Thursday, December 16, 2010

Mark Currides and Leroy Phillips, Jr., Contempt of Court (1999)

This is a story about injustice. A true story. And if there was ever a story that seems to support Richard Wrangham's vision of male-dominated societal violence in Demonic Males (see July 1, 2010 post), this could be it. But human violence in this story --- here, a racially-motivated lynching at the beginning of the 20th century --- is not explained by competition for scarce food resources, nor does it appear to be explained by territorial expansion of a group. This is a type of violence that is arguably unique to humans ---the ugly side of our humanity.

This is a story about a crime --- an assault and the rape of a white woman in Chattanooga, Tennessee. No one disputed that nor did anyone assert a justification for this crime. This is also the story of another crime: the unproven accusation that a black man committed the crime and the emotions of a community that would allow any black man, regardless whether he could have committed the crime, to pay the penalty for the first crime. When the accused tried to seek justice through the legal system to the full extent allowed by law, and to which any white man would have been entitled, the criminal justice system conspired to thwart his realization of justice. Before a court --- in this case, the United States Supreme Court --- had its final say, a mob of racial bigots, with the acquiescence of those assigned to protect the accused's rights, grabbed him from his jail, hung him from a bridge over the Tennessee River, and riddled his body with bullets.

I first heard this story last year at a legal ethics program of the Virginia Bar, where the author, Mark Currides, presented the story in order to illustrate a nestful of questions about judicial and attorney ethics issues. The American Bar Association had recently published an article about Currides' book, as it was the 100-year anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Shipp , the only case involving an actual trial at the Supreme Court. The story of the accused's lawyers is a phenomenal one in the history of American jurisprudence --- both those who were assigned to represent the accused at his criminal trial, and those who took over to pursue his appeals, when the accused was persuaded by his own trial attorneys (and the judge) not to pursue an appeal after a jury had rendererd a guilty verdict at the trial that would surely result in his execution.

Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan persuaded five fellow justices of the Supreme Court to allow the accused an appeal under the Habeas Court Act --- something virtually unheard of in 1906, because it involved federal oversight of a State court proceeding. Harlan was almost unique in his sensitivity to racial justice at that time in history; he dissented in the case of Plessy v Ferguson, which upheld the concept of separate but equal facilities for the different races, in which he penned the statement, "Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens." But cases like this, which fortunately are exceptional and now, few, render the artistic depiction of Lady Justice, with blindfold, a wounded representation. Injustice is certainly blind too. It took decades before Justice Harlan's view of "our constitution" was accepted. But the Shipp case was a turning point. Racial lynchings began to decline dramatically after Shipp, when state judicial officers and law enforcement began to realize that the federal government could second-guess their actions and the local community could no longer protect them. And by the time of the school desegregation cases of the 1950s, the federal government was no longer relying on state and local police to protect those who were pursuing their federal rights (as happened in Chattanooga in 1906), but federal troops were sent to protect them.

There is a final contemplative thought to be considered after a reading a book like this: justice often moves at an incremental pace, often too slow in hindsight. Phrases like "with all deliberate speed," which Chief Justice Warren penned in the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education remedy opinion, seem to recognize this fact. Contempt of Court is a story sandwiched in between many other stories that document the slow pace of securing racial justice over two centuries in time: for example, covering the period preceding Shipp, Judge Leon Higginbotham's history of the colonial origins of slavery in the United States, In the Matter of Color, Race and the American Legal Process: The Colonial Period (1978) and John Quincy Adams' decade-long, yet failed effort from 1835-1845 to get Congress to reconsider the slavery issue before the civil war as reported in William Lee Miller's Arguing About Slavery: John Quincy Adams and The Great Battle in the United States Congress (1998), and after Shipp, Richard Kluger's reporting on the judicial battles over racial desegregation in Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Racial Equality (1976). While one of the virtues of a democracy is that its incremental decision-making process makes it possible to gather the consent of the governed and reaffirm the legitimacy of the governing body so that violent conflict is not necessary to resolve critical and disputed issues. But at this stage in our democracy, we should recongize that there are some issues in need of resolution that can't wait as long as democracy may take to respond. Racial inequality and its attendant injustice is one of them, and conflict, including physical conflict, has been resorted to resolve the conflict. It is here that some fundamental principles of justice can help us identify those issues that cry out for impartial resolution at a faster pace, which is the subject of the next book to come of the bookshelf.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sean B. Carroll, The Making of the Fittest (2006)

This is a wonderful book to read following Genome (November 27, 2010 post). It tells another set of stories derived from sets of three-letter words utilizing combinations of the letters of A, C, G, and T. Published just seven years after the publication of Genome, and written just as the human genome was in its final stages of being decoded, The Making of the Fittest reveals just how much more we have learned about our DNA in such a short period of time.

Sean Carroll is the author of another book, previously published, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, which documented the genetic source of both embryonic development as well as physical development outside the embryo after birth. I cited this book in the previous post.

The key words in this volume are chance, selection, and time. As someone who was intrigued and stimulated by French biologist Jacques Monod's book, Chance and Necessity, almost 40 years ago, these three words, and Carroll's interpretation of them in the context of what we now know about DNA and evolution, reaffirm what I have long-believed about randomness and causality: that events in the universe (biological, chemical, and physical) are both random and determined and there is no flawed incongruity in saying so. While randomness may appear to be a function of limited foresight --- cognitive uncertainty and unpredictability, as Ridley suggests in Genome, randomness is neither predestined or (intelligently) designed. Yet hindsight informs us that these same events are part of a causal sequence, many of which are quite orderly and repeatable.

Prior posts on this blog reveal that I am a skeptic of the intelligent designer thesis. (See May 24, 2010 and May 12, 2010 posts). The Making of the Fittest is probably the most devastating condemnation of intelligent design ever published. One cannot read and understand this book without coming to the conclusion that it is simply impossible for any type of intelligence to program life and contemplate mutation and evolution in the manner that it actually occurs. While those in the intelligent design community believe that it is impossible to contemplate the complexity and variability in life without an intelligent designer (a code for God), Carroll demonstrates that it is impossible to contemplate the complexity and variability in life as the output of a design. Theists will condemn this statement as the view of someone who believes that life has no purpose: but theists misunderstand and confuse purpose, which is a psychological event, with random mutation, which is a biological and informational event.

Both Carroll, Ridley and many others have reported that there is a universal common ancestor of all species dating back to billions of year ago, and the species alive today all share common DNA and RNA in their respective genomes that has been copied, translated, inherited, and preserved over the eons. What makes species differ is variety in the genome, and "[t]he source of all variety is mutation." Carroll notes that mutation has several connotations that have led to false impressions about mutation: first, that all mutation is bad and is not creative, and second, that if mutations are random (which he says they are), then a random process cannot account for all the complexity we find in living things today. "This misconception is based upon a failure to distinguish between mutation and selection. The mutational process is blind, natural selection is not. Mutation generates random variation, selection sorts out the winners and losers. Furthermore, natural selection acts cumulatively," says Carroll.

And there are a variety of mutations of the genetic code. The most common is the equivalent of a typographical error in the process of copying the genetic code --- a substitution of one of the four letters for another. But there are also mutations involving deletions of code and insertions of repeating code or duplications. Sometimes these mutations actually mean something --- changing something about the phenotype in which the genetic code resides, but many, many times these changes mean nothing --- they don't change a thing about how the gene works. Some genes simply lose their meaning over time because they are no longer used, and these are called fossil genes. And some mutations that do have meaning simply do not survive to live another generation because selection is neither accomodating nor forgiving. When mutations occur repeatedly and have meaning --- in the sense that it changes something about the phenotype in which it resides --- and selection favors the survival of that mutation, then given enough time (many generations, thousands of years) we can find new species evolving. Carroll has reduced his mantra of chance, selection and time to this expression: "i) given sufficient time, ii) identical or equivalent mutations will arise repeatedly by chance, and iii) their fate (preservation or elimination) will be determined by the conditions of selection upon the traits they affect."

The Making of the Fittest illustrates this proposition through several well-documented examples, but the star in this story are the genes that code for proteins that develop opsins found in photoreceptors in the eye. Opsins are involved in vision and in converting a photon of light into an electrochemical signal that is transmitted along neural pathways --- in humans to the areas of the brain responsible for vision. These genes and their predecessors are very old, and selection has operated on mutations of the genetic code that develop opsins to cause different species to have varying levels of visual acuity, color recognition, and other funcitonal properties.

Life can be described in terms of both variation (complexity) as well as order -- by which I mean that there is repetition and some level of stasis. For some, it is unfathomable that complexity and order can exist absent some intelligent designer. But biological science, chemistry, and even physics establishes that variation and order in living things exist quite well without a designer. Monod's "necessity" is a matter of selection, and for very long periods of time external conditions --- natural environment, predators, and even a given specie's social environment --- are relatively static leading to little or no change that gives rise to the appearance of order. Much in the process by which genetic code is copied over and over again: there are few mistakes and faithful copies of genes are repeatedly made preserving the existing order of things. But beneath the surface of appearances, mutations occur, and these mistakes are not planned, they are not purposeful, and they are random.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Matt Ridley, Genome (1999)

A television show, Law and Order, opens each episode with a narrative line about the role of the police and prosecutors in the criminal justice system, which closes, "And these are their stories." Matt Ridley might have opened Genome by stating, "There are 23 chromosomes that make up the human genome, and each have special roles (plural) in determining or influencing our development, our physical attributes, our behavior, the kind of diseases we suffer or have immunity from, how long we might live, and when we might die. And these are their stories." Don't misunderstand me. Genome is not a complete encyclopedia of either genomics or the human genome. Just 23 interesting stories from one of the world's fine science writers, each story artfully tied to one of the 23 human chromosomes, from largest to smallest, covering topics such as life, species, history, fate, environment, intelligence, instinct, self-interest, sex, disease, stress, personality, development, life and death, memory, gene therapy, politics and ethics, eugenics, free will and determinism. The breadth of the subject-matter covered by this volume speaks to almost all of the topics covered by the books previously described in this blog, including a central theme: that units of information are the most fundamental units of life. (See September 28, 2010 post).

Ridley calls the genome a book, the chromosome a chapter, the gene a story, an exon a paragraph, a codon a word consisting of three letters, and a base is a letter, either (in the case of DNA) an A, C, G, or T (or U in the case of RNA), for adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine, each consisting of one or two aromatic rings and arrangements of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and/or oxygen atoms. These chemical units are the basic units of information that comprise life forms, but alone they do not give rise to life. What gives rise to life is (1) the pairing of these letters along a double helix that makes up DNA, and (2) their subsequent transcription into RNA to form three letter codons, which, (3) are subsequently "translated" into a specific amino acid depending on which three of the four letters are transcribed and their sequence. (4) The particular chain of amino acids creates a protein. By this process, it is said that "genes" code for "proteins." While the RNA amino acid chains may have been the earliest form of life, "life" as we know it received a boost with the creation of cellular membranes to form the first cells that carried the proteins containing genetic information central for the cell's organization. This development is still not fully understood.

This ability of the genes to copy themselves, read and transmit their story, under the right conditions, is the ability to create another life form. My son once asked asked me, "What is Life?" a question posed in his high school biology class, and I replied that at its most fundamental level it is carbon-based, with a mechanism to replicate itself. The only two things I would add, consistent with the very first book discussed in this blog, Seth Lloyd's Programming the Universe (see August 17, 2009 post) is the ability of these units of information to communicate among themselves --- an electrochemical means --- to say "Let's stick together," or "Let's avoid each other," and then to store itself as if in memory. This is what we find in the genome, whatever the species.

This story never ceases to amaze me. Life began with RNA --- which by itself can replicate itself, and translate and transmit its meaning, as well as catalyze with --- break up or join with --- other chemicals, creating amino acids and proteins. The storage device for these words and paragraphs is DNA. An RNA gene found on chromosome 1 translates the information found in DNA to proteins, which become the primary agent for carrying out the direction specified by the information contained in the genes within a cell.

I cannot cover every "chapter" in Genome, but four topics that reappear throughout this blog --- so we can connect the dots --- are important in my mind: (1) is behavior found in our genes? (2) the role of our genes in our development after birth, (3) human memory and the mind; and (4) determinism vs. free will.

Is behavior found in our genes? This topic was first confronted in the post on Richard Powers' novel Generosity (November 30, 2009 post), Frans DeWaal's The Ape and The Sushi Master (June 17, 2010 post), and subsequently Oren Harman's The Price of Altruism (October 13, 2010 post). The answer then, as it is now, is no. There is no gene for spitting or laughing or speaking English or for believing in a god. What genes do code for enables or influences behavior, but they do not determine specific behavior. Just as it would be incorrect to say that behavior is entirely written in our genes, it would also be incorrect to state that behavior is entirely attributable to environment, including the nurturing, learning, social and cultural environments. Behavior is the outcome of the genome that defines us and the environment in which we develop and live.

Ridley notes the significance of instinct, something which was important to Darwin in The Origin of Species. Behavior that is instinctive to a species is arguably heavily enabled or influenced by genetic information. So we may refer to a language instinct, to borrow Steven Pinker's words, but a language instinct does not develop without some environmental influence. The genes that become proteins instruct the creation of the mouth, the tongue, and the air passages that enable human speech, and further instruct in the creation of the modules of the brain and the neuronal pathways between them that enable human speech and perhaps even language syntax. But at some point in the course of a life, learning takes over. The ability to learn --- social behavior --- is also something that is enabled or influenced by genetic information, but genes are not the end of the story.

The role of genes in development. This story was detailed in Sean Carroll's book Endless Forms Most Beautiful, which accounted for the role of the Hox and hedgehog genes in providing a program for both embyonic development and development after birth. These genes regulate cell division, the timing at which genes are switched on to control development, and determine such things as symmetry in the body of an animal, where arms, legs, antennae, fins, fingers and the like appear. Ridley retells this story on Chromosome 12. This is one of the most fascinating stories in evolutionary genetics as these are among the oldest of genes.

Memory. One of the more important subjects in the study of the brain is its plasticity, the brain's ability to change by removing, adding or strengthening neural connections. "When you learn something," Ridley notes, "you alter the physical network of your brain so as to create new, tight connections where there were none or weaker ones before." Connections between never cells "not only provide the mechanism of memory, but are memory." Ridley is not clear on how specific genes are tied to learning and memory, but he suggests that proteins connected with certain genes "are probably needed for holding the synapse closely together." We know more about the process by which memories are created and stored in the brain: sensory information is received in the perirhinal cortex found in the medial temporal lobe and sent to the hippocampus and to the diencephalon for temporary storage. If the information is significant enough for more permanent storage, it is sent back to the neo-cortex as long-term memory. Eric Kandel's research, documented in his memoir, In Search of Memory, traces the electro-chemical process in the brain by which connections between the neuronal connections at the synapses of neurons are strengthened.

Learning "is the opposite of instinct," Ridley says. "Instinct is genetically-determined behavior; learning is behavior modified by experience. . . .Human beings achieve by instinct the same things that animals do. We crawl, stand, walk, cry and blink in just as instinctive a way as a chick. We employ learning only for the extra things we have grafted on to the animal instincts: things like reading, driving, banking and shopping." Consciousness, Ridley quotes another, "is to enable [the child] to learn things which natural heredity fails to transmit." The brain is created by genes that designed the brain to be modified by experience.

Determinism vs free-will. The final chapter is almost whimsical --not truly a story about Chromosome 23, but an excuse to pontificate on whether free-will is possible given that a combination of genetics and the environment seems to determine everything about us. Free-will, in my view, if it exists, is enabled by the brain --- it is tied to the same type of issues that Ridley discusses in connection with learning and memory. Human behavior, says Ridley, is unpredictable in the short-term, but quite predictable in the long-term. As an example, he cites that at any given time during a day one can choose to eat or not to eat, but over the course of a day one will have to eat. When one eats is a function of genetic and external influences that makes behavior unpredictable, but not undetermined. "Freedom lies in expressing your own determinism:" being able to control voluntary movement in the gap between short-term when behavior is unpredictable and the long-term when it is predictably determined, It is in the brain of humans, and perhaps some other animals, that the ability to control voluntarily movement is found. And genes have enabled this ability in the design of the brain.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Miriam Boleyn-Fitzgerald, Pictures of the Mind (2010)

Until the 1990s, much of what we knew about specific parts of the brain came from clinical observations occurring in the course of evaluating patients who had suffered brain lesions or other trauma. The neurologist knew that a certain part of the patient's brain had been damaged and knew that the patient's behavior was altered in some way. From these observations, the expert could conclude that the damaged part of the brain had some role in the emotional and/or cognitive life of the patient and generalize. Autopsies could, in some cases, lead to similar kinds of findings. But there are ethical limitations on intruding too deeply into the brain of a living patient unless it is essential to the patient's welfare. Michael Gazzaniga discusses these limitations in his book Human (September 27, 2009 post).

Imaging technology --- particularly functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) --- has changed that, and Miriam Boleyn-Fitzgerald introduces that technology to explore how much we have learned about the brain, memory, our humanness and sense of self, and psychiatric therapy in just the past 20 years. She also explores the role of imaging technology and brain scans in the courtroom, as criminal defendants seek to excuse their antisocial behavior and explain that excuse to a jury.

Boleyn-Fitzgerald's book is not a bad follow-on to De Waal's Age of Empathy (see previous post), as imaging technology has been useful to see the brain's reaction to perceptions of others in pain. But there is almost a new-age component to this book, a suggestion that imaging technology will confirm that Eastern contemplative traditions --- in contrast to Judaeo Christian religious traditions --- are more closely linked to our mental welfare. Confirming what DeWaal noted, Boleyn-Fitzgerald reports "the insula --- a part of the limbic system that serves as the key interface between physical sensations and emotions --- and in the temporal parietal junction, which appears to play an important role in processing and understanding the emotional states of others" are associated with compassion and empathy. The fMRI research also shows that these areas of the brain are also very active when Buddhist monks meditate, and, when combined with knowledge of the brain's plasticity, these associations suggests that the brain may be trainable (particularly in younger ages) through meditative therapy to learn to become more empathetic and less self-centered. That is the primary message that Boleyn-Fitzgerald delivers here --- what we learn from scanning the brain will inform us better about methods or strategies to promote mental and social health.

Medical imaging technology has played a role in identifying the parts of the brain that control our decision-making and the formation of judgments. Consistent with Gazzaniga's research as reported in Human, as well as the research of Antonio Damassio and Marc Hauser, there is a predispostion founded in feelings and emotional responses --- not utilitarian calculation --- for the mind to solve moral dilemmas in a manner that is not inconsistent with the moral rules societies tend to live by. Imaging studies support this research.

"One property of human consciousness," Boleyn-Fitzgerald writes, "emerging from the scanners --- one fact that now seems inarguable --- is that the neural activity associated with the subjective experience of self cannot be located in a single area of the brain. This finding matches what we now know about the entanglement of neural circuits associated with emotion, cognition, memory, and moral decision-making." Our brain is decentralized, and there are separate parts of the brain that the scanners show are activated when "I" is acting and feeling in the present and "me" is trying to explain and understand what is happening. Gazzaniga explained this in terms of one part of the brain telling a story about ourselves, and the other part of the brain tries to interpret our story. Knowing this, Boleyn-Fitzgerald believes, will better enable us to know our "self" and our "identity," and assist in our ability to regulate our self.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Frans DeWaal, The Age of Empathy (2009)

Good book. Poorly chosen title. Whether DeWaal chose the title The Age of Empathy or the publisher thrust it upon him, it was clearly inspired by the euphoria following the November 2008 election of Barack Obama as President of the United States as though the election launched a new era of human behavior. He shares a similar hope with Jose Saramago's hope for a kinder, social society as expressed in The Notebook (September 28, 2010 post). Now, two years later, on the heels of the midterm elections in the United States, empathy is hardly a name that I would assign to these times.

Nor does the title align well with one of De Waal's essential points about human duality, which is illustrated in the following passage:

"Humans are bipolar apes. We have something of the gentle, sexy bonobo, which we may like to emulate, but not too much; otherwise the world might turn into one giant hippie fest of flower power and free love. Happy we might be, but productive perhaps not. And our species also has something of the brutal, domineering chimpanzee, a side we may wish to suppress, but not completely, because how else would we conquer new frontiers and defend our borders? One could argue that there would be no problem if all of humanity turned peaceful at the same time, but no population is stable unless it's immune to invasions by mutants."

Even De Waal admits that empathy --- the ability to identify with and feel a connectedness to another --- is as much a part of us (and other species) as selfishness, violence, and egocentrism. "I rate humans among the most aggressive primates," he writes, "but also believe that we're masters at connecting and that social ties constrain competition. In other words, we are by no means obligatorily aggressive. It's all a matter of balance: Pure, unconditional trust and cooperation are naive and detrimental, whereas unconditional greed can only lead to the sort of dog-eat-dog that Skilling advocated at Enron until it collapsed under its own weight." So contrary to the opening line of the book, "Greed is out, empathy is in," there will never be an "age" dominated by empathy or any other single other characteristic of our personality.

Our capacity for cooperation, altruism, and other social instincts is certainly biological, and it is a product of evolution. We have much to learn about what makes us human from learning about the behavior of other species from which humans evolved as we do from observing our own behavior. This is De Waal's primary thesis. And this thesis is no stranger to this blog and previous posts, including De Waal's own The Ape and the Sushi Master (June 17, 2010 post), Oren Harman's The Price of Altruism (October 13, 2010 post), Dacher Keltner's Born to Be Good (July 16, 2010 post), Holldobler and Wilson's The Superorganism (November 4, 2009 post), Michael Gazzaniga's Human (September 27, 2009), Marco Iacobonni's Mirroring People (September 18, 2009 post), and Christine Kennealy's The First Word (August 31, 2009 post).

De Waal takes aim at three myths: (1) the myth that our ancestors --- 4 foot bipedal apes --- ruled the savanna in Africa; (2) that human society is a voluntary creation of autonomous men; and (3) that our species has been waging war for as long as it has been around. Our ancestors were likely both prey and predator and survival favored genes that encouraged collaboration and companionship. The idea that humans were autonomous falsely presumes they had no need for anybody else and could voluntarily choose to live apart, uncommitted to anyone else or any place. A warlike initial state of nature that philosophers like Rousseau imagined that was overcome by social compacts is actually the reverse of human evolution: war on a grand scale, like we have known for centuries, came only after social hierarchies were formed and wealth was created. The early human species was probably defined more by social commitments and small scale collaboration that promoted primitive economic exchange and division of labor.

At the biological core of our humanness is the limbic system, which, from an evolutionary perspective, is one of the oldest parts of our neural network in the human brain. It is a part of the brains of other species as well. Antonio Damassio identifies the limbic system as a critical regulator of feelings and emotions in The Feeling of What Happens, and it is central to understanding human consciousness. De Waal says the limbic system allows emotions such as affection and pleasure, and paved the way for family life, friendships, and other caring relationships. Other parts of our neural network allow us to store memories of these feelings and emotions and allow us to recall the context in which we previously experienced them and then to "understand" them. A key line here is De Waal's statement, "Bodily connections come first --- understanding follows." Mirror neurons, as described in Iacobonni's Mirroring People (September 18, 2009 post), are active in these other parts of the neural network known as the brain that allow us to "read" the minds of others, enabling us to connect with others, and facilitate the the experience we call empathy. "De Waal calls this emotional contagion: seeing another's emotions arouses our own emotions, and then we build "a more advanced understanding of another's situation." Later, he adds, "Empathy engages brain areas that are more than a hundred million years old. The capacity arose long ago with motor mimicry and emotional contagion, after which evolution added layer after layer, until our ancestors not only felt what others felt, but understood what others might want or need."

True to his dualism, just as De Waal recognizes that emotional contagion probably starts immediately with the mother-child relationship and that early communication fosters a bond, a second phase begins just months later in the course of child development when the child begins to develop a sense of self. And empathy, De Waal believes, "requires both mental mirroring and mental separation." The former occurs when we see another person in a particular emotional state. The latter occurs when we parse our own emotional state from the other, and this allows us to "pinpoint the actual source of our own feelings." De Waal attributes our dualism to the existence of VEN cells in the brain --- Von Economo neurons --- that differ from other neurons and are unique to humans and their recent ancestors. Physically, VEN cells are long and spindle-like and reach deeper into the brain. Research shows that when parts of the human brain that contain these cells are damaged, behavior is marked by a loss of perspective-taking, empathy, embarrassment, and future orientation. Besides humans and certain apes, these cells are also found in dolphins, whales, and elephants, where behavioral research shows they have the capacity for empathy that is not found in other species.

De Waal frets that the reluctance of some segments of human society to talk about animal emotions has "less to do with science than religion." Eastern religions, which tend to embrace the connectedness between humans and other species, don't show this reluctance, but the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim religions tend to place humans on a pedestal as the only intelligent life on earth and show greater reluctance to connect themselves to other species as opposed to abstract spirits that purportedly have equal or greater intelligence. De Waal believes this is because of their origin in an existence where humans were desert nomads --- where other animal life was sparse compared to other geographic regions on earth.

From our capacity for empathy evolves reciprocal behavior and ultimately altruistic social rules. But given the dualism that reflects both our empathetic self and our self-centered self, we also have competitive behavior and ultimately social rules to regulate that competition. This leads De Waal to identify two types of fairness principles that are at the core of these social rules: fairness that seeks a level playing field (equality) and fairness that links rewards to effort, and both are "essential," De Waal says.

My observation is that the pendulum swings between the two types of fairness --- one which is grounded in empathy and the other which is grounded in the sense of self. One type of fairness does not displace the other entirely. So if this was the Age of Empathy, the Age of Greed and Discord is merely sublimated for a period of time. But De Waal appears to be the optimist in contrast to Jose Saramago, the pessimist, on this point, whom I quoted in The Notebook (September 28, 2010 post), concluding, "It is most likely, however, that there is no remedy for any of the above and that civilizations will continue to collide, one against the other."

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Oren Harman, The Price of Altruism (2010)

Is behavior genetically determined? This was a question that was posed in in Richard Powers' Generosity (see November 30, 2009 post), and the answer that still makes sense after reading the Price of Altruism is that specific behavior --- whether human or nonhuman --- is not genetic, but that the attrinutes that genes actually code for contain information that enable or predispose species to certain types of behavior. Environment and nurture (learning) transmit information to us as well --- above and beyond the information transmitted by genes --- and they also influence behavior.

The Price of Altruism is a wonderful title for this book --- a double entendre --- reflecting the author's mission to tell the story of one of the brightest persons of the 20th century that nobody really knew, George Price, and to tell the story of the efforts of numerous professionals in science and the social sciences to determine just who we humans are and how did we become who we are, a story that is told in various ways in a number of other books previously discussed in this blog. The behavioral mystery that George Price and the others whose intellectual pursuits paralleled that of Price --- including Bill Hamilton, John Maynard Smith, Robert Trivers, E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Frans deWaal, and others --- sought to unravel is why do humans behave altruistically, even if it means that the altruistic choice sacrifices the survival of the individual? In this context, the "price" of altruism refers to sacrifice, or alternatively, reciprocal exchanges that encourage cooperation rather than competition.

Central to this inquiry is whether "moral" behavior has a genetic origin, and, if so, what is the evolutionary mechanism that selects for moral behavior? Or is moral behavior the consequence of environment, and can humans and other animals shape their environment to yield a certain behavioral pattern?

George Price seemed the unlikeliest of persons to be a player in this inquiry. He cannot seem to devote himself to a single subject of interest for more than a year before moving onto the next. Price, a veritable Forrest Gump of intellectual inquiry --- he was involved with the Manhattan Project, could be found at Bell Labs at the time of the development of the transistor and knew Claude Shannon (see August 23, 2009 post), he developed something he called the Design Machine, a forerunner of CAD-CAM design software that led him briefly to work at IBM, and he dabbled in economics, game theory, and psychology (ESP), even though he had no training in those subjects either. Nothing seemed to intrigue him longer than a year or two and in his personal life he was simply not committed to anything, at least for any significant period of time. Price left the United States for London in 1967 with no particular goal in mind, until he became interested in the development of cooperative behavior. While in London, Price became familiar with William Hamilton's paper on "The Genetical Evolution of Social Behavior," another subject in which he had no formal training, which led him to begin corresponding with Hamilton. Soon Price was wading into the debate over whether natural selection operated on the level of the genotype, the phenotype, kin groups, or larger groups. (See November 4, 2009 post).

The big topic in this book is the relationship between the biological and evolutionary imperatives for reproduction and survival and a system of moral rules. Is selflessness --- altruistic behavior--- stronger because it is directed at close kin, or others in a close social community, or strangers? And is there a biological basis for altruistic behavior?

The contributions of George Price to the study of genetic evolution and kin selection theory and group selection are better described elsewhere. But the importance of Price's work and what he contributed to the work of others on this subject is summed up as follows:

"After all, the feeling that genes do not simply 'run the show' comports not only with our vanity but also with our exceedingly healthy intituion about reality, as well as with what science is teaching us. Of course Haldane, Maynard Smith, Hamilton, and Price knew this, too. For when they spoke of genes for altruism, they were really only using a shorthand for genes that increase the probability that their bearers will behave altruistically. So long as such behaviors have a heritable component, evolutionary reasoning applies. Despite the incautious remarks of scientists and, more often, of science writers this does not mean that a behavior is determined; culture and education are still acknowledged as playing a central, even exclusive role. There may be no behavior in humans, strictly speaking, that has no genetic component, but that's a world away from saying that our genes determine who we are and what we choose. As biologists and anthropologists and mathematicians and philosophers who study the subject have come to see, natural selection based on cultural variation has produced behaviors that have nothing to do directly with genes." [Emphasis supplied].

Harman's gift in this book is not just the biography of George Price, but also the intellectual heritage that both preceded and followed his life on the subject of the evolutionary origins of social behavior. Despite a 7-year long interest in this subject while in London, Price continued to divert his interest other interests. He "converted" from atheism to Christianity, and made a serious effort at trying to make his life more "Christ-like," which left him living among London's homeless and downtrodden, giving away what little assets he had to give to help others. He fell into a life poverty and sickness, and toward the end of his life appeared to contemplate that there may be more to life than altruism and sacrifice. He committed suicide in early January 1975.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Jose Saramago, The Notebook (2010)

A recurrent theme of this blog, and it begins with the very first posts in August 2009, is that units of information are the most fundamental units of life. This is implied from Edwin Schrodinger's slender volume titled What Is Life?, which presages the work of Crick and Watson on the structure of DNA, whose work, in my view, proves the theme. These units of information may be electrical --- electrons, or even smaller units such as mesons, bosons or quarks --- and chemical --- atoms or compounds. Life depends upon the ability of these units of information to communicate with another --- to be transmissable, and to combine with other units of information to make something more robust, more complex, and copiable for the sake of preserving that information. But equally central to life is the storage of information --- information storage devices --- described in terms of cells and collections of cells that we tend to think of as devices from which information can be retrieved, processed, computed. The human mind --- represented by the brain, but connected to other neural and sensory systems in the body --- is the most phenomenal biological information storage device. And the term memory refers to this set of capabilities that humans have for storing, retrieving, processing, and computing information. In the previous two posts I have taken two books about American baseball history --- biography and memoir --- and catalogued some examples of how humans have engineered additional forms of information storage devices outside of our biological devices.

Saramago's The Notebook evokes memory in yet another form --- the diary, or in this case a digital blog that stored his written memories in one electronic format, that have now been transferred to analogue format in a book. Saramago evokes memory many times over the course of his year-long effort, from September 2008 through the end of August 2009, writing a little bit almost every day on whatever topic came to mind. Sometimes these memories reflect on places he visited while young; other memories capture conversations he had with artists who are now deceased. In his very first entry, Saramago wrote this about memory:

"In physical terms we inhabit space, but in emotional terms we are inhabited by memory. A memory composed of a space and a time, a memory inside which we live, like an island between two oceans --- one the past, the other the future. We can navigate the ocian of the recent past thanks to personal memory, which retains the recollection of the routes it traveled, but to navigate the distant past we have to use memories that time has accumulated, memories of a space that is continually changing, as fleeting as time itself."

The dual character of memory: physically we live inside the memory that is time and space; emotionally memory lives inside us. The memory that is time and space is comprised of the units of information, aggregated, colliding, transmitting, and communicating with each other that I described above. The memory that inhabits us is comprised of the units of information passing through and along the neural pathways of brain and body, the vascular system, the endocrine system, the digestive system, the skeletal-muscular system that causes us to act instinctively, deliberately, passively, and actively. As Antonio Damassio described, most of our consciousness is derived from feelings generated by electro-chemical communications within the body.

Albert Camus kept notebooks, but these notebooks contained sketches and paragraphs intended to find their way into future novels and books. These were notes to himself. Saramago writes notes for the public --- whoever is willing and patient enough to read and listen, and he uses his "blogging" experience to comment on current events and vent his own political views. This one-year record includes the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, and Saramago shares his hope that Obama will break the mold and escape tradition to become a leader the world has never known. He has nothing good to say about other recent world leaders including George W. Bush, Berlusconi, and Sarkozy. The 1998 Nobel Prize Winner is unabashedly a leftist, and although despite his declaration that he is a "communist," it is not clear that he regards himself in the same lineage as Karl Marx, Herbert Marcuse, Lenin, or Stalin. Justice seems to be a more important theme for Saramago than political party and bureaucracy.

Saramago is also an unabashed atheist. The author of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ writes of religion:

"What we do know is that religions not only fail to bring people closer together, but actually exist --- these religions --- in a state of mutual enmity, despite all the pseudoecumenical speeches which the rank opportunism of one lot or another deems profitable for occasional and generally fleeting tactical and strategic reasons. Things have been this way ever since the world has been the world, and there is no clear prospect that it might change to any degree. Apart, that is, from the obvious notion that the planet would be a far more peaceful place if we were all atheists. Of course, human nature being the way it is, there is no lack of other motives for every kind of disagreement, but at least we would be free of the infantile and ridiculous notion of believing that our god is the best of any number of others on offer, and that Heaven awaits us in a five-star hotel/ More even than this, I believe we would start reinventing philosophy."

While Saramago could be faulted for saying absolutely that "religions fail to bring people closer together" --- they do, after all create bonds among neighbors, communities and even nations among common believers, as Robert Wright describes in The Evolution of God (see May 12, 2010 post) --- Saramago is right after all: religions (plural) divide us and the state of "mutual enmity" that has been created by religion and religious believers has been a net negative for humanity over the course of history.

"Hence, whether you like it or not, we have God as a problem," he writes. "God as a rock in the middle of the road, God as a pretext for hatred, God as an agent of disunity. But no one dares mention this most prima facie evidence in any of the many analyses of the question, be they political, economic, sociological, psychological, or strategically utilitarian in nature. It is as if a kind of reverential fear, or a resignation to what is established as politically correct, has prevented the analyst from seeing what is present in the threads of the net, the labyrinthine weave from which there has been no escape --- that is to say, God. If I were to tell a Christian or a Muslim that the universe is made up of more than four hundred thousand million galaxies, and that each one of them contains more than four hundred thousand million stars, and that God, whether Allah or some other, could not have made this, and even better would have had no reason to make this, they would reply indignantly that for God, whether Allah or some other, nothing is impossible. Except apparently --- I would argue --- making peace between Islam and Christianity, by way of reconciling the most wretched of the animal species said to have been born from his will, the one made in his image, that is the human species."

Some of Saramago's strongest views are directed at the moral bankruptcy of militant Islam. "The families of these youths had been prevailed upon to hand their children over to Islamic militants who practiced the most extreme version of their faith, the jihad or holy war. Perhaps this was in order to someday seem them converted into martyrs of the Islamic Revolution, in other words, to find them dressed in one last outfit, that of the explosed-packed jacket of the suicide bomber setting out to detonate himself in the marketplace, night club, or parking lot --- anywhere the number of deaths would be maximized. I don't know whether these mothers and fathers were awarded financial compensation, or if they did this on the facile promise of their children's immediate entry into paradise to meet Allah.... I don't know anything. And I am now going to end here. Not that words fail, but that the subject is repugnant to me." But there is no bias here. Several entries announce Saramago's view that Israel has lost its moral compass as reflected in its national hatred toward Palestinians, and pedophilia among Roman Catholic priests does not escape his commentary.

Perhaps the remedy is to reveal a Third God? "The desire for peace may well exist out there, but there is no means to forge it. Christianity and Islam continue to behave like irreconcilably estranged brothers incapable of reaching the long-hope-for nonaggression pact that could somehow bring a degree of peace to the world. Ever since we invented God and Allah, with all the disastrous consequences we know of, perhaps the solution lay in creating a third god with sufficient powers to oblige the importunately wayward to set down their arms and leave humanity in peace. And then this third god could do us the favor of withdrawing from the scene, where the old tragedy continually unfolds: an inventor, man, is enslaved by his own creation, god. It is most likely, however, that there is no remedy for any of the above and that civilizations will continue to collide, one against the other."

While most of The Notebook consists largely of this type of commentary --- whether on religion, literature, music, art, politics --- there is one literary treat dated July 24 (2009) titled "Chapter for the 'Gospel'." It is not clear whether Saramago planned a sequel to The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, but here he offers up the gospel according to Mary Magdalene --- who informs: "To me, Jesus was not the son of God, and I, to him, was not Mary of Magdala, we were just that man and this woman, both trembling with love, with the world circling us like a vulture dribbling blood." And this little gem from Saramago's imagination leads me to conclude with a final excerpt from The Notebook, a line about his craft: "literature . . . that seems to have detached itself from reality in order better to reveal its invisible mysteries." That phrase sums up, in my view, some of the great novels of the 20th century: All The Names, The Cave, Blindness, The Stone Raft, and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, just to name a few.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Bobby Thomson et al, The Giants Win the Pennant, The Giants Win the Pennant (1991)

The term "memoir" applies to this personal story just as it applies to Eric Kandel's In Search of Memory. While the French term "memoire" describes a text akin to a thesis; the term "memoir" has a personal or autobiographical component to it. It is not a full-blown biography or autobiography. As Gore Vidal explained, "A memoir is how one remembers one's own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked." It is more about what can be gleaned from a section of one's life than about the outcome of the life as a whole. In this case, the memoir offers us a self-interpretation of an event in a man's life and his role in the life of others, not just those who immediately surround him, but those in the community where he resides as well.

Every San Francisco Giant baseball fan has heard a recording of Russ Hodges' broadcast of Bobby Thomson's game winning home run off of Ralph Branca of the Brooklyn Dodgers, in the bottom of the ninth inning during the final game of a 3-game playoff to win the 1951 National League pennant. It was the end of an improbable series of events over the course of one baseball season, as documented in Thomson's memoir. And as Thomson's line drive crossed over the left field fence at the New York Polo Grounds, Hodges screamed, "The Giants Win The Pennant, The Giants Win The Pennant!" As a child, I had an audio recording of famous sporting broadcasts on a long-playing vinyl record (another information storage device - see previous post), which included the Hodges broadcast.

The term "memoir" is obviously related to "memory," both words having derived from the latin word "memoria." And given that memory was the subject of the previous post on the biography of Thomson's teammate, Willie Mays, it is worth noting that the perceptions that formed the memories of Bobby Thomson's memoir, are not always identical to the memory of the same events reported in the biography of Willie Mays. But that is at it should be. The books discussed at the very beginning of this blog attest to the problems of comparing information about the same event when one records that information in two different places. So it is not, and should not be surprising that Thomson and Mays and other observers may recall the same event differently. And the fans of the Giants remember Thompson's home run with a slightly different meaning than the fans of the Dodgers, whose team did not win the pennant.

The Giants Win the Pennant, The Giants Win the Pennant preserves the memories of the hero of this story. Bobby Thomson died a month ago, just before I started to read his book. He will not be sorting out his memories anymore. But because he deposited his memories of his life event to book form, and those memories are largely the same as or very similar to the memories deposited by others in book form, video, photographs, and other recorded means about the same event, one hundred years from now or even a thousand years from now (for anyone who wants to recall this event a thousand years from now) the story will be regarded as authentic in the minds of the listener. It is not a story that can be edited, redacted, or based solely on the spoken word transmitted over generations that is not supported by contemporaneous written documentation --- in which case it would be fiction.

James S. Hirsch, Willie Mays - The Life, The Legend (2010)

One of the most interesting attributes of the human mind is memory. We know that the brains of other animals have memory capabilities, but nothing of the magnitude of the human brain, and its capacity to store information. Eric Kandel's wonderful memoir, In Search of Memory, documents that we know much about the biological basis of human memory, and more to be learned. But there is an equally important story about the capability of humans to engineer memory outside of the mind --- information storage devices, if you will, that have extended the information storage capacity of the human mind. Language is certainly the critical enabling tool of this capability (see August 31, 2009 post), but whereas speech is a means of transmitting information, writing is the earliest means of storing the information, and tablets, paper, and books become functional information storage devices that extended human memory capacity beyond the capabilities of the human mind. And now electronic information storage devices such as the hard drive on the computer I am typing on, and a server connected to the Internet where this blog is stored somewhere in a "cloud," are extending our information storage capacity even more. One of the reasons I started writing this blog was because I could no longer recall precisely when I read a certain book, and I was reading so much on a diverse set of subjects I was not always able to recall satisfactorily much of what the book was about after a lengthy period of time had passed.

So what does memory and information storage devices have to do with this biography of a major league baseball player, who is probably the greatest all-around baseball player to this date? It is not the first biography written about Willie Mays, and it is not the first biography of Willie Mays that I have read. But, like any book, this book adds to our collective memory about a part of history --- certainly American athletic history, and American cultural history, but as is the case with many other baseball biographies --- such as Jane Leavy's biography of Sandy Koufax or David Maraniss' biography of Roberto Clemente or David Halberstam's October 1964 --- it adds to our collective memory about American racial history and identifies baseball as one of the cultural aspects of American life that clawed away at the racial divides in America. But, for me, this book was much more, because it also triggered memories in my mind --- of the times I attended many baseball games at Candlestick Park in San Francisco where Willie Mays played the game for the last 12 or so years of his career. I was at the 1961 All-Star game, which is memorialized in this book, when Stu Miller was blown off the pitcher's mound, and I was at Willie's final game (in a New York Mets uniform) at Candlestick Park when he grounded out in his final at bat, which is also memoralized in this book. I have a photograph, yet another information storage device, of that final at-bat. And I can recall where I was during the broadcast of the Giants-Dodgers game when Juan Marichal struck John Roseboro over the head --- memorialized in this book because Willie was credited with taking Roseboro, his opponent, to safety to protect from further injury. And I can recall listening to the radio and hearing the broadcast of Willie McCovey's line drive into the glove of Bobby Richardson to end the 7th game of the 1962 World Series, which is also memorialized in this biography, and much, much more.

As technology improves, our mechanical information storage devices have the capability of becoming more permanent, more durable. As the previous post about the Gospel of Judas demonstrates, ancient written texts that were not transcribed and retranscribed over centuries can easily be lost --- because the elements have destroyed them or they are hidden in places not easily found centuries later. Only through luck is this lost information retrieved. And through the act of retranscribing --- through the later acts of redactors and editors or through careless copying or mistranslation --- those texts that are "saved" still suffer from an information loss. In fact, when we read texts written long ago, the information on the page has likely lost some or all of its meaning, because we do not always appreciate the context in which a particular text was written or whether the author was trying to be literally accurate, facetious, fictitious, or ironic when he wrote the words on the page.

We have means of addressing these problems today. For example, we label information as "fiction" or "non-fiction;" we label information as "biographical" or "historical fiction;" and we label information as "science" or "science fiction." In works of non-fiction, there are standards in the publishing industry for documenting the facts as reported and even the basis of opinions stated. And in most parts of the world there is less political control over information today than ever before: there is a culture of literary criticism and scientific criticism and historical criticism that marginalizes factual and historical misinformation that fails to stand the test of time if it has no support. This is less true of works like The Bible, which is both fiction and non-fiction, and even the non-fiction portion we cannot be sure of because it was edited and redacted by people who, at the time, enjoyed political power and used and edited the text to further a particular political aim, and they exercised political power to suppress those who did not agree with the information in the official text. James Hirsch's biography of Willie Mays documents its sources and occasionally passes judgment on competing memories of this era in American baseball found in diverse sources, and he informs us when that judgment of competing facts is rendered. It will not require "faith" or "belief" to support its authenticity and refresh our memory.

Still, we must be wary of disinformation and the control of information by political powers. We are not yet at a stage in human history where every piece of newly stored information is authentic or certifiable.

Rodolphe Kasser et al eds., The Gospel of Judas (2006)

An English translation of and commentary on The Gospel of Judas, a second century gnostic narrative of that fateful week in Jerusalem around 30 C.E., when the Romans nailed Joshua of Nazareth (nee Yeshua, latinized Jesus) to a cross, which turns Christianity on its head. Although retrieved from the Egyptian desert in the 1970s, this gospel was only "discovered" in 2003.

The significance of this document is not whether it is historically true or not --- like the four gospels of the New Testament, it is not; the significance of this document confirms what we know from other sources that early Christianity was not monolithic and was fractured in its understanding of what to make of Joshua of Nazareth, a man who was not personally known to those who later made him out to be deity. The fractured nature of early Christianity is documented in Richard Rubenstein's excellent book, When Jesus Became God, which describes the theological battle between two priests of Alexandria, Egypt and their respective followers about the actual nature of this man. The special twist here, in the gnostic tradition, is that Joshua really was divine --- a divine offspring of a first tier deity among many dieties, and Judas conspired with him to release him from his human encasement by arranging his death at the hands of the Romans.

It is easy to understand why the 3rd century Catholic powers-that-be never seriously considered this gospel for inclusion in the New Testament: resurrection theology is ruled out in this gospel, and it smacks of polytheism in the finest Greek tradition.

I have never seriously believed that Judas was a traitor to his friend Joshua. That part of the New Testament gospels' story makes no sense, and is easily explained as the creative effort of the early Catholic Church to distinguish itself from Judaism by demonizing Jews and laying the foundation for centuries of anti-semitism. If the early Church had not distinguished itself from Judaism, its efforts at proselytizing and seeking new members among the gentiles might have failed. Judas the traitor was nothing more than a public relations and marketing program. There are even passages in the New Testament that support the view that Judas and Joshua were collaborators in Joshua's grand plan to end his life. The Gospel of Judas makes Judas out to be more of a Dr. Kevorkian, faithfully aiding and abetting Joshua in an assisted suicide, with the only difference being that Joshua does not "die" like an ordinary human.

The Gospel of Judas and the other Christian gospels --- in and out of the New Testament --- share a neo-Platonist/dualist view of the world. There are non-corporeal forms and souls and spirits that comprise one reality, and there are physical manifestations of those forms that make up a separate reality. They coexist. I have commented on other problems with dualism in prior posts (see September 27, 2009 and August 17, 2009 posts). Theology and religion are anchored in a dualist world, and when dualism is rejected, theology and religion must logically be abandoned. Descartes and Leibniz could not abandon a dualist view of the world, because it meant severing ties with church-dominated theistic world of 17th century and sacrificing their material if not pecuniary self-interests. Only Spinoza was bold enough and independent enough to firmly reject dualism, and this led him to espouse a type of panetheism, which to the theist, is nothing more than atheism.

Dualism is a problem of the human mind. When we understand better how the mind works to create imaginary stories about spirits that become part of a collective memory and the evolutionary imperative for doing so, we will finally come to understand what theology and religion really is --- and it will not be the theology and religion that theists have experienced for centuries and claim to understand. And it may well be that there is or will be great resistance to even wanting to know more about how the human mind works in order to avoid confronting a new paradigm of religion.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna (2009)

Barbara Kingsolver is one of America's most celebrated modern novelists, but if The Lacuna is the first novel of this author that you have read, you may wonder why. For a book about Mexico in the 1930s, a reader might consider Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, where the bad guys are Nazis, not Communists. The PBS film The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo offers a more complete portrayal of Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky. And Arthur Miller's The Crucible provides a more defining image of the terror visited by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee's (HUAC) communist witchhunt of the 1940's and '50's. And if it's a scattering of Mexican food, recipes and meals you are looking for in a book of fiction, Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate might be recommended.

But search the Internet for the combination of references to Kahlo, Rivera, Trotsky, and HUAC, and the results are largely reviews of The Lacuna. Few have connected these dots before, and as a "historical novel," The Lacuna scores some points for making those connections through the fictional biography of one Harrison Shepard, born of an American father and a Mexican mother. That biography started out as contrived, in my mind, as it is based on a series of diaries started by young Harrison while he was still a young boy, and who had no English language schooling until he was a teenager. Yet the early diaries read like the work of an adult with a command of the English language.

So what's the big idea in this novel, if there is one? Focus on the title. A lacuna refers to a gap --or the absence of something. In the anatomical context, it refers to an indentation. But I like to think of it as that space between two (or more) things. In botany, it refers to an air space in the cellular tissue of plants. In physical terms, Kingsolver's lacuna is a cavity in the earth that leads a swimmer from the ocean to an underground cave onshore where one can disappear. In metaphorical terms, if you think about a lacuna in terms of the space between things, and throw in the idea that something disappears in this space and can be transported to another world, dimension, or place, you begin to understand the idea that Kingsolver is attempting to communicate.

This understanding of a lacuna conjures up an impression of the "event horizon" on the boundary of a black hole, which, when crossed, information appears to the observer on one side to be lost, but is probably not really lost, as we learned in Charles Seife's Decoding the Universe (August 23, 2009 post). In The Lacuna, Kingsolver presents her reader with a space between Mexico and the United States represented by their common border, across which the protagonist Harrison Shepard transports himself several times. The border presents a space across which the culture, political environment, and economic environment on one side of this border disappears when one reappears on the other side. On the American side, there is little understanding of what is occurring on the Mexican side of this space --- it is simply lost on the American people. And vice-versa. And so when it is necessary for Shepard's survival, travelling across this lacuna to the other side finds the perfect place to hide, perhaps like information that has entered a black hole.

I doubt if this is what Kingsolver really had in mind. But the image of her lacuna at least allows you to ponder something larger than the life of a man who was hounded by fearmongering bigots in America and had to hide away to Mexico in the fictitious arms of Frida Kahlo.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Dacher Keltner, Born To Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life (2009)

When I first saw Born to Be Good at the store in a display of books, the title nearly turned me off. It sounded like a self-improvement book, a genre I generally avoid. But the subtitle caught my attention. It suggested that this was a scientific presentation, so I flipped the pages and saw references to Paul Ekman's work on facial expressions --- research that I had heard of, but never read --- along with references to Darwin, Frans DeWaal, and even the musician Steve Reich. And the author Dacher Keltner, a name that I was unfamiliar with, is a professor of psychology at my alma mater, the University of California, so I took a chance. I was not disappointed, notwithstanding the kitschy references to jen and the jen ratio, a Confucian measure of one's happiness.

Born to Be Good is in the genre of scientific literature about what it means to be human, so it fits with Michael Gazzaniga's Human (September 27, 2009 post), Marco Iacoboni's Mirroring People (September 18, 2009 post), and Marc Hauser's Moral Minds, all which document the social, cooperative, and even altruistic nature of the human species and the evolutionary origins of cooperation and altruism within our very social species. If there was a study in contrasts to read after Richard Wrangham's Demonic Males (July 1, 2010 post) about the dark, violent side of human nature, Born to Be Good is it. Keltner even stole a chapter title from Frans DeWaal's The Ape and The Sushi Master (June 17, 2010 post) and titled one of his chapters "Survival of the Kindest." Moreover, Born to Be Good fits in the lineage of research represented by Antonio Damassio's The Feeling of What Happens, which documents the fundamental role of emotion in human decision-making.

"Emotions are involuntary commitment devices that bind us to one another in long-term, mutually beneficial relationships," Keltner says. Emotions are communicated through several sensory means: visually through facial expressions, which Keltner documents based on his own research and that of his teacher and mentor, Paul Ekman, explaining how muscles in the face are linked to and controlled by neural pathways in the brain that make them reliable indicators of emotion. In facial expression, we recognize embarrassment, which signals our moral sense of wrongdoing and respect for the judgment of others. In facial expression, the smile signals friendly intent and affection among peers and movement toward cooperation and intimacy. In facial expression, laughter triggers mirror neurons in the brains of others that builds cooperative bonds between one who laughs and the other who hears the laugh. Keltner tells us that teasing is not the same as bullying, and is a type of playful communication designed to ferret out another's commitments that bolsters social life. Emotions are communicated through touch, and the skin, our largest sensory organ, evolved to be an important part of social communication among humans and their predecessors.

Keltner is at his best when he discussed the evolutionary origins of love (trust) and compassion and evolutionary development of the vagus nerve, which releases a hormone, oxytocin, that is linked to feelings of sympathy, concern over the vulnerability of others, and caregiving, and which can be stimulated by touch, and is linked to monogamy in certain species. "We have neuropeptides that enable trust and devotion, and a branch of nerves that connects the brain, the voice, and the heart that enables caretaking," says Keltner. "We are wired for good." The other books cited above bear this out, based on other research as well. But still, the dark side of human social behavior documented by Wrangham should not be forgotten as we experience awe for others and even nature writ large. Wrangham makes his case that violence might be important to survival in some primates, although he considers that it could be fatal to the survival of humans.

But Keltner makes the other case --- that love, compassion, are caregiving cooperation.

The big idea here is how information is communicated and the capabilities of the human mind. And again, as in the books discussed in several prior posts, it is information at a chemical level that is a key form of communication. "The profound vulnerability of our big-brained offspring wired us into an instinct to care. It created in us a biologically based capacity for sympathy. It produced a vagus nerve, loaded up with oxytocin receptors, the provenance of feelings of devotion, sacrifice, and trust. It yielded a rich set of signals --- empathetic sighs, oblique eyebrows, and soothing touch, which trigger vagus nerve response and oxytocin and opioid release in the recipient, giving rise to oceanic feelings of connection."

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, Demonic Males: Apes and The Origins of Human Violence (1996)

I purchased Demonic Males at the same time that I purchased The Ape and The Sushi Master (June 17, 2010 post), and as both books focus on and compare primate behavior with human behavior, they deserve to be read together. Richard Wrangham focuses on the darker side of human behavior: why do humans kill others in their own species and are humans unique in that respect? Why is this violence essentially a characteristic of the male of the species? The answer to the first question is no, humans are not entirely unique in seeking out others within their species to kill them, but there are very few species who share this type of behavior. And among the few species who commit violence against others within their species, the notables are evolutionarily close to humans: orangutangs, chimpanzees and gorillas. Male orangutangs are notable for rape; gorillas are notable for killing infant gorillas; and chimps are notable for battering other chimps as well as searching out other chimps and killing them. In exploring the world of organgutangs, chimps, gorillas, and another evolutionary offshoot of the chimp --- bonobos --- we can learn much about the origins of human violence and why violence is primarily associated with the male of the species.

Decades of research on chimpanzees in their African habitat reveals that they raid nearby chimp communities for the purpose of killing. Two conditions, explains Wrangham, account for the chimp's tendency to look for killing opportunities: party gangs and male bondedness. Party gangs evolve because of competition for a scarce food supply, and they need to defend the food supply of their existing territory or expand their existing territory. Males are selected for this aggression, says Wrangham, because males walk faster than females and do not carry infants with them; this results in bonding among chimps. And Wrangham finds similarities between chimpanzees and humans that are either not as strong or non-existent between chimps or humans on the one hand, and other primates on the other. In all cases, territorial control and domination is a common feature in explaining primate aggression, but only in the case of humans and their genetically closest primate, the chimp, is the common element a deliberate search for victims.

Social hierarchy is a characteristic of chimp communities, just as it is in human communities, and competition for dominance is particularly a characteristic of male chimps. Wrangham says that "we exaggerate only barely in saying that a male chimpanzee in his prime organizes his whole life around issues of rank" ---- attempting to attain alpha status. Female chimpanzees do not seem to care as much about rank. Wrangham asserts that the driver here is pride (and arrogance), not violence for its own sake. I don't know how he knows this, but it sounds like an example of what Frans DeWaal called in The Ape and The Sushi Master (June 17, 20101 post) "naive anthropomorphisim" --- asking, how would I feel in this situation? Wrangham notes, "Pride obviously serves as a stimulus for much interpersonal aggression in humans, and we can hypothesize confidently that this emotion evolved during countless generations in which males who achieved high status were able to turn their social success into extra reproduction."

I don't want to dwell on this book. If this was the only book one read on the subject of the origins of human behavior, you would conclude that male humans are born to kill, and empirical observation tells us that is not the only truism one can declare about male humans. Demonic Males is very interesting for what it documents: the apparent origins of human violence can be found in other primate species closest to humans, which indicates a genetic and evolutionary foundation for violent behavior among human males. But there is more to the story that primatologists are telling us about the commonalities among primate behaviors, including the origins of social cohesion, cooperation, and even morality and altrusim. Michael Gazzaniga's Human (September 27, 2009 post) contributes much to this broader understanding of human evolution. Wrangham barely mentions these other common attributes of primate social systems. Violence is only one behavioral aspect of our social nature. Importantly, however, Wrangham validates DeWaal's thesis in The Ape and The Sushi Master about the importance of recognizing continuity between humans and other animal species.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Frans De Waal, The Ape and the Sushi Master: Cultural Reflection of a Primatologist (2001)

A key idea here is anthropomorphism. In prior posts, this term (or anthropocentric) refers to the human projection of human qualities to imaginary spirits, including gods, lesser gods, angels, devils and the like. But Frans De Waals, a primatologist whose research is cited in the books discussed in several previous posts, considers anthropomorphism from a different perspective in The Ape and the Sushi Master: the willingness or unwillingness of humans to consider that human qualities (intelligence, consciousness, intentionality, emotions, morals, social behavior, art, culture, and the like) are shared by other animals, particularly those that are evolutionarily close to humans --- the willingness or unwillingness (anthropodenial) to acknowledge continuity between humans and other animals. Not surprisingly, just as there is a spectrum of views or biases on whether imaginary spirits are real and have human characteristics such as intelligence, consciousness, intentionality, emotions and the like, there is a spectrum of views or biases about just how similar humans are to other animals. Animal research, as De Waals demonstrates, is breaking down and eroding the bias that regards humans outside the rest of the animal kingdom and dismisses any continuity between the human species and other animal species.

Whatever our view is of the merits of anthropomorphism in the spirit-world context, anthropomorphism in the context of studying other species is a constructive approach to understanding our own species. The opposite of anthropomorphism is anthropodenial, which denies the continuity between humans and other animals. Anthropomorphism is part and parcel of the way the human mind works, writes De Waals, but it comes in many shapes and forms: the naive view studies an animal and asks, how would I feel in this situation? An interesting, but nevertheless difficult view is mental role-reversal that asks: what is it like to be that animal? And a practical, neutral view is to recognize that as we humans try our best to understand animal behavior, we recognize that we are all animals and that we use our own perspective to develop testable theories that would help us understand what animals are really doing. In other words, humans just need to take command of their anthropomorphic instinct and filter out biases that the instinct may generate.

Animal research is not limited to genetic similarities and differences, but it is beginning to document the existence of animal culture and the capacity of animals other than humans to learn from others in their species. Observations on the nature vs nurture debate are not limited to bipedal hominids. In the human context, there is still much confusion about the extent to which our behavior and culture is defined by nature or nurture. The confusion is revealed in the discussion of Richard Powers' novel Generosity (November 30, 2009 post) about whether there is a "God gene" in the human genome that dictates our species' inclination to believe in a creator of the universe that is an ultimate cause of all physical reality. Those in anthropodenial seem inclined to think there is such a gene. The vast majority of humanity who now accept the continuity among species, and particularly genetically similar species, understand that god is a part of culture, is something that is learned, and varies among human cultural communities.

For De Waal, the bias of anthropodenial is reflected in the claim that only humans enjoy culture. While it is true that humans have a unique and expansive culture not enjoyed by any other species, it is not true that other animals are without culture. To explain this fact, De Waal asserts that we must first have a definition of culture, and for him it is not a definition that is tied to religion, the arts, language, or politico-economic systems and institutions. Culture is the transmission of habits and information by social means. The social environment includes the immediate family, the extended family, the community, and communities beyond, and the "social means" includes all forms other interacting within the species as well as with other species, such as observing others, feeding, grooming, sex, communicating, sharing, ignoring, rewarding, punishing, empowering, establishing moral rules, and killing. When culture is described in these broader, more general terms, barriers to appreciating the similarities between humans and other primates can be avoided.

The unanswered question here is whether behavior, human or non-human, is entirely genetically determined, culturally determined, or some mixture of both. De Waal sides with the latter view.

Genes code for physical attributes: at the basic constituent level, genes code for biological and electro-chemical processes: how atomic matter attracts, coheres, mixes, reacts, communicates, and repels. Genes contain information that, when expressed in any given phenotype, cause chemicals and electrical signals in the animal body to trigger movement, rest, perhaps feelings of warmth, cold, alarm, fear, pleasure, drowsiness, satiousness, hunger, comfort, repulsion, and emotions as well. These electro-chemical reactions influence both individual and social behavior. Genes code for morphology and embryonic development, as well as, to some extent, post-natal development (for example, the amount of time it takes to achieve maturity or adulthood), which also influences individual and social behavior. Genes code for the construction of biological systems, including physiological systems such as the nervous system, the circulatory system, neural networks, and the like, all of which regulate behavior. These things are true for all of the animal kingdom. But aspects of behavior are learned, either from others or from individual experience, and if the brain of a given species has a memory capability, that learning influences behavior.

De Waal neatly summarizes the linkage between nature and culture. Culture and genetics have one thing in common --- the transmission of information: in the case of genetics information is transmitted by biological/chemical means, in the case of culture it is transmitted by social means. "This is not to say that both forms of behavioral inheritance --- the one traveling across time via genotypes, the other via phenotypes --- should not or could not be conceptually linked. Ironically, the Lamarckian idea that acquired characteristics can be inherited has found its realization not in the physical characteristics he was thinking of, but in behavior. Genetic predispositions feed into culture, culture affects survival, and survival and reproduction determine which genotypes spread in the population. In other words, there exists a dauntingly complex interplay between genetic and cultural transmission. Brave and inspiring attempts at a theory of dual inheritance, or coevolution, have been made, without, however, in any way confusing the two processes."

The research is now focused on what information exactly is transmitted genetically and what is transmitted socially. First, of course, the question focuses on behavior that is considered instinctive: is it instinctive because the genes have programmed the species to make a certain behavior more likely or highly probable? Or is behavior instinctive because it is learned at an early age or learned as a result of some experience or learned over the course of a lifetime and this is communicated inter-generationally?

There is also the question of the feedback loop between nature and culture. As De Waal explains, "Although the relation between culture and nature can be tense, culture mostly tries to get along with nature." Culture cannot change nature; culture can evolve behavior to act consistently with nature. For example, the incest taboo - an avoidance of sex among family members, long a cultural regulation, is now known to be a form of behavior in the primate world that appears to be innate in some aspects (an aversion rather than an avoidance) and perhaps learned in other respect.

So when humans establish moral or ethical rules to regulate human behavior (or even our behavior vis a vis other species, such as animal rights), is that an example where "culture mostly tries to get along with nature?" De Waal describes what he calls "moral emotions," such as sympathy and empathy, which he recognizes emerge, at least initially, from parental care. Through culture --- the transmission of habits and information by social means --- these moral emotions become moral rules. This is the subject of Paul Bloom's book Descartes' Baby. Research on newborns and infants establishes that they have innate social instincts --- that humans are hardwired by evolution with the capacity to understand and respond to the minds and movements of other people. Bloom also shows how humans are hardwired to perceive and reason about inanimate objects as well. It is this capacity that enables learning --- at a very early age, through mimicry, for example --- and De Waal shows us that this capacity exists in other species in addition to human species. The ape, and the sushi master who spends months and months merely observing how sushi is made from mentors, are more similar than we generally think.