Strange Loops - Blog Archive: July 2006
Strange Loops Journal Archive: July 2006

Blog || Politics || Philosophy || Science || Fiction || Quotes

July 24, 2006
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Added a humor short story to the writing section: Diary of an Olympic Speed-walker.
Kitten Develops New Method for Getting More Food Than Siblings
July 17, 2006
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Here's a link to a kitten born with two faces. It has four eyes, two noses, two working mouths (which meow in unison), the works. The link includes video and a slide show. Is it a mutation or just a developmental anomaly? Either way, it is cool that the kitten can function, and shows the versatility of life.

It perhaps also suggests that our initial clumsy attempts at gene therapy and other new biotechnology advances might not fail as profoundly as one might expect. You tend to think of a big organism like a kitten as a very carefully balanced machine, where if you changed any one part the whole thing would stop working properly. But here we see that a change in a gene or a change in the normally-expected development might still lead to a feasible, functioning organism. The machine is so adaptable it can still handle some major breakdowns.

In an age where we are already inserting genes from one species into another (e.g., iridescent fish genes making glow-in-the-dark rabbits) and we are starting to turn individual genes 'on' or 'off' (blocking their expression, that is) to try to avoid diseases developing, these seem like such clumsy tinkerings, yet the amazing thing is that some have succeeded. Life has developed such adaptable solutions.

No Death, No Fear
July 16, 2006
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I just finished a book by Thich Nhat Hanh titled No Death, No Fear. I was kind of disappointed.

Hanh is a Buddhist monk originally from Vietnam (exiled for his peace work; he even got nominated by MLK Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize). The nice thing about Buddhism in general and his view in particular is that it is very open and accepting. It is not that there isn't dogma in the teachings, but Buddhist writings and ideas are seen as one path to enlightenment, not the only one. Buddhism teaches to question even Buddhism. So it is easy for me to open myself up to a spiritual book by a Buddhist like Hanh.

The general aim of the book is to help people deal with the inevitability of death. Hanh's central argument is that there is really no such thing as death (or birth), that things do not actually begin or end. He uses a few choice metaphors (somewhat repetitively) to illustrate where he is coming from. Matter cannot be destroyed, merely converted into energy; it is itself a form of energy. A cloud does not merely pop into existence or disappear from existence; rather it is transformed from a river or ocean into vapor and later back into rain or snow.

Analogously, he argues, we ourselves do not have a beginning or an ending. Instead, our particular form manifests when conditions are right. To get to a tree you have to have a seed and sunlight and nutrients and all of that. The tree manifests from the seed when conditions are right. It seems wrong, he argues, to say that the seed stopped existing and the tree started existing. The seed transformed into the tree; it manifested a new form. Likewise, when all the preconditions and complex causes come together properly, our body is manifested from the genetics of our parents and their lineage and all of the life before them, not to mention all of the sunshine and food and everything that has gone into that cause-effect chain up until then.

In other words, what he is saying is that the concept of you or I having a separate, concrete identity is actually mistaken. Our identity is fluid or continuous with the causes that led to this manifestation, but this manifestation is itself fluid and ever-changing (our cells die and new ones replace them; our body grows and adapts; our thoughts come and pass and change). There is no steady, unchanging "me" either in body or mind.

He uses a lot more metaphors to reinforce what he is trying to get at, but I think in the end he does not provide much in the way of strong argument one way or the other. It is something that either jives with how you see the world or does not. He thinks that if you understand what he is getting at, you will see that you and your loved ones don't actually stop existing even if there is no Heaven or Hell - rather, the preconditions for your current manifestation are no longer there and you transform into something else.

That is where he gets way too flowery for my tastes and starts talking about how your dead loved ones become the trees and flowers and grass and sunshine and everything around you. Maybe he is just being poetic and saying that their influence on you lives on in how you perceive the world; but that might be giving him too much credit, because he seems at times to be pushing this a little more literally, as if whatever human-body-manifestation it is that we loved is still around hidden inside flowers and trees talking to us.

But regardless of that, I still like the larger perspective he is getting at. He is acknowledging the fundamental lie we accept from our youngest days (that our brain is probably pre-programmed to believe, and might need to believe in order to function): the lie that objects are distinct and their identities persist through time. It is not that we can't usefully separate macro-scale phenomena into separate objects, but we have to remember that this is in some sense arbitrary. Take the old identity paradox of the boat:

A sailor loves his boat, but a couple boards have gotten old so one afternoon he replaces them with boards of the same wood, same size, same color. Surely it is still his boat, right? But then a week later two more boards need replacing, and the next month three others. This is a big boat and that is not many boards, but by the end of a few years more and more boards have needed replacing. It is not like replacing any one board suddenly means his boat stopped existing and a new boat came into existence; his boat is still there floating in the harbor as always. But eventually, every board on his boat, every last piece of it, has been replaced by a new part. Little by little the changes were made, and at each step it seems silly to say we were no longer dealing with the same boat we started with, just because some tiny change was made. But in the end, there sits a boat in the harbor sharing not a single molecule with the boat we started with, so is it still the same boat?

In real life, molecules fly off and reattach from a boat as it sails through the water. Its structure and form is ever-altered, ever-changing, tiny bits at a time. We tend to appreciate this only on an intellectual level though, but Hanh is trying to get us to appreciate this sort of thing in our everyday lives, to appreciate the fact that things are deeply interconnected and not entirely separate in the way we normally consider them. We automatically categorize things as separate, distinct entities that persist through time. John's boat (which is still his boat even when a board is replaced, or just a little handle, or just a molecule), or John's body (even if most cells in his body die and are replaced with new ones within a single decade). We see them as separate objects, but Hanh says there is no separate self.

He is on to something, but at the same time I think he is totally over-extending and blurring things when he argues that this means we ourselves are interconnected to everything such that we already existed and continue to exist. Yes, *something* already existed and continues to exist (much as the water molecules making up a cloud were there in the river or ocean before becoming the cloud before becoming the rain), but it is nothing like the conscious entity that ends up showing up in our bodies as the genetic material unfolds and grows.

We are connected deeply to the world through these infinitely complex cause-effect chains, but if we are going to say that makes us identical to everything, then identity is not a very useful concept. Whatever passes on at death and transforms is not us in the normal sense; rather we radiate out our own cause-effect chains.

In that way, we kind of live on, but surely that is not what people are worried about when they worry about death - it is that the particular human-body-manifestation which is here and now thinking and talking and interacting human-style will no longer be able to do that. The love a person exuded while alive might live on in a cause-effect chain, but the person is no longer there to love, to do the loving.

Hanh's solution does not really tackle that, and by the end of the book he just skirts around this issue and takes to repeating himself and repeating some Buddhist scripture, saying that taking it to heart will comfort you when loved ones die. It becomes rather touchy-feely and it almost seems to me like he is betraying his own premise by not following through on it, but only taking it half way and then using it as an emotional comfort tool.

I do think it is important to reexamine our automatic assumptions about persistent, distinct identity (in the philosophical sense), and that this helps us see the bigger picture of the world we are in and how we exist in it. However, I think Hanh takes the easy road and just twists this idea in order to support his preconceived religious views in an emotionally-supportive way. Sounds nice, but not necessarily true.

Would Aliens Look Like Us?
July 16, 2006
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Got in a discussion earlier with someone who thinks that if life arose on another planet out there and evolved to the point of intelligence (i.e. interstellar travel such that we actually run into them at some point), that life would end up resembling life on Earth.

Not necessarily little green people or little grey people with big eyes, but in more basic form (head, legs, eyes, big relative brain size, whatever). I've heard the same claim a few times before, and I wanted to dissect it a bit. The basic idea is that life can only show up in a limited set of environment types, and that these environments will push developing life on any planet toward the same basic solutions, and along the same developmental path, until they reach the optimum form.

I'll relate one such argument below:

All organic life begins in water--salt water--and would evolve and split into many ridiculous and odd patterns (like on our planet). Evolution is interesting stuff. Somewhere along the line a creature (this, being on planet "X", not Earth) would evolve that was able to "swim" by constricting its body side to side (or up and down). Logically the "duality" of this movement would increase speed and the patter procedes from there.

The need of a mouth at the front to gather food from water flowing in is logical. The tail would evolve to flap (most likely) side to side. Fins on either side (up front and in the back) would also rise as a part of the mutative process. Since this creature swims forward, the oculary, olfactory, and auditory functions would develop at the front where the most stimulous would enter-- the ganglial nodes and development would also occur close to the input-- thus the brain would be at the head.

Since the creature undulates side to side to swim forward, one sensory organ on either side would also be the evolutionary logical step. The mouth in the front-- eyes and ears on the side. Since taste and scent are intimately connected (both sample chemicals in the environment) they would probably develop in the same way (nostrils are quite unique in that they are not totally necessary for scent-- see: snakes).

Over time, these organisms' superior biology would cause them to become dominant. Notice the proliferation of these types of creatures on our planet: sharks, indeed all fish, dolphins, eels, lizards, frogs, dogs, birds, horses, apes, humans. Practically all life that grows beyond six inches (yes-- there's sea stars, molusks and whatnot) follows the rule of TWO (bi-this, bi-that; i.e. bi-pedal).

When, one day, these creatures on planet X started spattering up onto muddy land, they would probably use their fins on either side to pull them. Over time the hind fins, or tail, would split into the two real limbs. Eyes, mouth, ears and brain forward, body in between, and feet firmly planted on the ground.

Further into the future, the limbs closer to the eyes and nose, growing more and more prehensile, would be used to pick up and manipulate objects and prey. As development continued, these forelimbs would become more and more articulate and eventually end in hands.

They would be endoskeletal because exoskeletons are extremely inefficient over a few inches and make growing, moving and manipulating objects very difficult. Compound eyes, though great for small creatures, are horribly inefficient and incapable of guiding large, complex creatures. Internal lungs, closed circulatory blood system, and endothermia are all needed to grow large and mobile as well -- any complex land roaming creature would have these attributes as well.

It goes on, but there it is: the history of life and its inevitable progression toward a particular optimum form in a few short paragraphs. Unfortunately, this type of story can be really convincing because the arguments make great intuitive sense, even if they turn out to be wrong. Some of my own thoughts:

Even if life has to begin in water (and astrobiologists are far from sure of that), who says it will develop as laid out above? Jellyfish, e.g., don't have a mouth at the front where they swim forward -- what if another form of locomotion works just as well for getting around in water (especially the solutions we haven't even imagined)? Maybe alternate solutions could be even more effective not just in water, but eventually when adapted to a land-like environment.

For that matter, who says life will end up on land before it becomes intelligent? In the one data point we have (Earth), tool-using, linguistic intelligence arose on land and not yet on water, but that is far from evidence that it has to be so.

Further, maybe the "rule of two" noticed among large creatures on Earth (and ignoring all the myriad exceptions) does not, in fact, suggest a universally superior form for life-supporting environments. An alternate explanation is that all the bi-this and bi-that creatures we see on Earth have a common ancestor that happened to take one of multiple possible (and equally viable) evolutionary paths, and all these creatures have the "rule of two" pattern because of their shared history, not because of convergent evolution toward the one best solution.

Granted, there are going to be some mechanisms or forms that probably just would not work very well in *any* environment that's likely to be able to harbor life-like entities, so some restrictions will exist, but I think we don't have *near* enough information to conclude that any environment that can support life-like entities is going to have basic solutions that will likely be shared on most life-supporting planets. I mean, we have as little as one data point (shared ancestor's development here on Earth) or at best multiple convergent-evolution data points but for just one planetary environment. But even in the latter case, maybe life or life-like things can show up on a much wider range of planetary environments than we think, and a very small change in gravity or atmospheric pressure or some other variable might lead to bigger changes in form than we predict, e.g.

Personally, I have trouble finding anything on which to base speculation about what intelligent life on other planets would look like and how intelligence might evolve there. We could look at encephelization history in primates or cetaceans here on Earth, but let's face it, we don't know if an alien species' processing functions will occur in anything resembling a brain-like structure at all, nor if our brain-like solution is the optimum one or just 'good enough'. Natural history is full of examples of evolutionary adaptations that seem to be 'good enough' solutions, but far from perfect, not to mention far from what one would logically and intuitively suspect before-the-fact. In other words, life does not develop as we would expect it to, and it does not always find what we consider the 'ideal' form -- it need only find a good enough form to stick around a while in that niche.

But, more importantly, if we're talking about creatures that are traveling between solar systems, I suspect they are going to be technologically developed to the point where any environmental natural selection pressures would not be the dictating factor of their forms any more.

Even our young, young species is on the verge developing technology to take control of our own form (gene therapy and other biotech, along with nanotech and other nascent biomedical technology). We likely won't change the basics drastically very fast (for social reasons), but eventually we won't be anything resembling homo sapiens sapiens anymore, and maybe not even resembling any previous life on Earth at all.

Especially if we are getting to the point in our civilization where we don't consider Earth home (it is going to die when our sun does in a few billion years) but start going to other, younger star systems, we will likely find much more versatile forms for ourselves. So why would we expect intelligent alien species, especially those that have mastered interstellar travel, to have kept the form-solution they evolved on their original planetary environment?

But all this alien stuff aside, the bigger lesson here is in how easy it is to tell a just-so story of evolution to explain the life we see around us here on Earth. We can offer stories like the one quoted above in order to speculate on some possible hypotheses, but it takes a much deeper and more careful analysis just to find out if a particular claim about creatures here on Earth makes sense, let alone to prove that a solution happened because it had to as opposed to it being one possibility among many.

It is not just the critics of evolution who have a bone to pick with evolutionary explanations. We all have to remain skeptical and vigilant against too-easy explanations that intuitively sound right but are far from proven. We have to consider alternate explanations, look more deeply at the actual data (i.e. the vast examples of life we do have on Earth, and more indirect evidence), and test claims even if they already seem to have some evidence for them.

It is crucially important to increase scientific literacy and knowledge even among non-scientists, but the danger in popularizing science comes from misunderstandings and mistaken assumptions by people who only know a few pieces of the puzzle. Scientists themselves have a duty to put every theory through the ringer and constantly reexamine it in light of new evidence, but non-scientists, I think, also have a duty to remain on guard against accepting merely intuitive stories based on partial information or partial understanding.

I don't know, at some point -- given that none of us can be an expect in all areas of human knowledge any more -- perhaps we have to concede to the experts to answer the hard questions. It doesn't mean we don't attempt to understand things ourselves, but we have to be careful about assuming our own understanding of things is complete when it is not. In other words, remain open to the possibility that even the most logical-sounding argument might be wrong.

"There are many hypotheses in science which are wrong. That's perfectly all right; they're the aperture to finding out what's right. Science is a self-correcting process. To be accepted, new ideas must survive the most rigorous standards of evidence and scrutiny."
--Carl Sagan

"Science is not the affirmation of a set of beliefs but a process of inquiry aimed at building a testable body of knowledge constantly open to rejection or confirmation. In science, knowledge is fluid and certainty fleeting. That is at the heart of its limitations. It is also its greatest strength."
-Michael Shermer

"I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn't know."
-Mark Twain

Updates: Chimp Culture and Flash Fiction
July 16, 2006
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New article up in the science section on whether chimpanzees have culture.

Also, I've started collecting random short humor pieces together in the writing section: Funny Flash Fiction.

Finally, I noticed some old comments (i.e. 4+ months) disappeared. Not sure if it's a Haloscan error, or an intentional design feature, but I'd rather everything stay preserved. So if anyone knows of an *easy* way to integrate a comment system onto my site, I'd appreciate the advice. I think I can run an SQL database and most types of scripts, but have no clue how to set it up. Looking for simplicity of function and simplicity to set it up. Thanks.