Genesis II (Or III, or IV, or…)

A puddle full of chemicals
Was baking in the sun
When some combined a different way
And new life was begun
It replicated, once or twice
Till now there were a bunch—
They chanced on an amoeba, though,
Which ate them all for lunch.

Some inorganic molecules
Embedded in some clay
Began a new reaction, and
They sprang to life one day
They started reproducing
Was it brand new life? Well, yup…
Till they found a paramecium
Which promptly ate them up.

It is said, abiogenesis
Is really very rare
Perhaps it happens all the time
Without observers there
The only time we’ll know for sure
That brand-new life begins…
Is when it meets established forms
But this time, new life wins.

I don’t know where this one came from, but it took all of 10 minutes to write itself. A new, successful mutation, I suppose.

Are there any biologists reading this who can tell me if my thinking is off? It seems to me that the various abiogenesis experiments (think Miller-Urey) have one fatal flaw–they are miniscule in comparison to the real world. In the real world, we have the same, or similar, experiments happening all the time. There are theories of life beginning in tidal pools, or in a clay substrate, or in geysers or mudpots, or steam vents… well, why not all of the above, and more? The world is a big place; unlikely events happen all the time, in large enough populations. Of course, any abiogenesis event that happens now has a serious disadvantage: the parking spot is already taken. And so, of course we don’t see abiogenesis happening in the world around us; something else has already snacked on it–probably a bacterium.

But (because time is patient), isn’t it possible that one of these times, Life 2.0 will disagree with that bacterium. Then eat it. And its cousins. And establish a toehold on the planet. Could already be pockets of Life 2.0 v1-vn in places we have not yet looked. (Or maybe not; this is idle speculation.) It took a staggeringly long time for our own ancestors to get beyond that stage, so there is no reason to suspect we will be alive to answer this question… but rare things do happen. Not just a mutation of a current life form, but something altogether different. Wouldn’t that be astonishing? Wouldn’t that just scare you to death?

I gotta work on the screenplay.


Scannily, cannily,
Use pretty pictures to
Search for the mind;

Sadly, it’s no more than
Looking for lumps of a
Different kind

I think if I read one more article using fMRI (or any other brain scan) to find the substrate for this that or the other experiential phenomenon, I may have to hurt somebody.

And not just because it is technologically inadequate; it is also that they are looking at the wrong thing. What we call “mind” is not (and, I would wager all my ink, can never be) found in snapshots of the brain–it is extended both in time and space. Don’t get me wrong–I am not proposing any sort of supernatural mind, of non-physical stuff; rather, that which we call mind is inferred from our own and others’ behavior, as we and they interact with a changing world over time. Such things are no more reducible to instantaneous brain states than “War and Peace” is reducible to a limerick.

Does Life Have A Purpose?

What does it mean to be alive?
What is life’s purpose, if any?
Material stuff that wants, that strives,
To turn its one self into many

What does it mean to have an urge?
What does it mean to struggle?
Must we ensure that our gametes merge,
Or is it ok just to snuggle?

What does it mean to have purpose or plan?
Who choreographs for the dancer?
These questions have plagued generations of man…
Most of all, cos we don’t like the answer.

This was just a bit of musing in response to a piece (Does Life Have A Purpose?) by Marcelo Gleiser at NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos & Culture blog. In particular, my verse is inspired by this bit:

The essential difference between the living and the non-living is the urge for preservation. Life is a form of material organization that strives to perpetuate itself.

For those who don’t click through, my comment from there:

In my opinion, the vocabulary of the article is a bit misleading, albeit clearly not intentionally so. In the same sense that “design” in nature leads creationists to infer a “designer” (when in actuality, the process of natural selection suffices), terms like “want”, “urge”, and “strive” perpetuate the notion of a functionally dualistic “self” that drives the process of life. When the larger view (across time and environment) is taken, natural selection discards those individuals whose actions were less conducive to survival and reproduction in their particular environments; those whose behavior matches what we now call “purposeful”–wanting, striving, urge-driven–were the ones more likely to live long enough to reproduce.

“Purpose” is imposed on us from outside. Our mentalistic vocabulary claims this purpose as our own–even when we expand “us” from just humans to all living things. The struggle for life is not always a “struggle” in any meaningful sense, but the phrase we have chosen to describe it.

God, Neurology, And Bliss

A vision of God’s not the slightest bit odd
When your brain’s shutting down, argues Sacks
But you knew all along some would find his view wrong
And would write of the logic he lacks
We might not be deceived; perhaps God was perceived
When the cranial neurons misfired
That was already known. What these data have shown
Is… to see Him, no God is required.

Oliver Sacks writes today in The Atlantic–a highly accessible piece on the neurology of life-altering religious experiences. He notes the documented role of epileptic seizures, typically of the right temporal lobe, which may sometimes give rise to overwhelming feelings of bliss. Other brain activity, of course, may be involved in auditory and visual hallucinations. Essentially, the same areas of the brain that are involved in feeling bliss for mundane reasons are stimulated by seizure, in the absence of some awe-invoking stimulus to account for them, or the face-perceiving fusiform area is stimulated in the absence of an actual face to look at.

It’s a bit like running in place; same muscles involved as in running, but different context. In these cases, your brain is running in place. (It is worth noting that there are many different sorts of experiences that get lumped together into, say, “near death experience”, so it is not reasonable to expect the same physiological underpinnings should account for all of them.)

These experiences are incredibly vivid, and those who experience them are loathe to accept mere biological explanations–which Sacks also illustrates.

But to me, the better illustration came in the comments. To paraphrase a number of commenters… One need not have experienced such a seizure and its accompanying bliss in order to deny a naturalistic explanation. After all, the fact that we can see faces without a face being present does not disprove the existence of faces in the real world! Maybe some people who claim to experience God are only experiencing a seizure, but who knows how many are actually, really and truly, experiencing God’s love directly? It’s only Sacks’s materialistic world view that prevents him from seeing this possibility!

Of course, Sacks knows full well that his article, and all the evidence it cites, could not hope to disprove the ultimate unfalsifiable hypothesis, god.

But it does show that the claim of experiencing the touch of God, even if taken as one’s honest and truthful view, need not require any actual god. We have, now, at least two competing hypotheses which both account for a feeling of overwhelming bliss.

Only one of which requires violating naturalistic assumptions.

A Maine Mystery

The lobster on the license plate
Is brilliant, vivid red—
Which means, to folks who know such things
It’s cooked, and clearly dead.
But recently, some mutant forms
Are showing different hues,
With yellows, whites, and calicos,
And oranges and blues
So maybe, on that license plate
(For those, again, who care)
The lobster there, in vivid red,
Is not well-done… just rare. [Read more…]

Visual Migraine Questions

Cos I know I have some knowledgeable readers.

So right now I am sitting in a darkened office, with brilliant jagged geometric shapes floating in my right visual hemisphere. Having just taken my Maxalt, I am hopeful that they will disappear soon, and that they will not be replaced by an exploding horrific headache.

But the questions…

This time, the colors are different from earlier visual migraines. Less bright colors, sometimes appearing to be a palate of grays. It also appears more melty than usual. Oh, and this one is confined to my right visual hemisphere.

So, does that mean vascular activity in left occipital lobe? Or could it be elsewhere in the various visual pathways? More generally, could one conceivably map the location in the brain where the migraine activity is happening by attending to the visual phenomena? (Has this been done?)

The NYTimes had (has?) a blog on migraine art; there is quite a lot of variation. I tend to get the current effect (location varies, as does color scheme now), and occasionally a different sort where it looks like I am viewing the world through a cracked stained-glass window. Would different sorts of visual experiences imply different, and specifiable, brain areas of vascular weirdness.

Signing off now–my right eye is beginning to throb, which is not a good sign.

The Science Of Love: A Valentine

When science examines romantic attraction
(In other words, love and affection)
It uses the methods that serve us so well
But hearts can’t survive a dissection.
We study, in science, by breaking up problems
And looking at pieces and bits
Assemble the puzzle to show the big picture—
Assuming each smaller piece fits!
In life, we see love as a powerful feeling
It’s typically shared (say, by two);
You wouldn’t find love by examining neurons
But that’s something science might do.
A chemical cocktail assaulting the cortex,
Anandamide flooding the brain
Endogenous opiates running amok
And you’re either in love, or insane
Neurochemistry surely is crucial, I know,
But something important is missing
I’ve never encountered a brain, on its own,
With an interest in hugging or kissing.
Your genes play a part, I’m reliably told
By geneticists (likely, they’d know)
Though environment, epigenetically, molds
How those characteristics might show.
My heartbeat will race at the thought of your face
And my stomach gets tied in a knot
My fingers may tremble; my brow may perspire,
And other parts start feeling hot.
But none of these pieces can claim to be love
They’re mere tiles, in a larger mosaic
This modern view separates love into pieces;
My view is a bit more archaic
When I tell you I love you, you know what I mean:
Not only with all of my heart
Not only my brain, as complex as it is,
But all of me—every last part.
Looking through my blog stats, I have noticed the beginnings of the February Bump–the google hits for “biology valentines poem” or “scientific valentine” or the like (including charming misspellings).   And so, I give you this year’s offering.   Funny thing is, it looks like it is an argument against a science of love, and that is not at all my view.  I am very much in favor of using the power of science to study love; I’ve even taught a senior seminar, half of which was on love (the other half, war. go figure.).  What I am opposed to is reductionism masquerading as explanation.  Love is something that whole organisms (usually people, but if you’ve watched my cat…) do, not something that parts of organisms do.  A proper explanation of love is not one which points to neurotransmitters or hormones; if anything, that is the how of love, but not the what or why.
For the one-stop-shopping ease of my readers, allow me to link to a couple of earlier valentines: the one that gets the most hits is the Evolutionary Biology Valentine’s Day Poem.  It did make it to The Open Laboratory–the collection of the best science blog posts of that year.  Oddly enough, the previous year, Much Ado About The Brain? was featured in that year’s Open Laboratory (and it is a love poem, which explains the link), and the following year, A Scientific Valentine made the collection.  One I don’t recommend you use is What Do Women Want? (A Valentine’s Day Poem), but hey, if that works for you, go for it.  Lastly, one of my favorites that I will not give you permission to use is An Uncommon Valentine Poem.  That was for a particular person, and it is hers, so you can’t have it.
You have my permission, as per this post, to use these valentine verses if you wish.  Frankly, if you are in the sort of relationship where these are appropriate, you are an incredibly lucky person, and who am I to stand in the way of such a force of nature?  No payment is required.  However, having just found out that CuttleDaughter has been approved for a semester overseas, I would be tremendously grateful if those who use these verses and can afford to, would notice the tip jar over there to the right.  And, not that I’m voyeuristic or anything, but I’d love to hear about any positive (or humorous negative) reactions to these verses, if you do use one!

Ignorance Ain’t Bliss For Me

“I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day”
–Douglas Adams

Think of the things a flagellum would tell ‘em
If only they knew how to open their eyes
The stuff they could see through their glasses surpasses
Their presuppositions, distortions and lies
If all they believe is the bible, they’re liable
To miss a real world that is there to be seen
But gladly the biblical thinkers wear blinkers
And try to decipher the code of the gene

It’s hard to imagine a finer designer
Than blind evolution and millions of years
But this explanation’s (quite oddly) ungodly
And quickly rejected for fanning their fears
They cannot accept evolution’s solutions
And make up a God who’s the cause of it all
Myself, I can’t use that religion, one smidgen
It’s selfish and petty; I can’t think that small