Hey, there’s a new sapling in the neighborhood!

Let’s send some roots over, check him out. See if he’s friendly, invite him out for some sugar water, get to know him a bit.

Just a few years ago, it would have been preposterous to imagine that trees have social relations, but Suzanne Simard, Peter Wohlleben and Monica Gagliano have pioneered an unlikely field of research,  plant  sociology.

We can’t know what they experience or if they experience, but we know now that they form alliances, care for one another across species lines (but especially close kin) and that they thrive in some combinations and wilt in others.

Animal ESP

On the morning of December 26, 2004, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Sumatra, triggering a massive tsunami, killing more than 150,000 people in 12 countries.
But as terrible as this loss of life on an apocalyptic scale was, something very strange emerged as the flood waters receded.

Relatively few animals were reported dead.

In fact, according to eyewitness accounts, in the hours leading up to the tsunami, flamingos abruptly left their low-lying nests… elephants screamed, taking off for higher ground… and zoo animals took shelter, refusing to come out to eat.

They knew it was coming. But how were they able to sense this disaster hours before striking?

Instinct… intuition? Internal bio-electro magnetic fields within these animals picking up vibrations from an earthquake thousands of miles away?

The truth is we don’t know. Like deja vu, science has yet to reveal how these things really work.

If this were ancient times, would our primal counterparts have been able to sense this disaster like these animals? I suspect the answer is yes. But I can’t prove that.

— Al Sears

Learning about Death from Elephants

I assume that much of our intuitive and instinctual heritage of knowledge is inaccessible to us because we have learned modes of knowing that override our intuitions. Shamans and indigenous cultures may teach us what every animal knows about death, or we may pursue the inner realm via meditation…

Or we may be able to learn from animals themselves. Here we are privileged to witness an elephant funeral.

The best they’re able to do in a zoo, where keepers have erected barriers to keep the living from the dead.

We pay homage to our dead with thoughts and abstractions and rituals, and elephants  probably do the same. We can’t know what they’re thinking but one thing we can get see for sure is that it is important to touch the dead, to handle their dried flesh and bones. We might speculate about what is being transferred from the dead to the living by physical touch.

Contrast this to Western undertaking. The body is handled only with throwaway plastic gloves until it is safely in the ground, or in a furnace. Even after autoclaving, ashes of the dead are considered creepy, if not unsanitary.

In Tibet,

… the custom is for close relatives of the deceased to carry his body to a hilltop, where it is offered to vultures. This is sky burial

This article was published last week in the journal Primates (apparently elephants have honorary status), and this popular summary was released by San Diego Zool.

Warriors of Europe eliminated Peaceful Cultures the World Over

“We found these states in a very good condition. The mentioned Incans were governing them so wisely that among these people there were no thieves, neither vicious men nor unfaithful wives, no immoral people. Everyone had there honest and useful professions. They knew no crime or execution. Everyone owned their own property and not a single other person would claim it. What urges me to write about this now is my consciousness, I feel guilty. We’ve destroyed all this by our vicious and mean example. We’ve eliminated the nation that had such sovereigns and was so happy.”

Gaspar de Carvajal was a Dominican friar who accompanied a failed mission dispatched by Gonzalo Pizarro to the upper Amazon basin, and ended up wandering for years along the Amazon river before finally reaching the Atlantic and returning to Spain. He wrote about what he found in a travelog, Relación del nuevo descubrimiento del famoso río Grande que descubrió por muy gran ventura el capitán Francisco de Orellana (“Account of the recent discovery of the famous Grand river which was discovered by great good fortune by Captain Francisco de Orellana”)

  • opulent cities, as large as any in Europe at the time, with tens of thousands of people living peacably and securely in each
  • no agriculture as Europeans would have defined it, but a managing of the jungle ecosystem to produce an abundance of citrus, plantains, cassava, and a variety of nuts

Graham Hancock estimates that there were 20 million people in Carvajal’s Amazon, about ¼ the population of Europe at the time. [New Scientist article] A few years later, the entire region had been depopulated by smallpox, with only a few thousand people surviving.

Bartolome de las Casas wrote in 1542 of the Spanish genocide and plunder of the Amazon’s peaceful socieities.

Carvajal’s diary suggests that another way to relate to nature might have been developed and sustained for thousands of years. Records of how they lived so peacably were lost when Pizarro burned the Inca central library, and much of the oral tradition was wiped out by smallpox and genocide.

We think of the Europeans coming to America with vastly superior technology, but maybe they had only superior weapons. We, today, having developed the way of conquest to the brink of its tragic denouement, might benefit mightily from learning about another kind of human civilization.

Image result for rainforest village

They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword,
they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance.…They would make fine servants.
— Columbus, writing to the Queen, describing people he found in the West Indies


Clever Hans in Miniature

A hundred years ago, people marveled to think that a German horse could perform simple arithmetic tasks. The anomaly was explained by skeptical scientists of the time as a response to subliminal cues from the horse’s owner. Up until the 1980s, anything to do with numbers was classified as abstract thought, and the exclusive province of human intelligence. The idea that a chimpanzee could do arithmetic would have been ridiculed. But recently, Irene Pepperberg taught her parrot to do simple arithmetic operations.

No one imagined that an insect could be trained to do arithmetic. Conventional thinking tells us that there is a deal of hive intelligence governing collective behaviors, but individual bees are too simple to do anything but respond to stimuli. A bee’s brain has about a millionth the complexity of a mammal’s.

One of two grouped photos: This one shows Scarlett Howard kneeling at a chimney hive housing honeybees.

When I was in grad school, wise advisors counseled me not to take on a big, important topic for my dissertation, because the chance of failure was too high. I didn’t heed them, and as a result had two false starts before settling for a mundane but manageable project.

Scarlett Howard wasn’t listening to anyone’s advice when she took on a dissertation project that any neuroscientist could have told her was a lost cause. She earned her PhD (in Melbourne) by teaching bees to do arithmetic.

Just as impressive to me is the fact that she taught the bees our symbolic language (because we aren’t smart enough to decode their language).

With insects, a lot of work goes into ensuring you asked the question in the right way. You can’t give them a human test. They need the right motivation. They need to understand the question to be able to answer it.

Read experimental details in the journal article and I think you’ll agree she wasn’t cheating, that the bees’ performance can’t be explained without understanding elementary concept of number. These are tasks we wouldn’t expect a child to be able to perform until age 3, at least.

“Bees are not as simple as we used to think they are. Or even as some people still think they are.”

Read about Howard’s work in this Quanta Magazine article.

Leibniz was no dummy

So, naturalists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite ’em;
And so proceed ad infinitum.

— Jonathan Swift: Poetry, a Rhapsody

Gottfried Leibniz was a Renaissance genius on a par with Isaac Newton, and in fact he developed an equivalent formulation of what we now call “calculus” at the same time Newton was doing it.

Both Leibniz and Newton inherited a Christian-animist view of the world that was so embedded in their culture that they would not wholly reject it. They both came to believe that motions of the heavenly bodies and also objects on earth were governed by universal laws that predicted behavior. How did they reconcile that with a God who made the world go ’round and with the living beings that appear to be acting from their free will?

Image result for mechanical universe

Leibniz struggled deeply with this question, and connected it to his concept of the infinitely small, which was an essential epiphany on the way to the calculus. His solution was that non-living things have a finite chain of causation. In other words (he didn’t imagine atoms), at a very small scale, water or air or a rock were just uniform substances.

The special thing about life is that it is subject to infinite chains of causality. Living things are mechanical, like the non-living world, but the mechanisms cannot be traced to a first cause, because their is no first cause. At each level, there is another level beneath it that is responsible for the behavior at the next level up. “And so proceed ad infinitum.

Justin E. H. Smith’s review of Ohad Nachtomy’s book on Leibniz

We may think of this as a mistake, or we may think of it as an ingenious solution to a problem that is not fully resolved in 21st Century physics. Modern approaches to the question of free will tend to start from quantum mechanics, but who knows but that a hundred years from now, scientists might believe that Leibniz was closer to the truth in the 17th Century than we are in the 21st.

In this quote, Leibniz sounds like a panpsychist.

My philosophical views approach somewhat closely those of the late Countess of Conway, and hold a middle position between Plato and Democritus, because I hold that all things take place mechanically as Democritus and Descartes contend against the views of Henry More and his followers, and hold too, nevertheless, that everything takes place according to a living principle and according to final causes — all things are full of life and consciousness, contrary to the views of the Atomists.

Chaque substance est comme un monde à part, indépendant de toute autre chose, hors de Dieu…
(Every substance is as a world apart, independent of everything else except God.)

…and here he sounds more like an Platonist or perhaps a Kastrup-style idealist.

Although the whole of this life were said to be nothing but a dream and the physical world nothing but a phantasm, I should call this dream or phantasm real enough, if, using reason well, we were never deceived by it.

He took seriously the question that every atheist asks today, “If God is all-good and all-powerful, how come the human world is so fucked-up?”

Il y a deux labyrinthes fameux où notre raison s’égare bien souvent : l’un regarde la grande question du libre et du nécessaire, surtout dans la production et dans l’origine du mal ; l’autre consiste dans la discussion de la continuité et des indivisibles qui en paraissent les éléments, et où doit entrer la considération de l’infini.

There are two famous labyrinths where our reason very often goes astray. One concerns the great question of the free and the necessary, above all in the production and the origin of Evil. The other consists in the discussion of continuity, and of the indivisibles which appear to be the elements thereof, and where the consideration of the infinite must enter in.

Image result for devil cartoon

I do not believe that a world without evil, preferable in order to ours, is possible; otherwise it would have been preferred. It is necessary to believe that the mixture of evil has produced the greatest possible good: otherwise the evil would not have been permitted. The combination of all the tendencies to the good has produced the best; but as there are goods that are incompatible together, this combination and this result can introduce the destruction of some good, and as a result some evil.

Leibniz also foreshadowed the modern penchant for many universes, which has become the mainstream approach to the Anthropic Coincidences, and which only Max Tegmark carries to its logical conclusion.

Omne possibile exigit existere. (Everything that is possible demands to exist.)



Boredom is so endemic to our culture, particularly among youth, that we imagine it to be a near-universal default state of human existence. In the absence of outside stimuli we are bored. Yet, as Ziauddin Sardar observes, boredom is virtually unique to Western culture (and by extension to the global culture it increasingly dominates). “Bedouins,” he writes, “can sit for hours in the desert, feeling the ripples of time, without being bored.”

Image result for boredom cell phone

Whence comes this feeling we call boredom, the discomfort of having nothing to occupy our minds? Boredom—nothing to do—is intolerable because it puts us face to face with the wound of separation.

Charles Eisenstein

Eisenstein speaks of the separation as the disease of modern (especially Western) man. We are animals and Gaia is our home. Beginning with monoculture-style agriculture, we have come to see the living Earth as commodities and resources to be exploited, “things” rather than living, feeling beings, or even parts of a living whole.

It’s not just Bedouins. Almost everyone knows how to enjoy leisure better than urban North Americans. Africans and South Americans laugh five times as often as we do. Indians, four times. Pacific Islanders, eight times.

Indulge me while I speculate, half-seriously, that bacterial life is one of near-constant bliss, akin to a perpetual state of sexual union with the universe. When we humans engage in sexual intercourse we recover, for a few moments, a state of being that was once the baseline of existence in a time of greater union and less separation. — CE