I’m in the process of watching a (Great Courses) video course titled “Understanding DNA, Genes and their Real-World Applications,” taught by Professor David Sadava. In today’s lecture (#5) he asked whether one’s original cell still exists in each adult. Each of us came from one cell, a fertilized egg, which divided, then divided again, on and on. Sadava’s question was whether our original cells might still be alive somewhere in our adult human bodies, decades later. His answer was that there is no compelling reason to assume that that original cell is not still “somewhere” inside of you, one cell among the 60 trillion cells that make up your body.
At Edge.com, V.S. Ramachandran began his talk titled “Adventures in Behavioral Neurology with this description of the brain:
Let me tell you about the problem confronting us. The brain is a 1.5 kilogram mass of jelly, the consistency of tofu, you can hold it in the palm of your hand, yet it can contemplate the vastness of space and time, the meaning of infinity and the meaning of existence. It can ask questions about who am I, where do I come from, questions about love and beauty, aesthetics, and art, and all these questions arising from this lump of jelly. It is truly the greatest of mysteries. The question is how does it come about?
When you look at the structure of the brain it’s made up of neurons. Of course, everybody knows that these days. There are 100 billion of these nerve cells. Each of these cells makes about 1,000 to 10,000 contacts with other neurons. From this information people have calculated that the number of possible brain states, of permutations and combinations of brain activity, exceeds the number of elementary particles in the universe.
Peter Lawler, citing to the writings of Dr. Craig Bowron, argues that “we’re much less accepting of the thought that death necessarily completes every natural life.” I agree. Why is this so? Lawler suggests that “Each of us has a hard time thinking of himself or herself as a biological being.” Why would that be so? Lawler offers the following:
1. Changing demographics. 80% of Americans live in urban areas, where death (especially the death of non-human animals) is rarely witnessed, and our food (notably our meat) is antiseptically prepared by grocery stores. Because most of us don’t live in places where we see death as an ordinary and necessary part of life, we are better able to deny it.
2. In modern society, we segregate our elderly off to special places where we don’t see them. Back in 1850, 70 percent of “white elderly adults lived with their children.” Today, that number is only 16%.
At bottom, our young “know less and less and about being old and less and less about death and dying.”
A friend of mine sometimes mentioned a thought that he considered disturbing: If you could rise up high enough into the air, human beings would all started looking the same, like a bunch of ants. One consequence of this perspective is that particular humans would seem expendable and replaceable.
Personally, I vacillated between thinking that human animals are exquisitely different from each other or disturbingly the same. Along came Donald Brown to convince me that we are deluded to think that people are meaningfully different from each other.
Last night my wife and I watched an unusual video that, to me, reinforced this idea that humans everywhere are largely the same. The video is title “Life in a Day,” and it was produced by National Geographic. Imagine 4,500 hours of video all all shot on the same day, edited down to 94 minutes. Here is a description of the project at the site where you can view the entire video:
Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) and producer Ridley Scott (Alien, Gladiator) team up to offer this candid snapshot of a single day on planet Earth. Compiled from over 80,000 YouTube submissions by contributors in 192 countries, Life in a Day presents a microcosmic view of our daily experiences as a global society. From the mundane to the profound, everything has its place as we spend 90 minutes gaining greater insight into the lives of people who may be more like us than we ever suspected, despite the fact that we’re separated by incredible distances.
This is a compelling video that I recommend. It reminded me that most of what I think of as “happening” are the images and sounds I personally experience. For the most part, I don’t know what in the world is going on. While I live my life, and it seem important to me, 7 billion other people are living lives that they consider equally important. The video is a terrific reminder that we are each only a tiny part of a much bigger whole.
The November 2011 edition of The Atlantic presents E. O. Wilson’s “Theory of Everything.” Wilson’s theory takes into account the “eusocial” status of human animals, something that we share with ants and bees, but very few other species. Eusocial animals build complex societies wherein “individuals specialize in various activities and sometimes act altruistically.” Wilson has taken the position that eusociality is not the result of close genetic similarity (the explanation offered by “kin selection”). Rather, he is a strong advocate of “group selection.” By the way, E. O. Wilson is no relation to another Wilson who has strongly advocated group selection, David Sloan Wilson (and see here). Here’s how E. O. Wilson presents group selection, according to a passage from The Atlantic:
In his new book, Wilson posits that two rival forces drive human behavior: group selection and what he calls “individual selection”—competition at the level of the individual to pass along one’s genes—with both operating simultaneously. “Group selection,” he said, “brings about virtue, and—this is an oversimplification, but—individual selection, which is competing with it, creates sin. That, in a nutshell, is an explanation of the human condition.
“Our quarrelsomeness, our intense concentration on groups and on rivalries, down to the last junior-soccer-league game, the whole thing falls into place, in my opinion. Theories of kin selection didn’t do the job at all, but now I think we are close to making sense out of what human beings do and why they can’t settle down.”
By settling down, Wilson said, he meant establishing a lasting peace with each other and learning to live in a sustainable balance with the environment. If Wilson’s new paradigm holds up—“and it will,” he insisted in an e-mail exchange several weeks after visiting Gorongosa—its impact on the social sciences could be as great as its importance for biology, advancing human self-understanding in ways typically associated with the great philosophers he criticized.
“Within groups, the selfish are more likely to succeed,” Wilson told me in a telephone conversation. “But in competition between groups, groups of altruists are more likely to succeed. In addition, it is clear that groups of humans proselytize other groups and accept them as allies, and that that tendency is much favored by group selection.” Taking in newcomers and forming alliances had become a fundamental human trait, he added, because “it is a good way to win.”
This article is a wide ranging work that offers much insight into Wilson’s history and accomplishments, and more. For instance, Wilson, an early outspoken advocate of sociobiology, takes some shots at Stephen J. Gould, who he calls a “charlatan.” Several decades ago, it was the now-deceased Gould who led the attack against Wilson regarding sociobiology.
This is an excellent read, and I highly recommend it.
How much is our conception of risk warped by the thought of “terrorism?” Consider that there was a study conducted prior to 9/11 in which people were willing to pay more for insurance to protect them from terrorism than from any cause of death:
A further example highlights how making the description of an event very specific can induce people to see it as much more risky. In an investigation of the effects of wording on people’s intentions to buy insurance for air travel, researchers found that that people were willing to pay more for a policy that would insure them against “terrorist acts” as opposed to death from “all possible causes.” And yet, as must be obvious to the reader, death from terrorist acts is only one of many ways that could lead to death on an airplane. However, because this scenario was made explicit, it became more salient to people thereby increasing their perception of the risk as measured by their willingness to pay an insurance premium.
[Citing to Johnson, E. J., Hershey, J., Meszaros, J., & Kunreuther, H. (1993). Framing, probability distortions, and insurance decisions. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 7, 35-51.]
This study was briefly discussed by Daniel Kahneman while discussing his new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow:
In his book, Kahneman suggests that things that are vivid in our minds often have far too much influence over us, compared to equal or greater dangers that are not as vivid. For example, you are far more likely to die of colon cancer as a result of not getting a colonoscopy than to die from an act of terrorism. Yet our national budget priorities are massively skewed to try to achieve zero-tolerance regarding terrorism, which is an impossibility despite the rhetoric of virtually every politician who opens his or her mouth on the topic.
It seems that we need to work much harder to make non-vivid dangerous activities more vivid, so that we can rationally prioritize. And certainly, we need to resist the urge to decide budget priorities regarding vivid activities in isolation from all other budgetary needs. I write this assuming, perhaps naively, that the bottom line, the thing for which we are ultimately striving, is the general welfare, including the prevention of needless deaths. To the extent that this is true, when setting public policy we need to work much harder to recognize that a death is a death, regardless of the cause.
Neil deGrasse Tyson points out that the human genome overlaps 99% with the genome of chimpanzees. We’re only 1% different, but consider how much we can do that chimps cannot do. Consider de Grasse Tyson’s suggestion:
Cognitive Scientist Andy Clark has also recognized the biological similarity between chimpanzees and humans, and asked how we accomplish so much more with such a meager difference. He suggests that our trick is that we have become proficient at off-loading and making use of information out into the environment. He argues that “self” extends beyond skin and skull.
[W]e create and maintain a variety of special external structures (symbolic and social-institutional). These external structures function so as to complement our individual cognitive profiles and to diffuse human reason across wider and wider social and physical networks whose collective computations exhibit their own special dynamics and properties.
Dr. Lissa Rankin, who writes at “Owning Pink,” discusses scientific attempts to scientifically document vaginal orgasms. Back in medical school, she was taught that there is nothing in the vagina that could account for vaginal orgasms (as contrasted with clitoral orgasms). Does the “G-spot” really exist. That’s where her story begins.
Here’s some information from Lissa Rankin’s About Page:
I am an OB/GYN physician, author of two (soon to be three) books, a professional artist, a blogger, an online entrepreneur, and a mother, but I am more than what I do- and so are you. I started this website in April, 2009 because I was frustrated with the limited way most people, especially doctors, define health. After leaving my traditional medical practice in 2007 because I was disillusioned by the broken, outdated patriarchal model of medicine, I realized that you can quit your job, but you can’t quit your calling, and I felt truly called to help people heal, connect, and thrive.
Rankin focuses on far more than the body itself in her quest to promote health. For example, in this post, she offers the lesson she has learned regarding “How Do You Find Love?” Rankin recently appeared at TED, suggesting that the body is “a mirror of how we live our lives.”
For me to exist, my mother and father had to meet each other, which is a rather unlikely thing to have occurred in the scheme of things. Even assuming that they met, they would also need to mate at just the right time, and then the right sperm (out of hundreds of millions in each ejaculation) had to fertilize the right egg (or which there were many thousands of candidate eggs). But the same thing had to happen to each of their parents, and their parents, and so on. How many sets of parents did this need to happen to? Quite a few–consider my earlier post, “Ancestors Along the highway.” Before all of those parents came onto the scene, the right non-human ancestors had to meet and mate, and before them . . . [skipping way back] the right sponges had to have offspring, and the fungi before them. Had any of these organisms been eaten as prey prior to having offspring, I wouldn’t be here. If any of them had succumbed to disease prior to having offspring, I wouldn’t be here. If any of them had broken a leg or gotten lost in the forest, they might not have gotten around to mating on that critically important date and time (from my perspective). The adventures of Marty McFly (“Back to the Future”) barely scrape the surface.
The seemingly impossible hurdles faced by each of us are addressed by a well-constructed website, “What are the Odds,” which stirs quite a bit of eye-popping mathematics into the description. Wait until you get to the bottom of the page to read about the trillion-sided dice.
Actually, “What are the Odds” overstates the odds that you or I would exist, because there’s far more to being “you” than your biological substrate. If you were raised in a war-torn region rather than a suburban American school, you would be a very different version of you. And ask yourself whether you would be you even if a few of your closest, most influential friends or acquaintances weren’t around to influence you. Or what if you hadn’t happened to read some of the ideas that most influenced you, or if even one or two of those important character-building events that defined you (joyous or tragic or in between) hadn’t occurred?
Thus, it’s almost impossible that you should be here reading this post. Then again, you are here, because all of the antecedent events necessary to make you actually did occur.
I don’t know what lesson one is supposed to draw from this idea that it is essentially impossible that you should be here. Perhaps it’s merely an excuse for a healthy dose of humility. It also seems to me that working through this thought experiment is good for one’s mental health, at least once in a while. I consider it an existential vitamin that I should take periodically.