Archive for the 'Evolution' Category

The great mystery of genetics

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about what I consider to be the greatest mystery in the realm of neuroscience and genetics. Since I have no doubt you will be fascinated by this, I will describe it here.

In a lecture I caught on video, neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky described an interesting behavior exhibited by a certain kind of monkey or ape — I can’t remember the specific creature. This particular beast lives in a harem style social network — there’s one male and he gets all the chicks. This alpha male usually has a two or three-year run before a younger, stronger male beats him up and takes control the harem. What does this younger, stronger male do upon ascending to the throne? He finds all the infants currently being nursed by the females in his harem and kills them. As brutal as this may be, it makes a certain sense. This new alpha male has a limited window of time to pass his genes on via sex. Nursing mothers can’t get pregnant, so he needs to do whatever it takes to get them fertile again.

Of course, the question is: how does this monkey know this? Monkeys don’t have language, and even if they did I’m not sure they could understand such complex topics as the timing of fertility. (To be honest, even I was unaware that nursing mothers couldn’t become pregnant while nursing until I watched the video, and I’m a pretty smart monkey.) Since this information can’t be passed on through learning or culture, it must be passed on genetically.

At first, that seems preposterous — how can bands of DNA and RNA pass on something like, “kill your predecessor’s children in order to make sure your new harem will become fertile”? But animals have all sorts of behavioral instincts that seem to be programmed into them by evolution. Dogs circle around three times before taking a nap, for example.

What’s happening in this monkey’s head when he decides to kill these infants? Presumably he’s driven into an excitable, murderous rage — his heart races, adrenaline shoots through his body, muscles tense. And somehow he knows the targets of this rage — baby monkeys. But how can information encoded into DNA “know” that the creature it’s coding for will ever encounter baby monkeys? In a sense, DNA is dumb enough to not even know what kind of creature it is coding for. (Humans share 50% of their DNA with a banana.) How does DNA code for complex behaviors? (Complex always being a relative term.) That is the great mystery of genetics.

My best guess at an answer is somewhat cloudy. I would presume DNA is not saying, “if you ever get to be king alpha monkey, make sure you kill everybody’s kids.” DNA is operating on a much more basic level. Let’s turn to computers for an analogy. You might be running an e-mail program. But that program can be deconstructed to the raw program code written in a particular language like Visual Basic. And that code can be broken down further to what’s called machine language which appears to the human eye as an indecipherable series of meaningless characters. And even that can be broken down to electrical signals traveling the circuitry of your computer. You could say the same for the reality we sense about us. If I am an alpha monkey and I see a baby monkey, what’s really happening is that I’m sensing the light waves reflecting off that baby monkey. Those light waves are hitting my retinal cells, firing off neurons in being interpreted as a psychological construction — a baby monkey — in my brain. And that psychological construction is somehow the connection of lots and lots (thousands? Millions?) of neurons. So perhaps the DNA is programming at this simplified, deconstructionist level. It’s not saying, “when you see a baby monkey, kill it!” It’s saying, “when you encounter a certain pattern of sensory information deconstructed to this very basic level then fire off a complex set of behaviors (which ultimately will lead to the monkey killing the baby monkey.)” This is complex stuff to think about, but I’m essentially saying DNA programs on the biological analogue to the most basic level of computing: the firing of electrical signals.

Atlas hugged?

Andrew Sullivan, at his blog, has been collecting a series of posts called “growing up objectivist.” (Here’s one.) Generally speaking, it’s commentary from people who were influenced — positively or negatively — by the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand. (It’s worth noting that a film adaptation of the first of three parts of her infamous novel “Atlas Shrugged” has just been released.)

Rand’s writing takes a lot of hits in these posts. I have somewhat conflicting feelings on the topic. I recall reading her short novel, “Anthem,” somewhere around the time of being a teenager and finding it to be a largely ignorable science-fiction dystopia novel. A couple years later I tried reading “The Fountainhead” and only made it a couple chapters in. But three or four years ago I took another stab at “The Fountainhead” and found it to be a quite enjoyable large-scale narrative with interesting character arcs and attention to detail that, while quite overwhelming, really made the story feel “real.”

But what also struck me about “The Fountainhead” was its delicious contrarianism. 98% of all fiction in almost any form of media is filled with standard messages of “sharing is good, we should look after each other, it’s only by standing together that we can achieve anything, blah blah…” “The Fountainhead” appeared deliberately oblivious to these sentiments and unapologetically presented Rand’s argument that selfishness is good.

I’ve never really bought Rand’s philosophy for reasons I’ll get to in a minute, but I have always squirmed at the saccharine, lovey-dovey “let’s all love each other” dribble you find in most narratives. As such, reading “The Fountainhead” offers a wonderful catharsis. (I’ve never read “Atlas Shrugged” — probably considered Rand’s magnum opus — mainly because it’s another thousand plus page novel and I’m generally familiar with the crux of it. Maybe I’ll give the movie a try.)

But there’s something that’s always seemed askew about Rand’s vision. And I think it boils down to the fact that as humans, we take a certain pleasure in helping each other. Engaging in some kind of discipline in which we attempt to purge ourselves of sympathy and compassion just sounds like too much work. (Which makes one wonder: did Rand herself achieve this? She definitely has a personal reputation as a bit of a oddball; her family did undergo the trauma of collectivization in early 20th-century Russia — perhaps that burned out her emotional circuits.)

The discipline of evolutionary psychology argues human sympathy — what you might call altruism — is hardwired into the brain. Humans, evolving in small groups, had to have an unspoken insurance plan: “you look out for me, and I’ll do the same in return.” As such, looking out for the other guy is really looking out for our own interests, and as a result, genes that create bodies that reward altruistic behavior with pleasurable sensations thrive. (The classic “joy of giving.”) Of course, there’s an irony here: by this definition, our altruism is ultimately selfish.

The evolution of grouping

Most of us understand or at least appreciate the concept of “grouping” in art e.g. showing reoccurring patterns or colors. I recently came across an interesting article that offers a theory as to why man evolved to appreciate aesthetic grouping. First the author defines the grouping concept:

Grouping is a well-known law frequently used by both artists and fashion designers. If you look at the classical Renaissance painting in figure 5, you will notice how the same azure blue color repeats all over the canvas — the sky, the robes, and the water. And the same tint of brown is used for clothes, skin, soil, etc. The artist uses a limited set of colors rather than an enormous range of colors.

The same holds for fashion. When you go to Nordstrom’s to buy a red skirt the salesgirl will advise you to buy a red scarf and a red belt to go with it…. what’s all this really about? Is there a logical reason for doing this? Is it just marketing and hype, or is it telling you something fundamental about the brain? This is the why question.

Yes, why? The question is enough to drive one mad.

…think of one of your arboreal ancestors trying to spot a lion hidden behind a screen of green splotches (a tree branch in front of it). What’s visible is only several yellow splotches — lion fragments. But the brain “says” (in effect): “What’s the likelihood that all these fragments are exactly the same color by coincidence? Zero. So they probably belong to one object. So let me glue them together to see what it is. Oops! It’s a lion — let me run!” This seemingly esoteric ability to group splotches may have made all the difference between life and death.

Earlier in the article, the author makes an inadvertently funny comment.

Chennai (Madras), the city in Southern India where I was born, dates back to the first millennium B.C. I often return to it as a visiting professor at the Institute of Neurology to work on patients with stroke, with phantom limbs following amputation, or a sensory loss caused by leprosy. During one three-month visit, we were going through a dry spell; there weren’t many patients to see.

Yes, it’s really a shame that stroke, phantom limb pain and leprosy are on the decline.

The deficiencies of the social marketplace

In the past, I’ve spoken about what I term the “social economy” — the concept that human social interactions can be thought of as an exchange of favors. It’s the idea that we keep tabs on who we’ve done favors for, and who has done us favors, and are less inclined to help people who we feel have shortchanged us. It’s what evolutionary biologists call “reciprocal altruism.”

There’s one pronounced downside to the system. As individuals, we love to be complimented, and hate to be criticized. As such, if someone gives us an empty compliment, we feel we owe them a favor. (You often see this in the interaction of women. “Oh, Judy, I love your blouse!” “Thank you, Margaret. You have the cutest shoes!” (Men are usually too busy dealing with important pursuits, such as thinking great thoughts or running the world to be bothered with such trivialities.)) Conversely, if someone gives us honest and useful criticism, we are prone to being angered.

This often leads to an “Emperor’s new clothes” scenario. A person who has great wealth and power will find it hard to get an honest opinion out of his sycophants because they are hoping their empty compliments will be returned in gifts of actual money or power. This is probably what happened to Egypt’s soon-to-be outgoing Pres. Mubarak. None of his counselors were willing to tell him that the people were growing restless, and thus, when riots broke out, he was caught by surprise. I’m also reminded of Keith Richards. A friend of mine recently saw him perform live and said he was just plain awful. Of course, the crowds loudly applauded each horrible guitar solo and Richards himself seemed unaware of his deficiencies. He too is probably surrounded by an entourage unwilling to inform him that his abilities have waned.

Thus the powerful suffer in the social economy. But so does one other group. Great thinkers — such as myself — who think outside the box, who challenge the conventional wisdom of the moment are seen as threats precisely because we do not offer up empty platitudes or meaningless compliments. The stinking, snoring mediocrities that make up most of the human population remain determinedly oblivious to our greatness; they ignore, even ostracize us. And we are deprived of the steady access to wealth, fame and large breasted Asian school girls in bondage we so richly deserve.

Good-looking people also more intelligent

Refuting every dumb bimbo joke, a new study confirms what one would presume to be obvious: attractive people are smarter. The gist:

Lead researcher Satoshi Kanazawa said: “In the samples, physical attractiveness is significantly positively associated with general intelligence, both with and without controls for social class, body size and health. The association between physical attractiveness and general intelligence is also stronger among men than among women.”

Why would this point seem obvious? It follows the rules of evolutionary psychology, as explained by the researcher.

Kanazawa added: “If more intelligent men are more likely to attain higher status, and if men of higher status are more likely to marry beautiful women, then, given intelligence and attractiveness are heritable, there should be a positive correlation between intelligence and physical attractiveness in the children.”

Doubtless some social critics will make the argument that attractiveness is not an absolute quality, but rather one determined by changing standards of the culture and time period. But you can’t help but notice how unattractive those critics are.

Of course, if you need a specific example of the attractiveness/intelligence correlation, you need look no further than your humble blogger. I’m often mistaken for Johnny Depp, and my advanced cognitive abilities are beyond dispute.

Patterns or consistency

I was recently talking about a Ted talk delivered by Steven Pinker. He commented on a number of things, including the idea that the human brain is wired for certain aesthetic preferences, particularly patterns. He argued that much of the highbrow art and music of the 20th century ignored these preferences, falling under the spell of the “blank slate” hypothesis — the idea that humans are born with no innate biases. As such, much of that art and music never caught on with the public.

As I noted, this makes a lot of sense in terms of atonal music (by composers such as Stravinsky, Webern.) It’s music without discernible patterns such as repeating rhythmic phrase, or recurring structures (like four chords over and over for a verse.) Pattern loving humans should be frustrated by atonal music’s lack of patterns, and thus one would predict that atonal music would be only appreciated by tiny crowds of music nerds — exactly what has happened.

However, I’m not quite sure that it’s patterns which humans have a preference for. I think a better term might be consistency. If I see a plant with several leaves, and all the leaves are green, then there is no real pattern, but it is consistent that all the leaves have the same color. And if there was one purple leaf, it would stand out (e.g. that’s the inconsistently leaf.) I would propose that for much of evolution people were analyzing the consistency of their natural surroundings and became wary of inconsistency (“don’t eat the purple leaf!”) and now we apply this preference for consistency to our art forms.

The mystery of oral sex

Sex has always been a mystery to me. Not in pertaining it — women flock to me like grizzled prospectors rushing to the latest river reported to have a shiny bounty. Nor is sexual practice a mystery — my skills at pleasuring women are legendary. Rather, sex is a mystery from a perspective of the evolutionary sciences. Why did we evolve to practice it?

Some might say that the sex act fulfills the most basic desire of any creature — to replicate its genes. And it does, sometimes, though months past the actual date of the event. The more correct answer is that our biology rewards sexual acts with pleasure. The resulting children are merely a side effect.

But what about oral sex? It makes sense that the person to whom oral sex is being applied would enjoy it since it’s pleasurable in a way similar to regular sex. But often the person performing the oral sex enjoys the act. Why would this be?

One theory might be that the person realizes that they are “warming up” his or her partner, and will receive some sexual payback eventually.

But here’s what I wonder about. Do the sex organs exude some kind of olfactory treasure, a smell that turns us on? If that were the case, then we would have a general interest in burying our noses in each other’s crotches. Of course, we live in a culture where burying your nose in another person’s crotch is considered unseemly (unlike dogs.) So how do we convince another person to let our nose near their crotch? We essentially say, “while I’m down here, I’ll use my mouth to stimulate your genitalia.”

The meaning of life

After my life basically imploded due to my repetitive strain and vestibular issues, and I had to move from Los Angeles to San Diego, I spent a lot of time wondering about the meaning of life. More specifically, I found myself asking the question, “what do I do with my life now?” I’d basically just transitioned from a life of financial comfort, a rich peer group and steady access to pussy towards not knowing anybody, being celibate and spending a lot of time aimlessly walking around.

Mankind has, of course, grappled with these questions throughout its history. The presumption is that we should do what makes us happy. What makes us happy? Conventional answers might be having a relationship or family, generating wealth, accomplishing something (like writing a book) or earning celebrity. But those answers don’t ring so true these days. Families break up all the time, the miserable millionaire is a cliché and the joys of accomplishments and celebrity are fleeting.

In those early months of pondering the subject I noticed two things that gave me pleasure. One was continuing my lifelong dissection and exploration of music, the second was reading as much as possible as I could about the mind and the brain. It was the challenge of understanding some of the infinite mysteries integral to both subjects that gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

This idea, that man likes a challenge, is nothing new. Biologists presume our natural curiosity helped us evolve, and psychologists and neuroscientists argue that it’s built into our DNA. Think of it this way: a primitive man sees a rabbit. He takes a guess at how hard he needs to throw a rock to hit the rabbit on the head. He overshoots and the rabbit runs away. The next day he sees another rabbit, under shoots, and again loses it. The third day, he sees yet another rabbit (or maybe even the same one, your choice.) He muses on what he learned the previous two days, throws a rock, and hits the rabbit on the head. He’s just figured out how to add rabbit to his diet which will only benefit him and his species. His willingness to embrace challenges is passed down to his offspring etc.

But I don’t think it’s any challenge that gives us a sense of fulfillment. We have to be faced with challenges that we have a reasonable chance of overcoming. If you challenge yourself to learn everything about post-Newtonian physics by Friday, you’re going to be frustrated and overwhelmed. But if you challenge yourself to get a decent understanding of molecules by Friday, you just might achieve it. Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist I’ve talked about in the past, has discussed this. When people are presented with insurmountable challenges, they stress out, and stress is not pleasant or particularly effective for accomplishing anything. But people thrive in an environment where they face reasonable challenges. And this idea of challenging people in a benevolent environment is especially applicable to learning. Sapolsky states…

… educators call this the x+1 rule. We take kids wherever they are now (level x) and then challenge them with x plus 1, not x plus a thousand. There has to be a good chance of success from the beginning.

If we return to my list of potential happiness inducers, we might conclude that relationships are, in fact, a viable pursuit in life, because they are challenges. Figuring out how to have a mutually beneficial and exciting relationship with someone is, in itself, a challenge. And you often hear marriage counselors say that successful marriages consist of partners who continually surprise and intrigue (e.g. challenge) each other.

But here’s the rub. As a heterosexual male, my only option is to seek a relationship with a heterosexual female. And figuring out what a woman wants is clearly an insurmountable challenge because they defy all laws of logic. Their emotional state undulates for no discernible reason, their sexual desires are fickle, and their personal demands fluctuate with all the predictability of the weather on one of Jupiter’s moons (which we all know is very unpredictable.) Someone such as myself — intelligent, good natured, quite reasonable — is doomed in any attempt to placate the wild beast we call woman.

I don’t think I’ll ever tire of taking a thoughtful, perhaps even profound blog post, and appending to it a malicious slander against all women.

Our innate artistic preferences

I happened across this interesting Ted talk last night, featuring Steven Pinker discussing his then current book, “The Blank Slate.” He has some provocative thoughts about the arts, alleging that the decline in high arts during the 20 century was influenced partly by the popularization of the idea that human behavior is determined entirely by the environment and is not innate. If you accept this theory, you might theorize that since humans have no built-in preference for classic artistic concepts like patterns or repetition, they can be “programmed” to like anything including atonal music and non-representational art (think Jackson Pollock.) However, the blank slate hypothesis has largely been debunked — humans do have innate tendencies, including preferences for patterns and repetition etc. (I’m not sure that’s actually been proven without a doubt, but seems intuitively true.) Thus, art that flies in the face of these preferences will fail.

(I was recently reading about the theory that humans prefer uncluttered, non-busy forms of visual art because they remind us of the open savannas we lived in for most of our evolutionary history, savannas that gave us ample opportunity to see approaching predators.)

That seems to be exactly what happened with atonal music. Humans seeking discernible patterns in the music cannot find any in atonal compositions and thus the music is popular with only a tiny subset of people. (Occasionally, I find it quite interesting in a “horror music” sort of way, but it would probably drive me up the wall if it was the only thing I listened to.) 20th-century non-representational art seems a little more welcoming. I find some of it interesting look at in the same way it’s interesting to look at clouds or fields of plants in nature. But, nonetheless, it’s fair to say most people prefer art that “looks like something,” and gives their eyes something to hook into.

I’d have to read Pinker’s book to really think through the ramifications of all this, but I’m always interested in the way that ideas in the sciences can affect the art world, which tends to hold itself as being above such distractions.

On a complete tangent, I’ve noticed that Flo, the Progressive Insurance girl, is looking a bit peaked in recent commercials. I hope they’re not working her too hard.

The bound God

Occasionally, I’ve mocked followers of intelligent design in this blog, accusing them of being mentally incompetent retards, or feces stained morons, or dull-witted nimrods. Just good-natured razzing, really. But I have to concede that as I’ve been reading a lot about DNA and genetics and the cellular construction of the human body lately, I find it’s complexity so overwhelming that I have to wonder whether the only explanation for life is an intelligent designer.

Of course, on the flipside, I find the human body rather un-elegantly designed. The pathways which with the brain communicates to the rest of the body are often meandering and convoluted, and the system is rife with inefficiencies.

But an interesting thought struck me today. Man himself may not be far off from creating machines capable of complex processing such as learning. It may well happen that these devices — be they software or robots — will eventually develop some crude form of consciousness, and may wonder whether they themselves were created by a higher being or evolved “naturally.”

The answer will be that they were created by a god of sorts e.g. man. Of course, they would not be so much created as constructed out of existing parts. Man would not be willing the atoms and molecules these robots would be created from out of thin air. This opens up the interesting idea of a “bound God.” A god who can create life, but is still limited by the materials at hand and the laws of the universe.

Perhaps one day I could become a bound God. And use my power to destroy my enemies.