Archive for the ‘life’ Category

Probability, coincidence, and the origin of life

November 30, 2019

The philosopher Epicurus was shown a wall of pictures — told, reverently, they portrayed sailors who, in storms, prayed to the gods and were saved. “But where,” he asked, “are the pictures of those who prayed and drowned?”

He was exposing the mistake of counting hits and ignoring misses. It’s common when evaluating seemingly paranormal, supernatural, or even miraculous occurrences. Like when some acquaintance appears in a dream and then you learn they’ve just died. Was your dream premonitory? But how often do you dream of people who don’t die? As with Epicurus, this frequently applies to religious “miracles” like answered prayers. We count the hits and ignore the many more unanswered prayers.

I usually work with the radio on. How often do you think I’ll write a word while hearing the same word from the radio? (Not common words, of course, like “like” or “of course.”) In fact it happens regularly, every few days. Spooky? Against astronomical odds? For a particular word, like “particular,” the odds would indeed be very small. But the open-ended case of any word matching is far less improbable. Recently it was “Equatorial Guinea!” Similarly, the odds of any two people’s birthdays matching are about one in 365. But how many must there be in a room before two birthdays likely match? Only 23! This surprises most folks — showing we have shaky intuitions regarding probability and coincidence. Most coincidences are not remarkable at all, but expectable, like my frequent radio matches.

So what does all this have to do with the origin of life? I recently began discussing Dawkins’s book, The Blind Watchmaker, and life’s having (almost certainly) begun with a fairly simple molecular structure, naturally occurring, with the characteristic of self-duplication. Dawkins addresses our intuition that that’s exceedingly improbable.

The essence of evolution by natural selection is, again, small incremental steps over eons of time, each making beneficiaries a bit likelier to survive and reproduce. The replicator molecule utilized by all life is DNA,* which maybe can’t be called “simple” — but Dawkins explains that DNA could itself have evolved in steps, from simpler precursors —non-living ones.

Indeed, non-living replication is familiar to us. That’s how crystals form. They grow by repeating a molecular structure over and over. (I’ve illustrated one we own — trillions of molecules creating a geometrical object with perfectly flat sides.) Dawkins writes of certain naturally occurring clays with similar properties, which could plausibly have been a platform for evolving the more elaborate self-replicators that became life.

Maybe this still seems far-fetched to you. But Dawkins elucidates another key insight relevant here.

Our brains evolved (obviously) to navigate the environment we lived in. Our abilities to conceptualize are tailored accordingly, and don’t extend further (which would have been a waste of biological resources). Thus, explains Dawkins, our intuitive grasp of time is grounded in the spectrum of intervals in our everyday experience — from perhaps a second or so at one end to a century or two at the other. But that’s only a tiny part of the full range, which goes from nanoseconds to billions of years. We didn’t need to grasp those. Likewise, our grasp of sizes runs from perhaps a grain of sand to a mountain. Again, a tiny part of the true spectrum, an atom being vastly smaller, the galaxy vastly larger. Those sizes we never needed to imagine — and so we really can’t.

This applies to all very large (or small) numbers. Our intuitions about probability are similarly circumscribed.

If you could hypothetically travel to early Earth, might you witness life beginning — as I’ve explained it? Of course not. Not in a lifetime. The probability seems so small it feels like zero. And accordingly some people just reject the idea.

Suppose it’s so improbable that it would only occur once in a billion years. But it did have a billion years to happen in! Wherein a one-in-a-billion-year event is hardly unlikely.

The odds against winning the lottery are also astronomical. Our human capacity to grasp such probabilities is, again, so limited that many people play the lottery with no clue about the true smallness of their chances. Yet people win the lottery. And I had my “Equatorial Guinea” coincidence.

And what’s the probability that life did not evolve naturally, along general lines I’ve suggested, but was instead somehow deliberately created by a super-intelligent being of unimaginable power — whose existence in the first place nobody can begin to account for?

Surely zero; a childishly absurd idea. As Sherlock Holmes said, once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, howsoever improbable, must be the truth. But the Darwinian naturalistic theory of life is not at all improbable or implausible. There’s tons of evidence for it. And even if there weren’t, Dawkins observes, it would still be the only concept capable of explaining life. Not only is it true, it must be true.

* That all living things use the same DNA code makes it virtually certain that all had a common ancestor. Your forebears were not, actually, monkeys; but the ancestors of all humans, and of all monkeys, were fish.

Evolution: The Blind Watchmaker and the bat

November 24, 2019

What is it Like to be a Bat? was a famous essay (I keep coming back to) by Philosopher Thomas Nagel. Its point being our difficulty in grasping — that is, constructing an intuitively coherent internal model of — the bat experience. Because it’s so alien to our own.

Biologist Richard Dawkins, though, actually tackles Nagel’s question in his book The Blind Watchmaker. The title refers to William Paley’s 1802 Natural Theology, once quite influential, arguing for what’s now called “intelligent design.” Paley said if you find a rock in the sand, its presence needs no explanation; but if you find a watch, that can only be explained by the existence of a watchmaker. And Paley likens the astonishing complexity of life forms to that watch.

I’ve addressed this before, writing about evolution. Paley’s mistake is that a watch is purpose-built, which is not true of anything in nature. Nature never aimed to produce exactly what we see today. Instead, it’s an undirected process that could have produced an infinitude of alternative possibilities. What we have are the ones that just happened to fall out of that process — very unlike a watch made by a watchmaker.

However, it’s not mere “random chance,” as some who resist Darwinism mistakenly suppose. The random chance concept would analogize nature to a child with a pile of lego blocks, tumbling them together every which way. No elegant creation could plausibly result. But evolution works differently, through serial replication.

It began with an agglomeration of molecules, a very simple naturally occurring structure, but having one crucial characteristic: a tendency to duplicate itself (using other molecules floating by). If such a thing arising seems improbable, realize it need only have occurred once. Because each duplicate would then be making more duplicates. Ad infinitum. And as they proliferate, slight variations accidentally creeping in (mutations) would make some better at staying in existence and replicating. That’s natural selection.

Dawkins discusses bats at length because the sophistication of their design (more properly, their adaptation) might seem great evidence for Paleyism.

Bats’ challenge is to function in the dark. Well, why didn’t they simply evolve for daytime? Because that territory was already well occupied, and there was a living to be made at night — for a creature able to cope with it.

Darkness meant usual vision systems wouldn’t work. Bats’ alternative is echolocation — sonar. They “see” by emitting sound pulses and using the echoes to build, in their brains, a model of their outside environment. Pulses are sent between ten and 200 times per second, each one updating the model. Bat brains have developed the software to perform this high speed data processing and modeling, on the fly.

Now get this. Their signals’ strength diminishes with the square of the distance, both going out and coming back. So the outgoing signals must be quite loud (fortunately beyond the range of human hearing) for the return echos to be detectable. But there’s a problem. To pick up the weak return echos, bat ears have to be extremely sensitive. But such sensitive ears would be wrecked by the loudness of the outgoing signals.

So what to do? Bats turn off their ears during each outgoing chirp, and turn them on again to catch each return echo. Ten to 200 times a second!

Another problem: Typically there’s a zillion bats around, all creating these echos simultaneously. How can they distinguish their own from all those others? Well, they can, because each has its own distinctive signal. Their brain software masters this too, sorting their own echos from all the background noise.

The foregoing might suggest, a la Nagel, that the bat experience is unfathomable. Our own vision seems a much simpler and better way of seeing the world. But not so fast. Dawkins explains that the two systems are really quite analogous. While bats use sound waves, we use light waves. However, it’s not as though we “see” the light directly. Both systems entail the brain doing a lot of processing and manipulation of incoming data to build a model of the outside environs. And the bat system does this about as well as ours.

Dawkins imagines an alien race of “blind” batlike creatures, flabbergasted to learn of a species called humans actually capable of utilizing inaudible (!) rays called “light” to “see.” He goes on to describe our very complex system for gathering light signals, and transmitting them into the brain, which then somehow uses them to construct a model of our surroundings which, somehow, we can interpret as a coherent picture. Updated every fraction of a second. (Their Nagel might write, “What is it like to be a human?”)*

A Paleyite would find it unimaginable that bat echolocation could have evolved without a designer. But what’s really hard for us to imagine is the immensity of time for a vast sequence of small changes accumulating to produce it.

Dogs evolved (with some human help) from wolves over just a few thousand years; indeed, with variations as different as Chihuahuas and Saint Bernards. And we’re scarcely capable of grasping the incommensurateness between those mere thousands of years and the many millions over which evolution operates.

Remember what natural selection entails. Small differences between two species-mates may be a matter of chance, but what happens next is not. A small difference can give one animal slightly better odds of reproducing. Repeat a thousand or a million times and those differences grow large; likewise a tiny reproductive advantage also compounds over time. It’s not a random process, but nor does it require an “intelligent designer.”

Dawkins gives another example. Imagine a mouse-sized animal, where females have a slight preference for larger males. Very very slight. Larger males thus have a very very slight probability of leaving more offspring. The creature’s increasing size would be imperceptible during a human lifetime. How long would it take to reach elephant size? The surprising answer: just 60,000 years! An eyeblink of geological time. This would be considered “sudden” by normal evolutionary standards.**

Returning to vision, a favorite argument of anti-evolutionists is that such a system’s “irreducible complexity” could never have evolved by small steps — because an incomplete eye would be useless. Dawkins eviscerates this foolish argument. Lots of people in fact have visual systems that are incomplete or defective in various ways, some with only 5% of normal vision. But for them, 5% is far better than zero!

The first simple living things were all blind. But “in the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king.” Even just having some primitive light-sensitive cells would have conferred a survival and reproductive advantage, better enabling their possessors to find food and avoid becoming food. And such light detectors would have gradually improved, by many tiny steps, over eons; each making a creature more likely to reproduce.

Indeed, a vision system — any vision system at all — is so advantageous that virtually all animals evolved one, not copying each other, but along separate evolutionary paths, resulting in a wide array of varying solutions to the problem — including bat echolocation, utilizing principles so different from ours.

But none actually reflects optimized “intelligent” design. Not what a half decent engineer or craftsman would have come up with. Instead, the evolution by tiny steps means that at each stage nature was constrained to work with what was already there; thus really (in computer lingo) a long sequence of “kludges.” For example, no rational designer would have bunched our optic nerve fibers in the front of the eye, creating a blind spot.

You might, if you still cling to an imaginary “designer,” ask her about that. And while you’re at it, ask why no third eye in the back of our heads?

(To be continued)

* Some blind humans are actually learning to employ echolocation much like bats, using tongue clicks.

** This is not to say evolution entails slow steady change. Dawkins addresses the “controversy” between evolutionary “gradualists” and “punctuationists” who hypothesize change in bursts. Their differences are smaller than the words imply. Gradualists recognize rates of change vary (with periods of stasis); punctuationists recognize that evolutionary leaps don’t occur overnight. Both are firmly in the Darwinian camp.

End Road Work? No!

November 8, 2019

We’ve all seen those signs along highways, saying “End Road Work.” This movement seems very misguided. I can think of many things that should be ended, but road work surely isn’t one of them. In fact, most people would consider it a very good thing if not, indeed, vitally necessary. Having myself sustained a flat tire recently due to a pot hole, count me as strongly in support of road work. What can these people be thinking, wanting to end it?

Sure, it can be an annoyance, slowing up traffic. But traffic would ultimately become a lot slower if the campaign against road work succeeds! One of the many things about modernity we blithely take for granted is good serviceable roads. But there’s no free lunch, everything has a cost.

Maybe road work opponents have been confuzzled by all the rhetoric trying to soft-soap socialism, by claiming that anything government does is socialism. So they think road work is socialism. Well, I’d be happy to see it done by the private sector. But failing that, I still want roads repaired, even if it is socialism. There are a lot worse ways for government to use taxpayer money.

Fortunately, years of “End Road Work” signs seem to have had little or no impact on curtailing the practice. These foolish cranks should give up and find a different issue to protest about.

What is humanism?

October 28, 2019

Some religious voices assail humanism as a belief in nothing. Thus blamed for (supposed) moral rot; as if morality needs some supernatural basis. While labeling humanism just another religion or faith, no more provable than any other.

Humanism is not a religion or faith, but a philosophy, originating in ancient times with thinkers like Epicurus and Lucretius, with a rebirth in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. It’s a way of understanding life and the world, anchored in reason and reality. This does mean eschewing religious superstitions, all the deities, immortality, etc. But humanism is not simply nonbelief; it’s not believing in nothing.

To the contrary, humanists have strong beliefs — strong indeed by virtue of requiring no leap of “faith,” no suspension of disbelief. Humanism’s truths are self-evident:

All of existence comprises natural laws and processes; there’s no such thing as “supernatural.” Nature has no purpose; it just is. We ourselves are products of nature, evolved with minds enabling us to use reason and science to understand it, tackle our problems, aspire to justice, and shape our own destinies. Thus humanism believes in progress, taking pride in what we strive for and have achieved. Humanism is love for humanity.

Our earthly life is the only one we get; and nothing can ultimately matter except the feelings of beings that feel. This tells us our purpose is to make them as good as possible. Which gives our lives ample meaning, as well as providing the bedrock of morality — to enable every person, oneself included, to live fully and attain happiness. This means equality of human dignity, democracy, freedom of thought and expression.

It’s what our Declaration of Independence says. The Constitution’s preamble similarly targets human flourishing, with no deity mentioned. Thus was America founded not as a “Christian nation” but a quintessentially humanist one.

The humanism elucidated here is the essence of rationality and sanity. Most of us, even if professing other creeds, actually live our lives, most of the time, in accordance with these common sense humanistic concepts. And they’re not necessarily incompatible with a religious faith. Believers act humanistically in battling for social justice. Even if you believe in an afterlife, nobody can be sure, and contemplating the possibility of earthly life’s finality spurs one to cherish it and improve it for all of us. Aiming to solve problems ourselves by confronting earthbound realities — rather than putting the whole burden on a deity who, if he does exist, probably has plenty to do.

It’s when we deviate from these humanistic paradigms that trouble brews. Religions, rooted in different cultures, with irreconcilable claims to ultimate truth, are unending sources of conflict. Humanism offers a universal philosophy to unite us.

Death is tragic, but to live at all is a glorious gift. Only by coming to terms with the reality of our existence, as embodied in humanism, can we live authentically and meaningfully. “Being at one with everything” is a cliché of Buddhism; but I get a similar feeling from how my humanism grounds me in my engagement with life, the world, and humankind. It’s better than religion because it’s true.

Greta Thunberg is wrong

October 1, 2019

Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate warrior, berates the world (“How dare you?”) for pursuing a “fairy tale” of continued economic growth — putting money ahead of combating global warming. A previous local newspaper commentary hit every phrase of the litany: “species decimation, rainforest destruction . . . ocean acidification . . . fossil-fuel-guzzling, consumer-driven . . . wreaked havoc . . . blind to [the] long-term implication . . . driven by those who would profit . . . our mad, profligate  . . . warmongering . . . plasticization and chemical fertilization . . . failed to heed the wise admonition of our indigenous elders . . . .”

The litany of misanthropes hating their own species and especially their civilization.

Lookit. There’s no free lunch. Call it “raping the planet” if you like, but we could never have risen from the stone age without utilizing as fully as possible the natural resources available. And if you romanticize our pre-modern existence (“harmony with nature” and all), well, you’d probably be dead now, because most earlier people didn’t make thirty. And those short lives were nasty and brutish. There was no ibuprofen.

This grimness pretty much persisted until the Industrial Revolution. Only now, by putting resource utilization in high gear, could ordinary folks begin to live decently. People like that commentator fantasize giving it up. Or, more fantastical, our somehow still living decently without consuming the resources making it possible.

These are often the same voices bemoaning world poverty. Oblivious to how much poverty has actually declined — thanks to all the resource utilization they condemn. And to how their program would deny decent lives to the billion or so still in extreme poverty. Hating the idea of pursuing economic growth may be fine for those living in affluent comfort. Less so for the world’s poorest.

Note, as an example, the mention of “chemical fertilization.” This refers to what’s called the “green revolution” — revolutionizing agriculture to improve yields and combat hunger, especially in poorer nations. It’s been estimated this has saved a couple billion lives. And of course made a big dent in global poverty.

But isn’t “chemical fertilization,” and economic development more generally, bad for the environment? Certainly! Again, no free lunch. In particular, the climate change we’re hastening will, as Thunberg says, likely have awful future impacts. Yet bad as that is, it’s not actually humanity’s biggest challenge. The greater factors affecting human well-being will remain the age-old prosaic problems of poverty, disease, malnutrition, conflict, and ignorance. Economic growth helps us battle all those. We should not cut it back for the sake of climate. In fact, growing economic resources will help us deal with climate change too. It’s when countries are poor that they most abuse the environment; affluence improves environmental stewardship. And it’s poor countries who will suffer most from climate change, and will most need the resources provided by economic growth to cope with it.

Of course we must do everything reasonably possible to minimize resource extraction, environmental impacts, and the industrial carbon emissions that accelerate global warming. But “reasonably possible” means not at the expense of lower global living standards. Bear in mind that worldwide temperatures will continue to rise even if we eliminate carbon emissions totally (totally unrealistic, of course). Emission reductions can moderate warming only slightly. That tells us to focus less on emissions and more on preparing to adapt to higher temperatures. And more on studying geo-engineering possibilities for removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and otherwise re-cooling the planet. Yet most climate warriors actually oppose such efforts, instead obsessing exclusively on carbon reduction, in a misguided jihad against economic growth, as though to punish humanity for “raping the planet.”

Most greens are also dead set against nuclear power, imagining that renewables like solar and wind energy can fulfill all our needs. Talk about fairy tales. Modern nuclear power plants are very safe and emit no greenhouse gases. We cannot hope to bend down the curve of emissions without greatly expanded use of nuclear power. Radioactive waste is an issue. But do you think handling that presents a bigger challenge than to replace the bulk of existing power generation with renewables?

I don’t believe we’re a race of planet rapists. Our resource utilization and economic development has improved quality of life — the only thing that can ultimately matter. The great thing about our species, enabling us to be so spectacularly successful, is our ability to adapt and cope with what nature throws at us. Climate change and environmental degradation are huge challenges. But we can surmount them. Without self-flagellation.

The vaping panic and the human fear response

September 22, 2019

Eight Americans have died, and over 500 fallen ill, apparently from vaping e-cigarettes. Governmental bodies all over are scrambling to ban this scourge.

This is insane. In fact, it will kill more people than if nothing is done.

I wrote that the illnesses “apparently” were from vaping. Remember the silicone breast implant panic? Hundreds of women with implants started getting sick. We leaped to the obvious conclusion that implants caused it. However, many thousands of women had implants, while in America’s population of 150+ million women, many thousands get sick annually, many with mysterious ailments and unknown causes. Did the percentage of women with implants who got sick exceed the percentage of non-implanted women who got sick? No. It turned out there was actually no link between the illnesses and the implants. It was statistically inevitable that some of the women getting sick would also happen to have implants.

I wonder if the same applies to the vaping deaths. Many thousands annually get various lung problems; millions vape. But let’s just assume vaping did cause the particular illnesses seen. However, the great majority are associated not with commercial vaping products but illicit ones bought on the street. Those often contain toxic substances not in properly manufactured e-cigarettes.

This brings to mind the opioid crisis. Almost nobody dies from the drugs manufactured by the much-maligned pharmaceutical companies. People die because they can’t get those drugs and so buy alternatives like heroin on the street, whose potency is unknown, causing overdosing.

Banning e-cigarettes will reprise that story. If people who want them can’t get properly manufactured ones, they’ll turn to unscrupulous street sellers and products with who-knows-what in them. Deaths will skyrocket.

And it seems particularly insane to ban e-cigarettes, blamed for eight deaths, when ordinary conventional cigarettes remain perfectly legal, and kill 450,000 Americans annually (seven million worldwide).

In fact, vaping was invented to be a safer alternative to regular smoking. And it is — vastly safer. There’s no reason the think vaping might cause the lung cancer that kills smokers by the million. In comparison with that, eight vaping deaths is nothing.

E-cigarettes were also conceived as a halfway house to help wean smokers off deadly regular tobacco products. If vaping is banned, more people will continue smoking — adding to the ban’s death toll.

Use by minors is central in this vaping panic. But there’s scant reason to see vaping as a “gateway drug” leading to smoking (or worse). If anything, it’s likely that the more kids vape, the fewer will smoke. And there’s no evidence of serious health harm from e-cigarettes — properly manufactured ones, that is, bought in stores, not on the streets.

But if that doesn’t allay your panic, then simply bar sales to minors. Just like for regular cigarettes. Such a policy is known to be extremely effective.

This e-cigarette health scare is just the latest in a long line of similar ones, going back at least to the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. People feared railroad travel would discombobulate internal organs. Most basically, fear is programmed into our psyches by evolution, because given all the real dangers our forebears faced, being fearful rather than carefree helped them survive. We also have a lot of pre-installed cognitive biases that undermine rational comparative evaluation of dangers. Thus many fear flying but think nothing of getting into cars — at least a hundred times riskier. And rush to ban vaping over eight deaths while shrugging at smoking’s millions.

Indeed, many see modernity itself as a veritable death-trap, what with all the chemicals, radiation, pollution, carcinogens, etc. Yet the pre-industrial average lifespan was around 30, while in advanced countries today it’s risen to eighty.

Thinking like a caveman

September 18, 2019


What is it like to be a bat? That famous essay by philosopher Thomas Nagel keeps nagging at us. What is it like to be me? Of this I should have some idea. But why is being me like that? — how does it work? — are questions that really bug me.

Science knows a lot about how our neurons work. Those doings of billions of neurons, each with very limited, specific, understandable functions, join to create one’s personhood. A leap we’re only beginning to understand.

Steven Mithen’s book, The Prehistory of the Mind, takes the problem back a step, asking how our minds came to exist in the first place. It’s a highly interesting inquiry.

Of course the simple answer is evolution. Life forms have natural variability, and variations that prove more successful in adapting to changing environments proliferate. This builds over eons. Our minds were a very successful adaptation.

But they could not have sprung up all at once. Doesn’t work that way. So by what steps did they evolve? The question is problematical given our difficulty in reverse-engineering the end product. But Mithen’s analysis actually helps toward such understanding.

He uses two metaphors to describe what our more primitive, precursor minds were like. One is a Swiss Army knife. It’s a tool that’s really a tool kit. Leaving aside for the moment the elusive concept of “mind,” all living things have the equivalent of Swiss Army knives to guide their behavior in various separate domains. A cat, for example, has a program in its brain for jumping up to a ledge; another for catching a mouse; and so forth. The key point is that each is a separate tool, used separately; two or more can’t be combined.

Which brings in Mithen’s other metaphor for the early human mind: a cathedral. Within it, there are various chapels, each containing one of the Swiss Army knife tools, each one a brain program for dealing with a specific type of challenge. The main ones Mithen identifies are a grasp of basic physics in connection with tool-making and the like; a feel for the natural world; one for social interaction; and language arts, related thereto.

This recalls Martin Gardner’s concept of multiple intelligences. Departing from an idea that “intelligence” is a single capability that people have more or less of, Gardner posited numerous diverse particularized capabilities, such as interpersonal skills, musical, spatial-visual, etc. A person can be strong in one and weak in another.

Mithen agrees, yet nevertheless also hypothesizes what he calls “general intelligence.” By this he means “a suite of general-purpose learning rules, such as those for learning associations between events.” Here’s where his metaphors bite. The Swiss Army knife doesn’t have a general intelligence tool. That’s why a cat is extremely good at mousing but lacks a comprehensive viewpoint on its situation.

In Mithen’s cathedral, however, there is general intelligence, situated right in the central nave. However, the chapels, each containing their specific tools, are closed off from it and from each other. The toolmaking program doesn’t communicate with the social interaction program; none of them communicates with the general intelligence.

Does this seem weird? Not at all. Mithen invokes an analogy to driving while conversing with a passenger. Two wholly separate competences are operating, but sealed off from each other, neither impinging on the other.

This, Mithen posits, was indeed totally the situation of early humans (like Neanderthals). Our own species arose something like 100,000 years ago, but for around half that time, it seems, we too had minds like Neanderthals, like Mithen’s compartmentalized cathedral, lacking pathways for the various competences to talk to each other. He describes a “rolling” sort of consciousness that could go from one sphere to another, but was in something of a blur about seeing any kind of big picture.

Now, if you were intelligently building this cathedral, you wouldn’t do it this way. But evolution is not “intelligent design.” It has to work with what developed previously. And what it started with was much like the Swiss Army knife, with a bunch of wholly separate competences that each evolved independently.

That’s good enough for most living things, able to survive and reproduce without a “general intelligence.” Evolving the latter was something of a fluke for humans. (A few other creatures may have something like it.)

The next step was to integrate the whole tool kit; to open the doors of all the chapels leading into the central nave. The difference was that while a Neanderthal could be extremely skilled at making a stone tool, while he was doing it he really couldn’t ponder about it in the context of his whole life. We can. Mithen calls this “cognitive fluidity.”

The way I like to put it, the essence of our consciousness is that we don’t just have thoughts, we can think about our thoughts. That’s the integration Mithen talks about — a whole added layer of cognition. And it’s that layering, that thinking about our thinking, that gives us a sense of self, more powerfully than any other creature.

I’ve previously written too of how the mind makes sense of incoming information by creating representations. Like pictures in the mind, often using metaphors. And here too there’s layering; we make representations of representations; representations of ourselves perceiving those representations. That indeed is how we do perceive — and think about what we perceive. And we make representations of concepts and beliefs.

All this evolved because it was adaptive — enabling its possessors to better surmount the challenges of their environment. But this cognitive fluidity, Mithen says, is also at the heart of art, religion, science — all of human culture.

Once we achieved this capability, it blew the doors off the cathedral, and it was off to the races.

Norman Rockwell’s America

September 6, 2019

On Labor Day we visited the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA. Rockwell was an “illustrator” who disclaimed producing “fine art.” And some see his oeuvre as a mythologized, sanitized, saccharine picture of a past America.

Yet what is art if not an image that elicits an emotional response? And Rockwell’s pictures are not false. To the contrary, they show us some truths about human life. While cynicism is fashionable, there is reality in Rockwell’s vision. His work reflects a deep love for his fellow humans. And an emotional response was certainly forthcoming in me.

Rockwell (1894-1978) had a long prolific career, starting professionally in his teens; over nearly half a century he produced around 300 Saturday Evening Post magazine covers. Seeing the entire sequence, all in frames in one room, was almost dumbfounding, considering how much meticulous care went into each. Many were preceded by full charcoal drafts (also displayed), and fastidiously reworked.

Looking closely, I was struck by how insightfully Rockwell captured facial expressions. His pictures were generally set-pieces almost akin to cartoons. Yet the characters portrayed were not caricatures or archetypes; rather, real people, caught in real moments. I soon found myself looking at fellow museum visitors and imagining them as painted by Rockwell.

My all-time favorite painting was not there, traveling temporarily elsewhere: Freedom of Speech, one of his WWII “Four Freedoms” pictures. But the museum did display a large wartime poster of it. It depicts a real episode Rockwell witnessed (he’s in the picture, peeking out in the upper left corner). The main figure, a very ordinary everyman, rose in a town meeting to speak against a measure most others favored. Yet they gave him a respectful hearing. A lesson for today.

There was also Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter. Not the familiar image; one I’d somehow never seen before. And no typical portrayal of womanhood. This is one tough babe. A real riveter. (The pose is an exact homage to a figure from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. And her foot’s on Mein Kampf.)

And about that idea of a sanitized America: I noticed an explanatory label mentioning that Rockwell was once forced to paint out an African-American on a magazine cover because you could only portray blacks in menial roles. However, later in his career, Rockwell felt free to be forthright in addressing the race issue in his paintings. “New Kids in the Neighborhood” depicts a couple of young black children, just arrived, warily confronting a trio of white kids. The gap between them is wide — literally. But both sides hold baseball gloves, and you have the sense that it’s going to be all right.

One point I noticed is that Rockwell’s black children were always immaculately dressed: painted with respect.

Then there’s his iconic picture, “The Problem We All Live With.” This too was out traveling, but on a large reproduction I noticed a detail I strangely didn’t remember: the word chalked on the wall.

Afterward, in Stockbridge, we stumbled upon the little Schantz Galleries (3 Elm Street, “behind the bank,” the sign says). The ground floor had a display of Chihuly glass art. Nice enough; but upstairs: WOW! Also all glass art, but absolutely amazing. Remarkably too, by a large number of different artists.

Modern art too often actually rejects any ethos of beauty. Not so here. The sheer aesthetic beauty of these pieces was breathtaking. It was hard to believe human beings could create such wondrous things.

Making me feel exalted to be human.

Is the novel dead (or dying)?

August 31, 2019

(This essay previously appeared in Trolley,  the NYS Writers Institute’s online magazine.)

I was a failed novelist. Good with words, perhaps, but less on human insight. Which points toward the answer to the question.

What are novels for? Telling stories. A love for stories and storytelling is deeply embedded in human nature. And why is that? Because we evolved as exceptionally social creatures. A high level of social cooperation and cohesion was humanity’s “killer app” in the battle for survival. And that requires understanding what makes other people tick. That’s why we’re so big on stories and storytelling. They give us insight into that greatest of mysteries, the inner lives of others.

Cave people sitting around their campfires surely did a lot of storytelling — and listening. Narratives featuring human (or semi-divine) protagonists loomed large in our earliest cultures: Gilgamesh, the Iliad and Odyssey, the Bhagavad Gita. It took a long time for the “novel,” per se, as we know it today, to be developed as a vehicle for storytelling. Perhaps that was largely down to technology — before movable type printing, narratives like the Iliad were mainly transmitted orally. Poetry is easier to memorize than prose, and few people had the ability to read anyway. Printing overcame those constraints. With many more books becoming available, many more people found it worthwhile to learn to read — creating the mass audience for novels.

Then it was off to the races. And the novel has never since lost its appeal. Indeed, the expansion of literacy has not come to an end. As world population grows, and the percentage who are literate continues to rise, the global market of book readers increases.

On the other hand, further technological change has gone into overdrive, again altering the world. The written word, and the printing press, might seem like archaic holdovers of an epoch if not bygone, soon doomed to be.

More specifically, our thirst for stories is increasingly slaked by non-print means: ones with pictures. Books long had illustrations. But now the pictures move. Some are even 3-D! And immersive virtual reality will soon be a very big thing. If you can have all that stimulus, why be satisfied with words on a page?

Moving pictures have, of course, been around for over a century now, and while their audiences are immense, they don’t seem to come — at least not substantially — at the expense of book reading. Though watching movies and TV and other video does have to reduce somewhat the hours available for reading, people don’t actually seem to regard the one activity as a substitute for the other. They are indeed different activities.

This is the key point. While both do involve storytelling, seeing a film or video is a different kind of experience from reading a novel. True, in some ways, a film can be a richer, more vivid experience in the moment, and can convey things a novel cannot easily emulate — “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Yet some of the differences are to the novel’s favor.

For one thing, reading a novel is (normally) a much more prolonged activity. Efficient use of time is not the point; we find it pleasurable to become immersed, for a length of time, in a novel’s story, its characters’ lives, and its other world. How often has one felt sorry having to let go of them at novel’s end?

And reading a novel is a more contemplative, reflective experience. While a film or video necessarily goes headlong from one scene to the next — allowing the viewer only seconds, at most, to linger — novel reading facilitates thinking about the content, pondering its meaning to us, savoring it.

Further, while a picture can be worth a thousand words, words nonetheless pack a lot of power. And while visual beauty is one kind of experience, there can be beauty in language too, which is again a different kind of experience. Words can embody a complexity and subtlety of ideas that visual images cannot. Especially when a novel has a lot more than a thousand words to develop them.

I’m thinking, for example, of Jonathan Franzen’s work. This essay began by talking of human insight. I recall reading Franzen’s first novel,The Twenty-Seventh City, and marveling at the depth of human understanding in it (far exceeding my own); and that Franzen achieved this while only in his twenties. More recently I read his Freedom. It showcases Franzen as an artist with words, each of them a small brick, built into a cathedral of plot, character, and ideas, a deeply satisfying immersive experience, helping a reader to better understand life.

Novels have been written for half a millennium now. Google has told us that precisely 129,864,880 books have been published. That was back in 2010; no doubt that number is rather larger today; they’re being churned out at an ever faster rate. Most of them are novels. Yet we’re also told that there are really only seven basic plots. So the question arises: can there be anything new to say? When a would-be novelist sits down to begin, doesn’t she realize it’s all been done already, in all those tens of millions of previous novels?

But of course it hasn’t been, and never will be. That is the vastness of the human imagination. Writers are forever coming up with new ways of seeing and expressing things. People are still writing novels that surprise us; and delight us.

I was not a great novelist, but as long as there are people like Franzen to write them — and the pool of potential novelists is growing, because human beings, in general, are getting better and smarter — there will always be readers for them.

Dear Abby

August 20, 2019

I love reading “Dear Abby.” For the letters; not the advice dispensed. The original “Abby” was great, but she passed on and the column is now done by her daughter, who is frankly uninspired. Too often her “advice” is like, “Tell your husband exactly what you said in your letter.” Well, thanks a lot for that brilliant solution. And too often her answers really miss the boat.

Recently a single column had two in that category. Here are the letters (slightly condensed), “Abby’s” verbatim responses, and what I’d have said —

DEAR ABBY: My boyfriend and I have been dating for nearly two years. He would literally do anything for me. He’s incredibly affectionate and supportive, and a lot of women would love to have someone like him.

My problem is we see the world through completely different eyes. I’m an artist. I want to go out and explore the world and do crazy things. He’s more comfortable at home with video games and he’s not comfortable mingling with crowds. He can be overprotective sometimes . . . . We live together and are dependent both financially and emotionally. Honestly, I would like to stay with him, but I’m torn about what to do. Should I leave someone I should be grateful for in order to chase selfish dreams? Or should I stay and encourage him to change?

ABBY: Your boyfriend isn’t going to change. If you can’t accept him the way he is, then it would be better for both of you to separate.

FRANK: What exactly are these “selfish dreams” you want to chase? Is your boyfriend stopping you? Can you “go out and explore the world and do crazy things” yourself, and then come home to his affection and support? Is he okay with that? But meantime there’s a certain word conspicuously missing from your letter. It’s “love.” People with very divergent personalities can love each other and accommodate to each other’s differences. But without love, that will ultimately fail.

DEAR ABBY: For our anniversary, I bought my wife a $1,500 necklace, and told her that if she wanted, it could be exchanged at the store. She went out and came back with a different piece of jewelry that cost an additional $800. Besides the financial aspect, I’m feeling hurt that what I gave was not adequate enough for her. Am I being too sensitive here?

ABBY: You are a generous and loving husband. You should not, however, feel hurt that your wife exchanged the necklace. You told her she could, and she took you up on it. Perhaps next time you should consider asking her what she would like, so you can choose the gift “together.”

FRANK: She did that without even asking you? That was not an “exchange,” it was an upgrade, which you did not authorize. Simply inexcusable. Tell her to return the item. She does not deserve to have it; nor deserve you.