Neanderthal update

I like Neanderthal stories for two reasons. First, this research shows science at it best in the development of technologies to date artifacts, the diligent search for ancient clues, and especially, the fact that our conception of who the Neanderthal were has dramatically changed as new data have come in. Since their discovery over a hundred years ago we have gone from thinking them brutes barely different from gorillas to now almost completely human like us. Changing minds through new data is to be much appreciated. The second reason is that genetic studies prove that my ancestors mated with them and I do not want to think of my people long ago mating with brutes of little intellects and no symbolic capabilities. I would hope they were more discriminating.

So the most recent update comes from this story in the NYT:

Evidently some paleoanthropologists were holding up their admission of the Neanders into full humanity because they said the evidence allowed the possibility that their use of tools and their art making were copied from Homo sapiens. That objection has now fallen as art and tools have been found and dated through new, refined technology to time periods way before modern humans entered Europe. Hmm, maybe Homo sapiens copied tools and art from them?

My latest thinking on the inception of symbolic thought, both discursive (language) and presentational (art) forms, is that our heightened empathic abilities led to a rather robust intimacy, a mind to mind connection through kinesic modalities wherein we sensed and knew the other’s subjective mental domain, coupled with the increasing power and specificity of mirroring systems serving communication (think arcuate fasciculus). This yields the view that an intimate connection of immediate sensing of another’s mind coupled with the invariant structure of surface behaviors produced the first symbols.

In this light consider why early art is so often found in caves, and not just close to the entrances but sometimes way back in there. We visited one site in France where an electric railcar took us maybe a mile back into the cave to see etchings of mammoths and other animals on the ceiling. Why? Some say that art rose in association with animist magic, that these paintings were a mystical participation with the animal spirits and communion with Gaia. Read Kim Stanley Robinson’s excellent novel Shaman to see the truth of this possibility. But magic has both public and private aspects. Yes, shaman protected their mysteries (and for good reason because sometimes they were not so mysterious once initiated) but they also performed public rituals. Indeed, magic would not be very useful if not public.

Here’s another thought: Art came about when the need arose to extend intimacy beyond the circle of familiars, art being a personal expression of some vital experience, and so the first artists were a bit shy about their productions and protected their privacy by painting deep in caves. As we learned more about art and more came to appreciate the beauty therein, we moved it out into the public domain and cultural identity took on another feature. Even today while some artists open their studios to audiences, many keep their creations private until complete, and some, like Leonardo da Vinci, keep their most precious pieces in their possession. Leonardo kept the Mona Lisa with him for 20 years, working on it a little bit now and again, and died with it in his room, never giving it to his patron. Personal, private, it was.

Anyway, I really like my hypothesis about the inception of art here; it feels fit to me, this combining empathic intimacy and mirrored communication. (You heard it here first). Time, now, to travel on.


That sapiens guy copied my bison drawing. Good grief! Did a good job though. These new kids may have some talent.

An odd (?) and provocative (!) finding

Many members of my generation (born 1950) were the first in our families to go straight from high school to college and then to expect our children to do the same. Some of my friends quite wisely rejected college to pursue other career paths about which their parents were not keen. And some of my daughter’s generation also rejected higher education and some of them faced heightened pressure to continue on, such as hearing about the research on lifetime earnings between high school and college graduates to outright emotional rejection if they failed to carry on the college tradition. The reasons I heard then were primarily of two sorts, the preparation for a more lucrative career and the rite of passage into adulthood as college helps youth to engage with their peer group, develop a mature identity to carry them forth from the bosom of their family, etc. I rarely heard an argument for intellectual development and appreciation of the world of ideas, and then mostly when I listened to myself and other nerds.

Now I gather from a NYT story that scientists are searching for a genetic influence (of course) in who goes for further education: This began evidently a decade or so ago and the results have not been very elucidating, but recently a group of researchers looked at the genomes of parents to see if some clue could be found there as to whose children pursued more education, and voila, there was. I really like this research effort with its odd and provocative results, and I also have to wonder about the relative contributions of class, wealth and other family traditions that are, of course, also genetically influenced. I still remember my first team meeting at an internship in clinical psychology at a teaching hospital and learning that 6 of the 7 psychiatry residents were the children of physicians, a couple of them 3rd or 4th generation. Almost a caste or hereditary guild system there.

So the genes in their families helped impel these scions to further education? Maybe. The theoretical basis for this, I think, comes from Richard Dawkins and his concept of the extended phenotype. (I hope I have understood this correctly and can explain it properly). Basically idea of the extended phenotype is that genes act beyond their synthesis of proteins, etc. in their own soma, i.e., body, to affect other somas and the environment and that this extended action also promotes the continuation of select genes. Dawkins marshals considerable evidence for this hypothesis, so it is quite natural to think that parental genes affect offspring’s behaviors not just through the progeny’s genetic inheritance, say for intelligence, but also through parental behaviors that influence the next generation’s adaptation. Indeed, to me this is exactly the genius of our mammalian heritage; attachment and bonding, mirroring and social learning, cultural transmission, etc. are all biological actions carried from soma to soma (you know, our humanity’s biological roots in empathy and symbolization).

I have a younger friend here in the mountains of SW Virginia who comes from an eminently practical and mechanical family; they can build and fix almost everything. The uncles and cousins all live in houses they built together by pooling their talents. My generation in this family all finished high school reluctantly and went on to successful careers in industry, rising through the ranks because of their mechanical intelligence, good sense and work ethic. My younger friend recently shared that his 5 yo son does not want to start school because he would rather accompany his father on his job working with machines. The father is proud of that and don’t most fathers want sons to follow somehow in their footsteps; I think this might be a fairly invariant feature of human culture, at least in recent civilized history where trades and professions have become more clearly specialized and defined. My own father insisted futilely that I follow him in the military.

But is there some genetic basis for not insisting that your child follow after you in a trade but rather pursues more education? Is part of genetic ‘success’ and human evolution the tendency of some parents to promote their children’s going further or in a different direction? I would think that the human path from prehistoric to ancient to modern intellectual culture, progressing from animism and magic to science and engineering, over the long slog of history would have required such a genetic flow and current, even if it is a result of chaotic, random mutations building upon the genetic roots of our beings. And now this research may provide an entry into exploring how such progress was served by the extended phenotype in which parents promote greater intellectual understanding in their children through further education and not just following along with traditional ways, content with the orthodoxy of old.

Consider the past half million years or so as our ancestors developed a human habitus and conserved the old ways by resisting much of the new. I have read much history and fiction which show historically that children used to follow almost religiously their family tradition in work, class, etc.; indeed in many cultures and periods they had (& have) little choice. This notion may seem alien today, at least in the USA and western world where the ‘dream’ is of a better, richer, more technologically advanced way of life (and this, by the bye, is being challenged with the rise of other countries from the ashes of our imperialism), as we think progress is inevitable because of the increasing power of our science and technology. I believe that is, oh, so wrong. Balance is important in all matters, especially between material gains and social justice, and devolution waits just around the corner. Ask the survivors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima; watch as our democracy now faces a severe test because of anti-scientific bias, impoverished critical thinking, and neglect of fairness in economic rewards. (I will not bring up a catastrophic loss of electricity due to meteors or other calamities). Consider our own (American) falling rankings on measures of happiness, health, education (especially STEM subjects), gap between rich and poor, etc. We may indeed have genes for helping our children to appreciate further education, even ones for promoting their curiosity and progress in discovering new and better ways that have helped power our evolution for thousands of years or genes that led to greater intellectual progress. These genes would seem to help us accept, even insist that our children cherish an ethic of knowledge and the new understanding it brings and question our knowledge of ethics to seek a more just world. At least I hope later generations feel this benefit.

A good study, then, with odd and provocative results; such findings are sometimes our best hope for knowing ourselves in a changing world. Travel on.

A cultural question about our biology

So after watching, crying and flying with Oprah’s speech accepting the Cecil B. Demille award at the 2018 Golden Globes, I pulled out my check book to write a check to her presidential campaign. After a night’s sleep and more reflection, I pushed my check book to the side, still in reach mind you, and considered the scope of change she most powerfully and eloquently envisioned for us. A world where sexual behavior by mostly males is not used to violate the social mores of intimacy in order to instrumentally boost the perpetrators’ sense of power, their own power, not the female’s nor society’s. The current debate focuses on the sexual violence of the already powerful, but I am reminded of a video, last year I think, by a woman walking the streets of New York City, documenting more than one catcall and gratuitous sexual reference per minute of time travelled. These workmen were not the powerful and still they reveled in glorifying their sexual verbiage used to degrade the lady’s personhood walking by.

The scope of change here would (will) be remarkable even in this country, and then I consider the status of females in other countries and cultures around the world. Scandinavia looks more equitable and respectful; Iceland even enacted a law making it illegal to pay women less than men for equal work and demanding that employers with more than 25 workers prove that they remunerate equitably. Many French and Italian women also endorsed this movement and many men there complained that their seductive behaviors are not abusive but in the service of love. Many activists in the Arab world, in Africa, Asia and South America carry on the struggle for women’s rights, from the right not to be killed at birth and the right not to be sold or mutilated for marriage and the right to drive and work to the right of full citizenship in voting and holding office.

If you want a metric to assess the progress of humanity, measuring the rise of female civil and cultural rights and justice would be a fair one. When in a cynical mood (hard not to be these days), I wonder about the learning curve of a just equality. I think about the evolution and development of our humanity over the past 50 to 100,000 years, of the paucity of matriarchal systems surviving into the recent history of humans, say around 15,000 years ago, and how biological roles determined by child-rearing have morphed into subservient social status in so many cultures. I just re-read the Iliad and the Greeks, credited with conceiving democratic governance so long as you discount slaves, non-property owners and of course, females, treated women as chattel. Agamemnon gives favored warriors women they have captured as slaves. Trojan women, including Queen Hecuba, know that their fate is to be enslaved by the Greeks after the men are slaughtered. The narrative shows that some women adapted to their enslavement by becoming treasured concubines, thus Achilles is greatly attached to his captured slave, Briseis, and refused to fight when Agamemnon takes her. Once returned she becomes a comforting bedmate for Achilles.

My point here is that male usurpation of female personhood is long standing and that, I imagine, a case can be made for its entrenched place in our human habitus (that’s culture, if you are new here to the blog) based upon the biologically driven male aggression. Bonobos are wonderfully amazing because their female dominated society stands in stark contrast to that of chimpanzees and other simians, indeed of many other species. What about cetaceans? I don’t know. Elephants? I think females are pretty central but still run when the bull is mad or aroused.

I have written before on my blog about differentiating what is cultural from our biological predispositions (see post 5/23/15: “gender, culture and biology” ), and I think our current arrangement is not an outgrowth of our biology but for the social biological convenience of males wanting to control paternity and property. With some developments in the modern world that contribute to the loss of social coherence based upon authentic relationships, this ‘convenience’ has grown uglier and uglier. And I will not even begin to consider here the interplay between classes, rich or poor, educated or not, advanced or primitive.

When I voice my cynicism about deep change aloud, my wife likes to remind me about the success of tobacco cessation programs instigated by many researchers and non-profits standing together with the Surgeon General to lobby Congress to enact laws curtailing tobacco sales while still helping the farmers and others dependent upon that income and push the CDC to act to reduce highly addictive behaviors. (Don’t you grow angry that our Congress has forbidden the CDC from studying gun violence with a focus on harm reduction? American culture is a special case here, folks). And of course the struggles for civil rights and suffrage have changed our society much for the better. (Again, our ‘special’ American culture now allows reactionary moves against people of color). In all of this, I must cherish the thought that deep change is possible albeit not easy or linear by standing together.

Oprah’s promising vision of a world where girls and women meet respect and justice is one beautiful flower of this moment in time and cultural egress leaving a stultified domain of male privilege and entering one refreshed by the inclusion of females in a new and refreshing view of their humanity, the acknowledgment of their personhood and the refusal by everyone to abide by any violation of this inalienable right. I have several other associations to finish this piece off. First I remember my readings of Celtic society where women were accorded many rights, including control over their own sexual relations. Consider the fierce Queen Medb’s requirements for a mate: not jealous of her other lovers, brave enough to fight and win against any of their challenges, and generous. Another one is of James Hilton’s 1933 book Lost Horizon (and a pretty good movie as well) wherein Shangri-La exists as an isolated utopian community hidden away in the high Himalayas. The change we seek is utopian, not in a secluded and protected environment but in the wider world. Of course, some would call this a dream, but others would call this awakening from a nightmare. Then we have John Lennon’s song “Imagine”: “You may say I am a dreamer, but I am not the only one”, and that is a not so secret weapon we dreamers have, standing together. So I will now travel on. And Oprah, I still have my checkbook beside me on the table.

Let’s talk doxa, science, and humanity

Recall from my 6/7/17 post on Pierre Boudrieu’s writings that the doxa comprises the entire realm of possible discourse; anything outside the doxa is difficult to discuss—it is ineffable or inchoate. Within the doxa the dominant paradigm or pattern of beliefs and knowledge is orthodoxy, which mostly controls the domain of discourse, while deviant thinking would be heterodoxy. In religion heterodoxy may become heresy, e.g., the Pelagian heresy that one can attain salvation through good works. In science heterodoxy can fall by the wayside if it fails to account coherently and productively for the subject phenomena, or it can replace orthodoxy because it eventually is found to provide a more robust explanation. The classic example is Thomas Kuhn’s scientific revolution in the shift from the Ptolemaic earth-centric universe to the Copernican heliocentric one.

A more modern example comes from Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s book, Merchants of Doubt, about a small group of scientists who act to obscure the valid findings about hot issues, such as tobacco’s carcinogenic effects or the human contribution to global warming. The question they raise is how to tell a fraud from a crank, who may or may not be on to something wrong in the orthodox realm of discourse (see post 3/7/16). Oreskes has discussed the eventual acceptance of plate tectonic theory, 50 or more years after Alfred Wegener proposed it in his 1912 book. Evidently the theory was accepted in Europe long before it was accepted in the USA, where Wegener was seen as a bit of a crank; here in the USA they could not imagine a meteorologist like Wegener developing a valid theory about earth’s geology, so Wegener was seen then as a crank whom we now understand had a good idea. And the climate change deniers are still the same old frauds from the tobacco scam.

Now the study and understanding of our humanity has likewise undergone some great shifts; some of the most profound transformations from heterodoxy into orthodoxy came with the Enlightenment and science’s assertion that humans were a proper subject of study outside of religion, Darwin’s assertion that man was just an earth-bound animal, Freud’s assertion that conscious life is a construction of non-conscious processes, etc. More recently Norbert Weiner’s initiation of cybernetics revealed the structural similarity of control systems between biological man and machine, a gap that grows increasingly smaller as science progresses. I would also include Jacques Monod’s assertion that our biology in its foundation of molecular genetics can account for life without any recourse to supernatural creators, thank you very much, so that his understanding of spirit looks to the generations of life over the past 4 billion years on Gaia. That would be his mystic beyond, not Olympus or heaven or whatever (see post 3/25/17).

I would like to think that one particular heterodoxical idea is also usurping some of the orthodoxy in cognitive psychology, but alas, I do not see a tectonic shift happening here. I do remember when cognitive psychology was heterodox, back in the days of behaviorism’s puritanical orthodoxy, and then psychologists had the good sense to admit that we had minds, that we actually thought and that our thoughts had purpose and effect. Now cognitive psychology seems to exert its orthodoxy through control of the doxa, especially through its alliance with information science and focus on algorithms. Everything mental is thinking more or less logically, you know, in the cortex, while affect and emotion are lower. Thus the predominant and errant metaphor of ‘hard-wired’ as we neglect intuition, feelings and emotion.

But consider some seemingly disparate ideas. I first caught a glimpse of an alternative seeping into the doxa when I read Susanne Langer all these years ago. The title of her last work gives us a hint, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, in its last word, ‘feeling.’ She arrived at her examination of mind as biological through her study of art, understanding that art is a different kind of symbol, i.e., presentational, than language, i.e., discursive. Its structure is different because its elements of composition are different, and while both types of symbols have surface and deep structures, the latter for art is better termed aesthetic import in contrast to linguistic meaning (see post 11/10/17). Peruse some books addressing the evolution of our minds and see how often art is considered as an important phenomena in its own right of our humanity. Daniel Dennett’s recent one briefly addresses Bach and his music not so much as art but as an example of cognitive design. Patricia Churchland’s 1989 Neurophilosophy mentions music twice, art and symbols not at all. Trying to expand my own doxa is one big reason I read books like Kandel’s on art (see post 7/23/17) and plan on reading one by Ramachandran soon. This is why I think the development of an instrument to reliably study our emotional response to art, Aesthemos (see post 10/31/17), is an important step forward.

Consider also how maybe 50% of an important neurotransmitter, dopamine, is synthesized in the gut, how even more serotonin is found there, and how our gut microbiome affects mood and thinking. Consider the work by Tversky, Kahneman and others showing that our minds are not clean cognitive operations but filled with heuristics that generally satisfice in most circumstances but lead us astray in some important others and emotions play no small role in that. Consider Gavin de Becker’s Gift of Fear underlining the importance of paying attention of our feelings of danger. Consider how disrupted attachment, you know that basic emotional bond, affects thinking in the social realm, hindering social perspective and empathy, and in cognitive realm, hindering understanding of cause and effect, sequencing, etc. Consider how the Texas tower shooter, Charles Whitman, sought medical help repeatedly when he felt something was wrong with his mind because murderous thoughts were so prominent and intrusive, how doctors dismissed his concerns any number of ways, e.g., just depressive feelings, and how autopsy revealed a fast growing tumor on his amygdala, an emotional control center affecting thinking and behavior. All of this suggests that feeling is coequal with thinking, or at least, that both are important functions in the nervous system responsible for our mind. This idea is what Langer promoted at the end of her career.

I have just finished Michael Tomasello’s book, The Natural History of Human Cognition, following up on my reading of his book on human morality (see post 7/31/17). Both books compare simians and humans to see wherein we are different, i.e., what makes us human. This one hypothesizes how we developed more or less objective thinking over the past 100,000 years of our evolution. It is interesting and thought provoking, albeit written in an academic and somewhat tedious style. He focuses pretty exclusively on human cooperation, which is assuredly distinctive in the animal realm, and how our thinking developed “collective intentionality and agent-neutral thinking”, going from an individual perspective taking to group perspective taking to thinking objectively, i.e., valid from any perspective. (Yes, I have foreshortened his arguments terribly but I want to get on to another point).

Tomasello does not really address very directly the issue of human feeling, but he comes close several times. And to be sure at the end he makes a strong statement that our cognition is socially based and that our culture, including art, is based upon the development of human cognition with some semblance to his outlined hypothesis. Before that we read statements hinting at the importance of relationships (and feelings?).

  • As distinct from other great apes, early humans began mating via pair bonding, with the result that nuclear families became newly cooperating social units.
  • [Other great apes do not have] human-like joint goals; there is no cooperative communication for coordinating actions.
  • Great ape cognition and thinking are adapted to this social, but not very cooperative, way of life.

Tomasello argues that this cooperative way of life, developed in response to ecological variations, led to “Thinking for cooperating”.

To be clear, I think Tomasello’s arguments are quite robust as far as they go albeit with one caveat, and that is reflected in his statement, “Humans have thus constructed learning environments within which their own offspring develop”. That we have learning environments is true, to be sure, but that we ‘constructed’ them elevates our ability of rational control above rational limits. Even our modern child rearing arrangements are based upon cultural evolution by historical accident, and while we think we know what we are doing, we also know that unforeseen consequences are unavoidable and that much of our success in promoting child development comes from attending to the basics of emotional attachment, group relationships and play. Yes, cognitive skills are important there, both to develop and for developing, but the contextual process is not one of ‘construction’; our rationality is quite limited in its intentional power because so much is unconscious. (Consider Daniel Kahneman’s quote in Thinking Fast and Slow from Herbert Simon, “Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition” of what rises for conscious presentation from subliminal processes and feelings play a larger role in those processes than some might expect or include in their discourse).

With that caveat expressed, I want to expand on what I think the context is, i.e., what lies beyond where Tomasello’s argument falters, or more to the point, what our current orthodoxy seems to neglect in its discourse. Once upon a time, a long time ago, in the early 20th century, before information theory and molecular biology transformed biological, including psychological, science, some intellectuals focused on symbols. As I hinted above, topics like feeling, art, and symbols are not well represented in more recent books, and there we have lost something. I came of age appreciating C. S. Pierce’s and Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory of semiotics, Ernst Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms and his notion of man as a symbolic animal, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, Noam Chomsky’s theory of mind and linguistic structure, and of course, Susanne Langer’s keen and profound insights on presentational and discursive symbols.

When Tomasello writes that children and apes have “very similar cognitive skills for dealing with the physical world” but that even very young children already have “more sophisticated cognitive skills [than apes] for dealing with the social world,” the question arises why? How is it that humans have developed a more cooperative umvelt along with symbolization? I would argue that our empathic abilities motivated concerned, prosocial action, but the key issue for me here is how the powerful relationships between surface signals and deep structures, e.g., semantic meaning for discursive symbols and artistic import for presentational symbols, developed. My intuition over the years has repeatedly presented for my recognition the idea that human intimacy and symbolic forms are indeed related and that between the two, intimacy is primary. Here’s the deal:

To progress from signs and signals with their isomorphic referents to symbolic surface and deep structures requires a more powerful sense of what exists in another’s mind. Consider these distinctions:

  • between a raven’s caw when chasing a hawk and a person shouting fire
  • between the raven’s roosting at evening and a person watching the colors fading at dusk
  • between skipping a rock across a lake and cracking a nut with a rock
  • between a green light at an intersection and the green light on the dock at Daisy’s house Gatsby sees across the bay.

In each case the first example involves a signal with acutely circumscribed significance and the second involves a metaphorical vehicle with a tenor of deeper significance. (Consider that Lakoff and Johnson develop a useful epistemology through symbols and metaphors in their book, Metaphors We Live By.)

Consider now the ontogeny of human relations in the important basic development of attachment and emotional regulation that leads to adaptive prosocial relationships. This is primarily a function of the right side of the brain, as the research summarized by Alan Shore shows, and it is here that a sense of self initiates hopefully to become one of empathic cooperativeness. With further development a neural center serving the higher or extended functions empathy in the right hemisphere around the OTP (occipital-temporal-parietal) junction (what I call Empathy Central or EC and the orthodox call Theory of Mind or ToM—see post 10/31/16). This is analogous to the left sided OTP area known as Wernicke’s area that serves semantic meaning, so the right-sided OTP would analogously serve empathic or social-emotional significance. That would serve as the basis for aesthetic import that arises, I think, in a much more complicated manner through a more widely organized system. Humans have a highly developed sense of self and empathy with another self, and while this enables cognitive perspective taking, it remains a function based on feeling, just like the left sided grammatical functions are based upon grammatical feelings of fitness, e.g., this feels right and that doesn’t as in Chomsky’s “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” is grammatical but meaningless and Yoda’s “A jedi will you be never” is not grammatical but meaningful. (Compare also phenomena of handedness; cross your arms right over left and left over right and one will feel more comfortable or fit. Same with clasping fingers with right or left thumb on top or throwing a ball with right or left hand.)

The idea here is that human attachment paves the way for intimacy and a keen sense of another’s mind, that this is primarily a right sided function that matures before the left sided language and that the two sides communicate with each other in the coordination of communicative behaviors. Consider next the arcuate fasciculis, a long fiber tract that on the left side connects Wernicke’s and Broca’s area and is a part of the mirroring system. The arcuate fasciculus facilitates verbatim repetition of what was just heard, i.e., it helps connect the auditory signal constituting the surface structure to the motoric plans for saying that same surface structure (see post 4/24/14). No meaning is required, but here is the catch. Remember a time when you heard someone say something but did not quite catch the total message. You probably rehearsed silently using the arcuate fasciculus what you heard until you were able to decode and complete the surface structure and so glean its meaning using both your analysis of the communication signal and your composition of context, including knowledge of the other person and the situation.

This example demonstrates, I think, a basic insight into the development of human symbols. A signal, i.e., surface structure, carries its deep structure through our empathic apprehension of another’s mind and its presumed contents; we ‘know’ more is there and can even surmise what it might be through EC. Without that evolutionary step symbols could not develop. (Hey, what a perspicacious title for my blog, eh?) That deep structure may be conventionalized and carried by lexical items as in discursive language or not conventionalized, its formal or aesthetic import carried by the presentational art symbol. Without the active inclusion of both symbolization and empathy in our doxa, orthodox discourse will have difficulty bridging the gap between, as Tomasello quotes Donald Davidson, human evolution “from ‘no thought’ to thought’.” The heterodoxical statement, “No thought without feeling” may be heretical but should still be part of our discourse as we strive to bridge that gap.

And now travel on with feeling. Happy New Year.

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.