Archives for posts with tag: evolution

Each of us made of a huge, but finite, number of atoms belonging to a few chemical elements, we, humans, are in relative control of a huge, but finite, planet.

As animals – living animals, that is, we need to constantly ‘ingest’ part of our environment and periodically excrete the ‘consequences’ of our metabolism.

As conscious humans we learn. Constantly.
Practically, we ingest information about what is going on around us.
We ‘digest’ it by ‘thinking’ about what concerns us.

Only the more ‘sophisticated’ animals control their bladders and bowels. Hence choosing – according to various criteria, what to do and where to deposit the ‘consequences’ of their metabolism. By doing so they actually increase their chances of survival.

We, as the most sophisticated animal around, have taken a huge step forward. We not only control our excretion, we also control our intake.
Animals – along with plants and fungi, ingest whatever they can from whatever surrounds them at any given time.
We’ve reached the stage where we actually change our environment in order to make it more amenable to our wishes. To our wishes, no longer to our mere necessities.

While the living have started to change the planet long before we evolved into being – by ingesting part of it, digesting it and excreting the consequences of their metabolism, we’ve considerably ‘revved up’ the process.
Simply because of our ability to learn and apply our knowledge towards what we consider to be our goals.

In a sense, we not only ingest our environment in a direct, material, way but also in a ‘virtual’ one. By learning about it we practically ingest it in an ‘informational’ manner. And by implementing our decisions we ‘excrete’ the consequences of our learning.

As I mentioned before, the animals who control their bladders/bowels have experienced increased chances of survival as a consequence of their new – evolutionary speaking, ability.
It is high time for us to learn how to control our imagination/desire in order to achieve the same thing. Regarding to our ability to informationaly ingest and decisionally transform our environment.

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I was arguing yesterday that life, as a biological phenomenon, depends on membranes doing their jobs.
Keeping the inside in, the outside out and managing the transit of substances. Nutrients in and excretions out. For some organisms, their ‘membranes’ also act as a thermo-regulators.

‘Watching’ a membrane in action, one might get the impression that it has been endowed with a certain ‘awareness’. The membrane acts as if it were aware of the differences between its inside and its outside. It recognizes what belongs where and keeps them there. It also recognizes nutrients for what they are – and lets them in, and excretions for what they are – and where they should be.
OK, the membrane does what it does simply because it was ‘pre-programmed’ in a specific way, according to the genetic information each organism has received from its predecessors. There’s nothing supernatural involved here. For what we currently know, anyway…

Watching, as a dispassionate outside observer, the evolutionary process unfolding one might get the impression that life itself has a certain awareness.
‘Rules of life’, read genetic information passed along from one generation to another, are diligently updated to fit the changes in the environment. Nevermind that the whole process is ‘impersonal’, ‘goal-less’ and is fueled by haphazard trial and error, the end result is what we currently consider to be ‘learning’!
That’s what we try to code into our artificially intelligent machines, don’t we?

Further more, recent research points out that individual organisms share information with their brethren.
Bacteria can share antibiotic resistance genes through lateral transfer.
Physarum polycephalum, a unicellular organism, seems to be able to share information already learned when it comes in contact with other members of the species.
Plants “can “talk” in several different ways: via airborne chemicals, soluble compounds exchanged by roots and networks of threadlike fungi“.

Since communication itself is a process which implies the ability to differentiate between a ‘run of the mill’ situation and one special enough to warrant the effort to ‘talk’ about it, I find all these to be compelling arguments for life itself to be considered as implying certain forms of awareness.

According to ‘science’, life is nothing but a process through which (genetic) information is passed, with small alterations, from one generation to another and during which the environment is, however minutely, changed by whatever the living organisms do during their lifespans.

‘Individually’ – organism by organism, life takes place inside a ‘membrane’. Which you might call it ‘skin’, if you like.
That membrane separates the ‘inside’ – the living organism, from the ‘outside’ – otherwise known as the ‘environment’.
Each individual organism continues to be alive for as long as the membrane manages to keep the inside in, the outside out AND to properly regulate the exchanges between the inside and the outside.
This being the moment when we need to remember that each living organism needs to eat, to drink, to breathe and to excrete. Meaning that it needs a more or less continuous flow of certain substances from the outside and to periodically clean itself. And the moment to understand that each organism continuously changes its environment. By incorporating some of it while feeding/breathing and by ‘polluting’ it when ‘throwing out’ the by-products of its metabolism.

For all the activity above to take place, each individual organism needs to follow some ‘rules’. It’s ‘membrane’ needs to ‘know’ which substances to allow in and which to keep out. Which substances to throw out and which to keep it.
To perform all these duties, the membrane itself needs to be organized in a certain manner. For all to happen as it should, the ‘interior’ has to be organized in a certain – and specific, manner.

On the other hand, for any (set of) rule(s) to make sense, it has to be congruent to the situation it ‘attempts’ to manage. For instance, the rule about what substances are to be ‘allowed in’ has to be adapted both to the specific needs of the organism following it AND to what substances are available in the particular environment in which that organism attempts to survive/thrive.
Since the environment in which the living process attempts to take place is subjected to continuous change – both as a consequence of organisms living in it and as happenstance happening, the ‘rules of life’ cannot be ‘set in stone’.
For life to continue in a consistent manner, it has to preserve its rules while for life to survive in an ever-changing environment it has to adapt its rules to fit the changes in the environment.
This being where evolution takes charge.

That’s why the life we’re familiar with, ours, is comprised of successive generations of many individual organisms which somehow pass genetic information (rules of life) from one another. The fundamental ‘trick’ which makes everything possible being that during the ‘passing’ process the genetic information is slightly altered.
Sometimes with beneficial results – those individuals thrive and, eventually, new species appear. Other times, the results are tragic. The individuals which receive bad – read unfit, rules of life do not survive.
Equally tragic is the fate of those species, otherwise ‘successful’ until that moment, which, at some point, are confronted by so momentous changes in their environment that they are no longer able to adapt. Dinosaurs are the first examples which come to my mind but the list is so long that we’ll never learn about all of them.

A pessimist might conclude that life is all about species and that individuals are expandable.
Au contraire, mon cher ami. Since there’s no way in hell – or in heaven, for anybody to know which individual organism has that particular piece of information which will enable their successors to survive the next alteration in the environment it would be rather dense to consider any individual as being expandable. In fact, it was the ‘individualization’ of the living process that made possible the evolutionary process.

Life is about both individuals and species, simultaneously and with equal importance.

“….a combination of Gnostic Christianity, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and various other elements, with a basic doctrine of a conflict between light and dark…..”

And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil”  Genesis 3:22

Light and Dark, Good and Evil… sets of two different things which exist by themselves but make no sense until somebody sees the difference between them.

A wall has two sides.
A room – four walls with a floor and a roof, determines an inside and an outside. Because the walls have two sides and because somebody built it.
A room is empty when nobody is inside it and ‘disappears’ when nobody remembers its existence. Even if its walls continue to stand …

Two points are distinct if there is some space between them.
Two points belong to the same line if the distance between them is full of other points.

Matter is discrete.
Even atoms, which have long been considered as impossible to be divided further, are constituted of smaller components. Electrons, protons, neutrons, … quarks… all the way ‘down’ to quanta …
All this discreteness is made possible by space.
Which simultaneously encompasses each of the discrete pieces of matter and separates them.

On the other hand, matter is discrete in yet another manner. In time.
Manny trees live longer than us and mountains last way longer than trees.
Yet nothing is forever. Nor have existed for always. Not our Sun nor even the small pieces which inhabit the subatomic world.
Each piece of everything comes into existence and decays into oblivion.
Each organism is born into this world and eventually dies – releasing its components for further use.
All this discrete becoming being made possible by time.
Which simultaneously encompasses and separates each event.

Similarly to the aforementioned room, neither matter, space or time makes any sense on its own. Not even together.
They might exist but they have no significance until noticed.

By us, by God…

Human nature has evolved considerably since we’ve climbed down the proverbial tree/been made in His own image.
Some of our ancestors used to eat their fellow human beings/the first brother had killed his sibling for profit while a sizeable proportion of the present humankind governs itself in a democratic manner.
No individual has ever been able to change, by themself, the human nature. Time and time again, this has been attempted in vain. Plato, Napoleon, Marx, Lenin, Hitler, Stalin…
Yet each of us can change their own persona. This is what Buddha and Jesus have been successfully teaching us.
This is how we’ve figured out that eating our brother might satiate our hunger for the time being but will never solve the problem. Feeding ourselves for the long run demands cooperation. It cannot be achieved through mindless/cut-throat competition.
As long as more and more of us understand this, we’ll have a fighting chance to survive. As a species.

According to various theories, history is cyclical.
Meaning that we keep doing more or less the same things – or ‘errors’, until we figure them out for what they are.
And then we do them again, under a different guise…

“In China, people must use identity documents for train travel. This rule works to prevent people with excessive debt from using high-speed trains, and limit the movement of religious minorities who have had identity documents confiscated and can wait years to get a valid passport.

While this is the first time Chinese officials have used glasses to implement facial-recognition, the technology is widely used by police. China is also currently building a system that will recognize any of its 1.3 billion citizens in three seconds.”

We’ve spent most of our previously mentioned history living in closely knit and relatively small communities.
We made huge ‘progress’ during that time.
The period had started when we had climbed down from our ancestral tree – or had been made by God, take your pick, and had ended – for most of us, anyway, when we had moved to what we presently call ‘cities’.

Win some, loose some.

Apparently, ‘city-slickers’ are more ‘advanced’ than their rural cousins.
More people living together allows for a deeper division of labour, hence a higher specialization. Productivity increases faster and accumulated knowledge becomes simultaneously deeper and wider.
Unfortunately, all these come at a cost. At first for the individuals and, ultimately, for the society at large.

Living in smallish, and necessarily closer knit, groups provides a lot of ‘natural’ social solidarity. Individuals feel that they belong somewhere and, by sheer necessity, give relatively much to the community. Effort as well as attention.
Lost in the city‘, individuals are simultaneously freer to experiment/innovate and also more prone to growing alienated. So alienated as to become a danger to themselves and/or to those living around them.

On the other hand, small communities, where everybody knows everybody else, necessarily generate a lot of social conformity.
Individuals enjoy a lot of (relative) security and psychological comfort but don’t have very much lee-way.
Innovation, technological as well as social, is slower in this circumstances.
It took us some 130,000 years to ‘invent’ speech, another 65,000 to ‘invent’ writing and then, after no more than 6 short millennia we invented the printing press.
Less than another 6 centuries later we have the Internet.

Writing was invented by the Assyrians – an ‘imperial’ people who lived in cities and who needed a ‘technology’ to keep track of taxes due on the commercial trades which sustained the whole civilization.
Basically the same thing was repeated in many other places. Ancient Egypt, Ancient China, etc.
Written records and favorable geography had allowed the imperial administrations to control relatively vast tracts of land, relatively huge amounts of people and marshal considerable resources to whatever goals considered worthy by those who controlled the flow of information.
Writing down ones thoughts/discoveries also made it possible for humankind to better store its knowledge about everything. ‘Hard copies’ travel better through time than oral traditions.

Until something went wrong.
We all know that all those ancient ‘imperiums’ had crumbled, despite having been the most advanced civilizations of their times.
Other, more nimble, competitors were able to outmaneuver the older behemoths.
Maybe because the old behemoths had exercised too much social control?
‘Written’ central administration was able to marshal enough resources for the ruler to be able to impose stiffer rules towards his own personal safety. The most immediate consequence being that increased social conformity stifled innovation and, hence, created the conditions for the others to catch up, outmaneuver and eventually leave the behemoths behind…

The printing press had a relatively smaller impact than the mere pen.
OK, information was more readily available to those who wished to learn – hence the boost in science and technology, but was ‘useless’ as a ‘coercive tool’. It doesn’t make much difference to someone who wants to control a system whether the information used to do such thing is hand written or ‘pressed’. The small number of ‘insiders’ need to keep that information under tight control so…

The latest ‘gizmo’, the internet, is a totally different development than the printing press.
While the latter is unidirectional – from the author to the wide public, the former goes both ways with equal ease.

Each of us can, almost instantly, become a ‘shooting star’ and, simultaneously, all of us can be monitored by whom ever has the necessary means.

As if we’ve backtracked to a ‘Global Village‘.
In more ways than one.

In a traditional village, everybody knows more or less everything there is to be known about everybody else.
In the Global Village everybody can learn considerable amounts of information about almost anybody worth following while those with enough means can learn almost everything about everybody. Then analyze that information to whatever depth they are able to.  And store it for as long as they find any use for it.

Darwin had wrote “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection“.
Some of us had mistakenly understood ‘evolution’ as being a ‘fight for survival’.
‘Fight’ as in ‘kill/subdue all those around you’, not ‘strive to improve yourself’, unfortunately.

Ernst Mayr had put things right. ‘Evolution is not about the survival of the fittest but about the demise of the unfit.

Adam Smith, a philosopher, had explained to us that free market capitalism functions because ‘the butcher, the brewer and the baker‘ cooperate across their respective ‘professions’, fully understanding that by respecting each-others work each of them would better serve their individual interests than by struggling individually.
Unfortunately too many of his contemporaries, and some later exegetes, mistook Smith’s words as meaning that ‘Greed is Good’.
And proceeded accordingly. Which was just another ‘application’ of Gresham’s Law. The ‘greedier’ among the capitalists slowly climbed to a dominant position and created a situation later described as ‘savage capitalism.’
Since people have a tendency to over-react, and to make matters worse instead of solving the problem, Karl Marx came up with an even more stupid idea than ‘Greed is Good’. According to him, the world should be run, in an equally authoritative manner, by a different class of people. Not by the ‘greedy capitalists’ but by the ‘virtuous communists’.
As if there ever was any real difference between dictators…

Almost a century later than Smith, Emil Durkheim, a sociologist, revisited the concept of ‘cooperation’ – from another angle, and demonstrated that society had leaped forward when each of its members developed his/hers particular talents instead of toiling together indiscriminately.  And then traded, on the free market, the results of their efforts. Nothing really new, just told in a different manner.
A marked difference from the ‘rantings’ of Marx. Who, by the way, had assessed the situation perfectly. Which makes it all the more baffling the fact that he was able to propose such aberrant remedies.

Almost simultaneously with Durkheim, another guy had noticed two very interesting things.  After a successful career as an engineer Vilfredo Pareto had started to study economics. Then he turned his attention to sociology. As an economist he had noticed the Pareto Principle – 80% of the results (income) are produced by 20% of the causes (agents), while as a sociologist he discovered that whenever social mobility, upwards as well as downwards, is hampered, the society where this happens will, sooner rather than later, experience serious difficulties. In fact this observation is quite straightforward. Whenever young people from the ‘lower strata’ cannot accede, despite being better qualified and harder working, to more meaningful positions because those positions are ‘safeguarded’ for members belonging to the ruling minority, the people from the lower strata stop striving while those from the ruling minority become lazy and careless. The recipe for disaster, don’t you think?
If we put both Pareto’s observations together we discover something similar to Smith’s budding concept of a free market. Whenever an individual, or a group of individuals, become so powerful as to dwarf those around them, economically as well as politically, the free market, economically as well as socially, stops working.

That’s why all monopolies have never failed to collapse.
That’s why all authoritarian regimes, including those built according to Marx’s rantings, have eventually failed – causing great harm to those fool enough to believe in them.

That’s why dinosaurs had disappeared – they had grown too big for their own good.
They behaved as if they were ‘greedy’. They seemed more interested in dominating the world instead of minding their own business.
Fishes – which are older than dinosaurs – survived and thrived.
Crocodiles, alligators, turtles, tortoises, snakes and you name whatever other reptiles come to your mind have survived the same conditions that have cut the mighty dinosaurs down to size.

That’s why Mayr goes on warning us. ‘Evolution is not about the survival of the fittest but about the demise of the unfit.

Let’s not destroy ourselves, as a species, attempting to prove him wrong.

Update
Pareto’s elite theory is rather straightforward.
As soon as a society ‘grinds to a halt’ tension starts to build up. A ‘lion’ – or a coalition of lions, will sooner or later seize the opportunity and ‘make a grab for it’.
By tearing the calcified sinews which tied the society down the lions actions unleash – for the moment, at least, the creative forces that could not assert themselves. Things become markedly better than they used to be.
Because the lions are ‘lazy’ they soon hire ‘foxes’ to run the show. Unfortunately the foxes tend to be rather narrow minded and soon their narrow-mindedness coupled with the decrepitude of the lion ‘in charge’ bring back the society to the original – aka bogged down, situation.
A younger lion/fresh coalition of lions restarts the cycle.
Basically we have the definition of the boom-bust cycle.
A very compelling example would be the manner in which communist states had crumbled under their own weight. Or the manner in which all monopolies – or even companies in dominant positions, eventually screw up. The automobile industry – a mature economic field, would be a very good example for this.
Nothing dramatically different from Schumpeter’s ideas, albeit at a different scale.
Ideally, in a free (aka fully functional) ‘market’ there are a number of lions which keep each-other at bay and a big enough number of foxes to keep the show together. The lions, acting in concert, make sure that the foxes do not take over while the foxes prevent the lions from driving the whole thing over the cliff.
If the circulation of the elites is hampered, in any way, shape or form, the continuous/evolutionary social and economical fine tuning no longer works and the society reverts to the boom-bust cycle.
A really free market would closely resemble Darwin’s, or more exactly Mayr’s, evolution while the present situation is one where the circulation of the elites has been brought almost to a halt.
The whole process tends to be rather ‘circular’. As in a vicious circle.
Or a virtuous one. As it used to be, until very recently.

NB. This blog is more like a collection of notes than anything else.
I write them down because doing this streamlines my thinking process and I make them public because readers’ feed-back (mostly on FB) is very helpful.

donald-trump-grab-them-by-the-pussy-cartoon

Or is it the (unforeseen?) consequence of some very ‘intelligent design‘?

ouroboros

Ever since people have become aware of their own awareness philosophers have entertained opposing views as to what is more important: matter or soul.

The materialists point out that everything, including us, is made of matter and, hence, nothing would be possible without it while the idealists maintain that everything that exists is nothing but a projection of our own thoughts.

As an engineer who had designed (material) objects before actually building them I find it strangely rewarding that both these fiercely opposing sides are, simultaneously, right.

Just as we are simultaneously made of flesh and animated by souls.

If you disagree, just pinch yourself.
Now tell me, ‘did it hurt?’.
Who felt it? Your flesh or your soul?
And who’s able to meditate about the whole experience? How come are we not only able to feel things but also to think about them? Then to communicate, efficiently, among ourselves about our relatively different experiences?
Surely, there must be something shared amongst us, something that constitutes not only a medium for our communication but also a common base for our experiences.

I’m going to use ‘reality’ to designate that commonality, irrespective of the fact that reality is a two tiered thing.

A material reality, something that exists per se – according to its own, natural, set of laws, and a social reality, something that we, the people, have agreed upon – either willingly or by omission to protest, efficiently, against it.

These two tiers of reality are no longer independent.

In fact they have never been. The social reality has grown, as a bud, ‘on top’ of the material reality. And this has happened according to an opportunity enshrined in the natural laws that govern the very existence of the material reality.

Now, after its birth, social reality has started to alter the material one.
In two ways.
By developing an ever more sophisticated understanding of the inner workings we gradually discover inside the material realm and, subsequently, by using various aspects of that (inherently limited) understanding in order to effect voluntary change.

I’m going to make a brief pause here.
Social reality is a human construct, one that came to life fueled by our own volition and shaped by the sum of the choices we’ve made during our entire history.
The mere fact that we are also ‘animals’ – and have changed the world around us by our mere, and long time unwitting, existence, is something else. Related to our social existence but nevertheless different from it.

What I’m trying to say is that by coming of age – by becoming aware of our own awareness, we are currently adding a third dimension to that Ouroboros thing.
The ‘serpent’ has been ‘eating its tail’ from the very beginning of the world. New stars have been born from the dust left after the older ones have exploded and decaying organic matter is what used to feed our crops until a few short years ago – and still does for the organic farmers.
But now, that we’ve become aware of the entire process – and of our contribution to it, we are in a position to influence its direction.

We can turn it into a vicious or a virtuous circle.

Which will it be?

who needs what

And please, please, don’t make this confusion.
People do, as for now at least, need ‘nature’ in order to lead what we call/feel to be a normal life.
But nature also somehow needs us. Otherwise it wouldn’t have allowed us to become what we are today.

Until now, during our development, we haven’t broken, not significantly at least, any natural laws. Otherwise we wouldn’t have reached this stage – according to Ernst Mayr’s interpretation of  Darwin’s teachings, anyway.
Evolution is not about the survival of the fittest but about the demise of the unfit.
We’re not dead yet, are we?

Let’s keep it that way, lest we’re gonna be replaced.

Fast.

 

These wrinkly, hairless creatures may help scientists understand more about preventing cancer (Credit: Frans Lanting Studio/Alamy)

Just finished reading an extremelly interesting article in BBC Earth.
I learned that humans, dogs, cats and mice – among many others – do get a lot of cancers while elephants and the rodents depicted above are fairly immune to this disease.

Now, if we remember that humans and mice are the most versatile species on this Earth – we are able to live practically everywhere on the planet, something nobody else can – and that dogs and cats have been bred into a cornucopia of variations could we consider cancer as a cost for our ability to adapt to an extremelly variable environment?

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