An insomniac’s reverie

Nights can be full of adventure for an insomniac living in the country. I recently connected some dots on a side trip from my main journey, thinking about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin for the first time in a while, Dissanayake’s book Homo Aestheticus which I reflect on periodically, and Monod’s Chance and Necessity, which is a daily meditation. When I finally did fall asleep I descended through a lovely vision of Gaia covered with artistic impulses flashing, some darkly and some lightly, strongly sensed by some of us here on earth, perhaps hardly seen from a distance into space. Art has migrated from its inception around communal fires, deep in caves and ‘making special’ many activities and objects (thank you, Ms. Dissanayake for documenting the ubiquity and importance of art) to illuminating the noosphere with its luminous light.

Remember that colorful priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who helped discover Peking Man and whom the Vatican prohibited from writing and teaching philosophy? (See post 12/17/16). He developed a conception of Gaia as first a geosphere, the dynamic rocky planet earth, then a biosphere as life evolved and spread over our planet, transforming it into Gaia, and then the noosphere, where human knowledge analogously covers the planet. Some say his vision contained the world wide web in its view, but at the least he thought that we humans would continuously connect and those connections would self-organize into a more inclusive society. (Never mind about his theory about we are evolving to join with the divine at the Omega point. I don’t think that he would have thought that if he had known about how civilization would foment the conflicts and wars over the last 70 years or the degradation of American politics today).

Monod propounded a brilliant version of the biosphere when he wrote about “an intuitive global picture of living systems whose phenomenal complexity defies assimilation”. Consider the variety and spread of life here from single cell organisms on up through multi-celled ones including us: the soil on our farm is full of microbial fertility (as are we—check your biome), many of our trees are herd creatures needing conspecifics nearby for vital resiliency (see The Secret Life of Trees), fungi inhabit the earth’s surface in a astonishing net of somas and spores, etc. Consider the number of cellular generations over the past 4+ billion years and Monod’s idea “of the extent of the vast reservoir of fortuitous variability contained with the genome of a species—again in spite of the jealously guarded conservative properties of the replicative mechanism” when he estimates for modern humans with a 1970 population of then some 3 billion “there occur, with each new generation, some hundred billion to a thousand billion mutations.” Wow, that is some ‘reservoir’ of chance and necessity that supplies our evolution.

No wonder, then, that he can say, “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’ 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.” I will only add the comment that Monod here fulfills Chris Hitchens’ dream (before he even had it—see post 11/17/14) of bringing the noumenal out of the supernatural realm into the natural one. If it exists, it is natural; if it is not natural, it does not exist except in our imagination, which of course is natural.

Now remember an image of all the lights we have on earth at night as seen from space, you know, the maps showing cities as bright blotches, rural areas as darker, and North Korea as unilluminated. Now consider that every organism, small and large, comprises many energetic transactions in the course of its life, each a chemical spark of vitality brightening its drops of water, and you can glimpse how Gaia glows in the cosmos, our precious blue ball hurtling through space. Finally imagine all the human endeavors creating art that make the noosphere glow with a luminous aesthetic as we share our complex vital experiences of life’s opportunities and hard exigencies. You might ken then an old farmer-philosopher’s insomniac reverie while watching the land on a snowy spring night.

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:   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:  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.