Review: The Natural History of Human Morality

Our gardens are taking much of my energy these days, but I sometimes reflect on my biological preoccupations while I am out there. For example, why am I currently focused on the biological roots of human values? Two main reasons. First, I live in an area where strong fundamentalist, even evangelical, religion fills people’s minds and our media. Associated with that comes a nostalgia for the Confederacy. I often read locally that god (take your pick of the many iterations out there) is the source of values, so our American separation of church and state is misguided. Oh, so wrong, even looking at the beliefs of our founding fathers (and mothers). Plus, I have just finished a magnificent book, The Half Has Never Been Told, about how our capitalist and wealthy society rose up on the backs of slaves, and that was a value preached from the white pulpit. Values are man-made, so to speak, and biological in origin even when they are perverse and distorted.

Second, for a rational source of values, go back a few posts (6/28/17 & 7/8/17) where I reveled in Monod’s exposition of spirit conceived of as inherent in our biology. I find his thinking a clear guide to true and humane values, so back to Monod’s ethic of knowledge and the knowledge of ethics. The basic biological value is to promote the generational advancement of a species, i.e., replication of genes and the evolutionary descent from life’s inception until now. All life is local and flows into the future as best it can. If you have followed my blog over the past year or so, you know my supposition that life’s basic task, then, is SWP (Solving World Problems), i.e., the job of gaining what is needed from the world to fulfill that basic biological value, and SWP engenders the ethic of knowledge. The better we know the world, the better we can SWP. You also know that early on in Gaia’s evolution sexual reproduction appeared and that increased the force with which life flows into the future because it increases the pace of new genetic combinations and most significantly for our humanity, it engendered a new set of values for CR (Conspecific Relations). CR transformed the biosphere with the advent of mammals and their remarkable evolution of family relations and empathy. Finally you know that very recently in Gaia’s past SWP embraced CR as a way of organizing the group for success and CR embraced SWP as a way of developing more powerful actions together. In more concrete terms conspecifics became adept at learning and cooperating with each other to mitigate exigencies and exploit opportunities, thereby increasing survival rates, and also turned their impulses to SWP to focus on group organization and governance. That, for me, is a decent summary of the evolutionary descent of humans as we developed a cultural world and an awareness of our humanity.

Many values develop from there, and I appreciate Michael Tomasello’s book, The Natural History of Human Morality, for illuminating this important phase of our evolution. His basic method is to compare empirical studies of moral actions between simians and toddlers, reasoning that any differences shown thereby through similar or analogous designs would highlight the evolution of human morality as distinct from that of apes and as independent of cultural entrainment, i.e., the toddlers would not show much effect of acculturation because of their age and development so any differences could be seen more surely as our evolutionary genetic heritage. Simple and brilliant. And he cites a good deal of research showing some distinct and important differences.

The basic difference is that apes are more competitive than cooperative while toddlers are more cooperative than competitive. Simians will cooperate in order to win a competition, perhaps against one stronger because their social order and interaction are based upon force to a large degree. (If I remember correctly I think Frans der Waal reports some simian relationships are also based upon age, history of interaction, family relations, what I might call simian social wiles and empathy so Tomasello may be overselling the simians’ lack of caring.)  Tomasello does look at some distinct differences to be seen between young humans and mature simians and these highlight the reliance on force used by the great apes in varying degrees, bonobos less than chimps, in contrast with the care and comfort offered by human infants, social behaviors not seen in the simians. For example, human infants as young as 14 months will help others, even strangers, when they perceive their frustration at a task by doing some action to solve the challenge to the goal. They will help spontaneously without incentive. Likewise, they will comfort others who are distressed; the higher the level of distress, the more likely the toddlers respond to soothe. They also show satisfaction when another person provides the soothing, and this seems to me clear indication of the mirroring system establishing a loop of a right brain leading with the warm social reaction to a vicariously experienced social situation. Whoa! These sorts of behaviors are by and large absent in the simian repertoire.

Tomasello goes further and argues that human morality is thus shown to be distinctive very early on, and that argues for a strong genetic influence. He then incorporates more observations as he explicates how our morality changes from our early empathy guided behaviors to the more sophisticated mores established through acculturation. This early empathy (my term, not his) provides the substrate upon which self-other equivalence is developed, and from there the next step to self-other morality, i.e., the same rules apply to each, is tangibly realized. Here, if you will, is the biological origin of the golden rule: do to others as you want done to you.

Part of this shift in human development involves the widening of the empathic circle to include non-kin and even strangers and this comes along with our cooperating with just about anyone really to do necessary tasks, tasks that cannot be performed without competent cooperation and that are important to the selves and their group(s). Herein grows the expectation and obligation that everyone is expected to perform competently in attaining their goal and the same rewards and penalties apply to everyone. These social mores develop incidentally, more or less, until their codification and increasing social complexity demand conscious consideration. Tomasello explains this in some detail and brings up an idea from his earlier work, that these new ways of interacting brought about new ways of thinking. I am still considering how to understand what he means there and so will post on that later, I hope, and I have purchased his earlier book, The Natural History of Human Thinking.

I find much support in this book for my notion that the evolution of empathy and symbolization form the roots of our humanity. I especially appreciate the good science in demonstrating how our empathy is different from that of other animals and how that has led to a moral dimension of culture. Our empathy is indeed very powerful and pervades all of our mental development. Our special sense or intuition of another’s intent and mental states/processes allow a grand expansion of cooperation, especially as this also leads to symbolic communication about our subjective experience, thoughts and feelings. (Remember, sometimes empathy+symbolization=art.)

I also find some clues about how to understand phenomena like slavery or its modern incarnations in the ways the rich steal the fruits of working people’s labors. The enslavers and the powerful wealthy elite operate with a morality more akin to the simian’s reliance on force: if I can gain resources from the community for myself by force and manipulation of law (and values), ignoring the empathic connection so strong in humanity, I am successful and dominant. The next time you see an ‘alpha’ male gloating over power and wealth, picture a simple ape standing over his pile of bananas while others look on empty-handed and wonder how some can depreciate our distinctive values arising from our biology. Finally, consider how the cultural mind-set of power, e.g., colonial imperialism, is so prominent in some nations and classes and resistant to change (talk to a Scotsman about the English, talk to the 99%ers about the 1%, read Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, listen to Noam Chomsky).

I learned a good deal from this book and will learn more by re-reading some passages and maybe one day soon (like winter time when the garden lies mostly fallow) I will re-read the entirety. That said, I want to recommend this book with a quibble: the prose is academic and at times oh so tedious. I understand the academic culture and social styles; I struggled with writing in accordance through two graduate degrees. I got better with the help of my excellent advisers, who, I am sure, found my natural style very un-academic and prone to ambiguity, obtuseness and metaphorical extension. Kind of like here. So read this book patiently, being forewarned of potential difficulty, and consider what this means about us humans in the grand scheme of life.

a positivist genesis myth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beauty beyond evolutionary adaptation

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

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

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

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

FibonacciChamomile

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

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

cloudsocean

What’s it to be, luminous or numinous?

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

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

a bit of speculation

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

512px-Craniums_of_Homo

We are #6, Moroccan closer to 5.

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

Lobes_of_the_brain

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

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

Triangulating 3 reports

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

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

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

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

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

Genetic Watersheds

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

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

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

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

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

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

Re-reading Monod: WOW! edition

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

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

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

1965Monod

Jacques Monod, Resistance hero and great scientist and philosopher.

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

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

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

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