Return to the MEMBRAIN

I have not posted much about the MEMBRAIN since 2017 (see post 11/24/17, also 8/27/14 & 4/7/14), but I have been thinking about it and recent readings have fed that line of thought.  In brief, the MEMBRAIN comprises those parts of our brain and soma that establishes the mind within and the world without as it connects us socially and mentally (in this empathy is both basic and powerful) to our conspecifics (and other animals and other worldly features, more on that later).  It is a rather grand development along our evolutionary path.  Remember life on Earth appeared some 3.7 billion years ago when chemical metabolism established a membrane protecting the self-organizing and self-replicating processes within and controlling interaction with the environment, i.e., Varela’s autopoietic form (see post 8/22/18).  This resulted in the basic soma, i.e., the body each life form develops for its span.  Somas evolved to become more complex until brains appeared to promote the somatic vitality given the more complex needs and gain increasingly powerful ways of exploiting environmental opportunities.  Somas and their brains then evolved in various ways until sexual reproduction initiated new phases of genetic streaming and of conspecific relations, say around 1.2 billion years ago.


Genetic watersheds of SWP (solving world problems) and CR (conspecific relations)

As luck would have it, conspecifics became so important a feature of the animal’s umvelt, that the brain, that heretofore had concerned itself with its own somatic vitality, began to deal with the vitality of its conspecifics, i.e., the vitality of other somas not its own.  This was a momentous development as brains evolved to carry out this challenge as exemplified most powerfully in mammals who appeared around 315 million years ago. (I have posted several times on the felicity of our mammalian heritage—see posts 11/12/16 & 11/8/19).  As the interaction with conspecifics mounted in importance, brains evolved to include MEMBRAINs (as I have called them) and this entailed a new development in the evolution of minds.  The increasing transactions with others pressured the evolution of social relations obviously, and in a bit of a paradox, the evolution of mental functions supporting subjective awareness.  This is where my notion of the MEMBRAIN of the mind comes into play.

The MEMBRAIN gates (or doesn’t) information or parcels of experience specifically drawn from the social/mental realms.  For example, our visual system has a large proportion of cells dedicated primarily to facial recognition, e.g., conspecific information gated in, and further, such processing is basic and preliminary to reading the other’s emotional states, i.e., their internal musings.  Another example, this time of gating an experiential parcel out, is our kinesic expression of our own emotional states through facial expression, tone of voice, posturing, etc.  Of course our language is a remarkable feature of MEMBRAIN functioning, passing info in and out (or not if the we do not know that language–the channel then does not exist).


The MEMBRAIN does what every membrane does, pass material in and out, and keep material in and out

As I read books, etc., that touch upon the MEMBRAIN, I find some who mention how the brain functions as a membrane controlling flow in and out; after all, those are basic to any organism, taking needed nutrients in and passing out wastes.  I have not seen much about keeping material in or keeping it out, but that too is a membrane function—it will only pass through items that fit through its channels and will decidedly reject , for example, toxins from without and certain parcels from within that can range from lower level processing, e.g., we would not want our protoplasm leaking out and we do not express or pass out gut functions or the initial phases of intuitive constructions which are not available to consciousness or say, socially embarrassing secrets.  A more esoteric example is information that conflicts with our beliefs or personality structure.  An example here is that some people hear information indicative of a leader’s corruption but it does not enter into their minds as such.  It is kept out through some MEMBRAIN function which only gates distorted parcels (kinda like a word from a foreign language that sounds like one of our own–we think we understand when we do not) that I do not well understand as of yet.

While many understand that our ubiquitous linguistic functions support the MEMBRAIN, both to communicate with our conspecifics and to organize our interior experience, fewer understand that art likewise supports the MEMBRAIN.  Clearly art fulfills a social function, but it also helps to organize our mental domains by structuring intuitive processes in the service of developing creative and communicable renderings of our vital experience.  Susanne Langer’s thoughts are important here.  First, art forms are a high form of nervous response, i.e., they are abstracted from experiential felt material.  These abstractions are created in virtual domains; their communication depends upon these same domains being present in both artist and audience.  The MEMBRAIN channels must function in quite a sophisticated manner in order to communicate such complex information about our vital experience.  Further, she details in Feeling and Form  the demands each art genre, e.g., music, dance, painting, sculpture, poetry, cinema, etc., places on our virtual capabilities.

Now I am reading Evan Thompson’s Mind in Life in which he discusses the basis of life forms and how mind is in fact a natural outcome of life’s evolution—a very good book so far with the promise to get even better.  He, like others such as Susan Oyama (see post 2/22/19), is critical of the gene-centric view generally received from the Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and cohort.  Thompson says that their usual metaphor of genes providing coded instructions for an organism has been shown to be inept; too much data shows that genes are only a part of developmental system and that they do not play any privileged role apart from the organism as a whole and its complete ambient, i.e., Oyama’s developmental system.  A better metaphor, says Thompson, “for development than ‘following coded instructions’ is ‘laying down a path in walking’.  This metaphor implies that there is no separation between plan and executed action.  It also evokes the similarity between organic self-organization and human creativity discussed by Kant.”

Remember how an artist composes through feeling the future, as I have put it (see posts 5/15/15 & this year’s series on art as spandrel).  This is especially apparent in music, where even the listener feels the flow into the future.  Art results from a series of steps creating contingencies that render a vital form.  Unlike discursive thought, such as any mathematical theory of science, which if lost could be re-discovered because that is inherent in its relation to the world, art if lost is lost—it cannot be recreated because of its contingent nature with the chaos of life and world.

Thompson following his work with Francisco Varela and Eleanor Rausch in The Embodied Mind explicates the basis of life.  It is an autopoietic (a new and important word) system whose inherent purpose is two-fold, identity (self-production and this entails closure from the without) and sense-making for adaptivity and cognition.  “This twofold purposiveness turns an indifferent physicochemical world into an environment of biological significance.”  The implications of this formulation are extensive, and I will have more to say of them another time.

But back to the MEMBRAIN and what Kant discussed, the “similarity” between organic self-organization, aka autopoietic system, and human creativity.  Any organism is self-organizing which is sustained through metabolic activity with the inherent purposes of identity and sense-making.  It is self-contained, its parts are subsidiary to the whole, and it interacts with its environment in specific ways.  (Remember Acquinas’ 3 aspects of aesthetic beauty:  unitas, claritas, and luminas—see post 6/19/17.)  This is the essential idea of life, as we understand it.  So our MEMBRAINs take in art forms, gathering this import, and artists of any and all sorts construct art works that they can express through MEMBRAIN channels.  If art renders the import abstracted from vital experience, and autopoiesis is the basis of that vitality, then any conceptualization of aesthetics must include such in its account.  Whether we study art as a biological activity (see post 2/9/19!) or as a critical effort to assess its aesthetics, we need to understand how an artwork is a whole, how its parts come together (and these two are essentially an extension of gestalt studies), and how that form ‘shines’, as it were, or how it has rendered intuitively that spark of life such that others can feel the vitality therein.  As Susanne Langer taught us, art is a high intellectual activity whereby we deal in vital experience.  Empathy and symbolization are the two great channels of our MEMBRAINs—that is the easy part, but what lies within that powers such intuitive creative constructions? Travel on.



Where is the self that composes artworks?

Part 6: Conclusion of ‘Is art a spandrel?’

Returning to the two challenges of art, the social regulation of individual’s symbolic fecundity and the extension of trust so that delicate musings could safely be shared beyond one’s intimate circle, we find another feature of art making that is critically important to the modern mind.  Look again, if you can, at the early painting of a bison found in the Altamira cave in Spain and dated to around 36,000 BCE.  When first discovered by Marcelino Saenz de Sautuola and his daughter, he and a colleague dated the paintings to the Paleolithic era.  This initially met with great skepticism, the critics saying the paintings were too skilled for cave men, but subsequent chemical analysis has confirmed the Paleolithic origins.  It is the skill, however, that indicates the artist’s aesthetic touch.  The figure is stylized, albeit relatively realistic, and the lines composing it flow with energy.  This is clearly a work of art, i.e., a rendering not of what the artist sees but of the feeling engendered with the vision.  As Picasso said, “Painting is a blind man’s profession.  He paints not what he sees, but what he feels, what he tells himself about what he has seen” (55).  Langer emphasizes the intellectual nature of art, saying that the subject of any artwork is not an object and not even the feeling about the object but the idea of the feeling.

How is it we look at the Altamira paintings, or any paintings for that matter, or at any artwork and note the skill in its rendering?  How is it we examine any object and apprehend its aesthetic value manifested through such skill?  The answer lies, in part, in the perceptual process forming a gestalt, a whole figure whose parts fit together coherently.  We humans, and most likely other animals as well—we just don’t know this yet– find or create patterns out of almost anything, landscapes, stars, shadows, the grain in wood, a narrative, etc.  This pattern finding can become unregulated so that patterns can be found and given a significance they do not actually merit.  We see this in some forms of mental illness, e.g., John Nash’s paranoid schizophrenia in the film A Beautiful Mind, and in conspiracy theories.  One feature of Asperger’s syndrome can be an extreme talent for finding, creating and remembering patterns; in autism the pattern finding can focus obsessively on meaningless patterns.  The doctor who originally observed the syndrome that received his name, Hans Asperger, thought that this patterning ability was heightened as certain social skills reliant on empathy were lessened (67).  He further thought that this patterning was a normal trait or ability and that success in some scientific, e.g., astronomy, and artistic, e.g., painting, fields depends upon its robustness albeit within limits.

Be that as it may our ability to pattern and to complete gestalts based upon minimal information is remarkable, especially our ability to recognized faces and their expressions. The important feature here is that some patterns are felt to be ‘fit’ and some ‘askew’.  Consider language and its grammar.  Chomsky’s famous example, “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” illustrates how even a semantically void sentence can be syntactically ‘fit’, i.e., it obeys the rules for such a pattern.  Musical and visual patterns may not have a generative or prescriptive grammar, but they are felt to be ‘fit’ or ‘unfit’—some sort of ‘grammar’ must govern their composition.  (Of course modern art has advanced at times by violating that governance, e.g., cubists and other movements).

This sense of aesthetic fitness, then, operates in both the composition and appreciation of art forms.  This is a subtle feature of our minds but important nonetheless.  Going even further, as our intellectual abilities have developed and our cultural landscapes have come to include mathematical patterns and theoretical entities, our sense of aesthetic fitness has been extended to equations and theories.  Consider Paul Dirac’s equations that he developed based upon feeling that they were beautiful and later contributed to the foundation of quantum physics and predicted the existence of anti-matter (31).  (Descriptions of his character and behavior strongly suggest that his patterning ability and social skills were quite Asperger-like).

My contention here is that the aesthetic sense that governs the beautiful Altamira paintings also contributes to other arts and to the mental construction of mathematical formulas and other formal ideas.  The skill involved in any such composition is one whereby the person follows the intuitive form governing the whole, fills in the elements so that they fit together coherently, and so presents or embodies the felt idea in an illuminating manner.  Is this ability an evolutionary spandrel?  Perhaps a prior question should be posed before answering:  is this even a biological ability or performance, and if so, how may we approach understanding it scientifically and philosophically?

That it must be biological seems to me a logical necessity.  Some might argue that it is cultural, but that is also a biological phenomenon.  Some might assert that it is not a universal feature of our species but all humans and our known ancestors back a half million years ago appear to have developed some culture including art as best we can determine, and besides other species also share features of cultural life, even bacteria (11).  We cannot ignore the role of our aesthetic sense in phenomena ranging from appreciation of nature’s beauty through artistic production and appreciation to the esoteric beauty of abstract creations and hope to understand the intuitive contributions to conscious mentality and mind in general.  While this seems obvious, many set limits on its admissibility to legitimate examination and discourse.  It seems all too apparent that eventually we shall have to examine in a more rigorous and detailed manner the nature of art.  Thus I ask if art is an evolutionary spandrel.

Art may be an evolutionary spandrel.  Like the redness of blood is a spandrel resulting from iron-based hemoglobin, art may be a spandrel of our symbolic capacity that in essence is our linguistic ability.  If a spandrel, what are the evolutionary pillars in addition to language’s symbolic capability that support the human mind but frame art as an incidental result?  One would certainly be our proclivity for patterning the world; we see patterns virtually everywhere, even the welter of stars at night, and our abilities at gestalt formation facilitate object recognition based upon very incomplete and novel input.  Another would be our remarkable empathy and capacity for mirroring that promotes the development of long-term bonds and intimacy amid the ongoing attunement to another’s mind.  Still another would be our autonoetic self derived from episodic memory that leads to our efforts to compose a narrative that forms the pattern of our life. Any and all of these and more may have joined in a confluence some 40-80,000 years ago as a broader human culture began to develop.

Of course my position is that art is not an evolutionary spandrel but is, instead, a central pillar of the human mind that enables the accordance of our individual subjectivities beyond the utilitarian use of our symbolic capabilities and that constitutes a basis for our ever widening social groups.  Our mental ability to feel and explore the mind‘s own creations amid the self’s experience is critical to the shape of our intellect, our sharing of otherwise private forms, and our social identity.  Art is done by the subject about the self, i.e., Dissayanake’s ‘making special’, or by the subject about the self’s experience, i.e., ‘making sense’ of life through the fine arts.  I draw a gradual distinction between Bourdieu’s habitus, that collection of shared habits of how to do things that evolved along the lines that Tomasello described, and deeper culture, that less utilitarian and harder to define symbolic world that composes our cultural identity and provides rationales of varying sorts for explaining the origins, finalities, natural phenomena, exigencies, possibilities, etc., needed to support the shared world view among different individuals, each of us with a creative and curious mind bounded by one’s perspective of life, and compose a group.  Art enables us to share a dream world created communally.  Art serves the creation, conservation and progression of cultural forms, providing both the landmarks or anchors for the cultural landscape and a means for advancing new ideas for consideration.  Art, then, is another way our intellect helps us carry on with life’s mandate, i.e., to share in ameliorating life’s exigencies and exploiting possibilities, given our apprehension of life’s limits and its difficulties, e.g., fall from grace or opening Pandora’s box, and our wish to control and find a some order even if not rational in an irrational universe.  To do this together would seem to be not a spandrel, but a basic and essential feature of our biological life as Homo sapiens sapiens.


Part 5: Is art a spandrel?

Art works composed about experience also played a more subtle role in this extension of trust.  Within the family intimate communication could be more freely expressed than without.  This includes sharing of hopes and frustrations, loves and hates, and the wise lore gathered by the elders about life, its necessities and possibilities.  Not all lessons of vital experience are simply expressed through words, even in narratives that verge upon the parable or mythic.  Humans eventually developed the impulse to express the inchoate deeply felt subjective musings on one’s experience, akin to what the Japanese call ‘aware’ or the fleeting nature of life symbolized by the cherry blossoms or to ‘yugen’, the experience of profound feelings.  These are difficult to express for two reasons.  First, these are highly personal and intimate ideas.  One may find a way to express them to someone close but to share them beyond the circle of intimacy is a challenge of a different order.  Secondly, with the development of art not as an expression by the self about the self but as an expression by the self about one’s experience came a new possibility.  The person who made art took on a role different from other pragmatic, practical considerations, and their art work, though based upon personal experience, now conveyed the idea of felt experience in a less personal, more objective way, a way not didactic or organizational or efficacious but, if the artist was both skilled in rendering his ideas in an artistic medium and in composing the art symbol in a culturally competent way, was more a form luminous with being, that luminosity deriving from the internal compositional process interacting with the moment of social and cultural receptivity.  (Consider the modern version of what music becomes a ‘hit’ and what becomes a classic).  Art then became the way one expressed intimate ideas to a wider audience, and this contributed to the creation of powerful subjectively based landmarks that many took on trust, i.e., the artistic or presentational symbol, in the cultural field.

Returning to the first challenge, the cultural field helped to channel symbolic creativity into traditional forms and thereby to constrain the possibilities of untoward creations.  Art in this regard is both a conservative anchor and a dynamic agent of change.  The critical feature here, though, is how these cultural forms and art works in particular operate to promote both behavioral and subjective synchronicity.  Consider first the early arts of dance and music.  Langer called these occurent because they occur in time and then may pass into memory; I would prefer to call them performative, focusing on our active participation in their enactment.  Dance and music were and are participatory in inception and nature.  Their power or virtue, as it were, come from the behavioral and subjective synchronicity they engender in the participants; this is also the power of ritual, which is partially a derivative of these art forms.  Their vitality as art works comes from the participants’ experience of moving forward in time.  Indeed, this is their hallmark where past movements or notes guide not just what comes next but what may come next i.e., some developments feel fit or grammatical while others do not feel fit.  (I will neglect here the modern attraction to cacophonic or awkward forms.).  Dancing and music making, then, when done properly involves ‘feeling the future’.  The participants are flowing or moving in time synchronically.  They share a moment when time flows from the future into the past—that is their communal experience of virtual, vital time.

As humans developed their symbolic capabilities and our umvelt grew to include so many subjective forms created independently of autonoetic experience, we needed new ways to gain accordance in these culturally shared mental compositions.   The evolution of our mental life as it became transformed through our symbolic capabilities posed this challenge:  “What was the other one thinking about when they said or did that?”, because our topics became increasingly less about the concrete immediacy and increasingly more about our virtual abstractions displaced from any current time and place.  We became distracted by what was going on within and so needed new means for organizing our communal minds without.  One key in meeting that challenge was to develop the means for synchronizing our mental processes according to some temporal parameters, whatever they might be.  One way language does is this through tense and mood markers.  As described above, dancing and music synchronize our somatic experiences moving in time.

As our symbolic abilities developed along imaginal lines, thus embracing what came to be experienced as fantasy, mythic, spiritual, religious or something that I will term the ‘mystic realm within and beyond any one consciousness’, our deep culture then included compositions from/of a shared dream world.  Here temporal parameters became elusive yet still necessary if we are all to share in the dream. This may not seem such a challenge to modern minds because we are encultured almost from conception on with stalwart cultural forms that have steadily evolved over 10,000 years and stood explicitly on empirical footing for over 400, and because time for us means well understood natural rhythms and more importantly, what a clock ‘measures’.  As Susanne Langer noted, a clock is metaphysically suspect; what we call time by the clock is actually codified passage that we internalize as a gauge for our utilitarian actions.  Before the ascendance of large-scale civic governance, science and temporal regulation, however, humans experienced life in a less prescripted manner.  The world and time were multi-dimensional and those dimensions varied along cultural lines.  Art provided an important way society could organize and regulate individuals’ imaginary creations into a cultural landscape, i.e., we all shared a dream world, and came to provide the means by which such imaginal forms were kept in mind and memory, i.e., art forms reinforced past orthodox compositions, for the current generation and transmission to the next.

Here we come to the other category of artwork described by Langer.  The first as described above is the performative; the second she called the plastic because they were constructed of material, e.g., paint, stone, etc.  I want to refer to these as ‘artifactual’ because they exist stably in time for anyone’s leisurely examination, in contrast to performative arts that advance and depart without a trace except in memory.  The artifactual arts constitute ongoing reminders of experience both individual and cultural; they help keep past compositions alive in the present.  Consider the earliest known paintings and sculptures found in caves and dating from around 35,000 years ago.  These are representations of powerful animals, e.g., bison, mammoths, etc. and images of humans—the earliest are the silhouettes of hands, rough pictures of humans come a bit later.  The artists clearly wanted to keep the experiences with these animals present in the minds of others, whatever any other motives operated for their production, such as spiritual or religious or magical purposes.

As the cultural landscape was filled in, i.e., the shared imaginary forms came to compose an ongoing tradition, these early artifactual artworks, and to some unknown degree performative art as well, began to serve religious purposes and our cultural world became populated with gods and other mystical forces.  When oral narratives extended this tradition through myth building, art became increasingly a means to reinforce the understanding of the gods and their stories, to make concrete and immediate what was extant only in the minds of the people, and to anchor these conceptions in the history of the group.  This purposiveness, i.e., to keep virtual ideas extant, conserved, and socially/psychologically salient, continued and grew in ancient to modern times.  Walk through almost any art or archeological museum or religious building and marvel at how much of the art work before the Renaissance was given over to religious imagery.  For the Christian tradition consider how the surfeit of madonna-babe pictures and of crucifixion pictures served to reinforce and extend key narratives that played an important part in the religious milieu consequent events such as the Inquisition and Jewish pogroms as well as holidays such as Christmas and Easter.  Other traditions, e.g., Islam, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., have similar art-narrative interactions.

From this perspective, then, the early Paleolithic art laid the groundwork, alongside the utilitarian habitus of tool-making, cooperation, and social regulation, for the cultural growth based upon the shared subjective structures of deep culture.  As an aside, the hand silhouettes would seem to be an early manifestation of art as making special, i.e., the subject making art about the self, while the paintings and sculptures of animals would be a manifestation of what we today call the fine arts, i.e., the subject making art about the self’s experience.  Again, art, including mythic narrative and drama as well as artifactual artwork, enabled the sharing of material information that would otherwise be lost in time.  Art rendered the elusive and ephemeral experiences in accessible form.  It continues to do so today, though no longer constrained by religious orthodoxy.

Returning to the two challenges of art, the social regulation of individual’s symbolic fecundity and the extension of trust so that delicate musings could safely be shared beyond one’s intimate circle, we find another feature of art making that is critically important to the modern mind.

Last part coming up next.

Part 3: Is art a spandrel?

This post follows directly from the last:

We can now approach the question, ‘Is art an evolutionary spandrel?’ from a quite different direction.  Art as a symbolic form is a complex intellectual function.  While it may seem to lack the everyday utility of linguistic abstractions, forms, and communication, it nonetheless is an abstraction based upon vital felt experience and serves some communicative and cultural functions.  While it may seem to serve the signaling function seen in other species, e.g., bird displays both in plumage and behavior like songs and nests, its symbolic nature distinguishes it as a human endeavor.  Like any feature of Homo sapiens, it has precursors and derives from earlier adaptations, but it is clearly more complicated that what is evident in the rest of the animal kingdom.  Art may still be considered an evolutionary spandrel, though if so, it seems a very special one, one that contributes importantly to human culture and life.

Ellen Dissayanake in her book Homo Aestheticus (23) documents the ubiquity of art in various cultures and everyday life.  Art, she asserts, is “making special,” analogous to the display and signal behaviors of other animals, e.g., a workman adds individual touches to his tools, a family decorates their home in their particular way and style, a worker sings a song with an individual voice, even a dancer carries on a traditional dance with distinctive flair.  In this view, the inception of art both historically and today lies in each individual’s vision of who they are in relation to the rest of the group.  The more institutionalized art of recent times, such as religious art, concert music where the audience does not participate in the making, and more modern styles are, in her analysis, an extension of our impulse to “make special” shaped by (perhaps even perverted by) commodification for institutional and commercial purposes.  Dissayanake makes the puzzling assertion that art, so conceived, is not symbolic.  I can only make sense of this by understanding her to mean art does not partake of mythic or psychological, e.g., Freudian or Jungian archetypes or symbolification (what might be called cultural or secondary symbol-making) but this overlooks the prior and more basic neuropsychological stage that a symbol stands for something else, an idea generally accepted since C. S. Pierce propounded his theory of semiotics (59) and forward into modern thought with Ernst Cassirer’s (one of Langer’s mentors) great work on symbols.

That art is, however, ubiquitous across cultures in everyday life and not just in ‘fine art’ so conceived is important because it points to its importance in the human world.  Art is not just a signal in the mating game nor even just a cultural marker of social cohesion. It is not just seasonal nor tied to institutionalized structures.  Rather, art is a distinctive feature of and contribution to the human world.  It is a feature of our umvelt as conceptualized in the 1900s by Jacob von Uexkull.  He and others understood that each species, even though they share the same environment, lives in a different world by virtue of their different perceptual and motoric capabilities with their distinctive needs and that these then yield biological meaning, i.e., not machine information, in hedonic and motivational terms associated with worldly features.  The umvelt has historically been conceived as the organism’s interpretation of the world around, but somewhere along our evolutionary path (and no doubt the paths of other species as well including other primates and cetaceans) the world around became subsidiary to the world within.  The umvelt of Homo sapiens includes much that is not objectively, i.e., perceptually, available to other human individuals now or ever.

However this developed over the course of our evolution, a key feature of our success as intellectual creatures has been our symbolic capacity to control and contribute such information to our umvelt.  Reading Langer one comes to realize that even a relatively simple sensory act, i.e., response of sensory organ to stimulus impingement, is one controlled by the organism.  She cites a 1914 lecture by a German scientist Wilhelm Ostwald arguing this point, that the organism expends much more energy acting on the stimulation than the stimulus itself brings, and further, she reports that the great Karl Lashley in 1942 postulated that both perception and motoric action were “superimposed” (a problematic conceptualization—imposed from above?  Where is that?  Agency arises and mobilizes from within) upon the ongoing neural activity.  This autonomous vitality is a key feature of life that has been and is all too often relegated to the less scientific realm of discourse, yet it is the stuff of life itself.  Langer’s great insight is to understand that symbolization is ‘simply’ another way neural activity organizes itself, sometimes in response to ambient conditions but oftentimes only in response to the ongoing matrix of autonomous neural actions and embodiment.  It is in this way, then, that symbolization facilitates the composition and ordering of mental actions so that they are available for conscious deliberation and social communication.

That our linguistic capabilities accomplish these twin feats, conscious deliberation and social communication, is readily understood.  Language does, after all, facilitate the rapid coordination needed for social utility, and its specifics are localized in the brain so that we have discovered much about the neural substrate, e.g., Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas, the arcuate fasciculus, etc.  The utility of art is not as obvious and its localization is not as easily found.  (This is one clue as to the nature of artistic import and how we formulate it).  The task is even more complicated by the various genres of both performative arts, e.g., dance, music, and those more artifactual ones, such as painting, sculpture, architecture, etc.  In addition, we have an aesthetic appreciation of much of the world, e.g., clouds illuminated by the sun, the colorful forms of plants and animals, the graceful movements of leopards and seals, the majesty of the night sky, etc.  Going still further into our aesthetic mind, we also appreciate the aesthetic in our own abstractions, e.g., the forms of geometry, the equations of physics such as those from Paul Dirac (31).  We recognize beauty and we produce beauty in diverse ways throughout our lives.  Spandrel or central?

My central hypothesis here is that, just as we use language to capture and communicate a segment or portion of our mental life, we use art in an analogous manner.  Langer says language functions more for objects and objective events along with our discursive considerations of such while art functions more for our felt experience.

“What discursive symbolism—language in its literal use—does for our awareness of things about us and our relation to them, the arts do for our awareness of subjective reality, feeling and emotion; they give inward experiences form and thus make them conceivable” (45: p. 71)

Art is an expressive form that lets us envisage the vital movement of our minds’ experience.  Art renders the “idea of a feeling” in a communicable form and so carries out important social functions necessary for the delineation of individual perspectives otherwise hidden in each one’s subjective realm and for the social composition of those subjective forms to be culturally shared among group members.  Art is not a spandrel so long as you hold that our cultural bonds are an important facet of our evolutionary adaptation (with the caveat that some cultural forms are maladaptive, e.g., Shakers on procreation, Mayans on human sacrifice or Atargatis priests on psychotic limits).  Art forms might be more aptly characterized as buoys mapping the cultural seascape, shifting as it does with different individuals transmuting the forms and different generations transmitting these forms according to their circumstances.  An artwork signals an individual’s particular place at a particular moment in the cultural seascape.  Seen from this perspective, understanding how art ‘works’ this way in the biological domain involves deeper understanding of the neuropsychological functions that promote both an individual’s awareness of life experience and the way sharing such an experience works socially.  Some key concepts help us frame this more clearly.

First we find Endel Tulving’s idea of autonoesis: the ability to know one’s self in relation to past, present or imaginal, e.g., future, experiences (71, 2).  This is initially dependent upon our episodic memory, i.e., our memory for autobiographical narrative.  Tulving contrasted this form of memory with semantic memory that we have for words and other abstractions.  Autonoesis is our primary means of knowing.  Jean Decety calls it the “neural default”, meaning that one’s brain first operates based upon one’s own subjective perspective (17).  Thus, developing empathy beyond the mirroring stage requires that we inhibit our particular perspectives in order to consider another’s.  Art, as conceptualized by Susanne Langer, conveys some import based on our autonoetic knowledge of our individual lived experience.  While its composition derives from such knowledge and feelings, its reception depends upon the audience’s inhibition of their own autonoesis, though identification will play some role in their appreciation, in order to grasp the artist’s import.  Thus, Aristotle in his Poetics posits that drama, and by my analogy any art, requires the willing suspension of disbelief. Or as Picasso said, “Art is the lie that helps us see the truth” (55).

Second, Lakoff and Johnson in Philosophy in the Flesh distinguish between the unitary subject of one’s autonoetic experience and the several selves that operate distinguished by and originating in one’s social roles.  This allows us to focus on the distinction between one’s own subjective sense of consciousness and how we structure that to form identities, i.e., selves, as defined by those roles, e.g., family, social or hierarchical and work relationships.  The concept of a subject, more often referred to as the self, is not yet clearly defined through neuropsychological research.  Antonio Damasio in his book, Self Comes to Mind, admits that initially he did not find the concept of a self a viable neural construct but changed his mind over his years of research (10).  While he gives a reasonable description of how the self is composed based upon evolutionary divisions of the brain, i.e., proto-self, self, and conscious self, these derive from the horizontal divisions in Paul MacLean’s tripartite brain: brainstem, midbrain or limbic system and neocortex.  To understand the unitary subject as described by Lakoff and Johnson and keeping with more recent ideas about neural systems, consider two simple functions based upon vertically integrated systems that contribute to the subject’s formation.

The first has already been mentioned, the processing of experience that results in episodic memory, the mnemonic retention especially for place, actions, objects and social others.  Explicating this system is beyond the scope of this paper, but it is already well known as the hippocampal memory circuit that stores information for comparison with new data to see what is old and new, significant and insignificant (25).  The second system is less well defined or understood, but it is the sense of agency that comprises the development of contextually relevant intentions, their motor plans, and finally the volitional energy for behavioral enactment.  These two systems, episodic or autobiographical memory and agency, lay the foundation for the subject to develop as the animal matures.  Per Lakoff and Johnson, selves then develop as social roles become established and compartmentalized.  We may think of our subjective sense of ‘I’ and awareness of our roles as conscious operations, but in fact, much more of them operate below consciousness in a realm often called the intuitive.

This brings us to a third concept of how art works because we can now understand a bit more clearly Dissayanake’s view of art as ‘making special’ and other forms of art that are less personal.  Art as making special is an action by the subject about a self’s identity.  The workman marks his tools to show his particular brand of workmanship, a dancer moves through traditional steps with his or her own special flair, i.e., a manifestation of the subjective self and identity, a person decorates their house to express their autonoetic notion of home.  However, art can also be an action by the subject expressive not of identity but about experience.  The subject then takes on the role of artist, quite different from the other utilitarian roles and identities, and composes art to make sense of some human experience.  Here the artist has inhibited, selectively to be sure, her own autonoetic identity or self to convey some otherwise inchoate experience relevant to others.  The artist uses his artistic composition to make sense of that necessarily autonoetic experience, maybe within a tradition or maybe pushing the inherited cultural boundary, that is relevant (hopefully) to others.  This art is a cultural buoy in the mapping of the group’s experience.  To quote Sperber as cited in Cosmides, Tooby and Barkow, “Cultural phenomena are ecological patterns of psychological phenomena” (2).  Art, then, becomes an expression of an individual’s subjective experience in accord with a group’s cultural patterning of their lives.  Again, so conceived, is art a spandrel or a central support?

To be sure, this view describes how art would seem to function today, but consider the human past.

Is art a spandrel?

This post starts a series of posts in which I seek to answer the question:


Is art an evolutionary spandrel?  In other words, is art some concomitant or epiphenomenon of our species’ adaptation whereby our genetic heritage changed to promote better survival, e.g., enhanced cognition and memory, and these beneficial changes carried other incidental changes that were not central to our adaptive improvement, e.g., art?  Or is art one of the enhanced abilities that contributes centrally to our fitness?  Pinker and Bloom (61) use the example of blood’s redness as a spandrel resulting from the use of iron in hemoglobin to carry oxygen.  The red has little to do with the improved oxygenation of blood cells that increased survival value.  Gould and Lewontin [cited by Pinker and Bloom (61)] borrowed the word, ‘spandrel,’ from architecture, where two arches form a corner with the ceiling, leaving a triangular space that was later filled with decorative art.  The spandrel does not contribute to the structural integrity of the building though it does allow further modification for decorative purposes.  So my question becomes, “Is art is an arch or pillar supporting human nature or an ancillary decorative feature with small implication for who we are biologically?

To be sure, I use this evolutionary question not so much in a technical sense and more as a rhetorical device to explore how we think about art, human experience, and our biological nature.  The past few decades have seen increased efforts at understanding how Homo sapiens developed a sense of aesthetics and the production and appreciation of art. Some scholars have focused on sociobiological issues. Bioaesthetics(8) yields a broad survey of recent assays from this perspective. The Origins of Music(74) focuses specifically on this genre as music does seem to be a privileged art form.  Some focus on how our brains do art.  This is especially so with music, where several books examine the neurological underpinnings of musical composition, performance and appreciation.  Fine examples are Music, Language and the Brain(58) and This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession(50).  Others have focused on other art forms.  Notable neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran suggests one hypothesis about how the brain does visual art in a chapter of The Telltale Brain(62) and incidentally asserts that art does not contribute to survival value.  Nobel laureate in medicine Eric Kandel focuses on visual art and the neurological systems involved in its initial processing in his book, The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind and the Brain, From Vienna 1900 to the Present(39). Dr. Kandel also treats the issues involved in seeking to understand art scientifically in Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures(40).

Clearly understanding human art involves many perspectives.  Archeological efforts have so far discovered artistic artifacts dating back at least 100,000 year ears ago and one claim has been made based on a design etched on a clam shell dating back 500,000 years ago.  A bone flute from Central Europe is dated to around 44,000 years ago and suspected to be the product of our cousins, the Neandertals.  Reconstruction of its presumed acoustic properties suggests that it was skillfully made with knowledge of its musical properties (75). During this Paleolithic period cave paintings, sculptures and decorative objects became more prevalent.  In a related development humans (of one sort or another) began ritualized burials around 300,000 years ago and at some point these included artifacts, including tools and sculptures; such findings must also be figured into our historical understanding.  Going through history and the expansion of art in Neolithic and classical times, we come to our modern era where art is ubiquitous in all human cultures, the study of which led Ellen Dissayanake to call us Homo aestheticus (23).

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

Stay tuned for the next installment sometime in the near future.  Until then, travel on.

Re-reading Ramachandran

I have been pondering how to go further towards a neural model of art-making, so I re-read the two chapters on art in V. S. Ramachandran’s book, The Telltale Brain.  As I reviewed in my post on 3/20/18, this is a very interesting book; Ramachandran is a scientist-practitioner of the highest order.  While I had some quibbles about the book in general, I gave him credit for having two chapters on art, which is two more than most books on neuroscience have, and they are interesting chapters, so I re-read them.

I will focus today on two quibbles, one minor and one major, and then applaud and expand one theme he carries forward in these chapters.  The minor quibble is easy and common.  When he talks about art, he is only discussing paintings with a heavy emphasis on the audience’s engagement at that.  Many books that touch on this topic show the same constraints. In part this is due to the extensive research into the visual system, so that we are able to transfer that knowledge to ideas on art appreciation.  It is also due to the difficulty in exploring the compositional process painters go through as they paint.  More distressing, though, is the assumption that art=painting, thereby ignoring music, literature, sculpture, architecture, etc.  The remedy to this quibble is increased awareness of aesthetic theory, e.g., everyone should read Langer’s Philosophy in a New Keyand Feeling and Formand increased knowledge in the efforts to understand other art forms, e.g., much is done on music.

My major quibble is a more of a problem.  When I re-read these chapters I found a passage where Ramachandran states that art is not important in our evolution:  “the production of art itself does not have survival value” and “its role is pure enjoyment.”  What? Even if true, enjoyment has survival value, else how do you explain a neural system uncovered by Jaak Panksepp that supports play and feelings of joy?  Also, humans (and our cousins) have been making art for maybe 100,000+ years, every society and culture has established artistic traditions, and as Ellen Dissayanake showed in her book Homo Aestheticus, art is ubiquitous in human affairs.  Limiting the consideration of art to the fine art of painting, as Ramachandran does, prevents adequate intellectual consideration of the phenomena.  So our artistic capability has certainly resulted from evolutionary changes.

This can be complicated.  What do we call an evolutionary product that does not contribute to adaptive success? Pinker and Bloom give an example of blood’s redness—the color is only a result of hemoglobin being iron-based; if we were lobsters with copper-based hemoglobin, our blood would be green.  So our blood’s redness is called an evolutionary spandrel after architectural spandrels that result from arching pillars joining the roof and creating a triangular space that does not contribute to the supporting structure even if it does yield a decorative space:


Elsewhere Ramachandran states that art-making is done by “deliberate hyperbole and distortion of reality”.  Well, that does make art seem incidental.  As you may guess, I think it is counter to reality. Art is, I believe as Langer conceptualized, a high level intellectual activity, the abstraction of the idea of emotion, and a complex sharing of deeply felt vital experience.  Consider this:  we grow pumpkins.  One or two flowers on a vine develop into a fruit, while the other blossoms contribute pollen and draw pollinators to the plant.  Are those non-fruiting blossoms useless?  Do they not support the production of the fruit needed to carry on the genetic strain?  Are they just redundant and back-up in case other blossoms fail?  What determines that?  I think even calling art a spandrel is not apt, and Ramachandran belittles art beyond that.

However, in this interesting book, he does give us some pearls.  Ramachandran states that our neuroscience has advanced to the stage wherein we can speculate about how our brains do art, and not many say that so clearly.  He provides a couple of goals for our quest.  One is that we should know how to distinguish between real art and kitsch, but I am not sure that is a worthy one.  I like a second one better.  He draws from his heritage to discuss a word/concept from Sanskrit, “rasa” that means to capture the essence or spirit of a thing.  To understand art, Ramachandran says in contradiction to his belittling elsewhere, we need to understand its ‘rasa’.  Okay then.

He talks about ‘Aha!’ moments when we apprehend the rasa in a work of art and thinks maybe this occurs when cortical processing becomes synchronized and so excites the limbic system to a positive state.  Could be, but this also seems a bit too simple.  Ramachandran discusses 9 laws of aesthetics that he draws from neural functioning.  These are interesting but limited by his debilitated view of art as not intellectual, focus on the visual system and audience experience, and lack of consideration of the artist’s process of production.  Aesthetic joy is a real phenomena, sometimes ‘Aha!’, more often a quiet wave of reflection, and we do need to understand how the artist achieves it, how the audience receives it, and the symbolic forms that convey it.  Ramachandran gives some ideas about the neural structures and functions supporting these, nothing earth-shaking, so maybe I will post more on this after a few more re-reads and further pondering.

Finishing up, Ramachandran gives two examples of art appreciation, or lack thereof. He talks of how a Victorian English art critic disparaged the statue of Nataraja (Shiva as Lord of the Dance—the dance that creates the universe) as savagery, not art.  Ain’t it funny how ignorant imperialists are?  But long ago the locals watched a bearded European stand entranced in front of the statue and then begin to contort his body to mirror the various postures Shiva assumes.  They thought this was a bit crazy until someone realized that the man was August Rodin, and the sculptor was appreciating the artistry involved in that statue.


Shiva as Lord of the Dance

The last example comes from Ramachandran’s discussion of how nervous systems like exaggerated forms, thus explaining the power of caricatures.  He details how Tinbergen, pioneer ethologist, discovered that gull chicks pecked at the red spot on the mother’s bill to get her to feed them, and that they would peck at almost anything with a red spot, but they would peck the most at a stick with 3 red stripes painted on it. Again, this illustrates how our brains process stimuli, even objects that are distorted far from reality can provoke the strongest response.  Ramachandran compares these gull chicks to art connoisseurs who chase the newest fad. Now I have to like that.

Well, time to travel on to the next view of our biological roots.

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, and, 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:  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:

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:  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.