Thursday, November 27, 2008

The superorganism has castes; Individuals are automatons

The Superorganism from Marginal Revolution by Tyler Cowen
The subtitle is
The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies and that is the new book by Bert Hölldobler and Edmund O. Wilson... Here is a New York Times review of the book [By STEVE JONES
Published: November 21, 2008

Hölldobler and Wilson’s central conceit is that a colony is a single animal raised to a higher level. Each insect is a cell, its castes are organs, its queens are its genitals, the wasps that stung me are an equivalent of an immune system. In the same way, the foragers are eyes and ears, and the colony’s rules of development determine its shape and size. The hive has no brain, but the iron laws of cooperation give the impression of planning. Teamwork pays; in a survey of one piece of Amazonian rain forest, social insects accounted for 80 percent of the total biomass, with ants alone weighing four times as much as all its mammals, birds, lizards, snakes and frogs put together. The world holds as much ant flesh as it does that of humans.

Karl von Frisch, discoverer of the famous waggle dance of the honey bee, said in the 1930s that “the life of bees is like a magic well. The more you draw from it, the more there is to draw.” Plenty of excellent science still springs from that source, and Wilson and Hölldobler gather some classics here. How does an ant work out how far it is back to the nest? Simple: by counting its steps. Glue stilts onto its legs as it sets out and it will pace out into the wilds; take them off and it will walk only part of the way back.

The superorganism has castes, based not on genetic differences but — like our own social classes — on the environment in which they are brought up. Sometimes, a chemical message does the job, but cold and starvation can be just as effective at condemning an individual to a humble life as a worker.

A few simple rules produce what appears to be intelligence, but is in fact entirely mindless. Individuals are automatons. An ant stumbles on a tasty item and brings a piece back to the nest, wandering as it does and leaving a trail of scent. A second ant tracks that pathway back to the source, making random swerves of its own. A third, a fourth, and so on do the same, until soon the busy creatures converge on the shortest possible route, marked by a highway of pheromones. This phenomenon has some useful applications for the social animals who study it. Computer scientists fill their machines with virtual ants and task them with finding their way through a maze, leaving a coded signal as they pass until the fastest route emerges.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Too much time spent on introversion could lead to depression and lack of spontaneity, joy, and gaiety

Discovering one's own golden mean

The term ‘golden mean’, according to Chambers dictionary means “moderation, a middle way between extremes.” An ancient Tamil proverb also notes that even the elixir of life (amrita) can become poison, if taken in excess.

Doubtless, life has to be marked by dynamism, extroversion and action but too much of these could also be damaging. Similarly, too much of ‘take it easy’ attitude or even reflection and introspection could lead to stagnation, with life drifting away without any tangible accomplishment.

The ceaseless and excessive dynamism of the warriors of Ulysses (Odysseus) and also their subsequent metamorphosis to lethargy and introversion, as portrayed by Tennyson, would suggest that there should be a golden mean between these extremes.

The ‘middle path’ concept, centred on finding the right ‘golden mean’, for sustained excellence, as applicable to each aspirant, would eventually depend on individual nature and needs. However, certain broad, practical and time-tested concepts in evolving this could serve as guidelines.

Those habituated to a busy bee life in search of fruits — they themselves may not be sure of and pushing themselves to near physical and psychological burn out — would do well to remember that all their activities would become counterproductive unless tempered with moments of needed reflection, solitude, relaxation and meditation.

Similarly the dreamer and one involving himself continually with substantial reflection, analysis and meditative exercises would also be benefited through forays into activities calling for dynamism and physical exercises marked by zest and exhilaration. In fact, too much time spent on such acts of introversion could also become counterproductive, leading to depression and lack of spontaneity, joy, and gaiety.

Research on depressed and schizophrenic patients has revealed that ‘work therapy’ and involvement with dynamic activities often work where passive counselling, analysis and even medication could fail. Indeed, work is worship. The business of life, if it were to be fulfilling, is to get on with it with briskness and natural ease, not cluttered by perceived ideas of excessive introspection, etc.

This natural approach could often prove to be the right sadhana for inner purification. Doubtless, the crux of all true accomplishment lies in discovering for oneself his own workable ‘golden mean’ and to build his dreams on this stable foundation!

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Sharing as social exchange was a social construct, never a biological adaptation

Why economists should study the origins of bargaining?
from Adam Smith's Lost Legacy by Gavin Kennedy
European Association of Evolutionary Political Economy,
Rome, November 2008

The Pre-History of Bargaining: a multi-disciplinary treatment (Part 1) [i]
© Gavin Kennedy (Heriot-Watt University)

The whole point of the quasi-bargain was to share the spoils between the catchers and the matrifocal family. Therefore there had to be a social mechanism to ensure that the chasers shared with the non-chasers, otherwise individuals and the group faced local extinction. In a Darwinian sense, the individual may not care about the group (natural selection works on the individual not the group) but an individual had to care about the fate of some minimum number of other individuals if he was to achieve his own survival goals. A chase was more successful if it was conducted by several of the most fleet-footed individuals, backed by the best stone toolmakers and the bravest perimeter skirmishers and pickets who warded of rival predators. A race with each other it was not.

To succeed in worthwhile scavenging the Ancients had to discover that there was safety in numbers and how to make noise near the carcass to ward off intruders. Scavenging induced co-operation, supported by stronger-willed enforcers. It also induced stone-tool creation and use. While predators were busy in a stand-off, or a snarling fight, the scavengers had time to risk a sneak snatch at whatever meat they could get. On such occasions their stone cutting and scraping tools and their disciplined numbers gave them a small enough advantage. Chimpanzees in a display charge can chase off a leopard; several Ancients screaming in an aggressive charge, catching predators with accurately aimed heavy stones, waving heavy branches, beating a predator’s body with clubs, and generally creating mayhem, could drive off even fearsome predators, at least for a short while. Meanwhile, the cutters would get to work. Skilled and brave distracters were party to the quasi-bargain too.

In principle, gatherers shared most of what they gathered, killed or found. In principle, strong quasi-bargains within the band’s matrifocal families embraced them all.[xxvii] Did this mean they all pulled their weight together in whatever way they could best contribute? Probably not; they were as riven by the usual dissents found in any group of Homo before or since. When it ‘worked’ reasonably well, it was an evolutionary stable compact. But there were wide variations in the behaviours of the individuals whose co-operation was essential for it to ‘work.’ Groups fell apart when laggards predominated; they were destroyed by careless acts in the vicinity of predators; they were scattered by internal discord and, in consequence, survivors may have endured generations of misery.

Gathering plant food, insects, and small animals, was more reliable than relying on opportunistic scavenging. But gathering was subject to variability, which imposes a cycle, sometimes severe, of ‘feast or famine.’ Some variability was the ‘fault’ of the individual, such as a lack of skills, effort or learning, and sometimes it was bad luck, injury, illness, the chosen search pattern, or attacks by predators. Where there was variability, there was pressure for sharing among sociable hominids. With multi-lateral promiscuity, sharing whatever food was collected was a small but significant behavioural step for males from merely feeding themselves. Establishing the sex-for-food norm, and policing it effectively, took generations to evolve into a culture of sharing, with additional norms to cope with exceptions, to constrain selfish behaviours and to establish taboos that enforced the metanorms. Sharing undoubtedly enhances the survival of the individual amidst scarcity. Sharing as social exchange was a social construct, never a biological adaptation.[xxviii]

It arose directly from the psychology and practise of the quasi-bargain. If the Ancients suffered cycles of scarcity and abundance, and the cycles were asynchronous (while one individual enjoyed a feast, the other endured famine) a transfer of resources between each other to even-out the cycle proved beneficial (though that does not mean it always happened!). Over the cycle, sharers benefited. But could they co-operate despite the nature of their ‘prisoner’s dilemma problem (whether to do what was best for oneself or what was best for one’s partners and one’s self)? [xxix]

Frank Marlowe identified six useful distinctions between types of food sharing and by changing the order we glean its possible social-evolution:[xxx]

  • Mutualism: food for foraging partners, particularly, but not exclusively, for kin;[xxxi]
  • Tolerated scrounging (TS) - food for peace (sometimes known as ‘tolerated theft’);
  • Costly signalling (CS) – ‘food for non-food benefits, such as sexual access’ -
  • Reciprocity:
  • Not-in-kind exchanges - ‘food A for food B’; [xxxii]
  • In-kind exchanges with delayed reciprocity – ‘food now for same food later’ (e.g., human equivalent of bats with blood);[xxxiii]

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Open, generous, equal, frank and kind

Health News The beauty of flowers
Naini’s Page Monday, September 17, 2007 12:4:37 IST Mind Matters

Have you been amongst flowers early in the morning? Or seen them facing the sun waiting its advent? Felt the aspiration that surges all around when watching a bud slowly open its petals one by one. Seen the earth after a few drops of rain and realise how the flowers like little multicolored hands come out in a gesture of thanks giving. Walked by a bush at night and smelt the beautiful fragrance of the raat-ki-rani. Wondered why flowers make you so happy, peaceful and filling you with joy and love?

Says Sri Aurobindo in Savitri: “The worlds senseless beauty mirrors gods delight its hued magnificence blooms in leaves and flowers.”

Flowers have been an intrinsic part of my life- my grandmother's vast collection of plants from around the world, dad's constant pottering in the garden, mother filling the house with marigolds, asters, rajnigandas and mogras, my aunt weaving garlands with all of us joining in, especially during functions and weddings. Starting my morning by picking up a beautiful champa from the ground, placing it behind one of my ears gives me immense pleasure.

The mother of Pondichery always said, “Be like a Flower”. 'They are open, generous, equal, frank and kind'. Do you know why?

  • Open — to everything and everyone that surrounds it.
  • Generous — without restrictions, dispels its very own perfume which it sacrifices entirely for our pleasure.
  • Equal — It has no preference. Everyone can enjoy its beauty without rivalry.
  • Kind — Its presence fills us with joy.
  • Frank — It hides nothing of its beauty everyone can see what it is.

They are made an important part in the ashram life - teaching people the charm of silence and thus the self giving which demands nothing in return. Flowers have a spiritual significance and are extremely receptive. No wonder, flowers have charmed and attracted men and women alike. They have been associated with religion, love, myths, legends, deaths, remembrance. For they say it more profoundly than words representing peace, joy, purity, beauty aspiration, love humility, and surrender.

Cherish your flowers. Watch them bloom naturally or in a vase. Let them be till they are fresh, collect them when they are no longer and give them back to the earth for what it has given us or otherwise we will become poor.