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.

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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.

no more anthropodenial

One week from today will be my self-proclaimed holiday “Mammalian Heritage Day” that I started last year. I will re-post from those posts next week but today I want to refer you to 2 news reports that illustrate the remarkable path the earliest mammals started us down on some 300 million years ago.

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In this new tree of life mammals would be found in the green projections in lower right corner.

The first report is about the empirical support now in for the ‘cultural’ brain hypothesis’, i.e., essentially that our brains, especially as primates and before that as mammals, enlarged with our increasing sociability, meaning the rich domain of information our empathic and signal communication contributes to our lives and experience. Over the past several years researchers have documented deep similarities between human society and cetacean society. Check out this story from Earthsky.org: http://earthsky.org/earth/whales-dolphins-live-human-like-lives. This list covers some remarkable evolutionary developments that have culminated with primate and cetacean species. Consider that we all are

– Working together for mutual benefit
– Teaching others how to hunt and cooperative hunting
– Using tools
– Complex vocalizations -‘talking’ to each other – including regional group dialects
– Signature whistles that are unique to individuals
– Name recognition
– Interspecific cooperation (working with humans and other species)
– Adult animals looking after youngsters that aren’t their own
– Social play

The second story comes from researchers who have documented that chimpanzees, both in human captivity and in the wild, show stable personality traits quite similar to ours, to which we now say, “of course”. Consider this NYT story: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/24/science/chimpanzees-goodall.html. This report accompanies the release of a new documentary about Jane Goodall’s early research. What a brilliant human she is, first as a scientist with immense vision and courage developed through the most rigorous fieldwork imaginable and now as a wise and astute advocate for Gaia and especially its creatures under duress of extinction. When she began her studies back in 1960, her findings were belittled as anthropomorphic projection. Now we have Frans de Waal cautioning us against anthropodenial by which we deny and ignore the evolutionary continuities between ourselves and the rest of the animal kingdom (especially mammals like primates and cetaceans). Our similarities run deep from our shared genetic heritage up to, as research continues to demonstrate, our social selves and groups. Makes me glad to be alive, so I think I will travel on with a little swing to my step.

 

2 genetic studies and a bit of poetry

One study demonstrates how an ethic of knowledge leads to a knowledge of ethics, and the other demonstrates, gee, I don’t know, the value of humility in scientific reasoning? For the first see NYT:  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/12/science/skin-color-race.html.  These researchers studied which genes influenced skin color across several populations. The details are interesting so please read the article for more. Basically they found that we, including Neandertals, all have many of the same genes for lighter and darker skin, but they express differently in different populations because of other genetic factors. The gene promoting the lightest skin tones are actually very recent, appearing, they think, roughly 30,000 years ago primarily in northern European peoples and have spread because of the advantage conferred by the ability to absorb more ultraviolet light that is more limited in northern latitudes.

Their search for understanding also leads them to an important conclusion about ethics. Skin color is not a good indicator of racial differences; I don’t know what is but it is not our skins because we all share so many of the same genes influencing this particular trait. The scientists here have contributed importantly to the growing understanding that our definitions of race are based more on our proclivity for defining in-group/out-group in a discriminatory, defensive manner and not on any significant biological facts. To paraphrase Te-Nehisi Coates: the concept of race is an invention of racists, i.e., one group of people wants to define another artificially in order to rationalize their own greed for power and exploitation. (See post here on race 5/17/17). As Monod hoped, an ethic of knowledge leads to a knowledge of ethics. I wonder when our ancestors first used skin color to define in/out-groups—I bet it was relatively recently. Remember Homo sapiens interbred with Homo neandertals some 35,000 years ago so that speaks to some inclusion.

The second study is a bit more puzzling to me. I have seen it reported a couple of places such as earthsky.com: http://earthsky.org/human-world/aging-breakthrough-mainz-genes-autophagy.   These researchers studied the aging process. Why is it that our molecular mechanisms begin to break down after a relatively predictable amount of time? They found some genes, studying a worm, that promote autophagy, the process whereby the body eliminates damaged or malfunctioning cells and allows new ones to regenerate the systems. This functions very well in young organisms but falls off after reproductive age and even more with older age. It is important to note here, I think, that we humans have a relatively long juvenile pattern before our reproductive age and we do seem to live long after that age has passed. This research is an important contribution towards understanding and treating neurodegenerative diseases and such.

But I have a quibble here. Aging and death are described as a “quirk” of evolution because according to their rendition of Darwin’s theory, living longer would enable more of one’s genes to be replicated and passed on: “In theory, this should give rise to individuals with traits which prevent aging as their genes could be passed on nearly continuously. Thus, despite the obvious facts to the contrary, from the point of evolution aging should never have happened”. Ah, now, if this is orthodox, let me put forward the heterodox. From the point of view of evolution, longer lived individuals would slow down the evolving adaptability, so that as conditions changed but the genomes remained the same, the organism would be left high and dry, so to speak, and less well adapted. There is no “point of evolution” except to hold off entropy and continue the genetic line into the future. To do this the soma must ameliorate exigencies and exploit chance. Nothing here speaks to long life as a necessarily positive trait and everything else speaks to evolutionary change as an important facet to life passing by on Gaia. Consider what the longer life spans and increasing survival rates of humans mean for our increasingly overpopulated planet. Consider the dysfunction of monoculture in agriculture. Consider the lack of genetic change over 50 million years in cockroaches with their prolonged adaptability. This is what the ‘quirk’ saves us from.

Clearly a limited life span is an integral part of evolutionary mechanics and not a quirk. With the rise of human consciousness and the realization that our life is but one act with a beginning and end, some humans have sought to escape those bounds. Consider the idiotic superstition of Ponce de Leon, then the dignity of an Inuit elder who, in times of famine, wanders off into the snowy land so that younger ones have a better chance of survival. Consider the death with dignity movement nowadays. We are better when grounded in the knowledge that death is natural even as we promote health. And while an ethic of knowledge can lead to knowledge of ethics, that can also go astray. The vital impulse to live is strong but limited. The spark of life shines and burns to an end; that is life and that is the universe. Best we remember that.

I remember a statement by Charles Sanders Pierce around 1900 that should we live forever, everything that we know would pass, that institutions and groups would break down, and we would be left with an ongoing and growing sense of loss. Instead, said Pierce, we have death. Finally remember the bears and then travel on while we may:

 

I am some bears,

One at a time per occasion, if you catch my drift,

But still I am some bears,

Like polar or black or panda or grizzly or teddy

Or Kodiak brown or koala;

Oh yes, I am.

 

On occasions of white and my world harsh with cold,

I pad about on grainy sharp ice,

Protected by fur and fat from the fury of a young arctic storm,

Mindful ever that the possibilities and necessities of life

Crystallize briefly on earth.

 

When beneath the gloriously coloured forest,

I splash and swim to feast on fish and plant,

When tickled by the warm bright sunlight near summer’s solstice,

I roll on my back and bare my belly

To the world’s richness.

 

After such occasions, slowed by the sweet tastes

of berries and nuts

I amble through thickets and savour the lushness

of plant and fruit

Until I sleep in the heat of the season,

Sweetly complacent about winter’s approach,

Dreaming of life’s possibilities and necessities.

Oh yes, I do.