Science

My subjective take on issues in and around science. Profiles of interesting scientists, etc. Also, juicy videos of nature, physics, and chemistry, etc.

Our Predicament, Ourselves: Culture

The most meaningful things in people’s lives are non-physical: Home, Love, Family, Country & Culture. It’s a common, clichéd thought that human cultural comfort zones mean nothing in raw nature, isolated on a desert island, etc. with the implicit idea that they never meant anything in the first place since they don’t function while clinging to a flotation ring mid-ocean. It simply means that without the context of other human beings, the abstract human operational matrix collapses. It only operates on the shoulders of the collective. This is no different than a tiger alone in a zoo, losing “the meaning” of his system, or an ant without her hive, having no role anywhere. Tigers, ants, and humans are all-natural and are all equally expressing nature from within their correct context.

Cultures start with small communities, deeply intermarried and inter-related. They aligned their behavioral styles as all people do, giving and taking cues, mirroring and mutually attuning their similarities and preferences into a group personal style. A culture grows up around them, a community “self-ness”, hard to pigeonhole but instantly recognizable to those who share it. Like all emergent things, it opens upward, from below. That culture then reinforces itself as the medium of reality itself for the next generation and the next and the next. Within any culture, sexual selection will reflect cultural styles, biologically reinforcing those traits and values. That culture becomes a nutritious growth medium for people who fit the template and a harsh desert for those that don’t. This is the way nature and nurture work seamlessly together, creating a people and their culture.

The cultural matrix actively weaves a future consistent with the past. Continuity is survival.

Culture is the identity and reality box around us. If you scooped up everybody in Mexico and Sweden and swapped them into each other’s countries, instantly the state called Mexico would be acting like Sweden and the one called Sweden would be acting like Mexico.  Culture is the shared operating system of a discrete, particular population.

And this is where xenophobia arises. That culture, that community is a body. It is a self, made of humans, as bee colonies are made of bees and as animal bodies are made of cells. Just like beehives and cellular colonies, there is a Self/Non-Self border and things recognized as non-self are excluded and attacked.

Culture = Self.

Non-Self equals danger to self. Xenophobia, bigotry, is a natural if unpleasant, gear of the human-machine. It is about preserving self as understood by the agents present on the scene. And within every culture, this “hackles up” response is in play and expressed as a range of “appropriate” levels of response. An individual who is an extreme bigot defines one end of the range, and a “celebrate diversity” person is at the other. The density and intensity of each type and the range in between is the immune system for that culture fighting against change from outside. Every occurrence of racism and bigotry is essentially an immune system response. But so are acts of acceptance and tolerance, both are aspects of one system. The system is amoral. It is neither right nor wrong. It simply is. It is a filtration system that is supposed to keep out bad things and allow through good things. And because this human trait is global we can say it is part of the Human Operating System.

Consider this immune system of cultural self: 

  • War: The “angried up”, activated cultural immune system in wartime, when the enemy is demonized. We use words and pictures that are comparable on our level to the chemical signals hive insects generate to become worked up and furious enough, so as to go to war. Words and symbols are the pheromones and chemical triggers of humanity.
  • Authoritarian purity oppression: Cultural purges based on a scaled-up sensitivity to how completely each individual reflects a “pure” image of the cultural ideal. Purity madness is like autoimmune disorders, like an allergy attacking normal tissue after deciding it doesn’t pass the test for self. Familiar examples are America during McCarthyism, the Chinese “cultural revolution”, Cambodia under Pol Pot, the French revolution and of course the perennial favorites, Nazis.
  • Racial and cultural outsiders: Individuals of disliked subgroups in a culture often create a more culturally acceptable facade though a kind of mimicry: think of “passing for white”, of homosexuals closeting themselves and Greenberg becoming “Green”. This is an attempt to elude the virtual “white blood cells” of the surrounding culture’s immune system.

This isn’t an attempt to justify “racism”, on the horrible off chance that it appears that way, it’s an attempt to understand it. It is an innate part of the human operating system, its roots are sunk irretrievably into the existence of culture itself. You don’t have a culture without it.

Sometimes a tautology is true: Cultures defend themselves because we are the kind of animal that builds cultures that defend themselves.

If I was philosophizing here, this big juicy tautology would make my ideas cancel each other out. But this isn’t philosophy, this is simply observing the species strategy of the human race, which has many, many parallels throughout nature. Is this scientific? No, not really, because it can’t be tested. Among other things, because you could not find a control group that would behave DIFFERENTLY.

Consider the profound NEED of people to fit within the “old shoe”comfort of their own culture: That every individual of an immigrant group to the United States lands here like a molecule of water and instantly seeks to be absorbed into the larger droplet of its own kind. There is a “surface tension” around a culture, a membrane of likeness that filters out strangers and limits blending. We often blame the larger culture for its hostility to strangers as the force that drives the creation of “Chinatown”, “little Italy” “the ex-pat community”,”the Jewish quarter” “the African American neighborhood”.  Naturally, the surrounding culture plays a push-back part in this but its actions just mirror the drive in the hearts of every member of all of these communities to be HOME. To be in the comfort of their own. And if any of these cultures was suddenly the larger, surrounding one, it would be just as much the dominant filter against outsiders, against change.

Racism was a useful term during the historical civil rights era as a large part of the cultural body demanded a kinder and fairer system. And it worked in several ways, forcing more fairness at large and shaming the most virulent racists into watching their language in public and the less obvious ones into an unusual “reverse” instance of the cultural mimicry way of blending in described above. Now some people who had never felt “outside” before had to “pass for nice” in order to stay inside. But I really think we need to examine the word racism and decide whether it serves our purposes and fits a hole in the puzzle. Scientists agree that race is a concept without foundation. There is no race, just various densities of genes being expressed by the descendants of earlier inhabitants. beyond that, the differences are about culture.

Not all culture exists as one homogeneous bubble enclosing all the members of a group. There are often building block sub-cultures cultures within the larger culture. At times they get along and work together at other times they fission and the bubble breaks, like the north-south civil war divide. Consider that poisonous split and how the repairs that followed made only a weak cobbled together join that today is very fragile. The big, ugly, and loose Frankenstein sutures holding that wound together seem to impede the natural motion of both northern and southern cultures. It’s more like two prisoners cuffed together.

Consider the carving up of tribes and nation-states in ways that lead to perpetual wars because an artificial border was drawn through a culture cutting in half or forcing it to mix with another.  When European leaders drew those famous “lines in the sand” for their own convenience a hundred years ago forcing middle eastern tribal communities into artificial states filled with tribes they hated, I doubt they would expect to find that the entire world would be suffering from that decision today. But that is how important this is.

In different places, people naturally express different degrees of aggressiveness concerning what constitutes not-self. And as the world grows more populated and complex and mobile this question grows likewise, more complex. We have to become more intelligent about what constitutes important non-self danger and what is something different, yet acceptable. Within a culture, each edge of the non-self sensitivity scale thinks it is correct but at the macro level it’s simply the outside edge of the algorithm: “How open is this hive to outsiders?”

And to different degrees, cultures behave competitively, seeking to establish dominance over the other corporate beings. As usual, Nazism raises its hand to answer as an example. This was a truly virulent culture, acting as a body to literally erase all not-self from existence. Genghis Khan was another kind of virulence, a fast-moving cultural plague of violent unification.

Each group of human beings together will self organize a social matrix within a cultural framework. This is the reason that worldwide “traditional family values” is a strong meme, it’s about strong building blocks making a strong whole. It’s about guaranteeing a stable, recognizably consistent culture in the future.

I heard someone talking about the enormous range of human cultures and I thought: Looked at from our level with our human brain, cultures can seem very different. In fact, the differences are almost all that we DO notice. From the Macroscopic level, all these different cultures display a relatively similar structure and nature. If we are a hive species (and yes we are) you could expect to find meaningful correspondences between us and other creatures who live in hives. For example, ants have absolutely predictable castes: “Queen”(ovary), soldiers, workers (including sub-types like building and repair, larva care, food gathering, etc.) and princesses and drones.

There are corresponding roles found in all human cultures of a comparable scale. 

  • Leader & Senators
  • Aristocracy/captains of industry
  • Papa/priest/clergy
  • Warrior caste: Generals & Soldiers
  • Workers/ peasants/ serfs
  • Age extremes – the elderly and the young and their caregivers

The intensity and size of these roles can be turned up or down in importance and sometimes the leader may be a Pope or General and the senators can be soldiers or clergy (or captains of industry). Or the leader may be virtually all-powerful with a rubber stamp senate or the leader may be a simple counterbalance to the senate. But these core elements are in the DNA of all comparably leveled cultures. The fact that past a certain population density these structures ALWAYS occur is a red flag. This is part of who humans are. This is something we create without even seeing our personal role.

The differences between cultures are almost thematic: A question of different dominant notes such as religion, money, or military; authority or autonomy. Since cultures are composite individuals, these themes are their individual strategies competing for power. It as if a hundred massive giants were encamped on the earth, uneasily watching their neighbors and negotiating with the subtlety of a playground mob.

Nothing I’ve described is my philosophy or my politics, nothing is about how I want things to be. I am advocating understanding our natural behavior. Natural doesn’t mean good, it means demonstrably obvious:  Factual. Our automatic behaviors are as natural as bird’s nests. They are evolution’s answer for preserving and maintaining our species and they are a deadly trap endangering our future. I believe the only way out is the way through and the only way through is the pathway of truth. Everything else dead ends in falsehood. Until we understand how our species works we will never pull the right handle when trying to correct our course.

If Human ethology is to do us any good it mustn’t be enslaved to the demands of any particular culture, it must throw light on all of us and consider standards of common accountability for human behavior. It must be a liberating perspective that holds on to compassion and humor. We must grow wise, sophisticated and patient. We must outgrow our weaknesses. We have long miles to go with everything at stake.

 

 

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The “binding problem” is the question of how our various senses blend and synthesize into a smooth, unified flow. Nobody knows how right now. Francis Crick came up with the 40 hertz synchronization theory to explain the biological causes of consciousness but it seems very empty and thin. And unlikely.

All neurons process something. So at some level, each neuron is an experience and in a tiny way, an experiencer. We know different areas of the brain specialize in different areas and kinds of processing but these areas are not simple lumps of processing material, they are massed armies of neurons …gigantic rock concert crowds talking to each other and responding to the show on stage in front of them. When the band yells out “Hello Cleveland!” and the crowd roars back…it becomes like a single entity, made of millions.

The mistake we make in imagining neurons is seeing them as essentially passive wiring that signals are flowing along like an old telegraph or telephone system with a caller at one end and a receiver at the other. In reality, that level of transmission doesn’t require anything like the amount of neuronal population and activity we have going on. The information coming into the system has to be batch processed, and blended with information from other “departments” to derive the basic picture/sound/smell combination and this has to be refreshed at a rate that feels instantaneous and flowing to the observer. But that’s just organizing the core feed into coherent sensory information. That raw feed has to be examined for context, meaning and nuance constantly while not flooding and overwhelming the human thinking their thoughts, doing their chores, socializing and planning. This is an astounding feat especially since that same brain is the one thinking those thoughts, doing those chores, planning and socializing. Continue reading

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A weird, related thought: Millions of years ago trees lived and died. But their fallen bodies never decomposed because no life form existed who could make a living out of breaking down wood. In the nick of time (I made that part up) a hero arose who could feed on the cellulose and lignin, converting those into their softer tissues, which in turn begin to decompose when the fungal fruiting bodies die. Hail to thee, Fungi; you saved us from the deadly pile of wood!

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This concept is one of the foundations of what I want to say and I have to succeed in explaining it or much of what follows won’t really be clear. But all by itself, Emergence is a beautiful and fascinating thing and whether or not the rest of my ideas add up, this is a wonderful framework for understanding the world around us. 
 
There are moments in describing it where it seems so simple and straightforward as to be an unnecessary thing to even bring up.  There are other moments of wonder and awe.  Emergence isn’t something I just made up, it’s a technical term from the study of  complex systems. 
 
Complex things are built out of simple things, simple things that gather to a point where something new is revealed by that gathering together. A key point though is that the simple elements individually do not resemble the new thing that exists when they come together. The elements do not suggest the outcome.  

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Within months there have been some remarkable breakthroughs in Biology that I find very exciting.  First, they’ve discovered a second code language in DNA. Top level language controls which proteins are made and the second language which was hidden WITHIN the first one controls turning genes on and off. Amazing. Huge implications. And besides that, this extraordinary study below indicates a genetic version of updates to the knowledge base caused by the life experiences of the animal. This is like experiential Lamarckism. 
 
If this study holds up it’s huge.
  1. Mice were trained to be afraid of the smell of cherry blossoms (I don’t even want to know HOW).
  2. These mice later had litters which had never been exposed to cherry blossom and when they were, they were afraid of it.
  3. These second generation mice later had litters and their children…were afraid of the same smell.

This is obviously not direct alteration of the genetic code, it’s a methylation change called epigenetics. What it amounts to though is a much more powerful means of shaping evolution than sheer randomness, but one that doesn’t rely on some variety of intelligent design.

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