a new find of humans at higher elevations and a deep biological root

I have found another new report of ancient humans living at higher elevations, 11,000 feet, 47,000 years ago:  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/08/science/humans-high-altitude-ethiopia.html?action=click&module=Well&pgtype=Homepage&section=Science.

This report adds to some others that I have posted about, e.g. high life in the Andes 12,000 years ago and the Denisovans wandering from the steppes of central Russia to the Himalayas 160,000 years ago, bringing their genes with them, especially the ones that specified a hemoglobin more adapted to the thin air of higher elevations.  Whether it’s highlands, lowlands, hot, cold, tropical, dry, humans have sought to live there and exercising thereby our wondrously flexible adaptive abilities.

I want to focus on one idea Carl Zimmer, the NYT science writer from above, reported.  That is that paleoanthropologists have assumed that humans did not settle at higher elevations until more recently because, I can only guess, of the thin air, sparse vegetation and wildlife for food, severe weather, etc.  This new discovery of early humans at 11,000 feet was made because the researchers ignored those assumptions and looked there. Now they think more efforts will find other sites situated up high—they need only to look.

Davis and Panksepp emphasize in The Emotional Foundations of Personalitythat the 6 basic emotional subcortical systems are ancient with some appearing with the earliest nervous systems and then culminating in their current forms with the evolution of mammals.  These 6 are seeking, play/joy, caring/nurturance (all positive valence) and rage/anger, fear/anxiety, panic/sadness (all negative valence), and the most ancient of these is seeking.

Seeking would seem to me to be a manifestation of a basic life function. If you have followed this blog you may remember that I see 2 such functions that I call Solving the World Problem (SWP) and Conspecific Relations (CR).  SWP involves finding the necessary resources for life to continue, but more than that, it involves exploiting opportunities (that arise from actions or from chance) and mitigating exigencies (that arise from, you know, just trying to stay alive in a blooming, buzzing, chaotic and at times dangerous world). It makes sense, then, that early nervous systems helped the organism to find its way through to survival, i.e., seeking.

 

Our SEEKING (in all caps following Panksepp’s labeling of major subcortical systems) is a remarkable and powerful system that bears fruit as dopamine flows up to innervate cortical systems and energize activity in intellectual domains.  Jaak Panksepp gives an amazingly detailed, data driven description in chapter 8 of his fabulous text, Affective Neuroscience(I learn more every time I re-read portions—you gotta read this amazing book).  Consider some of his introductory statements:

  • Now we know that ascending DA [dopamine] tracts lie at the heart of powerful, affectively valenced neural systems that allow people and animals to operate smoothly and efficiently in all of their day-to-day pursuits.
  • [DA is] a major contributor to our feelings of engagement and excitement as we seek the material resources . . . . and when we pursue the cognitive interests that bring positive existential meanings into our lives.
  • Without DA human aspirations remain frozen, as it were, in an endless winter of discontent

Ah, but with a healthy flow of DA we human animals seek out opportunities, tried and true & novel, in our thinking and in our world. Again, after the systems controlling arousal the SEEKING system is the most ancient, and I think that throughout our evolution and during individual development this system has developed into new structures fueled by the flow of dopamine.  These higher structures serve increasingly cognitive functions infusing them with curiosity and an appetite for novelty.

If certain paleoanthropologists had read Panksepp’s Affective Neuroscience, they would have assumed that humans diversified into every environment because meeting the challenges of seeking resources, internal and external, is a basic instinct, i.e., a deep biological root of our humanity, that finds new expression and fulfillment in human intellect.  That is good news and I will rest here for a moment rather than travel on.

 

 

Forensic science finds ancient crimes, but solving the mystery?

My wife is a big fan of Lin Anderson’s detective novels featuring Rhona MacCleod, forensic scientist; she likes the gritty details of Rhona’s investigations (otherwise she does not like blood or crime or anything like that) and the insight the writer shows into human motivations, behaviors, and relationships.   Now archeologists are using the tools of forensic science to investigate the ancient times.  A report came out a while back that forensic science figured out Otzi, the stone age man whose body was mummified in ice found in the Italian alps 10 years ago, was killed by an arrow in the back 5000 years ago.  His clothes had the blood from 4 other individuals on them and he had other wounds some partially healed and some at time of death. The researchers put together a plausible narrative wherein he had a fight and won, took off to the mountains to escape retribution, and was shot in the back because his assailants did not want to face him again in a fight.  Even then Otzi rolled over and tried to pull the arrow out, a futile task because of the fatal damage done.  It also appears that his enemies ended his life quickly then with some blows. Sounds like a good plot for a novel or script for a movie, eh?

A recent report on PLOS (that’s the Public Library of Science) details the techniques forensic scientists use as they find evidence for interpersonal violence 30,000 years ago:  https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0216718.   This analysis was on a skull found in Romania some time ago.  The researchers examined the skull through CT scans and visual inspection, analyzing the pattern of injuries, whether they had healed or not, whether the bone was still plastic (indicating that the person was alive when injured), and other features.  They also used synthetic skulls to experimentally replicate the pattern of injuries through various means, e.g., blunt force trauma, falling, etc.  They concluded that the skull injuries occurred at the time of death, not before and not after, and that the only probable means for an injury with this pattern was blunt force trauma with a club-like weapon.

Now this person was a modern human, not a Neandertal or other variant, but who knows who killed him.  I tend to think that early tools were developed for hunting, digging, etc., but maybe the first tool was a weapon.  Our biological nature is one wherein we fight for defense and to protect resources from the others, e.g., not of our clan, though culturally this has developed to become violence in the service of aggrandizing power and thus resources, e.g., slaves, land, taxes, etc.  And another motivation, as I posted about on 3/28/19, was to appease the gods and so control the supernatural forces controlling weather and harvests. In this instance Incan priests sacrificed 140 child prisoners and 200 animals in response to, so the primary hypothesis runs, a natural disaster.  This was done around 1400 CE.  It probably did not achieve its desired end, unless that was to bring Spanish conquistadors and priests a few decades later to subjugate the indigenous peoples.  (In a cynical aside, I wonder if our efforts to mitigate climate change are any more effective, at least so far?  Maybe some alien life form will arrive to ‘help’ us?)  But I digress.

Or maybe I don’t.  In my last post on Davis and Panksepp’s Emotional Foundations of PersonalityI presented their idea that 6 basic emotional systems operating in subcortical neural structures underlay, constrain, motivate and flavor our personality structure and cognitions.  They said this succinctly towards the end of the book, “Although we humans are highly cognitive creatures, it is clear that we are not liberated from ancient emotional arousals”.  Amen.  In modern America the availability of guns, these products of our cognitive and technological precision, amplifies through tragic actions the motivations for violence, e.g., turf wars, domestic violence, and now mass murders in the service of what?  Imagined invasions and the incredibly vile and mistaken cognitive efforts to see ‘others’ as dangerous aliens when all reasoned and realistic minds understand the value of these others and cherish their presence in our country.  And even more prescient minds understand that we are all one on one planet.  And our American culture seems to worship guns in ways no other culture or nation does, or has ever done, so that our laws make sure everyone can have as many lethal weapons as they want.  These are not the clubs of 30,000 years ago, nor the arrows of 5000 years ago, nor the ritual sacrificial and horrid killings of 600 years ago, but modern tools of fatal warfare.  After each modern mass murder or once we notice a surge or pattern in individual murders, another ritualized pattern of behavior is enacted to somehow cleanse the nation’s psyche, e.g., thoughts and prayers, affirmations of resilience, etc., and then we are, I can only assume, ‘ready’ for the next instance.

I have begun reading a book recommended by Davis and Panksepp, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Themby Joshua Greene.  So far he has articulated the notion that our evolution has prepared us for resolving conflicts through moral means between an individual and others in his tribe, e.g., through reconciliation or making up, but that part of this development involves serious problems resolving conflicts between tribes.  As I have assumed and said here, we evolved with strengths in intimate and small group relationships.  These were adequate when the human population was sparsely distributed, tribes were small, and resources relatively adequate.  However, as many have noted, with a burgeoning population, large, rather artificially constructed groups called nations, and increasingly inadequate resources, especially water (you know, the basic stuff of life) our evolutionary abilities to relate peacefully and morally are being tested in new ways and are all too often falling short.  This is so even as the overall level of violence on a global scale has fallen, according to Stephen Pinker.

I will continue reading Greene’s book, hoping to learn more about our biological roots and how we can draw upon them to live better with all others.  I will continue to read fine fiction that presents the human condition in clarifying aesthetic light. While forensic tools can detect and clarify the nature of the crime; solving the mystery is another matter.  And I will advocate for the notion that our culture can act upon better impulses—cultures can and do change: gun worship is not intrinsic or necessary to who we are. We are certainly not trapped by our biology to be violent with each other; in fact human nature is just the opposite.  Time to travel on.

Parsing personality

Still reading Davis and Panksepp’s The Emotional Foundations of Personality.  One of their basic premises is that psychologists over the past many years have based their  conceptualizations on questionnaires using a great variety of words denoting divers aspects of personality and analyzing the responses through a statistical technique known as factor analysis, e.g., detecting patterns of responses that group together in different factors or dimensions marking personality differences.  The main model here they refer to as the Big 5, oft replicated and oft modified:  extraversion, agreeableness, dependability, emotionality, & refinement.  Davis and Panksepp, understanding that any durable conception of personality must have some basis in the brain, point out that this traditional method is a top-down approach, i.e., the words represent cultural verbal features that are presumably cortically based, and that such an approach neglects the emotional roots and biases that compose a personality when examined from a fuller, wider perspective.  Thus, their book looks at a bottom-up approach based upon Panksepp’s affective neuroscience and so begins with how our emotional systems contribute to personality formation and differences.  This makes much good sense to me.

Two interesting ideas have come up that bear a little discussion.  One is their assertion that neuroscientific research shows that subcortical structures and functions, while displaying individual differences, are relatively invariant across our species, indeed, across most of the neo-mammalian world, which implies a strong genetic basis for their development.  Cortical structures are also generally invariant in their embryological development but cortical functions appear to be shaped almost entirely by experience. In other words, we are born with our subcortical functions already defined in nascent perceptual, motoric, and emotional modules but with our cortical functions pretty free-form.

Now this astounds me.  They are saying that the cortex is virtually module free so that functionality arises through experiential engagement with the world.  Okay, I say, but what about language?  What about Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas that are critically involved in language processing?  They imply that a human child born to non-language using parents would not have the usual Wernicke and Broca areas.  Of course, human children are born into a world of language so that shapes their cortical functions as a matter of course.  (If you have read Susan Oyama’s book, The Ontogeny of Informationor read my blog on 2/22/19 on the matter, you will see that such a conception is consistent with her ideas there, i.e., ontogeny = genetic expression + developmental circumstances.  Hey now!) Davis and Panksepp pose the powerful example of vision, which is quite dependent upon cortical analysis and synthesis for object recognition, etc.  Animals deprived of visual experience early on in their development do not learn to see, i.e., their visual cortex, whatever functions it performs, does not carry out the perceptual processes needed to see.

After thinking about this for a while I came up with the question, “What about mirroring?”  Perhaps our cortex does have a mirroring module, so that our social emotions and engagement emerging from our subcortical structures are substantiated and amplified through a module whereby we mirror each other.  So far Davis and Panksepp have not touched upon this but I will keep on reading with this question in mind.  I would almost bet that the cortical structures that connect perceptual and motoric areas, e.g., the bilateral longitudinal fasciculi, the arcuate fasciculi (see post 4/24/14), the uncinate fasciculi, and let me not forget the one very important to consciousness, the claustrum (see posts 8/17/14 & 5/30/18), do form a functional module for mirroring.  I don’t know but there would be a couple of good research projects or dissertations involved in answering that question.  Mirroring could be one area where the top-down and bottom-up come together.

The second interesting idea is a bit more philosophical.  Davis and Panksepp refer to the various traits identified through factor analysis as the Big Five but another one keeps cropping up called ‘conscientiousness’.  While they can identify how the Big Five relate to the emotional systems, they see conscientiousness as different.  The others are would seem to be traits simply defined, but conscientiousness is more of a cognitive style; it would seem to operate over and above the rest in a superordinate manner.  People define it in various ways, e.g., as the focused intent to accomplish a goal or as organized to fulfill intent in detailed manner, etc.  Davis and Panksepp use a curious phrase in their discussion: To carve up nature at the joints (of course you understand this better if you have ever butchered meat), meaning to conceptualize the parts, interactions, and energies in a way that comports as best as we can tell with the reality of nature.   Being a linguistics sort of guy I have used the phrase ‘to parse nature’ like we had to do to diagram the parts of a sentence accurately.

The argument behind Davis and Panksepp’s book is that the personality traits as developed through top-down verbal questionnaires may not be the best way to carve up nature and that a better way is to go from bottom-up through the well established emotional systems.  Amen.  While the Big Five comport some with the 3 positive emotional systems, i.e., joy/play, care/nurturance, & seeking, it collapses the 3 negative systems, i.e., rage/anger, fear/anxiety, & panic/sadness into one category.  And conscientiousness as currently formulated does not fit well with any emotion-based parsing.

I can see where conscientiousness could be a dimension of personality; some people are more conscientious than others in how they do things, but I think this varies with activity, i.e., some are careful in their work habits and slobs at home, etc.  As I read their analysis I kept pulling back to gain a wider perspective. Conscientiousness in part involves attention to pattern and detail and that is a trait that Hans Asperger described as going haywire in the syndrome on the autistic spectrum that bears his name, but that he thought was necessary for anyone to achieve in their field be it artistic, scientific or whatnot.  Doing anything well requires some attention to the overall pattern and the details therein.

Pulling back farther, consider Baruch Spinoza’sconatus, an ancient concept that he saw as central to life.  It refers to the inborn momentum of life to carry on and succeed in its endeavors.  This would include the basic processes by which life sustains its negentropic balance (until it doesn’t and dies) and behaviors, I think, by which it exploits chance opportunities and ameliorates negative exigencies.  Could conscientiousness be a further development of the conatusinherent in us? Similarly, I have discussed before the two main features of an individual’s sense of self, one is the autonoetic autobiographical memory (post 8/22/18) of lived experience and the other is the sense of agency.  While personalities may vary in the dimension of conscientiousness, all of us must carry such a trait if we are to be agents of our lives.

So parsing and butchering reality, I will travel on from here.

 

Psychologists’ ethics (or lack thereof)

Remember Ted Kaczynski?  I am reading The Emotional Foundations of Personality:  A Neurobiological and Evolutionary Approachco-authored by Kenneth L. Davis and the great Jaak Panksepp, who did not live to see its completion but whose work and ideas inspired the effort.  So far it is interesting, a bit wordy and redundant as it argues for a different way of conceptualizing personality based upon the roots of our emotionality in subcortical structures.  The interesting part is when they depart from promoting their approach to actually detailing it in contrast with some previous approaches that struggle to be relevant biologically.

Being a retired clinical psychologist, I used to pay attention to personality theory. Actually, long years ago as an undergraduate English major, I read a book by Theophrastus on Characters, an early effort at understanding personality types.  Anyway, I used several instruments to assay the personalities of some patients, like the MMPI, a long, very long set of yes-no questions which has been used for decades.  The patterns of answers fit into certain personality profiles that were identified through statistical means (factor-analysis) and standardized through several iterations of the test.

Another instrument was the TAT, the Thematic Apperception Test, wherein I would show a patient a series of pictures and ask them to tell me a story about them, the assumption being that their interpretations were projections of their personality, e.g., of how they viewed their world, others in it and themselves. It was helpful.

Now I read in Emotional Foundations of Personality(written in 2018) that the TAT was created by Christiana Morgan and Henry Murray in the 1930s, and reading a note accompanying the text on my Kindle, that Murray ran a psychology study at Harvard for several years (1969-1972) that Ted Kaczynski (remember the Unabomber finally caught living the primitive life in Montana) participated in. Further, Murray’s study is now understood to have been quite unethical (and no surprise, had some funding links with the CIA).  Jumping Jehosaphat, as my hero Gabby Hayes used to exclaim, I needed to know more. Wikipedia was there for me.

From 1959 to 1962 Murray ran a study that looked at how to break down a person’s mind and control them.  Under the guise of a different experiment (thus the ethical violation of enlisting subjects without informed consent) the researchers would ask the subject about themselves, their lives, values, etc., ostensibly for a neutral purpose, but then use that information to subject them to insults, demeaning their persons, behaviors and values, to understand the effects of such psychologically sadistic behaviors (oh, another unethical behavior).

Ted Kocynski enlisted as a young 18 or 19 year old Harvard student and was subjected to over 200 hours of this ‘protocol’.  It would be enlightening to know how many subjects dropped out early in their participation.  He had been admitted to Harvard as a particularly gifted student in mathematics, described as mostly socially withdrawn, not unfriendly but not socially skilled or outgoing either.  Upon graduation he began to teach college mathematics but quit after 6 or 7 years and disappeared into the wilds of Montana, where he became increasingly alienated, critical and perhaps paranoid of modern society and government, eventually terrorizing the nation with letter bombs.  One of his biographers, drawing from family and friends’ interviews and Kaczynksi’s writings, believes his experience in Murray’s experiment had a profound impact on his mind, attitudes (his personality?) and mental stability.

I have found that psychologists have a mixed reputation amongst the population. When my wife recently told a new acquaintance that I was a retired clinical psychologist, she exclaimed that she would be afraid to talk with me.  Ah, yes, now that I focus on reading her mind, I can see why.  And of course we are not referred to as shrinks for nothing, or actually it is for nothing because ‘shrinks’ really refers to psychiatrists, but that is neither here nor there.

Consider also that two psychologists cooperated with the CIA, not having learned anything from the Henry Murray incident (maybe not knowing about it or seeing that he was not censored, went ahead anyway), to help design the CIA torture mistakenly called ‘enhanced interrogation’.  The American Psychological Association evidently also cooperated with this effort. Oh well, the two psychologists and their company were paid $81 million dollars for this work.  The rest of us received the assurance that the torture was, what?  Psychologically valid?  We know it was not reliable nor ethical nor humane.  Just ask the victims of torture and those victimized by Ted Kaczynski.

I gotta get out of this place, so I will quickly travel on.