October 9, 2017

The Evolutionary Origins of Exogamy – A Way of Avoiding Inbreeding, or Building Trust and Cooperation Between Us and Them?

Perhaps there's a better, more plausible explanation for the findings about prehistoric exogamy described in this report.

I think the findings provide evidence for inter-group cooperation as the norm, over the still wildly popular and persistent notion of our 'red in tooth and claw' social relations and human nature. Specifically, the prehistoric use of exogamous mating networks to establish more stable, predictable if not peaceful inter-group relationships and alliances seems a more likely motivation for out-group mating behavior among our ancient ancestors than, as the reports states, their realizing mating outside one's group would avoid the genetic risks of inbreeding. 
[‘red in tooth and claw,’ Tennyson, 1849, https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/red-in-tooth-and-claw.html%5D]

"The study, reported in the journal Science, examined genetic information from the remains of anatomically modern humans who lived during the Upper Palaeolithic, a period when modern humans from Africa first colonised western Eurasia. The results suggest that people deliberately sought partners beyond their immediate family, and that they were probably connected to a wider network of groups from within which mates were chosen, in order to avoid becoming inbred.

"This suggests that our distant ancestors are likely to have been aware of the dangers of inbreeding, and purposely avoided it at a surprisingly early stage in prehistory.

"The symbolism, complexity and time invested in the objects and jewellery found buried with the remains also suggests that it is possible that they developed rules, ceremonies and rituals to accompany the exchange of mates between groups, which perhaps foreshadowed modern marriage ceremonies, and may have been similar to those still practised by hunter-gatherer communities in parts of the world today.

"The study's authors also hint that the early development of more complex mating systems may at least partly explain why anatomically modern humans proved successful while other species, such as Neanderthals, did not. However, more ancient genomic information from both early humans and Neanderthals is needed to test this idea."

October 1, 2017

A Better Way to Study, Explain and Report on Human Behavior Research

by Stephanie D. Preston
Science  29 Sep 2017
Vol. 357, Issue 6358, pp. 1353-1354

The text in the above diagram image of the brain highlights an important inconsistency within this article and raises an important question. Does "social behavior in humans occurs because of the connections between oxytocin and the reward-based dopaminergic system" as the caption says? Or does social behavior that an individual chooses based on a decision made after assessing risks and prompted by the desire for and hope of reassuring and safe social interactions, generate such hormonal/neurotransmitter connections that are maintained when positive, rewarding interactions begin to, in fact, take place? In this regard the article's researcher and the article's author do in fact caution that the popular literature link between the oxytocin hormone and complex human behavior is overly simplistic. I think the latter is a better explanation.

Yes, consciousness, mind and self are dependent on the brain's biochemistry. But the processes at work at these higher levels of complexity, including 'agency,' need explanations of their own. They are not reducible in a causal sense to biochemistry alone. Bottom up hormonal and neuronal process explanations by themselves are insufficient to discover and explain the myriad of causes underlying and influencing human individual and social behavior.

"Converging research on the role of oxytocin in social bonding suggests that approaching others becomes less scary and more rewarding when it is valuable to the individual."
"[I]t has been assumed that oxytocin facilitates social bonds by rendering another individual like a drug—something to approach, enjoy, remember, and seek again. This interpretation is so intuitive that hundreds of 'popular science' articles have been written about oxytocin as the 'love drug' or the 'hug/trust hormone.' However, the reality is far from being this simplistic."
"Oxytocin in humans has also been linked to rewarding and pleasurable phenomena such as romantic love, parenting, and comforting touch; and altruism may be promoted by this oxytocin-VTA mechanism. However, there are many noted failures in human research to replicate associations between oxytocin and prosocial behavior. Such failures may reflect that rodent research usually involves clearly bonded, adaptive contexts (mating and caregiving), whereas human research employs more abstract tasks such as giving money to a stranger."

Graphic Text
How social processes become rewarding
Studies in mice suggest that social behavior in humans occurs because of the connections between oxytocin and the reward-based dopaminergic system, which presumably mediates the ability of humans to notice, seek, remember, and return to rewarding experiences of all types—in this case social contact.

September 28, 2017

Evolving Ourselves - The Future of Being Human in Nature

Being human in Nature includes our biological responses to the physical world, and our ever-increasing number of new adaptive strategies and improvements to long-standing ones.

Revising the very notions of what 'human' and 'Nature' mean is also included here. Beyond our beliefs, values and behaviors, human cultural adaptation also includes improving the effectiveness and reach of our medical procedures and computer and pharmaceutical technologies.

As we have done with all past inventions and innovations, we will have to confront the ethical and moral challenges such interventions into humanness and Nature raise. In doing so we will seek to normalize those new ideas, methods and technological uses that provide the greatest good and least harm to the greatest number of people. 

Might we one day direct our species' and Earth's evolution? Not in the haphazard, often harmful ways we are doing it now but in a reasoned (scientific and humanistic), deliberative, sustainable manner that truly improves not only our species wellbeing and flourishing, but also that of our entire planetary home.

The following excerpts from the book, Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on Earth, by Juan Enriquez and Steven Gullans (2015), provide insights into some of what is already underway in 'evolving' our future, and what may come of our efforts to redefine the mechanisms and outcomes of our and Life's evolution itself.

It is both a future of immense potential for good as well as one of innumerable risks. Scenarios abound that may lead to catastrophes and extinction, not only for ourselves but for all life on Earth.

These potentials for survival and flourishing or degradation and extinction have been within us for a quarter of a million years of Homo sapiens' existence. What has changed through time - from the first stone chopping tools, language, and in- and out-group cooperation to present-day nano technologies and gradually less violent societies (Pinker) - has been the ever-increasing power of our tools and the influence of their products. There has also been change in the ever-enlarging content of the ethnosphere, that body of accumulated global knowledge that contains our collective experience, and our ever-expanding understanding of what is moral and ethical among the various beliefs, values, and behaviors that have been tried around the world through time.

The future shall be a continuation of our species' journey from the unknown into a future of uncertainty. Choosing to be compassionate toward each other and having hope for the best outcome is all we fully control.

Excerpts from Evolving Ourselves
"No one has attempted a whole human brain transplant, nor should they. Nascent technologies and knowledge make the procedure far too risky and speculative, and the chances of success are minute, not to mention the ethical challenges of identifying and qualifying a donor. But as science progresses, if one became able to transplant a human brain or portions of a brain, then one could begin to answer some fundamental questions about the nature of consciousness, memory, and personality."
"The most basic of human cells, stem cells, which program all functions in our bodies, are being inserted into species far and wide. As we blur species lines, as we 'humanize' parts of animals, we begin to see blind mice that grow human corneas. And because some of the organs and biological structures in pigs are so close to those of humans, there are more and more efforts to modify these animals' immune systems, humanize some of their organs, and transplant them directly into humans."
"In an attempt to find cures for various neurological diseases, more and more human brain cells are entering animal bodies, which often results in significant and noticeable upgrades. Alzheimer's researchers found that transplanted human stem cells led to mice with improved spatial learning and memory."
"If we can transplant human cells into animals' brains and significantly improve their cognition, it is also reasonable to think that one could transplant and develop enhancements to the average human brain; recent stem-cell transplants into Parkinson's patients' brains show some promise, albeit inconsistently. ... As we continue to seek cures for various neurological diseases, we are likely to find more and more examples of interventions that significantly alter and enhance various brain functions. And this will give us more choices in how to enhance, evolve, and build up the most human of our organs."
"Meanwhile, we are continually attempting to 'upgrade' our brains through electronic inputs, both internal and external. ... Drugs provide yet another path to enhance/modify human cognition.  ... And then there is the external cognition option. Back at the MIT Boyden lab, they are busily building tiny computer chips, embedded with thousands of needles 1/1000th of an inch wide, which allow measuring, and perhaps altering, activity inside individual neurons."

Book Link

September 15, 2017

Roundabout VI


September 14, 2017

I'm not sure I understand this article's title and if the question it poses is answered in the narrative. Your thoughts?
"On this line between beastly machines and angelic rationality, where do we find the human species? If we humans are super-rational, or at least on our way there, there is reason to be optimistic. ... Our cultures are evolving today, but not, it seems, toward any harmony. The chaos of the 21st century makes our simulations feel immediately familiar. ... As intellectuals at both political extremes increasingly see the possibility of a rational political order as a fantasy, Shibboleths take up their role in defining racial, national, and religious boundaries and appear once again to be ineradicable features of political life."


"The [computer simulation] models, at least, encourage a guarded optimism. ... Even the genocidal machines at the violent end of the spectrum may carry a heartening lesson. They emerged from the depths of a circuit board, simulated on a supercomputer in Texas. They had no biological excuse to fall back on. Maybe we, too, shouldn’t make excuses: If a behavior is so common as to emerge in the simplest simulations, perhaps we ought neither to fear it, nor to idolize it, but to treat it, the same way we do cancer, or the flu.

"What if we saw tribalism as a natural malfunction of any cognitive system, silicon or carbon? As neither a universal truth or unavoidable sin, but something to be overcome?"


September 13, 2017

"[T]he lives of most of our progenitors were better than we think. We’re flattering ourselves by believing that their existence was so grim and that our modern, civilized one is, by comparison, so great. Still, we are where we are, and we live the way we live, and it’s possible to wonder whether any of this illuminating knowledge about our hunter-gatherer ancestors can be useful to us."


"A key to that lost or forsworn ability [anthropologist James] Suzman suggests, lies in the ferocious egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers. For example, the most valuable thing a hunter can do is come back with meat. ... The secret ingredient [to living a Keynsian life of less selfish greed] seems to be the positive harnessing of the general human impulse to envy. As [Suzman] says, 'If this kind of egalitarianism is a precondition for us to embrace a post-labor world, then I suspect it may prove a very hard nut to crack.' There’s a lot that we could learn from the oldest extant branch of humanity, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to put the knowledge into effect. A socially positive use of envy—now, that would be a technology almost as useful as fire."


September 12, 2017

"In brief, global secularisation is not inevitable and, when it does happen, it is not caused by science. Further, when the attempt is made to use science to advance secularism, the results can damage science. The thesis that ‘science causes secularisation’ simply fails the empirical test, and enlisting science as an instrument of secularisation turns out to be poor strategy. ... Historically, two related sources advanced the idea that science would displace religion. First, 19th-century progressivist conceptions of history, particularly associated with the French philosopher Auguste Comte, held to a theory of history in which societies pass through three stages – religious, metaphysical and scientific (or ‘positive’). ... The 19th century also witnessed the inception of the ‘conflict model’ of science and religion. This was the view that history can be understood in terms of a ‘conflict between two epochs in the evolution of human thought – the theological and the scientific’. ... The conflict model of science and religion offered a mistaken view of the past and, when combined with expectations of secularisation, led to a flawed vision of the future. Secularisation theory failed at both description and prediction. The real question is why we continue to encounter proponents of science-religion conflict. Many are prominent scientists. ... [S]cience needs all the friends it can get. Its advocates would be well advised to stop fabricating an enemy out of religion, or insisting that the only path to a secure future lies in a marriage of science and secularism."


September 8, 2017

"Authorities are battling jihadi groups such as Boko Haram in west Africa and al-Shabaab in east Africa, as well as Islamic State and al-Qaida offshoots in the Sahel, often with the support of the US and other western powers.
"Violent extremism in Africa has killed more than 33,000 people over the last six years and caused widespread displacement, creating or aggravating humanitarian crises affecting millions of people and hitting economic prospects across the continent.
"'In a majority of cases, paradoxically, state action appears to be the primary factor finally pushing individuals into violent extremism in Africa,' the new [UN] report, Journey to Extremism, says.
"Of more than 500 former members of militant organisations interviewed for the report, 71% pointed to 'government action', including 'killing of a family member or friend' or 'arrest of a family member or friend' as the incident that prompted them to join a group."


"The interviews, conducted over the last three years in west and east Africa, pointed to political and economic marginalisation as key.

"The majority of recruits to violent organisations come from peripheral areas and frontier zones that have suffered generations of marginalisation, the report says."


"The most common emotion when joining was 'hope/excitement', followed closely by 'anger', 'vengeance' and 'fear'.

"Those who join extremist groups tend to have lower levels of religious or formal education and less understanding of the meaning of religious texts, [UN report lead researcher Mohamed] Yahya said.
"Although more than half of the respondents cited religion as a reason for joining an extremist group, 57% also admitted understanding little to nothing of the religious texts or interpretations, or not reading religious texts at all."


"Many analysts and policymakers have blamed religious education for the spread of violent extremism. Yahya and his team found, however, that receiving at least six years of religious schooling reduced the likelihood of joining an extremist group by as much as 32%.

"The idea that their 'religion is under threat' was found to be a common perspective among many respondents.
"'The success of the ideology is that it gives the individual a chance to fight back against their conditions, which are portrayed as due to the government or some global conspiracy,' Yahya said."


September 6, 2017

"[Philosopher Martha Nussbaum] argued that certain moral truths are best expressed in the form of a story. We become merciful, she wrote, when we behave as the 'concerned reader of a novel,' understanding each person’s life as a 'complex narrative of human effort in a world full of obstacles.'"
"Unlike many philosophers, Nussbaum is an elegant and lyrical writer, and she movingly describes the pain of recognizing one’s vulnerability, a precondition, she believes, for an ethical life. 'To be a good human being,' she has said, 'is to have a kind of openness to the world, the ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control that can lead you to be shattered.' She searches for a 'non-denying style of writing,' a way to describe emotional experiences without wringing the feeling from them. She disapproves of the conventional style of philosophical prose, which she describes as 'scientific, abstract, hygienically pallid,' and disengaged with the problems of its time. Like Narcissus, she says, philosophy falls in love with its own image and drowns."
"Nussbaum once wrote, citing Nietzsche, that 'when a philosopher harps very insistently on a theme, that shows us that there is a danger that something else is about to ‘play the master’': something personal is driving the preoccupation."
"Nussbaum went on to extend the work of John Rawls, who developed the most influential contemporary version of the social-contract theory: the idea that rational citizens agree to govern themselves, because they recognize that everyone’s needs are met more effectively through co√∂peration. ... For a society to remain stable and committed to democratic principles, she argued, it needs more than detached moral principles: it has to cultivate certain emotions and teach people to enter empathetically into others’ lives. She believes that the humanities are not just important to a healthy democratic society but decisive, shaping its fate."
"Anger is an emotion that she now rarely experiences. She invariably remains friends with former lovers, a fact that Sunstein, Sen, and Alan Nussbaum wholeheartedly affirmed. In her new book, 'Anger and Forgiveness,' which was published last month, Nussbaum argues against the idea, dear to therapists and some feminists, that 'people (and women especially) owe it to their self-respect to own, nourish, and publicly proclaim their anger.' It is a 'magical fantasy,' a bit of 'metaphysical nonsense,' she writes, to assume that anger will restore what was damaged. She believes that embedded in the emotion is the irrational wish that 'things will be made right if I inflict suffering.' She writes that even leaders of movements for revolutionary justice should avoid the emotion and move on to 'saner thoughts of personal and social welfare.'"
"We began talking about a chapter that she intended to write for her book on aging, on the idea of looking back at one’s life and turning it into a narrative. 'Did you stand for something, or didn’t you?' she said. She said that she had always admired the final words of John Stuart Mill, who reportedly said, 'I have done my work.' She has quoted these words in a number of interviews and papers, offering them as the mark of a life well lived. ... She said, 'If I found that I was going to die in the next hour, I would not say that I had done my work. If you have a good life, you typically always feel that there’s something that you want to do next.' ... 'I think last words are silly,' she said. 'Probably the best thing to do with your last words is to say goodbye to the people you love and not to talk about yourself.'"


September 6, 2017

"Working-class history is often about heroics and radicalism and solidarity at the plant gate and the union hall. But those bright stories should not distract us from the other side: the dark, hard, claustrophobic, insular, racist, angry, fearful, even bitter, social burn of a group of people who have little standing in American civic life."
"While the working class is a fractured multicultural mosaic, white guys remain its most volatile and angry part, even if, objectively, they have a lot less to worry about than working-class women and minorities do. We know, for instance, that those white men are less optimistic about their lives than are minorities, that their longevity is literally decreasing, and that their occupational mainstays are dwindling. They have fallen from grace. And they are explosive."
"What’s interesting about Trump is that he won, not that his strain of politics is new. It’s always been around. Let’s not go wild trying to figure out what happened: The crazy train of American history happened. The lineage that winds from Andrew Jackson to Tom Watson to Joe McCarthy to George Wallace to Pat Buchanan to Trump is not just 'conservative,' nor is it just 'working class' in any way an intellectually driven conservative or Marxist or liberal would recognize or celebrate. The conservative/liberal divide is a deeply tenuous construct. Looking for a populist savior, however, is bedrock Americana. ... [America] is a messy stew of populist, communitarian, reactionary, progressive, racist, patriarchal, and nativist ingredients. Any historical era has its own mix of these elements, which play in different ways."