Biology

Notwithstanding Chris Matthew’s comments this week referring to Republicans who believe in Creationism as Troglodytes” (a view with which I share some sympathy) the arguments waged between biologists about the true nature of evolutionary processes are vastly more intriguing (and relevant) than the abstract arguments between science and religion. In some ways the disputes between biologists resemble the friction between religious factions, but in more important ways they represent the very manner in which science progresses toward new conclusions, which then lead to new discoveries and new arguments, ad infinitum. 


One of the most important arguments being waged is between the selfish gene theories of neo-Darwinists like Richard Dawkins and theories of symbiogenesis pioneered by Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock. It is important because it challenges scientists to think beyond the conventional linear boundaries of simple cause and effect and to embrace much wider possibilities of complex systems involving interactions on a multitude of levels where cause and effect become so enmeshed as to be indistinguishable. This view requires that our approach to knowledge comes against traditional boundaries between disciplines and thus it has met resistance from those who hold those boundaries sacred.
 
A recent essay discussing the life and work of Lynn Margulis appears in the Lindisfarne Cafe section of The Wild Rivers Review. An eminent biologist and wife of the late Carl Sagan, her theories and experiments into the mysteries of life’s origins challenge the conventional views of natural selection. She died on November 22, 2011.
 
From the essay: 

Lean Forward, Stand Back:

The Worldview of Lynn Margulis (Scientist)

by Andre Khalil 
   

 

Many neo-Darwinist concerns circled nervously around words like “Gaia” and “cooperation” (which Margulis did not like to use). They were, perhaps rightly, concerned that these terms were ripe for religious appropriation. But Margulis herself was outspoken against such mishandling of her research.

Some new-agers love to grasp symbiosis as signifying “altruism” between organisms. But it’s much more complex than that—there is something “in it” for every symbiont, just as a state beneficial in some way arises out of each symbiosis.  Terms like “altruism” had no scientific value, because they are too single-minded to describe the phenomenon.

New age thinkers also use Gaia as a blanket term. They’ve appropriated it to mean that the Earth is a living organism. Or they refer to Gaia as a “goddess.” This turns Gaia into a sort of Stepford planet by containing its complexity in a simple and inadequate metaphor. This no more grasps reality than “selfishness” does our genes.

Margulis expressed her solution to the error once by saying, “Gaia is not merely an organism.”

The Earth is beyond stale conception. It is more magnificent and active than we can imagine. Gaia is object and process. Gaia houses volcanos and every book, every word on volcanos ever written, and at the same time is those volcanos. It is where our greatest loves live, and where every human heartbeat has ever rhythmically pulsed.  In this new understanding, that something can pulse with life and yet be beyond our concepts of living, those concepts begin to change.

If Gaia is conscious, it possesses a consciousness of a different magnitude, probably of a different order all together.

Richard Dawkins and his pre-cursors like John Maynard Smith, as well as other neo-Darwinist thinkers, could not and cannot understand this lesson: this complexity is impossible to incorporate in a linear and reductive understanding.

Part of their failure lies in a misunderstood version of cause and effect that plagues science.  At a certain level of complexity, somewhere just above a billiard ball clanking into a another billiard ball, cause and effect begins to change its shape.  This change may be real—that is, it may actually shift in its laws and patterns in nature—or it may be imagined. In other words, it may demand a different sort of thinking.  Effectively it doesn’t matter, since we need to contend with the shift in our thinking. To encompass complex systems with our thinking, we must imagine a model that is less like “cause-effect” more like “being-manifestation.”  That is, multiple layers and numerous agents of forces unconsciously conspire together, and their conspiring is so intermingled, that it is simultaneously cause and effect, and thus beyond both.  For example, the being, or process of Gaia manifests itself as an unstable, constantly correcting level of oceanic salinity.  One cannot be said to cause the other, since the oceanic salinity interacts so deeply with the beings and environs from which it arises. Symbiosis and biological forms demand the same sort of thought.


 

  

 
 

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Sites of interest:

http://arclist.org/

http://deskript.com/

http://www.openculture.com/

http://open.salon.com/blog/ralph_melcher/recent

http://arclist-ralphmelcher.blogspot.com/

To subscribe to the Arclist send a message to melcher@nets.com

Two Movies

Two exceptional movies framed the past year for me. 

The Tree of Life begins as a seed of light and then expands to the whole territory of existence. Through the memories of ordinary life juxtaposed with glimpses of the primal forces of creation we are given a view of a universe spawned in raptures of what may be called love. 
 
Melancholia is no less of a masterpiece, but its subject is the utter finality of death. 
 
Tree of Life is actually the first movie by Terence Malick that I totally enjoyed and appreciated. As ambitious as any film can be, it’s also so unconventional in structure that to many it has been either overwhelming or inaccessible. The only film I can think of that embraces so wide a vision is Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. And yet, while that movie approaches the big ideas from a rather cerebral standpoint and spends most of its time outside of the earth, Malick’s singular achievement is to uncover the secrets of the soul through the device of memory and the lens of an ordinary life. 
 
We watch a life unfold from infancy to adulthood in a little town in Texas and we are also witness to the initial explosion of creation leading to the evolution of life on our planet. Malick’s theme is the continuity between the extremes of our mundane existance and of the greater evolution within which our lives unfold. Only a director who is equally at home with the grandest vision and the minute particulars of memory could pull this off.
 
On one hand this is certainly one of the best portraits of growing up that I’ve ever seen. I could feel the textures and almost sense the smells and touch of my own childhood, growing up in the fifties. The intimacy and the struggles of family life, and particularly the relationship between a father and a son are revealed in such finely selected detail that what we witness reveals universal themes of love and struggle contained in singular circumstance. Brad Pitt’s portrayal of the father is truly exceptional as is the performance of the young Hunter McCracken as the son and Jessica Chastain as both mother and as the embodiment of grace. 
 
Somehow, woven through the family drama, in a manner that is miraculously seamless, we witness in breathtaking segments the big bang, the evolution of stars, the emergence of life and the birth of the world we are familiar with. I can’t describe how or why this works, but it’s a feat that only a master of film and a true spiritual visionary could achieve without for a moment falling into the maudlin and sentimental. 
 
At center the movie carries an essentially Christian message, but one that is both universal and transcendent. When we contemplate the last few images of skyscrapers and the Golden Gate bridge, we are seeing them through the eyes of a man who has taken the full lesson of life, that all that we are and all that we build are the products ultimately of the love that has been passed on to us.
 
Melancholia, by Lars von Trier, is about the denial of love and of life and the profound emptiness at the core of our suffering. Von Trier is a controversial director whose films have earned both the highest recognition and vitriolic condemnation. His actresses have won acclaim while he has been accused of misogyny for the usually harsh treatment of their characters in his films. His movies are not always easy to watch or gentle on our sensibilities, but he is an absolute master at constructing images that transcend the content of his narratives. Like one of his mentors, the Russian director Andrey Tarkovsky, he approaches film as a painter or sculptor in time, building for us in a precise accumulation of impressions a total picture that leaves us usually stunned and breathless. 
 
About five years ago a very good friend of mine ended her life by jumping into the Rio Grande Gorge. I’ve often tried to imagine what went through her mind as she drove her ramshackle car with a broken window 40 miles up through the canyons toward Taos under the cold and overcast April sky, arriving at the bridge in the dark of evening. She walked to one of the exposed platforms that overlook the river, 600 feet down. You can’t see the river once the sun goes down, so what you are looking into is a vast pool of darkness with the distant sound of the rapids sifting between the canyon walls. What was she feeling as she removed her coat and her shoes, climbed the railing and jumped? Was it sudden fear or the exhilaration of flight, or just a numbing descent into oblivion? 
 
I believe that the motives we imagine for suicide are full of misconceptions. Sometimes we think that a person who commits suicide is trying to leave here for a better place or was seeking some sort of transcendent experience. We may think that it’s an act of violence or revenge enacted toward we the survivors. Finally I’ve come to accept that for some people this life means nothing but constant pain, and death for them is not about transcendence or revenge, but only a blessed end to it all.   
 
In Melancholia a world ten times the size of our own collides with the earth. We see it twice. During the overture we view the spectacle from outer space, as one enormous globe embraces and devours the other. Then we watch a woman’s life unravel in her total collapse into depression. We then see her slowly revive with the revelation of the end and finally in a welcome embrace of death. Then, once more we witness the collision of worlds, this time from the perspective of those whose lives are ended in its vast and sudden conflagration. 
 
These are timely images in a year when visions of strange planets and worlds colliding echo in the consciousness of many who expect the revelation of dire prophecies. But von Trier isn’t talking about prophecies. He is addressing the condition of both longing and avoidance as we face each other and our individual mortality. The character Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst, is a woman who tries to find meaning in the enveloping ritual of an elaborately staged wedding celebration. When confronted by the contradictory undercurrents and self deceptions of family, friends and associates, she fails completely in her efforts to conform, and what results is the almost complete collapse of her world. What remains is her relationship with Claire, her sister and caretaker, Claire’s husband, and their young son. The final drama plays out on a huge estate separated from anyone else in the world. Overshadowing every relationship is the approach and impending arrival of the mysterious planet, which is in the end, death itself. 
 
What we witness is that in the face of death all of our illusions and rituals unravel and we can no longer hide from our fears. We are unmasked. The scientist must set aside rationality and embrace the unknown. Those who have everything under control see that control is ultimately an illusion. To those who welcome death with open arms, and perhaps for the children who are too innocent to have constructed a body of fear there is the possibility of calm acceptance or even embrace. 
 
In the final image in the film, the two sisters and the child sit under a tent made of branches while the beautiful and awesome planet fills the horizon before it obliterates everything. This singular and powerful image is one that I will carry with me for a long time. For me it conveys a certain acceptance. To my surprise I found in this film a kind of understanding and a kind of peace. 
 
These are the two movies, out of all that I saw in 2011 that stand out as special achievements. On the surface they appear to be contradictory in their themes, but as both strive to address universal questions of life and death they are not as far apart as they seem. Perhaps, as my own awareness vibrates between the poles of light and dark, life and death, love and despair, I find it  quite natural to embrace both visions.
 
 
 
 
       

The Invasion of the Body Snatchers

First of all. allow me to introduce you to DSKRPT, a new site created by my son Gabriel. You will find essays, creative speculation and links to all kinds of of inspiring corners in realms of art and language. To get a flavor you might start with this intriguing post on the late Kim Jong Il

 

Another site of great interest is Open Culture, featuring links to everything from music videos to feature films to high level university courses, all for free. 

 

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The Invasion of the Body Snatchers

 

During my youth in the sixties an ideal put forth by the burgeoning technological establishment was a world in which machines did all of the physically debilitating, repetitious and brain deadening work while humans would be free for leisure and creativity, the problems of hunger and poverty would be solved and the reasons for war and conflict would come to an end. Well, the machines came along and replaced the jobs, but for too many the creativity failed to emerge that would replace those jobs with something useful and connected for an ever-expanding population with time on their hands. As for leisure, we in the Calvinist West have been thoroughly conditioned to mistrust that very concept to the degree that when left on our own we feel a profound loss of identity and therefore tend to freak out completely. 

 

So, the generation of my youthful vision now finds itself divided into battling factions; Republican, Democrat and Paranoid, all of them barely able to comprehend the present let alone deal with the future. As a serious political junkie who continues to hold faith that the Constitution was a relatively enlightened document that still has validity, I find myself in Santa Fe surrounded by a population that indulges in all sorts of pseudo-political fantasy. Declaring yourself either a Democrat or a Republican in this rarified climate is to risk utter dismissal by the Ron Paul Progressives and affluent Occupy Wall Street campers. Having affiliated in the past with all degrees of left, right and center, and feeling betrayed in every corner, most of the Santa Feans I know have tended toward giving up on politics altogether (although the alternative is civil war), substituting instead the quest for a new religion. 

 

Yesterday I was introduced to another version of that ol’ New Age religion. The Performance Space in the Eldorado suburbs was packed to the gills for a presentation of the movie, Thrive, a beautifully produced documentary along the lines of the the Zeitgiest  films (even slicker). It was created by an heir to the Gamble (of Proctor and Gamble) fortune and his wife. Both of them are in the movie and present themselves as pretty sincere and relatively grounded people. 

 

More ambitious and much better organized than the Zeitgeist movies, Thrive glosses over many of the more controversial and paranoid button pushers while leaving unmistakable clues to the converted that they are true believers indeed. (Professional conspiracy theorist and religious leader David Icke is interviewed and footage of 9/11 is briefly flashed on the screen, although there is no direct verbal reference to the Truther’s creed.) What we see is a carefully crafted progression of arguments, one leading logically to the other, starting with the structure of the universe, the development and suppression of new energy sources, the evidence for UFO’s and the authenticity of crop circles, the structure and control of the money system, the collusion of the media, and finally, a set of positive proposals for a future that features no more Federal Reserve, unlimited sources of energy, and common ground for both liberals and conservatives.  

 

The problem with a presentation that encompasses so much disparate territory is that the implicit assumption is that to embrace a single argument one must also swallow the whole shebang, as one thing naturally follows from another. I had mixed reactions to just about every argument made in the film, and in the end I left the showing unconvinced. Aside from being about a half hour too long, I thought the parts about alternative energy, the structure of the financial system and the final proposal for alternatives was pretty well presented and worth consideration. In the more esoteric realm the bit about crop circles was pretty convincing, at least until I later discovered the Circlemakers website. The weakest portion was the middle, which dwells on an ongoing dynastic conspiracy involving the Roosevelts, Carnegies, Rothschilds and a couple other families that CONTROL THE WORLD. This, as well as the part about FEMA concentration camps and global eugenics I found a bit stretched and subject to radically alternative interpretations. (To their faint credit, the presenters carefully insert a disclaimer that clarifies a separation between their conspiracy theory and those that tie all of this nefarious activity to the Jews. Examining the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, however, one would find more than a few glaring similarities in terms of supposed conspiratorial intent.)

 

I’m coming to believe that we would all be better off if the word conspiracy was banned from the english language. This way of thinking always seems to embrace the concept that the world is being taken over by a totalitarian state for the benefit either of Jews, extraterrestrials, a couple of wealthy families or that hoary old mens club The Masons. Conspiracy theories go back at least to the Jewish persecutions in the Middle Ages. They really got off the ground however in the early 20th century with the wide international dissemination of an anti-Semitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, combined with a nationalistic response to the financial panic of 1907 and the establishment of the Federal Reserve System. They were given new life by the John Birch Society in the fifties and sixties and have enjoyed unprecedented expansion as the world has trended toward the globalization of economies and cultures have been linked through the internet. 

 

Every dictator and fear mongering organization from Hitler to the Ku Klux Klan to the Catholic Church has promulgated conspiracies to frighten followers into unitary action. The actual difference between theories is relatively minor while being embellished and updated with contemporary details and minor variations (there are occasional weird anomalies, like the Obama Birth Certificate conspiracy). One or another version becomes prominent whenever modern societies face the prospect of destabilization or scarcity. Conspiracy theories during times of contraction appear to alternate with Ponzi schemes that arise primarily during times of expansion. Communities that embrace religious fanaticism or magical thinking (as in the case of Santa Fe) are particularly susceptible to both. The embrace of such theories is NOT a measure of intelligence but a measure of fear born of uncertainty. A seemingly coherent theory gives at least the illusion of certainty in a world where one feels otherwise lost and powerless. 

 

I’ve taken my own part in generating conspiratorial thinking, although the conspiracies I took part in were more for the sake of generating positive movements in consciousness rather than pointing the finger at us or them. There was the early New Age movement and the Aquarian Conspiracy in which I took an active role. I was an early proponent of the art project turned global celebration known as Harmonic Convergence (that one totally got away from us). My own rule of thumb would be, if a conspiracy isn’t a lot of fun (see Circlemakers) it should be avoided at all costs. 

 

The following is taken from the Wikipedia entry on Conspiracy Theories

 

Psychological origins

According to some psychologists, a person who believes in one conspiracy theory tends to believe in others; a person who does not believe in one conspiracy theory tends not to believe another.[31]

Psychologists believe that the search for meaning is common in conspiracism and the development of conspiracy theories, and may be powerful enough alone to lead to the first formulating of the idea. Once cognized, confirmation bias and avoidance of cognitive dissonance may reinforce the belief. In a context where a conspiracy theory has become popular within a social group, communal reinforcement may equally play a part. Some research carried out at the University of Kent, UK suggests people may be influenced by conspiracy theories without being aware that their attitudes have changed. After reading popular conspiracy theories about the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, participants in this study correctly estimated how much their peers’ attitudes had changed, but significantly underestimated how much their own attitudes had changed to become more in favor of the conspiracy theories. The authors conclude that conspiracy theories may therefore have a ‘hidden power’ to influence people’s beliefs.[32]

Humanistic psychologists argue that even if the cabal behind the conspiracy is almost always perceived as hostile there is, often, still an element of reassurance in it, for conspiracy theorists, in part because it is more consoling to think that complications and upheavals in human affairs, at least, are created by human beings rather than factors beyond human control. Belief in such a cabal is a device for reassuring oneself that certain occurrences are not random, but ordered by a human intelligence. This renders such occurrences comprehensible and potentially controllable. If a cabal can be implicated in a sequence of events, there is always the hope, however tenuous, of being able to break the cabal’s power – or joining it and exercising some of that power oneself. Finally, belief in the power of such a cabal is an implicit assertion of human dignity – an often unconscious but necessary affirmation that man is not totally helpless, but is responsible, at least in some measure, for his own destiny.[33]

 

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Meanwhile, on a slightly different note, my friend Ron sent me a link to a post about one of the Christian fanatics currently promoting the inherent identification of our government with religion. (I call it The Conspiracy of Bullshit) What follows is Ron’s commentary.  

 

“…but they all agreed, categorically, that freedom and liberty came from God, not from government.”

This is a VERY old argument. And God has now been transformed into what Goeglein calls virtue (I need to wash my keyboard with lye soap after typing this atrocity). Socrates would probably kill himself if he heard that…….

So now virtue is hard work. And the results are measurable by how much wealth one accumulates. Because God blesses those who are virtuous and makes them rich. QED those who have power and money are in God’s favor and deserve it. Those who are not in God’s good graces because of their faulty virtue (kill me now) suffer and deserve to do so as their performance of God’s grace leaves much to be desired.

This fundamental Massive distortion of what is virtue (arete in the Greek) and how we manifest excellence is pitiful at the best. Completely delusional at the street level. Not only are the so called leaders of the economy and political worlds so ensnared by this inherited delusion, but the vast population of the world is now in agreement. Our guilt and feeling of inferiority is the same as the big boys feeling of superiority and agreed-upon self worth.

However there seems to be a fly in the ointment, ney? Otherwise why the crazy exercise of nearly continual war?  

 

Endless acquisition as a redeeming value for God’s continual graces? Or another substitute for the personal hollowness felt by those who lead us? How can this hollowness exist if they are the blessed? There’s that fly….buzzing. And our own participation in this shows up by the way we wish for ….more. More security. More income and savings. More property. More stuff. More for our children to inherit.   

 

Also known as money.

Our primary value is now the acquisition of money. Cash. Dollars. Digits on the statement. Loot. Not buying in to this will make you an outcast, another crazy who wants non-substantial items such as peace of mind, satisfaction with one’s works, understanding of the history of where we emerged from, minute to minute happiness.

It grates against the nerves.

 

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Sites of interest:

http://arclist.org/

http://deskript.com/

http://www.openculture.com/

http://open.salon.com/blog/ralph_melcher/recent

http://arclist-ralphmelcher.blogspot.com/

Do not squander your life.

To subscribe to the Arclist send a message to melcher@nets.com

Revelation

This being the beginning of 2012, when more than a few await the end of the world, the 12th Planet, the Second Coming, or whatever their favorite version of The Revelation, I offer this:

They made signs in blood along the way that they went, and their folly taught them that the truth is proved by blood.

But blood is the worst of all testimonies to the truth; blood poisoneth even the purest teaching and turneth it into madness and hatred in the heart.

And when one goeth through fire for his teaching — what doth that prove? Verily, it is more when one’s teaching cometh out of one’s own burning![26]

       – Friedrich Nietzsche “Also sprach Zarathustra” ii, 24: “Of Priests”

 
“Do not let yourself be deceived: great intellects are sceptical. Zarathustra is a sceptic. The strength, the freedom which proceed from intellectual power, from a superabundance of intellectual power, manifest themselves as scepticism. Men of fixed convictions do not count when it comes to determining what is fundamental in values and lack of values. Men of convictions are prisoners. They do not see far enough, they do not see what isbelow them: whereas a man who would talk to any purpose about value and non-value must be able to see five hundred convictions beneath him — and behind him…. A mind that aspires to great things, and that wills the means thereto, is necessarily sceptical. Freedom from any sort of convictionbelongs to strength, and to an independent point of view…. That grand passion which is at once the foundation and the power of a sceptic’s existence, and is both more enlightened and more despotic than he is himself, drafts the whole of his intellect into its service; it makes him unscrupulous; it gives him courage to employ unholy means; under certain circumstances it does not begrudge him even convictions. Conviction as a means: one may achieve a good deal by means of a conviction. A grand passion makes use of and uses up convictions; it does not yield to them — it knows itself to be sovereign. — On the contrary, the need of faith, of something unconditioned by yea or nay, of Carlylism, if I may be allowed the word, is a need ofweakness. The man of faith, the “believer” of any sort, is necessarily a dependent man — such a man cannot posit himself as a goal, nor can he find goals within himself. The “believer” does not belong to himself; he can only be a means to an end; he must be used up; he needs some one to use him up. His instinct gives the highest honours to an ethic of self-effacement; he is prompted to embrace it by everything: his prudence, his experience, his vanity. Every sort of faith is in itself an evidence of self-effacement, of self-estrangement…. When one reflects how necessary it is to the great majority that there be regulations to restrain them from without and hold them fast, and to what extent control, or, in a higher sense, slavery, is the one and only condition which makes for the well-being of the weak-willed man, and especially woman, then one at once understands conviction and “faith.” To the man with convictions they are his backbone. To avoid seeing many things, to be impartial about nothing, to be a party man through and through, to estimate all values strictly and infallibly — these are conditions necessary to the existence of such a man. But by the same token they are antagonists of the truthful man — of the truth…. The believer is not free to answer the question, “true” or “not true,” according to the dictates of his own conscience: integrity on this point would work his instant downfall. The pathological limitations of his vision turn the man of convictions into a fanatic — Savonarola, Luther, Rousseau, Robespierre, Saint-Simon — these types stand in opposition to the strong, emancipated spirit. But the grandiose attitudes of these sick intellects, these intellectual epileptics, are of influence upon the great masses — fanatics are picturesque, and mankind prefers observing poses to listening to reasons….”
 
– Friedrich Nietzsche,   “The Antichrist”
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You Can’t Stop The Signal