Friday, July 9, 2010


A charge often leveled at molecular biologists is that they are too focused on cells to understand organs, organisms, species and ecosystems. Particle physicists are similarly accused by condensed matter physicists or system theorists of failing to see emergent phenomena by focusing too narrowly. In the affairs of humans, new age psychologists could benefit from a sociological and historical viewpoint. Movements such as The Forum, or The Work seem to focus too much on individual psychology, without the benefit of the larger view. I am not a great scholar of psychology, and so I am only aware of two psychologists who had this larger viewpoint--Erich Fromm and Paul Goodman, and both were much more than psychologists. There were and are many feminist sociologists who also made forays into psychology.

I just read one of these, Susan Faludi's "Stiffed-The Betrayal of the American Man". Faludi is a journalist, but also a sociologist, as she goes beyond reporting to making hypotheses about her reporting. I found the book engaging and insightful, an example of how feminism is still vibrant. There are several hypotheses, skillfully hammered home by a plethora of supporting evidence, akin to molecular biology papers that support their hypotheses through multiple experiments until there are no objections (did you think of this possibility--yes, and here is the experiment) remaining.

The first hypothesis is that the economy in the US shifted from primarily producing things to primarily producing images.
The second hypothesis is that masculinity used to be defined, pre-WWII by being of use (of service) to one's community, by teamwork and loyalty to one's society and that as the economy shifted away from production towards image, it also shifted from teamwork and loyalty to individualism and competition with one's fellow workers.

Why is service so important? We seem to be deeply social animals who find serving others deeply gratifying. And what kind of service? Service to a family, to the state, to a community, to a planet? Or service to one's highest calling? These can sometimes be antagonistic. A community may not want to support a mathematician or artist when there are food shortages or enemies on the border. What the state demands may be antagonistic to what the best interest of one's offspring are. And there is a difference between voluntary service and socially or state- imposed service. The peasants in Russia would probably have loved to share if they hadn't been forced to. Similarly, if society expects a man to be a provider for his family just because he's a man, it may be counterproductive. Or when one is forced to have sex from economic necessity, it is not usually as pleasurable as when done out of love. Men naturally want to be useful, of service, but they have to figure out to whom and how by themselves, without social expectations.

The third hypothesis is that sons need fathers to teach them useful skills and a relationship with their fathers that this passing on of skills entails, and that barring such a relationship (brought about by consumer culture) they experience a lack of meaning and abandonment issues.

I pondered how all this fits into my personal life. My father was never a silent or unemotive man. Luckily I did not get that kind of gender curse. I don't feel betrayed by him, I don't feel betrayed by the culture (like it owes me a job or a community). I have been trying to create my own work, so I am not dependent on the culture, and my own community. But I do feel like the culture is messed up in many ways and that is not on the side of joy, peace and justice.

My son probably feels somewhat betrayed and abandoned by me, and the feeling is mutual. I would love to get him back from the Eye of ornamental consumer culture. I would love to leave him a world of life, instead of what I perceive to be a world of death. I would have loved to teach him physics or biology or even a craft, but I am not a craftsman. I would have loved to pass on to him the values of service and a community that he could be part of.

The fourth hypothesis is that masculinity changed into what feminists used to complain about: becoming not of use but used by commercial interests (or by other interests), as in on display. I am guessing that being used as a baby making machine or a sex object feels about the same as being used as an ATM--horrible.

In my own life, I feel used by the culture (with my ex-wife being but a pawn expressing the prevailing view) to provide money that my son does not need. I am reduced to an image of an ATM instead of being able to focus my energy on being of true use to my son, the planet and the larger community.

These hypotheses are nested like layers of an onion, which Faludi calls layers of masculine betrayal. Each deeper layer psychologically affects the shallower one above it. Men's economic privilege going down is the outer layer of betrayal. The useful, productive jobs are mostly gone, replaced by slaves abroad, machines or service jobs (but not so much service to people as service to corporations). Underneath this layer is the layer of loyalty to something bigger than oneself (community or corporation) and integrity. Underneath the betrayal of loyalty and integrity to and from the community or corporation is the layer of betrayal by fathers who are absent or silent, who did not pass on a patrimony. And underneath that layer is a layer of the Eye of Sauron (my analogy, not Faludi's), media culture, always observing, always objectifying, commodifying both men and women.

I think there is at least another layer of betrayal, underneath the eye of Sauron. Why is it that people buy into consumer culture and are so mesmerized by images? I think at the root is the need for comfort and security, of which I've written before. Consumer culture loses its power when one no longer seeks what it offers, or can find it in other ways.

Faludi's concluding fifth hypothesis is that instead of trying to fit social expectations of what it means to be a man, it is more gratifying (for a man) to seek to be useful to a community of men and women and to seek one's bliss, and that this is also the task of women that feminists have been pointing out for a long time.

Why is being an image so bad? It is because the image is two dimensional, it has no depth, and it does not come from a place of creativity and goodness. It comes from trying to make money or manipulation. It does not contribute to real wealth, but only fictitious money. It is not concerned with what is really happening to produce basic needs, if it hurts other creatures or people, it is selfish. Imaging might be something that happens naturally in conscious systems, but this culture has carried it to hellish extremes.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

mathematics of speciation

In standard evolutionary theory, every species is trying to optimize its fitness function, within a certain environment. But in reality, most of the environment is determined biotically by other species. Let's assume that for simplicity, for now. The situation is each species is trying to optimize its multivariate fitness function, where it only has control over a few variables (geographic location, DNA, etc) and the other species control the rest of the variables (food availability, CO2 concentration, predation, etc). It seems to me that there is only one fitness function since when two species diverge they have the same fitness function and so there is no reason to speculate more than one function with different domains. But one can consider a function of only the variables under a particular species' control, call it the reduced fitness function. These functions can be different for each species, and they are time dependent. The definition of a species is a domain around a local maximum of the reduced fitness function, separated from other maxima by mountain passes. This avoids all the problems encountered when one defines species only by reproductive isolation.Speciation can occur in two different ways.

In the first, there is a temporary reduction in fitness as an emergent species goes downhill for a while, through a mountainpass to another peak.

In the second, two populations which have the same value of the fitness function but are separated a bit by one or a few of the control variables have their reduced fitness function change in different ways due to other species attempted optimization of their reduced fitness function. They both go uphill at all times, with no need to reduce their fitness, unlike in the first case.

It would be neat to come up with actual numerical examples of how this could happen. Perhaps there are topological constraints making certain things impossible. Perhaps it is necessary to introduce an abiotic element (meteors, solar flares, etc) in order for the second situation to be possible.