When a song disrupted cultural transmission

Something in my recent experience, probably watching border troubles in Ireland grow with Brexit, listening to Celtic music and reading about Irish history, triggered an old song memory, ‘The Rising of the Moon’ by Peter, Paul and Mary about the 1898 Irish rebellion.  You know how that goes—the song comes into your mind and rings there for days.  It is still there.  I used to own every album they made before someone stole some out of my dorm room. I did not have many on my ipod so I ordered a CD collection to provide material for memory lane and this is what I remembered.

I was 11 or 12 years old living on Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota when Peter, Paul and Mary hit the radio waves with ‘Lemon Tree’ and ‘If I Had a Hammer’, and I liked this music a lot, especially the latter song.  The more I heard, the more I loved it.  One Sunday after church (my parents found a Southern Baptist church even in North Dakota) we had some younger airmen over for Sunday dinner. When I talked about PP&M, one of my favorite airmen spoke up with great disdain, saying they were ‘beatniks’. Now in my family, nuclear and extended, in the Air Force community in the early 60s, and in our church, calling someone a beatnik was a serious deal.  The only people lower than beatniks either resided in the Soviet Union (or behind the Iron Curtain), Cuba, or were agitating in this country for civil rights (which many in my orbit thought was a communist plot as well—is this oh too familiar these days).  I listened as everyone trashed beatniks and wondered how such horrible people could make such astounding, beautiful and moral music.  I seriously doubted that they were really beatniks.

Then a few weeks later I had saved up my paper route money and bought their first album.  Yes, there they were on the cover, clearly beatniks.  I did not doubt them or their music.  I did question the wisdom being transmitted to me by the adults in my life. Clearly they were wrong.  These beatniks were decent people and that implied that many of the ‘others’ were decent as well.  I began to pay attention to a wider reality and the local cultural transmission of orthodoxy failed.  I learned about cultural alternatives and you can guess what ensued after that.

Several months ago I posted about the role of art in cultural change using the musical ‘South Pacific’ as an example.  (See post 3/6/18: ‘art and cultural shifts’).  Recall that Rogers and Hammerstein included in their play the issue of interracial marriage between Asians and Europeans/Americans, and that was controversial in its day, especially the song about how youngsters are taught to hate.  That play and other artworks contributed to the cultural change to where interracial relationships were acceptable.  The movie of the musical came out in 1958; the Supreme Court ruled that laws forbidding miscegenation were unconstitutional in the 1967 Loving case.

Now I remember a time when my culture was teaching me to condemn others who were different in some ways but their music was both beautiful and morally upright. The songs triumphed again, an indecent cultural transmission was disrupted, and I started on a journey to understand and accept the ‘others’ and to advance with skepticism wherever I went.

Art for me is a buoy of illumination marking special places in the cultural landscape.  In our evolution our mental abilities grew from cogitating about the concrete and immediate through the ponderings about past and future events to imaginative creations that no one will ever see ‘for real’.  In a sense these are dream materials and art operates to help us to dream the same dream in time together.  When we dance and make music we join in riding the time wave rolling into the future.  When we view a painting, walk around a statue, or sit in an architecturally beautiful space, we experience art as time rolls on by us.  In both sorts of art (I will call them ‘performative’, i.e., we move in time, and ‘artifactual’, i.e., time moves as we are still) we share the subjective visions and motions that can bind us together as humans.  We do have to be careful about what cultural tropes we admit into our world if we want to improve ourselves and the human condition.  Remember and consider the difference between art and propaganda.  Oh, and be skeptical.   Well, time to travel on.

Quick music review

Once in awhile I am lucky enough to attend a concert that goes beyond remarkable into the marvelous, say by Rodney Crowell, Emmy Lou Harris, Leonard Cohen, Joan Osborne, Richard Thompson, and Rhiannon Giddens (twice).  Last night this old man lucked out again with a jazz performance by pianist Alfredo Rodriguez and percussionist Pedrito Martinez.  Wow!  Their musical talent seems boundless, they are clearly both virtuosos, and they clearly, luminously play together with wonderful joy.  How humans can do this always amazes me, but some manage to do so.  Wow again.

Here is the deal specific to them:  My heart filled with joy with their music and their engagement together and with us. This is music from the earth and its peoples who rise above mundane existence.  Both are from Cuba and draw upon their heritage as well as many other sources (one encore included a riff on Michael Jackson’s thriller).  Their friendship and collaborative passion shine through their performance.  Enough said. They are just starting a tour so check out their websites, alfredomusic.com and pedritomartinezmusic.com, for dates, then see and hear for yourself what power their art has to elevate the mind. Travel on to there.

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:


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:


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


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?


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.



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.

fluid culture

A shorter post here before a longer one.

Several news outlets have recently posted stories updating our research into whale songs.  We have big questions here:  Why do they sing and why change their songs over time, do their songs travel underwater for thousands of miles with purpose, etc.  Whales are intelligent, conscious creatures, of that we can be sure, and still we are caught trying to understand them between anthropomorphism and anthropodenial.   Our rather weak conceptual basis for understanding their psychology depends upon their being mammals, big brains, once land animals, social, etc.  The difficulty comes from the usual mystery of another’s species’ mind and from their lives in the ocean; what must that be like?

I have several stories that I remember when I ponder their lives and minds. Their world is getting more polluted by human trash and noise.  Our navy performs underwater sonar experiments that are excruciating to them, yet we blithely complain that our diplomats in Cuba suffer brain injury due to sound waves.  We have hunted them cruelly for oil and meat, and indeed, Japan recently pulled out of a treaty banning whaling so that its ships could harvest more, they claim for research but what has been published? and besides they value and sell the meat as an expensive delicacy.  I have seen a video of a whaling ship killing a female blue whale, and then when its mate came charging at the ship, they killed him with their exploding harpoon gun. Remember that the story of Moby Dick was based in reality as a large sperm whale destroyed the whaler Essex in 1820.  That it was whitish is explained by the more recent finding that blue whales grow whiter with age, so Moby Dick was a vengeful elder.  Some whales feast on plankton, others on small animals, even seals for the orcas.  Some cooperate to blow a cylindrical ring of bubbles to corral the fish for their feeding. And many frolic and play.

My favorite story is the one a few years back when divers discovered a large humpback whale fatally encumbered by tangled fishing lines.  They teamed up to cut the whale free and when they had succeeded, this whale, remember now it is 20-30 tons of graceful and fluid power, went up to the divers and tapped its nose on their face mask in what the divers saw was clearly an expression of gratitude.  Google ‘whale gratitude’ and you will see several examples of similar actions.  Finally consider that whales have been known to support sick brethren in reaching the surface to breathe and that they are capable parents.

So this new research shows that whale songs develop over time: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/07/science/whales-songs-acoustics.html.  Consider this quote:  “Male humpback whales within a population tend to sing the same song type, but it’s continuously changing and evolving over time,” said Melinda Rekdahl, the study’s first author and a marine conservation scientist with the wildlife society. “It’s thought to be one of the best examples of cultural evolution in the animal kingdom.”

While their songs seem to be specific to each group, there are indications that songs might be shared between groups or that they influence each other.  Some whales travel long distances through several oceans, singing away through the deeps, so a cross pollination of sorts is easily conceivable if hard to document.

And now for something really interesting.  In one paper, Jenny Allen, who was a doctoral student with lead investigator Dr. Noad, found an unexpected pattern among humpbacks. Once their songs reach a certain level of complexity, humpbacks drop that tune entirely and pick up a new, simpler one. Her study, the first to quantify the complexity of the songs, was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. So like the best jazz musicians, whales begin a song simply, develop it to a crescendo of complexity, and then drop back to the simpler, perhaps more lyrical pattern.  (Yes, I did see this very thing with the fabulous Joshua Redman quartet in concert last night and they are some of the best jazz musicians playing together with such artistry—catch them if you can).

Art, says Susanne Langer, is an expressive symbolic form rendering some portion of the vital experience of the rhythms of life.  In her later work she explored at length how organisms are born of rhythms, so of course, art, especially music because it presents a virtual image of time lived, portrays waves rising, building to crest and roll over to break and foam, subside and begin to swell anew.  I don’t know exactly why whales sing but I bet their songs express in some cetacean way their experience living in the ocean, and that, whether your bias is against anthropomorphism or anthropodenial, must be considered beautiful and a cultural sharing of their lives with their kin.

My next post, I think, will be a longer one about a debate among biologists about beauty and evolution.  Listen carefully while you travel on.

self or no self–that is a question

I learned a new word this week: autonoetic.  It means something like the ability to place one’s self in the scene or narrative or situation as part of episodic memory, i.e., memory for one’s own life experiences.  Research shows that we can remember our autobiography through two perspectives, 1stperson (we see the experience through our own eyes) or 3rd  (we see the ourselves in the experience like a movie).  Seems important.

One of the pleasures of reading widely is coming to understand different approaches to the same phenomena, and learning this word has brought some of these issues to the front of my mind.  In my thinking here and in my book (forthcoming someday) I consider that what we call the self arises from two basic mental functions.  The first is a sense of agency—we do and we know that it is us doing; the second is our sense of autobiographical experience, what Endel Tulving called episodic memory (as distinct from semantic and procedural memories).  So I guess that one’s self is some integrated, amalgamated hodgepodge of those, and a human hodgepodge is one that grows out of social connection into an identity, i.e., a self that operates through its social roles.

I read a book a good while ago now by the great Antonio Damasio, Self Comes to Mind, in which he self-corrects his own previous thinking; to wit, he had thought that the neuropsychological construct of a self was not needed or justified but as he studied the brain some more, he came to understand that we did have a self.  It is a good book and he knows brain science as few in the world do.  Now more recently I read what is described as a landmark book, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experienceby Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch, wherein they endeavor to bring together the twin strands of cognitive psychology and Buddhism.  Their basis for doing so is the challenge that what we call the self is quite illusionary.  They state this claim explicitly:  “all of the reflective traditions in human history—philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, religion, meditation—have challenged the naïve sense of self.  No tradition has ever claimed to discover an independent, fixed, or unitary self”

They go on to quote David Hume:  “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure.  I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never observe anything but the perception.”  Varela, Thompson and Rosch maintain that this “insight directly contradicts our ongoing sense of self,” and that this comports with the long and thoughtful tradition in Buddhism that the self is an illusion.  This is also consistent with some Hindu traditions, e.g., the Yoga Sutra attributed to Patanjali from around the second century BCE.  The realization through meditation and other practices that one’s self is an illusion would seem a step towards enlightenment.

Alas, I am going to walk on another path for a moment, postponing my meditative quest for enlightenment a short while.   I learned my new word, ‘autonoetic,’ reading a 2011 article by Robyn Fivush, “The Development of Autobiographical Memory.”  In an excellent, well thought out paper, Dr. Fivush lays out the conceptual prerequisites for autobiographical memory and its importance to our human sort of mind.  The first prerequisite is autonoesis, the subjective sense of self who experiences events and the second is the personal narrative of action that includes the thoughts and feelings while experiencing these events.  Now you can shift perspective and call this self an illusion, but I think that even such an illusion is still a biological function.  Fivush thinks autobiographical memory is “uniquely human” and that I doubt. Remember, if you will, my post from 4/8/16, “de Waal Admits Tickling Chimpanzees”, on Frans Van der Waal’s observation of a bonobo who inadvertently bit off the finger of a favorite handler and who quite clearly expressed his dismay for doing so, even some years later when the handler returned from another job to visit, that same bonobo tried to see the injured hand and seemed to re-experience the distress over its actions. Fivush also says autobiographical memory depends upon one’s social-cultural group and cites research showing the influence of maternal reminiscing style on how we create a “story of how one’s self became who one is”.

So autobiographical memory as developing from autonoesis and narrative coherence seems a pretty solid notion.  Let me wander a bit further here and consider some of its implications in dreaming, Dissociative Identity Disorder, dementia and novelists.  Of course I will end with a reference to Susanne Langer and return to the question of self or no self.

So, we form our episodic memories incidentally for the most part and that means when we recall them later, we reconstruct the episode according to current circumstances and purpose.  We often dream some of these memories elicited from episodic memory, the information transformed into dream material.  I think many dreams include a sense of self, an autonoetic perspective.  Of course some dreams derive from the self’s current state, like when I dream of water sloshing over the road or the gunwales of my boat and wake up to a very full bladder. My point here is that while maybe in dreams your self is not imaged from a 3rdperson perspective (though I believe some few dream this way a good deal), your autonoesis is still operating.

My dissertation research was with a person with what is now called Dissociative Identity Disorder.  At that time the diagnosis of Multiple Personality Disorder was gaining validity. For example, research showed different somatic, e.g., autonomic, responses for different personalities.  Alters (alternate identity or personality) manifest in various ways, e.g., some know about others, some don’t, some know about the soma’s entire life, some remember only fractured episodes, etc.  So each alter has some autonoesis operating in a selective manner.  A person with dissociative identity disorder actually does seem able to look inside and find a self (actually more than one, the contrast perhaps making the apprehension possible) contrary to Hume’s assertion. My dissertation showed that one person’s child alter did indeed use childlike language and that as she grew up as a part of therapy to help the different alters integrate back into one, her language advanced along developmental lines.

I have written in the past about people with dementia and how resilient their musical memories are (see post 8/27/14).  Therapy using ipods with playlists of songs from their youth helps them remember more clearly.  They remember the music and often they can remember other episodes, other people and even sometimes, who they themselves are.  Think about autonoesis here.  The remembered music is a kind of abstracted episode or retained through an important emotional connection; they may not remember who they are but they remember the tune, often tinged with personal experience.  They remember other stories and people, e.g., even their children sometimes, as a direct function of autonoesis.  And they may remember their own identity, the “I” in autonoesis.  If unfamiliar, check out an incredible documentary about Glen Campbell who suffered from severe dementia in his last years but continued to perform even though he could remember little of his life, had difficulty remembering his children, hardly knew his own name, but he could still play the guitar (procedural memory) and sing the songs (semantic memory, I guess) with emotion.

Consider as well how novelists seem to be able to use autonoesis to create characters. Good writers say that characters, once formed, can take on a life of their own and even contribute to the creation of the story.  This is maybe not autonoesis involving episodic autobiographical memory but rather is drawing upon semantic memory and imaginative construction in an autonoetic manner.  Still, reading Catcher in the Ryeor David Copperfieldor Notes from the Underground, which all start with first person narratives, you know that one large part of the novelist’s skill is using autonoesis to create character and story.

Regular readers here know that Susanne Langer posited that art, i.e., presentational symbols, is created from the artist’s experience.  The art symbol conveys import abstracted from the person’s life that is too complex to be rendered in the linear discursive symbolic expression of language.  Art, even novels that use words, conveys this import through some complex, abstracted form of myriad elements, whether these are visual, auditory, movement, verbal, constructive, etc.  Given that, I think any artist must use their autonoetic sense to wander the landscape of their life and map out that essential terrain that will represent the inspired apprehension of some features of vital experience.  The artist’s self would seem, then, an essential tool of their craft.

Maybe, as Varela, Thompson and Rosch assert along with David Hume and deep Buddhist traditions, the self is an illusion.  I am sure that at one level the self is a construct that facilitates awareness and analysis of one’s being in context.  I am curious, though, about a mystic sense wherein we find the discrimination between subjective and objective lacking, e.g., we are one with the world, and find that the self is an illusion of our engagement in samsara.  After reading The Embodied MindI have delved into some Eastern texts, e.g., The Yoga Sutra among others, and begun listening to a Great Courses lecture series by Dr. Grant Hardy, “The Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition”.  (A great series, by the bye—his knowledge and enthusiasm are delightful).  Our Western intellectual tradition is a good one. One of humanity’s virtues is that we have more than one good intellectual tradition and I am finding, like many other Westerners before me, that the Eastern tradition is both very different and very valuable in what it offers both in knowledge and wisdom.  So, let us travel on to new roads and learn more about our humanity.

An insomniac’s reverie

Nights can be full of adventure for an insomniac living in the country. I recently connected some dots on a side trip from my main journey, thinking about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin for the first time in a while, Dissanayake’s book Homo Aestheticus which I reflect on periodically, and Monod’s Chance and Necessity, which is a daily meditation. When I finally did fall asleep I descended through a lovely vision of Gaia covered with artistic impulses flashing, some darkly and some lightly, strongly sensed by some of us here on earth, perhaps hardly seen from a distance into space. Art has migrated from its inception around communal fires, deep in caves and ‘making special’ many activities and objects (thank you, Ms. Dissanayake for documenting the ubiquity and importance of art) to illuminating the noosphere with its luminous light.

Remember that colorful priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who helped discover Peking Man and whom the Vatican prohibited from writing and teaching philosophy? (See post 12/17/16). He developed a conception of Gaia as first a geosphere, the dynamic rocky planet earth, then a biosphere as life evolved and spread over our planet, transforming it into Gaia, and then the noosphere, where human knowledge analogously covers the planet. Some say his vision contained the world wide web in its view, but at the least he thought that we humans would continuously connect and those connections would self-organize into a more inclusive society. (Never mind about his theory about we are evolving to join with the divine at the Omega point. I don’t think that he would have thought that if he had known about how civilization would foment the conflicts and wars over the last 70 years or the degradation of American politics today).

Monod propounded a brilliant version of the biosphere when he wrote about “an intuitive global picture of living systems whose phenomenal complexity defies assimilation”. Consider the variety and spread of life here from single cell organisms on up through multi-celled ones including us: the soil on our farm is full of microbial fertility (as are we—check your biome), many of our trees are herd creatures needing conspecifics nearby for vital resiliency (see The Secret Life of Trees), fungi inhabit the earth’s surface in a astonishing net of somas and spores, etc. Consider the number of cellular generations over the past 4+ billion years and Monod’s idea “of the extent of the vast reservoir of fortuitous variability contained with the genome of a species—again in spite of the jealously guarded conservative properties of the replicative mechanism” when he estimates for modern humans with a 1970 population of then some 3 billion “there occur, with each new generation, some hundred billion to a thousand billion mutations.” Wow, that is some ‘reservoir’ of chance and necessity that supplies our evolution.

No wonder, then, that he can say, “What doubt can there be of the presence of the 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.” I will only add the comment that Monod here fulfills Chris Hitchens’ dream (before he even had it—see post 11/17/14) of bringing the noumenal out of the supernatural realm into the natural one. If it exists, it is natural; if it is not natural, it does not exist except in our imagination, which of course is natural.

Now remember an image of all the lights we have on earth at night as seen from space, you know, the maps showing cities as bright blotches, rural areas as darker, and North Korea as unilluminated. Now consider that every organism, small and large, comprises many energetic transactions in the course of its life, each a chemical spark of vitality brightening its drops of water, and you can glimpse how Gaia glows in the cosmos, our precious blue ball hurtling through space. Finally imagine all the human endeavors creating art that make the noosphere glow with a luminous aesthetic as we share our complex vital experiences of life’s opportunities and hard exigencies. You might ken then an old farmer-philosopher’s insomniac reverie while watching the land on a snowy spring night.

Book review: The telltale brain

Book review: The Telltale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human by V. S. Ramachandran

This book has a lot to recommend it. I don’t have much time or energy right now but wanted to get something new posted before I slip out of harness here for awhile. Ramachandran is a scientist-practitioner of the highest order, both treating patients with neurological problems and running experiments both to improve treatment and to understand the mind better, so he has a wealth of experience, knowledge and insights into the mind.

He uses clinical anecdotes to illustrate neurological conundrums and he then considers some hypotheses for their explanation.   If he can test these, he does. If they help with treatment, even better. For example, he discusses the possible mechanism for phantom limb. When a limb is amputated the patient often feels like it is still there and some even feel excruciating pain in that limb. How do you treat physical pain that arises from an illusion? Ramachandran and colleagues tried using mirrors to present an image of the missing limb based upon the other intact one and this visual feedback facilitated the brain learning that the limb is actually gone and the pain also disappears. They then extended MVF (mirror visual feedback) to treat other conditions. Ramachandran goes on to discuss many examples of various syndromes as a way of elucidating brain structure and function. This is creative clinical neuroscience at its best.

Most significantly for me, he discusses not just mirror neurons but mirror systems and finds that they probably play a role in many domains from motor skills to empathy to culture. (Now you see why I like this book?) Even better he is one of the few to include the concept of symbols in his theorizing about language and art and to identify neural systems for meaning. For example, the visual system processes ‘seeing where’ and ‘knowing what’ is seen through different subsystems, and humans have an additional ‘so what’ circuit for processing its significance. And two chapters on art is two more than most have.

I did find, given my particular perspective, some exasperating passages. He says in an aside at one point that it is possible to overdo the concept of an “embodied mind”—I would like to know how. Of course he uses the term ‘hard-wired’ as a stand-in for the complicated structuring of neurochemical connections but I am not going to quibble much about that. I found his use of the term ‘semantic’ at times errant. He does not seem to have much sense of deep vs surface structure or that syntax is how we transform meaning to phonemic strings and back again. I also think he misunderstands Chomsky’s notion of a grammar as a biological phenomenon, but I do not know to what context he is referring when he asserts such things, so I do not want to be too picky about linguistics here when he has so much to offer.  I was not surprised that he does not mention Langer’s distinction between presentational symbols carrying import and discursive ones carrying meaning.

At the end though he gives a brief hint that art comes about maybe through the connection of ‘doing’ circuits with ‘feeling’ ones, i.e., of motor habits with intimacy, and that I will take as some affirmation of my thinking here. Anyway, try this book out if you want to see a detailed explication about the biological roots of our humanity and travel on.