The Crow's Dream

Philosophy, geekery, and the meaning if life, and what I read this week…

Posts Tagged ‘evolution

Running Back

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After looking over my last entry, I realized that I might have come across as pretentious. I mean, who wants to hear about another nerd turning his life around through exercise? I can almost hear condescending Wonka saying something along the lines of “so, you’re running a half marathon… Please tell me about how special and challenging it is so that I can aggregate it to the other 3000 posts from everyone running in it.” Okay, I am pretty sure that condescending Wonka could come up with something a little bit more clever, but that is exactly the point: the fact that I will be running for 13.1 miles shouldn’t be all that special. It seems to me like exercise and movement should be a natural part of everyone’s life. There is nothing extraordinary about my undertaking. What attracted me to it is that it feels natural, like something that should have been doing along time ago.

I have to admit that when I decided to do this I thought I was doing something pretty major. After all, I only know a few people who run regularly, but after watching a few documentaries about the process, and after looking at pictures of the marathon itself I can see that there are plenty other people out there who can do at least twice of what I am attempting to do, and they do it much, much faster. I am not writing this to trivialize the actor running, and please, if you’ve been working hard to achieve what may now seem like an impossible goal, do not take this the wrong way. What I’m actually trying to say is that when we run, move, and exercise, we are doing exactly what we are supposed to be doing. Although it hasn’t happened many times yet, sometimes, when I’m on the treadmill or the road I disappear, and I feel an amazing sense of unity with the rest of the universe. It is almost as if I was carrying on with the task that was begun by the first bacterium capable of locomotion. It is difficult to articulate this vision, but it would seem that they runner’s high might have evolved for an essential reason.

In this article, scientists wonder about the causes behind the powerful endogenic reaction to running humans experience, and about why it is so remarkably pleasurable when the extraneous activity is both dangerous, and costly. Why do humans, as well as apparently dogs, enjoy it so much?

Although it is only speculation, Christopher McDougall, provides what, to me, seems like a valid explanation for the evolutionary development of this trait. He argues that our need to run in packs might have had something to do with it being rewarded by the bounty of protein calories provided by hunting. MacDougall believes that humans learned to outlast even the fastest animals by developing the ability to run incredible distances. Although not perfect, by any means, his explanation seemed to make sense, and provided me with a nice origin myth about why we run. Enjoy the video!

Click here to watch the video

McDougall’s explanation propelled my imagination as I moved though my workouts. I imagine a vast savanna and a tribe of hunters chasing after a few tired antelopes. The mention of dogs in the other article makes me wonder if hunting in packs was something that made the ancestors of dogs and humans become enamored with each other to the point where it’s almost impossible to think of a stereotypical human American family without thinking about a dog.

I wonder if the ritual of putting on our flip-flops, and bath robes on in order to sleepily take our useless, but nevertheless lovable, Chihuahuas, and Pomeranians out for a walk originates deep within our genetic memory. I wonder if, just like us, small dogs running through urban parks, and avenues feel that twinge of ancient power course through their veins as they forget about their small doggie issues. Is that why we run also? It is true that we no longer have to worry about capturing the fleeting calories cohabitating with us in a dangerous environment. We rarely have to worry about mountain lions, and Tigers chasing after us, but we stillrun. We put on our soft and comfortable, sweat absorbent clothing, and carry small water bottles attached were belts, as we listen to music.

Many people run, bike, walk, swim, and move for exercise. We do it because that’s what makes us feel like a part of our ecosystem. It is as natural to us as telling stories, and while I might agree that I am one of thousands of people doing what everyone else is doing, I can say, that without the shadow of a doubt it is a privilege, and in honor to run with the human pack as we make our way through the history of this small but beautiful world.


Written by Hector

April 30, 2012 at 11:23 pm

Myths Upon My LIfe

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I took this image from the Wikipedia, and it is in the Public Domain

Normally, I prefer to read science fiction, and science non-fiction, but all throughout the end of December and most of January, I’ve been consuming large amounts of mythology and Urban Fantasy.  Most of my reading falls under the umbrella of delicious escapism. I have particularly enjoyed the Percy Jackson series, The Dresden Files, and even Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson, as we well as the more literary works of Charles De Lint and  Padraic Colum.

I think everyone needs the kind of fancy that comes from the raw imagination of humanity. When I was a child, I used to pretend that I was somehow related to Poseidon–way before The Lightning Thief. My first crush ever was Aphrodite (Venus), as portrayed by Uma Thurman in Terry Gillian’s The Adventures of Baron Münchausen. I think my early relationship with myths was a healthy one. Everyone needs to hear a good fairy tale, and to be terrified or elated by the unfolding images it brings into our consciousness.

By the time I was in my teens, my fascination with mythology had grown a little bit outside of the ordinary, and I became very interested in spirituality and religion. I think I might have tried almost everything under the sun, from astrology, to meditation, homeopathy, and prayer. I became suspicious of science, because it didn’t fit my world view, and I even had the audacity to believe that my improbable ideas had a better foundation than other people’s improbable ideas. I don’t know how many hours I spent working to understand the mysteries of the universe, by browsing  the religion and spirituality sections of my local bookstore. I am not about to count my early explorations as wasted time, since I did learn some valuable skills, some even based on fact, for example, lucid dreaming and relaxation.

My problem was that I expected too much from practices that time and time again have shown themselves to be useless. Homeopathy never quite worked, neither did dream interpretation, and, other than teaching me to feel amazingly relaxed, I do not think that meditation ever opened my “third eye.”

It wasn’t until my early twenties, after completing some of the basic biology courses required by the general education standards set forth by the state of California, that I began to look into science once again. Particularly, into the theory of evolution. The sweepingly beautiful saga of life blew my mind, and invited me to question the layer of stories I had placed upon my world. Many of the spiritual meetings I attended  began to feel like playacting. At one point, I finally quit going to them, especially after I was criticized, and even verbally attacked for believing in science.

Emergence theory, Information science, and the idea that we can test reality have enriched my life immensely, as well the reading of philosophy, neurology, and skeptic thought. I am oversimplifying my journey into skepticism, but I am glad to have made it.

I am enjoying, however, revisiting mythology and dreams in the form of metaphors, and playful wraiths of the imagination.

Stories are important. According to Paul Bloom, they teach us how to behave. I   sometimes feel like they imbue us with the ideals, and the patterns of their heroes and characters, as they stitch themselves into our minds. I am glad to once more feel the pull of the gods deep within myself, this time around, however, I do not fear them, for I know that they reside within me. Of course, most of my reading is just light fun, an escape into a world where the primordial personifications of our fears and hopes mingle with soapy drama, and inane tensions. It’s fun.

I am happy to have recovered a healthy relationship with the beautiful sights of the imagination, especially when they are personified by Uma Thurman.

The image comes from the Wikipedia, and it is in the public domain.

Written by Hector

January 30, 2011 at 1:29 am

Thoughts on ants and people

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Today, I listened to a lecture about Superorganisms. It all came about because I found a very interesting video in another blog. I’m not going to repost it here, but if you want to see it go to youtube

Basically, a superorganism is an organism composed of many individuals. Ants are a great example of such a thing. The main characteristic of superorganisms is division of labor. There is usually a queen in charge of reproduction, and a few males whose sperm can be stored in pouches within the queen for years. There are workers and there are warriors. Complex organizations such as these emerge in nature though evolution, and are only possible because of communication between the different aspects of the hive or ant hill. Every member communicates though gestures and though pheromones, much in the way our brains communicate through neurotransmitters, and you and I though this blog. 

Did you know that  the total weight of all the dry ants on Earth equals the total weight of humans? They are very successful beings!

Although unscientific, it is almost impossible not to draw parallels between humans and ants. It seems like whenever we find an emergent system, there are a few things these systems have in common. For example,according to László Barabási, they all contain hubs of information, an these hubs connect and pass along self replicating structures. It is amazing how simple the complexity of existence can be once you look at it as the interaction and the communication of particles. 

It seems to me that humans are a successful species because we have learned to divide labor. It would be impossible for anyone to learn everything there is to learn about everything. The endeavor of science and discovery is centered around sharing the results of our discoveries, of course, it would e foolish to say that we are just like ants, because we are also individuals, but we know that nature loves to reuse successful adaptations, like the wings of bats and birds, or the fins in fish and dolphins. 

I think one of the good things about not being an ant, and I’m sure there are many, is our ability to enjoy the fruits of our labor. I’ve been trying to find the right approach to my new life as a married man. It is clear that my wife and I need to divide what we do, so I volunteered to make lunch and dinner, I guess that if I was an any I’d just predigest leaves and vomit them on plates, but as a human, I can actually imbue the process of cooking with art and with mastery. I can do better than consuming processed and junky food, and I can use food preparation as a way to expand the boundaries of my brain. Is culture a visual pheromone? 

As humans we use music, food, and clothing to communicate, we even use postures and smells. I think art is pretty cool. We enjoy and appreciate what we do, and we can create amazing complexity out of our surroundings. Our brains create convincing simulations of the world around us… Still, ants are pretty impressive.

Written by Hector

November 21, 2008 at 7:25 pm


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I have updated my “About” page in oder to give the blog more unity. I also have added a “Reading List” page. I will include a growing number of links to free online texts, as well as reading recommendations which can be purchased elsewhere. As of this post, there are only two very good books, but worry not. The list will grow.

Written by Hector

October 26, 2008 at 11:37 pm

Thoughts on Darwin

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I have heard that a lot of people are angry at Mr. Darwin. They say that the “survival of the fittest” was a mean ideology counter to the true ideals of love and unity. I beg to differ. Biological fitness is not about having big teeth and a mean set of claws. It is not about being stronger or better looking than other people. It is not even about some things being “more evolved” than others.

Every organism that is alive in the world is equally evolved and fit. Take cows. They managed to create a symbiotic relationship with humans, whereby we protect them from predators and allow them to pass on their genetic information, and in exchange they share their delicious muscle tissue, which we put between two buns of wheat–no one is saying that the cows in question have to be raised under terrible conditions. I’m all for locally raised farm style cows, like Michael Pollan likes them. Wheat, like corn and beans, made a similar deal with us. Even puppies did. As mammals, we tend to connect to other mammals. I swear I feel my squirrels love me. Even if they do not, however, natural selection has endowed me with empathy, and love for fuzzy mammalians. 

Fitness is about having the ability to produce offspring, not about being violent, or cruel, or better than other people. For the most part, people who are bitter and hate the human race do not find a lot of reproductive success. Hitler, gratefully, did not have children. 

There are people who claim that Darwinian philosophy would have us reject people with disabilities, but our sense of fitness, as misguided as  it tends to be, has nothing to do with what natural selection finds fitful. What we consider a disability, nature may see as a boon. The empathy and care that nature provides us ensures that we take care of our own no matter what. Evolution brings forth diversity. The exuberance of nature extends to the physical and cognitive realms. 

You and I really do not know what it means to be reproductively  awesome. The wikipedia tells me that roaches have been around since the carboniferous, and they have not changed that much. They are a success story of scuttling proportions. 

It really doesn’t matter what people think about natural selection. It happens, and it has nothing to do with morals or the lack of them. It did, however, give us a moral sense, and the ability to cooperate with other humans, because, how else do you catch a mammoth, or outrun a tiger? As social beings, we humans owe it to ourselves to be nice to each other. That’s how we got here. Our fitness, as far as I see it, has more to do with lending a hand than with throwing a spear. 

Additionally, even if we were meant to be klingon-like, no one said that we can’t choose to be moral. It is not only nature, but also the emergent social forms that happen when self-aware creatures get together, that lead our destiny. We can choose to transcend our programing. All Im sayin’ is that the heat insulating gray blob inside your skull is pretty flexible, and it has its own natural selection thing going on. You can select for peaceful thoughts. 

Training–as in meditation, study, and practice–can do unexpected and beautifully complex things with our acumen. That’s a big part of zen and of philosophy. We do not need to run the preprogramed evolutionary rat race of flighting, fighting, feeding, and passing on our genetic materials. As I understand it neurologists believe that our impulses and the mind work when competing agents duke it out to see which one takes over the body. We learn by reinforcing the ones that we practice the most. Why not train the most sublime ones? We have that awesome power!

We are deeply connected to other life forms. We eat them, or help them to reproduce, and even modify them. They give us food, beauty, and even scare us at night. Evolution is the central notion upon which modern biology, and the study of all that lives–including ourselves–finds a hub. We shouldn’t let our misguided interpretations of it send us back to the dark ages, rather than to the ideal of love and unity. 

I’m going to add a reading list to my blog soon. 

Written by Hector

October 25, 2008 at 5:50 am

Deep Sea Fish

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Oh nature, always surprising us with amazing stuff. I thought these were awesome. I first heard about them in NPR. Can you imagine living under so much pressure? There is an amazing documentary called Blue Planet. It shows some incredible footage of a deep sea salt lake. Some of the scenes in the film still haunt my dreams. The irony is that I found this video next to very obviously fake UFO footage. I know that fish are not as exiting as supposed extraterrestrials, but science requires that we learn to appreciate it. Actually, The Book of Tea talks, about an art critic who feels he grew as a critic when he learned to appreciate art:

A master has always something to offer, while we go hungry solely because of our own lack of appreciation.

I think the same is true of science. The more we grow, the more we can appreciate the wonders of the world, and the less we need to resort to pseudoscience and superstition to be amazed by reality. I am, by no means, claiming that there is a conscious master behind nature–He is talking about art, and I’m talking about science, but the point is that we need to develop our skills of appreciation to understand how awesome simple things are.  We can be awed by delving and understanding the kind of causes and effects that might have lead these fish to evolve, especially when we consider that we share at least 500 of their genes.

being scientifically illiterate robs us of the appreciation many of us could have for nature, buy stopping us at the junction between our opinions, wishes, and fantasies, in contrast to  what is truly out there. I remember spending a lot of time trying to figure out what “spirit animals” meant, rather than understanding the true genetic affinity we all share with the animal kingdom. I sought to understand what my mind projected upon nature, rather than comprehending the unbreakable biospheric bond we share with bacteria and oaks. 

I have found more love and compassion for people, when I think of ourselves a a part of the cosmos, than when I think of us a separate from all there is–as if we belonged to another version of the universe that we will not se until after we die. 

In any case, enjoy the fish!

Written by Hector

October 20, 2008 at 10:24 pm