[percy-l] Re:Seminal events of consciousness

Wade Riddick wriddick at usa.net
Fri Dec 13 00:54:00 EST 2002

>I think you are much in line with how Percy would describe the matter.
>However  I think a case can also be made that the discovery of the abstract
>notion of existence was the seminal event from which consciousness sprang
>and not vice versa.

Seminal events here are quite literally more important than one would
otherwise think.

I'm rather surprised by the relative lack of attention being paid to
current science in this debate since it's changed so dramatically since
Percy's lifetime.  There is a preponderance of genetic evidence beginning
to show up about exactly how *unique* - not common, but *unique* - man's
ability to use language is in the animal kingdom.  The old '60s approach of
assuming animals - however intelligent and cunning - are in our same class
has fallen by the wayside.  You're attacking a straw man who doesn't exist
any longer high up in the food chain of scientific research.  At least one
clear genetic mutation critical for language has already been identified,
although no one's quite sure how it functions.

There are a lot of supporting players in the human genome as well -
especially our advanced immune system and larger cranial capacity.  The
human brain burns a huge amount of calories, making it a far more important
organ in humans relative to other animals and a far larger drain on
metabolism.  That kind of development requires both dedication from parents
raising children and extra time in the womb and extra resources from mom
for the brain to develop.

Human children are exceptionally vulnerable to the elements when born and
require a great deal of care.  That much everyone on the list probably
understands.  It's easy to see that, speaking in terms of evolution, sex is
biologically one perk that keeps the parents together.  Evolution has
manipulated us to bond this way.  The longer the parents are together, the
better shot junior has.  Extended social bonds are extremely important.
There's even interesting work on the important role of maternal
grandmothers.  (At childbirth, no one exclaims, "Get this kid some genetic
testing!  I need to know who the mother is, stat!")

What's more interesting is how sex itself seems to synchronize the parents'
immune systems and how this influences brain development in the womb.
Believe it or not, one of the crucial factors permitting the larger human
brain seems to be sperm - particularly an inflammatory cytokine expressed
in it called TGF-beta.  If humans were like average mammals, they'd be
kicked out of mom's comfortable abode by the fourth to fifth month.  As
human moms know, they're not that lucky.

A human fetus is quite aggressive at going after the resources in mom's
bloodstream needed for brain development.  This quest for nutrients means
if more stuff is coming in from mom, more stuff is going out from junior.
To a degree I don't think is seen in other mammals, there's substantial
transfer of genetic material across the placental barrier.  Mothers can
wind up with cells from their children scattered all over their bodies...
and yet their immune systems don't reject it as foreign material.  They
have acquired some sort of immunity.  (The relative leniency required of a
woman's immune system may explain why women are far more likely to suffer
from autoimmune problems like lupus.  The immune system might not kill off
defective cells inside her own body until they grow into a real menace and
then she overreacts to all tissues of a given type.)

How do mothers acquire this immunity?

Sex.  Oodles of sex.

At least, that's what it's beginning to look like... and this is all
relative to, say, a wombat... not that I'm a student of wombat love or
anything.  I mean, I'm sure it's great and all.  It's just not for me.
(There I go, projecting again.)

Er, where was I?

One of the ways a mother's body rejects her fetus is through preeclampsia.
Women who engage in sex for a year prior to conception are noticeably less
likely to suffer from preeclampsia.  There's also a difference in
preeclampsia rates for women who engage in oral sex during pregnancy,
although these results will have to be verified with wider studies.  The
TGF-beta in sperm primes the vagina not to reject sperm as foreign
material, otherwise inflammation and possibly allergy would result (which
does sometimes happen).  Beyond that, somewhere, somehow some sperm are
ferried into the limbic system where the mother's friend or foe systems are
told by TGF-B to recognize these codes as friendly.  Once she's pregnant
and these codes start invading her bloodstream, she doesn't respond as if
she's being "infected."  The baby's brain gets enough nutrients to fully
develop and the world's smartest creature continues to produce offspring.
(The cost?  TGF-B is an inflammatory cytokine key to the growth of certain
cancers.  Most men experience prostate swelling in their life or even
cancer.  Maybe there's a connection.)

Animals have feelings.  They have some level of awareness, which varies.
Dogs in particular have evolved to read and respond to human cues quite
efficiently in the last ten thousand years.  A few species are monogamous
as a mating strategy.  Animals even have some level of tool use.  Until a
Dr. Frankenstein intervenes, animal brains are still qualitatively
different from ours.  Animals have plenty of the sparks of consciousness
here and there but none of the fire itself.

In mankind, not only is the nature of communication different, so too is
the nature of sexual attraction and what it means.  Is it any wonder man
discovers the upside (and downside) of sex and the fruits of the Tree in
the same parable?  Both words and sex are about reproducing oneself.  The
Garden of Eden brings us creation in a divine image, words with which to
express ourselves (flowing from the Word itself), a partner with whom to
reproduce and communicate, dominion over the earth, (pent?)ultimate
knowledge and, of course, suffering and mortality (which the other tools
allow us to escape).  The one thing perhaps stripped from all this in the
modern era is the responsibility and gratitude that's supposed to go with

This is a summary of scientific material I've read in recent _Newsweek_,
_Scientific American_ and _New York Times_ editions.  I offer it to show
you how much stranger the evolution of language is than any one of us would
have thought ten years ago.  You may be able to find abstracts to the
original studies here in the PubMed abstract database:


Run a search for "TGF-B sperm."

My body has been overproducing cytokines for years now with adverse
consequences for my neurons.  Beyond carpal and cubital tunnel, at one
point even my speaking skills were endangered by the swelling, so it was
inevitable in my quest for better health I would come across these links.
If you want me to tell you about ovarian cysts, prostate cancer and that
soda machine in your high school, I can do that too.

P.S.  Republicans are homo sapiens too, though their knuckles have been
dragging a bit of late.

P.P.S.  The goal of evolution isn't dominance, it's success; reproduction
of our selfish genes.  The issue here isn't the survival of an individual
animal, but of a group of genes, which might well lead an animal to
sacrifice itself for the good of the family.  That makes all the difference
in the economics of the problem.

P.P.P.S.  Saying that the process is not unique, therefore the product of
some process is not unique is saying two very different things.  It's not
possible for us to know all the "initial conditions" of God's experiment,
so determining the rules of the game doesn't necessarily rule out divine
intervention.  If a random mutation occurred a hundred thousand years ago
and lead to the development of human language, what caused it?  We'll go up
and down the causal chain in endless circles finding multiple historical
contingencies we can only guess about.  The level of entropy is such that
the system can never be completely represented by anything other than the
system itself.  Some things will always remain mysteries.  Our
comprehension of the universe will always remain incomplete..

P.P.P.P.S.  As per information acquired from the Sci-Fi mini-series,
_Taken_, I can now authoritatively state that Bert's space-baby is the
source of rush hour traffic congestion.  (Or was that _Soap_?  I forget.
One's funnier and they both make about as much sense.)  I need to go now
and get drunk and use my considerable psychic powers to make crop circles
in a corn field with my flying saucer.  'Cause, you know, when you can
traverse the galaxies on a whim, that's what you love to spend your time
doing most: scribbling geometric nonsense on midwestern USDA welfare
alfalfa to entertain the myth-less _Enquirer_ readers in search of myth.

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