The flaws of the human perspective

October 29, 2020

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The biologist's time-machine is a classic thought experiment that re-emerges from time to time in the more eloquent textbooks, and shows us just how flawed the human perspective is.

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This is a scholium: a short commentary on something interesting.


The biologist's time-machine is something worth thinking about from time to time. As Edward O. Wilson describes it in his book Biophilia:

a motion-picture projector of magical versatility. The image it projects can be slowed to explode seconds into hours and days or speeded up to condense years and centuries into a few minutes. The image can be magnified to reveal microscopic detail or compressed to take in broad vistas from a distance.

The biologist's time-machine is a classic thought experiment that re-emerges from time to time in the more eloquent textbooks, and shows us just how flawed the human perspective is.

In Wilson's telling, we start by observing two men talking—an activity which:

consumes several seconds of time ... all larger organisms, live in such organismic time, where most critical actions cover seconds or minutes. The reason for this deceptively simple fact is that human beings are constructed of billions of cells that communicate across their membranes by means of chemical surges and electrical impulses.

The sounds of talking, for example, first must traverse the air to the ear. Then on through the ear canal to the eardrum and on again to the tiny bones just beyond. These bones translate the sound into waves in the fluid of the cochlea, which are sensed by tiny hairs whose job it is to trigger the impulses that traverse the nervous system into the brain. The brain must then begin passing this information backwards and forwards until the sounds are processed, all the while setting the stage for the listener's next action. Needless to say, this takes quite some time, as indeed does all human perception and action.

But not all things take place in organismic time. Wilson again:

Now slow the reel in the time machine a thousand times. [People] appear to freeze in their tracks ... Next magnify ... until ... individual nerve fibers come into view, then ... cells, and finally molecules and atoms.

At this level, we can see activity that seems a more normal speed, even as we've slowed things down immensely:

The cell constituents swarm in passage through their appointed rounds, like the inhabitants of a city ... Enzyme molecules lock on to proteins and cleave them neatly into parts. A nerve cell discharges ... the electrical signal they create ... speeds along the shaft at thirty feet per second. If we were to magnify the cell without slowing its action, the events would occur too swiftly to be seen. An electric discharge on the cell membrane would cross the field of vision faster than a rifle bullet ... We are in biochemical time.

A whole ecosystem of activity goes on inside our body far faster than we could ever perceive. The events of the world of bacteria and cell organelles happens at a scale beyond our comprehension. To them, we are still, and our seconds are their centuries.

But now, our machine begins to speed things up again. The activities of the organelles before us moves faster and faster until it disappears from view. Wilson has us begin to zoom out, until the people are mere specks and the countryside sprawls out before us. Until the coast comes into view, and the next continent is visible in the distance. Wilson continues to speed time up until:

Day and night pass in quickening succession. When the alternation between them reaches the flicker-fusion frequency, ten or more in a second of viewing time, they merge in our brains, so that the landscape is suffused by a continuous but dimmer light. Individual people and other organisms are no longer distinguishable except for a few long-lived trees that spring into existence and enlarge briefly before evaporating. But something new has appeared. We are aware of the presence of whole populations of species, say all of the sugar maples and red-eyed vireos, as they pass through cycles of expansion and retreat across the ... landscape.

Now we're no longer in biochemical time, or organismic time. These have been "compressed beyond reckoning". Instead we've entered ecological time:

Ecosystems, formed of combinations of these species, have become the creatures of our vision. A pond is fringed with larch, fills up with waterweed, and then congeals into a bog. A sand dune sprouts beach grass, then wild rose and other low shrubs, which yield to jack pine and finally hardwood forest ... Organisms are no more than ensembles defined by the mathematical laws of birth and death, competition, and replacement.

At this timeframe, people as individuals are irrelevent. Developments take place across intervals of evolutionary time—a thousand years at a step or more. This is the timeframe in which species develop and ecosystems plod their steady way towards one state or another.

The biologist's time-machine is a helpful paradigm, because it reveals something non-intuitive, but crucial. Perception is geared toward action, and human perception is geared towards actions in organismic time. There's no need for us to take stock of the chemical exchanges of cells, or to wait for the seas to rise and fall, and so we don't 'see' them. This despite the fact that our lives are critically dependent on these things.

Again, Wilson:

an embryo’s development depends not just on its genes but on the way its cells are deployed in the surrounding environment. Or that an organism’s behavior is shaped in part by learning, in other words by the alteration of its nerve cells by external stimuli. In a still deeper dimension, the very genes that comprise [the organism] ... were assembled through a long history of mutation and selection within changing environments.

Louis L'Amour was alluding to the paranormal when he wrote:

There are shadows for the shadows of things, as a reflection seen in a mirror of a mirror. We know there are circles within circles and dimensions beyond dimension. Reality is itself a shadow, only an appearance accepted by those whose eyes shun what might lie beyond

But our time-machine shows us that there is no paranormal. Simply a normal we can't perceive—circles within circles that "our eyes shun".

This, of course, shouldn't reduce for us the mystery of these things. Indeed, it should increase them. Organismic time we can perceive. Biochemical time and ecological time open their doors to our inspection, given the right tools. But what of those times and scales whose doors still remain firmly shut, or which, as quantum time, are left unlocked but still unknowable?

In Greg Egan's novel Diaspora, the protagonists discover an entire ecosystem that inhabits 16-dimensional space, organisms that are comprised of clusters of dimensional 'wavelengths', "Life—embedded in the accidental computations" of another life form "with no possibility of relating to the world outside". The idea is complex, and the mathematical plausibility far beyond my understanding. But it emphasises the theme that falls out from the biologist's time-machine.

There are things that exist in this world beyond our perception, and things that exist beyond our understanding. And yet, our existence is dependent on these circles within circles. Their rhythms pervade ours and their movements shape our own. For anyone, like myself, who spends their days straddled between the study of the less visible forces that shape spirituality and the study of those more visible forces that shape our behaviour it would do well to remember Yann Martel's words:

[theists and] atheists are ... brothers and sisters of a different faith ... they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them - and then they leap.

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