Monday, 15 September 2014

Away To A Fabulous Land


By Luke Kristopher Davis


If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. - Isaac Newton 

The Joy Of Science


   Humans are a small element in the subset of all the life on earth and this subset may even be still an even smaller element in the set of all life in the known universe. We are here by chance: there existed the chance for the basic atoms of matter to form complex compounds and for these to form even more complicated material structures which somehow formed the building blocks of DNA. The fact that over thousands of millions of years of evolution have produced a life form, us, which can decipher the patterns in the world and form an understanding of them is extraordinary. It is as if the universe is contemplating itself through our brains, how odd and mysterious this is! 

   To question and inquire the workings of the universe is an absolutely joyful experience. What grander quest exists than to understand the universe? To use the language of mathematics and the imagination of the human brain to describe events in the world is fun! The ingenuity of some species of organisms to deal with environmental selection pressures stretches the mind. The fact that we can describe a lot of what goes on in the universe with the basic equations and ideas of quantum mechanics is stifling! With a few elementary equations we gain a huge insight into the universe, this means that the universe that surrounds us and is us, is an elegantly and beautifully constructed system. 

   With science we can create technologies which allow us to talk to friends from all over the world, science enables us to travel around the world in the first place ! We can build monumental structures with the basic notions of mechanics, aerodynamics and metallurgy. We can conjure up bio-mechanical limbs which in some cases work better than our own evolved limbs! 

   What has separated us from the middle ages is science. Modern society is nothing without it. The only way we can make considerable progress in the advancement of knowledge, our happiness and health is with science. All other areas of study are dwarfed by sciences ability to thrust mankind into a new land of understanding.

   I cannot understand how doing anything else in ones life could be that exciting, mesmerizing or humbling than doing science or mathematics.

The Fabulous Land

   To train oneself, or if one is lucky enough to have a huge genetic disposition, to become aware of the patterns that live in the many layers of our world reveals the fabulous land. The fabulous land can be thought of as the mechanical cogs behind a majestic clock. Instead of only seeing the face of the clock and its decoration and so forth we must wonder what the clock is and how it works. We then open up the clock, without destroying it, with some clever tricks (mathematics) and we witness a whole new layer... the workings of the cogs. This analogy has its limits as it assumes the workings of the universe to be deterministic which at some layers it can be but at many layers of reality events occur in a probabilistic fashion. The point, I hope, is made clear.

  I think trying to tease out the patterns in our world assumes the validity of the claim that the whole natural world consists of layers of interacting patterns. This claim can never be shown to be absolutely true as it is a claim about the world, its validity depends entirely on the empirical success of the methods of inquiry which assume it. Through the success of science it is quite reasonable to assume that every event in the known universe is part of some pattern or other. With this assumption we are confidently able to look at new phenomena or mysteries in a completely scientific fashion.

  As one develops his/hers pattern recognition skills and knowledge of already existing patterns one discovers more of this fabulous land. It is easy to become lost in this land and to forget about the face of the clock (returning to the analogy). We must always try to bring what we find in the fabulous land back to normal reality and explain it in terms applicable to the everyday world in which we see and others see. Otherwise we lose the wonder and beauty that attracted us to the fabulous land in the first place, we also have an obligation to share what we find with the rest of humanity so that they benefit materially or intellectually from it. 





Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Neurology and Yahweh

by Michael Kenning

The Brain of Wonderful Tricks

The stimulation or destruction of any part of the brain affects its corresponding physical or mental behaviour. A damaged hippocampus impairs memory. Stimulating the amygdala elicits violent behaviour. A shrunken frontal lobe produces anti-social behaviour (as was the case with a patient called ‘J.P.’). Gradually we are are uncovering the neural correlates1 of our behaviour, but how these neural networks produce emotion, thought, experience, memory, the experience of ‘qualia’, such as colours, emotions, sound, smell, and how they are produced, has eluded scientists and philosophers alike.2

Being the natural dualists we are (see The Self Illusion), it is not immediately obvious that the moments in which we feel most out-of-body, or weightless, or one-with-nature, are grounded in matter. Doubtless the majority of people have felt at least once the feeling of weightlessness, or bodilessness (for lack of a better word).


This feeling has been experimented with in one case: A forty-three-year-old suffering from severe epileptic seizures had her right angular gyrus of the temporal lobe stimulated through electric shocks. The scientists conducting this study were able to control the height she reported being above the bed using different levels of electricity (Blanke et al, 2002 cited in The Believing Brain). These are experiences we have in which we feel most separate from our body, and yet they are still rooted in electrochemical activity.

These apparently bodiless experiences are what make many religious experiences. In 2001, Michael Persigner published an article in the Practice and Opinion section of The Journal of Neuropsychiatry to account for the paranormal experiences. He first noted that ‘patients who display complex partial seizures with foci within the temporal lobes … report more frequent paranormal experiences has been known for decades’, and that ‘[p]aranormal beliefs and paranormal experiences are related.’3 Furthermore, 15 years previous to the study, Persigner noticed that ‘specific complex magnetic fields’ over the right hemisphere made participants, who were unaware of the experiments purpose, experience a ‘sensed presence’ or ‘sentient being’.

Other cases described included a couple who felt ‘an apparition moving through their bed’, and a female adolescent experiencing a presence ‘stimulate her inner vagina and uterus, and sensed the outline of a baby over her left shoulder.’ While the researchers found possible neurological reasons for the experience, the girl’s ‘religious context resulted in a different interpretation’ on her part. Electromagnetic readings in the locations of these experiences revealed ‘repeated transient of complex magnetic fields’ similar to those use to induce a sensed presence in the laboratory.

Experiences like these are in the extremes. There are the more subtle emotions that make us feel just as bodiless. Love is one of these emotions. Oxytocin is considered to be the neurotransmitter most frequently associated with forming personal and social bonds. It’s released by mothers when holding their children, during orgasms, and in the final stages of childbirth (Carter, R., 2010, p. 124).

Setting the Schism

Accounting for the most extreme of human experiences in neurological terms will not satisfy the argument—and it’s not the primary aim of this post either. This is the salient point, though: Dualism4 is dead, but there are still philosophers grasping onto it in the name of ‘monism’5.

‘Non-reductive monism’, better termed ‘property dualism’ (because it is a dualism), states that there are two kinds of ‘properties’: the mental and the physical. Here’s how K. T. Maslin describes it:
[Non-reductive monism do] not insist that mental properties are nothing over and above physical properties. On the contrary, it is willing to allow that mental properties are different in kind from physical properties … 
[P]roperty dualism dispenses with the dualism of substances … 
There are only physical substances and physical events, hence it is a form of monism. [T]here is a one-sided dependence of the mental on the physical … (An Intro. to The Philosophy of Mind, p. 153)
If this ‘mental property’ is in the physical realm, as Maslin stated, then this means we are able to test for it … right?
I think it would be true to say that we have a strong, overwhelming intuition that there is a fixed gulf between the material and the mental, which not only forever prohibits their identification, but in addition renders an account of how one gives rise to the other out of the question. (ibid., p. 168)
He’s right—up until the second comma. There is a strong intuition to believe in this ‘fixed gulf’, but that’s as far as you can reasonably go.6 I myself freely admit that I sometimes fall into the trap of the appeal to intuition. But it is hardly surprising that we cannot conceive of a ‘bridge’ between the ‘gap’ when we have the small island of evidence we have now. What seems intuitive to us isn’t necessarily the right thought process, and it might not lead us anywhere new. Take Darwin’s scepticism—albeit more sensible—about the evolution of the eye:
To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.
The tendency to posit a completely new substance (yes, it is a non-physical substance)—one we do not have and cannot know we have—is all too unoriginal. Giving problems names does nothing to describe them, either.

This philosophical theory places you on both sites of the proverbial fence.7 Is Maslin a dualist or a monist? Yes. But what he does admit, and what he must admit, as well as those who agree with him, is that the ‘mental properties’ are completely dependent upon the ‘physical properties’. Any diversion on his part would be inconsistent with his theory, because it would be to immediately assume that these ‘mental properties’ can assume an independent existent. (He already eschewed Cartesian dualism, after all.)

With this in mind, we are left with dualism versus monism: our human experiences are  either believed to be products of physical reality, or exogenous.

Yahweh’s Soul

The case for a physical explanation behind consciousness has been presented. Now the implications of such beliefs must be explained. Nick Lane, in Life Ascending, argues that ‘feelings are entailed by patterns of neural firing, by a very precise code.’ If this is true, or some such similar case is true, then there is no conceivable way that emotions, thoughts, ideas, words, etc., could be produced without a brain.

By contrast, dualism would leave us to a completely different conclusion. If the ‘soul’ is an incorporeal thing, capable of leading an independent existence, then it is also the case that emotions, thoughts, ideas, words, etc., are all capable of being existent, independent of the brain, or ‘patterns of neural firing’. 

It would therefore be logical to assume that any incorporeal being would be able to host emotions, thoughts, ideas, words, etc., without requiring a brain. This reasoning also applies in the opposing direction. If one believes that an incorporeal being can hold emotions, thoughts, ideas, words, etc., then you must—must!—believe that emotions can exist independent of neural nets and the brain, or any similar physical structure.

This would make sense for any theist or deist. How many times have you heard the phrase ‘God is Love’, or ‘God loves his children’. What about Genesis 1:31? ‘God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.’ It’s present in the Qur’an, too: ‘If you should love Allah, then follow me, [so] Allah will love you and forgive you your sins. And Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.’

The Olympian Gods in all their myths (which, so far as I have read, are wonderful) feel some set of emotions or another. They are portrayed as infallible as human beings, as susceptible as we are to the vagaries of the human condition; they embody the highest of intellectual virtues, or superhuman strength. In every theistic and deistic world religion, the gods have been bestowed with some collection of mental power whilst being entirely ethereal.

These are what must be admitted if you are a dualist—and it isn’t hard to do so. If you are a monist, however, it is not logically possible to also believe in gods.

There’s the dilemma: if you’re a monist, you can’t logically believe in any immaterial gods; if you’re a dualist, it's a little easier, but you still have a long way to go to prove your case.

Neurology Without The Tools—Or Eyes
‘You sadden me, Mrs Sauskind. I wish I could find it in my heart to tell you that I find your scepticism rewarding and invigorating, but with the best will in the world I cannot. I drink quiet, Mrs Sauskind, drained. I think you'll find an item in the build to that effect. Let me see. … Ah yes, here we are, “Struggling on in the face of draining scepticism from client, drinks—three hundred and twenty-seven pounds fifty.” Would that I did not have to make such charges, my dear Mrs Sauskind, would that the occasion did not continually arise. Not believing in my methods only makes my job more difficult, mrs, and hence, regrettably, more expensive.’ —Dirk Gently in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

There will be more objections to my argument than there has been ink spilt over the Trinity. Many will be vacant: others will be thought-provoking. But few will overcome the dilemma. However terse it may be, it doesn’t take away from the thrust of the argument.

The ‘theories’ of many charlatans and pseudo-scientists, examples being Deepak Chopra and Graham Hancock, work from the platform of ignorance. We know so little about the brain, and in particular about consciousness, and people like these claim that they know more; and what’s more that we cannot verify what they to know exclusively without first believing what they say.

An objection I can think of off the top of my head would be something like this: Well, what if there is a god, or gods, and it is/they are ‘physical’? How big would you want the god to be? The bigger it is, the slower the neural activity, the slower it would think. You could make it small; but how many neural nets could you fit into that?

There is an experiment that may, if successful, yield some interesting results. If there is any human behaviour that cannot be correlated with any neural activity in the brain or body, and has been tested and repeated numerous times under controlled conditions, only then might I consider that there might be a distinct ‘thing’ from physical matter, and only then might the religious and charlatans be vindicated.

Endnotes

1 Neural correlates are the neural nets in the brain which correspond to a particular behaviour, whether it’s mental or physical. For instance, there is an area of the brain called the primary motor area; if certain parts are stimulated with electricity, you can manipulate its corresponding body parts. And vice versa, moving your arms and legs will cause the associated areas in the primary motor area to ‘light up’.

2 In Nick Lane’s Life Ascending, Daniel Dennett is accused of begging the question in the last chapter on qualia in Consciousness Explained when he asked (and I paraphrase), why is it that electrochemical happenings in the brain can’t produce qualia? What is not realised is that he asked this question after citing multitudes of philosophers who have become absolutely certain that they cannot be explained using the vast, complex networks of neurones—without giving a reason other than intuition, by the way; even to the point of shifting the problem onto physics, by postulating that there might be new laws or new properties of matter to discover (which is not impossible, and if evidence does arise to support it I will admit it, but new laws purely for the sake of consciousness is asking for too much). Even Nick Lane almost fell into the trap.

Here’s an example of a philosopher, K. T. Maslin, passing-off any explanation of consciousness in electrochemical terms:
The basis of the objection is this: physical occurrences do not just appear to be different from consciousness; they are utterly different, so utterly different in fact, that it is inconceivable how the physical could produce the mental (Intro. to The Philosophy of Mind, p. 168).
Aside from begging the question (who’s to say there is a mental substance at all?), other questions come to mind. Why is it a surprise that it is inconceivable that the physical could produce the ‘mental’? We’ve barely scratched the surface of neurology. To what authority are these statements of ‘fact’ made? To intuition. (The same authority creationists all-too-often appeal to.) All that is provided in the favour of this view are intuition pumps.

The profundity of this view is understood with the following objections: (1) It is now possible to study the evolution of our primate brain. We are also able to observe that, with evolution, behavioural capabilities tend to correlate with the relative complexity of brains, and brain power. With this in mind, why is it insisted that we look elsewhere for an explanation?

(2) If ‘consciousness’ couldn’t possibly be multitudes of electrochemical happenings, then (and I’m borrowing this from Dennett) ‘what do you think it would seem like if it were just a combination of electrochemical happenings in your brain?’

(If you would like to see a great analysis on the philosopher’s quale, see Daniel Dennett’s chapter, Qualia Disqualified, in his book Consciousness Explained.)

3 There is a species of lucid dreaming, called sleep paralysis, which induces a state of paralysis, pressure on the chest, the feeling of floating, flying, falling, or leaving one’s body, accompanied by fear—and other times excitement, exhilaration, rapture, or ecstasy. I owe this description to Michael Shermer’s book (pages 227-228 of The Believing Brain), so I will continue by quoting him:
Several centuries ago, the English referred to nighttime sensations of chest pressure from witches or other supernatural beings as the ‘mare’, from Anglo-Saxon merran, or ‘to crush’. So a nightmare was believed to represent a crusher who comes in the night. Since they lived in a demon-haunted world, they called these crushers demons. Since we live in a alien-haunted world, we call them aliens. Your culture decides what labels to assign to these anomalous brain experiences.
4 Dualism is the philosophical theory that there is the mental and the physical, and the former is not reducible to the latter. I.e., you cannot explain the mental in terms of the physical.

5 ‘Monism’ posits that consciousness has its roots in physical matter. ’Reductive monism’ is the philosophical theory that all mental activity can be reduced by electrochemical processes in the brain. In contrast to ‘non-reductive monism’, it does not postulate a second ‘mental property’

6 Thought it adds nothing to the neurosciences, it is therefore a great thinking aid because of how intuitive it is. Just as Daniel C. Dennett uses the idea of homunculi—tiny people inside of the brain controlling everything, which has presented the problem of infinite regress—to help us think about our various faculties, so can ‘non-reductive monism’, and this conception of ‘mental properties’ and ‘physical properties’.

7 He even admits it himself:
What appears to be required is a theory that contract and middle path between radical materialism and strong dualism, a theory which, on the other hand, does not seek to deny the fact of mentality by reducing states of mind to the purely physical but, on the other, does not turn the possesses of mental states into incorporeal Cartesian ghosts, impotent to affect the world. (An Intro. to The Philosophy of Mind, p. 153)

References

Books

Adams, D., 1987. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. London: Pan Books Ltd.

Carter, R., 2010. Mapping the Mind. London: Orion Books.

Darwin, C., 1998. The Origin of Species. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd.

Dennett, D.C., 1993. Consciousness Explained. London: Penguin Books.

Hood, B., 2011. The Self Illusion: Who Do You Think You Are?. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd.

Lane, N., 2010. Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution. London: Profile Books Ltd.

Maslin, K.T., 2011. An Introduction to The Philosophy of Mind. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Shermer, M., 2012. The Believing Brain: From Spiritual Faiths to Political Convictions—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them As Truths. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd.


Articles & Journal Entries

Blanke, O., et al., 2002. Neuropsychology: Stimulating illusory own-body perceptions. Nature [Online], 419(6904), pp. 269-270. Available from: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v419/n6904/full/419269a.html [Accessed 6 September 2014]

Persinger, M., 2001. The Neuropsychiatry of Paranormal Experiences. The Journal of Neuropsychiatry [Online], 13(4), pp. 515-524. Available from: http://neuro.psychiatryonline.org/article.aspx?articleid=101550 [Accessed 7 September 2014]

The Extended Phenotype: A Book Review


By Luke Kristopher Davis



About the author

 Richard Dawkins is a prolific writer on evolution, Darwin and Atheism and was a zoologist at the university of Oxford. He is known for his tour de force book The selfish Gene which offered a new world view of life and how it came to be. Dawkins' efforts are mainly to encourage secularism, reason and science in today's society through articles, programs, books and films. He is one of my favorite authors because his clear-cut-no-nonsense logic really appeals to me and his courage to tackle all problems and questions scientifically.

The central idea of the book

   This book is a sequel to The Selfish Gene, which proposes that evolution IS solely concerned with gene survival and that organisms are merely used as gene vehicles. One is assumed to accept the idea of the selfish gene but a large chunk of the book is aimed at providing concrete examples and arguments which defend this view of life, Dawkins also challenges group selection theory and kin selection theory. The main idea is that phenotypes, which are expressions of genes, do not just stop at the level of the organism but reach further out into other organisms and the environment itself. He builds up step by step a sequence of arguments, examples and rebuttles which lead to the obvious fact that phenotypes go beyond the organism in which the gene resides. 

Style

      The Extended Phenotype is aimed at professional biologists, something I was ignorant of, because it is a concise and referenced academic thesis proposing a serious scientific idea. The complexity of the examples and the use of technical language should not hinder a new student of evolution but it does take some slow reading and imagination to understand the book. It is recommended to thoroughly digest his earlier popular works on evolution and around the subject before this more subtle idea is introduced. However, the clarity and excitement in the book makes it a work engaging to layman and the like. With careful reading and patience the idea will be clearly and correctly understood.

      If you are looking for a quick popular read or get bored of academic nomenclature and arguments this book may be slightly beyond your liking. However the content of the book outweighs any faults in style.

Why should this book be read?

   It enhances ones knowledge and most importantly understanding of the grand scale of evolution and the significance of the gene as the Darwinian protagonist. Anyone who really wants to understand the processes of life and how evolution works should read this. Also professional biologists and biology students have to read this in order to gain the correct macroscopic view of life, some biological phenomena only make perfect sense under this paradigm.


8/10 



Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Biologists Reduce Aging by Gene Manipulation



By Luke Kristopher Davis




The research 

   Matthew Ulgherait, David Walker and their UCLA colleagues have found a way to prolong the life of fruit flies by activating a gene, AMPK, within the nervous system. They activated the gene in the intestine of the fruit flies which increased a process known as autophagy within the intestine and the brain. This prolonged the lives of the flies against a control group by 30%. 

What is autophagy?

  Autophagy is the basic catabolic and cellular process which degrades and recycles broken or dysfunctional cellular components via the 'breaking down mechanisms' within lysosomes. 


The cellular 'junk' is isolated by a double walled membrane and ends up in a waste package known as an autophagosome. The lysosome, which can be thought of as the 'junk' grinder, docks then enters the autophagosome and begins to breakdown the cellular 'junk'. 

This process is important for cellular health as the continual recycling of dysfunctional proteins etc. will help keep the cell thus the organism healthier and more efficient at surviving.

What does this mean for humans?

  Well AMPK is present within the human genome albeit at lower concentration levels than in the fruit fly. This experiment hints at the same process being used in humans i.e. activating the gene AMPK in the intestine, which could be digested through a pill, which will then increase autophagy throughout the body. 

The team at UCLA state that human applications of this experiment won't be around for some years, however their success in this experiment breeds hope for the longevity of human beings.


Monday, 8 September 2014

Memes: How ideas manipulate us to survive



By
Luke Kristopher Davis


The Selfish Meme


   We have thought and still like to believe that us humans choose ideas as we like and create them as we wish. However this view might be slightly erroneous as it fails to explain some of the oddities we see in our cultural world. It may seem as if we do choose to accept certain ideas and reject others or to create new ideas out of thin air however this is simply an illusion, we are being made to accept or reject ideas by the ideas themselves. Analogously with genes building and manipulating our bodies for their own survival, memes manipulate our brains for their own survival too. What I will propose is a possible theory, in some sense a paradigm, that could explain cultural phenomena. The theory I will develop is currently untested to the standards of modern science and should be seen as a set of working hypotheses which in principle could be tested. 

 What is a meme?



   A meme is a unit of cultural information and its complete form is some unique temporary or permanent neuronal pattern  in the brain. As the brain is not completely understood yet, the definition of the meme will be used in vagueness, however it can be usefully thought as a unique pattern in the brain. A meme can be related to what we already recognize as cultural objects; ideas, videos, images, pieces of art, scientific principles, songs, music and much more. For example Michael Jackson's Thriller is a meme as it produces a unique neuronal response and is expressed in a unique form in a cultural environment. These cultural objects are simply expressions of memes akin to organisms or cellular matter being expressions of genes. The expressions of the memes can be defined as their memotypes. The memotypes of memes are vulnerable to selection mechanisms in certain cultural environments. This is similar to phenotypes of genes which are under selection pressures be it Darwinian, sexual or artificial. This moves us onto the next important topic, replication.

Genes replicate through reproduction, how do Memes do it?

    Memes are not constrained to the chemistry of life as genes are. Memes are based upon the social culture that we have evolved and hence replicate through completely different mechanisms. A meme is said to have been replicated if its unique neuronal pattern is experienced by a new brain. One way for this unique neuronal pattern to be experienced is by the sensory interaction with the respective memotype. For example if John shares Nicky Minaj's new song on facebook to his friend Mary and Mary watches the video then the meme, which is the song, has been successfully replicated. If Mary then shares this to Joan who then watches it then shares ad infinitum then the song will be continually replicated. Normally memes are shared by the interaction of sensory equipment of humans with a memotype.

What determines the success of memes?

    Firstly what is success in terms of memes? Well, like genes, if the number of copies of a meme at time t is greater then it was a time t-1 ago, then it can be said the meme has been successful. What happens if the meme rapidly copies itself but dies off very quickly... surely this is not a sign of success. So longevity, the lifetime of the meme in a meme pool, is a term in the success equation. Also a meme is vulnerable to mutation that is to say its memotype might be changed in collision with some other meme or randomly by replication error so if a meme can be resistant to mutation then it will be more successful. Memes may occupy different memepools in different environments for example a song can exist on the internet or on television (which may be considered to have different selection criteria hence different memetic environments). A meme which is in more memetic environments may increase the probability of replication but it may be vulnerable to different mutation rates and longevity so we only consider the success of a meme in one meme pool.

An equation for success for a meme m in memepool A may look like this:  S_A(m) = N_A(m)*L_A(m)/M_A(m) where  N_A(m) is the number of successful copies of m, L_A(m) is the longevity of m and M_A(m) is the mutation probability of m (the higher the less successful m will be). Note 0 < M_A(m) < 1. 

  What effects the number of successful copies of a meme depends on its interaction with selection pressures in different memetic environments. Consider a meme in the imgur, reddit and tickld sense i.e. a picture with language on it existing on the internet. There are many selection mechanisms at work, whether a meme makes us laugh or whether a meme appeals to our sensibilities. A successful meme in this memepool will do well against selection pressures relative to other memes in the memepool. We must note that success of memes is wholly relative to the rise or demise of other memes in the same memepool experiencing the same selection pressures. 

The evolution of memes

  As with Darwinian evolution the most successful genes will survive and among those the next most successful genes will survive and so on. However for evolution to act there must be mutation, selection pressures only exert themselves on slight differences in gene expressions, those that are just a tad more successful will replicate more and take a larger share of the gene pool until another more successful mutant comes into play. It is so with memes too, memes will mutate after many or little replications and the selection pressures of each memetic environment will exert itself on these mutations. It also happens that memes can merge much very easily to form a new unique meme and if this merged meme replicates more or has a longer longevity then its parents then it will be more successful than them and take a larger share of the memepool. Over time we will witness the gradual evolution of memes or combination of memes (if it does each meme better) in different memetic environments and we should witness a journey towards higher complexity. 

   As each new meme is either the mutation of a previous one or the combination of previous memes (its parents) then it can be postulated that the evolution of memes will form an ancestral tree. 

It is then possible to track back down the tree to an 'origin of memes' which would be some basic neuronal patterns near the start of the emergence of a linguistic culture... this would be very back in evolutionary time indeed maybe somewhere near the evolution of homosapiens. However this is just speculation, it would be extremely unlikely to track far back to the origin of memes... what is important is that memes follow an ancestral tree like pattern. As memes replicate and mutate extremely fast and numerously so the branches of the tree will be extremely dense and each branch being almost indistinguishable from the next.

Why is a meme selfish? 

 A meme is considered selfish because it does for its own good and only for its own good. Memes which seem to help us in our lives are only doing so because memes which promote the well being of humans will tend to be favored. A meme may seem to give us happiness or promote logic and reason etc. but it has evolved to do so i.e. those memes which do produce happiness and do not endanger the human will be more likely replicated from brain to brain. This is not entirely so! Some memes encourage self harm or sacrifice which does not promote human happiness or health but it might be successful for the meme to do so. I think there is no other way to explain self harm or religious suicide other than that a meme encouraging that behavior might be successful in a fundamentalist memetic environment, one that promotes insane acts in the name of another meme.... God. 

  As the survival of memes is entirely based upon selection pressures which are based on our own physiology it seems extraordinarily likely that memes which appeal to our biological well-being will most likely be favored... that is why memes which encourage malice to our own survival hence genetic survival will be extremely rare. What is important is that memes seem to act for themselves and we should avoid talking as if we are in complete control of the evolution of the culture which originally emerged from us.


Interaction of Memes and Genes

    Following on from our discussion, memes which promote human well being and longevity will be favored. If we also assume, which I think we do, a Dawkinsian 'selfishness of genes' point of view of life we have to conclude that successful memes in most meme pools will promote the survival of most genes. I say most genes as some memes, Hitlers idea of blue eyes and blonde hair being the best, favor some genes than others.... also racism and prejudice towards gingers or small people etc. However memes which promote most genes i.e. does not discriminate will most likely be replicated by everyone and hence become more successful than those which promote some genetic discrimination.

    It is possible to have memes which encourage the selection of certain genes.... that is an idea of beauty which encourages females to only mate with males above 6 ft. Or an idea of a designer baby or even genetic modification of a human to glow in the dark.

    Memes simply manipulate the phenotypes (mostly in the brain) of human genes to promote itself and memes do not carry themselves down the genetic germ-line. Also genes do not replicate in the same environment as memes do. This why the evolution of both can be considered separate. But in certain cases it will be useful to study how memes can provide selection for certain genes. 

How can this theory be tested?

Well on the assumptions which have been briefly proposed here it is possible to build mathematical models of cultural memepools and memetic replication and predict the successes of different memes. 

Also if memes really are the selfish and brain manipulating replicators which I claim they are we can predict that each unique meme will have some unique temporary or permanent influence on brain structure. 


What does this paradigm imply?



  It implies that culture is life. As life is merely the differential survival of different replicators. It is also an example that life may take many many different forms and different forms of life may emerge from one another in the continual march towards complexity. 

 It once again teaches us that we are simply vehicles of genes and vehicles of memes....  that we are being manipulate by replicators from the bottom up and the top down. Our power in the universe has yet again been stripped away...  however this is nothing against the theory it is simply a possible truth. 
















Friday, 29 August 2014

Why is the world so strange?



The Middle World

    One should not confuse 'middle world' with 'middle earth' the famous stage for the events in Tolkien's LOTR and 'The Hobbit'. The middle world is more of a snippet of the spectrum of environments which exist in the universe, most notably on our planet. Humans, and our evolutionary ancestors, have evolved over millions of years in certain environments all with differing selection pressures. These environments varied in temperature, population dynamics of other organisms, predator - prey ratios and amount of food. However all the environments that our mammalian ancestors shared all depict physics that are more apparent on a certain scale level. For example the evolutionary ancestors of certain bacteria lived in a 'small world' where the sizes of the organisms were closer to the size of the molecules that make them, hence the random kinetic motion of molecules (known as Brownian motion) is more apparent than on our scale level. Brownian motion is not so obvious to the human naked eye. The middle world is the environment we are accustomed to and includes the normal speeds of objects which we are used to observing, the air resistance which impacts every object and something which our brain has not evolved to conceive without. 

    As we did with the scale level of bacteria we can postulate other worlds i.e. spectrum of environments which would make some physical laws more obvious than would be in our middle world. Let's postulate, for the sake of a thought experiment, that there could exist organisms which were the size of planets and they evolved to survive in a planetary environment. What physical laws would seem more obvious? Well we think of which forces are stronger with increases in mass and size.... Gravity! Yes the strength of gravity between objects is directly proportional to the masses of the objects. So this organism would evolve in a world where its gravitational force on other objects is significant and could easily witness the bending of light due to gravitational forces. To this organism most of the consequences of Einstein's general relativity would be 'normal', however if this organism were to develop science and look upon our middle world where objects travel faster and other forces stronger than gravity exist it would look strange. 

                                                         The world was not made for us



   Our own evolved perceptions of the world are just that.... evolved perceptions. We do not see the world as if it was intelligently designed for us or made just for us by some supernatural being. No, we ourselves are products of the universe and the laws of physics and as such will find layers of reality that will behave completely differently to our 'middle world'. The fact that our perceptions of the world are so so adapted to fit a certain scale level of the world it almost seems natural to think the world was made for us. But 'seeming so' and 'feeling so' are not what gets to the truth about the universe... we need 'knowing so'. So as we use empirical and sensible techniques and apparatus to study the universe, apparatus and techniques that go beyond our adapted senses, we will contact a layer of reality which we have adapted no set instincts or genetic programs to comprehend. However our brain is so adept... so versatile and ingenious that we can understand it. In order for us to keep developing our comprehension of the universe we must not care about strangeness or oddities but simply stick to mathematical and scientific rigor. 

Some Strangeness


    There are a lot of strange phenomena in the universe which by our previous discussion fall outside the middle world of our perception. Most of these strange things occur at the extremely small scales of physics or the very large or even the very very fast and the very very slow. For example the process of natural selection itself i.e. the struggle for survival of genetic material against selection pressures is an extremely slow process. If we take the complete evolution of the horse (from some arbitrary starting point with physiological sense) the process took approx 50 million years which is about a million times as long as the lowest life expectancy of a human being. So of course the continual change of organisms, which we have not and our ancestors have not witnessed in one lifetime would be very strange to us. 
   
   Quantum Mechanics is one of the fields of science which many have been quoted in saying it is the strangest. On the atomic and subatomic scales of the universe we would expect a completely different world. Clouds of electrons whizzing around the atomic nucleus with no decided place unless perturbed by some external probe (other particle). Atoms attracting one another but strongly repelling upon close impact. The fact that quantum particles which are considered to be part of the same spin system, continue to conserve spin arrangement even if the particles are moved to either side of the globe (Quantum entanglement).

   In special relativity we witness the slowing down of time relative to faster moving reference frames...  and the contraction of lengths of objects as they reach the speed of light. 

    As we continue to delve deeper into the construction of the universe or expand our time and size scales to galaxies and even multiple universes we will witness strangeness... until our scientists become 'adapted' (not genetically of course) to that world of perception. We should all be searching for strangeness as that's where new layers of reality will be hiding. 



Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Is Culture Alive?





What is Life?

     Before we label anything as something which is alive we must define the criterion for life itself. Most of us probably know the general characteristics of life and living things; the ability to reproduce sexually or a-sexually, to grow, to die and to move. When we think of life we do tend to basically separate things which move by their own accord, by  storing and releasing energy in reaction to external stimuli, from objects which move under the basic laws of physics. Of course living things obey the laws of physics but their movements arise from a complicated information processing of external and internal stimuli. 

    One could propose that living things must show some form of consciousness of themselves or their surroundings. If we think about the general animal kingdom, this is partly true, humans have high self awareness and so do dolphins and elephants. Other animals show less consciousness of themselves and their surroundings due to less complex neurological circuitry. As we work our way down the evolutionary tree, self - consciousness becomes a less convincing characteristic of life. It is very difficult to justify whether a plant, or small bacteria are conscious of their own surroundings let alone themselves. Their structures are built to merely produce certain physiological outputs under certain external inputs e.g.  photosynthesis. Under this light, consciousness is not a necessary condition for life but merely a sufficient one. 

     In order for us to really explore the necessary conditions for and most basic characteristics of life we must focus our attention to the oldest living organisms known to man. These organisms are mainly unicellular (single celled) ones such as viruses and bacteria. 


Bacteria are part of a huge family of prokaryotic organisms which do not have a membrane bound nucleus. These organisms are much simpler than eukaryotes which do have membrane bound nucluei and this category contains a wide range of organisms from simple celled organisms to mammals. Bacteria contain a nucleus which contains all the DNA, RNA and the nucleic proteins which help build the organism. The rest of the bacterium is made up of proteins which chemically breakdown the environment and use the products for energy to fuel their metabolism. If bacteria grow to a fixed cell size due to an optimal environment they then a-sexually reproduce through a process could binary fission. 

1) Bacterium at maximum size. 2) DNA splits. 3) DNA strands move to the poles of the cell. 4) A new cell wall starts to form between the two strands. 5) Two seperate cells have formed. 6) The DNA strands coil up.

   

    As you can see from the video bacteria are extremely simple examples of life, they metabolize and they reproduce. Basic metabolism means to carry out vital chemical transformations which sustain the structure of the organism and allow it to reproduce. However when we look at bacteria and other unicellular prokaryotes or simple celled organisms we wonder whether there must have been much simpler organisms or molecules which showed signs of life but were closer to inanimate  matter. There must have been a gradual transition from basic chemical reactions of elements to basic units of life. This bridge, which could answer the origins of life, is still unknown to humans. Many speculate and others experimented that shows signs of basic chemical reactions occurring in bubbles which split into more bubbles carrying on the reactions. There is one important question left unanswered which is important for our discussion... what came first DNA or proteins? Or was it some other similar molecule such as RNA? I think whatever it was it must have contained a molecule which induced specific reactions and it must have had some kind of structural integrity. For it to be differentiated with normal chemical reactions and so forth this basic building block of life must have been able to copy itself and reproduce.

   The replicator which in organic life is the gene, is the unit of selection, which is the main protagonist in evolution. All selection acts upon genes, selecting those with higher fitness or those more desirable (human selection e.g. dog breeds). The gene is a part of a DNA molecule. Life became more complex through the natural selection acting on the random mutations of DNA strands which occurred during splitting and reproduction in the early molecules of life, favoring those organisms which reproduced more than others (through faster reactions or growth rates etc.). Over time simple organisms conjugated and evolved into more complicated and larger beings as genes would be favored if they instructed within the same organism. All organisms are essentially vehicles which have evolved to help the genes which instruct them to survive generation after generation. This is the idea proposed in the selfish gene and more so in the extended phenotype by Richard Dawkins. Essentially all life is is simply the selection of different genes either by natural selection or other manual selection.


    How Could Culture Have Any Relation to Life?
   


  We must focus on what we have said about life, ignoring all the complicated characteristics, and keep the replicator and unit structure in the forefront of our minds. When we think about defining culture we do tend to conjure up some vague collection of words which associate all human endeavor ranging from art, literature, philosophy, television and science. What I want to argue is that culture is essentially a category of life which differs to physical life only by nature of the building blocks which construct the replicator (the gene) and all of the phenotypes (organisms) and phenotypic effects of said genes. Cultural life may also differ in the selection dynamics and mutation, replication dynamics. However there is still a replicator. In virtue of our prior discussion I must then propose a sound argument which describes the basic replicator in cultural life and outline some selection mechanisms and phenotypic effects. 

The Replicator!

  Dawkins originally proposed a memetic theory of ideas in the selfish gene and he developed this idea in the extended phenotype and the god delusion. This theory proposes that cultural units of information can be defined and separated as memes or a collection of memes. Memes are cultural units of information which seem to become copied and replicated in the cultural world (known as meme pools) through cultural processes such as word-of-mouth, SMS, email, TV, internet, facebook, letters, magazines etc. these memes are then 'selected' due to their fitness in cultural environments. Some memes flourish in certain cultural environments and go to the abyss in others...  memes also resemble genetic mutation in that each time a meme is replicated from one brain to the other its form may change and each selection environment can either favor these changes or not. Cultural selection essentially acts on memetic mutation which is actually more volatile and rapid compared to genetic mutation. This might be a lot to take in now, so let us reverse and describe the meme a bit more.

   As we said.... a meme is a cultural unit of information which is replicated through time and takes part in selection games (different selection mechanisms in a variety of environments). Let's look at some examples of memes. We can look at the classical world of art.  Each piece of art can be said to be a meme as each piece acts as unique units of culture and has a specific structure. Da Vinci's Mona Lisa is a meme which has survived a long time. Many people would argue that once the painting has gone the meme surely must go? Not necessarily because the meme has been replicated through time... during its original unveiling it was just one of itself but over time artists sketched it.... photographers captured it and as major printing, television and the internet came along it has spread. 



It has succeeded i.e. survived in many meme pools, in the meme pool of art it stands as one of the most well-known (well spread) pieces of art and has survived selection criteria such as aesthetic appeal, history, significance and the fact it was painted by Da Vinci. Its success in many other areas of culture are due to unique memetic mutations... for example focusing on the mystery of the smile or these obvious memetic mutations:



















The memetic mutation on the right is more of a memetic combination in which two memes, in this case Megan Fox and Mona Lisa, come together and then become a unique meme. This does not happen in physical life but can occur in cultural life. There maybe many different forms of life in the universe and many different ways life can behave. The success of any memetic mutation or combination wholly depends on selection. 

One replication occurs when one meme is copied from one brain to the other. The meme does not necessarily have to be accepted by any brain at all. For example I could send you a song which is a unit of cultural information and you could dislike the song. Either way I have copied the song in some form to your brain, the meme has spread.  However if you liked the song most likely you would share it with someone else to enjoy. Now you can see something that resembles selection. Those memes which are more likely to be accepted are more likely to spread and become successful. The opposite can also occur, for example the idea of Rolf Harris could spread from brain to brain solely because it is disliked and rejected. However, I won't go into this in detail here, on the whole ideas which are more easily accepted and simple information wise will become more successful. 

Memetic Selection!


The internet has made memetic selection much much more easier to witness, especially with simple image sharers such as imgur, instagram and reddit. On these sites which act as simple memetic environments we witness the clear competition of memes against the other. The selection rules are not as simple and depend upon human psychology and the general climate of culture at the time.. this is all very complicated but we must remember that there must exist selection rules for some memes to succeed against others.

On imgur successful memes are upvoted (resembles acceptance) and shared. As it attains more votes it usually attains more shares which act as true replications. The upvotes enable it a higher probability for it to be shared. So successful memes are those which become upvoted and shared the most. In the meme pool, successful memes will eventually mutate and this is where selection will kick in, those mutations which attain slightly more upvotes and shares than the original will prosper... those mutations which do worse than the original will die out. Over time the mutation will become superior. Memetic combinations will occur often and if two successful memes come together the new meme could potentially become even more successful through the accumulation of upvotes and shares.

This is a simple and easy way to show the selection process of memes. This process has been occuring since human culture really began, even in language development, easier phonetics will prevail etc.  however not on the same scale or time duration. Memetic replication and mutation would have happened much slower during the middle ages than now. This phenomenon does not occur in physical life. Genuinely evolution is very slow and does not vary its time scale as much as culture could. 


Phenotypic Effects!

    As genes have come together over time to form complex organisms etc. to them survive through time so have memes. One contentious and famous meme with a large number of phenotypic effects is religion... the belief in God. Over time this meme has mutated into many different forms i.e. different religions with many different dogmas (combination of other memes with the main meme). The great similarities between all these memes, some things which was most definitely integral for the success of the original 'God' meme are its worshiping and fundamentalistic rituals. For example, most people who accept a particular religious 'God' meme have a great tendency to reject any other meme if it contradicts or undermines the 'God' meme even if it is done irrationally. It seems the meme is essentially manipulating human brains to aid in it s survival. How does this aid its survival? Well put simply.. it stops all other memes which could potentially overhaul its status as most successful meme in one great big swoop. Take Muslim communities for example... their society has been wholly focused on muslim faith and dogma for centuries because they believe that their view is 100% correct and perfect. They are fundamentalists. However we can now look deeper and see that the meme behind the muslim faith encourages this behavior in order for it to survive through time. It has worked.

   An interesting question can be made here...  if religion, anthropomorphism and the idea of God etc. came before science how is science so prevalent today? Well one reason is this, many of the first scientists were also religious e.g. Newton  the meme of science as we know of it today did not exist then, it (as a collection of other simple memes) has evolved since then. The simple memes that resemble science.. such as a empiricism and mathematical logic were coming together then in a meme known as natural philosophy. Science then did not explicitly go against religion and even if it did many of its believers hid this characteristic so as to ensure the gradual acceptance of science itself. Through different accumulations of empirical and theoretical ideas (memes) science grew and was successful in the cultural meme pool due to its success in predicting how the world works and industrial inventions. Science is also a successful meme as it is adaptable i.e. it changes if some of its constituent memes goes against experiment. The beauty of science is that if any theory does not hold to experiment it is discarded in favor of (memetically mutated) other theories which explain the new phenomena.  We are witnessing, and have been witnessing for hundreds of years as a species,  a huge memetic clash between religion and science. Will the phenotypic effects of religion win over the useful, adaptable and rational science?  In general we are seeing a decline in religious belief... maybe it's because many realize that they have not yet accepted religion but carry out its rules out of fear rather than reasonable acceptance. This is why I think science will win this memetic clash, those who accept and share it have accepted it through reflection, experiment and with conscious inquisition of the world around them.

    So back to phenotypes, other than religion many memes, upon acceptance, do encourage certain actions to enhance their survival or success in the meme pool. One notable phenotype shared by many memes is the bracelet wearing phenotype... so if you accept a meme say '#FreeGaza'  and have it on your person than it is easier for this meme to spread without you really expending too much energy into it.  It is more likely to be spread with people seeing a specific bracelet and knowing it stands for a certain meme than people actually speaking to others etc. Also the phenotype itself can be easily spread if it is fashionable or useful. 

   I really do think that there is a case to made for culture being a form of life in so that life is defined as that which has units of replicators. Culture is of course much more complicated than physical life and in a sense does depend on physical life itself. However as with all physical processes, entropy wins, chaos takes over, complexity has strength....  as physical life becomes more complicated maybe there comes a point where a new form of life extends from physical life and forms rules and dynamics much different to its origin. 

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The Pornography Industry: My Experience and General Views



            No other film industry is as contentious or worthy of debate as the pornography business, which depicts sexual acts, real or performed, to ease the world of sexual frustration. Its existence has been questioned by the religious community, politicians and the general public. Porn exists in its form today not only due to the huge demand that it sees fit to supply to but partly because it is protected by freedom of expression. In the United States and the United Kingdom especially, any group can express themselves freely in so far as the messages they express do not carry a high chance of inciting violence. Pornography steps on the edge in terms of freedom of expression legislation, as some label it as an industry which promotes sexual, domestic and general violence towards women. Porn has stood the tests and generally isn’t deemed to incite violence.

It seems the majority of the supply of porn is aimed at gratifying males rather than females, take a look at these recent porn search keywords from around the globe which illuminates the dominance of the male consumer. 






           

Keywords such as ‘hentai’, ‘milf’, ‘pov’ (point of view of male pornstars), ‘massage’ and ‘anal’ all feature pornography where females pleasure males and not necessarily the other way round. This is not just in a few countries but prevalent around the world where internet and pornography are allowed. This is significant in that the sexual needs of men are assumed to be higher in value or they could just be easier to satisfy. Either way, females are left not only with a limited supply of pornography for them to use but also feel as they are being objectified by most of the pornographic world.

Many feminist and women’s rights groups have fought legally and culturally against the objectification of women in porn. Few have succeeded in changing legislation to restrict pornography, the most powerful change however occurred in 2009 which witnessed a prosecution right against extreme pornography. Extreme pornography is any image or film which is deemed pornographic and contains content which shows humans in a life threatening situation or in any position which puts them at a risk for serious injury. Feminists, rightfully, are still left dissatisfied with the pornographic industry with its degrading and male orientated content. Some have taken a different approach by taking matters into their hands and creating a market for female porn, this has given rise to the feminist pornographic movement.

Erika Lust (Erika Hallqvist ) is a feminist porn director and producer from Sweden who works in Barcelona. She has been at the fore front of this movement in recent years and aims to provide great cinematic content with high quality film and exciting plots to please the female and male community. This is what Erika has to say about regular pornography:

At the University of Lund, even though I was studying, thinking and reading about porn, I didn’t actually like any of the porn that I saw,” she remembers. “The first time I saw a porn film, I had the same reaction that many women have – while I was aroused by some of the images, for the most part I found it unsatisfying. The audiovisual quality was awful. I didn’t identify with anything that I saw. The women did not look like they were enjoying themselves, and the sexual situations were totally ridiculous. We’re modern women! Not slutty Sharons, horny teens, desperate housewives, hot nurses, and nymphomaniac hookers, always looking to service pimps, multi-millionaires or macho sex machines. Not always looking to please rather than be pleased. I wanted to know: where was my lifestyle, my values, my sexuality?’ – Erika Lust (http://erikalust.com/about/)

I have had  a unique experience in that I have worked as a male performer for Erika Lust during my year abroad in Barcelona studying physics. I starred in two films of her Xconfessions project which entails performers acting out confessions and fantasies written in by people from around the world. From my experience I can say that working with a top feminist director really changed my views of feminist porn. I once thought it was being made in pure spite against males however the movement is really focused on creating realistic, intimate and high quality cinema. It is more of an artistic movement than simply providing quick and ‘not thought out’ content to serve sexual arousal. Erika Lust and similar companies are flourishing culturally and financially as they are forging a whole new market for themselves and women especially are putting their faith and money into companies which can fulfil their unique sexual demands.

Most men, like I once did, assume that feminist porn would not fit their sexual demands at all. However they could be in slight error there, as the porn produced by feminist companies does not lack natural attractive females, sexual passion and many other things which males find instinctively arousing. Maybe the reason for the dismay of males might be due to the fact, that for years, they have been subjected to a superficial and fake pornographic world in which silicon breasts trump naturally voluptuous women and unrealistic female roles become a subconscious desire in the real world.

Ethically feminist porn promotes natural and equal sexuality; it does not encourage the gross humiliation of either gender. It really is the future for porn as it not only keeps the industry alive (the demand will never go as we are humans) but it also serves as a cure for the patriarchal, male serving and simply ‘crappy’ productions of regular porn.