Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Science as the Soul: Thoughts on Darwin, Margulis, and the spaces between

I will soon post my latest group of poems, which I have been straying from the formula of one a day, to a group a week, which I work on together and post when they are where I want them to be Lillian the perfectionist overwhelms Lillie the blogger at times, and this has happened with me. But there is, I think I should say, of course there is, ideas behind the words. This post is one of those ideas.

To live in a technological world calls for a soul which is from science. Science is not the only way of knowing, nor even the root of ways of knowing, however, all knowing is only in so far as we weave it together inside ourselves so that it happens before, beyond, and between our conscious thinking. This is our soul: the pattern of the fabric of ourselves, loomed by the threads of our substances, on the loom of the world. To know, then, we must not merely learn science, we must become science.

I am not pretending that the ideas here are mine, they all belong to others, but who, in any particular way, is the source of them is a matter for debate. If I name names, it is because they are the names I know, and not because they are the peculiar fountains of genius, but they might be. That is a job for academic work, much of which is trying to name the nameless, and decide which pool is the source of a river, to the exclusion of all the other pools. It is like trying to decide which drop of rain is the source of the flood sometimes, when the mountain that caught the clouds stands there in front of us.

The first rule of the science soul, is that when there are gaps in our knowledge, it is proof of our ignorance, which we can see in every day we live, and not proof that there is some metaphysical mind, which we only see through our ignorance. There is no God of the Gaps, but there are gaps, and in them we may well find wonders which we do not imagine. Every time we reach the end of some curve of thought and inquiry, there begins to arise the speculation of demons, deities, and an occult world. Numerology and occultism were prevalent, indeed to some extent our current form was invented, by people in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The Golden Dawn, astrology as it is practiced, and so on, are products of minds that saw ghosts and spirits, because they had not realized that many of the ghostly effects they saw, were very real, and the product of ghostly particles, and ghostly rays of electro-magnetic radiation, and by the workings of a complex chemistry which was beyond their ability to see or express. The mysteries, lie not in the pyramids, but in the dance of DNA, and the pulsing of the particle zoo, and in the patterns of relationship.

Once the God of the Gaps is revealed to be nothing more than a call to further inquiry, we can begin to have a scientific soul. This is called by various names, materialism is one of them, but it is a bad one, because often we find in the gaps something that is not material as we understood it before. Could Darwin have conceived of DNA's twisting and turning? Even the people who discovered it's structure a century after the Beagle, could not. Is it anti-spiritualism? No, because the universe is it's spirit. The universe, as a philosopher makes a cult living off of every century or so for repeating, is larger, faster, older, more permanent, than the foam that is our lives. It is in our oldest religions, in our most recent discoveries.

But this truth, however obvious, is a second piece of the science as soul. It is not that one God, or many gods and goddesses, made use for the universe, or the universe for us, but that we are part of the universe, and it is in us. It makes sense, because we are part of its order, and reflect it. Pantheism, or nature worship, is a good name for this.

This second part, that our pattern is cut from a tiny corner of the cloth of the universe, argues for what has been called the "Copernican Principle." That when ever the universe gets larger, we should place ourselves at some obscure, relatively dull, and off center, part of it. One reason for this is that the center is propelled by energies which would shred the dance of the carbon molecule, on which our existence as life depends. Could their be life near a black hole that powers a quasar? Perhaps, but it would be nothing like anything we know as life, though we can dream of living energy.

It also argues for a doctrine of Incorporation. If everything is under the same pattern of existence, and if we are part of that pattern, then all that we are, is carried out by that pattern. This does not argue for our knowing all the pieces of this pattern. There are several great problems in modern science, and existence is one of them. Another is the origin of life. A third is the source of consciousness. In the case of the first, we know we do not know enough, and in the case of the second, it seems clear we don't, but we probably do not have to learn radically new science for it. In the third, even though some very well publicized apologists argue we do, we almost certainly don't have the pieces in mere neuro-chemical activity. Computers, despite what one of my philosophy classes said, don't have consciousness or self awareness.

If incorporation, then mind is physical, as Johnson and Lakoff argued, and if incorporated, then framed, as Fillmore argued.

If mind is physical, then we are within it. This is not to deny mind, as many of the older philosophers in the mold of Skinner argued, but to deny it as substance which is not substance. We may not know how mind works, but like DNA, it is the dance of things which we can show have their own affects on the world as parts.

So I stop because it is hard to think of these things, but go on anyway.

One part of the science soul, must be biology. In biology we first must conjure with the reality of the universe as physical, not metaphysical. The universe does not care for, or about, life. This means that three contending strains of biology and life are made, and despite all attempts, no one can rule the other two.

One is the pulsation of information, it is that life must be constantly pulsing and changing. DNA is not a hard drive that "stores" the results of other actions, it is flipping, changing, editing, absorbing, adding, rearranging, duplicating. DNA is not more placid than the world around it, but more active. As the world is ceaselessly changing, DNA is even more so. Even where it seems static, it is change. The changes that are passed on, are small, but that what remains is small does not mean the motion is not great. Waves pound the shore, and pile up sand, and only a very little bit of that sand is compressed to rock by each wave, but the waves are a great deal of motion none the less. DNA is twisted by the waves, but what is passed on is the layers of rock. Over time, they build up miles of weight.

Celebrated in word, those somewhat less in song, is Darwin's theory of competition. Natural selection, Darwin and Wallace argued, was the result of the "red in tooth and claw" combat of eat or be eaten. The winners pass on their genetic material, and the losers do not. I am a thorough going Darwinian, in the sense that natural, as opposed to teleological, selection is clearly the engine of change in biological populations.

There are however, several questions, challenges and problems. A war of all against all leads to tearing down of everything. We can show this by science and math. While Neo-Darwinism fits our capitalist age, in no small part because it allows winners to sit comfortably that the deserved to win, and fits well in academia, where winners can believe they are right, because they are empowered, it does not match reality in the form that it is presented.

To get away from the war of all against all we must invoke Lovelock's idea Gaia, that life must pull in the motion and energy and substance of the non-living universe, and impart it with the peculiar forms of life. Life is a very bare envelop clinging to the near surface of a small planet, around a somewhat larger than average star in a somewhat larger than usual galaxy, in a somewhat larger than usual cluster, and so on. And this is a branch on the tree of knowledge that we must particularly be indebted to Lynn Margulis for. Cooperation, within each eddy of life, first. Before organisms can fight each other, they first must draw in. The ecosystem, the niche, the species, the group, the individual, are each tighter and tighter bindings of sameness, but before they fight within, and among, their parts, they must cooperate.

Each cell is a monument to the cooperation of life, one is mitochondria, which are organisms that took up residence in the eukaryotic cell, which houses our nuclear DNA, and gained a symbiosis with it. Mitochondria handle the oxydation, the burning fire that fuels our life, and in return they gained not only a place to live, but a place to put much of their own genetic material in the nucleus. So the large cell became not a home, but an entity bound up with the mitochondria. There are tens of thousands of genes in the nuclear DNA of the cell, but, in animals only 37 in the mitochondria. It is possible that ribosomes are the same, that DNA is the cooperation of many earlier RNA world organisms.

This is Prof. Margulis' theory, and from it came a response to the cold, almost monothestic, theory of "random mutation plus selection." There have been two challenges to this, and Prof. Margulis' is that instead of life being dependent on cosmic rays and chemical errors, that instead, cells, even complex ones, absorb the DNA of other organisms.

I am not well enough versed to explain the ins and the outs of this theory in a short space, and the evidence for it, other than we find the clear footprints of it in our DNA, parts from bacteria and virus liter the ground. Competition works by editing down, absorbing by building up.

What this means, though, is that cooperation and competition are the same. We cooperate by competing, we compete in the context of cooperation. This is not so hard to understand. Two people play cards. They are competing. But they are also cooperating. If they did not cooperate enough to play the game, there is no game. Without the common desire for fun, or possibility of the fruits of victory, which both must supply some of, there is no game.

I understood this, in a dawning way, in front of a mirror, over a wooden floor, before a wooden rod. Later that day, in an hour or so, would be a competition for spots in the special advanced class, the class taught to a few, who were possibly destined for professional careers. We were all, these black and pink flowers, hair drawn back severely, competing with every ounce of our being. But without the common occupation of The Dance, there is no competition, because there would be nothing to compete over. If we did not cooperate enough to create the common warm space of sweat and rosin, there would be no Dance, no cult of ballet, and so, nothing to compete over. If there were not enough of us to create a class, then there would be no class.

Competition is cooperation, because it is also how cooperation is made. Every virus might seem to compete with the cells it infects, but if it competes well, then it is joined into the cell. Every virus, every idea, every ballet star, is a barbarian at the gates. Every scientific idea begins as a heresy, that wants nothing more to be dogma. The barbarian that lives, is the one that wants nothing more than four walls and a roof in the city.

Cooperation is competition. Because each cooperator must get enough, and must jostle to do so. Your baby competes for your time, though you and she are cooperating. She gives you immortality, and joy, and affirmation, and someone to love unconditionally, and you give her the start in life, torn form your body.

It goes without saying that competition is most heralded by men, who must compete, and cooperation by women who must cooperate. But men form teams, that must cooperate, and women are the most brutal of social competitors, exposing infants to die, and shaming young women out of the group to face the cold alone, without defense. Do not ever think that a chattering group of 13 year old girls, too much make up plastered on on the bus after leaving the house, perfume stolen from their mothers, aunts, or older sisters, giggling in the back, are not sharpening their nails for each other to catch the fancy of a young man... even if they have no idea what to do with him when they catch him.

I am told it is Nash that we owe this idea in its modern form to, that cooperating groups often compete better. That competition must have a space where choosing the best end is best. But really, this is something that goes back to the ancient philosophers. I think Jesus preached the rich giving all they had to the poor, and Kong Zi, is all over the cooperation thing. I am told,by someone who knows the history and math well, that we should all cordially hate the film, because it gets so many things wrong. Perhaps, they should have changed the names to protect the brilliant, it is hard to say. But Russell Crowe is one of my favorite movie stars, it is hard for meto cordially or otherwise, hate, anything he has been in. Even if I should, and know I should.

The science soul must feel this coopetition, as it is called, as being reflected. it is a spiral, not a line or a grid, where each step pushes the partner. The tango, of push and pull, is a figure, a trace, a shape, a glyph. It writes on sand and water, and is burned into stone and bone. It is as elusive and as distinct as the flight of a small bee, and the wiggling that we know out of the corner of our eye, is a small child about to race to grab a cookie.

The science soul is one of wonder, and does not see science as a justification, direct or indirect, for what we do. This is, to me, the thing that makes me want to throw up at so much of what is written from science. The truth is that cooperation is even in our economics, an economically inclined friend explained how things such as "Free Trade" exist in the idea of cooperation being better than competition in trade. I'm dubious about that one, but he seems to be able to show it.

So at the end of this arc, the vastness of the universe means that life is a fragile boundary, a snow flake on the glass. To go on, life must create circles of cooperation, within which there is competition, which is a way of cooperating. The predatory gets the food from the prey, the prey does not explode beyond its food. The disease gets a host, the host gets genetic material. Even the most vicious of competitions, works by cooperation. Even the tightest of cooperations, is a struggle to set the line through competition.

The science soul strokes the keyboards of our age as Chopin stroked the keys of his piano.

Now and now, it is, and we are of it. The universe is one substance and shape, and we are shapes that are not like cogs in a watch, but something more estranged from metaphor, and we fumble for it in every medium we know.

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