Archive for the ‘Evolution’ Category


June 11, 2010


  In the June 10, 2010 New York Review of Books noted British American physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson reviewed a new book by Nobel Prize winner physicist Steven Weinberg.  The tone is largely positive, but toward the end Dyson makes an interesting observation.

  He says that Weinberg juxtaposes “militant atheism” on the one hand and absolute faith in the ability of science to explain everything on the other.  He tells us that Weinberg believes that science will soon have developed a “Final Theory” with a set of mathematical rules precisely describing every aspect of our universe.

      Dyson: “I distrust his judgment about philosophical questions because I think he overrates the capacity of the human mind to comprehend the totality of nature.”  I couldn’t agree more.  I think that our understanding of the universe has grown and will continue to grow at the exact pace of the evolution of our consciousness.

  A hope that absolute truth exists is misguided and a belief that one does often gets sublimated, cathected, and comes out as arrogance at best and fundamentalism at the extreme.  To make a contribution to the common consciousness and enjoy the experience, one need only find a way to be comfortable living in the question of it all.

  And next Wednesday being Bloomsday, of what better example might one think than Ulysses?  June 16 was the day of Leopold Bloom’s perambulations about Dublin in James Joyce’s great novel.  It is long, complex, and of beautiful erudtion.  One of its themes is the concept of parallax which in this case can be defined as the enhancement of an observation by the integration of differing perspectives.

  The three main characters provide this in great measure.  Molly Bloom’s famous final almost unpunctuated forty plus page stream of consciousness reconsiders many aspects of her life and relationships and concludes with joy and affirmation:

“…as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

*Joyce picked June 16 because that was the day of his first date with the woman who would be his wife.      

**There is beauty in the video clip, but it is no match for a reading of the prose.  Yes?

Have Any Breath Mints?

January 8, 2010

  I can see a television when I shave in the morning and while I often watch CNN or the local news, sometimes I turn to Despierta America on Univision (must see!) or VH1 or a movie channel.  While flipping through early on New Year’s Eve I found, in black and white on AMC, hay bales moving around a field to the tune of Three Blind Mice.  Remember that one?  The Three Stooges are awesome!! 

  I couldn’t stop laughing and nearly cut myself.  Wife rolled her eyes, tisk-tisked me, and asked when I was going to grow up.  For the umpteenth time.  Jeesh.  She’s lost hope.  Nyuk, nyuk.  After she left though I began to wonder about the evolution of humor.  Later I googled the notion for a bit and found but turgid prose. 

  Hobbes’ thought that life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” before the grace of government came to mind.  Seems logical to me that it might have been an evolutionary advantage to have been able to be funny while standing around a campfire gnawing on mammoth bones.  Life would have been tough (to coin a phrase). 

  I’ll bet that the hot cave chicks were turned on by a smiling fellow able to flatulate via his axilla while the others stood around in a inchoate state of depression.  How else could Fred Flintstone ever have attracted Wilma?

  Base humor must go back to the moment of our awakening, or I guess I mean back to when we first developed a sense of self awareness.  Once you leave speculation and get to recorded history there are plenty of examples. 

  In the Greek play Peace by Aristophanes for example (421BC), a giant dung beetle plays a major role transporting the main protagonist to heaven to plea for the gods’ intercession.  Bystanders are urged to avoid moving their bowels and thereby distract Trygaeus’ coprophageous mount.  It is an antiwar comedy celebrating the coming of peace after ten years of war on the Peloponnesian Penninsula.

  Interesting that the work of which the Stooges were most proud was also related to war.  They considered their best to be “You Nazty Spy” which in 1940 was a mockery of Hitler and the Third Reich.  Moe played Hitler, Larry was Ribbentrop, and Curly did Hermann Goering.    

  Certainly the standard of humor of an age rides the zeitgeist.  There was no need of subtlety during the thirties.  The Stooges appeared in their first film in 1930.  The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup came out in 1933.  Etc.

  It’s 2010.  Where are we now?  Lord help us.  Here’s a clue:  


December 25, 2009

  Appropriate time of year to think about sharks, right?  What, you don’t think so?  You will – at the end of our review of what makes them Terminators of the deep.  First, their skeletons are cartilaginous instead of bone, yielding flexibility and energy efficiency.  Jaws aren’t attached in back allowing for horrifyingly huge portions to be torn apart by an endless supply of sharp teeth. 

  Sharkskin is basically a corset of dermal teeth which not only is protective, but also has hydrodynamic properties.  Sharks have an acute sense of smell.  Most see well.  They can hear us splashing on the beach from far away.  Their Ampullae of Lorenzini detect the electromagnetic fields all living things produce helping to locate you  even if you’re floating quietly in the dark.

  Jeesh.  Think that’s not enough?  Consider aspects of their reproduction.  First, males have two penises.  Hmm, get me some of that shark fin soup.  And, hallelujah, if there are no males around, the females can produce pups on their own!

  It’s called parthenogenesis. Virgin birthed shark offspring are all females, but they can, and will, mate with males as a future opportunity might present itself. Switching back and forth is called heterogamy. Dang if sharks don’t have quite the bag of tricks.

  Make you feel superfluous guys?  Well, before going for the saltpeter, note that (some will disagree) it is not known to have occurred naturally in a mammal although it has been in many other animal groups.

  Some species of bees and wasps have exhibited parthenogenesis.  Some crustaceans, snails, flatworms, and wild turkeys too.  Several species of reptiles can reproduce parthenogenetically including whiptails, geckos, rock lizards, and Komodo dragons.  Interestingly, in order for the process to commence in some lizards, one female must sort of go through the motions with another to stimulate egg production.

  At the cellular level the process varies considerably from one species to another and can involve either meiosis or mitosis.  (The diagram above relates only to sharks)  Some of the progeny thus produced will result in genetic identity with the mother and others will be unique.  Like I’ve said, truth is stranger than fiction.

Ah, The Peonies!

October 9, 2009


    Ever see the movie Heat?  It’s a really great cop v robber flic with Pacino (cop) and De Niro (robber).  Val Kilmer is a steely with chinks bad guy too.  Ashley Judd’s his wife.  De Niro and crew are skilled, astute, and only go after the largest of hauls.  Last one eight figures.  Movie is wonderful, mesmerizing, in your face violence.  In fact, De Niro demands that his last victim “look at me, LOOK AT ME!” before delivering the revenge fueled coup de grace.

  My savor of the gunplay and bloodletting came to mind while reading a bit about the President of Liberia – Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – the first female president of an African country.  Question: “If women ran the world, would wars still exist?” Answer: “No. It would be a better, safer, and more productive world. A woman would bring an extra dimension to that task – and that’s a sensitivity to humankind.  It comes from being a mother.” 

  Question: “But if women had power, they would be more likely to acquire the negative traits that power breeds, like selfishness and territorialism.”  Answer: “It would take a very long term of women absolutely in power to get to the place where they became men”.*

  What is up with us men?  I remember studying the Yanomamo people who inhabit a bit of the jungle between Venezuela and Brazil.  Napoleon Chagnon wrote the best selling anthropology treatise of all time about them.**  They were fascinating for having been theretofore untouched by civilization.  Real time look at primal.  Garden of Eden it was not.  Guys sat around blowing hallucinogenic drugs up each other’s noses all day while women slashed, burned, and cooked.  Third of the men died violent deaths.


  I’ve read elsewhere that our incredible inability to get along is what led to the original diaspora from Africa.  Group gets to 5,000 or so in size, factions arise, violence attends, they spread out.  Years on, given half a chance, a group more technologically advanced wipes out one less so.  Jeesh.

  Somehow though we’ve made it this far.  Truth and beauty do exist and are known to exist by men and women alike.  President Sirleaf might well see more soulful women than men, but some men have tamed or cathected their urges and transmogrified their blood lust. 

  Mountaineers, for example, challenge gravity and weather to suffer a cold and frightful experience risking their contribution to the gene pool all the while.  First ascensionists get to pick the line and have naming rights when successful.  Sometimes position and kinesthetics combine to make a stairway to heaven.  On the massive Gogarth Sea Cliffs in North Wales for example, Ed Drummond put up a spectacular route which he named “Dream of White Horses”. 

Dream of White Horses

  Or – just saw an exhibition of Cy Twombly’s late work.***  Unspeakable beauty.  Unspeakable.  The representation below of one picture from his “Peony Blossom Paintings” conveys only the slightest of hints of an in-person experience, but alongside panel six he has a haiku by Takarai Kikaku inspired by 14th century samurai Kusunoki Masashige: 

Twombly Peony 2

Ah, The Peonies

For which


Took off his Armour

Cool, huh?

* NYT Mag, 8/23/09

** Yanomamo, The Fierce People by Napoleon Chagnon, Holt Rinehart Winston 1968

***Cy Twombly: The Natural World Selected Works 2000-2007.  The Art Institute of Chicago May 16 – October 11, 2009


May 1, 2009


Read that word in an absolutely fascinating excerpt from the new book Reinventing the Sacred by Stuart Kauffman.  Didn’t know what it meant either and it wasn’t in my dictionary.  Tried to look it up in my digital OED but it locked up.

Courtesy of Google found that non-ergodic refers to a set or group or system, the universe say, that is incomprehensible by study of a single aspect or earlier state.  Ever since the Big Bang, the universe has been expanding and evolving.  One could not extrapolate its current state based upon its early arrangement any more than examination of a slice now would tell us much about the whole a billion years hence.

Kauffman is an atheist who wants to understand the nature of the universe.  At its earliest why did the atoms combine as they did?  Darwin’s theory of evolution tells us a lot about our biosphere, but what about before there was anything to evolve? How did the first reproducing cell form?

Framing the question with an example, he tells us that there are twenty different amino acids and 20 to the power of 200 possible combinations thereof to make a length 200 protein.  It would have taken ten to the power of thirty-nine times the age of our universe to make each of them once. Why did the ones that formed come into being and not any of the other possible combinations?

Kauffman began his quest with genes.  He earned his MD at UCSF and undertook research into genetic expression.  He found that they exist “on the edge of chaos” and that “the proper functioning of an organism depends upon its self organization and regulation”.  A trait does not come fully formed from a single gene, but from their interaction.  “Health is just a moment of stability in a very uncertain cellular world.”

The principles of self-organization found in complexity theory play an important creative role in the evolution of the universe, our biosphere, our genome, and our existence. It describes the behavior of systems that are sensitive to initial conditions, but evolve unpredictably over time.

The above Mandlebrot fractal is an example of a complicated structure arising from a simple set of points, a formula, and repeated iterations.  A slight difference in the points and formula would have led to significantly different evolution.  (cf the butterfly effect)

“Thus a radical and I will say, partially lawless creativity enters the universe.  The radical implication is that we live in an emergent universe in which ceaseless unforeseeable creativity arises and surrounds us.  And since we can neither prestate, let alone predict all that will happen, reason alone is an insufficient guide to living our lives forward.  This emergent universe, the ceaseless creativity in this universe, is the bedrock of the sacred that I believe we must reinvent.”

“What about all the aspects of the universe we hold sacred – agency, meaning, values, purpose, all life and the planet?…One response is that if the natural world has no room for these things, and yet we are unshakably convinced of their reality, then they must be outside of nature – supernatural…”

“The ground of our existence, then is not to be found in physics alone, but also in the partially lawless becoming of the biosphere, econosphere, culture that we self-consistenly co-construct.”

A universe not understandable by reductionism? Nor by a grand patron in robe and slippers?  Kauffman gives us a radical appreciation of an unpredictable creativity that underpins and leavens our cosmos.

*Interesting (to me anyway) Kauffman was president (in 1961) of the same mountaineering club as was I (1974).  Makes me wonder anew about the field of embodied cognition to which I referred  in “Let’s Dance” 1/24/08 below.  Kinesthetics, adventure, and cerebration  can combine to powerful effect.

**Dang if he didn’t figure out how to get paid to sit around staring off into space while I still need my day job.   Teaching at Harvard this spring,  he heads the Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics at the University of Calgary.

Here’s Hopin’ for a Draw

January 2, 2009

  Talk about a battle for resources.  A new theory asserts that mental disorders such as schizophrenia and autism result from competition between genes from the sperm and egg.  They vie in utero over management of available nutrients.  The mother fights for moderation so she might live to bear another day while, given the opportunity, the father would empty the refrigerator to enhance the chance that each seed grows to maturity.

  A gene called IGF2 is inherited from both parents and promotes growth.  Usually the mother chemically muffles it so that demands for sustenance do not become voracious.  If the gene is fully active growth can becomes excessive.  As much as 50% above normal.

  The implications for brain development arise in the same region on chromosome 15.  There dominance can lead to conditions associated with autism on the father’s end of the spectrum and mood problems and psychosis on the mother’s.

  “Emotional problems like depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, seen through this lens, appear on Mom’s side of the teeter-totter, with schizophrenia, while Asperger’s syndrome and other social deficits are on Dad’s. 

  One of the researchers, Christopher Badcock of the London School of Economics noticed that: “some problems associated with autism…are direct contrasts to those found in people with schizophrenia.  Where children with autism appear blind to other’ thinking and intentions, people with schizophrenia see intention and meaning everywhere.”

  My roommate tells me that I am rude, crude, unattractive, and am extremely symptomatic of all sorts of social deficit disorders.   I love it.  I is fine.  Thanks Dad!


* I learned about all of this in an article in the 11/11/08 NYT by Benedict Carey.

Er, hadn’t thought about the milkman…

December 19, 2008


  Yet again, the Economist comes through. A bit in the December 4, 2008 edition basically sets forth how healthy, intelligent, and sexy I am. 

  I’ve long known that all the hot chicks can’t take their eyes off of me, but my wife and kids never believe it. I’m certain they won’t now disagree.  The thought of their chagrin is delicious beyond words.

  In a piece titled: “Balls and brains” we learn of recent research testing a thesis attempting to explain a newly discovered interrelationship between intelligence and health.  (As you will see, the thesis also tests political correctness).

  One view would hold that smart people, on average, make smart choices about such things as tobacco and exercise.  In other words, their intelligence would translate into good health. 

  In stark contrast however, some evolutionary biologists think that intelligence signals underlying genetic fitness and has thus forever been a source of attraction for potential mates.  (No bright woman would choose a dumb husband, right honey?*)

  Rosalind Arden of King’s College, London sought to test this idea through the analysis of semen.  Using samples from and interviews with 425 men she found that there is indeed a direct relationship between its quality**  and a standard measure of general intelligence called Spearman’s g.

  So sports fans, “The quality of a man’s sperm depends on how intelligent he is, and vice versa”. 

*This is the truth: Once asked why she agreed to marry me, my wife responded that she needed an encyclopedia.

**Comparative measures of concentration, count, and motility


December 12, 2008

 Several days ago I listened to the husband/wife team of Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth discuss their book Baboon Metaphysics on NPR’s Fresh Air.  (Terry Gross is the interviewer nonpareil!)  It was a fascinating discussion of the incredibly complex fabric of baboon society. 

  The title was taken from words of Charles Darwin: “Origin of man now proved.  Metaphysic must flourish.  He who understands baboon would do more toward metaphysics than Locke.”  Darwin therewith asserts a greater complexity to the mind than Locke’s (and later BF Skinner et al’s) tabla rasa.

  From the book: “Darwin disagreed – both with the conclusion that animals’ thoughts and behavior are entirely based on instinct and with the view that human thought and behavior are governed entirely by reason”.

  For example, brains scans of two day old humans show that they pay more attention to faces than other visual stimuli and focus more intently on speech than other auditory stimuli.  Had to have been in the recipe.

  On the program Ms. Gross played recordings of a variety of baboon vocalizations described as “grunts, screams, and wahoos”.  It was interesting to listen to several different ‘speakers’ in succession.  The voices are distinctly each their own. 

  The information transmitted by the grunts and other utterings is complex and structured.  There is a matriarchic hierarchy to baboon society which can be divined by careful observation of the patterns of the vocalizations. 

  To test their theory the researchers recorded the grunt of a higher ranking female followed by the scream of a subordinate and then played them back in reverse order.  The whole troop was dumbfounded.  Apparently there is no place for an uppity baboon.

  Another interesting aspect of their research was based scatological evidence.  Collecting poop was easier and less intrusive than drawing blood as a means to obtain and evaluate glucocorticoid levels which rise and fall with stress.  When a particular baboon falls victim to a predator those hormone levels rise in each member of the group, but more greatly the closer the relation.  Stress is also evidenced in the friendless.  And furthermore the hormone levels fell when estranged family members were observed to be reintegrated as apparent acts of compassion.

  From their research, Cheney and Seyfarth extrapolated two conclusions regarding baboon metaphysics, brains, and evolution.  “First, natural selection often creates brains that are highly specialized.  Arctic terns migrate each year from one end of the earth to another, ants navigate across the Sahara, bees dance to signal the location of food….Yet… there is no evidence that [they] are generally more intelligent than other species…. they are more like nature’s idiots savants…”

  Secondly that “The domain of expertise for baboons – and indeed all monkeys and apes – is social life”.  And it sure sounds like the grunts, screams, and wahoos hold it together.

  Which, uh, brings me to Robert Frost.  In the December 4 New York Review of Books an article about Frost shows that he too thought that: “the brute noises of our human throat…were all our meaning before words stole in”.

  In fact, his theory was that the essence of effective poetry is to be found in “sentence sounds”. * “It is everything in the sound of poetry; but not as inventor or creator – simply as summoner”.**

  The author of one of the reviewed books, Mark Richardson, “notes the Darwinian drift” of Frost’s thinking.  He also mentioned that Frost had been influenced by Herbert Spencer’s observation: “variations of voice are the physiological results of variations in feeling”. 

  My wife knows just what is going on (and what course of action to take) by noticing if I’m grunting, or screaming, or wahooing.  Heck, so did my dog.  She would hide whenever she heard me grab my tool belt.

  Baboons are very distant relatives.  We humans took the path less traveled by – left the jungle long ago.  Lived in caves for a while.  Learned how to emote in many different languages.  Still are social creatures.  Sure will be interesting to see how, having added nuance to our grunting and howling, our “sentence sounds” will evolve through keyboards, flat screens, and emoticons.

NB It dawned on me that I had hidden (well, lost) somewhere at home a recording of Robert Frost reading some of his own poetry.  Took me a while to find it.  Longer still (and a few grunts) to coax the turntable into cooperation.   Compelling to listen to his intonation of Fire and Ice.  And to remember Kennedy’s inauguration while listening to Frost read his The Gift Outright: 

The land was ours before we were the land’s
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people.  She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright.
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward.
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become. 

* In the 12/11 Economist Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney describes his own speech patterns as “Phonetic grunting”.

**cf “The repetitive pattern of his picking seems to procure the rasp of his voice like hot firing synapses do obsessive thought” in Freewheelin’ above: 6-6-08



Before Shit Happened…

August 8, 2008

  If you buy the idea that developments in the arts of a time or  civilization are due to tremors in its underpinnings, then get this: the cave paintings of Paleolithic artists were largely unchanged for some twenty five thousand years! Must not have been any neurotic cavemen.  Or angst.  Or civil displeasure.  I read this in an interesting article by Judith Thurman in the 6/23 New Yorker.

  Isn’t that amazing?  Just think of all of the different movements of art that rode tumultuous waves of change in the twentieth century alone: Fauvism, Die Brucke, Cubism, Futurism, Orphism, Der Blaue Reiter, Constructivism, Suprematism, Dada, De Stijl, Art Deco, Bauhaus, Surrealism, Regionalism, Abstract Expressionism, Op, Pop, Minimalism, Conceptualism, Performance, Earth, Post Modernism, etc, etc. 

  She writes: “Paleolithic artists transmit[ed] their techniques from generation to generation for twenty-five millennia with almost no innovation or revolt.  A profound conservatism in art is one the hallmarks of a classical civilization.  For conventions of cave painting to have endured four times as long as recorded history, the culture it served… must have been deeply satisfying – and stable to a degree it is hard for modern humans to imagine.”  In addition, she points out that there has not been found any depiction of human conflict in cave art.

  Thurman tells us that the life expectancy way back then was about eighteen.  The brevity of the average was due to high infant mortality.  However, those making it through could expect to live for another thirty or so years due “to the rarity of infectious diseases and abundance of protein… considerably longer than the Greeks, the Romans, or the medieval peasants who built Chartres”.

  The zeitgeist way back then – for all of those centuries and all those generations – must have been characterized by an overwhelming sense of natural rhythm.    

  Must have been sweet.  But then we invented agriculture and began to try to remake the world according to an endless variety of parochial visions.  Shit happened and the rest is, well, history.

  As I have asked before, and will again, now that we are all elbow to elbow and our existence is at the very least wildly syncopated:  whither now that zeitgeist?

And I thought it was because I am a Gemini…

June 20, 2008

  Awesome!  The Economist is such a great magazine!  I just learned from reading the current issue (June 14 – 20 ) why my attention span is so short.  Ahem.  Among other things.

  It’s about attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.  Those with ADHD are impulsive.  They “have trouble concentrating on any task…they flit from activity to activity… tend to perform poorly in society [and] are prone to addictive and compulsive behavior”.  C’est moi!  Yo comprendo!

  Turns out I owe my restlessness to nomadic ancestors.

  Testing has shown that ADHD is a genetic condition. “It is associated with particular variants of receptor molecules for neurotransmitters in the brain”.  Variant 7R of protein DRD4 has been shown to be associated with “novelty seeking, food and drug craving, and ADHD”.

  The neurotransmitter here is dopamine which, as you may know, is associated with reward and pleasure.  The thought is that people with ADHD are getting hits of dopamine (aka positive feedback) for behavior that seems inappropriate in today’s society.

  How could this have come to be?  Well, we’ve not long been desk jockeys and the sorts of things associated with ADHD might have well served our nomad and hunter-gatherer ancestors.  Couch potatoes would not have fared well, would they?

  Recent research in Kenya supports this hypothesis.  The Ariaal people are historically nomadic.  Those now among them with the variant receptor and who continue to wander were found to be “better nourished” than those without.  By interesting contrast, those members of the group that had the variant but had settled down were worse than those without.

  A further question is why, if important, the variant is found only amongst 20% of the population.  Could be that the “effects are beneficial only when they are not universal”. 

  I buy that.  Somebody’s got to poke sticks at snakes and do the peyote ceremonies etc while the rest keep the fire burning. And the latter would tolerate the presence of the former for only the briefest of intervals – eg long enough to drop off the day’s catch.

  I’ve always felt like the odd one out.  Now I understand.  Everybody else is missing a gear. 

(For some reason, this reminds me of something that Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard said in an interview that appears in the June/July issue of Businessweek Small Biz:  “My favorite quote about entrepreneurship is that to understand an entrepreneur, you should study a juvenile delinquent”.)