Saturday, October 03, 2009

Robert Kegan & Lisa Lahey - Three Stages of Mind

The following passage comes from Robert Kegan & Lisa Lahey's Immunity to Change, a great book I first discovered through Vince Horn's site, Numinous Nonsense.

In this section from early in the book, Kegan and Lahey describe the three basic stages of complexity they are working with in their experience with leaders from various fields - for those familiar with Kegan's work, these three stages seem to correspond to his Interpersonal Self (3), Institutional Self (4), and Inter-Individual Self (5) from The Evolving Self.
Socialized Mind

Having a socialized mind dramatically influences both the sending and receiving aspects of information flow at work. If this is the level of mental complexity with which I view the world, then what I think to send will be strongly influenced by what I believe others want to hear. You may be familiar with the classic group-think studies, which show team members withholding crucial information from collective decision processes because (it is later learned in follow-up research) “although I knew the plan had almost no chance of succeeding, I saw that the leader wanted our support.”

Some of these groupthink studies were originally done in Asian cultures where withholding team members talked about “saving face” of leaders and not subjecting them to shame, even at the price of setting the company on a losing path. The studies were often presented as if they were uncovering a particularly cultural phenomenon. Similarly, Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience-to-authority research was originally undertaken to fathom the mentality of “the good German,” and what about the German culture could enable otherwise decent, nonsadistic people to carry out orders to exterminate millions of Jews and Poles.1 But Milgram, in practice runs of his data-gathering method, was surprised to find “good Germans” all over Main Street, U.S.A., and although we think of sensitivity to shame as a particular feature of Asian culture, the research of Irving Janis and Paul t’Hart has made clear that group-think is as robust a phenomenon in Texas and Toronto as it is in Tokyo and Taiwan.2 It is a phenomenon that owes its origin not to culture, but to complexity of mind.

The socialized mind also strongly influences how information is received and attended to. When maintaining alignment with important others and valued “surrounds” is crucial to the coherence of one’s very being, the socialized mind is highly sensitive to, and influenced by, what it picks up. And what it picks up often runs far beyond the explicit message. It may well include the results of highly invested attention to imagined subtexts that may have more impact on the receiver than the intended message. This is often astonishing and dismaying to leaders who cannot understand how subordinates could possibly have “made that sense out of this” communication, but because the receiver’s signal-to-noise detector may be highly distorted, the actual information that comes through may have only a distant relationship to the sender’s intention.

Self-Authoring Mind

Let’s contrast all this with the self-authoring mind. If I view the world from this level of mental complexity, what I “send” is more likely to be a function of what I deem others need to hear to best further the agenda or mission of my design. Consciously or unconsciously, I have a direction, an agenda, a stance, a strategy, an analysis of what is needed, a prior context from which my communication arises. My direction or plan may be an excellent one, or it may be riddled with blind spots. I may be masterful or inept at recruiting others to invest themselves in this direction. These matters implicate other aspects of the self. But mental complexity strongly influences whether my information sending is oriented toward getting behind the wheel in order to drive (the self-authoring mind) or getting myself included in the car so I can be driven (the socialized mind).

We can see a similar mindset operating when “receiving” as well. The self-authoring mind creates a filter for what it will allow to come through. It places a priority on receiving the information it has sought. Next in importance is information whose relevance to my plan, stance, or frame is immediately clear. Information I haven’t asked for, and which does not have obvious relevance to my own design for action, has a much tougher time making it through my filter.

It is easy to see how all of this could describe an admirable capacity for focus, for distinguishing the important from the urgent, for making best use of one’s limited time by having a means to cut through the unending and ever-mounting claims on one’s attention. This speaks to the way the self-authoring mind is an advance over the socialized mind. But this same description may also be a recipe for disaster if one’s plan or stance is flawed in some way, if it leaves out some crucial element of the equation not appreciated by the filter, or if the world changes in such a way that a once-good frame becomes an antiquated one.

Self-Transforming Mind

In contrast, the self-transforming mind also has a filter, but is not fused with it. The self-transforming mind can stand back from its own filter and look at it, not just through it. And why would it do so? Because the self-transforming mind both values and is wary about any one stance, analysis, or agenda. It is mindful that, powerful though a given design might be, this design almost inevitably leaves something out. It is aware that it lives in time and that the world is in motion, and what might have made sense today may not make as much sense tomorrow.

Therefore, when communicating, people with self-transforming minds are not only advancing their agenda and design. They are also making space for the modification or expansion of their agenda or design. Like those with self-authoring minds, what they send may include inquiries and requests for information. But rather than inquiring only within the frame of their design (seeking information that will advance their agenda), they are also inquiring about the design itself. They are seeking information that may lead them or their team to enhance, refine, or alter the original design or make it more inclusive. Information sending is not just on behalf of driving; it is also to remake the map or reset the direction.

Similarly, the way the self-transforming mind receives information includes the advantages of the self-authoring mind’s filter, but is not a prisoner of that filter. People at this level of mental complexity can still focus, select, and drive when they feel they have a good map. But they place a higher priority on information that may also alert them to the limits of their current design or frame. They value their filter and its ability to separate the wheat from the chaff, but they know it can also screen out “the golden chaff,” the unasked-for, the anomaly, the apparently inconsequential that may be just what is needed to turn the design on its head and bring it to the next level of quality.

Those with self-transforming minds are more likely to have the chance even to consider such information, because people are more likely to send it to them. Why is this? Because those with self-transforming minds not only attend to information once it gets to their door; they also realize their behavior can have a big effect, upstream, on whether people decide to approach the door. Others are not left guessing whether to send potentially “off-mission” communication they judge to be important. They send it because people with self-transforming minds have found ways to let them know such information will be welcomed.
The purpose of this particular book is to elucidate the various immunities we all have to change from one level to the next, even when change is the desired outcome. Most of us have some sort of virus protection that blocks the change process and maintains the status quo. More important that changing our behaviors is identifying and dealing with these "hidden competing commitments" that keep us stuck where we are.

Learning this technology so that we can use it with clients seems highly desirable if we want to be effective change agents as therapists. However, what fascinates me as a psychology student is how we might build this knowledge into our education programs for therapists. Essentially, I want to know how we can grow Self-Transforming Therapists within the two to three years we are in training.

I think it goes without saying that the more complex and developed out thinking is as therapists, the more effective we will be with clients. With complexity comes a greater ability to take the role of the other - often known as empathy - and feel our way into the experience of our clients. More than three decades of studies have repeatedly shown that the specific therapeutic intervention is not as important as the therapeutic relationship between the client and the therapist (Smith and Glass, 1977).

If we can help therapists evolve in our complexity of thinking - allowing us to build better relationships with our clients - as part of the education process, we are likely to produce better and more effective therapists.

I think I will be trying to develop an article around this idea at some point, which more than likely will be posted here, so stay tuned.

Smith, M. L., & Glass, G. V. (1977). Meta-analysis of psychotherapy outcome studies.
American Psychologist, 32, 752–760.
[Author's note: This study has been replicated many times since its inception.]

Is Soy the Ticket to Good Health or Infertility - Here's the Scoop By Sarah Irani, EcoSalon

I am not a fan of soy, and I think it poses more problems than it offers in benefits. This article takes a clear look at some of the evidence.

Is Soy the Ticket to Good Health or Infertility -- Here's the Scoop

By Sarah Irani, EcoSalon. Posted October 3, 2009.

Some tout soy products as a panacea for health and wellness, while others swear that soy is a sure ticket to infertility and "man boobs." What are the facts?

The topic of soy can create a big debate among healthy folks, and the viewpoints can be extreme. Who knew a humble green bean could be so controversial? Some tout soy products as a panacea for health and wellness, while others swear that soy is a sure ticket to infertility and "man boobs". What are the facts?

Aren't Asian cultures particularly healthy because of consumption of soy?

Asians don't actually eat as much soy as we think -- only about 10-36 grams per day. In contrast, a cup of tofu or soy milk contains over 200 grams of soy. Besides, the most common soy foods in Asia are fermented products such as tempeh, miso and shoyu (soy sauce), while most Westerners eat unfermented, highly processed versions of soy. Unfermented soy contains enzyme inhibitors that block protein digestion (among other things we'll get to below).

Isn't soy healthy because it's a natural plant product?

Most soy foods are highly processed and bear very little resemblance to the natural soybean (think soy hotdogs or TVP -- textured vegetable protein). Just because something is touted as a "health" food, doesn't really make it healthy. Whole foods are always the best way to get your food nutrition -- the more processed a food is, the less natural and ultimately less healthy it is.

What's so wrong with soy hotdogs and TVP anyway? Aren't they good, protein-rich, meat substitutes?

Soy is more filler than food. For many years, the protein left over from the extraction of soy oil was sold to farms as animal feed. After some time, the food industry figured out how to make this highly processed soy protein palatable to the human tongue and began to aggressively market it in foods like soy dogs, soy meat substitutes and the like. Sure, there's protein, but it also takes quite a bit of sugar, salt or MSG to make soy protein actually taste good. The healthiest foods are whole foods, not processed ones.

How will a diet heavy in soy impact my health?

Unfermented soy can inhibit protein absorption, cause flatulence and increase the chance of developing kidney stones. The processing of soy may remove some of these problems. Soy also inhibits growth. Even within the animal feed industry, the amount of soy protein that can be fed to animals has to be limited or the animals themselves will suffer problems with growth and fertility.

What's up with genetically modified soy?

Most soy grown in the world is genetically modified (GM) -- with 87% of American soy being GM. And what's the big deal about that? Not a lot of research has been done on the effects of GM foods, but one particular study on rats showed that unborn babies and young infants were particularly harmed by the effects of genetically modified soy.

But aren't a lot of infants fed soy-based formulas?

Soy infant formula, a common alternative to cow's milk for lactose-intolerant babies, contains endocrine disruptors and phytoestrogens, plant hormones which have been shown to cause premature puberty in young girls and delayed puberty in adolescent boys. It's a bit like giving a baby birth control pills. Soy infant formula also contributes to soy allergies. (Breast milk is undoubtedly the best food for babies, and if that's not an option, goat's milk is the next best thing to try.)

Speaking of allergies…

Soy is among the 8 most common food allergens, with reactions being particularly common among children.

Would this have anything to do with pesticides?

That remains uncertain. However, unless you buy strictly organic, you can bet your soy products are heavily contaminated with pesticides. As a matter of fact, soy is the most contaminated crop we grow in the United States. And don't forget, non-organic soy is almost certainly genetically modified as well.

How has the demand for soy affected the Amazon rainforest?

The huge global demand for soy (for use in processed foods, animal feed and biofuels) is eating up the rainforest, because farmers have been financially motivated to clear more rainforest land in order to plant this export crop. More deforestation, more global warming.

But still, aren't soy farms providing jobs?

Actually, for many, soy farming is less like employment and more like slavery. Although slavery was officially outlawed in Brazil over 130 years ago, debt bondage for over 25,000 people continues on Brazilian soy plantations. This is not the kind of farming industry I want to support.

Bottom line: soy is not the magical health food that many tout it to be. Let's be clear, however, that fermented soy products don't carry the same negative consequences as unfermented, highly processed soy foods. So if you're shopping for miso or tempeh, make sure to choose brands that are organic and not genetically modified. And if you've been depending on tofu (an unfermented food) for vegetarian protein, try out some of these other vegetarian proteins instead.

Survival of the Kindest by Eric Michael Johnson

Cool article from Seed Magazine, a review of Frans de Waal's The Age of Empathy.

Survival of the Kindest

Reviews / by Eric Michael Johnson / September 24, 2009

In his new book, The Age of Empathy, Frans de Waal outlines an alternative to “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” Can a vision of a more empathic world change the way we behave toward each other?

In a fitting metaphor, the most recent experiment with social darwinism resulted in mass extinction. Former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling claimed he was inspired by Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene when he implemented a system known as “rank and yank” that sought to apply nature’s lessons to the energy industry. Skilling had all employees in the company ranked every six months. Then he offered lavish bonuses to the top 5 percent while the bottom 15 percent were relocated or fired.

This system of ruthless competition advanced just the type of personalities that one would expect: crazy people. As one Enron employee put it, “If I’m going to my boss’s office to talk about compensation, and if I step on some guy’s throat and that doubles it, then I’ll stomp on that guy’s throat.”

However, what was perhaps most disturbing is that according to Time magazine, 20 percent of US companies were following the same business model at the time of Enron’s collapse. Enron’s self-destruction was only the first in a nationwide trend. But what, if anything, does this say about nature?

In his latest book, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, primatologist Frans de Waal argues that social darwinists like Skilling have learned the wrong lessons about the natural world. The nasty, brutish existence dominated by “savage competition, ruthless exploitation, and deceit” that Dawkins describes is far from the norm for animals that live in social groups. They thrive because of the cooperation, conciliation, and, above all, the empathy that they display towards fellow members. The support and protection they receive from living in a group more than compensates for any selfish advantage they might have achieved on their own.

In other words, the “selfish gene” has discovered that the most successful approach is to behave unselfishly. De Waal thus argues that the age of empathy is far older than our own species and that we must keep this in mind as we try to apply these lessons ourselves.

The evolution of unselfish behavior has been one of the most controversial topics in the history of science. As early as the 1650s, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that the natural world was a merciless struggle for survival. Only a strong, centralized government (in his eyes, the hereditary monarchy of King Charles I) could prevent the “dangerous disease” of democracy from plunging the nation into chaos. (Jeffrey Skilling would have been right at home in Hobbes’ worldview.)

In the years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, Thomas Henry Huxley, widely known as “Darwin’s bulldog,” endorsed Hobbes’ view of nature. Huxley claimed that natural selection was a “gladiator’s show” and a “Hobbesian war of each against all.” And until now, the only voice that promoted an alternative perspective was that of Russian naturalist Peter Kropotkin. His theory of mutual aid, ultimately rejected by evolutionary biologists of the time, has had to wait more than a hundred years to be reexamined.

If Dawkins is Huxley’s intellectual descendant, de Waal is certainly Kropotkin’s. Whereas Dawkins holds that biology will be of little help in building a just society, de Waal is less convinced that we are at war with our nature. Rather, he finds it odd that those instances of spontaneous altruism shown in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks or during the Katrina disaster could somehow be considered unnatural.

“Modern psychology and neuroscience fail to back these bleak views,” de Waal writes. “We’re preprogrammed to reach out. Empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control. We can suppress it, mentally block it, or fail to act on it, but except for a tiny percentage of humans—known as psychopaths—no one is emotionally immune to another’s situation.” Furthermore, many of these same characteristics can be found in the primates he’s studied for more than 20 years.

De Waal chronicles nearly a hundred cases of primates who have acted with the same kind of spontaneous generosity that was once thought exclusive to human beings. For example, the famous language-trained chimpanzee named Washoe once raced across two electric wires and braved a watery moat (which chimps are deathly afraid of) to save a drowning female.

In another case, Peony, an elderly chimpanzee who was incapacitated with arthritis, received water from younger females who collected it in their mouths and then spat it into hers. Then there’s the case of a four-year-old chimp that was close to choking after getting a rope wrapped around his neck. The oldest, most dominant male quickly ran over to the struggling youth and lifted him up with one hand before relieving the tension on the rope.

These examples seem to defy a natural world where kindness is ultimately self-serving. But while individual anecdotes are illuminating, they don’t count as evidence in a scientific argument. Fortunately, de Waal has amassed a vast compendium of peer-reviewed literature to support his position, some of which is reviewed in Michael Tomasello’s summary in the journal Nature. While de Waal doesn’t suggest an alternative framework for the evolution of empathy, his catalogue of studies and examples is a powerful antidote to that of Dawkins and the “tyranny of the selfish replicators.”

Dawkins’ perspective has been challenged, not just by the usual Christian agitators, but by biologists who don’t agree that it is an accurate picture of the natural world. SUNY–Binghampton evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson and Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson (no relation) have argued that altruism and cooperation can better be explained through multilevel selection (the idea that groups and not just individuals are important for success in the genetic game). Darwin first discussed this idea of group selection in his 1871 book The Descent of Man. Another approach has been that by Stanford biologist Joan Roughgarden whose recent book The Genial Gene proposes “social selection” as an alternative to the ruthless competitive drive for individual reproductive success.

The problem with individual selection, these critics point out, is not that it’s wrong but that it’s not the full story. Dawkins’ selfish gene is ultimately a metaphor about how genes transmit themselves to the next generation, but individual animals are not completely independent agents. Members of a group are embedded within a fabric of social relations—their actions can help or hurt the survival of all individuals collectively.

So, for example, when a lioness patrols and defends the territory of her pride, while free riders in her group are content to lounge in the sun, all members of the group ultimately benefit. A pride that consisted of only selfish individuals might allow a few cunning cats to succeed temporarily, but the group as a whole wouldn’t stand a chance. Greed may be good where it comes to personal advancement, as Gordon Gekko’s character in Wall Street insists, but when no one is minding the store the whole system can collapse. Or, as Wilson and Wilson famously wrote in The Quarterly Review of Biology: “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”

In this same way, de Waal argues that the evolution of empathy is the end product of natural selection’s promotion of these altruistic groups. When chimpanzees help strangers attain food or when dolphins help to carry an injured comrade to safety, they are responding to an impulse that has allowed their ancestors to thrive throughout evolutionary history. “Social darwinists may disagree,” he writes, “but from a truly Darwinian perspective it is entirely logical to expect a ‘social motive’ in group-living animals, one that makes them strive for a well-functioning whole.”

Frans de Waal has emphasized an alternative to the bleak vision of our evolution and asks us all to reexamine what it means to be a primate. The reality is that other than bees and ants, primates are the most social order of the animal kingdom. De Waal’s work reveals that our evolutionary cousins show just as much of a capacity for empathy and altruism as they do for selfishness and greed.

We are the inheritors of these social skills from our primate forebears. By focusing exclusively on the selfish side of nature, are we not choosing to embrace the selfish side of ourselves? With the growing interconnection of peoples and economies on a planet faced with unprecedented dangers, the question of how best to work together for the common good is of profound practical importance. De Waal’s latest book has arrived not a minute too soon.

~ Eric Michael Johnson received his masters degree in primate behavior and is now pursuing his PhD in the history of science. He writes on issues of science, politics, and history at The Primate Diaries.

Thomas Metzinger - Being No One

After yesterday's Thomas Metzinger post, a reader pointed me to this video in which he explicates his vision of a representationalist theory of phenomenal self-consciousness. He is introduced by the neuroscientist Alva Noe, someone I quite like.

Metzinger's basic premise is that there is ultimately no "subject," or as a Buddhist might understand it, no self.
Thomas Metzinger is the Director of the Philosophy Group at the Department of Philosophy at Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz. His research focuses on philosophy of mind, especially on consciousness and the nature of the self. In this lecture he develops a representationalist theory of phenomenal self-consciousness. A Foerster Lectures on the Immortality of the Soul presented by the UC Berkeley Graudate Council. Series: UC Berkeley Graduate Council Lectures [2/2005]

Dharma Quote of the Week - The Hangover of Dualistic Appearance

As Taught in Tsong-kha-pa's
Great Treatise on the
Stages of the Path
by Guy Newland

Dharma Quote of the Week

The Hangover of Dualistic Appearance

Nirvana is the actual antidote or "active ingredient" in the medicine of the Dharma. A single, direct, nondualistic realization of emptiness eradicates permanently some portion of the desire, hatred, and ignorance that have bound one in misery for infinite cycles of time up until that moment. Repeated realizations over many lifetimes are still needed before all of the ancient roots of ignorance can be eradicated. During this training, the bodhisattva alternates between periods of meditation on emptiness and periods of compassionate action in the world. Even after the bodhisattva escapes samsara altogether, she must still practice for a long time to overcome the "hangover" of dualistic appearances, the aftereffects of having been ignorant for so long. Finally, these last limitations are cleared away and the bodhisattva becomes a buddha. A buddha continuously knows emptiness directly while also simultaneously acting compassionately in the world of persons and forms.

--from Introduction to Emptiness: As Taught in Tsong-kha-pa's Great Treatise on the Stages of the Pathby Guy Newland, published by Snow Lion Publications

Friday, October 02, 2009

Arthur Saniotis - Evolving Brain: Neuroanthropology, Emergence, and Cognitive Frontiers

Excellent article from the new issue of NeuroQuantology (free log in required).

Evolving Brain
Neuroanthropology, Emergence, and Cognitive Frontiers

Arthur Saniotis


Emergence is an interesting concept for explaining human evolution. An understanding of emergence enables us to define the role of novelty and creativity in human beings and their complex behavioural repertoire. Emergence merits a neuroscientific approach since the brain is a process of biological evolution, therefore, signifying the biological basis of human consciousness and experience. In this paper I outline three areas of emergence and the human brain which may further assist us in understanding the relationship between brain and culture.

Key Words: Neuroanthropology, emergence, and cognitive frontiers

NeuroQuantology 2009; 3: 482-490
Read the article.

Dr. Thomas Metzinger - The self-model theory of subjectivity

Cool stuff, via Scholarpedia.

The self-model theory of subjectivity (SMT)

The concept of a self-model plays the central role in a philosophical theory of consciousness, the phenomenal self and the first-person perspective. This specific theory is the so-called "self-model theory of subjectivity" (SMT; see Metzinger 2003a, 2005a). However, SMT is not only a conceptual framework in analytical philosophy of mind, but at the same time an interdisciplinary research program spanning many disciplines from neuroscience, cognitive science, neuropsychology and psychiatry to artificial intelligence and evolutionary robotics (e.g., Blanke & Metzinger 2009, Metzinger 2007, Lenggenhager et al. 2007, Windt & Metzinger 2007, Metzinger & Gallese 2003). The theory simultaneously operates on phenomenological, representational, functional and neuroscientific levels of description, using a method of interdisciplinary constraint satisfaction (see Weisberg 2007, section 2, for critical discussion). The central questions motivating the SMT are: How, in principle, could a consciously experienced self and a genuine first-person perspective emerge in a given information-processing system? At what point in the actual natural evolution of nervous systems on our planet did explicit self-models first appear? What exactly made the transition from unconscious to conscious self-models possible? Which types of self-models can be implemented or evolved in artificial systems? What are the ethical implications of machine models of subjectivity and self-consciousness? What is the minimally sufficient neural correlate of phenomenal self-consciousness in the human brain? Which layers of the human self-model possess necessary social correlates for their development, and which ones don’t? The fundamental question on the conceptual level is: What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for the appearance of a phenomenal self?

The phenomenal self-model (PSM)

The core notion of the theory is the concept of a “phenomenal self-model” (PSM). The PSM is that partition of an organism’s self-model which is conscious because it satisfies an additional set of functional constraints like, for example, availability for introspective attention and for selective, flexible motor control. What exactly the necessary and sufficient conditions for phenomenality actually are, is, of course, presently still unknown. SMT (Metzinger 2003a, chapter 3) offers a set of ten such potential constraints, the two most important of which are functional integration with a system's "virtual window of presence" (i.e., its internal representation of time and an extended "Now") plus ongoing, dynamical integration into a single, overarching world model (i.e., a multimodal representation of the current situation as a whole). A "model" is a working concept for a type of mental representation that does not contain variables, represents a situation by structural correspondence (i.e., via a partial relational homomorphy), the elements of which can correspond to perceptible entities as well as to abstract notions, which can be taken offline for internal "dry runs", and which may or may not satisfy the constraints for becoming a phenomenal mental model (see Craik 1943, 51pp; Johnson-Laird, 1983, 1989, p. 488; Metzinger 2003a, section 3.3 for more on the history of the concept). What we call “the conscious self” in folk-psychological discourse is a specific form of representational content, characterized by specific functional properties, which in turn can be physically realized in a large number of different ways. The phenomenal content of the PSM (how its content is subjectively experienced) locally supervenes, i.e., it is fixed as soon as all contemporaneous and internal properties are fixed. For example, as soon as all of the relevant parameters in the brain are set, the phenomenology going along with the activation of a PSM is determined as well. This may not be true of its intentional content, because self-knowledge (as opposed to subjective, self-experience) is arguably co-determined by external factors like the way in which the system is historically and socially situated. One background assumption is that for every biological PSM, in the species known to us, there exists a minimally sufficient neural correlate of self-consciousness (NCSC; see Metzinger 2000). This NCSC would be a specific set of neurofunctional properties of which it is true that (1) it reliably activates a phenomenal self and that (2) it possesses no proper subset that suffices for the corresponding states of consciousness. The NCSC defines the set of properties that are relevant for a scientific explanation of phenomenal self-consciousness. If the predicates describing the relevant, locally supervening phenomenal properties and those referring to the neurofunctional properties determining them are nomologically coextensive, a reductive identification of the PSM is possible. The PSM would then be simply identical to the NCSC.

The self-model theory aims at maximally parsimonious framework for the scientific investigation of self-consciousness: There is no such thing as a substantial self (as a distinct ontological entity, which could in principle exist by itself), but only a dynamic, ongoing process creating very specific representational and functional properties. Self-consciousness is a form of physically realized representational content. This metatheoretical framework has implications for many of the first-order empirical sciences of the mind. For example, the methodological core of scientific psychology can now be analyzed in a clearer, fresher and more fruitful way. Psychology, from this perspective, is self-model research: It is the scientific discipline that focuses on the representational content, the functional profile, and the neurobiological realization of the human self-model, including its evolutionary history and its necessary social conditions. Psychiatric disorders can be described and diagnosed more systematically, e.g. as specific representational contents in the self-model that have been lost, hyperactivated, or decontextualized, which are not available for introspective access any more, or which have become causally autonomous and functionally dissociated in other ways (Metzinger 2003a: ch. 7; 2004c)

Aside from the representational level of description, one can also develop a functional analysis of the self-model. Whereas representational states are individuated by their content, a functional state is conceptually characterized by its causal role: the causal relationships it bears to input states, output states, and other internal states. An active self-model then can be seen as a subpersonal functional state: a discrete set of causal relations of varying complexity that may or may not be realized at a given point in time. Since this functional state is realized by a concrete neurobiological state, it plays a certain causal role for the system. For instance, it can be an element in an information-processing account. The perspective of classic cognitive science can help illustrate this point: the self-model is a transient computational module that is episodically activated by the system in order to control its interactions with the environment. In other words, what happens when you wake up in the morning, i.e., when the system that you are “comes to itself,” is that this transient computational module, the PSM, is activated – the moment of “waking up” is exactly the moment in which this new instrument of intelligent information-processing emerges in your brain. It does so because you now need a conscious self-model in order to achieve sensorimotor integration, generate complex, flexible and adaptive behavior, and attend to and control your body as a whole. The assumption in the background is that the space of consciousness essentially is the space of availability for selective, high-level attention, and that the activation of a conscious self model becomes necessary whenever an organism (or an artificial system), in order to solve a certain task, needs an integrated internal representation of certain of its own global properties to make them available for selective resource allocation and deeper processing. This idea, namely, that the PSM is that partition of the currently active self model functionally characterized by availability (but not necessarily ongoing access), is a central working hypothesis under SMT, but its truth has not yet been empirically demonstrated.

For higher forms of intelligence, in order to integrate higher levels of behavioral and cognitive complexity, a system needs a coherent self-representation, a consistent internal model of itself as a whole. A PSM is an instrument for global control. In our own case, the conscious self-model is an episodically active representational entity whose content is determined by the system’s very own properties. Interestingly, we do not have a PSM in dreamless deep sleep, but there certainly is a PSM in the dream state. It can be characterized as an instrument for interacting with an exclusively internal environment, exhibiting not only a unique phenomenological profile, but a corresponding set of typical representational, functional and neurobiological features which can be described in a fine-grained manner. (Windt & Metzinger 2007). Many altered and pathological states of consciousness can be analyzed as deviant forms of self-modeling (Metzinger 2003, chapter 7). The evolution of higher cognition generally can be described as an increasing ability to take the PSM offline and to develop more abstract forms of mental-self simulation. For instance, simulating past or possible future states of the situated organism as a whole while comparing them to the current online self-model will enable memory, learning, or planning. Abstract thought would then have evolved out of the fundamental capacity to create forward models and to internally simulate elementary motor behavior and its perceptual consequences (Cruse 2007).

The development of ever more efficient self-models as a new form of „virtual organ” is also a precondition for the emergence of complex societies. Plastic and ever more complex self-models not only allowed somatosensory, perceptual, and cognitive functions to be continuously optimized, but also made the development of social cognition and cooperative behavior possible. The most prominent example, of course, is the human mirror system, a part of our unconscious self-model that resonates with the self-models of other agents in the environment through a complex process of motor-emulation - of “embodied simulation,” as Vittorio Gallese (2005) aptly puts it – for example, whenever we observe goal-directed behavior in our environment. Such mutually coupled self-models, in turn, are the fundamental representational resource for taking another person’s perspective, for empathy and the sense of responsibility, but also for metacognitive achievements like the development of a concept of self and a theory of mind (for possible neurobiological correlates of these basic social skills, see Gallese & Goldman 1998, Metzinger & Gallese 2003).

The obvious fact that the development of our self-model has a long biological, evolutionary, and (a somewhat shorter) social history can now be accounted for by introducing a suitable version of teleofunctionalism as a background assumption. The development and activation of this computational module plays a role for the system: the functional self-model possesses a true evolutionary description, metaphorically speaking it was a weapon that was invented and continuously optimized in the course of a “cognitive arms race” (Clark 1989: 61) The functional basis for instantiating the phenomenal first-person perspective can be seen as a specific cognitive achievement: the ability to use a centered representational space (Trehub 1991, 2007, 2009). In other words, phenomenal subjectivity (the development of a subsymbolic, non-conceptual first-person perspective) is a property that is only instantiated when the respective system activates a coherent self-model and integrates it into its global world-model.

Alex Rose - Informed Worship

Interesting article from Alex Rose at Killing the Buddha.

Informed Worship

Saint Hildegard and the science of religious experience.

This being the anniversary of Hildegard von Bingen’s death—today she has been departed already 830 years—Alex Rose honors the twelfth century nun with a brief retrospective.

Hildegard von Bingen, bronze statue by Karl-Heinz Oswald, 1998.

Hildegard von Bingen, bronze statue by Karl-Heinz Oswald, 1998.

In June of 1983, a peculiar article appeared in Musical Times, one of England’s most prestigious music journals. In it, an obscure Chinese neurologist named Dr. Dajue Wang reported having once worked with a renowned Soviet surgeon who’d allegedly treated a man for a shrapnel wound sustained years earlier during the Nazi siege of Leningrad. The patient, Dr. Wang recalled, had been none other than the great Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich.

According to the surgeon, the “tiny metallic splinter” had bore through the skull where it remained lodged in the temporal horn of Shostakovich’s left ventricle, apparently without incident. Astoundingly, however, the composer asked that the fragment not be removed, as it helped him compose his music. Simply tilting his head to one side, he said, unleashed a flurry of original melodies, different every time, which he was able to incorporate into his work as if by dictation.

In July, “Shostakovich’s secret” was discussed by the music critic, Donal Henahan, in an article for the New York Times, later cited by Oliver Sacks in his 1985 collection, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

While there is something irresistibly appealing about this tale, historians have been skeptical, and for good reason: there are no records of the composer actually engaging in battle,11 Though there does exist a somewhat comical publicity photo of Shostakovich aiming a rifle at the sky from the roof of a building—an image clearly staged for propaganda purposes. nor any medical reports indicating head wounds or neurological dysfunction. (Then again, with so few reliable accounts to guide us through the fog of Stalinist Russia—to say nothing of Shostakovich’s ambiguous life in particular2—much of what happened or did not happen remains anyone’s guess.)

2 Laurel Fay’s excellent history, Shostakovich: A Life, is an attempt to salvage what we know of the composer from the pseudo-memoir, Testimony, fraudulently compiled by Solomon Volkov in 1979.In any event, stranger things have happened. The neurological literature is rife with cases of hallucinations—aural, visual, tactile, olfactory—arising from physical lesions of the brain. That a musician might hear music when his auditory cortex is stimulated by a foreign body is far from unheard of. What intrigues us about the case of Shostakovich is what it suggests about the creative mind.

The roster of neurotic artists, delusional philosophers and crazed scientists throughout the ages is of course far too vast to list, and indeed, questions regarding the relationship between illness and genius go back to the Greeks. Great talent was for many centuries thought to represent the mark of divinity. Our term “gifted”—a holdover from the olden days—implies an intentional act, as though the gift had been deliberately bestowed by a conscious agent.

Nowadays, we demand more concrete, satisfying answers, many of which are provided by medical science. But whatever the apparent causes or solutions, the sense of wonder remains; the science of the inner world has in some ways replaced religion, or at least taken up where religion left off, in terms of carrying the explanatory weight supernaturalism once supplied. This becomes especially revealing when we consider those whose products bear the signature of their affliction.


Perhaps the most vivid example can be found in the work of Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century nun and mystic. The factual details of Hildegard’s life remain largely mysterious. Like most religious figures, the saint was described by many authors over many centuries, each with their own period-specific biases and intentions, leaving historians with a smattering of vague, hagiographic and incompatible accounts.

We do know from her own manuscripts and correspondences that she was born in Bermersheim in 1098 to a prominent family who offered her at age eight to the church as an oblate—a practice she would later repudiate. Her next several decades were spent as an abbess in a small convent, part of the larger monastery in Disibodenberg. In 1146, she wrote a bold letter to one Bernard of Clairvaux, the most celebrated churchman of the day, confessing her gift for sacred visions and urging him indulge her with his knowledge and advice. Duly impressed by her obvious gifts and passion, Bernard spoke on her behalf to Pope Eugenius III, who agreed to subsidize her future work as an artist, scholar, poet, composer, teacher and counselor.

Over the course of her long life, Hildegard published three, interconnected codices covering a wide range of subjects, from biblical exegesis and cosmological speculation to social issues such as health practices and children’s education. It was in this trilogy that she described in detail her many holy visions, offering theological analyses of the various symbols and colors she’d beheld in states of rapture.

Not surprisingly, these “spiritual” writings have in recent years made Hildegard the subject of much New Age idolatry, a bit like the way hippies mythologized the Bonobo. The nun of Bingen, like the chimp of Congo, has become a convenient receptacle for all things fashionably virtuous. Apologists are quick to lionize her as the first feminist, the original naturopathic healer, an incipient postmodernist, a spiritual guru, a progressive educator and a tireless advocate for social change, etc.33 See the torrent of recent titles such as Secrets of God, Hildegard’s Spiritual Remedies, and Hildegard of Bingen: A Spiritual Reader.

Some of these superlatives are less far-fetched than others. She did, in fact, speak out against the lax clergy for failing to “blow the trumpet of God’s justice,” an unprecedented act for a woman in medieval Europe. She rejected the orthodox belief in the innate impurity of the body, preferring a more “holistic” approach to physical/spiritual dualism. She was also the first woman to get express permission from a pope to write theological books, the first to preach openly (at the age of 60, no less), and the first to found her own monastery.

More impressively still, she was the first of either gender to fabricate an entire language, replete with an original alphabet. It was once believed that Hildegard had intended to establish a universal, pan-cultural dialect, a sort of proto-Esperanto, but her letters indicate she’d had the opposite in mind: the Lingua Ignota was meant to act as a “secret language,” a private tongue to be spoken only by the pious. No small feat for a self-described “unlettered” person.

Litterae ignotae

Hildegard's "secret alphabet."

But her greatest contribution, to be sure, lies in her prolific and multi-pronged artistic output. It’s no exaggeration to say that Hildegard belongs in the pantheon of eccentric polymaths, along with Robert Fludd, Athanasius Kircher, and Leon Battista Alberti. In addition to her reams of poetry and sublime liturgical music, she composed a stunning array of paintings, many of which offer insights into her ecstatic visions.

To a modern viewer, Hildegard’s images appear surreal, even abstract. Angelic figures are set across a kaleidoscopic filigree of concentric circles; a saint stands in a ring of fire, arms splayed as beams of light form a tangle of pentagrams across his body; trees sprout serpents; skies are wild with scintillating bands and vortices.


Liber Divinorum Operum.

Yet there are those who see in them a revealing and explicable order. Charles Singer, in his 1928 book, From Magic to Science: Essays on the Scientific Twilight, took these paintings as evidence of an underlying neurological condition, namely, migraine.

While ordinarily powerless to attribute the phenomenological experiences of historical figures to any one cause, we have in the case of Hildegard a wealth of corroborating data available to us from her writings. The descriptions of her visions, in particular, provide many clues. Singer identifies recurring themes of shimmering light, strobed waveforms and undulating concentric circles, followed by “fortification figures radiating in some cases from a coloured area”— patterns which are equally evident in her paintings, and which correspond exactly to the accounts given by other migraine sufferers.

Oliver Sacks drew from Singer’s study in an appendix to his book, Migraine, adding that “Hildegard’s visions were instrumental in directing her towards a life of holiness and mysticism.” Indeed, when we consider the relevance of these early, transformative experiences to her long and multi-faceted religious career, it becomes impossible to tease the perceptual events from their theological significance. Consider the following description from Scivias I,3:

After these things I saw a huge form, rounded and shadowy and shaped like an egg; it was pointed at the top, wide in the middle, and narrower at the bottom. Its outer layer consisted of an atmosphere of bright fire with a kind of dark membrane beneath it. And in that outer atmosphere there was a ball of red fire so large that all the huge form was lit up by it. Directly above the fireball was a vertical row of three lights which held it with their fire and energy and prevented it from falling.

…the horror buffeted the dark membrane with a massive impact of sounds and storms and sharp stones great and small. Whenever the noise arose it set in motion the layer of bright fire, winds and air, thus causing bolts of lightning to presage the sounds of thunder; for the fiery energy senses the first agitations of the thunder within it.

…And I saw beneath the north and the east the likeness of a great mountain, which showed great areas of darkness towards to the north and a great light towards the east. The darkness could not affect the light nor the light the darkness.

Other descriptions go even further. In at least one instance, her visual hallucinations are accompanied by a celestial music, referred to elsewhere as the “sacred sound through which all creation resounds”:

Then I saw a bright layer of air in which I heard wonderfully diverse types of music within the aforementioned symbols: songs of praise for the joys of the citizens of heaven who persevere steadfastly on the way of truth, songs of lament for those who had to be called back to the praise of such joys, and songs of exhortation for the virtues who urge each other to secure the salvation…

Like Pythagoras, Hildegard believed music represented a fundamental attribute of the cosmos. Had Shostakovich been religiously inclined, might he have offered a similar interpretation?

Read the rest of the article.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

National Geographic - Oldest "Human" Skeleton Found--Disproves "Missing Link"

Wow! This is a HUGE find - and adds incredible new understanding to our evolution as a species. Human ancestors have been bipedal for longer than any had imagined.

Oldest "Human" Skeleton Found--Disproves "Missing Link"

Jamie Shreeve
Science editor, National Geographic magazine
October 1, 2009

Move over, Lucy. And kiss the missing link goodbye.

Scientists today announced the discovery of the oldest fossil skeleton of a human ancestor. The find reveals that our forebears underwent a previously unknown stage of evolution more than a million years before Lucy, the iconic early human ancestor specimen that walked the Earth 3.2 million years ago.

The centerpiece of a treasure trove of new fossils, the skeleton—assigned to a species called Ardipithecus ramidus—belonged to a small-brained, 110-pound (50-kilogram) female nicknamed "Ardi." (See pictures of Ardipithecus ramidus.)

The fossil puts to rest the notion, popular since Darwin's time, that a chimpanzee-like missing link—resembling something between humans and today's apes—would eventually be found at the root of the human family tree. Indeed, the new evidence suggests that the study of chimpanzee anatomy and behavior—long used to infer the nature of the earliest human ancestors—is largely irrelevant to understanding our beginnings.

Ardi instead shows an unexpected mix of advanced characteristics and of primitive traits seen in much older apes that were unlike chimps or gorillas (interactive: Ardi's key features). As such, the skeleton offers a window on what the last common ancestor of humans and living apes might have been like.

Announced at joint press conferences in Washington, D.C., and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the analysis of the Ardipithecus ramidus bones will be published in a collection of papers tomorrow in a special edition of the journal Science, along with an avalanche of supporting materials published online.

"This find is far more important than Lucy," said Alan Walker, a paleontologist from Pennsylvania State University who was not part of the research. "It shows that the last common ancestor with chimps didn't look like a chimp, or a human, or some funny thing in between." (Related: "Oldest Homo Sapiens Fossils Found, Experts Say" [June 11, 2003].)

Ardi Surrounded by Family

The Ardipithecus ramidus fossils were discovered in Ethiopia's harsh Afar desert at a site called Aramis in the Middle Awash region, just 46 miles (74 kilometers) from where Lucy's species, Australopithecus afarensis, was found in 1974. Radiometric dating of two layers of volcanic ash that tightly sandwiched the fossil deposits revealed that Ardi lived 4.4 million years ago.

Older hominid fossils have been uncovered, including a skull from Chad at least six million years old and some more fragmentary, slightly younger remains from Kenya and nearby in the Middle Awash.

While important, however, none of those earlier fossils are nearly as revealing as the newly announced remains, which in addition to Ardi's partial skeleton include bones representing at least 36 other individuals.

"All of a sudden you've got fingers and toes and arms and legs and heads and teeth," said Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley, who co-directed the work with Berhane Asfaw, a paleoanthropologist and former director of the National Museum of Ethiopia, and Giday WoldeGabriel, a geologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

"That allows you to do something you can't do with isolated specimens," White said. "It allows you to do biology."

(Related: Rediscover the original Ardipithecus.)

Ardi's Weird Way of Moving

The biggest surprise about Ardipithecus's biology is its bizarre means of moving about.

All previously known hominids—members of our ancestral lineage—walked upright on two legs, like us. But Ardi's feet, pelvis, legs, and hands suggest she was a biped on the ground but a quadruped when moving about in the trees.

Her big toe, for instance, splays out from her foot like an ape's, the better to grasp tree limbs. Unlike a chimpanzee foot, however, Ardipithecus's contains a special small bone inside a tendon, passed down from more primitive ancestors, that keeps the divergent toe more rigid. Combined with modifications to the other toes, the bone would have helped Ardi walk bipedally on the ground, though less efficiently than later hominids like Lucy. The bone was lost in the lineages of chimps and gorillas.

According to the researchers, the pelvis shows a similar mosaic of traits. The large flaring bones of the upper pelvis were positioned so that Ardi could walk on two legs without lurching from side to side like a chimp. But the lower pelvis was built like an ape's, to accommodate huge hind limb muscles used in climbing.

Even in the trees, Ardi was nothing like a modern ape, the researchers say.

Modern chimps and gorillas have evolved limb anatomy specialized to climbing vertically up tree trunks, hanging and swinging from branches, and knuckle-walking on the ground.

While these behaviors require very rigid wrist bones, for instance, the wrists and finger joints of Ardipithecus were highly flexible. As a result Ardi would have walked on her palms as she moved about in the trees—more like some primitive fossil apes than like chimps and gorillas.

"What Ardi tells us is there was this vast intermediate stage in our evolution that nobody knew about," said Owen Lovejoy, an anatomist at Kent State University in Ohio, who analyzed Ardi's bones below the neck. "It changes everything."

Against All Odds, Ardi Emerges

The first, fragmentary specimens of Ardipithecus were found at Aramis in 1992 and published in 1994. The skeleton announced today was discovered that same year and excavated with the bones of the other individuals over the next three field seasons. But it took 15 years before the research team could fully analyze and publish the skeleton, because the fossils were in such bad shape.

After Ardi died, her remains apparently were trampled down into mud by hippos and other passing herbivores. Millions of years later, erosion brought the badly crushed and distorted bones back to the surface.

They were so fragile they would turn to dust at a touch. To save the precious fragments, White and colleagues removed the fossils along with their surrounding rock. Then, in a lab in Addis, the researchers carefully tweaked out the bones from the rocky matrix using a needle under a microscope, proceeding "millimeter by submillimeter," as the team puts it in Science. This process alone took several years.

Pieces of the crushed skull were then CT-scanned and digitally fit back together by Gen Suwa, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Tokyo.

In the end, the research team recovered more than 125 pieces of the skeleton, including much of the feet and virtually all of the hands—an extreme rarity among hominid fossils of any age, let alone one so very ancient.

"Finding this skeleton was more than luck," said White. "It was against all odds."

Ardi's World

The team also found some 6,000 animal fossils and other specimens that offer a picture of the world Ardi inhabited: a moist woodland very different from the region's current, parched landscape. In addition to antelope and monkey species associated with forests, the deposits contained forest-dwelling birds and seeds from fig and palm trees.

Wear patterns and isotopes in the hominid teeth suggest a diet that included fruits, nuts, and other forest foods.

If White and his team are right that Ardi walked upright as well as climbed trees, the environmental evidence would seem to strike the death knell for the "savanna hypothesis"—a long-standing notion that our ancestors first stood up in response to their move onto an open grassland environment.

Sex for Food

Some researchers, however, are unconvinced that Ardipithecus was quite so versatile.

"This is a fascinating skeleton, but based on what they present, the evidence for bipedality is limited at best," said William Jungers, an anatomist at Stony Brook University in New York State.

"Divergent big toes are associated with grasping, and this has one of the most divergent big toes you can imagine," Jungers said. "Why would an animal fully adapted to support its weight on its forelimbs in the trees elect to walk bipedally on the ground?"

One provocative answer to that question—originally proposed by Lovejoy in the early 1980s and refined now in light of the Ardipithecus discoveries—attributes the origin of bipedality to another trademark of humankind: monogamous sex.

Virtually all apes and monkeys, especially males, have long upper canine teeth—formidable weapons in fights for mating opportunities.

But Ardipithecus appears to have already embarked on a uniquely human evolutionary path, with canines reduced in size and dramatically "feminized" to a stubby, diamond shape, according to the researchers. Males and female specimens are also close to each other in body size.

Lovejoy sees these changes as part of an epochal shift in social behavior: Instead of fighting for access to females, a male Ardipithecus would supply a "targeted female" and her offspring with gathered foods and gain her sexual loyalty in return.

To keep up his end of the deal, a male needed to have his hands free to carry home the food. Bipedalism may have been a poor way for Ardipithecus to get around, but through its contribution to the "sex for food" contract, it would have been an excellent way to bear more offspring. And in evolution, of course, more offspring is the name of the game (more: "Did Early Humans Start Walking for Sex?").

Two hundred thousand years after Ardipithecus, another species called Australopithecus anamensis appeared in the region. By most accounts, that species soon evolved into Australopithecus afarensis, with a slightly larger brain and a full commitment to a bipedal way of life. Then came early Homo, with its even bigger brain and budding tool use.

Did primitive Ardipithecus undergo some accelerated change in the 200,000 years between it and Australopithecus—and emerge as the ancestor of all later hominids? Or was Ardipithecus a relict species, carrying its quaint mosaic of primitive and advanced traits with it into extinction?

Study co-leader White sees nothing about the skeleton "that would exclude it from ancestral status." But he said more fossils would be needed to fully resolve the issue.

Stony Brook's Jungers added, "These finds are incredibly important, and given the state of preservation of the bones, what they did was nothing short of heroic.

But this is just the beginning of the story."

Look for comprehensive coverage of Ardipithecus ramidus in a future issue of National Geographic magazine.

Seed - Book Recommendations

Books to read now, from Seed: October releases on the culture of consumption, the Golden Age of General Relativity, and how rumors spread on the internet.

Release date: Oct. 13
Buy now

Power Trip: From Oil Wells to Solar Cells—A Ride to Our Renewable Future
By Amanda Little (HarperCollins)

At first blush, it seems like weaning ourselves off fossil fuels won’t be terribly hard: Swap that clunker for a Prius, that old lightbulb for a CFL, and that plastic bag for a sturdy tote. But, as veteran journalist Amanda Little reveals in this sweeping account, there is almost nothing in modern life untouched by oil and coal. To tell the story of America’s epic entanglement with hydrocarbons, she revisits President Franklin Roosevelt’s seminal pact with the King of Saudi Arabia and Fritz Haber’s revolutionary nitrogen fixation process and travels from the Corn Belt of Kansas to inside New York’s electrical grid. Finally, Little profiles a few “fresh greens,” who, using innovative scientific approaches, might help the world to survive withdrawal from its epic addiction.

Release date: Oct. 12
Buy now

Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal
By Tristram Stuart (W.W. Norton & Co.)

The global food crisis of 2008 revealed a system strained to its limits. But, as journalist Tristram Stuart argues in Waste, some of that strain is artificial. Farmers, manufacturers, restaurants, and consumers in the US and Europe discard between 30 and 50 percent of their food every year—enough to feed the world’s hungry three times over. Traveling from rubbish bins behind supermarkets to sushi cases at delis, Stuart uncovers waste at every link in the food chain. He also suggests that better policy (food pantries and taxes on trash collection) and available technology (anaerobic digestion of food scraps for energy) could help reroute our edible detritus. Waste is both a moral crisis and an environmental liability—but with the right tools, Stuart maintains, we could turn it into a fantastic opportunity, feeding the hungry and generating clean fuel instead.

Release date: Oct. 27
Buy now

Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed, and a Sustainable Future
By Saleem Ali (Yale University Press)

Would the world be a better place if humans could curb their desire for material goods? With this question, environmental scholar Saleem Ali launches into a magnificent synthesis that goes beyond linear explanations of the links between human consumption, well-being, and the environment. Buzzwords like “petropolitics” and “blood diamonds,” he argues, present a stylized view of resource extraction and fail to consider, for example, how poor countries would develop were it not for mineral wealth. Ali’s goal here is an ambitious one—no less than a recasting of consumption as neither sin nor virtue.

Release date: Oct. 6
Buy now

Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us About Humanity
By G. A. Bradshaw (Yale University Press)

Elephants are in crisis. Pressured by shrinking habitats, poaching, and other human activities, elephant populations plummeted in the 20th century, and the number of elder individuals who stabilized elephant society shrank. Observing the touching and sometimes terrifying behavior of traumatized elephants in the wild and in captivity, Bradshaw constructs a remarkable account of trans-species psychology that shows humans are not the only highly intelligent, social animals on this planet. This achingly lovely book will resonate with anyone endowed with compassion and curiosity about the workings of animal minds.

Release date: Oct. 20
Buy now

What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures
By Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown and Company)

Malcolm Gladwell explores how the world looks from inside other people’s heads in this collection of his favorite essays from 13 years at the New Yorker. Gladwell, a former science reporter and the author of three bestselling books—The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers—explores the world of behavioral science and profiles everyone from famed “dog whisperer” Cesar Millan to TV pitchman Ron Popeil. Through the lives of these “minor geniuses,” as he calls them, Gladwell leaves readers with a newfound reverence for the seemingly ordinary.

Release date: Oct. 19
Buy now

How We Live & Why We Die: The Secret Lives of Cells
By Lewis Wolpert (W.W. Norton & Co.)

Acclaimed developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert, author of Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, traces life’s mysteries back to the level of cells in this engaging primer. Trained as an engineer, Wolpert brings to cell biology a clear organizational logic, and under such headings as “How We Live,” “How We Function,” and “How We Grow and Why We Age,” he describes how the cell is the basis of all we experience. Indeed, as Wolpert shows, concepts as broad as evolution can be understood using the cell as a starting point and charting the cell’s discovery reveals the greater shape of the history of science in this profound, yet eminently readable book.

Release date: Oct. 1
Buy now

Cracking the Einstein Code: Relativity and the Birth of Black Hole Physics
By Fulvio Melia (University of Chicago Press)

Einstein’s theory of general relativity was around for decades before it was possible for astrophysicists to study it. And when they finally cracked the code, they simultaneously discovered black holes. In this gripping intellectual history of the Golden Age of General Relativity, Melia, an astrophysicist, introduces a cast of driven, thoughtful young scientists who dedicated their careers to divining the physical manifestations of Einstein’s theories. The book, studded with candid photographs of everyone from Roger Penrose to Vitaly Ginzburg, follows mathematician Roy Kerr as he strives to develop the first exact solution to the Einstein equations, forever altering physics.

Release date: Oct. 15
Buy now

Am I Making Myself Clear?: A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public
By Cornelia Dean (Harvard University Press)

Book-length lamentations over the state of American scientific literacy are in no short supply, though a consensus on who is to blame may never be reached. Fortunately, Harvard professor and New York Times science editor Cornelia Dean cuts through this debate, getting down to the practical aspect of improving scientists’ communication skills. Dean’s advice comes in the form of a concise handbook, touching on everything from interview preparation to blogging, so some suggestions come across as easier said than done. Nevertheless, she drives home her core idea: If society is unhappy with the way the public relates to scientists’ work, there are many simple things scientists can do to meet the public halfway.

Out now
Buy Now

On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done
By Cass R. Sunstein (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

Recently confirmed “regulatory czar” Cass Sunstein follows up his Going to Extremes with a short but powerful treatise on how misinformation is created and how it spreads through social networks. While there have always been rumors, the internet epitomizes Sunstein’s conditions for their growth and spread. And marrying his expertise as a law scholar and his work with behavioral economists, Sunstein cautions that the explosion of rumor-mongering on the internet could very well force a reconsideration of American libel laws. With clear examples and lucid arguments, On Rumors couldn’t come at a better time in the country’s increasingly divisive—and deceptive—public discourse.

Out now
Buy Now

Change By Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation
By Tim Brown (HarperBusiness)

Design is not just about making things. It’s a tool for building better organizations, communities, and governments. It’s an approach, unbound to a specific discipline—a way to organize information; to problem-solve; to synthesize new ideas. This is the crux of design thinking, a concept introduced by IDEO’s Tim Brown in Change by Design. In this “blueprint for creative leaders,” Brown is clear, persuasive, and often funny, writing with an authority presumably honed by his years of advising Fortune 500 companies and high-level government officials. But even for those of us without our own sovereign nation or blue-chip corporation, design thinking offers a guide for rethinking and organizing our everyday creative processes.

Out now
Buy Now

Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives
By Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler (Little, Brown and Company)

The “dynamic duo” behind Connected has already made waves with the research that forms the basis for this sure-to-be blockbuster. Christakas made headlines with a study that showed obesity could spread from person to person like a contagious disease; Fowler had similar coverage showing how political beliefs might act in the same way. Their interconnected social networks brought them together for this engaging and insightful book, which serves as an introduction to network theory and how it is present in almost every facet of our lives. Though the extended use of contagion as an explanatory device can lead to some mixed metaphors, Connected succeeds in connecting with its audience.