climate change, evolutionary theory, extinction, intelligence, Whither Homo sapiens?

Our Schizzy Worldview

The worldview of the scientific era (something quite different from “the scientific worldview”), the popular aura that reverently surrounds science as the universal and catholic church of our time—the provider of origin myth, the promiser of redemption from death—this mythos of our time consists of two contradictory parts, as oxymoronic as matter and antimatter.

One part says that we came on the scene some two million years ago as a unique evil, the destroyers of the biosphere. The green stain of human self-hatred that welled up in the Deep Ecology movement has slowly spread to infect all sincere nature lovers, climate Cassandras, devout recyclers, carbon Puritans, alternative-energy evangelists, believers that we’ve destroyed the original biodiverse Eden and that The World Without Us was and would again be a better world. In this religiomimetic myth, becoming human was the Fall. Our drive to be fruitful and multiply, to prevail, to consume, to transform as much as possible of the planet’s biosphere into a pullulating mass of Us, our greedy Willen zur Macht, exceeds that of any other predator or pest, said drive having lost its innocence when it became coupled to an insatiable imagination, a clever pair of hands and a scheming prefrontal cortex. The tone of this dark half of our myth is mourning, self-abnegation, penitence, and shame.

The other part of our era’s myth, perhaps nurtured orclike in the egg of science fiction, asserts that we’re the only intelligence on this planet, if not in the universe, and that now that we have discovered the scientific method, we with our technology-enabled reason will eventually create a better world than blind, bumbling nature ever could. We will become functionally immortal, will banish illness and death, grow wings if we want to, create artificial life-forms to serve us, spin protein out of sunlight to feed billions more of us, and take charge of our own evolution into a godlike superintelligence ourselves. The tone of this bright half of our myth is triumphalism, bravado, and delusional optimism.

At first glance these two halves of our worldview appear to have nothing in common, but they do in fact share one major theme: a comical overestimation of our own importance and power, for good or for ill. Maybe these inflated worldviews arise just now as a defense against the realization of how infinitesimally tiny we are in both time and space. We’ve been Hubbled, but good. How do we square our huge, myopic importance to ourselves, our “It’s the biggest thing in the universe!” grasping after goods and wins and mates, with this mind-boggling insignificance? Every animal (and for all we know, every plant) is caught up in the huge drama of its own survival and self-perpetuation. It’s how life’s drive is experienced by those who enact it. But let’s have some perspective, people. We can’t have much, but let’s have a little.

Earth has seen worse than us. It (or She) will survive; it’s we who won’t, in large numbers, if we temporarily tip the environmental balance against the conditions we ourselves need to survive. Our sudden shock and sorrow at the disappearance of other species (which I certainly share; I’m the one who won’t go to China because of tigers, and this book broke my heart) is, unavoidably, sorrow at our loss—of what we in the developed world have only realized they meant to us now that they’re mostly just being beautiful screensavers and not eating us or competing with us. The species we mourn are proxies for ourselves. When any creature reproduces too successfully in the absence of predation, it consumes its food supply, exceeds the carrying capacity of its environment, and experiences a population crash. We’re as blameless as a plague of locusts in this respect. Though technology buys us time, enabling us to stretch the envelope quite a lot, the ocean, for instance, is not infinite, and that’s what we’re really afraid of—with reason. Other species are collateral damage.

As vain as it is to fancy ourselves the most destructive force evah (you wanna see destructive?), it’s equally preposterous to presume we are the only locus of intelligence on this planet, let alone others. Just the “backstage” intelligence running our own cells, for starters, is far more complex than the content and operations of our own intelligence. As for sentience and strategy, communication, love, and humor, they are constantly bubbling up—in forms as alien to us as birds, cetaceans, and cephalopods. Every species has an intelligence fitted to (or overflowing) its niche and its way of living, and every species, including us, lives sealed inside its own sensorium, as if its world were THE world. (“How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,” wrote Blake, “is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your Senses five?”) The process of evolution itself may turn out to be drenched with intelligence, able to perceive and respond to environmental conditions, to remember, and to improvise. (Just read this.) The intricacy and interconnectedness of life at the molecular level makes it overwhelmingly likely that much of the crude tinkering we do will backfire, and we will be lucky if it is not in spectacularly Faustian fashion. We may do ourselves some good, but at a high risk of far more harm, because our minds at their best are many orders of magnitude simpler than the phenomena they are attempting to manipulate.

This world is magnificent, and in a sense it’s tragic to damage any of its amazing creations—but that is also nonsense, because they are all merrily eating each other all the time, and the whole shebang is constantly revising and trashing its own creations. We’re just its latest way of doing that, as well as part of the dispensable raw material. This is not to say we’re wrong to try to rein in our collective voracity and use our ingenuity to figure out ways to live and let live—for our own sake, our own physical and psychic survival. The life-forms with which we happen to coexist in this geological eyeblink will be collateral beneficiaries in the unlikely event that we can actually manage to do that. But let us admit we’re doing this for our own sake, adapting in a bid to survive. And let it be for the sake of pure curiosity and wonder, possibly the only real value added we bring to the game.

 

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consciousness, evolutionary theory, intelligence, skepticism, Whither Homo sapiens?

That’s Deep.

David Brooks—a pundit turning philosopher, who seems to have wearied of the merely topical—makes a case that where we come from does not entirely determine or limit where we go:

Our origins are natural; our depths are man-made — engraved by thought and action.

This amendment seems worth making because the strictly evolutionary view of human nature sells humanity short. . . .

While we start with and are influenced by evolutionary forces, people also have the chance to make themselves deep in a way not explicable in strictly evolutionary terms.

So much of what we call depth is built through freely chosen suffering. . . . Often this depth is built by fighting against natural evolutionary predispositions. . . .

Babies are not deep. Old people can be, depending upon how they have chosen to lead their lives. Babies start out very natural. The people we admire are rooted in nature but have surpassed nature. Often they grew up in cultures that encouraged them to take a loftier view of their possibilities than we do today.

It’s very hard for people to hear or pay attention to what we don’t already think. I am grateful to David Brooks for striking out at an angle to today’s roads most traveled, even though his gentle, humanistic rebuke to scientistic reductionism will be scoffed at by “skeptics” as wishful thinking and by religious conservatives as wimpy appeasement. (They’re much more Manichaean: it’s salvation or it’s sin.) It’s a little sad, too, that to many, Brooks will seem to be making tracks in new snow, when it’s really only a thin layer of amnesia over the well-trodden paths of the past 5,000 years. I’m still glad he’s saying it, even if (or maybe just because) he may be speaking too softly to be heard by many, even from his political pundit’s bully pulpit.

The more I immerse myself in science and the culture surrounding it, the more the territory not ruled by biology seems to shrink, and the more cheered I am by the rare exceptions, those evaporating puddles of freedom from the totalitarianism of the selfish gene. Almost everything can be, and is, reduced to the marionettery of those coiled strands of DNA: any altruistic impulse can be, and is, explained away by kin selection or group selection, any creative impulse by competitive sexual display, attachment by its advantages for survival, most of high culture (literature, philosophy, faith) by the denial of death. At least one pair of thinkers has posited that evolution eliminated advanced intelligence until H. sapiens came up with denial: no other species had found a way past the threshold where the dawning awareness of mortality brings on such a sense of futility that it kills the impulse to reproduce.

That’s debatable—as one Amazon critic of that book wrote, “the fact that I know that I am going to die some day … and even obsess about it from time to time … hasn’t prevented me from having a family”—but what seems undeniable is that all this reductionism kills the impulse to transcend, possibly justifying “low” behavior, tearing the clothes off any “pure” motive, and certainly lowering expectations of oneself and fellow humans. This began with Freud, who saw everything but sex as sublimated sex; he and his iconic cigar have now been replaced by an inflatable Darwin parade float.

To be immersed in the world of science-think, which extends well beyond science into its cultural corona, is to be almost brainwashed by this reductionism. I play this game with myself: a thought or emotion comes up, and I slot it into its biological context. Of course my family is all excited about the newborn twins, my parents’ third and fourth great-grandchildren: we’re programmed to ooh and ahh over little bundles of our own genes. As the only childless one in this fecund family—not by choice—I’m a loser in the only game that counts, lamely serving the germline from the auntly sidelines. Whatever I do or write will no longer boost my reproductive success by attracting attention, resources, and mates (if it ever would have—even now it doesn’t work quite like that for females, which helps explain our divided motivation), so what’s to drive it?

Which brings me back to David Brooks’s point: the only qualities, motives, and acts that are uniquely human are those that can’t be reduced to biological utility, that even defy it. They are few, and they compose a thin layer of human life—the new snow of the neocortex falling on deep reptilian ruts of rutting and brawling. They are the rare and precious things that cheer me up. Empathy, the ability to imagine another’s subjectivity, sometimes to the point of one’s own disadvantage. Witness, the way we are the universe’s way of looking at itself, wanting to know out of wonder and curiosity and not only for advantage. Love, what happens AFTER (in Brooks’s words) “we’re aroused by people who send off fertility or status cues,” when we’re living with another individual, getting bruised by the rough edges and gazing into the depths. Creation, a transaction of witness between you and the universe whether a fellow primate ever praises it or not.

What Brooks says is that is that this thin layer of human existence is what we experience as “depth.” The depths of our biological heritage, on the other hand, feel driven, propulsive, powerful, intoxicating . . . and ultimately stereotyped, fleeting, and shallow.

Later: That isn’t stated right. Most of what makes our lives meaningful is biological, starting with . . . um . . . being alive. Most of our strongest emotions are about staying alive, passing life on, and protecting it.

But. It’s that extra dimension that gives those emotions depth, much as shading a line drawing of an apple makes it look three-dimensional. That added dimension of stopping and wondering and imagining What is this? WTF is all this?—the gaze of that third eye, neither predatory nor desirous, with no agenda but astonishment, opened by language and death—may be the thinnest veneer on our consciousness, but as the Higgs boson gives every other particle its mass, this is what gives everything its depth.

Later still: In the course of a dialog with commenter realpc at my other blog Ambiance, it struck me that nature is not reductive (as scientists keep finding out to their fascination and chagrin). Our current popular concept of it is. The culture that has grown up around science, crafted by certain popularizers—the Pinker-Dawkins-Dennett axis, the aggressive “skeptic” blogs (a culture which I think misrepresents and undersells science itself)—is proudly reductive, billing materialism and evolutionary psychology as the antidote to sentimentality for the tough-minded. It’s very macho (which is not to say women can’t play), and a good part of what drives it is pleasure in feeling superior to and putting down others who are soft-minded enough to see any sign of meaning, purpose, or mystery in nature. If you traced this ‘tude’s cultural history, it might lead you back to the French existentialists, particularly the trousery swagger of Sartre and his compatriots, who billed themselves the only ones tough enough to look a meaningless universe in the eye and to emblazon their will on the void . . . boys peeing their names on blank snow.

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exoplanets, origins of life, reviews, space, the universe, Whither Homo sapiens?

Cosmos, Epi 1: Epic Fail

What a disappointment.

What did I expect? It’s television. And with rare exceptions (Downton Abbey), I don’t watch television. And when I do, I’m reminded why I don’t.

Cosmos is, so far, overproduced and underimagined. It’s a mixture of David Attenborough–type tramping through motivational-poster vistas, gee-whiz CGI (which, in brazenly assuming it can depict the unimaginable, brutally diminishes it), Classics Illustrated animation, and textbookish narration, which fails to fuse into a whole, to enthrall, or to inform. In space, the tour of the Solar System is chaotic and disjointed. (The subsequent zoom-out to the galaxy, the Local Group, the Virgo Cluster, and the Observable Universe is one of the few powerful and effective moments in the episode, but the show’s hyper, ADD pace does not let it be suitably dwelt on.) In time, the textbookish narration of the “cosmic calendar” zips by way too fast and corresponds to nothing seen on the screen except a lot of generic zooming and swirling. When the dinosaur-killing asteroid hits, Neil Tyson sticks his fingers in his ears and the giant redwood trees shake a little, and that’s all; the fire and darkness that enveloped the planet and wiped out whole orders of life are neither mentioned nor so much as visually alluded to. There’s way too much reliance on Neil’s charm, which is undeniable; but his voice drops to inaudibility at the ends of sentences (do we just need a better sound system?), he hardly varies his speaking rhythm, the script he’s given is at once superficial and pedantic, and the whole thing feels rushed, as if the public had to be ooh-ahh snowed rather than trusted to have either real interest in or real comprehension of the science. And it’s all accompanied by awful, too-loud, faux-Mahler music that drowns out the narration.

The result is a creation myth for our time that seems at least as preposterous as the cosmology of Gilgamesh, and a lot less dramatic. Then there are the commercials, interrupting every 10 minutes or less with clips from equally overblown CGI movies alternating with the banality of screaming car salesmen. After a purported journey to the Big Bang you’d think there’d be some shame, or humility, or irony, about giving equal sound and fury to the latest from Samsung or Subaru.

But this is the language of our time. This is what the producers think people expect, the mainstream way they are entertained and impressed. I’ll be an old fart now and say I feel sorry for people who’ve only ever experienced this smothering of the imagination by cheap technological humbug. We are much too infatuated with our new toys and we think they render good writing obsolete. This is an era of decadent Roman excess in infotainment that has to be waited out. Oh for the sweetness of a new Dark Age. Somebody pull the plug.

In the meantime, if you want your imagination to be ravished by the new cosmology, and you’d even like to understand it just a little bit, READ BOOKS. Read Lee Billings, Caleb Scharf, Ray Jayawardhana. Read by and about the prescient visionary Giordano Bruno. whom Cosmos at least covers, but as a cartoon character.

My parents slept through most of this episode. We’ll continue watching (on the NatGeo channel next time, to see if the commercials are as bad), to see whether the microscopic world is portrayed any better than the macroscopic one.

(Apologies for the slapdash pan. It was written on stolen time, throwing good time after bad, as it were.)

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intelligence, Whither Homo sapiens?

The Greatest Invention

Nuclear weapons. Hands down.

Reading the news about Ukraine this morning—as John Kerry disdainfully said, “so nineteenth century”—it struck me forcefully, really for the first time, what an inadvertently brilliant invention they are. With diabolical, unintentional cleverness we have confronted ourselves with a device like a Zen koan, one that confounds and baffles our impulse to keep escalating aggression, to just have a bigger, badder one than the next guy. That impulse is stopped cold in its tracks by the dim realization, a messenger from the (pre)front(al lobes) shouldering through the limbic murk, that advantage cannot be gained. One up is one too many: he who uses the ultimate weapon will destroy any treasure he hoped to capture, destroy himself, and unleash the destruction of everything. Either we find another way, or we wipe ourselves out. Back in the Sixties someone called this “humanity’s final exam.” Finally I get it—but it’s adding a biological twist that brings it home.

The ultimate weapon is an evolutionary fail-safe. It is to intelligent life what apoptosis is to cellular life: if a life-form goes rogue, or goes down a dead end, it self-destructs. Pretty neat, seen through a cold eye.

(Of course, the koan might also spur the work-around of a better ultimate weapon, one that would destroy life but not property, and whose toxic radiation would dissipate rapidly, allowing conquerors to come in and pillage away. Wasn’t the neutron bomb once touted as that weapon? Whatever happened to that? Even then, though, nukes would trump neuts as the preferred medium of retaliation.)

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