Archive for November, 2011
I watched this program when it first aired, and it was everything I’ve come to expect from NOVA and more. It ran in two parts, with an addendum made up of more personal stories from the survivors.
There were several things that struck me in this show. One was amateur video of a phenomenon geologists have described, but that I’d never seen: liquified soils squirting up from fissures in pavement. It is an amazing thing to see, and not a little disquieting. The other was the animated timeline map showing the location of all of the earthquakes and aftershocks that made up the totality of this event. They appear as red dots along a series of fault lines over a period of two months. It is a stunning overview of an earthquake event the likes of which I had not seen before. It is also a testament to the forces of geology that so many are willing to dismiss as “acts of God”.
The program can be viewed on-line.
I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that we modern humans have brains about ten percent smaller than our ice-age parents. Because that’s what science is telling us. After millions of years of growing our huge brains, they are now moving in the opposite direction.
I can look around on any given day and find any number of current human behaviors to blame on this cranial shrinkage: bad driving, talk radio, Sarah Palin. But in the biology of life — in the “progression” of evolution through natural selection — things are never quite so simple.
The obvious fact is that there is a reason we have been able to dispense with ten percent of our brain. Otherwise, we’d still have it. Conversely, if our lives had become steadily more challenging, it’s a pretty sure thing our brains would actually be growing. But what has changed so much that has changed us so much? For in nature, there is pretty much never an evolutionary change that is not a selection for a better-adapted trait in a changing environment: if environments aren’t changing, species won’t change. It takes the introduction of a new variable to push animal evolution: a new and invasive species, a climate shift.
In our case the best explanation seems to be our own domestication.
Now when we think of domesticated animals, we think of cows and sheep, dogs and cats and married men. But the reality is that we humans have been domesticating our social selves for quite a while now. Think about it: there was no New York City in the Pleistocene. In those days we lived mostly in blood-kin bands of hunter-gatherers. And no matter how much we’d like to make a comparison between the violence of our modern American culture and that “brutish and short” world of our Ice-Age forebears, the fact is that we humans manage a near miraculous daily feat of living cheek to jowl with masses of our fellow creatures with an historically unprecedented lack of person-to-person violence.
In short, as we’ve learned of the enormous (mostly economic) benefits of living together, dividing our labors and extending trust to strangers, we have been submitting our genes to the selective forces of evolution. It may turn out that we humans turn out to be even greater domesticators then we’ve given ourselves credit for by virtue of performing that task upon ourselves.
This fact confronts — in a broader sense — our continued mass denial of the reality of the evolutionary process. A great deal of this resistance is based in belief, with most of that religious in nature. Such belief holds that seeing ourselves as “merely” organisms adrift in some random natural process will strip us of all human dignity, and undermine any sense of universal (and therefore enforceable) morality.
To the first point, there is no “merely” about the evolutionary process. And neither is anything at all about our biology “simple” or “base”. I would argue that it is only ignorance that allows us to regard reductionist bronze age mysticism as a superior intellectual stance in the face of the actual wonder and mystery of life in the universe.
As to the argument for human dignity, the presupposition is that animal life is somehow worthy of disdain in any form other than human. So the problem is not that we debase ourselves if we abandon our “special status” as divinely-created superbeings, but that we have constructed a false hierarchy for purely egotistical reasons. For how does it truly lower us to recognize that we are walking, talking ecosystems of bacteria, viruses and cells whose chemical and electrical processes are facilitated by the metals and minerals that were born in the births and deaths of ancient stars? (The writers of ancient holy books would have peed their pants were they to have had any inkling of such ideas to incorporate into their cosmology!)
And what of morality? This is the big one. The religious insist that our sense of right and wrong is divinely given. Of course it’s not. It’s clear from nature that morality exists in all social species. And that is the key here: we are a social species. Which means that if God were to vanish tomorrow (and with Him, all religious belief) there would indeed be many who would feel a certain freedom to pursue their hedonistic fantasies without restraint. They would, however, immediately run up against the true barrier to dissipation: other humans. The genuine control on human behavior is our own social natures: our desire — nay, our need — to be part of the group.
(The only humans truly free of this need are the psycho- or sociopath — and this is a genetic disorder, leaving those humans devoid of certain critical wiring that would normally make them give a shit about what their fellow humans think of them).
In short, were we to lose religion tomorrow, nothing at all about human morality would change. Every single one of our human-to-human transactions would still require the same negation it does now. Say hello to the new boss, same as the old boss.
Another unanswered question about evolution in our time is the effect of sexual selection on the species — now that women have had access to both better education and more control over their reproductive lives. We already surmise that women are the most likely force behind producing the human male that has a larger penis (by body size) than any other primate. And there is surely no difference between the human selection process for attractiveness or fitness and that of the bower bird or the peacock. And now that technology is progressing at an ever more incredible rate, there is no reason to think that it, too, will not soon add its own selective pressures on the species.
Obesity is another evolutionary issue. For there is nothing about our evolutionary past that endowed our entire species with the tools for resisting the brain-altering cravings that unlimited sugars trigger (the same parts of the brain hijacked by alcohol and other addictions). To the end that we may be experiencing a rather dramatic selection process where a great many humans (that are prone to obesity under our modern industrialized diet) may soon be selected “out” of the gene pool. There’s no reason not to expect that a mutation (or series of mutations) that give one a capacity for functioning well on the crap we now eat may soon spread through the population, giving those individuals that slightly-higher-than-average success rate that translates into thriving young.
All of this gets back to something I said in my very first sermon on Charles Darwin’s birthday: “Because of Darwin, life on earth makes sense”. The theory of evolution has proven to be the best means of making sense of life on both a global and personal level. And though it can be impossible to observe in an individual life, we have now accumulated enough data and insight to see evolution in action. In scientific terms, we call it a theory. The religious read that to mean “a man-made idea that’s not really true”. What it means to scientists is a description of reality that has yet to be proven false. Quite a difference, that.
The religious like to trot out the old aphorism that “Just because you don’t believe in God doesn’t mean He doesn’t exist”. But the same can be said of evolution and natural selection. The difference between the two, of course, is that evolution is the description of reality that is actually based in reality and evidence, and therefore does not deserve to be compared on equal terms with belief-based explanations for life.
But then, after these last twenty-thousand years of evolution the belief centers of our brain seem not to have diminished by even that (above-mentioned) ten percent. But then, it may be that our capacity for religious belief was one of the traits that helped in our domestication. Maybe it’s a cognitive leftover of evolution, like my tailbone, or my appendix, or that weak spot in my lower back that still isn’t quite used to walking upright. And maybe I’ll just have to keep using the ninety-percent of brain I still have left to work around it.
Originally broadcast in 2010 on PBS, this series is now available on-line. Hosted by Alan Alda, it documents a quest for a clear understanding of just what it is that makes us humans uniquely, well, human.
This is an entertaining and deeply interesting series in three parts. What I found very interesting was the two schools of thought that were given equal representation: the one being that we are very similar to our primate cousins, and the other that we are profoundly different from them. Of course, both are true in a sense, but it is really intriguing to see just what a difference the two philosophical starting points can make when interpreting data.
Alda is a good host, as he is clearly and genuinely curious about the subject himself. I found it very worth watching, and I would watch it again given the chance.
There are a lot of things that rattle around in my brain. But for each thing that passes before my conscious attention (for its moment to speak up for itself) there are innumerable other ideas, facts and thoughts that could lay claim to my attention but won’t, either because I’ll never be aware of them or because they’ve simply been forgotten. Each of our individual brains, I presume, is doing pretty much exactly the same thing — picking and choosing what we notice from the constant stream of thoughts and sensory inputs that we wade through every day. One end result being that we just never know what’s waltzing around inside the skulls of those around us!
It’s not hard to imagine that earlier versions of ourselves were probably not as preoccupied with the amount of information that we moderns are. After all, they didn’t even know there was another part of the globe, much less what was going on there politically, socially, environmentally or geologically. We do. Or, at least, we do as long as a particular bit of data about a particular place is holding our attention.
True, we’re not as taken up with sheer survival these days — running from hungry wolves and such — so it’s easy to think that we’ve got some mental capacity to spare for the rest of humanity. But do we, really?
We’ve come to a funny place, where we seem to have fetishized the human brain as a wonder, a marvel and the pinnacle of an entire pantheon of creation. And to be sure the human brain is — relatively speaking — pretty damn wondrous. But then so are eyelashes, and the fact that we walk upright with nary a thought to the complex and astounding muscular and mental coordination necessary to propel us forward (while not propelling us face first into the sidewalk). Life itself is pretty improbable, if you think about, so the fact that we have these huge, calorie-consuming brains is just the cherry on top of a very large cake.
I laugh to myself sometimes when I see a news reporter on T.V. speaking so matter of fact (and with obvious detailed knowledge) about a subject you just know he or she only learned about a few hours before. There is always a tone in their voice as if this is something that any thoughtful person would (or should) know. Knowing, of course, that tomorrow it will be something else that we ALL SHOULD KNOW.
Life is an endless series of such discoveries, whether or not we broadcast our process on the television news. Not a day goes by when I don’t suddenly see something in a new way (mostly as a by-product of new knowledge from a book, a friend or one of those damn T.V. know-it-alls). And invariably, the moment I understand something, I think the entire world should know the exact same thing.
I watched a PBS program called “The Human Spark”, in which host Alan Alda attempted to answer the question of just what that “spark” was that made humans so, well, human. In one experiment, it was shown that a major behavioral difference between human and chimpanzee toddlers, was that the young humans felt a drive to instruct their less experienced kind in a task that they themselves had (only moments before) been shown how to do. The chimps, it seems, could care less. Humans, on the other hand, could not care more.
A research psychologist friend of mine studies babies and their response to novel situations. Her babies exhibit a range of reactions from excited and engaged to uninterested, so it’s clear that not even all of us humans are equally curious about the world. Some of us just aren’t really all that interested, while others of us wear ourselves out trying to keep a million thoughts going like plates spinning on sticks (to borrow from that famous Ed Sullivan show routine).
I think about these sorts of things whenever I walk through a library. All of those books, sitting right there, packed with all sorts of accumulated human knowledge and wisdom and poetry and prose. And I will never read them all. Even if I did, mine is only one small-city library. There are millions of others, many much larger. And now there is the internet, where we humans have been able to store an unprecedented amount of knowledge. It can make you cry…or want to crawl into a dark hole somewhere and think about absolutely nothing for a while.
I think it’s fair to say that we current humans live in an information environment that is as much a force for natural selection as any natural environment that we have encountered in our history as a species. Admittedly, it is not sulfurous or voracious in a way that makes it hard for us to breathe or that compels us to scramble up a tree to avoid snapping jaws (except in a metaphorical sense). But it is an environment that suddenly sets apart those that function well under its mental challenges and those that don’t. Our survival success, then, is now perhaps measured more in economic terms. (Meaning that our social challenges today are what to do with a mass of humanity in which a smaller and smaller minority is racing ahead right along with technology, leaving the majority behind).
In so many ways we behave as if we have outlived evolution. After all, isn’t it clear that we’ve won that race? We’ve given ourselves the blue ribbon, and hand out honorable mentions to the other mammals that we find the most likable: chimps, whales, dolphins, kittens. Because our lives have changed (materially) so much from the wild animal tableaus of nature television shows (a tableau that was once our own not all that long ago), we no longer think of ourselves as even part of the natural world. Because we have harnessed energy and electricity and technology in ways that most of us cannot even understand (much less explain to each other) we feel that we have somehow transcended our animal past.
Of course, the religious have long felt this separation, and have, in fact, insisted upon it as a precondition for belief. That tells me that it is a deeply human quirk, and that maybe some of us have been itching for any and all excuses to see ourselves as special all along.
The irony to me is that we are, indeed, special enough already, by sheer dint of our survival as living things — as a species. To try to add to that is worse than “gilding the lilly”. It is — in some ways — obscene.
The religious believer attacks science for its reductionism — reducing us to the level of animals, denying our divinity and special status. What a load of donkey poop. Science, in fact, tells us just how spectacularly amazing we are, but in a real way — in a way that invokes in me both a deep appreciation for my life and a deep humility born of recognizing just how small I am in the universe as well as in the billions-of-years timeline of life on this planet. (This, I would argue, is the antithesis of the preening egoism that says that I am of deep concern to the one true God of the entire universe).
I’ve said it before: each of us alive today is a living representative of the very first life that ever took hold on this planet. We carry in us an unbroken chain of DNA all the way back to the first slime that pulsed in sulfurous waters beneath a red sun. That is one hell of a family tree. Seeing the true wonder of that, any bronze-age myth about a Garden of Eden and a stolen rib becomes laughable and, frankly, sad. (And of course, since my brain sees it that way, ALL human brains should see it that way!)
Our brains developed as they did in order, it would appear, to favor a rather amazing capacity to read the intentions of others. As a profoundly social species, such skills matter a great deal to us. Somewhere along the way we mutated in a way that complimented the construction of our voice boxes, and verbal language was born. After that, it was only a matter of time before we changed the world with our technology and accumulated (and shared) wisdom. Now we find ourselves overwhelmed on a regular basis by the noisy world we ourselves have created, locked in our brains that are now able to create technology that threatens to become too fast and complex for the brains that created it to keep up with.
I wonder sometimes where this will lead. How far can we go with all of this? So far progress has consistently outpaced any prediction. People raised on horseback learned to drive cars and fly airplanes, after all. Are we going to be any different when the next technological leap overtakes us? There’s something to think about. Well, for a moment, anyway.
REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Economics of Enough: How to Run the Economy as if the Future Matters” by Diane CoyleSunday, November 13th, 2011
This is a practical meditation on the nature of economies, what we’ve learned about them, and their current level of complexity. It is also a manifesto of what could — or should — be the economy we are headed for: one where the current generation lives as if they are not the last ones in line at the store.
I’ve never studied economics. I read a great deal of non-fiction science, which — in our culture and political climate — often has political or social implications. But now and again I am hungry for a different dish, and it is at such times that I will reach for a book on a subject I feel particularly ignorant about. That is how I picked this book off the “new arrivals” shelf at the local library. It was a good choice.
Not only does the author give a thorough and balanced history of economics, the book is recent enough to include an overview of our most recent economic meltdown. Giving voice to the different views on what represents economic growth, the author also surveys the differing philosophies on the values that guide that growth. For make no mistake about it, every economic system (even the failed, greedy ones) are working under a shared set of values.
I found two themes in this book that made the largest impression on me: the documenting of how (particularly American) corporate and social values have shifted in ways that have damaged our economy; and the proposition that there are three vital aspects to capitalism in a democratic society that cannot all be satisfied at once: efficiency, equality and liberty.
I think I disagree with the author’s conclusion that a certain level of economic growth is essential to human happiness. I think that this places too much emphasis on finance alone, and not a sense of one’s life improving in other ways. However I was very pleased to read repeated examples of nations (notably Australia) whose economists are trying to find better, more useful ways of measuring economic growth beyond the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). (It has seemed to me that we are all too much held in thrall to the stock market ticker to the exclusion of other measurements of how we are really doing as a nation).
But this is a great book for getting up to speed on just where we are — economically speaking — at this point in history, and what we need to attempt in order to catch up with the technological, economic and social changes that have left our economies struggling to thrive in a sustainable way.
It’s a tricky thing, living. Being alive. Being aware of being alive. We don’t think about it as being hard, at least not most of the time. (Probably because the alternative to the multiple challenges of being alive are even more repellent to the mind).
But the raw fact is that none of us asked for any of this. How could we? We are the (current) end products of a ginormous random chemistry experiment that just happened to produce living cells as an un-planned consequence of the death of stars and the elemental debris they spewed into space.
That is, of course, quite a condensed version of what we now know happened “out there” that lead to us living “here”, but it gnaws at the bone of contention any of us could have with life in general. We the living were each conceived, born, and brought up with sufficient success to be sitting here now contemplating our existence. The more extreme oddity of us humans (an oddity which we share to a substantial degree with the other higher primates and some mammals) is that our brains took a rather dramatic evolutionary turn a couple million years ago which led to us stumbling upon verbal language which, in the end, most likely led to everything else that we think of as our uniquely human accomplishments.
The fact of our existence as walking, talking, engineering and social people has led countless of our number to reach the (baseless) conclusion that we are the highest aim of some vast intelligence that made everything that there is just to tickle our fancy in a way that would result in eternal gratitude to Him who made it so. The sheer absurdity of this idea is only matched by the screaming improbability that you and I should have come to be as we are at all!
But we are here, and that, in the end, may be the most difficult reality to accept.
We disregard the forms of life that last only a day, a week, or a year. Flies and ants are nothing to us. Pets who stick around for a decade or so we hold to ourselves as companions as long as they endure, then we deeply mourn their loss. Friends and family we have with us for what seems like a very long time indeed. Until, that is, they begin to succumb to the biology of aging. At first it’s our parents that die, but then the older friends (who weren’t all that old when we first acquired them) begin to age, and our sense of plenty that we felt about our youthful time is vanquished by a palpable, approaching mortality.
It’s happened to me more than once, where I will still stop still in the midst of swirling humanity and notice the people driving in their cars or standing in line at the grocery store around me, going about their business as if the only thing to do is to be busy at our work, or buying food or driving to the store. We could just as easily be the ants on an anthill, or the bees building a hive, or beavers engineering a damn or elk rutting in the fall woods.
For it is all exactly the same. We are animals in the same way that all others are: discrete biological ticking clocks, fraught with flaws and potentials for the illnesses or diseases or health and resilience that make some clocks tick faster (or slower) than others.
It is only because we are clearly smarter than the other animals that we allow ourselves an elevated position above the dirty fray of life. A position, I would argue, that we neither deserve nor, in truth, occupy.
The best we humans can do is to make the most of our lives. To our credit, many humans have done just that, and have found a certain poetry in our shared fate. There is a pathos — a certain aching beauty — in the courage that we humans often find to both accept our fate and then turn our finite energies toward making the short lives of our fellow humans better.
It is a discouraging fact, however, that a good many humans are going about their lives with a less-than-admirable level of awareness. I can’t really begrudge them that, on a personal level. But the tragedy comes when the follies of human hubris and inflated self-importance leads people to inflict un-needed pain, suffering and even death upon their fellow hominids.
That’s why I continue to feel it important to preach the reality of who and what we are (based upon the scientific knowledge we currently possess). I think humanism is the philosophical bedrock of the best human ethos. I think religious opportunists borrow this naturally-evolved human ethic in and then attribute it to an external deity for the crass purpose of building a brand and promoting it for tribal and (let’s be honest) commercial purposes.
We are short-lived organisms. We are more complex than most other life on the planet (almost all of which is on the scale of bacteria — the larger the animal, the fewer in number), but that doesn’t give us any special privilege when it comes to the challenges and ultimate outcomes of life. We are each a temporary assembly of elements and energy, made up of as much bacteria as anything else. We are built of compounds that were formed in the crucible of condensing — then exploding — stars, fueled by the life that grows as a result of the nuclear heat of our sun. We have the most complex and interesting brains ever seen on this planet in all of it’s eons of supporting life. We are social animals that love each other, can stand in awe of a sunset or melt at the kiss of a lover.
In short, there are compensations for the ceaseless challenge of living, made all the more beautiful by their rarity. The common is never what we hold to be precious. Yet in our daily experience we are literally enveloped by life, without and within. It is all around us from the day we are born until the day we die. We’ve always known that it was life’s fragility — it’s temporal nature — that made it precious. But now, thanks to science, we know just how uncommon life such as we know it is in the universe, as well as how many microscopic lives are the vital basis of our own. More reasons why this complicated, challenging act of living — for all of its difficulties — means so very, very much to us.
Here’s a very interesting 60 Minutes story on just what science is up to regarding bringing back extinct life!