Archive for the ‘Evolution’ Category

Deer Mom

March 8, 2019

Last summer Mom called late one afternoon to tell me that a fawn had fallen into her swimming pool and was doing laps, unable to get out or touch bottom. Mom’s house is in a wood and there is no fence on the property, so ducks that visit come and go as they please, but most other uninvited guests fatigue and drown before being spotted by the lifeguard. Mom noticed the young deer in distress from her kitchen window and when she went out to see what might be done saw Deer Mom but a few paces away.

Deer Mom was the first thing I noticed as I got out of my truck. Her alarm and sense of helplessness were made apparent by the simple fact that she made no move in retreat. Immediately came to mind events of similar circumstance in the life of me. Kid getting clobbered on the tennis court. Kid in a bad business bind. Kid at a loss in a piano recital.

Much has been written about animal emotions and should the concept come as a surprise, well, something is either wrong with your wiring or your experience of life. You need a dog. Appropriate to this bit is a recent tome on the subject: Mama’s Last Hug – Animal Emotions and What they Tell Us About Ourselves by Frans de Waal. The titular ‘Mama’ was a chimp who on her death bed pulled a human friend close for a last hug. A recent review of the book ends with a similar anecdote, but with the non human half of the pair having been an octopus. (NYT Book Review 3/3/19)

“By examining emotions in (animals and humans), this book puts these in evolutionary context, revealing how their richness, power and utility stretch across species and back into deep time.”… “Emotions are our body’s way of ensuring we do what is best for us… They focus the mind and prepare the body while leaving room for experience and judgement.”

As I approached the pool, my inner big man flashed years back upon a visit to the Seminole Village in Florida were we watched a tribe member swim after an alligator and wrestle it into submission. Deer aren’t carnivores and I thus wasn’t worried about the ripping of flesh, but still wondered about their bite. After herding it into the shallow end, I cornered it and slowly reached for its neck.

Never saw any teeth, but was amazed by the silence of its panic. From time to time I’ve heard the horrific screaming of a rabbit in the claws of an owl and had to guess that evolution has not made deer so enabled – epiphenomenal as the ability might be. I slowly gathered the four legs, lifted the soaking thing to my chest, and made my way to the side of the pool. When I set it upon the deck it was so tired that its feet splayed wide several times plopping it on the sidewalk like a dropped washcloth in a bathtub. Deer Mom took a few steps closer. Finally, firm footing was found, the two rubbed noses, and disappeared in the trees.

Final Answer

February 17, 2012

  In the Science Tuesday section of the 2/14/12 NYT was an interesting article about novelty seekers*.  Heretofore a positive answer to questions like “Are you easily bored – do you thrive in conditions that seem chaotic” were linked to problems like attention deficit disorder, alcoholism, and worse.

  New research suggests that “Novelty-seeking is one of the traits that keeps you healthy and happy and fosters personality growth as you age… is a crucial predictor of well being… can lead to antisocial behavior, but if you combine this adventurousness and curiosity with persistence and a sense that it’s not all about you, then you get the kind of creativity that benefits society as a whole…”

  They call it “neophilia” and describe its role in the evolutionary success of our forebears.  We’d never have left the shade much less Olduvai had we not, at least some of us, a healthy dose of curiosity.  And novelty-seeking combined with two other traits (persistence and self-transcendance) turns out to be “a crucial combination… in people who flourished over the years… [and have the] greatest satisfaction with life”.

  There was an online quiz accompanying this article and I figured I might as well take it.  Tone was set with question #1.  I wanted to answer no to “Do you ever speed” but unfortunately I’d won a $168.00 speeding ticket earlier in the day.  Suffice it to say that the final results indicate that I ought to live forever and be quite happy**.

  Such knowledge couldn’t come at a better time since, after thirty-five years at the same job (no sick days) it is now time for plan B and my roommate and I are excited.  In case she reads this and takes the quiz though I must hasten to add that I didn’t get a ‘perfect’ score.  To the question: “Away at a convention a gorgeous married colleague from another city suggests a rendezvous, you…” 

  I checked C “You feel insulted”.  Final answer.

*”What’s New? A Penchant For Novelty Has Benefits” by John Tierney

**”You tend to enthusiastically approach the new and different as potentially rewarding and downplay any risks involved.  You may live too fast and die too young, but you also explore, experiment and otherwise push the envelope for the rest of us, often in productive ways.  You’re innovative, adventurous, and extravagant but also apt to be impulsive, irritable, and overindulgent regarding food, alcohol, drugs, and other temptations.”

Wonder When The All Clear Will Come

November 25, 2011

Though it is not exactly the story he tells, in his new book The Bear History of a Fallen King, French cultural historian Michel Pastoureau shows how the coming of consciousness gave its bearers power which descendents have yet even now to effectively tame.

In prehistoric times bears were feared, perhaps deified as a result, and thus immortalized on cave walls.  Common in Europe they were more than a match for dimwitted pre-humans.  Once the light went on however, so was the hunt and the rest, well, history.

By the time of Charlemagne in the late eighth century it was mere sport.  He led forays that were responsible for incredible ursine carnage – thousands upon thousands.  By the 1200 sightings in the wild had become rare.  Bears did however make trifling appearances in zoos, circuses, and traveling minstrel shows.  They’re there now nearly extinct.

Reminds me of a roundtable discussion amongst nuclear weapon developers on NPR a decade or so ago.  Moderator asked about what had led to a particular cold war multiple level of magnitude increase in throw-weight.  Answer?  “It was a sweet technological problem.  Hee, hee, hee.”

Fortunately, we also are thus far this side of extinction.  But cf the ongoing decimation of species, climate change, and pressure of well armed hungry thirsty populations, the all clear is not yet out.

Funny thing though is that, with luck, the significant expansion of North American breeding bear populations might be an indicator of a new coming to conscience.  They are messy, destructive, and sometimes violent and deadly.  Yet, “The people [in their range] look at these bears as members of the community”.*

If a friend was killed or your kitchen destroyed by Yogi or Boo Boo the incident would not be something of which to make light.  However, yesterday was Thanksgiving and maybe we should look with favor upon the fact that these days the response to an initial minor incursion might not be to whack.  That there’s maybe an incipient wonder about the cosmic distribution of sentience and consciousness.

*WSJ; 11/21/11; As Bears Multiply, Human Clashes Rise.

**Photo on top of Cro-Magnon painting in Chauvet cave from Smithsonian 12/10

Short Circuit Enculturation?

July 29, 2011


  In the 7/23/11 Economist there is an interesting article about the evolution of gender roles in societies across our planet.  It cites convincing (to me) studies holding that the nature of agriculture in the land of one’s ancestors determines much about the economic roles of women in that society.

  Up to the fifth millennium BC Mesopotamian women did the farming, tilling their fields with hoes.  The invention of the plow somewhere around 5,000 BC changed things.  Women didn’t have the requisite upper body strength and men took over. 

  “Women descended from plough-users are less likely to work outside the home, to be elected to parliament or to run businesses than their counterparts in countries at similar levels of development who happen to be descended from hoe-users.”

    Things can change and have to some extent in the western world where much farming was done from behind plows, but it took the cataclysm of WWII.  Rosie the Riveter et al moved into jobs vacated by soldiers and sailors headed toward the battlefield.  Still, even now, sixteen per cent fewer adult women than men work outside the home in OEDC countries.

  Makes one think of other long long term ramifications.   Hmmm.  In her book French Ways and Their Meaning Edith Wharton wrote: “…one may safely say that most things in a man’s view of life depend on how many thousand years ago his land was deforested.  And…when…men…are plunged afresh into the wilderness of a new continent, it is natural that in many respects they should be still farther removed from those whose habits and opinions are threaded through and through with Mediterranean culture and the civic discipline of Rome.”

  For example: “There are more people who can read in the United States; but what do they read? The whole point, as far as any real standard goes is there.  If the ability to read carries the average man no higher than the gossip of his neighbours, if he asks nothing more nourishing out of books and the theatre than he gets in hanging about the store, the bar and the street-corner, then culture is bound to be dragged down to him instead of his being lifted up by culture.”

  I’ve recently been entertained by labor strife in France related to an attempt to raise the retirement age from sixty to sixty-two.  But now in light of the likelihood that the leaders of the richest country in the world have squandered our credit rating, the concept of joie de vivre rings with new resonance.  I’m thinking of short circuiting the slow evolution of enculturation by moving to the Cotes d’Azur.

Ripple Patterns

June 24, 2011


  After innumerable vehicular gridlocked approaches to Chicago’s skyline over the last nearly sixty years, a recent one from the east afloat through mist and fog was ethereal and otherworldly.  It was like walking into a theater with the most magnificent of backdrops and a smoke generator laying cover for the first act.

  It was incredible.  We were sailing downwind in a light breeze, so it was silent at first.  All one could do was stare.  Time passed, we continued toward the marina at Monroe and Lake Shore Drive.  The air cleared a bit and the sounds of water lapping at hulls and unladen halyards woke us up.  Sun burned and we soon saw more clearly the iconic rectilinearity, strangely yet bereft of the usual downtown din.

  The experience reminded me of something I read about the ascent of man, how “From the stone age to ancient Greece to the Maya to modern Japan, the most technologically advanced and economically successful human beings have often been seafarers and fisheaters”*

  “…people reached the Andaman islands, Melanesia and Australia, all of which required sea crossing, within a few thousand years – whereas it took them tens of thousands of years even to begin to oust our Neanderthal rivals from Europe and inland Asia.

   I wonder about the conscious (or not so) experience of those voyages eons before even Columbus.  Were they reckless forays into the truly unknown or an adventurous hewing to a vestigial instinct?  I’ve read about Polynesian navigators able to find their way through open sea solely by reading ripple patterns on its surface. 

  Something’s gotta be going on there.  Something not to be found on a cruise ship.  Something the zeitgeist lost somewhere between the acquisition of language and literacy.  I need a compass.  Scratch that – I need a GPS.

*WSJ”We Are the Apes Who Took to the Sea”, Matt Ridley, WSJ 3-12/13/11





Florence Shore – End of the World as We Know It

June 3, 2011


  An interesting article in the current Economist (5/24-6/3) reminds us that before Copernicus, it was thought that the earth was at the center of the universe and that we upon it were all thus imbued with God’s grace.  As the sciences evolved the perception of our position devolved to the point where, well, that “we are stardust”.

  Yep, old news.  The point of view now gaining traction though is that humankind has assumed the central role debunked long ago – at least insofar as our planet is concerned. Clear cut forestry, strip mining, large scale farming, carbon based energy etc and all the related ramifications are “bringing about an age of planetary change”.

  Geologists call the more or less discrete (geologically, meteorologically, etc) epoch in which we’ve been for the last 10,000 years the Holocene.  Scientist Paul Crutzen came to the belief that the wake the coming of man left behind has begun to shape something new.    He’s suggested we call the new age the “Anthropocene”.

  I was thinking about this the other day while in the bank with MD erstwhile geologist brother when he pointed out the ‘captured’ fossil pictured above on an interior wall.  He said it was a “cephalosomething” embedded in metamorphic limestone aka marble. He went on to say that some buildings and groups of buildings (college campuses e.g.) have maps and guidebooks locating and describing incredible arrays of such stuff.  The Burgess Shale as interior decoration!

  I realized that at some distant point in the future these buildings will have collapsed into the ground, archaeology will sort of transmute into paleontology, and given the trajectory of the average level of intelligence worry that whoever is doing the research be really confused. “How did this cephalosomething get here?  They went extinct eons before the other stuff in this layer…”

  I follow the logic above, but hesitate to adopt the new perspective.  There are too many dopes around who will get the wrong idea.  Might even think the changes we’ve wrought are something of which to be proud.  In 2005 Patagonia founder and environmentalist Yvon Chouinard said: “Forty-eight percent of people in America still don’t believe in evolution… don’t believe in global warming because it relies on scientific interpretations of core samples that are hundreds of thousands of years old, and they think the earth is only six to ten thousand years old”*.

  Some of us are even dimmer.  Jersey Shore is in its fourth season.  They’re in Florence!  People watch.  Rest my case.**

*Alpinist 12 Autumn 2005

**OMG It gets worse.  On NPR with Terri Gross Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari describes being beaten in Teheran’s notorious Evin prison while his torturer asked about New Jersey – his interest having been piqued by the show.

At Least I Know What A Newt Is…

January 28, 2011


  Some time back, somewhere, I read that business people have just about the biggest vocabularies of all professions.  False.  Not even close.  My doctor brother knows all the words I do (me businessman) – and a whole lot more.

  The other day I was looking through an issue of one of his Journals of the American Medical Association and had to use a dictionary so often that I’d lose the sense of a passage and have to start over.  Exactly similar to reading something in a nearly forgotten foreign language. 

  Nonetheless, I’ve never met a periodical I didn’t like and this was no exception.  The most interesting bit (so far) was entitled: “Re- ‘evolutionary’ Regenerative Medicine”* which asks: “Can an evolutionary perspective on the mechanisms used by ‘lowly’ organisms inform the approach to human tissue regeneration?”

  Through most of the article the authors use the example of a newt, or more specifically one minus a limb.  How does it grow back and why won’t they, damaged heart tissue, etc grow back in humans?  Seems that science has long thought that a limb-bud (blastema) was made of “multipotent” cells (like stem cells I guess) that somehow took appropriate new form.

  Turns out not to be the case.  Instead, the already specialized cells  (cartilage, bone, neural, and muscle) of the stump/bud are enabled to re-enter the cell cycle and proliferate anew.  Furthermore, “A crucial step would likely entail ‘lifting the brakes’ on cell division, but only transiently, to avoid uncontrolled proliferation and tumor formation.”

  It sort of follows that mammals and other species might have lost to cancer the ability to regenerate.  Those of our (way) distant ancestors that did finagle new stuff also developed cancer at an unsurvivable rate.  I think that’s what they mean.  Does make you wonder about how newts et al made it through though.

  Anyway, they figured out that inhibition of a certain tumor suppressing gene mediated newt limb regeneration.  In humans the suppression of a homologous gene does not.  Seems that the culprit is a certain ‘alternative reading frame protein’ which isn’t found in any species capable of regeneration.   This ARF is frequently inactivated in human cancers.

  The above described existing route to a new limb (for some creatures) is then different than the one based upon stem cells and has several  advantages warranting further research.  Some tissues don’t seem to have stem cells.  Methods to steer stem cell development towards a specific destiny haven’t been worked out nor has a means of reintroduction of new into diseased or damaged tissue.

  No brainer then huh? 

  Also, seems obvious that those against stem cell research must not be avid readers of JAMA.  Final (for now) point of interest is that a work of art graces the covers of each issue and that three recent ones have borne works from our (Figge Art Museum’s that is) vault.  Cover of this issue pictured below.

*Re”evolutionary”Regenerative Medicine; H.M Blau; J.H. Pomerantz; JAMA 1/5/11; p87

I Can’t Stand It. I Been There Before

January 21, 2011

  At the behest of Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark took their “Corps of Discovery” across the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase.  Leaving St. Louis on May 14, 1803 they made their way across the wilderness to the coast of what is now Oregon and arrived back in St. Louis on September 23, 1806. 

  Clark went on to hold a number of governmental positions and fathered eight children (one named Meriwether Lewis Clark!) with two wives.  Lewis became Governor of the Louisiana Territory, had no children, and shot himself on his way to deliver journals of the expedition to a publisher.*  I’ve long wondered what was up with that.

  He’d been leader of the expedition and must have felt exhilaration of uncommon intensity upon journey’s end.  He’d operated successfully through thousands of miles of unknown territory and hardship compiling the first account of America’s west.  There could have been no measure of accolade equal in proportion to having returned with crew largely intact after those many dangerous and difficult months. 

  Perhaps that was just it.  The return to civilization was more than he could take.  Compared with the clear choices of life and death in the wilderness, a desk job and starched shirts must have chafed not only his neck.

  Jungian therapist James Hollis writes: “…whenever we force ourselves to do what is against our nature’s intent, we will suffer anxiety attacks, depression, or addictions to anesthetize the pain of this inner dislocation”.**

  A recent evolutionary rationale for depression holds that it is a ‘healthy’ manifestation of the psyche in response to spiritual/emotional/existential dis-ease.  Some way down a certain path, one finds it problematic, stews for a bit, and then chooses a new direction.  Three years must not have been enough for Lewis to recalibrate.

  He probably should have turned around.  Like at the end of Huckleberry Fin when our protagonist said: “…reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me.  And I can’t stand it.  I been there before.”

*Not all agree that Lewis took his own life.  Descendents of his sister hope to have his body exhumed to somehow prove that he was murdered.

**Hollis, What Matters Most, Gotham Books, 2009

***cf post of 2/20/08


September 24, 2010


     Sorry to break the news, but your erotic fantasies are but a collective by-product of more important machinations – those of the evolution of consciousness itself.  True, reproduction is the sine qua non of evolution in the first place. 

     It’s just that handcuffs, whips, etc. are not a necessary part thereof.  No prizes for guessing what is.  Furthermore, the sex life of most of earth’s creatures consists almost solely of an instinctual stimulus response arrangement operating strictly within certain biochemical parameters.*

      How did the human analogue of pollination come to be writ so large?  Air conditioning some think, in a manner of speaking.  When our anthropoid bipedal ancestors left the trees for the savanna they left behind shade – protection from the sun’s searing rays. 

Since a primary order of business for a warm blooded creature is temperature regulation, most importantly that of the brain, incremental improvements in an ability to radiate excess heat would be a distinct advantage.  Particularly in the sub-Saharan environment. 

       Thus, an incipient outer bit of tissue might have proven to be advantageous as first a radiator, later a tool designer, and much later “art” film producer.

      Much much later.  Some theorize that it was as recently as within the last several thousand years, citing the chastity of prehistoric murals and sculpture produced before 1000 BC. Soon thereafter an explosion of erotic representations appeared.

      Now, at this point of remove, many of the sensory receptors and inputs which heretofore have led to the horizontal have become vestigial.  Imagination may have become a key component of the reproductive system.

      Think about it.  What would your sex life be without the ability to reminisce, ruminate, and look forward?

*Watch an ‘unfixed’ male dog help sort the laundry of a mixed gender household. 

*cf post 9 3 10 re Hancher.  The U of I selected Pelli Clarke Pelli.  I’m sure they’ll do a fine job (and are thrilled to have my seal of approval) and I can’t wait to attend performances there (construction to start 2012).  Pelli is also the firm signed for an arts building (as yet unfunded) on the campus of Western Illinois University in Macomb…

Unfinished Business

July 23, 2010


  Whenever I get bewildered or stuck, I like to look through Jung.  He once wrote: “Life is a luminous pause between two great mysteries which yet are one”.  And he spent most of his career assisting those in the second half of life figuring out how to incandesce.

Uh, perfect timing.

  “The more a man’s life is shaped by the collective norm, the greater is his individual immorality.”  Easy for him to say.  How does one dig deep, take risks, and still be a responsible member of this species?  I understand him to say that’s just it.  One has to will a way to be comfortable living in those questions.  “What work then, needs to be done?”

  Or put another way, Jung defined neurosis as “suffering in search of meaning”.  Or “it’s not so much that one has a complex, it’s that the complex has him.”  And should one, a parent, not feel like taking up this great challenge he/she “should be conscious of the fact that they themselves are the principal causes of neurosis in their children”.

  And it goes way back:  “Together the patient and I address ourselves to the 2,000,000-year-old man that is in all of us.  In the last analysis, most of our difficulties come from losing contact with our instincts, with the age-old unforgotten wisdom stored up in us.  And where do we make contact with this old man in us?  In our dreams.”

   Furthermore, I’m obviously interested in all aspects of neuroscience, its explication and promise.  But I don’t think that science alone will ever completely demystify the living of a life.      

  “Scientific materialism has merely introduced a new hypostasis…It has give another name to the supreme principle of reality and has assumed that this created a new thing and destroyed an old thing.  Whether you call the principle of existence “God”, “matter”, or anything else you like, you have created nothing; you have simply changed s symbol.”

  “The danger that faces us today is that the whole of reality will be replaced by words.  This accounts for a terrible lack of instinct in modern man, particularly the city dweller.  He lacks all contact with the life and breadth of nature.”

  I’m going outside.  Be right back.  Well,  maybe Monday…