Archive for August, 2006

Masters of feelings

Temperament is habitually recognized in our daily affairs but overlooked in regard to society and history. How can the natural-born rebel communicate his fervor and dissatisfaction to the timid and meek? How can the good-natured and jovial persuade the militant to moderation? Or as Elsa Morante says in the dedication of her novel La Storia, a message sent from one of these to the other is “por el analfabeto a quien escribo.” We share over 98% of our genes with every other human in the world, yet almost all the means by which we can effectually communicate our emotions lies in the other 2%. One could then, then, expect a single reaction to events from all of humanity even if the feelings they provoked were substantially the same. And what to make of ideas themselves, limitlessly reproducible and communicable, at least in theory? Richard Dawkins even goes so far as to claim that human ideas are self-replicating evolutionary units like genes. He calls them memes. These are the real ghosts in the machine, the real spiritual entities if there are such, much more than the mind as a whole, which is irrevocably physical in nature at least in part, if nothing else because it cannot be liberated from a particular piece of matter. Ideas, on the other hand, can transmit from person to person like beacon signals, even though they cannot exist, seemingly, without some mind to receive or create them. Yet there’s the rub. While Dawkins would have it that the power of genes to replicate themselves arises from the fact that they are in a way information as opposed to matter, and hence universally transmissable, a property they share with ideas, at a further look it seems clear that their drive originates in a different engine, namely from the fact that they design the very organic systems which perpetuate them. This system is also the medium of transmission of ideas, i.e. a living organism, but it is designed by genes. It may well be that ideas can exert an effect on organisms in turn through feedback, but since genes establish the system which exists at the outset of every generation according to their own needs, one might expect that the receptivity to and ability to create certain ideas will ultimately be determined by its amenability to the perpetuation of genes, so that the tendency across time will be for ideas to subordinate themselves to genes (this is of course a trend, not an absolute reality at any given time).

Universal theories–the opium of the elite

Systematic thinking is like one of the roller coasters at a little amusement park, now seemingly practically defunct, that I went to as a kid called Lakeside. The roller coaster was, if I remember correctly, called the Chipmunk, and its distinguishing quality was that it made square turns which, combined with the outstanding quality of roller coasters in general that they never slow down except at the end, made for a rather jarring experience. And systematic thinking similarly makes smooth transitions between one model of the world and another rather difficult, leading to sudden massive revaluations (or paradigm shifts if you prefer the Kuhnian language which has been parasitized by barbaric business-speak), which are of course a result of pent-up dissatisfaction with the previous model and, on a society-wide scale, somewhat concealed by the piecemeal process by which disparate individuals accede to the new ideas, but nonetheless have their disorienting crucial moments of acceptance of a new mental reality. Perhaps this is why, much as one had to be 52” tall to ride the Chipmunk, Plato preferred not to teach students his formd of philosophy until the age of 40. Of course any new system embodies of necessity its own less evident strain of inflexibility. That is why if one reads a book like The Selfish Gene today, the arguments contained in its battling against pseudo-Marxist idealism, which was at its apex in the mid-70’s, seem beyond obvious today, because most people (outside of university humanities departments) have become wholly enmeshed in the view that innate genetic factors exert at least some influence on our bodies, minds and behavior. Less obviously this has been symptomatic of a progressive devaluation of the “spiritual” in considerations of human life in favor of a greater and greater continuity between the living and inanimate matter. So much so that the desire to simplify the terrain by dispensing with notions of volition or design in the evolution of life has virtually become a defining element of biological science.

And yet for all that it seems that remarkably little has been said relatively speaking about what actually generates the forms and traits of living things. The theory of how the trait best adapted for survival and reproduction is selected among those available has been chronicled almost exhaustively, but so many seem strangely content with the notion of random variations and mutations as the ultimate source of almost all the characteristics of life. Not that this is absurd a priori, but so much effort seems to have been expended in determining how traits are selected rather than how they are generated in the first place. Granted, the success of computer programs in learning complicated tasks like playing chess based solely on a random behavior generator with a command to repeat successful strategies has made the necessity of supposing some directing, controlling “élan vital” for evolutionary progress seem less evident than in the days of Henri Bergson’s L’évolution créatrice. The irony, however, is that as much success as has been attained in this fields, artificial intelligence researchers seem more pessimistic than ever as regards genuinely creating living intelligence. And the issue, as always, seems to be that of the self-sustainability of minds and living things in general, and their ability to be transferred from one environment or function to another and still operate. So perhaps it is time to consider that perhaps the essence of life lies precisely in its resistance or exception to physical laws such as “an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by another force.” One of the first things that made me think about this seriously is the disapperance of vestigial traits, like the tailbone in humans or eyes in cave-dwelling creatures. Now, I find it hard to conceive that the difference in survival value or reproductive value between primates with little tails and those without was severe enough to drive the tailed kind into extinction or even to cause a branching of species, though of course there is no evidence that it might not have. Nevertheless, such things as that or the steady progession of certain neutral proteins in the body to fixation points in the population leads me to think that perhaps life is somehow itself an original and ongoing force pushing the development of at least some traits even if not with some ultimate goal.

Capitalist biology?

Almost exactly a year ago I speculated about how ethnocentrism, racism and various other kinds of local identifications in human society might partly be explained evolutionarily. Here is what I wrote then, which I mostly still agree with. In the context of reading The Selfish Gene I would like to add one other point. The mathematical determination of degree of genetic relatedness between individuals in a group, as described by Dawkins and presumably as enumerated by W.D. Hamilton, shows by implication the minimum number of relatives necessary to sacrifice oneself for in a genetically sustainable way. For example, since siblings and children share half their genes with a given individual, in order for altruism towards them to be good for the continued survival of one’s genes the altruistic act has to have a benefit for at least two of them that equals or exceeds the loss incurred by the individual.

Even evolutionary biologists acknowledge that these ratios are somewhat misleading in the sense that in reality one’s genes are not 50% identical to one’s children or siblings but something like 99.5% identical, since roughly 99% of one’s genes are the same in all humans in the world. Just the additional 1% is the whole from which the kinship ratios are derived. Now, I do not dispute that humans and other animals show marked preferences for their kin over other members of the species and even pretty fine gradations between individuals of different levels of relatedness to them. But it seems intuitively wrong when scientists like Dawkins insist that this sort of discrimantion and favoritism only pertains among closely related individuals, in other words that the 1% of genes not shared by all humans (or other members of a given species) actively shape altruistic or cooperative behavior to perpetuate copies of themselves, but the other 99% are essentially passive in this regard. Nor do I believe that they are claiming this, but it seems to me to be one implication of the somewhat disingenuously precise ratios. Whereas, if we apply the same reasoning to the entirety of the genome, one would expect to generally see a preference for members of one’s own ethnic group or geographical area, preference for members of one’s own species over members of other species, and even a preference for more closely related animal groups like mammals over more distant groups like insects. And, at the risk of both generalizing and stating the obvious, it seems to me that is exactly what we do see. It all depends on context. For instance, generally it seems better for humans to cooperate to some degree, both because of the costs of competition for any given individual and because of the relatedness between them. But if a conflict arises between groups, it is evolutionary sensible to support the group to whom one is more closely related. Hence perhaps the frequent exemption of soldiers from the general prohibitions on killing and violence. This might seem to be begging the question, as one might ask why group conflicts would develop if cooperation was better on the whole. But conditions are always changing, and if a group were suddenly to find itself for example in possession of a valuable natural resource ownership of that resource, both for themselves and other groups, might override more communal considerations.

In any case, I have already talked about all this before, and I suppose what I am trying to get at is that the limiting factor for altruism seems to me to be probably less the proportion of total genes shared, which between members of any one species is overwhelming, than the efficacy of any particular altruistic acts. Dawkins himself acknowledges this by mentioning the “law of diminishing returns” and provides an example which I quoted in my earlier entry:

“Kin selection is emphatically not a special case of group selection…If an altruistic animal has a cake to give to relatives, there is no reason at all for it to give every relative a slice, the size of the slices being determined by the closeness of relatedness. Indeed this would lead to absurdity since all members of the species, not to mention other species, are at least distant relatives who could each therefore claim a carefully measured crumb! To the contrary, if there is a close relative in the vicinity, there is no reason to give a distant relative any cake at all. Subject to other complications like laws of diminishing returns, the whole cake should be given to the closest relative available.?

So the main issue here is not that the individual has no genetic incentive to help out more distantly related individuals but that dividing one’s own resources among everyone who has some claim to it will divide it up so finely that it will wind up not doing anyone much good.

And some people say walking to work is boring

Crash 2
Originally uploaded by shonk.

On the plus side, that guy probably didn’t need any coffee for the rest of the day.

Different Angle.