Chapter 9 - The Memes of Modernity
We have previously tried to give rigorous foundation to the distinction between biology and culture,284 the corresponding nature of the mechanisms that have governed both their evolutions, and the seamless continuity between them ensured by the Baldwin effect.285 Before we move on to examine some cultural features of our species, in the form of paramount memes, it will be useful to dwell for a moment on the causal transition from the first sort of phenomena to the second one. This transition, given the nature of the mechanism common to the evolution of both, natural selection,286 cannot have been but eminently gradual and slow. Nevertheless, there must have been some precise moment when the inanimate would have begun to become animated, and another moment, billions of years later, when the living would have begun to produce human culture.
Apart from the capacity for self-replication, the most important difference between biological creatures and the prebiotic molecules preceding them, would have been a capacity for self-protection –very limited at first– against the harshness of the environment. A replicator's self-protection would have only emerged when it had acquired a membrane, the originator of the first organic ambit, with the postulated cenancestor,287 precursor of all living beings currently existing on Earth. That first membrane must have given origin –through simple growth and strangling, independently from the genome division– to two other membranes, and –recursively– to all membranes that have defined the border between the “inside” and “outside” in the cells of every living creature. If we consider bacteria, the class of biological beings currently alive more akin to cenancestor, we may be able to observe in its purest form this physical borderline, since in this case cell and organism coincide as the very same entity. Bacteria are creatures that probe their environment by means of receptors constituted by protein molecules encrusted in their enveloping membrane. Such molecules would lie simultaneously both inside and outside the creature, being able to bind themselves with particular external substances, all the while communicating with elements in the innards of the cell. At the extremely distant age of cenancestor existence, such simple contact between the outside and the inside of the unicellular being would have presented the most elemental example of possible transition between the fundamentally different worlds –both opposite and complementary– of the inert and the alive.
At the other extreme, and somehow arbitrarily, we can trace the borderline between biology and culture to the gesture of an ancestor of both chimpanzee and man who, based on an inside representation of ends and means, was able to use for the first time a stake to capture ants, inserting it in an anthill hole. Between these two borderlines, the acquisition of a cellular membrane and the dawn of symbolic thought, life would have transversed through a huge path of small gradual changes which most philosophers of the first half of the 20th century, including the current author in his youth (Gutierrez, 1953), could hardly resist the temptation to interpret as a continuous directed progression from utmost externity toward levels of an ever increasing internity. This is not the time to try to clear up the fallacy endowing this temptation with force; we will tackle that further down. For the time being, let us only analyze, with some detail, the factors that contribute to its persuasiveness.
Let us go back to bacteria. Their contact with the environment is not restricted to interface proteins astraddle between two worlds, one external, the other internal. In addition, bacteria already possess a sensory system specialized in detecting nutrients, energy sources, and toxins, being capable of storing and evaluating the information provided by those receptors. The integration of sensory data, chemically performed, drives them to decide whether to keep swimming in the same course or rather turn toward a new –more promising– one. Still with extremely elemental powers, bacteria already exhibit some rudimentary subjectivity, wherein elements of feeling, memory, central integration, decision making, and execution of new projects are elementally present. If the use of these words to describe the conduct of bacteria provokes uneasiness in the reader, it is only natural. Concepts are cultural creations for well-defined uses, and these words in particular are ill fitted to represent realities of such simplicity. They apply to them, as Aristotle would say, only analogically.
A milestone in the evolution of pure biology toward biology-plus-culture was undoubtedly the passage from unicellular to multicellular organisms. Cells start to form tight-fitting societies among themselves, co-opting the old mechanisms of unicellular life for the new functions of emitting and absorbing chemical signals that guide the development of tissues and organs and preserve the structure and operating coordination of the different parts of their newly-constituted composite body. All this was to take place by means of the same membrane porosity through which nutrients and wastes will continue to pass, since the new cellular corporative existence will not annul either the old skills or the needs of individual cells. In these strongly coordinated cell clusters, privacy or internality could not but advance, by means of several new natural-selection inventions, including the addition of gates of different kinds. Those gates will have the capacity to funnel and modulate a flood of greater amount of external matter and data, producing bigger selected ambits for an ever intenser degree of “private” life.
The regulating architecture that will eventually arise will allow an increasing control of the chemical environment and the information flow within the organism, which will result in numerous levels of internity in the living-being's ambit. The content of a digestive or respiratory system will be much less internal than the bone marrow or the nervous system, the latter being an extreme case, for its being endowed with the maximal degree of interiority. Take into account that, at the beginning, its role was that of a simple punctilious guardian around the orifice of food ingestion, a purest borderline between the inside and the outside. It must have fulfilled the role of determining the suitability of substances at the very point where they were to be introduced into the organism. This situation meant that –originally– the most external and the most internal coexisted very close together. Fuller subjectivity could only have appeared after the emergence of sufficiently large brains, fitted to internally represent –well enough– the complexities of the outside world. In other words, when a nervous system would have developed with the ability –far distant from its original role of customs inspector– to swallow up the external world in the form of a vast and supremely complicated symbolic constellation.
Once complex nervous systems began to exist, a fractal288 landscape would open up: the characteristics of elemental sensibility of unicellular beings would once more be discernible at nervous-cell level. Like unicellular organisms, neurons have receptors located on their surface, capable of recognizing different substances. They thus constitute a dejà-vu of the nutritive-precautionary function of microorganisms. Like them, the neuron integrates several input data from the receptors, triggering an action potential corresponding to the bacterium’s continuous progress in search of nutrients, or rather inhibiting that triggering, corresponding to the bacterium's stopping or changing course (Allman, 2000). It is as if the old drama of outside-inside experienced at the beginnings by the cenancestor returned to the stage, this time within the multicellular organism and under safer conditions; as if life had decided to use once again a successfully tested resource and extract from it new and greater advantages. In the new environment of reduced risk and multicellular life, cells will receive –and send to one another– some –until then unknown– delicate nourishment: neurotransmitters. Inter-synaptic communication was thus invented, complementing information transmission along the cell projections.289 With this invention, the neuron transcends its role of fractal repetition of the bacterium, emerging as the crucial element of the organismic computer network. A great transmutation had occurred, where mechanisms developed by evolution for physical assimilation (ingestion, digestion), were promoted to virtual assimilators, laying out the physiological foundations for knowledge and culture.
The development of the basic neuron mechanism set the stage for the great proliferation of animal life that occurred during the Cambrian period, more than five hundred billion years ago. The first chordates, possessors of very simple brains, were part of the result of this animal-life explosion. The first vertebrates evolved from them, still at sea, small predators with great capacity to recognize and remember smells. Among them, some developed a new generating-of-interiority invention: myelin, a protective layer that covers the axon and improves its capacity to transmit information. Such novelty enabled the construction of bigger brains. Descendants of these mutants, still of small dimensions, crawled toward the beaches and eventually began to colonize dry land. Challenged by the harsh temperature changes in the terrestrial environment, some of them successfully experimented with hot blood. Their most outstanding successors were birds and mammals. A variant of the latter were our primate predecessors, at the beginning also small predators, with frontal eyes, prehensile hands, and bigger brains. It has been proven that brain evolution was linked to predation,290 as much as the elemental sensibility of unicellular beings was linked to nutrient obtainment.
Big brains are rare because their energetic cost is huge and it must compete with other organs for the same quantity of available energy. Furthermore, they need a long time to mature, what decreases the rate at which its possessors can reproduce, affecting radically their competitiveness. If brains are too big, then their slow development implies an almost unbearable evolutionary burden for their possessors. That is why our own brain evolution has crucially depended upon the establishment of the extended family, which provides for the possibility of prolonged offspring care taking. A fundamental connection between increased sociability and massive encephalization has thus been established, with all the appearances of being the product of a long reiterative co-evolution, matrix and wet nurse of our own culture: with more sociability, more encephalization, and reciprocally.291 Here, the evolutionary strategy of “creating distance” between the brutal environment and the biological constitutive activities takes a significant innovative turn. Protection is established not simply by means of membranes, or cell clustering integrating tissues and organs, but also through the association of complete organisms, affective networks of co-specimens who instinctively coordinate themselves for the support and defense of their youngest. With this we would have reached the heighest of life internalization in nonhuman primates. The following and final leap, of paramount proportions, will be the invention of symbolic representation. It will mark the transition from the animal realm to the human realm, giving birth to our unique symbol-based culture.
At this point in our analysis, it is convenient that we stop to ponder what we have achieved. In the previous chapters we have insisted, time and again, in the eminently mechanistic (non teleological) nature of evolution; similarly, we have dwelt on the algorithmic character of its engine, natural selection: multiplication of individuals in a population, fortuitous changes, prevalence of the best adapted to the environment, with the eventual result of evolutionary divergences and the emergence of new species. Here however, we have touched upon the topic (supposedly incompatible with Darwinism) of protectionism, not the economic one but a more radical sort, that of the biological systems. We have also made a synopsis of the creation of species with more and more control over their surroundings, painting a picture easily interpretable as a history of life progress toward states of ever increasing internality, as if the nature itself of space would change through its domestication by life. At the end of such history, the human species would have emerged, with qualitative differences over all others species, capable of modifying the environment after its own image, and even –in the final analysis– of creating Armageddon, fatefully threatening the very conditions that sustain life on our planet.
The simplest and most important concepts are, ironically, the most subject to bad interpretations, especially when they refer to situations in which we ourselves are involved. That is one of the more drastic limits which human knowledge is subject to. It is precisely in these circumstances that philosophical analysis turns out to be appropriate, even essential. We can say that, in the course of this chapter, three major confusions have been identified, which in fact pose three serious problems. Let us enumerate them and undertake the delicate task of resolving, or dissolving, them.
First of all, we were confronted with the emergence of the vitalistic temptation: How can we avoid understanding life's millenarian development in terms of a “directed progression” toward more and more internality, where the nature of the space in which the phenomena occur is getting charged by an emerging force induced by circumstances which eventually takes over the control of events? The fall into this temptation means throwing out all the achievements of the scientific and philosophical tradition of the last three hundred years, already able to explain most of Mother Nature in strictly empirical and rational terms. The ordering of the successful steps of this progression, possible only post factum, endows this fallacy with great persuasive power.
In the second place, there is the question of whether the undeniable progression of life toward locating its critical processes in a position farther and farther removed from the battlefront against the environment, represents a protectionism similar to the custom barriers imposed by States against the competition of world markets, obviously antagonistic to natural selection. This fallacy is less formidable than the previous one and its clarification requires less effort.
Finally, there is the paradox of culture, namely the following conundrum: How come that human culture, by hypothesis the most complex product of evolution by natural selection, could nevertheless turn out to be a threat to the natural ecology whereon it is grounded? Unlike the two previous ones, this problem does not constitute a logic mistake but rather the statement of a real danger: that of a conscious insane interventionism in a system –the terrestrial ecology–, self-regulated from the very beginning by much better methods, which we nevertheless are now on the verge of disrupting. This difficulty deserves to be dealt quite differently from the two previously stated ones.
We are going to confront these three challenges in the following order: we will discuss first the last two issues, reserving the first one, more philosophically and scientifically intricate, for the end.
It is undeniable that life has progressed in stability and, at the same time, in complexity. In fact, it would not have existed at all in such diversity and richness had not been by natural selection which, from the very beginning, rewarded those replicators who invented high fidelity in the transcription of their genes and ways of assuring biological stability to their descendants. Original RNA genomes were so fragile that a blow of air was able to disintegrate them. Hence, the invention of the cellular membrane was an event which deeply revolutionized the progress of life. The same occurred later on with the invention of DNA, a much firmer means for preserving heredity than RNA, with the invention of a nucleus to envelop it, and with the incorporation of other multiple tricks to ensure the reliable replication of genes. In the face of such hard and transcendental facts, a question arises: Did those inventions qualify as protectionism against competition, or were they rather simply means of acquiring competitive edge against other less fortunate beings who did not benefit from them and, consequently, were bound to soon disappear from the face of the Earth?
If we examine carefully the threats thwarted by those inventions, we must conclude that they were not competition at all, but rather natural non biological risks, exploitable by competitors and predators only in case they were protected against them. If an economic parallel can help us, we could mention the building of better facilities to defend factory processes from external threats, let us say dust that might contaminate drugs or food being processed, or endanger the delicate manufacturing of microprocessors and other tiny electronic components; or, in a modern plantation, the thousands of ropes supporting stemming shoots from a cable installation, to safeguard them from the impact of strong winds. In all these cases no one is protecting the firm from competition, but rather exercising its competing edge in the marketplace in relation to lesser enterprising firms not having introduced enough innovative technology. All biological inventions which create distance from the battlefield –e.g., membranes–, or care for the wounded –e.g., quality control and error repairing–, or simply prevent casualties –storage of genes in DNA–, are of this type: they ensure the species its staying in the game (reproduction), without impeding concurrence of other actors over the exploitation of the available common natural resources.
Which would then be a case of an authentic protectionism in the biological field? It would seem not to exist, given the natural character of the selection which rules over evolution. When we speak of artificial selection, opposing it to the natural one, we introduce an order different from the purely biological. It would seem to be the cultural one –where there are minds, plans, and purposes– the only which could curtail biological evolution. Important manifestations of that situation are domestication of animals and plants and the respective breeding and cultivation, all of which human interventions distorting nature for our own welfare. However, it is possible to show some exceptional examples of true protectionism within the purely biological order. I will offer you two particularly well defined cases.
In the first place, artificial selection is not only practiced by human beings. We are not the only ones who have been capable of manipulating other species evolution in favor of their own. Several ants' species practiced, long before us, “artificial selection” of fungi, still today systematically and profitably “bred.” In fact, they were the very first inventors of agriculture, nothing less than fifty million years ago! The so-called leave-cutter ants constitute the major foliage consumers in Central America. They cultivate their fungi in dark chambers, whose underground net can reach the extension of a football field. The leaves they cut and carry –a common sight in my Costa-Rican backyard– are not bound for direct consumption: they are not digestible for ants. They are set aside to be consumed by planted fungi, reproduced by cloning inside the anthill as it is done with bananas or teca in all Central America. Those fungi are what really sustains ants, enabling them to form big societies, even of several million members in a single nest. Given the small-sized brain of those insects, scientists prefer not to speak here of 'artificial selection' (by definition, a cultural phenomenon) but of symbiosis (a biological one), grounded on the co-evolutionary natural selection of both species. Discreet linguistic decision which allows us to continue considering Homo sapiens the inventor of agriculture, many thousands of years later. Does this linguistic decision eliminate protectionism in the animal realm? The reader to decide.
Let us consider now a second example of natural protectionism, with very negative consequences for the human species, as mentioned before: It is the case of the rudimentary quality-control system of the mitochondrium's cellular cycle, a risky situation for our all-important cellular power stations. Everything seems to indicate that these endosymbionts of our cells practically stopped improving their systems, when they gained “feudal” protection from biological competition within the sheltered nutritious soup represented by the cytosol of each of our own cells. The regrettable results are the terrible mitochondria illnesses, still in process of being discovered, which the human species must suffer. Could a linguistic maneuver save the day here too? I do not think so. I believe it is a clear case of protectionism, of the worst kind. This plague is found even in the best families, so to speak. Disillusioned of the purity of Mother Nature? The alternative is, in view of the vast benefits reported by the symbiotic acquisition of our cellular power plants, to accept this as one of the many cases of ambiguous values, wherein minor evils are part of larger goods, even if the minor evil continues to be bad within its own limits, in this particular case constituting a real current danger for the survival of our species.292
I view as the paradox of culture the fact that human culture is a product of natural selection (others could say “of Nature”) and, nevertheless, its processes seem to have a strong tendency to neutralize the effects of that very algorithm.293 And I say “seem” because, as we know, cultural evolution exactly obeys the same algorithm of natural selection. Only that in this case, what evolves are not genes but memes, inhabiting not simply the physical universe but the universe constituted by societies of human minds. As we have seen, its selecting agent is not directly the limitation of natural resources but the availability of brains capable of supporting, for a certain period, those “clusters of ideas.” Let us add now that, just as natural resources exist integrated in systematic ensembles we call ecologies, minds happen associated with each other –through symbolic mechanisms– in social systems. Furthermore, internally, it is possible to understand each mind as a society of smaller “minds” (Minsky, 1985), also symbolically integrated. And just as the selective pressure in the biological order emerges from the ecological context, the selective pressure in the cultural order is exercised by a symbolic context, external (control of social rules) and internal (the logical imperative of personal consistency). It is convenient to recall that the ecology, as well as the social system, are not just means that condition biological or cultural actors, but also results from interactions of those actors among themselves. Ecology and societies are formed by their members (species and rational beings, respectively), but they condition, at the same time, their conduct and structures, in dialogic interaction. The strong parallelisms exhibit by biology and culture make these conclusions all the more convincing. Notice, however, several important facts:
It is not prescribed that meme selection has to occur in periods of time compatible with the length of human life, notwithstanding the difference between ecology and society, with the speed of cultural changes being much greater than that of biological changes.294 However, even cultural changes need time to spread out, as social reformers –to their own distress– are bound to find out once and again.
There is a deeply marked difference between ecology, where the geographic particularity of resource distribution is decisive, and social systems, whose selective agent –availability of human minds– is much more homogeneous. Compare, for instance, the ecological barrier documented by Darwin between bird populations of the Galapagos Islands and those of the Ecuadorian mainland, with the cultural difference between Mexico and the United States. In spite of the communication difficulties represented by language diversity, this cultural barrier turns out to be much less effective in preventing joint evolution of two contiguous populations than the geographical barrier between two bird groups separated by the sea.
Given the symbolic character of social systems, it is in general more possible in them than in the ecology for subsystems to persist at suboptimal adaptation levels, protected by symbolic mechanisms (for instance, laws or myths) against the selective agents of the wider context. At the personal level, psychological defense mechanisms are well known phenomena, achieving functional equilibria at suboptimal levels. At the larger societal level, entire cultures can also fend themselves –even throughout centuries– against economic progress, with protectionist policies; and against moral progress, with fundamentalist ones.
Yes, culture lies upon biology, since its biological substrate, the brain, has been originated through natural selection acting over biological replicators.
However, the cultural world is independent from the biological world, in the sense that –although it rests upon it as its required substrate– the existence in the human mind of symbolic configurations gives rise to components and laws different from the merely biological ones.
In any case, both regimes obey the same algorithm of natural selection, although applied to elements (either genes or memes) of different kind.
Finally, this universal algorithm applies to systems and subsystems –in mutual interaction. It is therefore possible that regional and global applications move simultaneously in diverging directions.
The logical overcoming of the paradox of culture does not mean in the least that the cultural order could not prevail over the biological one, harming it and consequently undermining the substrate upon which the culture rests. On the contrary, the independence of the two orders implies that any one of them can develop harmful initiatives for either. As we suggested earlier, this paradox is not an error that can be overcome through logical analysis. Analysis may contribute to clear up the situation, as we are attempting to. However, its only value is that of alerting us to imminent dangers which –given our symbolic abilities– we can visualize beforehand and try to collectively confront with effective means. Unfortunately, we could also fail in avoiding it and simply succumb, as extinct human species and cultures did before, with just the meager consolation in our case of having been clearly conscious of the imminence of the catastrophe.
We promised to explain the fallacy that views the evolution of life as a progression from an absolute externality toward levels of ever growing internality. We have identified it as the vitalistic temptation, since to fall in its clutches would amount to once again support ideas upheld at the beginning of the 20th century by some philosophers and scientists, long overcome by contemporary biology. Those vitalistic thinkers believed that, apart from physicochemical laws, a vital principle or force was necessary to satisfactorily explain biological phenomena.295 In this new guise, the argument would say that a millenarian progressive advance of internality would have started with the elemental reactivity with which bacteria face their environment and –through many small continuous steps– finally been crowned by the capacity for abstract thought and spiritual life associated with human beings.
Our purpose here is just to exhibit the psychological mechanism that endows the vitalistic temptation with its characteristic force, not to refute vitalistic thinking as an alternative to contemporary science, what we do not consider necessary to do for two reasons. In the first place, it does not hold before any rigorous criterion: neither before empirical proof, since it has never been possible to show in a laboratory the presence of any such “vital force,” distinct from physicochemical forces; nor before theoretical reasoning, since the concept of “vital force” is not needed to explain the biological phenomena which can be explained today, exhaustively and elegantly, under the strict framework of physicochemical theory. In the second place, because the vast achievements of scientific method speak for themselves and endow its methodology with matchless authority, in extreme contrast with all other manners to obtain and confirm beliefs tried out through centuries as presumed means to justify knowledge. I am not referring to the magnificent technological achievements based on scientific knowledge, of which very few of us would willing let go for the sake of discredited unscientific theories. I am rather pointing to the consistent and well-grounded explanations which, together, offer us a vast well-integrated naturalistic vision of the universe. They represent the best antidote for the superstitions and fears which subjugated past cultures and still harass considerable numbers of humans lacking adequate education or subdued to religious tyrannies.
One of the methodological postulates more fundamental of the natural sciences is the one which requires proposed natural laws to be applicable, in the same way and with the same force, to all regions of the space-time.296 If we allow ourselves to think that something can occur differently within the cell, for its being an “interior” distinct from the ordinary “exterior,” we would be violating that principle and simply resurrecting the theory of “vital force” dressed up as something else. And still, why could we feel psychologically compelled to see a “directed progression” in the movement of “the exterior” to something “ever more interior”? Well, let us state first of all, on the face of this temptation of resurrecting vitalism, that emotional persuasion or compelling is not admissible as criterion of truth; it is just a matter of feelings, a subjective effect with different possible origins which, by itself, cannot lead to a logically justified conviction. Let us illustrate this with an example used in his classes by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Imagine that, due to an arbitrary or mysterious reason, the Earth suddenly and evenly would increase its height over its center, on its entire surface, by exactly one meter. What would happen to a string which we would have laid down –previously to the sudden expansion– fittingly tight over, say, the full dimension of the equator? Naturally, the string would tear up for its having become too short for this extravagant embracing task. Now, how larger should the correction be for the string not to tear up? Most people –with the possible exception of geometricians and geographers, familiarized with this universe of discourse– would reply that very large indeed. They would be surprised to find out that, on the contrary, it would be rather small: only six meters and twenty-eight centimeters!
Based on this example we might ask ourselves how persuasive the vitalistic temptation would appear to an evolution biologist, fully familiarized with the algorithm of natural selection in its countless applications to all biological kingdoms. Clearly, it would carry no persuasive force at all; he would never pose it to himself. It would be totally nonexistent. It is not surprising that the authors of books with vitalistic overtones, still being written today, are not professional biologists (although, curiously enough, some of them are physico-mathematicians, even renowned ones!).
Notwithstanding all this, there might still remain grounds for doubts, even for a biologist, concerning the possibility that –after all– evolution is in fact directed to producing human beings. Superb presumptuousness! Why not dolphins, or one of the marvelous beings of the ocean depths whose contemplation is still denied to human beings? Well, these last embers of teleology can be cleared out through an argument based on a concept developed by 20th century's cosmologists. It is called the anthropic principle. Expressed in simple terms, it reads like this:
We humans, when thinking about our origin, cannot avoid representing the march of evolution, not only of life but of the entire universe since the first instant of its existence, as inevitably directed to produce us. The reason for this inevitability consists in that, in fact, we are now here posing this problem to ourselves.297
To better understand the logic of this principle, let us imagine we were extraterrestrial, or even better, extrasolar (non inhabitants of our planetary system), endowed nevertheless with an intelligence similar to our own. As such intelligent extrasolars we would also enjoy the benefit of a corresponding “anthropic principle,” even if called some other way, which would lead us to believe that the universe has had no other choice but to produce us. The only reason why a rock existing somewhere within the Andromeda constellation could not have enjoyed that privilege, is because it would have lacked the capacity to pose the problem to itself. All this reasoning can direct us to a reformulation of the vitalistic temptation in weaker –less objectionable– terms, namely:
In the depths of cosmic reality, something has conspired to produce intelligent beings such as I.
But of course, the temptation would still be fallacious, since even this less pretentious version could be counterweighted by a corresponding generalization to this “more than anthropic” principle:
Every intelligent being, anywhere in the universe wherein he would have been produced, set on thinking about his origin, could not avoid representing the evolutionary demarch of the universe as directed to produce his particular species (although not exclusively).
Finally, let us underline that the anthropic principle is not in the least a philosophical principle establishing the truth of “intelligent design.” It is simply a logical-psychological-physical doctrine recognizing a de facto inevitability of thinking within our evolving universe. Conditions must have inevitably been such in the past as to favor our emergence, since we do exist here and now.298 Nothing in this principle ensures that we were consciously designed, or created according to a preexistent plan, by any natural or supernatural intelligent being. The algorithm of natural selection is all that is needed to support the processes of automatic design, omnipresent in the geological conditions of planets such as ours, to guarantee our emergence –along with all the other living and intelligent beings that exist or have existed– in the complete absence of a conscious design. So, as our final conclusion, let us rest assured that any hypothesis of “intelligent design” or “emerging internality” turns out to be philosophically and scientifically unsound and superfluous. We may shave it off by the handy –always sharp edged– illustrious midwife of modern science: the Occam’s razor.299
It is not possible to understand the most important memes of contemporary culture, especially scientific method and liberal democracy, without having at least a slight knowledge of the extraordinary events that occurred in Europe from the 14th to 17th centuries, period of time usually known as Renaissance. Such events constitute a historical era with a cultural intensity only comparable to the golden ages of Greco-Roman classicism, during the era of Pericles in Athens –with Phidias and the Acropolis–, or that of Augustus in Rome –with writers as Horace, Ovid, and Virgil. After the Roman golden age, the Mediterranean region, already under the Roman Empire, continued to enjoy cultural stability and considerable progress in the sciences, arts, and techniques. It was still a creative period in the fields of law, commercial practices, military technology, and urbanism. It is a period which we identify as the maturity of European classicism, but two valuable previous classical acquisitions of those great civilizations had already been lost: the Athenian and the Roman city-state democracies. With them, down had gone the freedom of thought implicit in the pagan religion, open to all gods and doctrines, and lacking priestly authorities to impose rigid canons to intellectual creation. Such regrettable losses became entrenched in Europe with the Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity in the 4th century CE.
At the death of Constantine, the Empire was divided in two: East and West. Due to the pressure of the nomad tribes who invaded Europe from the Eastern steppes, the West Roman Empire collapsed about the middle of the 5th century. A long period of tribal isolation, agricultural economy, and feudal rule was then inaugurated, combined with the emergence of the Catholic Church to eminent power over all cultural matters. Throughout this large parenthesis of intellectual, economic, and technical regression, which would last a thousand years, thought development fell under ecclesiastical censorship, with deeply sterilizing consequences. This was the situation which the Renaissance put an end to, bursting into a period of explosive flourishing of the arts, the sciences, and philosophy, which constitutes the foundation of modern culture and civilization. Merchants created at that time commercial and financial techniques –such as accounting and bills of exchange– bound to be fundamental to the subsequent development of the European economy. The invention of the public-debt concept, unknown to Antiquity, allowed city-states to finance their territorial expansion by means of military conquests. The fluency of the merchant society of those transition years contrasted with the traditional society of medieval Europe in being less hierarchical and much more interested in nonreligious subjects.
Ironically, the very religious prejudices of medieval society were what entailed its own destruction. The kings of that time, in their desire to eclipse the feudal lords –their vassals– profited from the stirring preachings of exalted monks to lead their Christian subjects into a series of cruel transcultural wars, the Crusades, whose negative consequences for world peace we are still suffering. Apart from being unjust, those wars were expensive and, under the leadership of their respective kings, feudal lords were forced to fall into deep debt in relation to the rich merchants who populated cities. Unable to repay in cash, their situation gave rise to charters –compensatory privileges of autonomy– granted by the lords to the cities, eventually resulting in a considerable economic and cultural development, based in free trade, precursor of the explosion of modern capitalism.
The flourishing of commerce came to need the intervention of financial agents nonexistent within the feudal system, since the Church prohibited the payment of interest. Jews, disseminated over the entire Christian Europe, were victims of great discriminations, the most important ones being the prohibition to possess or cultivate land and the interdiction of being members of artisan guilds. Thus cornered, they began to fill, in order to earn their living, the financial niche opened by commercial development. An unfortunate byproduct of this process was that, when kings and great princes accumulated enough power at the expense of minor lords –crushed by their Crusade debts– they resorted to the expulsion of Jews from their domains to escape from paying their own debts, with ill-fated consequences for the population of both cultures.
Notwithstanding the medieval isolation and religious oppression, the millennium that preceded the Renaissance was important for the evolution of ideas. Thanks to the scriptoria in medieval monasteries, some Latin authors, such as Virgil, Ovid, Cicero, and Seneca, were preserved, although zealously guarded in monastic and cathedral libraries as historical curiosities. They were off limits for laymen reading, only accessible to clergy and monks, under ferrous supervision on the part of the priestly hierarchy. In the 11th and 12th centuries, developments of civil and canonic law occurred, which contributed some basic elements relevant to the political systems of subsequent centuries. Similarly, harbingers on mathematical and physical sciences did appear, related to some of the greatest innovations of modern times. There were also important medieval works in medical sciences. Outstanding medical schools were founded, for instance those at Salerno, in Italy, and Montpellier, in France. Philosophical thought remained active, although subordinate to ecclesiastic authority. Apart from the main tradition of scholasticism based on the teachings of Thomas Aquinas, the great Christianizer of Aristotle, other schools also flourished, the most interesting among them William of Occam’s Nominalism.300 His ideas constituted powerful precedents for the empiricist trends which would dominate Anglo-Saxon thought from the 18th century on.
It is important to mention the outstanding cultural role that the Muslim Spain played during the 8th to 16th centuries. Cordoba had been an important commercial city since the times of Phoenicians and Carthaginians. It later flourished as a Roman colony from the 1st century BC up to the 5th CE. It was captured by the Visigoths in the 6th century and by the Moors in year 711. In year 756, it became the capital of the Moorish Reign of Spain; for the next two and a half centuries it was one of the world’s most important commercial and intellectual centers. In 929 it was raised to a caliphate and as such reached a level of prosperity and intellectual activity that rivaled Damascus and Baghdad. It began to decline at the beginning of the 9th century, as Muslim power disintegrated in Spain, even though it still continued to be an important literary and scholarly center. In the 12th century, it produced the philosophers Averroes301 and Maimonides,302 of great influence in the European culture. When Ferdinand III of Castile seized Cordoba in 1236, it became integral part of his Catholic kingdom.
Even more interesting is the case of Toledo. An ancient city, it was conquered by the Roman Empire in the year 193. From 534 to its capture by the Arabs in 712, it was the capital of the Spanish Visigoth kingdom. After the Arab conquest, it transformed itself into an important multicultural center, where Moors, Jews, and Christians lived together, interacting peacefully. With its annexation to Castile in 1085, the intelligent and bloodless way in which Alfonse VI negotiated his entrance to the city allowed that precious situation not only to continue but to flourish even more, making of Toledo, long into the Renaissance, a translation center crucial to the cultural revolution going on in Europe.
As a result from these events, Toledo became in the Middle Ages the stage where an interesting symbiosis of three great cultures –Muslim, Jewish, and Christian– was enacted, in outstanding contrast with the heavily intolerant atmosphere prevailing in the rest of Europe. This gave place to a unique process of intellectual transfusion between three worlds, since the Islam was at the time the most important repository of the philosophical and scientific inheritance of ancient Greece. During the Omeya Caliphate of Damascus (661-750), Christian Syrians had translated into Arab the Greek texts of Aristotelian and Neoplatonic philosophy, constituting the first link in a knowledge transmission chain, unseen before in human history. This process intensified when the Islam capital moved to Baghdad. Translations soon reached the Cordoba Caliphate, spreading immediately to their satellite kingdoms, especially Toledo, enriched with commentaries and developments by several Muslim philosophers, particularly the Persian Avicenna303 and Averroes. The Toledo School of Translators, since the middle of the 12th century, offered scholars of the epoch access to the rich bibliographical material accumulated in the famous cathedral. Among other key texts translated we can mention Euclid's Elements, Aristotle's Physics, and Avicenna's great philosophical synopsis, a fundamental textbook of medieval Aristotelism without which the evolution of European philosophy beyond the 13th century would have not occurred at all. The work of these Toledo translators turned out to be decisive in the restoration of the connection between Ancient thought and the emerging cultures, dismantled by the 5th- and 6th-century demographic turbulence. The School of Translators, undoubtedly, constituted one of the most prolific cultural phenomena in the history of Europe.
The Renaissance began in the 14th century in central Italy, and spread throughout Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. Along this four-century period, the destruction of the old economic-political regime did gradually take place, and the foundations of modern institutions, particularly democracy and science as we understand them today, were laid down, free from the control of clergy and kings “by divine right.” This process was above all an urban phenomenon, the product of cities, mostly city-states in Northern and central Italy. The study of the Greek language and culture bloomed in Florence, Ferrara, and Milan throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, due to the fact that Byzantine scholars had emigrated from Constantinople –current Istanbul– on account of the fall of the East Roman Empire at the hands of the Turks. The wealth of those city-states did finance the extraordinary cultural achievements of the Renaissance. Humanistic studies, together with the arts, received financial support from reigning families, such as the Medici in Florence, the Este in Ferrara, the Sforza in Milan, the Gonzaga in Mantua, the dukes of Urbino and Venice, and even the Popes in Rome. In an atmosphere of enthusiasm, effervescence, and permissiveness, artists and writers started to think the unthinkable and practice the prohibited. New intellectual sciences appeared and old ones renewed themselves.
One of the most important ruptures with intellectual tradition occurred in the field of history. For instance, the Florentine History by Niccolo Machiavelli represented a perspective absolutely secular about past ages, as well as a new critical attitude regarding sources, in clear contrast with the sacred-history approach prevailing during the Middle Ages. While medieval scholars viewed with mistrust the Greek and Roman worlds, Renaissance scholars started to worship them and condemn the Middle Ages as barbaric and ignorant. They commended the new era as a resurgence of the classical inheritance and began to call themselves “humanists,” in opposition to Aristotelian philosophers and theologians. The dominant characteristic of these humanists was the importance they bestowed to the study of classic authors, for their own sake and not as buttresses for Christian civilization. The intense interest for pagan Antiquity gave rise to a hectic and successful search for ancient manuscripts, in particular Plato’s dialogs, and Herodotus' and Thucydides’ histories. The works of classic dramatists and poets were also rediscovered and published, together with ample scholarly criticism.
The influence of the classics provoked great changes in education. Improvement of the body by means of physical exercise, ideal forgotten during the Middle Ages, became once again preeminent. Although the study of ancient literature, history, and moral philosophy sometimes degenerated into a servile imitation of pagan authors, it nevertheless contributed to produce freer and more civilized human beings than those who lived in medieval times: people with good taste and judging capacity, enlightened citizens instead of pious (or not so much such) monks and priests.
There was much progress in medicine and anatomy, especially after the translation of many Hippocrates' and Galen's works. Some of the best Greek mathematical treatises were also translated, and there was more progress than ever in the solution of cubic equations and in astronomy. In this later field, the works by Nicolas Copernicus, Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler are especially noteworthy. Geography transformed itself on the basis of new experimental knowledge and the influence from ancient translated works, particularly those of Ptolemy and Strabo. Around the end of the 16th century, Galileo took a crucial step applying mathematical models to Physics, with revolutionary results. Because of this important fact, he is considered by most experts as the founder of modern science. He also has the merit of having confronted, repeatedly and at the risk of his own life, both the Catholic Church and the Aristotelian scholars, through his defense of Copernicus’ teachings, which cost him long years of vexations and restrictions on the part of the Inquisition. To understand what was then at stake, the reader can take a look at the brief selection of a play by Brecht included as an appendix.304
In the technological field, the invention of the printing press in the 15th century launched a revolution in the sphere of knowledge dissemination. Book production increased, with fewer mistakes than those resulting from chain hand-written copies under the old system. Furthermore, it provided scholars with identical texts on which to work, transforming intellectual labor in one stroke, from solitary to collaborative, with incalculable consequences for science development and the generalization of education. The use of gunpowder, on its part, transformed the art of war in the hundred years that went from mid 15th century to mid 16th century. Artillery meant a devastating force that demolished, along with castle and city walls, the local powers of feudal lords and medieval cities, in favor of the emerging powers: large principalities and Nation States. Over those one-hundred years the first permanent armies were established in Europe.
In law, there was a tendency to substitute abstract dialectic methods of medieval jurists with a philological and historical interpretation of the Roman law sources. In politics, although preserving the old medieval principle stating that the aim of government is the preservation of freedom and justice in society, a new idea began to evolve, claiming that its fundamental task is to safeguard security and peace. Machiavelli, for instance, upheld that the virtue (in the sense of force) of rulers is the key to the preservation of their own position and the welfare of their citizens, an idea basically consistent with contemporary positivist political theory. Italian city-states transformed themselves during the Renaissance from communes to territorial States, due to military confrontations between them. At the same time, the national unifications of Spain, France, and England began to occur.
Throughout this period, the behavior of the clergy, especially those occupying higher positions in the hierarchy, conformed to the model of secular princes, so that the acts of popes, cardinals, and bishops were hardly distinguishable from those of big merchants or members of the nobility. Nevertheless, Christianity continued to be an essential part of the culture. Many humanists occupied themselves with theological issues, applying the new philological and historical methods in the hermeneutics of sacred texts written by the Church Fathers. The works of Petrarch, an Italian erudite and poet, and Erasmus, a Dutch humanist, had a great impact in the evolution of Roman Catholic thought, as well as that of several Protestant faiths already accepted at the time as official religions in vast Christendom territories.
Humanism, a movement that subjected to scrutiny and proof old beliefs as well as a period of intense intellectual ferment, prepared the terrain for the work of the great thinkers and scientists of the 17th and 18th centuries, such as Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, and Hume. These scholars created the intellectual frames of reference within which the history of Western thought would continue to develop up to current times. The heart of these thinkers and artists’ attitude lied on the idea that human beings were meant to reign over nature, through the application of reasoning and observation, not subject to any earthly or divine power which may restrict or hinder them. On account of these bold attitudes, they are considered the precursors of the great scientific, technological, and political revolutions which occurred all around the world since the 18th century, creating the modern democracies, great industries, and research and educational systems characterizing the Modern and Contemporary Ages of the Western world.
Note 284: See Chapter 8, NON GENETIC EVOLUTION.
Note 285: See Chapter 8, THE BALDWIN EFFECT.
Note 286: See Chapter 1, NATURAL SELECTION.
Note 287: See Chapter 3, THE CENANCESTOR AND THE THREE DOMAINS OF LIFE.
Note 288: In-vogue concept, not less worthy for that reason of being incorporated into the vocabulary of an educated person. It refers to what is repeated according to the same pattern or rule at each one of its lower or smaller levels, as fern leaves reiterate their original shape at diminishing scales. It has its origin in a thick physical-mathematical theory, whose greatest merit being its having changed popular language even before having achieved universal acceptance within the scientific community.
Note 289: The elegant system of electric potentials progressing throughout axons and dendrites, based on sodium and potassium ions crossing cellular membranes in both directions.
Note 290: Not just in mammals. The same correlation can be observed among fish. The case of the shark, king of ocean predators, with an exceedingly big brain for its size, is most noteworthy. It is revealing that a shark species lacking predatory behavior has the smallest brain of its group (Allman, 2000).
Note 291: This co-evolution must have been previous and more essential than another already analyzed, the co-evolution of brain and language. See Chapter 8, CHILDREN-FRIENDLY TONGUES.
Note 292: See Chapter 6, THE NEW FRONTIER OF MEDICINE.
Note 293: There are innumerable examples of this deleterious tendency, from the domestication of plants and animals, through the medical interventions which rescue lives of ill-adapted beings, to the devastation of rain forests implying the destruction of countless species.
Note 294: Bear in mind, however, that there are many species that affect human condition, virus and bacteria among them, which evolve very quickly, giving rise to a veritable “arms race” between illnesses and medicines. In this respect, the case of bacteria stands out, with their becoming resistant to antibiotics and vaccines, forcing pharmaceutical companies to constantly create new substitutes for those drugs.
Note 295: Thus, for instance, Henri Bergson (Bergson, 1947) and J. von Uexküll (Uexküll, 1947). The date of publication of both these Spanish translations is indicative of the persistence of vitalistic ideas in Latin America well into the 20th century, when the genetic code was at the point of being unraveled.
Note 296: With the only exception of certain “singularities” –as the Big Bang moment– of which cosmologists speak, whose shaggy mathematical characterizations are beside the point here: within those exceptional space-time states, neither living beings nor cultural contents would stand a chance to exist.
Note 297: Stephen Hawking enunciates the anthropic principle thus: “We see the universe the way it is because if it were different, we would not be here to observe it....” (Hawking, 1988).
Note 298: As demonstrated Cartesianwise by the fact that I am thinking.
Note 299: See this chapter, THE ROOTS OF THE MODERN AGE.
Note 300: William of Occam, a 14th century English philosopher and theologian, maximal representative of the Nominalist school –main rival of the Thomist school favored by the Catholic Church– recommended not to multiply entities unnecessarily (Entia non multiplicanda praeter necessitatem). This important maxim, still an essential part of current scientific methodology, is usually known as the principle of parsimony or, more picturesquely, Occam’s razor. This principle states that, –in the absence of more information– the simplest of several hypotheses explaining facts equally well should be accepted.
Note 301: Averroes, a 12th century Islamic philosopher, jurist and physician, was born in Cordoba, Spain. He closely followed the teachings of the Persian philosopher Avicenna. He affirmed reason above “revealed truth.” In conformity with Aristotle, he rejected the idea of world creation in time and considered God as the “first motor” of nature, self-sufficient force that produces all natural movements transforming what is just “potential” in “actual.” Following Neoplatonic philosophers, he considered the human individual soul as emanation from a universal soul, of divine origin. His broad commentaries on Aristotle’s works, the most rigorous and less corrupted of medieval Neoplatonism, were translated into Latin and Hebrew, largely influencing both medieval scholastics and Jewish philosophy.
Note 302: Maimonides, a 12th century Jewish philosopher and physician, was born in Cordoba, Spain. The capture of Cordoba in 1148 on the part of the Almohadians, who imposed Islam on Christians and Jews alike, forced his family to emigrate, settling finally in Cairo. Apart from codifying the principles of Orthodox Judaism, for what he was considered a second Moses, he tried to harmonize it with natural reason, represented by Aristotle’s philosophy combined with elements of Neoplatonism. He also produced works in astronomy, logic, and mathematics. His work influenced several European Christian philosophers, particularly Thomas Aquinas.
Note 303: Avicenna, an Iranian philosopher and physician who lived between the years 980 and 1037, was the creator of the first synthesis of Arab philosophy, based on Neoplatonic Aristotelism. He is considered by Muslims as one of the greatest Islam philosophers. His synopsis of medicine and pharmaceutic knowledge constituted a favorite textbook throughout the Middle Ages in Europe and the Near East. Its first Latin translation dates back to the 12th century. His philosophical works consisted of a collection of treatises about Aristotle’s books, wherein he combined this philosopher’s ideas with Neoplatonic teachings. In opposition with Muslim orthodoxy, he denied personal immortality, God’s interest in human individuals, and world creation in time. He had great influence during the entire Middle Ages.
Note 304: See Appendix P: THE DAY WHEN HEAVEN WAS UNDONE.