On the afternoon of July 23, a tire on a recreational trailer blew apart on the pavement of State Route 299 about 15 miles northwest of Redding, California. The couple towing the Grey Wolf Select trailer couldn’t immediately pull it out of traffic. As they dragged it to a safe turnout, sparks arced from the tire’s steel rim. Three reached the nearby grass and shrubs; two along the highway’s south shoulder, the third on the north. Each of the sparks ignited what at first seemed like commonplace brush fires.
The evolution of language converted a defenceless naked ape into a world-dominating force. It fundamentally transformed how humans transmit information and knowledge. A large and potent component of language is our ability to communicate about things that are not here, that happened in the past, or that will happen in the future. This feature of language is known as “displaced reference”.
Like a brain, an ant colony operates without central control. Each is a set of interacting individuals, either neurons or ants, using simple chemical interactions that in the aggregate generate their behaviour. People use their brains to remember. Can ant colonies do that? This question leads to another question: what is memory? For people, memory is the capacity to recall something that happened in the past. We also ask computers to reproduce past actions – the blending of the idea of the computer as brain and brain as computer has led us to take ‘memory’ to mean something like the information stored on a hard drive. We know that our memory relies on changes in how much a set of linked neurons stimulate each other; that it is reinforced somehow during sleep; and that recent and long-term memory involve different circuits of connected neurons. But there is much we still don’t know about how those neural events come together, whether there are stored representations that we use to talk about something that happened in the past, or how we can keep performing a previously learned task such as reading or riding a bicycle.
Long-Lost Letter from Galileo Reveals Devastating New Details About His Battle with the Church's Dogmatic Beliefs
While browsing the Royal Society's historical archives, Salvatore Riccardo, a historian of science at Italy's University of Bergamo, stumbled across a spectacular find that he wasn't even searching for.
Those of us who embrace science are growing increasingly impatient with religious and spiritual traditions. To us, absolute faith in claims scribed by backwards people thousands of years ago is delusional. We think it’s time for the faithful to get over themselves. The culture wars will end when it finally does. We’re waiting, though not patiently, because much is at stake.
Much is indeed at stake, but we’re actually waiting for the scientific to get over themselves. I say this as an atheist fully committed to science as the best method yet for discovering the nature of reality.
Between science and faith, I think faith is the more honest about what the scientific community seems perversely averse to explaining: Organisms: what they are and how they emerge from chemistry. Scientists explain organisms away or simply assume them without explaining them. At least the faithful recognize that life’s purposefulness needs explaining, even though their explanation is no explanation at all.
Notice your response to my claim that scientists haven’t explained organisms. What camp do you find yourself putting me in? The intelligent design community? The pseudo-scientific? I’ve already declared myself an atheist devoted to science. Please hear me out.
How does science not yet explain organisms? We know that organisms evolve. We know vast amounts about the physiochemical processes and mechanisms that account for organismic behavior.
All true and not in dispute. Still, we have no scientific explanation for organisms.
Unlike inanimate things, organisms engage in functional, fitted effort. Effort is purposeful work, an organism trying to achieve what is functional – of value to it, fitted or representative of its circumstances. Effort value and representation only make sense with respect to organisms. Organisms try to benefit themselves given their environment. Inanimate things don’t.
In the physical sciences, there’s simply no room for explanation from functionally fitted behavior. Any physical scientist who claimed that subatomic, atomic, molecular, geological or galactic phenomena as trying to benefit itself given its circumstances would be drummed out of the physical sciences. A physicist knows better than to say the moon tries to lift the tides for the moon or the tide’s benefit.
In contrast, in the life and social sciences, one can’t do without explanations that assume functional fitted behavior. That’s what’s meant by an adaptation, a trait that enables an organism to engage in effort that functions for itself, fitted to its environment.
What then explains the transition from phenomena that can’t be explained in terms of functional fitted effort to behavior that can’t be explained without reference to functional, fitted effort?
A tacit assumption in the sciences is that evolution explains it. It doesn’t.
This assumption takes three forms. The most popular is that evolution starts (here, 10 billion years into the history of the universe) once there are molecules that replicate – special molecules – probably RNA since it's instrumental in life today. Once there are copying RNA molecules, there’s heredity and variation. According to this view, the differences in replicating molecules is the beginning of evolution and therefore the beginning of life.
This doesn’t explain functional fitted effort. There’s no effort. The molecules aren’t trying to copy. They’re passive, like any molecular products of catalysis. They copy when conditions cause them copy. Is there function or fittedness? Is anything useful or functional for the copying molecules fitted to their environment?
A common refrain of people emerging from hallucinatory highs, whether LSD, mescaline or magic mushrooms, is that consciousness-altering psychedelic drugs can make one more attuned to the natural world. But does that psychedelicized sense of the connectedness of all things persist once the high has faded?
In the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration, George Orwell’s 1984 soared onto bestseller lists, as did Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which also hit TV screens in a storm of publicity. Zombies, fascists, and predators of every sort are now stalking the American imagination in ever-greater numbers and no wonder, given that guy in the Oval Office. Certainly, 2017 is already offering up a bumper crop of dystopian possibilities and we’ve only reached July. But let me admit one thing: the grim national mood and the dark clouds crowding our skies have actually nudged me in a remarkably positive direction. Surprise of all surprises, Donald Trump is making the corn grow in Connecticut!
For decades, scientists have warned that we’re on a dangerous path. It stems from our delusion that endless growth in population, consumption and the economy is possible and is the very purpose of society. But endless growth is not feasible in a finite biosphere. Growth is not an end but a means.
If you fly over a forest and look down, you’ll see every green tree and plant reaching to the heavens to absorb the ultimate energy source: sunlight. What a contrast when you look down on a city or town with its naked roofs, asphalt roads and concrete sidewalks, all ignoring the sun’s beneficence! Research shows we might benefit by thinking more like a forest.
In the past few years, foraging—collecting edibles in the wild—has become more popular as people have rediscovered the joy of connecting with nature and enjoying its bounty. Done properly, foraging can be a fun activity, and benefit nature too. I’m not talking about commercial foraging (which can have drawbacks), but a more fun and personal approach to the concept of eating wild food.
On social issues, the military has often seemed the last to know. Ending racial discrimination took decades. Outlawing discrimination based on sexual preference took just as long. This year, the role of women in combat is finally being recognized. In every case, the military’s rationale for resisting change has been that military readiness would inevitably be compromised.
But significant progress has been made in recent years on all of these issues without adverse impact on our preparedness. By contrast, progress has been frustratingly elusive in persuading the U.S. Navy to care about the health of our oceans. After over two decades of adverse federal court orders - and over five decades since the “Save the Whales” movement focused widespread public attention on the plight of these magnificent animals - the Navy continues to resist the common sense proposition that needless infliction of harm to whales and other marine life in training with extraordinarily loud, high intensity sonar and heavy explosives is neither reasonable nor legal.
But as two recent court decisions make clear - issued in different cases by different courts — the Navy’s intransigence is based on more than its concern for national security. In fact, much of the blame lies with the government regulatory agency whose mandate it is to protect our oceans. It lies with the failure of the National Marine Fisheries Service to do its job.