Monday, October 1, 2018

The animal life around us is more interesting than we could ever imagine



The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary – Caspar Henderson (2013)

            Bestiaries are bad-ass.  I even like the word itself (a collection of beasts!!!).  For the most recent human history, bestiaries were collections, much like encyclopedias and atlases, that sought to compile the whole breadth of the animal life found in a specific area of the world.  Ancient Greek and Roman scholars would compile these amazing bestiaries, mostly based on word-of-mouth and accounts brought back from intrepid sailors.  Because their sources were never actually verified, many of the entries found in these old bestiaries are either for wholly made up animals, such as chimeras, unicorns, and gryphons, or they were for severely misidentified and poorly described animals, such as the rhinoceros, which was originally thought to have armored plating, and whose horn it was said would spew fire when the creature was angry.  While many of these descriptions sound poetically correct, (you do NOT want a 2 ton rhino angry at you.  You will swear he has fire shooting out its snout as it comes to wreck you up.  Also, its thick, folded skin, does indeed look like armor plating,) they were not up to the veracity needed to function as true scientific categorization.
            Around half a decade ago, author Caspar Henderson started to think about animals, specifically the ones that are surprising to encounter.  These animals are so amazing, so unique in their morphology or their behavior, and so different from the standard animals we humans find ourselves exposed to, that they may as well be mythical.  He began to do the research that led to this book.  Mr. Henderson’s love of nature shines through in his writing.  He has chosen one animal to represent each letter of the alphabet, and in each chapter he manages to not only describe the amazing animal in question, what we know currently about its life, physical properties, and behavior, but he also explores the way humans have discovered these details, how humans used to see these animals historically, and the possibilities inherent for us in studying these magnificent creatures.
            I am a huge nature nut, and I am always in awe of the seemingly inexhaustible variety of form and function that life has taken on our lovely planet Earth.  I was quite familiar with some of the animals in this bestiary, and I was completely ignorant of several of these creatures.  I learned quite a lot about or fellow animals, and was left with a distinct impression that, for all we humans know about life and the universe around us, what remains to be known is so vast, and so completely unpredictable to us, that it shines a harsh light on the selfish way we humans treat our Earth and its fellow inhabitants.  We are all in this together, whether prey or predator, scavenger, or parasite.  The more we know about the world around us, hopefully the less we will take it for granted.  When we destroy nature we are destroying ourselves.

(This book can be purchased here:  https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/B/bo15631080.html )

[ Review edited per the author's correction. - RXTT ]

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Violence, like everything else, is relative




The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined – Steven Pinker (2011)

      Living in our world today presents a duality that we all must cope with.  Firstly, we now live in a time where fewer people are living in extreme poverty than ever before in our collective history.  Humans are living to older ages than ever before.  Humans have managed to engage in worldwide trade and diplomacy, and do so with the minimum of force or violence.  Secondly, we now have the ability to be informed about every single horror that occurs anywhere on our planet within seconds of its happening.  We have the ability to detect more and more varieties of cancer and disease.  We also have a never-ending news cycle that will repeat ghastly news over and over again, giving the impression that everything is chaos and horror.  These two sides of our world fight for our collective consciousness. 
Many people claim that humanity has degraded over the eons, beginning in a pastoral and peaceful existence, and ending in our constant competition for resources, bringing wars, violence, and terror to the people.  What Steven Pinker has done in this amazing book is gather up the data available to show that, as a whole, and throughout all of humankind, our collective violence has actually decreased due to the evolution of our collective humanity. 
Pinker explores the many methods by which violence is categorized and quantified, and proceeds to regale the reader with 8 chapters of the most brutal history of human violence upon ourselves, animals, and the world around us.  He details everything from state sponsored war, to individual acts of murder and violence.  In each instance, these violent acts have drastically decreased throughout the world.  Even in the most remote and government-less parts of Earth, violence has decreased. 
It is hard for a modern human to consider how horrible it was to exist a thousand years ago, with our knowledge of world wars, genocide, and other horrors fresh in our collective minds.  Pinker describes exactly how dangerous it was to be a human being at various points in our past, both distant and recent.  In fact, up until very recently indeed, most humans died before the age of 30, and a person reaching 50 years of age was considered ancient!  These days, we all expect to live to 80 and worry a ton about “premature” death, as if death was something we all have on a schedule like lunch or nap-time.  This bias comes specifically from how safe and non-violent our day-to-day world is. 
One of the most important conclusions from this research is that, as the world becomes less religious, it becomes less violent.  In previous eras, when religion was state-sanctioned, and belonging to a different religion regularly meant death, or at best, banishment, the ease by which humans saw other humans as NON-humans is evident.  Religion also taught men to subjugate women, and to approve of using “lesser humans” as slaves, for their god told them it was A-OK.  The worst were states where the religion controlled the politics.  These provided humanity with extreme cases of genocide, mass-murder, and the infestation of violence.
Violence was so pervasive in our past that people writing contemporaneously did not seem too bothered by public torture, public executions, and the display of endless gore and violence.  Every ancient culture had blood-sports, from the Romans and their gladiators, to the British and their bear-baiting. (Bear baiting is when a bear is chained up and then feral wolves or dogs are dispatched to attack the bear, and everyone had a blast watching dogs and bears get ripped to shreds in horrible ordeals of pain and gore.  The British LOVED this, and they were all very religious!)
What Steven Pinker has done here is provide factual, well-researched data to help spread the enlightenment and humanist ideas that have managed to make our current time the least violent of all.  It is a heavy book, and quite depressing at times, but the knowledge that we humans seem to be heading towards a less violent and more constructive existence is something that lifts my spirits.

(This book is available for purchase here:  https://www.amazon.com/Better-Angels-Our-Nature-Violence/dp/0143122010 )

Friday, August 3, 2018

J.B.S. Haldane had ideas as to what the Future would hold.




Daedalus: or, Science & The Future – J.B.S. Haldane (1924)

This is yet another great recommendation by the one and only Rudy Rucker.  Whereas my previous review was of a large compendium of philosophy relating to the topic of panpsychism, this is a short and tight book, complied from the speech given by noted English scientist J.B.S. Haldane to an audience at Cambridge University.
The year was 1924, the Great War was over, and scientists had been grappling with new advanced discoveries in physics, biology, and medicine.  Mr. Haldane used his platform at this Cambridge meeting of scientists to deliver a predictive talk.  In the course of this short book, Haldane discusses so many possible outcomes for the study of science.  A few were bound to be wrong.  Just as many of them were correct.  He was the first man to utilize the prediction that England’s coal and petrol reserves would not last  beyond a few hundred years, and provide alternative methods by which energy could be harnessed, and the soot and smoke of coal and petrol fires be banished forever.  His idea was that in the future, England would be dotted with giant metal wind turbines, which would rotate, create electricity, and then be stored to be used in breaking the atomic bonds of water, creating vast amounts of oxygen and hydrogen.  Hydrogen is the most efficient energy storage material there is.  Petroleum, gas, and even nuclear fuel, are not as efficient in creating heat and energy.  J.B.S. Haldane would have been excited to drive through the deserts of west Texas, seeing the thousands of non-polluting wind turbines creating electricity through renewable resources.
He discusses the vast difference in life expectancy that the medicine at his time had achieved.  Just a hundred years before his birth, a man was lucky to live to age 40.  He stated how this life expectancy shaped so much of the world in England.  A man, upon his death, would pass on his lands to his eldest son.  When a man lives to 40 or so, his oldest son will be around 20, and will have no experience of anything other than running the family estate/business/farm.  However, when life expectancy increased, men lived to 80 years old, dying and leaving their estates to men who were in their 60’s, had fully developed personal lives and families, and would likely not know anything about how to run the family enterprise, having had to make a living outside of it for 30-40 years.  These seemingly small things, such as vaccination, pasteurization, and hygiene, have massive effects on the world we live in.
J.B.S. Haldane continues on to describe possible future outcomes based on the expected progress of scientific achievement.  He discusses so many things, in such a short amount of text, that it is truly an amazing speech.  It should have blown away anyone who heard it at Cambridge back in 1924.  He even describes his use of Daedalus as his theme, for he saw Daedalus as the first truly modern human in myth, unconcerned with the will of gods, or the whims of fate, but instead using his mind and reason to make sense of the world around him and to control it.  Too often, his story is told solely based on the myth of his son Icarus flying too close to the Sun, and plummeting to his death as a result.  However, Daedalus was an engineer, an architect, a biologist, a surgeon, and so much more.  It is a cool reminder that myths are valuable because of the richness of meaning found within, and not just solely for moral lessons.  This would be a cool book for young researchers and scientists to read.  I think it would help focus their goals to the betterment of humanity.  It would also help them understand that, while we stand on the shoulders of giants, we ourselves are the giants that the next generations will be standing upon.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Is Mind inherent in all of Existence? How can it not be?





Panpsychism in the West – David Skrbina (2017 Revised Edition)

      It has been almost 4 years since I first began posting reviews of the books I read on this blog, RXTT’s Intellectual Journey.  One of the most gratifying and unexpected outcomes of this project has been the ability to correspond with some of the authors of the books I read.  It always thrills me when they reply to my communications.  One of the many who I have had a chance to correspond with has been mathematician, educator, and cyberpunk O.G. Rudy Rucker.  I always make sure to ask these authors if they can suggest any reading recommendations, and Rudy Rucker told me that this book, Panpsychism in the West, was one to check out, as he had recently enjoyed it very much.  The name David Skrbina was familiar to me based on various references to him and his writing in other books I read.  It was awesome to have such a great recommendation, and greatly appreciated.
      This book details the development, discussion, history, and possibilities of the philosophical idea called Panpsychism.  This idea suggests that the entity we call Mind is inherent in all of existence, and that this should affect everything about how we see ourselves, life, and the whole of existence.  Many of the Greek philosophers, who first pondered the reality of the world around us, our bodies, and our minds, came to the conclusion that Mind, consciousness itself, was an underlying part of everything that exists.  One of the arguments for this was that human beings feel they have a mind separate from the nuts-and-bolts physicality of their brain.  However, Humans are created from the very same stuff as everything else, and because of this our “Minds” cannot be a special occurrence.  Some form of “Mind” must exist in any and all life, and possibly into inanimate matter we deem to be not alive, perhaps even to the basic building blocks of matter.  They saw the human body as an aggregate of its many parts, and because of this, the parts themselves must have had some sort of “Mind”, just as the bigger systems around us, the atmosphere, the water cycle, the Earth itself, must also have a “Mind” constituent. 
      Later Greek philosophers would turn from this idea and head towards a mechanistic and non-spiritual perception of the Universe around us.  These ideas led to the Materialist universe in which modern humans exist.  We are told that the Mind is either purely a god-given trait solely found in Humans, or that the Mind sprang up only in Humans because we were the only ones to have a  complex enough nervous structure and brain to achieve this.  These human-centered objections to panpsychism have been put forth by philosophers and scientists throughout human history.  They only serve to point out the inherent bias among thinkers who ascribe all experience value based on their personal state, that of being a human on Earth.  They demean the experiences of animals, plants, and even rocks as purely mechanistic, even as they aggrandize the human experience.  This seems a contradiction to me. 
      Once the mechanistic worldview of Isaac Newton and classical physics began to influence the world, philosophers sought to discredit the idea of panpsychism by exclaiming that it was unscientific, in that there was no empirical way to test whether a rock or a tree has a Mind.  The blind-spot in their arguments is that, as of today, there is no way to empirically prove that a human has a Mind!  If it cannot be proven to exist in us, how can they be so sure it does not exist in the world around us?  Too many people run with this argument and fail to understand that panpsychism is not a scientific idea, but a philosophical one.  Empirical science can analyze a brain, the neurons and axions that make up the physical brain, and the various blood vessels that nourish and clean the brain, but they cannot in any way analyze the Mind.  Psychologists have tried, with varying degrees of failure, to analyze Mind as separate from the physical brain.  Psychiatrists try to utilize medicines and chemicals to force the physical brain into adjusting the process of the non-physical Mind.  It is a very confusing state of affairs.
      David Skrbina has done a great job of compiling not only the various supporting ideas and players throughout human western culture to discuss panpsychism, but also of the many philosophers and scientists who sought to deny panpsychism.  He explains how they came to their negations, and the ways in which they misunderstood the basic concept of panpsychism.  Many philosophers would push these ideas only to negate them later on in life.  Yet others, people who decried the possibility of panpsychism, came around in their later years and admitted that there is no way to discount the idea.  How their ideas went on to influence those that followed, and how the possibilities inherent in panpsychism would change the entire world-view of the whole of humanity is a focus of the later part of this book.
Philosophy as a field of study for me is very frustrating.  I find it hard to read the conclusions and assertions of philosophers whose base assumptions are inherently opposed to how I see the world around me.  It is very hard to argue with a dead philosopher!  I love to know the history of human thought and the development of our ideas on ourselves, but so much of it is purely fantasy, conceptualized reactions to embedded presumptions.  I feel that, as a basis of thoughtful exploration, it is much more valuable and realistic to assume that, just as we are part of the Universe, and have a level of awareness we call Mind, that every other constituent part of the Universe, both smaller and bigger than the cellular aggregate we call a human being also shares in this noetic quality.  It is impossible to draw a line of demarcation where Mind exists and then where it does not.  For example, we can say humans have Minds.  Many of us feel that our pet dogs and cats have their own Minds and personalities, independent of their physical being.  Is that the end?  Why wouldn’t smaller animals, such as mice or beetles or even amoebas, also share in this feature of existence we label a Mind?  If a one-celled organism can have a Mind, what about the single-cells that make up all living beings’ body structures?  If a cell can have a sliver of consciousness then what about the component parts of that cell?  Digging lower, what about the individual molecules and atoms?  What about the constituents of atoms?  No one can provide a definitive answer to where the line should be drawn.  Going bigger than humans, are larger aggregates like cities, mountains, oceans, planets, galaxies all possessed of a higher level of mind that we humans just cannot comprehend?  This book has given me quite a lot to think about.  It is highly recommended.

(The 2017 Revised edition of this book is available for purchase here:  https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/panpsychism-west-revised-edition )