Monday, May 23, 2011
Ratcheting Our Way Up The Evolutionary Ladder
By Fred Zackel
In Louisiana, Chinese were "expressly counted as white" until the 1870 census.
Ideas evolve over time. What used to be de rigueur can look stoopid and wicked.
In the Symposium, the guru Socrates thought that true desire is about giving birth to ideas.
The Greek word “paideia” pops up in mid 5th century BCE. It means "education" or "instruction." The word (pronounced “py-dee-a”) comes from the Greek word “pais, paidos”: “the upbringing of a child.”
Academia world-wide stresses a program of Gen Ed courses to make us all better citizens.
“Know Thyself” and “Nothing in Excess” become our global starting blocks.
The word “Encyclopedia” is a combination of the Greek terms “enkyklios” or “complete
system/circle” and “paideia” or “education/learning.”
The Greeks expected our best efforts in Literature as well as in the Olympics.
The Humanities as a concept was formulated during the Renaissance, which means “rebirth” or “born again.” The phrase “studia humanitatus” becomes a touchstone then.
We study the Human to understand more fully what Being Human means. Being Human is thus the yardstick of the cosmos. We measure ourselves against the Divine (includes the Cosmos,) against the animal kingdom (of which, yes, we are still a part,) and against the Rational.
Being Human, we think with our guts. (We have learned this through brain imaging.) Then we find a reason to justify what we already believe and decided.
“Compare & contrast” is collegiate standard for proper the problem of gainsaying a proper distance with a fresh new idea. It is a tool, a weapon, how we gain perspective.
Let us ruminate. Consider our thumb, for instance. Our Opposable Thumb does most of our hand’s work. So we should celebrate our thumb. To ruminate is to let our thoughts gestate, percolate, inculcate, although not necessarily in that order.
Ideas are shiny things for the mind to gnaw upon. To ruminate is a sort of extended coda. Camels and giraffes, by the way, ruminate. They chew the cud. Coda comes from the Latin “cauda.” It means “a tail.”
All animals seem to be able to perceive and deconstruct the messages their senses give them; survival depends upon this ability. Being Human, we are problem solvers. Three problems top our list. First is personal survival. Second is the survival for the next generation. Third is, how do we better our immediate circumstances?
To ruminate is to digest and adapt.
Most critters do not think. They do not need to think. They get by, eat when they can, live their lives and reproduce as often as they can, and as far as evolution is concerned, getting by is good enough. Run quick enough to do both, hey, and not get eaten by predators, your species is prospering.
Most animals are into short-term gratification. The two-second rule kicks in.
Evolution has no memory. It does not need one. It uses trial and error, random interactions and blind luck, to find something that is self-replicating. What worked yesterday is good enough for today and we will see what tomorrow can bring. “What works good enough” is the key phrase, by the way.
Evolution is neither linear nor predictable. Evolution experiments in every direction, like spilled water flows in every direction, looking for its limits. And nothing is predestined.
Indifferent, uncaring, unemotional, evolution is. Maybe it will work this time. Maybe it wouldn’t work this time.
Our memory has a two-second buffer. The immediacy of the present moment defeats our chances of discovering meaning. Two seconds after taking a product off the shelf, the consumer has at best a fifty-fifty shot at correctly remembering what product we have.
Thinking is tough. It takes protein. A third of our calories goes right to our brains.
But, Being Human, we can build on what recently worked. For one thing, we developed pattern recognition, which is a fancy way to say “I see a lion in the grass over there. It’s the only beige thingie not swaying with the wind.” We intuit from these patterns and act upon them by creating a narrative, and then we realize on a conscious level. We are made aware. Epiphanies are the punch line to narrative.
“Run, sucker, run!”
Rumination can lead to self-exploration. Self-exploration can lead to self-improvement. And we haven’t talked yet about memory, which isn’t that important in a random universe. We can get by on autopilot.
Ever drive to Los Angeles from New York without noticing the road? Truckers do it every day. We can trust the reptile brain to get us there. In fact, when we were younger, we could drive straight through from New York to Los Angeles and get there refreshed and vigorous enough to go see that cutie whose image took the place of the road in our thoughts.
Working memory = making a phone call and remembering all the numbers.
Fluid intelligence = innate problem solving.
We need to celebrate problem solving.
We need to reinforce critical thinking.
You haven’t already forgotten Humanity’s Three Problems, have you?
We teach to get more thinkers in the Herd.
My three goals (for “studia humanitatus”):
To goose critical thinking
To goose empathy
To goose world citizenry
The Greek word "philosophy" means the "love of wisdom." We love wisdom like a brother loves his sister. Wisdom is a butterfly and not a gloomy bird of prey, as Yeats once wrote.
The Greek philosopher Plato said, "Thinking: The talking of the soul with itself."
According to the French philosopher Albert Camus, rebellion is rage against an idea, while revolution introduces a new idea. What makes us human? What makes us better humans? What is the Arab Spring?
Individuals who ruminate soon discover that thinkers have trouble reconciling their thoughts with their Herd’s desires / intentions / hidden agendas.
Who knows what part of our precious heritage we must sacrifice in order to survive as a species? Or survive as an individual?
Today’s solution is tomorrow’s problems.
Let us say that lower animals follow the two-second rule. Higher animals have memories which extend the Two Second Rule.
Rumination can only take a being so far. Rumination depends upon memory. If you cannot remember the past two seconds, how can you ruminate?
We get part of our freedoms by possessing memories. We can compare and contrast our immediate times with what happened in the past.
Memories are at best fragments of experiences cued into being by new stimuli. Memories are always incomplete. We recycle and then reconstruct and then reinterpret. But the Here and Now is terribly insistent. Our receptors can easily be overwhelmed, swamped by sensory data that demands immediate processing. So we get distanced from what just happened. We lose the train of thought. We stay stuck between train stations.
So we devised memorization for information retrieval.
“On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me …”
But History, they say, is whatever happened fifteen days ago.
We needed better retrieval.
We take notes as we ruminate so we can retrace the train of our thoughts.
Often we ruminate to rationalize our own preconceptions. Thus we reinforce our beliefs and do not examine them.
We can rationalize and make any interpretation palatable.
William Safire wrote, “In 1957, Leon Festinger came up with a theory of ‘cognitive dissonance,’ in which he posited the opposite of buyer’s remorse: Most of us tend to embrace the choice we make, so as to reduce the self-critical dissonance in our minds. When we buy a Ford, we read Ford ads and shy away from reading the ads of Toyota.”
Being Human, we also have an innate Necessity for Curiosity. Is that a lion in those bushes? Is that a banana in your pocket? Do you love me? What’s your name again, sailor? A study guide helps organize POVs.
OTOH, rumination: reflection can lead to doubt. Doubt is part of the essence of being human. Doubt is linked to distrust. My vote for the universal bumper sticker for all humanity reads: Can we do better somewhere else?
If a lover thinks it once, the affair is already almost over.
“The whole point of science is self-doubt,” Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School Jerry Avorn says, “and asking could there be another explanation for what we’re seeing.”
Ideas linger …
Shamash was the ancient Sumerian Sungod, and in modern Arabic the word “sun” is “shams.”
The land is “always overwhelmed by your terrible brilliance” (from the hymns of Nineveh.)
The sun is the Divine Judge. Under the sun all men are equal. The laws of humans always descend from the Divine; who else can cover us all? (Like an umbrella?)
Ruminating over a problem is like a beaver chiseling with a tree. Rumination is NOT about math. A petaflop, for instance, is a measurement of computing speed equivalent to one thousand trillion calculations a second. Yeah, Being Human means we make the machines that do the grunt work for us.
I love showering in the dark. You know, with the lights off and the door closed. I do not shower in the dark very often, for then I would be weird, and sadly I am absolutely ordinary and no weirder than you are. A couple times yearly is enough. I luxuriate and only the word “luxuriate” can imply my pleasure. And I ruminate, too, under the hot stinging water, letting serendipity decide my train of thought.
Rumination lets us speculate. Not only do we improve our lots but we can raise the stakes. At the risk of sounding like some marketing nerd, rumination helps us harvest, integrate and prioritize our insights and ideas and issues. We can rate them according to our values and our priorities. When we ruminate, concepts like economy and efficiency have currency (i.e., we can spend them.)
Science: collecting, observing, experimenting, theorizing. Charles Darwin wrote “I think” in the margins of his notes about the Tree of Life. The Eureka Moment is when we find a solution to a problem, too. We may not like the solution or our position related to it, but the moment is notable. Epiphanies are unpredictable … but they like coming after really hard work. We can construct for epiphanies. But we cannot predict them. When we ruminate about our future, we improve our memory. We can improve our memory by planning consciously and deliberately for our futures. Writing down what we ruminated about improves our memory even more.
Rumination according to Confucius: “To review knowledge is as important as learning it.”
“Zhi yuan” is Chinese for “reach further.” The phrase dates back to the Han dynasty and really, well, doesn’t look like much. But “Zhi yuan” is shorthand for “Be still and your mind can reach farther.”
Rumination proceeds from detachment and perspective.
We ruminate to be able to interpret data. Over time, our abilities to interpret improve. Can you see the stages? Each one is a leap above the previous one.
I wonder when the first Homo sapiens first got curious. Big step sideways for one of the great apes. BTW, that tag “Homo sapiens” translates from the Latin verb “to know” or “to taste,” and that ability to discriminate conjures up “wise man.” We are capable of showing wisdom. Not that we automatically and at all times are wise enough to come in out of the rain. We are capable of language, of symbolic thought, of cooperating with each other, all of which help us discriminate between One Thing and the Next Thing.
That’s why we dominate this planet.
Ruminate long enough, and maybe we can determine what it means to be real.
Children and moneys aren’t good with reason, persuasion and logic. Being Human, children can grow into those abilities. Monkeys stay behind.
Monkeys do not have the patience to ruminate. (As a corollary, the uncivilized are easily infuriated by civilization. Cultures evolve, too.)
Desperate people make the best stories. “Darling, I missed you,” she cried, and fired again.
“I need time to ruminate!” he said, fleeing for his life.
A teenager is a gargoyle on a cathedral perch, his back to Authority, his teeth bared against the cold winds of the indifferent world, hunkered down by the burden of his raging emotions, a child with grown-up hormones threatening his anchorage.
Teenagers have only half the critical thinking skills of adults, behavioral scientists have discovered. That’s why teenagers get into trouble.
A sense of Consequences needs to evolve. Within individuals it grows. (Societies, too, but that’s for another time.) Consider that the young (and the terminally foolish) can be tempted by risks. They need fewer opportunities to be young (and terminally foolish.)
One must imagine the consequences of an action. The parents can scream all they want: “Didn’t you think of the Consequences?” The answer is unchanging: “Ah … no.” I am not yet capable of that; I am still a child.
Ruminating is an acquired skill.
Geography and climate made us make choices. Hmmm, should I stay here or should I try seeing if the grass is greener on the other side of that hill? Oh, decisions, decisions, decisions.
Thinking trumps instinct. Being smart enough to come out of the rain, for instance.
We start where we stop. When we stop, we collect our thoughts. Imagine thoughts as discrete globs. Rocks, maybe. Better yet, Kraft caramels. (Okay. Too tattering and tempting.)
We collect our rocks. When we ruminate, we gnaw our thoughts. An idea is a pebble in our mouths. Three beasties now emerge: implications, significance, reverberations.
Calculation leads to manipulation.
I predict my future. Being Human, I can …
Posted by Frederick William Zackel at 12:15 AM | Permalink