Part 4: Is art a spandrel?

To be sure, this view describes how art would seem to function today, but consider the human past.  It seems a certainty that over the eons of our recent evolution and the millenia of our prehistory that the human umvelt slowly changed from one dominated by our perceptual-motor engagement within the ambient to one composed from information displaced in time and space.  Indeed, by 100,000 years ago our umvelt would seem to have been composed of imaginal forms that encompassed the great uncertainties of what we now understand as the human condition.  These would include life, birth, death, weather, the rhythms of the sun, moon, and stars, health and disease, family, friendship and conflict, hunger, and plenty.  It also seems a certainty that for our umvelt to transform to one dominated by mnemonic and imaginal forms and for this information to come under the control of symbolic processes, our neuropsychological capabilities developed both the intrapsychic mental landscape supporting the growth of enduring cultural forms and the interpersonal processes whereby cultural forms were composed and transmitted through language and artistic means.  Our minds began sharing virtual forms.

These neuropsychological capabilities, whatever the details of genetic change were that led to newly formed structures along with the re-purposing of older systems, and given the opportunity of an extended altricial period, emerged from the neo-mammalian processes of attachment, bonding and empathy coupled with ever more powerful communicative abilities.  One incipient condition for the evolutionary emergence of art was the marriage between robust conspecific relations that were empowered by very keen empathic abilities and the adaptive processes dedicated to analyzing and accommodating to the exigencies and possibilities of living in a complex and changing world.  The development of symbolic thought in its dual capacity to control subjective information and to communicate that objectively thus enabled humans to solve the problems of living communally.  One of those problems was communal life, and art, both about the self and about the subject’s experience, has helped solve that problem.

Evolutionary psychologist Michael Tomasello has presented us with some interesting ideas about how humans came to solve life’s problems communally in two books, The Natural History of Human Language and The Natural History of Human Morality (69, 70). The essential idea here is that humans, as research by Tomasello and many others has shown, are very cooperative animals, significantly more cooperative than any of the other primates.  Given this powerful proclivity we have developed some high level social abilities involving cooperating to accomplishing complex tasks, role switching so that success was dependent upon group learning and not on any one special individual, and self/other evaluation as to one’s dependability in fulfilling any one role.  Thus, the social features of clear communication, standard protocols and fairness in interpersonal relationships grew to become cultural standards.  In Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, the human habitus emerged (5).

Tomasello has provided us with a very workable hypothesis about how we came to solve our problems communally and how we could regulate communal life.  Given the fecundity of our symbolic capabilities and the complexity of establishing group identity from diverse subjective selves, how are we to understand the creation of this communal mental life to be regulated?  How do we go from a habitus of procedural mores to a deeper culture of conceptual realities when those realities are nowhere in objective evidence?  How do we transmit and transmute that culture for inter-generational learning and ongoing adaptability?  Here we approach the evolutionary significance of art, whether it be a spandrel or a supporting pillar.  Today, after roughly 15,000 years of more or less continual cultural development, we are born into a cultural milieu of great expanse and subtle power.  The rise of agriculture and larger settlements, and the subsequent necessity of increased social organization, began the historical period of civilizations, but what culture came before and how it did, whatever it was, develop?  The evolution of Homo sapiens from its inception say 250,000 years ago to the ending of the neolithic period around 4,000 years ago came with brains capable of symbolic thought and social organization based upon symbolic processes.

When we embraced through our symbolic capabilities not just the practicalities of survival but also the mysteries of the human condition, e.g., birth, death, fate, disease, etc., and our deep need for family and social supports, we began the creation, transmission and deepening development of the cultural field.  Just as our brains map space, time and experience (that is a feature of our mammalian heritage), we also began to map the shared material from subjective musings about life’s exigencies, possibilities, and vicissitudes.  That came to include imaginative material and so began the composition of the deep cultural field, wherein flourished the narratives, beliefs, and mythic ideas about the forces of nature and the limits of life.

This development may have satisfied an incipient intellectual need for understanding and explanation, but more importantly, I think, the cultural field met two challenges.  The first was the need for social regulation of a sometimes all too fecund symbolic imagination by a shared and transmissible group of concepts related to the advance of the cultural understanding.  This established an authority of tradition and limits to what new gods, etc., could be created, because the traditions had stood the test of time.  The second was to ameliorate the distrust or mystery of what was going on in each person’s subjective musings.  So long as groups were organized around intimate social awareness and knowledge, e.g. families, clans and tribes, one could trust another not to be asocial and exploitative.  The ending of the neolithic period came about as agriculture led to larger settlements (28), so that trust based upon intimate knowledge was inadequate.  Metallurgy led to new sorts of tools and, critically, weapons, so that ability to understand another’s beliefs and intentions became a matter of vital importance. Finally extensive trading based especially upon writing brought contact with very different others, and this challenged the deep-seated mistrust of the others.  However, if their cultural field were similar to one’s own, e.g., gods were recognizable, myths spoke of familiar issues, and the habitus of interpersonal relationships were agreeable and valued safety and respect, then a basic level of trust could be extended beyond the intimate group.

For example, many cultures held that a guest or stranger be given a certain amount of hospitality, and that once admitted as a guest that person guaranteed mutual respect and safety.  Violations of these mores were not easily forgiven and if repeated, marked the offending group or individual as untrustworthy and uncivilized.  Other strictures, e.g., trading, marriage, theft, kidnapping, etc. operated similarly.  Some prehistoric art was certainly a cultural signal about group identity and what social mores might operate, just as a person’s individual art signaled something about their identity and social roles. Thus, the cultural field operated to regulate interpersonal and inter-group issues of trust, and art played an important because salient role in this domain.

Art works composed about experience also played a more subtle role in this extension of trust.

to be continued

Is art a spandrel?

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

IS ART AN EVOLUTIONARY SPANDREL?

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.

Damasio’s Strange Order of Things

I actually finished reading Antonio Damasio’s book, The Strange Order of Things:  Life, Feeling and the Making of Cultures, a few weeks back.  While reading I thought of several things about which to blog but I was very busy on the farm.  Now I have gone back over my highlights and will write a review about it, but I seem to have lost several of my ideas from before.  Let that be a lesson to me—write down thoughts even if not enough time to work up a proper post.

If you have read any of Damasio’s other books or any of my posts about them here, you already know that he thinks that we conceptually slight feelings and emotions, that these are really the foundation of our mental life and that thinking follows feelings’ lead.  This is quite in line with Susanne Langer’s notion that our minds are based upon feeling, thus the title of her magnum opus, Mind:  An Essay on Human Feeling, so I really appreciate Damasio’s conceptualization.  (He does not cite Langer; very, very few do and I find that regrettable). And in Strange Order he makes an even stronger statement, oh boy!

A couple of quotes will frame his view for us.  Damasio sees “the roots of human cultures in nonhuman biology” and he finds that “the conventional contrast between affect and reason comes from a narrow conception of emotions and feelings”.  His understanding rests upon the central importance of homeostasis, that function wherein life maintains itself within healthy parameters.  Our emotions and their mental derivatives, feelings, are in his view our response to changes in homeostasis.  For example, consider how our impulse to be sociable varies with our homeostatic status.  When we are sociable, our homeostasis becomes more stable, and when we feel unsociable, our homeostasis grows more vulnerable.  Thus, a key factor in the health and continued longevity of elders is their social contact.  Remember as well that married people (really those in a close, stable relationship) generally enjoy greater health.  Damasio even makes the argument that  religious beliefs and practices function to ensure that humans are sociable and thus enjoy more stable vitality.  That is what feelings and culture do for us.

Damasio sees such phenomena as basic to life, i.e., evident throughout different evolutionary complexity.  Bacteria in a resource rich environment that enables easy homeostasis go their own individual ways, but in a resource poor one they clump together for support. Some use chemical signaling to monitor how many conspecifics are around just in case.  Likewise, human “cultural instruments first developed in response to the homeostatic needs of individuals and of groups”.  Damasio understands that “feeling and subjectivity are old abilities” and not dependent upon the evolution of brains with cortex.

He gives a complex and sophisticated explanation of how our mental subjectivity developed.  He says that the basic unit of the mind is the image and that our particular (I want to say ‘special’ but this is fraught with anthropocentric connotations.  I would mean ‘special’ in the sense that it denotes a feature specific to a species.  Thus I could also write about the special feelings and subjectivity of planaria) subjectivity comes from our talent for imaging our own internal workings, e.g. our gut has an enteric 2ndbrain with many neurons and more dopamine, and our external world, and then integrating the two into one mental image of our experience as we incidentally form a narrative with our feelings as our life unfolds.  I must say this is a rich and concise formulation of our mentality.

I see life functioning to mitigate exigencies and exploit chance; that is what we animate beings do (this following Heraclitus and Monod).  Damasio formulates it slightly differently, that life sustains itself by countering, i.e., he says ‘resisting’, entropy and continuing the life stream into the future.  And he emphasizes that our humanity is yet another iteration of this. “In the end human creativity is rooted in life and in the breath taking fact that life comes equipped with a breathtaking mandate:  resist and project itself into the future”.

This book covers a great deal of scientific and philosophical ground and that gives me plenty to ponder and learn.  Damasio is a big fan of Spinoza (see his earlier book on this) and he also cites Nietzsche saying that humans are “hybrids of plants and ghosts”.  That is a lovely and funny metaphor.  Damasio discusses our evolution and appreciates our control of fire not just to cook food and so support our homeostasis that way but also to provide the hearth environment for socializing and so support our vitality thusly.  One more point: he discusses anger as a negative emotion that has functioned quite well and adaptively over the course of our evolution but asserts that it now poses diminishing returns for our species, i.e., our anger is more destructive of our ability to live together than constructive in maintaining our lives.

An interesting and richly rewarding read. Keeping with my tradition, I will mention a small quibble about how he verbalizes sometimes about the relation our brains have with our somas, e.g., our brains as independent units. Ugh!  Never will I succumb to that view, nor does Damasio, I think, as he discusses the embodiment of our minds.  Why use that phrasing? I do not know.  Apart from that I found myself extending his analyses by formulating what he wrote into how I see our individual minds as a function of our social and cultural group. That, however, suits my purposes, not his, which was to enrich our impoverished understanding of emotions and feelings.  Wonderful.

 

How we might think about biology and beauty

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

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

Spandrel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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?

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A handsome and rare indigo bunting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Epilogue

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

 

Thirty spokes

Meet in the hub.

Where the wheel isn’t

Is where it’s useful.

 

Hollowed out

Clay makes a pot.

Where the pot’s not

Is where it’s useful.

 

Cut doors and windows

Make a room.

Where the room isn’t

There’s room for you.

 

So the profit in what is

Is in the use of what isn’t.

 

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

Aesthetics, evolution and landscape photos? Really?

I write my ideas here knowing that while they grow from a broad range of empirical findings, they are sometimes speculative or better imaginative musings that I think are intuitively true and that someday our science will move towards understanding more fully.  I understand that a scientifically designed procedure to tap into our aesthetic sensibility is somewhat of a challenge.  I look for material to read based upon my intuitive review of possibilities, especially reference lists in the piece being read. Thus I happened on a book listed in many references and cited as an important contribution to understanding humanity and then found it at my local college library (once I paid the visitor’s fee for my borrower’s card).

The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture is a collection of articles from 1992.  I appreciated the points made in the lead article that the study of mind and culture was preeminently a task of biology, especially evolutionary science and neuroscience.  It is quite a polemic as it goes over (and over and over) their argument why the old paradigms for psychology and culture were conceptually inadequate to understand our embodied mental machines and so a new paradigm must emerge grounded in our biological roots.  I would hope their argument has won the day but I suspect it could still be more deeply and widely understood in academia and I know the public is mainly in the dark.

Anyway, further along in the book I came to a section entitled “Environmental Aesthetics” that I thought looked promising.  I am not sure about this but I do not think the writers have a very high (or adequate) opinion of aesthetics.  As you know, I think our aesthetics grows from the oldest roots of life through empathy and symbolization to infiltrate our sometimes wondrous minds.  You further know that I like the ancient conceptualization that beauty (you know, the object of aesthetics) comprises 3 aspects: unity, coherence, and luminosity. Unity and coherence without luminosity is just any old gestalt form, while with it the form glows aesthetically.

cloudsocean

Now this scene glows with beauty and no land in sight.

So one article in this section furthers the use of one empirical methodology, having subjects give various ratings of photographs.  This is not as easy as it may sound because there are so many variables in the composition and presentation of the photos that should be controlled. My impression is that these researchers did an admirable job in carrying out the experiment.  My difficulty lies with their theoretical frame and the conclusions therefrom. So . . .

Gordon Orians and Judith Heerwagen (I apologize for any misspellings—I can’t read my own notes) showed carefully selected landscape photos to a diverse sampling of subjects and asked them to rate the photos.  They found that people seem to prefer landscapes that are not too complex or simple with a feature suggestive of something just out of sight or that invited exploration.  They cite previous work showing that people liked an air of mystery in their photos. They found evolutionary implications in that the preferred landscape resembled the savannahs in east Africa where we first appeared in evolution.  They seemed to assume the lesser importance of some other factors, you know like if the neighbors are dangerous, if the weather and seasonal variation are commensurate with the cultural needs for resources.  Settling in an area for even a short time must also depend more upon the ephemeral qualities of the land, wind and breeze, rain and fog, light and shadow.  Perhaps a preferred ecology would be a more adequate concept and might help explain why 90% of the world’s current population lives close to an ocean or sea and why humans have adapted to virtually every habitat available on this planet and dreams of moving on to others.  And what about our proclivity to move on for a plethora of reasons, e.g., solitude, exploring, encountering the new, etc.,?  The researchers also said that people want a landscape to be easy to move around on but this ignores what I find a very important impulse, the urge to explore and wander, to sample what is out there beyond their ken and to enjoy the challenge of the journey.  The Americas were not settled easily and let’s not forget the Inuit who liked a landscape quite plain and cold.  In any case, their idea of landscape preference is simplistic and their notion of aesthetics is quite ugly.

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Our beautiful farm has savannah and mountains.

I am not sure what this photo experiment demonstrated beyond the preference for simple yet complex gestalts of any sort, indeed of all sorts, but they are not close to evolutionary aesthetics.  They do breathe an air of mystery, so maybe if they follow their nose, they will find a better conceptual path to luminous beauty.

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The Quiraing is both beautiful and mysterious, plus the BFG lives there.

 

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.

 

4th anniversary #3: soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN

I look at what we humans do every day all day long in the course of living and see biological marvels. So I have found that a summary, i.e., a brief conceptualization encapsulating a developed set of ideas and data (you know, information), is helpful (to me at least) in thinking and talking about our biological roots. I have two main ones for rendering my ideas. I posted about the genetic watersheds previously and here is the second, the soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN. The basic idea is that the soma (the body) and its brain have evolved as the genes flowed down from the Solving World Problem watershed to our pool and so shaped our current evolutionary form. With the additional flow from the Conspecific Relations watershed that began with sexual reproduction, the brain began to develop special abilities related to mating, communication, child rearing, and group formation and maintenance. These new exaptations specifically supported social relations and eventually brain systems became dedicated to these functions, and in doing so became the MEMBRAIN of the mind. The brain thus developed a MEMBRAIN because family, tribe and group relations turns out to be a very powerful factor promoting evolutionary adaptability. (This underlines the prominent place of mammals, including us, in the evolutionary tree of life—see recent posts about Mammalian Heritage Day).

somabrainM

Where is the self? the habits? Oh so many more questions.

A cursory glance shows how somas have evolved through the eons of life on Gaia. Changes in sensory and perceptual capabilities along with changes in motoric abilities have yielded many varied life forms that cover the planet and its many niches. One of my favorite examples is birds migrating thousands of miles attuned to the seasons and guided by geography and the magnetic field of the earth. Another is that fish can be frozen and thawed out some time later, then brought back to life, their biological clocks picking up where life’s rhythm left off. Insects are incredibly prolific, diverse and successful. Cockroaches have maintained essentially the same form for many millions of years. Butterflies range from drab to brilliant. Oh, the list goes on to include all of the living organisms on our planet from the net of fungus and other microorganisms thriving just below the surface to humans as we leave for other worlds.

Similarly, brains have evolved to greater and greater complexity thereby enabling more powerful capabilities. The modern evolved brain still interfaces with the somatic external boundary for the ambient, i.e., the sensorium, and within the soma internally through proprioception, its autonomic systems, i.e., sympathetic and parasympathetic, and chemical systems, i.e., hormonal and neurotransmitters. The nervous system, central, peripheral, and autonomic divisions, maintains homeostasis and vitality. The central nervous system with its increasing encephalization generates contexts that are deep in purview and broad in scope. These then form the basis for complex intentions and plans that guide increasingly sophisticated behaviors. Over the course of evolution, then, brains enlarged perceptual processing and integration, memory systems, motoric control, management of impulses and implementing complex purposive behaviors. And all of this is contingent upon emotional control and stability, i.e., nervous homeostasis.

With the rising evolutionary importance of conspecific relations, extant systems in the brain were dedicated to social interaction through exaptation that led to further development of systems to form the MEMBRAIN. Recognition of individuals, coordination of mating and child rearing practices along with signal communication appeared early on. The advent of live birth, altricial young and a prolonged juvenile period increased the importance of parenting, cooperation and communication. Systems operating with empathic communication through kinesic channels developed from facial recognition and increased with social agency. Neurologically this resulted especially in enlarged parietal and temporal lobes that increased the complex interplay between occipital and frontal lobes. The momentous developments of attachment and individuation based upon a powerful empathic sense of others led to a sense of self, and then culminated in symbolic communication to share information displaced in time and space, i.e., mentally and not perceptually generated information, among each others’ minds. The MEMBRAIN, then, initiated with social interaction, became the organ controlling mental information, and finally constituted a interpersonal shared organ supporting or comprising the habitus and cultural learning, i.e., the social mind composed from many individual minds.

This summary shows the constancy of what I call the 4 membrane functions: keep material/information in and out, pass material/information in and out. Even the first soma fulfilled these four functions in order to solve the basic world problem of obtaining nutrients and eliminating wastes and keeping toxins out while keeping metabolic machinery protected within. This is all in keeping with mitigating exigencies and exploiting opportunities (chance and necessity). Early somas’ membranes evolved in more complex organisms to become skin that then fulfilled these same functions. The evolutionary appearance of brains continued these operations, and it makes perfect sense that neurological tissue develops in the embryo from the same tissue as skin. With the powerful transformation enacted by CR the MEMBRAIN appears and these specialized systems fulfill the membrane functions for social/mental information. It is all of a piece.

This synopsis of the soma-brain-MEMBRAIN evolution shows the biological roots of our humanity from deep in mammalian evolution through primates (50 million years ago) and then hominids (500,000 years ago). And that led to cultural evolution of the past 100,000 years or so, especially the most recent 15,000 years since the advent of agriculture. Time to travel on to #4: some things I have learned from doing this blog.