Ubuntu and the generosity of genes

Three quotations

A couple of years ago I was introduced to the word “ubuntu”. I was told it came from South Africa* and could be translated as “I am because we are”. I found myself being deeply moved  by what seemed to me to be the evident truth and deep implications of this phrase.

I wrote it down on a small piece of paper and stuck it up above my desk, along with other pieces of paper on which I have written down other sayings that strike me as expressing fundamental insights. Two examples are:

  • “The more you know, the freer you are”. which comes from Daniel Barenboim, world renowned pianist and conductor.
  • “I do not think that I am cleverer than anyone else. Those who do great mathematics spend night and day and constant attention to it”, which comes from  Carl Friedrich Gauss, said by many mathematicians to be the greatest ever of their kind.

Ubuntu

Often, when I am out walking or when I am sitting on the balcony, I find thoughts swishing around in my head in seemingly random ways. But this randomness is clearly an illusion for, at these times, experiences and insights that in the past have struck special chords in my feelings have a habit of popping unexpectedly into my mind. One day recently, while enjoying one of these agreeable reveries, I found the word “ubuntu” being unexpectedly linked to the concept of “the selfish gene”. Ever since I read the book by Richard Dawkins** in which he coined the phrase, I have baulked at accepting the bleak manifestation of determinism that its  author proposes.

But as I sat contentedly in the warm glow of the sun, I found that the awkward juxtaposition of the notion of the selfish gene with the concept of “ubuntu” was seeding thought processes that suggested a challenge to Richard Dawkins’ idea.

No doubt, the reason it came to me at this particular time and not long before had something to do with subjects I have been reading about recently, most notably:

  • The origins of life from its first microbial manifestations***
  • The history of our species from a genetic perspective.****
  • The necessary and symbiotic functions performed by the multitudes of microbes in out gut.*****

All these subjects are bound to stimulate reflections on nature’s way of sustaining life on our planet. I can only assume that they played a part in forging the idea that popped into my mind:  If only Richard Dawkins had looked at the situation in a less blinkered way, he would have found every reason, not only to expand his book but also to change its title to the “The Generous Gene”.

Ubuntu and the generous gene

The idea was so simple. It was that the spirit of “ubuntu” could be extended by adding the words “… and we are because we exist in the living world”. For me it seems obvious that, if it is true that our existence depends on us being members of the group of human beings, it is equally true that our existence depends us being participants in the world we all live in, as created by the “Big bang” and made meaningful to us by the evolution of life on earth.

But what is the nature of this world? Of the many approaches to finding answers to this question, two are relevant to the way my thoughts were leading me:

  • That our world is characterised by a seemingly unlimited examples of “symbiosis”, the phenomenon of two or more living organisms depending directly on each other for existence – whether they be the most primitive eukaryotes that have inhibited our planet for some two billion years, or more recently evolved plants or animals. Indeed the evidence is clear that it is deeply ingrained in every context where life is found . Clearly, the fact that species provide reciprocal services for each other is a fundamental attribute of the living world as we know it.
  • That our world relies on what, at first sight at least, seems to be an extremely wasteful way of ensuring the continuation of the species, but which, when looked at from a wider perspective, turns out to be necessary to it.  One way of describing this key to the survival of our species is “genetically programmed generosity”.

Think of the number of acorns produced by an oak tree every year. Richard Dawkins would see this as an insurance policy for the continuation of the oak tree species and he would be right. But in the meanwhile (which may last for a matter of  hundreds of years) the acorns fall to the ground and are eaten by animals, insects and larvae, or decomposed by microorganisms. In this way they, not only sustain the life of a multiplicity of living beings but also enrich the soil for future use by plants of any variety whose seeds happen to find themselves lodging in it.

Think also of the salmon that is said to lay thousands of eggs to ensure that a sufficient number of their offspring survive to make certain of the continuation of the species. Nobody knows exactly how many of these extremely vulnerable beings live long enough to continue the reproductive cycle, but 2 per cent of the original number has been suggested. So what happens to the other 98 per cent? The same as happens to the acorns: they become food for other creatures and organisms and, thereby, play their part in sustaining the life of the oceans and the planet.

Nor are these isolated examples, the strategy of abundance is to be found in all aspects of nature’s way of doing things, and in most, if not all of them, an outcome is the increased wellbeing of a multitude of other communities. I find myself forced to the conclusion that, if the absurd anthropomorphism of calling a gene “selfish” is permitted to Richard Dawkins, it surely legitimate to characterise the genes that are responsible for programming this abundance as “generous”.

For these reasons I propose to extend the meaning of the word “ubuntu”. My version is:

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“I am because we are, and we are because we exist in the living world”

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I feel sure that the wise Zulus who gifted us the wisdom encapsulated in the word “ubuntu” would approve. So, I assume, would ecologists and environmentalists. Surely, all of us, as human being, should be grateful for three gifts that are our birthright?

  • The gift of being alive.
  • The gift of being members of our species.
  • The gift of existing in such a generous natural environment.

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Footnote: Extending Nelson Mandela’s praise of ubuntu

 

ubuntu
To this, I am adding that we are also human thanks to the generosity of the genes that are responsible for the awe-inspiring richness of the microbial worlds within us and for the infinite diversity of the natural environment, upon both of which which we depend.
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References:

Vision Group acknowledged

Members of the University of Stirling Vision Group

In many places in my books, I acknowledge the importance of the role of colleagues from University of Stirling in the development of the new science-based ideas put forward in them. In particular I mention cooperations with scientists from various departments who later were to join me in the University of Stirling Vision Group. The most important of these were:

  • Alistair Watson (Physics, psychology and computer imagery).
  • Leslie Smith * (computing).
  • Bill Phillips * (visual memory and brain function).
  • Karel Gisbers (neurophysiology).
  • Ranald McDonald (statistics and common sense).
  • Lindsay Wilson * (at the time working on aspects of visual perception).

Also, although Peter Brophy * did not join our group, he was an ever-available and important source of information on the biochemistry of the brain.

The founding of the Vision Group.

It was in  the Autumn of 1984 that Alistair, Leslie and I took the first steps in the setting up of the University of Stirling Vision Group, which was to have many meetings attended by the above named colleagues and other members of the various interested Departments. Its starting point was a package of ideas developed by Alistair and myself, and two core algorithms based on them, produced by Alistair.  These were:

  • A colour constancy algorithm, capable of modelling both spatial and temporal colour constancy, which was inspired by our interpretation of how this phenomenon is achieved by human eye/brain systems. As a preliminary step to achieving this main objective, the algorithm has to pick off the information about surface-reflection. Since it was obvious that the reflected-light contained information, we speculated upon how it might be used by the eye/brain. Due to my interest in picture perception, we focused on its potential for computing surface-form, in front/behind relations, and the wavelength composition of ambient illumination.**
  • A “classification/recognition algorithm”, based on our interpretation of how human eye/brain systems achieves their primary task of enabling recognition.***

We could not help being excited by the early tests of these algorithms and the speculations concerning their potential. In our  enthusiasm to push matters further, Alistair suggested we should seek the help of other researchers, particularly ones with expertise in:

  • Mathematics and computing.
  • Visual perception with special reference of visual memory.

It was at this juncture that, having decided on a name for what we were hoping would become a collaborative group, we contacted Leslie Smith for his mathematical and computing skills. But this was only a start. Once Leslie was on board, we approached Bill Phillips, whose long standing interest in visual memory had led him to take the plunge into the recently emerging domain of neural networks and learning algorithms. After many Vision Group meetings, much sharing of ideas, many hours spent working on implementations of algorithms, and the writing of a number of working papers, we decided to submit a suite of five grant applications to the Science and Engineering Research Council, who had let it be known that they were looking for groups of researchers working on the use of computers to model the functional principles of neural system. The stated aim of the SERC was to set up a small number of “Centres of Excellence” in this domain.  Not only were two of our grant applications accepted (one submitted by Bill Phillips and one submitted by Leslie Smith), but also our university was encouraged to create a brand new  Centre for Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience . This empire absorbed the University of Stirling Vision Group which ceased to have an independent existence. Its coming into existence also coincided with my departure from Stirling on my way to founding my Painting School of Montmiral, where I intended to put theory into practice both in my own work and in my teaching. I also had hopes of confirming and, with any luck, extending the theory. Also after leaving Stirling University, Alistair and I were founder members of a small software development company which used ideas developed within the Vision Group as a basis for creating an image manipulation tool. ****

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* The links to Bill, Leslie, Lindsay and Peter relate to their current status. Alistair, Karel and Ranald all retired or died before the Internet became the essential information source it has since become.

** My book is full of examples of how fruitful this speculation proved to be.

*** In 1987 Alistair published:  “a new method of classification” in Pattern Recognition Letters, Volume 6, Issue 1, June 1987, Pages 15-19

****  Fluid Mask: a commercial outcome

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Origins of Castelnau de Montmiral

WHY THE NEED FOR A FORTIFIED TOWN IN THE NORTHERN ALBIGEOIS IN THE YEAR 1222?

What I have written below is the result of my efforts to sort out contradictions in the stories concerning the origins of Castelnau de Montmiral that were going the rounds when I first arrived in the town and started teaching at the Painting School of Montmiral in 1988. I cannot claim it to be a definitive history but it represents the best story I have been able cobble together on the basis of the “facts” that I was able unearth. A condensed version appears in the main website on the history page of the main website.

porte de garrics
Porte de Garrics : the ancient entry to the town of Castelnau de Montmiral

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Preamble

It took the inhabitants of Castelnau de Montmiral more than 20 years to complete the now tree-lined esplanade that today runs along its north-east facing side. It was ready in 1622, just in time to impress King Louis XIII who stayed there and, amongst other things, is said to have eaten plums in the street, now known as ‘rue Gambetta’. He was on his way to deal with a Protestant uprising that had occurred further South caused by the failure of the local Catholics to keep faith with the Edict of Nantes, which had legally guaranteed freedom of worship for the Protestants.

A main reason why the new esplanade took so long to put in place was that previously there had been a steep escarpment, sloping precipitously down from the still massive ramparts that encircled the town. It is difficult to imagine the quantity of earth and rocks that must have been moved to raise the ground level to its present height, the original rampart walls are seldom visible, as they are now largely obscured by houses that have been built in front of long stretches of where they were located. Likewise the formidable slopes are hidden by the raised and levelled surfaces that were created when constructing the esplanade and the various roads below. All these necessitated great works made possible by men using buckets, wheelbarrows and oxen-drawn carts to move what must have seemed to them to be mountains of stone and earth.

Continue reading “Origins of Castelnau de Montmiral”

Contents Lists for three of my books

The subjects covered are:

1.  Drawing    2. Painting    3. Creativity

These are followed by Posts on other subjects

Preface to all three books

1. DRAWING

Chapters from “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain”.

Other Posts on Drawing:

2. PAINTING

Chapters from “Painting with Light and Colour”:

Other Posts on colour and light in painting:

3. CREATIVITY

Chapters from “Fresh  insights into Creativity”

Extracts from Chapter 10: “Having fun with creativity”

4. PAINTING SCHOOL NEWS

5. MISCELLANEOUS

Your comments on the Contents List page.

I look forward to your comments in the section provided at the bottom of each Post. When you have made them, please leave your email address and tick the box “Notify me of new posts by email.”

ENJOY

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Caladrius bird for the contents list