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MIT student blogger Natasha B. '16

Lecture Notes: Biology of Culture by Natasha B. '16

highlights from Brian Farrell's open lecture at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (spoiler: contains the meaning of life)

Biology of Culture: Bridging Art and Science

Straight from the scribbles in my notebook, a smattering of quotes, points and diagrams:

“I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.” -Richard Feynman

“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” -E.B. White (possibly paraphrased)

“The problem is that we have Star Wars technology, medeival institutions, and paleolithic emotions.”

We can learn about the frequencies of left- and right-handedness ten thousand years ago through rock hand art.

There is a positive correlation between left-handedness and homicide rates because left-handed people have an advantage in combat.

Why do we care about music? Why, in sexual selection, are musicians “attractive”? The neurobiology of music suggest ancient origings–“what makes our brains sing“–

Is music a byproduct of language, or did language arise from music?

“Music is auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of at least six of our mental faculties.” –Steven Pinker

… “But before we respond to art, we have to generate it.” -Brian Boyd

Darwin suggested that a musical proto-language arose from selection for sex and sociability.

A sense of tribal coherence is advantageous when small social groups compete for resources and face hardships. Music induces release of “feel-good” neurotransmitters–music encourages positive community feelings.

The most resonant chambers of caves are most often marked with red dots and decorated with paints.

Do we have an innate template for culture, from language to landscape?

We reognize beauty in each other’s art, even in the work of other species.

Art is a verb. Art is about ideas as much as aesthetics–as much or more about transmitters as/than receivers.

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
-John Keats

Social connectedness may be good for our health.

Take two hours of pine forest and call me in the morning.

The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan.

The macrobiome is as important as the microbiome in the development of our immune and nervous systems.

The meaning of life in three parts: to be with each other. To work towards a better world. To appreciate the world we have. (E.O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence)

Math gives us the concept of zero. Art and music, the concept of negative space, the rest stop. Law gives us reasonability and standards of evidence. Science shows us continuum. Biology gives us historical trees and genealogy. Physics, quanta and the ability to observe action at a distance. Religion suggests oneness of the universe.

Why not do away with the word ‘science,’ and call it all ‘learning?’