Our wandering cousins

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

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

Neanderthal_280_470743a

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

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

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

 

Come, my friends,

Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

. . . .

Though much is taken, much abides; and though

We are not now that strength which in old days

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

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

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

 

How we might think about biology and beauty

I have been thinking about this article in the NYT for a few weeks now.  I feel I should write about it but what?  So here goes. This is another story about the orthodox notion that beauty is not actually a product of evolution, but wait a minute, maybe it is: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/09/magazine/beauty-evolution-animal.html.  Ferris Jabr wrote this longish piece and it is worth reading.  He highlights a number of examples of beauty in the animal world and one scientist in particular who believes that some other animals besides humans have a sense of aesthetics.  Most other researchers scoff at this notion because beauty seems to play so little a role in evolution, believing, I guess, that what we perceive as beauty in nature is more a simple byproduct of other adaptations.  This falls, then, into one of my favorite categories these days, that of an evolutionary spandrel.

What is that, I hear some ask?  The concept of a spandrel is borrowed from architecture where it denotes the space between an arch, ceiling and any supporting pillars.  As such a spandrel does not contribute to the structure, though architects soon learned to fill the space with decorative art.  Here is a diagram:

Spandrel

So an evolutionary spandrel is an ontogenetic structure that does not contribute to the organism’s successful adaptation and continuance of the genetic stream.  A simple example I have read is the color of our blood.  The redness has no adaptive significance; it is a spandrel to the use of iron-based hemoglobin for oxygen transport.  If we were a lobster, that has a copper based blood, we would have green blood.

A prominent example under discussion here is the bowerbird.  The male builds an elaborate nest that is used only to attract a female’s attention and not for egg laying.  Once the female approaches the male’s nest, and they are elaborate with many bits of shell, pebbles, and whatever can be found to decorate the approach, the male must then dance successfully enough to entice the female to copulate.  Then another nest is built.  Does the male bowerbird’s nest building contribute to its reproductive fitness, albeit by increasing chances of mating, or is it a spandrel?  Nest building is metabolically expensive and this kind attracts predators as well as females.  Could it be an anachronism left from an earlier adaptation wherein the male actually built a functional nest, i.e., used for egg hatching and young rearing, which was replaced by a behavioral dance?  That is the tenor of this debate.

Orthodox theory has it that sexual ornamentation, which can be quite extreme, e.g., bird of paradise and peacock tail feathers, and sexual signaling, e.g., the grouse dance, indicates the robust health of the male, i.e., a better mate. This would mean these features contribute directly to evolutionary fitness and so would not be a spandrel. To say, as Richard Prum does, that these features are a contribution to the evolution of beauty elevates beautiful features to a non-spandrel level.  And surprisingly, I learned from Jabr’s article that Darwin himself did not think that evolutionary fitness was useful in explaining all adaptive features. He thought that besides natural selection, sexual selection played a significant role in shaping organisms; indeed, that males developed ornamentation and signaling behaviors to fit or match the females’ “standard of beauty”, as Darwin put it.  There you have it, from the godfather of evolutionary science himself, though most scientists beginning even back then through today scoff at the notion.

There are two issues for me here.  One is the nature of beauty, of how we perceive it and what makes something beautiful, and the other is the nature of art, which I take to be a symbolic form, i.e., it has a surface structure composed by us (could be other species’ partake of this effort as well like the whale songs from last post) and a deep structure of some vital import about our experience.  Now consider Jabr’s words:  “There are really two environments governing the evolution of sentient creatures: an external one, which they inhabit, and an internal one, which they construct. To solve the enigma of beauty, to fully understand evolution, we must uncover the hidden links between those two worlds.”  Oh boy, that is exactly the issue here, i.e., the hidden links between surface and deep structures.

Consider seeing something beautiful in nature, like a sunset or storm over the sea or a striking bird.  Here are some photos of mine to ponder:

IMG_0275

Odysseus watched the sunset from Calypso’s isle yearning for home.

IMG_0307

Odysseus struggled through storms to reach his home on Ithaca.

The surface structure is the image but what is the deep structure?  What is the basis for our aesthetic appreciation of such scenes?  Further, how does a poet, e.g., Homer, transmute this into a beautiful image composed of words?  Here is another of an indigo bunting that visits our farm in the spring-how is it we see its beauty and how do the female buntings view it?

DSCN0750

A handsome and rare indigo bunting

To be clear, I do not know the answer here, but I have adopted two canalizations for my thinking about these sorts of issues.  The first is, of course, Susanne Langer’s notion of art as a vital form, symbolic certainly but what makes the form art is its conveyance of vitality, e.g., the experience and energy of a particular life.  The second I extrapolate from Jacques Monod’s understanding of life processes as furthering itself through fitting components together, i.e., a molecule fits with another and contributes to energy control.  Many molecular combinations fit with others to contribute to life’s complexity, and to further the stream of life, each fitting must fit with many others in a sort of closure achieved by completing an image, like the Necker cube, only this closure is the underlying form of a biological organism.  Showing even more complexity, following Susan Oyama, the organism’s form and place in the hereditary stream is a complex fitting of a developmental system comprising life and niche, the means by which ontogeny progresses along “life’s journey, its cascade of complexity downfield into the future” like a musical symphony advances some grand waves of temporal experience through auditory forms.

Vital import and fitness certainly seem relevant here, but consider another concept, that of intentionality, because it plays an important role in the linkage between surface and deep structures.  Now I gather that ‘intentionality’ in philosophical parlance is a loaded term (first clue: Daniel Dennett wrote a book on it), but I want to use the term more as a contrast to ‘incidental’.  We act sometimes incidentally, e.g., our intent is to get a glass of water and we have to walk incidentally to the kitchen.  I distinguish between the two by asking with what intent is our volitional, i.e., for initiating behavior, energy mobilized.  We can formulate an intention and plan for its implementation but enactment starts when volitional energy is summoned.  From this perspective I guess you could call incidental actions behavioral spandrels but they would clearly be instrumental.  So indeed all spandrels are, just that, instrumental; it is just that by definition evolutionary spandrels do not contribute (directly) to adaptive fitness—they are, shall we say, instrumental gaps.  (Blood’s redness here is more an incidental reflection of the instrumental iron). But by Darwin’s reckoning some do serve to facilitate reproductive success, so something must be working here.

At any rate, art certainly requires intentionality in its production—intentionality is a necessary feature of our shaping the art form to express our intended import.  Again the surface form belies the complexity of our import.  But does the apprehension of beauty, by us or any other species, require intentionality?  Consider again the images above of a sunset, storm and bird.  I hope you agree that they are beautiful but beyond the glory of nature, what might be their import?  And does fitness of even some vague sort contribute to their loveliness?  While they are not produced intentionally, we may attribute some intentionality to these images in a mythic function, like we say they reflect the glory of nature or god or we see some notion of life’s temporality rendered thereby or interpret what we see as an immanent portent. In this regard I think the sunset or a peacock’s tail is beautiful but not art.

The question Jabr reports on is how other animals see natural phenomena like another’s plumage, song, or dance. He writes, “Sometimes beauty is the glorious but meaningless flowering of arbitrary preference. Animals simply find certain features — a blush of red, a feathered flourish — to be appealing. And that innate sense of beauty itself can become an engine of evolution, pushing animals toward aesthetic extremes.”  And further, “Unlike natural selection, which preserved traits that were useful ‘in the struggle for life,’ Darwin saw sexual selection as exclusively concerned with reproductive success, often resulting in features that jeopardized an animal’s well-being.”  Is this really a sense of beauty?  Again, I don’t know.  I have asked several birds around here but they have not answered; the clouds, though, they say ‘yes’.  That some perceptual features ‘fit’ another’s sense of  ‘appealing’ is fact.  But consider bird song where ornithologists studying male song measure its power by counting the number of copulatory postures elicited in the female.  The more postures seen the better the song is presumed to be.  A song, thus is boiled down to hormonal activity.  (Don’t want to go so long here but consider if dreaming is adaptive or spandrel, and remember that other animals do seem to dream: https://earthsky.org/earth/animal-dreams.)

I have long wondered when it is that a bird stops building its nest but have never seen any research on this.  If indeed they do have some sense of aesthetic, I would assume that the bird builds until it is satisfied with the construction.  If not, I would guess that the bird builds until the eggs are laid. Likewise consider the bowerbird. Does he work continually on his nest until he attracts and mates with a female, or does he come to a moment when he feels the nest is just right, sort of like us decorating the walls of our house, e.g., these pictures and tapestries do the job?

Finally I just read an article about a Duke researcher, Steve Nowicki, who tested the hypothesis that the more complex a bird song the better the bird brain has developed.  Knowledgeable females then would pick the male with a more complex song because of his greater intelligence.  So far, Nowicki’s research has not shown this to be the case.  Good songs from good brains do not win the day.  I remember from way back research showing that some birds raised in isolation sing the best songs, i.e., the females respond with more copulatory postures, but that other males then attack this prime singer, who can survive if he is the best fighter or if he modifies his performance and sings a lesser song.  There is a lesson for us all in this finding about the importance social niche plays in our development.

In the whole wide world many things fit together.  Some fit with the spark of life shining forth.  Each life shines with its own energy and some shine brightly beyond their own time and place.  Life, as we know, abides by the 2ndlaw of thermodynamics with its own particular slight of hand.  Life is an energetically exuberant process controlled as it advances ecologically in time. And, it seems to me that this exuberance manifests in many ways with each life form and generation rising.  Finding beauty in our surrounds shows our sensitivity to this and art is a supreme expression of that exuberance. That this metaphor seems a bit out of the loop empirically, I think, is only because so many fail to recognize some features of reality, e.g., finding beauty and artistic experience given and taken, as facts worthy of study, believing that the orthodox constraints to our science are more important than our imaginative seeking beyond what we know (always I come back here seeking a balance).  Read Jabr’s article about the beauty debate and see for yourself.  This is what I had to say about it.

 

Epilogue

Or could it be that even spandrels, those empty spaces in our structure, contribute to life’s vitality?  That elements that contribute empty spaces are important to life’s functioning?  What does the Tao Te Ching say about that again?  Say in chapter 11?

 

Thirty spokes

Meet in the hub.

Where the wheel isn’t

Is where it’s useful.

 

Hollowed out

Clay makes a pot.

Where the pot’s not

Is where it’s useful.

 

Cut doors and windows

Make a room.

Where the room isn’t

There’s room for you.

 

So the profit in what is

Is in the use of what isn’t.

 

(Many thanks to Ursula K. LeGuin for this version) With that it is surely time to travel on.

Part 1: an old man finds his creed finally

Many years ago my then wife announced apropos of nothing at dinner with my parents that I was an atheist.  I was the most surprised person at the table because I had never applied that label to myself, always holding that to define beliefs by what you didn’t believe was a bit spurious.  I was reluctant to use agnostic even though that came closer to reality because I thought, again, it said nothing of what I did believe and expressing my ignorance seemed obviously redundant.  My parents were not surprised, having known I had ‘left’ the church a long time before but they did take this occasion to debate whether my baptism at age 9 would still get me into heaven.  Their answer seemed to be no, I was condemned to hell.  They did not think to ask what I did believe, which was just as well because my beliefs at that point were still entirely inchoate.

Over the intervening years I have pondered and developed some sort of belief that I might could hold.  My now wife Betty has helped with her rich humanity, my pursuit of poetry and art through Langer has helped with the conceptualization, and more recently I re-read Monod’s Chance and Necessity.  Better late than never, I now think I have developed a creed that renders my spiritual beliefs with some adequacy.  I call it my creed but actually it is only an incipient one because I think a creed by definition is shared by others.  Oh well, I never claimed to be orthodox about anything, so I will now go over my creed giving an exegesis line by line before writing it down as I recite it in my daily meditation.

I keep a simple faith.

I have always believed in KISS: keep it simple, stupid.  This derives in part from an agnostic tendency, i.e., the thought that in the last analysis we do not know anything about what lies in the mystic beyond, as I have come to term the domain we apprehend of (or make up the sense of) what used to be termed supernatural, because, as should be clear to regular readers, I hold everything in every domain to be natural.  This also comes from my reading Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, one of the earliest and still one of the highest expressions of mysticism.  Consider the 14thchapter:

Look at it: nothing to see.

Call it colorless.

Listen to it: nothing to hear.

Call it soundless.

Reach for it: nothing to hold.

Call it intangible.

Triply undifferentiated

It merges into oneness,

Not bright above,

Not dark below.

Never, oh, never,

Can it be named.

It reverts, it returns

To unbeing.

Call it the form of the unformed,

The image of no image.

Call it unthinkable thought.

Face it: no face.

Follow it: no end.

Holding fast to the old Way,

We can live in the present.

Mindful of the ancient beginnings,

We hold the thread of the Tao.

What lies beyond our ken is important (we should appreciate our ignorance more fully); it is ancient, enduring, and except for this book of Lao Tzu’s, nearly impossible to characterize through our intellect. When I keep a simple faith, I admit my ignorance of greater things while acknowledging my sense of something beyond and so maintain a boundary to my knowledge, to what I really know.  As Lao Tzu says in #71:

To know without knowing is best.

Not knowing without knowing it is sick.

To be sick of sickness

Is the only cure.

The wise aren’t sick.

They are sick of sickness,

So they are well.

I, too, at least, am sick of sickness.  And, as I see it, even thinking about the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin, much less debating or fighting over it, is stupid (and sick), and as I said in my last post, I avoid the land of Stupid as best I can.

I believe in the presence of spirit.

I have long had some apprehension of the mystical beyond; beginning in my boyhood, expanding in my late teens and early 20s, and steadying in its course as I studied symbolization and aesthetics (thank you, Susanne Langer), I sensed the presence of spirit.  My wife Betty helped me to see this gift whole, a necessity for filling in the blanks. I think of spirit (not to get too complicated here, remember, KISS) in various guises: the Tao (the Way) of course, but also, following Einstein, who said he believed in god if it was Spinoza’s god.  Spinoza in the 16thcentury developed a remarkable understanding of the universe as a lawful, regular and integrated entity; in its processes lie the sweep of fate.  Good thing he kept this under wraps because the religious authorities at the time claimed to know how many angels danced on that pinhead and burnt people alive for disagreeing with them.  I also think of spirit in a somewhat animistic sense (still keeping it all natural) in what Amerindians referred to as mother earth, not our property to do with as we please but to carry out our responsibility as stewards; of course I now think of this as Gaia, the planet earth infused with life glowing blue and green in our region of the cosmos.

With my re-reading of Monod, however, I came to a more definitive understanding of spirit.  A famous Catholic of his day, Francois Mauriac, said of Monod’s definition of spirit that it “is far more incredible than what we Christians believe”.   This is what is so incredible:  Monod considered that we have a duality within us, a physical body and brain that operates mechanically according to physical laws and a mental consciousness seemingly(I echo Monod by saying ‘supposedly’) independent of such mechanics.  His and others’ objective analysis shows this to be an illusion,

“But it is so well within, so deeply rooted in our being, that nothing could be vainer than to hope to dissipate it in the immediate awareness of our subjectivity, or to learn to live emotionally or morally without it.  And besides, why should we have to?  What doubt can there be of the presence of spirit within us?  To give up the illusion that sees in it an immaterial ‘substance’ is not to deny the existence of the soul, but on the contrary to begin to recognize the complexity, the richness, the unfathomable profundity of the genetic and cultural heritage and of the personal experience, conscious or otherwise, which together constitute this being of ours: the unique and irrefutable witness to itself.”

So yes, I believe in the presence of spirit and must acknowledge that this spirit as conceived as Monod did is so incredible that ‘belief’ is a more appropriate word than ‘know’.

I wrote these first two precepts of my creed to use in a poem (I might post it someday soon) around 1995.  The next two I developed from reading Monod’s Chance and Necessity, but travel on for awhile before the next post.

Alegria, to the world

Alegria.

That is some language’s word for joy.

I learned that at the circus,

Alegria,

and I liked it.  Alegria!

Not enough these days to go round the world

& I hope by saying the word, alegria,

its quantity will increase.

Really, though, I want you to know

I know that is just an illusion

I have about joy in the world.

Alegria.

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.