Posts Tagged ‘alan alda’

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Human Spark”

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

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.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

SERMON: “Our Busy Brains” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

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).

Keeping the plates spinning. A metaphor I've employed for years.

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.

t.n.s.r. bob