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.

2 genetic studies and a bit of poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I am some bears,

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

But still I am some bears,

Like polar or black or panda or grizzly or teddy

Or Kodiak brown or koala;

Oh yes, I am.

 

On occasions of white and my world harsh with cold,

I pad about on grainy sharp ice,

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

Mindful ever that the possibilities and necessities of life

Crystallize briefly on earth.

 

When beneath the gloriously coloured forest,

I splash and swim to feast on fish and plant,

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

I roll on my back and bare my belly

To the world’s richness.

 

After such occasions, slowed by the sweet tastes

of berries and nuts

I amble through thickets and savour the lushness

of plant and fruit

Until I sleep in the heat of the season,

Sweetly complacent about winter’s approach,

Dreaming of life’s possibilities and necessities.

Oh yes, I do.

poetic interlude the third

We interrupt our regular blogging for this poetic interlude:

JOHN HENRY WAKES IN THE NIGHT

Awakened with the silence

Under the roof, the night’s cold rain

And thunder sounding patternless noise

Above, his eyes open to find where

Darkness fails in the hearth’s faint glow,

John Henry lies still to find himself.

 

Gusts rise suddenly to stir

The storm’s chaotic fury and wind

Its net about the cabin, its flood

Running down to meet the waters

Rising in the spring overflowing the fen

Incipient to the stream.

The dream returns.

 

John Henry stands darkly hammer in hand

One step beyond the clearing with the trees,

The cold rain washing the warmth from his skin.

There around his cabin, prancing with torchlight

The ghosts clothed in white, dunce caps

For some reason worn with honor,

Call their invitation for him to taste

The waters of Acquinas’ spring.

Frustrated by his silence they break

A window with a burning faggot,

Cheering the flames rising in the night

Never understanding how he watches from the dark.

 

The memory returns, the bonfire burns

In the village circle, his people dance

And sing with the griot’s

Lead and drumbeat. John Henry

Lays two more logs on the fire

That collapses, condenses under their weight.

The griot pauses and watches the sparks

Flaring and flashing and rising

To die in the night above.

His clan stills in wonder of what

He has seen when he turns to John Henry

And says, “When you meet with death,

Keep your hammer in your hand.”

 

John Henry sits and smoors his fire,

Keeping the coals until morning

And wanting the darkness until then.

He picks up his hammer from

Beside the door to place by his bed

And returns to sleep, sparks

Waiting to be struck by the steel’s strike,

The rain drumming on his roof.

That concludes this poetic interlude.  We will return soon to our regular blogging with another piece on the hippocampus.

a poetic interlude though

not the one I had thought:

OBIT

My old friend Stuart died yesterday

Four days after receiving a life saving

Bone marrow transplant,

For which his body had been conditioned

By 8 months of chemotherapy,

So the doctors are understandably

Mystified. Like many of our generation

He had emulated Peter Pan

By jumping off stairs and low walls

And once he felt his arc pause,

Lift even, with the promise of flight,

But then no, he fell to earth just like Icarus.

Like many of us he too had run around the neighborhood

A towel pinned to his shoulders flying behind

As he performed superior acts.

He used a large impressive bath towel

Until his mother discovered that

And made him use a dish towel,

Quite unsuitable for the flying he must do.

He would give that up soon enough anyway

For he was bright and good with numbers

And followed a dream to university.

His family sent him off with the traditional blessing,

Don’t get too big for your britches

Or forget our Christian ways, and he did not get too big

Nor forget though he did change and grow

To become an engineer of modern times,

A Daedalus of water flows for all citizens to enjoy,

a kind and good man, thorough and by the book.

I don’t know why his first marriage failed;

Probably someone came to their senses as they usually do.

I do know at last he loved Fran and worked hard,

Maybe too hard, for their life together,

And he loved music, old school like Guy Clark,

And he practiced his own guitar and worked at songwriting

With all due diligence as was his way. Last spring

He retired, breathless, mysteriously low on energy,

But with rest knowing his songs would come out.

The next week they figured out his diagnosis:

MDS developing maybe over 2-3 years

Had finally blossomed into a flower of collapse.

He died yesterday, two days before family and doctors

Had planned to pull the plug on life support

To give time for good-byes,

A line of friends coming in the room sadly

To take their leave, but with age

A mystical form evolves bone deep

And I guess he figured out that flying up and away

Was not as complicated as he once had dreamed.

 

Poetic interlude

We interrupt our regular programming for this poetic interlude.

 

JOHN HENRY GOES TO CHURCH

 

Dawn had come hardly seen

Above the heavy fog filling the valley,

Above the clouds covering the ridgetop,

The world around translucent to any eye.

John Henry stepped out his door

To greet the day and orient himself

As to his place in nature.

His memory of space, the mountain’s shadow

Through the gloom, and the creek’s

Delicate silvery echoes sounding the way

Told him again, somehow never redundant,

Never commonplace or stale, all he needed to know

For now.

Closing the door behind him

He started down the valley along the creek,

Skirting marshlands and pausing to watch

A wild turkey lumber into the air

Across the water into the woods and fog

At the mountain’s base, a fearful fury

Of feathers struggling to safety, then all quiet,

All hidden, and he resumed his trail to church.

 

A light breeze thinned the fog

As it carried the sound ringing

From the small cast iron bell

Summoning the hearing to gather and meet

This sabbath before Beltane.

John Henry heard the call

And the conversational murmur

Of neighbors greeting each other,

Then saw the whitewashed stones

Lining the path from creek trail

To the whitewashed clapboard church

Built a generation ago

And he entered the open door

Nodding to greet each one.

 

Inside he listened and could not help

Wondering about the past.

Not just what they ate but how did they cook it?

Whose recipe did they use?

Not just what they drank but what grapes and yeast

Did they use for the wine?

Who made the table and chairs? By what method?

How old was the room, for he assumed that

It was not new? Was there a window with a view?

Being John Henry he wondered at the weight

Of the hammer used to drive the nails

And did they reuse the nails like he did

Or were the authorities rich enough,

And of course they were, to pay

A blacksmith for new ones to waste each time.

Buried in a stone crypt, yes,

But how were the walls shaped and painted

And what shadows flickered there in the rushlight?

What of the mice that stole the dead’s gift of grain

Back to their nest, leaving their droppings in the dust?

He wondered this and more even during the hymns,

Even during the last doxology, even as he left

Nodding his goodbyes until he saw the new sign

At the end of the white stoned path, “For Sale.”

 

Homeward the fog lifted though

The creek bed still breathed

With damp chill air. Above

The clouds rested more lightly on the mountain top

And the sunlight filtering through

Gently, informally promised

A warm spring day. Back home

He fed and banked his fire

Against the cold night to come,

Grasped his hammer, feeling its heft

For work the next day, knowing it too heavy

For driving mere nails, and planned next Sunday

To walk up the valley along the creek

To see its headwaters at Copernican Spring

Named long ago also before memory began.

Clyde Evely

2016

 

and that concludes the interlude.  We now return to our regular programming.  Coming soon:  Re-read 4.0  Susanne Langer on Music, or How returning home feels so wondrous.

P.S.  Here in a high mountain valley in SW Virginia we have >10″ snow.

snowmeadow.jpg