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.

Male privilege is an ugly cultural trope

So I am talking with a friend, whom I know to be intelligent and fair-minded about Mr. Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford, and I am caught by surprise.  He says first that Dr. Ford has been too inconsistent in her testimony about who was in the room when she was assaulted (she hasn’t), so that he cannot believe her. Then he says the incident is not big deal because he as a teenager tried to “cop a feel” many times, thereby equating perhaps overly aggressive making out with forceful isolation and capture while trying to strip the lady (I heard this too many times when I worked with sexually aggressive youth).  Finally he says the #Metoo movement has gone too far because simply accusing a man ruins his reputation.  Geesh!  If he had ever expressed concern over the centuries old culture of men abusing women with impunity I could give him a break on this one, but he has not. We talked a good deal about his views mostly to no purpose and I have since wondered about the lacuna in his moral outlook and how it is that what we call ‘male privilege’ is inculcated mentally and then so strongly affects perception, action, and judgment and the male seems unaware of the effects.

One analogy here is our accent when speaking. We learn early on to speak with a regional and familial accent; we can recognize speakers from Boston, the Midwest, and different parts of the South.  Our accents can change incidentally when we move to a new region or on purpose as when some train their voices for media work.  Further, we make judgments about people based on their accent.  I lived all over the USA and graduated high school in Japan.  My accent was a conglomerate of family and different regions. Some years after high school and having lived in North Carolina for 12 years, I ran into an old girlfriend.  We had been talking for a while when she said that she knew I was smart but that I sounded so dumb with my southern accent. Who knew?  And after long holidays in Ireland and Scotland I find, and friends remark on it, that my accent has picked up a little of their lovely lilt.

Accents different from our own can be hard to understand and put people off. My mother grew up in south central Virginia.  She left there in the mid-1940s with my father who joined the Air Force.  In 1960 we moved to North Dakota.  In those days you went through an operator to make a long distance call.  When my mother tried to call home, i.e., Petersburg VA, the operator could not understand her and she could not understand the operator, who spoke and listened with the Norwegian rooted accent native to that area.  My sister stepped in to translate.  When we visited family the next summer, her sisters said my mother sounded strange to them and talked like a ‘Yankee’.  Oh, my.

I use this analogy only to highlight the incidental, mostly unconscious learning of specific cultural facets.  A deeper and broader facet would be sex/gender roles, e.g., boys don’t cry, girls do and that’s ok except that it indicates their lack of rationality. “Boys will be boys” and so much misbehavior, some of it quite serious in its violation of another person, is excused, and aren’t all men really boys at heart so give all of them a break, please. I have posted several times before about gender bias and sexual harassment/assault.  As a clinical psychologist I worked with many young males who had been sexually aggressive.  They wondered what the problem was or thought their actions were completely ok and justified.  The complexity of full consent was unknown to them as it is to many males in many cultures. Why?  Because full consent, in the view of many males, does not apply to them—this is the rotten core at the heart of male privilege.

We go from being young children with instincts for empathy, intimacy, fair play, helping others, & revulsion at seeing others hurt to (especially men now) feeling entitled to catcall and comment on a woman’s appearance, privileged to touch her without either explicit permission or, more commonly, mutually established trust and intimacy, and holding opinions that women do not want powerful and responsible positions because they are too fragile or just prefer someone else to do the heavy lifting.  And opining that the questions raised about a man’s behavior when a women alleges that he has been inappropriate are being handled unfairly, while showing little concern about the incredible numbers of women who endure sexualized mistreatment silently because they are only too aware that speaking out will compound their mistreatment by those who loudly carry forward male privilege.

When we consider how our brains are acculturated in this way, how we inculcate assumptions in our habitus about the rules of social behavior, and how our Empathy Central or EC (that’s ToM or Theory of Mind to most of you) operates with the moral lacunae of male privilege, when we consider such phenomena, our lack of knowledge about this neuropsychology is plainly seen.  But we do know some things; go back a couple of posts and read about Decety’s model of empathy (see post 9/9/18) and Iacoboni’s ideas about existential neuroscience (see post 9/16/18). The latter discusses the centrality of mirroring and mentalizing about others in social behaviors.  Male privilege can be seen as both a defective mirror that distorts the resonance with another (females are so different from us, huh, guys?) and inaccurate algorithms that provide errant empathetic suppositions about the other (she can’t rationally object to what I the man think).  Decety’s model includes the failure to mirror and resonate accurately and fully and he also adds 3 other systemic difficulties [from that post]:

  • Confusion as to the agent of thoughts and feelings. They think their own thoughts and feelings are also the other’s and they may fail to process accurately social feedback when the other tries to disagree or otherwise present their own perspective (familiar, ladies?).
  • This leads to problems with perspective taking. They may assume that their perspective is shared by everyone [males assume females share theirs]
  • Poorly developed emotional regulation presents difficulties for staying on mental task and intent as well as for responding with empathic concern for the other—instead they act upon their own egoistic anxiety and fail to engage socially in an adequate manner

Male privilege is a cultural trope that has maintained its bias through many iterations for a long, long time.  Such bias is inculcated while young in various ways with different forms according to one’s sex/gender, family traditions, social class, and educational level.  Like a linguistic accent, our social behaviors and attitudes have a ‘privileged’ accent.  Many operate with this accent, i.e., bias, without any cognizance that something is different, indeed that something is wrong.  Some do learn to operate socially and morally with a different accent, i.e., they reflect consciously on their attitudes, evaluating their accuracy and fairness, and change the bias acquired earlier in life.

As I posted in January about Oprah’s wonderful speech at the Golden Globes: “Oprah’s promising vision of a world where girls and women meet respect and justice is one beautiful flower of this moment in time and cultural egress leaving a stultified domain of male privilege and entering one refreshed by the inclusion of females in a new and refreshing view of their humanity, the acknowledgment of their personhood and the refusal by everyone to abide by any violation of this inalienable right.” The change needed to fulfill this vision is, given the long history of cultural biases, enormous.  Indeed, it is in a way utopian, but it is also already evident in the cultural path of our civilization.  We are not alone in refusing to go forward with male privilege. That’s a good thing because the heavy lifting necessary for progress has gotten a bit heavier this past week or so. Travel on.

Humans do wander and seek

Our ancestors wandered far and wide, seeking something new, and these migrations had consequences for our genetic pools.  I have seen several reports of an archeological find in China (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/11/science/hominins-tools-china.html.  Check out the cliff the archeologists had to scale for this research) of tools estimated to be around 2 million years old.  This means that one of our ancestral lines left Africa much earlier than previously thought and traveled 8,000 miles east.  These are categorized as hominins, precursors to genus Homo, but still bipedal with a brain beginning to enlarge.  Paleoanthropologists have found fossils in China of Homo erectus that are 1.6 million years old.  Fossils of hominins in Africa date back to over 6 million years ago.

Repeated migrations over the aeons carried different genes to different populations.  Consider the gene for lighter skin colors that spread in northern populations or the genes enabling lactose digestion that appeared in Europe that spread in a variegated manner.  My favorite is a gene first identified in the Denisovans from central Russa that some migration carried to Himalayan populations; this gene helps form the special type of hemoglobin that enables better adaptation to life at high altitudes (see post 7/4/14). I have wondered if some of the peoples that escaped to live in the high Andes also had such a gene.  I say ‘escaped’ because of a find of a small site from ancient times in the Andes where life would not have been easy because game and edible plants were sparse. (See post 10/27/14) Why live there?  The best hypothesis would seem to be escape from another tribe whose aggression was unbounded.  Anyway, our ancestors clearly wandered the land over many generations seeking opportunities and avoiding negative exigencies.

I have been reading some research by Shinobu Kitayama and colleagues that is quite interesting about the cultural differences between Asian and American peoples. These seem to be fairly well established by multiple lines of research with different samples and different methodologies.  In brief people from Asian cultures see themselves and the world as more interdependent (Americans see it as more independent), focus more on context than on a lone figure, define the self in relation to social relatedness rather than individual achievement, seek to accommodate rather than to be an agent of social change, de-emphasize individual achievements by focusing on their own faults and attributing success to social connections, think holistically rather than linearly, etc.  Looking at this list you can see that Americans are quite different culturally, thinking linearly, highlighting personal achievement, valuing competition and social friction a bit more, etc.  Just to speculate a bit more based on some lectures on Eastern intellectual traditions by Grant Hardy, the Western endorsement of desert monotheism and the Eastern endorsement of ancestor worship along with values of social order and justice that are accompanied by a flexible notion of deity would seem to reflect our different cultural ways of thinking evident 2-3000 years ago.  Dr. Hardy says Christian efforts to convert China failed when the Pope and the Dominicans condemned ancestor worship as idolatry.  That turned out to be an unacceptable violation of cultural mores and did not fit with the Asian understanding of what a deity is, so they rejected missionary efforts (and then the British gunboats showed up).

Kitayama and colleagues have begun to study how acculturation leads to changes in the brain, so that different cultures lead to different brain organization, thus the cognitive differences noted above.  These differences arise from genetics to developmental epigenetics and acculturation experiences early on life.  This makes perfect sense.  The question arises for me of how migrations have contributed to these differences and how once the differences were initiated the differences became self-sustaining.  Many peoples have revered their ancestors; the Chinese have maintained that even in the face of Christian zealousness.  Certainly part of the answer here is the lack of intermarriage and the protection of the gene pool through isolation.

Consider one final example cited by Kitayama.  Some significant percentage of Americans has a gene allele that promotes increased impulsivity and risk taking; this may contribute to a higher incidence of ADHD (as well as substance abuse, etc.?).  This allele is virtually unknown in the Chinese population. Should there be more intermarriage, that might change.  Why do we have that allele, or how did our migration pattern contribute to its presence? That brings to mind an old joke told at psychology conferences years ago.  A prominent ADHD researcher, in the effort to make fun of the image of Californians, speculated thusly:  The Europeans who populated North America were rebellious, impulsive risk takers—who else would sail across the Atlantic in small ships on a perilous voyage?  And then from that population the even bigger risk-takers, impulsive people migrated west, so that Californians represented a genetic ‘distillation’, as it were, of impulsivity.  Ha-ha.

Jaak Panksepp in Affective Neurosciencedocuments quite clearly how our mammalian heritage includes a proclivity for exploring in our neural systems for seeking and anticipating.  Like a good many traits we have accentuated I think humans have a rarefied impulse to go beyond; this involves some risk but the species that spread across the globe and then went to the moon can manage a good deal of risk. Humans do wander and seek.  We intermarry and that contributes to the flow between gene pools.  We don’t intermarry and otherwise conserve our cultural heritage.  Asians are indeed different than Westerners.  As a member of the latter group, I think we could learn a thing or two from the former, e.g., mindfulness, the greater value of interdependence, the importance of contextualized thinking, etc.  But for now I will travel on.

 

a positivist genesis myth

[This is a very long post. I considered breaking it down into 2 but did not like the results so here it is. Having read the previous post would be helpful and acquaintance with some of the threads running through my blog may help this post be more understandable. Thanks in advance to anyone who reads to the end.]

What do you call a genesis myth without the supernatural? Au naturel, of course. And I use the term myth loosely, meaning an allegorical narrative symbolically capturing an explanation of nature that is, when objectively considered, unexplainable in its totality. Thus we have gods creating each other and the cosmos and humans. We also have the mystic apprehension of the unexplainable universe; one of the first and to my mind still one of the best is the Tao Te Ching (and I really love the translated rendition by sci-fi hero, Ursula K. LeGuin).

I have written here about the ocean of experience surrounding each of us, meaning that domain where the two great genetic watersheds (Solving World Problems (SWP) and Conspecific Relations (CR): see post 4/7/17 ) run to confluence and form an estuarine island of life and mind. A mystic stands on the shore, a being nakedly aware of the generational and temporal flow through to this moment, then this one, and oh, you know, and watches the weather, tides and the waters wave and glisten on the shore, content with just that apprehension, finding that experience a full one, and assured that the knowledge mirroring the experience is meaningful and insignificant. A genesis myth is valuable, even necessary for carrying that apprehension forward into meeting life’s probabilities and necessities.

Though a positivist genesis myth may be paradoxical, when we consider the scientific basis of our genesis presented below, I think that mythic aspect will be apparent because our understanding has come through increasingly sophisticated mathematics and information processing. Most of us cannot really comprehend how the numbers show their truths as the mathematically keen scientists do see them. In this sense scientists are like the seers, shaman and priests who created and developed the supernatural myths: only the initiated have access to the genesis esoterica as gleaned from either the mathematical domain or that learned through communication with the supernatural divine. Scientists talk with numbers and priests with angels. (I pass over the crucial differences in replication, falsifiability, and transferability between the two). We may not usually think of science in this way but in truth the majority of the people on Gaia evaluate positivistic myths and find them much less comprehensible than their religious mythology.   Conversely those of us initiated into this scientific world view, both the lay and the practitioners, can still find some truth about humanity in the old myths but little fact, certainly not enough to guide our pursuit of knowledge. Religious myths are at this point best seen from without, i.e., as data as we seek to understand our humanity.

In my last post I talked about Monod’s ethic of knowledge, and so to journey even further above my pay grade, this constitutes an epistemological effort that needs some supporting concepts about reality; about what is it we are learning? How did it come to pass and what is my relation with it? My bias is that any statement about the ultimate nature of reality, i.e., metaphysics, ultimately and necessarily given the scale and scope of our capabilities relies upon, revolves around and devolves intellectually into mystic apprehension. The question here is how from a cold, mechanical and valueless though lawful universe can life evolve with its values, as it has clearly done here with us on Gaia? That is, how to account for both our knowledge (true knowledge formed from an ethics of knowledge based upon empiricism) about the world and our values as both are clearly, as Monod demonstrated, sociobiological in origin. So again, what is it we know and value?

Human culture, though composed from both knowledge gained and values held, is a virtual world imagined among group members that helps to govern or to channel how each individual goes about life and supports the group. Over the past few thousand years, cultural parsing has held knowledge as more secular and values as coming from a supernatural divine. The ancient Greeks attributed some values, e.g., hospitality to strangers, respect for the dead, obedience to the king, acceptance of fate, to their gods, while they initiated a grand tradition of intellectual effort, i.e., philosophical and scientific knowing. The ancient Israelites certainly attributed their values to Yahweh and I believe follow a more secular and pragmatic approach to knowing. The Taoists stand on the shore and seek the Way. We don’t know about the people who painted the caves 40,000 years ago, much less about the earliest Hominids who buried their dead, but we do know that from them and since the advent of agriculture, civilized knowledge and values have grown to compose today’s cultural worlds.

Accept for a moment that all culture is learned and that we acquire culture through mirroring, empathy and symbolization. Assume even further that we can understand how we benefit from experience in such a way that cultural invariants form inter- and intra-personally that then guide how we relate, communicate symbolically, conceptualize with words, use metaphor, govern individual actions and relationships, organize socially, etc. Understand that early groups form on the basis of kinship which yields a natural historical narrative through their ancestry, while other groups form through social roles irrespective of kinship, and so must bond through constructing and sharing relevant narratives, some literal or empirically based, e.g., a flood, and some mythically based, e.g., the afterlife. All this to say that our philosophy as currently conceived results from a long history of cultural development (or is that evolution? Erwin Schrodinger, for one, wondered if humans were done evolving, i.e., we would stay in roughly the same biological form now into the future, sort of like sharks and insects have been the same for roughly 200 million years, so any further evolution for us would have to be cultural).

John Locke said the human infant was a tabula rasa, i.e., a blank slate, upon which experience writes its tale. Today we understand much more about what the child brings to the table and that there is no ontogenetic blank slate. But this idea covers only a very short time scale of one life. Monod from his scientific perspective seems to endorse John Locke’s tabula rasa, i.e., blank slate, but says the blank slate has been written on by the entire history of life, i.e., “the experiences accumulated by the entire ancestry of the species.” So our capabilities flow from incipient life some 3.5 billion years ago. Yeah, it was a blank slate then, but much has been written on it since and much has been edited, erased and replaced.

As I discussed in the previous post on Monod’s book, our evolutionary experience has led to two cultural facets from which mythic values seem to arise. One is an inborn fear of solitude; we are social animals and do not do well in isolation. Our contemplation of the cosmos along with our knowledge gleaned so arduously through empirical efforts indicates that our place in the universe is indeed lonely; we are warm-blooded strangers in a cold place, each conscious of our irrevocable solitude within our own MEMBRAIN, and constantly filling our mental void with all kinds of energies. The other facet derives from the first; we have, Monod says, a “need for a complete binding explanation” of our existence, and that includes the gaps before birth and after death. How have we come here now to stand on the beach of the ocean of experience? Both of these facets are inherent in life as it has developed on earth; they are inherent in Gaia’s character, i.e., they follow from life holding forth through negentropy amidst a universe flattening out in entropy. Each soma operates to replicate the passage of genes while mitigating exigencies and exploiting chance opportunities until its lapse into the final entropy of death.   This view of life is consistent with Susanne Langer’s idea that human consciousness arrived with the understanding that our life is one act that begins and ends and that within that frame each of us lives alone. Also consider Camus’s Absurd and the myth of Sisyphus and most especially Chris Hitchens’ proposal to separate the noumenal from the supernatural (see post 4/13/17).

It is as I have pondered Monod’s Chance and Necessity and sought its relations to other readings, e.g., Langer, Dawkins, James, Whitman, Hawking, etc., that I have developed a frail metaphysical myth to support this ethical epistemology, keeping consistent with my basic approach to the biological roots of our humanity and moving forward through a dialectic between positivism and mysticism (see posts beginning 11/15/15). To be clear, I believe any truth of which we are capable of apprehending is a gem with many facets, some more transparent and therefore practical or at least knowable than others; the goal is to see the gem whole even given our limited access to various facets. The metaphysical and epistemological answers to the questions of solitude and significance that used to be answered by animist myth with reference to the supernatural (and these serve us well for some purposes still, like artistic imagery or, as indicated, anthropology) are now superceded by positivist myths with reference to the natural world (and these can serve us better if we develop and use an ethics of knowledge to organize our culture and civilization). So to give an abstract rendition of a positivistic genesis myth:

  • Consider the big bang, or any theorized notion of this cosmic course through time, e.g., expansion and contraction, parallel universes, multiple dimensions beyond 4, etc.
  • These refer to the void beyond our comprehension and how the universe developed in ways we can comprehend.
  • A void filled by energy that illumines no forms =>
  • Higgs field appears whereby energetic matter gains mass (see delightful illustration at: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/10/08/science/the-higgs-boson.html.)
  • Matter and mass, though we apprehend them through our senses on some macro level, actually operate on a micro level through quantum waves of probability =>
  • These waves swell, subside, interfere +/-, and break into present reality: this is the first level of chance and necessity, i.e., quantum probability reduces to a certainty, e.g., Schrodinger’s cat is either dead or alive but not both because that wave has crested and broken on the shore
  • Matter with mass coalesces and clumps even as the incipient energies undergo entropic dispersal
  • The clumps accrue in the spacetime continuum =>
  • Gravity is a manifestation we can discern of this negentropic building process, i.e., against or resisting entropy; the spacetime curves according to this history of amalgamation
  • Gravity assembles cosmic structures that become elemental forges, e.g., stars burn and synthesize heavier elements: this is a next level of chance and necessity in that cosmic structures, e.g., gas clouds, galaxies, stars, planets appear by chance and then follow a time line ruled by necessity
  • The next level still of chance and necessity is when some combination of the products of these elemental forges coalesce through a gravitational eddy to generate life, e.g., planet Earth becomes Gaia.
  • Once begun life evolves according to chance and necessity.

This would be our genesis story if it were constructed as an anthropomorphic narrative; it is more detailed than animist origin myths because it is empirical and dynamic; the big difference is, of course, that this genesis details a cold, mechanical, and valueless universe from which life evolves with its own sociobiological values. Religious people may find that a problem but those who pursue an ethics of knowledge do not, because we realize that any and all value appears through and from life. Consider these incipient values I find apparent in Gaia’s biosphere:

  • Of course the first value, though perhaps one of the last to be understood, is to understand the world through realistic means and action.
  • Life’s projection into the future through replication, e.g., procreation is good for many reasons
  • Generational replication via somas is quite conservative by necessity and its sensitivity to chance events allows evolution to proceed in two ways:
  • One, variant genes must fit coherently into the whole genome or they will not continue
  • Two, having done so these variants become invariant and must pass muster through environmental interaction by demonstrating the same or increased adaptability
  • Each and every soma operates to minimize exigencies and to exploit chance
  • Their capability to do so speaks to their evolutionary potential.
  • Somas with brains do better than those without, somas with strong social relationships, i.e., have MEMBRAINS, do the best.
  • All life is interconnected
  • All life is local and Gaia is the location; each soma participates in the ecological balance
  • We must respect Gaia, understanding that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and that our actions even if performed authentically with sound knowledge and conscious values have many intended and unintended consequences.
  • Our ignorance is greater than our knowledge, e.g., standard theory of physics about 10% of the universe and the rest dark
  • Finally, while we accrue our knowledge through scientific means, both empirical and theoretical, our values continually emerge from the ancestral history of our species. I hope to expound upon this more in later drafts.

With this first axiom of procreation (replication) and its two corollaries of mitigating exigencies and exploiting chance, our frail metaphysic grows strong enough to support a new domain of values instigated and developed through evolution with conspecific relationships. With our heightened empathy and symbolization, we become conscious of greater questions, that of our solitude and of our significance, that can find only partial answers through our ethics of knowledge and development of values.

We have no way of comprehending this richness of life on Gaia. We may work on constructing our ethics of knowledge based on a positivistic genesis myth for our metaphysics, which can lead to a knowledge of ethics and a better understanding of our values. That effort, for me, resolves to a dialectic between my biological mysticism and my intellectual pursuit of knowledge. If you have read all of this, I again thank you. Linger here if you like watching the ocean waters wave and glisten upon your shore or travel on the Way.

Racism creates racial boundaries, not vice versa

While it seems obvious that race is a biologically based concept, I now wonder if it is not even more a culturally derived one, analogous to sex and women confined to home and burka for their protection and reverence. So is race a meme, a cultural unit transmitted across generations? It is more complicated than that, I know given my last post about meme-weary, but consider these meme wannabes for your amusement: burning cross, white robe with pointy hat and mask or Confederate battle flag flown outside of a museum in contrast with the “I have a dream speech” and Black Lives Matter. And what about the photographs from the 60s civil rights work of Bull Connor’s attack dogs and fire hoses? All of these fit the definition, don’t they?

Going deeper, though, I recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ autobiographical book Between the World and Me after seeing so many reviews about the power of its presentation and the passionate beauty of its writing. The reviews are pretty accurate in this regard so I heartily recommend reading this book. Early on he asserts that race (the concept of) is a result of racism (the attitude and belief) and not vice versa, as is often supposed. Wow! To frame it another way, race is more a cultural construct based on faulty biology, one engendered by most probably the sociobiological fear of the other. I think that our kinship feelings for our conspecifics is a powerful factor, one that I hope becomes ever more dominant through the burgeoning interconnectedness of global humanity. However, other factors such as territorial ‘ownership’, competition for mates and resources, and clan/tribal organization are also important features of our conspecific relations even as they constrain a more democratic, i.e., egalitarian and respectful, unification.

Consider the heinous example of King Leopold and the Belgian Congo in the 19th century. Using the age old technique of divide and conquer, the Belgians segregated the Hutu and Tutsis and set the two tribes against each other, building up a wall of ethnic prejudice and misinformation one against the other. Their respective leaders in the independent country of Rwanda played upon those differences to gain political power and that resulted in genocidal warfare around 1990. Ugh, humans! Their views of the other as distinct ethnically from themselves are not based upon their biology: they share their language, religion, and culture, they lived together peacefully enough for centuries before imperial colonization, and recent genetic tests confirm that they are the same population. Race is a tool of racists to gain power. To reinforce this notion, consider that when I lived in Japan I learned that many Japanese do not see any gulf between themselves and black people but they do see Koreans as a lower race, judging by their outspoken prejudices and evident attitude toward inter-marriage. This was, I was told, a remnant from the Japanese imperialism that culminated in WW2.

Another example of how race is a cultural construct used by imperialists can be found in Trevor Noah’s autobiographical book, Born A Crime, another excellent read. His mother was black and his father white and in apartheid South Africa the law prohibited their mating and that left his legal status in limbo. Further, his skin tone clearly showed that he was not black or white, so that walking with his mother or father would be to place them in legal jeopardy for breaking that law. That society had a category for ‘colored’, neither black nor white but he did not fit into that category for some reason. One theme of the book derives from his wandering the racial boundaries, not belonging to any one category yet living with them all. He was bright. His extended family helped him to learn many languages, another manifestation of ethnic categorization, and his mother insisted that he obtain the best education possible, which also marked him as different. While post apartheid laws reduced his legal jeopardy, they did little to solve his dilemmas about how to make his way through a varied and at times difficult racial landscape. It is a great read and helps to appreciate his arrival as host of “The Daily Show” and his distinctiveness as nurtured by his mother who was a force of nature.

The amount of variation among ‘races’ is miniscule when compared with variation among species and even there the variation between simians and us is only a few percent. Any one person in a multi-cultural society, i.e., not geographically isolated or politically segregated, includes genes from other races. Many of us include genes from the Neandertal and Denisovans, who are not even Homo sapiens. I think Ta-Nehisi Coates expressed a truth quite succinctly when he said race is a consequence of racism and not vice versa, a cultural construct the biological basis of which is distorted by those who seek power and control. Oh humans!

In my clinical work I learned that each person is a gem, some are rough and some finely cut, but all have different facets, only one (well, maybe two, not sure of quantity here really) of which is race. Our goal, assuming we pursue a just democracy and compassionate, non-exclusive conspecific relations, is to see each person whole, each gem in its totality, taking in as many facets as possible and always mindful that our perspective from without is constrained by what facets life and society have cut and polished for our viewing and that the whole within, as difficult as it might be to apprehend, is one of our own. Travel on.

Meme weary

Memes? I’m tired of ‘em, damned tired. Sure, I like the idea of memes, those cultural bits and bites encapsulating the commonly held cultural meaning that help a society to congeal or the shorthand for analogous experiences, e.g., the opening notes of Beethoven’s 5th or referring to the Holocaust to convey the horror of some men’s inhumanity. But I grow weary of the indiscriminate use of the term to mean almost any type of human cogitation that spreads (almost unavoidable in today’s electronic age). That lack of a coherent boundary or definition has been a criticism of the term from early on and I read that it also contributed to death of the Journal of Mimetics after a few years as scholars could not agree on anything about the term, surely making any theoretical development impossible. At this point I have to wonder that it took 6 years of journal articles before the academic community recognized its futility, though I am sure some denied their intellectual torpor as they pursued easy publication on a sexy topic. To be fair, Richard Dawkins, who originated the term, only wanted to give a term to cultural transmission, and only that. Perhaps neuroscience will be able to help us more in the future if we show enough integrity not blather away about it so now and work to understand what culture really is.

Why quibble now, you ask. I recently read James Gleick’s interesting book Information. He does a very good job presenting the beginnings of information theory as seen in the genius of Charles Babbage and especially Claude Shannon and an okay job of its subsequent development. I found his rendition of its extension into the biological sciences lacking and I really found his discussion of memes tedious, and, after thinking about culture and how it is biological, I became even more disenchanted with memes.

Consider what Gleick refers to as a meme: ideas that are passed on, i.e., replicate, such as religion (to be fair, Gleick follows Dawkins in this), musical tunes, catchphrases, images, in short any delimited packet of information that catches on to become an invariant form operating between minds, an invariant form of some complexity so that a simple idea is not a meme and a hula hoop is not a meme because it is not information. (Wait a minute, James, I thought one main thesis in this book was that everything was information?)

I did like his book overall and recommend it and I want to give it credit for stimulating me to re-examine this now tiresome concept of the ‘meme.’ The analogy between genetic transmission and cultural transmission is really not that deep; it is actually misleading as I think about it. A meme is generally taken to be a symbolic thing, and that entails a surface and deep structure. The opening bars of Beethoven’s 5th is fate knocking on the door, or at least that is the meme. But consider, please, that musical phrase in context, in the rest of the piece and then the incredible melodies in later movements and that memic symbolization of fate shrinks to insignificance; it is only a amusing hook with little purpose. Sure, the opening is much recognized, but then the deep structure of this amputated form is a short-circuited semantic memory obscuring the work’s remarkable artistic import. Just like another popular memic example, ‘jumping the shark’, the deep-surface relationship is at best shallow. We mistake the electronic image, which does indeed spread virally, as standing for culture and I think that is altogether a misconception. The current concept of meme is only conceivable in this age of electronic communication. Even the meme of Beethoven’s 5th opening bars depends upon sound recording.

Consider other views of what may be termed cultural transmission in the examples of emotional and pragmatic expression and social stigma. I am thinking here of cultures where emotional expression is inhibited, making members’ affect hard to read at times, or where expressions of grief are most properly loud keening as opposed to silent suffering. Some cultures find close physical proximity while conversing normal while others stipulate greater distance. Some eat only with the right hand. Some prohibit showing the soles of your shoes unless you want to instigate trouble with our disrespect. I see these as cultural practices with bare symbolic operations, if indeed any.

Consider also our culture’s stigma against those with mental illness, especially how hard it is to displace. For years as a psychologist I worked to disperse that stigma by presenting the data refuting misconceptions (yeah, I know, spitting into the wind), and I continue to admire those who work to mitigate that stigma and so enhance people’s willingness to seek early intervention or to hire without fear. Again, this is cultural but not memic, and this distinction reinforces further my impression that memes are actually all about our amusement, not our understanding of culture.

Genes control the generation of a somatic vehicle for their replication. Good enough. Memes control nothing; they convey vaguely defined notions. Genes spread through two tests, one is their coherence with the rest of the genome and the other is the adaptability of the somatic vehicle in the environment. Ideas and memes have some analogous properties here, but I think, at least as cultural units, memes are more a part of the environmental context as they are cultural vehicles carrying culture forth. Human societies are complex and operate in multiple symbolic and non-symbolic domains. Given this view, memes are wind driven ripples across the waves and tides of human culture; they are noticeable given the white froth of their peaks but dissipate soon enough while the cultural ocean rolls on.

I postpone the discussion of another cultural phenomenon that troubles us, that of race, and so until next time, travel on.

 

 

Many ancestors and they were busy

Several stories from recent Science News issues paint a picture of human ancestors 2.8 million years ago shaping stone tools as their brains grew in size, and then around 40,000 years ago, Homo sapiens crowded out Neanderthals with the help of dogs (says one author).  The 3/21/15 issues has a story about finding a human gene that promotes larger brains which wrinkle it up to squeeze it all in.  A chimpanzee has a similar gene but it does not promote as much growth.  They found this out by injecting the genes into mouse embryos (remember the movie, Secret of NIMH?).  Further research on our variant indicates that it appeared in our lineage about 5 million years ago around when our stock split off from the chimpanzees.  One researcher points out our brains did not really begin to increase in size until 2 million years ago so this gene was not fully functional, maybe, for 3 million years.

skulls of different hominds

skulls of different hominds

Two articles in the 4/4/15 issue speak to the 3 million year mark.  One is about the controversy on how to classify a newly found fossil from 2.8 million years ago.  Is it part of Homo, which was just emerging from the gene pool, or an ancestor like the Lucy fossil, Australopithecus afarensis, or some transitional species in between?  In that same issue is a story about research into tools, presumably from some hominid line.  Though stone tool industry increased noticeably in the archeological record around 40,000 years ago, some shaped stone tools have been dated back to 2.6 million years ago.  Wow, I had not realized tool making was that old an art.  The story tells of the controversy between those who classify the tools by time/location and those who say that is not very informative and instead classify by the techniques used to form the tool.  Several of this latter group are expert stone ‘knappers’ themselves and that seems a good study.

Tool use in modern humans is supported by the left parietal lobe, the center for praxis.  If I remember my brain evolution correctly, our brain’s early enlargement came in the parietal lobe and then the temporal lobe, then later on frontal areas expanded.

parietal in yellow, temporal in green

parietal in yellow, temporal in green

Where these two lobes meet is where language abstraction is centered in Wernicke’s area.  So we have a gene which promotes brain growth in the embryo beginning to come on strong around 3 million years ago and shortly thereafter tool making appears.  We do not know how such creatures organized socially nor how they communicated.  We can be sure that empathic connectedness had emerged and that tool making techniques continued to develop over this time suggests cultural transmission and change.  Quite a history a long ways back.

Also in the 4/4/15 issue is a review of a book by anthropologist Pat Shipman who traces the domestication of dogs to 40,000 years ago when Homo sapiens left Africa and migrated into Europe.  Shipman finds linkages between modern humans and dogs and the eventual disappearance of Neanderthals, Denisovans, and large mammals like mammoths and cave bears.  Thus, the “Fido hypothesis” offers some explanation as to Homo sapiens ascendance during that time.  Oh, and other articles in those two issues speak about dogs’ abilities to read our emotions.  Yes, early humans traveled far and wide and met many friends along the way.  Travel on.