October 28, 2008
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:
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,
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.
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:
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.
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!”
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.
|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|