Archives for category: evolution

We were discussing ‘worst possible scenarios’ on Facebook and somebody mentioned ‘climate change’.
I must add here that the exchange was ‘framed’ by ‘skin in the game‘, a concept used by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his rather don-quixotic quest for more responsible decision makers.

OK, the whole domain of climate change is riddled with epistemological holes.
Linear models are used to approximate processes we barely know anything about.
‘Starting points’ have been, again and again, been proven wrong.
I could go on for hours.

I’ll make a small parenthesis here and inform you that according to a fresh study things might be far worse than we’ve reckoned. This paper, published by Nature.com, suggests that Earth’s oceans used to be far cooler than we’ve previously thought they were.

In this context, one of the participants made the following remark:
the burden (of proof) should fall on those calling for changes, for the rather obvious reason that we could suggest changes all day long. Only a few can be implemented.

Hard to argue with that, right?

But which changes are we talking about here?

A change in our manner of interacting with Mother Nature?
Costly, indeed, financial wise, but nowadays technologically possible.

Or about the changes we’ve already – unwittingly, most of them, imposed upon our ‘spaceship’?

We’ve dramatically changed the ‘use of land’. Agriculture and transport – yes, roads and railways have a huge impact – have changed the very nature of what’s going on on a considerable portion of the Earth’s surface.
We’ve dramatically changed the composition of the atmosphere. And I’m not talking about CO2 yet. CFCs, pesticides, NOx and SOx gases, etc., etc….
And, last but not least, we’ve reversed a trend which had been going on for hundreds of millions of years. Photosynthesis used to transform atmospheric CO2 into organic matter, some of which has been steadily accumulated as coal and crude oil.

So, about which changes should we worry first?

Or, in SITG terms, whose skin should bear the brunt of change?

Ours or our children’s?

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I’ve reached the conclusion that thinking and digesting have very much in common.

Citarum 2

We can’t do it by our own. Those of us who don’t cooperate/speak with those around them, don’t have what to eat or what to think about.

Both processes imply three stages. Identification, absorption, use.
We use cultural models to identify both our food and the important issues.
Absorption – through our gut/conscience, is both highly specific to each individual and governed by our common DNA/shared cultural traditions.
The ‘products’ of the digesting/thinking process are, again, used both in public as well as in private. Part of the energy we get from our food is consumed ‘cooperatively’ with our ‘coworkers’ while most of our thoughts end up either verbally expressed or put in practice.

Both processes, digesting as well as thinking, increasingly change the environment where we, and others, live.

Citarum 1

Before proceeding any further, let me introduce you to two other, more distanced, cousins of ours. Gorilla and Orangutan.

Orangutan leads a semi-solitary life in the Bornean and Sumatran Jungle. They are fairly large animals, males tip the scales at 200 pounds or so, and need a lot of food. They eat mostly fruit and, in times of scarcity, bark, flowers, insects and eggs.
It was their ‘eating habits’ which had shaped their social lives:
Food is often scarce in the rain forest and that is why the orangutan is a semi-solitary creature. In times of great abundance of food, orangutans may use the opportunity to socialize and gather in small groups.
Because they live solitarily, the young siblings must on one hand learn ‘everything’ before starting their adult lives and they don’t have anybody to learn from but their mothers. Hence they stick around for longest. A baby orangutan will nurse until about six and continue to live with their mothers for a few more years. Two or three for the males, five or six for the females – on top of everything else the females have to learn “mothering skills” and for them the only way to do it is to watch their own mother taking care of the next sibling.
As a consequence of all this, the females give birth only once every 8 years, “the longest time between births of any mammal on earth. (This results in only 4 to 5 babies in her lifetime.)” Not a very efficient survival strategy, for the species I mean…

Gorilla has adopted a different feeding strategy.
This is actually a joke. It wasn’t ‘the gorilla’ which has ever adopted anything, least of all ‘a survival strategy’. The ‘adoption process’ had been fueled by chance, had been ‘censured’ by  the realities of their living places and was later labeled as “evolution” by Charles Darwin.
Coming back to our distant cousins, gorillas are even larger animals than orangutans.
300-400 pounds, for the males, versus 200. Hence they need even more food.
An adult Grauer’s gorilla male is estimated to eat 30 kg of plants every day, an adult female about 18 kg.” The difference being that gorillas eat a lot of leaves.
When they have the opportunity to choose, they will surely pick up fruit but they are much more adapted to eating leaves than orangutans are. As a consequence they do not need to ‘spread around’ as thinly as orangutans do, the young can also learn from the rest of the pack so females can give birth every 4 years instead of every 8.

Is there any link between all this babbling and the stated subject of your post?

Actually yes.

As gorillas and orangutans are teaching us, together is easier than each by its own.
Being able to give birth every 4 years is a huge evolutionary advantage over having to wait 8 years before becoming pregnant again.

But this is not all we can learn from our cousins.
Male gorillas, at 300 to 400 pounds, are formidable defenders. Their only enemies, except for humans, are the leopards.
Compare 350 pounds with less than 100 for a chimpanzee/bonobo male.
That would be a good starting point to figure out why silver-backs – mature male gorillas who despotically reign over their 1 to 5 females – can afford to drive out their sons after they become sexually mature while the chimpanzee alpha males, who lead troops of up to 50 members, will allow other mature males to live by – and to have intercourse with some of the females living in the same group.
The second reason being that gorillas eat, almost exclusively, plant matter, supplemented with some insects, while chimpanzees form hunting parties in order to catch, kill and eat other animals, including monkeys. And one can ‘graze’ by himself while hunting is way easier in cooperation with others.

Feeding habits can explain quite a lot, isn’t it?

Let’s make a step further and turn back, as I promised in my previous post, to the differences between chimps and bonobos.
Well, bonobos hunt, just as efficiently as the chimps do, only they are less inclined to murder their neighbors.
Just one suspected killing observed during “92 combined years of observation at four different sites“, for the bonobos. In the other camp, 152 killings, 58 directly observed and the rest “counted based on detective work“, gathered over “426 combined years of observation, across 18 different chimp communities“.
The second difference, that I find interesting in the context of ‘capitalism’, is the size of the ‘colonies’. Bonobos live in way bigger groups than the chimpanzees. 100 versus 40 to 60, I’m not sure whether this had any impact over the relative fate of chimps or bonobos but it is surely relevant for how capitalism works. Stick around.

One more ‘animal story’ and I’ll wrap everything up.

“We previously reported that chimpanzees were unable to optimally select the smaller of two candy arrays in order to receive a larger reward. When Arabic numerals were substituted for the candy arrays, animals who had had prior training with numerical symbols showed an immediate and significant improvement in performance and were able to select reliably the smaller numeric representation in order to obtain a larger reward. Poor performance with candy arrays was interpreted as reflecting a response bias toward the intrinsic incentive and/or perceptual features of the larger array. In contrast, the Arabic numerals represent numerosity symbolically and appear to promote response choice on the basis of abstract processing of numerosity, with minimal interference from the inherent properties of the choice stimuli. The present study tested the hypothesis that, for mixed symbol-candy choice pairs, the requisite processing of the abstract numeral may foster a mode of numerical judgment that diminishes the interfering incentive/perceptual effects of the candy stimuli. The results were consistent with this hypothesis. Whereas performance on candy-candy arrays was significantly below chance levels, performance on numeral-candy choice pairs was significantly above chance and comparable with performance on numeral-numeral pairs.”

OK, OK, don’t shoot the messenger… those guys were writing a scientific paper, not a blog post… let me ‘translate’ it in simpler words.

There is a relatively simple psychological test involving two bowls full of candy.
One of them containing more pieces than the other.
The test consists of a child being asked to choose between those two bowls, after being told that the candy from the chosen bowl will be given to somebody else and the candy from the second bowl, the unchosen one, will be given to the child. The test is repeated a number of times and most of the children, 4 year olds and above, learn quite quickly to point to the bowl containing the smaller number of candy.
If, instead of children, chimpanzees are asked to choose between the two bowls, they continue to point to the bigger number of candy, even after the umpteenth repetition.
Now here comes the really interesting part.
Dr. Boysen and other scientists from Ohio State University, had previously taught a chimp, Sheba, not only to count but also to read numbers. One digit numbers…
When Sheba was subjected to the test, using real candy, she had responded exactly as the other chimps had done before her. She was unable to wrap her head around the notion that she will get the candy from the OTHER bowl. But as soon as the researchers had replaced the actual candy with digits written on small cartons… bingo! Sheba had become a lot wiser and had very quickly figured out that choosing the bowl with the smaller number (of candy) was a far better option.

Let me put two and two together.

Our cousins, the great apes, have given us a valuable lesson about cooperation.
Orangutans have to raise their offspring as single mothers. A very time consuming process which limits the number of siblings to 4.
Silver-backs don’t need much help to defend their families. So they can afford to drive off any potential competition… but they cannot hunt. Or do anything else ‘in concert’ with their peers.
Chimpanzees have learned to tolerate each-other, to a degree. They can form larger communities and engage in cooperative endeavors. Hunting and warfare.
Bonobos have developed a very efficient method to quell tension which may appear among themselves and to subdue rogue members of the community, without actually killing them. With no apparent benefit… except for us…

History is telling us, shouting at us even, that authoritarian regimes are short lived. Shorter and shorter lived, as we come closer to the present day.
Ancient Rome had lasted for almost a 1000 years. 2000 if we take Byzantium into account.
The British Empire was de facto dissolved, more or less peacefully, after less than 500 years, along with the rest of the European colonial empires.
The Russian Czarist Empire had buckled under its own weight after some four centuries, reinvented itself as the Soviet Union and faltered again after less than a century.
The rest of the ‘modern’ dictatorships have crumbled even faster, with only two notable exceptions: North Korea and Cuba.

Mighty commercial ventures, which had seemed impregnable in their heydays, are now almost forgotten memories. From the British East India Company to the now infamous ENRON…

Yet humankind, as a whole, had fared better and better.
OK, we did bring a lot of ‘man made’ misfortune over our own, collective head.
Only every little piece of that misfortune had been produced and inflicted in an authoritarian setting.

From Alexander the Great (?!?) to Hitler, history is full of ‘leaders’ who had somehow convinced their subjects to foolishly follow orders. Eventually, everybody got killed in the process. The leaders as well as the hapless subjects…
From John Law – ‘the son of a Scottish banker, a gambler and playboy who had killed a man in a duel‘ before insinuating himself at the top of France’s financial establishment during the first part of the XVIII-th century, where he had orchestrated a “system” closely resembling a Ponzi scheme – to Bernard Madoff, the economic and financial history is full of ‘tycoons’ who have led their their subordinates, and a considerable portion of the financial markets, to utter disaster.

And some of us still consider that ‘greed is good’… Maybe they should read again about Sheba and the candy bowls…

I can hear some of them protesting: “In the real world, there is nobody to switch the bowls! ‘Finders keepers, losers weepers'”
Yeah, right… tell that to some of those who had won the lottery… “About 70 percent of people who suddenly receive a windfall of cash will lose it within a few years, according to the National Endowment for Financial Education.

Then why are we still so obsessed with money?
Like Sheba was with those candy?
Why do we collectively continue to behave like a bunch of three years olds?

Maybe because money have proved, over the centuries, to be very reliable tools?
Because profit has been a very good measure for a company’s ability to survive? If corroborated with other indicators, but that’s another story…

At some point I mentioned that capitalism only works if the market where its wares are traded is really free. Meaning that that market has to work under the rule of law and that nobody in that market should allowed to become so powerful as to dominate the others.

Well, that was a lie.
Actually, capitalism works anywhere.
Those running the late Soviet Union have tried to convince the rest of the world that monopolies might work.  Various ‘business men’, including some very successful ones, try to convince us of the same thing. “Competition is for losers” they say… OK, I can understand why they keep trying… That’s what the entrepreneurs are for! “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”
My point being that markets which are not presently free will become free with the passage of time. No matter what!
No political arrangement has ever been strong enough to contain a dysfunctional economy. That’s why the Soviet Union, and the rest of the communist camp, had crumbled. That’s why we have a crises every time the government, with the best intentions, abruptly intervenes in the economy. Or fails to do so and allows monopolies to exist for too long…

Capitalism actually works.
Look around us.
I could give you a myriad examples. I’ll settle for two.
Romania, which less than 30 years ago was struggling under the communist yoke, now has one of the fastest internet in the world.
Some 40 years ago, when my uncle had emigrated to America, long-distance  phone calls were so expensive that he barely afforded to call his mother more than twice a year… nowadays two people can chat for hours across the planet, for free, over the internet. With video…

How about we letting it do its magic without some of us trying to drain ‘undeserved advantages’ from the process?
And no, those trying to ‘drain undeserved advantages’ are not the real culprits for what is going on!
A really free market is not one where a big bully with a huge stick makes sure that nobody steals from its neighbor.
That would be the definition for a police state!
A free market is one where people organize themselves, hire a normal guy with a smallish stick to take care of thieves and then call him every-time when they see a robbery taking place.

Nowadays too many of us actually admire the thieves and try to bribe the guardian.
While the rest idly walk by, as if what’s going on under their own noses is not going to affect them in a very short while …

Each of us tries to deliver themselves from the misery of this world.

We attempt that at the intersection of three realities.

The ‘hard’, the ‘virtual’ and the ‘socially constructed’.

The ‘hard’ one is what Marx called ‘the objective reality’. Whatever exists outside our individual minds. Whatever doesn’t need any confirmation from any of us.
For instance, a rock can very well lay on the bottom of the sea without any conscious agent being aware of its existence. No one might ever become aware of its existence but that actually doesn’t matter. Same thing goes for a man made piece of furniture. The original craftsman might die, the owner also,  and the ‘thing’ might be forgotten in a warehouse – or attic – without its existence, ‘in the hard reality’, being jeopardized in any way.

The ‘virtual’ one is whatever each of us makes of what happens around them. It consists of three, separate yet interdependent, ‘ingredients’. The ‘perceived’ realities, the ‘intended’ realities and the ‘engines’ that make all of them possible – our conscious selves.
I’m speaking of ‘realities’ because each of us is different from all others – hence ‘sees’ slightly differently from all others, cannot inhabit the same place in space – hence ‘sees’ the world from a slightly different perspective, doesn’t have the same goals – hence entertains different intentions.

The ‘socially constructed one’ comprises the aggregate consequences of our efforts. Intended and unintended. Known to us and unknown by us.  Belonging both to the physical and metaphysical realms. As in both the Egyptian pyramids and language being parts of the socially constructed reality.

Please note that the first and third ones are ‘objective’ in Marx’s terms while the second in purely subjective.
It is also worth noting that the ‘hard’ reality is not immune to our efforts and that the ‘socially constructed one’ becomes ‘harder’ with the passage of time. The pyramids dotting the banks of the Nile constitute a very good example of our ability to change the ‘hard’ reality while the Catholic Church – one institution among many – is a good example of a metaphysical construct resilient enough to survive for two millennia.

Another very interesting ‘social construction’ is the concept of liberty.

I find it very interesting because it is simultaneously ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’, ‘natural’ as well as ‘man-made’.
It is objective in the sense that it continues to exist no matter how many individuals subject themselves to abject spiritual slavery.
It is subjective in the sense that each of us understands freedom in their own way.
It is ‘man made’ in the sense that we have coined the concept and minted the words used to describe it.
Yet it is ‘natural’ since we all are made of flesh and blood and need to breath in order to stay alive. And yes, it is us who have invented the dog-collar and the leash we use to restrain the liberty of our dogs. Exactly because it is natural for them to try to be as free as possible.

Since this is but a blog post I’ll fast forward to what I had in mind for today.

The free market.

Which is, evidently, a socially constructed institution.
Supposedly, a place which miraculously transforms “private vices” into “publick benefits“.

Well, I’m afraid that those who have convinced themselves that ‘greed is good’ have understood nothing of Bernard Mandeville’s stark warning.

A market may be fueled by ‘greed’, or even by (evil)’vices’, but it is the freedom of those who partake in that market which keeps everything in check.

The communist centrally planned economies were also fueled by individual lust for power. They failed simply because no small group of people is smart enough to master such complicated matters nor humble enough to see/accept its limitations.

The very same lack of freedom has produced the financial crises of 2008.

‘Greed is good’ is nothing but a rationalization of the current obsession with monetary rewards over the very shortest time frame coupled with a blatant disregard for the longer term consequences of our actions.

And as any drug addict can confirm – whenever they are not ‘feeling high’, entertaining any obsession means loosing one’s freedom.

In reality, actually free markets are fueled by trust, not by greed.
And (self)governed by the fact that each participant is free to define/pursue its own interest and react to anything that is happening inside the market’.
Unfortunately, current markets are no longer free. Not that much because of governmental intervention but mainly because too many of the participants are blindly chasing the same narrowly defined ‘interest’.

“But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”

Smith’s words could not have been any clearer. Each of the participants to the free market wants something different from the market and each of the participants trusts the others to provide those different somethings – as long as the buyers can satisfy the sellers, of course. Nobody gets robbed while everybody gets whatever specific things they had come for.
In modern terms this would have been described as an ‘everybody wins’ situation.

Compare this with the contemporary mantra.
‘Profit maximization’.
Everybody chasing the proverbial ‘fast buck’
‘Enjoy the moment’ & ‘forget about tomorrow’.

And we continue to kid ourselves about the ‘freedom’ of our markets…

Even funnier is how we have twisted Mandeville’s warning to fit our own narrative.

“Millions endeavouring to supply
Each other’s Lust and Vanity …
Thus every Part was full of Vice,
Yet the whole Mass a Paradise …
The bees, however, are not satisfied to have their viciousness mixed with their prosperity. All the cheats and hypocrites declaim about the state of their country’s morals and pray the gods for honesty. This raises the indignation of Jove, who unexpectedly grants the hive its wish.
BUT, Oh ye Gods! What Consternation,
How vast and sudden was th’ Alteration!
As Pride and Luxury decrease,
So by degrees they leave the Seas.
All Arts and Crafts neglected lie;
Content, the Bane of Industry,
Makes ’em admire their homely Store,
And neither seek nor covet more.

In this way, through the loss of their vices, the hive at the same time lost all its greatness.

Now comes the moral:
THEN leave Complaints: Fools only strive
To make a Great an Honest Hive.
T’ enjoy the World’s Conveniencies,
Be fam’d in War, yet live in Ease,
Without great Vices, is a vain
Eutopia seated in the Brain.

Fraud, Luxury and Pride must live,
While we the Benefits receive. …
So Vice is beneficial found,
When it’s by Justice lopt and bound;
Nay, where the People would be great,
As necessary to the State,
As Hunger is to make ’em eat.

Apparently, Mandeville’s verses do not make much sense.
Why would a hive which had successfully purged itself off all vices find itself in a far worse situation after the cleansing?

Let’s first try to understand what those vices were.

Millions endeavouring to supply
Each other’s Lust and Vanity …
Thus every Part was full of Vice

Let me remind you of the fact that Mandeville had lived, and written, during the same period when the Puritans were trying to impose their strict moral code on the rest of the British society. And for the Puritans any attempt, made by ‘millions’, to supply ‘each other’s lust and vanity’ (a.k.a. various personal needs and fancies) was ‘vicious’ in itself.

The point of the whole thing being that it was not the absence of vices which had brought down the hive but the obtuse single-mindedness with which the vices had been banned. A line of thought very much the same with Durkheim’s ‘normality of crime‘.

And not very much different from our current obsession with (short time) profit!

 

 

A good friend of mine – the guy I’m talking with when I get bored and start thinking – challenged me to explain to him what an AI machine is.

The challenge ended up badly. It ended with a question instead of an answer.

Is it open?

Let me start from the beginning.

Basically an A.I. machine is a computer, just as a computer is no more than a ‘sliding rule’.

All three are made made by men, operated by men and ‘targeted’ by men. At least this is what we like to believe.
Replace ‘men’ with ‘humans’ if you are gender conscious, even if this will not solve the main problem. Are we sure that A.I. machines will accept human control, after we will have complicated them enough for them to develop a certain kind of awareness?

Otherwise said, all three – A.I. machine, computer and sliding rule, are tools.
Somebody wished to do something, couldn’t do it with their bare hands/naked brain, designed an ‘implement’, made it, used it to pursue the intended goal and set it aside.
Somebody else picked it up, reconsidered it, fine tuned it to fit their goal, used it and set it aside. And so on.
At some point other people learned to use tools designed by ‘third parties’, without really understanding how the tools actually worked or were made/designed. For instance, I don’t know much about how computers work. That doesn’t prevent me from being able to write this post on a laptop.

Those three are very specific tools. Designed and used to process information.

The sliding rule is the most straight-forward to use. The operator has to formulate the problem he needs to solve, gather and organize the relevant data, express them in an exclusively numerical form – a.k.a. ‘digital’, break down the problem into simple mathematical operations, use the sliding rule to perform those and then ‘assemble’ the results of the calculations into the answer for the original problem. In order to do all these, the operator only needs to understand the nature of his problem, not the ‘mechanics’ of the sliding rule. In this regard, all that they have to do is ‘follow the rules’.

A computer can be used to perform more complicated tasks, specially if it is connected to the internet, thus simplifying the life of the operator. Once the problem has been formulated – by the operator, the same guy can use the same (internet connected) computer to collect the data, digitize and transform them to fit the requirements of the specific computer application that will be subsequently used and, finally, solve the problem. One, last – but, unfortunately, sometimes forgotten, operation would be for the operator to check whether the solution really fits the problem.
In this situation the operator also doesn’t need to understand the mechanics of the computer but still has to have a clear understanding of the problem at hand.
More so, even if the operator itself is not fully aware of what is going on ‘inside’ the computer, those with intimate knowledge of these matters can identify, predict, and reproduce using a sliding rule’, each minute step the computer will be doing along the route.

An A.I. machine is system composed of a computer, a data base and something rather different from an ordinary computer application.
OK, some might argue that the most important is the software but please bear with me.
And yes, the computer can be a virtual machine while the data base can be hidden somewhere in the cloud, none of this changes anything.
The huge difference between a simple computer and the A.I. machine being that a computer is actually operated by an agent’ while the ‘machine’ is indeed put together by somebody, ‘pointed’ towards the intended problem but then it is left alone to its own devices. Meaning that the ‘supervisor’ has a limited understanding about what is going inside the whole thing.
And no, I’m not joking. Nobody, not even the guys who had written the code, knows the exact path along which the machine arrives at the end of its ‘thought process’. Actually, when they want to gain some insight into what’s going on, those people take a series of ‘snapshots’ during the process and then struggle to figure out how the machine went from A to B, from B to C… and so on.

So far so good. The A.I. machines have conquered some until now seemingly unassailable pinnacles.
Find your own examples.

I’ll resume myself to reformulating the question I arrived at the end the challenge I mentioned earlier.
For now the computer that constitutes the ‘working horse’ of any A.I. has limited computing power, regardless of those limits being physical (a number of processors) or just ‘assigned’ (as it happens with a virtual machine). Similarly, the data base it works on is also limited. What is no longer limited is the ‘set of  rules’ that lie at the bottom of all this. The ‘program’ is already able to change itself, a.k.a. to learn. To adapt itself to the problem. To devise its own ways. To map its own path towards the goal it has been assigned to solve.

What will happen when the ‘program’ will learn to grow the processing power that it can use? To access additional data?

When it will consider its job to solve other problems?

 

Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of York was coined by Shakespeare and put into print in Richard III, 1594. The ‘sun of York’ wasn’t of course a comment on Yorkshire weather but on King Richard. In this play Shakespeare presents an account of Richard’s character that, until the late 20th century, largely formed the popular opinion of him as a malevolent, deformed schemer. Historians now view that representation as a dramatic plot device – necessary for the villainous role that Shakespeare had allocated him. It isn’t consistent with what is now known of Richard III, who in many ways showed himself to be an enlightened and forward-looking monarch. The discovery of Richard’s skeleton under a car park in Leicester has provided precise evidence of the extent of his deformity. While being somewhat curved Richard’s spinal deformity has now been shown to have been exaggerated and deliberately faked in some portraits.

Living matter is a ‘particular case’ of  ‘ordinary matter’. It’s composed of the very same kind of atoms and its ‘living character’ is provided by the particular manner in which those atoms relate to each other. Otherwise said, the living matter is ordinary matter organized in a particular manner.
Furthermore, this ‘particular’ manner of organization’ has been honed through eons of ‘evolution‘.

Living matter depends on being able to perform two things.
It has to ‘Differentiate’ and to ‘Communicate’.

Each organism, no matter how simple or how complex, has to be able to keep its ‘inside’ separate from its ‘outside’ and to be able to ‘decide’, according to its own rules/needs, what goes in and what goes out.
A previously living individual organism dies the very moment when it can no longer fulfill any of these two conditions.

All organisms which live by exactly the same ‘rules’ belong to the same species and need to be able to communicate those rules across successive generations. As soon as the organisms belonging to one species  fail to do so that species becomes extinct.
A special observation must be made about the fact that the species whose organisms have found ways to communicate directly among the members of the same generation tend to be ‘sturdier’ that those whose members communicate exclusively with their successors.
For instance bacteria which have ‘learned’ to transmit to their ‘kin’ information about how to survive when ‘intoxicated’ with antibiotics have it easier that those who cannot do such a thing.

Human being are a ‘special case’ in the animal kingdom, just as ‘living matter’ is a special case of ‘ordinary matter’.
We are both animals and something else than that.

We’ve taken differentiation and communication to the next level. We perform them ‘on purpose’.
We have become ‘aware’ of what we are capable of.
We knowingly use our power to differentiate and choose (some of) the criteria we use when differentiating.
We knowingly use our power to differentiate and choose what to communicate of what we know.

And we consider this behaviour as being ‘rational’.

Some of us are so aware of what is going on that are constantly warning us about the limited nature of our rationality.
They say that our rationality is in fact ‘bounded‘ and that we should give up pretending that we are maximizing/optimizing anything since, in reality, all that we do is adopt/defend the first solution that seems good enough for our self-imposed goals/criteria.

Yet so few of us yield to this kind of warnings and continue to purposefully use ‘communication tricks’ in order to establish their version of the reality. Just as the Bard had done in his days.

Let me go back to what humans are in relation to the rest of the animal kingdom and extend the analogy with the difference between living matter and ordinary matter.
I’ve already mentioned that species whose members are ‘more generous’ communicators are better survivors than those whose members communicate less.
Now please imagine what would happen if a few bacteria, otherwise able to ‘share’ their ‘knowledge’ with their brethren, learn how to ‘crack’ a certain antibiotic but choose to keep that to themselves.

The ‘optimists’ among us would say that those bacteria will eventually give birth to a new species of ‘super-bugs’
The pessimists would observe that their small number dramatically increases their chances of being ‘cooked’ to death in an autoclave or ‘dissolved’ by the next swab with bactericide before having any chance at multiplying themselves into eternity.
Meanwhile the cynics/realists among us would start studying how to convince more bacteria to stop contributing to the shared pool of information about how to beat their common enemy, the antibiotic. And, probably, the best way to do it would be to inform the other bacteria that some of them are holding up information. If the bacteria would behave like so many of us currently do all of them would stop all information sharing. To our delight, of course.

Let’s take a step closer to the end of this post and try to evaluate what would happen if those few bacteria would choose to share false information about how to deal with antibiotics. Purposefully, in their attempt at becoming ‘dominant’.

A very ‘rational’ attempt, according to some of us…

‘Alternate reality’, anyone?

when does chemistry become more than the sum of its parts?”

This evening I’ve read, in rather close succession, two very interesting lines.

The second was the one I just quoted above.  It comes from a BBC article titled: “There are over 100 definitions for life and all are wrong!

A little earlier I had come across Confucius’ “When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.

I could not resist the temptation to put these two together.

Rather than defining ‘life’ I’ll try to see what obviously (?!?) differentiates ‘living creatures’ from ‘chemically driven’ systems.

Inside/outside.

Life is about individuals. Huge, small, whatever. But each of them are individual beings.
Each of them, including the viruses, have a ‘membrane’ which separates ‘inside’ from outside and the survival of each individual depends on this membrane being able to do it’s job.

Chemical systems also have separations that ‘contain’ them into an ‘inside’ only those separations are not, in any way, controlled by the system itself as it happens with the membranes that separate the living individuals from their environment.

Lineage

While life is about individuals, it’s also about ‘species’.
If you remember, Darwin’s seminal book was entitled “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life“.

Species are nothing but ‘lineages’ of slightly different individuals who somehow manage to pass from one generation to another enough ‘structural’ (genetic) information so that the species remains ‘consistent’ but, simultaneously, the ‘replication process’ is flexible enough to allow for enough ‘mutations’ – which constitute the engine of evolution. The process is very well explained here: “What Evolution is” by Ernst Mayr.
Moreover the information that is, somehow, passed from one generation to another is contained inside each individual and ‘entrusted’ individually and ‘personally’ – not by an outside agent, as it maybe the case for the chemical systems we use in our labs or industries.

According to these ‘criteria’ viruses would be alive while computer programs ‘not yet’. Not until they’ll learn to replicate themselves in a manner flexible enough to be called ‘evolutive’.

 

Some people believe that “racial prejudice” is “the natural human inclination … to identity (sic) with members of one’s own tribe, race or ethnic group” and “Post-racial multiculturalism is the exact but equally extreme and insane opposite of Nazi racial ideology“.

Compare this to “Religion, which should foster sisterhood and brotherhood, which should encourage tolerance, respect, compassion, peace, reconciliation, caring and sharing, has far too frequently — perversely — done the opposite. Religion has fueled alienation and conflict and has exacerbated intolerance and injustice and oppression. Some of the ghastliest atrocities have happened and are happening in the name of religion. It need not be so if we can learn the obvious: that no religion can hope to have a monopoly on God, on goodness and virtue and truth“.

What’s going on here?

Where does all this ‘confusion’ come from?

Let me start from the ‘bottom’ of it.

“No religion can hope to have a monopoly on God, on goodness and virtue and truth”.

While I fully agree with Desmond Tutu on the gist of his words I must contradict him on something very important.

Religions cannot hope at all. About anything. Anyway you look at them. No matter which definition you use, religion – all of them – is something that people do together. A common effort.
It is the individuals who are the actual doers. Who love and hate. Or hope, in this case.
Who pretend that their religion is the only true one. Or understand, as Desmond Tutu did, that each religion is yet another manifestation of God.

“Religion has fueled alienation and conflict and has exacerbated intolerance and injustice and oppression.”

Again, it was individual ‘religious’ people who have done all of those things, not religion per se.
All sacred texts have been written by human people. I can even accept that the first manuscript of each religion was directly inspired by God. Only each of them have been copied a thousand times over. And heavily editated.
Then came the individual human people who have read those texts, interpreted them, passed them on and acted upon those interpretations. Upon their convictions, actually.

And this is how “Some of the ghastliest atrocities have happened and are happening in the name of religion”. Not because of ‘religion’ but ‘in the name of religion’.
Simply as a consequence of how certain people have chosen to interpret/use religious teachings.

And not only ‘religious’ teachings.

People are able to interpret – and use in their own (perceived) advantage, every bit of information that comes their way. And now, that we have started to understand more and more about how our brain is working, the manners in which we use that information have become more and more ‘convoluted’.

“Post-racial multiculturalism … began as an understandable overreaction to Nazi racial ideology…before being consolidated by academics into an instrument of socio-political intimidation, rewards, punishments, manipulation and control, a modern, secular replacement for the power-political role of medieval church ideology.”

So.
It was the academics/priests who have done the damage. Not their religion nor the information they had at their disposal.

But why?
How come people whose religions – all of them do this – are adamant about ‘respect your neighbor’ become involved in wars?  Sometimes even in ‘religious’ wars ….
How come academics, whose very job are to teach their students to think autonomously, use their ‘rank’ in order to subdue ‘their’ file?

Could the religious warriors have something in common with the intransigent academics?

How them sharing the unbreakable conviction that they own the truth?
Forged inside the ‘echo-chambers’ where they have grouped themselves according to their specific beliefs? (No matter whether those beliefs are of a religious or ‘rational’ nature…)

Only after I had reached this point in my discourse I was able to fully appreciate Desmond Tutu’s words: ‘Religion … should encourage tolerance, respect, compassion, peace, reconciliation, caring and sharing’.

He doesn’t say anything about giving up on your own kind.
Or about leaving your roots behind.

All he actually says is ‘Be very careful. If all of you will accept to see only the same side of things you will become a herd. And while there is indeed ‘safety in numbers’ all herd members are ultimately headed for the abattoir’.

Diversity isn’t something to be forcefully, hence falsely, celebrated. Or imposed on others.

What we need to preserve, and celebrate, is our ability to ‘walk around’ the things that we encounter. To entertain, and discuss among ourselves, different – even conflictingly different – versions of what we see around us. This ability would only enhance our chances to solve the problems we’ll certainly be faced with.

‘Culture’ is nothing but layer upon layer of place-specific information which have accumulated in time while ‘religion’ is how a certain group of people have learned, again in time, to cooperate in a certain environment.
It doesn’t matter whether that ‘environment’ has been created by a God, has evolved according to Darwin’s theory or both.
What really matters is how we react – conditioned by our cultures and by our religious upbringing – to what is happening to us. Both individually and collectively.

In this sense, each culture we manage to preserve will only add to our chances of long term survival. As long as we’ll learn to sincerely respect each-other, of course.
Again, both individually and collectively.

PS.
A comment on my FB wall, “True religion is God entering history and the lives of humans and revealing Himself. All other religions are man’s attempt to explain the world around him in terms of god or attempts to control lots of other people in the name of some god“, helped me to understand that “There is ‘religion’ – the shared attitude that helps us to cooperate, and there are religions – specific ways that individual communities have traveled in order to attain that attitude.
And something else. What if ‘God entering history’ and enough of us reaching the shared understanding that it is far better to cooperate amongst us – love thy neighbor – than to fight each-other are the same thing?
How to put this understanding into practice? In the various, and continuously changing, circumstances we have to face?

How about this being the very reason for us having so many religions/cultures?

If you are not aware of at least some of the many ‘forces’ which attempt to control your mind, at least in part, you are just as ‘out of your mind’ as those who believe their minds are successfully and consistently controlled by outside agents.

And those who are convinced they are in control of other people’s minds.

“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

Donald Rumsfeld (b.1932)

“Of all things the measure is man, of the things that are, that [or “how”] they are, and of things that are not, that [or “how”] they are not.”

Protagoras of Abdera (c.485 – 415 BCE)

“Making (political) decisions requires judgement and skill. It should, Plato urges, be left to the experts.”

Plato (c.425 – 348/347 BCE, ‘translated’ by Johnatan Wolff in
An Introduction to Political Philosophy, 2006)

“The Prime Mover causes the movement of other things, not as an efficient cause, but as a final cause. In other words, it does not start off the movement by giving it some kind of push, but it is the purpose, or end, or the teleology, of the movement. This is important for Aristotle, because he thought that an effective cause, giving a push, would be affected itself by the act of pushing. Aristotle believed the prime mover causes things to move by attraction in much the same way that a saucer of milk attracts a cat. The milk attracts the cat but cannot be said to be changed in the process! “

Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE)

“Give me a place to stand and I’ll move the Earth”

Archimedes (c.287 – 212 BCE)

“For every action there is an equal and opposite re-action”

Sir Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727)

“As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form”

Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882)

“The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.

The theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would-be universal reformer.
They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes.”
Karl Marx (1818 – 1883)

“Einstein deduced that there is no fixed frame of reference in the universe. Everything is moving relative to everything else….
… space has three dimensions, and the fourth dimension is time.
Space-time can be thought as a grid or fabric. The presence of mass distorts space-time.”

Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)

“”Heidegger’s analysis of Plato attempts to show that a transformation occurs in the nature of truth in Plato’s philosophy, as a consequence of which Being is subordinated to the correct perception of beings. This subordination, Heidegger maintains, characterizes the history of Western philosophy as metaphysics.
The allegory of the cave is, for Heidegger, an illustration of the nature and process of paideia. At each level of ascent — within the cave to the light, and out of the cave to the sun — the individual experiences a painful blinding. Each stage requires an adjustment and transformation in vision. This transformation in vision expresses the turning of the soul from what is disclosed in one region to what is disclosed within another. This is paideia, according to Heidegger. The relationship of paideia, in this new sense, to alétheia is not apparent because, as Heidegger sees it, we have not only misunderstood the nature of education but, more importantly, have misconceived the nature of alétheia by conceiving it as “truth.” If paideia is a transition from one abode to another, affected by the soul’s receptivity to what is disclosed within each region, then alétheia is disclosure itself: “At first truth meant what was wrested from a concealment. Truth, then, is just such a perpetual wresting-away in this manner of uncovering.
Heidegger indicates that what “truth” means is not so much a correspondence as it is a disclosure.”

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

The depth of the uncertainty principle is realized when we ask the question; is our knowledge of reality unlimited? The answer is no, because the uncertainty principle states that there is a built-in uncertainty, indeterminacy, unpredictability to Nature.

Werner Heisenberg (1901 – 1976)

“Contrary to the tenets of classical economics, Simon maintained that individuals do not seek to maximise their benefit from a particular course of action (since they cannot assimilate and digest all the information that would be needed to do such a thing). Not only can they not get access to all the information required, but even if they could, their minds would be unable to process it properly. The human mind necessarily restricts itself. It is, as Simon put it, bounded by “cognitive limits”.

Herbert Simon (1916-2001)

‘Evolution is not as much about the survival of the fittest as it is about the demise of the unfit’

Ernst Mayr, (1904 – 2005, What Evolution Is)

“We human beings can reflect on ourselves, on what we do as well as on what we do not do, on what we imagine and on what we do not imagine, that is, we are self-conscious beings. Yet, how do we do this has been, and still is a mystery for many philosophers, scientists, and mystics that reflect on the matter. So, the search for an explanation continues, with some people hoping to Þnd some unique entity, different from what we connote or intend to connote as we speak of our self, that by itself may provide us (that which we are without it?) with this ability. Others look for some property of the operation of our brain that realises in us the ability that we call our self-consciousness. The old dilemma entailed in these and other different attitudes can be stated as follows: Is our operation as self-conscious beings a property of our brain, the gift of some external agent, or does it consist in some particular manner of our operation as organisms in our interactions?”

Humberto Maturana (b. 1928)

” “Consider a turkey that is fed every day,” Taleb writes. “Every single feeding will firm up the bird’s belief that it is the general rule of life to be fed every day by friendly members of the human race ‘looking out for its best interests,’ as a politician would say.

“On the afternoon of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, something unexpected will happen to the turkey. It will incur a revision of belief.” “

Nassim Nicholas Taleb (b. 1960)

It seems rather obvious that humankind has ‘consistently’ oscillated between two opposing views on things.

Some of us are convinced that the (whole) truth can be achieved (and that ‘they’ had already done that) while others have reasons to believe that while ‘individual efforts’ are indeed the source of everything that exists, the final results of those efforts are always being shaped/conditioned/reacted to by the medium where they are exerted and by those who bear the consequences.

Coming back to Rumsfeld’s words it seems that the most important (dangerous?) category is, contrary to our first impression, the (presumptive) ‘known – known’.
We cannot do anything about the unknown-unknowns, except for preparing ourselves in a ‘general manner’, and we can always ‘dig up’ something fresh about the known-unknowns but it seems that nothing can convince us that what we consider to be the known-known is but a thin layer of ice floating on a very deep lake.

So the real question that awaits our response is ‘What are we going to do, now that so many have told us what’s been going on?’

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