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.

Jacques Monod, I hear you

In the next two posts I am going on a foray above my pay grade, so to speak, and develop some thoughts in response to Monod’s challenge to develop an ethics of knowledge. If you recall, on page 176, he writes, “It is obvious that the positing of the principle of objectivity as the condition of true knowledge constitutes an ethical choice and not a judgment arrived at through knowledge, since, according to the postulate’s own terms, there cannot have been any “true” knowledge prior to this arbitral choice. In order to establish the norm for knowledge the objectivity principle defines a value: that value is objective knowledge itself. . . . one announces one’s adherence to the basic statement of an ethical system, one asserts the ethic of knowledge.” The principle of objectivity refers to the axiom that the universe is actually unknowable except through empirical means and thereby excludes any religious, which Monod labels ‘animist’, claim to absolute truth. “True knowledge,” Monod asserts, “is ignorant of values,” yet must be based upon a value judgment, an axiom reflecting the very substance and form of our thought.

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Jacques Monod, Resistance hero and great scientist and philosopher.

I read this first as a humble acknowledgement of human ignorance and our inability to understand in any final form the larger issues of the universe and our existence. All life is local, and our understanding follows along from that. I recall a post sometime back about Vera Rubin (see post 12/29/16), one of the poorly acknowledged giants of astrophysics, who questioned why we would believe that the laws of physics as we conceive them are universal; perhaps different laws operate in other areas of our cosmos and most certainly in other universes. Secondly I read this as an allotype of the absurdist philosophy articulated by Monod’s friend, Albert Camus. While more nuanced and complex than I can render here, Camus asserts that the absurd arises when we confront the disparity between our quest for rational and even perhaps irrational understanding of a universe that is essentially “unreasonable” (in some very basic and strong sense of the word).

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Albert Camus: French resistance hero and writer, championed the notion of the Absurd

Consider Camus’ statement that I find resonant with my own philosophy of life and mind: “Abstract evidence retreats before the poetry of forms and colors. Spiritual conflicts become embodied and return to the abject and magnificent shelter of man’s heart.” For a person who apprehends the absurd, our ‘knowledge’ is an aesthetic rendering of our experience and our spiritual quest is only to embrace the heart of humanity. Both Camus and Monod write about their apprehension of the basis of modern values, i.e., understanding that the universe, such as we can understand it, operates by mechanical and statistical laws, coldly and without divine feeling, and that acknowledges life’s special place in the universe. Values are biological; they come from us, or as Monod phrases it, “As for the highest human qualities, courage, altruism, generosity, creative ambition, the ethic of knowledge both recognizes their sociobiological origin and affirms their transcendent value in the service of the ideal it defines”.

Monod firmly believes that an ethics of knowledge will lead to a knowledge of ethics (and I have a new book to read on that matter, Michael Tomasello’s The Natural History of Human Morality). And given the separation of knowledge and value, he also articulates a modern civilized value that seems to go unrecognized more and more, authenticity, perhaps because many have lost the feel of it; it is not a prominent aesthetic in our social considerations.  From a recent post, to be authentic requires one to think and act clearly about the values held/acted upon and any judgments based on knowledge. Jumbling the two results in inauthentic action and thinking. For example, consider how and why we form and finance government as currently gleaned from our political discourse.

We are currently in a period when “Cut taxes” is a common war cry eliciting shouts of support from many (this is the USA now). To advocate the opposite is called ‘political suicide’. (This in a country where Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. famously said, “I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization.”  The duty of Monod’s authenticity calls for, first, that actions be based upon true knowledge, i.e., empirically based, and secondly, that the values upon which those actions are based to be articulated. Taxation reflects the biases of the society; check out Thomas Piketty’s monumental work, Capital in the 21st Century. How we tax, who actually pays those taxes, and what those taxes help government to accomplish are all empirical issues. For example, economic history as found in Piketty’s historical survey and in Paul Krugman’s analysis of modern times shows that cutting taxes for the wealthier people does not stimulate the economy but it does increase the disparity between rich and poor. The values behind cutting taxes are more often left unsaid, but generally these have to do with valuing individual achievement (sometimes due to hard work and sometimes exploiting the hard work of others, i.e., self-aggrandizement) over and above sharing resources and promoting the social good. To be authentic, then, a politician should both detail the data supporting their positions and their values leading to their espousal. Yeah, I know, the USA sometimes seems to have abandoned this road, but without an ethics of knowledge, how can we expect to make progress towards justice in an ever-changing modern world where our own actions have drastic consequences for each other and our planet? How can we move beyond the animist ethics of feudalism now mutated to the control by an economic elite few? I will only add that some other nations have understood this and are further along than we are.

What next for the ethics of knowledge? I recently read that knowledge is understood through an epistemology that is necessarily based upon some metaphysical notion of reality. So travel on to the metaphysics that consideration of our biological roots yields.

 

Natural noumenal? Thanks, Hitch

On April 13, 1949, Christopher Hitchens was born in Portsmouth, England. He was a brilliant essayist and exercised a keen intellect. I recently looked him up on Wikipedia and marveled at the number of people listed as his influences; that he took in so deeply from so many, I think, was critical to the quality of his writing and thinking. Today on this April 13th I want to remember him for something he said in a Youtube video of a conversation with his buddies, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris (evangelical atheists the lot of them popularly known as the 4 horsemen of atheism). In response to a question from Sam Harris, he diverged from the rest a bit to their surprise when he said that he would not re-write history to purge religion in part because of the art inspired therefrom (this from a man who wrote a book God is Not Great, to which his friend Salman Rushdie whom he had protected from the fatwa replied that the title was too long by a word). He followed up with the statement, and this shows the independence of his intellectual mettle, that if he could change history, he would separate the noumenal from the supernatural (see my post on 11/17/2014). He maybe did not manage to achieve this in his lifetime but did plant a seed in my mind. Now consider in this light my 3/25/17 post on Jacques Monod who did do just that when he defined the soul not in terms of an supernatural immanence but in scientific terms: “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.” We have only to make it so.

Wandering the wilds of Wikipedia I came across the ‘Brights’ vs. the ‘Supers’. Evidently some people of the atheist persuasion have banded together to call themselves the ‘brights’ and the believers the ‘supers’ (for supernatural), in the effort, I think, to be defined by what they believe and not by what they don’t. Commendable except they chose a term that implies the ‘supers’ are dim. They say, oh no, just like not being gay means you are straight and not somber, being bright does not connote others being dim. A couple of the 4 horsemen endorse this position, but not Chris Hitchens who said that for athiests to”conceitedly” self proclaim they are ‘brights’ is “cringeworthy”. I have to agree with Hitch on this one, but still to be defined by what you don’t believe does not make sense—it is a falsely constructed category, like someone who believes in the right to life, as some term themselves, could still be pro-choice for women. Being pro-choice does not entail being against one’s right to live.

As I read about our efforts to understand our world and universe, I always value those who acknowledge, even appreciate, our ignorance and these are mostly scientists because after all, science is based on the objective, i.e., not directly knowable, nature of the cosmos, so that even our most rigorous empirical efforts result in knowledge that is in some real sense conditional and therefore limited. I recently read in James Gleick’s interesting book on information that Curt Godels theorem essentially demonstrates that even our mathematical understanding is messy and incomplete and will always be so (again with contextual conditions). Remember Richard Feynman’s assertion that no one understands quantum theory and that saying you do understand it is proof you don’t—the half joke of a certified genius. I continue to follow efforts to understand dark matter and energy, efforts that seem to meet much frustration as we know ‘bright’ and not dark matter constitutes only 7-10% of the universe. We are ignorant of the other 90% even though many have good ideas. Still we don’t define scientists by what they don’t know or believe.

So back to those who hold, like Hitchens and Monod, that everything is natural, that even noumenal terms like ‘spirit’, ‘soul,’ and other ‘things in themselves’ that are unavailable to objective examination, and that, in short, what we call supernatural, when properly understood, is that facet of nature that we can apprehend but understand objectively only with great difficulty. What can we call ourselves? I propose the catchy term, ‘natural noumenalists’. I think that is a properly constructed category. And I further propose that today, April 13, be known as Natural Noumenalist Day. I will go now and enjoy our day. No need to travel on, just meditate on the quantum realm and get in touch with your ‘spooky’ entangled self. And say thanks to Hitch when you meet him.

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).

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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.

Not your father’s fitness

I have long appreciated that our intellectual life is governed by feelings of fitness. Take for example grammar and handedness. Some linguistic constructions feel fit, i.e., they are grammatical, like this very sentence is. Others feel awkward, e.g., “Bluebirds the lands the house on nest build to”. No logic required here, just the grammatical intuition of how things are supposed to fit together. Similarly, fold your arms right over left and then left over right and then do the same with your hands. One way will feel more natural, i.e., fit, and the other more awkward. Being right handed means that turning the screwdriver with the right hand feels right and more skillful and turning it with your left is not. Linguistic grammar is analogous to the fit coordinations of handedness. Back in my days as a speech-language pathologist I used this analogy to explain to parents the development of their young child’s grammar. A toddler says ‘tow’ for ‘cow’ and uses abbreviated syntax because that is what feels right to them. Correcting their child’s performance often resulted in the child saying something that felt awkward and wrong to them. As their brains mature and their grammatical feelings change, their speech comes to accord with adult grammar in a most marvelous manner.

So now re-reading Monod’s Chance and Necessity I realize again how important ‘fit’ is to life. In laying out the molecular basis of the genetic control of protein synthesis, Monod discusses how proteins work by folding into particular specific shapes so that they fit into other molecules thereby catalyzing and regulating the molecular biology of cellular function. With the presence of one molecule the protein folds one way and carries out one function and with the presence of another molecule the protein folds another way and carries out a different function, both because the two shapes fit exclusively into different substrates and so engender different chemical processes. He, Wolff and Jacob won the Nobel for discovering this phenomena by studying how yeasts metabolize one sugar at a time and when the supply of that sugar is exhausted, the genetic mechanism directs the shift to metabolize another sugar if present. This shift occurs within minutes of one sugar’s depletion and another’s presence is detected as the synthesis of the new necessary protein increases a thousandfold in a matter of molecular moments. Amazing, and then he goes on to explain how similar processes carry forth the ontogenesis of a new life, even more amazing.

Fitness is not just a concept of evolutionary viability anymore. It would seem to be functional principle in life’s operations, from the replication and transcription of DNA and proteins described above as based on stereotaxic fit between molecules to the grammatical compositions we use for communication (and so much more). I am fascinated by aesthetic fitness, by how the elements of an artistic work fit together coherently to form an integrated whole that shines somehow with felt life. Great art, as I think Aquinas noted so long ago, works with unity, integrity and luminosity. Not so great art misses on one or more of these three dimensions. Bad art simply appeals to some shallow stereotypical emotional response. And somehow, like linguistic structures, aesthetic works result from a composite of neural processes working together in a fit manner.

Now consider the connectome. Monod describes DNA and its accompanying proteins as crystalline structures, not regular repetitive lattices like salt or quartz but aperiodic ones whose components are self organizing like salt’s but whose irregular shapes then fit with other molecules out there initiating chains of process and thereby creating function (based upon the decision points or choices like a binary algorithm). So look at this picture of the connectome in this light and see fluid crystalline molecules lighting up crystalline modules of different functions that must fit together to be operational, and in order to be optimal, must fit according to some linguistic or aesthetic grammar.

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Connectome

Both composing and comprehending linguistic and aesthetic productions involves different modules lighting up and their functional ‘shapes’ fitting together according to their grammatical rules. A stroke can hinder or prevent the parts fitting together so the patient is aphasic or has amusia. Cultural expectations shape what is considered fit, so that some music seems to violate tonal rules and causes consternation, as when Stravinsk’s Rites of Spring premiered to a riotous reception or like when I hear certain music or see certain paintings and wonder why bother. Clearly the notion of ‘fitness’ is important and pervasive.

Finally consider the old myth that creative, e.g., artistic, people use their right hemispheres more. This is one of those statements that sounds good enough for some to believe but that everyone should know is too simple to be true. A brief note from the Duke Chronicle reports some brain research showing that people who rank high on creativity (and how did they assess that? Don’t know.) use both sides of their brain, especially some frontal areas, more than people who rank the lowest on creativity: http://www.dukechronicle.com/article/2017/03/connectivity-between-brain-hemispheres-boosts-creativity-study-finds. This suggests that creativity stems in part from the communication between hemispheres, or following the idea here, that the functional crystals on one side communicate and operate in fit manner through the anterior commissure and corpus callosum with the functional crystals on the other side. Oh, could I go on from here, but enough for now; just look at the connectome and imagine the forms lit up and flashing between the two hemispheres (and don’t neglect subcortical structures). Time to travel on.

Fierce Jacques Monod

I have finally after many years started re-reading Monod’s Chance and Necessity. The title is from a quote by Democritus that “Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.” (Of late I have been thinking that any animate intelligence only mitigates contingency and exploits chance; that is really about all life does). I surprise myself that I can remember at least these early chapters fairly well and how carefully one must read to follow his chemical examples and to follow his line of reasoning. I do have a deeper appreciation now of his discussion of humanity’s alternatives to the postulate of objectivity as the basis of science, i.e., the universe is objective and can never be known and so can only be understood approximately through empirical efforts. Monod lists two alternatives, animism and vitalism. The latter is that life is separately energized by some projective animating spirit with teleonomic direction; the former is that all of the universe is so energized. Religions vary according to Monod by this distinction: spirits exist in all living things or spirits or one spirit gives motion to everything in the universe. His argument is that the teleonomy of life is inherent in the objective chemical workings governed by chance and necessity and is not a projection from outside of nature by say, a god guiding evolution to some end. Monod emphasizes that his use of ‘animist’ and ‘vitalist’ is idiosyncratic to himself, but his reasoning is clear enough that life operates and progresses by blindly objective chemical processes.

I did not remember a particular statement he makes at the end of chapter 2; I guess I am old enough now to appreciate how fierce a statement it is: “We would like to think ourselves necessary, inevitable, ordained from all eternity. All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even a part of science testify to the unwearying, heroic effort of mankind desperately denying its own contingency”. Here he strikes down any notion that we are the center of the universe or the crown of creation and replaces it with a deeper understanding and appreciation of molecular biology. Remember that he, Lwoff and Jacob won the Nobel Prize for discovering how genes control protein synthesis, and that has led to the remarkable explosion of molecular biology in our time.

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Jacques Monod, French scientist and philosopher.

I am particularly struck by his use of the word ‘desperately.’ Monod is a careful writer and not given to hyperbole, so I take that word seriously enough I have to wonder: Why ‘desperately’? I understand that we tend to deny or ignore our mortality except at given times. Buddhist monks might consider it more; other religions think death only a transition to an eternal existence; skeptics and existentialists, like Monod’s good friend Camus (a quote from The Myth of Sisyphus also begins Chance and Necessity) hold that this life is all there is. I guess our desperation comes from the difficulty we experience apprehending our life span as a quick wink on a small planet in an ever growing universe, though I think today we have become more accustomed to that notion and so not as desperate to deny it.

In volume 3 of Mind Susanne Langer thought that we humans attained our current level of consciousness when we came to understand that from birth to death is one unitary act, that each life has these two boundaries beyond which it does not exist as an objective fact. I guess that having realized that and become fully conscious of being alive only for now, we then began to feel some need to go beyond that, i.e., to escape that contingency. And the ancients also believed, still in evidence today, in fate, another inescapable contingency. Skeptics, existentialists and some others understand that we create that need for ourselves out of our own imagination and so we can make up other pertinent needs and beliefs as well.

I will go back now and read some more Monod. I rarely see this book listed in bibliographies. I guess most consider it an historical work, but next to Darwin, and then Crick and Watson, Monod and colleagues led us to a greater understanding of ourselves. I hope I am clear that Chance and Necessity should be required reading for anyone hoping to understand how we came to understand the biological roots of our humanity.

higher evolution?

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

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Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, French philosopher, scientist and priest

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

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Jacques Monod, another French scientist and philosopher.

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

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