Tag Archives: PBS

‘The Brain with David Eagleman’

I’ve really been enjoying the PBS series “The Brain with David Eagleman” (here at Eagleman’s website, and here at PBS) over the last three episodes, and apparently there are a total of 6 episodes. What I’ve been seeing has prompted me to do more of my own thinking about reality, consciousness, etc.

I’m not sure how long the whole episodes will be available online, but here’s the link for the first one:


The second episode:


The third episode:


More episodes here.

I’m 2.7% ‘Neanderthal’: The language of evolution

According to a recent analysis of my DNA done by this company (which was a company used by Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s series “Finding Your Roots” on the PBS), 2.7 of my genetic material comes from Neanderthals.


Not that this amount of Neanderthal makes me unique — I’m only at the 41st percentile. But it was only recently that it humans were understood to have any Neanderthal ancestry at all. But knowing this about myself, I watch shows about Neanderthals, like this one I watched last night, in a different way than I used to. They’re my people — well, are Neanderthals people? I guess it depends how we define people.

Definitions like this matter a lot when we start talking about genetics and evolution, as “Your Inner Fish” does (also, here). Watching episode 2 — “Your Inner Reptile” — last night, I was struck by how easy it is, when talking about evolution, to make it seem like evolution is an active force that guides/aims the change in organisms toward the end of becoming what they have become, rather than thinking of evolution as a passive descriptor of an essentially random process that it technically is.

I’m not a biologist (and if I’m getting this wrong, I’d appreciate hearing from an evolutionary expert), but my understanding of evolution is that the act that causes alterations to the bodies of a certain line of creatures over generations is genetic change in new offspring. Due to sexual recombination of genes, as well as random mutations that occur, individual creatures are born with features that may be different than what any parent has. For a crude example, perhaps a baby squirrel is born with four eyes. And, while many new features are useless or even harmful to the individual creature, perhaps having four eyes helps that creature survive and reproduce more than its fellow squirrels. Eventually, four-eyed squirrels could be so much more successful at living and reproducing than normal two-eyed squirrels that eventually all of the squirrels that get born and survive are four-eyed squirrels.

Now, of course, none of the two-eyed squirrels became four-eyed squirrels. No squirrel born without four eyes would spontaneously start to grow four eyes. A squirrel is born with the genes it gets, and even if some person decided to give that squirrel two additional eyes via surgical implantation, that squirrel would not have the genes to create children with four eyes. (Of course, there could be genetic engineering to do such a thing, and some bacteria just share their genes).

And so lately I’ve been thinking that what we label as “evolution” is an abstraction used to describe the perception of physical changes in successive generations of offspring. This is associated with the idea that each person alive now (assuming no human has yet been made in a lab from one parent’s doubled genes) must have had ancestors going back to, well, when life first started. I am here because my parents created me, and their parents created them, and so on, back to the first molecules that could replicate themselves. So I come from a genetic line of individuals who were successful at reproducing themselves going back to early humans, to proto-humans, to proto-mammals, to creatures who looked more like reptiles, to creatures who looked more like fish, to single-celled organisms.

And the change between any two generations, children compared to parent, was likely quite small — the big changes, like from one species of proto-human to Homo sapiens, can be seen only by comparing individuals who are millions of years (and many, many generations) apart.

But of course, to label different creatures as being of differing species is to draw distinctions that are perhaps useful but certainly arbitrary. (Yes, a species is defined here as “the largest group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring,” but of course, this boundary is apparent only many, many generations after the original divergence).  Any two individual organisms that are compared will have some things in common but not other things. The term “evolution” then is applied to explain these differences in individuals where one individual may be an ancestor of the other, but “evolution” is not itself a physical entity. Physical organs are touchable things, as are offspring, but “evolution” is an abstraction.

‘Word World’ and the problem of plurals

“It’s time to build a word. Let’s build it. Let’s build it now.”

So incant the various animals-made-of-letters-that-spell-out-the-English-word-that-names-the-animal in the PBS animated show “Word World,” and upon that incantation, familiar-looking 3-D sans serif letters morph into the new shape of the thing the letters spell. In the clip below, the letters P,I, and E form a pie.

So, OK, I can accept the operating principle of this fictional world, even if it has some metaphysical problems (see “Notes” below). What concerns and interests me philosophically is the problem of plurals.

When there is one pie, it can be accurately labeled pie. However, Pig needs multiple pies. Ant advises, “when you add the letter ‘S’ to the end of a word, it makes more than one,” which is sorta backwards as to how we use the language, but OK, I’ll play along. So Pig adds an “S”:

word world pies1And the transmogrification happens and results in this monstrosity,word world pies2which can never be. This is a lie. There is clearly one pie here, not multiple pies.

Here’s the thing: any plural is an abstraction. It is a grouping together of things that of the same category. Declaring a plural is drawing an invisible tether around several things and labeling that grouping.

For example, on a bookshelf, there are many elements of the set named “books.” But each physical book may have different title and text and size, etc. And even if there are two copies of the same title, these are unique, particular entities: one book may have underlining or tears that the other doesn’t. So we can call all these objects together “books” only by ignoring their particularities.

And this is what we do when we label 20 students in a classroom “a class.” There is no class, I tell my students. There are 20 individual people, each with their own minds and concepts, and I can teach them all as a class by, more or less, ignoring their individual differences and teaching to what I imagine as some abstract “average student” — or teaching to particular students in class and hoping that if they understand, others do, too.  Of course, we teachers are often told to “differentiate instruction” to every particular student, a lovely idea but a practical impossibility in a classroom setting.

(Of course, there’s a further issue with identifying and labeling any given entity by comparing the given particular thing against one’s abstract concepts, and so there may not be any particular necessary term for anything: For instance, what is a chair? How define it? At the edges of the definition, we will likely be judging, essentially arbitrarily, what is and what isn’t a chair.)

And perhaps this is the biggest misconception we teachers see in the entire endeavor of having a common curriculum and standardized testing. We work with individual students as best we can, and we see the frustration of asking every student to be able to do the same exact skills as every other student. We know that not all students have the same interests, abilities, motivations, etc. It may be admirable to suggest that every student can achieve great things, but surely not every high school senior needs to write narratives with “multiple plot lines, to develop experiences.”

(There are those who have said that the standards movement should have been implemented as individual goals set for each particular student rather than universal dictates for all, but there was never enough time to make the former happen, and the latter is way too convenient to those who wish to make all the students standardized so the entire function of education can be quantified. This urge to quantify, and teach only what can be quantified, is a problem, as Stanley Fish recently pointed out.)

By the way, after Pig makes the singularity of the “pies” pie, the instability of the situation leads to a modest explosion into individual pies

word world pies3and we viewers are left to group each individual pie into “pies” — which is what we abstract thinkers do to our physical reality all the time.

Notes on metaphysical ambiguities of “Word World”:

There would seem to be three categories of physical reality in “Word World.” One, there are characters and objects made of letters that approximate the shape of the entity named. The character Pig has ears and a snouted face sticking out of a puffily drawn “P,” and the “I” and “G” follow as the thorax and hindquarters, respectively.  But these letters spell “PIG” only if Pig is viewed from its left side — from the right, it’s one letter short of playing for Notre Dame.

Two, there are three-dimensional letters, such as “S” in the video clip and image above, which can transform into something that absorbs the qualities of the word it spells. (And in some other episodes, the objects will break apart, returning the letters to initial sans-serif form, and the object’s physical properties (like the ability of Duck’s “BAT” to confer momentum on a ball) are gone. Thus, somehow the complete spelling of a word makes the letters more than just letters, more than the sum of their parts, like adding the magician’s hat to Frosty turns him alive. In this way, correct spelling is a way of conjuring, or perhaps even giving life. One wonders what would happen to the physical incarnation of things spelled incorrectly — would terrible things be given existence — as when Bart Simpson created the creature who said his every moment of existence is torture (here)?

Third, not all objects are made from letters. In the video above, the window frame isn’t made out of “window frame,” nor is glass “glass,” nor is the table “table.” This suggests some kind of horrifying arbitrariness to the whole physical realm. Are only important things spelled out, so that if I awoke in that realm and found out that I was not spelled out, I would know that I was not a Main Character, not one of the Chosen Ones?  Such a world would make the picking of leaders laughably easy, but then such a world would imply the existence of an involved, caretaking Creator, no? And so the characters in “Word World” turn out to not have free will — as we who are aware of the show AS a show know that they do not? Thus, it’s perhaps not possible to watch “Word World” as a show, but only as a meta-show?

So perhaps an animated, metaphysically ornate show about spelling reveals something foundational about the nature of representation?

UPDATE: See also this post.