30 November 2012

What in me is dark illumine

East Antarctic ice is gaining mass. The dry valleys remain cold for now so the strange beings, living in a pitch dark lake seven times as salty as the sea, 13 degrees below freezing and buried for 2800 years under 20 metres of ice, probably have a future.

P.S. 2 Dec. Search begins for life in another lake, which has been buried under three kilometres of ice for a million years. 

27 November 2012

Badger and bird

Twentieth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 11: Kìrìpʰá-kò and Tʰìk’ìlí-ko, Honey badger and honey guide

page 173: Herodotus. A.P. David writes:
The professional historian, along with humanists of many other disciplines, is especially concerned with a thing she has invented called "methodology". Whole books of historical writing climax with vindications of their own methodology...By these lights Herodotus does not usually qualify as an historian. He is merely a "story-teller". I rather think that he is anti-methodological, and hence a kind of champion. The irony in the modern historian's verdict comes when Herodotus is treated as source material. Whenever it has been possible to corroborate elements of his narrative or description independently, almost always Herodotus has been vindicated.
page 175: super-rat. In Galapagos:
Pinzón island – home to giant tortoises, lava lizards, and Darwin's finches – is suffering an infestation of biblical proportions with an estimated 180 million rats, or 10 every square metre.
page 179: development of language.  A striking point: there are today more languages spoken by humans -- around 7,000 -- than there are species of mammal.

page 180: David Abram. Another passage, almost at random, from The Spell of the Sensuous:
Merleau-Pontyʼs thesis of perceptual reciprocity; to listen to the forest is also, primordially, to feel oneself listened to by the forest, just as to gaze at the surrounding forest is to feel oneself exposed and visible, to feel oneself watched by the forest.
Much as humans communicate not only with audible utterances but with visible movements and gestures so the land also speaks to the Koyukon [people] through visible gestures and signs. The way a raven flies in the wind, swerving or gliding upside down, may indicate success of failure in the hunt; the movement of other animals may indicate the presence of danger, or the approach of a storm, or that the spring thaw will come early this year. The assumption, common to alphabetic culture, that ʻreading omensʼ is a superstitious and utterly irrational activity, prevents us from recognizing the practical importance, for foraging peoples, of such careful attention to the behaviour or the natural surroundings. This watching of the worldʼs gestures, as if every moment bears a meaning, accords with a worldview that simply has no notion of pure meaninglessness. No event for the Koyukon is ever wholly accident or chance, but neither is any event entirely predetermined. Rather like the trickster, Raven, who first gave it its current form, the sensuous world is a spontaneous, playful and dangerous mystery in which we participate, an animate field of powers ever responsive to human actions and spoken words.
page 180: Sufi brotherhood. That is, the Brethren of Purity.

Here is a photo by Martin Schoeller published with an account of the Hadza people by Michael Finkel

24 November 2012

Many real animals are stranger than imaginary ones

Nature allows every child to play tricks with her; every fool to have judgment upon her; thousands to walk stupidly over her and see nothing; and takes her pleasure and finds her account in them all.
-- Goethe 
The wealth of the soul exists in images. I speak in images. With nothing else can I express the words from the depths. 
-- attributed to Jung

This post relates to Rereading: The Book of Imaginary Beings online at The Guardian. Short descriptions of a few imaginary creatures which Borges never knew can be found here.

In an essay published in 1971 the physician Lewis Thomas argued that a bestiary for our time would have to be a microbestiary, featuring the likes of Myxotricha paradoxa, Blepharisma and plant-animal combinations that mostly exist in the sea. Their meaning, he suggested, would be "basically the same as the meaning of a medieval bestiary. There is a tendency for living things to join up, establish linkages, live inside each other, return to earlier arrangements, get along, wherever possible."

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings was partly inspired by Thomas's claim. I looked for real animals, stranger than imaginary ones, that could help me better understand the nature of being and beings. 

See also Nature Beyond Our Wildest Imaginings.

images: the Ornate Ghost Pipefish, Solenostomus paradoxus, and the Rosey-lipped batfish, Ogcocephalus darwini.

Imaginary Beings

This one is real

Jorge Luis Borges wrote The Book of Imaginary Beings before packet switched computer networking was a twinkle in Donald Watts Davies's eye.  These days anyone with access to the Internet can compile their own anthology of imaginary beings in minutes. Here are four:

The Hai in Embassy Town by China Miéville:
The principle imaginary beings in Embassy Town are the two-mouthed Hosts. Early in the book, however, the narrator refers in passing to the Hai, putative beings deep in the immer, the beyond-space that underlies or infuses the manchmal, or "this space where we live"

 "I've spoken to [space] captains and scientists who don't believe [the Hai] to be anything like life, only aggregates of immer, their attacks and jackknife precision just the jostles of an immer chaos in which our manchmal brains can't learn to see the deep random. Myself, I've always thought they were monsters."
The Mulefa in The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman:
These elephant-like creatures lack a central spine but instead have a diamond-framed skeleton.  They have four legs, short horns, and a prehensile trunk. Signing with the trunk is an integral part of Mulefa language. Lacking two hands, it usually requires two or more Mulefa trunks working together to accomplish complex tasks like tying knots.

The Mulefa use large, disc-shaped seed pods from enormous trees as wheels. The pods fit neatly onto a spur on their front and rear legs  They propel themselves using their two side legs, like a cyclist without pedals. Ancient lava flows solidified into smooth rivers of rock run across the land and serve as roads.
A creature in The Road by Cormac McCarthy:
In the dream from which [the man] had wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.
Wentshukumishiteu is said by the Inuit to fiercely protect the young of various animal species from human hunters. It is particularly fond of otters. It can travel anywhere on or under the water, and can break through thick ice. It can also move underground through rocks.

23 November 2012

"Book of the year"

Euan Hirst, Academic Manager at Blackwell's Bookshop in Oxford, chooses The Book of Barely Imagined Beings as his book of the year.

22 November 2012

Wise worm

For more than twenty-five years, scientists have known the exact wiring diagram of the three hundred and two neurons in the C. Elegans roundworm, but in at least half a dozen attempts nobody has yet succeeded in building a computer simulation that can accurately capture the complexities of the simple worm’s nervous system.
-- Gary Marcus.

Unlike Moore's Law for processors, understanding of how the brain actually works, of the computations and circuits that are underlie neural function, is not doubling every eighteen to twenty-four months.

P.S. See also Worms do the wave to translate messages.

21 November 2012

Living colour

A previous post refers the extraordinary colour vision of Gonodactylus and other stomatopods. (If you haven't already listened to Radiolab's singing a rainbow podcast, do). But closer to home than this strange undersea creature there are creatures whose colour vision is amazingly refined compared to ours (though less refined than that of stomatopods): songbirds.

In The Forest Unseen David George Haskell describes vision in the chickadee:
Chickadee eyes...perceive more colors than mine can. I view the [ground] with eyes that are equipped with three types of color receptor, giving me three primary colors and four main combinations of primary colors. Chickadees have an extra color receptor that detects ultraviolet light. This gives them four primary colors and eleven main combinations, expanding the range of color vision beyond what humans can experience or even imagine. Bird color receptors are also equipped with tinted oil droplets that act as light filters, allowing only a narrow range of colors to stimulate each receptor. This increases the precision of color vision. We lack these filters, so even with the range of light visible to humans, birds are better able to discriminate subtle differences in color.  Chickadees live in a hyperreality of color that is inaccessible to our dull eyes.
It may be possible one day, far in the future,  to engineer something like this in humans. At present hallucinogenic drugs offer an impression or illusion that we can perceive colours far beyond the normal realm of experience.  Oliver Sacks [1] reproduces this account from a young man who was a subject in an LSD study at Columbia University in the 1950s or 60s:
The room about me receded into a tunnel of oblivion as I vanished into another world...The heavens above me, a night sky spangled with eyes of flame, dissolve into the most overpowering array of colors I have ever seen or imagined, many of the colors are entirely new -- areas of the spectrum which I seem hitherto to have overlooked. The colors do not stand still, but move and flow in every direction, my field of vision a mosaic of unbelievable complexity.
Sacks reports that a combination of amphetamine, LSD and cannabis allowed him to experience a pure indigo:
It was the color of heaven, the color, I thought, which Giotto had spent a lifetime trying to get but never achieved -- never achieved, perhaps, because the colour of heaven is not to be seen on earth. But it had existed once, I thought -- it was the color of the Paleozoic sea, the color the ocean used to be. I leaned toward it in a sort of ecstasy. And then suddenly it disappeared, leaving me with an overwhelming sense of loss and sadness that it had been snatched away. But I consoled myself: Yes, indigo exists, and it can be conjured up by the brain.
A few months later Sacks briefly experienced 'indigo' again with the aid not of drugs but the music of Monterverdi.

But by whatever means humans induce new experiences of colour in future, there will be a foundational difference between those experiences and the experiences of birds and stomatopods. In the case of the latter two, the capability is an advantage in the pursuit of prey, and has been naturally selected.


[1] Hallucinations (2012) by Oliver Sacks quoting from The Drug Experience (1961) by David Ebin.

19 November 2012

Wise monkeys

Nineteenth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 10: Japanese macaque

page 154: Dario Maestripieri has published three books since Machiavellian Intelligence (2007) including Games Primates Play (2012), which is also the title to this blog.

page 158: Mikhail Bulgakov. No such short story exists, although Bulgakov did write a novella called The Heart of a Dog (1925) in which the testicles and pituitary gland of a man are transplanted into a dog.

page 160: The Judge in...Blood Meridian says:
It makes no difference what men think of war...War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.
page 160: Mao Zedong. See this review of Tombstone by Yang Jisheng and four other books.

page 160: behaviourism. David Deutsch thinks that behaviourism is still being applied, mistakenly, in computer science:
Thinking of an [artificial general intelligence] as a machine for translating experiences, rewards and punishments into ideas (or worse, just into behaviours) is like trying to cure infectious diseases by balancing bodily humours: futile because it is rooted in an archaic and wildly mistaken world view.
page 164: the now-famous 'mirror neurons' Taking a contrary view, Gregor Hickok says there are Eight Problems for the Mirror Neuron Theory of Action Understanding in Monkeys and Humans. (Thanks to Roman Krznaric for drawing attention to Hickok's paper.)

page 165: cooperative urges. E.O.Wilson sees it like this:
...risking oversimplification, individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue. So it appeared that humans are forever conflicted by their prehistory of multilevel selection. They are suspended in unstable and constantly changing locations between the two extreme forces that created us. We are unlikely to yield completely to either force as an ideal solution to our social and political turmoil. To yield completely to the instinctual urgings born from individual selection would dissolve society. To surrender to the urgings from group selection would turn us into angelic robots — students of insects call them ants.
See also Paul Seabright and Mark Pagel. Paul Gilbert says "the recognition that both our evolved minds and our social context shape us, and that we have less control over our minds than we think, is to me a call to compassion."

page 167: steadily less violent over time. For evidence see, e.g., the Science special issue on conflict.

page 168: half of extant species of [primates] are in imminent danger of extinction. Here, for example are two reports - 1, 2 -  on the fate of gorillas

page 168: orangutan. An introduction to threats here. Campaign organisations here and here.

page 169: cuckoo clocks and no Italian Renaissance. John Gray looks here at the claim that artistic creativity thrives on the conflicts that go with being ruled by tyrants.

17 November 2012

An unknown

...My argument is [that] because we don't understand animal consciousness, we ought to be opening our eyes to the possibility that a great range of animals, not just mammals, not just birds, maybe invertebrates are conscious as well. It seems to me that by saying we don't understand consciousness, you're not closing off animals' consciousness. You're not denying animal consciousness altogether. You're just simply saying we don't know and therefore it might exist in a much wider range of animals...
-- Marian Stamp Dawkins

16 November 2012

La velocità

Among his many skills, Chuang-tzu [or Zhuangzi], was an expert draftsman. The king asked him to draw a crab.  Chuang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house and twelve servants.  Five years later the drawing was still not begun. "I need another five years," said Chuang-tzu. The king granted them. At the end of these ten years, Chuang-tzu took up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen.
-- quoted by Italo Calvino in Quickness, one of Six Memos for the Next Millennium.

15 November 2012

Magna ludentis naturae varietas

Eighteenth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 9: Iridogorgia

page 139: spirals [ubiquitous]... in living things -- even, it seems, in the human uterus. See also this on the golden ratio.

page 142: Nuvvuaqittuq. Looking for the most off-putting and obscure possible title for my book, I thought of combining this rock and this device for Nuvvuaqittuq Eidouranion. See here and this essay.

page 143: inserting sequences that code for text into non-coding DNA. Things have moved on a long way since I wrote this chapter! See, for example, this:
Scientists have for the first time used DNA to encode the contents of a book. At 53,000 words, and including 11 images and a computer program, it is the largest amount of data yet stored artificially using the genetic material.
An early analogy between the material (and living) world and language is found in De Rerum Natura by Lucretius, which argues that:
just as the elementa (letters of the alphabet), limited in number, are common to many different words and combine in many different orders to produce the different words included in the verses of the poem, so likewise the different kinds of atom, though limited in number, combine in different ways to produce humans, animals, plants, and all that exists.
page 143: The 101834097  books in the Library of Babel. This figure is from The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges' Library of Babel by William Goldbloom Bloch which was reviewed by Alberto Manguel here.

page 144: central dogma of molecular biology.  It turns out that things are not so simple. See, for example, The ever deepening mystery of the human genome and, especially, The Epigenetic Revolution by Nessa Carey.

page 146: the single biggest threat to Man...is the virus.  See Spillover by David Quammen and The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe. But see also A Planet of Viruses by Carl Zimmer.

page 147: dependent arising. David Barash draws parallels between ecology and Buddhism:
The interconnected and interdependent nature of things is the heart of ecology. It is also remarkably similar to the fundamental insight of Buddhism: ‘dependent co-arising’ or pratītyasamutpāda in Sanskrit
page 149: Beauty [can help us] see that things exist independently of our own attachments.  So, most famously, "there is grandeur in this view of life..."

page 149: deep places that are out of sight. See this on the case for deep sea conservation.

14 November 2012

From the department of amazing facts

Notes [1] today:
  • The flagellar motors in a bacterium such as Escherichia Coli rotate at up to 18,000 revolutions per minutes. Each rotation is powered by the flow of about 1,000 hydrogen ions across the inner membrane. The motor can turn the flagellum in either direction, clockwise or anticlockwise, on demand. 
  • E coli cells push their way through water about at 30μm/s -- that is, 10 or 15 times their body length. [2] (That's roughly equivalent to a human moving at 65 to 97.5 km per hour.) But when they stop turning the flagella, the don't keep coasting as a ship or submarine would. Instead, the surround water stops them in less than the diameter of a water molecule, less than a ten thousandth of their length. [3]


[1] from The Machinery of Life by David Goodsell

[2] 1μm is 0.001 mm -- a millionth, or 10-6 , of a metre

[3] A water molecule is 3x10-10 metre (A Sense of Scale

12 November 2012

Beauty, truth

Seventeenth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 9: Iridogorgia

page 134: symmetry, beauty and why they exist in the world. Symmetry can follow from atomic structure but this is seldom apparent to our senses. One case where it does is snowflakes: "the form of the six-sided ice crystals gives a direct view of what should be invisible: the geometry of atoms [in a water molecule],"  writes David George Haskell in The Forest Unseen. Beauty and the sublime (see page 149) are linked to emotion and cultural context. So, for example, Rainer Maria Rilke:
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror
which we are barely able to endure, and it amazes us so,
because it serenely disdains to destroy us.
Every angel is terrible.
page 134: Metallogorgia looks like a delicate, pink acacia on top of an impossibly thin trunk:

page 135: revolution in the arts. The argument goes on. So, for example, Simon Critchley:
It seems to me that if we look back at much of what is most radical and interesting in the art of the last century, we can see that we are no longer dealing with the sublime or indeed with art as the possibility of aesthetic sublimation, but with an art of de-sublimation that attempts to adumbrate the monstrous, the uncontainable, the unreconciled, that which is unbearable in our experience of reality.
page 136: in translation, the full title of Kepler's Mysterium Cosmographicum is Cosmic Mystery, or The Secret of the World.  Forerunner of the Cosmological Essays, Which Contains the Secret of the Universe; on the Marvelous Proportion of the Celestial Spheres, and on the True and Particular Causes of the Number, Magnitude, and Periodic Motions of the Heavens; Established by Means of the Five Regular Geometric Solids

page 138: organising force. See also the neo-Confucian concept of Li, which has been linked to statements such as this by the biologist Brian Goodwin:
much (and perhaps most) of the order that we see in living nature is an expression of properties intrinsic to complex dynamic systems organized by simple rules of interaction among large numbers of elements.
Compare Henry David Thoreau and William Donald Hamilton. This is from Spring in Walden (1854):
Few phenomena gave me more delight than to observe the forms which thawing sand and clay assume in flowing down the sides of a deep cut on the railroad through which I passed on my way to the village, a phenomenon not very common on so large a scale, though the number of freshly exposed banks of the right material must have been greatly multiplied since railroads were invented. The material was sand of every degree of fineness and of various rich colors, commonly mixed with a little clay. When the frost comes out in the spring, and even in a thawing day in the winter, the sand begins to flow down the slopes like lava, sometimes bursting out through the snow and overflowing it where no sand was to be seen before. Innumerable little streams overlap and interlace one with another, exhibiting a sort of hybrid product, which obeys half way the law of currents, and half way that of vegetation. As it flows it takes the forms of sappy leaves or vines, making heaps of pulpy sprays a foot or more in depth, and resembling, as you look down on them, the laciniated, lobed, and imbricated thalluses of some lichens; or you are reminded of coral, of leopard's paws or birds' feet, of brains or lungs or bowels, and excrements of all kinds. It is a truly grotesque vegetation, whose forms and color we see imitated in bronze, a sort of architectural foliage more ancient and typical than acanthus, chiccory, ivy, vine, or any vegetable leaves; destined perhaps, under some circumstances, to become a puzzle to future geologists. The whole cut impressed me as if it were a cave with its stalactites laid open to the light. The various shades of the sand are singularly rich and agreeable, embracing the different iron colors, brown, gray, yellowish, and reddish. When the flowing mass reaches the drain at the foot of the bank it spreads out flatter into strands, the separate streams losing their semi-cylindrical form and gradually becoming more flat and broad, running together as they are more moist, till they form an almost flat sand, still variously and beautifully shaded, but in which you can trace the original forms of vegetation; till at length, in the water itself, they are converted into banks, like those formed off the mouths of rivers, and the forms of vegetation are lost in the ripple marks on the bottom.

The whole bank, which is from twenty to forty feet high, is sometimes overlaid with a mass of this kind of foliage, or sandy rupture, for a quarter of a mile on one or both sides, the produce of one spring day. What makes this sand foliage remarkable is its springing into existence thus suddenly. When I see on the one side the inert bank—for the sun acts on one side first—and on the other this luxuriant foliage, the creation of an hour, I am affected as if in a peculiar sense I stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me—had come to where he was still at work, sporting on this bank, and with excess of energy strewing his fresh designs about. I feel as if I were nearer to the vitals of the globe, for this sandy overflow is something such a foliaceous mass as the vitals of the animal body. You find thus in the very sands an anticipation of the vegetable leaf. No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly. The atoms have already learned this law, and are pregnant by it. The overhanging leaf sees here its prototype.
And this from Between Shoreham and Downe: Seeking the Key to Natural Beauty (1996) by W. D. Hamilton:
I remember as a startling gift of nature my first sight of how oil spreads on a pool and makes it become alive with colours; how easy it was to cause this magnificent display again with a drop from the household can. I remember as a favourite environment the bare ploughland at the foot of our garden where amid screaming lapwings I would wander hunting for colourful flint stones and fossils.. In the same field again after rain I remember how at the lower end, water coursing in the furrows laid out flat deltaic fans of pale silt beautifully marked. Firm underfoot to a first step, if trampled a little, these fans, losing their braided patterns and turning to mud would suck my bare feet down as if with a living appetite.

10 November 2012

'Overcome by an astonishment at being me'

We can contrast two distant relatives: the intestinal bacterium Escherichia coli and its host, ourselves. We span the spectrum of complexity in living organisms: the bacterium has minimal capability for perceiving and reacting to short term changes in its environment, whereas the major portion of our body is devoted to these tasks.
E coli commit less than 5% of their molecular machinery to motion and perception, allowing the simplest responses...Our bodies, in contrast, are built for specific, directed motion under the control of detailed, reasoned perception. The bulk of our body weight is dedicated to sense, reaction and motion. Cells in our retina are filled with arrays of opsin proteins for sensing light, light that is focused by layers of eye lens cells packed full of clear crystallin proteins. Cells in our skin spin enormously long strands of keratin protein into hairs, and other cells sense their slightest movement. These and other sensory data are transmitted and processed by nerve cells that carry electrical currents propagated by proteins and insulated by concentric layers of lipid. Fine control of movement is accomplished by an enormous skeleton of mineralized bone cells, moved by muscle cells filled with proteins that do nothing but contract, all glued together by connective tissue cells that build tough layers of sugar and protein. However, the common thread of life on Earth still shows through the diversity, tying the simplicity of the bacterium to the complexity of our bodies. All of these unique molecular machines are built of the same four molecular components -- proteins, nucleic acids, lipids, and polysaccharides.
-- from The Machinery of Life by David S. Goodsell.

The title of this post is from an essay by Ken MacLeod. See also In the Waiting Room by Elizabeth Bishop.

9 November 2012

'Born with a kind of musical wisdom and appetite'

Sixteenth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 8: Human

page 125: something very much like music played a central role [in human evolution]. In addition to Steven Mithen and Aniruddh Patel see The “Musilanguage” Model of Music Evolution (pdf) by Steven Brown.

page 126: spiritual and religious practices. See Robert Bellah:
Musical performance is associated with powerful beings and is a means of communicating with them although it is not directly addressed to them...Communication may be said to occur not by singing to a powerful being but by singing it into being. Highly focussed mental images are created in the minds of the performers by means of their performance...There is a consequent merging of the self with what is sung about; just as in myth powerful beings participate in human speech, so in ritual humans participate in itseke [powerful being] musicality and thereby temporarily achieve some of their transformative power.
Because music is so powerful, it can also be applied to destructive ends. So, for example, while evidence suggests it was the British government which pioneered a particularly effective combination of torture techniques (stress positions, starvation, hooding, sleep deprivation and white noise), music rather than white noise has been used by others in attempts to break down psychological integrity. Examples include this by the Nazis and this by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush.

8 November 2012


Fifteenth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings
Chapter 8: Human

page 121: humans...appear to be the only animals anxious about what makes them unique. Helene Guldberg emphasizes the differences:
Human beings, like no other animal, have culture, we can exert some control over nature, and we’ve made life-changing inventions. We’ve built cities, nation states, governments, we’ve created language, we’ve invented the alphabet and other forms of written symbol and produced art and literature. We can diagnose illnesses and cure them, we have a sense of right and wrong and we have a sense of where we want to take society. Animals don’t have any of those things. 
The Earth systems scientists Tim Lenton and Andrew Watson think human language (which, of course, enables arts, institutions, and science) is one of eight major revolutions in the history of life. (See page 167 and their book Revolutions that Made the Earth.)  More than a few philosophers (among them Mark Rowlands) and primatologists (among them Frans de Waal) would disagree with Guldberg's claim that a sense of right and wrong is unique to humans. There is good evidence, too, for culture in (among others) chimpanzees and dolphins, albeit vastly more limited than in humans.

page 121: an ability to inhibit automatic responses in favour of reasoned ones.  This is, arguably, the big question: can humans learn to constrain their own growth? Or do we, as Charles C. Mann puts it, "have the imagination to see our potential end, but not have the imagination to avoid it"?

page 123:  'Lucy' may have been adapted both for living in the trees and...on the ground. See this from David J. Green and Zeresenay Alemseged (also here).

page 123 Early humans liked to eat meat. See this and this.

page 124: running is central to what keeps us most human and healthy.  I like this idea, probably because I like running! Not everyone agrees though!

7 November 2012

The innumerable universes

Mars analemma
There is another you, sitting on an identical Earth, about 10 to the power of 10 to the power of 120 light years away. Other pocket universes will contain entities of almost limitless power and intelligence. If it is allowed by the basic physical laws (which, in this scenario, will be constant across all universes), it must happen. Thus there are unicorns, and thus there are godlike beings. Thus there is a place where your evil twin lives. In an interview I asked Greene if this means there are Narnias out there, Star Trek universes, places where Elvis got a personal trainer and lived to his 90s... Places where every conscious being is in perpetual torment. Heavens and hells. Yes, it does, it seems. And does he find this troubling? ‘Not at all,’ he replied. ‘Exciting. Well, that’s what I say in this universe, at least.’
-- from World Next Door by Michael Hanlon. The Leatherback chapter of my book concludes:
Watching the baby Leatherbacks going like the blazes for the black waters where the majority of them would be eaten by other animals before they grew any bigger than a child’s fist, and where most of the survivors would probably be chewed up in the meat grinder of human civilization, it was nevertheless possible to feel that Schopenhauer’s vision of the world as a place of endless pain and suffering was mistaken. Some small proportion of these young turtles might just survive and return as adults and haul the heavy rock of their own being, now two thousand times as heavy as when they left, once more up the beach. As the stalwart atheist Albert Camus put it, one must imagine Sisyphus happy. And it seemed possible that somewhere, in the innumerable universes, the gods were smiling.

6 November 2012

Lichen: bacteria, algae, fungi

In the fourth century BC, Zhuanzi wrote of an old man tossed in the tumult at the base of a tall waterfall. Terrified onlookers rushed to his aid, but the man emerged unharmed and calm. When asked how he could survive this ordeal he replied, "acquiescence...I accommodate myself to the water, not the water to me." Lichens found this wisdom four hundred million years before the Taoists. The true masters of victory through submission in Zhuangzi's allegory were the lichens clinging to the rock walls around the waterfall.
-- from The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell.

Lichen on rowan tree in Llyfnant valley

P.S. David Barash has a Buddhist take on ecology here.

4 November 2012

Full of eyes

Fourteenth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings
Chapter 7: Gonodactylus, the genital-fingered stomatopod

page 101: stompatopods have eight to twelve colour receptors. A podcast by RadioLab used a choir “singing a rainbow” to paint an audio picture of the range of colours that they see.

page 108: the Barreleye fish Macropinna microstoma. Seen but almost beyond belief:

page 113: brilliant light...on [the] bark and leaves in flakes and dapples of gold. I have left a lot out here. Such moments are experienced by many people. For Annie Dillard (whom I first read eight or ten years after the episode I describe in the book), a similar experience occasions this:
I stood on the grass with lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance...I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. 
 page 113 technological stomatopod. John Grotzinger, the project scientist for Mars Science Laboratory mission, i.e. Curiosity, writes “several of our 17 cameras watched [the stone rounded by stream abrasion] disappear over the horizon.” Grozinger sounds like a whole human being:
in my mind’s eye I can picture the different scenarios that could bring that little stone into existence. And to a planetary geologist, each and every one of them has its own inner and outer beauty.
Curiosity: self-portrait

1 November 2012

The Dead

Don Paterson's version of one of the Sonnets to Orpheus by Raine Maria Rilke:
The Dead

Our business is with fruit and leaf and bloom.
Though they speak with more than just the season's tongue –
the colours that they blaze from the dark loam
all have something of a jealous tang

of the dead about them. What do we know of their part
in this, those secret brothers of the harrow,
invigorating the soil – oiling the dirt
so liberally with their essence, their black marrow?

But here's the question: are the flower and fruit
held out to us in love, or merely thrust
up at us, their masters, like a fist?

Or are they lords, asleep among the roots,
granting to us in their great largesse
this hybrid thing – part brute force, part mute kiss?

Day of the dead

Thirteenth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 6: Flatworm

page 92: Everything that lives is holy. On occasion, Annie Dillard entertains a different view:
I don't know what it is about fecundity that so appalls. I suppose it is the teeming evidence that birth and growth, which we value, are ubiquitous and blind, that life itself is so astonishingly cheap, that nature is as careless as it is bountiful, and that with extravagance goes a crushing waste that will one day include our own cheap lives. Every glistening egg is a memento mori.
page 93: an attitude vaguely adequate in the face of [death].  Michel de Montaigne wrote:
To philosophize is to learn how to die: Where death waits for us is uncertain; let us look for him everywhere. The premeditation of death is the premeditation of liberty; he who has learned to die, has unlearned to serve.  
In The Hit, a 1984 gangster film, Willie Parker (played by Terrence Stamp) seems to be living with this attitude (see this clip) but looses it in the end (see this clip).

page 96: spicy delights of the soil.  See, for example, My mushroom burial suit (TED talk) by Jae Rhim Lee.

P.S. A note from a year ago and some wise words from Christopher Hitchens