Thursday, February 11, 2016


Since keeping a focus on “deep time” or primal evolution means always working two dimensions against each other (one might say horizontal against vertical), one is forced into different kinds of sequencing.  One is the cause-and-effect of time, one thing emerging from the circumstances of what was just previous. Another is a hierarchy of complexification, simple things co-existing and interpenetrating to create something new, presumably better.  When thinking about the evolution of the brain, one is always conscious of working from earliest to most recent, from simple to complex, and — we hadn’t thought about this in the past — pruning or editing for one reason or another, often imposed by the environment.

So the kiwi devolved from Tyrannosaurus.

What makes an advantage will persist, what makes a disadvantage will disappear, and what is neutral might come along for the ride but maybe not.  The environment might change everything.  Particularly in the case of hominins who have evolved a cultural environment, a social network that can change quickly, a kind of interpersonal neural network now made actual by the internet.

In every hominin’s brain “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” in a quick sketch of evolution.  It’s not that we’re descended from apes, but that the development of the individual retraces the evolutionary steps of the species — from its conception to its birth, every animal passes through the evolutionary steps of the species, from one-celled animals to advanced life-forms.  This is true of the human brain:  at 25 days the embryonic brain resembles the brain of a worm; at 40 days the embryonic brain resembles the brain of a vertebrate like a fish; at 100 days the embryonic brain resembles a mammalian brain.  At 5 months the embryonic brain resembles the brains of other primates.

In previous posts I’ve talked about the idea of the fourth trimester.  It is not until the end of the first three months after birth that the brain begins to seem like that of a hominin that has a prefrontal cortex, but it still needs to “install” the operations, the operating system, of what that brain can do.  The caretaker (mom) will do this over the next three years.  You could say that cultural apps are being installed.

The personal intrauterine evolution, the construction of that physical brain through its stages and the body in which the brain dwells, may have glitches.  We knew about things like cleft palate, spina bifida, club foot and even intestines that develop outside the body rather than inside, or arms and legs that fail to lengthen.  We have not been able to tell what is going on in the brain as it develops.  Now there are all sorts of theories about what neuron structures and choices during gestation might do.  Some claim it might determine the orientation of desire, for instance, which is always understood as either/or because that’s the way our culture sorts people.  This drastically underestimates the possibilities.

Until recently, many people — philosophers but not just philosophers — achieved their understanding through the contemplation of their belly buttons.  That is, they are attached so thoroughly to their cultures that they cannot step outside the cultural circle except by scientific methods — which are also cultural.  Those who study culture are from a culture, even one that struggles to be objective which they think IS what scientific methods are.  But science is as much subject to evolution as everything else.  

In particular the methods of science have depended upon introspection (belly buttons) and meta-introspection — that is, reflection upon how one is going about gathering evidence and sorting it and what sort of evidence counts as valid, and trying to guess what is shaping one’s ignorance: what one DOES NOT know.  What are we missing?  Could we find clues in the structure of an organ like the brain?  Could we devise experiments that would indicate how people are thinking without slanting the info?

“Science” comes out of a specific culture that evolved on the European continent from a creature structure (with a culture) that evolved on the African continent, but migrated across the world’s continents, always evolving as it went.  Part of European culture is constant sorting to see who is the “best,” the “highest.”  It is quick to use evolution to prove that the best among Europeans is the best kind of human it is possible to be.  Because lesser humans were defined as slaves or even beasts.  "Best" meant high-born and educated as far as was possible.

"The Young Doctor Freud"  PBS

Out of this comes the idea that introspection is a “high” and valuable practice.  And then Freud’s idea (I just watched the movie called “The Young Doctor Freud”) was that if you relaxed and reflected, your core issues would rise to the top where they were visible, like one of those party 8-balls.  Many of the core issues were about sex, the most distortable, tabooed and intense human cultural and physical issues, right at the belly button of the survival of the species.  (The movie about “The Young Chanel” was more fun and just as sexy.  Of course, the plots of both movies are about the evolution of remarkable individuals who did not fear taboos.  At least in their adolescent stage.)

The trouble with introspection is that it only deals with what is “thought” and conscious.  But the evolution of ideas, as individuals and as cultures, is largely UN or SUB conscious and not accessible to introspection.  Even an outside observer would be interpreting through his or her own consciousness.  Much is being left out, without the person realizing it is missing. When I say this on Aeon, the educated Euro men get angry.

It is the advent of metaphor that makes way for writing, in which little marks are metaphors for sounds and sound patterns become words, metaphors for concepts and objects.  This is not objective and rational.  At this point some people begin to hear voices.  Voices are essentially music, which are brain-perceived sequential patterns of sound.

Paul Otteson

I’m going back over this ground in part because Paul Otteson, a musician and romantic quite a bit younger that myself, just now responded to my old comment on Aeon about Julian Jaynes’ book “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.”  I assigned Jaynes to a social class.  His father was a Unitarian minister, as was I for a while.  The book was an effort to understand the brain, keeping in mind that it’s in two halves.  Jaynes was a psychologist.  His cousin, Nat Lauriat, was the Unitarian minister who supervised me as a student intern.  Clearly, I’m assigning Otteson to a cultural class niche.  

Veronique Greenwood than commented, approving of what I said.  She is a science writer, maybe the same age as Otteson, but not the same style.  Not in the same culture class.  Otteson is a musician.

Veronique Greenwood

Unitarian Universalists at present are like Otteson and Greenwood, partly romantic, wanting to sing to small animals, and partly scientific, wanting scrupulous information.  This is a problem and it is cultural.  All three of us have good minds.  The two sons of Unitarian ministers — from the old days when they were trying to be objective, logical, and superior — have special problems.  I would love to see a comparison of e e cummings (also the son of a Unitarian minister) and Julian Jaynes.  (Nat Lauriat’s father ran a bookstore in Boston.)  In fact, Aeon — the online magazine that proposed this debate of comments — is pretty much in the same split space culturally.

My divergence is because of fifty years of experience with Blackfeet culture, which is not European or African, but a Third Force that I can’t really explain very well so far.  More present than people realize.  It’s phenomenological, oral language-based, HIGHLY metaphorical.  The metaphors are more than rural — land-bound.  Most of the thinking about metaphor has been done by academics like Jaynes and Lauriat.  They discredit experience and trust their belly buttons.  Maybe I’m more aligned with Jared Diamond who spent so many years in New Guinea.  But I think I should catch up with Greenwood.

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