Saturday, August 31, 2013

HUDF -- a Saturday reprise

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photo (click to enlarge) is the deepest we have ever seen into space. It images an area of the sky that you could cover with the intersection of two crossed straight pins held at arm's length, in which you can see nothing with the unaided eye or even with an ordinary telescope. Everything you see in the photo is a galaxy, except for a couple of foreground stars. Peering into the apparently empty darkness, the Hubble camera soaked up faint light for a million seconds (about eleven days), letting us see back to within a few hundred million years of the universe's beginning, when time began and space swelled from nothing. What is important to recognize is that this didn't happen somewhere, it happened everywhere. The big bang happened right where you are sitting at this moment -- and everywhere else.

In a universe with no center and no boundary, one place is like every other. The galaxies scatter like faces in an anonymous crowd. The stars burn briefly and then are snuffed out like so many candles. If the physicists are right, the whole shebang is bent on infinite dispersal, a long inexorable ballooning into cold and dark.

In such a universe we must fashion our own centers, out of what the poet Seamus Heaney calls "the words of coming to rest: birthplace, roof beam, whitewash, flagstone, hearth." One by one we put those precious bricks in place, using the syntax of love, the cement of affection. If we are lucky we can shape a place to bide a while, out of the gale, as the galaxies go rushing by.

(This post originally appeared in September 2006. Seamus Heaney (1936-2013) has often appeared here.)

Friday, August 30, 2013

Summer winding down

Yesterday, I was walking the high road between blossoming hedgerows to the incessant hum of bees. The first line of a poem of Emily Dickinson came to mind:
The murmuring of bees has ceased…
Well, the murmuring of bees here in Kerry hasn't ceased, not quite yet –- the hedgerows are still in bloom, the blossoms full of nectar -– but I couldn't shake the line from my head.

The murmuring of bees has ceased…

Six words. Six perfect words. They glide like honey off the tongue.

"Murmuring," a word that murmurs, onomatopoeic, the sound I hear in the hedgerows. "The murmuring of bees…" The flight of the "s" from blossom to blossom. Then, the repeated "ee" sound that prepares us for the abrupt "d" of "ceased." A soft tremor of the lips interrupted by a hard click of tongue against palette. And a season comes to an end.

All the way home the line buzzed in my skull. Six words. The power of poetry.
The Revelations of the book
Whose Genesis is June.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Props and skyhooks

One might think that when empirical science knocked the props out from under institutional religions the whole thing would come crashing down. The foundational myths have been shown to be far-fetched, the miracles unlikely, the prayers ineffectual -– at least by scientific standards of evidence -– and yet the structures stand. Religions survive in the scientific age with as much vigor as ever.

That's because institutional religions, contrary to what we generally suppose, do not depend on their historical foundations. A footing in fact is incidental. What hold them up are skyhooks, skyhooks that are part of human nature.

We want to live forever. We want to know that we are central. We want to know that someone cares. These things are as much a part of what we are as the newborn infant's instinctive thirst for its mother's milk.

We are Christians, or Muslims, or Hindus, or Jews almost universally because of accidents of birth. We inherit from our parents and teachers a body of foundational myths and miracles that we believe to be uniquely true, but that differ irreconcilably from faith to faith. What we share in common as human beings is a desire for immortality and centrality -- skyhooks reaching down out of the infinities of the cosmos. Science can chip away at the historical foundations of religions; no one pays attention. The traditional faiths float without footings, suspended from above, like castles in the air.

The Dawkinses, Hitchenses and Harrises can pull away the foundation stones and kick away the props all they want; religions aren't going away. They are supported by skyhooks contrived by biological and cultural evolution. And those of us who choose to live without institutional religion do so by accepting that we are ephemeral and alone in a universe vast beyond our knowing.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Neurology 101

Here is the homepage one day last week for the Bing search engine (click to enlarge), a photo of the Kurobe Dam in Japan. What struck me at once was the difference in scale between the tiny antlike humans and the massive bulk of the dam.

How could such miniscule creatures have amassed such a volume of concrete?

Of course, we are not the only creatures that build on a scale that dwarfs the builders. Tiny coral polyps built the 1,250-mile-long Great Barrier Reef. On our island of Exuma, termites almost too small to see build nests the size of a man. Time and teeming numbers do the trick.

What is unique to present-day humans is the relatively brief time and small number of builders required to construct great works of engineering.

Still, we marvel. Surely those people in the photograph leaning over the rail are awed by the scale of the thing, wondering how a mass of meaty tissue the size of a softball could conjure such dimension and power. I too wondered as I looked at the photograph, wondered at the mystery of that knot of neurons stuffed between my ears. This is something different than animal instinct. Coral polyps build reefs. Termites build black, ovoid nests. Humans build whatever we dam well please.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Sic transit gloria mundi

History lies thick on the ground here. The archeological survey of the Dingle Peninsula lists 1,572 sites of historical interest, many of them thousands of years old. Shell middens, megalithic tombs, stone alignments, standing stones, souterrains, rock art, ring-barrows, promontory forts, ring forts, ogham stones, "beehive" huts, holy wells, medieval ecclesiastical sites, castles, and heaven knows what else. One can hardly take a step without stumbling over the past.

And up there on the hill behind the house the Munsterman sleeps on his bed of stone, his feet aligned to the equinoctial rising sun, presiding in ancient kingship over all this rock and sea and sky.

Or so we must imagine. The mound of earth that once covered the great stone slabs of his grave has eroded away in the wind and rain. His bones have turned to dust. All that is left is the hollow tomb, uprights and roof slabs, like a massive table set out for a feast.

The tomb is believed to be approximately contemporaneous with the great Egyptian pyramids. Whoever lay buried here did not have the resources of the pharaohs. Riches, such as they were, were likely measured in heads of cattle. But like the pharaohs, our Early-Bronze-Age countrified monarch had his eye on eternity. He sought to ally himself to the infinitely-recurring cycle of the sun. The sun still cycles. The Munsterman has blown away on the wind.

Monday, August 26, 2013


What is this extraordinary object with the black bullet hole?

It is, as you probably guessed, the Sun. The image was made in three wavelengths of ultraviolet light by the Earth-orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory during last year's rare transit of Venus. That black dot is the back side of Venus, as that planet passes directly between us and the Sun's face (the next time this will happen is 2117).

Of course, the human eye is not sensitive to ultraviolet radiation. Those wavelengths, observed by the satellite, are rendered here as visible colors. And so we get this magical image of the roiling face of our star, like some sort of dazzling jewel, a Merlin's globe. Can you imagine holding it in your cupped hands, seething with otherworldly power.

Hold it in you hands! If you took the planet Earth and placed it on the surface of the Sun, it would be four times smaller than the Venus dot, lost in those swirling loops of fire.

Hold it in your hands. Fly like Icarus, unafraid. That's what the imagination is for.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Warrior

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The web of being -- a Saturday reprise

Ah, yes, the divine Dante. Even in his lifetime he was recognized as the prince of poets. His great work, the Divine Comedy, seemed to his contemporaries almost miraculous, a judgment that endures to this day. Here was a poet of consummate talent who embraced in his verses the grand sweep of the physical and spiritual universes and all of human history.

Dante's world was one of incessant violence. Throughout his lifetime his native city of Florence was racked by strife between Guelphs, supporters of the Papacy, and Ghibellines, allies of the Holy Roman Emperor. The Guelphs were themselves acrimoniously divided into White Guelphs and Black Guelphs. Add into the mix assorted war lords and ambitious princes and it was pretty much unending conflict. If you weren't struck down on the battlefield, there was always burning at the stake or decapitation for real or imagined offenses. Nevertheless, Dante lived to the fairly ripe old age of fifty-six, although most of that time in exile.

He died of natural causes, not long after finishing the Paradiso. Struck low (apparently) by a mosquito.

Yes, a mosquito. Not a lion, the king of the beasts, or an eagle, the prince of birds. And, no, not even a mosquito, but an invisible parasite of mosquitoes and humans called Plasmodium falciparum.

In 1321, returning to Ravenna from Venice, Dante crossed malarial marshes, where he seems to have contracted the disease then blamed on bad air (mala-aria), the bite that binds. A creature from far, far down on the Great Chain of Being reached up into the highest rung of mortal existence and dragged the greatest poet of his time down into the dust.

There is no more Great Chain of Being in Italy. No more malarial marshes either.

Friday, August 23, 2013


Elizabeth Bishop has a poem about a sandpiper, a tiny shore bird scurrying forward and reverse with the lick and ebb of the tide. It was not the sandpiper I thought of today as I walked the beach, but the sand with which the Bishop's bird is seemingly obsessed. The last two lines of the poem:
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray,
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.
Everyone sees the sandpiper. Who could not? Those fluttering feet. The delicate engine of its controlled frenzy. But who sees what the sandpiper sees, the grains of sand between its toes?

The poet, that's who.

It is the poet's ability to see the world in a grain of sand -– black, white, tan, and gray –- that is her gift. And more! Rose and amethyst. And I mean "gift" in two senses. The gift of her talent (who was the giver? nature? nurture?). And her gift to us of the poem.

I want to have that gift, in both senses. The second sense is easy enough: I need only read. The poem is there, in black and white. The first sense is more problematic. How does one learn to see, to see not only the obvious, but also the obscure. The subtle. The ephemeral. The dim.

Is it a gift you are born with, or a practice to be learned? To see the world in a grain of sand, and eternity in an hour?
The world is a mist. And then the world is
Minute and vast and clear…

(A tip o' the hat to Seamus Heaney.)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Cherubic propulsion

I was talking last week to another American here in the village, younger than me. It transpired that he was on his way to church to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption, a Holy Day of Obligation, when Catholics are required to attend Mass.

For those not familiar with Catholic doctrine, the Assumption refers to the belief that Mary, the mother of Jesus, at the end of her earthly existence, was assumed bodily and uncorrupted into Heaven. The belief has an ancient history, but was only declared an infallible dogma by Pope Pius XII in 1950. Whether Mary died before she was taken up is left vaguely undefined. In the many paintings of the supposed event, she looks plainly alive. In any case, she is surely animate in Heaven.

I asked my acquaintance: "Where is she now?"

His good-natured reply: "Even at the speed of light, she is not yet out of the galaxy."

Not necessarily good theology, but good science.

That little exchange aptly illustrates the difference between people of faith and –- well, me -– and perhaps you.

The fellow I was talking to was no doubt aware of the logical absurdities of his belief, but he embraced them without examination because they are part of a package that gives solace, comfort, and a meaning to life. A fair enough exchange, I suppose.

I, on the other hand, was early motivated for whatever reason to take the package apart, to examine each piece logically and empirically, to accept and reject. And when I was finished, there wasn't much left of the package. Which set me somewhat adrift on a lifelong quest, taking solace, comfort and meaning wherever I found it.

Meanwhile, there she goes, Heavenward, propelled at presumably much less than the speed of light by a battery of rosy-cheeked cherubs, and as much as I might like to believe in so delightful a story I cannot muster the cognitive dissonance that seems to come so easily to so many of my Catholic friends.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


"My suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose." J. B. S. Haldane
Legend has it that after reciting his official recantation, kneeling on the floor of the Holy Office in Rome before assembled officials of the Inquisition, Galileo whispered, "And yet it moves." To save his life, or at least to avoid some dank dungeon and perhaps torture, the old man had publically denied that he ever believed or taught that the Earth orbits the Sun, rather than the other way around.

The public recantation was real enough. Whether Galileo whispered the private qualification we'll never know. It makes a lovely story. In any case, he was allowed to go back to Florence under house arrest and in the final years of his life invented (I will dare to assert) mathematical physics.

And yet it moves. The Earth goes spinning around the Sun with its sister planets. The Sun whirls with its neighboring stars around the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. The Milky Way drifts with its attendant galaxies toward the Andromeda cluster. The Milky Way Galaxy, the Great Andromeda Galaxy, and their lesser galactic companions, the so-called Local Group, dance somewhere near the outer edge of the Local Supercluster of galaxies. Which are but the tiniest swarm of galaxies in the whole outward-racing shebang.

It moves. Oh, yes, it moves, and Galileo didn't know the half of it. His inquisitors didn't know any of it, but they thought they knew all of it. And their descendants still claim infallibility.

But let me not beat up on the dogmatists. We should all whisper to ourselves now and then, "And yet, and yet." Our descendants may be surprised at our own naivety. Wholly new paradigms may be required before we understand the origin of the universe or the mysteries of biological development and consciousness.

Such a little word, "yet." Maybe the most significant word in our vocabulary.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Beauty and the beast

Help! We are being devoured by beauty.

First, they ingratiated themselves by a shy display of elegance. And a perfect sense of timing. They bloom July to September, just when we are in residence. A modest sprinkling of brilliant orange. We welcomed them. We gave them the run of the garden.

They quietly increased their numbers. A sprinkling became a muster. A muster became a riot. Year by year they asserted their independence, their sense of privilege. And still we were indulgent. They were, after all, beautiful, and who were we to oppose beauty?

Before we knew it, they had the upper hand. They were squeezing the other colors out of the garden's palette. A rainbow became a orange glare. Rampant. Greedy. Asserting their corms into every hollow.

Montbretia. A 19th-century invader from South Africa. And it's not just our garden. They are taking over the neighborhood. The roadsides are seas of fire. Beautiful, yes. But what of the fuchsia? What of the loosestrife? What of the meadowsweet? Even that schoolyard bully ragwort is shouldered aside.

Is there such a thing as too much beauty?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Matters of fact

When we were a young married couple living in England, my wife insisted on visiting the cottage of T. E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia") deep in rural Dorset, now in the care of the Natural Trust. Over the door, inscribed in Greek, is the phrase usually translated "Nothing matters." What the motto meant to Lawrence, I don't know, but certainly we can guess. Most of what I know about Lawrence I gleaned from David Lean's film, so he is inevitably mixed up with Peter O'Toole.

I'm reminded of this when reading excerpts from the diary of the young Susan Sontag (in the NYRB). She is expressing a raging lust for life: "I shall anticipate pleasure everywhere and find it, too, for it is everywhere! I shall involve myself wholly…everything matters!

Nothing matters. Everything matters. Which is it?

I suppose my own life has been a swinging back and forth. As a young Catholic, everything mattered. The tiniest good work or sin was recorded in some celestial ledger, to be rewarded or punished for eternity. Then, into a robust agnosticism, none of that mattered; the exhausting calculus of sin and salvation melted away. But a moral compass was still necessary. A reason for living. It was necessary to see again that something matters. My final testament, When God Is Gone, Everything is Holy, might as well have been titled When God is Gone, Everything Matters. The world teems with amazement.

Paradoxically, the two things might be the same. When nothing matters, everything matters. When everything matters, nothing matters.

Or does it matter?

Sunday, August 18, 2013


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Vagabonds – a Saturday reprise

(The jellyfish are back, which prompts this reprise.)

It was a week of jellyfish. On almost every retreating tide the beach was jam-packed with jellies. A walk at water's edge required constant attention to what was underfoot; few experiences are more unpleasant than stepping barefoot into a quivering cushion of jellyfish jelly.

On our beach they are mostly Aurelia, the common moon-jelly, with four elegant purple rings near the top of its transparent bell. The rings are the animal's sex organs. There's not much else to see. The fringe of stinging tentacles (not dangerous in Aurelia) and the dangling mouth-arms under the bell are mostly invisible once the jellyfish is stranded on the sand.

From the kids at the water's edge comes a constant litany of "YUK!" "GROSS!" "DISGUSTING"!"

Lemmings, they say, throw themselves of their own volition into the sea, and sometimes pods of whales beach themselves en masse for reasons known only to the whales. But jellyfish don't choose to inflict themselves on summer bathers. They travel at the whim of sea and weather, drifting where the currents take them, and if some combination of gyres and breezes dumps a thousand of them onto the sand where we want to swim, well, that's hardly the fault of the jellyfish.

Aurelia's lifestyle is altogether curious. Sometime in late summer the adult jellyfish release eggs and sperm into the water. Free-swimming larva resulting from fertilization attach themselves to rocks or seaweed on the sea floor and transform themselves into tiny plantlike polyps, each polyp shaped like a stack of inverted saucers. Thus anchored and secure, they pass the winter. In spring the saucers bud off tiny jellyfish, which grow to become big jellyfish, which -- if winds and tides are perverse to jellyfish and humans -- find themselves high and dry and squashed.

Jellyfish stranded on the sand don't have much of a future in any case. They quickly die and evaporate. Their bodies are 99 percent water; they have fewer non-aqueous ingredients than weak lemonade. A mousse or a meringue is a Rock of Gibraltar compared to a jellyfish.

But mousses and meringues are not alive, and life is what it's all about. For all of their simplicity, jellyfish are amazingly efficient machines for making other jellyfish. Their mix of water and Jello may be 99-to-1 but that appears to be an ideal recipe for survival.

Back in the 1950s geologist Martin Glaessner discovered rocks in the Ediac ara Hills of southern Australia that contain fossils of the first multicelled organisms to flourish on this planet, a diverse community of softbodied organisms that was somehow buried in fine sand and preserved as delicate impressions in sandstone. The rocks are nearly 700 million years old. And who was there at the very beginning of multicelled life? You guessed it: jellyfish.

Armored trilobites, thunder-footed dinosaurs, and saber-toothed tigers have come and gone; the watery jellyfish have endured. They have outlasted animals with bulk and brains. Their strategy for survival has been spectacularly successful: Keep it simple, go with the flow.

In jellyfish we see life reduced to its essentials. Under those pretty purple reproductive rings are a mouth and four dangling arms with nothing to do except stuff the mouth. Eat and drift, drift and eat: it's the original hobo existence. And, if you live in the sea, transparency is more or less equivalent to invisibility: another survival secret of the hobo.

Jellyfish are not entirely without self-propulsion. In quiet tide pools they manage to push themselves this way and that by rhythmically contracting muscles (such as they are) on the lower rim of the bell, but how they decide where they are going is a mystery. They have eyes of a sort at the base of their tentacles, and other rudimentary sensory organs, but its hard to imagine that these inverted bowls of transparent slime have much of an IQ. When great numbers of them wash up on the beach it is not intellect or will that put them there, but quirks of circulation in the great global engine of sea and air.

Where did our hordes of Aurelia come from? Probably rounded up cowboy-style by circulating currents in coastal waters and flung onto our shore by a southwest wind. The fluke of their appearance in such multitudes is part of that vast system of flukes we call the weather. If meteorologists can't reliably predict what the weather will be two days from now (and around here they can't), its because the agitations of water and wind are so damnably complicated.

The agitations don't agitate the jellyfish. They go where the currents and tempests take them. Theirs may not be the most independent sort of existence, but it has served jellyfish well for 700 million years. In the great Darwinian struggle to survive, going with the flow apparently has much to recommend it.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Natural and artificial -- Part 5

Natural and artificial are sometimes conflated with real and fake. While the former distinction becomes increasingly difficult to maintain, real and fake are pretty straightforward.

We know there's a difference between a real and a fake Picasso, even if we can't tell the one from the other. We know the difference between a real Gucci handbag or Rolex watch and a fake bag or watch, even if the latter is indistinguishable to the people we are trying to impress. Fake Christmas trees look more like the real thing every year, but they are still indubitably fakes.

A tree-farmed Christmas tree is no more or less natural or artificial than one made in a plastics factory in Indonesia, but we have no problem calling the former real and the latter fake. One can quibble over whether a Viagra erection in natural or artificial, but still agree that it's easier to fake an orgasm than an erection.

All of which is to say that we can move into a future where the natural/artificial distinction is irrelevant, yet still, as a matter of personal preference, choose the real over the fake. Revel in the real snowfall while rejecting the flocked tree. Choose real life over Second Life. Prefer a real $30 Timex to a fake Rolex. Fill the house with lopsided real flowers that wilt rather than the perfect silk creations that will look as "fresh" next year as on the day we buy them.

And, yes, we'll opt for real science, too -- as defined by the established consensus -- rather than fake sciences, such as intelligent design, astrology, homeopathy, parapsychology, flood geology, and all the other quackeries that distract us from the awesome wonders of the real.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Natural and artificial -- Part 4

When I was a young Catholic, we heard a lot about "the natural law." The natural law was the reason we were not permitted to use contraceptives, for example. Humans were not created by God with a packet of condoms in their pockets, and therefore contraceptives are unnatural and morally wrong. I never quite grasped the concept. If condoms are unnatural, what about penicillin? iPods? Popemobiles? We were urged not to think about it too much and leave it up to the moral theologians to decide what is natural and good, or artificial and evil.

The natural/artificial dichotomy continues to haunt our ethical lives. Is the genetic engineering of crops and animals natural or artificial? What about modification by selective breeding? Is human cloning immoral because it is unnatural? Is same-sex marriage unnatural? Can a sufficiently intelligent machine have moral rights? Is it morally permissible to "artificially" extend human lifetimes, perhaps even eliminate senescence altogether?

In all of these issues, the age-old distinction between natural and artificial lurks with a vexing tenacity. Even when not explicitly evoked, it remains embedded in our language and patterns of thought. I would submit that it is no longer useful as a guide to ethical action. For example, Roman Catholic opposition to contraceptives in the face of the AIDS pandemic in Africa may itself be deeply immoral.

The natural/unnatural distinction as a basis for ethics had its origin at a time when the world was understood in the dual categories of nature/supernature, body/soul, matter/spirit. These dualities have been shown to be elusive, yet we still try to organize our lives as if they have relevance. In the coming century, natural/artificial distinctions will become increasingly difficult to maintain. It is time to lay a basis for ethics that makes no reference to "natural law."

(Tomorrow: One last meditation on this theme.)

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Natural and artificial -- Part 3

A student from Professor Mooney's environmental ethics class came up to me in the College Commons the other day and asked me, "What is your environmental ethic?"

Most environmental thinking begins with a distinction between natural and artificial. Natural is the non-human world. Artificial is anything that is the work of human contrivance. The two are seen in opposition. Natural is good. Artificial is bad. The bad is driving out the good. Hence our environmental dilemma.

Here again, it seems to me, we are hung up on a false dichotomy with roots deep in the past: Humanity as somehow separate from nature. Unnatural. Or should I say, supernatural.

Some billions of years ago, life evolved the chemistry of photosynthesis. The planet was transformed in profound ways. For example, oxygen is a byproduct of photosynthesis. As plants extracted energy from sunlight, oxygen in the atmosphere began to rise, from zero to the present level. I suspect we would all call the oxygenated atmosphere natural, not artificial.

Within the last millions of years, one species of animal evolved sufficient neuronal complexity to give rise to an unprecedented level of intelligence, technology, and speech. A long-established predator-prey equilibrium was disrupted and human population soared. Anthropogenic carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases. The Earth warms. Ice melts. Oceans rise. Natural or artificial?

I would say that it is both "natural" and inevitable that the planet will become -- for better or ill -- a human artifact. It already is a human artifact. It would be difficult to find any place on Earth that has not been transformed by human activity. It is too late to talk about a natural/artificial dichotomy. A human engineered Earth is no more artificial or less natural than an oxygenated atmosphere.

So let's dump the notion of humans versus the environment. Let's start thinking about what sort of Earth we want our descendants to inherit. Do we want an Earth with wild rivers? Mountain gorillas? Pristine seas? Healthy babies? We will not get the Earth we want by backing off and leaving "nature" alone, as if that were possible. We will only get it by making it, the way we might make a magnificent painting, a cathedral, or a symphony.

This is our destiny, like it or not, our Great Work. To contrive a planet that is a human work of art, that nourishes what is best and good in the human spirit, that is generous and caring of our fellow creatures. A planet that is a natural artifact.

Utopian? It is the only choice we have short of killing off six billion humans, surely an unnatural solution if ever there was one. Maybe nature will do the killing for us, through pandemic disease. In the meantime, we can stop wasting energy on a futile natural/artificial debate -- humans vs.nature -- and focus our creativity on planetary transformation that will involve science, technology, architecture, art and ethics.

(Tomorrow: Natural, artificial and ethical action.)

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Natural and artificial -- Part 2

The thing we know best is our self. We experience our own agency and will and "naturally" tend to ascribe agency and will to other people, animals, even inanimate objects. Our ancestors invested rocks, mountains, streams, clouds, and celestial objects with the attributes of life. Animism was the first philosophy.

A corollary of animism is artificialism: Whatever exists is the product of conscious design. The thunderbolt and the earthquake happen because someone makes them happen. Zeus hurling from on high, for example. Artifacts require artificers, Thus the spirit world, gods, God.

Piaget and others have shown that animism and artificialism are the default explanations of children, undoubtedly for the same reason they were the default explanations of humankind.

Beginning with the pre-Socratics, certain philosophers entertained another idea. Things happen not because of agency and will, but because they are constrained to happen by "natural laws." The search for these laws began with astronomy, and has been gradually extended to almost every area of human experience. As more and more phenomena were seen to act in accord with "the laws of nature," the spirit world was rendered largely superfluous. The naiads and dryads, the fairies, the mountain trolls, the angelic choirs who pushed the planets in their courses -- all sent packing.
Artificialism gave way to naturalism.

Have all phenomena been reduced to natural law? Of course not. Consciousness, the origin of life, the origin of the universe, the origin of the laws themselves continue to resist our probing, although remarkable progress has been made. Where natural explanations are not yet available, the naturalist will say "I don't know, let's continue probing." The artificialist will claim an artifact and presume an artificer. So-called intelligent design is the latest pseudoscientific manifestation of artificialism.

"I don't know" and "God did it" have exactly the same explanatory content: Zero. Yet the great majority of us continue to posit an artificer, and waste a huge amount of human energy championing one idea of the artificer over another.

Why not just let the distinction go. Instead of natural and artificial, how about known and unknown, or law and mystery. Look again at the diagram I posted yesterday. Even without understanding the biochemistry, how can anyone look at this diagram and not be struck dumb with awe, reverence, celebration, praise? The more we learn about the way the world works, the more we become aware of our ignorance. We are made no less ignorant by endowing our ignorance with personhood, agency and will.

Natural/artificial is one more outmoded duality -- like matter/spirit, body/soul, nature/supernature -- that explains nothing and makes life on a crowded planet fraught with disagreement.

(Tomorrow: Natural/artificial and the future of the Earth.)

Monday, August 12, 2013

Natural and artificial - Part 1

(You probably read the story last week about the European researchers who produced a lab-grown beef burger from stem cells from a living cow. Which raises again the distinction between natural and artificial. I started to write about this, then remembered that I had already done so back in 2007. I'm repeating that series of posts this week, to remind myself what I thought then, and to learn what you think now.)

Nothing more exacerbates my nature writing colleagues than the mechanical metaphor for life. Think of life as a machine, they say, and you'll treat life as a machine. We will only preserve what we cherish, and no one loves a machine. Life is an organism, irreducible to its component parts.

Well, fine. And certainly we have the pleas of Wordsworth and Goethe ringing in our ears: To dissect is to murder.

But the problem arises when we want to understand exactly what life is, where it came from, and how it works, a goal that even the most ardent romantics can aspire to, unless of course they are willing to forego the benefits of modern medicine. So far, the most fruitful -- the only? -- way of doing biology has been reductionism, pulling the organism apart and inspecting it piece by piece.

These thoughts came to mind as I looked through a recent issue of Nature. Article after article invoked the mechanical metaphor for life. Protein "motors." Intercellular "sensors." "Scaffolds." And so on. One remarkable article, "Determining the architecture of macromolecular assemblies," is devoted entirely to "a mechanistic understanding of the cell." Take a look at the illustration at right from another article, "The molecular architecture of the nuclear pore complex." It will surely look familiar to anyone who has taken a few machines apart.

A distinction between natural and artificial goes back at least to Aristotle and Plato. It is a distinction that is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Living organisms look more and more like machines, and machines look more and more like living organisms. Is a computer-controlled artificial limb fitted on an Iraq war vet natural or artificial? OK, artificial. What if we find a way to regrow limbs, which is very much within the realm of possibility? Is such a limb natural or artificial?

The natural/artificial distinction is subtly at work in our discussions of religion, conservation, genetic engineering, food production, food consumption, virtual realities, computer intelligence, medicine, contraception, and heaven knows what else -- troubling our consciences, complicating analysis. We are deeply ingrained with the notion that "natural" is good, and "artificial" is -- well, artificial, as in "She has an artificial smile." Even the secondary meanings of the words have moral implications.

This is a deep and perplexing subject, to which I shall return all week.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

My Homer

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

A Saturday reprise -- That old snakecharmer, the Sun...

...piped this serpent out of the ground, led it onto the hot black asphalt, its undulations matching the undulations of the rising summery air. Its carcass is too intact to have been crushed by a passing car. Rather, the red badge of spilled guts suggests a rock, or a whack with a stick. Still paying the price of that first temptation, someone else's Original Sin.

Its body a calligraphy of meanderings and oxbows, a silky river, now stilled forever. Those two ophidian eyes -- your eyes, my eyes -- asleep in death, those bloody tracings of a last agony -- your blood, my blood. Even Cain, that murderer, received a mark that those who met him would not kill him.

That old snakecharmer, the Sun, piping us all into the unnaturally hot October air. We dance the old Darwinian dance of death. Not even beauty bestows reprieve.

(This post originally appeared in 2006.)

Friday, August 09, 2013

Piety and profit

I've been reading about the 17th and 18th-century sugar plantations of the Caribbean and the fabulous fortunes that were made on the backs of African slaves. It's not a pretty picture, but it's no surprise either.

Here is a young Englishman writing in 1645 from Barbados to John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The sugar planters had bought that year as many as "a thousand Negroes; and the more they buie, the better able they are buye, for in a yeare and a halfe they will earne (with gods blessing) as much as they cost."

Ah, yes. With God's blessing.

The Dutch were at that time the main suppliers of slaves to the Caribbean plantations. There had been initial qualms. Moral qualms. The Dutch West India Company had consulted theologians and decided that slave trading was immoral and should be shunned. It was a decision that lasted only until the Dutch merchants realized what handsome profits could be made in human trafficking. The Bible was invoked. Africans were "natural slaves", inheritors of the curse Noah put on Ham's son Canaan. It was all part of the natural order, God's plan.

And so began two centuries of horrific human suffering.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

The mountain

It's never far from our consciousness. It looms over the parish like an overly-protective parent (you saw it in yesterday's video). It makes our weather. It makes our mood.

Mount Eagle stands between us and the Atlantic, defiantly hanging onto its English name even though the English and the eagles are long gone. One last big scrunched-up pile of Old Red Sandstone before the Dingle Peninsula dives beneath the waves.

But the Atlantic will have its way. It comes blowing up against the other side of the mountain and up and over. Sometimes the weather comes gliding down our side like an icy glacier. Sometimes it boils up over the summit like a steaming volcano. Sometimes it makes a hole in the overcast that lets us have the only sunlight on the peninsula. More often it creates a local blanket of mist that darkens and dampens us alone.

The color of the mountain constantly changes. Browns and greens. Purples and yellows. Gray and rose. A patchwork of light and shadow. Some of the locals profess to be able to glance at the color of the mountain and predict the weather, an arcane lore that so far has eluded my grasp.

There was a time not so long ago when each little cluster of cottages at the foot of the mountain had its own switch-back track to the boggy shoulders where turf was cut for the fire. Down the track came the donkeys with thick black peat in their wicker panniers. Now our energy as likely as not comes from Saudi Arabia and the mountain clings to what peat is left, a dark, earthy pigment in its palette of color.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Fifty shades of green

Son Dan and spouse are with us for a week. Dan brought a YouTube link to a video he pieced together from stills he made on his last visit, a panoramic view from the garden.

I know it's self-indulgent, but I'll share it anyway. Here's the link.

The parish is Fionntrá ("white strand"). The village -– post office, shop, pub -– is Ceann Trá ("head of the strand"). Both are anglicized as Ventry.

The island jutting up out of the sea on the far horizon is Skellig Michael, which figures so prominently in my novel In the Falcon's Claw. At the center of the final frame is a 16th-century castle of the Knights of Kerry, partly pulled down by Cromwellian forces. It sits inside a massive iron-age earthen ring fort.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

The ages of man

Let's look again at the self-portrait of the thirteen-year-old Albrecht Dürer. Thirteen years old. For a boy, an epic turning point, a hinge on which a life turns. The age of discovery. Not so much intellectual discovery as a physical awakening, a bodily insistence, an itch that needs to be scratched.

A confusing time. The end of innocence. From that point forward sex will color everything, from the loftiest aspirations of art to the basest expressions of selfishness. Look at the boy's eyes. He is looking at the future, for the first time with apprehension. He feels life pulling him forward with every fiber of his body. He is curious, uncertain.

Am I reading too much into the drawing? Here is another self-portrait, nine years later. The artist is twenty-two. The same eyes, the same mouth. But now his eyes are not averted in inchoate shame. He is handsome, virile, assured of his sexuality but still uncertain of its use. He is looking more directly at the viewer. Knowing, but defiant. He holds a thistle, beautiful but prickly.

And now, age 28, married, mature, successful as an artist. His simmering sensuality is fully on display. He looks directly into our eyes, as is to say "Take me as I am." It is not the artist's sexuality we are aware of, but our own. The thirteen-year-old boy has transformed a mysterious, disturbing urgency into a Godlike power.

Monday, August 05, 2013


Before we go on, click on this drawing of a thirteen-year-old boy and study it for a moment. Is he happy? Is he sad? Does he think about girls? Does he think about God? What does he dream about under the covers in the darkest hours of the night? Is he a "good" boy, or is he prone to mischief? What will he be when he grows up? A priest? A soldier? An artist?

The drawing is a self-portrait of Albrecht Dürer, age thirteen, drawn in the year 1484.

That we can ask the questions above and posit answers speaks to the originality of the drawing. Here is a young artist obsessed with verisimilitude. With seeing things as they are. The drawing does not depict some theme from classical literature, or the Bible, or the lives of the saints. It looks nowhere but inward. It is one of the earliest works of western art that lets us look behind those shadowed eyes. It is one of the earliest works that depicts an embodied soul.

In a review of a recent exhibit of Dürer's work in Washington, D. C., Andrew Butterfield tells us something about the adult artist's religious life (NYRB, June 20). Dürer was raised in a context of Catholic moral theology -- sin and salvation. He admired Luther, but Luther gave no release from a preoccupation with hell fire. Life is a preparation for eternity. Prayer, penance, and mortification of the flesh should dominate one's thoughts. All else is vain distraction.

Did you see that in the self-portrait? Yes, perhaps. But something else too. That burning longing for verisimilitude. We get glimpses of it in others of Dürer's drawings: the hare, the tufts of grass. A turning away from eternity to the here and now, from morbidity to joy. "Self-portrait at Thirteen" makes the Scientific Revolution inevitable. The beginning of the end for hell fire.

The beginning, but not the end. Five centuries later, at age thirteen, I too lived in fear of hell fire. I might have been the boy you see in the drawing. But because of the boy in the drawing -- because he wanted to see things as they are, because he helped us learn to see things as they are -- I had a door of escape.

Sunday, August 04, 2013


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

The fire that burns in every cell -- a Saturday reprise

Still clearing out my retirement office at the college. Behind a bookcase I find folded up a huge poster that many years ago hung on the wall of my original office: Biochemical Pathways, by Gerhard Michal, 1974, published by Boehringer Mannheim. What you see here is a random 8-inch square of a 5x4 foot diagram. Click to enlarge.

Folded out, it looks for all the world like the blueprint for a vast petrochemical plant -- acres and acres of pipes, valves, reactors, storage tanks, etc. -- turning out hundreds of petrochemical products. And in a sense, I suppose it is. Except this petrochemical plant is contained with a single cell. Well, not necessarily all of it. These various chemical reactions are distributed among animals, plants and microorganisms, some in common, some uniquely.

"What in the world is that?" asked a friend, when I had folded out the poster on the floor of a corridor. "Life," I replied.

More than half-a-century ago, the great Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger tried a definition of life in a little book called What Is Life? He was convinced that life would eventually be accounted for by physics and chemistry, and his book helped inspire the biomolecular revolution, of which the poster is a momentary snapshot. The best he could come up with was "an elaborate, coherent, meaningful design traced by the great master."

Well, here it is, the great design. We will have different ideas about who or what is "the great master."

What we know for sure is that life has existed on Earth for nearly 4 billion years, and that all life on Earth (so far described) is related by common descent. As for what got the whole thing going we have only speculations.

Let us assume an ancestral living cell, as simple as the simplest bacterium existing today -- an unnucleated blob of protoplasm enclosed by a membrane. Microscopically small. Autopoietic: that is, capable of maintaining itself by chemical interaction with the environment.

For billions of years, microbes competed for the opportunity to reproduce. Far more failed than succeeded. Most branches on the tree of life were nipped in the bud. A few lucky lineages eased into the future, avoiding the sweeping scythe of death, like the few stalks of grain that remain standing in a harvested field.

In biology textbooks, timelines of the first 3 billion years of life on Earth are mostly blank. Photosynthesis. Respiration. Nucleated cells. Sexual reproduction. It would appear that not much happened. But in fact everything was happening; life was perfecting the complex chemistry that sustains every living creature on Earth today, the reactions we see on the poster.

By the time the first multi-celled organisms appeared about 700 million years ago -- and the timeline of Earth history becomes crowded and familiar -- most of the real work of evolution is finished. The basic chemical machinery of autopoiesis and reproduction is in place. Everything that follows -- apple trees, great horned owls, great blue whales -- will be variations on a theme.

The Biochemical Pathways poster gives us a glimpse of those first 3 billion years, those delicate lineages fingering into the future, inching forward under the great overarching shadow of death, always bearing the residue of the past, teasing self-maintenance from the environment, transforming the Earth's crust, atmosphere and oceans, competing, occasionally turning exploitation into mutual advantage, perfecting metabolic pathways of astonishing complexity.

What is life? Here it is, folded out on the floor of a college corridor.

(This post originally appeared in December 2007.)

Friday, August 02, 2013

Closer to the truth -- part 2

Can Plato's triad –- the Good, the Beautiful, and the True –- be reduced (in principle) to genetically and culturally-conditioned neurological states, or do they exist independently of the perceiving brain? The question is, I suppose, a version of the mind/brain debate, or even a riff on Cartesian soul/body dualism. It is unlikely that I would have anything useful to add to a debate that has exercised greater minds (brains?) than mine, but let me share my personal inclinations.

In the BBC Eroica: The Movie, the aged Josef Haydn shows up on the scene between the 3rd and 4th movements of the performance of the symphony. A sneering Count Dietrichstein opines that what they have been listening to is so much bombast and noise, not a symphony at all according to commonly-received notions of beauty. Hadyn says that the only thing he remembers striving for "is a balance between the emotions and the intellect."

Is Beethoven's music beautiful independently of any particular human auditor, or is beauty the resonance of a created object (including sound vibrations in the air) with human emotions and intellect? And if the latter, then we might expect one person's beauty to be another person's noise, which is pretty much what we see in the movie.

Emotions and intellect are surely properties of the human brain, partly pre-wired by natural selection, partly post-wired by experience, or at least that would be the view of a committed Ockhamist. A love of music seems to be a universal human trait. Favored forms of music would seem to depend on cultural conditioning. Count Dietrichstein hears noise. Prince Logkowitz's wife hears beauty. Josef Haydn, having listened to the 4th movement of the Eroica, is ambiguous; he admits what he has heard is noisy, but he is perceptive enough to know that what he has heard is important. He says: "Everything is different from today."

A commotion of neurons or eternal verities? As an Ockhamist, I'm inclined to the former, although we have much to learn. The fabulous complexity of the human brain renders any attempt at neurological reduction difficult, but -– as Beethoven says in the movie –- difficult gets us closer to the truth.

Not Truth, but "closer to the truth."

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Closer to the truth

Last week I was telling at table how I discovered classical music -- me who grew up on Hank Willliams and Teresa Brewer. Just after graduation, I married my college sweetheart. We moved to Los Angeles where I worked for Hughes Aircraft and studied at UCLA. Our local supermarket started a special promotion: a classical long-playing record each week and a binder to keep them in. Seemed interesting. We bought a cheap record player and started a family collection.

The first selection was Beethoven's Third Symphony, The Eroica. It was the first classical music I had listened to with serious attention. I was blown away. Transported to a new level of consciousness.

Tom, to whom I was relating the story, asked if I had seen the BBC-produced Eroica: The Movie. Nope, never heard of it. "You should watch it," he said. "It’s on YouTube."

Well, I watched it, and you should too.

Which brings me to one of the hottest intellectual issues being debated today: Are the Good, the Beautiful and the True subjective or objective? That is, do they reside as culturally or genetically-determined electrochemical states of the human brain, or do they exist independently in the external world to be perceived by human awareness. It’s an age-old question, of course, but given new urgency by neurological research. The debate is mainly between neurologists and philosophers.

A worthwhile glance at the current state of the stand-off is philosopher Colin McGinn's review of neurologist Jean-Pierre Changeux's The Good, the Beautiful, and the True: A Neuronal Approach in the July 11 New York Review of Books. McGinn writes: "Art, for Changeux, comes down to what your brain does when you see, hear, and experience emotion -- cellular commotions, basically." To this McGinn opposes the philosophical view: "The artwork is the object of the mental act in which it is apprehended. So we cannot claim to study beauty-in-objects by studying the human psychological response to beauty."

Was my 22-year-old response to the Eroica a somewhat arbitrary electrochemical commotion stimulated by a particular configuration of sound, or did I discover the Good, the Beautiful and the True in the same way, say, that Einstein discovered general relativity?

Did Beethoven compose music that disturbed and perhaps modified the neuron substrate of his listeners, or did he give expression to Platonic eternals?

It is a difficult question.

In the BBC Eroica, Beethoven's patron Prince Lobkowitz opines that the music is "difficult." That is the most lavish praise that can be given to an artist, the composer replies. "Difficult is good. Difficult is beautiful. Difficult is closer to the truth."

More tomorrow.