The Seashell on the Mountaintop

I just finished reading The Seashell on the Mountaintop, the Swedish version. Picked it up as a cheap pocket book and I was pleasantly surprised. The book was a fascinating read and showed many of the troubles scientists faced during 17th century, both political and religious.

The story involves
Nicholas Steno, born in Denmark as Niels Stensen and starts when he has just finished his anatomy studies. Being exceptionally skilled with the scalpel, Steno is the first to discover the saliva glands and the tear canal and his public dissections are quickly becoming famous events. He travels all over Europe, through Amsterdam, Paris, Florence and Hannover, spending most of his time working at the then famous Accademia del Cimento in Florence. The academy was funded by the brothers Ferdinando II and Leopoldo de Medici and was the first one focusing solely on "experimental philosophy".

After years of thinking about the problem of seashells being found inside rocks and mountains everywhere Steno figured out the final piece in the puzzle. By carefully studying layers of rocks in hills of Tuscany he realized that sediments in water were deposited at the bottom with the largest particles first and then smaller and smaller particles on top. Steno concluded that the layers and strata in the cliffs and mountains had been deposited in the same way with the newest layers in the direction of the smaller particles above the bigger ones. He also suggested that the seashells inside were real seashells from the sea, not growing inside the rock. He realized the significance of being able to tell the age of the layers of rock apart and opened the way to study the ancient history of Earth.

In 1669 he published his findings in a short booklet called De solido intra solidum naturaliter contento dissertationis prodromus, that translated means Preliminary discourse to a dissertation on a solid body naturally contained within a solid. This was the first published study of geology performed in a completely scientific way that included the
previously ignored time dimension that's so clearly embedded in the rock layers.

The rest of the book describes how Steno continues his studies of sediments and mountains, but also his increasing devotion to Catholicism eventually earning him the title of bishop. The book is well written and I could not put it down until I finished reading the last page.

Something that surprises me with the book is the amount of famous scientists and philosophers that Steno meets. He becomes friends or colleagues with such celebrities as Baruch Spinoza, Giovanni Borelli, the contemporary members of The Royal Society of London, Gottfried Leibniz and many more. Opinions and observations concerning Stenos interests in anatomy and geology made by thinkers like Descartes, Da Vinci and even earlier Aristotle is also included in the book.

Even if the world feels a lot smaller now with easy communication and quick traveling across the globe, it's still inspiring to see how people have always liked to travel and exchange ideas.
The Seashell on the Mountaintop made history feel more vibrant to me than it has in a long time.


Altruism, empathy and morality

Recent research shows that when you do something totally unselfish, the same regions in the brain that responds to food or sex lights up. The study, originally published in October 2006 by Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman, got a lot of publicity in the press lately. Some good summaries could be found in the Washington Post and Science Daily, and also in some blogs from people interested in this topic.

My personal uneducated take on altruism is that I know it feels good. My brain rewards me when I help someone, when I make someone else happy. The evolutionary benefit from this is a bit harder to pinpoint, but the articles mentioned above has some good theories. Scott Huettel draws the following conclusions from his study:
"Our findings are consistent with a theory that some aspects of altruism arose out of a system for perceiving the intentions and goals of others."
"To be altruistic, you need to see that the people you’re helping have goals, and that your actions will have consequences for them."
The also studies show that people with damage to a specific part of the frontal lobe lacked empathy and would solve tricky emotional problems in a cold "the-end-justifies-the-means" way. This sounds a lot like Asperger's syndrome to me. Now every other kid with a slight communication problem seems to get this diagnose, but I wouldn't be surprised if this condition has something to do with them having a slight error in parts of their frontal lobe.

Marc Hauser has done psychological experiments showing that people all over the world process moral questions in the same way, suggesting that moral thinking is intrinsic to the human brain, rather than a product of culture. That morality is comparable to language in the way that they are both intrinsic in humans. He suggests that people reach moral conclusions in the same way they construct a sentence without having been trained in linguistics. A quote from this excellent summary of a Nature article:
Thus, the findings confirm the notion that there are at least two neural systems involved in making moral decisions: one in which emotions are involved, and one which performs a cost-benefit analysis. [... ...] It is believed that the emotion-based system for making moral decisions evolved first, perhaps in a situation where small numbers of people lived in kin groups. [Antonio] Damasio says, “A nice way to think about it is that we have this emotional system built in, and over the years culture has worked on it to make it even better”.
A consequence of this kind of study is that we might have to rethink what is immoral and not. If morality is automatic and unconscious process, why are we so quick to differ on what's right or wrong in a moral dilemma? The Washington Posts article says:
U.S. law distinguishes between a physician who removes a feeding tube from a terminally ill patient and a physician who administers a drug to kill the patient. Hauser said the only difference is that the second scenario is more emotionally charged -- and therefore feels like a different moral problem, when it really is not: "In the end, the doctor's intent is to reduce suffering, and that is as true in active as in passive euthanasia, and either way the patient is dead."
The difference sounds clear at first thought since it feels like an active choice to administer a lethal drug. But removing a feeding tube is equally active and the two situations should defintely be equal before the law.

Anyway, I guess we should try to think more about the end results instead of moral. A good comment on this from an interesting blog called Atheist's Wager:
"Morality is about doing the right thing when no one is watching."
Let's all do the right thing.