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Posts Tagged ‘evolution

“Everything / is not itself”*…

Toward an ecology of mind: Nathan Gardels talks with Benjamin Bratton about his recent article, “Post-Anthropocene Humanism- Cultivating the ‘third space’ where nature, technology, and human autonomy meet“…

The reality we sense is not fixed or static, but, as Carlo Rovelli puts it, a “momentary get together on the sand.” For the quantum physicist, all reality is an ever-shifting interaction of manifold influences, each determining the other, which converge or dissolve under the conditions at a particular time and space that is always in flux…

The human, too, can be seen this way as a node of ever-changing interactions with the natural cosmos and the environment humans themselves have formed through technology and culture. What it means to be human, then, is not a constant, but continually constituted, altered and re-constituted through the recursive interface with an open and evolving world.

This is the view, at least, of Benjamin Bratton, a philosopher of technology who directs the Berggruen Institute’s Antikythera project to investigate the impact and potential of planetary-scale computation. To further explore the notion of “post-Anthropocene humanism” raised in a recent Noema essay, I asked him to weigh in on the nature of human being and becoming when anthropogenesis and technogenesis are one and the same process.

“I can’t accept the essentially reactionary claim that modern science erases ‘the Human.’ Demystification is not erasure. It may destabilize some ideas that humans have about what humans are, yes. But I see it more as a disclosure of what ‘humans’ always have been but could not perceive as such. It’s not that some essence of the Human goes away, but that humans are now a bit less wrong about what humans are,” he argues.

Bratton goes on: “Instead of science and technology leading to some ‘post-human’ condition, perhaps it will lead to a slightly more human condition? The figure we associate with modern European Humanism may be a fragile, if also a productive, philosophical concept. But dismantling the concept does not make the reality go away. Rather, it redefines it in the broader context of new understanding. In fact, that reality is more perceivable because the concept is made to dissolve.” 

How so? “The origins of human societies are revealed by archaeological pursuits. What is found is usually not the primal scene of some local cultural tradition but something much more alien and unsettling: human society as a physical process.

All this would suggest, in Bratton’s view, “that cooperative social intelligence was not only the path to Anthropocene-scale agency for humans, but a reminder that the evolution of social intelligence literally shaped our bodies and biology, from the microbial ecologies inside of us to our tool-compatible phenotype. The Renaissance idea of Vitruvian Man, that we possess bodies and then engage the world through tools and intention, is somewhat backward. Instead, we possess bodies because of biotic and abiotic ‘technologization’ of us by the world, which we in turn accelerate through social cooperation.”

In short, one might say, it is not “I think therefore I am,” but, because the world is embedded in me, “thereby I am.” 

Bratton’s view has significant implications for how we see and approach the accelerating advances in science and technology.

A negative biopolitics, so to speak, would seek to limit the transformations underway in the name of a valued concept of the human born in a specific time and place on the continuum of human evolution. A positive bio-politics would embrace the artificiality of those transformations as part of the responsibility of human agency.

Bratton states: “Abstract intelligence is not some outside imposition from above. It emerged and evolved along with humans and other things that think. Therefore, I am equally suspicious of the sort of posthumanism that collapses sentience and sapience into an anti-rationalist, flat epistemology that seeks not to calibrate the relation between reason and world, but is instead a will to vegetablization: a dissolving of agency into flux and flow. Governance then, in the sense of steerage, is sacrificed.”

To mediate this creative tension, what is called for is a theory of governance that recognizes the promise while affirming the autonomy of humans, albeit reconfigured through a new awareness, by striving to shape what we now understand as anthropo-technogenesis.

In the political theory of checks and balances, government is the positive and constitutional rule is the negative. The one is the capacity to act, the other to amend or arrest action that could lead to harmful consequences — the “katechon” concept from Greek antiquity of “withholding from becoming,” which I have written about before.

An ecology of mind, in the term of anthropologist Gregory Bateson, would encompass both by re-casting human agency not as the master, but as a responsible co-creator with other intelligences in the reality we are making together…

The Evolution of What It Means To Be Human,” from Nathan Gardels and @bratton in @NoemaMag. Both the conversation and the article on which it is based are eminently worth reading on full.

Pair with: “Artificial Intelligence and the Noosphere” (from Robert Wright; for which, a ToTH to friend MK): a very optimistic take on a possible future that could emerge from the dynamic that Bratton outlines. Worth reading and considering; his visions of the socioeconomic and spiritual bounties-to-come are certainly enticing.

That said, I’ll just suggest that, even if AI is ultimately as capable as many assume it can/will be– by no means a sure thing– unless we address the kinds of issues raised in last week’s (R)D on this same general subject (“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way”) we’ll never get to Bratton’s (and Wright’s) happy place…  The same kinds of things that Bratton implicitly and Wright explicitly are mooting for AI (as a knitter of minds in a noosphere) could have been said— were said— for computer networking, then for the web, then for social media…  in the event, they knit— but not so much so much in the interest of blissful, enabling sharing and growth; rather as the tools of rapacious commercial interests (c.f.: Cory Doctorow’s “enshittification”) and/or authoritarians (c.f., China or Russia or…). Seems to me that in the long run, if we can rein in capitalism and authoritarians: maybe.  In the foreseeable future: if only…

* Rainer Maria Rilke


As we contemplate collaboration, we might send mysterious birthday greetings to Alexius Meinong; he was born this date in 1853. A philosopher, he is known for his unique ontology and for contributions to the philosophy of mind and axiology– the theory of value.

Meinong’s ontology is notable for its belief in nonexistent objects. He distinguished several levels of reality among objects and facts about them: existent objects participate in actual (true) facts about the world; subsistent (real but non-existent) objects appear in possible (but false) facts; and objects that neither exist nor subsist can only belong to impossible facts. See his Gegenstandstheorie, or the Theory of Abstract Objects.


“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”*…

DNA is indisputably important to biological development. But, Alfonso Martinez Arias argues, far from being a blueprint for an organism, genes are mere tools used by life’s true expert builders: cells…

… Over the past century, scientists have discovered a material explanation for the source of life, one that needs no divine intervention and provides a thread across eons of time for all beings that exist or have ever existed: deoxyribonucleic acid — DNA. While there is little doubt that genes have something to do with what we are and how we come to be, it is difficult to answer precisely the question of what their exact role in all of this is.

A closer look at how genes work and what they can accomplish, compared to what they are said to achieve, casts doubt on the assertion that the genome in particular contains an “operating manual” for us or any other living creature. When it comes to the creation of organisms, we’ve overlooked — or, more accurately, forgotten — another force. The origin and power of that force are cells.

What makes you and me individual human beings is not a unique set of DNA but instead a unique organization of cells and their activities…

A fascinating essay, adapted from Martinez Arias’ forthcoming book, The Master Builder- How the New Science of the Cell Is Rewriting the Story of Life: “Cells, Not DNA, Are The Master Architects Of Life,” in @NoemaMag.

[Image above: source]

* Psalm 139: 13–14


As we delve into design, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Ernst Mayr; he was born on this date in 1904. A  taxonomist, tropical explorer, ornithologist, philosopher of biology, and historian of science, he is best remembered as one of the 20th century’s leading evolutionary biologists. His work contributed to the conceptual revolution that led to the modern evolutionary synthesis of Mendelian genetics, systematics, and Darwinian evolution, and to the development of the biological species concept.

His theory of peripatric speciation (a more precise form of allopatric speciation which he advanced), based on his work on birds, is still considered a leading mode of speciation, and was the theoretical underpinning for the theory of punctuated equilibrium, proposed by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould. Mayr is sometimes credited with inventing modern philosophy of biology, particularly the part related to evolutionary biology, which he distinguished from physics due to evolutionary biology’s introduction of (natural) history into science.


“History repeats itself, in part because the genome repeats itself. And the genome repeats itself, in part because history does.”*…

The original Human Genome Project map of the human genome was largely based on the DNA of one mixed-race man from Buffalo, with inputs from a few dozen other individuals, mostly of European descent. Now, researchers have released draft results from an ongoing effort to capture the entirety of human genetic variation…

More than 20 years after the first draft genome from the landmark Human Genome Project was released, researchers have published a draft human ‘pangenome’ — a snapshot of what is poised to become a new reference for genetic research that captures more of human diversity than has been previously available. Geneticists have welcomed the milestone, while also highlighting key ethical considerations surrounding the effort to make genome research more inclusive…

The draft genome, published in Nature on 10 May, was produced by the Human Pangenome Reference Consortium. Launched in 2019, the international project aims to map the entirety of human genetic variation, to create a comprehensive reference against which geneticists will be able to compare other sequences. Such a reference would aid studies investigating potential links between genes and disease.

The draft pangenome follows the 2022 publication of the first complete sequence of the human genome, which filled gaps that had been left by the original Human Genome Project. But unlike the original draft human genome and its successor, both of which were derived mostly from the DNA of just one person, the draft pangenome represents a collection of sequences from a diverse selection of 47 people from around the globe, including individuals from Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe…

More at “First human ‘pangenome’ aims to catalogue genetic diversity,” in @Nature.

See the paper on the Pangenome Project here; and for more background, “This new genome map tries to capture all human genetic variation.”

* Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Gene: An Intimate History


As we go wide on genetics, we might send microscopic birthday greetings to Christian Anfinsen; he was born on this date in 1916. A biochemist, he won the 1972 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his research on the shape and primary structure of ribonuclease (the enzyme that hydrolyses RNA), in whihc he found that found that its shape and consequently its enzymatic power could be restored– leading him to conclude that ribonuclease must retain all of the information about its configuration within its amino acids.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 14, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Smells are the fallen angels of the senses”*…

In an excerpt from his new book, Where We Meet the World: The Story of the Senses, Ashley Ward contemplates the oft-ignored and much-maligned olfactory sense…

Despite the wonderful contributions that smell makes to our lives, it’s undervalued in modern Western societies. Polls conducted in both the US and the UK reported that of our five main senses, smell was the one that people were least concerned about losing, while a study of British teenagers found that half would rather be without their sense of smell than their phone.

Despite the wonderful contributions that smell makes to our lives, it’s undervalued in modern Western societies. Polls conducted in both the US and the UK reported that of our five main senses, smell was the one that people were least concerned about losing, while a study of British teenagers found that half would rather be without their sense of smell than their phone.

It may have to do with olfaction’s checkered past. For much of human history, smells were things to be wary of. The idea that sickness was borne out of noxious smells was the prominent theory in disease propagation for centuries. Clouds of pungency, known as miasmas, released from unclean dwellings, filthy streets, and even the ploughing of soil, were blamed for contaminating the body, leading to any number of maladies. A debilitating fever emerging from marshes and swamps was named after the medieval Italian for bad air: mal’aria. Terrifying epidemics that haunted the world for centuries seemed to be induced by foul, corrupted air.

While odors themselves were regarded with distrust, it seems like every famous man in history who ever felt moved to write about our sense of smell had some derogatory point to make (there’s a notable shortage of opinions from the women of history). Most fall into one of two camps: those who regarded smell as relatively unimportant, and those who associated it with depravity. Plato considered that smell was linked to “base urges,” while others described it as degenerate and animalistic. Aristotle wrote that “man smells poorly” and Darwin asserted that “the sense of smell is of extremely slight service.”

The migration of primate eyes to the front of the face allows excellent stereoscopic vision, compared to the side-of-the-head arrangement favored by many other mammals, but limits the space available for the olfactory equipment. The loss of the snout in apes especially seems only to further restrict the capacity for smell.

Finally, primates in general and humans in particular seem to be losing genes associated with our sense of smell. We have something like 400 working olfactory genes, but sitting in our genetic code are close to 500 olfactory pseudogenes. These are the genetic equivalents of fossils; genes that used to contribute to our sense of smell but that no longer work. In other words, we’ve lost over half of our smell genes across evolutionary time…

Eminently worth reading in full: “How Smell—the Most Underrated Sense—Was Overpowered By Our Other Senses,” from @ashleyjwward in @lithub.

* Helen Keller


As we breathe in, we might we might recall that it was on this date in 1943 that Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann discovered the sensory- enhancing, even altering– that’s to say, psychedelic– properties of LSD.  Hofmann had synthesized the drug five years earlier, but its hoped-for use in treating respiratory problems didn’t pan out, and it was shelved.  On this day, he accidentally absorbed some of the drug through his skin (as he touched its container).  He became dizzy with hallucinations.  Three days later he took the first intentional dose of acid: 0.25 milligrams (250 micrograms), an amount he predicted to be a threshold dose (an actual threshold dose is 20 micrograms).  Less than an hour later, Hofmann experienced sudden and intense changes in perception.  He asked his laboratory assistant to escort him home and, as use of motor vehicles was prohibited because of wartime restrictions, they had to make the journey on a bicycle… which is why April 19 has been celebrated (since 1985) as “Bicycle Day.”


Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 16, 2023 at 1:00 am

“The excitement that a gambler feels when making a bet is equal to the amount he might win times the probability of winning it.”*…

This afternoon’s Super Bowl is yet to be played, but it is already destined for the record books…

The American Gaming Association expects 50.4 million Americans to wager legally on the game (up over 61% from last year), for a total of $16 Billion at stake (more than twice last year’s betting). To put this into context, in 2022, U.S. legal gambling totaled about $55 billion.

It will also be the first Championship game with an on-site sports book (though attendees don’t need to leave their seats to wager; Arizona is one of the 33 states [plus D.C.] in which they can make bets in licensed betting shops on the way to the game… or, of course, they can just use their phones to bet online).

Sports betting is exploding in the U.S. About 20% of U.S. adults said that they had placed sports bets in 2022. Some of those bets were through legal channels. But The AGA estimates that American also wagered almost $64 billion in 2021 with illegal sports books– part of the $511 Billion bet on those books, iGaming websites, and “skill games.”

These figures exclude the purchase of state lottery tickets, which has grown to over $100 billion. The average American spent $46 on lottery tickets in the U.S. in 2022; but the amounts varied wildly from state-to-state– in Massachusetts, residents spent an average of $805.30.

See also: “How Sports Betting Upended the Economies of Native American Tribes.”

*  Blaise Pascal, whose correspondence with Pierre de Fermat on gambling laid the foundation for the modern theory of probability


As we wonder about wagering, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Charles Darwin; he was born on this date in 1809. A naturalist, geologist, and biologist, he is widely known for his contributions to evolutionary biology. His proposition that all species of life have descended from a common ancestor is now generally accepted and considered a fundamental concept in science.

In a 1858 joint publication with Alfred Russel Wallace, he introduced his scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process he called natural selection, in which the struggle for existence has a similar effect to the artificial selection involved in selective breeding. Darwin published a more complete version of his theory of evolution, with compelling evidence. in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species.

Darwin’s scientific discovery is the unifying theory of the life sciences, explaining the diversity of life– for which he has been described as one of the most influential figures in human history.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 12, 2023 at 1:00 am

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