Monday, February 26, 2024

Scientist: E. O. Wilson: A Life in Nature

This biography of Edward O. Wilson, by Richard Rhodes, was published in 2021, just before Wilson died at the age of ninety-two. I was reluctant to read it initially, because it is short and was probably timed to coincide with Wilson's death. The book itself does supply an adequate account of Wilson's life and sums up his work reasonably well. However, since I have already read six of Wilson's books, this one didn't add much to my knowledge. Because Wilson was one of the most significant biologists to follow Charles Darwin, I think that a more complete biography may appear within the next few decades.

Wilson was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1929. Neither of his parents attended college, but his father had reasonably good jobs as an auditor of rural electrification programs and as an accountant. His assignments required periodic moves. One of the major shortcomings of this book is that Wilson grew up in what I think was a highly dysfunctional household, and this fact isn't specifically examined. His father was an alcoholic, and his parents divorced when he was seven. That year, he had an accident in which his fishing bait struck his right eye and damaged it. The wound wasn't treated properly at the time, and he later became blind in that eye. This was significant, because he was already spending time outdoors observing small objects such as ants.

From an early age, Wilson was exceptionally industrious. After his parents divorced, he stayed with his father, who remarried. His mother moved away and also remarried. He became an Eagle Scout. Because of his father's moves, he attended several different schools, and he skipped a year. His birth parents supplied financial support for college, though they were not wealthy. At the University of Alabama, he completed both bachelor's and master's degrees in four years and then went to graduate school. Eventually he transferred to Harvard, where he completed his Ph.D. At Harvard, the atmosphere was highly competitive, but he received a teaching position there and stayed for the remainder of his career. One of his colleagues was James Watson, author of The Double Helix and co-discoverer of DNA, who was dismissive of field biologists like Wilson. Wilson was initially somewhat dismissive of genetics, which he called "reductionist." However, he became more interested in genetics when William Hamilton published his theory of kin selection. 

Wilson's research interests changed over time, which you can see in the titles of his main books: The Theory of Island Biogeography; The Insect Societies; Sociobiology: The New Synthesis; On Human Nature; The Ants; The Diversity of Life; Concilience: The Unity of Knowledge; The Social Conquest of Earth; and Half-Earth

Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, became extremely controversial in 1975, when it was published. It was reviewed in the New York Review of Books, which prompted a group called the Sociobiology Study Group to submit a letter of protest titled "Against Sociobiology." That group included two of Wilson's colleagues at Harvard, Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould. They were ideologically Marxists and became a model for later politically-correct groups that automatically reject theories that present deterministic models for human behavior, which they immediately link to racism and eugenics. In 1978, at a symposium, when Wilson was about to speak, protesters interrupted, and one of them dumped a pitcher of ice water on his head. Wilson was not psychologically prepared to be the victim of protests such as this, and he disliked this period in his career. I think that Wilson did tend to favor deterministic models, which, after all, is what scientists generally do, and, coming from the South, may have internalized some racial stereotypes, but the protest against him was unfair, because he certainly had no racist agenda and was shocked by this treatment. This was probably a cautionary lesson to later biologists who chose to adopt deterministic models – Robert Sapolsky, for instance – and may explain some of the obliqueness of their writings. In my view, the New York Review of Books permanently tarnished its intellectual reputation by publishing a purely ideological criticism of Wilson that made life difficult for him for several years, even when his ideas were clearly more tenable than those presented by his critics.

Wilson later had run-ins with Richard Dawkins, after Dawkins published The Selfish Gene in 1976. Dawkins, following the arguments of William Hamilton, advocated a position in which evolution is driven by the multiplication of genes rather than organisms or species. From his work on ants and his observations of humans, Wilson advocated eusociality as a driving force in evolution. It is not entirely clear who won this argument – they may both be wrong – but eusociality is not currently seen as a suitable explanation for evolution in general. First of all, there are very few eusocial species, and one would expect far more of them if that were a driving force. However, it is clear that the eusocial characteristics of ants permitted them to become dominant species. Similarly, it is clear that human cooperation permitted humans to survive when all of the other Homo species perished. Also, humans are the only primates that are flourishing now. I think that the "grand theory" model in science has become obsolete. To a certain extent, it is the result of pointless competition among scientists: everone wants to be the next Darwin or the next Einstein. I think that recent scientific findings indicate that, while the physical world may behave according to a set of rules, those rules, if they exist, are probably too complex for human understanding. Every language that we use, including mathematics, exists as a product of human evolution, and is ultimately not suited to answering fundamental questions about the nature of reality. Language is best suited to activities such as exchanging information, finding food, escaping enemies, building bridges and engaging in cooperation. In order to survive as a species, you don't have to understand the universe. Furthermore, even if we wanted to, recent findings indicate that humans are not fundamentally rational.

The main thing that I think is missing from this book is a meaningful discussion of Wilson's personal life. His father served in World War I, became an alcoholic, with ulcers, and committed suicide by shooting himself in the head when he was forty-eight. This sounded familiar to me, because my father served in World War II, became an alcoholic, with ulcers, and committed suicide by shooting himself in the head when he was fifty. This behavior is now routinely referred to as PTSD, yet Rhodes has nothing to say about it. Near the end of the book, he recounts interviews that Wilson had with the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Wilson said that he enjoyed being alone very much, and, more tellingly I think, said:

I want to feel that I'm in control, that I cannot be driven out of it, that I cannot be stopped, that I will be well regarded for being in it, and that entails control, and control means ambition. It means constantly extending one's reach, renewing, extending, innovating.

I don't have enough information to say this with much certainty, but it seems possible that Wilson's unstable childhood caused him to compulsively seek control for the rest of his life.  Rhodes says almost nothing about Wilson's adult personal life. It sounds as if Wilson did not pursue women as all until he arrived at Harvard. Once there, he seems to have dated only one woman, Irene Kelley, who did not have a college degree and worked in the Harvard admissions office. They married in 1955. She did not have any children, and they adopted a daughter, Catherine, about whom Rhodes says almost nothing. Irene died shortly before Wilson in 2021. So, to a certain extent, this book is opaque regarding Wilson's inner life.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Diary

I've started reading a biography of E.O. Wilson, who died in 2021. It is short, and I'll probably comment on it on my next post. But it is far from my ideal biography, because it only touches on his personal life and devotes a lot of space to academic rivalries. Those are generally trivial, but in this case I occasionally had some awareness of them when they occurred, and I generally rooted for him, because his outlook was always similar to mine. Not long before he died, he said, in a video, "Oh, to be eighty again!"  As time passes, it becomes more and more difficult for me to find a book that I actually want to read. I long ago reached a point where I felt forced to continue on books that I didn't like much. But some of the biographies that I did read turned out to be better than I expected once I got into them. For example, even though I found certain aspects of Bertrand Russell's life repugnant, the two volumes provided an interesting account of life for educated English people spanning from the late Victorian period up to 1970. Russell overlapped with Bloomsbury, D.H. Lawrence, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Beatrice Webb, Katherine Mansfield and Albert Einstein, so you can build up a vivid picture of complex social environments. Similarly, Henry David Thoreau was linked to Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the extent that he embodied romanticism, while he also had scientific interests similar to those of Alfred Russel Wallace, G.H. Lewes and Charles Darwin. Thoreau's acquaintance with Ralph Waldo Emerson connected him to George Eliot. 

The weather here became warm for a while, and what little snow there was melted. It has become colder again and there is snow on the ground. I read that the circulation of the Gulf Stream is changing, and it is possible that the Northeast and Northern Europe could become colder at some point. The sea level may also rise on the East Coast. I wouldn't mind if it got colder here. Unfortunately, there would still be global warming, which would probably affect the Southern Hemisphere more than the Northern Hemisphere. I have been going on hikes mainly for exercise and am not enjoying the scenery as much at this time of year. My computer screen is in a window facing the bird feeder, so I keep track of the birds. It took the longest time for the goldfinches to build up their numbers. Their strategy seems to be to come at the same time, which protects individuals from predators (safety in numbers). They also behave aggressively toward other species. The juncos originally fed at the feeder, but now they usually stay on the ground. I am still keeping my eye out for other wildlife. There are also rabbits here, which I didn't mention. The other night I saw a large bobcat walking past the house. Of course, I also have birds that don't feed at the feeder: bluebirds, blue jays, robins, crows, red-tailed hawks and barred owls. And other species are probably not visible because they are back in the woods.

At night I usually try to watch part of a movie. I haven't found much recently, but occasionally there is something good that I come across on The Criterion Channel. I seem to be becoming further and further removed from the contemporary U.S. For the most part, I don't care about what younger people like. When I had Facebook and Twitter accounts, I cancelled them almost immediately. I have no interest in Instagram or Tik Tok. Someone recently tried to get me to join Nextdoor: I didn't. I don't mind the fact that the average age in Vermont is one of the highest, because I have difficulty relating to Millennials and Gen Z. Online I read The Guardian and 3 Quarks Daily, which I think appeal to older people (Yes, even S. Abbas Raza is getting old!).

I haven't recently been doing any stargazing or genealogical research, and my main hobby is currently this blog. As blogs go, it still isn't very popular. That doesn't bother me, because its purpose isn't to change the world or acquire income. From looking at the data available to me, a typical "reader" clicks a link somewhere and then spends a few seconds here. When I have several posts on a book that I'm reading, they usually only look at one. And the majority of them have no interest in discussion. For example, "The Monologue/The Woman Destroyed" has now been viewed 4,330 times, and no one has made a comment. It seems that this is currently the default behavior of people who routinely browse on the internet. At the moment, for unknown reasons, that post is popular in the Philippines!

Sunday, February 11, 2024

What I Dislike About the United States

I take my car to Burlington once a year for service, and this year, while I was up there, I was reminded of one of the things that has always made me feel un-American. During the pandemic, the showroom had almost no cars, and the parking lot was practically empty. This year, the showroom was completely filled with SUVs, and the parking lot was also full, mainly with SUVs. After my family moved to the U.S. in 1957, my father usually bought large American cars. One of the first ones was an enormous Chevrolet, but then he bought the first Mini Cooper, which was called the Austin Cooper S. I drove it a couple of times before I got my driver's license. Later, he bought an enormous Ford Galaxie.  The Mini Cooper was sort of imprinted on me, and I've always bought small cars since. The main thing that I like about them is that they are fun to drive. My current car is a Volkswagen GTI Autobahn, and it is by far the best-handling and fastest car that I've ever driven. I love it, even though VW is not the most reliable brand. 

When I moved to the Midwest in 1973 after college, I had a cheap, used Fiat 124 station wagon, which fit everything that I needed to take, but was not sporty and eventually rusted out. None of my cars since then have been American, though one was a Ford that had been built in Germany. At that time, most of the American-made cars were still large. There were token small cars such as the Ford Pinto and the Chevrolet Vega, but they were poorly made and never popular. That was the period during which Japanese car manufacturers began to cut deeply into U.S. market share. On the roads, there were still mainly large American sedans and station wagons. Cadillacs and Lincolns were still popular, but some of the luxury European models also gained market share. In the 1980's, the minivan became very popular, but that has gradually lost market share to SUVs and is no longer in much demand. What I've noticed is that Americans have never liked small cars, and it was only during periods of gasoline shortages or very high gasoline prices that Americans as a group bought many of them. Today, with the availability of hybrid SUVs and various electric models, there is very little demand in the U.S. for small cars.

The reason why I have described this is that I think that it is a basic example of how the American psyche works. There is no meaningful civic education here, and people generally resent government interventions that limit their options. Corporations here are also less regulated than they are in many European countries, and they directly or indirectly keep things that way by spending money to influence election outcomes. Then, through advertising, they are expert at influencing consumer choices. Since Americans, on average, are not very discriminating, they are putty in the hands of corporate marketers. While this has been apparent for at least eighty years, it is actually getting worse now, because the internet is the most intrusive corporate tool that has ever been invented. Although it can be seen as a helpful consumer tool, besides the advantage that it provides to corporations, it is also a tool for enemy states and criminals. For example, a few people have become quite wealthy by taking advantage of the "stolen election" meme. 

Here is a fairly simplified way of expressing the above, which is easy to understand:
1. Corporations inhibit government intervention.
2. Corporations establish standards of normalcy that influence consumer purchase decisions.
The ubiquitous presence of certain products, such as SUVs and pickup trucks, also places pressures on consumers who prefer not to deviate from social norms. For example, if all of your neighbors have an SUV or a pickup truck, or both, why don't you? 
3. Over a long period of time, consumer preferences tend to comply with corporate marketing goals.

Besides the above points, Americans seem to have adopted a passive attitude vis-à-vis their responsibilities as members of American and world societies. Levels of apathy toward climate change and foreign wars remain relatively high, which is significant when you consider the long-term consequences for everyone. Of particular note, climate change denial has been led by the oil industry. 

Generally, I am used to American consumerism, though I still dislike it. But I am always interested in ideas, and, because of the conformity among Americans, I find little opportunity to express them here. Some of the people I've discussed on this blog also disliked the mindless conformity that characterizes the U.S. Czeslaw Milosz moved back to Poland as soon as he could; he was here for the benefit of his family and would have preferred to live in Paris. D.H. Lawrence specifically criticized the competitive economic mindset of Americans. Bertrand Russell needed the money that he earned from lecturing here but stopped coming as soon as he could afford not to. In more recent years, many European intellectuals have moved here for the money (academics don't get paid much). The one time that I spoke to Tony Judt, the historian, who had moved from England, he said that he had been wary regarding where to live in the country, and he had dismissed most of the U.S. To him, the U.S. was mainly anti-intellectual. He ended up at New York University.

In addition to the above, I must mention that even more sinister levels of perversity are emerging now in American society. Rather than rehashing previous statements that I've made, I'll just say that a well-known, established criminal with no moral compass and no competence in governing is currently the strongest candidate in the 2024 presidential race. Ironically, this man, an ostensible populist, is actually the tool of less-conspicuous corporate interests. It's all about money.

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Diary

I am more or less caught up on everything that needed to be done regarding the house. The upstairs toilet didn't flush properly, and I replaced it myself. The new toilet works very well and even dislodged a clog in the drainage pipe, making the floor shake. We haven't had much snow, but the new snow blower works very well. The well filtration system for the house hadn't been touched in twenty-three years, and I had it replaced. The water was too acidic, a bit hard and contained iron oxide, and it's better now. 

It took a while for the birds to find the feeder. The numbers have gradually risen since the first snow. I now have about the same distribution of species as in Middlebury: goldfinches, chickadees, tufted titmice, juncos, nuthatches, cardinals, hairy woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers and red-bellied woodpeckers. There are mourning doves in the neighborhood, but they haven't found it yet. Since this a heavily-wooded area, there seem to be more woodpeckers. And there are lots of squirrels. Another difference is that ruffed grouse walk around the yard. I've also seen deer and a fox. The coyotes occasionally have a good group howl at night.

There are advantages to living in the woods. As I mentioned, it's cooler during the summer. The trees also reduce the wind: the wind chimes are quieter. The house isn't as buffeted as much by the wind and is less dusty inside. Also, the roof is much lower and less likely to be damaged by high winds. On the negative side, a forest fire could destroy the house. However, current climate models indicate that this area will be wetter in the future. There was a lot of flooding in Vermont last summer, but it didn't adversely affect this neighborhood. Even if there were a very bad storm, I could always walk to town.

Since it's sunny again and there isn't much snow on the ground, I went for a walk in Pittsford yesterday. I'm not getting as much exercise as earlier. This is the deceptive time of year for Vermont weather: it looks as if spring is about to arrive, and then it gets much colder and snows some more. It doesn't really warm up until May.

My social life hasn't improved much, and nothing is happening on the dating front at the moment. I think that there are plenty of suitable women out there, but most of them are nowhere near here, and I'm not desperate enough to move. Even if I wanted to move, I've spent over $500,000 in cash over the last two years and would prefer to stay put and increase my financial assets. And then new relationships are always problematic. I noticed in the poem in my last post that the young woman who wrote it is more interested in happiness than in loyalty. That is a fairly common sentiment among the women I've known. And experiencing that from the male side again is not something that I'm enthusiastic about. Starting with biological differences, men and women follow different models, of which they are not necessarily aware. When you add differences in socialization, such as ethnicity, places lived, age group and social class, the total differences can be enormous. In my experience, I was the only one interested in sorting out these kinds of things, and the relationships eventually failed: the women had no curiosity about these matters, even though they were quite relevant to their adult identities. I think that there have always been anti-male narratives among women and anti-female narratives among men, and they're both getting worse. It is becoming easier to imagine a future in which people have android companions calibrated for compatibility. Furthermore, technological advancements could render traditional human reproduction obsolete. It is possible that, if men become unnecessary for human reproduction, the two sexes will cease interaction. Also, as I've mentioned before, the members of advanced civilizations may simply choose not to reproduce. On a more positive note, I think that it is still fairly easy to pair up with someone of the opposite sex. It's just a little more complicated after people have had substantial life experiences.

This is about all that I have to say at the moment. I may start reading a short book soon. And, unfortunately, I'm still paying attention to the 2024 presidential election. To me, it looks as if Trump is on the way out. His unpleasant personality is conspicuous in his trials, more Republicans are criticizing him, and people are generally getting tired of him. Even if he continues to run and wins the nomination, Biden is more likely to win, unless he is incapacitated by a medical emergency such as a heart attack. It also helps Biden that the economy is recovering and could be strong by November.

Saturday, February 3, 2024

Marriage

Of alluvial fields I dreamt.
The idea of marriage:
the great barrier reef with
coral bleached and dying.
Evidence of resilience,
they say, absent a catastrophic
event. Whatever it takes, I've
decided, I don't want
my maternal line to die in me.
I wear my mother's dress.
I watch my body shapeshift.
This face, which hasn't aged
in years, is sunspotted.
I am no movie star. I shrink
from my mother's beauty.
She was, above all else,
good. Her lupus her reward.
Or maybe I am her reward.
I know I'll never be grateful
enough. Between this man
and this man, my eggs are
losing count. Inside your domicile,
how am I to feel alive?
Once again, we face extinction.
The libraries not on fire, but
under dust. I don't believe
in loyalty above happiness.
I dive and dive under
the turbulence. One day, too,
my bones will empty. White blood
cells will mutiny. Do you run
headlong down the hill
into disaster? In the park,
a swarm of gnats insists
on clustering. Insects
claim the interior. The flies
touching my face, again,
again, again, and again.


—Cathy Linh Che

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Henry David Thoreau: A Life V

Thoreau's desire to meet and become well-acquainted with a Native American was fulfilled when he hired Joseph Polis as a guide for an 1857 trip in Maine. He was mainly impressed by Polis's ability to travel effortlessly in the wilds, and he subsequently wrote a portrait of him. That year also included the beginning of an economic depression, referred to as the Panic of 1857, which lasted for several years, and the Dred Scott ruling by the Supreme Court, which denied citizenship to all blacks. Thoreau also met John Brown and later became highly politicized at the time of Brown's execution following Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, which was then part of Virginia. In 1859, Thoreau's father died, and he became the head of the family. The same year, Thoreau was appointed to the Harvard Committee for Examination in Natural History, which was led by Asa Gray, a prominent botanist; this was perhaps Thoreau's only scientific position; they conducted examinations of Harvard botany students.

Because of Asa Gray's friendship with Charles Darwin, he received an early copy of On the Origin of Species in 1860. He shared it with his friends, and Thoreau became one of the first Americans to read it. They had animated discussions about it at Harvard, and, of course, Louis Agassiz completely rejected it, because he thought that "all natural species were separately created by God, unchanged through eternity." That year, Thoreau also delivered a lecture titled "The Succession of Forest Trees." This was published in newspapers by Horace Greeley and became the most popular publication by Thoreau in his lifetime. In May, 1861, Thoreau went on a trip to Minnesota and returned via Canada. In Minnesota he met Native Americans. After he arrived back in Concord in July, his tuberculosis worsened, and he died on May 6, 1862 at the age of forty-four.

My lack of enthusiasm for this book continued right up to the end. One aspect of this, as I mentioned, is Walls's writing style. Although she has the appropriate academic credentials, she projects a Thoreau-fan-club aura that tends to result in an absence of critical appraisal. That can work to a certain extent, because Thoreau doesn't really fit the model of a major thinker, and, describing him the way that she does, it becomes clear that he was informed by the environment in which he lived, which can alternatively be seen as the subject of the book. So, even if Thoreau wasn't that great, you get a highly detailed picture of the culture in Concord during the mid-1800's. Unfortunately, I'm not a cultural historian.

As for Thoreau himself, I don't currently find him particularly interesting. That is because I am not impressed by his ideas. I think that is partly his fault, because he spread himself too thin. He delved haphazardly into so many subjects that failure was almost guaranteed. His interest in Native Americans could theoretically have been developed into an early anthropological study, but it wasn't. His interest in the regional effects of farming on local ecosystems could have been developed into land management science, but it wasn't. I also think that his political writings tend to be naïve and uninformed. Then, although he delved into Buddhism and Hinduism, he did not seem to make a real departure from New England Puritanism, because Transcendentalism seems merely to be a variant of that. I think that Thoreau's scattershot way of choosing subjects was the result of his family background and the time and place in which he lived. He had no model in his household for choosing a career and pursuing it with a college education. Furthermore, Harvard at the time was nothing like a modern research university and was similar to Oxford and Cambridge, which were also still functioning like theological seminaries. Charles Darwin himself could easily have ended up as a clergyman, because he did not distinguish himself academically at Cambridge. So, although Thoreau seems to have been talented, he lacked a career plan and ended up spreading himself too thin. As a writer, he didn't have a practical strategy for developing a wide readership. In other respects, he held many of the prejudices of his time; for example, he thought that women were stupid: technically, he was a sexist. Then, as a writer, I don't particularly like his style, which seems archaic to me. Overall, I think that Thoreau fits best within the context of later developments such as the civil disobedience protest strategy and the interest in nature-friendly lifestyles, but I don't think that he provided any definitive writings on those or other subjects. It is possible that, had he remained in good health for another twenty years, he may have produced something more closely resembling a magnum opus than Walden.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Henry David Thoreau: A Life IV

I am not finding this book very rewarding but am plugging away and will finish up on my next post. The atmosphere in Concord changed when the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850. This federal law required citizens in Massachusetts and elsewhere to assist in the capture and return of escaped slaves to their owners, and the Thoreaus became more active in helping with the transportation of escaped slaves to Canada. Walls believes that the law was a precipitating factor behind the Civil War, which began in 1861.

Thoreau continued to make various trips, on which he took notes and often later produced essays for publication. His book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers didn't sell well, and many copies were returned to him. This left him with a large debt, since he had paid for the printing himself. He was also prepared to write and publish about his trips to Cape Cod and Canada. He spent a lot of time fine-tuning Walden, and it was published in 1854. At that point, he went on a lecture tour. There was more interest in Walden than in his previous book, but it was not a great publishing success during his lifetime. In May, 1855, he was slowed down by tuberculosis symptoms, but recovered somewhat.

On a daily basis, Thoreau liked to walk around and observe plants and animals and note changes from one season to the next. Over the years, he had various male friends who walked with him occasionally. Walls is drawing from Thoreau's journals, which don't seem to contain much information on what, if anything, they discussed. So, to the reader, these seem like minor, anecdotal passages. At times it sounds almost like "Provisions were getting low in the house, and Henry's mother asked him to go to the butcher and purchase some bacon." However, Thoreau was on the fringes of major intellectual life and the publishing industry, and through Emerson and Harvard, he got to know Louis Agassiz, the biologist and geologist, Horace Greeley, the publisher, and Walt Whitman, the poet. As I mentioned earlier, Agassiz was one of the last major scientists to remain a creationist. Greeley encouraged Thoreau to write short pieces in order to establish his reputation, but he never did. And, though Thoreau found Whitman to be a little crazy, he liked some of his poems.

Through his eclectic interests, Thoreau read The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin's first book. This reminded me of Alfred Russel Wallace, who was five years younger than Thoreau and read some of the same books as him. Wallace is probably a better comparison than G.H. Lewes, because Lewes started out in the literary world and switched to science, whereas Wallace did not go through a literary period, and, reading the same books as Thoreau, he actually went on specimen-collecting trips in the Amazon and the Malay Peninsula. Wallace is also similar to Thoreau in that they both did surveying. What strikes me is that Thoreau did not have as much of a scientific curiosity as Wallace, who theoretically could have beaten Darwin to the press on natural selection.

Facts such as these help me compare Thoreau's intellectual environment to that of Lewes, Wallace and Darwin. Although, at that time, scientific standards were still generally low everywhere, London was an intellectual center that included many scientists, whereas, in the U.S., most of the science was associated with commerce and the Industrial Revolution. By 1850, English and German romanticism had generally peaked, perhaps with remnants in England such as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts and Crafts movement. Thomas Malthus, an early influence on Darwin, began publishing in 1798, and there was no American equivalent. To a modern reader like me, Thoreau and Emerson seem to be riding out the last days of romanticism, still singing paeans to Nature after Europe had moved on. The continued American interest in religion also contrasts with Europe, which was already becoming secular by then. Thoreau and his contemporaries were wrestling with the moral implications of slavery well after it had been abolished in the U.K. I think that this may help explain why Thoreau didn't become very popular in the U.S. until the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960's and 1970's revived some of the issues that he had written about earlier. It took a long time for the hippies to come along and take note of Thoreau's ideas, which weren't that popular while he was alive.

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Henry David Thoreau: A Life III

The famous incident in which Thoreau was arrested for not paying his poll tax occurred in 1846. This was not a planned act of civil disobedience at the time, and he was briefly sent to jail. Later that year, he took a long trip to see Mt. Katahdin in Maine. By then, he was constantly writing notes on his daily experiences. In late 1847, he permanently moved out of the Walden cabin and stayed at Emerson's house, helping Emerson's wife, Lidian, while Emerson was away on an extended trip to Europe. Although he had a draft of Walden, he wanted to publish A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which documented a trip that he had taken with John before his death. Since no one was interested in publishing it, he had it printed at his own expense. At this point, Thoreau became a lecturer, and there were wildly varying reactions to his lectures. Some people found them laughable, while others liked them. When Emerson returned home from Europe in 1848, Thoreau moved out permanently and lived with his family again. The pencil business had ups and downs, and Thoreau also worked as a surveyor and a civil engineer. He continued to read widely, and was taken by Charles Lyell's work on geology. He also enthusiastically read Alexander von Humboldt, who influenced many of the naturalists at the time. It seems that a small rift developed between Emerson and Thoreau. Thoreau had a broad knowledge by then and was probably one of the first Americans who became familiar with Buddhism. Although Walls has not explored this angle so far, I think that Buddhism probably didn't sit well with Emerson, because his goal had been to make Thoreau an acolyte of Transcendentalism. As Thoreau developed his own ideas, they probably diverged from what Emerson had in mind. Also, it seems unlikely that Emerson took much interest in natural history.

Because of Thoreau's intense journal-keeping and Walls's dutiful reporting on it, the book continues to proceed very slowly. It doesn't help that Thoreau usually walked everywhere to save money and was constantly noting what he saw in his journal. As a thinker, Thoreau seems to have been very detail-oriented, like an engineer, but he was not a big thinker in the sense that he only concerned himself with his immediate environment. He showed no interest in astronomy. Although the name "Rousseau" does not come up in this book, Thoreau seems to have internalized the idea of the "noble savage." He seemed to want to encounter one in an idealized wilderness, but usually only came across a drunken Indian once in a while. In this vein, he also wanted to commune with nature. He was definitely a person of his time, and you can safely compare him to G.H. Lewes, who was also born in 1817. Lewes started out with drama and fiction but gradually worked his way to natural science. However, Lewes spent most of his adult life in London in intellectual circles, whereas Thoreau lived on the outskirts of Boston. Thus, Thoreau was subject to New England's obsessions with religious ideas, while Lewes was not. Interestingly, George Eliot, who was two years younger than Thoreau, was quite religious while growing up. She actually met Emerson while he was on the trip mentioned above, and was impressed by him while she was still living at home with her father. Later, in London, where Lewes encouraged her to adopt a more scientific outlook, she wrote a glowing review of Walden.

Walls dutifully speculates on Thoreau's sexuality but does not arrive at a clear answer. Although he sent poems to Ellen Sewell and proposed to her, he seemed to have been more interested in men generally. It seems possible that his physical characteristics, low social status and social awkwardness may have set him on a path that did not lead to romance. He was short, with small shoulders, and generally did not make a good impression when people met him. To many, including Emerson, he was a bit of a hick. He had none of the polish that one would expect from a Harvard graduate, then or now.

All this fuss about religion in New England reminds me of my first exposure to it when my family moved to the U.S. Coming from England in 1957, we had never heard of religious fanaticism before, and though, technically, we were Episcopalian, no one in the family was particularly religious. Thus, my take on religion while I was growing up wasn't very American. The house where we first lived was within walking distance of Split Rock, and I went there before I95 was built. Split Rock is a large boulder with a split in the middle and has been linked to the scalping of Anne Hutchinson and several of her children by the Siwanoy Indians in 1643. Hutchinson, who grew up in England, had been banished from Massachusetts by the Puritans because of her religious beliefs, and possibly, in modern terms, because of sexism. One of our neighbors, a girl in my class, was actually a descendant of Anne Hutchinson. So I started out with an image that was almost the opposite of the "noble savage," and the beliefs of people like Anne Hutchinson remained a mystery to me. To this day, the mythologized American past that was popular during Thoreau's lifetime has never influenced me much. Thoreau, I think, had an early sense of the losses caused by economic progress and the destruction of the environment, and he seems to have instinctively disliked the bourgeois life, though that concept didn't exist then. In some ways, he presaged Rachel Carson and modern environmentalists. However, he was also subject to American folklore, which, at the time, presented a naïve image of Native Americans. While Cormac McCarthy is excessive at the opposite extreme, the U.S. does in fact have a violent and unsavory past.

Sunday, January 7, 2024

Henry David Thoreau: A Life II

This biography is quite dense in detail and is moving along very slowly. There was a certain brotherly rivalry between John and Henry, and John was generally better-liked, because of his outgoing nature. Walls does finally acknowledge that Henry was an introvert. The rivalry culminated in both of them proposing marriage to the same woman, Ellen Sewell, and both being rejected. Her father was a Unitarian minister who disapproved of Transcendentalists. Though Henry and John's school was initially a success, after John became ill, Henry couldn't manage it by himself, and the school closed in 1841. At that point, Emerson offered Thoreau the opportunity to move in with his family and do odd jobs while also participating in literary activities. Emerson had recently started the literary publication, the Dial, and Thoreau was one of its first contributors. It didn't exactly take off in popularity, but it provided a focus for the literary community in Concord growing around Emerson. It must be said that Emerson played a major role in Thoreau's life, because he made Concord a literary center and drew in people whom Thoreau otherwise may never have met. He also had literary connections in England and elsewhere in the U.S. Moreover, he took a personal interest in Thoreau's literary development and helped him on numerous occasions. Through Emerson, Thoreau came to know Margaret Fuller and Nathaniel Hawthorne, among others. Thoreau also spent time in New York City while working as a tutor for Emerson's brother's son on Staten Island. He made the literary rounds while there and even made the acquaintance of Henry James, Sr. Emerson had advised James, Sr. that "once he got past Thoreau's 'village pedantry & tediousness of facts,' he would find 'a profound mind and a person of true magnanimity.'" At the time, Henry James, Jr., the author, was a baby. However, Thoreau was unable to establish any suitable literary footholds in New York, and, disliking the crowds, he soon returned to Concord.

In 1842, John accidentally cut himself while sharpening a razor. He contracted tetanus and died within a few days. Somehow, Henry developed lockjaw symptoms, but they subsided. Soon after, the Emersons also had a disaster when their son, Waldo, Jr. died of scarlet fever. Thoreau's health never seems to have been good, and he later developed narcolepsy. Walls thinks that the narcolepsy may have been a symptom of latent tuberculosis. It is important to keep in mind the primitive state of medicine when reading about earlier generations. But then, future generations may be saying the same thing about us in 180 years. Walls also mentions an enormous blunder that Thoreau made in April, 1844. He was out camping with a friend under very dry conditions and accidentally started a wildfire, which consumed many acres and did about $2000 worth of damage, which was a fortune in those days. To be fair, wildfires were common at that time.

By the mid-1840's, the character of Concord had changed considerably. A train line came through, rendering Concord a suburb of Boston. There was also a large influx of Irish immigrants, some of whom lived in shacks in Concord. In 1845, Thoreau reached an agreement with Emerson that he would build a writer's cabin on Emerson's property near Walden Pond, and he began constructing it himself. Thoreau was quite handy and still worked as a day laborer in order to generate some income. The cabin, as described so far, sounds very basic and would not be considered a habitable dwelling today.

To indicate how slowly this book is moving, though I'm now 200 pages into it, Thoreau is just 27, hasn't married or held a steady job, and is just starting out at Walden Pond. I can understand why this was important to him, because it was the first time in his life that he could truly be alone, i.e., not inhabit a house that was continuously occupied by others. I don't think of writing as a job or a career, but think that in order to write well, you do need silence and minimal distraction. So I sympathize with Thoreau, and his goal was probably not much different from Virginia Woolf's in A Room of One's Own.

Even so, at this point, I am building up a certain cognitive dissonance regarding Thoreau's self-presentation and the way that he is seen by later generations. One aspect of this, of which many people are cognizant, is that Walden was hardly a remote cabin in the woods. In the neighborhood were the train line, farmers, Irish settlers and emancipated slaves, though some shacks were abandoned by then. Emerson's and Thoreau's families lived nearby, and Thoreau's social life was not affected. Another aspect is the portrayal of Thoreau as a major thinker. It seems to me that, although Thoreau does to some extent represent an original voice, it can also be argued that most of his ideas were derivative of the particular milieu in which he lived. I am reserving judgment on these and other matters, and for now I'll just mention one area of concern. I think that some of Thoreau's ideas can be considered precursors to modern right-wing politics. A "small government" may have worked adequately in 1845, but in 2024 the U.S. population is about 20 times larger. Moreover, the government services available to Americans have skyrocketed. Thoreau is also well known for his support of civil disobedience, which was popularized by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. In an ideal world, that may not be a bad idea, but, with modern political developments, acts similar to civil disobedience are now being undertaken by far-right groups, which seem to prefer dictatorships to democracies. If you remove the violence from right-wing protest, it is not much different from civil disobedience.

Sunday, December 31, 2023

Henry David Thoreau: A Life I

This book, by Laura Dassow Walls, seems to be considered the best biography of Thoreau, and I'm giving it a try. I've already read biographies of the people who interest me the most, and Thoreau is near the top of my second-tier list. I read Walden; or, Life in the Woods a long time ago and barely remember it. For someone who went to college in 1968 in the U.S., it was de rigeur, though I didn't get around to reading it until later. At that time, I identified with Thoreau's interest in nature and his support of individualism, but not particularly with his political ideas or his implicit Transcendentalism. Looking back, the sit-ins that students had during the 1960's still seem a little ridiculous to me, particularly those led by upper-middle-class white baby boomers at expensive liberal arts colleges. And then I've never had any interest in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was Thoreau's mentor. I liked Thoreau's scientific bent, but now find that he has been surpassed by others, such as E.O. Wilson and Stephen Jay Gould, in both writing style and scientific knowledge. This isn't necessarily Thoreau's fault, because he was eight years younger than Charles Darwin and died less than three years after On the Origin of Species was published.

I am starting to consider myself a New Englander now, because I like Vermont and have lived here for twelve years. I like the Puritan work ethic and practicality of Vermonters, but not necessarily the characteristics of all New Englanders. Thoreau lived in Concord, Massachusetts, not far from Boston, and there are a couple of things that I dislike about Boston. Unfortunately, the Tea Party message from there has gradually evolved from a statement against oppression by the British to a statement in support of unfettered greed, which may soon permit an unscrupulous liar to become the first dictator in American history. The other thing, which I think that Thoreau noticed, was that Boston was probably one of the first American cities to develop a smug, self-satisfied middle class. Bertrand Russell couldn't stand it when he visited there. As Ray Monk says, "From the very beginning Russell was contemptuous of America in general, and Boston in particular, and especially so of the pompous Bostonian dignitaries by whom he was fêted." Likewise, after Thoreau had spent time in Boston, he could never wait to return to Concord.

One of my interests in reading this book is to get a broader view of New England culture from the early to mid-1800's. The Industrial Revolution was occurring then, and society was in a state of flux. I looked at this a little for Middlebury, where the area never really industrialized, and many people simply moved west. The populations in the coastal regions grew much larger, and a smaller percentage of the people moved away.

Thoreau was born into a modest Concord family on July 12, 1817. His father, a descendant of French Huguenots, had artistic sensibilities, and his mother was an early advocate of social justice. The anti-slavery movement was taking off in New England while Thoreau was growing up. Eventually, Thoreau's father, John, started a pencil business. Most of the pencils had been made in England, and there were few American sources. In those days, a pencil was far more necessary than it is today. Thoreau was more studious than his older brother, John, and eventually went to Harvard. At that time, there were seventy or fewer students each year, and most of the curriculum was antiquated, consisting mainly of Latin and Greek. Fortunately for Thoreau, he was good at languages, and he started out well, but his standing fell by the time he graduated. He also learned other languages and mathematics. He graduated in 1837 and returned to Concord. Initially, he got a job as a teacher but quit almost immediately, it is suggested, because he disliked the corporal punishment that was required. For a time, he stayed with his family and helped with the pencil business. He also developed a friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was seventeen years older and lived in Concord. As far as I've read, he and his brother, John, have started their own progressive grammar school in Concord.

Walls, the author of this book, so far seems to be doing a competent job. Maybe because it actually reflects the cultural environment in Concord at the time, the book has a slightly folksy feel to it, almost verging on the treacly at times. This stands out to me, because none of the European biographies that I've read showed any sign of that. I also have my usual complaint about the lack of psychological nuance. Much of Thoreau's behavior seems to be driven by introversion, but Walls has had nothing to say about that. I will continue posting on the book until I finish it.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

Diary

Like most years at this time, we have had some snow that didn't last. I have become accustomed to being snowed in later in the winter and usually like it. However, with climate change, winter temperatures and snowfall have become more erratic, particularly in the Northeast. My arrangement this winter will be a little different, because I will be living alone and don't have a pet or a wood stove. Since communication with my partner was never good and gradually deteriorated over a period of twenty-two years, I actually miss William, the cat, more than her, because I spent more time interacting with him on a daily basis. But I don't plan to get another pet. You spend a lot of time with pets, interact with them and become extremely attached to them – and then they die. I already knew that this would happen, and adopting William in the first place was not my idea.

Recently, I've been having conversations about generational changes and mental illness. The book Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents—and What They Mean for America's Future has been brought up. The context for that discussion is how it is becoming increasingly difficult to relate to younger people if you are a pre-millennial. That topic doesn't interest me much, because I have almost no interaction with anyone under forty besides my grandson, and the circumstances of his childhood don't mesh with any particular generational profile. I prefer to think along the lines of Sherry Turkle in Reclaiming Conversation, perhaps because we belong to the same generation and have similar concerns about the inability of younger people to communicate, and we can see the adverse social effects of the internet. My main thought is that the commercialization of the internet has led to unanticipated social effects that make human societies more unstable than they have been in centuries. I don't think that the end is in sight yet, and there is a chance that this will end very badly. So, in my case, I'm not that concerned about the quality of my communication with younger people. Even if I wanted to do something about it, that would be nearly impossible, because the social characteristics of adults become relatively fixed by the time they've grown up. We are now looking at adult millennials who may never be able to relate to baby boomers.

Under the topic of mental illness, I tend to focus on autism for a couple of reasons. First of all, as Sherry Turkle points out, one of the characteristics of younger people who have been immersed in the internet since childhood is autistic behavior, although, technically, they may not be diagnosed as autistic. The point is that their modes of communication have similarities to those of autistic people. Secondly, I've spent over fifty years with autistic people, and I am not at all autistic. One of the main reasons why I have this blog is that I like to express my ideas, and what I've found is that most others are only interested in the circumscribed discussion of ideas. In many cases, they are not aware that they have unconscious lists of things that they can discuss and things they can't discuss. These two lists are affected by educational and social backgrounds, but, somewhat more intractably, by their psychiatric status. In the case of people who have autism spectrum disorder, or at least some of the symptoms, because they may be unable to interpret other people well and may have reduced social abilities, it is easy to run into a brick wall with something that resembles an open discussion. They may be operating on a cognitive model that is completely different from yours, and if you suppress discussions that fall on their "can't discuss" list, you may only be delaying the exposure of fundamental conceptual incompatibilities. Because I'm focusing on autism, these incompatibilities usually relate to different ideas of what constitutes a satisfactory social environment. For example, you may prefer a social environment in which you can express various ideas and receive some thoughtful feedback, whereas autistic people may prefer a light social environment in which people always seem friendly, agreeable and predictable. You can run into difficulties with autistic people on social questions, because they may not understand their social environments and may process them in an entirely different fashion from you. You may think of a social event that an autistic person likes as a shallow, pointless exchange. What I've noticed is that there can be a range of complex undercurrents in many social contexts that escape the notice of autistic people. If autistic behavior is now on the ascent, non-autistic people need to prepare themselves for unsatisfactory social lives. As I've said before, autistic people often tend to be politically correct. Their senses of humor are pretty bad too. I was trying to think of a joke that starts out "Three autistic people walk into a bar...." I can't think of a funny punch line. How about "The other customers all leave and the bartender shuts down early"?

I have been doing a little reading, but nothing exciting. Since I love biographies and am a single male living alone in the woods in New England, I decided to read a biography of Henry David Thoreau. He is not exactly an ideal subject for me, but I probably agree with some of his ideas. Since people don't communicate much now, it may be easier to commiserate with well-documented people who died long ago.

Friday, December 1, 2023

Neurodiversity

 According to Harvard Medical School:

The word neurodiversity refers to the diversity of all people, but it is often used in the context of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as well as other neurological or developmental conditions such as ADHD or learning disabilities. The neurodiversity movement emerged during the 1990s, aiming to increase acceptance and inclusion of all people while embracing neurological differences. Through online platforms, more and more autistic people were able to connect and form a self-advocacy movement. At the same time, Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist, coined the term neurodiversity to promote equality and inclusion of "neurological minorities." While it is primarily a social justice movement, neurodiversity research and education is increasingly important in how clinicians view and address certain disabilities and neurological conditions.

Although a politically-correct term such as this would not normally appeal to me, after watching this video of Temple Grandin, I decided that, since autism spectrum disorder, which I discussed earlier, consists of several unrelated differences in brain function, "neurodiversity" is not an entirely inappropriate term to describe the wide variety of symptoms that occur in ASD. I think that, eventually, there will be separate diagnoses for these symptoms, and that research will indicate different classifications for behaviors that are now lumped together only because there is insufficient data to separate them based on brain function. I had heard of Temple Grandin before, and in this video, which is now ten years old, I think she provides a better explanation of ASD than I've seen elsewhere.

I am very impressed with Temple Grandin, because she was severely dysfunctional as a child, yet, with the help of her mother, overcame her handicap, led a successful career, and now is one of the very few autistic people who is an active speaker on autism. Furthermore, she is quite scientific in her presentation, and I find her to be a highly effective speaker. She is refreshing, because she is well informed about her condition and discusses it articulately. Most of the autistic people I've known don't know how they are different from non-autistic people, are unable to discuss it, and, when they congregate with other high-functioning autistic people, may speak derisively about non-autistic people – with no social repercussions for themselves. Some of the autistic people I've known have behaved abusively and were never held to account. Far from being functionally incapacitated like Temple Grandin, high-functioning autistic people can behave imperiously and insult people with impunity, especially when their support group consists entirely of autistic people. In my experience, autistic people, if they have enough money, can be just as bigoted as anyone else.

There is nothing wrong with publicizing pertinent facts about autism. Temple Grandin goes to great lengths by showing how her brain scans are different from those of others. Much of her professional success stems from her ability to understand animals, and that is another characteristic missing in the autistic people I know. She is not like the coding savants more commonly associated with the tech industry: she thinks in pictures and has incredibly good skills in observation. This talent works well with scientific observation, which also comes naturally to her. On the other hand, she had to work very hard to overcome language and math handicaps. I admire her plainspokenness and common sense, which I have never seen elsewhere on the spectrum. She even recognized that she was not cut out for romantic relationships and never pursued one. I have a soft spot in my heart for Temple Grandin, because she also speaks for me as a non-autistic, visual and scientific person.

The variations in human brain function discussed by Temple Grandin, I might add, fit very well within the Darwinian model that I've often discussed on this blog. The reason why sexual reproduction works is that it introduces variation into gene pools, so that at any given time the human genome as a whole is capable of adapting to new conditions in the environment. This usually means that, if new adverse conditions arise, some of the population may be able to adapt. It is known that when populations such as the Neanderthals inbreed, they can go extinct. That may be caused either by the expression of recessive genes or by genetic obsolescence. The taboo against incest actually has a biological basis. In this context, the concept of neurodiversity makes a lot of sense.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Art and Social Status

As I get older, I increasingly recognize the extent to which art is associated with social status. My Armenian great-grandfather lived in Bursa, Turkey, and he became wealthy by setting up import-export businesses. He exported carpets to the U.S. and imported pianos to Greece, among other businesses. His family immediately took an interest in French culture, and my grandfather traveled there on vacation. He had an arranged marriage with my grandmother, who, though half-Armenian, had a German mother who grew up in Paris. When my mother was growing up in Greece, they spoke French at home. My mother took an early interest in ballet and European art, and, after we moved to the U.S., my older sister took ballet lessons, and we often visited the art museums in Manhattan. My mother also liked classical music and played recordings of it at home. This all rubbed off on me, and I took an early interest in paintings and music. My English father had somewhat more pedestrian tastes.

As an adult, I've often noticed that, particularly in the West, wealthy people become art aficionados. This usually has more to do with social status than with the free time of the idle rich. There is usually a clear distinction between high art and low art, and social climbers generally avoid the latter. One of the reasons why high art tends to be better than low art is that, in historical terms, the wealthy have been spending their money on it for centuries, and they usually know the difference. The aristocrats in Vienna went into raptures over Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven and supported their careers. Without subsidy from the rich, Beethoven would have been poor. In Paris, the Impressionists were initially ridiculed, and Degas, who came from a wealthy family, never identified himself as one, though he exhibited with them.

The situation in the U.S. has been a little more complex. During the Gilded Age, wealthy Americans tended to copy wealthy Europeans, and they often mingled with wealthy British people. For example, Bertrand Russell's first wife was American. Rich Americans built English-style mansions, bought classical paintings, founded traditional art museums and listened to classical music. Fiction usually mimicked English fiction. The situation changed considerably during the twentieth century, particularly after World War I. Economically, the U.S. was on the ascent and Europe was in decline, and market forces began to influence what counted as art. In my view, art patronage changed considerably during this period, mainly due to the transition from informed patrons to market forces.

With the influence of market forces in the U.S., it became possible to make rapid changes in what counted as good art, and modern art, such as that produced by Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol, became popular quickly, even among critics. It is not a coincidence that Warhol had a background in marketing. Music with African and folk elements developed into jazz and popular music, eventually causing classical music to go out of favor. To some extent, jazz still belongs in the category of fine art for aficionados, and it has had wealthy patrons. I don't think that the same can be said for popular music, though, incredibly to me, many people actually like hip-hop. I would go as far as to say that some of the popular music of the '60's and '70's can reasonably be called art, but calling it high art is still a stretch.

My views on writing are a little different, because language is part of being human, and it is difficult to extract oneself from it and look at it objectively. So, for me, though there can always be good essays, they don't necessarily count as art. Fiction is also on shaky ground. I think that the novel as an art form peaked in the late nineteenth century and may never recover. There is still some hope for poetry, because that isn't restricted to traditional forms of language usage. So, though poetry can be influenced by market forces, there is still room in it for high art that can be identified and appreciated by the cognoscenti. For me, poetry is one area that may survive commercialization, though, on a practical level, I find very little of contemporary poetry worthwhile. I don't think that many good poets can do it for a living.

There are other art forms, such as films and plays, and some of those, I think, qualify as art. However, with film in particular, cost-cutting and automation have already taken a toll if you compare recent productions to older ones.

I should also mention a subject that I've brought up many times: the negative effects of M.F.A. programs. Though, in theory, academic expertise could improve the arts, in practice it has primarily created cloistered art environments and is not as efficient as the earlier wealthy-patron model. There is the myth that artists can avoid the struggling-artist period by getting a graduate degree. They can't.

As a social phenomenon, the definition of art currently lies beyond the influence of people who, in earlier days, may have made reasonable cases for what counts as good art – Robert Hughes is now long-dead. In this market-driven era, many people seem to believe that what is good is whatever is "trending." Nothing could be further from the truth. The internet, besides all of the other damage that it has done, is killing good taste, or at least making it a historical relic.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Diary

One of the limitations of the property where I live is that, since the house is surrounded by trees, there isn't much of a view. But, with the leaves down, you can now clearly see the outline of the Green Mountains nearby to the east. With effort, you can also see the Taconic and Adirondack Mountains to the west. The yard is still fairly private, though you can now make out the nearby houses. 

On the whole, I am happy living here. There have been no signs of mice since October, and I'm going to set up the birdfeeder soon if it stays cold. There may still be bears around. It looks as if the house is fairly well-insulated, so my utilities will be manageable. Overall, I don't think that the expenses here will be any higher than they were in Middlebury, where I was paying rent, and the value of this property has already increased. So far, not having a garage hasn't been a disadvantage. It was easier putting on snow tires outside, because there was more space and better lighting. Eventually, I will be clearing snow off the car, but, since I don't have to go anywhere most days, that shouldn't be much of a problem. The new snow blower arrived today and fits nicely in the shed. There is way more space in the house than I need, and I've had overnight visitors without any crowding.

On top of this, I like Brandon and feel a little more like a Vermonter now. I listen to Vermont Public (radio) more often than I used to, and that generates a sense of community. I even like the Vermont politicians! I'm becoming a regular at Café Provence and enjoy looking at the Neshobe River, which runs right through downtown, with waterfalls. There's also an art gallery and an old church with tombstones.

I recently attended a wedding in Derby, Connecticut and was shocked by all of the traffic. That is another reason why I prefer Vermont, particularly this part of the state, which has no interstates. Although I don't technically consider myself a writer, this is a very good environment for writing, and I can see why many of them move here. I am increasingly identifying with St. Bede the Venerable, though I'm not religious. I first learned of St. Bede at Worcester College, Oxford, in a course on Anglo-Saxon archaeology (coincidentally, that is the college that Rupert Murdoch attended). Bede lived in England from about 672 to 735, and his historical writings are one of the very few chronicles of that part of the Dark Ages there. I am beginning to feel as if I am starting to chronicle our Dark Age, though, in this case, I'm not writing alone. 

Because I have so much free time, I'm subscribing to more hard-copy magazines. I currently get Scientific AmericanSky and Telescope, Consumer ReportsTimes Literary Supplement and The New Yorker. I still like The New Yorker mainly for its cartoons. My grandson, who is now eight, also likes the cartoons, so I'm giving him my copies. Generally, I still don't enjoy the articles that much, and I don't like the current editor, David Remnick. They recently had an inferior review of Determined. I do like some of the writers, such as Elizabeth Kolbert, James Wood, Louis Menand and Rebecca Mead, and it has a sentimental value to me, because I grew up in New York. It has always been a pretentious publication, so I don't take it very seriously. The fiction, I still think, is pretty awful. I got a special rate and probably won't renew. 

My stargazing activity is almost dead. Because there is nowhere here suitable to store my large telescope, I gave it away. It currently belongs to a friend of the person who made it, who is using it as an "outreach" telescope at a summer camp in Colorado. I still have my small telescope but haven't set it up yet. In Middlebury, it was permanently set up on the rear deck and fastened down, so it was very convenient to use. It has to be fastened down or it may blow over in high winds (it did once). I don't have a deck here, but I may set it up for certain astronomical events. I can also do some stargazing in bed. In Middlebury, the skylight faced west, and I could see the Pleiades setting. This house has skylights that face south, and I can currently view the Orion Nebula rising in the east, with binoculars, while lying in bed. The skylights are small here, so it quickly moves out of view.

Friday, November 17, 2023

Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will III

I can't say that I enjoyed the remainder of the book, and I didn't spend much time on it, because I thought that Sapolsky was just rambling, and little new information of any real importance emerged. There wasn't even a noticeable conclusion either. Sapolsky, clearly an academic, is best on neurological matters. After he made a strong case for determinism and the absence of free will, he seemed to drift off into a series of anecdotes about how individuals are different from other individuals, and there is nothing that they can do about it. He is critical, for example, of those who pass judgment on fat people, because he thinks that fat people have little or no choice in the matter. Somehow, crime and punishment seem to interest him a lot, and there are countless stories about how criminals are perceived and treated by the public, often in a way that ignores the inevitability of their behavior. He seems to have the classic liberal college professor stance in which tolerance should be the norm, and people shouldn't be allowed to let their prejudices run wild. Many of his examples are old news that I've known about for decades, so I was quite disappointed when I arrived at the end of the book and determined that it did not include what I would consider to be an action plan or any useful recommendations.

In my view, Sapolsky, though he does have a good understanding of human nature, is demonstrating no interest in the rather significant implications of his findings. Those are the kinds of things that I've been writing about since I started this blog. There are two areas in particular that I've discussed repeatedly. If people are all different through no fault of their own, with widely varying intellectual abilities and prejudices, all of which are relatively intractable, how do we define equality and to what extent can a democratic process produce a coherent government? The other area is capitalism, which, despite mountains of evidence, continues to produce an increase in wealth inequality while destroying the environment. Currently, income inequality is spilling over into unruly populist movements in the West, with incompetent, opportunistic leaders who are not being filtered out by the existing democratic processes, and climate change is advancing unabated. I would have appreciated the book more if Sapolsky had devoted a few pages to those topics rather than taking jabs at Sigmund Freud, Bruno Bettelheim and other bad scientists and making fun of the public's prejudices. He seems merely to be reciting the now-popular "compassion" mantra without actually making any useful suggestions. I wasn't attempting to find religion when I started reading the book, and I'm not about to now.

I won't regurgitate all of the things that I have written previously, but I still think that the best long-term option is going to be an AI-based world government that, rather than depending on an unreliable democratic process or the whims of a dictator, maintains the planet for the benefit of Homo sapiens in an orderly fashion, based on what we know about ourselves, including the idea that we are a socially cooperative species and value equality. The point is that we collectively are not doing a good job at self-governance and ought to be taking a hard look at other options. If Sapolsky decides to write a separate book on that topic, I may read it, but I do find the current book too limited in scope and bloated in the wrong places.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will II

I am moving along more slowly than usual, because, besides Sapolsky's writing style, this is not an easy book to read and encompasses the subjects of neuroscience, biology, physics and philosophy. One chapter is devoted to chaos theory, which some have used as a basis for saying that free will exists. Sapolsky concludes that "chaoticism shows just the opposite of chaos, the fact that there's less randomness than often assumed and, instead, unexpected structure and determinism...." He then moves on to a chapter on the subject of emergent complexity. Here again, some have thought that this phenomenon is a proof of indeterminism in nature, something akin to magic. I found this chapter highly informative, because it explains how the development and behavior of organisms emerges from "simple constituent parts having simple local interactions, all without centralized authority....These systems have characteristics that exist only at the emergent level—a single neuron cannot have traits related to circuitry—and whose behavior can be predicted without having to resort to reductive knowledge about the component parts....Not only does this explain emergent complexity in our brains, but our nervous systems use some of the same tricks used by the likes of individual proteins, ant colonies, and slime molds. All without magic." In this area, Sapolsky is especially insightful, because he understands how biological systems actually work – and this is not at all the way that most people think about them. He concludes that both chaos theory and emergent systems are consistent with a deterministic world.

These chapters are followed by the chapter "Does Your Free Will Just Emerge." Sapolsky concludes that free will does not emerge for the following reasons:

a. Because of the lessons of chaoticism—you can't just follow convention and say that two things are the same, when they are different, and in a way that matters, regardless of how seemingly miniscule that difference; unpredictable doesn't mean undetermined.

b. Even if a system is emergent, that doesn't mean it can choose to do whatever it wants; it is still made up of and constrained by its own constituent parts, with all their mortal limits and foibles.

c. Emergent systems can't make the bricks that built them stop being brick-ish.

In Chapters 9 and 10, the subject changes to quantum indeterminacy. This is the same topic discussed by Sabine Hossenfelder in Existential Physics. Physics is one of Sapolsky's weaker areas, but he also makes a compelling argument that random events at the subatomic level have nothing to do with free will, which is similar to Hossenfelder's view. He concludes:

Quantum indeterminacy is beyond strange, and in the legendary words of physics god Richard Feynman, "If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics."

It is perfectly plausible, maybe even inevitable, that there will be quantum effects on how things like ions interact with the likes of ion channels or receptors in the nervous system.

However, there is no evidence that those sorts of quantum effects bubble up enough to alter behavior, and most experts think that it is actually impossible—quantum strangeness is not that strange, and the quantum effects are washed away amid the decohering warm, wet noise of the brain as one scales up.

Even if quantum indeterminacy did bubble up all the way to behavior, there is the fatal problem that all it would produce is randomness. Do you really want to claim that the free will for which you deserve punishment or reward is based on randomness?

The supposed ways by which we can harness, filter, stir up, or mess with the randomness enough to produce free will seem pretty unconvincing. If determined indeterminism is a valid building block for free will, then taking an improv acting class is a valid building block for, à la Sartre, believing that we are condemned to be free.

I still have several chapters to go and should finish up on my next post. Of what I've read so far, I am most impressed by the concept of emergence, with which I was not very familiar previously. In the biological world, this is a far more useful perspective than that of physics. Emergence in nature is something that one can easily pick up intuitively simply by spending time outdoors – which is exactly how Darwin came up with his theory of evolution through natural selection. Emergence is also a good way to understand Vinod Goel's model of the human brain as discussed in Reason and Less. That model takes into consideration the fact that our brains evolved over millions of years and still contain elements from the distant past which are incompatible with reason, because they came into existence long before rationality became a feature of our species.

In some ways, I am coming to see arguments for free will as an unnecessary nuisance. I think that free will is nothing more than a necessary illusion that we maintain in order to believe in the validity of our thinking processes. You might say that we have evolved to believe that we have free will even though we don't. Thus, informed thinkers such as Sapolsky and Hossenfelder are forced to address spurious arguments that unconvincingly link free will to randomness in nature. The idea of free will is probably linked to the idea of rational agency, which is also under attack now. At the moment, both neuroscience and behavioral economics are telling us that we are hardly rational, and to confirm that these days, one need only follow the news.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will I

I finally received this new book by Robert Sapolsky and have read about a third of it so far. That section is largely a restatement of information that was provided in his last book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, discussed earlier. Sapolsky looks closely at how the human brain develops and functions neurologically, and in this instance attempts to demonstrate how events prior to and after birth, over which an individual has no control, determine their behavior in various situations. At this stage in my readings, this was rather obvious to me, as was the idea that free will does not exist in a meaningful sense. In later chapters, he writes about the implications of these ideas for legal systems, which may expose their inadequacies by showing how individuals may have little control over their own behavior. 

As before, I am not a fan of Sapolsky's writing style. He often strains to sound un-academic and inserts too many frivolous footnotes. Given the complexity of the subject matter, I think that he makes the material more difficult to absorb than it has to be. For example, I think that both Daniel Kahneman and Vinod Goel make the functioning of the prefrontal cortex of the human brain a little more understandable than he does, though they offer somewhat simplified models. Also, Sapolsky sometimes brings up specific research only to dismiss it a few pages later. He does this with the research of Benjamin Libet, who showed that when a person makes a choice, their brain makes it before they are aware of it. That research has been claimed by some to demonstrate that people do not have free will. Sapolsky takes about twenty pages discussing this only to conclude that Libet's study is irrelevant to the topic of free will because it doesn't establish intent.

One section that I found more useful was his discussion of the effects of collectivist cultures versus individualistic cultures on individual behavior. Neuroimaging studies indicate that the prefrontal cortex activates differently in people from East Asian cultures from people in Western cultures. East Asians are activated equally by pictures of their mothers and pictures of themselves, whereas Westerners are activated more by pictures of themselves. East Asians are also more active in emotional regulation and understanding other people's perspectives than Westerners, who exhibit more emotional intensity, self-reference and capacity for strong emotional disgust or empathy.

In general, collectivistic-culture individuals prefer and excel at context-dependent cognitive tasks, while it's context-independent tasks for individual-culture folks....

East Asian collectivism is generally thought to arise from the communal work demands of floodplain rice farming. 

It appears that recent Chinese immigrants to the U.S. have been more independent than their population in general and self-selected to emigrate to the U.S. This type of self-selection can ultimately affect local gene pools, making them more collectivist or more individualistic.

Sapolsky's perspective on free will and determinism is somewhat different from what I'm used to. I usually read about determinism in terms of physics and astronomy. At this stage, Darwinism encapsulates not just organisms, but the entire universe. Planets, stars, solar systems, galaxies and galactic clusters all evolve, and the question is whether this is all predictable. Currently it appears that there are still random quantum events at the subatomic level, but I don't think that the existence of those events necessarily rules out rigid determinism. To me, this means that every event, at least since the Big Bang, was destined to occur. That may or may not prove to be the case, but I don't think at this point that we have the right tools to know the answer. On a much smaller scale, it is of some practical value to understand how human behavior originates. That information is essential for developing appropriate laws, social systems and governments. As I've been saying for several years, my ideal would be to develop a human-compatible program that manages the Earth's biosphere for the benefit of mankind. Obviously, due to the complexity of such an operation, AI would have to play a major role. I would argue that the traditional democratic republics now in place globally can safely be described as obsolete in light of the psychological research findings of the last few years. 

I will probably make at least two more posts on this book.

Friday, October 13, 2023

Diary

I am still adjusting to my new neighborhood. Actually, in some respects I prefer it to Middlebury. I advocated Middlebury initially partly because I thought that it would provide enough activities to satisfy my ex-companion. It didn't. Without her, I have less use for the town. It doesn't help that she must have blanketed her friends there with negative PR about me. I still buy food at the Middlebury co-op, which only means that I go there once a week. I also plan to attend events at the college periodically. My doctors, dentist and optometrist are still there. I may also visit my old neighborhood occasionally and talk to my former neighbors. I did recently and spoke to Jim Douglas about the Mead Chapel controversy, with which he is involved. The college changed the name because the original Mead was associated with the eugenics movement, and Mead's descendants asked him to help, so he sued the college to change it back. Eugenics was a popular idea locally when Mead was alive, and I agree that his family should not bear the brunt of it now, as his involvement was peripheral. I also spoke to my former next-door neighbor, Fred. He mowed the lawn for my ex-companion after I left, and the house has since been sold. I had tipped him off about her psychiatric state, and he said that he noticed that some days she was friendly and other days cold. One of her paradoxes is that, though she always wants friends, she is unable to sustain friendships when she sees people regularly. She does best with people who live thousands of miles away with whom she has no daily contact. In my view, her self-professed empathy doesn't stand up to scrutiny, because she can't hide her coldness for extended periods. She is most comfortable with people who agree with her or follow her instructions. I intentionally appeased her while I knew her, but that wasn't enough.

When I lived in Middlebury, I got most of my exercise just by going outside and walking on Munger Street. That got boring after a few years, and I had other walks a short drive away. I have just worked out a walking routine for Brandon. Although there are several good trails in the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area nearby, most of them take several hours. For exercise purposes, I prefer thirty-to-sixty-minute walks, and there aren't many near this house. Pittsford, Vermont is only eight miles south of here and has a trail system that fits my requirements. Pittsford is even more rural than Brandon, with a population of about three thousand. It sits between the Green Mountains and the Taconic Mountains, so the scenery is a little more exciting than the Champlain Valley, which is mostly flat. I am in somewhat better physical condition now than I was a few months ago. My shoulder tendinitis has diminished, and I can now do pushups again. I have also been doing more hiking recently and am in very good cardiovascular condition.

Having lived in the Midwest for about forty years, I am always impressed by the local history here and the people who have lived in this area. In Middlebury, there was John Deere, who later moved to Illinois. Also, Charlie Munger, the current vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, is a descendant of the Mungers who had farms on Munger Street. The electric motor was invented by Thomas Davenport in Brandon. Pittsford had two forts during the American Revolution. The current residents in this part of Vermont seem relatively competent and resourceful compared to those in comparably-sized towns in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

Of course, I am still following the news. Now that the writers' strike is over, there is some good late-night comedy again, though I don't watch most of it. This seems like a bizarre historical period, particularly because of the Trump phenomenon. Previous generations would find Trump's popularity incomprehensible. Besides the fact that he obviously has little knowledge of or interest in governing, he has amassed a criminal record for which he has never been held accountable purely as a result of his lifelong abuse of the legal system. If Trump were reelected, anarchy or civil war couldn't be ruled out. One can only ask what drug his supporters are on. And then there is the Hamas-Israel war. As I wrote some time ago, the Israeli Jews would have saved themselves a lot of trouble if they had moved to Nevada instead of Israel. There are currently more Jews in the U.S. than in Israel. Furthermore, the Israelis are demonstrating that they are no better than Hamas by copying the murder of innocent civilians. Genetically, I have ancestors from the Levant: they must have left hundreds or thousands of years ago.

Thursday, October 5, 2023

Mouse Report

Since moving to Vermont in 2011, I've spent a fair amount of time blocking mouse entrances to houses. In Middlebury, mice began to appear just after we moved in. I would find their entrances and block them off, and then, after about two years, they would find new ones. At the sixth year, I seem to have found the last ones, and there were no mice in the house after that. This can be informative about both mouse behavior and house construction. One can use a quasi-scientific method to determine exactly what the mice are doing and what the weak points of a house are as far as mice are concerned. To block the mice, I have used steel wool, caulk, cement and anti-mouse foam, depending on the circumstances.

The Middlebury house was built in 1798 and had a 1974 addition. The mice came in through the old foundation and underneath the foundation of the addition. When those were all blocked, they climbed up wires to the roof and found new openings. The Brandon house has an interesting history. It was originally built in 1976 on a seventeen-acre lot next to another house. A couple bought the entire property in 1983 and lived in the other house. The wife's mother lived in this house as an in-law house, a popular arrangement in Vermont. In about 1999, the couple got divorced. The property was subdivided into three lots, and this one is five acres. They built a new foundation for the in-law house here, cleared a path through the woods, and then moved the house a few hundred yards to the new foundation. The divorcée moved here and the other two lots were sold.

Because this house has a poured concrete foundation with no drains, mice can't get in directly through the basement. They were getting in above-ground and finding their way to the basement and the walls above. There is very little attic space here, and it is filled with solid foam insulation. The outer walls and part of the basement ceiling are insulated with pink fiberglass insulation. The mice have found paths through the attic but don't seem to live there. They seem to prefer the fiberglass and make nests in it. Initially, most of the mice went down to the basement and were caught in humane traps and released. Generally, the mice could not get into the living parts of the house except through a gap under the basement door, which I blocked. One immature mouse did get through a small opening in a wall upstairs and entered the bathtub, where it became trapped. I took it outside.

Since I moved into the house, I have blocked a total of about six mouse entrances. It is difficult to know the exact number, but since those six holes were blocked, no new mice have entered the house. The remaining mice traveled around the house, and at first they went to the basement, where they were trapped. I eventually found and blocked four paths that the mice had been using to get to the basement, and since then there have been no mice in the basement. The closest the mice can get to the outside now is the back porch, which they can reach through an exposed section of attic, which would be difficult to block. So the last few mice were caught on the back porch, and there don't seem to be any more. During this period, some mice occupied a wall in the upstairs bathroom. When the last upstairs mouse had no access to the outside, it also went to the back porch and was caught.

I don't know what the precise conditions were for the previous owner. If she didn't block the basement door, there would have been mice all over the interior of the house, and there is some evidence of that (mouse droppings). The exterminators whom she hired blocked many holes on the exterior and interior of the house, but they appear to have completely missed the main ones actually used by mice. Thus, they eventually placed poison bait throughout the house. I suspect that the previous owner had mice every year that she lived here.  Originally, she kept her garbage in the shed, and that became a mouse habitat. Later, when she added the front porch, she left her garbage in a container out there. Probably as a precaution, she kept no garbage in the house. Deer mice and white-footed mice generally leave houses in the spring and don't return until the fall. Thus, the previous owner strategically put her house on the market in April.

It remains to be seen how successful my de-mousing effort has been here. They will probably continue to try to gain entrance to the house for the next couple of months and try again next fall. They are capable of chewing through screens, so they may attempt to reenter through the back porch. I am keeping an eye out for that. Whatever happens, my future work should be significantly reduced by the work that I've already done.

Mice, as mammals, aren't that different biologically from humans. They seek food and shelter and have babies. Though they don't have nuclear families, some of their behavior mimics it. Although the males have no interest in family life and seek sex with other females, a female with a litter can emit pheromones and make ultrasound calls that induce fathers to help in certain situations.