Beauty beyond evolutionary adaptation

An article in the New York Times reports that a biologist is challenging his peers to consider the appearance of beauty as exceeding the bounds of evolutionary success, i.e., sometimes beauty just happens without reference to reproductive success. Hurrah! Here is link: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/29/science/evolution-of-beauty-richard-prum-darwin-sexual-selection.html.  Richard Prum studies birds and so understands pretty well that the song and plumage of male birds as well as the nests of bower birds are important factors in female selection of mates. Given the exigencies of natural selection, we assume that such male traits and behaviors provide reliable signals about the viability of the genes the male contributes to the next generation. Of course genetic viability is difficult to assess, so I think that our assumption is just that and the question of whether the best genes for survival also promote the best signaling is still an empirical one. Anyone know of research into this? And not just for birds, but for guppies and lightning bugs and . . . .

Even humans. Do the most attractive people (somewhat culturally determined) pass on the better genes? If so, are our half humorous stereotypes of the dumb (but handsome) jock, the vacuous beauty and all the other good lookers simply wrong? External signaling may fail to convey information about mental prowess (and presumably the genes that carry that forward) and I am sure that some nerds make great mates. We humans, though, find beauty in places besides evolutionary viability, and though I certainly believe that both the apprehension and the creation of beauty through art is a positive evolutionary development and that it contributes greatly to our species’ humanity and success, even that Picasso’s or Einstein’s or Spike Lee’s genes are quite important in that regard, I think that much happens on Gaia and in each life that bears little connection to reproductive success. So I applaud Dr. Prum’s prodding his colleagues on this point.

To develop a line of thinking that runs through my blog, artistic work seems to come two ways, both an expression of an individual, thus dependent upon the lonely self and its social expressiveness. The first is Dissanayake’s ‘making special’ where, akin to ‘signaling’ cited above, we mark our tools and objects and surroundings as special, e.g., a craftsman forms a tool of elegant shape for its function or adds designs to enhance its beauty or we bring flowers into the house or otherwise decorate our surroundings (see post 5/16/16). This I call art as incidental. Then we have art that is more central to its own intention, art for art’s sake in modern terms, though earlier art served a religious or spiritual purpose, which also seems a special class of intent. The difference is one of degrees perhaps, but the first is an expression of self (signaling the self’s specialness) and the second is an expression of the self’s experience (a symbol communicating some import of felt life, following, as always, Susanne Langer).

The NYT article cites a question by physicist Manu Prakash, “Why is there so much beauty?” How to answer? Just the way the cookie crumbles? Gaia only rolls that way? Or humans, and maybe other animals in their own way, notice patterns, and some patterns ‘speak’ more. I remember years ago reading about Paul Dirac, who shared the 1933 Nobel Erwin Schrodinger (see previous post) for his contributions to quantum theory. Dirac’s equation predicted the existence of anti-matter, and while many initially were skeptical, Dirac said he knew his equation bore some truth because it was “beautiful.” (For the record, Dirac seems to have operated on the genius end of the autistic spectrum). Another pattern are Fibonacci numbers, a curious set of integers where each one in the progression is a sum of the preceding two. Mathematicians have found various properties to these and biologists have discovered that they seem to operate in a variety of ways in nature; consider some genetic patterns and flower patterns like this chamomile flower with the Fibonacci pattern marked out for us.

FibonacciChamomile

By User:Alvesgaspar:derivative work: RDBury (Mother_and_daughter.jpg)

Now I am back in a period of reading books by and about James Joyce, so of course his aesthetic theory based upon Acquinas (at least that old guy got something right) comes to mind: beauty has 3 properties, integrity (unity), harmony (coherence of parts in that unity) and radiance (the light shining through the form illuminating the artistic import). The first two are well known in Gestalt Theory, e.g., the whole is more than the sum of its parts, but the third now, what about radiance? Consider this photograph:

cloudsocean

What’s it to be, luminous or numinous?

A cloud of billowing integrity composed harmonically of statically floating water condensation and, when I first saw it, a beautiful vision. We perceive (and some create) patterns; to some we bring radiance and thus we apprehend the beauty in nature and in our own artifactual creations. If there is a lot of beauty around, we bring it there ourselves (oh humans, and the converse as well).

Finally, back to evolution and the ocean of life. Last year we saw a beautiful (oh yes, there it is again) film, Tangerines, about an old man, Ivo, caught up in a civil war in eastern Europe who helps others without question and who, it turns out, has lost his son in the war and his family has left him to move back to Estonia and escape the violence, while he remains to help a friend with his tangerine harvest and to tend his son’s grave. The film’s artistic import centers around Ivo’s heroic effort to lead a good life in a world torn by war. And evolution? What do an old man’s tears over losing his family and home have to do with evolution? A koan for modern times. Linger here awhile before traveling on.

a bit of speculation

Many of you have already seen reports of Homo fossils recently discovered in Morocco.  (NYT:  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/07/science/human-fossils-morocco.html).  It is interesting for a few reasons.   One is that it pushes the origins back another 100,000 years to around 300,000.  The history of paleontology seems just about always that new discoveries push timelines further back, e.g., people in the Americas, use of fire.  These early Moroccans used fire, ate antelope and shaped arrow-spear heads using stone from 20 miles away.  Another find is that I used the plural, ‘origins’ indicating that scientists now think Homo arose not just in eastern Africa but in several areas, e.g., south Africa and now northwest Africa.  Still another is that the researchers say these fossils represent Homo sapiens, an assertion that will paleontologists will debate a good deal, I am sure.  The faces were flat like ours and some other features were similar.

512px-Craniums_of_Homo

We are #6, Moroccan closer to 5.

The interesting find is that their brains were about the same size relative to their bodies but were longer and less rounded in shape; our brains have some larger posterior areas that give height and round out our brain’s shape.

Lobes_of_the_brain

parietal in yellow, temporal in green, where they meet anteriorly is the place to be seen

Here is my speculation:   These areas still to develop probably included the parietal lobe and the part of the temporal lobe.  Consider what these enlarged areas help to accomplish.  On the left side the P-T (parietal-temporal) junction helps to maintain skilled motor patterns enabling handedness and motoric praxis, (this for right handed people) and just below that is an area involved in lexical memory, i.e., the ‘dictionary’ of words our brain relies on for comprehension (and some for production).  On the right side the P-T junction is where Empathy Central lies, or what academics call Theory of Mind.  This area supports our social insights and knowledge of others, and this in turn supports social praxis, i.e., socially skilled interactions.  These would seem paramount in our functioning and so the later evolution of this neurological substrate fits into this speculative hypothesis.  Finally, remember that the long cortical fasciculi, most notably the arcuate fasciculus (see several posts here about that fiber bundle) have their posterior origin in this area and their anterior origin in the frontal motor areas.  On the left we know this tract enables verbatim repetition, i.e., mirroring the words heard, and the right I suspect is involved in the empathic mirroring of emotional expressions.  Both types of praxis and mirroring are critical in the development of human intelligence.  Pretty cool, huh?  Well, much more to do today so I will travel on.

Triangulating 3 reports

I find myself somewhere in the noosphere and will use three news stories to triangulate my location. The noosphere, if you recall, is a term from Teilhard de Chardin’s writings. He thought it a last stage in human evolution leading up to the omega point where and when we merge with a god of some sort. Alas, that teleology is unsupported by anything other than mystic wishing, so instead the noosphere is better defined as the sphere of human knowledge, and like our atmosphere, is full of local events. To find my place today I consider three stories, one about an ancient event, one about a modern one, and one about the genetic flow streaming down to our genome.

The ancient story is from the NYT about cave paintings in northwest China that indicate the people some 10,000 years ago used skis for winter transportation. The current people there who keep the old ways still make their own skis in the traditional manner, splitting and planing narrow planks, then boiling one end to help curve it upward for easier traverse. Of course the Chinese government is now exploiting the region by building huge ski resorts so the old timers watch their way of life fade. Prior to this find cave paintings in Scandinavia indicated that people there skied 8,000 years ago. This is instrumental skiing, not for sport but for hunting and transportation. (I don’t know when the sport sort appeared.) It is a good story: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/19/sports/skiing/skiing-china-cave-paintings.html   If you want to see a movie about hardy, self sufficient people who make their own skis, try Werner Herzog’s well done documentary Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, very worthwhile viewing. The ingenuity of our species is really remarkable.

And speaking of that, the modern story is that in the next few days, the Cassini spacecraft will begin a series of maneuvers between the rings of Saturn, eventually to fly into the planet itself. More than a decade in design and construction, Cassini launched in 1997 and traveled millions of miles flying by Venus and Jupiter on the way, indeed using Jupiter’s gravity to sling around and pick up speed, before arriving at Saturn in 2004. In December 2004 Cassini released a probe, name of Huygens, that landed on the moon, Titan. Huygens sent back data to Cassini that relayed it back to earth. Since that time Cassini has been assaying Saturnian phenomena and now its nuclear fuel is running out so the last data will be collected on a suicide mission. Over 13 years of data gathering! That is truly remarkable ingenuity. Consider one more detail. Huygens landed on Titan within a kilometer of its planned site 1.2 billion kilometers away from Earth after a 7 year trip. Some people with excellent math skills worked together very hard to accomplish something incredible.

And speaking of working together, Carl Zimmer of the NYT does a fine job summarizing some well done research into the genetic influences on monogamy: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/19/science/parenting-genes-study.html  Briefly, scientists found two closely related mouse species, one monogamous and one polygamous, and through a diligent methodology explored the influence of parenting behaviors in contrast with genetic influences and then isolated some of the genes definitely influencing mating styles. Males in the monogamous mice participated more in constructing elaborate nests and in nurturing the young, keeping them warm, clean, and safe in the nest. The other mice built less elaborate nests and the males did less parenting. Going further (how long did all this take? I don’t know but a good while I am guessing), they found a genetic loci that controlled the use of a hormone, vasopressin, and then injecting vasopressin into the polygamous males found they increased their parenting participation to be like the monogamous males. Remembering from one of my favorite texts, Jaak Panksepp’s Affective Neuroscience mentioned here many times, I think vasopressin plays a variety of roles in the hormonal system that also includes oxytocin, a well known stimulator of parenting and prosocial behavior.

Triangulating these three stories we find a place in the Noosphere where humans, neither monogamous nor polygamous but certainly parental, work ingeniously to survive in different locales and climates and also to work together in a long term committed fashion to explore our universe and contribute mightily to the Noosphere. We should, given an ethics of knowledge (following Monod), be able to govern ourselves better than we seem to be doing at this moment. Travel on.

Genetic Watersheds

I thought I had already presented the idea of our genetic watersheds in more detail when I did my recent post on Monod, but alas, I had detailed it in another context. I want to correct that omission. The idea here is to visualize how genes flow down through evolution and accumulate to generate new somatic structures that perform old functions better or can then be induced to perform new functions. Monod’s “reservoir of variability” mentioned 2 posts ago here is a watershed landscape littered with random springs of new genetic forms; many springs appear and disappear with little consequence while a few others contribute to the flow down through the ages—these mutations find a friendly fit with the rest of the genome and also contribute to improved adaptability. So here goes, first with a bit of contextual ground and then the figure.

The planet Earth formed some 4.54 billion years ago (bya) to become the ground for Gaia’s seed. The moon was struck off the planet by an asteroid a short time later around 4.53 billion years ago. I read a while back that scientists thought Earth’s water arrived via asteroids and comets 4 billion years ago but more recently I have read that they think most of our water was here early on as a product of the planet’s coalescence. Evidently at least some water from comets is now known to have a different chemical signature than our water here on earth. In any event virtually all the water on earth was present by 4.4 billion years ago. The earliest evidence of life found so far is about 3.7 billion years old and soon Earth metamorphisized into Gaia.

I identify two major features of life that have advanced speciation and increased complexity. Edelman and Tononi use the term ‘value’ to denote evolutionary value; that is, once a structural or functional feature has appeared in evolution and is found to be adaptive, further evolution tends to elaborate upon that value (see post 7/7/16). So these two features, rivers of genetic flow if you will, represent two major evolutionary values. First, any definition of life must include a metabolic process for energy and finding/ingesting nutrients. This is what I call SWP for Solving the World Problem, i.e., exploiting resources for survival in the world outside the integral soma. Over the past 3.5 bya countless chance events have contributed to mutating the genome in ways that improved the soma’s ability to find nutrients, such as improved sensory/perceptual, e.g., eyes and ears, and motoric capabilities, e.g., pseudopodia, fins, tails, legs, arms. Each chance mutation is a spring in the watershed of SWP; some springs appeared and disappeared because they did not contribute to fitness while others contributed genetic changes that have continued flowing down the ages. This flow I call the River Sentience (RS) because that is what sentience is, ambient awareness that facilitates finding nutrients and avoiding being food for other somas. The RS is the primary flow of genes accrued since life’s inception somewhere beyond 3.5 bya.

Now 1.2 bya ago a new sort of spring promulgated a special watershed that also contributes an important value to our evolutionary past and present, and that is the watershed of Conspecific Relations (CR). This incipient spring started sexual reproduction, making necessary the finding and cooperating with a suitable mate. That the flow from this spring became so prominent is due to the effects sexual reproduction has on increasing the mix of genes not through mutation but by combining genes from sperm and egg thereby increasing the variability in the gene pool and opportunities for evolutionary advancement. What is also quite relevant here is that finding mates becomes enabled through signaling, e.g., plumage, song, strength, and, please do not forget, signs of parental aptness. Somewhere around 500 million years ago (yes that would be .7 bya later from the inception of sexual reproduction) a genetic spring arose for the production of oxytocin, the beginning of a hormonal system supporting parenting behaviors. Oh my, but that is important because now evolutionary success is advanced by child rearing, attachment and bonding. Now these springs from sexual reproduction on down to family bonding contribute to a large flow I call the River Empathy (RE) because essentially CR (Conspecific Relations) promotes the emergence of social relations based upon the empathic communication amongst conspecifics.

That is the contextual ground; now we focus on the important figure which began to develop some 315 million years ago and finally became clear with the evolutionary appearance of mammals. I have posted before about what makes these kinfolk of ours so special (see posts on 10/16/16 & 11/2/16 about Mammalian Heritage Day). To bring this post to a conclusion though, consider that with mammals 315 mya, even more so with primates 50 mya, then simians over 8 mya, and finally with Homo say around 500,000 years ago, that the evolutionary genetic flows of the RS from the SWP watershed and the RE from the CR watershed merged, so that Solving World Problems became a social affair and that Conspecific Relations became a world problem to be solved (and I hope we do it soon because otherwise . . . .). This confluence of RS and CR from their respective watersheds created a new river, the River Consciousness (RC) as we became aware of our conspecifics’ efforts to solve world problems, i.e., we became conscious of another’s subjective mind, their intents and plans. Then our evolution progressed, fed by yet other springs to the sharing among minds through enlightened empathy and powerful symbolization, thus the name of my blog.

Each of us is a witness to the eons of flow down from these watersheds. Each of us is also a witness to our own particular life as subjectively experienced. So as I have mentioned before (see posts 7/25/15 & 6/26/15), our individual genome resulting from this genetic flow upon ontogenesis deposits a soma (with its brain and MEMBRAIN) like a river delta where the flow meets the ocean of experience Obviously much more to be said but now is the time to travel on.

Re-reading Monod: WOW! edition

Along about Chapter 8 in Chance and Necessity Monod quotes Francois Mauriac’s comment on his (Monod) natural philosophy: “The professor’s ideas are more incredible than any we poor Christians believe”. Mauriac had won the Nobel for literature in the early 50s and was a staunch defender of the Catholic faith. To say Monod’s ideas were more incredible, i.e., unbelievable, than god coming to earth through a virgin birth, being killed for his upsetting views and then returning to life before ascending to the skies is pretty incredible in itself. What had Professor Jacques Monod been saying? I will try and give you the gist and flavor here now but again I urge you to read the book for yourself.

Monod gives a remarkably complete and beautifully articulated view of humans as biological and yes, that means without a supernatural immanence exerting its power through the material realm. After explicating through some details of protein synthesis the scientific basis of molecular biology and explaining how that provides fully for the evolution of life forms, he discusses the implications this has for natural philosophy. He understands that the challenge is to understand life without immanence, i.e., without the animating force of a god or gods. This begins with the basic understanding that nature is objective and that we can know it only through empirical effort; there is no revelation of absolutes and even through science our knowledge is conditional.

His book’s title captures a basic principle. Evolution proceeds through chance mutations to what is a necessarily conservative invariant process of reproduction that are then tested first by their coherence in the overall genetic structure and then by any effects on adaptability and reproductive success of the group. Having passed those tests chance happenings become necessary because they are now part of the invariant machinery. What propels evolution forward is not immanent design but a “vast reservoir of fortuitous variability.” Life is not predictable because of this random variability but proceeds to greater complexity because of this altogether remarkable ‘reservoir’ of chance events adding to the necessity of organismic structures and then the furthering of exploiting environmental opportunities. (He explains this so very well—read it).

1965Monod

Jacques Monod, Resistance hero and great scientist and philosopher.

This reservoir of variability sustaining evolution is one of the features Mauriac found incredible. I find it quite understandable though; consider my idea of evolutionary watersheds first for Solving World Problems and then for Conspecific Relations (see posts 7/25/15, 12/17/16 & soon to come) where genes spring up and flow down to the great confluences of the River Sentience and the River Empathy that then merge for the River Consciousness, which when it meets the ocean of Experience forms the somatic delta and there solving world problems becomes a social affair and conspecific relations becomes a world problem to solve. That is us. Whew!

The next thing Mauriac finds incredible (I think) is Monod’s statement that all that life is comes from experience, not a tabula rasa ala Aristotle and John Locke, but from the entire history of life, i.e., “the experiences accumulated by the entire ancestry of the species.” All that we are arises in a fortuitous bubbling of genes coming together over 4 billion years, or to borrow a phrase from James Joyce, “accidental music providentially arranged” by unknown happenstance beginning long, long ago. One facet of this evolutionary experience is our inborn fear of solitude and our need for a “need for a complete binding explanation,” of our existence, i.e., this the facet of spirit and religion.

And so at the end of chapter 8 Monod writes, “What doubt can there be of the presence of the spirit within us? To give up the illusion that sees in it an immaterial ‘substance’ [god] is not to deny the existence of the soul, but on the contrary to begin to recognize the complexity, the richness, the unfathomable profundity of the genetic and cultural heritage and of the personal experience, conscious or otherwise, which together constitute this being of ours: the unique and irrefutable witness to itself.” To appreciate the soul, then, travel back upriver to the springs of our genetic watersheds. Now that is pretty incredible, and sorry to say, Monsieur Mauriac, quite scientific.

Rumor has it that when asked if he believed in god, Einstein replied, “I do if it is Spinoza’s god.”  I think Baruch Spinoza would be right there with Jacques Monod and his natural philosophy and would be delighted that somebody could write these notions openly without fear of being burned at the stake by the religious authorities. Travel on. I suggest heading upriver but it is all of a piece, river journey or a beachhead on the ocean of experience. Plash and eddy by the banks, wave and glisten on the shore.

higher evolution?

A quick post here and now on an important topic.  The NYT had a column 2 days ago about a famous biologist/geneticist, William Hamilton, who speculated half in jest that life on earth might be an entertainment powerful aliens set in motion.  Okay then, this is the guy Richard Dawkins cited so much and with so much respect in his book, The Selfish Gene, showing how evolution progresses in a random manner (sort of, I know that is too simple, but at least without a guiding purpose to an end point).  The columnist for the Stone, Robert Wright, properly points out that this similar to the thought some of our intelligentsia endorse that we are actually a simulation in some being’s supercomputer and to the notion of God as in intelligent design.  (Link here, I hope:  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/12/opinion/can-evolution-have-a-higher-purpose.html?).  I will throw in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, an unusual Jesuit born in 1881 who pursued studies in geology and paleontology and developed the idea of the Omega Point.  Evolution and Gaia, he thought, were progressing to the point where life would become so conscious and complex that we would join with the universe or god.  For such ideas and others on original sin, the Catholic church exiled him to China where he participated in the discovery of the Peking Man (from 700,000 years ago roughly).

teilhard_de_chardin1

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, French philosopher, scientist and priest

I am getting ready after all these long years to re-read one of the seminal books in our history, Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity.  A couple of weeks ago I found an old copy (there are none new) and glanced through it at some of my favorite topics, including teleonomy, the notion that life evolves with purpose, that it progresses.  Human attempts to understand our place in the universe most often devolves into misunderstanding that we are the crown of creation.  Ain’t we grand to figure that out?  So life science with the advent of Darwin and evolutionary genetics generally frowns on such notions that God or aliens or whatever directs evolution from some supernatural place or, if alien, some supernormal one.

1965Monod

Jacques Monod, another French scientist and philosopher.

One of the more agreed upon findings is that life on Gaia has evolved to greater complexity, though any understanding why is more speculative.  Monod focuses some on another of my recent favorite topics, invariance.  Life is life because it reproduces itself invariantly and evolution ‘progresses’ because of random imperfections in the invariant reproduction that contribute to or detract from the organism’s adaptive success in its current environment.  And it does seem to be true that this increased complexity has engendered greater minds. (I am looking at you, Mammals).

My own thought here is that life began some 3.5 billion years ago as a self-sustaining chemical conflagration.  To maintain itself invariantly (its soma) until reproduction, life must solve the world problem (SWP) of finding sustenance in the environment for its biochemistry.  This SWP in a more powerful way is the essential path evolution leads us on (along with CR or conspecific relations but that comes some billion years or so later).  Monod’s book is important because he lays out life’s great genius or better, daemon, as he explicates the title, Chance and Necessity.  From this perspective, life’s evolution of intellect is part and parcel of just this, to manage and minimize exigency and to exploit chance.  Remember you read that phrase here first, and as H. L. Mencken said, “We are here and it is now.  All other human knowledge is moonshine.”  Travel on.

 

 

 

Science mirrors art?

I am a big fan of Frans de Waals and his approach to finding the roots of our humanity by understanding other animals. This was Darwin’s great contribution in 1859 with On the Origin of Species and then in 1871 with the Descent of Man. I tend to think of this as a more recent idea in our culture, which until the 16th century, was governed by religious precepts—you know, humans, especially the males, are specifically blessed by god. I have read, though, that even some ancient Greeks climbed Mt Olympus and not finding the gods, conceived of a natural reality rather than a supernatural one. Ah, well, just a minority. Western civilization’s weltanshauung of humanity, however, was based upon a monopoly on spiritual transcendence (lucky white people, ain’t that a coincidence!?) and that continues to be the case more than we might estimate today.   It took modern science until Darwin to gather in that any and all humans are biological and evolved and evolving (well, maybe). That was 1859.

FRANCE - HONORE DE BALZAC

Honore de Balzac

Well, now I read in Honore de Balzac’s 1835 novel Pere Goriot this sentence, “The bold philosopher who shall investigate the effects of mental action upon the physical world will doubtless find more than one proof of the material nature of our sentiments in other animals”. He is talking specifically about the ultra-altruistic parenting instinct old father Goriot shows for his daughters who, though rich because of his sacrifice, have abandoned him to poverty and ridicule. Balzac’s prescient metaphor is amazing; a realist writer intuitively understood the truth of such an idea and used it to show the depth of parental love in the midst of a rich narrative about a rather vain shallow society. Science came to this revolutionary formulation some 20 years later, but then, when I consider the knowledge and wisdom of agriculturalists, such a way of thinking was surely commonplace, albeit framed by the religiously defined ladder of life. If art mimics life, then science mimics art, and I mean that literally—see my posts about memes and mirrors. And where does religion fit in? Just a conceited imagination running away with you, necessary perhaps but not good or bad necessarily. Travel on.