Spring is here, and so are all of its delights. My small garden is full of roses I have planted over the years. I used to order one every year from a specialist rose farm. Some of them survived, others did not. The ones that survived are spectacular. I feed them, Husband prunes them, and they are just everywhere around the house. Even our grocery delivery person comments on them. My biggest success and my biggest failure is no longer with us. Husband had to kill it, alas. It was a Kiftsgate Rambling White Rose. Have a look at the original here. It is gigantic, encapsulating three trees.
“Kiftsgate” quickly covered our small patio in the back garden and attracted a million bumble bees. For a couple of years. But it just kept growing. And growing. I suppose the worst thing about this rose were its thorns and its stems turning to rock-hard wood. Of course, the disclaimer said “not for small gardens”. Which is sound advice if your back garden is only about 5 x 5m like mine. But I sort of overlooked that in my enthusiasm. Well, it is gone. Somehow “Kiftsgate” inspired our honey suckle into a growing spurt, covering the patio, so all is well.
Another delight that really is not a delight and hence must be resisted, is hay fever. It was staved off by the rainy weather but now all grasses seem to have bloomed at once. It is terrible. The Dutch hay-fever-radar sites colour a deep red, which is the worst there is. I have good hay fever pills now, keeping me from the worst, but this years is really quite extraordinary. I have to cover my eyes in vaseline and preferably stay indoors with all of my air-cleaning equipment turned on. And the tiredness! Even Husband complains, although he does not have a sneeze in his non-allergic body. Son, however, is still in denial, buying hay fever tablets off the counter, just this once … Well, hay fever is a predictable reaction. Once you pass a certain threshold of pollen, and start reacting, that is it. For years. But I suppose what amuses me most is his denial. He is so like me :-). Like: if I don’t wear my glasses, no one can see me (that was my favourite at his age). Anyway, the hay fever will be gone by July.
We live quite near Paleis Het Loo, which is the palace where Queens Emma and Wilhelmina and young Juliana lived before the war. It is being restyled – a many-years project which is already overextended. We walk the outer grounds every night. The coming week I will visit it properly, on the inside, with Husband and my good once-red-haired friend who has just come out of chemotherapy and a friend. Anyway, as they were also restructuring the landscape around the palace, putting in what looks like wild-flower areas, I just could not resist. I adore poppies. They are wild and beautiful and resilient. So I ordered a pile of seeds ( a few thousands) and threw them about on the newly prepared fields. Son did his bit as well. So far, only few have come up. So then we planted about 40 poppy plants which were sent to by the nursery I bought my seeds from (thank you!). And I have ordered more seeds. And more. In a few years, the whole place should be incandescent with poppies, I have decided. It will be my heritage. Much nicer than money or material things.
There are lots of other wild flowers on those fields surrounding Paleis Het Loo. I know because we have been using this app called “obsidentify” to get to know flora and fauna. It is quite remarkable. Like playing Pokemon but for the elderly. Much easier to use than my old Flora. At some point, I will use it to find edible greens and mushrooms. But already I am enjoying being able to identify plants and flowers and trees. Amazing what I remember from early childhood – I must have had a great interest in nature, because I can still identify so many plants off the top of my head; fortunately, with the obsidentify-app, I now have the means to check and find new ones. For instance, the yellow plants (weeds) growing in my front garden are called “stinkende gouwe”, i.e. “smelly gold”. I now have much fewer qualms about pulling them up.
Another disruptive thing I did was to have my hair cut. It had grown long throughout the Corona years when I did not dare to go to the hairdresser, so I just left it – well, Husband cut it for me to one length once. It grew way down my back, getting heavier and hotter every day. But I had this idea that with long hair I would turn into this patient, wise woman, such as below (the third woman from the left). The wild wise woman. Something my sister Sigrid is becoming in her amazing priest training, which is nearly finished now.
But alas, it is not for me, the long hair or the temperament! So I went to my old hairdresser who was amazed to see me – she thought I had gone elsewhere until they saw the length of my hair. Very amusing. Even more amusing is that my curls have returned. After 10+ years! Really tight curls that won’t be tamed. Which makes a mockery of the sleek, stylish hairdo I had selected, but who cares? I regard those re-emerging curls als evidence of my inner rebel – yes , the theme of this blog.
The decision to cut off my hair came at the end of a lovely holiday. We usually take one during the first or the second week of May. I don’t like to be home on my birthday because it is Remembrance day, and also because May is such a wonderful month. Spring, not yet hot, there is no pollen, everything a lush green and flowers everywhere. We rented a wonderful little house at the edge of a wood near the beach. Son came over on his bike because we were near Leiden where he lives, and we celebrated both our birthdays. We also did a lot of walking and photography and walking along the shore. One day we went to the Keukenhof. I had always wanted to go, and now I had turned 60 I felt I had a right 🙂 Husband was a true sport and came along without grumbling. Took a million pictures, but one will have to do for this post.
The holiday marked the beginning of my return to health. If you remember my last post, things were pretty bleak on that front – my worst CFS flare up in years. But I should have remembered, just when I start to cry that I just cannot go on, things always get better. I had ordered a pile of supplements which might counteract the CFS bad-fuel problem, the anaerobic metabolism that causes my muscles to behave like they have run a marathon. The science is all here, in a PostScript. Anyway, I have been taking these supplements for two months now, and they are really making a difference. I don’t have more energy, but most of the aches and brain fog and stiffness have gone. Husband says I seem to get stronger. Great. I aim to be a super fit pensioner. That is still seven years away, so I might make the deadline :-).
Whilst on holiday, I took some time to think about work. Normally I don’t, because there is not much I can change, but I was experiencing some kind of inner revolt which was bothering me.
- Revolt against our political system, which I feel has been eradicating the social fabric of our society for the past 20-odd years. In civil service (the day job), such changes become more and more visible in the way we deal with the public and vice versa. I loathe neo-liberalism beyond anything I can put into words.
- Revolt also against my day-job, which is about (information) security. I had been researching the threat landscape, both at work and for my PhD. It looks as if citizens are becoming squashed between criminal organisations and governments, neither of which can be defended against. So what is there for little me to do against all that?
A bit bleak, eh? But there is nothing for it, other than to look the monsters squarely in the face, take a deep breath, and do what I can in my own little world. Or so I resolved. I must find some more colleagues to pass on my experience and knowledge on. That is a much better idea than running around, trying to save the world by myself. Meanwhile, I keep an eye on the lottery, but I never win. Well, as they say, lucky in love unlucky in gambling, which is fine with me.
Another thing that was worrying me is whether we should move house. We have very steep stairs, so if we become old and feeble, we won’t be able to make it upstairs. We had the stairs measured for one of these chair-lifts, and it will fit! Well, you would have to duck your head a little, but it fits. So that is one problem less. Time to revamp the place, coz it is a while since we did any painting. We will need help this time around. So Husband and I have decided to save up a bit before we start. We will start on the study. Husband has already made a maquette to scale. Exciting.
The PhD is also back on track. My professor advised me to stop reading and start thinking. Which turned out to be very hard advice to follow – whenever I think up something, I am inclined to check if someone else has thought of it, and what they said, and how they developed the thought, etc. And this habit was making me feel as if I was catching snowflakes. It is strange, somehow just thinking does not feel like work whereas reading does. It is the Protestant Work Ethics lurking inside me; I suppose. Anyway, I have been “just thinking” for over a month now (with a bit of reading on the side, I will admit), and things are progressing again. I have developed a mini theory which I am expanding on. I have also run into some interesting contacts.
- A German guy who is introducing companies to autopoiesis. The thing is, it seems to work and they are ecstatic, but no one seems to worry about why it works. Autopoiesis is about living cells. Organisations are not.
- Some interesting IT guys, external contractors, approached me. They have developed a new way of approaching problems, which is a bottom-up empowering style, rather than the traditional top down “blue” design thinking. I like them and their style very much, but for now I cannot make much sense of what they are doing: it seems to be a pot-pourri of original thoughts, sound scientific theory, well-thought out personal style and agile-style hypes. Must find out more. The conversation continues.
- Then there is this interesting guy, a business architect like me, but much more the suave boardroom type. He is clever, well read, and a self-styled philosophy with fixed ideas about language, the type of ideas that many people in the IT business have – they think that either language has a fixed meaning (being comprised of words) or that meanings come from intentions. If I can explain my ideas to him and get him to understand, that would mean that I have achieved sufficient clarity myself.
- Also talked to two security professors now. Both want to help me. One is offering to co-author my literature research on security professionals. Not too much work for him, but it would validate the paper, as I am a philosophy researcher, not a security one, despite the day job. So sharing authorship seemed ok to me. My professor agreed. Better to be generous.
I am a bit hesitant, but in my next post I will try to outline some of the ideas I have been working on. Must start somewhere, so I will start with you.
I have signed up for the reading challenge on Goodreads. A 100 books this year. I am heavily into “noir detectives”, and I don’t read, I listen. All the time. I have also been listing to some other stuff. This one: the Dawn of Everything, by David Graeber (anthropologist) and David Wengrow (archeologist). It is “is a reimagining of the history of humanity, based on new discoveries in the worlds of anthropology and archeology. According to the authors, new findings challenge what we thought we knew about hierarchies, inequality, property, and the state”. David Graeber, who died unexpectedly last year, was actually kicked out of Harvard for his anarchistic ideas, so that sparked my attention. A whopping 24 hours listening, but a fascinating book! The book is very detailed, so I will repeat the experience at some point. Recommended. For my Dutch friends, there is a Dutch translation: “het begin van alles”.
This is a line from Hamlet. Which I did not know about before I moved to England, coz I heard the Hair version first. Remember Hair? I suppose I am showing my age, but this was from a time when musicals were fresh and new and often provocative. I remember being mesmerised by the German version of “hair”. No idea why. Anyway, the Hair musical also does the “what a piece of work is man” as a song. It is here, if you want to listen to it. I now prefer the Hamlet version, which is here, No need to listen to all of it, just the bit after 50 seconds. This is the full quote:
This type of thinking has a name: anthropocentric. It is when we place the human on a pedestal at the top of Creation and say: wow-wow-wow. We humans are clearly made in God’s image, more clever, more adept, than any other living creature. It is also when we look at the rest of nature and judge it by our own standards, look at animals though the glasses of our human understanding or try to understand the universe in terms of intentions and rationality and whatever else we thought up to provide a flattering backstage to our performance as masters of the universe. As George Orwell put it in Seven Commandments of Animalism in Animal Farm: “Four legs good. Two legs better”.
I suppose you think I might be laying it on a bit thick. But I am not, really. In philosophy there has long been a sharp divide between creatures that think (us) and creatures that don’t (the rest), and it was assumed that the difference is somehow fundamental and significant. Humans think. Humans have language. Humans make tools. Humans create. Humans plan. These abilities are so fundamental to our self-image, we think they must be hard-wired, in our genes, transmitted through natural selection because these are the very characteristics that have put us in our position as overlords of creation. QED.
Right? Wrong. Or at the very least not self-evident. This is one of the issues that lies at the root of the so-called analytic-continental divide. You might remember an earlier post about this, when I explained I never knew about the so-called divide until I started this ReMa course. In England they firmly held to the belief that anything continental was, eh, continental. Like they had “intercontinental” phone booths, for calling from one continent (the UK) to another. That was 40 years ago, before anyone ever dreamt of Brexit. But I am digressing.
The man-as-superbeing story is a nice story, of course, comforting and safe. I was told it as a child by all the grown-ups, so it must be true. Probably, so were you. So why should it suddenly be all wrong? Well, think about it. The earth is about 4500 million years old, with single-cell organisms starting to emerge around 3500 million years ago. The first invertebrates appear around 700 million years, fishes at 500 million years and plants even later. The first mammals arrived around 200 million years ago. From these, we get primates, then great-apes and eventually humans. If you put these data on a 24-hour clock, you can see that we humans arrive in the last one-and-a-quarter minute.
So what? you may think. Well, it takes time for natural selection to work on genes. It has taken a very very long time for complex life forms to evolve. It is therefore very unlikely that human abilities appeared out of the blue, by lightning or some other external event. It is much more likely that our special cognitive abilities are built up from old stuff, from building blocks that we share with other forms of life. This is what Cecelia Heyes says. She is a philosopher-psychologist or psychologist-philosopher and she explains it all very well in her book “Cognitive gadgets”. I am a big fan. If you don’t want to read the whole book, read this article in Aeon.
For my thesis (yes, I am writing it), I am trying to connect up three theories on an evolutionary continuum:
- Enactivism, based on biological evolutionary theory, Di Paolo-style
- Cultural evolution, Cecilia Heyes style
- Pragmatist philosophy of language, Brandom-style
The idea is to recognise basic patterns to the emergence, use and development of cognitive abilities. Any pattern that exists as an evolutionary ground pattern, need not be explained at the human level. So let’s go down the evolutionary path and start at the bottom. With something really simple, like one-cell organisms.
The first problem that needs solving, is how to decide that when something is alive. Biological theory (well, the variety invented by Maturana back in the 1980s, which developed into enactivism) says that any living cell will keep itself alive in two opposite ways: by shutting itself away safely behind a membrane and by interacting with its environment (bacteria will move towards a source of sugar in the water). All living organisms switch between those two modes of isolation and interaction. This switching is regulated through active homeostasis.
Homeostasis involves having an extra process on top of the primary process which monitors the situation (compares it against a threshold) and responds when something needs doing. Your home thermostat is a good example. The idea of homeostasis is also hugely popular in the real world. Quality systems are inevitably based on (at least) double loop regulation. Little do they know that the concept was, well, I supposed not discovered, but formalised by Ashby in the 1940s. Now obviously thermostats and quality systems are not alive. Their homeostasis is not active, not self-regulating, not geared toward survival. It is not active. Active homeostasis causes the organism to take steps to stay alive, i.e. to regulate its isolation and interaction in such a way that not only will it survive now and today, but also tomorrow. Is this scientific? Well, yes, in the sense that it a very basic and clean formulation of what life is: striving to survive, to be free of the imminent danger of the internal system running down or the environment taking over, taking steps to ensure that survival.
The next question is about how organisms get involved with their environment and each other, and become adapted to that interaction. General systems theory offers a basic pattern for this, with a little tweaking: the idea of operational closure. A terrible term for something rather interesting: the living system will try to say alive by extending into the environment. This is done by moving its boundaries. Literally. The inside of the living organism consists of linked up processes (the black circles). You may think of it as the inside of a cell or a bacterium. Notice how the internal processes interconnect to form a whole: the total of connections between the linked processes constitutes its border. Also note how operational closure does not require a structural barrier with the environment: it is not organisational closure. Nor it is interactional closure, because the interconnecting processes of the organism may simultaneously interact with the environment. Now the organism may further extend its borders by drawing in another process, by connecting its in- and output to the existing connections. It is not difficult to see how operational closure, in combination with active homeostasis, will allow a group of cells work together and eventually specialise, and so on, into the evolution of that organism, simply by trial and error, and without recourse to genetic change. What I find interesting is that the identity of the living system is not fixed but fluid, indeed self-generated: by drawing in new processes (or abandoning them), the living system changes not just its structure but also its identity.What a wonderful modelling problem 🙂 I think the business architects in my day job would file for mass retirement if they knew.
The ideas of isolation/interaction, active homeostasis, operational closure and identity-generation are fundamental to what is called autopoietic enactivism, the first of three theories I am lining up. The important thing is that if a bacterium actively keeps itself alive through these basic biological patterns, there is no need to explain the why of this behaviour at every level of creation. Nor – and this is important – do we need to assume it requires consciousness or thought or intentions or any other specifically human machinery. We also do not need to ask how the bacterium knows how to respond to the outside world. It does not know. It merely tries to stay alive, i.e. keeps its processes below the robustness-threshold of its homeostasis by whatever means available to it. It is easy to see natural selection operating on the survival of the fittest bacterium.
With the emergence of more complex life forms – perhaps fitted with a nervous system – the history of successful interactions will start to become important, allowing for the formation of habits. This is the realm of ecological psychology, which says that organisms use their environment as scaffolding. Recognition of other life-forms as agents, i.e. as organisms striving to survive through interaction with the shared environment, new types of interaction become possible. Several organisms may interact to produce a group interaction. And from that, group habits. Again, it is easy to see natural selection operating on the survival of the group with the most successful habits. No human cleverness needed for that, either.
Boring? I find this stuff fascinating. It allows for another type of evolution with is not based on genetics alone, but on successful behaviour which is arrived at and extended into the future in some other, non-genetic way. Which sort of fits the data: the difference between our genes and the genes of chimps or bonobos is only 1.2%. Interestingly, there is a lot more genetic variation within chimps and bonobos than within humans: only 0.1% within humans. I would not be surprised if we killed off the most of the human genetic variants ourselves. A nasty piece of work, is Man. We probably threw the Neanderthals off the last cliff. Plus our other ‘siblings’. There is a bunch of new discoveries about our human predecessors. In the chart below you can see our brothers and sisters who did not make it.
This post is getting a bit long. I will write up the other two parts next time. I just want tell you about my tiny adventure with Continental philosophy and a French philosopher who causes my regular professors indigestion. I still had to get some ECs (European credits) and I decided on a Philosophy of Evolution course. I thought it might extend my knowledge, and expected it to be a bit like the research seminar for philosophy of language, which was (mainly) on chimpanzees. Well, it was not. It was Continental philosophy, centred around Stiegler, a French philosopher who died very recently. My lecturer is a big authority on him, so the seminar was worthwhile if only for that (he also publishes philosophical papers on shamans and the use of psychotics, so an old hippie, after my heart). Unfortunately “Stiegler and his Parisian Friends” as my supervising professor calls them, invoke impatience to the point of aggression in analytically-styled philosophers. Which I find amusing. I suppose that through my long years as a civil servant I have learned to stomach texts which are a lot more cumbersome than Stiegler’s. So I just smiled my way through (a lot of) them, and found some really useful insights. I also noticed that my lecturer was not up date on the ideas in philosophy of mind and language; just as the other (analytical) side was not. So I wrote my essay on combining ideas from both sides, I suppose as a sort of prelude to my thesis. I used the picture about the evolving chimp (above) in my essay, and had the text checked by both sides. It was well received, so I must have got it right. It is here, if you want to read it. I was allowed get out of a “group essay” – oh horror, remember my previous adventures with group work? Even if it does work out, I end up doing most or all of the work so I might as well do it on my own. But I was let off (pfft) and allowed to write an essay on my own, on the condition that I would stick to the word-limit. Which I did, with three words to spare 🙂 So the essay is not too long, but perhaps a bit technical. Judge for yourself if you are so inclined.
P.S. If you have any comments about the biological patterns I wrote up in this post, do let me know. I am wondering if explaining the ideas the way I do, is making any sense to normal people like yourselves. I have been trying it out on Husband, but he is finally beginning to object to the timing of my lengthy after-midnight brainwaves, so perhaps you want to help me out 🙂