Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Six Years Ago Today

Nature creates art, reflects Nature
(at the Honolulu Zoo, July 2010)
Culture comes of nature

By Moristotle

[Originally published on June 28, 2011, not one word different.]

This morning I finished reading the concluding chapter of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s 2010 book, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. The chapter, titled “Living with Consciousness,” sketches consciousness’s contributions to the success of living organisms; that is, places it in evolutionary context.
    In earlier chapters, in which he lays out his theory of how the brain orchestrates consciousness and our sense of self – of being the felt protagonists of our lives – he frequently invoked evolutionary development, as, for example, in comparing the brains of mammals to identify the order in which the regions of the human brain developed and the order’s implications for the role of the various regions in regulating homeostasis and conferring adaptive, or competititve advantage.
    The following passage jumped out at me as capturing my own developing sense of nature’s creating not only biological organisms but in the course of time creating culture by virtue of having created organisms with brains capable of manifesting mind and eventually capable of devising repositories of collective learning. My personal sense is reflected, for example, in my caption for the July 2010 photograph from the Honolulu zoo.
    Damasio writes:

Nervous systems developed as managers of life and curators of biological value, assisted at first by unbrained dispositions but eventually by images, that is, minds. The emergence of mind produced spectacular improvements in life regulation for numerous species, even when images lacked fine detail and lasted only during the perceptual moment, entirely vanishing thereafter....
    Once self comes to mind, the game of life changes, albeit timidly at first. Images of the internal and external worlds can be organized in a cohesive way around the protoself [a theoretical entity in Damasio’s theory of the sequence of brain/mind development] and become oriented by the homeostatic requirements of the organism....[pp. 286-287]

If nature can be regarded as indifferent, careless, and unconscionable, then human consciousness creates the possibility of questioning nature’s ways. The emergence of human consciousness is associated with evolutionary developments in brain, behavior, and mind that ultimately lead to the creation of culture, a radical novelty in the sweep of natural history. The appearance of neurons, with its attending diversification of behavior and paving of the way into minds, constitutes a momentous event in the grand trajectory. But the appearance of conscious brains eventually capable of flexible self-reflection is the next momentous event. It is the opening of the way into a rebellious, albeit imperfect response to the dictates of a careless nature.
    ...The self that I envision as capable of rebelliousness is a recent development, on the order of thousands of years, a mere instant in evolutionary time. That self draws on features of the human brain acquired, in all likelihood, during the long period of the Pleistocene. It depends on the brain’s capacity to hold expansive memory records not only of motor skills but also of facts and events – in particular, personal facts and events, those that make up the scaffolding of biography and personhood and individual identity...Last, it depends on the invention of external memory systems parallel to those held by each brain, by which I mean the pictorial representations offered by early painting, carvings, and sculpture, tools, jewelry, funerary architecture, and, long after the emergence of language, written records....[pp. 289-290]
Damasio’s “Rebelliousness” (as in culture’s rebelling against and trying to improve nature) I can’t but read in the context of this blog’s recent theme of a few individuals rebelling against certain aspects of popular (or majority) culture: religious beliefs and practices that rational people would think we could have outgrown, burdensome traditions that tether us to unprofitable pasts, adolescent politics that degrade our national business into playground bullying....
    It would seem that culture has a way yet to mature before the benefits of self's having come to mind can be realized by a collective majority of the organisms who possess a human brain.

Copyright © 2017 by Moristotle

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