Thursday, June 14, 2018

THE SECOND COMING OF FLOWERS

In his essay, How Flowers Changed the World, famed anthropologist Loren Eisley described the first coming of flowers, 100 million years ago:
Once upon a time there were no flowers at all.... only the cold dark monotonous green of a world whose plant life possessed no other color.
Alice Hargrave
Somewhere, just a short time before the close of the age of reptiles, there occurred a soundless violent explosion. It lasted millions of years, but it was an explosion, nevertheless. It marked the emergence of the angiosperms--the flowering plants.... Flowers changed the face of the planet. Without them, the world we know--even man himself--would never have existed. 
Eisley explains that, in addition to covering the world with beautiful colors, the seeds from flowering plants created superior sources of energy which fueled new species with faster metabolisms and higher functioning brains: 
The agile brain of the warm-blooded birds and mammals demands a high oxygen consumption and food in concentrated forms, or the creatures cannot long sustain themselves. It was the rise of the flowering plants that provided that energy and changed the nature of the living world.
 That was the first coming of flowers.

Once upon a time people lived without pictures in their daily lives.  Yes, there were a few select murals and paintings in palaces and temples, but people had no posters, prints, calendars, illustrated books or other pictures in their homes or workplaces or on their streets. From the beginning of the world until a few hundred years ago, people lived essentially without images.  

Then slowly another "soundless, violent explosion" occurred. The industrial revolution began in Great Britain in the second half of the 18th century and it brought new methods of paper-making and reproduction techniques that made volume printing possible. Signs, billboards and posters began to pop up on public streets.

Henry Sumner Watson 
Bigger and faster steam-powered presses, lithography, new systems of distribution, color reproduction, etc. combined with new prosperity from mass audiences to spread images around the earth.  Just as flowers transformed the plant world with colors and shapes, pictures transformed the human made world.

Harry Grant Dart
This transformation of our environment with bits of aesthetic meaning took place in what geologists would consider a blink of an eye.

 

The trasformation is far from complete.  Today images continue to proliferate at an increasing rate.  Hundreds of web sites such as pinterest, flickr and deviantart are dense with pictures accessible to anyone in high rez form with the push of a button.  Now images not only move, they're interactive and created by artificial intelligence.

The significance of these two great transformations is more than merely aesthetic.  Just as flowering plants provided concentrated fuel that helped brains advance, I suspect the democratization of pictures  affects minds with content, nuance, imagination and diversity in more digestible forms than words could do. Just as modern graphic design proved successful in stimulating new forms of consumer demand, images can stimulate a wide range of activity.

In view of what happened last time, who can say where it will lead?

12 comments:

Tom Sarmo said...

Thanks for this blog, David--I appreciate it more with each post.

chris bennett said...

If we are talking about altering the human brain the two phenomena are not comparable. Evolutionary outcomes from the emergence of flowering plants depends on Darwinian mechanisms. Granted that the proliferation of images within our culture does change social structures and mental habits within individual lifetimes by way of a transposed version of Darwinian theory, it does not however alter the physical nature of the human brain because it is not impacting on the actual survival of the organisms themselves.

David Apatoff said...

Tom Sarmo-- Thanks very much, kind of you to say.

Chris Bennett-- I concur that the first change (flowers) gave our brain fuel that enabled its metabolism to function at a higher level while the second change (pictures) gave the brain new kinds of concepts to process. But as I understand the current science regarding the transformation of the human brain, I'm not sure that "evolutionary outcomes" can be tracked as directly as you suggest.

We currently use only a small fraction of our brain's capacity, so our brains couldn't have emerged 100,000 years ago in direct response to environmental needs. Nature seems to have endowed us with a luxury organ far in excess of the demands made by our natural environment. Not only that, it's a complex and delicate organ that drains our energy faster than an iPhone runs down its battery so if our brain is an evolutionary adaptation designed to help us survive, it's ways are pretty darn inscrutable . In the words of Koestler, "Evolution is supposed to cater for adaptive demands; in this case the goods delivered anticipated the demand by a time-stretch of geological magnitude."

So, is our perception and evaluation of symbolic images thawing out unused powers of the brain? I have no clue.


kev ferrara said...

In the words of Koestler, "Evolution is supposed to cater for adaptive demands; in this case the goods delivered anticipated the demand by a time-stretch of geological magnitude."

Given our oceanic ignorance about the subject, this assertion is premature to the point of absurdity. The theory of evolution is utterly incomplete. The oldest DNA we've analyzed is only a few thousand years old. We have no clue how the genome actually works. Consciousness is a complete mystery. The subconscious even more so. And the state of brain scan technology is still blindingly inadequate so we don't even know the complete biology, let alone being able to see it all function in real time in a living subject, let alone being able to accurately interpret such data and map it to an actual thought. For all we know, we might be a thousand years away from the proper technology and understanding.

With what primitive, immobile and clunky equipment we have at this moment, we can't even get out of the lab. (See the images here: https://medicine.yale.edu/pet/ ) So it shouldn't need pointing out that to this day there hasn't been a single micro-second's worth of a decent brain scan of a single normal human being doing normal human being things outside of a metal hull. Let alone a fugitive warrior trying to fashion a weapon in hiding while under the duress of a tribal attack. Or a pregnant woman going into labor in the midst of a violent political revolution while writing her last will and testament.

Meanwhile Koestler wrote that essay in 1959, when the best tools we had for brain analysis was a bone saw and a microscope.

MORAN said...

That Watson painting is awesome. Who is he?

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- if you've found the epilogue to Koestler's brilliant book, The Sleepwalkers, I hope you read the whole thing. Written in 1959, I find it one of the most deeply inspiring essays I've read. In fact, I strongly recommend the entire book. Koestler was not a neurologist but he hung out with international experts and with professors from Oxford and Cambridge with whom he discussed these issues. Koestler agrees with you that we are a long way from understanding the functioning of the brain, but I don't think it's terribly controversial to say, even 60 years after Koestler's book, that we only seem to be using a small percentage of our brain for the functions we understand.

Personally, I think you (and Koestler) understate the progress we've made in observing brain functions. I recently participated in a research program involving the NSF, Disney Research and some friendly folks from MIT which drew upon state of the art brain scanning functions , and was bowled over (in good and bad ways) by what they're currently investigating. I can't speak to the basic research, but the applied research has galloped forward thanks to the entertainment industry and the Pentagon.

MORAN-- Yes, I think it's one of his better ones. There's actually a lot of restraint involved in that implied detail.

kev ferrara said...

I don't think it's terribly controversial to say, even 60 years after Koestler's book, that we only seem to be using a small percentage of our brain for the functions we understand.

That's a more agreeable statement, and a more nuanced one.

I would add, however, that more brain use is not necessarily more usefulness for the kind of things you and I are interested in and hopeful to see advancing; like depth of thinking, subtlety, meaning, creativity, care of craftsmanship, reflection, logic, love, openness to experience, consideration, thematic thinking, appreciation, and so on. After all, as I'm sure you're aware; in all cases so far where we've see great surges of activity in the brain, the cause is either a seizure or some other negative event. As far as I know, anyway. Further on this line; A great difference between the human and chimp mind is just how much more prevalent are inhibitory neurons than excitatory. There might very well be a hormetic aspect to brain activity and even thought itself. Especially given that the best thoughts are not proliferative, but, rather, are synthesized from chaos and edited down to the essence. An open mind that never closes is no more useful than a closed mind that never opens.

I would feel more comfortable assuming that we eked through evolution's crucible because we were just clever enough to survive. The idea that we were gifted by some miracle dormant superbrains far in advance of necessity seems fanciful. Unless, again, there is something going on in evolution that we really don't understand yet, which is surely possible.

You say you "participated" in this NSF-Disney-MIT program. Were you scanned?

By the way, I love that Dart advertising picture. I had no idea he was so funny, having mostly seen only his aerofantastic vehicles. He is underrated, in my view.

chris bennett said...

We currently use only a small fraction of our brain's capacity, so our brains couldn't have emerged 100,000 years ago in direct response to environmental needs. Nature seems to have endowed us with a luxury organ far in excess of the demands made by our natural environment.

In that case are you positing that this 'luxury organ' has emerged from some process hidden from our current model of how we understand the process of evolution?

√ėyvind Lauvdahl said...

"Despite his new eyes, man was still rooted in matter, his soul spun into it and subordinated to its blind laws. And yet he could see matter as a stranger, compare himself to all phenomena, see through and locate his vital processes." - P.W.Zappfe (echoing Schopenhauer), "The Last Messiah", 1933.




Packers And Movers Hyderabad said...

nice post i really enjoyed to read your post Thanks for share...!!
I regard something truly interesting about your web blog so I saved to favorites .
Packers And Movers Hyderabad

WritePaperFor.me said...

I love reading your illustrations. Thank you very much. Write more.

https://papercoach.net/ said...

Thank you for this post. This is very interesting information for me.