October 28, 2008

1. Selling Philosophy and Studying Biology

About a month ago, on a sunny late-summer day, at the start of a new academic year, I set out once again for Harvard, hoping to interest the Philosophy Folks in my new book of aphorisms. More specifically, I planned to visit Harvey Mansfield during his office hours — as I’ve done every few years for the last quarter century. The Harvard website said he was on leave for this academic year, but it also said that he had office hours on Thursdays from 4-6 (such carelessness with details is typical of Harvard). Not knowing what to believe, I decided the only sure way to know was to go there, and see for myself.

As I rode the train to Back Bay, I read Tudge’s Variety of Life. He says there are two ways to save endangered species: captive breeding (breeding in zoos), and habitat preservation. The problem is that a large carnivore, like the Bengal tiger, needs a lot of habitat. A park as big as Manhattan might support only five tigers. But a population of five would become inbred, unhealthy. Tudge says you need a population of 500 to provide genetic diversity, and long-term health. To support such a population, you might need a park 100 times larger than Manhattan. Because of the difficulty of saving species in their natural habitat, Tudge reluctantly accepts the need to preserve some species by captive breeding.

When I got off the train at Back Bay, I tried to make my way to the Mass. Ave. bridge. I was reminded that Back Bay streets are arranged alphabetically; starting from Boston Common and going southwest, the cross streets start with A, B, C: Arlington, Berkeley, Clarendon, Dartmouth, Exeter, etc. I followed Dartmouth, passed the stately Boston Public Library on my left, and headed for the Charles River. There’s a pleasant park along the river called the Esplanade. I followed the Esplanade southwest until I reached the Mass. Ave. bridge.

Tudge says that habitat loss is caused, at least in part, by an increase in the number of people. When man began farming, about 10,000 years ago, there were around 10 million people worldwide. By the time of Christ, that number had risen to about 200 million. By 1800, about 1 billion. Today, about 6.5 billion. In 2050, 10-12 billion. But the rate of increase is falling, and many experts think that the world population will stabilize around 2050, hold steady for several centuries, then decline. “Human numbers might then fall to whatever level our descendants feel is sensible”1 — perhaps fall back to the population at the time of Christ. So Tudge is rather optimistic about the distant future, but he’s pessimistic about the near future. He says that the next 500-1000 years will be a “demographic winter” — a challenging time for man, and for other species.

As I crossed the Mass. Ave. bridge, I could see MIT’s concrete dome in front of me, and the white dome of the Museum of Science in the distance on my right — near the hurricane barrier. I could also see Longfellow bridge, with its “salt-shaker” towers, on my right. After crossing the bridge, I entered Cambridge, went through the MIT campus, and headed toward Harvard Square, walking northwest along Mass. Ave. Before reaching Harvard Square, I turned north (right) because the Government Department offices are on the north edge of the Harvard campus. It was about 1 p.m. As I hesitated at an intersection, an elderly woman asked me if I needed directions. She didn’t know exactly where I should go, but she said, “Anyhow, it’s a nice day for a walk!” I took that as a good omen, and continued toward the Government Department.

One of the distinguishing features of mammals, Tudge says, is warm blood. What is the purpose of warm blood? Mammals originated about 175 million years ago, when dinosaurs dominated (dinosaurs dominated from 230 million years ago until 65 million years ago, when they went extinct). Unable to compete with dinosaurs during daylight hours, mammals bided their time until the sun set, then emerged and foraged for food; warm blood (also known as “homoiothermy”) allowed mammals to be active during cool nights, when dinosaurs were idle. Instead of relying on the sun for heat, mammals generate their own heat, but to keep their furnace going, they need 10 times as much food as a reptile of comparable size. “The price of homoiothermy is high,” Tudge writes, “but if it offers a route to survival — through feeding at night while the opposition chills out — then natural selection will favor it.”2 So if someone rebukes you for having a late-night snack, ask him, “What’s the purpose of warm blood if you don’t eat at night?” Warm blood gave us mammals a narrow night-time niche, and we would never have enjoyed anything more than that if dinosaurs hadn’t gone extinct: “Through all the time that mammals lived alongside dinosaurs,” Tudge writes, “they were ecological also-rans, rarely larger than a polecat and living what we may suppose was a marginal existence close to the ground or in trees, and probably largely at night. What killed the dinosaurs is still unknown, but a dramatic change of climate triggered by asteroids is the leading suggestion. Without the aid of such disaster the mammals might be skulking in the byways still.”3

I finally reached the shiny new Government building, and found Mansfield’s office. It was about 2:20. The office looked dark and empty, but I knocked anyway, just to make sure. No one answered. Suddenly I remembered: office hours were from 4 to 6, not 2 to 4. I was almost two hours early, so I had some time to kill. I decided to have a leisurely lunch in the Government cafeteria, and read some Tudge.

Birds are descended from dinosaurs, they’re little flying dinosaurs; indeed, one might say that dinosaurs never went extinct, only non-avian dinosaurs went extinct. Birds dominate the air during the daytime, as dinosaurs once dominated the land during the daytime. At night, however, mammals take to the air with a vengeance (because of their warm blood?); bats are mammals, and there are about 1,100 species of bats — about 20% of all mammal species. If bats emerge in the daytime (as they occasionally do, when driven by hunger), they’re quickly caught by birds of prey, as earlier mammals might have been quickly caught by dinosaurs if they had emerged in the daytime. On land, however, birds don’t do as well; though there are some flightless birds, they have difficulty competing with mammals on the ground. Tudge summarizes thus: “The presence of dinosaurs prevented mammals from realizing their potential in the Mesozoic [251 million years ago to 65 million years ago] while in the Cenozoic [65 million years ago to the present], mammals are preventing birds — the direct scions of the dinosaurs — from realizing theirs [that is, from realizing their potential to live on the ground].”4

I didn’t want to return to Mansfield’s office at 4, in case he was late, so I waited until a few minutes after 4. The result was the same as before: no lights in the office, no response to my knock. Perhaps this was a fitting end to my first quarter century of selling philosophy. May I have more success in my second!

Tudge says that, during the last 40 million years, the earth has cooled, and become dryer. This cooling hasn’t been steady; rather, it has occurred in bursts. One such burst occurred about 5 million years ago, another about 2.5 million years ago. As the weather became cooler and dryer, moist jungle became open grassland. Our ancestors had evolved grasping hands and flexible arms for an arboreal lifestyle (for swinging on branches). When they moved into the open grassland, they began using these hands and arms for new purposes, such as making tools and throwing spears. They began to walk upright, perhaps to see better in open country. Their brain grew bigger, perhaps so that they could make better tools, and coordinate their hunting efforts with their fellows. Did the human brain, which reaches into far corners of the universe, develop as a result of grasping hands, which in turn had arisen so that we could swing from branch to branch in the warm, moist jungle of Africa? Is this the mighty brain’s modest origin?

When I look at my beagle, I find numerous traits that I myself possess: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, four limbs, five digits at the end of each limb, one heart with four chambers, one liver, etc., etc. My beagle and I both belong to the following groups:

Living ThingThe first living things arose about 3.7 billion years ago, a mere 800 million years after the earth itself arose (why waste time doing nothing?).
EukaryoteEukaryote cells have a nucleus; the word “eukaryote” comes from the Greek “good nut” (or “good kernel”). Living things are divided into three domains: Eukarya, Archaea, and Bacteria. Archaea and Bacteria are considered prokaryotes — that is, “before the kernel,” “before the nucleus.” In general, prokaryotes are one-cell organisms, and multi-cellular organisms like plants, fungi, beagles, and philosophers are Eukaryotes. Eukaryotes arose about 1.8 billion years ago. If you have a narrow soul, and can’t sympathize with all organic life, I hope you at least have the decency to sympathize with your fellow eukaryotes, and come to their aid when they need help. (The British, who aren’t good at spelling, sometimes write “eucarya” and “procarya”.)
AnimalAnimals can’t convert the sun’s energy into nutrition by photosynthesis. They must consume other organisms, so they’re called “heterotrophs” (Greek for “other nutrition”), as opposed to “autotrophs” (“self nutrition”). Unlike plants, animals can move. Animals arose about 542 million years ago, at the time of the “Cambrian Explosion” (an explosion of plant and animal species). Some biologists, however, argue that animals arose earlier, perhaps 1 billion years ago.
EumetazoaThe word “Eumetazoa” comes from the Greek “good developed animal” (or “good advanced animal”). The word “Metazoa” is sometimes used as a synonym for Eumetazoa, and sometimes as a synonym for Animal. All animals are eumetazoans, except sponges, which are in a sub-kingdom called Parazoa (from the Greek “beside the animals”). Eumetazoans have greater cell specialization than Parazoans (Eumetazoans have muscle tissues, nerve tissues, etc.).
BilateriaEumetazoans have symmetry, which Parazoans lack. There are two kinds of symmetry, radial and bilateral. The great majority of Eumetazoans have bilateral symmetry. Radial symmetry is found in jellyfish, corals, etc., which are known as “Cnidaria” (“stingers”), and more broadly and informally as “coelenterates” (“having a coelom or cavity”). Bilaterians arose at the time of the Cambrian Explosion (indeed, so many species arose at that time that Darwin was troubled, and considered it an argument against his theory — a theory that implied species arose gradually, not explosively).

If you think about the 4.5 billion years that the earth has existed, you’re struck by how quickly life appeared, but how long it took for this life to develop into multi-cellular plants and animals. In other words, you’re struck by the length of time (more than 3 billion years) during which there was life, but only rudimentary life (one-cell organisms, and simple cell colonies).

DeuterostomeDeuterostome means “second mouth,” and refers to the fact that certain animals, during their embryo stage, acquire their mouth second, their anus first. On the other hand, protostomes acquire their mouth first, their anus second. Some well-known protostomes are arthropods (insects, etc.) and molluscs. Some well-known deuterostomes are echinoderms (starfish, sea urchins, etc.) and chordates (vertebrates, etc.). Early biologists thought that the study of embryos was the royal road to understanding phylogeny, just as modern biologists use molecular data to draw conclusions about phylogeny. Deuterostomes arose (that is, diverged from protostomes) around the time of the Cambrian Explosion.
ChordateAmong other common features, Chordates have a nerve cord (spinal cord). The chief sub-group of the Chordate group is Vertebrata (Vertebrata are sometimes placed within the almost-identical group, Craniata).
VertebrateThe Vertebrate group includes many familiar animals, including mammals, birds, reptiles, and most fish. Vertebrates have a spinal column (vertebral column), brain case, internal skeleton, and nervous system (nerves located in the spinal column, brain, etc.). Vertebrates arose about 500 million years ago, during the latter part of the Cambrian Explosion.
TetrapodTetrapod means “four feet” (or “four legs,” or “four limbs”). Tetrapods arose about 365 million years ago. Mammals, reptiles, amphibians, dinosaurs, birds — all are tetrapods. Even snakes are considered tetrapods since they’re descended from four-limbed animals. The first tetrapods were fish who lived in shallow water, and used stubby limbs to walk; these limbs developed further as the early tetrapods spent more time on dry land. Tetrapods are descended from a special type of fish — lobe-finned fish, or Sarcopterygii (as opposed to the more common ray-finned fish, the Actinopterygii). Recent tetrapod research has revealed that, when the first tetrapod climbed onto dry land, he said, “One small step for me, one giant leap for Bilateria.”
SynapsidApse means arch, and Synapsid means “fused arch,” referring to the fact that Synapsids have a single skull opening behind each eye (Diapsids have two such openings). The skull opening is sometimes called a “temporal fenestra.” The Synapsid group includes mammals and mammal-like reptiles, and arose about 325 million years ago. The Diapsid group includes birds and living reptiles, and arose about 300 million years ago. Many Diapsids no longer have two holes (snakes, for example, have lost both holes), but they’re classed as Diapsids because their ancestors had two holes (just as snakes are classed as tetrapods because their ancestors had four limbs). Likewise, some Synapsids no longer have one temporal fenestra — man, for example.

One might suppose that a “fused arch” is an improvement on two separate arches, and Synapsids are an improvement on Diapsids. Actually, the reverse seems to be true: two arches are better than one, and the Diapsid reptiles (dinosaurs, etc.) supplanted the Synapsid reptiles. The Synapsid reptiles were decimated by the Permian Extinction (251 million years ago), after which dinosaurs flourished. But a few Synapsids survived the Permian Extinction, including the cynodonts (“dog teeth”), from whom mammals are descended.

Two of the most important extinction events are the Permian Extinction (251 million years ago), which decimated Synapsids and set the stage for Diapsids like dinosaurs, and the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event (often called the “K-T extinction event”), which occurred about 65 million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs, allowing mammals to flourish. Our own time is often classed as an “extinction event” because many species have gone extinct as a result of man’s impact on nature.

MammalMammals arose from cynodonts about 175 million years ago. Instead of laying eggs, as almost all reptiles do, mammals give birth to live young (the exception is monotremes, such as the platypus, which are egg-laying mammals). The word “mammal” comes from the Latin word for “breast,” because mammals breast-feed their young. Some major mammal sub-groups are
  1. Rodentia (mice, rats, squirrels, beavers, etc.)
  2. Carnivora (dogs, cats, bears, raccoons, seals, etc.)
  3. Primates (monkeys, chimpanzees, gorillas, humans, etc.)
  4. Chiroptera (bats); “Chiroptera” means “winged hand”
  5. Artiodactyls (deer, sheep, pigs, cattle, antelopes, etc.); “Artiodactyl” means “even number of toes”, that is, two toes; the two-toed foot is sometimes called a cloven hoof; Artiodactyls are often contrasted with Perissodactyls, who have an odd number of toes, that is, one toe; common Perissodactyls are horses, zebras, and rhinos; both Artiodactyls and Perissodactyls are ungulates (hoofed animals); one Artiodactyl, the hippopotamus, spends much time in the water, and some early Artiodactyls moved completely into the water, and became the Cetaceans (whales, dolphins, etc.); the Cetaceans moved from land to water about 50 million years ago, reversing the move from water to land that their tetrapod ancestors had made about 300 million years before (“I tried it, I didn’t like, I want to go back”); both Artiodactyls and Cetaceans are sometimes placed within the Cetartiodactyl group
EutherianEgg-laying mammals (monotremes) are considered more primitive than other mammals, hence they’re called Prototherians. Most mammals are called Eutherians (“good mammals,” or “true mammals”). Marsupials, which give birth to live young and then keep them in a pouch, are called Metatherians. I’m proud to say that I’m a Eutherian (my beagle is a Eutherian, too, but he doesn’t know it, hence he doesn’t take pride in it). Eutherians have separate orifices for urine and feces, while monotremes and marsupials have one orifice for both (“monotreme” means “one hole”). This single orifice is called a cloaca (from the Latin for “sewer”). Not only monotremes and marsupials, but also birds, reptiles and amphibians have one orifice. Eutherians arose about 125 million years ago. Eutherians are sometimes called “placental mammals” because, during pregnancy, young are kept in a placenta (a kind of bag).

My beagle and I were both Eutherians, members of the same family, suckling from the same mother, playing together in the evening, exploring the world together by day. About 60 million years ago, however, we went separate ways, and since then we’ve grown apart. We almost never talk anymore. I decided to throw in my lot with the Primates, he joined Carnivora (he always liked meat).

One final note about monotremes: they’re capable of electroreception, which is considered rare among mammals. Many primitive fish, such as sharks, are capable of electroreception. Electroreception can be active or passive — sending signals to learn about one’s surroundings, especially in murky water, or receiving the signals sent by other organisms.

Electrocommunication is a special type of electroreception; electrocommunication means communicating by changing electric waves. Electroreception will interest students of the occult because, as I said in the last issue, “occult phenomena often remind people of electrical phenomena.” If Eutherians have as-yet-undiscovered electroreceptive capabilities, that may help us to understand telepathy, the “sixth sense,” etc. Our ancestors (specifically, lobe-finned fish) may well have had these capabilities, so it’s conceivable that we have them.

A human being develops from a fertilized egg, climbing the ladder of being. As Isaac Asimov put it,

The egg starts as a single cell (a kind of protozoon), then becomes a small colony of cells (as in a sponge), each of which at first is capable of separating and starting life on its own, as happens when identical twins develop. The developing embryo passes through a two-layered stage (like a coelenterate), then adds a third layer (like an echinoderm), and so continues to add complexities in roughly the order that the progressively higher species do. The human embryo has at some stage in its development the notochord of a primitive chordate, later gill pouches reminiscent of a fish, and still later the tail and body hair of a lower mammal.4B

In an earlier issue, I mentioned a website called Tree of Life. It’s a family tree of all living things, with good photos. I recently discovered a site called Encyclopedia of Life, which aims to create a separate web-page for every species. It translates Greco-Latin names into everyday names; for example, it speaks of “Dolphins” instead of Cetaceans, “Rabbits” instead of Lagomorphs, “Cloven-Hoofed Ungulates” instead of Artiodactyls, and “Odd-Toed Ungulates” instead of Perissodactyls. But it doesn’t try to promote English as a scientific language, it doesn’t try to replace Greco-Latin names with English names; you can choose a language other than English, if you wish. If you choose French, for example, “Dolphins” will become “Baleines.” Since English is now more widely known than Greek or Latin, it might make sense to Anglicize scientific names — in medicine as well as biology.

On the whole, Tudge’s Variety of Life is interesting, though dryer than Nuland’s Wisdom of the Body, and not as rich in philosophical import as Zukav’s book about quantum physics.

2. The Wisdom of the Body

Still enjoying Nuland’s Wisdom of the Body. I just finished Chapter 4, “Sympathy and the Nervous System,” which is a good introduction to nerve cells, and even teaches the reader something about how the brain works. (The brain, as you may know, is a collection of nerve cells — about 100 billion of them.) If you want to read more about brain science, Oliver Sacks is a popular writer in the field; Sacks was influenced by an earlier brain specialist, Alexander Luria. In the last issue, I criticized Nuland’s case histories, saying they were too detailed. I now realize that most of them are fascinating, only the first one was overly detailed.

When you start learning about the human body, the first thing that strikes you is the complexity of the body. Of course, this complexity isn’t unique to the human body, it’s also found in other advanced animals — perhaps all animals, perhaps all living things. This complexity reminds one of a computer. The fact that nerve cells send out little electrical charges also reminds one of a computer. And finally, the fact that these charges either excite or inhibit the receiving cells reminds one of a computer, insofar as computer cells/transistors are either on or off.

Students of the occult will prick up their ears when they hear that electricity plays an important role in the human body.

In Chapter 5, Nuland discusses the cell, and DNA. Again I was reminded of a computer. Computers use a long string of ones and zeros to give us the Mona Lisa, Beethoven’s symphonies, etc.; in other words, computers represent everything as a long string of ones and zeros — a very long string. Likewise, DNA gives all sorts of instructions as a long string of yes and no, one and zero, on and off. One might say that DNA speaks a binary language. DNA instructions are contained in the famous “double helix,” the spiral staircase. Each stair on this staircase, each rung on this spiral ladder, is an instruction, and it can only be one of two things: guanine-cytosine, or adenine-thymine (abbreviated GC and AT). Guanine-cytosine is called a “base pair” (adenine-thymine is also a “base pair”). Like computers, DNA packs a great deal of binary information into a small space. DNA is organized into chromosomes, and “the largest human chromosome, chromosome number 1, is approximately 220 million base pairs long.... The human genome has approximately 3 billion base pairs of DNA arranged into 46 chromosomes.”5 Chapter 5 is a bit murky, but if I understand it correctly, the resemblance between computers and DNA is striking.6

Of course, there are differences between computers and DNA. One such difference is that computers progress by conscious planning, whereas organic life progresses by accidents, “mutations.” Some of these mutations are an improvement on the original, and are favored by natural selection. The giraffe’s long neck, for example, is the result of accident, mutation, and was favored by natural selection.

But is accident really as important in evolution as biologists think? Does will count for nothing? Does synchronicity count for nothing? These are questions that we’ve raised in several previous issues.

One of the themes of the Philosophy of Today is that everything in the universe, even inorganic matter, has a kind of consciousness/intelligence. This conclusion was reached by primitive man as the result of synchronistic phenomena, and it’s reached by modern man as the result of quantum physics. If we can detect a kind of intelligence in inorganic matter, how much more easily can we detect intelligence in organic matter! As I read about DNA, I was struck by the intelligence of organic matter. Consider, for example, how certain enzymes are able to “proofread” DNA:

Groups of enzymes are at all times moving along the many strands of DNA, patrolling them for damaged or abnormal areas, which they fix immediately on discovery. One method is for a so-called excision repair enzyme to snip out the faulty bit, which is then reconstituted properly with molecules from the immediate vicinity.7

Philosophers have often pondered the meaning of that little word “I”. Am I independent of the external world? Or am I part of the external world? If I try to define the boundaries of myself, do I find that “I” and “world” merge together? The study of the human body may affect our definition of “I” because it demonstrates that much of what happens within us is outside of our conscious control. There’s a world within us as well as a world outside of us, and it’s as difficult to separate “I” from the world within as it is to separate “I” from the world without. One part of the nervous system is called the “autonomic” nervous system because it’s autonomous — we don’t govern it, it governs itself. Is it part of “I” or separate? How do we define that little word “I”?

In the last issue, I said that Nuland had literary ambitions. I now realize that Nuland has philosophical ambitions, too. He says that an understanding of man must begin with a study of the body and its organs. I’m reminded of the astronomer who said that wisdom comes from studying the stars.

3. A Dictionary of Political Platitudes

There’s an amusing piece in The Weekly Standard by Matthew Continetti, “A Dictionary of Political Clichés: Flaubert gets updated for 2008.” Before giving us his “Dictionary,” Continetti tells us that Flaubert’s Dictionary of Platitudes was translated by Jacques Barzun; Barzun’s translation was published in 1954. Here are my favorite “definitions”:

Energy Independence. What the candidates hope to achieve in ten years. Actually, more like twenty. Or maybe twenty-five. Wait — why don’t we make it thirty. Forty maybe? How does forty sound to you? Forty-five?

Experience. Unnecessary for presidents; absolutely necessary for vice presidents. Joe Biden, for example, has a tremendous amount of experience in being wrong. He was wrong about the Reagan defense buildup, wrong about the first Gulf war, says he was wrong about the second, and was definitely wrong about the surge. So much experience in being wrong is extremely rare. This is why he would make an excellent vice president.

Guns and Religion. What the bitter denizens of small towns in Pennsylvania and the Midwest cling to. This also includes, according to Barack Obama, “antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment.” Not to be confused with Guns N’ Roses.

Most Important Election of Our Lifetimes. Whichever one is coming up.

Politics of Fear. Practiced by those candidates — you know who you are — who insist on bringing up boring, nasty topics such as al Qaeda, nuclear proliferation, belligerent Russian dictators, winning or losing in Iraq, angry petro-populists, and ambitious autocratic powers. What a bunch of downers.

The Same. What McCain supporters want. No joke. Didn’t you hear their chants at the Republican convention in St. Paul? “More of the Same! More of the Same!”

4. Crumby Closing Comments

I received some positive feedback: Elliott Banfield, a Manhattan artist, enjoyed my remarks on Durer. Elliott is interested in the comic artist Robert Crumb, whom he calls “a famous artist, a sort of cult figure; some people are huge fans of his, many people never heard of him.... I believe that in a roundabout way he inspired The Simpsons (the show on Fox).” The art critic Robert Hughes compared Crumb to great artists of the past — Durer, Goya, Brueghel. Crumb and his family are the subject of the well-known film, Crumb. Kafka fans may want to look at Crumb’s comic biography of Kafka.

Elliott also recommended a popular writer on medical matters, Richard Selzer.

© L. James Hammond 2008
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1. Epilogue, p. 614 back
2. Ch. 18, p. 435 back
3. Ch. 18, p. 434 back
4. Ch. 22, p. 530 back
4B. Asimov’s New Guide to Science, ch. 16, p. 771 back
5. Wikipedia back
6. Some people say that DNA isn’t a binary system, a base 2 system, it’s a base 4 system, because it has 4 elements: guanine, cytosine, adenine and thymine. If, however, guanine must join with cytosine, and adenine must join with thymine, then it seems to me there are only two possibilities: guanine-cytosine, and adenine-thymine, hence I view it as a base 2 system, a binary system. back
7. Ch. 5, p. 108 back