Diversity. Not.

I must admit, it is challenging to read Elizabeth Kolbert‘s book The Sixth Extinction without feeling a bit of dread.

Nonetheless, the book is informative and fascinating–even funny at times–and well worth reading if you are the type who can get beyond your anthropocentric leanings and attempt to view the long-range picture from a scientific, if not exactly neutral, viewpoint. Her main argument is that we are, indeed, in the midst of a 6th mass extinction era and that human beings are “the weed” that most likely is the cause of these numerous extinctions–and not just since the industrial revolution, but eons before that. Humans travel more effectively than almost any life form, and that leads gradually to a loss of diversity. Read the book to find out how that works.

I find interesting parallels with socio-cultural trends in the ecological struggle for and against diversity. Niche-dwelling creatures or societies adapt to some challenging environment and develop or evolve ways to deal with adversity–cold temperatures, constant rain, saline soils, whatever. Nomadism, for example, is a way to adapt to seasonal weather challenges.

When an ‘alien’ enters a niche area, it usually dies off; but if it can adapt, there is hybridism or conquering. Tolerance, it turns out–living peacefully in tandem using the same resources–is not a common evolutionary strategy, though there are examples of symbiotic ecological relationships and, of course, parasitism of the sort that does not quickly kill off the host. Conquering generally means lost diversity.

When a niche organism ventures, accidentally or otherwise (forcibly, sometimes) into a new region as ‘alien,’ the special characteristics of the creature cause it to die or, in some cases, to have to adapt to a different set of circumstances…and diversity gets lost pretty quickly that way. In my region, for example, wetlands have experienced overruns of phragmites.

Does this sound like emigration? War? Forced removal of peoples? Indigenous populations killed off by measles or smallpox? Young people leaving remote areas to try to find work in cities? I see a metaphor here!

While human beings may try to celebrate diversity (which is better than using diversity to identify and exclude or punish “the other”), we probably cannot keep ourselves from becoming, over the centuries, less and less various. A homogeneous world seems, to me, to be a place impoverished through lack of niches and creative adaptation–but that’s what happens when mass extinctions take place: a depletion of kinds in the fossil record.

You might want to read Robert Sullivan’s New York Magazine article for even more recent scientific evidence if you’re not up to reading a whole book, though Kolbert is an engaging writer and I found her book to be a quick read. And below, some graphic illustrations from LiveScience. Fascinating stuff.

Here in the USA, alas, we seem to be helping the extinction of our own kind along by viewing diversity among people as dangerous. Compound this with a society that permits the ownership, hoarding, and use of deadly weapons on others and which cultivates a cultural tone of fear, anxiety, and entitlement, and there is strong evidence that the human weed will continue the slow but decided progress of the Holocene extinction.

Chart of extinction events that wiped out most life on Earth.



While reading up on some recent theories on evolution and reading for the first time (other than in excerpts) The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex by Charles Darwin, I have returned to mulling over the problem of consciousness. What fascinates me is how this topic (consciousness) overlaps with philosophy, physiology, evolution–how and why we developed the brains we have with their attendant egos, theory of self, what-have-you–and with human constructs such as art and religion and morality, which I value for complicated reasons.

And out of curiosity, I took up Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living with a Wild God, which seemed to me a departure from her books until I realized that I was unfamiliar with her earlier work.

Ehrenreich’s book stems from her inquiry into a period of her own late adolescence when she experienced a kind of awakening that defied expression. For another sort of person, this might have been a spiritual encounter; but she was a self-described solipsist atheist who wanted explanations. The why of the world mattered to her–she was headed toward an education in science at Reed and Columbia University, though she did not know that yet when she had her ecstatic sensation. Reading Living with a Wild God reminded me of watching an animal tear and tear and worry at a carcass, not quite able to let go. The author fumes at her younger self for being so unforthcoming with details and suggests she may have been having a dissociative event, a small psychological break. Yet there were no symptoms of such a problem in her diary or in her memory.

She writes a bit about psychology, human consciousness, adolescent daydreaming, rational thinking versus imaginative beliefs, systematic or otherwise. After considerable wrestling and intriguing memoir, she admits that all she can do is speculate about what she felt:

There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive, beatific merger with “the All” as described by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe a fire really closely without becoming part of it…you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze…the only condition was overflow. ‘Ecstasy’ would be the word for this, but only if you are willing to acknowledge that ecstasy does not occupy the same spectrum as happiness or euphoria, that it participates in the anguish of loss and can resemble an outbreak of violence.

In the Bhagavad-gita, when Arjuna sees Krishna-manifest-as-All, the experience is not beatific, any more than Moses’ encounter with God as the burning bush relates an enmeshing with the One; the sense of merger with the energetic being remains absent–there is awe and a sensation that the human consciousness has been irrevocably rattled, altered, changed, but not that the human consciousness melds with that unknowable and indescribable Other.

What drew me to this book is that I had similar, though briefer, experiences when I was young. They tended to occur in flashes, and I associate them now with daydreaming and with a “losing of self”–I really have no words for it, though Ehrenreich’s “overflow” seems about right…one reason Bachelard’s writings on childhood and reverie resonate with me. It’s heartening to find another person, a well-known author, who also has found the experience impossible to formulate in language. I especially appreciate her suggesting “that ecstasy does not occupy the same spectrum as happiness or euphoria, that it participates in the anguish of loss and can resemble an outbreak of violence.” I identify deeply.

Some meditative practices aim to erase, temporarily, the boundaries that keep us from being truly in the world. Some religious practices aim to make the faithful “one with” the deity. Ehrenreich does not possess the kind of mind or personality that seeks answers in those ways. She’s frighteningly intelligent, well-educated, worldly, scholarly, sensible, socially and culturally aware, fiercely atheistic. Yet she cannot quite believe that what she felt, saw, knew, in her body and in her mind, was “simply” something her brain invented. After 50 years, she continues to wonder. I sense she is still tearing obsessively at the unresolved.

Maybe that is enough, to wonder. At any rate, wondering may be as far toward why as any of us human beings will ever get.

Barnacles, finches’ beaks, art

Cirripedia, the barnacles, occupied Mr. Charles Darwin for many years, even though his extensive studies of the class are not what he’s famous for (except among cirripedists). The average layperson knows Darwin as the man who came up with the theory of evolution–though that is not strictly what he did, and none of his books bear that title. After the publication of On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, and the subsequent and ongoing controversies that followed, pretty much everything in the world could be–and has been–examined “under an evolutionary lens.”

The original “lens” involved finch beaks, pigeon-breeding, and early geology studies. It was fueled also by taxonomy, anatomy, and barnacles, by a member of the landed gentry who stayed at  home, more or less, for 45 years after his five-year journey on the Beagle. A scholar, an “armchair naturalist” by today’s standards; a genius.

finch beaksMany people who interpreted what evolution suggested went off the deep end one way or another, which is what happens with ground-breaking ideas. Both critics and supporters re-interpreted and often misinterpreted Darwin and the implications of his work, as well, all of which means he accomplished something truly significant. Why not, therefore, examine fundamental human traits to see whether evolutionary currents can be discerned? Certainly Darwin and a few of his contemporaries speculated that altruism might have an evolutionary basis, a concept that was taken up, debated, and temporarily dismissed in the 1960s-70s; recent neurobiological and genetic studies have brought the possibility of a biological basis for kindness back into discussion (see also Damasio).

There is also the question of art (and aesthetics, though taste seems more likely to be social than biological–but who knows?), which brings me to Denis Dutton’s delightful book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution.

Rather than summarize my responses to his thought-provoking and rather convincing arguments, I’m posting some quotes. These are ideas I find juicy to consider; perhaps other readers will feel similarly.


Wondrous aesthetic experiences are possible in the absence of a sense of larger community: the response of an individual to a beautiful landscape, for instance, …or to a recording of the Goldberg Variations heard in solitude. If the arts were intrinsically social in the way that social-cohesion theory claims, people…would prefer standing in a crowd to see a painting in a museum, rather than standing alone.

Because of sexual selection, the arts retain an incorrigible sense of being made by one individual person for another…the motives of art, as even Darwin knew, are ancient and complicated–directed toward a community perhaps, but also created to captivate an audience of one.


The artist…probes the content of human emotional life with an eye toward articulating, or making clear, a unique emotion, an individual feeling.

Can you imagine taking [a] pill to save the expense of concert tickets, or even the time spent in listening to a recording of the piece? The answer is very likely to be no, and the reason tells us something about the nature of artistic expression. It is not just the emotion as bare feeling we want from art, it is the individual artistic expression of emotion–how emotions are revealed in the art, through technique, structure, balance, and the blending of sounds….Yes, we want feeling from art, but not as an end for which the art is a means: with art, the means is the end itself.      [italics mine]


Extending Darwin’s original suggestion, I believe this intense interest in art as emotional expression derives from wanting to see through art into another human personality: it springs from desire for knowledge of another person….talking about art is an indirect way of talking about the inner lives of other people.


All of the above excerpts are from Denis Dutton, The Art Instinct, 2009.



Consciousness reconsidered

A few months back, I was reading about consciousness (see here and here). This article on “brain tubules” caught my attention, although I admit to considerable skepticism as to how applicable, or even correct, this research will turn out to be. The material seems exciting–quantum vibrations in the brain!–because of the possibilities inherent in a synthesis of chemistry, biology, and physics and how such synthesis could lead to a theory of human consciousness.

The earliest article I could find on this theory dates to 1998 (an abstract is here). I suppose I should now break down and tackle Werner Loewenstein’s Physics in Mind: A Quantum View of the Brain. But I have a huge to-read list at present and no time or concentration to get to those books. Besides, at the moment I find myself more concerned with the less empirical side of consciousness theory. I mean: belief, attitude, faith. Those non-provable abstracts that nevertheless seem so much a part of most human beings’ operating systems…the things that psychology and neurology do not seem able to answer and that keep philosophers continually at work (the only true knowledge being the knowledge that one knows nothing).


And maybe, as Daniel Dennett suggests, the very idea of consciousness is an illusion–the brain evolving to fool us through perception.


This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here: http://www.humanjourney.us/greece3.html

This bust resides in the Louvre,
and was found here:

Do our brains fool us through our perceptions of emotion, too?


And how does this affect how we understand, say, literature, or art? Poetry, for example: Is it possible to deconstruct the pleasure I take from a poem into quantum vibrations in connective synapses as a result of the evolutionary process and, if so, where does the knowledge get me?

Would I still love the poem? (I think I would.) Would I consciously love the poem, consciously find pleasure and surprise in it, once I understand fully the process and development of consciousness? (Why not?) Would such knowledge flatten my emotional or aesthetic attraction to the poem? (I doubt it.)

If loving my perception of art, my relationship with it or attachment to it, is “merely” an evolutionary development, that does not cheapen or devalue the way I feel.


What brain studies and consciousness studies have to say about faith may perhaps set up more antagonism between science and consciousness-as-non-biological/i.e. religion, spirituality, etc. By faith I mean not necessarily religious faith but any non-provable conjecture, some of which are imaginative and potentially marvelous, not to mention potentially true. Some statements can be disproven but not proven…and there is the apagogical argument…and then there is the definition of faith (or belief) as Wikipedia defines it: “Faith is subjective confidence or trust in a person, thing, deity, or in the doctrines or teachings of a religion, or view (e.g. having strong political faith) without empirical evidence, or as confidence based upon a degree of evidential warrant (as in a Biblical sense).”

That empirical evidence thing is the perpetual stumbling-block, yet–paradoxically–it’s also what makes faith so appealingly…human. Yes, maybe we are fooling ourselves. And maybe that’s what is so marvelously cognitively neurologically fruitful and imaginative about the whole human endeavor.

Abstraction, evolution, & sky-beauty

I awakened this morning to a sunrise of surpassing beauty. As I drove to work, I remembered that the first poems I recall ever writing were about the wind and about dawn–perhaps I wrote other poems as a child, but these two are the only ones I remember: poems that celebrated something I found lovely in nature.

After the vivid morning sky, we had a day of rain; and on my commute home, a compelling sunset bookended the working day. I call these skies “beautiful” and would definitely regard my experience of looking at them as aesthetic.

And yet, it’s only the sky, some clouds, the sun, phenomena that science has explained. What makes it beautiful?

photo: Beejay Grob

photo: Beejay Grob (North Carolina coastal sky)

David Rothenberg’s 2011 book Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution has accompanied me for the past week; I have been reading it when I can find time to read and to cogitate. Rothenberg speaks directly to the question of what makes us experience beauty, whether beauty is a human-only construct, and from where the qualities of aesthetic experience arise. He explores among other things whether beauty (especially in the form of art) evolved along with us, what makes it timeless (if it is indeed timeless), and whether our grounding in nature as earthly beings formed the grounding for what we deem beautiful.

And he considers symmetry and biology and abstract art and math and music. There’s quite a good deal of synthesis and speculation going on in this book.


Rothenberg writes that he is interested in whether humans’ developing education in abstractions–concepts and abstract arts–might produce an outcome that increases our appreciation of things in nature and the cosmos. He writes:

It might seem this century has freed us from interest in any kind of constricting form or function in art, but I want to test out a different theory: that abstraction in the arts has made us find more possible beauty in the natural world…as art exalts pure form and shape, the laws of symmetry and chaos found in mathematics and science seem ever more directly inspirational. Aesthetically, we become more prepared to see beauty where before we saw only the clues of beauty, its glimmers or possibilities…our minds are more attentive to an abstract kind of beauty that we can discover but not necessarily build or create.

It takes him several chapters to braid together the many strings of his interdisciplinary inquiries; but the upshot is that while I feel he does not answer the questions he begins with, he does deepen the reader’s thought process about art, beauty, and the evolution of ideas as well as of organisms. He says the interesting discussion lies not with what is or is not art, nor how to evaluate the individual merit of works, but rather “how artistic expression changes how we think in ways only art can accomplish.”


In light of Rothenberg’s musings on how natural-feeling abstract art can be, here are some examples: Barlow, Ellis, (contemporary) and Klee (modern).

Rothenberg concludes with some ambiguity about aesthetics and evolution, which suits his book-length and life-long explorations on the interweavings of these ideas; but he adds with certainty that “[b]iology is not here to explain away all that we love in terms of the practical and rational. That is not how nature works. Nor should we shrink from our natural astonishment at the magnificence evolution has produced.”


He mentions John Cage’s work and approach to composing, and I think Cage’s main point in so much of his work is getting us to listen, to see, getting us to be attentive. Viz Rothenberg’s words quoted above, maybe an integration of abstraction does open us to be more attentive to the beauty that exists in the world without any artist making it. We could not, in the past, have appreciated the fractal values of river deltas viewed from airplanes; and perhaps only natural (or trained) artists noticed how the twigs of a tree reiterate the shapes, angles, and curves of the branches, boughs, sometimes even bark. Now we know about Mandelbrot sets and fractal geometry, and those abstractions can generate beautiful patterns. Now we know the Fibonacci sequence of numbers–an abstraction–appears in snail shells and sunflower seed-heads.

We do not have to be mathematicians, chemists, art critics, environmental scientists, physicists, sculptors, violinists, composers, dancers, college professors or biologists to recognize patterns and symmetries, or to find that slight variations in the pattern enhance the experience through the kind of surprise and delight that I discover in great poems.

We just have to be attentive.



Art and “human intelligence”

I’ve gotten almost to the end of Brian Boyd’s intriguing and well-argued book On the Origin of Stories, which makes fairly large claims about sociality, cognition, theory of mind, art, and storytelling (ie, fiction) given an evolutionary perspective (art as adaptation). The first 200 pages lay the foundation for his claims; he provides evidence from the “hard” sciences, most often biology and neurology, and from archeology, anthropology, and psychology, to back up his theory that art is an evolutionary adaptation humans developed in order to live as social animals. And that art is necessary for human cognition in terms of further developing intelligence and the ability to communicate among our peers: it is cognitive play, practice and skill strengthening for mind and muscle.

Big claims, and occasionally hard to “prove” from the hard sciences. I believe he does a good job with that set of proofs, but I’m not a scientist. His claims based on social sciences—anthropology, sociology, psychology—are very convincing; but many people have arguments with those fields because they are so apparently subjective. Most exciting to me is the way Boyd synthesizes neurological findings with evolutionary developments.

Actually, most exciting to me are his chapters on the Odyssey, but that may be because I am a literature geek. He essentially writes a literary analysis of the Odyssey based upon the inferences and findings in the first half of this book (evolution) rather than the customary literary analysis grounded in, say, context or culture of style or theme, ad infinitum. The resulting analysis is, for me, a truly exciting way to look at Homer’s work and why it matters now, as well as why it mattered then.

Boyd comes close to making the assertion that Homer made Socrates possible, and hence all of Western civilization’s philosophy and social intelligence. Of course, he is careful not to go that far in his argument—he steers as far as he can from logical fallacies— but the thought certainly feels planted in the reader’s mind. His argument does suggest that metacognition in human beings is the definer that makes us human, and art as more-than-play separates human from not-human. He also demonstrates that the Odyssey offers great leaps beyond older epics and posits that the author(s) composed the epic for contemporary audiences that were capable of intelligent, sophisticated, “modern” thought processes; the piece is therefore not primitive literature, as some critics claim.

Boyd’s work has also turned my thoughts to how the attributes of attention, perspective and foreknowledge, overturned expectations, audience-sociality, false belief, cooperation and competition work in the poem as well as in narrative. Granted, many poems have a narrative framework, however thinly sketched, but not all of them do. When there is no narrative frame, these other aspects of storytelling (audience expectations in particular) take precedence and can be employed in almost infinite ways, bounded only by imagination and the willingness of the reader to pay attention as the writer earns that attention through a host of innovative or traditional skills.

A last thought…I spent the long weekend visiting octogenarian friends, both of whom are wonderful tellers of stories. The value of such people to human society is priceless:

“Story by its nature invites us to shift from our own perspective to that of another, and perhaps another and another.”  ~Brian Boyd