Archive for April, 2011
From the author’s agency website: “Sarah Vowell is the New York Times’ bestselling author of five nonfiction books on American history and culture”.
The first thing I ever noticed about Sarah Vowell was her distinctive, nasally voice on This American Life (an NPR program out of Chicago). The second thing I noticed was her unique take on American history. She is part Goth girl, part Native American, and the first time I heard her was describing her idea of an ideal vacation: visiting famous American massacre sights with her sister. I was beguiled.
Having heard her many times, and seen her interviewed on television, this is the first time I’ve actually read one of her books. The Partly Cloudy Patriot is, essentially, a collection of personal essays that are equal parts popular culture (as experienced by Sarah) and reflections on America’s shady past.
Of course we all know about the darker side of our history, but how many authors can reveal it (as well as revel in it) like Sarah Vowell? This sort of willingness to look America in the eye for who and what she is has also been a mark of This American Life. (The fact that a younger generation has not only the investigative chops, but the interest in history to do this sort of thing is, well, salutary).
Sarah’s writing is insightful, well-written and intensely entertaining. Several of the essays in Patriot were generated by her experiences attending the inauguration of George W. Bush as President (after the infamous Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore), and in these you can see the “patriot” that the writer is when it comes to her native country (though devastated by Gore’s loss, she nevertheless cannot pass up an opportunity to witness the transfer of Presidential power). I note that she’s a writer of sufficient reputation to have actually spoken with key players in events she writes about, and she seems to get around a bit, all of which enriches her writing.
The only thing I would do differently is to get this book on tape. Her voice is so distinctive and tinged with irony — perfectly suited to reading these fine essays.
If you’ve ever wondered what the hell was going on with LIFE ON EARTH before the “Cambrian Explosion”, this is your book! Written by (what has to be) England’s cheekiest Paleobiologist, it’s a highly entertaining and engaging romp through the ups and downs of reading the story of the fossil record for signs of earth’s earliest life.
No-one’s reputation is spared in this clear-eyed assessment of what we know from the fossil record (as well as what we don’t know, and what we thought we knew at various times since Darwin dropped his bombshell on the world).
The book plays out like a Mrs. Marple mystery as scientists (including, it should be noted, the author himself) struggle to understand the clues to a game for which they also must figure out the rules (to borrow the author’s metaphor), which is why:
“Human progress towards learning the rules for decoding the fossil record has therefore been slow, requiring trial and error, with lots of questions, intuition and counter-intuition, accompanied by oceans of doubt. But then, science, which always rejoices in a good question, is a unique system for the measurement of doubt.” (P. 34)
Along the way are plenty of personal anecdotes from the author, such as his tart description of the cuisine available when hunting for fossils in Mongolia:
“On previous days, we had been served what seemed like a pottage of sheep’s anal sphincter jumbled together with goat’s entrails. Only it didn’t taste quite as nice as all that might sound.” (P. 94)
The author strings us along like any good mystery writer would, only in this case the “big reveal” that is usually reserved for the last act turns out to a quiet conclusion to a series of quiet bombshells that have been dropped along the way.
I know this sounds like an arcane bit of history to spend time with, but the answers to the riddle of what the earliest fossil record tells us (and why the story has taken so long for determined and bright humans to piece together) are important ones, and touch upon many of the areas of ignorance that allow so many to dismiss Evolution as some sort of “braniac’s” fairy tale.
In this, I can’t sum it up better than the author:
“The answer to this howdunnit — how did life begin? — really matters to us now because it helps to define the nature of the human condition. Even in science, however, big questions like these can appear to have more than a single answer. This is awkward because the answers to big questions affect us deeply. They have great predictive power. We are all trying to guess what lies over the hill, for us and for our children. If we guess the wrong answers, we could well affect the fortunes of civilization. When Don Cortes and his men arrived in Mexico, for example, the Aztec soldiers greeted them as gods — but would they have not done better to fight them as enemies? Or when the great Christmas Tsunami struck Asia in 2004, should the tourists have run inland or simply stood on the shore and prayed? And now that AIDS is striking in Africa, should doctors inoculate against the virus or invoke all the Angels in Heaven? There is no doubt about it. When it comes to the crunch, seeing the world as it really is will matter to us, and to our children, very much indeed.” (P. 232)
“…seeing the world as it really is…” indeed. A powerful idea, that.
I recommend this book highly. It is such a split personality of adventure yarn and science text that if one part lags the other will carry you along. Or, if you’re like me, you’ll simply get two books for the price of one!
After the initial “scientific revolution” blitzkrieg against the ramparts of religion (where, it should be noted, religion did not fare so well), there have been attempts (by some on both sides of that battle) to raise a flag of truce. The terms of this proposed cease-fire are drawn along the lines of the idea of non-overlapping magisterium, wherein Religion would accept the truths of science, cede the lost territory of using the Bible to explain the origins of species and the formation of the earth (as well as the causes of diseases and natural disasters) and Science would leave alone questions having to do with the existence of God and the meaning of life, as well as the role of personal confessor and consoler of the human soul.
This has never been an easy truce, nor one to which all signatories have remained within the letter (or the spirit) of the unwritten compromise.
For mainstream religion adapted to the new intellectual landscape by picking bits from the discoveries of science to spice up its sermons and lend them an air of contemporary credibility, while on the fringes the more fundamentalist believers in the Biblical account of creation simply added the word “science” to their “discipline” (while conveniently leaving out much of any true “scientific method” from their “proofs”) and dug in their heels, planting their flag proudly on Mount Irrational. And on the Science side, many have not restrained themselves from the almost inevitable conclusion that since the evolution of life and the formation of the universe can now be explained within purely natural (if mind-boggling) means (and therefore requires the addition of no supernatural means for its existence) that there is, then, no greater being or intelligence at all. In sum: since there is no scientific need for god, there is no god.
Obviously I fall into this latter extreme naturalist/atheist camp.
And yet even among those who have a passable understanding of what evolution tells us about our own existence, there remains a majority (if recent surveys are to believed) that nonetheless hold to a belief in God (in some form).
I consider a belief in an actual god an irrational belief, and I say that with some confidence. However, I am also aware of another reality that has to temper any such pronouncement. For though I consider a belief in an active, intervening and personal God to be an idea that can only exist in an ignorance of the actual evidence of biology, that “evidence of biology” (at least in terms of what we are now coming to understand of the way our evolved mammalian brains operate) suggests that our propensity toward magical thinking is as natural to our consciousness as is our capacity for empathy or aggression: in short God (both as an idea and as a perceived “presence”) is a natural by-product of consciousness.
And if God is, then, natural, can I really have a “problem” with it? Sure, I can. But I don’t feel like i can take it so far as to ridicule any and everyone who believes. (Though, to be honest, there is no escaping the implied “ridicule” in my pronouncing their beliefs to be ridiculous).
Part of the reason I can’t (or won’t) actually attack a person’s beliefs is the same reason that most people would not leap into unrestrained rapine violence were they to suddenly realize there was no Great Father in the Sky watching their behavior and holding eternal punishment over their heads: That reason being that I am also a deeply (profoundly) social animal, living among similarly social animals of my own kind, and I strongly desire to continue living among my kind in freedom and security. (Going on a lawless rampage would quickly cost me my social standing, my career and my liberty — and all of that long before god got is eternal paws on me!)
Screw God, I say: the real punishment of misbehaving is (and has always been) the loss of the approbation of my fellow humans. They have the real power to punish (forgetting, for now, the socio- and psychopathic among us that are genetically immune to such scorn from their fellow sentient beings).
Which brings me back around to an insoluble conundrum: the more science I read; the more corners of my ignorance into which science is able to cast some light, the less room there is for an actual god to hide. And yet, the more science I read, the better I understand that the range of human personalities also has a genetic and biochemical basis, meaning that there will always be a portion of the population given to a liberal mind or a conservative mind (the conservative minded being the one that cannot comfortably function with a large does of ambiguity and that will, therefore, rely on its natural capacity for magical thinking to find evidence in a purely “natural” life for the divine). Such as these will never join in fellowship with those of us who find a certain pleasure in the contemplation of the complexities of life that science reveals to us.
And this brings us to where science is now, I think: once more moving the fence posts that mark the ever-shrinking patch of land that the church occupies. For the kind of knowledge that science can now supply is the kind of knowledge that no longer only informs (and tickles the more “open” mind), it also consoles. And consolation has been one of the more popular menu-items at the religious buffet for many millennia.
As a personal example, the last two books I have read about brain science have helped me to begin a sort of mental “remediation”, wherein, like an asbestos removal team, I can begin uncovering and removing the last toxic vestiges of magical thinking that I had been culturally inclined to apply to the way my brain works. In short, I can now recognize the mechanics of how my particular brain has stored information over the years, flavoring each memory with a charge of emotion (positive or negative) based on my personality (read: genes).
This may not sound like much, but in fact it frees me from an enormous burden, a burden that, at various times in my life, has included trying to figure out what the God of the Universe was trying to tell me through each experience, or what my Higher Power was “leading” me to (through this upset or that), or what possible cosmic “meaning” an event might be concealing.
Wow. That’s a lot of BIG CONCERN for a mammalian brain to handle, especially when it turns out THERE IS NO SUCH THING be be concerned with!
In this sense, the ability to “see the world as it really is” has tremendous powers of consolation, as well as incredible practical utility. I can now observe the way my brain operates without making that operation more (or less) than it actually is. Further, it has given me tools to deal with the charged memories already stored in my brain during my more magically-inclined decades (sigh).
In short, I find that my increasing knowledge of science, and the recent reading of two books (that are basically about how mouse brains work) have given me more emotional comfort and useful tools than my 25 years of religious belief and years of therapy. It almost feels as if the knowledge I’ve gained in the last couple of months — if given to the 15 year-old Bob — could have saved me a lot of trouble.
Oh, and did I mention the joy that such discoveries bring to a mind like mine? Tremendous!
Sound a bit like a religious “testimony”? Yeah, only it’s not. It is a testimony to what lies beyond magical thinking: the joys of ambiguity and the consolations of science.
REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Quirk: Brain Science Makes Sense of Your Peculiar Personality” by Hannah Holmes.Sunday, April 10th, 2011
This is the second book I’ve read by Hannah Holmes, and as much as I enjoyed the first, I am deeply impressed by this one.
Hannah Holmes is one of those writers that writes for a popular audience but who is not content to give us information second-hand. In this case she goes to the researcher-sources of the science she is interested in with a clear, dual purpose: to better understand her own “quirks”, and to share the information she gleans with the rest of us.
In “The Well Dressed Ape” (reviewed on this blog) I found her style breezy and pleasantly self-referential. This book begins in that same tone but as we enter the final chapters the tone shifts ever so gradually to what I can only call “profound”. This book made clear to me that science has advanced to a point where yet one more (of the supposedly non-overlapping) magisterium of religion is falling to it’s onslaught: in this case, consolation.
For this is a book of fascinating, relevant and, yes, consoling facts about the range of human personality. This is no airy-fairy New Age self-help book, however. Not at all. It is the product of half a dozen visits and interviews with leading neuroscience researchers who have been breeding in mice (and rats, with the odd help of a Prairie Vole here and there) a range of the more common mental disorders that trouble the human mind: depression, anxiety, attachment disorder and the like. The insight that these experiments give us into the human mind will, well, blow your mind. (And perhaps comfort and console you a bit, as it did me).
The book’s chapters borrow their structure from a personality questionnaire, leading the reader through our current imperfectly-but-usefully-defined facets of the human personality (even this initial “definition of terms” gets a thoughtful introduction from the author). Each chapter then describes a particular trait, explores the relevant research (on the mice bred for that trait) before delving into the expression of said trait in humans.
Following along with the human examples of differing personality types that Hannah presents from her own circle of family, pets and friends, I think any reader will find him or herself clearly identifying their own “quirks” of personality. (In my case, it’s clear I am one of those humans born with an “anxious” brain). I could see myself in the stories that this book tells, and I found in them a better understanding of the neurological underpinnings of my own progression toward a more alert — but calm — human.
There is something in this book for everyone, as the entire range of human personality is treated with care. As a bonus, you are invited to visit the author’s website to test your own personality (I did it — it’s basically the popular Myers/Briggs test).
I highly recommend this hot-off-the-press book. It is a warm, humane and engaging adventure of a read that should do any brain some good, be it mouse or human.
We are not served well by the question: “What is the meaning of life”? Not because the question is a difficult one, or too challenging to answer, but because it is a question with no certifiable answer, or , more exactly: there is no “meaning of life” to be discovered.
To continue in that bleak vein, let me suggest that he best we can hope for (in fact the best we can achieve within the bounds of reality) is to come to some sort of understanding of our own mortality, and thereby work to make the best peace we can with an end as horrifying to any conscious living organism as it is inevitable.
The problem with a truly Atheistic, materialistic and naturalistic view of existence is that there really isn’t much in the way of comfort to be had (at least not in any easily digestible form). Many religious people know this and, in fact, use this truth as an argument for the adoption of religion. Think about that for a moment: the truth is unsettling; therefore one should seek refuge in untruth. Writers like Christopher Hitchens acknowledge atheism’s lack in satisfying of our natural human wish-fulfillment. (Atheism is, by implication, an embracing of the knowledge of our true status in the universe that science offers us). So instead they point to a certain nobility in facing this troubling reality head-on, and then going on about the business of making the lives we do have as rich and meaningful as we can.
But if life has no meaning, how can we make meaningful lives? That’s simple: life does have meaning to those that are living it: to you and I. We humans get bent when charge past such earthly meaning in order to confront the possibility that the rest of the universe does not share our fascination with our day-to-day activities. (Because, apparently, it’s not enough for us to be important to just, well, us. We want there to be a God who cares, ruling over a Universe that is built for the sole purpose of engendering the relationship between Man and his Maker).
There is irony in this. I would suggest that the more a human seeks his or her sense of meaning from external (eternal, divine) sources, the less meaningful (in real terms) their lives actually are. In other words, the religious have it exactly backwards: they think that it is only through acknowledging God that our lives have meaning (going so far as to believe that a life lived for any other purpose cannot be meaningful at all). I think the opposite is true: that the less one believes in the eternal and the divine, the more one is forced to come to terms with the here and now which, for us social animals, means making the most of our relationships with each other and the way we choose to spend our short lives.
Now I could be wrong on this — at least as it relates to humans of a different temperament than mine. Consider the following:
“Conservatives also tend to rank high on something called “death anxiety”… Apparently the mere idea of death causes some people to feel uncertain and out of control – anxious. Some studies suggest that death anxiety reflects a fear that life itself has no meaning. For someone who doesn’t enjoy ambiguity, that could be a pretty distressing possibility.” — Hannah Holmes: “Quirk: Brain Science Makes Sense of Your Peculiar Personality” (P 218)
In addition, to a more “conservative” mind, the idea of a human set loose upon the world without the restraining influence of God on their behavior is terrifying, and they imagine that such “self-responsive” people would unerringly choose to do the darkest possible things.
And then there are writers such as Ayn Rand: popular in conservative circles for her idea that society is served best by individuals going about their selfish ways attending to their own selfish animal needs. Conservatives seems overly fond of this idea (which seems odd when such philosophies are so often erroneously labelled as being “Darwinian” in their “survival of the fittest” ethos).
But these ideas are still operating, I would argue, within the framework of a sense of original sin and a need to justify our naturally-selfish behavior within a God-directed universe, and therefore represent an error of logic akin to how the notorious eugenics movement turned the blind work of genetics into a justification for human cruelty on a grand scale.
It is beyond dispute that we are animals, and naturally self-centered animals at that. Yet we humans carry around comparatively huge brains that set us apart from our animal cousins, be they primate or whale, in the scope of our ability for self-consideration and reflection. But to elevate our instinctive bent toward self-preservation to a self-serving abdication of personal responsibility is to ignore the comprehensive social nature of our human-to-human relationships. For it is in those earthly and immediate relationships that we experience whatever hell or heaven we think we are creating, not in an imagined afterlife.
In religious terms, our instinctive behaviors are labelled as sin, or fallen, and a thing against we must strive mightily with the help of an intervening God. This misses the point as well, and is simply a very common ploy by select humans to profit from their control over other humans hungry for answers to that damnable question: “What’s it all about?”.
This is all we can know about the meaning of life at this point: you and I are alive today, and we are the descendants of an endless series of life forms that evolved on a planet that was born out of a cosmic explosion that created a universe that continues to expand, and will continue to expand to a point at which, we assume, it will then contract again. Before that happens, however, our own sun will reach the end of its nuclear life and explode, taking us out with it. But even before then, the species “human” will most likely (if history is any indication) go extinct, or evolve into a new species (that may in it’s turn go extinct). But before any of that ever happens, you and I will die a natural (one would hope) death, and our chemical components will be disbursed back into the soil, the air, and the tissue of other living organisms until such time as the whole shebang is redistributed by cosmic explosions. We are primates, social mammals that have a need for each other’s company, and so we have developed societies and technologies to assist us in our instinctive quest for comfort, happiness and security. Our large brains are both assistant and critic to all that we do, and within a natural spectrum of mutation and disease, each animal is born with a capacity to live life with a variety of levels of success.
That states the reasons you and I are the living consciousnesses we are, but it does not — indeed can not — answer the existential “why” that we keep asking it to.
Any answer we construct to the question of life’s meaning is going to fall short. Even acknowledgement of that reality will not bring complete relief from the ever-present awareness of our own mortality. We humans are, after all, pattern-seekers, and problems for which we cannot find solutions cause us real cognitive distress. This is probably why magical thinking has evolved as a natural part of consciousness (a skill not reserved only for the young!). Magical thinking (“religion”) enables us to calm our troubled brains by filling in the un-fillable blanks in our knowledge with malleable myth.
But we the living are a generation of humans that — thanks to science – carry a knowledge of our place in the universe that no other generation of our kind has ever had to contend with. And this is a knowledge that can easily overwhelm our mammalian brains, challenging even the most powerful mental magic. And when the magic fails, we are forced, once again, to ask anew the old question: “What, then, is the meaning of life?”
I think we can cut ourselves a little slack if our minds aren’t quite up to the task — if we find that we have been asking the wrong question all of these years. Perhaps, then, we can stop trying to figure out the meaning of life, and turn our attention instead toward making life meaningful.