The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling and the Making of Cultures by Antonio Damasio

Antonio Damasio is a neuroscientist with a philosophical bent. His earlier books were: 

  • Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain
  • The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness
  • Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain
  • Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain.

In The Strange Order of Things, he emphasizes the role of homeostasis in making life possible. Here’s one definition:

[Homeostasis is] a property of cells, tissues, and organisms that allows the maintenance and regulation of the stability and constancy needed to function properly. Homeostasis is a healthy state that is maintained by the constant adjustment of biochemical and physiological pathways. An example of homeostasis is the maintenance of a constant blood pressure in the human body through a series of fine adjustments in the normal range of function of the hormonal, neuromuscular and cardiovascular systems.

Damasio explains how, billions of years ago, the simplest cells began to maintain homeostasis, and thereby survive and even flourish, using methods, including primitive forms of social behavior, that are similar to methods used by complex organisms like us. He also emphasizes the role of feelings in maintaining homeostasis. He doesn’t suppose that bacteria are conscious, but points out that they do react to their surroundings and changes in their inner states. He argues that organisms only developed conscious feelings of their surroundings and inner states as nervous systems evolved. He thinks it is highly implausible that a human mind could function inside a computer, since computers lack feelings and feelings are a necessary part of human life. Furthermore, Damasio concludes that culture has developed in response to human feelings. Culture is a complex way of maintaining homeostasis.

I’ll finish with something from the publisher’s website written by the British philosopher John Gray:

In The Strange Order of Things, Antonio Damasio presents a new vision of what it means to be human. For too long we have thought of ourselves as rational minds inhabiting insentient mechanical bodies. Breaking with this philosophy, Damasio shows how our minds are rooted in feeling, a creation of our nervous system with an evolutionary history going back to ancient unicellular life that enables us to shape distinctively human cultures. Working out what this implies for the arts, the sciences and the human  future, Damasio has given us that rarest of things, a book that can transform how we think—and feel—about ourselves. 

I can’t say the book changed how I think about myself. That’s because for some years I’ve thought about myself as a community of cells. It’s estimated that an average human body is composed of some 37 trillion cells and contains another 100 trillion microorganisms necessary for survival. Once you start thinking of yourself as a community of cells, adding homeostasis to the mix doesn’t make much difference.

For more on The Strange Order of Things, see this review for The Guardian and this article John Gray wrote for Literary Review.

There’s Something Called “Quantum Biology”

Occasionally you hear some news and wonder “Why didn’t I ever hear about this before?” That was my reaction to the news that scientists have been investigating something called “quantum biology” for the past 20 years or so.

Last week, there was a link on the always interesting Self Aware Patterns blog to a Guardian article called “You’re Powered by Quantum Mechanics. No, Really…”. The article was written by two scientists, the physicist Jim Al-Khalili and the geneticist Johnjoe McFadden. Here’s the news I found extremely surprising:

As 21st-century biology probes the dynamics of ever-smaller systems – even individual atoms and molecules inside living cells – the signs of quantum mechanical behaviour in the building blocks of life are becoming increasingly apparent. Recent research indicates that some of life’s most fundamental processes do indeed depend on weirdness welling up from the quantum undercurrent of reality.

Really? People with various qualifications have speculated for years about quantum mechanical phenomena occurring in the human brain, usually in an attempt to justify belief in free will. But this is real science based on experimental results (albeit with a dose of speculation too).

The McFadden/Al-Khalili article cites three examples in which quantum phenomena appear to play a crucial role in biology. First, enzymes appear to work via quantum tunneling:

Enzymes … speed up chemical reactions so that processes that would otherwise take thousands of years proceed in seconds inside living cells. Life would be impossible without them. But how they accelerate chemical reactions by such enormous factors, often more than a trillion-fold, has been an enigma. Experiments over the past few decades, however, have shown that enzymes make use of a remarkable trick called quantum tunnelling to accelerate biochemical reactions. Essentially, the enzyme encourages electrons and protons to vanish from one position in a biomolecule and instantly rematerialise in another, without passing through the gap in between – a kind of quantum teleportation. 

Second, photosynthesis seems to involve wave/particle duality:

The first step in photosynthesis is the capture of a tiny packet of energy from sunlight that then has to hop through a forest of chlorophyll molecules …. The problem is understanding how the packet of energy appears to so unerringly find the quickest route through the forest. An ingenious experiment … revealed that the energy packet was not hopping haphazardly about, but performing a neat quantum trick. Instead of behaving like a localised particle travelling along a single route, it behaves quantum mechanically, like a spread-out wave, and samples all possible routes at once to find the quickest way.

Third, there are animals who appear to rely on quantum entanglement:

A third example of quantum trickery in biology … is the mechanism by which birds and other animals make use of the Earth’s magnetic field for navigation. Studies of the European robin suggest that it has an internal chemical compass that utilises an astonishing quantum concept called entanglement, which Einstein dismissed as “spooky action at a distance”. This phenomenon describes how two separated particles can remain instantaneously connected via a weird quantum link. The current best guess is that this takes place inside a protein in the bird’s eye, where quantum entanglement makes a pair of electrons highly sensitive to the angle of orientation of the Earth’s magnetic field, allowing the bird to “see” which way it needs to fly.

McFadden has published another article at Aeon in which he further discusses the examples above and throws in a possible relationship between quantum mechanics and the sense of smell. In addition, a quick search online turned up an article from the MIT Technology Review explaining how quantum entanglement may stop large DNA molecules from falling apart and an overview of developments in quantum biology from the BBC.

Not everyone is convinced of the quantum nature of these phenomena, of course, and research continues. Still, I think this is all extremely interesting. In one sense, it’s surprising that living things could employ phenomena like entanglement and quantum tunneling that seem so bizarre and so removed from ordinary life. But in another sense, it shouldn’t be a surprise if millions of years of evolution have allowed both plants and animals to take advantage of such powerful and fundamental natural phenomena.

The Reason Men Have Nipples

Ok, explaining that mysterious phenomenon isn’t the main thrust of this article at Scientific American‘s site, which claims that men are biologically at risk because of the way male bodies develop in the womb. But the article suggests there’s a reason men have those things on their chests that aren’t very useful:

The male’s problems start in the womb: from his more complicated fetal development, to his genetic makeup, to how his hormones work.

The nine-month transformation from a few cells to an infant is a time of great vulnerability. Many chronic illnesses are seeded in the womb. In our species, the female is the default gender, the basic simpler model: Humans start out in the womb with female features (that’s why males have nipples). The complicated transformation in utero from female to male exposes the male to a journey packed with special perils.

When the first blast of testosterone from the Y gene comes along at about the eighth week, the unisex brain has to morph into a male brain, killing off some cells in the communication centers and growing more cells in the sex and aggression centers. The simpler female reproductive system has to turn into the more complex male reproductive tract, developing tissues such as the testis and prostate.

Further, it takes a greater number of cell divisions to make a male; with each comes the greater risk of an error as well as the greater vulnerability to a hit from pollutants.

On top of that challenge, the human male’s XY chromosome combination is simply more vulnerable. The two XXs in the female version of our species offer some protection: In disorders where one X chromosome has a genetic defect, the female’s healthy backup chromosome can take over. But with his single X chromosome, the male lacks a healthy copy of the gene to fall back on. The X chromosome, which never shrank, is also a larger chromosome “with far more genetic information than the Y chromosome,” finds … a University of California, Davis, autism researcher, “so there may be some inherent loss of key proteins for brain development or repair mechanisms in boys”…

Females also have a stronger immune system because they are packed with estrogen, a hormone that counteracts the antioxidant process… Low estrogen even leaves boys more sensitive to head injuries. The male brain “is simply a more fragile apparatus, more sensitive to almost all brain insults.”

The article says that males have more premature births, worse reactions to environmental toxins, more asthma, higher infant mortality and more neurological disorders. The good news, assuming that men are necessary at all, is that the male Y chromosome seems to have stopped shrinking, after millions of years of decline.

I can’t vouch for the science in this article. But there must be some explanation for the statistical differences between males and females that the author describes.

Reading this reminded me of something I read years ago about boys facing a special psychological challenge as they grow up. Children generally start out feeling closer to their mothers than their fathers. At some point, however, boys have to deal with the fact that they are different from their mothers — they can no longer identify with their primary caregiver the same way girls can. I don’t remember what conclusions were drawn from this or who drew those conclusions. This difference between the sexes might not mean anything at all. Anyway, it looks like us guys have other things to worry about, starting in the womb.

A Guide to Reality, Part 5

Alex Rosenberg, the author of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, argues that “we should embrace physics as the whole truth about reality”. On the face of it, that’s a remarkable statement open to obvious challenges. 

Rosenberg, however, acknowledges that parts of physics are relatively speculative, unsettled or even inconsistent. It’s the solidly-confirmed part of physics that he’s talking about, the part of physics that is “finished” and “explains almost everything in the universe – including us”. What he’s really claiming, therefore, is that settled physics is the whole truth about reality. 

But is settled physics actually true? Philosophers disagree about what science is, what truth is and, not surprisingly, how close science gets to the truth, but I agree with Rosenberg that settled physics seems to be true. The predictions of special relativity, for example, appear to be 100% correct. (This isn’t to deny that some settled physics might become unsettled one day.) As evidence of the reliability of physics, Rosenberg points out how precise some predictions are: “quantum electrodynamics predicts the mass and charge of subatomic particles to 12 decimal places”. Those predictions are “true” in any reasonable sense of the word, even if physicists eventually refine their predictions to even more decimal places.

Some philosophers and scientists don’t accept Rosenberg’s “scientific realist” view, however. They think science is merely a tool that allows us to get things done. Questions like whether electrons or other theoretical entities really exist as physics describes them are put aside, since they’re viewed as unanswerable and irrelevant. Personally, I think physics allows us to get things done because it’s true, and furthermore it’s true in the sense that the objects and events physics describes are real, whether they’re observable or not. I believe that’s Rosenberg’s opinion too.

The second, more interesting challenge to Rosenberg’s view of physics concerns his claim that settled physics is the “whole” truth about reality. Clearly, there are mathematical and logical truths, which aren’t part of physics, but I take Rosenberg to be referring to truths about the universe and its contents, i.e. “real” stuff.

Nevertheless, if physics isn’t finished, it can’t be the “whole” truth. There must be some physical truths yet to be discovered (for example, what’s the story on dark matter and dark energy, two big things we know little about?). So Rosenberg’s claim that we should embrace settled physics as the whole truth about reality should really be understood as “settled physics is the only truth about reality we currently have”.  

Two obvious questions remain, however. Do we discover the truth from sciences other than physics? And do we learn anything true about the world even when we aren’t doing science?

Well, most people would agree that chemistry, for example, is a science that gets at the truth if any science does. Rosenberg clearly knows about chemistry, so why would he deny that chemistry is as valid as physics? The answer is that he thinks physics has shown there is nothing in the universe except fermions (e.g. quarks) and bosons (e.g. photons). From the idea that fermions and bosons are the only things that really exist, he concludes that all of reality can be explained in terms of those sub-atomic particles. After all, everything in the universe involves elementary particles being somewhere or doing something. Since physics is the science that tells us all about elementary particles and what they do, it’s the fundamental science. Using physics, therefore, we can explain chemistry, which we can then use to explain biology. Another way of saying this is that biology is reducible to chemistry and chemistry is reducible to physics. Knowledge of physics is the only knowledge that counts, because “the physical facts fix all the facts”, including chemical and biological facts.

The big problem with this point of view, aside from the difficulty in actually carrying out such reductions (replacing chemistry with physics, for example) is that fermions and bosons do such interesting things when they interact or are arranged in certain ways. Put some together and you have atoms; put some atoms together and you have molecules; put some of them together and you have cells. Once low-level particles are arranged as, for example, clouds or baseballs or trees, patterns or regularities in the behavior of these higher-level entities emerge. There are new facts to be learned.

If the universe were merely a collection of sub-atomic particles randomly scattered about, there wouldn’t be any chemical or biological facts for chemists and biologists to discover. But the particles in our universe aren’t randomly scattered. They’ve clumped together in various ways. Acquiring knowledge about these clumps (of which you and I are examples) is what chemists, biologists and other scientists (geologists, astronomers, psychologists, etc.) do. Rosenberg knows this, of course, but for some reason downplays it, choosing to focus on physics as the sine qua non of science. In virtue of its power and generality, physics should be embraced as the most fundamental science, but it clearly isn’t the only science worth embracing. 

The other question raised by Rosenberg’s scientism (or physics-ism) is whether we can add to our knowledge when we aren’t doing science at all. Rosenberg doesn’t seem to think so. Although science is built on observation, he is extremely skeptical about what can be learned by simply looking and listening. He also seriously mistrusts introspection. More on this later. 

Next: The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics and us.

A Guide to Reality, Part 4

Chapter 2 of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality is probably the key chapter in the book. That’s where Professor Rosenberg lays out his view of physics and the nature of reality. He doesn’t mince words:

Everything in the universe is made up of the stuff that physics tells us fills up space, including the spaces that we fill up. And physics can tell us how everything in the universe works, in principle and in practice, better than anything else. Physics catalogs all the basic kinds of things that there are and all the things that can happen to them (21).

According to Rosenberg, “we should embrace physics as the whole truth about reality”. Why? Because science is a cumulative process, in which findings are confirmed, corrected or refuted, resulting in a solid foundation. Physicists are still learning things, but the “part of [physics] that explains almost everything in the universe – including us – is finished, and much of it has been finished for a century or more” (21).

Physicists, in particular, have discovered that everything in the universe is composed of either fermions (such as quarks, electrons and neutrinos) and bosons (like photons and gluons), and combinations thereof (like protons and molecules). Fermions are usually associated with matter, while bosons are usually associated with fields and forces. Rosenberg says that’s all there is:

All the processes in the universe, from atomic to bodily to mental, are purely physical processes involving fermions and bosons interacting with one another…Physical theory explains and predicts almost everything to inconceivably precise values over the entire body of data available…From a small number of laws, physics can neatly explain the whole trajectory of the universe and everything in it…The phenomenal accuracy of its prediction, the unimaginable power of its technological application, and the breathtaking extent and detail of its explanations are powerful reasons to believe that physics is the whole truth about reality (21-25).

But what about the other sciences? Surely, chemistry and biology, for example, say something true about reality. Rosenberg, however, argues that physics explains chemistry and chemistry explains biology. Everything that happens in your body is a chemical process, and every chemical process is a physical process:

The only causes in the universe are physical, and everything in the universe that has a cause has a physical cause. In fact, we can go further and confidently assert that the physical facts fix all the facts … including the chemical, biological, psychological, social, economic, political and other human facts (25-26).

He left out the geological and cosmological, but you get the idea. Higher-level sciences are in principle reducible to lower-level sciences. Philosophers call this view “reductionism”. Rosenberg is clearly a “reductionist” of some sort. A similar claim is that all higher-level facts depend or “supervene” on lower-level facts (this principle is called “supervenience”). Rosenberg asks us to imagine two regions of space-time, our own plus another millions of light-years away, in which every fermion and boson is arranged exactly the same way. In such a case, everything else in the two regions would be the same too. Regardless of the regions’ respective histories, if all the sub-atomic particles are arranged the same way, the two regions will contain the same rocks, the same birds and bees, the same political institutions, the same music, the same people with the same memories and thoughts. Physics fixes all the facts.

Next time, before continuing with chapter 2, we’ll consider whether it’s reasonable to “embrace physics as the whole truth about reality”.