I got life

29 09 2015

So: “pinched nerve” might be a lay and not medical term, but it does describe a real phenomenon, in my case, an impingement upon the sciatic nerve.

No, I didn’t get this diagnosis from a doctor—there’s not much she could do, so why bother—but it’s pretty clear from my symptoms that my occasional lower back troubles can cause what is literally a pain in my ass.

If I want a more exact diagnosis than “o.l.b.t.”, then, yes, I’d need to see a doctor and undergo a variety of expensive (e.g., MRI) tests, but as a more exact diagnosis would likely lead to no greater precision in treatment—rest, time—there’s seems little point in doing so.

I am gonna have to get more ibuprofen, though.

I.

While I haven’t enjoyed in any way the pain from my grumpy sciatic nerve, I did take interest in the (non-pain) side effects of the jumped-up nerve, namely, the random twitching up and down my lower right side.

At one point early on I watched the middle toe of my right foot flutter like a drunk hummingbird. It didn’t hurt at all, and if I concentrated, I could stop the movement; in any case, after 10 or maybe 20 minutes, it stopped.

Sometimes my glutes twitched, sometimes, the muscles in my calf. It’d start, then stop, seemingly at random.

I still get the occasional muscle-shudder, but as whatever is annoying the nerve is slowly retreating, so to is the twitching.

II.

One of the reasons I love teaching my bioethics course is that I get to talk about human biology, which is so astonishingly jerry-rigged that I can’t help crowing “biology is so cool!”

Most of us Homo sapiens sapiens have 46 chromosomes occupying the nuclei of our somatic cells, but some of us have 45 and some have 47, 48, or even 49 (that’d be one of the varieties of Klinefelter’s).

A woman with Turner syndrome is missing a second sex chromosome (45,XO), and while she’s infertile and may experience some developmental delays, she likely will have normal intelligence and may live out a normal life span. On the other hand, a child born with a deficiency in the short arm of the 5th chromosome will be born with Cri-du-chat syndrome, which affects both her physical and intellectual development, and may leave her unable to communicate.

So, missing an entire chromosome might have fewer effects than missing a portion of an arm of chromosome. A man who is 47,XYY is likely to experience no effects whatsoever, 47,XXY will have Klinefelter’s (and thus be infertile), and 21,XXX (Trisomy 21 or Down syndrome) will experience profound physical and intellectual effects.

Oh, and some women are 46,XY.

Now, one of the things that can be inferred from this little recitation of chromosomal abnormalities is that the genes on these chromosomes are tremendously important, such that the genes on the short arm of the 5th chromosome are involved in aspects of our development that genes on the sex chromosomes are not; similarly, the Y chromosome is so gene-poor (~350) that doubling up on the Y has no discernible effect.

Then again, the few genes—most importantly, the SRY gene—that do remain on the Y are clearly important: their dysfunction, after all, can result in an XY woman.

The second thing that can be inferred from all of this is that biology is messy—I haven’t even discussed mosaicism or chimerism, or situs inversus or any of the other kinds of weirdnesses within us—and that the messes themselves are messy: sometimes they matter a whole lot, and sometimes not at all.

III.

So the first day my sciatic nerve commenced its protest it hurt to stand, was uncomfortable to walk, and running felt fine.

The second and third day, it hurt so much in the morning that shortly after rising I would sit down, gasping, from the screaming in my leg; after moving around a bit, however, the pain receded.

A couple of days I limped. Some days it hurt to put pressure on my right leg, some days it hurt not to put pressure on it. If I positioned my foot this way I was fine, that way, not; later, the fines were reversed.

I can walk quickly, but for the past 4 or 5 days, can’t run. Going up and down stairs was initially problem-free; now I grasp the railing.

Slowly, slowly, I am getting better: while the troubles migrate, they also abate. I was hoping they’d be gone by now, but I expect by next week, they will be.

IV.

Aging sucks.

V.

I’d rather not have gone through this and will do my damnedest to forestall a recurrence, but it does make me wonder what is going on beneath my skin.

Yes, I pay attention to my body, but usually when something is wrong I can trace it back to its source: I ate too much, didn’t stretch after a workout, wiped out on an icy sidewalk;  thus having linked effect to cause, I lose interest.

)And with migraines, well, they’re just SO irritating that I become preoccupied with the pain itself; the rare occasions when I get auras I am less fascinated than, well, irritated. Knock it off, shimmering lights, you’re blocking my view.)

In this case, I’m pretty sure I know what set off the latest back pain, but how that migrated down into the sciatic nerve, and how that nerve proceeded to respond to this trespass hopscotched around predictability. Why is my toe shaking? Why is my calf muscle clenching and unclenching?

What the hell is going on?

Oh, I know: what’s happening is that my body is now more assertive in letting me know it is unhappy with my treatment of it, i.e., that I’m getting old.

It’s not that when younger I thought I was in charge of my body, but, yeah, I thought I was in charge of my body.

I’m not humbled, but bothered, to learn otherwise, and I will not be gracious in relinquishing control.

It will be a fight to the death.





You can’t figure out the bag I’m in

21 05 2014

[Updated below]

Race is a social construct.

1. This does not mean race is not real. This is always the problem with any mention of social construction—you’re saying it’s not real!—but there is no reason to conclude that that which is constructed is not real.

The United States is a social construction, and it is real. Language is a social construction, and it is real. Political parties, political movements, constitutions: all socially constructed, all real.

(Are all social constructions fictions? And what is the relationship of fiction to reality? More complicated question, more complicated answer, but the short version to both is: Depends on how you define fiction. But that’s another post.)

2. This does mean it has a history, one which varies across time and space. In 19th century Europe one could speak of German and Slavic and English (etc.) races, and further distinguish Jews as a race.

That broadly ethnic version of race was transported across the Atlantic, but was overcome—due in no small part to the necessities of settlement and slave society—by an understanding of white, black, and ‘the savage’ races.

Black was always clear: those of African origin; savage would be understood as Indian; and white was reserved for northern and western European Christians. These lines could be blurred and stretched—whites would eventually include southern Europeans, the Irish, and Jews, and today some Hispanics are crossing into white—as well as added to, as with ‘asiatic’, ‘oriental’, or Asian peoples, as well as the aforementioned Hispanic.

Current US census categories include “White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander”. The Census sites notes “The racial categories included in the census questionnaire generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country and not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically.”

Further, and in late recognition of interracial reproduction, “[p]eople may choose to report more than one race to indicate their racial mixture,” . . .

The Census is hardly the last word on the issue, but that categories have changed and, with the allowance of multi-racial reporting, become more fluid indicates that race is largely what we say it is.

3. To state that something is a social construct is not to deny any material contribution to that construct.

Are differences in skin color influenced by genetics? Yes. Hair color and texture? Yes. Bone structures? Yes.

4. Does this mean race is biological?

Long breath in and out.

Both the long and short answers are “yes and no”. Phenotypic differences are influenced by biology and in some cases determined by genetics, but the sorting of these biologically- and genetically-influenced/determined phenotypic differences into races tends to elide the complexity of the mechanisms involved in those influences/determinations.

Thus, if one wants to speak of genetic differences among humans, one is much better off referring to “populations” (or, perhaps, “ethnicities”): the term is anchored in geography, and allows for understanding of such terms as gene  or allele frequencies and genetic drift. Some genes are more likely to appear in some populations and not others (for both evolutionary and non-evolutionary, i.e., “drift” reasons); in some cases those variations will be visible in appearance.

In other words, there are many genetic populations and there are differences between those populations; in some cases those differences which are visible are assigned a racial character.

As Agustin Fuentes has pointed out, the assignment of certain characteristics, and those with x number of those characteristics to a race, ignores the fact that “race” encompasses many genetic populations. To state that “there are racial differences between Africans and Asians” is false not because there are no genetic differences between Africans and Asians but because the use of the term “race” erases the genetic differences among Africans and Asians: again, there are many genetic populations within each “race”.

So, again, the determination of race is at least as much about what we say it is than with genetics.

4 5. This is not even to get into breeding across populations, and the determination of the race of cross-population offspring.

5 6. This is also not even to get into complex (multiple genetic and other contributions) traits such as personality, intelligence, temperament, and behavior.

It is possible, perhaps even likely, that there are variations in the allele frequencies contributing to these complex traits across populations. The identification and characterization of these alleles (and their possible interactions among the alleles and with other factors) is only beginning, however, which means any conclusions about these variations are grossly premature.

6 7. I will not be reading Nicholas Wade’s book.

Perhaps a nice book on population genetics, instead.

~~~

*Update: Criminy, can I not even count? Should I blame my Irish or my German genes for the lack? Or maybe it was a stray Danish or French allele.

Anyway, the real reason for the update: Anne Fausto-Sterling reviewed a number of books on race, genetics, and epigenetics which both overlaps with and extends my argument—and with fewer typos!





Humans from earth, pt II

20 01 2014

Why ontological?

I like to make everything ontological, is one answer, but also because this is the level at which the question of being qua being occurs.

What does it mean to be human?

I suggested in the last post that biology may be a necessary-but-not-sufficient condition of humanness, and I hold to that—for now. It is entirely possible that at some point in the future humanness will be extended to non-biologically entities, although I don’t know that such recognition will be so extended during my lifetime. (After I’m dead? Let the living sort it out.)

More immediately tantalizing—and in a kind of reverse-example to offer to TWO—is the de facto semi-recognition extended to chimpanizees by the National Institutes of Health in their decision to restrict the kinds of federally-funded research which can now be performed using chimps.

TWO (or someone) might argue that this half-recognition is extended on the basis of biology, but if the biology is what matters—if biology is all that’s ever mattered—then why was such protection not extended until now?

Thus, I want to bring forward something which I referenced earlier: the necessity of recognition. It is not enough for one to have the biological substrate of the human, but that those with that substrate be recognized as human.

Recognized by whom? Well, that’s the kicker, ain’t it? It’s an inside game: those who are inside give the status to themselves, and decide who/what else gets to enter or may be forced to leave, and/or those with sufficient leverage  either “break” in and force recognition or so change the terms that they take the insider status for themselves.

In other words, it’s about power, which is an historically-contingent phenomenon.

Now, how did anyone come to recognize themselves as human? That’s a very damned good question, one worthy of a dissertation, but even without knowing the origin of this claimed status, it’s clear that some of claimed that status for them/ourselves, and on the basis of that status have granted them/ourselves certain protections and privileges not given to those lacking such status.

TWO argues that DNA (et. al.) ought to be the standard for recognition as it is “scientifically knowable in a more or less concrete fashion (thus my DNA point above) with a high degree of certainty and clarity”, and, again, as a practical matter, this has a lot going for it. I even think my reservations about the messiness of biology (e.g., what of those with +/- 46 chromosomes) can be assuaged with a very few addenda, such as “created with the gametes and borne of Homo sapiens” to cover those statistically outside of the norm.

(This should hold at least until we figure out artificial wombs and begin decanting our offspring, but again: I’ll be dead when this happens, so let the living figure it out.)

Others might argue for another standard—that we are created in the image of God, say (and let those who make this argument figure out what that means)—or add in various requirements for consciousness or certain characteristics or abilities: the crucial point is that the standard be settled (enough) for us to make practical decisions about those who are human (and not).

Well, that’s one crucial point: the other crucial point is that the standard doesn’t set itself.

We set the standard, and we do so based on commitments to forms of knowledge we find most compelling.

For TWO, the knowledge gained from biology is most compelling, and thus for him ought to serve as the standard. It’s not unreasonable—clarity, intersubjectivity (i.e., “scientifically knowable” by anyone who cares to know it), and concreteness are pretty damned good reasons—but it can’t justify itself, i.e., the reasons to adopt the “Homo sapiens standard” are external to the standard itself.

Huh, not being clear. What I mean to say is the establishment of the Homo sapiens standard  is one thing, and why we should take that standard as dispositive for humanness is another. I may like clarity, intersubjectivity, and concreteness, but why should those be the qualities we use to judge the standard?

This can lead into an epistemological dissolve, but I’ll bring it back to the practical in a moment. Do let me make one further point before doing so: that Homo sapiens is itself an historical construction, and that there has not always been agreement on who belongs in this species.  Again, we could slide down into the abyss on this observation (always a fun ride down, but perhaps a bit much for this particular conversation), but, again, I want to bring that point back up to the practical level.

And then, finally, on to those examples TWO requested. On to part III!





Of flesh and blood I’m made

16 01 2014

What is human?

I got into it with commenter The Wet One at TNC’s joint, who chided me not to, in effect, complicate straightforward matters. I responded that straightforward matters often are quite complicated.

In any case, he issued a specific challenge to claims I made regarding the variability of the human across time and space. This request was in response to this statement:

At one level, there is the matter of what counts as “reasonably concrete realities”; I think this varies across time and place.

Related to this is my disagreement with the contention that those outside of the norm have fallen “within the realm of the ‘human’ for all intents and purposes’. They most assuredly have not and to the extent they do today is due to explicit efforts to change our understanding of the human.

Examples, he asked?

As one of the mods was getting ready to close the thread, I could only offer up the easiest one: questions over the status of embryos and fetuses.

Still, while I think that a reasonable response, it is also incomplete, insofar as it doesn’t get at what and who I was thinking of in writing that comment: people with disabilities.

“People with disabilities”: even that phrase isn’t enough, because “disability” itself isn’t necessarily the apt word.  I had referred in an earlier comment to those whose morphology varied from the statistical norm; not all variations are disabilities in even the strictest sense.

In any case, when I went to my bookshelf to try to pull out specific, referenced, examples, I was stopped by that basic question which set off the whole debate: what is human?

Now, in asking that here I mean: how maximal an understanding of the human? Is to be human to be accorded a certain status and protection (“human rights”)? or is it more minimal, in the sense that one sees the other as kin of some sort, tho’ not necessarily of an equal sort?

Arendt argued for a minimalist sense when she noted there was nothing sacred in the “naked” [of the protections of the law] human, meaning that such status granted no particular privilege. That I both do and do not agree with this is the source of my estoppel.

Kuper in Genocide notes that dehumanization often precedes assault—which suggests that before the one goes after the other, that a kinship is recognized which must then be erased. But maybe not. I don’t know.

Is the human in the recognition? If you are akin to us (and we know that we are human), then we will grant such status (for whatever it’s worth) to you. We might still make distinctions amongst us as to who is superior/inferior, but still grant than an inferior human is still human. There’s something to that—something which I perhaps should have emphasized a bit more than I did in my initial go-’round with TWO.

But I also think are cases in which the kinship might repulse rather than draw in: that disgust or horror (or some kind of uncanny valley) gets in the way of seeing the disgusting/horrid/uncanny one as human. I’m thinking of the work of William Ian Miller and Martha Nussbaum, on disgust, and, perhaps, to various histories of medicine,especially regarding the mentally ill. Perhaps I should dig out that old paper on lobotomy. . . .

Oh, and yet another wrinkle: Insofar as I consider the meaning of the human to vary, I don’t know that one can elide differences between the words used to refer to said humans. “Savage” means one thing, “human” another, and the relationship between the two, well, contestable.

I’m rambling, and still without specific, referenced examples for TWO. I can go the easy route, show the 19th century charts comparing Africans to the great apes, the discussion of so-called “primitive peoples” (with the unveiled implication that such peoples weren’t, perhaps, human people). Could I mention that “orangutan” means “person of the forest”, or is that too glib? Too glib, I think. Not glib is the recent decision to limit greatly the use of chimpanzees in federally-funded research—the extension of protections to our kin, because a kinship is recognized.

And back around again. I don’t know that one can meaningfully separated the identity of  a being from the treatment of the identified being; identification and treatment somersault over and over one another.

So if one protections are offered to one member of H. sapiens and it is withdrawn from another, then it seems to say something about the status of that other: that we don’t recognize you as being one of us. We don’t recognize you as human.

If things can be done to someone with schizophrenia (old term: dementia praecox) or psychosis—various sorts of water or electric shocks, say—that would not be done to someone without these afflictions, then one might wonder whether the schizophrenic or psychotic is, in fact, recognized as human, that as long as the affliction is seen to define the being, then that being is not-quite-human.

Ah, so yet another turn. I allowed for the possibility of superior/inferior humans [which might render moot my examples from eugenics and racism]; what of lesser or more human? Is someone who is less human still human? What does that even mean?

Back to biology. Those born with what we now recognize as chromosomal abnormalities have not and are not always taken in, recognized as being “one of us”. A child with cri-du-chat syndrome does not act like a child without; what are the chances such children have always been recognized as human?

Oh, and I’m not even getting into religion and folklore and demons and fairies and whatnot. Is this not already too long?

I can’t re-read this for sense; no, this has all already flown apart.





Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before

18 03 2013

Oh that Rand Paul, champion of liberty! Look how he’s standing up for freedom now:

“The Life at Conception Act legislatively declares what most Americans believe and what science has long known – that human life begins at the moment of conception, and therefore is entitled to legal protection from that point forward,” Paul said in a statement. “ The right to life is guaranteed to all Americans in the Declaration of Independence and ensuring this is upheld is the Constitutional duty of all Members of Congress.”

Ahh, conceptional personhood: An idea utterly lacking in biological sense.

Charlie Pierce has the right idea regarding the Paul family: His Five Minute Rule  states that, for five minutes, both the son and the father, Crazy Uncle Liberty (!), make perfect sense on many issues. At the 5:00:01 mark, however, the trolley inevitably departs the tracks.

As Pierce notes, with this we are at the 5:00: 07 mark: The trolley has jumped the tracks, tipped over on its side, and is skidding down the boulevard.

I believe I have covered this before, but let’s go over this again, shall we?

There is no such thing as the “moment of conception”.

As Moore and Persaud note in the 6th edition of The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology:

Fertilization is a complex series of “coordinated molecular events (see Acosta, 1994 for details) that begins with the contact between the sperm and a oocyte and ends with the intermingling of maternal and paternal chromosomes at metaphase of the first mitotic division of the zygote, a unicellular embryo. Defects at any stage in the sequence of these events might cause the zygote to die (Asch et al, 1995). . . . The fertilization process takes about 24 hours. [p. 34, emph added]

“Process”, Senator Paul, not “moment”. Shall we break it down even further?

  • Passage of sperm through corona radiata surrounding the the zona pellucida of an oocyte.
  • Penetration of the zona pellucida surrounding the oocyte
  • Fusion of plasma membranes of the oocyte and sperm
  • Completion of the second meiotic division of oocyte and formation of female pronucleus
  • Formation of male pronucleus
  • Membranes of pronuclei break down, the chromosomes condense and become arranged for a mitotic cell division—the first cleavage division [pp. 34-36]

There are many more details involved in those stages, but the highlights ought to be enough.

At this point, the zygote is still in the ampulla [middle portion] of the fallopian tube, ambling its way toward the uterus. Beginning around 30 hours post-fertilization, it undergoes a series of mitotic or cleavage divisions, in which the internal cells (blastomeres) divide and become successively smaller. “After the nine-cell stage, the blastomeres change their shape and tightly align themselves against each other to form a compact ball of cells. . . . When there are 12 to 14 blastomeres, the developing human is called a morula (L. morus, mulberry).”  The morula forms about 3 days post-fert, and enters the uterus 3-4 days post-fert. [p. 41]

Okay, 4 days in and the mulberry is still wandering around, unattached, developing away. A fluid filled space called the blastocyst cavity or blastocoel forms, which separates the blastomeres into two parts:

  • a thin outer cell layer called the trophoblast, which gives rise to the embryonic part of the placenta
  • a group of centrally located blastomeres known as the inner cell mass, which gives rise to the embryo [p. 41]

At this point the berry becomes a blastocyst. (FYI: If you are an embryonic stem cell researcher, this is when you’d harvest the inner cell mass in order to cultivate stem cell lines. The blastocyst would, of course, be destroyed in the process.)

The blastocyst continues to float around in “uterine secretions” for a couple of days as “the zona pellucida gradually degenerates and disappears”. [p. 41] With the dissolution of the zona pellucida, the blastocyst is free to bulk up on those tasty secretions, until around day 6 post-fert, when it attaches itself to the endometrial epithelium.

All hell breaks loose now, as the trohoblast differentiates itself and its outer layer, the syncytiotrophoblast, insinuates itself into the endometrial epithelium and into the connective tissue, or stroma. “The highly invasive syncytiotrophoblast expands quickly adjacent to the inner cell mass, the area known as the embryonic pole. The syncytiotrophoblast produces enzymes that erode the maternal tissues, enabling the blastocyst to burrow into the endometrium.” [p. 42]

Although it takes another week for the embryo to implant itself fully into the endometrium and stroma—which further details I will spare you—this is the stage at which one could say a pregnancy begins.

Got it? One day for the process of fertilization, 6 days for sufficient development to begin a pregnancy, for a grand total of 7 days or one week.

Oh, and one more thing: Of all the zygote-morula-blastocysts formed, 25 percent wash out before implantation, and another 35-55 percent miscarry before birth. Only 20-40 percent of those berries results in a baby.

Anyway, if I wanted to be kind to the momentary conceptional folks, I could say that “conception” is achieved after 24 hours; if I wanted to be strict, I could say 7 days, and if I wanted to be a real bitch, I could argue that not until 14 days has the embryo done anything worth considering a “conception”. Even granting a kindness, it’s clear that the moment is, at its shortest, a day.

Why does this matter? After all, for many people who are pro-life, the issue is less the biology than the morality; that the conceptus takes awhile to get itself together does not obviate the fact that the process begins—that human life begins—when the sperm drills itself into the egg. The biology matters only because it is a trigger for something more, not in and of itself.

This, of course, is how you get bullshit proposals like personhood bills and amendments: by treating biology as a chit in the culture war rather than a reality on its own terms.

Human development is an amazing, complicated, and fraught process, one which does not comport itself easily to our moral preconceptions (sorry) about it. By all means, make a moral argument, but don’t pretend that biology tucks up neatly into it.

Senator Paul is free to believe all he wants “that human life begins at the moment of conception, and therefore is entitled to legal protection from that point forward”, but I am also free to point out it is a belief untethered to biological reality.

That trolley done run into nonsense.





All things weird and wonderful, 30 & 31

31 01 2013

Two-fer weirdness!

Fred Clark at Slacktivist/Patheos tipped me off to both of these—okay, he didn’t email me personally and say, Hey, Absurdbeats, these might be candidates for your weird wonder series, but as I’m a reader and he presumably writes for his readers, why not say he wrote about these for me?—where was I? Oh, yes, while trying to decide which to use, it occurred to me that this is my blog, and I can both of these suckers if  I damned well please.

Which I do.

So the first:

It Takes Planning, Caution to Avoid Being ‘It’

Group of Men Have Played Game of Tag for 23 Years; Hiding in Bushes, Cars

Russell Adams, Wall Street Journal

[…]

One year early on when Mike Konesky was “It,” he got confirmation, after midnight, that people were home at the house where two other players lived. He pulled up to their place at around 2 a.m., sneaked into the garage and groped around in the dark for the house door. “It was open,” he says. “I’m like, ‘Oh, man, I could get arrested.’ ”

Mr. Konesky tiptoed toward Mr. Dennehy’s bedroom, burst through the door and flipped on the light. A bleary-eyed Mr. Dennehy looked up as his now-wife yelled “Run, Brian!” Mr. Konesky recalls. “There was nowhere for Brian to run.”

[…]

That’s right, ten men have been playing tag for 23 years.

That’s some fuckin’ dedication, man, and if it isn’t quite as weird as some stuff (or the next item), it’s still a damned fine enough to count as wondrous.

Now this, this is weird:

Source: scuba.com

The comment on this delightful specimen:

Come on, evolution, you cannot be serious with this sh—

Oh, wait. OH. Ha! I get it. Clearly the red-lipped batfish is a work of satire, not meant to be taken as a literal “animal,” which would of course be ridiculous. Sorry, I can be a bit slow sometimes. Nice one.

The site is WTF, Evolution?, and it’s only two weeks old, so go ahead, catch up, then follow it FROM THIS DAY FORWARD.

I was talking with one of my students today about how amazing biology is—I did manage to restrain myself and not use the phrase ‘weird wonder’—especially in comparison to non-quantum physics.

Nothing against non-quantum physics—gravity and the conservation of matter and the principle of inertia are all deeply practical things—but it’s not. . . ohmyfuckinggod mindblowing the way quantum physics and almost all of biology is.

Newtonian physics, I mused to the student, is efficient and predictable, but biology, emmm, not so much. Biology is all about survival, so anything that will get you there, well by gum, let’s do it! And if conditions change such that more adaptations help with survival and reproductive fitness, go ahead, just tack those adaptations on!

If physics is sleek and efficient, then biology is a Rube Goldberg contraption.

“I’m not sure we’re done with this fiddler crab yet.” “Don’t be such a perfectionist, evolution, it’s good enough.” “But the claws are totally different sizes, don’t you think people will notice?” “Dude, it’s fine, let’s go make some birds with funny butt feathers.”  (Thanks to @davelevitan for the suggestion.)

It’s true, I don’t always love life, but damn! I do loves me some Life!





We might as well try: You make the best of what’s still around

15 07 2012

We’re a mess.

You want to know why social scientists like models and abstractions and formalisms? It’s because we’re a mess, and it’s tough to know where and how to begin in a mess; impose order, and all of a sudden those messes reveal a clean kind of meaning, shorn of stray bits of paper and belly lint and someone suddenly slamming on the brakes for no apparent reason.

This isn’t a knock on modeling, and I’m a big fan of models precisely because they bring clarity, allow us to see patterns where, before, there was only mess. But when using models you can never forget that they are, in fact, models, a cleaned-up and edited version of reality, not reality itself.* Models are great for understanding a particular thing about a general phenomenon or a number of things about a particular phenomenon, but they can be both stretched out of shape trying to explain too much or so stingy in what they take in they explain nothing at all.**

Anyway, I don’t want to get too bogged down*** in measurement or even conscious interpretation, especially since I’m trying to figure out what comes before said measurement or conscious interpretation.

Which is to say, the mess.

If I don’t have a theory or a model for this mess, I do have a direction—find damned-near-indisputably necessary bits to human being.

Damned-near-indisputably-necessary bit 1: We are mortal beings.

We’re born, we live, we die. No one enters life without having been born****, and no one stays forever. Whether there is something before or after life is disputed, as is the significance of that extra-life existence, but, today, every yesterday, and for the foreseeable future, our mortality is sufficiently indisputable as to be called a fact.

D-n-i-n bit 2: We are biological beings.

This goes along with our mortality: as far as is known, everything biological is of necessity mortal. But this has a particular meaning beyond our mortality, since as biological beings we have particular needs required to keep that biology working. We need food and water and protection from both the elements and predators. We can become ill, get better; we break, we mend; we live as physical beings within a particular environment and if we are not able to meet our biological needs within that environment, we either move or die.

D-n-i-n bit 3: We are social beings.

Some people dispute this; those people should be ignored.

This is not about a kumbaya vision of cooperative harmony, but a recognition that we are all helpless at the beginning of life (and many at the end); if we are not cared for during that extended period of helplessness, we die.

Furthermore, given that that period is so extended—ten years, minimum—the process of said care results in the child learning the basics of species-being, that is, language, which in turn allows one to interact with others of our kind.

I want to say more about the centrality of language to human sociality, but that would take me into less-than-indisputably-necessary bits, and the point in this post, at least, is to try to nail down something about us which any model or theory has to take into account if it is worth considering at all.

Do you remember my bit on epistemology-ontology-the practical? Of course you do! Well, I’ve hopped over the epistemological and landed us in the ontological, or, er, the proto-ontological(?!): If I won’t rely on FOUNDATIONS, then I have to at least tack a few boards together before we swing out over the abyss or float down the river or whatever metaphor doesn’t give you vertigo or make you seasick.

Where was I? Yes, the basics: We’re mortal, we’re biological, we’re social.

We’re also other things—important other things, which I’ll tack on in later posts—but I wanted to reiterate those basics on which I not only build my interpretations and theories, but upon which all interpretations and theories about human being should be built. Other people will legitimately tack on other things (that mess gives us a LOT to choose from) and swing or float in different directions, but if they start with such nonsense as “assume a can opener”, well, then they’re engaging in social-science fiction.

I got nothin’ against science fiction—I’m a fan, actually—but if you want to claim you’re saying something “real” about the world, then you better damned well deal with the damned-near-indisputable realities of this world, and our being human in it.

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*Well, okay, this gets epistemologically tricky, insofar as the view through which one views a phenomenon affects the phenomenon itself. Reality is never just “there”; it’s always and unavoidably worked on. But there is a distinction between unavoidable oft-unconscious interpretation and the conscious imposition of a schema, which is what I’m trying get at, here. The distinction itself matters, and deserves further investigation—but not in this post.

**This goes for theory, as well, although theory tends to err on the side of trying to do too much than too little; a theory which does too little tends to lose its status as ‘theory’.

***That’s why this stuff is in the notes rather than the body. I’m one of those who thinks you ought to be able to skip the footnotes without missing anything important—notes are for sources and elaborations on basic points, not the introduction of novel material—so imma gonna just drop the whole shebang for now.

****What if we ever manage to figure out how to hatch a person or otherwise build one in a lab? What if we figure out how to live forever? Well, then the conditions of existence would have changed and we’d have to figure out what those new conditions mean. But we ain’t there yet.