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December 05, 2009

Annals of Coincidence

Although several other mammalian species seem to possess a capacity for cognition similar to ours by entertaining abstract ideas, accumulating knowledge, and thinking ahead, none can compare with how well humans do all those things and much more. Our highly evolved brains are clearly our principal survival organs in the fierce, take-no-prisoners struggle for survival first intuited by the youthful Charles Darwin during a brief stopover in the Galapagos almost two centuries ago and then refined by three decades of obsessive thought before publication. As important as his theory of Evolution has been to our modern understanding of "nature," it is but one of several components of the cultural explosion that began with Gallileo late in the Sixteenth Century and has been accelerating ever since. As it is, billions of the humans who owe their very existence to Science are only vaguely aware of that debt as they struggle for survival in the global economy. Ironically, that same ignorance not only adds to our noxious impact on planetary ecology, it is shared by a substantial fraction of working scientists. Even Albert Einstein seems to have nurtured a belief in "god."

How, one may well ask, does a retired chest surgeon who has spent the last 8 years taking histories from pot smokers dare claim such expertise? The answer, which now makes perfect sense to me, is that the opportunity to take medical histories from people regarded as criminals was a classic "natural experiment" requiring only the willingness to ask pertinent questions of its unwitting subjects. My own willingness to take advantage of that opportunity was more a function of past experience than of intelligence in that my very existence, like that of all others, depended on a long series of events I am unaware of and over which I had no control. Even starting with our birth, our survival of infancy and childhood is by no means guaranteed and the critical choices shaping our lives are far more path dependent than most realize.

To narrow the focus a bit, one of the more logical and erudite practitioners of "neuroscience," (a rubric incautiously applied to some blatantly unscientific nonsense) is William Calvin, an author I discovered in the late Eighties and have since had time to read only sporadically, but always with considerable profit. Little did I realize when I first read Calvin's informed speculations on the seemingly unrelated subjects of language, climate change, and the geology of the Grand Canyon that I would someday develop a heightened interest in the same phenomena, or that the link would be an opportunity to gather information of apparently little interest to few others.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at December 5, 2009 04:45 PM