Thoughts on Biological Chemistry and Emergence

My dog was licking my face this morning – as he often does in the morning. Many people refuse to let dogs lick their faces. Understandable. I am one of the apparently few people who allow it. There are a few exceptions when I don’t like it, such as right after my dog has eaten stinky dog food. Otherwise, he is a very healthy, tidy and gentle (and smallish) dog. His breath is barely noticeable.

Dog’s lick people’s faces for a number of possible reasons; these are nicely explained in several articles, such as:

https://pets.thenest.com/dogs-lick-humans-faces-5892.html

https://shopus.furbo.com/blogs/knowledge/why-does-dog-lick-my-face

But the proposed reason that most intrigues me is that it is a form of chemical communication. Dogs have such a sophisticated sense of smell that they can actually gather information (dog-like information) about people they are licking. Licking can also have a calming effect on licker and lickee (if you are not a fan of dogs licking your face you may disagree, so just pretend that you’re a dog for a moment).

According to this article:

“Scientists believe that the major source of people’s positive reactions to pets comes from oxytocin, a hormone whose many functions include stimulating social bonding, relaxation and trust, and easing stress. Research has shown that when humans interact with dogsoxytocin levels increase in both species.”

Even more fascinating is a study that indicates that interacting with dogs can have health benefits for humans:

Beneficial Dog Bacteria Up-Regulate Oxytocin and Lower Risk of Obesity

So, having a dog can reduce obesity? That is certainly new to me!

Chemical Ecology

While my dog was licking my face and kicking up his oxytocin, and consequently making me release the same chemical into my bloodstream, I was thinking about how social animals regulate chemistry within their pack. (Similar with the visible/audible dimension: when my dog sends growling signals, I will sometimes get up and check out the window for intruders. He is modulating my behavior). So, I began to see more clearly how chemical exchange might be important for the cohesion of a group of social animals. I suspect there are many more chemicals involved in regulating the behaviors of pack animals – including humans.

And I realized that the orchestration of chemicals – not only in a single animal body – but among a group of animals – is largely invisible to us. But of course: chemicals are too small to see. They are molecules made of atoms. We experience their signaling effects as behaviors and notions. And we humans may have evolved such complex societal structures that we can hardly even recognize the chemical foundations of so much of our social behavior. This is the nature of emergence.

When a new level of emergence takes shape (for instance, when chemistry becomes complex enough to enable replication and variation and therefore genetic-based biology), new, larger structures take on their own agency and begin to regulate their sub-components in turn. Ancient chemistry didn’t just allow an apparatus to emerge that conveys information for replication (genetics); it also allowed a complex network of signaling between organelles, cells, organs, organisms, ecosystems, and societies. Each level gives rise (and gives way) to larger structures.

Emergence and Top-Down Effects

Emergence is a fascinating subject – not only because of the beauty of imagining simple components coming together to make a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts – but because that whole can attain autonomy; it can actually reach down and regulate those components that allowed it to come into existence in the first place. It’s possible that this top-down influence is an innate and necessary property of emergence.

If you are a fan of emergence, like me, you enjoy spinning narratives about how various levels of reality came into existence:

physics
chemistry
biology
intelligence
technology
super intelligence

The name of this blog is “Nature->Brain->Technology” – which is a nod to three of the levels in that list.

Dawkins’ book, The Selfish Gene – triggered new insights on genetics – and some lively debates. Dawkins coined the term “meme”. And I suspect he may have had a sense that the title of the book itself could turn into a meme. It brought forth ideas about how genes are powerful agents that cause an upward cascade of effects, making us do what we do: from the perspective of the selfish gene, we humans are “lumbering robots” whose purpose is to simply ensure its replication. Everything else is an illusion of human purpose. But it may be more subtle than this. Are genes the only things that are “selfish”? Could there be a lower level of selfishness going on?

My new insight from building oxytocin with my dog is that there is another layer of emergence involved, which is more fundamental to genes, and which gave rise to genes. My insight was echoed by an article called “Forget the selfish gene — the evolution of life is driven by the selfish ribosome“, which states:

“The selfish ribosome model closes a big theoretical gap between, on the one hand, the simple biological molecules that can form on mud flats, oceanic thermal vents or via lightning, and on the other hand LUCA, or the Last Universal Common Ancestor, a single-celled organism.”

Anything that smells of Eve is suspect. It’s more likely that there was a sort of distributed “Eve Soup” with a lot of pseudo-replication happening over a very long period of time. It is possible that the origin of life cannot be pinpointed to a single time and space…specifically because it is emergent.

Besides face-licking, there are probably many more phenomena that we have low-dimensional explanations for. They may someday be revealed as the effects of various selfish agents operating on various levels. Emergence is a scientific tool – a conceptual framework – that helps reveal otherwise invisible forces in nature.

For instance: why do we yawn?

The physiological purpose of a yawn remains a mystery. “The real answer so far is we don’t really know why we yawn,”

It may be more productive to stop looking for “the purpose”, and to look at it through the wide lens of emergence.

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Music is Language. Language is Improvisation

(This article is re-published and re-edited from a previous version written on December 2004)

People are often amazed by musicians who play by ear, such as pianists who can just pick up melodies and play them on the spot, adding chords, accompanying singers who pause or change keys in mid-tune, inventing harmonies, etc.

I have found that sometimes the people who are the most amazed by improvisation are actually professional musicians who are classically trained – very accomplished musicians in fact – but they rarely engage in the art of improvisation. Many classically-trained concert pianists who can sight-read Bach and Bartok with astonishing skill do not improvise. To them, the magic of inventing musical expression on the spot is curious, impressive – even alien.

Vasily Kandinsky (1866–1944): Komposition 8 (Guggenheim)

As a person who was figuring out Beatles tunes on the guitar with my brother at age nine, improvisation has always been natural – synonymous with the very idea of music. I never had the patience as a young man to interpret a bunch of tiny black dots on a page. Only later in life did I actually learn to read – and even to this day, I have to mumble under my breath: “every…good…boy…does…fine” before I can produce a single note.

Music is About Ears, Not Eyes
I believe that improvising music is no different than speaking – it is in fact the most natural form of music creation. This is because we are a language species, and therefore, we are improvisers by nature. It just so happens that we practice improvisational speaking a lot more than we practice improvisational music.

Reading A Script To Your Husband or Wife
Imagine coming home from work and walking up to your spouse, opening up a booklet and beginning to recite from page 134, third paragraph: “Good evening dear, and how was your day?” That would be ludicrous. Obviously one does not need a script to talk. We are able to construct sentences on the fly, to fit the situation, to express the mood of the moment, and to respond to what the other person had just said. We are improvisational creatures – and our brains have evolved to allow us to do this very well. Every day of a person’s life, a unique sentence – a combination of words – is generated which that person has never said, and will never say again. And of course, that is just the words – those symbolic units that dance around in abstract space. There is much more to natural language than mere words, operating on deeper levels of brain and society. There is intonation, timing, punctuation, body language – essentially, the musical dynamics of speech.

While I am referring to the musicality of speech as the basis for advocating improvised music, I am not making a negative statement about classically-trained musicians who sight-read and do not improvise. I’m just suggesting to those who are amazed by improvisation that… this is where it all started. It’s not amazing at all! It is the origin of music itself.

Playing Back an Improvisation Preserved for Eternity
It would be totally wrong for me to say that musicians who sight read are not creative, or are not engaged in the spiritual level of music. Classically-trained musicians, as well as conductors, are the ones who have allowed us to enter into the minds and souls of Vivaldi, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Satie. And they are certainly more than just technicians who scan manuscripts as if they were records in a juke box. They are interpreters of the original emotion and meaning that was present when the musical piece was composed. Many a tear shed from the eye of a violinist is the same tear that Tchaikovsky shed when he created the original melody. And the fact is, neither you nor I could ever actually hear Tchaikovsky composing. Because he has been dead for a long time. His music is brought to life by living souls. And each interpreter brings his or her mood, individuality, culture, and the technology of the times – into the experience.

Chopin and Monk Interpreters
I recall hearing a radio program about Chopin’s music in which a musical critic referred to “Chopin interpreters”, classical pianists who specialize in expressing the essence of Chopin (at least as far as critics and historians could tell). I’ve even come across the term, “Chopinist”. This is also used in reference to contemporary jazz pianists who play Thelonius Monk – “Monk interpreters”, as well as musical scribes who preserve Monk’s recordings into notation. Any interpreter of a late jazz composer deals with an extra level of interpretation due to the fact that a large part of the composers art was improvisation – performances of the same musical piece were played differently for each recording. In the case of Monk, with his unique manner of weaving syncopated rhythm and harmony and using silent pauses of “thought”, there is an individual cosmology to be understood – one must enter into his mind to see this musical machinery at work.

The Universality of Communicating with Sound
The history of music is probably as old as the history of human speech itself. Like the earliest examples of “art” we know of, created on the walls of caves, music may have had a functional aspect. It may have been a way for humans to communicate to each other in a more ritualistic and transcendent way than the average grunting of daily life.

The world has many materials which the human species has appropriated, all of which produce overtones when struck, plucked, or stroked. Some materials produce more coherent overtone spectra – in which the fundamental frequencies are easily heard: other materials produce complex overtone spectra, and serve a percussive purpose. These overtones are a part of the physical nature of our world, and they are echoed within the language-generating machinery of our brains. Why did dodecaphonic music not free music from the tyranny of harmony? Because the language of music is inherently hierarchical – and this is because of the way physical objects vibrate. And we are physical objects.

I believe that the logic of harmony emerged from two things:

1. physics
2. the need for humans to communicate.

Connect to Your Soul with Music
I would conclude that the joy of creating music is not for the privileged few who have gone through the rigor of seven years at the Conservatory. Music is the underlying sound of our speech. It happens all the time – every day of our lives. To improvise with sound is natural, whether it takes the form of beating rhythms on your knee or cooing to a newborn baby. It is also a way for us to connect to the harmonic logic that resides in the molecular structure of the world. And it’s a way for us to connect to each other with the sounds that lie beneath mere words.

Deconstructing Agnosticism

 

Take a random phrase from the left column, a random phrase from the middle column, and a random phrase from the right column. Combine them to construct a question about your belief in God. How many possible questions can you construct?

The the answer is 1080. That doesn’t include the many many possible phrases you might want to include in this list. This illustrates the expansiveness of questioning everything. Since “God” is difficult to define, and since there are many ways to represent, understand, and experience God, one can’t truly answer the question “do you believe in God” unless the asker and answerer both share the same sense of what they are talking about

One conclusion from this exploration is that we cannot escape the realm of words and language in the effort to articulate the nature of our beliefs. Can any one think about belief without using some form of (internal or external) language? 

Is belief naturally binary (I do believe vs. I don’t believe)? If it is not binary, can it be called a “belief”? Cultural/social forces and neural structures may cause a predisposition towards binarism in beliefs. In any case, I suspect that it is good to subdue these tendencies, for matters of intelligence as well as for social ease.

In my opinion (which could always change), agnosticism is (1) a good way to exercise one’s own intellectual agility, and (2) socially productive; it helps you hear and accept other people’s many kinds of beliefs, non-beliefs, assumed beliefs and believed assumptions.

True agnostics are not compelled to agree or disagree. In terms of epistemology, they are incapable of doing either.

No doubt, for many people, belief and faith are passionate and deeply-felt, and so it may not be easy to take such a dispassionate attitude. But as long as people are using language to question and express belief, the mechanics of logic necessarily come into play. 

In that case, the art of living may be the wordless expression that escapes the realm of agreement and disagreement.  Thus, God (or the absence of God) is best expressed in terms of how we live rather than what we say.

An intelligent car that can’t communicate with its driver is a dumbass car.

(image from https://www.tribuneindia.com/2014/20141116/spectrum/motor.htm)

Let’s talk about body language.

DogBodyLanguage.1jpg.jpgA key property of body language is that it is almost always unconscious to both giver and receiver.

Image from: https://talbotspy.org/but-his-tail-was-wagging-understanding-dog-body-language-part-1/

This is not a problem in itself – in fact, it’s actually really good that body language happens mostly unconsciously. Body language is necessarily unconscious. The flood of signals from a talking body is vast, high-bandwidth, high-rate, and highly-parallel. It must bypass the higher-brain in order to do its work. The higher brain is too busy making decisions and trying to be rational to be bothered with such things.

The problem with the backchannel nature of body language is that it is often in competition with explicit, linear verbal language, which is a pushy tyrant. There are too many pushy tyrants in the tech industry that are poor at social signaling. Body language tends to be relegated to a lower priority in many areas of digital technology, including the design of software interfaces, productivity tools, kitchen appliances…and cars. This is just one symptom of the lack of diversity in the tech industry.

High tech culture is obsessed with metrics; seeking to measure as much as possible, to be data-driven, to have tangible results and ways of measuring success. This obsession with data is a mistake. Tossing out what can’t be measured or converted into data is a very big mistake. And the digitally-designed world we live in suffers as a result. Let me try to explain what I mean by all this….

A computer on wheels

Screen Shot 2018-08-09 at 11.59.52 AM.png

The automobile was invented in the industrial age – an age defined by energy, force, mechanics, chemistry, electricity, and physicality.

We are  now fumbling through the information age.

Apple Inc. has managed to reduce the thickness of laptop computers – they have become so thin that you can cut steak with them. But it should come as no surprise that the surface areas of laptop screens and keyboards have not been reduced, compared to the degree that computer chips have been miniaturized. There is a simple reason for this: human eyes and hands are still the same size. This will never change.

The same applies to communication. The more digital our machines become, the more we have to communicate with them, and they, in turn, have to communicate with us.

Screen Shot 2018-08-10 at 2.15.32 PM.pngAn old-fashioned industrial-age car comes with natural affordances: communication happens simply as a result of the physical nature of knobs, wheels, wires, engine sounds, torques, and forces. There are many sensory stimuli that the driver sees, feels, hears and smells – and often they are unconscious to the driver – or just above the level of consciousness.

Driving is a very different experience now. It is turning into a video game…a simulation. There is a disconnect between driver and car that seems to be growing wider.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But here’s the problem:

Body language between driver and car has become an arbitrary plaything, mediated by cockeyed displays and confusing controls. It is up to the whims of user interface designers – too many of whom have their heads up their asses. Idiots who call themselves designers live under the illusion that they can invent visual language on the fly and shove it into our long-lived lives, expecting their clever interfaces to fall naturally into use.

Or maybe they don’t actually think this – but don’t care anyway, because they are paid well. I’m not sure which is worse.

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According to Matt Bubbers:

There’s nothing wrong with the volume knob. It does not need reinvention, nor disruption, nor innovation. The volume knob is perfect the way it is. Or, rather, the way it was.

Get into a new car in 2018 and you’re faced with a multitude of complicated ways to adjust the stereo volume: buttons or dials on the steering wheel, voice commands that rarely work, fiddly non-buttons on the centre panel, touchscreens that take your eyes off the road, even gesture controls that make you wave your hand as if you’re conducting a symphony.

Cars are too complicated. The volume knob is indicative of the problem. Call it feature bloat or mission creep: Cars are trying to do more, but they’re not doing it all well. These infotainment features can be distracting, therefore dangerous, and they cost money.

A new generation of digital designer is out of touch with nature. It is infuriating, because here we are, fumbling to bake a cake, turn on the AC, or change a channel on the TV: “Now, which of these 2,458 buttons on this TV remote do I need to press in order to change the channel?…”

“Oh shit – no wonder I’m confused: this is the remote control for the gas fireplace! Is that why it’s so hot in here?”

Driving under the influence of icons

Britania Rescue, a firm providing a breakdown service in England, conducted a survey, interviewing over 2000 drivers. The revelations are quite startling. It revealed that more than 52 per cent of drivers cannot correctly identify 16 of the most common symbols.

IMG_1207.JPG

Interpreting a bunch of unfamiliar icons invented by out-of-touch dweebs is not how we should be interacting with our technology – especially as technology sinks deeper into our lives.

Just this morning, my 87-year-old mother and I spent about a half-hour trying to figure out how to set my sister’s high-tech oven to bake. To make matters worse, my mother, who is visually-impaired, can’t even feel the controls – the entire interface consists of a dim visual glow behind slick glass. We eventually had to read a manual. WE HAD TO READ A FUCKING MANUAL TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO TURN ON AN OVEN. How long must this insanity go on?

A car’s manual should be the car itself

100212-biz-bmwshifter-hmed-8a.grid-6x2.jpg

Dan Carney, in the article, Complex car controls equal confused drivers, quotes Consumer Reports:  “You shouldn’t have to read the owner’s manual to figure out how to use the shifter.”

He says, “The BMW iDrive had a controller for functions like the radio and air conditioning that was so baffling that it forced drivers to take their eyes off the road.”

My Prius experience

services.edmunds-media.jpgMy first experience with a Prius was not pleasant. Now, I am not expecting many of you to agree with my criticism, and I know that there are many happy Prius owners, who claim that you can just ignore the geeky stuff if you don’t like it.

I don’t like it, and I can’t ignore it.

I have found that most people have a higher tolerance for figuring-out technology than I. It’s not for lack intelligence or education; it’s more that I am impatient with stupid design. It makes me irate, because these fumblings are entirely unnecessary.

We all suffer because of the whims of irresponsible designers, supposedly working in teams which include human factors engineers and ergonomics engineers, whom I assume are asleep on the job.

I place the blame for my impatience squarely on Donald Norman, whose book, “The Design of Everyday Things” implored readers to stop blaming themselves for their constant fumbling with technology. The source of the problem is irresponsible design. He converted me profoundly. And now I am a tech curmudgeon. Thanks Don.

I once had to borrow a friend’s Prius because my Honda Fit was in the shop. I liked the energy-saving aspects and the overall comfort, but the dashboard was unfamiliar. My hippocampi threw up their hands in despair. What’s worse: after parking the car in a parking lot, I put the key in my pocket and decided to check the doors to make sure they were locked. The doors were not locking. Why? I tried locking the doors many times but every time I walked around to the other side, the opposite door would unlock. I called the owner, and told her that I am not able to lock the car. She said, “Oh – that’s because the doors automatically – and magically – unlock when you walk up to them. Smart, eh?”

Hello? Discoverability? 

Thank you Prius for not telling me about your clever trick. You are one step ahead of me! Perhaps I should just stop trying to understand what the fuck you are doing and just bow to your vast intelligence. You win, Prius.

My Honda Fit is relatively simple, compared to many cars these days. But it does things that infuriate me. It decides that I want the back window wipers to turn on when the front wipers are on, and I happen to be backing up. It took my car mechanic to explain the non-brilliance of this behavior. Thanks Honda for taking away my choice in the matter. My car also decides to turn on the interior light at night after I have parked the car. I have to wait a long time for the light to go out. My car knows how long. I am not privy to this duration. What if I don’t want strangers to see me – because I’d like to finish picking my nose before getting out?

Whether or not strangers can see me picking my nose is no longer my choice. My car has made this decision for me. Sure: I could reach up to the ceiling and turn off the light – but then I will forget to turn it on again when I actually need it. This never used to be so complicated.

Smart = dumb

I have come to the conclusion that a car without any computers is neither smart nor dumb. It has no brain and so it cannot even try to be intelligent. On the other hand, if a car has computational processing then it has an opportunity to be either smart or dumb. Most cars these days are poor communicators, I call them dumb.

The decider

Another gripe: sometimes my door locks when I’m driving, and then I have to unlock it to get out – but not always. There is no rhyme or reason (that I am aware of) for when and why this happens. Yes…I know – some of you will probably offer to enlighten me with a comment. But the fact that this has to be learned in the first place is what bugs me. I would prefer one of two things: (1) My car makes it apparent to me why it is making decisions for me, or (2) it stays out of the way and lets me be the decision-maker.

Am I old-fashioned? If wanting to be in charge of basic things like locking doors and turning on lights makes me old-fashioned, then…yes, I’m old-fashioned.

The-Hog-Ring-Auto-Upholstery-Community-Complex-Dashboard.jpg

(image from http://www.thehogring.com/2013/07/31/10-most-ridiculous-dashboards-of-all-time/

Confessions of a MIT luddite

People confuse me for a techy because of my degree. And then they are shocked at how critical I am of technology. The truth is that I am a design nerd rather than a computer nerd. I have nothing against information technology – after all, I write software – and love it. I just want the technology that I rely on to be better at communicating. For example: why do gas pumps still have a one-word vocabulary? ….

Beep.

Okay, I’m a neo-luddite. There, I said it. And I will remain a neo-luddite as long as the tech industry continues to ignore a billion years of evolution, which gave us – and the rest of the living world – the means to generate signals and interpret signals – the body language of the biosphere that keeps the living world buzzing along.

This natural flow of communication among organisms is a wonderful thing to behold. It happens on a level of sophistication that makes ovens and VCR’s look like retardation in a box.

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But then again, the evolution of information technology is extremely short compared to the evolution of natural language, which has kept the social ecosystems of Homo Sapiens running for a very long time.

Perhaps I am thrashing in the midst of the Singularity, and I should just give up – because that’s what you do in the Singularity.

But I would still like to understand what the future of communication will look like. This is especially important as more and more communication is done between people and machines. At the moment, I am still a little hesitant to call it “communication”.

How much negentropy is Earth capable of?

Negentropy is the opposite of entropy. It refers to an increase in order, complexity, and usefulness, while entropy refers to the decay of order or the tendency for a system to become random and useless.

The universe as a whole tends toward total entropy, or heat death. This does not mean that ALL parts of the universe are becoming less ordered. There can be isolated parts of the universe that are actually increasing in order; becoming more organized and workable. The best example of this is our home: planet Earth.

A miracle of 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms

I was walking from my bedroom to my bathroom this morning, pondering the miracle of my body purposefully moving itself from one place in the universe to another. Consider the atoms that make up my body; they are assembled in just the right way to construct a human capable of locomotion. It is a miracle. Of course, the atoms themselves are not the driving force of this capability. The driving force is a collaboration of emergent systems (molecules, tissues, electrochemical activity, signals between organs, and of course, a brain – which evolved in the context of a complex planet, with other brains in societies, and with an ever-complexifying backdrop of shared information.

It’s a curious thing: planet Earth – with its vast oceans, atmosphere, ecosystems and organisms – is determined to go against the overall tendency in the universe to decay towards the inevitable doom of heat death.

While walking the seven billion billion billion atoms of my body to the bathroom, I considered how far the negentropic urge of our planet could possibly push itself, in a universe that generally tries to ruin the party; a universe that will ultimately win in the end. The seven billion billion billion atoms currently in my body will eventually be strewn throughout a dead universe. At that point there will be nothing that can re-assemble them into anything useful.

How not to ruin a party

The party is not over; there is ample reason to believe that Earth is not done yet. Earth generated a biosphere – the only spherical ecosystem we know of – which produced animals and humans, and most recently – post-biological systems (technology and AI). I would not dismiss entirely the notion that Earth really wants us to invent AI, and to allow it to take over – because our AI could ultimately help Earth stay healthy, and continue its negentropic party. We humans (in our old, biological manifestation) are not capable of taking care of our own planet. We are only capable of exploiting its resources – left to our own primitive survival devices. It is only through our post-human systems that we will be able to give Earth the leverage it needs to continue its negentropic quest.

This is another way of saying that the solutions to climate change and mass extinction will require massive social movements, corporate and governmental leadership, global-scale technologies, and other trans-human-scale systems that far exceed the mental capacities of a single human brain. It is possible that the ultimate victory of AI will be to save ourselves from an angry Mother on the verge of committing infanticide.

In the meanwhile, Earth may decide that it needs to get rid of the majority of the human population; just another reason to reconsider the urge to make babies.

But just how far can Earth’s negentropic party extend? As Earth’s most potent agents of negentropy, we humans are preparing to tap the moon, asteroids, and other planets for resources. Will we eventually be able to develop energy shields to deflect renegade asteroids? Will our robots continue to colonize the solar system? How far will Earth’s panspermia extend?

There are plenty of science fiction stories and hypothetical explorations that offer exciting and illuminating possible answers to these questions; I will not attempt to venture beyond my level of knowledge in this area. All I will say is…I think there are two possible futures for us humans:

(1) Earth will decide it has had enough of climate change, and smack us down with rising oceans and chaotic storms, causing disease, mass migrations, and war, resulting in our ultimate demise (Earth will be fine after a brief recovery period).

(2) We will evolve a new layer of the biosphere – built of technology and AI – and this will regulate our destructive instincts, thus allowing Earth to stay healthy and to keep complexifying. It will allow Earth to reconsider what it currently sees as a cancer on its skin – and to see us as agents of health.

In the case of future (2), we will lose some of our autonomy – but it just might be a comfortable existence in the long run – because Earth will be better off – and it will want to keep us around. Eventually, the panspermic negentropic party will not be our own – we will be just one of the intermediate layers of emergence emanating from the planet. We will become mere organs of an extended post-Earth ecosystem that continues to defy the general entropy of the universe…at least for a few billion more years.

The sleeping sponge: on the evolution of waking up

From the book, Wide Awake at 3:00am, I learned that researchers had come up with an answer to a common question, “Why do we sleep”?

It’s a valid question. What’s the actual purpose of sleep? Why would nature favor having the majority of animal species waste several hours each day in a state of unconsciousness, getting nothing done, and becoming vulnerable to predators?

The answer the researchers came up with required turning the question on its head: “Why should any living thing bother waking up at all?” Perhaps sleep is the normal state of all life, and wakefulness is just some aberration – a phenomenon that evolved later – as a part-time activity to more efficiently pursue food and sex.

As a lover of naps and hater of alarm clocks, I kind of like this idea.

I recall reading somewhere that sponges are “always asleep”. But I also read recently that sponges “never sleep”. Rather than go back and do more research to clear up this issue, I shall instead declare that the problem lies the definition of  “sleep”.

If you’re a sponge, you have no neurons. Having no neurons is a good indication that you have no brain. And no brain means no dreaming. Sponges are not like us in that they are sessile: they have no motility (except in the larval stage, when genetic dispersal occurs). If you don’t have to get up and go to work, why bother having a brain? Brains provide inner-representations of the outside world – used to navigate unpredictable terrains. Sponges just sit there at the bottom of the ocean and collect ambient nutrition. A task so easy that anyone can do it in their sleep.

Brains for Movement

The evolution of mobility required not only the direct control of muscles but also representations of reality that determined when and how those muscles get activated. Brains evolved in order for animals to evolve.

Long ago, there was no such thing as “waking up”. Until brains came along and gave organisms a reason to get off their asses and get a job. Perhaps asses and jobs had to evolve as well. But let’s not get too technical here.

It is possible that the binary states of wakefulness and sleep were not invented by brains themselves, but earlier in evolutionary history, by simple neuronal networks that generate sleep-like dynamics. Given that every location on Earth other than the poles has been cycling between day and night since before life emerged, it makes sense that organic periods would emerge to harmonize with this cycle.

Perhaps the very process of storing representations of reality – no matter how small or simple – requires a periodic cycle – as indicated by research finding that sleep is required for brains to prune useless memories and absorb useful ones.

My takeaway from all of this is that I have an organ that likes to make me do complicated things for many hours each day: sixteen to be exact. That’s a long time each day being on the move and getting worked up about other brains that are wreaking havoc on the world, such as the shriveled-up shitball inside of Donald Trump’s skull.

Before I die, I will thank my brain for collecting a massive library of memories that fueled a lifetime of dreams. And then I will say goodnight to my brain, and get back to sleep.

Trim, Mulch, Compost

It’s a rare warm evening, after a rare hot day. I just got back from a bout of night-time gardening, shirtless. The neighbors gave a few more glances than usual. Some things don’t require precise vision, like breaking twigs into smaller twigs, or forming a donut of dead leaves around the trunk of a young fruit tree. The feel of twigs snapping and the sound of leaves being shoved around is enough to go on.

Gardening, in my tiny little piece of Earth’s surface, consists mostly of trimming dead twigs and overly-ambitious vines, and then breaking them down into smaller bits – like what teeth do to food before passing it on to the stomach.

My love of gardening has grown as I have become more learned about two fascinating places where invisible creatures do wonderful symbiotic work: the colon (large intestine) and the rhrizosphere (the region near the roots of plants). In both of these regions, our invisible friends work busily to transform by-products into valuable nutrition, and then they share it.

My small front yard has become a Zen garden – I am both mindless servant and mindful observer. I wonder if I could apply my gardening approach to other aspects of my life.

The more I understand the things that affect the world swirling around me, the better I will be at knowing where to apply simple, mindless actions that have healthy outcomes. Where to trim a shrub to allow more sunlight in; where to use those trimmings as mulch to keep moisture underground; where to add compost to increase biodiversity and nutrition.

If I never succeed in transferring my gardening skills towards making my life flow more naturally, at least I can say that my gardening skills have improved: my thumbs are greener, and I have learned that most of the work is done underground – invisible to the eye.