... seeking simple answers to complex problems, and in the process, disrupting the status quo in technology, art and neuroscience.

Monday, November 12, 2018

The Nature of Knowledge

I realize the ambitious objective indicated by the title, but there's another perspective - the essence of knowledge, which is more limited in scope and can be more easily contained. And explained.

What does it mean to know something? Is it to have that thing well characterized? To understand what might happen to it in most circumstances? To have access to the truth about a thing? I believe this last description goes beyond the scope of knowledge, and in doing so causes a great deal of confusion and grief.

If you've read my blog post on, "Absolutely", you'll remember my description of approaching truth asymptotically, but never achieving it. Knowledge is that approach, ever waiting to be refined and edited.

Think about a few things that you "know" to be true. Are they really? Politics is a fertile field for knowledge. Half of any group will "know" things the other half dismisses. It's the same with religion. Conviction is none the less certain from multiple conflicting perspectives. See what I mean? Half of what we "know" does not even approach the truth. And the other half is only a useful generalization.

The point is, what we "know" at any given instant is simply the best understanding available to us at the time, based on our own individual experience and perception. This may often be a long way from the truth. It's also why it's best to keep an opened mind.

Knowledge is a work in progress. To know something is only to approach its truth, and sometimes to fall well short. Yet we act on our knowledge because it's the best we have to work with at the moment.

Just be prepared to learn something new in your never-ending quest for knowledge.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Men in America

This challenging but also interesting video is actually a social media test.

Men in America

Did you pass?

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Emergence of Man

First posted 08-03-12, updated every now and then.

As a boy, I was impressed with "2001 A Space Odyssey".  The idea that a spark from space vaulted man beyond the other primates seemed plausible. And it got me thinking.

How different ARE we from the other primates?  And when did this difference occur?

These questions lead me to, "The Naked Ape", by Desmond Morris. He defined a few differences, but far more similarities.  So I kept looking.

Over the years I've kept track of the various discoveries looking for the significant differences between us and our cousins.  It's time to document them.

For background, let's start with the first fish and work our way forward:

Scientists Find 'Oldest Human Ancestor'

And a half a billion years later:

Tiny Chinese Archicebus fossil is the oldest primate yet found

Walking and Running

When I was a child, walking erect was the gold standard of humanity.  And it's true, we're better on two feet chasing down game than all others, but only by degrees.

Little Foot - 3.67 Million Years Old

Bonobos showed that walking erect is no big deal:

Walking Upright

But that's not running.  About three million years ago a significant change occurred.  Humans became marathon runners and developed some new hunting scripts largely stolen from wolves, which begs the question, who ultimately domesticated whom?

Family Tree of Dogs and Wolves Is Found to Split Earlier Than Thought


Food has also been an area of study to define differentiation, but which species jumped what line, and when?

Human ancestors changed diet 3.5 million years ago


Another thing that set us apart was thought to be tool use, but this test also fell as chimps and other species have now demonstrated.

04-14-15 World's oldest stone tools discovered in Kenya 

Tool-making and Meat-eating Began 3.5 Million Years Ago?

Tool-Making 3 Million Years Ago?

Stone-tool makers reached North Africa and Arabia surprisingly early - 2.4 million years ago 
Tool-making 1.4 Million Years Ago?

Ancient Stone Tools Hint at the Real Paleo Diet 126,000 to 781,000 Years Ago

700-year-old Stone Tools - Used by Monkeys

The spear which was developed about 500,000 years ago is also a clear example of tool use.  So far we've seen no other species accomplish this trick, though a weapon may become a possible learned behavior for some other primates as other tools have been.  Is it just a matter of time?

When Did Humans Begin Hurling Spears?  - 90,000 Years Ago?

Australian researchers say they’ve found the world’s oldest hatchet

Monkey or Man?

11-04-16 49,000 Year Old Human Settlement in Australia

01-31-18 Sharp stones found in India signal surprisingly early toolmaking advances


Clear evidence of trade between distant (and separate) tribes would definitely set man apart from other primates:

Evolve or die: Why our human ancestors learned to be social more than 320,000 years ago


In response, the transfer of culture became the new human benchmark, but the ability to transfer new knowledge from one generation to another has also been demonstrated by chimps...


Then there was self-awareness, which was disproved in spite of Darwin's original mirror observations:

Mirror Test

And a nice test of abstract thinking is meta-cognition:

Chimps: Ability to 'Think About Thinking' Not Limited to Humans

And have episodic memory:

Chimpanzees and orangutans remember distant past events

How about 500,000 year-old art?  But which species made it? :

Art on the half-shell

176,000 year old ritual?

Bruniquel Cave

Blombos Cave has 73,000 year old art?


Next to evolve was language.  The chimp Washoe laid that one to rest in the 1960s.  And then there's Koko the gorilla who recognizes 1000 signs vocabulary and 2000 spoken words.  She has an IQ of about 80. Also bonobos have gesture language plus now respond to spoken language with keyboard feedback. It may be simple, but it's language. And even more languages are being discovered:

Prairie dogs' language decoded by scientists


The most literally obvious and vivid tool of man has been fire.  The control of fire allowed our gut to decrease in length by about a yard as we began to cook our food and digestion improved.  Human resistance to air pollution also emerged over the last million years, an indication that we lived with fire during that time.

Control of fire wasn't just tool use, it was the most exquisite form of tool use.  The trick was getting close enough to use the flame but not get burned, and then of course, not letting the fire go out.  How many thousands of our ancestors played with fire before we learn to pass on these two tricks?  And was this the brain and thumbs at work?  Fire was the turning point. The most concise summary of why I found in a New Yorker article, "The Case Against Civilization" (which I disagree with overall):

"The earliest, oldest strata of the caves (in Africa) contain whole skeletons of carnivores and many chewed-up bone fragments of the things they were eating, including us. Then comes the layer from when we discovered fire, and ownership of the caves switches: the human skeletons are whole, and the carnivores are bone fragments. Fire is the difference between eating lunch and being lunch."

We know of no other primate who developed the independent use of fire, (though some Bonobos have now been trained to do so with a lighter, and even use water to put it out).  Man's sustained use of fire is estimated to have begun sometime between 1.5 million and 400,000 years ago:

Who Mastered Fire?

Were Early Humans Cooking Their Food a Million Years Ago?

Still, isn't the difference between us and other primates simply a matter of DEGREE in thinking and manipulating our environment?  Scripts and tools are certainly learned and used effectively by other species.  But our fore-brains allowed for abstraction, delayed gratification and far more complex simulations as demonstrated by the wide range of different human behaviors.  So is our main difference from other primates the complexity of behaviors created by individualism and hyper-specialization?

Out of Africa

Whatever makes us different was probably well established by 60,000 (or 100,000?) years ago, as that's when humans became successful enough to spread from Africa to the rest of the world in our anatomically modern form.  Was it a combination of language, hunting methods, tools, spears, and fire?  Or was it some kind of proto-agriculture for which we've yet to find evidence?

Blombos Cave contained scratches on ocher objects from 75,000 to 100,000 years ago.

Left 100,000 Years Ago?

Or Stayed 60,000 Years Ago?

01-25-18 The modern human brain may only be 40,000 years old

Music, Art and Property?

Border Cave takes some level of symbolic culture and the ownership of property back to 44,000 years.  The Venus of Fels Cave in Germany is clearly art from 35,000 years ago.

Border Cave

Could "owning things" be that line between us and chimps?  This is one of the ideas put forth in Sex at Dawn.  Maybe Christopher Ryan is on to something.  Will this mystery lead us back to ourselves?  In any case, ten to fifty thousand years ago was an exciting time for man.

40,000 Year Old Cave Painting

Archaeologists Unearth 35,000 Year Old Musical Instrument

World's Oldest Portrait - Symbolic Abstraction 26,000 Years Ago

Not all hunter-gatherers moved around.  How could they have carried all these pots?

What 15,000 Years Of Cooking Fish Tells Us About Humanity


The key to real civilization seems to be the domestication of plants and animals - agriculture.  It's often described in terms of specialization and our ability to withhold gratification until the resource matures (wheat, cows or eggs into chickens).

This may be the key to domestication 14,000 years ago:

We Didn't Domesticate Dogs.  They Domesticated Us.

How hunting with wolves helped humans outsmart the Neanderthals.

14,000-Year-Old Bread

Another line blurred:

Baboons Kidnap and Raise Feral Dogs as Pets

Even the line of first settlements are moving backward and becoming blurred.  In school I was taught civilization started about 5,000 years ago.  Then it was 7,000 years.  Then 10,000.  And now:


Except for digging holes, and a few other minor exceptions, no other species builds shelter:

Oldest house in Britain discovered to be 11,500 years old
Stone Building in Russia

12,000 Year-Old Gobekli Tepe

Gobekli Tepe Update 04-04-15

(Wiki says Gobekli Tepe is only dated to 9559 projecting to 11,000 years old) That's still some impressive stone work which must have taken a few thousand years to develop.  20,000 years seems like a more safe number for now.  We just need to find more sites and map progress, but we're definitely blurring back into our ancestors.  When exactly did we become "human"?

As a side note, dogs have been with us for about 14,000 years according to bone evidence.

And here is an even broader overview taking evolution into our culture - a lot of good ideas here:
This next post strays a bit far from the origins of man, but contains so many useful observation about humanity:

State of the Species - Charles C. Mann

Maybe the missing mechanism is EPIgenitics working with genetics. It's an example of how evolution can go well beyond sexual preference:

Scientists claim that homosexuality is not genetic — but it arises in the womb

Here is a fun idea about how the n-grams of our cultural evolution is reflected in our language:

Evolution of the most common English words and phrases over the centuries  12-12-12

World's Oldest Wooden Water Wells Discovered From About 5000 Years Ago  12-24-12

Is a long childhood the key difference?  Maybe:

Why Are We the Last Apes Standing?

Believe it or not, this was published long after I published this post (which like primates is still evolving). Mark Changizi seems to agree that we differ only by degree ("quantitatively so, not qualitatively"). Interesting post.  I need to get his books on my list:

Bursting the Bubble of Human Intelligence  04-09-13

It seems this puzzle is filling in literally day by day.  Stay tuned for more updates.

It appears we must guard against cultural imperialism in our acquisition of knowledge. And does human behavior vary to try all possible combinations in the same way a species replicates to fill the physical range of it's environment?

Why Americans Are the Weirdest People in the World  02-25-13

The Wheel

02-19-16 The wheel is certainly a definitive test of humanity.  Well, at least so far:

Oldest Wheel - 5200 Years Old

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Master and His Emissary - A Review of the Divided Brain

Originally published on 5-14-14:

Like many, I've been skeptical of left / right brain theory for decades.  The data seemed fluffy, with too many exceptions.  Then I encountered this video of a TED presentation:

Finished?  If you're like me, the value and concentration of the content were overwhelming.  But watch it again.  This time keep your hand on the pause button.  Pause if his words get ahead of the pictures.  Pause again if the pictures get ahead of the words.

Yes, there's a lot of detail here, both in hard data and concept, but that's not the main reason for this second viewing.  This video nicely demonstrates the theme of its own content.   It's been biologically established that as you watch, the presentation is going into BOTH sides of your skull at the same time.  Your eyes and ears are collecting two similar copies, but your divided brain is creating two DIFFERENT experiences, one dominated by image and animation, the other by text and verbal logic.  Your brain is running in parallel, and the only time you notice is when one half's recognition gets ahead of the other. Your control of the pause button shifts smoothly from side to side.  Your left or right brain inhibits the other when needed.  This shifting control allows both experiences to be captured.

The moving images provide right-brain meaning through visual metaphor. Dr. McGilchrist's precise left-brain verbalization and text nail down and allow you to "grasp" these ideas. Though I'm over-simplifying, this is an example of the very thing being presented - that it takes BOTH sides of the brain working as asymmetrical and largely unequal specialists in delivering the result that is ultimately the human mind.

The other reason this video is important is that the book is extremely detailed and thoughtful.  "The Divided Brain" takes some digesting.  But it's worth it.  And it's good to have a "both-brain" outline to fill in his very deliberate, precise and comprehensive written presentation.   This video covers literally 500+ pages which are well summarized in only a few minutes. Much of it is profound. I watched it at least a dozen times. Then I read the pages:

The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, by Dr. Iain McGilchrist

The Divided Book

This work is both brilliant and maddening.  What it presents is a major advancement in our ability to understand human behavior and our behavior's contradictions.  It contains both hard data and insightful observations, but also wild conjecture. From a wealth of brain studies over the last few decades, the author has crystallized a new model of left and right brain functionality, which is by far the book's greatest contribution to the topic. Then he describes the left brain's evolving impact on western culture.

The result is both logically and intuitively convincing.  Each of us is literally of two minds, creating a single subjective experience.  We are driven by two largely complimentary engines of evaluation, each seamlessly yielding control of the mind and body from moment to moment depending on which side is most likely to be effective in dealing with the current challenge.  Asymmetry of functional realms is the key to minimizing obvious dynamic conflict. The realization of this fact has wide-ranging implications for all of human behavior, but especially personal relationships, politics, religion, and economics. I shall address these consequences in separate blog posts. But let's get back to the book.

The delivery of these ideas is fascinating in spite of his formal style, which is necessary for such a demanding topic.  Dr. McGilchrist does an amazing job of precisely navigating very deep waters, but like any project this ambitious, he reaches a bit too far now and then, which is perhaps his most important lesson. This work spans credibility from solid conclusion too obvious speculation.  But even in speculation, there is very little that is patently wrong.  These ideas are not some new-age theory, though this book may literally become the bible for left / right brain enthusiasts.  No, I haven't lost my bias for the rational, but I have gained a new appreciation for the intuitive, and it's genesis.

Like the brain, the book is presented in two parts.  The first part is well-founded scientific documentation of the physical and behavioral differences between the left and right brain. Taken alone, it's of tremendous value in understanding the brain's obvious bicameral nature.  The second part is dominated by the selective ascription of art and history to one side of the brain or the other, and its impact on our modern culture.

Though dense with useful data, each chapter raises important issues, which are then addressed by the next. Step by careful step, he builds a coherent model of the mind based on cross-supported observations of brain physiology and actual human behavior.  For the most part, it rings true.

The later section on paradox is brilliant and sets the stage for what he presents in the second part: the "Achille's heel" of the rational mind, which is that our more logical left brain denies anything not within its framework of simulation. This means that the left misses a lot, virtually anything that can't be "proven".  He describes this shortcoming as a hall of mirrors.  A sharp focus and "single-minded" objective is the left's strength, but also its weakness.  The left brain is blind to, or otherwise demotes obvious leaps of intuition, such as casually stepping over a paradox.  He uses Zeno to nicely make this point.

The second part of the book is all about the impact the left-brain has had on the realm of the right.  He uses examples of music, art, and philosophy from the last few thousand years.  Much of this is based on McGilchrist's impressive knowledge of our culture, and some intuition.  This part is as subjective as the first part is objective.

The first half of the book is a pleasant intellectual challenge.  It's also a ride in the park compared to the second half, which is like hitting a bog on a dirt bike, well at least it was for this rational mind. I had to gear-down even to drag my way through, probing for the hard ground of logic, and finding little.  He seems to ascribe behaviors to one side of the brain or the other almost willy-nilly.  And he freely admits, "These thoughts are inevitably contingent, to some extent fragmentary and rudimental."  Though I tried to understand his literary leaps, my mind kept reverting to the rational. This probably says more about me than the writing, but I wonder how many other readers gave up at this point and never finished the book.

To be fair I chased down a few of these wild ascriptions using his comprehensive bibliography.  Each provided a reason to believe, if not actual proof.  You'll have to decide for yourself. Though useful data are more rare in the second half, if you grind through, the pearls are there, and worth the effort. Plus there's something more useful than mere data.  If you tend to the rational, the first half will be the most meaningful. If you're more intuitive, I suspect the second half will be the most insightful. This intuitive approach in the second half also creates doubt in the rational mind.  For me, conjecture about so much subjective art, and evidence such as which way a subject of a painting was facing, left my mind reeling and yearning for the science of the first part.

Another way of saying this is that the first part contains lots of observations, science, and hard data.  It makes sense.  It makes you THINK.  The second part makes you wonder about the validity of the author's many right-brain speculations.  And it gives you the FEELING he just MIGHT be right - but he can't prove it.


Dr. McGilchrist presents a rational left-brained model for what our right-brain has secretly known all along, but could not say.  Our right side feels the truth of the presentation but doesn't have a voice. Our left side can put it into words, but won't accept a new model of the mind without reasonable proof.  This book provides both proof AND conviction. It makes you think.  And it makes you feel.

This is where the parallel with the video comes in.  The book is also a Rorschach's test of left and right brain conclusions.  The medium IS the irony.  Though the book is mostly words meant for the left brain, these words are inspired by right-brain imagination.  Though tedious at times, even the more wild ideas are hard to indict.

I've probably re-read fewer than ten books in my entire life.  I'm a slow reader, but once I read a book, I know it.  This book is an exception.  The moment I finished (and it took months), I flipped to the front and immediately started reading again.  Like the video, reading the book whet my appetite for more.  Perhaps it'll do the same for you.  If you have any interest in the brain or human behavior, "The Master and His Emissary" is a must-read.

04-03-14 Age of Wonder - a philosophy lecture by Dr. McGilchrist

05-09-17 An excellent interview of Dr. McGilchrist

06-12-18 Jenny Connected Review