Archive for November, 2010
After getting tipped off to a number of great talks by great minds on the TED website, I figured I should make sure others were aware of this collection of short lectures by a wide variety of informed folk. Naturally, my interests lean heavily toward evolution, but I expect I’ll spend some time searching other topics in the near future.
For now I want to recommend three great videos that were recommended to me recently (descriptive paragraphs are from the TED website):
1) Helen Fisher tells us why we love + cheat.
“Anthropologist Helen Fisher takes on a tricky topic — love –- and explains its evolution, its biochemical foundations and its social importance. She closes with a warning about the potential disaster inherent in antidepressant abuse.”
2) Heribert Watzke: The brain in your gut
“Did you know you have functioning neurons in your intestines — about a hundred million of them? Food scientist Heribert Watzke tells us about the “hidden brain” in our gut and the surprising things it makes us feel.”
3) Michael Shermer on strange beliefs
“Why do people see the Virgin Mary on a cheese sandwich or hear demonic lyrics in “Stairway to Heaven”? Using video and music, skeptic Michael Shermer shows how we convince ourselves to believe — and overlook the facts.”
Be sure to let me know of any great finds you make.
Sometimes even more surprising than the things that grab our attention are the things we take in stride. And it’s often been science that has made these ordinary things suddenly seem strange. But we are the animal that can think about itself and consider such things.
Have you ever had one of those moments when you try to feel gravity? To imagine what life would be like were gravity a bit weaker, or stronger? How our bodies might be taller or more squat as a result? Or how the air we breathe in so naturally is a mixture of gasses that were once poisonous to life on earth, and were we to transport back to an earlier time we might feel like gasping aliens on a foreign planet?
These are the sorts of things that have popped into my mind over the last years as I have dug deeper into understanding our evolutionary past. A recent book by Harvard Evolutionary Psychologist Deirdre Barrett got me thinking about the more cognitive everyday things that go unnoticed. For example, have you ever wondered why it is that a microscopic layer of ink or pigment on a printed magazine page that creates a representation of a naked human triggers in us the same arousal that a real, live naked human might? I mean, it’s not as if we don’t understand that a picture is not the real thing: we do! But that understanding has little to no effect on the sexual instincts that function in our brains.
This is just the sort of thing that scientists look at for a better understanding of our evolution: the instinctual response to a photo of a real thing is in no way dissimilar to the nesting bird that can be fooled into feeding a stick painted to mimic the beak her actual chicks (an example from Deirdre Barrett’s book Supernormal Stimuli — reviewed here last week).
We humans — like those birds — are profoundly visual. And we are also animals with in-born and ancient instincts that underlie our thin veneer of modernity, instincts that refuse to be ignored.
I suspect that many people go on with their daily lives simply accepting that the life we live now is somehow our birthright (or at least pretty much “how things have always been”). To the creationist there is an earlier history of robed men and women wandering in the Sinai, but after that it’s pretty much a series of religious battles against immorality that continue up to the present day. For them, mankind was created as a six-foot tall (and to many) blonde and blue-eyed Adam in a garden somewhere in the Middle East about 5,000 years ago. Although that creation myth does seem to nod toward our humble origins (by having God form us out of mud and heavenly spittle) it is actually a story written by people who had absolutely no idea where they came from and could, therefore, only guess (albeit in poetic ways).
The unfolding reality — first that life goes back a few billion years further than the “Garden”, and that all life shares common descent — has come only gradually upon us. But once begun, scientific discovery has set in motion an increasing cascade of perspective-altering insights to the point that it seems to take a concerted effort to continue denying the facts. Many, however, do (and if the recent surveys are to be believed, at least half of Americans continue to believe God was behind it all in one way or another). In essence, we have half of this huge population of human animals walking around thinking they are something else: special creations of God who were made to be different from every animal on the planet, and that the planet itself was created for us to enjoy (or exploit).
Now I’m not one that thinks we should eliminate our own species to save all the other animals on the planet. I actually feel rather tenderly toward my own species, and I reckon that our ancestors struggled as much as everybody else’s to earn their right to be here, alive, now. However, I do think that an evolutionary perspective offers us humans the chance to survive and prosper in the best possible way and with the least damage to ourselves, the sensitive ecosystems that we plunder and the other animals who occupy our planet. Any other worldview, I’m afraid, is built on ignorant myth.
The generations that follow us will know even more than we do now, and many of our ideas — informed as they are by the latest science — will not survive as new discoveries shed light on the true story of our evolution. But acting on the assumption that this one life is the only one I’ve got, I want to live it as clear-eyed and aware as I can, and not focused on a printed or carved image of a God because it appeals to my human instincts to seek out a face in the stars or form a social connection with other animals.
It’s inevitably unsettling to shift perspectives. In the example I started with, it could take some of the fun out of looking at a “dirty” picture. But the discomfort is always transitory: we have a natural tendency toward internal cohesion that enables us to internalize new data and get back to the business of living: of breathing in and out without thought, of walking on concrete without constantly thinking of it as a collection of electrically charged molecules that we aren’t really making contact with at all, or looking at a picture of someone that turns us on or (clothed, one would assume) warms our heart with familial remembrance.
But each time we venture outside of ourselves and brave the discomfort and the unfamiliarity, we return to ourselves a bit richer, our view of this life a bit more expansive and complex. And we are therefore better able to appreciate our lives and our place in the grand scheme of things. And that is no trick played upon our instinct, but the actual experience of living.
REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose” by Deirdre BarrettSaturday, November 20th, 2010
I was due for some reading on evolutionary psychology, and happened across this book at the library. I was thrilled to find it was published in 2010 (I try to find the latest books when it comes to rapidly expanding scientific fields).
The introductory chapter about took my breath away — it was the most dense grouping of scientific thought I think I’d ever run across in so few pages (with several ideas and statements that I knew I would want to explore further). If the entire book was going to be like this, I was going to die of over-stimulation!
Perhaps fortunately, the author (Deirdre Barrett, assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School) set a more normal pace as she went back a bit in history to introduce two deeply interesting characters that laid a lot of the groundwork (and the one who coined the term) for the concept of “Supernormal Stimuli”.
“Supernormal Stimuli” describes how our natural instincts can be tricked and triggered into overdrive by stimuli that display grotesquely exaggerated traits of the normal stimuli that we have evolved to instinctively respond to. Among the many examples first observed in the (non-human) animal kingdom, the clearest example might be that of a small spotted bird egg that sits in a nest next to a huge man-made plaster egg painted with black polka dots. The parental bird’s natural instincts are hijacked by this “supernormal stimuli” such that the bird is drawn to the giant plaster egg while ignoring the genuine egg (or eggs) and will thereafter spend all its time trying to hatch the plaster one.
The author then follows this pattern of animal instinct gone awry into our modern human age and uses it to explain why we fight wars, are getting obese on plentiful junk food and why television (and other modern distractions) can’t help but arrest our animal attention. (She also talks about why the most interesting technologies are the ones that grab our attention, and not the most useful ones).
From the breathless beginning, the book gradually shifts gears into a social critique I was not expecting (and which I am still, frankly, digesting). But the science is solid, as are the conclusions, and I gathered more than a handful of truly useful terms and concepts from this book. The writing is good, and the book is well-organized and an easy (and relatively short) read, even though the contents will get your head spinning.
If you want a good understanding of what the ramifications of evolutionary theory are on the psychology of human behavior, this is a great book.
Reading such a pointed critique of so much of what makes up our modern life left me with a feeling of a sort of moral imperative to change everything in my routine that was not consonant with my ancestors’ life on the ancient savannah. I found that very interesting: the way in which I naturally adopted an almost religiously orthodox intellectual posture with my newly-found scientific data. I think that’s because the data was so much about behavior and choices that are generally held to be in the realm of morality. But then, this is a book by an evolutionary psychologist.
As Niko Tinbergen (one of the two heroes of the book’s second chapter) is quoted as saying in a lecture in 1946: “The emphasis by Christianity on our responsibility for our behavior has had the consequence that the differences between man and animal are perceived as too prominent”.
Like I said: a lot to digest in this book (and so much more than I can even allude to in a review). I hope you’ll read it and let me know what you think.
In what seemed an almost off-handed remark in evolutionary biologist Deirdre Barrett’s book “Supernormal Stimuli” (reviewed here this week), she said that consciousness only accounts for a small part of our brain’s activity. My little ears perked up!
The reason I was surprised is obvious: my consciousness accounts for almost all of the energy of my, well…my consciousness! And then I realized (yet again!) that there are lots of reasons that we humans are so completely self-focused, chief among them being that it’s only natural for us to be so, being — practically-speaking — hard wired for it by eons of evolution.
Another surprising bit of neural-data came from a video my anthropologist friend sent to me, in which I found learned that our “guts” have enough neurons in them to build a brain the size of a cat. Yes: we have a “brain” in our gut. Pondering that, the picture of what I’ve thought of as my “brain” — a discreet organ lodged in my skull — expanded into a more comprehensive view of the brain as a specific collection of neurons with specific functions, connected to a whole raft of other neurons with equally specific purposes, all of them feeding into the smooth functioning of the entire body.
Now this is one of those ideas that, upon hearing it, elicits a sort of bland “Well of course that’s how it is” (even though the minute before hearing it we could never have articulated such a concept). But that’s how good data functions: like the right piece of the puzzle that someone else hands us and we snap into place to complete another part of the picture.
This is an exciting time for science and scientific discovery, for the trend I notice most is the increasingly rapid abandonment of the confident (and overly-simplistic) assertions of earlier discoveries for the more nuanced (and much more likely) realities of everything from early human evolution to dinosaurs to genetics. There is a part of me that is relaxing into a deeper confidence in scientific progress even as new discoveries (indirectly) highlight past over-statements or over-reaching conclusions.
A side effect of this new wave of a more integrated scientific sensibility is a growing awareness that even much of what we now know more confidently will continue to be modified (or replaced) by new discoveries.
I don’t expect we’ll last long enough as a species to know everything (nor, frankly, that were we to live forever we could know everything). But in science — just like in life — we have to strive for the best information we can get and apply our knowledge as best we can even as we understand that we will know more and better tomorrow, or in a week, or in a year.
I pity and fear those that carry metaphorical torches and pitchforks against science. In modern society the anti-science mob fixates on a few favorite hoaxes in the past (Piltdown Man is a perennial), or the fact that science continues to revise itself in the face of new data (a habit that un-nerves those who want their truths eternal and fixed). The irony, of course, is that the anti-science folks rant and protest (against the erosion of belief by evidence) while remaining blithely ignorant of how much of their lives (and their life itself) has been made possible and better by the knowledge we have gained only through scientific research.
Back to our intestines: the ramifications of understanding that we have a semi-brain operating in our gut are rather startling, and can point the way to better understanding our own behavior and possible corrections to that behavior when modern stimuli and historically novel food choices threaten our very lives.
I said in my very first sermon: “Because of Darwin, life on earth makes sense. Because of Darwin, my life makes sense.” We are lucky to live in a time when science can actually answer questions that mankind could only guess at for the last couple hundred thousand years.
REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “A Primate’s Memoir. A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons” by Robert Sapolsky. Reviewed by t.n.s.r. bob.Sunday, November 14th, 2010
(From the publisher’s website: “Robert M. Sapolsky is the author of several works of nonfiction, including A Primate’s Memoir, The Trouble with Testosterone, and Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. He is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant. He lives in San Francisco”).
How great to have anthropologists as friends, especially when one of them hands me a book like Robert Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir.
This is a unique book in several ways, one of which is that it is a book written by a field research scientist, yet the science that was his everyday job is almost an afterthought to the attention the primate author is paying to all the Life happening around him as he studies a troop of baboons in Kenya. At it’s core it is a coming of age tale of a city boy whose fascination with Gorillas becomes the catalyst for the journey into his own growth into adulthood. Drawing parallels between his arrival in Kenya and the arrival of new young male baboons to the troop, we get to know the author even as we come to know his beloved troop and see the place of both in the rich, profligate natural — and endlessly corrupt human — environment in which man and baboon coexist.
There are tales in this book that are fascinating, wildly entertaining, bone-chilling and heart-breaking, all of them told with a fearless clarity of insight and openness of heart.
This book is clearly the distillation of many, many years and seasons of study and has the perspective that reflection from a distance supplies. But at the same time, the stories have a visceral immediacy amplified by the evident power these experiences still exert over the author, who is not afraid to show himself as the fool when the fool he felt he was.
Normally I would offer an excerpt from this book, but I’d rather not spoil even one story for a prospective reader.
I enjoyed this book immensely. It is almost like getting three books in one: 1) A man’s adventurous coming of age story; 2) A series of reflections on human behavior as it is obliquely illuminated by baboon behavior, and; 3) A portrait of a time in the history of Africa, Africans and African wildlife that is already passed into memory. The beauty of the book is that is gives us all three without shortchanging any storyline. And this book fully satisfied my three criteria, which are: content, writing quality and scientific information. I plan to read more by this author.
So, here’s the deal: Having followed my many years of religious experience with a further exploration of the terrain of no god, no higher power, and no higher self to call upon, I’m still left with the reality that the part of my consciousness that always answered when I called upon God, my Higher Power or my Higher Self is, well, still there.
In a very real sense, this is the “god” that really never does go away. And if it’s always been simply a part of my own consciousness trained (or naturally tended) toward answering the part of my brain that talks out loud to it, why not use it?
Of course, I think the reason I veered so strongly away from relying upon the “answering god” part of my consciousness was: a) to see if there was any noticeable change in the quality of my life (there wasn’t, or if there was, it wasn’t much), and; b) to check my own tendency to ascribe to my own subconscious any magical powers. Oh, and c) I was trying to outsmart my own confirmation bias as well.
So now the question remains to be answered: just what is this consciousness within a consciousness actually capable of? Or, perhaps more to the point: is it really “capable” of anything at all?
The mind certainly is good at holding and retrieving information (such as when I tell it out loud that I need to remember to get eggs when I’m out, and then, hours later, it pops that thought into my head as I leave the coffee shop and am about to drive home without walking to the grocery store a hundred feet away and getting the damn eggs). But beyond the storage and recall of data, what’s the brain good at? Can it effect other people or create phenomenon in the physical world?
The book I read on the history of electricity (Electric Universe — reviewed on this blog) offers a tantalizing rationale for believing that our thoughts can travel some distance, because the radio waves our minds generate actually travel millions of miles (and pass through other minds on their way). “Aha!” We want to say: “That is the scientific evidence to support prayer and psychics and mind-reading and getting those vibes when something is happening somewhere far away to someone we know”. The problem is that we are ever bombarded with these radio waves from every damn neuron-firing brain within radio range. So realistically, how could we ever sort them out? Oh well.
Still, there are the seemingly mysterious phenomenon that we all experience. But who knows what radio waves or burst of body electricity (or pheromones, for goodness sake) or pollen, or biochemical reactions trigger the handful of conscious responses that our brains have become habituated to pay attention to?
I’m beginning to suspect that, in reality, we have a generally sympathetic — but often clumsy — helper in our own mind.
After all, look at our anxieties. For a long time I took the traditional view that things came into our lives “for a reason”, so if some terrible memory (or just a disturbing one) came up, it must “mean” that it was time for me to “deal with it”.
Instead, I have a new idea: I think there is something about the way our brains are wired that they respond to stimuli almost like a librarian — aged and be-speckled — that knows where every old memory is stored, and when the “librarian” recognizes a similar constellation of stimuli on the horizon, he or she just starts pulling every bit of related shit it can find off the shelves.
The psychic and emotional result can be overwhelming, just annoying, or actually distressing as old memories come up and instantly trigger familiar anxieties, fears or what have you in a new (seemingly) related experience.
Although this sort of memory storage makes absolute sense as a survival strategy for an animal on the savannah, it seems terribly outdated for modern humans navigating their way through a fairly non- (physically) threatening social milieu that is a jungle only in a metaphorical sense.
That’s what I think. I wonder what the evolutionary psychologists think about that. Guess I’ll need to read up on it.
To sum up the insight that my primate brain concocted about itself: our brains are wonderful biological machines that have some real and significant handicaps in processing the reality of a fairly calm modern life.
Oh well. That’s what happens when you evolve: the old bits come along for the ride (provided they’re not carrying with them traits that will get us flat out killed before we can reproduce)!
Of course I haven’t really answered the question I raised about what other powers the human brain might have. Hmm.
Well, for all the harping I’ve done these many Sundays on the non-spiritual realities of human consciousness, and my insistence on a mechanical basis for all of our conscious experiences, there is no ignoring or denying the one quite remarkable trait that our minds posses: the ability to step outside itself and use the function of its own consciousness to examine that very consciousness. We are the animals that can think about what it means to be an animal, and catalog and study our own behavior. That is something.
But, beyond that, I think we’ve misplaced some of the wonder we attach to the human mind. Perhaps as modern neuroscience continues to reveal the true biochemical and electrical complexity of the mind our admiration for this most amazing aspect of the brain will increase, allowing us to release even more of our lingering assignment of intention and deep intelligence to the data-retrieval-machine encased in our skulls. Don’t get me wrong: I love my brain. I just don’t think it’s as smart as I thought it was.