Sunday, April 12, 2020

foresting life

This is a letter emailed to the author of a NY Review of Books review of three books about Charles Darwin. I’m musing across a scale of interest from cellularity to facing the black cosmos.

A couple of “[…]” points in the letter refer to irrelevant chat-level content. [Bracketed text is slight amplification or explanatory indications that another reader might not recognize.]

Dear David Quammen,

Your discussion of Jenkins’s book (NYRB, April 23) is quite moving. If I were the Editor, I would have wanted that discussion to be first in your review of the three books. [Discussion of Jenkins begins halfway through the review, at “Bill Jenkins’s Evolution Before Darwin traces...”

[...] Funny [at your Website]: “Throughout the rest of this website, he will not refer to himself in the third person.” Yet, every writer reads himself/herself as if.

I trust that he is well along in a new book about another fascinating topic.

I want to use the rest of this to share some ideas, as they come to his mind, because I’m presently trying to get a better hold on a sense of being that gels with genomics. [I’m writing in light of the description of Quammen’s The Tangled Tree.]

I’ve long thought that Lynn Margulis was truly revolutionary by prospecting that simple single-celled life can symbiotically incorporate other simple cells to form complex cells that reproduce internalized complexity, leading from intracellular complexity to multicellular organisms, then multi-organed life.

The profundity of undoing what I call Originism (seedism, one might say, of Creationism) by horizontal [‘HGT’ below] and infective gene transfer can’t be overestimated. I look forward to your discussion. [I ordered the book today.]

Yet, I expect that there’s no way to explain horizontal gene transfer, as to why it happens when it does, just as particular mutations have no explanation (except retro-speculatively). There’s no Originism to HGT, just as there’s no Originism to viral trending of memes laterally in social networking (whereby a durable trend becomes a factor—a social gene?—in cultural evolving).

I expect that your “tangled tree” will express the bushiness that Stephen Jay Gould proffered years ago.

A family tree is like an inverted tree (as one’s own life is the rooting trunk of retrospective genealogy [in light of bushly living into manifold projects and influencings—a life as the knotting interface of manifold futuring and manifold influences]) among the inestimable inverted trees of actually shared lives within living generational cohorts eventually benefitting from narrated history (education). We humans express a genetic and genealogical woods of impenetrable density—in the unfathomable Forest of Mother Gaia, now reflecting itself scientifically and narratively with exponential growth.

There is no definite past determinable retrospectively. [A past “is” made.] There is enlightening narrative—retrojective supplements—for our horizontal, unprecedented condition of making futures together in dense forests of affects.

In that, there’s nothing essentially biogenetic about we ontogenetic beings [or ontogenic, I prefer—yet begenic feels best]. We’re making it up—who We are—as prospectors plod along discovering aspects of what We’ve been. We’re not essentially who We’ve been—or whom one’s been—particularly since being human is so easily entranced by unprecedented possibility, as if We creatures are evolving to determine our future evolving as such (i.e., what ’evolving’ is to eventually mean).

Maybe there could be a useful book titled The Self-Foresting Species

Anyway, there’s philosophical joy to be found in molecular genomics that scales up somehow (by some creative narrating) to our stories about being Earthans—being what David Overbye called “lonely hearts of the cosmos.” 

And now, We’re eager to change our own genomes for the sake of medical science, but also for dreams of becoming “post-human,” so-called by a genre of academic prospecting (which seemed to wane after the Great Recession; and now mindfulness is facing the most severe setback since WW-II, They say).

Inevitable, perhaps, the genomic locations for neural density and efficacy that are determinate for natal capacity to individuate one’s intelligence will be discovered—then rightfully prohibited from employment, but cause a new epoch of bioethics—then, black market baiting. 

I recall microbiologist Lee Silver’s Remaking Eden, 1998, which anticipated genomic amplification which splits off from natural humanity, causing genetically-amplified class differences that are already hinted globally by persistent socioeconomic inequality, which may one day echo through enhancement of the privileged the Hindu-ist distinction between Brahmins and Untouchables. (That was Lee Silvers’ fear.)

I saw a chilling article in the NYTimes yesterday about the potential for protectionist competition among developed societies for access to the anticipated covid-19 vaccine (a new front for nationalism), which will tend to leave developing societies out of the games. 

That’s a harbinger of major advances in genomics that will mix with vast progress in A.I. [artificial intelligence] and quantum computing which will multiply our already-exponential evolution vastly. (Only 15 decades ago, electricity became commercialized. Only since 1929 has the cosmos consisted of multiple galaxies). I can’t resist suspecting that the “Great Silence” resulting from S.E.T.I. is deliberate: We’re far from ready for The Story that’s millions of years beyond Us.

Anyway, what a “transcendental anatomy” We are! That quaint notion of the early 19th century followed merely a few years from Kant’s Transcendental Deductions [Critique of Pure Reason], which have proven to anticipate cognitive science in ways unimaginable to an 18th century mind. But I’ve recently appreciated better how much Kant was the result of responses to English (Humean) and French (Rousseauian) thought. [Actually, Kant was born from Scottish immigrants.] Over the years, I’ve grown to think that the leading edge of thought has been decidedly English, contrary to the sense within professional philosophy that leading thought evinces from the European heartland (even being axially German). The life situation of Darwin strongly corroborates my English musings, most of all corroborating why I’ve thought that the English are so creative: Seafaring people internalize a plurality of experience (fostering cultural multi-cellularity) that energizes creativity better than rooted people, such as the Germans or the cultures of the eastern Mediterranean. So, the Greeks became full of intellectual discovery because they were a people of odysseys and maritime economy. So, too, for the vastly seafaring English—to Shakespearean degrees of Newtonian imagination, etc.

Daniel Dennett wasn’t exaggerating [as mentioned in the NYRB review] about the most important (and dangerous) idea[,i.e., Darwin’s sense of evolving by natural selection]. It’s no accident that English is a mongrel language that readily absorbs other linguistic terms like a cellular entity that internalizes other entities (while the French proudly resist hybridization—and the proud Germans did, until post-WW-II). It’s no accident that seafaring Englishmen originated what has become the globelish reality of the scientific community, the language of business, the language of diplomacy, and the lingua franca of youth social networking culture. 

There’s a molecular algorithmics in ascendent A.I. of the internetted global village. (I had trouble writing the previous sentence [by email], because the auto-correction algorithm in Gmail continued to substitute ’integrated’ for ’internetted’.) 

We all need a unitarian language—humanistic and “green”—that isn’t made (or kept) hegemonic by global capitalism, if We are to sustainably shepherd the so-called Anthropocene. That’s what has become of genetics.

Well, that was fun.

Best wishes for your new book, whatever it’s becoming.