Category Archives: Science

Darwinism (or DarwinIsADouche.com)

I have a love/hate relationship with Darwinism. I love the idea, application and process of evolutionary theory – one can’t, and won’t, deny the beauty and mind bending revolution of Chuck’s vision (especially taking into account the arse clenching theology of the Victorian era). Yet I hate with profound passion the ubiquity of it as a metaphor (incorrectly, more often than not) and the misplaced faith in that metaphor as an ultimate endorsement. As a metaphor it’s usually employed to prop up lazy reasoning and convenient beliefs; Darwinism intoned in the hope that through its power it will lend an argument credence, a statement validity or, more commonly, imbue some cynical societal prescription, guaranteed to cure our indulgent ills, with the power of evolution’s place in the firmament of scientific and intellectual certitude.

Again, I’m not picking a fight with Darwinism, rather the casuist plodders who employ it as a wagon of expedience for their preferred convictions. That Mr. Darwin coined the term ‘Survival of the fittest’ to describe his theory makes me want to weep and rage in equal measure. Ironically On the Origin of the Species suffers from the same problem the Bible does in the hands of their respective fundamentalists; a problem anchored in the refusal to recognise how embedded in the assumptions of the times the writers were. Darwin was a product of Victorian England, at the height of an empire that sought to benevolently conquer the world for its own good, because, obviously, the English were the pinnacle of civilisation. It was their duty as the highest representative of the human race. The believed cultural supremacy of the times is perfectly captured in the penultimate sentence of Darwin’s most famous tome: “Thus from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of the higher animals, directly follows.” The arrogance and assumption, not to mention the hideous anthropomorphism of nature in its entirety, contained in that one sentence is quite staggering. But, and this is quite important, in our relativist wisdom we are quite capable of contextualising that statement within the prevalent cultural standards of Darwin’s lifetime, taking from it that if you stick monkeys in one end of a habitat, given an opportune environment, you might get Andy Warhol out the other. Which is my point – it isn’t the survival of the fittest, it is the survival of those with the most opportune mutations in that environment.

The word fittest is highly dependent on context, deeply in need of qualification. The way we use it has far too much of the smell of triumphalism about it; that those that fall are unworthy, and those who remain are right. It is putting the cart before the horse on a quite impressive scale, leading to conclusions based on a syllogism; they didn’t make it, we did, thus we are superior. A beautiful example is capitalism vs. communism, as Norman Manea wisely said, “Yet on the other shore, a self congratulatory society took the collapse of the other side as a vindication.”

Our vesting ‘Survival of the Fittest’ with power beyond its context has given us some pretty fucked up ideas of what the survival of a thing actually means, not to mention the context it survives or dies in. We have to save the ecosphere due to our biological need of it, because we’re quite important, being a higher animal, but the lower animals that can’t hack it in our climate altered wake, urban environs, polluted waters, fenced rural landscapes and zoos kinda deserve to die, coz, like, it’s survival of the fittest, right? Except for rats, as no one really likes rats. And pigeons, of course, being, as has been demonstrated, just airborne rodents… though what do we do with the fucking flying foxes? Is an actual flying rodent somehow exempt from our wrath simply because it doesn’t, y’know, fuck so much? The specious logic applied to sustain this illusionary narrative leaves us chasing our own brains round the inside of our skulls, demanding of us the unsavoury necessity of a shorter syllogism: we’re atop the food chain, thus the fittest, so we can’t be wrong. So… pandas? Fuck ’em.

We are the pinnacle of evolution, we are the duly ordained of nature; accordingly it’s our duty to show the way to the rest of the ecosphere… Hang on, I’ve heard that reasoning somewhere before… wait, wait… if a table has four legs and that thing I’ve been sitting on has four legs, then the thing I’m sitting on must be a table.

Okay, I feel better.

It’s a bit weird attributing, in a fundamental way, such high importance to being able to do some neat things with our thumbs and neo-cortex. Maybe it’s because we’ve come to see evolution as a kind of race; if we’re at the front of the pack then we must be doing well – though it’s a bit much that we’re refereeing the race we’re running in. Quid Pro Quo, Clarice… no, shit, I mean Quod Erat Demonstrandum… No I don’t… Ah, fuck it, caveat emptor, assholes.

The sublimely ridiculous thing is that most of the stuff we do – economics, science, even much of our art – works against a fundamental tenet of sustainable evolutionary practice: they consume more than they produce – a fine case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. As Daniel Quinn observed of the folly of our cultural practices: natural selection doesn’t eliminate you immediately, it eliminates you eventually. Our problem is that we’ve got our timelines all mixed up, making us unable to see over the chronological horizon.

Survival of the fittest indeed.

So we use the shortcut of ‘survival of the fittest’ to bless arguments with the power of  Evolutionary Theory while, with deep irony, practising behaviour that only promises to make of us a case study for the next species that happens to grow thumbs. Evolutionary Theory still remains a beautiful and true description of what we see in the biological world around us, but ‘survival of the fittest’ as a metaphor sucks. It sucked then and sucks now. I quite like the idea of setting up a website dedicated to the failure of Darwinism as a metaphor: DarwinIsADouche.com, for all the Darwinarcissists out there. Though, on consideration, I’m pretty sure the server would immediately crash from the sudden surge of Dawkinites and other, less articulate Fundamentalists.

A General Theory of Love: a review

Thomas Lewis, M.D., Fari Amini, M.D., Richard Lannon, M.D.   

“People rely on intelligence to solve problems, and they are naturally baffled when comprehension proves impotent to effect emotional change… Ideas bounce like so many peas off the sturdy incomprehension of the limbic and reptilian brains. The dogged implicitness of emotional knowledge, it’s relentless unreasoning force, prevents logic from granting salvation just as it precludes self-help books from helping.” (pg. 118)

The authors, psychiatrists all, dispel the ingrained binary perception of head or heart by beautifully describing the intricate bonds and balances in the different parts of our brains, and the vital dynamics of these parts when communication between people takes place. Coming from three successive generations of psychiatry Lewis, Amini and Lannon have witnessed a massive shift in the fundamental understanding of the human mind: from the pre-scientific Freudian models that permeate our culture, through early pharmacology to the advent of neuroscience, their knowledge of the mind’s labyrinthine structure and function has undergone the same seismic shifts as the profession. The result is a depth of understanding coupled with a profound humility when faced with the vast agencies at play in the brain. Their triune voice negotiates their understanding, and the reader’s growing comprehension, with grace and humour, creating a resonance with the imparted knowledge and wisdom that’s quite startling.

Yet this isn’t a self-help book, more a scientific essay on the brains relation to the heart, A General Theory of Love explores our drive for intimacy and greater connection; the very real formative physical effect love has on the brain’s development in children and the continuing function of those physical structures in our adult brains. Using contemporary research in cognitive science, evolutionary biology and sociology this book illuminates how vital the quixotic interaction of love and biology are in the emergence of our personalities and, further, the relationships we create with them. But the soul of the book lies in the recognised limitations of science and scientific language; the authorial understanding that in order to explore the mental and emotional connections within ourselves, and the connections we form with the hearts and minds of others, they must avail themselves of the vast resources of humanity’s obsession with this love and its mercurial exchanges. Poetry, literature and the physical arts from across the years (these endeavors of so many hearts and minds) are called on and employed alongside science in order to explore the extent and vitality of the mind-heart connection.

Citing the lives and ideas of such luminary figures as Shakespeare, Freud, Darwin and Frost, this book reveals how the compulsion, means and ways we reach out to others demonstrate how our nervous systems are not self-contained structures, how important and defining the interaction between people’s emotions are. “From birth to death, love is not just the focus of human experience but also the life force of the mind, determining our moods, stabilizing our bodily rhythms, and changing the structure of our brains. The body’s physiology ensures that relationships determine and fix our identities. Love makes us who we are, and who we can become.” (from the preface).

Initially we’re introduced to our brains basic structure: the triune brain; consisting of the Neocortex, Limbic and Reptile brains. The evolutionary process of the triune brain’s development is explored, starting with the reptile brain’s autonomic necessity (controlling all those things the rest of our brain can’t be trusted with) and moving onto the limbic brain, the seat of emotion and instinct: fleeing, fighting, feeding, and sexual urges (known as the 4 F’s) before finally delving into our evolutionary masterpiece, the neocortex, responsible for such marvels as reason, speech and taxes. So impressed have we become with the neocortex many now place it, unrivalled, at the top of the mental food-chain, the senior partner, demoting the remaining sections of our brain to mailroom roles. To counter such hierarchal ideas the authors are quick and convincing in illustrating the equitable interrelations of the three parts of our brain and the resultant beauteous dysfunction we’re left with, all sitting atop our necks in such an illusion of good order that it’s hard to see how we screw ourselves up so badly, so regularly.

After a fascinating introduction to these heady matters A General Theory of Love travels further and deeper, on the road of exposition, into how our limbic brains measurably connect with and shape the brains and lives of others, the pure learning forces at play in a child’s growth and development, how memory can store and shape love, and, ultimately, what recognition of love’s ephemeral and physical effects could allow us to accomplish.

We often attempt to live lives dictated by binary relationships: right or wrong, all or nothing, head or heart, but the dichotomization of factors that confound and affect our lives are a rhetorical convenience that belies the hodgepodge nature of the world and our minds. ‘Emotional life can be influenced, but it cannot be commanded.’ There is revelation contained within these pages, an opportunity to look with fresh eyes on the relationships we have built our lives from, how they have hurt us and saved us with their undeniable transformative effect on almost every element of our lives. Jung said that the relationships we build are the masterpieces of our lives; this book does the remarkable in showing us the brushstrokes of those masterpieces, revealing the grammar and syntax of our emotional existence.

Nature me not your Nurture

In my teens I became obsessed with what I was. I wanted to understand what made me me. If I could understand the pieces, where and how they fit, my personality would become my playground. Things would become governable, I’d be able to take the pieces that made me socially awkward and inept, move them around and, voila, dapper and charming. I’d craft myself to any and all situations, alleviating building pressure that would crush my comprehension of myself (strangely I thought I comprehended the world) and be an improved person. I would become a man of emotional and intellectual Lego, removing and adding pieces until I was better, stronger, faster – like Steve Austin, just on a budget.

So I would read little bits and bobs about brain function and so forth, write them down and slowly piece together the machine that was me. It’s safe to say that I was a devotee of the mechanistic universe, a cheerleader for Descartes, Bacon and the Scientific Method. A Lego cheerleader shaking nature’s breasts as pom-poms.

And for a while I thought I’d done it – figured myself out. I’m a Stabile Introvert, you see. Also an INTJ. And some other stuff. I knew which cups the peas were under, all I had to do was move them round fast enough to dazzle the crowd. Needless (I hope) to say, things have changed.

I often wonder what my younger self would make of me now. I’m pretty sure there would be the embarrassed shuffling of feet and furtive avoidance of eye contact. We’d probably have to talk about our hair and what happened to it just to save ourselves from Older Me ranting about interconnectivity, systems theory and the folly of believing the universe a controllable machine, requiring only sufficient understanding of the parts to reveal its secrets, something that would no doubt be followed by Younger Me calling me a chicken-shit hippy wannabe that can’t grasp the elegance of a rational, truthful and unforgiving cosmos. Something like that. The younger me would eventually ask, in a hushed and horrified voice, if I believed in God now. I’d probably say yes, just to fuck with him.

The change in my perception of such things came about through various shards of knowledge, more and more found pieces shaping those that came before them, leaving me hopelessly confused. Until, with great relief, I gave up my need for a mechanistic universe or, more to the point, mechanistic people (the latter obviating the argument for the former). Let me try to walk you through some of my headache:

Extraversion and introversion are commonly understood traits but there are physical causes for them that aren’t widely known. The extra/intro traits have been traced back to a group of brain cells in the brain stem called the ‘ascending reticular activating system’, these cells ultimately determine levels of arousal (activity you dirty bastards) in the cerebral cortex. Physiologically speaking, extroversion is linked to resting states of low cortical arousal and introversion is linked to resting states of high cortical arousal. So when at mental rest the extrovert’s intellect is in neutral while the introvert’s, in the same position, only gets as low as second gear.

The outward displays of being an extrovert or introvert come about because the cortex inhibits the lower centres of the brain, and when it (the cortex) isn’t aroused (extrovert) actions become dictated more by the impulses and desires of the lower centres of the brain. If the cortex is aroused (introvert) then those same impulses and desires don’t get through as often as they have to go through the active filter of the cortex. Extroversion = uninhibited, introversion = inhibited.

An excellent demonstration is the effect of alcohol on the two kinds of traits: Alcohol lowers cortical arousal, thus promoting excited and uninhibited behaviour – a drunk extrovert is usually just an amplified version of themselves but a drunk introvert will often behave very differently to their sober character.

It is important to point out that one’s natural cortical resting state, be it high or low, doesn’t dictate levels of intelligence in any way.

Now. Stabile and labile are less well known but just as concreted by empirical evidence. An individual’s brain can be dominated by either the sympathetic or parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system, this is the area of the brain where thoughts and actions are initially processed.  The sympathetic branch (labile) responds to outside stimuli and alerts the organism (being the brain and body) to immediate action. If dominated by the sympathetic branch a person is excitable and tends to act quickly on hunches, best guesses and experience. Labiles can make pretty awesome sword fighters.

The parasympathetic branch (stabile) habituates the organism to stimulus and restores the body to balance very quickly, thus stabiles tend to be more placid and react very calmly and thoughtfully to events around them. The result of this is that in an emergency it’s safer to be standing next to a stabile but somewhat more exciting standing next to a labile.

It’s worth noting that while labile traits and extroversion along with stabile traits and introversion often come as a package deal, it isn’t a physically dictated relationship; that person you know who is charismatic, a natural leader and kicks arse in fights with ninjas yet remains cool, calm and considered under pressure will most likely be a stabile extrovert – that sort of person can sometimes be identified by the adoring crowds that follow them around throwing underwear.

Okay, as far as personality types that’s fine, there’s more in that area (sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic) but that’s getting more general and into the area of effect rather than cause.

The cause and effect of brain and personality function is essentially the nature versus nurture debate, a debate I think is largely over-hyped by our blind obsession with binary relationships and dichotomies. In terms of the brain I think confusing the hardware and the software is where the problems start, something compounded by our cultural confusion over ‘civilized’ and ‘primitive’ behaviour and our quest to define ourselves as culturally and historically unique. The One or the Other! The universe must adhere to our determined dichotomization! (maybe dichotomization is more about an inherent cultural mechanism rather than a functioning universal or biological truth… Bob Loblaw).

That’s not to say that the hardware and software (nature vs. nurture) don’t interact and inform each other in hugely significant ways, that is kind of the point of their relationship. Habit formation is proof of that: by doing a thing or thinking a thought repetitively you burn a neural pathway, a pathway that once burnt is quite hard to reroute. The ability to form that pathway is the brain’s learning hardware (nature), but the formed pathway represents the cultural software (nurture).

It’s easy to see the hardware but questioning one’s software is ridiculously hard because it is, quite literally, the way we think (not how). We burn our pathways as children, when we’re learning junkies (nature) but as adults look at our hardware through the eyes of our software, deciding, obviously, that we were always meant to be this way, making ourselves fated beings, imagining that our brains are made up of memes and genes and that, thanks to evolution, what will come from us is nigh on unavoidable (a round of applause for Mister Dawkins!). It’s essentially the same process as believing that J.C. is going to pop up at some point in the near future and usher in Judgment Day; it’s all a matter of belief in principles and rules that use their internal architecture of reasoning as the standard of measure of all other beliefs. Nurture defining nature, at least in effect.

Biology isn’t fate, no matter what our software tells us. Biology is interactive and fun, like sex. But our software has become so self-obsessed that it now believes it is hardware (nature). Our software (nurture) is our culture informing us of it’s operating principles, its rules and dictates, and that culture is the medium we use to transmit our beliefs and practices down the timeline through our children’s children’s children, etc. (assuming our nurture hasn’t totally screwed with our sex lives, that is).

One of the obvious problems this dysfunctional relationship between our hardware and software is that we have become cultural supremacists, totally devoted to the premise that the way we live is the one right way to live (sure we can tweak it but generally we’ve pretty much got it nailed). No other way will be tolerated (for evidence of this see any and all colonial ventures in history). To make it confusing, look at it this way: our nurture is convinced it is our nature, (which is why we’re convinced memes & genes are the same thing) thus we deny that our culture is a made up thing. We make ourselves fated beings by defining ourselves as a natural force, something undeniable, something inexorable (and probably ineffable), a thing that we consequently don’t need to make excuses or apologies for. We have done for the biosphere what Ptolemy did for astronomy.

Brains, like the universe, construct stuff from found things. Stuff and Things. Tinkering with ideas and implications, a bricolage from the rummaged notions and manifestations of the surrounding world, is, in its totality, an uncontrollable process. If you accept the resulting mosaic as truth unbending and absolute you’re abdicating responsibility in the hopes of control. If you’re unwilling to question your parts as a bricoleur then all you end up building is a cage.

Me vs. Brain

Memory can be a funny thing.

I want to lead a better life. I don’t mean that I want to refocus my efforts, give more to charity, rescue wee kittens from smelly old ladies or change the world. I mean to definitively lead a better life. To instigate change in myself and through that change find new possibilities and practices that allow me to better harness whatever innate qualities I possess, thus creating a better quality life. One, of course, would hope the consequences of these metamorphoses would lead to a few saved kittens and maybe even some soap for the aging smelly ladies (and wouldn’t that be a better, changed world?) but, unfortunately, focusing on the ends often defeats the means.

We’re made up of our memories. And we all have a stable of significant memories that we nurture and harvest for the sake of our self-image. Many of these memories aren’t helpful, can in fact be destructive, as the values and beliefs we appraise them with cause us to take meanings from them that aren’t real. That construct a self image that is flawed and impedes evolution or growth of a sustainable and fruitful existence.
So we travel up and down the time-stream of our lives evaluating our memories and thus ourselves, trying to divine what is true, what is not and how that affects us. But memories don’t cooperate.

I read a thing about memories a while back, about their storage and access. Basically there are three parts to the brain: the cerebrum, the limbic system and the brain stem. Memory storage is as you would expect, filed with the book-keeper of the brain, the cerebrum, where all the cool, higher functions take place. But emotional interpretation happens elsewhere, in the limbic brain, the emotional core of our beings, which is adrift in significant ways from our reasoning centre in the cerebrum. The funny thing being that the limbic brain has absolutely no sense of time. None. Total fucking goldfish, man. When you access memories that are powerful, stored in the cerebrum, they are interpreted by the limbic brain as ever new and original. When the limbic brain experiences a memory it is always for the first time. The catch is that the limbic brain is plugged straight into the brain stem, and thus to our nervous system, and our bodies always believe the limbic over the cerebral, making us physically and emotionally eternally present in our reaction to memories. But wait! It always starts with our thinking. Our emotional response is a secondary reaction to the cerebral importance we place on a particular memory. When traumatized we don’t suppress our emotions, because we just can’t, so we suppress our cerebral memories because without those the limbic brain can’t react, all mad goldfish stylz, to the horror.

To put it simply, the limbic time traveler in our head can’t cope with the constant and insistent immediacy of an ever-present experience. So you bamboozle the book-keeper by fudging the records.

Done? Nooooo, never that easy, baby. The emotional impact is still there, waiting, you’ve just stripped it of the consistent cues it needs. And since it has nothing to attach to, the books of memory being all smudged up, you never know what cues, through weird swings and roundabouts of association, will bring a sudden flash of memory, setting off the limbic time-traveler in your head. Boom. So the potential emotional impact just floats, anchorless and perfectly formed, around your head.

Cool.

The upshot is that if you don’t deal with the memory, understanding it and what it actually means (It’s not your fault Will Hunting, it’s not your fault) to you as a singular entity, then you’re totally screwed, dude. It’s like juggling buttered toast and trying not to get your fingers greasy.

I have a new found respect for the psychiatric profession.

The Brangiverse

There may well be tacit proof of alternate universes in the weekly, if not daily, celebrity magazines that tap into Brad Pitt’s & Angelina Jolie’s lives. These records, if taken as true (anything published must be true, my childhood assumptions tell me) they can’t possibly be the same couple. Thus it is not unreasonable to assume that the magazines are tapping into various alternate lives and universes in order to sate the celebrity appetites of the masses. Which is quite considerate, really. But surely, if we charted the doppler shift (maybe even the brownian motion) of these various Brangelinians, in their various Brangiverses, we could make some sort of omni-dimensional topographic map of the multiverse.

This would not only be of great benefit to struggling sf television writers but go some length to justifying the very existence of these paparazzi rags at all. In any universe.

Large Scale Awesomeness

There’s a strong science geek gene in my family (which of course includes science fiction). I’ve been trying to introduce my girlfriend to this shameful side of my existence slowly and with careful attention to information. Scale is a handy tool for this and this little video is one of my favourite illuminators.

And I just have a real soft spot for this ad.

Awesome pussy cat.