Hummingbird on a wire

hummingbirdI looked out the window this morning and I thought I saw a speck on the window pane. Upon closer look, I realized that the speck was a hummingbird perched high on a wire spanning two telephone poles.

I became the bird’s dedicated audience for about three minutes. I watched closely as the tiny bee-like creature surveyed the surroundings from its high vantage point.

What was the bird thinking? And can I use the word “thinking” to describe the activities in this bird’s mind? For that matter, does the bird have a mind? It certainly has a brain. And that brain has a special feature: its hippocampus is five times larger than that of song birds, seabirds, and woodpeckers. According to this article, “The birds can remember where every flower in their territory is and how long it takes to refill with nectar after they have fed.”

Thinking is a by-product of an animal body, which is a member of a species with specific needs, skills, and adaptations to a particular environment.

Fear (and Love) of Heights

If I were perched on a wire as high as the hummingbird, I would be terrified: “Get me down from here!” On the other hand, a bird feels perfectly at home at such high altitudes.

Consider a hawk sliding across the horizon above a vast valley. Looking down from its vantage point, the hawk may experience inner-peace – possibly moments of boredom (if you will permit me to apply these human-oriented emotion labels to a hawk’s subjective experience). A human hang-glider would experience exhilaration, and moments of fear. And maybe…moments of that same inner-peace that the hawk experiences.

Above image from:

When I have joyful flying dreams, my brain is not triggering the fear network. I am experiencing a peaceful freedom from gravity – with touches of exhilaration.

I wish I could become as light and deft (and fearless) as a bird, and watch the world from the tallest treetops in my neighborhood.

“The Gene” doesn’t exist. It’s always a tangled hierarchy of genes plus environment

Maybe I’m obsessing over a tiny bit of language here, but I really believe that the language we use has a large impact on the way we think about things, and thus, the way we go about solving problems. Take the concept of “gene” for example.

Everything I’ve leaned about genetics tells me that there is no clear obvious separation of genes and environment. It’s like the boundary of the Mandelbrot Set.

seepferdseepferdIf you try to untangle the source of something to determine whether it is from genes or environment (nature vs. nurture), you usually fail. And that’s because the interactions of genes with the environment is really like the boundary of the Mandelbrot Set. You can keep zooming in, but you’ll never find the boundary.

And this is fundamental to how nature operates.

Both Environment and Genetic Makeup Influence Behavior

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From Wikipedia:

Nature versus nurture debates assume that variation in a trait is primarily due to either genetic differences or environmental differences. However, the current scientific opinion holds that neither genetic differences nor environmental differences are solely responsible for producing phenotypic variation, and that virtually all traits are influenced by both genetic and environmental differences.


it is rarely productive to talk about a “gene” in the singular. “Genes” is almost always a plural concept. And the reason is because the interaction of genes and environment (the fundamental basis for evolution) goes all the way down to the level of the genes themselves. In other words:

At a Basic Level: Genes are the environment for genes

The way a gene is expressed is influenced by the other genes who take part in the choreography of expression.

I originally learned this from reading Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. From the point of view of the single gene, being the most atomic unit of selection, EVERYTHING other than itself…constitutes the environment. That includes other genes.

So, when you hear a science writer claiming that “Researchers determine that there is no ‘math gene’…”, you should conclude that the author is (1) correct, and (2) ignorant about biology.

Of course there is no math gene. Math skill (or any skill) grows out of a tangled interaction of inherited instinct (genetic makeup) and environmental factors (experience, learning, outside influences). The “nature vs. nurture” debate is counter-productive. The question should not be about determining which is the cause. It should be about determining the way these two factors come together to continually bring the natural world into being.

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Because it’s a tangled hierarchy of influences, people get uncomfortable. Science is supposed to untangle these things, right? Not always. Science can help us understand that tangled hierarchies are actually the norm. That’s nature.

This is not to say that there are no culprit genes for certain diseases or observable traits. They do in fact exist in certain cases. For instance: there do exist “single gene disorders“. But these are usually mutations – deviations of an otherwise natural situation.

John Oliver recently made a compelling rant against science journalism, and how perfectly valid science often gets trivialized, simplified, and even rendered false…for mass consumption.

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There is no single bullet theory in nature. Science writers should spend less time looking for a simple story to catch people’s eye with a punchy headline. Nature is complex…like the Mandelbrot Set. And that’s awesome.

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The Information EVOLUTION

I remember several decades ago learning that we were at the beginning of an information revolution. The idea, as I understood it, was that many things are moving towards a digital economy; even wars will become information-based.

The information revolution takes over where the industrial revolution left off.

I am seeing an even bigger picture emerging – it is consistent with the evolution of the universe and Earth’s biosphere.

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At the moment, I can hear a bird of prey (I think it’s a falcon) that comes around this neighborhood every year about this time and makes its call from the tree tops. When I think about the amount of effort that birds make to produce mating calls, and other kinds of communication, I am reminded of how much importance information plays in the biological world. The variety and vigor of bird song is amazing. From an evolutionary point of view, one has to assume that there is great selective pressure to create such energy in organized sound.

money+gorilla+teeth+omg+weird+primatesThis is just a speck of dust in comparison to the evolution of communication in our own species, for whom information is a major driver in our activities. Our faces have evolved to give and receive a very high bandwidth of information between each other (Compare the faces of primates to those of less complex animals and notice the degree to which the face is optimized for giving and receiving information).

Our brains have grown to massive proportions (relatively-speaking) to account for the role that information plays in the way our species survives on the planet.

Now: onto the future of information…

Beaming New Parts to the Space Station

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Guess which is more expensive:

  1. Sending a rocket to the space station with a new part to repair an old one.
  2. Beaming up the instructions to build the part on an on-board 3D printer.

You guessed it.

And this is where some people see society going in general. 3D printing will revolutionize society in a big way. Less moving atoms, More moving bits.

To what degree will the manipulation of bits become more important than the manipulation of atoms?

Not Just a Revolution: Evolution

My sense is that the information revolution is not merely one in a series of human eras: it is the overall trend of life on Earth. We humans are the agents of the latest push in this overall trend.

Some futurists predict that nanotechnology will make it possible to infuse information processing into materials, giving rise to programmable matter. Ray Kurzweil predicts that the deep nano-mingling of matter and information will be the basis for a super-intelligence that can spread throughout the universe.

Okay, whatever.

For now, let’s ride this information wave and try to use the weightlessness of bits to make life better for all people (and all life-forms) on Earth – not just a powerful few.

The Singularity is Just One in a Series

I’m reading Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near.

It occurs to me that the transition that the human race is about to experience is similar to other major transitions that are often described as epochs – paradigm-shifts – in which a new structure emerges over a previous structure. There are six key epochs that Kurzweil describes. (The first four are not unlike epochal stages described by Terrance Deacon and others.)

  1. Physics and Chemistry
  2. Biology and DNA
  3. Brains
  4. Technology
  5. Human Intelligence Merges with Human Technology
  6. Cosmic Intelligence

When a new epoch comes into being, the agents of that new epoch don’t necessarily eradicate, overcome, usurp, reduce, or impede the agents of the previous epoch. Every epoch stands on the shoulders of the last epoch.This is one reason not to fear the Singularity…as if it is going to destroy us or render us un-human. In fact, epoch number 5 may allow us to become more human (a characterization that we could only truly make after the fact – not from our current vantage point).

I like to think of “human” as a verb: as a shift from animal to post-human, because it characterizes our nature of always striving for something more.

animal to posthuman

There are debates raging on whether the Singularity is good or bad for humanity. One way to avoid endless debate is to do the existential act: to make an attempt at determining the fate of humanity, rather than sit passively and make predictions.  As Alan Kay famously said, “the best way to predict the future is to invent it”. We should try to guide the direction of the next epoch as much as we can while we are still the ones in charge.

In a previous article I wrote that criticizes some predictions by Nick Bostrom, I compare our upcoming epochal shift to a shift that happened in the past, when multi-cellular beings evolved. Consider:

Maybe Our AI Will Evolve to Protect Us And the Planet

tree-of-lifeBillions of years ago, single cells decided to come together in order to make bodies, so they could do more using teamwork. Some of these cells were probably worried about the bodies “taking over”. And oh did they! But, these bodies also did their little cells a favor: they kept them alive and provided them with nutrition. Win-win baby!

I am not a full-fledged Singularitarian. I prefer to stay agnostic as long as I can. Its not just a human story. Our Singularity is just the one that is happening to us at the moment.

Similarly, the emergence of previous epochs may have been experienced as Singularities to those that came before.

When Earth Discovered Water

When Earth discovered water, life became possible.


“Discover”? I was going to use the word “invent”. Then I remembered that water can be found on other planets, comets, asteroids…and the Moon. Water is not unique to Earth. It may be more accurate to say that Earth invented a way to preserve and manage its water by evolving the biosphere. The biosphere harnesses, protects, filters, and enlivens the water that covers most of the planet.

Mars did not succeed in preserving its water.

The Gaia Hypothesis blows open the perspective of what life is. The evolution of the self-adaptive, self-regulating spherical ecosystem that we call Earth is more than just a collection of interacting organisms. It also relies on the dynamics of storms, oceans, tectonic plates, and the balance of gases in the atmosphere.


I began thinking about this as I was pouring boiling water into a coffee press. A beautiful stream, sparkling and transparent, visible only by virtue of the fact that it reflects the darks and lights of the surrounding environment.

What an amazing fluid. A true friend of gravity and heat, forming a collaboration resulting in a network of clouds, rain, snow, glaciers, streams, rivers and oceans.

There’s a deep reason why we can generate so much poetry about water.

“Planetary scientists are quick to stress that it’s not just water that’s indispensable for life, but liquid water. The distinction is key”

Water made life on Earth possible. Some people go as far as to say that water is alive.

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On the Origins of Earth’s Water

Did life on Earth begin with replicating molecules? Depends on how you define life. The backdrop for these replicating molecules was already rich and dynamic, with an interplay of water (in all its forms), gravity, atmospheric and ocean chemistry, electric storms…

…and the rhythms of day and night, winter and summer, which forms a backbeat. That backbeat drives the polyrhythmic dance that pulls water through its many forms – and brings us into being.



Thoughts on the Evolution of Evolvability


It is early February. The other day, I observed some fresh buds on a tree. When I lived back east, I remember seeing buds on bare trees in the snowy dead of winter. I used to wonder if these trees are “preparing” for the first days of spring by starting the growth of their buds. Trees, like most plants, can adapt to variations of weather. All organisms, in fact, exhibit behaviors that appear resourceful, reactive, adaptive, even “intelligent”.

We sometimes talk about animals and plants in terms of their goals and intentions. We even use intentional language in relation to computers or mechanical machines. Even though we know a machine isn’t alive, we use this kind of language as a form of shorthand.

But there may be something more than just verbal shorthand going on here.

The Intentional Stance

Daniel Dennett proposed the concept of the Intentional Stance. When I first learned about this idea, I felt a new sense of how our own human intelligence is just a special case of the adaptive and goal-directed nature of all life on the planet.

When I saw those buds on the tree the other day, I realized that there is so much goal-directed behavior happening all over the place – in plants, animals, and even in ecological systems. Are humans any more adaptive or “intentional” than any other organism?

The Evolution of Self and the Intentional Stance

Could it be that our human brains have simply…

…wrapped a fully-evolved self around our intentions?

…that we are really no more goal-directed or intentional than any other organism…except that we reflect on it with a higher level of consciousness, and apply a fully-formed language to that intentionality?

The Evolution of Evolvability

I first learned of the evolution of evolvability from a paper by Richard Dawkins. It’s a powerful idea, and it helps to make evolution seem less magical and perhaps easier to imagine. Not only have organisms continued to evolve, but their ability to evolve has improved. An example is the evolution of sexual reproduction, which created a huge advantage in a species’ ability to exploit genetic variation over evolutionary time.

A recent article titled “Intelligent design without a creator? Why evolution may be smarter than we thought” makes reference to the Evolution of Evolvability. It helps to cast the notion of intelligence and learning as prolific and pervasive in the natural world.

It would appear that the ability to evolve better ways to evolve predates humans. (It might even predate biology).

Of course we humans have found even better ways to evolve – including ways that overtake or sidestep our own human biology. This constitutes a new era in the evolution of life on earth – an era in which technology, culture, and ideas (memes) become the primary evolving agents of our species (and possibly the whole planet – assuming we humans make the planet so sick that we have to fabricate artificial immune systems in order to keep the planet (and thus ourselves) healthy.

While many people will cast this Singularity-like idea in a negative light, I see it as a new protective organ that is forming around our planet. Biology is not going away. It is just one regime in a progression of many emergent regimes. Biology has given birth to the next regime (via Dennett’s crane), which then reaches down to regulate, modulate, and protect the regime which created it.

Evolvability is the higher-level emergent system over evolution. It is a higher-order derivative. When seen in this way, biology comes out looking like just one step in a long process.

(Thanks to Stephen Brown for editorial assistance)

The Miracle of My Hippocampus – and other Situated Mental Organs

I’m not very good at organizing.

pilesThe pile of papers, files, receipts, and other stuff and shit accumulating on my desk at home has grown to huge proportions. So today I decided to put it all into several boxes and bring it to the co-working space – where I could spend the afternoon going through it and pulling the items apart. I’m in the middle of doing that now. Here’s a picture of my progress. I’m feeling fairly productive, actually.

10457290-Six-different-piles-of-various-types-of-nuts-used-in-the-making-of-mixed-nuts--Stock-PhotoSome items go into the trash bin; some go to recycling; most of them get separated into piles where they will be stashed away into a file cabinet after I get home. At the moment, I have a substantial number of mini-piles. These accumulate as I sift through the boxes and decide where to put the items.

Here’s the amazing thing: when I pull an item out of the box, say, a bill from Verizon, I am supposed to put that bill onto the Verizon pile, along with the other Verizon bills that I have pulled out. When this happens, my eye and mind automatically gravitate towards the area on the table where I have been putting the Verizon bills. I’m not entirely conscious of this gravitation to that area.

Gravity Fields in my Brain

What causes this gravitation? What is happening in my brain that causes me to look over to that area of the table? It seems that my brain is building a spatial map of categories for the various things I’m pulling out of the box. I am not aware of it, and this is amazing to me – I just instinctively look over to the area on the table with the pile of Verizon bills, and…et voilà – there it is.

Other things happen too. As this map takes shape in my mind (and on the table), priorities line up in my subconscious. New connections get made and old connects get revived. Rummaging through this box has a therapeutic effect.

The fact that my eye and mind know where to look on the table is really not such a miracle, actually. It’s just my brain doing its job. The brain has many maps – spatial, temporal, etc. – that help connect and organize domains of information. One part of the brain – the hippocampus – is associated with spatial memory.


User Interface Design, The Brain, Space, and Time

I could easily collect numerous examples of software user interfaces that do a poor job of tapping the innate power of our spatial brains. These problematic user interfaces invoke the classic bouts of confusion, frustration, undiscoverability, and steep learning curves that we bitch about when comparing software interfaces.

This is why I am a strong proponent of Body Language (see my article about body language in web site design) as a paradigm for user interaction design. Similar to the body language that we produce naturally when we are communicating face-to-face, user interfaces should be designed with the understanding that information is communicated in space and in time (situated in the world). There is great benefit for designers to have some understanding of this aspect of natural language.

Okay, back to my pile of papers: I am fascinated with my unconscious ability to locate these piles as I sift through my stuff. It reminds me of why I like to use the fingers of my hand to “store” a handful of information pieces. I can recall these items later once they have been stored in my fingers (the thumb is usually saved for the most important item).

Body Maps, Brain, and Memory


Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 9.03.46 PMLast night I was walking with my friend Eddie (a fellow graduate of the MIT Media Lab, where the late Marvin Minsky taught). Eddie told me that he once heard Marvin telling people how he liked to remember the topics of an upcoming lecture: he would place the various topics onto his body parts.

…similar to the way the ancient Greeks learned to remember stuff.

During the lecture, Marvin would shift his focus to his left shoulder, his hand, his right index finger, etc., in order to recall various topics or concepts. Marvin was tapping the innate spatial organs in his brain to remember the key topics in his lecture.

My Extended BodyMap

18lta79g5tsytjpgMy body. My home town. My bed. My shoes. My wife. My community. The piles in my home office. These things in my life all occupy a place in the world. And these places are mapped in my brain to events that have happened in the past – or that happen on a regular basis. My brain is the product of countless generations of Darwinian iteration over billions of years.

All of this happened in space and time – in ecologies, animal communities, among collaborative workspaces.

Even the things that have no implicit place and time (as the many virtualized aspects of our lives on the internet)… even these things occupy a place and time in my mind.

Intelligence has a body. Information is situated.

Hail to Thee Oh Hippocampus. And all the venerated bodymaps. For you keep our flitting minds tethered to the world.

You offer guidance to bewildered designers – who seek the way – the way that has been forged over billions of years of intertwingled DNA formation…resulting in our spatially and temporally-situated brains.


We must not let the no-place, no-time, any-place, any-time quality of the internet deplete us of our natural spacetime mapping abilities. In the future, this might be seen as one of the greatest challenges of our current digital age.