                hypnotic                      |

T        |                                     |                                                      |

I         |_____________________|______________________________ |

E        |   -/+                               |     -/-                                            |

N    –  |        dreaming             |                deep sleep                 |

C       |             (REM)               |                        (slow wave)       |

E        |_____________________ |______________________________|_

+                                             –

CONSCIOUSNESS

(sorry about the graph–it did not transfer well from my WORD program and I do not know nor have the energy to fix it–I trust you will get the idea).

Now the areas controlling awakening and dreaming that Panksepp discusses function more as switches by modulating neurotransmitters, especially the cholinergic system, flowing upwards into the midbrain and cortex.  The interplay between the neurotransmitter systems, e.g., dopamine, serotonin, etc. along with hormonal systems, e.g., growth hormone, make this aspect of neural functioning a real swamp of complexity.  It is not just the connectome, i.e., the connections between neurons firing away with each other, but also the chemical interplay that contributes to such a mess.

So, when I put up a matrix with 4 cells, that is for heuristic purposes only; clear and discrete functional categories are probably unicorns.  Still, we are sometimes awake, asleep deeply in various stages, asleep and dreaming vigorously, and sometimes spaced out in what I have called hypnotic states.  I could have used a more traditional term, ‘dissociative’, but chose not to for various reasons that are irrelevant right now.  My usual example for this state is highway hypnosis—when you are driving while fatigued or stressed and find yourself 20 miles down the road or even at your destination with no memory of actively managing the trip.  You must have, else you would have wrecked, so you were sentient and processing environmental contingencies to act accordingly, but you were not conscious of it.

The important thing here is that sentience and consciousness each come with varying degrees of what I will term acuity, i.e., heightened focus and broadened attention to figure and/or ground, and then the two, sentience and consciousness, interact to blend into a mostly unified experience. I bring all of this up stimulated by my current readings and remembering Panksepp’s observation about waking and dreaming.  A couple of specifics from my readings before closing out this post.  Innis in his books Signs and Langer emphasizes in several places that these thinkers, concerned with the incipience of significance and symbolization, kept ‘pushing the origins downward’.  Signification is not the end result of higher level processing but its beginning, and it begins with perception and, given Panksepp’s notion of consciousness as an early neurological primitive of mind, arises from deep within.  Langer posits that we humans are driven to symbolize and that even our earliest intuitions that arise from non-conscious processes are transformed by such symbolization.

Now consider Lewis-Williams and Pearce’s Inside the Neolithic Mind and their advocacy for a cognitive approach to archeology, one that is grounded in neuroscience.  They seek to understand the experiential basis of beliefs in the supernatural, the origins of ancient cosmologies that encompassed both material and spiritual domains, and the effects of such thinking and beliefs on society and especially religious practices.  And one major thrust here is that prehistoric humans entered into altered states of consciousness through a variety of means in order to explore the developing cosmology, i.e., dream world, in which the natural and supernatural worlds interacted.

Hmmm.  Is that brilliant or what?

They document many ways humans have modulated their sentience/consciousness balance, i.e., entered into altered states:  psychotropics, pain, sleep deprivation, intense rhythmic dancing, auditory-driving eg clapping, drumming, chanting, etc., meditation, etc.  Our ancestors engaged widely through states altered to comprise different degrees of sentience and consciousness, e.g., sentiently aware of drumming and the dance, conscious of a subjectively construed spiritual domain.  Those humans who had a talent for altering the balance in this way were able to assume shamanic roles more easily.  Lewis-Williams and Pearce think that certain cosmological constants, i.e., features virtually universal among us, including lower, middle and upper spiritual realms as well as flying, experiencing travel through a vortex, etc., are grounded in neurological functioning.  Cosmology through metaphorical thinking is thus embodied (as was demonstrated by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By).  With this theoretical frame Lewis-Williams and Pearce go on to examine the archeological findings of Neolithic humans such as the earliest permanent settlements in the Near East and the monuments of western Europe, such as the henges and tombs, e.g., Stonehenge or Newgrange.  Again, Lewis-Williams and Pearce find archeological evidence that such ‘hypnotic’ states were quite important in developing human culture.

So we dreamt before we awakened, and our dreams to this day color our waking moments.  This is not just the wonderful mysticism of William Blake and other poets; it is also the paradox Panksepp confronted in the data from the evolution of neural structures:   “it is remarkable how far down in the brain stem the executive mechanisms for REM sleep are situated. . . .  Are we to believe that REM mechanisms are somewhat older than waking ones?  However unlikely this may seem on the face of it, the above brain localizations coax us to consider such an absurdity”.  I am not sure of the absurdity; Zen teaches us that the subjective-objective split is an illusion, and dreams are often a greater source of insight than waking.  And then we have Blake and Yeats.

Finally, imagine this scenario from long ago: a group of apes, hominids really, gathered around a fire on a freezing cold night after ingesting a special mushroom.  They cannot take their eyes from the flames flickering into the dark, entranced by the dance of shadows and light, always facing the warm flames and embers, dreaming of another time and place,  they freeze their tails off.  Voila!  Humanity.

Part 2: Is art a spandrel

This follows directly from the 9/19/19 post:

With all of these perspectives of these various facets of our artistic nature, how do we begin to see the object, the gem, whole?

This was the intellectual challenge Susanne Langer set herself beginning in 1942 with Philosophy in a New Key (44), continuing with 1953’s Feeling and Form (45), and finalizing her project with three volumes of Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (47-49) in 1967, 1972, and 1979.  The first two developed a broad theory of aesthetics based on a theory of symbols and the last presented her view of the biological underpinnings of mind and art.  Rarely cited today, her work seems to have been eclipsed by two developments that took the field by storm during the latter part of her career.  The first began in 1948 with Shannon and Weaver’s book, A Mathematical Theory of Communication (67), and Weiner’s Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine (61).  The ensuing developments in information theory and technology revolutionized our thinking in virtually every area of scientific studies and most areas in humanistic studies broadly defined.  The second development was the transformation working in the life sciences with the discovery of DNA’s structure in 1952.  Three important milestones here would be Jacques Monod’s book Chance and Necessity (53) in 1971 and Richard Dawkins two books, The Selfish Gene(13) in 1976 and The Extended Phenotype (14) in 1982.  Later would come E. O. Wilson’s work promoting a sociobiological approach (77, 78).

The first development, information sciences, gave us powerful tools for studying the brain and its processes and a powerful metaphor of that brain as a machine of logic and information processes epitomized by servomechanisms.  The second development furthered the notion that genes are central to life and its evolution.  This reinforced the view of an organism as a machine, a rule governed series of chemical processes instigated and ultimately controlled by the genome.  More importantly, the gene-centered view of evolution motivated a keen focus on adaptive success.  If a biological feature did not contribute to future adaptiveness, it was at best a spandrel and more likely just noise in the signal.  This led, for example, to the sociobiological study of animal, including human, behavior.  Here beauty and aesthetics, if important, signaled mate robustness, thereby helping to shape the hereditary flow into the gene pool.  To be sure, both developments have contributed mightily to our understanding of human nature.

Yet each had theoretical and so also empirical limits to the furtherance in our understanding human nature and these in the last decade or two have been elucidated in important ways (56). Information machines process symbols regardless of their meaning. Their symbols are abstract enough to be governed by Boolean logic, and that leaves them without particular meaning or import.  In short, they are disembodied and while this abstraction is a powerful tool, it is not commensurate with biological processes.  Such a realization can be found in Lakoff and Johnson’s two books, Metaphors We Live By (42) and Philosophy in the Flesh (43), Varela, Thompson and Rosch’s landmark, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (72), and the writings of Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman and Giuliani Tononi, e.g., A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination (24), who used computer simulations powerfully in their research while maintaining the distinction between brain and machine.  Machine and biological (e.g., human) information and meaning, especially when given that the former is derivative of the latter, are distinctly different.

Similarly the limits of the gene centered view of evolution and life have been delineated by those who, once again keeping their theoretical efforts grounded in embodiment, find that a broader and more adequate perspective includes ecological considerations.  This is perhaps most cogently explicated by Susan Oyama in The Ontogeny of Information (56).  She articulates a much different view of life through her wide ranging polemic on various theoretical perspectives and research endeavors focused on understanding the nature of life, and so of human nature, that highlights the error of assuming one way control of life by its genome.  She shows, instead, that life is more aptly conceived as a developmental system, e.g., what is inherited is not just a set of chromosomes but also an ecology and, quite importantly, the history of the genome-environment interaction.  Deeply embedded in her view of biological processes is the understanding that life qua organism is autonomous and, though quite responsive to both external and internal information, engenders its own activity and course of actions.  Oyama as well argues that machine metaphors are both helpful and misleading; the search for mechanical processes such as found in servomechanisms in the brain is one example of how this assumption has both helped and misled research endeavors.  Again, organisms use feedback to guide their actions but their impulses are based more on feedforward and other sorts of autonomous and endogenous processes quite consistent with Edelman and Tononi’s idea of reentrant processing for constructing mental operations (24).

With this review we can see that the two large theoretical developments that eclipsed Susanne Langer’s work to construct a theory of aesthetics consistent with our biological nature have shifted enough for some of her light to shine through.  Art is, she explains, abstracted feeling, or better, abstracted felt experience.  These abstractions are different from what we usually refer to as ‘abstract’; they are ideas of feelings.  Thus, her two modes of symbolization are discursive, exemplified by language, and presentational, exemplified by art. They differ largely in their compositional elements, language’s lexical units of independent meaning and art’s arbitrary bits of no independent meaning, e.g., notes, colors, lines, etc., and their structure, language’s linearized syntactic open-ended constructions and art’s gestalt forms upon which elements are dependent for their contributions to the work’s import.  Language, she says, carries semantic meaning; art conveys aesthetic import.  This last is an important difference, because while the surface or public structures of both discursive and presentational forms are just that, surface and objective, it is in their deep structures where important differences in their symbolic processes of abstraction are to be found.  Presentational symbols, i.e., art, are vital forms; their deep structure, i.e., import, is a virtual (Langer was one of the earliest to use the word ‘virtual’ in this way) representation of felt life.  This idea is articulated by her early books, Philosophy in a New Key, Feeling and Form, and very concisely in Problems of Art (45).

From this perspective, our understanding of thought and feeling seems enfeebled.  As the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamono wrote, “Man is said to be a reasoning animal.  I do not know why he has not been defined as an affective or feeling animal.  Perhaps that which differentiates him from other animals is feeling rather than reason” (1). (Written in 1954 and cited in Aho in Existentialism: An Introduction 2014). Perhaps this is what William James referred to when he said humans have more instincts and not fewer than other animals (34).  Such a view is decidedly in line with preeminent neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s view that emotion is as important as cognition in our neural operations, as he has explained now in several books,  Descartes’ Error (9) and The Strange Order of Things:  Life, Feeling and the Making of Cultures (11).  And this no doubt motivated Langer to entitle her 3 volume work, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling.  (As an aside, the research by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (37) and others shows that even trained academic minds operate more based upon heuristics than logical rules. We feel our way forward even and especially in our intellectual endeavors).

We can now approach the question, ‘Is art an evolutionary spandrel?’ from a quite different direction.

Next section to appear soon.

 

Prehistoric art: updated timeline

Apropos of my current focus on art as a spandrel (to be continued the next post), the recent 9/14/19 issue of Science News has a brief report on a new find of ancient art in China.  Two bones have been found with distinctively decorative cuts (not the kind found from butchering the meat), a series of straight lines that in one case were rubbed with ochre (see my post on red ochre from 10/13/18) to highlight the work.  These bones have been reliably dated back to 100,000 years ago, and the cuts may have been made by Denisovans who migrated from central Russia to southeastern Asia and the Himalayan region.  The article also includes a summary of other finds suggestive of artwork, the oldest being a shell carved by probably Homo erectus almost a half million years ago in Indonesia.  So our aesthetic sensibility has been evolving (or is it developing?) for longer than Homo sapiens has been extant.

Straight lines rubbed with ochre is not very artistic, I hear some say.  Well, sure, but we are talking the dawn of humanity here.  And sometimes less is more—simplicity is a virtue of much high art.  Consider the famous Japanese rock garden at a Zen temple in Kyoto where simplicity conveys an abstract truth about our experience:

512px-Kyoto-Ryoan-Ji_MG_4512

Zen Garden in Kyoto     photo credit:Cquest [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D

 

Now consider two Japanese terms for aesthetic experiences, aware and yugen.  Aware (a-wahr-ay) refers to the feeling of the fleeting fragility of life and experience.  Susan Langer said that we became human when we realized that a life was one single act with a beginning and an end.  That realization underlies, I think, the aesthetic feeling of aware.  Yugen refers to a deep inexpressible feeling felt upon some aesthetic realization of mystery—our being becomes luminous with some complex felt experience.  Plumbing such depths does not come instantaneously; this ability comes over time as one engages steadily with beauty.  We will never know what was going on in the mind of the creature cutting those lines and smearing ochre, but I think a reasonable suggestion is that their ruminations over their artwork were incipient to the new feelings of aware and yugen—these meditations, silent or expressed, around the hearth fire with the shadows dancing around the gathering  were indeed quite important to developing humanity.  Travel on from here only if you must.

a new find of humans at higher elevations and a deep biological root

I have found another new report of ancient humans living at higher elevations, 11,000 feet, 47,000 years ago:  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/08/science/humans-high-altitude-ethiopia.html?action=click&module=Well&pgtype=Homepage&section=Science.

This report adds to some others that I have posted about, e.g. high life in the Andes 12,000 years ago and the Denisovans wandering from the steppes of central Russia to the Himalayas 160,000 years ago, bringing their genes with them, especially the ones that specified a hemoglobin more adapted to the thin air of higher elevations.  Whether it’s highlands, lowlands, hot, cold, tropical, dry, humans have sought to live there and exercising thereby our wondrously flexible adaptive abilities.

I want to focus on one idea Carl Zimmer, the NYT science writer from above, reported.  That is that paleoanthropologists have assumed that humans did not settle at higher elevations until more recently because, I can only guess, of the thin air, sparse vegetation and wildlife for food, severe weather, etc.  This new discovery of early humans at 11,000 feet was made because the researchers ignored those assumptions and looked there. Now they think more efforts will find other sites situated up high—they need only to look.

Davis and Panksepp emphasize in The Emotional Foundations of Personalitythat the 6 basic emotional subcortical systems are ancient with some appearing with the earliest nervous systems and then culminating in their current forms with the evolution of mammals.  These 6 are seeking, play/joy, caring/nurturance (all positive valence) and rage/anger, fear/anxiety, panic/sadness (all negative valence), and the most ancient of these is seeking.

Seeking would seem to me to be a manifestation of a basic life function. If you have followed this blog you may remember that I see 2 such functions that I call Solving the World Problem (SWP) and Conspecific Relations (CR).  SWP involves finding the necessary resources for life to continue, but more than that, it involves exploiting opportunities (that arise from actions or from chance) and mitigating exigencies (that arise from, you know, just trying to stay alive in a blooming, buzzing, chaotic and at times dangerous world). It makes sense, then, that early nervous systems helped the organism to find its way through to survival, i.e., seeking.

 

Our SEEKING (in all caps following Panksepp’s labeling of major subcortical systems) is a remarkable and powerful system that bears fruit as dopamine flows up to innervate cortical systems and energize activity in intellectual domains.  Jaak Panksepp gives an amazingly detailed, data driven description in chapter 8 of his fabulous text, Affective Neuroscience(I learn more every time I re-read portions—you gotta read this amazing book).  Consider some of his introductory statements:

  • Now we know that ascending DA [dopamine] tracts lie at the heart of powerful, affectively valenced neural systems that allow people and animals to operate smoothly and efficiently in all of their day-to-day pursuits.
  • [DA is] a major contributor to our feelings of engagement and excitement as we seek the material resources . . . . and when we pursue the cognitive interests that bring positive existential meanings into our lives.
  • Without DA human aspirations remain frozen, as it were, in an endless winter of discontent

Ah, but with a healthy flow of DA we human animals seek out opportunities, tried and true & novel, in our thinking and in our world. Again, after the systems controlling arousal the SEEKING system is the most ancient, and I think that throughout our evolution and during individual development this system has developed into new structures fueled by the flow of dopamine.  These higher structures serve increasingly cognitive functions infusing them with curiosity and an appetite for novelty.

If certain paleoanthropologists had read Panksepp’s Affective Neuroscience, they would have assumed that humans diversified into every environment because meeting the challenges of seeking resources, internal and external, is a basic instinct, i.e., a deep biological root of our humanity, that finds new expression and fulfillment in human intellect.  That is good news and I will rest here for a moment rather than travel on.

 

 

Forensic science finds ancient crimes, but solving the mystery?

My wife is a big fan of Lin Anderson’s detective novels featuring Rhona MacCleod, forensic scientist; she likes the gritty details of Rhona’s investigations (otherwise she does not like blood or crime or anything like that) and the insight the writer shows into human motivations, behaviors, and relationships.   Now archeologists are using the tools of forensic science to investigate the ancient times.  A report came out a while back that forensic science figured out Otzi, the stone age man whose body was mummified in ice found in the Italian alps 10 years ago, was killed by an arrow in the back 5000 years ago.  His clothes had the blood from 4 other individuals on them and he had other wounds some partially healed and some at time of death. The researchers put together a plausible narrative wherein he had a fight and won, took off to the mountains to escape retribution, and was shot in the back because his assailants did not want to face him again in a fight.  Even then Otzi rolled over and tried to pull the arrow out, a futile task because of the fatal damage done.  It also appears that his enemies ended his life quickly then with some blows. Sounds like a good plot for a novel or script for a movie, eh?

A recent report on PLOS (that’s the Public Library of Science) details the techniques forensic scientists use as they find evidence for interpersonal violence 30,000 years ago:  https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0216718.   This analysis was on a skull found in Romania some time ago.  The researchers examined the skull through CT scans and visual inspection, analyzing the pattern of injuries, whether they had healed or not, whether the bone was still plastic (indicating that the person was alive when injured), and other features.  They also used synthetic skulls to experimentally replicate the pattern of injuries through various means, e.g., blunt force trauma, falling, etc.  They concluded that the skull injuries occurred at the time of death, not before and not after, and that the only probable means for an injury with this pattern was blunt force trauma with a club-like weapon.

Now this person was a modern human, not a Neandertal or other variant, but who knows who killed him.  I tend to think that early tools were developed for hunting, digging, etc., but maybe the first tool was a weapon.  Our biological nature is one wherein we fight for defense and to protect resources from the others, e.g., not of our clan, though culturally this has developed to become violence in the service of aggrandizing power and thus resources, e.g., slaves, land, taxes, etc.  And another motivation, as I posted about on 3/28/19, was to appease the gods and so control the supernatural forces controlling weather and harvests. In this instance Incan priests sacrificed 140 child prisoners and 200 animals in response to, so the primary hypothesis runs, a natural disaster.  This was done around 1400 CE.  It probably did not achieve its desired end, unless that was to bring Spanish conquistadors and priests a few decades later to subjugate the indigenous peoples.  (In a cynical aside, I wonder if our efforts to mitigate climate change are any more effective, at least so far?  Maybe some alien life form will arrive to ‘help’ us?)  But I digress.

Or maybe I don’t.  In my last post on Davis and Panksepp’s Emotional Foundations of PersonalityI presented their idea that 6 basic emotional systems operating in subcortical neural structures underlay, constrain, motivate and flavor our personality structure and cognitions.  They said this succinctly towards the end of the book, “Although we humans are highly cognitive creatures, it is clear that we are not liberated from ancient emotional arousals”.  Amen.  In modern America the availability of guns, these products of our cognitive and technological precision, amplifies through tragic actions the motivations for violence, e.g., turf wars, domestic violence, and now mass murders in the service of what?  Imagined invasions and the incredibly vile and mistaken cognitive efforts to see ‘others’ as dangerous aliens when all reasoned and realistic minds understand the value of these others and cherish their presence in our country.  And even more prescient minds understand that we are all one on one planet.  And our American culture seems to worship guns in ways no other culture or nation does, or has ever done, so that our laws make sure everyone can have as many lethal weapons as they want.  These are not the clubs of 30,000 years ago, nor the arrows of 5000 years ago, nor the ritual sacrificial and horrid killings of 600 years ago, but modern tools of fatal warfare.  After each modern mass murder or once we notice a surge or pattern in individual murders, another ritualized pattern of behavior is enacted to somehow cleanse the nation’s psyche, e.g., thoughts and prayers, affirmations of resilience, etc., and then we are, I can only assume, ‘ready’ for the next instance.

I have begun reading a book recommended by Davis and Panksepp, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Themby Joshua Greene.  So far he has articulated the notion that our evolution has prepared us for resolving conflicts through moral means between an individual and others in his tribe, e.g., through reconciliation or making up, but that part of this development involves serious problems resolving conflicts between tribes.  As I have assumed and said here, we evolved with strengths in intimate and small group relationships.  These were adequate when the human population was sparsely distributed, tribes were small, and resources relatively adequate.  However, as many have noted, with a burgeoning population, large, rather artificially constructed groups called nations, and increasingly inadequate resources, especially water (you know, the basic stuff of life) our evolutionary abilities to relate peacefully and morally are being tested in new ways and are all too often falling short.  This is so even as the overall level of violence on a global scale has fallen, according to Stephen Pinker.

I will continue reading Greene’s book, hoping to learn more about our biological roots and how we can draw upon them to live better with all others.  I will continue to read fine fiction that presents the human condition in clarifying aesthetic light. While forensic tools can detect and clarify the nature of the crime; solving the mystery is another matter.  And I will advocate for the notion that our culture can act upon better impulses—cultures can and do change: gun worship is not intrinsic or necessary to who we are. We are certainly not trapped by our biology to be violent with each other; in fact human nature is just the opposite.  Time to travel on.