Caveman Radio – Born To Run – Wed, Feb 17th, 11pm EST

Here we go.  Round two.  It’s on the schedule.  If you haven’t read Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, tune in to hear why you should.  If you have read this book, tune in and participate in the discussion.  I’ll provide a brief overview of what’s there – for the uninitiated – and then we’ll get into the good stuff – from how I personally have changed as a result of reading the book to the notion that our society is slowly disintegrating the best of our humanity.  The latter idea ties very well into the Enlightened Caveman concept, so I’m excited to get into that.  And I’m excited to have some people call in with their own stories and points of view on these topics.

Same deal as last time – go to my Blog Talk Radio page at showtime and click the “Click to Listen” link.  I hear that sometimes the page seems to have nothing on it.  If that happens, just keep refreshing.  The service is free, and I suspect they periodically make it suck to lure hosts like myself into paying for the premium service.  Such is the strategy in a world of freemium.  Anyway, when you get to my page, you’ll see a number to call in if you want to be part of the show.  Be sure to send an email to me at the email address you see in the masthead above.  In the subject line, put your phone number – the one you’re calling in on.  Then in the body, tell me what you want to talk about.  This is poor man’s phone screening, but I think it’s workable.

Okay – hope you can make it.  If not, stop by after to grab the podcast.


Carbon Credits? Is that Your Final Answer?

Standing in the mall somewhat in a daze with a TV in front of me.

The TV:   “Blah, blah, blah…carbon credits…blah blah blah.”

Me (to no one in particular): “What the hell are they are talking about?”

A Foolish By-Stander: “Oh yeah, Al Gore and a lot of other high-profile environmentalists are buying them to offset their carbon emissions.  It’s really cool of them.”

Me: “Offset? How?”

Foolish By-Stander: “Well they buy credits that equal how much CO2 they emit so they aren’t contributing to global warming.”

Me (rolling my eyes): “Oh really?  So you can buy a “credit” (full on air quotes for this) that just eliminates the physical presence of the CO2 you’ve pumped into the atmosphere?  Isn’t that just convenient?  (Now looking this guy straight in the eye.)  So you’re buying this dribble, huh?”

Foolish By-Stander Beginning to Realize He’s Made An Error In Speaking to Me: “Well at least they’re doing their part.”

Me: “Doing their part for what?  Oh that’s right – they’re doing their part to drag us all back into the Dark Ages where facts and reason are nowhere to be found; Yes, they’re awesome.”

(Buh-bye foolish bystander.)

Honestly, I’m a pretty nice person, but this carbon credits thing has me almost foaming at the mouth.  Not because of any partisan thing – I hate both sides equally – but because I fear that the general acceptance of this idea is much more of a crisis than any of the worst global warming projections.  It means we’ve officially reached the tipping point of irrevocable mass stupidity.

We’re once again faced with the perennial question – which is worse, the boldness of the hypocritical environmentalists in explaining away their hypocrisy or the thickness of the dolts who buy those explanations?  But carbon credits strains even the most basic reasoning, so I’m apt to blame the receivers more than the senders on this one.

Let’s break it down a bit, shall we?  I did a smidge of research and came up with this explanation of this heretofore unknown (at least to me) method for overcoming seemingly insurmountable environmental barriers.  It comes from a site called Save The Planet.  They’re Kiwis – I wanted to cite an international authority. (I’m nothing if not in fashion.)

What emerged from the Kyoto meeting is that as each country produces CO2, it must be able to contain that CO2 by tree-planting or other processes that can absorb it, such as sequestration and changing farming methods. Or it can reduce the CO2 it produces in the first place. If that country produces more CO2 than it can absorb, it must purchase an ‘absorption ability’ from another nation. The Carbon Credit is this new currency and one Carbon Credit is equal to one Tonne of CO2 and is called a CO2e (CO2 equivalent). A nation might have a shortfall in absorbing 500,000T of CO2 and according to the Kyoto agreement it must seek to purchase those from another nation that has been planting trees for such a consideration. Costs are between US (ironically) $10 – 40 per credit.

It’s pretty simple really in theory. All growing things absorb carbon which ultimately ends up in the soil. Planting trees reduces the carbon in the atmosphere but not if they are then cut down and burnt and crops that are planted and harvested will not actually store carbon within them. Long term plans are needed. Crops can be farmed in such a way that the soils are not ploughed to let the stored carbon escape. Weeds and borders to fields can be encouraged. Forests can be left to stand. Fuel usage can be cut and power generation can be more efficient and all this reduced consumption of carbon will mean that less carbon credits will have to be purchased.

The money that purchases carbon credits will ultimately be used to give grants to further carbon saving schemes.

Wow.  Really.  Just wow.  The audacity of such vacuous explanations is dazzling to the point of nearly taking my sight.  Now let’s translate this into real world language.

1.  The key to this is the idea that we need some sort of zero-sum CO2 policy – you gotta absorb what you produce.  As always, the wackos have built their cause on a house of cards.  No one, I repeat no one, has ever proved a predictable correlation between CO2 concentration and climate change.  (Remember, this is science – to matter, the things we learn have to provide some predictive value – Click HERE for evidence that corroborates my statement.) But let’s accept this premise – just for fun.

2.  The Carbon Credit buys you the ability to help out with CO2 concentrations somewhere other than where you live.  That’s what it’s saying, right?  If, as an American – no, as Al Gore – I heat my 20-room mansion and put out more CO2 than I absorb (with my acres of beautifully landscaped land), I can pay money to some place (like say, Thailand) that absorbs more than it takes emits.  A thing of beauty is this thing called globalization, no?  But wait a second – how exactly is this changing the carbon concentrations here in the US?  I mean this is a CRISIS, right?  Won’t a few extra trees being planted in Thailand have absolutely no effect on the problem here at home?  Won’t global warming have played itself out and done us all in by the time the trees I paid for are mature enough to suck up the CO2 I emitted by heating my 14-person hot-tub for Saturday night’s “I’m everyone’s new environmental hero party”?

3.  I love this part – “It’s pretty simple really in theory.”  So is nuclear fusion.  It’s almost like the environmentalist movement is really just a “stupidest person in the universe” contest.  The good news is that even if you don’t win, you still might snag a “Most Self-Important” or “Most Illogical” award.  Go get em, greenies.

But seriously, this so-called solution is nothing more than a scheme to allow environmentalist activists the ability to preach one thing but do another.  If we believe that greenhouse gasses are a CRISIS (which I don’t), then there’s only one option – reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.  There are two ways to do that, which the Kyoto folks rightly recognize – either absorb more or emit less.  Simple.  Carbon credits do neither.

Though global warming fans love to talk about the problem (nay, CRISIS) being a global problem, that doesn’t mean that you can change something in one place and keep the status quo everywhere else and expect the “globe” to respond as you would like.  This is especially true given the pesky aspect of the word crisis that implies the need for immediate, decisive action.  Now, putting aside the obviously conceited idea that we somehow are going to make a big difference on our big, blue marble rolling through space, I keep wondering what happened to the age-old lefty phrase – “think globally, act locally”.  I guess we can now change that to – “think globally, do whatever you want locally, but send some money somewhere.”  Nice.

In the end, I always find that the best way to dismantle a stupid idea is to take it to its logical (and usually absurd) conclusion.  I have therefore decided to remove all mufflers from my vehicles, to go back to coal stoves, to run my heat and AC continuously, and to generally introduce CO2 into the atmosphere as fast and in as much volume as I can possibly manage.  On the surface, this may seem a little silly.  But not to worry, I’ll be purchasing Carbon Credits a plenty.  In fact, I have an offer down on an island in the Caribbean where I’ll be planting trees so that I can buy Carbon Credits from myself.  A double-dip, anyone?  It gets better.  Ever the innovator, I’ll be offering my environmentally responsible customers volume discounts from the get-go.  That’s right – it’s BOGO if you buy 1000 or more.  So what’s with all the long-faces?  You’ve got cash, right?  (No?  No problem.  I take credit.)  Anyway, don’t bother cramping your lifestyle – just buy some of my carbon credits.  I’ll even send you pics of your trees as they grow up.  It’ll be like the “buy a hungry kid in africa” thing – except you’ll never have to worry about your trees showing up at your doorstep – unless of course you buy one of my new wooden hybrid cars.  Talk about renewable.  I’m on the case.

Keep Your Eyes On Your Big Screen

I’ve talked before about my theory of consciousness.  The essence of it is that we have this big screen in our minds that is occupied by the aspects of our mental proceedings that are winning the moment-by-moment competitions that are going on continuously below the surface.  What we experience (sight, sound, etc.) on the big screen is what we are conscious of.  It’s all about attention.

What are we paying attention to?  The answer drives such a monumental part of our experience, yet few of us routinely ask ourselves what is on our big screens.  That’s probably because no one else has posited the big screen metaphor – at least I’ve never come across it.  Nevertheless, visual metaphors can be extremely useful, and this one is at the high end of the utility scale.  Perhaps an everyday example.

You’ve just come from the grocery store.  You walk in the door to your home and find that your wallet or purse is not with you.  It’s no shocker what’s on your big screen for the foreseeable future until you recover what you’re missing.  You’re completely absorbed, which is to say that your big screen is occupied by one thing almost entirely.  Yes, the big screen in our heads, unlike the one at your average movie theater, has split-viewing capability.  In fact, it more resembles those walls you’ve seen that are made up of dozens of TVs – they can each play individually, or they can work together to produce several multi-TV experiences, or even a giant, cohesive experience.  So, in that context, losing your wallet is an absorbing conscious experience, but most things are not.

In this multi-tasking world with so many have-to-dos right next to so many want-to-dos, it’s obvious that our big screens are in multi-image mode most of the time.  We’re thinking about the people in our lives, our jobs, our problems, our hopes, and whatever happens to be going on from second to second.  The big screen is a melange of ever-changing images and sounds.  Most of life is a fragmented conscious experience.  I have found that simply being aware of this concept has profound effects on how I can modulate my conscious experiences, and thus influence my levels of contentment and awareness.  (Sounds all zen and meditative, huh?  Not really.)

We all have things that pop up on our big screens that we’d rather not think about, and we all have our ways of ushering those experiences off the screen.  It is my sincere opinion that most people are really good at getting rid of things that they should keep, while they have almost no ability to get rid of things that have no place on our big screens.  This, I believe, is mostly a function of our caveman heritage.  For example, most people simply have not learned that status in a modern, largely anonymous world is irrelevant.  Dave Ramsey, the radio consumer advocate, is fond of saying that people are all the time spending money they don’t have to buy things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like.  That about nails it – we’re doing what we’re programmed to do – we don’t know any different.  And what about the things we should keep on our big screens?

Though some folks may disagree with me, I would argue that at least 80% of the population is absolutely unwilling to accept truths about themselves, even the ones they know, but try to deny.  My most recent boss was an absolutely abysmal manager, and he had indications almost weekly that confirmed it.  Nevertheless, were he asked, he would undoubtedly proclaim his skill at governing and guiding the actions of other people.  We’re talking about a massive blind-spot.  How does something like this emerge, you ask?  By kicking the truth off your big screen when you don’t like how it makes you feel.

The hallmark of human maturity is self-awareness, and it only comes by letting the rough stuff have its 15 minutes on our big screens.  I’m not about to say that I’m the most mature guy in town – I do stupid shit on a regular basis – but I will say that I have a good handle on where I’m strong and where I’m weak.  In other words, I would argue that I don’t have any blind-spots, at least no big ones.  I may overestimate or underestimate some aspect of my personality, but I know who I am, and one thing I know is that, though I may resist, I always eventually manage to accept the truth when it reveals itself to me.  This is because of how I control my big screen.

Occasionally, things absorb my screen that I’d rather not experience.  Instead of invoking a default program to wipe away the unpleasant and replace it with the pleasant, I split the screen.  Next to the negative experience, I add a vignette about why this experience is so unpleasant to me.  Nine times out of ten, it’s because the answer is some truth about myself that I’d rather not accept.  (A disclaimer – this is personal best practices stuff, which means I try to always do this.  Sometimes I succeed; sometimes I fail and have to try again later.  Such is life.)  Maybe I’m being selfish in a way that is unacceptable.  Maybe I’m being vain – as in when I lost my tooth recently.  Whatever.  The point is that the mind always knows when we’re going astray.  It’s up to us to listen when it throws our foibles up on the big screen.  If we don’t, we’re just asking for pain later.

The bottom line, folks, is that truth will get you in the end.  It always does.  You may live in a fantasy land, and it may hold up pretty well, but one day, truth will burst your bubble.  And when it does, the agony will far exceed what you’d have experienced if you’d just have watched your big screen a little longer when it wasn’t feeding you candy.

So the next time you’re absorbed in something, think about your big screen (which will, incidentally, immediately split the screen).  If what you’re absorbed in – say, a rock concert – is worthwhile, then you can take pleasure in knowing that your mind is tuned into something positive that is giving you pleasure.  (There’s nothing like good art to reboot a fragmented big screen.)  Conversely, if you’re obsessed with envy at your supposed best-friend’s good fortune, your newly split big screen will also let you know that you’re being a shallow douchebag.  That, too, is something positive, so pay attention.

Abstract to Happy Fantasy – A Leap to the Abyss?

My thinking right now begins with the idea my brain (and yours, too) has an approximation of reality digitally represented within its physical existence. It all hinges on two things. The first is the notion that there is such a thing as absolute truth, if you take it to mean that there is a consistency to things, an immutable quality (or multitude of qualities) that permeates the perceivable universe. The second is the idea that our neurons are malleable enough to gather information about the world and code it into some sort of usable storage. Both are utterly defensible. In simple terms, our little neurons work together to construct a complex model of the perceivable universe, which is knowable and constant. What got me down this path is thinking that there was no fortune, evolutionarily-speaking, for the flawed mental model, but only to a point. After that, the flawed model may be the key to happiness. (And the little annoying tap on the shoulder.)

I suppose the evolutionary background for this is the idea that starting back in ancestral time and moving forward, those individuals who had the most “realistic” neural models of reality stood a better chance of surviving than those whose models were, shall we say, deficient. Perhaps the bad models were overly general, classifying all berries as edible, thus resulting in the demise of their purveyors. Or maybe they were overly specific in their grouping of entities; they could not generalize that a large, agile cat, though it might not have stripes, might be dangerous. The genes that made these inferior mental models were, so it would seem, stopped dead in their tracks. Literally.

But it goes further than that. Evolution is about escalation. It’s safe to assume that the totally inferior models would have fallen away early in the mental evolutionary process. But there would still have been the matter of scarce resources, which lead directly to competition. That is to say, once the simple things killed off the stupid people, there was still a competition for limited resources. And, once again, the accuracy of the neural model would have been the chief arbiter of survival.

The basic details of reality would, at that point (some theoretical space in time), have been fairly consistent among the existing humans. Most everyone would share a similar mental model for the difference between poisionous berries and edible berries (or at least the notion that there are different types), or the similarity between tigers and lions. But more complex aspects of reality, such as the tendency of humans to deceive one another, especially in certain situations, might not be shared. And those types of differences would have to have been heavily influential on the genetic makeup of the populations that followed. Basically, the suckers didn’t make it.

And here we are. It seems clear that our mental models are now the result of genetic predispositions in the hands of significant cultural influences. Who knows when the shift from primarily genetically-influenced minds to minds built by genetics mixed with culture happened. All we know is that, now, nature and nurture are heavy-duty bedfellows. The notion of a human mental model of reality is greatly affected by this.

I’d venture to say that most humans, at least western humans, share a very complex mental model of reality, some of which is genetic, and some of which is cultural. However, there are also vast differences, and many of them are completely fabricated, and most (if not all) of those are cultural. In fact, the point of this wandering is to say that we are now, and probably have been for quite a while, living in a time when the direction of our shared mental model is straying markedly away from reality. Our culture is driving, and it cares not where absolute truth wants to go.

It’s not that we’re straying purposefully. It’s just that some aspects of reality have actually been changed. For example, for most of man’s existence, it has been an axiom that if you didn’t take steps to provide for your own food, you were going to starve to death. Nowadays, in some places (most western cities), you can do just about nothing, and you’ll never starve. That’s a big change to the basic mental model of reality that has existed in the minds of humans for millennia. And when an axiom of reality shifts, it isn’t nuts to suppose that lots of them have shifted. This is how we get to fantasy land.

It’s been a looong time since little differences in our mental models have had any significant impact on our survivability. The creation of institutions (both government and economic) pretty much gutted that risk factor – by shifting reality in some areas and promising to shift reality in other areas. As long as we don’t die, there are really no consequences for believing erroneous things, such as that the minimum wage helps poor people, or that Allah demands the annihilation of the west. We’re able to disconnect from reality more and more as our institutions grow in their influence upon our everyday lives. And we would have it no other way. Indeed, this could very well be part of the force behind our tendency to cling to institutions. (The other being the need for concurrence, but I don’t want to digress.)

Our minds, being good at building models, which ultimately are nothing more than categories (and all of the characteristics that describe them) filled with definitions of specific entities, are masters of abstraction. They assimilate disparate ideas into concepts that define their relationship, and then use the new concepts as disparate ideas to be included in still broader terms. When you get high enough on the abstraction ladder, you are creating reality. You’re imagining ideas that may or may not be true, and you have no practical means to tell the difference. And so long as these ideas don’t fail you (i.e. nothing contrary to the concepts happens to you), you have no reason to suspect their inaccuracy. So your mind constructs a fantasy. The question is whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.

Whenever I travel to third-world countries, I’m always reminded of how far my fantastic version of reality can venture from the real thing. Actually, maybe it’s better to say that my flimsy version of reality – the one that holds up most of the time but could fall at any moment – is a far cry from the more sturdy version of reality that I see when I travel. But no matter how much “perspective” I may gain from my forays into the land of bare necessities, I’m always glad to pull into my driveway, the perfectly smooth concrete driveway in my fantasy land where food, health, shelter, and lifelong companionship are a given. And not the basics – the high end stuff. It’s a given, all of it. I’m happy to excuse thoughts of mortality and deprivation as mere glimpses into a reality that I don’t experience. Indeed, I have to. We all do.

I met an old American Indian guy this past weekend who has a little village set up as a tourist attraction. While my two-year old son was running wild from tee-pee to tee-pee, this old guy was telling my wife and I how his ancestors lived off the land. He showed us all the things they made from the animals they hunted. Story after story of ingenuity and independence. I finally commented that the Indians must have been really tough folks to have lived like they did. He came back with a fitting closing to this post. He said, “To be us now and look back to their life, yeah it looks tough. But to them, not knowing what we know now, life was easy. Easier than it is now. The earth provided everything they needed, and they spent their time on the good things – enjoying the life they were gi

I’m not advocating some dumbass “get back to nature” lifestyle. That’s nothing more than placing bets on the cards you wish you had instead of the cards in your hand. I’m just saying that it’s useful to recognize that our version of reality, though it may be durable, is likely to be something entirely different from what reality is (and always has been) for most humans. Considering the possibility that something like a Hurricane Katrina or a 9-11 could come along and re-introduce us to man’s most experienced reality, it’s not a bad idea to spend a little time pondering what to do if the fantasy fails. This is not sky is falling kind of stuff; just a little light contingency planning.

Books That Will Make You Think Differently About Yourself

The concept behind this site is fairly simple. Our genes are controlling us a lot more than we think they are, but this is not a bad news story. We can, if we understand what our genes are up to, take control and live according to our rationally conceived objectives in life. This is not an idea that I have come up with on my own (though I may be one of its most ardent proponents). I’ve just grabbed onto it because I think it is the key to getting the most out of our time here. If we know that emotions are the brain’s rapid response system, and we know that they evolved to react in certain ways to certain situations (social situations, in particular), then we have a leg up in the quest to think when circumstances require thought more than emotion. That, alone, I am convinced, would elevate the general happiness to levels that have never before been seen in mankind’s history. To that end, I’d like to propose the creation of a book list, an enlightened caveman curriculum, if you will.

Let me first draw some lines in the sand. There are countless books that can be said to enlighten humanity – the dictionary comes to mind – so we need some criteria for books that will fit properly into this. The first is this: a book on this list must deal directly with human nature. It may be based in science, such as genetics, or any other field of study that is represented on accredited college campuses. Anthropologists and archaeologists have learned a great deal about who we are as a species, so it makes sense to include their efforts in our pursuit of enlightenment.

Second, the book must invoke concepts about human nature in a prescriptive way. That is to say, it isn’t good enough to say that genes are selfish, which means our elaborate lives are the happenstance result of replicators replicating. (So The Selfish Gene , great as it is, is out.) The book has to say what the science and/or anthropology and/or archaeology prescribes for those of us looking for direction in life. We need to be able to practically apply what the academics have discovered.

I’ll start by adding three books that have been particularly meaningful to me, and I’d ask that suggestions to the list adhere to the same general format – tell what the background information is, and then tell what is prescribed, and how it benefits mankind. Over time, hopefully, we’ll have a nice list of books that all add credence and weight to the theme of this site. Of course, in the spirit of intellectual rigor, I’d welcome any recommendations of books that contradict the enlightened caveman concept.
These books are listed in no particular order.

  1. Mean Genes : From Sex to Money to Food: Taming Our Primal Instincts
    by Terry Burnham, Jay Phelan
    From the introduction:
    Our brains have been designed by genetic evolution. Once we understand that design, it is no longer surprising that we experience tensions in our marriages, that our waistlines are bigger than we’d like, and that Big Macs are tastier than brown rice. To understand ourselves and our world, we need to look not to Sigmund Freud but rather to Charles Darwin. The authors then go on to address the following list of topics: debt, getting fat, drugs, taking risks, greed, gender differences, beauty, infidelity, family, friends, and foes. In each case, they detail the ancient genetic strategies that are manifesting themselves in behavior and social phenomena today, and then they explain what shifts in thought are implied by the information if we are to improve our lives.I must admit that I was in a pretty solid state of panic when I read the introduction to this book. I was thinking that these guys had basically beat me to the punch. Fortunately, as I read on, I realized that there really isn’t very much overlap between my book and theirs. Yes, we’re both working off the same general premise. However, my book is far less tactical. I’m focused on changing the way we think from the inside out – by starting with how we think of ourselves and what matters in life and then moving on to how we think about our fellow man – all for the sole purpose of bringing happiness to our lives.

    Burnham and Phelan, however, call their book a manual for the mind, and I have to agree with them.For example, they explain that in ancestral times, it made sense to eat when food was available. Therefore, we are now a species that eats far more than it needs when food is plentiful (as it is in first-world countries). That means we have to consciously endeavor to control our intake of food. If we do not, we’ll routinely find ourselves letting our belts out. Think of how many people in this country don’t know this. The mass awareness of little tidbits like this could prolong and improve the lives of countless people. There are many, many others in this book.

  2. Consilience : The Unity of Knowledge
    by Edward O. Wilson.
    From Chapter 6: The Mind
    All that has been learned empirically about evolution in general and mental processes in particular suggests that the brain is a machine assembled not to understand itself, but to survive. Because these two ends are basically different, the mind unaided by factual knowledge from science sees the world only in little pieces. It throws a spotlight on those portions of the world it must know in order to live to the next day, and surrenders the rest to darkness.Wilson’s book is about reconsidering the way we teach and pursue knowledge. He argues that our schools break subjects apart (math, english, biology, etc.) for somewhat arbitrary reasons and that this works against the design of the mind, which is more comfortable with holistic approaches to learning. Consilience, he says, is, “…literally a ‘jumping together’ of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation.” The idea is that we shouldn’t restrict ourselves to applying what we learn in computer-based neural networks to implementing better computer systems. We should ask what other phenomenon could be better understood by what we know about these inanimate, but elegant systems. It’s about synthesis, and this, to me, begs a mental paradigm shift.

    Wilson asserts that that the value of consilience is not something that can be proven with first principles or logical deduction. Its value is self-evident, as it has been chiefly responsible for most of the progress of our species. I can vouch for that in my own life. Any time I learn something new, I automatically ponder what this new information could bring to other things I’ve wondered about. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, for example, has so many other applications that counting them would be tough, and I thank Wilson for helping me think differently, about myself and the world around me.

  3. The Science of Good and Evil : Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule
    by Michael Shermer
    From the Prologue:
    Ultimate questions about social and moral behavior, while considerably more challenging [than questions about hunger and sex], must nevertheless be subjected to an evolutionary analysis. There is a science dedicated specifically to this subject called evolutionary ethics, founded by Charles Darwin a century and a half ago and continuing as a vigorous field of study and debate today. Evolutionary ethics is a subdivision of a larger science called evolutionary psychology, which attempts a scientific study of all social and psychological human behavior. The fundamental premise of these sciences is that human behavior evolved over the course of hundreds of thousands of years during our stint as hominid hunter gatherers, as well as over the course of millions of years as primates, and tens of millions of years as mammals.In this book, Shermer takes aim at morality and ethics by arguing that humans came by the two long before religion or any codified social rules existed. In Chapter 5, called, “Can We Be Good Without God?”, he addresses head on how we can rationally arrive at morality and be anchored to it as tightly (and rightly) as any religious person is to his or her morality. Throughout the book, the author calls upon all sorts of academic information, from evolutionary psychology to anthropology to sociology to make his points. And aside from the obvious benefits of seeing our tendency toward piety for what it is, he also brings out a really useful concept, using fuzzy logic to think differently about issues.

    Shermer makes the point that the human tendency to dichotomize, to think something is either this way or that, must be guarded against, because life is simply not black and white. Better to think in terms of fractions. For example, at any given moment, I may be 20% altruistic and 80% non-altruistic (selfish). Though, in the balance, I come off selfish at that time, it is incorrect to say that I am a selfish person. The situation may have called for selfishness. The bottom line is that circumstances have a lot to do with our morality. Being able to see people and ideas as shades of grey helps us to avoid moral absolutes that generally lead to division between people. This is a worthwhile message, to say the least.

So there you have it – three books that I think contribute to the enlightened caveman movement. There are more, but not too many, not to my knowledge. That’s why I’m doing this. I’ll finish my contributions in later posts. For now, I hope to learn about all the great books I’ve never heard of, books that will bolster my belief that here lies something big, something important.

An Open Letter to Dr. Leda Cosmides – University of California, Santa Barbara

Original Post (with comments)
I hope you remember our visit in July of 2002 when you told me that Robert Wright called you before he published The Moral Animal. You told me that you were disappointed that he had not taken your revisions into consideration, that the public, in many ways, had been misled as to the particulars of evolutionary psychology. I think you were right. It seems, as some of the posters to this blog have pointed out, that evolutionary psychology is taking on a “pop” feel. It may even be approaching a tipping point. (A Libertarian think tank is now using it as an explanation for the merits of capitalism – click here.) If that is so, it’s a big deal.

There are basic questions that need solid answers, for the ranks of critics swell proportionally to the ranks of fans. The most pressing of these is that eternal bitch known as falsifiability. I have, for many years, felt that evolutionary psychology simply makes sense. Moreover, by viewing my fellow man through an EP sort of lens, I have seen my bias confirmed time and again. Thus, I have been enamored with the work of you and your fellows for many years. Indeed, the fundamental underlying premise of this entire site is the assumption that the basics of EP are correct. However, recently the question was posed to me: Can you give an example of how a particular theory of EP is falsifiable? I’m stumped, embarrasingly so. While I have read you, Calvin, Wilson, Gazzaniga, LeDoux, Damasio, and Pinker, and I am convinced that there is a preponderance of evidence that could be reasonably assembled to legitimize EP, I can’t see how anything asserted therein could really be falsified.

You can’t prove you’re wrong. Can you?

Though I fear it may seem so, my intentions here are not malicious. It’s just that this is not a trivial matter. There are many who hold falsifiability as the very basis of science. They will say that that which cannot be proven wrong cannot be considered scientifically convincing. They will say that EP is not a science, that is it merely well-dressed conjecture. Personally, I don’t have that requirement for science, not all science – I believe the big picture sometimes is the whole picture, even if we can’t quite grasp it. However, I am not the issue. The masses, who seem poised to embrace evolutionary psychology as the panacea to explain all manner of human phenomena, may not be so sophisticated in their assessment of the facts. So, if you’ll pardon my impertinence, it’s down to you, the pioneer of the field that is taking hold in mainstream America, to set the record straight.

Beyond falsifiability, there is the issue of confounding factors. It seems that the perennial problem in sociology is the fact that the subjects are exclusively human, which means they’re all individuals. While variables may be isolated meticulously, there’s always the possibility that some common denominator has not been accounted for. Therefore, the best conclusions are testaments to the trends that are suggested by the data. There may not be any better hypotheses, but that could be more a function of lack of imagination than a sign of convincing proof. EP may very well face the same challenges. Once again, I must point out that my aim is not to debunk or discredit EP. I think an understanding of it is immensely useful in life. But if these objections cannot be surmounted, it seems that we’ll have to think of EP in a different way.

The ideas of quantum physics were originally thought of as theoretical physics. This was the moniker attached to ideas that fit well into existing data but still eluded meaningful observation. It may be that EP has to fit into a category that we may call theoretical psychology. Hell, maybe this already exists. I’m no scientist. In any case, this, in my view, would not be such a bad thing. It would simply be an above-board statement as to the current state of the science, one that the sound-bite masses would be well-served to know. And yes, even if turns out to be theoretical, it should still be considered a science.

This is because we can, I believe, conceive of how EP will one day be falsifiable. I think we can expect illumination in the intersection of genetic networks and developmental biology, for one thing. As the data mounts and our methods get more rigorous (not that they aren’t already), the transition to applied psychology will take place. In the end, I still hold out hope that the naysayers are simply ill-informed, as am I. It is my sincere wish that you and your colleagues would weigh in on this before it’s too late. I remember you told me that if the masses understood EP, wars could be averted. On this, I also think you were right. Though it would be misleading to suggest that this forum can accomplish the mass mental advancement you (and I) envision, I will say that your field will be the better for it, and you never know…strange things happen in the blogosphere – just ask Dan Rather.

Chris Wilson

What Is Consciousness? A Trip Into The Mind

Original Post (with comments)
I’m not trying to be a scientist. I’m really not. I’ve just read a wide variety of scientific topics, particularly those related to evolution, the brain, and thinking, and over the years and I’ve come to my own interpretation of, you might say, the gestalt of the mind. It’s sort of a general feel for the the physicality of it and how layers of abstraction are built upon that, a feel for its evolutionary history and the infrastructure it begat, and a feel for how all that translates into a wide swath of common behavior patterns. The probably sounds as arrogant and sure as possible. We’re inside my head right now, so bear with me. I’ll admit that if there are original ideas in my vision, they are the kind of originality you attribute to an editor. Nevertheless, if I’m being honest, my aim here is prove that my intuition is right. I really want it to be.

But I know that about myself. I’m conscious of it, and because of that, I’ve taken steps to insulate my curiosity from my bias. That’s why I’ve chosen critical rationalism as my method. I recognize up front that I can’t prove that I’m right, that I don’t have all the facts, and that my emotions could be, try as I might, confounding my conclusions. So I write; I throw out hypotheses and the evidence, shoddy as it may be at times, that I have for them. As time goes on, this gestalt is becoming clearer and clearer, which only means that I understand it enough to articulate it. I write more. The whole time, I’m hoping that people will come along and adjudicate my accuracy. (Of course, I’m hoping with arms drawn to my chest and clinched fists that it works out for me. That’d be great. I’d feel smart, or better yet, smarter.) Nevertheless, I have committed myself to finding out, one way or another, if I’m right. I figure the worst that can happen is that I’ll make a few adjustments and still end up with the satisfaction of feeling like I have a holistic, almost unifying, understanding of something seriously elusive.

The preceding two paragraphs just played out on a giant movie screen in my mind. And, as if experiencing a good movie, I was engrossed. I still am. And, like a movie, a lot of other things were and are going on that were and are escaping my attention. Interestingly, in thinking about the things that have been escaping my attention, I all of a sudden start noticing them. The sound of the heater. The visual flicker of the TV on mute. The sighs of my dog as he makes one of his countless tiny adjustments. The smell of the fireplace that still hasn’t been used this winter. My attention is flittering back and forth between the thoughts flowing from my fingertips and the surroundings I am still writing about. Scene after scene on a giant movie screen in my head. And this movie screen is, in my view, the key to consciousness.

I feel intrepid in this domain of consciousness, mainly because no one knows for sure what’s going on. In short, I like my chances on this. If I apply the knowledge I’ve gleaned from Stuart Kauffman’s work in, At Home In The Universe (self-organization theory), and apply it to the physical function of neural networks, and to the structural organization of the brain, and then I infuse all that into Daniel Dennett’s, Consciousness Explained, I come up with the following explanation.

Neural networks are the building blocks of mental organs. Some mental organs we share with other animals. They operate in the lower, simpler levels of abstraction, near our brain stem, serving to facilitate our basic survival and reproductive success. Examples would be autonomic body functions and basic emotions, such as love, fear, anger, sadness, and jealousy. These emotions are not feelings in the usual sense. They are physiological responses that elicit particular behaviors. Imagine that the mind is in a steady state when it is calm and nothing out of ordinary is perturbing it. Then, when something happens that requires a physical response, like say a tiger is approaching, these simple programs, these emotions induce physiological reactions, which prompt the impulse to assuage them, to get back to a steady state. Each physiological reaction elicits its own physical response. The collection of these programs is sufficient to keep us alive and reproducing.

They’re instinctive. Over eons of time, however, these survival programs have been co-opted and abstracted (via self-organization) into higher and higher levels of complexity, levels that call upon more and more information in their execution processes. The higher level networks are larger, more distributed, both vertically (in and out of lower levels and higher levels) and horizontally (pulling from a wider and wider body of data). They contain our cognitive programs and our complex emotions, and they store vast networks of information. The complex programs make it possible to override the basic programs, sometimes temporarily, just long enough to deliberate for a bit, sometimes permanently, allowing us to adopt a different course of action all together. The networks at this level also enable the use of logic and rationality. Then, and this is the best part, at the very top (figuratively speaking), all of these networks of networks self-assemble into the giant movie screen. Consciousness is upon us.

The movie, however, is really a gigantic closed-circuit TV. It’s as if a wide angle camera is mounted at the very top of this vast sea of neural networks in our brain, some of which are tightly coupled so as to resemble distinct entities (organs, you might say), while others, the majority, are stretched across multiple organs, serving as organs themselves. Interspersed throughout are countless relational and hierarchical databases of information. But the camera can only see so deep.

It doesn’t have access to the lowest levels, to the simplest of programs. It’s view is limited to the upper reaches of abstraction, where complex thought and emotions reside. Of course, the lower levels can manifest themselves in the upper levels (such as when we notice a loud sound), seeing as how they’re all connected, but the low-level data is edited at that point. The important thing is that where the camera is pointed is the result of a contest between competing information networks and the organs that exploit them.

Hordes of the complex programs below are shouting for their chance to be on camera. They’re always shouting. They’re always executing their programs at their highest voice. These mental organs are yelling out the input they’re receiving and the conclusions they’ve reached, which are often perceived as recommended courses of action. The heater is vying for my attention, and it has just gotten it. “The heater makes a low hum: think about my body temperature, think about the temp in the baby’s room, do nothing.” Before this, it was my concern for the words ahead that dominated the camera’s lens. It’s recommendation: read back over the last paragraph…

I’m back.

As I was saying, as the camera scans the networks below, it is drawn to the loudest network, and an interesting thing happens when the camera focuses on a particular network or set of networks – the shouting there intensifies. That means that when it latches onto it, it is held captive, if you will, staying on the screen until something distracts it off. That something might be a cognitive program that is ruminating over some past memories, or it might be the reverberations of a low-level emotional program that has perceived an itch on the arm. Whatever wins the competition gets screen time and the consideration of its conclusions and recommendations. It is the existence of the screen, the camera, and what passes through it that constitutes consciousness.

The beautiful thing is what happens when an amazing idea flashes across the screen – I can control the camera. I can control the camera! Free will is born. Now the conscious awareness, the camera, has turned to a remote spot in the data grid, that which corresponds to the concept of the self. High level programs instantly begin connecting to this new network, factoring the notion of self (including its newly discovered ability to control what appears on the screen) into their routines, into their conclusions, and into their recommendations for action. Suddenly, with free will at the helm, and a mind imbued with the awareness of self, the camera comes off of auto-pilot. The content on the movie screen becomes a matter of choice. But even then, the recommendations on the screen may not control the actions taken.

There are still low-level programs at work. They’re there all the time, perceiving, processing, and executing, just as they have in humans for countless centuries. And a key attribute of them is that they work very fast, so fast that they regularly spur us into action long before we realize why we’re acting or exactly what we’re doing. If a beautiful, sexy girl walks past a straight 16-year old boy, his eyes will saccade their way over her time and again before he ever actually thinks to stare at her. His low-level programs are doing their job. If he’s absorbed in a conversation, he may not even notice her, at least not consciously. His mind, however, knows she’s there. Similarly, if an intruder crashes through my door, it will not be free will driving my bus. Before the shape of his face ever passes over my movie screen, my body will be reacting. I will effectively be on auto-pilot, at least for a few seconds. But as the situation resolves, free will will once again take the helm, slowly but surely.

This is my conceptualization of the human mind, from neural network to consciousness. This is what pushes me insistently away from dualism. This is what makes me believe that understanding our lowest level emotions, by aiming the camera wherever they manifest themselves, is the key to harnessing and managing them. This is why I believe that enlightening the caveman is both necessary and possible. Our basic emotions – our fear, our quest for status, our affinity for cooperation (read: concurrence), and our sex strategies – have the advantage. They spur us to action while they’re below the level of consciousness, under the radar of awareness, unless we either inadvertantly develop high-level programs that override their recommendations or we deliberately scan the visible networks for evidence of their influences and we deliberately override them.

An example of the former would be a priest taking a vow of chastity. Even if he has no concept of human evolution and the sexual programming that resides down near his brain stem, the high-level programming that corresponds to his commitment to the cloth could easily suppress his response to a lovely female parishioner. (Unless he’s a…nevermind.) An example of the latter would be a sky-diver standing in the door of a plane. He realizes that it is perfectly rational to be afraid. He is aware of his elevated heart rate and sweaty palms, and he knows why they’re there. But he reasons that his parachute is safe and his training has prepared him, so he jumps. He deliberately overrides his lower-level survival programming.

There are two takeaways from this.

The first is that culture can tune our high-level programming, even if we never know it’s happening. School for young children does exactly this. There is no reason for this tuning to ever pass across a child’s movie screen. The more “cultured” the child becomes, the less the basic survival programs govern his or her actions. The reverse is also true. Children who are not instructed on how to be human beings in a modern world become an almost cartoon-like caricature of our cave-dwelling ancestors. You can see it on any busy playground.

The second thing, the important thing, is that the conscious intent to override basic emotional programming is extremely powerful. If we turn our camera upon our concept of self, and it includes an understanding of what is happening down below, on our screen flashes the idea that we can control much more than we ever knew – thus bringing more detail to the picture and a longer list of available options- regarding action and inaction. This is a good news story. Nothing is determined. We’re in charge. If we do not exercise this power, we leave our fate in the hands of our genetic heritage. But if we do, our genetic heritage becomes irrelevant.

The clock just passed across my movie screen. Recommendation: publish and crash.

You Animal You

Original Post (with comments)
A couple of recent posts have generated some lively discussions, and some of them have led to the nature versus nurture debate. I have been arguing that we come with many of our basic emotions pre-wired, and that it is only the relatively new emergence of malleable cognitive faculties that gives us the chance to change the outcome of situations that would otherwise go down as instinctive responses to external stimuli. Basically, the complexities of cognition and consciousness provide us with free will. Some, however, do not agree. They believe that the hard-wired parts of our minds are limited to the autonomic stuff and the basic survival skills (fight or flight, etc.). They think that the only way I can be right is if humans are robots, robots that were designed. I’ve made my case in comments and will probably attempt to summarize once the dust settles, but I think there’s some value in introducing some basic cognitive science into the picture. What follows is taken almost directly from Chapter 3 of my book.

Contrary to what many people like to believe, no need to believe, humans are not cosmically special. We are animals, not uber-rulers of a vast universe. Yes, we are sophisticated and capable of staggering feats of intelligence, but we are also consistently guilty of acts of passion that mirror the instinctive exploits of our animal cousins. What can we say? It’s in our genes. We all have the same basic genetic framework. The same four letter DNA alphabet (A, T, G, and C) serves as the underlying scaffold for all life on earth. Strands of DNA form genes. Throughout the history of life on this planet, genes have given rise to new organisms that were incrementally different from the ones that came before. However, new organisms were not created from scratch every time. Their designs were built upon designs that have worked well all along. This is why it makes sense that we share 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees, but only 90% with mice. This notion of conservation of design is starkly evident when it comes to the design of the human mind.

The vertebrate brain is divided into three major divisions: the hindbrain, midbrain, and forebrain. It turns out that the structure and function of the hindbrain and midbrain in humans are very similar to what is seen in reptiles, birds, and other mammals. All vertebrates have basically the same organization in the spinal cord, brain stem, thalamus, and cerebellum. That goes for rats, lizards, chimps, and humans. To go even further, we know that the same neurochemicals found in the human brain are also found in the nervous systems of leeches and worms, as well as reptiles, birds, and other mammals. Of course, this is not to say that we have the same minds as other animals. Humans are certainly endowed with mental structures and capabilities that far exceed those of any other animals on our planet. The point, however, is that the aspects we share with other animals are playing a leading role in our everyday lives, whether we know it or not. A light exploration of the architecture of the human mind will give us a feel for this.

The fact that we share our emotional infrastructure with other animals has a profound implication on how we experience life and on our search for truth. Consider the following diagram.
Brain Diagram

It depicts the pathway from an emotional stimulus to a bodily response in the brain. The first thing that happens is the emotional stimulus (say spotting a bear when you’re walking in the woods) sends a signal to the thalamus. The thalamus sends the signal to both the amygdala and the cerebral cortex. The amygdala (a brain structure known to be critical in the execution of basic emotional behavior) is responsible for issuing the response as quickly as possible to prepare you for action. The thalamus to amygdala loop constitutes what we’ll call the emotional pathway. The response it issues manifests itself not only in the immediate body response (such as elevating your heart, causing you to freeze, and preparing your muscles to act), but also in a signal to the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex has the luxury of taking its time to receive the signals both from the thalamus and from the amygdala. It also sends signals back down to the amygdala to be processed along with incoming information from the thalamus. So, the conscious emotional experience is separate and comes after the emotional response. The emotional response is what we share with all vertebrates. The emotional experience is reserved for those of us with consciousness. The jury is out as to exactly where that line is drawn, and I won’t dare hazard a guess. But I’d like to believe my dog is conscious. In any case, there are some points to be made about this arrangement between emotions and cognition.

In terms of the brain, there is a “low road” and “high road” when it comes to mentally processing an external stimulus. The low road is the evolutionarily old route. It corresponds to the pathway from the stimulus to the thalamus to the amygdala to the bodily response. This is the basic flow of what we can think of as emotional programs that take place in what is known as the emotional unconscious. It was designed by evolution to produce survival-enhancing responses to stimuli in the real world. This is really the point of the emotions we share with other animals – they are our rapid-response system. The high road, on the other hand, is the evolutionary new kid on the block. It corresponds to the pathway from the emotional stimulus to the thalamus to the cerebral cortex to the amygdala (and back to the cerebral cortex in a loop) to the bodily response. The cerebral cortex is, in a sense, where the cognitive processing happens. While the stimulus is eliciting a response on the “low road,” the cerebral cortex is assimilating both the stimulus and the emotional response into something that can be considered in a larger context. There are two aspects of this arrangement that have implications on our everyday lives.

The first is the notion that emotional processing inhibits cognition. Look back at the diagram and notice how the brain’s cognitive and emotional equipment are connected to each other. As crude as it is (I hear publishers have editors for this kind of thing), the arrangement is deliberate. The emotional low road is connected more closely to the nervous system, and therefore to the environment, than the cognitive high road. This is because, in evolutionary terms, it is much older. It is the part of the brain that we share with other mammals. In a way, our emotions are our brain’s first line of defense. The cognitive loop is “above” the emotional loop in the sense that all stimuli pass through the emotions en route to the cerebral cortex. The thalamus to amygdala loop, therefore, gets first right of refusal in terms of mounting a response to any given stimulus. It gets to decide whether and how to react to a stimulus before the high road is ever involved. This is important because, when the emotions take charge, there seems to be little room for cognition. It’s that simple. And there are plenty of examples in everyday life to prove it.

Ask almost any first time mother of an infant this question. When your baby cries, how easy it for you to think clearly? My straw poll of some well-educated young mothers yielded a pretty much unanimous response, “When my baby cries, I become completely stupid.” They went on to explain that the sound of their babies’ crying brought out feelings of anguish to fix the situation. Of course, as the children get older, this effect diminishes. However, the anguish is perfectly understandable. Some of the most basic emotional functions exist to ensure the wellbeing of offspring. They most directly serve the most gigantic of biological imperatives – the perpetuation of genes. It is, therefore, no surprise that the sound of one’s own baby’s crying elicits a very strong emotional response. (This was originally written before my child was born. I can now personally attest to this.) What is surprising, however, is how much our emotions are involved in our thought processes.

The second implication of the brain’s organization has to do with the cognition versus emotion question. The fact that all cognitive processing happens after emotional processing means that we can’t really be sure about the state of our processing system for any given stimulus (or situation). We can’t be sure how much of the processing that is going on is emotional versus cognitive. In other words, how much of how we are evaluating the world and responding to it is because of what we’re thinking versus what we’re feeling? As much as we would all like to say that we can usually answer that question accurately, the fact is that we really can’t. The odds are against us – for two reasons.

For one thing, emotional processing happens much faster than cognitive processing. Consider the fact that emotions evolved to deal with life and death situations. They facilitate split-second responses when necessary. Cognitive processes, however, are in no hurry. If something is important enough for you to need to respond almost automatically, you can bet there is a basic emotion mediating it. So, emotions are involved first, and they work fast. In the real world, this means that by the time we get around to thinking about something, there’s no telling how much emotional processing has occurred. We can all recall situations where we have reacted emotionally, but denied it vehemently, only to come to our senses and apologize later.

The odds are also against us because of the sheer magnitude of tasks handled by emotions versus those handled by cognition. The brain’s cognitive faculties are evolutionarily new, and they have been built on top of the ancestral emotional infrastructure we share with other animals. We are capable of handling tasks, such as finding food and shelter and responding to threats, with our emotions entirely. Whether we like it or not, the fact is that our animalistic emotions are involved in our daily lives a lot more than we think they are. They’re always on duty; that’s how the brain is wired.

So what does all this have to do with the nature versus nurture argument? It establishes the scientific basis for the idea that what we observe in nature (the phenotype) is the result of a combination of both forces – genes and the environment. More importantly, put this together with the ideas that we share much of our emotional infrastructure with animals and that other animals (primates, big cats, elephants, etc.) have basic emotions that lead to seeking status, anger, jealousy, and so on, but do not have our cognitive faculties, and you can reasonably conclude that a big part of our emotional repertoire is hard-wired. This is not to say that we are doomed to a predetermined existence. The diagram depicted shows quite clearly how the cognitive loop feeds back into the emotional loop, which means that even the most genetically controlled systems can be cognitively manipulated. That really is the scientific basis for the notion of enlightening the caveman in all of us. Am I getting through to you dualists out there?

Footnotes –
1. Some of the info on the wiring of the brain comes from Joseph LeDoux’s The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life (Touchstone, 1996).
2. Aspects of the discussion on the evolutionary origins of emotion come from Descartes’ Error : Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain by Antonio Damasio (Avon Books, 1994).

Evolution versus Creationism – Part 3 – Intelligent Design

Original Post (with comments)
(Warning – this is longer than usual. What’d you think – enlightenment is free?)
How do you get from primordial soup to living cell? That’s it. That’s the kryptonite in the creationist’s napsack. But that seems to be where it stays. They rarely (if ever) actually pull it out and examine it. How many times I have heard, “Ah, but intelligent design disproves everything you’re saying.” When I try to respond, deaf ears. The answer is somewhat complicated, so I somewhat understand, but it somewhat irks me that many creationists aren’t willing to fully examine what they believe, especially given how vehemently they believe them. This I also understand…somewhat.

They assume the Kryptonite works because it was handed to them by someone in whom they have implicit trust. If they put it to the test, this, the last hope for an argument that has been all but decimated in every debate it has entered, what happens if it fails? What happens if the evolutionary scientist is not weakened by the moment? What happens if the non-believer walks up, grabs the rock, crushes it into a fine powder, and sniffs some of it up his nose, and lives?! These are serious questions for some. Not me.

One thing I like about believing as I do is that I really have nothing invested in my beliefs, with the exception of my admittedly irrational belief in rationality as a superior method of thinking. But beyond that, I could change my mind about anything. Sure, it might be hard to get used to something new, but I’d be OK. All I need is for an assertion to meet my evidentiary requirements, then I’m the first to start exploring the logical consequences of it on my life. Creationists, however, do not enjoy such luxuries. Their belief in God’s creation of the world is the capstone on the arch of their religious faith. If it falls, the arch falls, and life as they know it changes forever. As I am the type to rip off the band-aid all at once, to the truly open-minded, I say get on with it. So let’s pull out the Kryptonite and take a look.

Here’s what’s about to happen, and it may not be pretty. I’m going to put forward a theory for how you get from non-living chemicals floating around in a liquid to a living cell. It all comes down to chemistry and the theory of self-organization, which is most eloquently articulated by Stu Kauffman in, At Home In The Universe. (You simply cannot consider yourself a scientist without knowing what’s inside this book.) I will start by drawing attention to the fact that something this ostensibly miraculous is actually not so uncommon in nature – we’ll look at phase transitions. Then, we’ll look at how connections between entities can become so complex that the entity itself eventually becomes something entirely different (via, you guessed it, a phase transition). I’ll then bring these two ideas together by talking about a chemical reaction network and how you to get to catalytic closure. Finally, we’ll use some back of the envelope stats to conclude that life from chemicals in a soup is not only possible; it’s probable. So consider yourself warned – serious scientifigeekification ahead.

Phase Transitions
The idea that something seemingly random can suddenly transform into something orderly may seem strange. In the world of science, these transformations are called phase transitions. The easiest example is ice. The arrangement of the molecules in liquid water is pretty much random in the sense that the nature of water is not dependent upon the specific arrangement of water molecules. But suddenly, when the temperature of the water reaches 0 degrees Celsius, the water molecules assemble themselves into the orderly substance we call ice. If you look at ice molecules under a microscope, they are crystallized in a stacked arrangement – an orderly arrangement. Ice is, in fact, defined by the arrangement of the constituent molecules as much as it is by the temperature. The phase transition in this case is the change in the physical state from liquid to solid, which corresponds to a change from disorder to order.

The point of this is to suggest that the emergence of complex life was just a phase transition, where a teeming soup of replicating molecules transformed into a cornucopia of living diversity. It’s really about connections. The following toy problem illustrates what I mean.

Buttons and Thread
Imagine throwing 1000 buttons onto a hardwood floor. Now randomly pick two buttons and connect them with a string of thread, and put them back down. Keep doing this. Sometimes you’ll pick up two buttons you haven’t picked up before. Sometimes, one or the other will already have a thread tied to it. No matter, you just keep connecting buttons. Over time, you’ll find that when you pick up some buttons, they are interconnected with several others. This is an example of a random graph. We’ll call these interconnected clusters webs. If you keep glancing at the whole floor as you connect pairs of buttons, you’ll start to see that more and more webs are emerging. You’ll start to see “islands” of buttons with nothing connected to them, bordered in all directions by webs of varying sizes. If you keep going, you’ll find that webs begin to become connected to other webs, resulting in larger and larger webs. You’ll also find that fewer and fewer islands remain. Eventually, the whole thing will be connected; it will become one big web. But it doesn’t happen steadily.

This random graph undergoes the equivalent of a phase transition when the ratio of buttons to threads reaches 0.5. So you can actually predict when the giant web will emerge! When there are 500 threads on the floor, something happens. Below 0.5, all you have is random assemblage of webs and islands – and the largest web is pretty small (a maximum of say 100 buttons). But as you approach 0.5, the webs get larger and begin to interconnect but there are still quite a few of them. But as the 0.5 mark is passed, whamo, the majority of the webs become interconnected, in one giant web. And it doesn’t matter how many buttons you use. If you throw 10,000 on the ground, as soon as there are 5000 threads, you can be sure that there will be a giant web. This is a classic example of a phase transition.

The key thing to take away from this is the idea that a phase transition can almost instantaneously change the face of things. Below 0.5, the random graph above is nothing more than a bunch of buttons and threads random connected and strewn about. Above 0.5, you quickly have a makeshift fishing net! Think about that. If you found this button and thread net hanging in your garage, would you think of it as a net or as a collection of buttons and threads? This is abstraction at its finest, and it happens via phase transitions. So what, right? Why should we believe they play a role in the origin of life explanations? Well let’s try a random graph with chemicals.

Reaction Networks
Considering how the random graph underwent a phase transition, let’s jump from talking about abstract non-living systems to talking about abstract living systems. A metabolic (or chemical) reaction graph is a graph with chemicals represented as circles, reactions represented as squares, lines indicating the reactions between chemicals, and arrows pointing to the products of chemical reactions. Here’s an example…

They come in handy when you want to visually represent all of the reactions that take place between a certain set of molecules. A reaction graph (or reaction network) is a good way to show what’s going on within a chemical system. For simplicity, we’ll look at an abstract reaction graph. Instead of using real chemicals and concerning ourselves with the specific details of reactions, this reaction graph will use generic chemicals and some simple kinds of reactions.

In chemistry, reactions are really nothing more than molecules breaking apart and mixing together to form new molecules or energy or both. Imagine chemical A and chemical B. You can turn chemical A into chemical B, and vice versa. These are one substrate, one product reactions. You can also combine A and B to get AB, and you can cleave AB to form A and B. Simple, you’re now an expert at chemistry. From there, you just add more chemicals and do more of the same kind of thing.
For example, look some more reactions you can get from As and Bs:
AB + A = AA + B
AB + A = ABA
AB + A = A + BA
I could go on and on showing the endless ways these chemicals could react to produce new chemicals. But that is not my purpose. The relevance of the reaction graph is that it works a lot like the button and thread network. Basically, you can think of the buttons as chemicals and the reactions as threads. Here’s what really matters: A network of chemicals can emerge from a random soup of chemicals simply by tuning the ratio of chemicals to reactions.

Instead of throwing buttons on the floor, let’s throw a bunch of generic chemicals into a beaker. If you’re dumb enough to try this, please place your computer next to the beaker so that there is a high likelihood that it will be destroyed if something goes wrong. I’d hate to get sued. Anyhow, for any set of chemicals, a chemist could predict what reactions would take place. The laws of chemistry dictate what the reaction graph will look like. Not too exciting really. But what happens when you add more chemicals to the mixture? You get a whole bunch more reactions. Things start picking up a bit. Thinking in terms of As and Bs, this makes sense. It’s easy to grasp that mixing AA and BB will have more possible reactions than mixing A and B. There are only three possible reactions when mixing A and B:

A can become B
B can become A
A and B can become AB
That’s about it. But look at AA and BB.
AA and BB can become A and ABB
AA and BB can become AAB and B
AA and BB can become AB and AB
AA and BB can become A and AB and B
AA and BB can become AABB
AA and BB can become A and A and B and B

It turns out that as the molecules get bigger, as you add Cs, Ds, and so on, the number of possible reactions increases exponentially. This is not only because of the reactions that can proceed between the initial chemicals. The products of those reactions then become the substrates for new reactions, thereby further increasing the number of reactions. So as you add more and more molecules, the number of reactions that can take place goes up very quickly. And just like the button and thread web, when the ratio of molecules to reactions gets to a certain point, the whole thing becomes an interconnected network.

Now for the big question: can we imagine a reaction graph for a set of chemicals that could lead to the origin of life? In other words, what would the reaction graph of the primordial soup look like? Since there is really no way of knowing, the best we can do is to explore the idea in generic terms to see if anything interesting happens.

Catalytic Closure
Self-organization theory, by putting together the notion of phase transitions together with the complexity of chemical networks, actually shows how the interconnected network can become collectively autocatalytic (self-perpetuating, stable, and catalytically closed), meaning the whole thing can provide for itself, withstand being perturbed, and just keep on running – like a living organism. The secret ingredient is a decent helping of catalysts.

Without catalysts, the fact is that the network is pretty boring. Yes, once the ratio of reactions to chemicals gets high enough, the whole thing becomes connected. But just being connected isn’t enough to produce life. Chemicals just sitting in a beaker together don’t always react very quickly – even if they are connected. Like a bunch of shy kids at a school dance, they take a while to warm up to each other and start interacting. If the kids are too shy, the dance never takes off and everyone ends up going home early. Similarly, a beaker with a set of chemicals that don’t react very much isn’t going to lead to the emergence of life – that’s for sure. Thankfully, catalysts are big stars in the world of chemistry.
Catalysts push chemical reactions along. In the school dance, this would be the equivalent of a teacher convincing little Jimmy to ask Mary Sue to dance. So the reaction graph we’re after has to have catalysts. But since everything is connected, all chemicals are either substrates or products. That means that some chemicals will have to act as catalysts in addition to their day jobs as substrates and products. This is acceptable. There are plenty of examples of this in nature.

But the mere presence of catalysts still doesn’t get us to catalytic closure. In order for the system to become autocatalytic, a set of connected catalyzed chemicals must be present. Within the larger connected web of reacting chemicals, there must exist a subweb of catalyzing reactions. Catalytic closure, which Kauffman asserts should be a major component of any definition of life, means the system is continuously reacting using chemicals it has or produces. Little pockets of catalyzed reactions in the system won’t achieve this. The catalyzed reactions must all be connected to get closure. Luckily, with the help of our old friend statistics, this is not too hard to imagine.
The question now is what is the likelihood that a system with a connected catalyzed reaction subgraph would arise naturally in the primordial soup? Is it a fairytale or could it actually happen? To find out, we really need to know which chemicals can serve as catalysts in any given system. But rather than get tangled in analyzing each chemical, let’s just assume that each chemical has a one in a million chance of catalyzing any given reaction. As remote as these chances may seem, we can still easily show how increasing molecular diversity will inevitably result in the emergence of a collectively autocatalytic set.

Think back to the fact that chemical reactions increase exponentially as the number of molecules in a system increases. If you keep raising the diversity of molecules in the beaker, eventually the ratio of reactions to molecules will reach a million to one. Therefore, the average chemical in the system will undergo a million different reactions. So, probability tells us that each chemical will then catalyze at least one reaction (remember it has a one in a million chance). That means that the ratio of catalyzed reactions to molecules in the system would then be 1.0. At that point, it is highly likely that a large web will emerge, containing a fully connected catalyzed reaction subgraph. At that point, it will be collectively autocatalytic – and alive.

This explanation may seem too generic to be real but that is the point. The key to this line of reasoning is the idea that once any chemical mixture gets to a certain level of complexity, it is easy to see how living order can emerge. It needn’t necessarily even be organic; that just happens to be what was around on earth way back when. If we change the likelihood of catalysis to one in two million, well then the system just needs to have more living diversity, which is really just more time. The message is that the primordial soup had eons of time to work with. It is entirely plausible (and actually very probable) that the molecular diversity became sufficient to cause phase transitions that resulted in collectively autocatalytic, living systems. If this seems like the ultimate just-so scientific explanation, I understand. I’ve only scratched the surface on it. Stu Kauffman is the father of self-organization theory, so you can expect much better from him. Read his book for the juicy details – there’s depth to be absorbed.
My only aim in this lengthy discussion has been to propose a VERY plausible way to get around the supposed intelligent design problem. Once again, we are confronted with the limits of man’s imagination, not the limits of nature. So…I say again, please bring me an argument against evolution that holds water. Please.

Evolution Versus Creationism – Part 2 – Ring Species

Original Post (with comments)
It appears, from my inbox, that I’ve started something here. (He says as he feigns surprise.) All objections point to “intelligent design” as the achilles heel of Darwin’s elegant theory. It appears that this is the real anchor for creationists. They envision it as the AHA! moment in the debate, when deity denying evolutionists will scamper for the corners. Ahem. Not this one. But before I demolish this red herring of an argument, let me just put another nail in the coffin of one other creationist argument – the notion that the fossil record does not back up the assertions of evolution’s apologists. Let’s talk about ring species.

Ring species provide a unique glimpse into how some species came to be. Here’s the dull version: A ring of populations encircles an area of unsuitable habitat. At one location in the ring, two distinct forms coexist without interbreeding. Around the rest of the ring, the traits of one species change gradually through intermediate populations into the second species’ traits. Yawn.
Now let me just quote the master himself, Richard Dawkins:

The best known case is the Herring Gull/Lesser Black-backed Gull ring. In Britain these are clearly distinct species, quite different in color. Anybody can tell them apart. But if you follow the population of Herring Gulls westward round the North Pole to North America, then via Alaska across Siberia and back to Europe again, you notice a curious fact. The ‘Herring Gulls’ become less and less like Herring Gulls and more and more like Lesser Black-backed Gulls until it turns out that our European Lesser Black-backed Gulls actually are the other end of a ring that started out as Herring Gulls. At every stage around the ring, the birds are sufficiently similar to their neighbors to interbreed with them. Until, that is, the ends of the continuum are reached, in Europe. At this point, the Herring Gull and the Lesser Black-backed Gull never interbreed, although they are linked by a continuous series of interbreeding colleagues all the way round the world. The only thing that is special about ring species like these gulls is that the intermediates are still alive. All pairs of related species are potentially ring species. The intermediates must have lived once. It is just that in most cases they are now dead.
“Gaps In The Mind” from A Devil’s Chaplain (2003)

As has previously been stated, the fossil record is indeed discontinuous, but the preferred explanation is not that the life forms required by evolutionary theory did not exist. With ring species, evolving viruses and bacteria, the maturation of the human immune response, and many other examples, it’s obvious that evolution happened and is still happening in lots of circumstances. Nevertheless, it’s truly amazing how easy it is to disbelieve the obvious when you desperately want to. A good friend, a creationist no less, when commenting on women who know their men are cheating but stay anyway, is fond of saying, “They want to believe.” That always strikes me as funny. (You know I love ya, buddy.)