Archive for March, 2010

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Mountain of Names: A History of the Human Family” by Alex Shoumatoff.

Sunday, March 7th, 2010

MountainCover“The Mountain of Names” by Alex Shoumatoff is a tsunamis of facts and details that I just had to let wash over me.  But then I think that is part of the intention of this book as it spends several (nearly breathless) chapters laying out just about everything that is known about the history of human kinship.  Each paragraph has a surprising and/or enlightening fact slipped into nearly every sentence, almost any of which is worthy of further study or reading (as each fact is a snapshot of some researcher’s lifetime of work in New Guinea, say, or India).  The effect of this immersion in our human history is to paint a picture — to impart a sense of who we have been in relation to each other in family and relationship groups throughout time up to and including today.

“The nuclear family”, polygamy, the taboos against marrying our closest relations, this book points out the wide variety of ways we humans have used blood relationship to organize our societies, be they small or large.  Yet among the variation there is also the sort of consistency to our definition of “family” that you’d expect from members of the same species (there is, of course, plenty of attention paid to our primate relatives, as well as other mammals).

One of the many delights in this book was a thorough tracing of the development of our “Western” sense of individuality, contrasted against the ethic of the family, tribe and community that is still prevalent in great swathes of the globe.  I would offer that the major thrust of this book (running alongside the obvious enthusiasm for imparting fascinating facts) is the proposal that much has been lost in our move toward our elevation of the individual as the primary unit of identification in society.  Yet the case is made with qualifications, as at one point the author quotes the sociologists Brigitte and Peter Berger, who propose that “individualism was a precondition rather than a consequence, of modernization.”

There is a lot of information on marriage (in its various forms), parenting (and the how and why of children reproducing their own parents behaviors) and a wonderfully enlightening section on just how related we all are to each other (each of us is at most a 50th cousin to anyone one else living on the planet!).

This is a dense book, and a long read with far too many facts and ideas to retain.  Nevertheless, it’s an effective book in the way it imparts a tactile sense of our relatedness, along with an awareness of how our own individual contemporary ideas of “family” fit into the shared history of humans.

The latest edition of this book is from 1995, which seems ancient when considering the flood of new scientific discovery, and many of the references to “current” cultural trends in America are dated.  But I found a valuable adjustment to my perspective and knowledge in its pages, and can recommend it as a valuable read.

Blog of Alex Shoumatoff:

SERMON: I’M A BELIEVER! Confessions of a Person of Faith. By the not-so-reverend bob.

Sunday, March 7th, 2010

I am either uniquely qualified by my experience to comment on belief in our culture, or completely disqualified by my own evident credulity.

People believe all sorts of things.  I once complimented a truly clever artist by telling him “You have the most interesting mind”, to which he replied “I don’t know.  There are people out there that believe they’re a toaster”.  I saw a bumper sticker on a truck this morning that declared in bold print: “9/11 Was an Inside Job!”  There are some who might sincerely believe that our moderate Democrat President is a Socialist intent on ruining the economy of our country.  More than half of the country believes that Jesus’ return to earth is a very real possibility in their lifetimes.   I despair.

My qualifications for commenting on belief are that I have spent many years in two prominent cultural camps: the “Born Again” Christians and the “New Agers”.  I’ve ventured into no belief as an explorer or reporter, but as a person looking for an effective way to view the world.

Both Religion (Christianity) and Spirituality (New Age) offer workable world views.  About equally effective, and about equally built on bullshit.  But we have an incredible tolerance for crap (and my accusatory finger is pointing at me as well).

I’m an actor, and many of my friends are actors too.  I’ve also written for the stage, and watched actors find their way into the characters I’ve created, and I’ve witnessed a wonderful thing in the way they do this.  For an actor can take a few sentences on a page, along with a stray bit of stage direction, and fill in the vast unknown about the character they are playing with an entire world and fully-formed personality created completely in their own mind.  This is an actor trait — no, a need — that playwright’s depend on.  The writer only has to give the actor enough to engage this capacity (and the director need only encourage and guide it), and the actor will write his or her (internal) biographical tome from the supplied bits of raw theatrical material.

This is how belief works.  This is how every believer can search the scriptures and find a new understanding.  This is how the Creationist can make up the answers to how Noah fit two of every 5-50 million species (current estimates) in the Ark: the writers of the Bible need only give the reader’s natural story-telling, story-believing and pattern-making impulse a starting point, and he or she will fill in the rest.

Ever notice how every single minister or evangelist has a seemingly exclusive and secret knowledge of God’s true personality and intention?  That is the stuff that churches are made of (for if there were true unanimity, there would only be different franchises of the one true church, n’est-ce pas?)

And this, my friends, is where science steps in.  Oh I know that I can pick up just about any anthropology book and find colorful descriptions of activities and attitudes of our distant ancestors that cannot be reasonably deduced from the few actual artifacts that have been found.  That our primate ancestors existed is really beyond question at this point, but even the scientist has the same innate human urge to tell the “story” of his or her find.

Science is built upon physical evidence, free (ideally) of our individual projections or wishes.  And the scientific method has developed (over time) to effectively counter this tendency that we (to our credit) recognize in ourselves: that our desire for a good story is ever waiting to creep into our “interpretation” of whatever evidence is before us.  Hence, a double-blind, placebo controlled study stipulates the controls of the medical experiment down to the level that the person administering the “real” or “placebo” drug is not informed as to which they are giving out, so that no hints or suggestions will be transmitted to the patient in a way that might trigger the patient’s innate “placebo” response (which — though helpful to the recovery of the patient — makes a mess of getting to the “evidence based” results we are looking for).

I think belief is a natural state for us.  It is too persistent to be otherwise.  That it has served us in some beneficial way in our evolution must be accepted, even though the expression of our tendency toward belief in a variety of religious systems has often channeled our own destructive, fearful and vindictive tendencies into some truly monstrous atrocities.

The point of writers like Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris et. al is that this marshaling of our natural human credulity by the hucksters that inevitably profit from it is a blight and hindrance upon our progression into any sort of livable and humane future.  I concur.  What’s to be done about it is another question entirely.

I think something can be done, because I have moved out from the realm of belief.  First in my declension from Christianity, and then from (to borrow from Dennett) my “belief in belief” itself  (which in its later stages took the form of a belief that allowed me to give weight to the mix of hokum and validating attention my “psychic” gave me for years).  Now I look for evidence and knowledge, not belief.

Belief, it turns out, is not a necessity for life.  And anyone who tells you that it is it trying to sell you something (or selling themselves some more of what they are already invested in).

I look to science.  Which, it turns out, doesn’t know everything.  But at the very least, science is honest about how much we don’t know, even as it continues to acquire knowledge at a stunning pace.  (As Christopher Hitchens puts it: “We now know less and less about more and more.”)  One the one hand it is mind-blowing to consider how much we have learned in the last one hundred and fifty years about biology, genetics, the earth, our own bodies and disease.  On the other we are humbled when we still can’t really explain the exact “why” of how some of our best medicines work.  (The good news is that the rise of evidence-based medicine can at last show us what medicines actually do work and what treatments are kept alive only by our belief in them).

When I was a kid I had a 45 record of The Monkeys song “I’m a Believer” (written by Neil Diamond).  It keeps playing in my head as I write this:

“I thought love was only true in fairy tales,
meant for someone else, but not for me,
Love was out to get me (“nah nah nah nah, nah nah”)
That’s the way it seemed (“nah nah nah nah, nah nah”)
Disappointment haunted all my dreams…

Then I saw her face,
Now I’m a believer
Not a trace
Of doubt in my mind
I’m in love (“ooh ooh”)
I’m a believer, I couldn’t leave her if I tried!”

He saw her face, and constructed an entire love relationship in his own creative mind.  Did he talk to her?  Maybe not.  (A dear friend of mine once asked out a woman he’d been admiring from a distance for months.  “Do you still like her?” I asked, the day after their long-anticipated first date.  “Not as much as before I talked to her” he replied).

Belief moves in to fill the void before facts and evidence can seep in to displace it.  Most of us are believers to one degree or another.  When it comes to belief I was “Chief among sinners” (to borrow from Paul).  Now that I’ve moved beyond belief, I feel a mix of gratitude and embarrassment for the experience.  One the one hand it gives me a valuable insight into my fellow humans who continue to believe in belief in it’s many forms; on the other it gives me a sharp awareness of my own willingness to — over and over again –  “fill in the blanks” for the preacher or the well-intentioned quack.

As an actor and writer, it’s a wonderfully useful trait, this urge to “fill in the blank”, to make up the “rest” of the story.  But as a citizen in a modern democratic society, it is a tendency that must be brought under the influence of fact and evidence in the realms of the overall public good.

We do not have to choose between being coldly rational or imaginatively deluded, we simply need to do the work of modern people and apply our reason to the delusion, and let our imagination dispel the cold.

t.n.s.r. bob