Sunday, December 30, 2018

Jean-Jacques: The Early Life and Works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1712-1754 IV

Rousseau arrived in Paris relatively well-prepared at the age of thirty, especially if you compare him to another writer, Stendhal, who arrived as an uninformed teenager a few decades later. He had the appropriate letters of introduction and already knew which salons he should attend. Though he still had some of the characteristics of a country bumpkin, Parisians cut him slack, since that was how they thought of the Swiss. His timing may also have been lucky, since he immediately met Denis Diderot, who was a year younger and had himself just arrived from the boondocks. They immediately became friends. Although he sometimes misread the salon hostesses, Rousseau did well in salons, because he was both eloquent and interesting in conversation. One must also note that, off the bat, he was incredibly ambitious and wanted to associate with the best people possible and make a good impression on them. His first major attempt to impress people was the presentation before an assemblage of luminaries a new system of musical notation that he had invented himself. They listened closely and set up a special committee to consider it further. Unfortunately, the committee didn't think that it merited implementation, and Rousseau was crushed. Rather than accept this verdict humbly, Rousseau wrote a book on the notation and published it at some expense to himself. The book didn't change matters, but many Parisians who had an interest in music read it, and at least it improved his name recognition and gave him some standing.

He seems to have had a knack for impressing upper-class women, and, since his financial status remained dire, he managed to enlist Mme. de Broglie, a marquise, to help him. In no time at all she had found him a position as secretary to the Compte de Montaigu, the newly appointed French Ambassador to the Venetian Republic. Rousseau arrived in Venice in September, 1743. Venice, with its gaiety, appealed to Rousseau, and he made friends. His job involved writing letters daily to Versailles and other diplomatic offices. The War of Austrian Succession affected France and Venice during his tenure. However, Rousseau seems to have been more competent than his boss, Montaigu, and he tended to exceed his authority. Montaigu didn't compensate him fairly according to the terms of his employment, and Rousseau's financial status remained fragile. In the summer of 1744, Rousseau and Montaigu were on very bad terms and had an argument in which Montaigu lost his temper. According to Montaigu, he "dismissed the man like a bad valet for the insolence he allowed himself." By the end of August, Rousseau was unemployed and on his way back to Paris. The episode with Montaigu and its aftermath had a lasting impact on Rousseau's thought. While most of the people he spoke to agreed with him that he had conducted himself properly, they accepted as a matter of course that Montaigu had to be shown deference in light of his aristocratic credentials and position. Rousseau wrote that this "sowed the seed of indignation in my soul against our stupid civil institutions, in which the real public interest and genuine justice are always sacrificed for the sake of any kind of apparent order which is actually detrimental to real order, and only adds the sanction of public authority to the oppression of the weak and the iniquity of the strong."

There is another event from the Venice period that is worth mentioning, as it is one of the few that I still recall from reading Confessions a few years ago. Rousseau had an awkward rendezvous at the house of a beautiful woman named Giulietta whom he had met at a party the day before. He noticed that one of her nipples was deformed:

I carried my stupidity to the point of speaking to her about her nipple. At first she treated my remark as a joke, and in her lighthearted way she did things that should have made me die for love. But as I continued to betray a residue of unease which I could not hide, in the end she blushed, adjusted her clothes, and moved without saying a single word towards the window. I wanted to sit there beside her, but she turned and sat on the sofa, then quickly rose and walked around the room fanning herself. Finally, she said to me in a cold, scornful voice: "Jacko, give up women and study mathematics."

When Rousseau went to see Giulietta a day or two later, she had departed for Florence.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Jean-Jacques: The Early Life and Works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1712-1754 III

Mme. de Warens was living in an apartment in Chambéry with Claude Anet when Rousseau arrived. Anet was a few years older than Rousseau and had accompanied her since she had departed Switzerland. He was a herbalist who prepared potions for her, and he also watched over her financial affairs, as she was susceptible to unprofitable money-making schemes presented to her by charlatans. Rousseau got a clerical job at the Survey Office, which he enjoyed initially, but he soon found it repetitious, and he didn't like his coworkers, who were crude by his standards. Although Mme. de Warens was sexually involved with Anet, she had a good reputation in Chambéry, and mothers brought over their daughters for musical events. After a few months, in 1732, just before the age of twenty, Rousseau left his job and began to provide music lessons for the girls.

At about the age of twenty-one, Rousseau was approached by Mme. de Warens, who delivered a rather serious speech about sex. For reasons that are not entirely clear, she had decided that they should begin to have a sexual relationship. In all likelihood, she had noticed his attraction to some of his students, and she probably had well-formed opinions regarding the sexual needs of men and how they ought to be addressed. Thus, they entered a long sexual relationship that was awkward and problematic. It was awkward in the sense that Rousseau thought of her as his mother, calling her maman, and he probably had no lustful feelings toward her; similarly, she may have had no lustful feelings toward him. Furthermore, as Cranston speculates, Mme. de Warens's sexual relationship with Anet created a sexual triangle, which may have caused Anet to become ill or suicidal. There was probably a lot of sexual tension in the household, though Rousseau doesn't refer to this in his autobiographical writings. In 1734, according to Rousseau, Anet became ill and died. Thereafter, Rousseau took on some of Anet's responsibilities, though he had no success in keeping Mme. de Warens's life organized. Her financial situation, which had always been precarious, became more so.

In 1735 or 1736, they decided to lease a house outside of town in the rural area of Les Charmettes in order to escape their gloomy apartment in town during the warm months. This episode in Rousseau's life became a watershed for his intellectual development. Mme. de Warens attempted to earn money through agriculture, which included fruit trees, beehives and some livestock, while Rousseau read widely and increased his appreciation of rural life. They would return to the apartment in town for the winters.

After Rousseau turned twenty-five in 1737, he received a small inheritance from his mother's estate in Geneva. He used much of the money to buy books and build up his library. However, since he had been experiencing ill health for some time, he also decided to make a trip to Montpellier in search of medical advice. Though he disliked Montpellier and did not find any useful advice, he met an older, upper-class woman while on the road there; she took an interest in him, and they had a short tryst. While staying in Montpellier, he wrote letters to Mme. de Warens, though her replies were erratic. Upon his return to Les Charmettes, he found that Mme. de Warens had replaced him with a Swiss hairdresser named Jean-Samuel-Rodolphe Wintzenried, who was six years older than he was. Wintzenried was more physically robust than Rousseau and better-suited to farm-related tasks. Though Rousseau once again became part of the household, this was the beginning of the end for his relationship with Mme. de Warens. When she and Wintzenried moved back to town for the winter he remained in Les Charmettes and became somewhat of a hermit. He continued his studies and took an interest in astronomy. He acquired a telescope, and, seeing him outside at night, some of his neighbors thought that he was practicing witchcraft. Mme. de Warens and Wintzenried returned to Les Charmettes in the summer of 1739. Rousseau could not tolerate the living arrangements, and it was agreed that he would eventually leave. That did not occur until the spring of 1740. Mme. de Warens found him a position as a tutor in Lyon, and he subsequently spent a year there.

The time spent in Lyon was productive for Rousseau, though he decided that he was not cut out to be a tutor. His employer and Lyon in general were far more advanced intellectually than anything that he was used to, and in some ways Lyon was more like Paris at the time, a center of the early Enlightenment in France. Thus, when he decided to quit his job in Lyon, he chose Paris as his next destination. First he returned to Les Charmettes in late 1741, where Mme. de Warens was wintering at the time. She nursed him back to health from an illness, he sold all his possessions to raise funds, and in the summer of 1742 he headed for Paris. It is possible that he might have remained at Les Charmettes, but, besides the friction caused by the presence of Wintzenried, Rousseau, at the age of thirty, felt more strongly that he should make a career for himself. Moreover, Mme. de Warens's financial state was increasingly dire, and he did not want to become an additional burden on her.

Although the amount of detail in this biography sometimes becomes a little tedious, I am still finding the book extremely rewarding. The odd thing about Rousseau is that, despite having lived centuries ago, his life is so well-documented that you can know more about him than you are likely to know about any of your contemporaries. What appeals to me the most is the way that he developed at his own pace and formed his ideas organically rather than being force-fed information in an academic setting and then, at the age of twenty-two, following a boring career for several decades. On the negative side, science had advanced so little by his lifetime that religion still managed to have an undue influence over his thoughts. Still, the rebel in me finds much to like in Rousseau in our age of specialization and conformity. He lived the way many would now if given a choice.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Jean-Jacques: The Early Life and Works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1712-1754 II

I am slowly plugging away at the book and will probably pick up my reading over the next few days. I hope that I won't bore my readers too much with Rousseau, because I'm going to be on him for a long time. With the wealth of information available to Cranston, along with his skill as an essayist, I am finding the work more engrossing than fiction. The reader gets a strong sense of what it would have been like to live Rousseau's life, including the altogether unfamiliar environment of eighteenth-century Europe. Some novelists, such as George Eliot, are able to pull off something similar in the form of a novel, but I find that the amount of knowledge necessary to do that effectively exceeds the mental capacity of most authors.

Rousseau's early years were full of naïveté and trial-and-error attempts to find his way in the world. There is a richness to the text, in that Rousseau himself was relatively honest in his autobiographical accounts and in that Cranston is there to correct him when he has misremembered an event or distorted or omitted one to create a certain image of himself. The trip to Turin seems to have been a complete fiasco. Rousseau converted to Catholicism with no religious conviction whatsoever and then took the only job for which he was qualified: domestic servant. He wasn't even good at that and eventually was fired. All was not lost, though, because he learned a little Italian and Latin and was exposed to wealthy, educated families. Turin was also a major cultural center compared to Geneva, and Rousseau heard good music for the first time in his life. While in Turin he corresponded with Mme. de Warens, and he ended up back in Annecy after about two years and lived in her house for a time.

Mme. de Warens herself could be the subject of a biography. She was an impetuous organizer who liked to help people but often lacked follow-through, and disastrous consequences sometimes ensued. She disliked her hometown, Vevey, a Germanic Protestant town northeast of Geneva, and had escaped to Savoy, abandoning her husband, to live in a French-speaking environment. The manner of her departure inadvertently ruined her husband financially, and he ended up moving to England penniless. Furthermore, even by our standards, she was sexually promiscuous. However, if she had not taken Rousseau under her wing, it would by no means have been certain that he would have gone on to his illustrious career. Cranston describes her as follows:

Mme. de Warens was a paradoxical person, and Rousseau did not always understand her. On the one hand, she adored practical organization; on the other, her mind was always dwelling on mystical ideas; she was both pure and sexually experienced; she was at once cunning and naïve, selfish and generous; and while she entertained liberally, she bought very few clothes for herself and ate almost nothing. 

When Rousseau returned to Annecy, she talked him into studying theology at a local seminary, but he had no academic skills and was soon expelled. He liked singing, so she then convinced him to learn music with a choirmaster. When the choirmaster decided to quit his job and move to Lyon, Mme. de Warens suggested that Rousseau accompany him, perhaps to get him out of her hair for a while because of some intrigue she had to attend to in Paris. Rousseau went to Lyon but abandoned the choirmaster and returned to Annecy only to find that Mme. de Warens had mysteriously disappeared. Soon after, Rousseau was recruited to escort one of Mme. de Warens's maids to Switzerland, which he did, followed by various misadventures there, among which he passed himself off as a music teacher. He also served as a translator for a man who presented himself as a Greek monk raising money for a charity but was actually a con artist. In attempting to locate Mme. de Warens, he worked briefly as a music copier in Lyon, though he wasn't competent at that either. Finally, when he was about nineteen, he reconnected with Mme. de Warens, who had moved to Chambéry, still in Savoy, because of a political upheaval. She was dependent on the King of Sardinia for the pension that she lived on, and Chambéry was an administrative headquarters for Savoy. Soon Rousseau had moved in with her again.

I've got a long way to go, as Rousseau lived to the age of sixty-six.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Jean-Jacques: The Early Life and Works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1712-1754 I

I've barely started this first in a series of three volumes by Maurice Cranston (1920-1993) and am already enjoying it, because Cranston has a deep understanding of his subject and writes well. Furthermore, Rousseau was such an influential historical figure that there is more information available on his life than one could hope to find on most others who lived in his era. By way of an introduction, I should explain why I think Rousseau is significant. In one respect, he addressed a visceral feeling that I experienced on my own without having read him: a love of the outdoors and the appeal of rural living. I grew up in suburbs and did not experience rural life at all until I was eighteen. Up to then I had no way of knowing why I hadn't felt comfortable in the environments which I had inhabited. On my own, I also recognized the distortions and filters placed by society on reality, and, although I didn't get around to reading Rousseau for many years, he was the first writer I came across who explained this in a satisfactory manner. His ideas were echoed by Henry David Thoreau, but I found Thoreau to be a weaker writer and thinker.

On the other hand, some of Rousseau's ideas, which have been widely adopted, are in need of reexamination in light of advances in science and world changes since the eighteenth century. This is because he was writing in a comparatively unpopulated world a century before Darwin. In particular, Rousseau's idea of the freedom of the individual is badly in need of reexamination. I recently watched a 1952 interview with Bertrand Russell, in which he elucidated what he thought were the three major problems facing the world then. First, he thought that a world government was needed to control weaponry and resolve local disputes. Second, he thought that greater economic equality between nations was necessary to reduce the potential for wars. And third, sounding rather Malthusian, he suggested that the rights of individuals need to be curtailed somewhat, particularly when it comes to population growth. As you can see, not much has changed on these fronts since 1952, and you can now add climate change to Russell's list. Where Rousseau needs to be revisited is in his idea of individual freedom, which has become enshrined in modern democracies and, in my view, despite improvements in living standards, has wreaked havoc on the world from the Industrial Revolution to the present. I find it odd that none of Rousseau's successors, including Karl Marx, have presented a system which addresses the inequality and environmental destruction caused by capitalism or the failures of totalitarian regimes. Though Marx was cognizant of economic inequality, he seems to have been oblivious to the abuse of power by autocratic leaders. He seems to have thought that the proletariat possesses a mysterious virtue that is somehow absent from the bourgeoisie. What about Hitler and Stalin? By the same token, American reverence for the Declaration of Independence, an obsolete document reflecting some of Rousseau's ideas, seems inappropriately sentimental and alarmingly shortsighted given the current state of world affairs.

Rousseau was born in 1712 to a wealthy, upper-class mother and a middle-class father, who worked as a watchmaker. His mother died of puerperal fever two days after his baptism, and he spent his first years in her house in the wealthy, elevated neighborhood of Geneva overlooking the poorer neighborhoods near the lake. Rousseau was doted on by one of his mother's sisters, but, when he was five, his father, whose financial fortunes had deteriorated, sold the house and moved to the artisan quarter of St. Gervais. It is said that both of Rousseau's parents were spirited and independent, but also that his father was somewhat unstable. He insisted on carrying a sword, which was above his rank, and occasionally he got into fights. When Rousseau was ten, his father engaged in a quarrel which led to a trial in which he was tried in absentia and found guilty. He moved permanently to the Bernese territory at Nyon and left his son in Geneva in the care of his wife's brother, Gabriel Bernard.

Rousseau was promptly sent with one of his cousins to the nearby town of Bossey, then in Savoy, to be taught by the local Calvinist pastor. It was there that he first experienced the pleasures of rural life. Occasionally he was disciplined by his tutor's sister, and apparently he enjoyed being spanked by women. Later, due to some misunderstanding, both he and his cousin were severely disciplined by their tutor, and thereafter they disliked Bossey. After two years they returned to Geneva and lived at Rousseau's uncle's house. However, his uncle's family considered him a poor in-law and soon rid themselves of him. Initially he was sent to be an apprentice for a notary, but he was soon expelled. He was then sent to an apprenticeship with an engraver, and although he liked engraving, he disliked the engraver and his family. At the age of twelve he considered himself socially superior to them and couldn't tolerate their vulgarity, lack of reading or the beatings that he had to endure for disciplinary reasons.

In those days, Geneva was still a walled city with a gate that closed in the evening. Occasionally Rousseau would be beyond the wall with friends when the gate closed, and he would receive a beating from his master the next day. As he approached the age of sixteen, he had completed only three years out of five of his apprenticeship. One day, when he was locked out, he decided to leave Geneva and abandon his apprenticeship. He took refuge in Catholic Savoy, where he learned that he could receive support from the Catholic Church by converting from Calvinism. To this end, he walked to Annecy, where he met Mme. de Warens, who was twenty-nine at the time and liked young men. She was separated from her husband, a wealthy landowner, and assisted the Catholic church in recruiting converts. Europe abounded with grifters who specialized in taking advantage of church money for their livelihood on the pretext of conversion, and Rousseau soon found himself walking to Turin with a couple of them for religious training. He arrived in Turin with his possessions stolen, and his companions disappeared.

Of course, Rousseau returns to Savoy for his interlude with Mme. de Warens, as famously described in Confessions, but I haven't reached that episode yet. Cranston is good at comparing historical facts with Rousseau's recollections in his autobiographical works. Of particular interest so far is Rousseau's positive depiction of his father, who, in a practical sense, seems to have abandoned him at the age of ten.

Thursday, November 29, 2018


I haven't been reading much lately or had much to report. Pretty soon I'll start on the biography of Rousseau that I mentioned earlier, and that should take a long time to complete. The weather pattern this fall has been more irregular than usual, so preparations for winter have been somewhat disrupted. There was rain throughout October, leaving soggy leaves on the ground, and then in November it suddenly began to snow. I barely managed to pick the last tomatoes, rake the leaves and mow the lawn one last time before the first snow. We've had a total of about a foot of wet snow so far. This morning I cleared it off the vegetable garden beds and dug out the carrots, which, fortunately, hadn't frozen yet. I've given up stargazing for the year because of the sustained cloudiness, and yesterday I brought in my small telescope. The first load of firewood arrived last month, I've installed snow tires on my car, and I should be all set to waste inordinate amounts of time reading or on my computer next to the wood stove for several months.

William, the cat, is three years old now, and his behavior is changing a little. He used to like going out for most of the night, but now he balks if it's raining or very cold. The problem is that he has a great deal of energy, and if he doesn't spend several hours a day hunting mice and voles (or moles, chipmunks, birds, snakes, toads, bats or insects) he becomes obnoxious indoors. If he's inside at night when I go to bed, I close the bedroom door in an attempt to prevent him from waking me up, but he has an insistent personality and makes loud noises pawing the door, and I wake up anyway. He is hard to play with, because his idea of playing is catching a mouse and carrying it around for a while: cat toys don't register with him. When there are no small rodents around, human hands suddenly become attractive to him. He has good moments, so I still appreciate him, but I don't like the interference with my sleep.

One of my hobbies is trying to determine whether anyone reads this blog. As far as I can tell, very few do. That is fine with me, because I'm not interested in dealing with lots of comments, based on years of unsatisfactory experience with them. According to the statistics at, I get a few hits every day. It seems that many of them are generated by high school or college students who are searching for material on Google for assignments. I don't intentionally give titles to my posts with the aim of being googled, and therefore the popularity of any given post is somewhat random. Actually, I am averse to popular post titles, because they are more likely to attract unwanted readers. My post, "Robert Hughes on Andy Warhol," is popular in Australia, New Zealand and the UK. Hughes was Australian, so he probably has better name recognition in those countries. My guess is that students have been writing papers on Andy Warhol. I also use Google Analytics, which often shows completely different results from When a specific pageview matches on both, you can be confident that it's real. However, in recent months, only on Google Analytics, I've been getting barraged on weekdays from unexpected locations such as Iraq, the UAE, Brazil and India. Just as I am typing this, I'm getting hits from Brazil, Italy, India, Spain, Portugal and South Africa. Since all of these hits show up as users of Windows and Chrome, I think that they are either a disguised visitor or the result of a technical glitch. It makes no sense that new visitors from all over the world would suddenly view my blog at about the same time of day on a weekday and all be using the combination of Windows and Chrome. Since I still get waves of hits identified as originating in Poland, Ukraine and Russia, perhaps various agencies also monitor this site, for whatever reasons. I suppose that at some point people will be getting PhDs in the activities on noncommercial blogs.

I am assuming, based on what a couple of readers whom I know have said, that this blog isn't getting boring.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are II

Approximately the first half of the book discusses Plomin's research with adopted children and twins, which he uses to identify the heritability of traits. The main finding is that what has typically been thought of as environmental influence is largely the expression of genes. For example, if a parent reads to a child and the child later becomes a proficient reader, rather than demonstrating a positive environmental effect, the actual situation is likely to be that the parent was a good reader and the child simply inherited the parent's reading ability. Overwhelmingly, children turn out more like their biological parents than their adoptive parents. This includes everything from adult weight to the amount of time spent watching TV: even when living in a different household from their parents, many of their characteristics mimic their parents' rather than the people in their adoptive households. Plomin's thesis, which I believe is correct, is that in the process of growing up, children should be encouraged to express their genes, because they are biologically attuned to specific stimuli and are not blank slates. The same studies also indicate that as people age they grow into greater concordance with their genetic heritage. Plomin finishes this section by saying that in a meritocracy, which is more or less what we live in (if you consider money important) some people are going to have a better genetic fit for high-paying jobs than others. He stresses that individuals should focus on meeting their genetic potentials, and, like Thomas Piketty, suggests that inequality should be balanced by taxation on wealth.

The remainder of the book switches to very recent studies which associate human traits with specific genes. After several false starts, rapid progress became possible with the advent of polygenic scoring, which links the presence of specific sets of alleles in single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) with probabilities for specific traits, psychological disorders and illnesses. For example, future years of educational attainment could theoretically be estimated at the moment of conception on the basis of the genetic sequencing of an embryo. Probabilities for adult height and weight can be estimated, along with probabilities for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism and Alzheimer's disease. Polygenic scoring also indicates that different psychological disorders can be produced by the same alleles, meaning that the medical profession has been misunderstanding the underlying causes of disorders by focusing on symptoms rather than causes. This field is in its infancy, and it looks as if it will radically alter the fields of child development and disease prevention. The research already indicates that students at private, selective schools outperform students at public, unselective schools only because the students have higher academic potential to begin with: the quality of teaching is irrelevant to test score outcomes. Overall, Plomin is optimistic about the usefulness of this research, and I think he's right.

I do have a few quibbles, which I'll mention. Because he is working in the field of psychology, he uses many terms which I think are inadequately defined. For example, he accepts the g factor theory of intelligence, which I have always found spurious: it's another way of saying that smart people are just smart, and therefore they're good at everything. To be sure, there are some people who are good at a variety of intellectual tasks, but, in my experience, the range of actual skills in intelligent people is usually fairly narrow. Then, while saying that expensive private schools aren't worth the money, he overlooks the rather obvious sociological fact that having rich and successful friends – the kind of people you're likely to meet at expensive private schools – can and does improve people's fortunes.

My greatest complaint about the book is that Plomin has intentionally left out all references to evolution. This was probably a wise move to minimize hostile reactions to controversial material, but I think that seeing this through an evolutionary lens offers a wider picture. He has skirted the issue of what to do about poor minorities who inhabit dangerous neighborhoods. His position on the heritability of academic attainment seems to imply that poor minorities will never become wealthy by their own efforts, and that they should just be handed some money. This is a topic worthy of further discussion. If you take the long view of human existence, the traits that are the most beneficial change somewhat over time. Prior to civilization, the most important traits were probably social skills and the ability to hunt and gather food. When civilization arose, organizational and strategic skills such as those possessed by monarchs became the most valuable ones. During the Industrial Revolution, the Puritan work ethic and basic mechanical understanding sufficed. The kinds of skills that are valuable now, as noted by Plomin, are those associated with high educational attainment. I find this view a little myopic, because I think that we are in a transitional phase, and that the traits that seem essential at the moment may become less so in the future. The people who have been at the top end of the food chain recently, such as doctors and lawyers, are gradually losing their jobs to new technology, and this trend is likely to continue. Perhaps highly-paid software engineers will face a similar fate in the not-too-distant future. I have been thinking that the rise of the tech nerds may be brief: if further advances in technology obviate the need to hire them, their social deficiencies may become handicaps again. Since natural selection doesn't follow a path to a specific outcome, it is possible that social skills could make a comeback. Of course, this is all well beyond the scope of Plomin's book, but it's something to think about.

Plomin, it should be noted, is not a good writer – I found the repetition annoying – but the book is certainly worth reading, and you are definitely going to be hearing a lot about this topic in the years ahead.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are I

Robert Plomin, the behavioral geneticist, has written this book to sum up several decades of his research for general readers. So far, I've only read the initial chapters, which describe research on the characteristics of adopted children compared to their natural and adopting parents and unrelated siblings over time, and research on the characteristics of twins who were adopted into different families. The gold standard for this kind of research is identical twins who have been adopted into different families. Unfortunately, only a few such twins have been studied, and even though those studied indicate a very high correlation between characteristics of identical twins who have been raised apart, the number of identical (monozygotic) twins is too small to produce statistically significant results. The general findings indicate a relatively high correlation between the characteristics of closely related people, suggesting that environmental factors are far less important than genetic relatedness in producing characteristics in people.

Although adoption itself is not a subject that excites me much, I have often wondered whether parents who adopt know what they're getting into. I don't think so. Of the few instances with which I have some familiarity, the results have tended to be disastrous. This was because, as Plomin says, adopted children don't usually have much in common with the families into which they are adopted, and adopting babies, who haven't developed their adult personalities, doesn't improve the odds. Plomin correctly notes that nature significantly outweighs nurture in these situations.

So far in the book Plomin has not used the kind of language that I use to think about the issues associated with heritability, but it doesn't look as if we are going to have disagreements. For me, this goes way back to my adolescence, when I began to think about determinism. That had more to do with physics and Einstein's famous statement, "God does not play dice with the universe." For many years I hemmed and hawed over whether truly random events occur and even whether paranormal phenomena are real; my current thinking is that we do in fact live in a deterministic universe without true randomness, and that phenomena such as ESP are imaginary. Sean Carroll, my physics guru, apparently believes in determinism, and it makes sense to me. The hard part in physics is admitting that some of the techniques used by physicists to explain reality actually disguise the fact that certain aspects of it are not fully understood. Thus, I now think that true randomness does not exist; randomness is a fudge factor disguising the fact that we don't have the necessary techniques or computational power, and perhaps never will, to provide a detailed description of every event in the universe from the Big Bang onward. My own reasoning is that without a rigid coherence to the universe, it would be too unstable to produce stars and planets, let alone organisms. There is a deep coherence to the universe which I think would be shattered by truly random events.

I have also thought about determinism as it pertains to free will. Ultimately, I was unable to reconcile the existence of free will with the science now associated with Darwinism. Natural selection is a mechanism that produces organisms which survive in their environments, and all living organisms are comprised of certain characteristics that could not be otherwise. As the most cognitively advanced animals, we have a tendency to think that there is some magic ingredient that only we possess. That ingredient, it is said, might be consciousness or free will. My view is that our brains have simply evolved a few tricks that give us an advantage over other organisms, and that, in a broad sense, we're not that different from other mammals. I have little doubt that in due course all of the "higher" functions of Homo sapiens will be linked to ordinary evolutionary processes and DNA. The conceptual problems associated with consciousness will disappear when it can be described with greater precision as an evolutionary adaptation, or at least as a byproduct of an evolutionary adaptation.

Plomin only slightly touches on these topics, but he is engaging in an important demystification process that could eventually help produce better ways of organizing society by taking into account the innate differences between people. Later chapters, which I haven't read yet, look more closely at personality traits and DNA associations. Thankfully, Plomin, unlike some other science writers, is interested in the policy implications of this work, and I am looking forward to reading what he has to say. He has done groundbreaking research which will put to rest some of the ideas that have been circulating unquestioned for decades in politically correct circles, which are often composed of well-educated people who tend to ignore science. The book isn't that long, and I'll probably finish discussing it on my next post.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018


I was dragged into a household distraction regarding the midterm elections, and now that they're over it will be easier for me to think about other things. I am hoping that the demise of Donald Trump has begun, and that the day is coming when I won't have to hear his name so often. It is absurd that such an ignorant and self-centered person has been elected to the presidency: one wonders how anyone can believe in democracy. Of course, this all comes down to the fact, which a friend often reminds us of, that fifty percent of the people are below average. Now, finally, if Trump gets sufficiently out of hand he can be impeached by the House of Representatives, and there will be nothing that he can do to prevent it.

I have been pondering my split interest in literature and science. Occasionally I revisit the literary sites in which I participated a few years ago, and, after nearly five years of writing on my own blog, the quality of discussion on those sites now seems remarkably low. If you had been looking for substantive comments, you would have been going to the wrong places. They are either like support sites for introverted people who don't have real friends or like sites for more extroverted literary people who can only handle the most superficial interactions. There is also one literary blog that I used to read sporadically, but I have concluded that the reviews written there are shallow for the most part; the purpose of the blog seems to be to perpetuate the illusion that the blogger is a literary person; I don't think that he does real literary criticism, or, for that matter, anything of literary interest. On all of these sites it boils down to whether the writer likes something or not, and there is little useful information about particular works or why or why not someone should bother to read them. At least on this blog I summarize the works and explain what I like or dislike about them. To be fair, I haven't looked at comparable scientific sites, which might have similar weaknesses, but I wouldn't be surprised if the discussions there were a little more focused in terms of making distinct points.

Although I continue to admire a few literary works, the conclusion that I am arriving at more often than not is that in some sense literary people as a group are a little stupid. Science seems comparatively harsh and abstract, but its practitioners are usually more fearless about looking at things that might be unsettling or scary. If scientific people sometimes seem aesthetically challenged, literary people seem like escapists – the kind of people who wouldn't be of much use in an emergency. Since I believe that we may always be on the verge of some crisis, I am tending to lump in literary culture with people who can't face facts and would rather play video games all day. It is easy to justify much scientific work on the basis of its usefulness, and the same can't be said of literature. Many of the great works of literature derive their significance partly from the specific social and historical contexts in which they were written, and in my opinion there is a surprising paucity of masterpieces that have been written in the last hundred or so years, especially when you consider how much higher the volume of publication is today. This leads me to think that literature and poetry may be going the way of dinosaurs – subjects studied mainly by antiquarians or people who just can't cope with the modern world. Thus arises my reluctance to read much contemporary fiction.

I have ordered a new book, which will take a while to arrive from New Delhi – so I'm a little short on topics at the moment.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Narcissism in the Digital Age

One of the most notable features of this era is the facility with which people can inhabit a reality that is far narrower than they would have been able to only a few years ago. Sherry Turkle touches on this topic in her books, but I think that she only scratches the surface, noting the change for the worse in the quality of communication and in the reduction in face-to-face social engagement. I continue to think about this, because, in particular, I have noticed an increasing gap between myself and the millennials. This gap is not simply a change in social norms, but a deeper change that includes cognition, resulting in what amounts to the widespread growth of alternate views of reality that are often fundamentally incompatible with each other.

In the public domain in the U.S., this plays out the most conspicuously in politics. With social media and targeted news, an individual can simply go online and find viewpoints that match their own and engage with a group, whether virtual or real, that holds views that are never challenged and are upheld as norms. This phenomenon extends well beyond politics; it also affects personal identity and individual perceptions of the nature of society. Traditional standards regarding the responsibilities of citizenship become eroded when people define themselves as members of a segment of society, real or imagined, rather than as members of society as a whole.

Subtler aspects of the phenomenon show up clearly in the disputes that arise in the sphere of political correctness. In some groups, it appears to be the norm that all people are identical, or at least it is forbidden to bring up any differences between individuals or groups that might in any way suggest that one is better than another. This development is highly problematic, because people are in fact different, and some people are better at some things than other people. In the more open-minded domains, there is willingness to discuss these differences in terms of historical inequality, which often has relevance, but other kinds of differences – particularly those based on genetics – are still taboo. My problem with this scenario is that politically correct people habitually preempt the possibility of the use of critical thinking to gain a better understanding of reality. More than just turning thoughtful conversation into a minefield, political correctness inhibits understanding the world. It is odd that such a restrictive outlook is prominent in colleges and universities, which purport to be centers of learning. Academia thereby becomes, not a beacon of knowledge, but the producer of a narrow worldview that serves as a foil to the equally limited worldview of poorly-educated nativists and racists. The educated class, which consists largely of those who have been raised in privilege, becomes a source of rancor when it dismisses the less-educated while adhering to its own unsupportable beliefs.

Because of the narrow range over which millennials are willing to engage, and because they prefer to see the world in the same image that they've come to see themselves, their outlook is similar to narcissism. When you assign yourself to a poorly-defined social group that may or may not exist, you have to tread lightly when you interact with others. You don't always know which group they may belong to, and it is safest not to engage in any value-laden discussion at all. If you are a smartphone addict, chances are that your best friend is your smartphone, with all the magical properties that you attribute to it. Although this is probably a worldwide problem, the U.S. may be one of the countries with the worst symptoms. It is no surprise that the scientific awareness of the public is weak here relative to that found in other developed nations. In the U.S., scientists are increasingly being marginalized at a time when they are the best-equipped people to solve the major problems facing mankind. As Czeslaw Milosz commented after arriving here in 1946, there was already a mind-numbing lack of critical thinking in public life: the advent of new gadgets that can be used to promote docility should be viewed with trepidation.

Significant generational changes have been ongoing throughout the world since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Farmers gradually transitioned to trades and manufacturing, and, more recently, to service jobs. The need for additional education became more critical to employment. Thus, from one generation to the next, there have been changes in the outlooks of families for more than two centuries. The current change may be the most significant of all, yet the discussion of its consequences is almost nonexistent as far as I can tell.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

On the Future: Prospects for Humanity

I strongly recommend this short new book by Martin Rees, the British astronomer. There probably isn't a better one addressing the major challenges currently facing mankind. He identifies the problems and offers strategies for dealing with them, writing with clarity while remaining concise. It is difficult to dispute anything that he says.

The first chapter focuses on climate change and the need for clean energy. The second covers advances in biotechnology, cybertechnology, robotics and AI. The third discusses mankind in the context of the universe. The fourth examines science and its limits. The fifth, addressed particularly to scientists, recommends how they ought to respond to the challenges.

Most of the text is fairly serious, but Rees's take on some subjects can be amusing. For example, he doesn't think much of cryonics:

I was once interviewed by a group of 'cryonics' enthusiasts – based in California – called the 'society for the abolition of involuntary death'. I told them I'd rather end my days in an English churchyard than a California refrigerator. They derided me as a 'deathist' – really old fashioned.

More often, he is quite serious, as when he discusses space colonization:

...don't ever expect mass emigration from Earth. And here I disagree strongly with [Elon] Musk and with my late Cambridge colleague, Stephen Hawking, who enthuse about rapid build-up of large-scale Martian communities. It's a dangerous delusion to think that space offers an escape from Earth's problems. We've got to solve these problems here.

In the whole book he makes only one claim that seems questionable to me. Although he is doubtful about the limitless extension of our biological lives, he thinks that it may be possible for humans to become immortal as electronic entities. Some such transition may become possible in a technical sense, but in my view it would be no different from death, except in the sense that a facsimile of the original person would continue to exist.

Perhaps the most interesting section for me is the one describing the current state of our cosmological understanding, and how it may advance in the coming years. We are only able to observe a small section of the universe, which may or may not be infinite in extent. There could be a multiverse or there may have been an infinite number of Big Bangs. Like Sabine Hossenfelder, he suggests that we may be close to our cognitive limits, and that AI may play a significant role in such advances.

The main strength of the book, I think, is the final chapter, which realistically proposes how the problems discussed in the earlier chapters ought to be addressed. Because nation-states are ill-suited to leading global initiatives, the responsibility falls on international organizations and academics like himself. There is no mention of the U.S. or the Trump administration, which makes an excellent example of how national politics can easily lead to policies which increase risks for mankind. When you stand back from politics, it is easy to see that scientific solutions exist for all of the current threats. Thus, it is important that organizations such as the UN and the WHO take greater initiative in the future. In this vein, it is also important that public intellectuals follow the lead of academics such as Martin Rees and Edward O. Wilson in publicizing both the threats we collectively face and their potential solutions. This failing of public intellectuals is something that I've been writing about for some time now.

The intractable geopolitics and sociology – the gap between potentialities and what actually happens – engenders pessimism. The scenarios I've described – environmental degradation, unchecked climate change, and unintended consequences of advanced technology – could trigger serious, even catastrophic, setbacks to society. But they have to be tackled internationally. And there's an institutional failure to plan for the long term, and to plan globally. Politicians look to their own voters – and the next election. Stockholders expect a payoff in the short run. We downplay what's happening even now in faraway countries. And we discount too heavily the problems we'll leave for new generations. Without a broader perspective – without realizing that we're all on this crowded world together – governments won't properly prioritize projects that are long-term in political perspective, even if a mere instant in the history of the planet.

Much of this is obvious to educated readers, yet most of the public remains dangerously oblivious.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray II

Lost in Math, I think, is of the greatest interest to working theoretical physicists, because it examines the main challenges currently facing them. If you are not yourself a theoretical physicist, you may at best get a glimmer of what their work entails. In my case I have some familiarity with the aspects relevant to astronomy, such as dark matter and gravitational lensing, but I'm not as interested in particle physics. What I find the most interesting, however, is Hossenfelder's description of theoretical physics in terms of the routine vocational dysfunctions that occur in other fields. This makes a nice contrast to the mythical depiction of physicists as geniuses who think at a level so much higher than that of ordinary mortals that you dare not suggest their fallibility.

Although sociological and psychological analysis of the field is only loosely scattered throughout the book, Hossenfelder does a reasonably good job showing that physicists face the same hurdles that people in other fields do, even when they are seeking nothing more than scientific truth. Conformity, groupthink and the status quo tend to squelch original scientific inquiry, and getting funding for novel ideas is difficult. Because particle accelerators are the experimental backbone of quantum physics and are prohibitively expensive, it is more financially feasible to hire string theorists, whose work can be done in the absence of experimentation. Hossenfelder specifically compares physics to economics in terms of overusing mathematical models at the expense of experimentation. She herself had considered switching to economics, where the math is much easier than what she's used to, if only to provide a more stable career. She brings up some of the ideas that I've discussed before while commenting on books by Daniel Kahneman and Robert Sapolsky, but without going into as much detail, and perhaps not fully recognizing the futility of attempting to remedy the situation. Sapolsky in particular is acutely aware of the intractable limitations created by our biological provenance. I don't think that she has been exposed to some of these developments in biology.

Hossenfelder spends a lot of time asking why beauty is so important to physicists, and she provides some answers without fully settling the matter. Usually this boils down to people using equations which work fairly well, but not perfectly well, to describe a phenomenon, requiring a messy sort of "fine-tuning" that no one likes. For many physicists, according to her, beauty is a stand-in for meaning, because it provides a sound structure without ad hoc fudge factors. Her position seems to be that one must adopt the best model available whether it's pretty or not, and that one should always favor models compatible with the latest experimental data. Currently, it seems as if there are too many models and not enough data to eliminate a lot of them. She also discusses the intrusion of philosophy into physics, saying that philosophers usually have nothing of value to add in solving physics problems, though physics itself does require philosophical assumptions. I agree with her here, and think that academic philosophy is mostly a useless and obsolete subject.

Probably my favorite idea in the book concerns AI:

I try to imagine the day when we'll just feed all cosmological data to an artificial intelligence (AI). We now wonder what dark matter and dark energy are, but this question might not even make sense to the AI. It will just make predictions. We will test them. And if the AI is consistently right, then we'll know it's succeeded at finding and extrapolating the right patterns. That thing, then, will be our new concordance model. We put in a question, out comes the answer – and that's it.

If you're not a physicist, that might not be so different from reading about predictions made by a community of physicists using incomprehensible math and cryptic technology. It's just another black box. You might even trust the AI more than us.

But making predictions and using them to develop applications has always only been one side of science. The other side is understanding. We don't just want answers, we want explanations for the answers. Eventually we'll reach the limits of our mental capacity, and after that the best we can do is hand over questions to more sophisticated apparatuses. But I believe it's too early to give up understanding our theories.

I think this captures our situation well. Unless a method to combine our brains with sophisticated AI is developed, there is an upper limit on how much we can comprehend. Even so, without such an enhancement, it may be possible for AI to translate its findings into terms that will be intelligible to us; it could decode the laws of nature in language that we understand. It is possible that theoretical physicists as a group are already operating close to a cognitive boundary that they will never be able to cross.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray I

In order to have some idea of what is going on in physics, I periodically read popular books on the subject. I read A Brief History of Time, by Steven Hawking, in 1988. Later, I read Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe. More recently, I read To Explain the World, by Steven Weinberg, and The Big Picture, by Sean Carroll. When I was growing up in the 1960's, physics was the preeminent science, and biology hadn't yet made its ascent. Einstein was alive until 1955, atomic weapons were perceived as a greater threat than they are now, Wernher von Braun, the original "rocket scientist," was working for NASA, Richard Feynman was still active, space exploration became a national priority under John F. Kennedy, and the standard model of particle physics was established. Physics had the aura of attracting the smartest people, and I thought that I should pay attention to what physicists had to say. With a slowdown in its progress, you don't hear as much about it now, except perhaps in cosmology, which is not a widely-followed subject.

Sabine Hossenfelder, a theoretical physicist, has written a unique and interesting critique of current practices in the field. She melds conventional popular science writing, such as interviews with top physicists, with her concerns about how research is being conducted and a blog-like openness about the bleak career prospects for physicists like herself. Her primary idea is that concepts such as beauty, elegance, symmetry and naturalness have subverted the scientific method in physics, whose practitioners increasingly create mathematical theories that have no obvious connection with empirical data. There is a dearth of new data, and this seems to have led to a kind of paralysis. The primary case in point is the failure of the Large Hadron Collider, operated by CERN near Geneva, to find interesting new particles other than the Higgs boson, which was first hypothesized in 1964 but not confirmed until 2013. Progress in the field of theoretical physics has been so slow that a researcher might easily spend an entire career without proving anything, perhaps working on a theory that ends up being abandoned. Moreover, as Hossenfelder interjects periodically, there isn't much job security except for a handful of rock-star physicists.

I like the fact that Hossenfelder's interviews read like real shop talk between physicists, but she engages in some deceptive oversimplification, in the sense that words such as "symmetry" and "naturalness" actually have specialized meanings that are more intelligible to PhD physicists than to lay readers. Books like this breeze past advanced mathematics in a way that might cause some readers to become ridiculously overconfident. Even so, as far as I've read (halfway), she has made a compelling case for some of the sociological factors affecting the behavior of the physicists in question, which mirrors what I have said about academics in other fields such as economics and creative writing. Academics in all fields are likely to continue the themes that they wrote about in their theses for the remainders of their careers, like broken records.

Speaking of music, Hossenfelder touches on some biological aspects of humans that show up in their preferences. Citing a 1975 study by physicists which finds that all popular music is similar with respect to maintaining a balance between predictability and unpredictability, her interpretation is that we like to be surprised, but not too much. This concept of humans preferring material that balances familiarity with novelty applies not only to music, but to all of the arts and even the sciences. To that I would add the psychological effects of advertising. I have long been puzzled why people pay attention to advertising. In this context, the answer is that the product being sold, whether a retail item or a politician, is unconsciously planted in people's brains as something that is familiar and safe, whether it is or not. Hossenfelder argues that the current generation of physicists, which grew up with the concepts of simplicity, naturalness and elegance, is having a hard time embracing real novelty, and that it has inadvertently sidelined the scientific method, which itself holds none of these prejudices.

There is another aspect of human behavior that I've been thinking about that Hossenfelder hasn't mentioned yet. This has to do with mate selection. Our conceptions of beauty are probably affected by our instincts regarding the identification of suitable mates. As I recall, a symmetrical face is preferable to an asymmetrical face, since it suggests genetic fitness. Similarly, there are universals in what constitutes the shape of a beautiful woman's face. And, of course, fertility goddesses are an indication of what people think a fertile woman's body might look like. I've only read about this anecdotally, but research has been done. Thus, it isn't a stretch to say that theories involving symmetry and curvature may literally appeal to physicists on the basis of their sexiness rather than on more objective scientific criteria. When you think about it, calling an idea or theory sexy when it has nothing to do with sex is really quite absurd.

Hossenfelder is quite a talented writer, and I like her dry, self-deprecating humor:

...I find a door that reads "Prof. Steven Weinberg." I peek in but the professor hasn't arrived yet. His secretary ignores me, and so I wait, watching my feet, until I hear steps in the corridor.

"I'm supposed to speak to a writer now," Weinberg says, and looks around, but there's only me. "Is that you?"

Always keen on new opportunities to feel entirely inadequate, I say yes, thinking I shouldn't be here, I should be at my desk, reading a paper, drafting a proposal, or at least writing a referee report. I shouldn't psychoanalyze a community that neither needs nor wants therapy. And I shouldn't pretend to be something I'm not.

Weinberg raises an eyebrow and points to his office.

His office, it turns out, is half the size of mine, an observation that vaporizes what little ambition I ever had to win a Nobel Prize. I don't have, of course, all those honorary titles on the wall. Neither do I have my own books to line up on my desk. Weinberg has now made it up to a dozen....

So I'm finding the book both informative and entertaining, and I'll make more comments when I've finished it.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018


I have been going through another drought with nothing suitable on hand to read, and some new books have finally arrived. I should begin commenting on them soon. The weather has changed rather abruptly, from hot and dry to cold and wet. There haven't been any frosts yet, but the leaves are turning and it should be much colder within a few weeks. I haven't bought any firewood and am gradually preparing for winter now. The first snow is usually in November.

One of my pastimes has been genealogy. For several years I had been misidentifying a person in an old photograph, whom I thought was one of my great-grandfathers. Through my DNA match, I have received actual photographs of that great-grandfather, who is a different person. To identify the unidentified person, who appears in an old photograph with my grandfather, which was taken in about 1910 in Richmond, Indiana, I have contacted a historian who has written a book on the Starr Piano Company and Gennett Records, where my grandfather was working at the time. I'm not sure whether he will be able to help.

Of course, I've also been following the Brett Kavanaugh nomination for the U.S. Supreme Court. As far as I'm concerned, he has already demonstrated his unsuitability for the job with his hysterical performance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Moreover, the last thing this country needs is another conservative Roman Catholic male on the Supreme Court. I hope that he isn't approved.

Another distraction, which is unwanted, has been a crisis precipitated by infuriating behavior on the part of someone who is connected with this household but doesn't live here. As most people who reach my age know, managing relationships with partners can be extremely difficult, and the problems never disappear. At this stage, I don't expect people to understand me or share my interests, and I am satisfied simply by having a relationship that includes some degree of companionship. I don't mind being around people whose preferences or worldviews are different from mine as long as there is no open conflict and compromises can be reached through discussion. What I have found, though, on multiple occasions, is that few people have the mental flexibility to engage in such discussions, and most of them, when under stress, simply revert to some sort of instinctive tribal outlook that they share only with their immediate biological relatives. Thus, from time to time I am forced to ponder whether I ought to just live alone, and, since I already know that I would find that unsatisfactory, I try to make do. However, I am aware that I have the psychological and financial resources to live alone, and, if pressed far enough, I would pursue that route, though I would prefer not to. I have spent half of my life dealing with mentally ill people, so this isn't exactly new territory for me. In any case, the current conflict seems to be subsiding, and I don't think that any changes will be necessary.

Sunday, September 23, 2018


I've been reading an academic book on poetry by William Logan, Dickinson's Nerves, Frost's Woods: Poetry in the Shadow of the Past. Logan discusses particular poems both in technical terms and in contextual terms, referencing the lives of the authors and what a poem might have meant to them. This is more or less how I look at poems, so I like the way Logan goes about his job, but, unfortunately, there aren't many poems in the book that register much with me. I have had the same approach with poems such as "A Woman Meets an Old Lover," by Denise Levertov. Taken literally, that poem is about Levertov meeting a former lover, one who got her pregnant. They did not marry, she had an abortion, and they each married someone else, continuing their affair for decades. The poem is about seeing him late in life, when he is ill. It is hard to know how far one ought to go contextualizing poems this way, but to some extent it is necessary if you want to understand a poem fully. The risk of this approach is that you might strip a poem of its artistic effectiveness, thus there are limits to the usefulness of this kind of deconstruction. I will keep the book on hand and peruse it occasionally, but I won't write a full commentary on it.

I've ordered Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, by Sabine Hossenfelder. I think this book will be relevant to one of my favorite topics, namely, the sociology of academia. So far on this blog, I've written about the sociology of American literary culture, but the same concepts can be applied to all areas of academia. Ever since I read Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty, I've been thinking about why economists have focused on exotic mathematical models while often eschewing basic empirical research such as that conducted by Piketty. When I was a philosophy student, I wondered what formal logic had to do with philosophy, and when I was in graduate school, I saw little connection between mathematical logic and philosophy. I now think that there are multiple reasons for the insertion of mathematics into other disciplines, some valid and some not. Most of the valid ones are obvious: you can't do engineering without math, and statistical models are useful in many fields. The problems arise, I think, when the perception of precision becomes paramount. Thus, in philosophy, in Principia Mathematica (1910), Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell attempted to create a basis in formal logic for mathematics. This work was largely ignored by mathematicians and later disproven by mathematician Kurt Gödel. I'm not sure what purpose, if any, Principia served in philosophy, yet formal logic is still considered an important component in the field. Generally, I think that the perception of precision has driven the ascent of mathematics in many disciplines, which would not be a problem in itself were it not for the fact that mathematics alone is insufficient to advance many of those fields. In a sociological sense, my theory is that the members of various professions actively protect their jobs by becoming the gatekeepers with respect to the requirements for entering their fields. Even if knowledge of advanced mathematics plays little or no role in being a productive member of a field, it can become a useful screening tool for those who are already established and part of the status quo. Moreover, a focus on higher mathematics might disguise the fact that other difficult conceptual problems aren't being addressed at all. There is also the inappropriate attribution of prestige to fields that are mathematics-intensive, with the presumption that only the most intellectually talented people can do that sort of work. My view is that different people have different intellectual skills, and that mathematical skill doesn't preempt the others, though it may be necessary in many fields. I have no idea what Hossenfelder will have to say about this, but I have no prima facie reason to doubt that even physics may have become too mathematical.

The more I think about it, the more the idea of the sociology of academia seems interesting to me. It seems fairly clear that the stakeholders in American literary culture have set themselves up as the gatekeepers who determine what is good and what is bad writing; they entrench themselves in various ways, which makes their removal problematic. In economics, universities seem to favor mathematically proficient PhDs who eschew empirical research and favor economic models that are agreeable to outside sponsors. Economists as a group show little or no interest in the welfare of the public and are wedded to philosophical ideas dating from Adam Smith that seem increasingly obsolete as we enter late-stage capitalism, with a systemic reduction in the number of jobs available due to technological advances. My point here is that what is often presented as pure research in one form or another, one discipline to the next, is not at all exempt from various prejudices, individual or organizational, which reflect, ultimately, our biological provenance. Being in a field which requires clear thinking does not necessarily imply that the organizations that engage in it are pursuing their objectives in an entirely rational manner. If you compared English departments to economics departments and other departments, there is no reason to think that you wouldn't find something like oligopolies at work. In retrospect, I find it odd how the selection of faculty in various academic departments at my undergraduate college occurred. There was a religious leaning in the Philosophy Department that I wasn't able to comprehend fully until later; in a sense, the emphasis was on theology, not philosophy, and no explanation was ever given. And in that department, as in many others, the instruction suffered as a result of the backgrounds of the faculty: for the most part, they were good students who liked the academic environment but had no particular training or talent in teaching. The sociology of academia is a wide-open field that might one day answer broad, challenging questions such as how universities came to become bastions of political correctness.

We're getting some really cool weather, and the vegetable garden barely escaped a frost this morning. The temperature was 35 degrees in the yard, and there was frost on the field below us.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Garden Party and Other Stories

This volume, which includes several of the later short stories of Katherine Mansfield, has turned out to be better than I expected. Mansfield is unusually strong in the observation of people and in the divining of their thoughts, while also rendering physical details with precise language and an economy of words. I found the opening paragraphs of At the Bay a pleasure to read:

Very early morning. The sun was not yet risen, and the whole of Crescent Bay was hidden under a white sea-mist. The big bush-covered hills at the back were smothered. You could not see where they ended and the paddocks and bungalows began. The sandy road was gone and the paddocks and bungalows the other side of it; there were no white dunes covered with reddish grass beyond them; there was nothing to mark which was a beach and where was the sea. A heavy dew had fallen. The grass was blue. Big drops hung on the bushes and just did not fall; the silvery, fluffy toi-toi was limp on its long stalks, and all the marigolds and the pinks in the bungalow gardens were bowed to the earth with wetness. Drenched were the cold fuchsias, round pearls of dew lay on the nasturtium leaves. It looked as though the sea had beaten up softly in the darkness, as though one immense wave had come rippling, rippling – how far? Perhaps if you had waked up in the middle of the night you might have seen a big fish flicking in at the window and gone again...

Ah, aah! sounded the sleepy sea. And from the bush there came the sounds of little streams flowing, quickly, lightly, slipping between the smooth stones, gushing into ferny basins and out again; and there was the splashing of big drops on large leaves, and something else – what was it? – a faint stirring and shaking, the snapping of a twig and then such a silence that it seemed someone was listening.

I think what makes Mansfield especially compelling to me is her talent that realistically combines physical description with the thoughts and feelings of her characters. Most of them are girls or young women, though she throws in a few boys, men and older women. She captures fleeting situations with stunning accuracy. When Mansfield was writing, the short story was going through a metamorphosis. The short stories of the nineteenth century were often quite long, like short novels. In Mansfield's day, very short vignettes became popular. These stories don't have real plots, and most of them are like snapshots of an era. The lengthier ones engage in slightly longer sequences of events, but show no signs of breaking out into narratives that might become novels. I think Mansfield does a much better job showing how her characters are relating to their environments than most writers are capable. Actually, I liked some of the shorter ones best: Miss BrillMr. and Mrs. DoveThe Voyage and The Singing Lesson. The title story, The Garden Party, isn't bad; it contains a coming-of-age episode, in which a girl has an unsettling first exposure to class differences.

Mansfield grew up in an upper-middle-class New Zealand family, completed her schooling in England and moved there. Apparently, she led a rather wild and reckless life in England, sleeping with all kinds of people, both men and women, and marrying twice, finally contracting tuberculosis, which killed her in 1923 at the age of thirty-four.  You would never know it from these stories, which seem careful and conservative by current standards. It seems a little odd that someone who felt stifled by bourgeois life in New Zealand, as did Simone de Beauvoir a few years later in France, would dutifully record it with such respect. I suspect that if she had lived longer she would have written more radical things. There is probably no way of knowing whether she might have produced a good novel. However, on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis, I think she is as good as Flaubert or anyone, and certainly better than most of the writers with whom I'm familiar. She probably did not have the intellectual range of George Eliot, but her writing had an elegance that I'm sure George Eliot would admire. I think that Virginia Woolf was rightly jealous. Mansfield expressed herself eloquently without resorting to any of the gimmicks that have become commonplace in contemporary literature.

Friday, September 14, 2018


The arrival of fall is palpable here. Suddenly the nights turn cool, dew drenches everything and the skies are clear again. Last night I got my best view ever of Mars, which is close to Earth at the moment. I could clearly see the ice sheet at its south pole. Many of my favorites are visible now, and Orion is up by 3:00 AM. I am planning more viewing tonight. Hurricane Florence is headed this way, and the clouds will be back in a few days.

Although I don't read it that much and rarely post comments on it, I have come to further appreciate 3 Quarks Daily. S. Abbas Raza makes excellent selections of math and science articles, Morgan Meis makes good literary selections, Azra Raza makes good medical selections, and Jim Culleny makes good poetry selections. They have a significant advantage over websites that only post articles written for pay. I believe that the fact that contributors there don't get paid makes their selections less inbred and better rounded than those on sites attempting to sustain commercially profitable operations. At 3 Quarks Daily, the articles are considered on their own merits, independent of the fact that some editor has space that needs to be filled, a particular image to maintain and egos to soothe. Thus, I decided to donate $500 to them. I received a nice email from S. Abbas Raza, who invited me to visit him if I'm ever in northern Italy.

On the genealogical front, I have resolved a disagreement over the identity of a person in the old group photograph. He is definitely my great-grandfather. I have two photographs of him. In one (the one posted here), he is near the center, the patriarch, with his wife, four children, their spouses and the grandchildren, in Athens in about 1930. In the other, he is posing with my grandfather in Richmond, Indiana in about 1910. I was able to find the passenger log with a detailed description of his trip from Bursa, Turkey to the Starr Piano Company in Richmond, Indiana on September 20, 1910. People who research their family histories often look for some glorious past. In my family, this great-grandfather would be my claim to fame. He started multiple businesses, became wealthy, kept my grandfather out of the Turkish army, orchestrated the escape of the family from the Armenian massacres in Turkey in 1915, and became a philanthropist who helped Armenian refugees in Greece. My cousin also tells me that this family once included a bishop in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Over the years, I have come to identify more with my Armenian side than with my English side. This has little to do with cultural heritage and more to do with ethnic characteristics and intelligence. While my English side had some business successes, my Armenian side was wealthier and more sophisticated. When my mother moved to England, she was appalled by her mother-in-law, whom she considered crude and vulgar. Moreover, there is an ineffable toughness and resourcefulness in the Armenian side that I don't see in the English, or, for that matter, amongst most Americans. I feel more at home with tough-minded people and become impatient with English milquetoasts and American conformists. I have found that, although I am not an aggressive or ambitious person, I was better able to weather the few adverse circumstances I faced than most. In fact, my fate seems to have been to pair up with less-stable people and provide them with ballast. At times I get fed up with people who are feeble or mentally ill – who would be more interesting to me if they could fend for themselves better and display less of their baggage.

I have been reading a little Katherine Mansfield and will probably comment on that next.

Thursday, September 6, 2018


One of the disadvantages of buying cheap used books online is that they take a long time to deliver. I have a couple on order that should arrive soon. Because I've become pickier about what I read, I am more often lacking any book that I want to bother with. For most of my life, I finished every book that I started, because I didn't have complete confidence in my reading ability, knowledge or taste; there was always the chance that a book would be of value in a way that I could not anticipate. More recently, having had ample time to survey the terrain, but still recognizing that I am not omniscient, I have become less tolerant of a writer's inadequacies and stylistic tics when they don't appeal to me, and I don't hesitate to stop reading a book if I decide that it has a significant deficiency of one sort or another. Probably my preference for clear, thoughtful prose, my distaste for literary fads, and the increasingly lower quality of editing have all contributed to my growing impatience. If you like my writing style, you may still occasionally find me too opinionated, but you will have to recognize that I make a real effort to get to the point, and, if nothing else, this is a courtesy to readers, whom I try not to torture with incoherent rambling. In any case, I am now finishing only about 70% of the books that I start, and this leaves me with reading downtime. I also have growing piles of books that I dislike and am donating to the library unfinished.

At the moment, I'm in a flurry of genealogical activity. When I first had my DNA analyzed, I was able to identify two distant living English relatives, whom I contacted, but no Armenian relatives. My closest match, other than my sister, did not reply to my email, which went to her husband. I recently figured out who she was by googling her husband and finding out his wife's name. From there I found information about where she works and who her parents are. She is an assistant professor of Spanish in California. Her father is a retired businessman who was born in England and grew up in South Africa. Her mother was born in Greece, but her family moved to South Africa in 1946. After her parents married and had children in South Africa, the family moved to Southern California in 1981. The real clincher for me was a photo of her mother, who looks a lot like my mother. It turns out that the assistant professor is the granddaughter of the next girl to the right of my mother in the Athens family photo that I posted earlier. Her maternal great-grandmother was my maternal grandfather's sister. We are still debating about who everyone is in that photo, but I think I have it figured out.

I have been attempting more stargazing, but this has been the worst year for viewing since I started five years ago. On a good night, you can see the Milky Way clearly, and that has happened only twice this year. Nevertheless, I always enjoy viewing on a clear night, and we had one recently.

It looks as if we are having the last hot day of the year, and I'm looking forward to a cool fall.

Saturday, September 1, 2018


I am alone in the house again for a few days, though I may have preferred going on a short trip myself. Since 2016, when I visited Washington and Maine, I haven't left Vermont at all except to chauffeur my partner to and from the Amtrak station in Port Henry, New York, on the opposite shore of Lake Champlain. Possibly we will make a trip to Montreal soon. It is only a two-and-a-half-hour drive from here, and it would make a nice change to be in a French-speaking environment again. The only drawback is that it's a city, and I tend to avoid those now.

August turned out to be fairly normal here weather-wise, and my tomatoes are exceptionally healthy after a hot July. The lack of rain protected the plants from various fungi that usually would have affected them by now. At the moment it looks as if they're going to be churning out tomatoes into October. There have been bear problems in the area this summer, and I just noticed that our bird feeder pole was slightly bent; on close inspection, there are indentations on both sides of one of the nyjer tubes that resemble bite marks; they are about five feet off the ground, which an adult bear could reach standing on its hind legs. There are also some droppings in the yard that could be from a bear. For the last few years I've stopped putting out suet and sunflower seeds from April to December, since the bears like them. I leave nyjer out all year to feed the numerous goldfinches, and the bears haven't shown any interest in it. However, bears have good memories and return to places where they've found food previously. It is said that they remember garbage pickup days in different locations and use that information when searching for food. Fortunately, black bears generally avoid contact with humans, but if they become habituated to food sources near people, they can become dangerous.

I just watched the eulogies delivered by George W. Bush and Barack Obama for John McCain. Surprisingly, Bush's was much better-written, and he delivered it quite effectively, though obviously he didn't write it himself. Obama's speeches, though less rambling than those of most politicians, are rarely succinct, and he tends to cover the same terrain from one to the next. He uses a slightly preachy tone that I don't appreciate at all. I'm not a McCain fan, given his militaristic point of view and his conservatism, but at least he represented social cohesion and didn't practice the kind of polarizing politics that now dominates Congress. People with military training often seem to think like automatons and are ill-suited to other careers; coming, as McCain did, from a military family, involves multigenerational brainwashing, which, I think, is an irremediable disaster. Fortunately, both Bush and Obama made veiled references to the fact that John McCain was a vastly better person than Donald Trump. I can imagine him watching them on TV and seething; in situations like this, there is nothing that Trump can do to make up for his absence of character. Moreover, one senses that his opposition is beginning to gain momentum, and that the drumbeat for Trump's removal is becoming audible. Bernie Sanders is having a rally on the green in Middlebury on Monday – perhaps I'll attend.

I haven't had much luck coming up with anything to read. Journals and diaries don't seem likely to pan out. Therefore, I've decided to fill in a gap in my knowledge and read some short stories by Katherine Mansfield. She only lived to the age of 34, and therefore didn't produce much of an opus. However, she was a contemporary and acquaintance of both D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf and is supposed to be an early practitioner of modernist fiction. I'm not sure whether I'll like her writing, but have read descriptions that make it seem appealing. I don't like Virginia Woolf at all, and Mansfield may be more interesting. I've put off reading Rousseau's biography until winter.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Political Scene

Politics isn't exactly one of my favorite topics, but the current situation in the U.S. seems extraordinary, so I'll continue to comment on it occasionally. The scene here in Vermont isn't dramatic and can even be amusing at times: in the Democratic primary for governor, a transgender woman just defeated a fourteen-year-old boy and two others to win the nomination. However, the conditions in Washington, D.C. aren't as sanguine. The recent death of TV personality Robin Leach reminded me of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," which I used to watch years ago. Adnan Khashoggi, the billionaire Saudi arms dealer, was a quintessential subject for the program; his grotesque lifestyle was said to cost $250 thousand per day. Khashoggi was no doubt a role model for Donald Trump, who also appeared on the program. Subsequent to a reduction in Khashoggi's wealth, Trump bought his yacht, and, of course, renamed it after himself. Looking back, you can also see how Trump had an affinity for the Gambino crime family, with which he had business connections. Although Trump seems to have been a shameless social climber, he never graduated from the ranks of con artists and crooks, and his self-professed business acumen doesn't stand up to close examination.

I don't have any special insights or information about Trump's probable fate, but it seems unlikely that his presidency will end well for him. He has the looming Mueller investigation, possible criminal charges in New York, potential impeachment after the 2018 midterm elections, and, if he survives long enough, the 2020 presidential election, which I doubt he would win. Before it's all over, we may learn that the Trump Organization is propped up by money laundering for Russian oligarchs. Trump held the illusory belief that he would somehow escape the close scrutiny that all presidents face, and that his indiscretions could be suppressed indefinitely. In most respects, Donald Trump is demonstrably stupid. On the whole, Trump merely seems like an anomaly to me, a sign of dysfunctional times. He is fundamentally less interesting than the conditions that allowed him to be elected. How, one asks, did voters elect to the presidency a candidate who lies constantly, surrounds himself with criminals, has little understanding of foreign or domestic policy, economics or law, and has never shown any interest in public service?

This plays into my narrative about the inadequacy of traditional democratic governmental structures in a capitalist society. The two critical parts that cause failure are the stupidity of voters and the amorality and greed of private interests. At the most basic level, what has happened is that corporate media companies such as Fox News have become proficient at convincing disgruntled white males that Donald Trump can improve their economic status. In a classic case of voter misattribution of cause and effect, Trump has been given credit for the strong economy in the U.S., which would have occurred anyway without him. The reality is that Trump's ideas are obsolete or discredited ones from the 1970's and 1980's, and that his advisers are amateurs and opportunists who lack both the ideas and the skills to produce the results that his supporters expect. Trump's tax cut mainly benefits the rich and will lead to larger deficits in the future, which will restrain economic growth. Trump's tariff strategy is reducing prices of agricultural commodities and hurting farmers, while raising costs in some industries and disrupting international commerce in a manner that is unlikely to benefit anyone. His support of the coal industry, which is economically doomed regardless, may increase global carbon emissions. Trump's supporters fall into two main groups: a majority who are ignorant and a minority who seek immediate financial or political gain from his policies. This is not to say that voters who dislike Trump and vote against him are making better decisions, but that voters in general are ill-equipped to deal with complex national and international issues.

For these reasons I return to the idea that self-governance ought to be replaced by an algorithmic form of government. A sophisticated algorithmic constitution based on principles of equality, fairness and protection of the individual could replace the current U.S. constitution, leaving no room for interpretation or manipulation. The current system of government permits a continuous assault by special interests, both domestic and foreign. Because human status or rank is always relative, people compete to own larger houses and properties, and there is no theoretical upper limit that would prevent them from owning, say, larger planets, if it were possible. If capitalism has in fact played a role in human progress, one can now almost safely say that it has outlived its usefulness. The current trajectory, with an incompetent American president like Donald Trump, is moving us toward a needlessly overcrowded world characterized by pointless competition, which in the long run may benefit no one.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Honest Writing

As I've said, I have a hard time finding things that I enjoy reading, mainly in areas other than nonfiction that is written specifically to inform readers on a topic that I think is significant. Thus, a lot of the books that I've found worthwhile over the last few years have been popular scientific ones. However, high quality, nontechnical writing about people is equally important to me, and my efforts to locate it have become increasingly difficult. At this point I have almost completely given up on fiction, and I usually find poetry too narrow in scope to sustain my interest. I used to think that literary journalism had appeal, but I've given up on that too. I have had some success with biographies and memoirs, but, according to my criteria, there aren't many people whose biographies or memoirs are worth reading. At the moment I'm considering journals and diaries to see what I might find there.

I thought I'd write about the specific kind of nontechnical writing that appeals to me and why it may be rare. The main ingredients that attract me are honesty and reflection, and, surprisingly, you don't find much of that in published works. The main obstacle, it seems to me, is that the authors are constrained by market forces. Regardless of what an author or publisher thinks, a book may not be financially viable if it doesn't meet criteria established externally by a market. The market may be anything from the general reading public to academic specialists, but without a specific market in mind, no publisher is likely to print and distribute a book. Therefore, from the beginning, a writer who anticipates publication must think about how whatever he or she writes might sell. I was surprised recently to read that even authors of private journals and diaries want to learn how to follow formats that readers would like. The implicit goal of acceptance by a known or unknown readership, I think, can have a corrosive effect on the quality of writing. For example, in reading, The Life of Henri Brulard, by Stendhal, I detected an honesty and openness that I did not detect in Calypso, by David Sedaris. Stendhal, I think, was more admirable a writer, because he engaged in pure expression in a manner that left him vulnerable, whereas Sedaris has made many conscious calculations and compromises in order to ensure popular success. When I read Stendhal, I felt that I was seeing him as a person through his own eyes, but when I read Sedaris, I felt that I was dealing with a persona. Compared to most other contemporary writers, Sedaris may be more open, but that is also part of his shtick. Stendhal's book wasn't published until years after his death, whereas Sedaris is making boatloads of money from his bestseller. I have had the same basic experience when reading literary publications. When Tim Parks first began publishing online articles at the New York Review of Books, I thought to myself, "This guy is quite knowledgeable about literature and writes well," but after a couple of years I realized that he wasn't particularly honest or thoughtful, and that he was just churning out this stuff to supplement his income, in much the same way that Czeslaw Milosz did in Paris after World War II. Parks has become a hack writer for America's premier intellectual (or perhaps pseudo-intellectual) journal. The literary journal writing formula, I think, is a lot like a recipe for preparing a salad: you throw in a few ingredients, each of which seems to have potential, toss them around a little, and with any luck someone will find the article thought-provoking. Usually it isn't.

Even in the case of a memoir that I thought was good, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, by Simone de Beauvoir, I had doubts about the author's honesty and spontaneity. After delving quite far into this in subsequent readings, I decided that although de Beauvoir was relatively honest and forthright, she had blind spots regarding the men in her life and protected them when they didn't deserve it. This became apparent in her later memoirs, in which she elided much of Sartre's unseemly private behavior, leaving him solidly placed on a pedestal that I don't think he deserved. Still, I respect de Beauvoir as a writer and attribute this lapse to her weaknesses as a person. She never cared about money, and probably didn't write anything with the thought of becoming rich or famous. Everyone has gaps in their understanding, and I find that more palatable than the conscious production of written material with the explicit goal of financial gain. Falsity of material in the personal voice of an author is probably my greatest concern with regard to fiction, memoirs and essays.

As a result of my reading experiences in recent years, I am thankful to be living at a time when science is making progress at an astonishing pace, yet I am tempering my expectations in the aesthetic realm. Of course, people also write popular scientific books that aren't worth reading, but the research behind the scenes still progresses and makes its way into the public domain eventually. The low quality of contemporary literary production is a byproduct of capitalism and mass culture, which seem to have a deleterious effect on everything they touch. Although there is nothing that I can do about it, understanding what's going on makes the situation easier to bear.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution II

The bulk of the book is devoted to describing experiments that have studied evolutionary changes in specific species over short periods of time. Ever since it was noticed that peppered moths, which before the industrial revolution had an appearance that allowed them to blend in with tree bark, had become dark-colored and blended in with sooty backgrounds, there has been scientific interest in the timeframe of evolutionary change. Several of the experiments included in the book study the effects of predators on the physical characteristics of their prey. When predators were introduced to the habitats of light-colored guppies that stood out against a dark background, the guppies soon became dark-colored. When predators were introduced to the habitats of Anolis lizards that lived near the ground, the lizards quickly evolved shorter legs, which permitted them to live higher up in trees. Other environmental changes also induced adaptations. Grasses that were exposed to different soil conditions tended to evolve different characteristics according to their specific soil composition. E. Coli made rapid biological adaptations according to the food source available. There are also descriptions of experiments with stickleback fish, deer mice, fruit flies, yeast and other organisms.

Losos's discussion is loosely framed around the differing views of evolution presented by Stephen Jay Gould and Simon Conway Morris. Gould is taken to emphasize chance as an intrinsic element, whereas Conway Morris is taken to emphasize the likelihood of convergence in similar environments. Gould seems to be saying that a one-time change in the distant past may fix certain aspects of the course for all descendant organisms, whereas Conway Morris seems to be saying that organisms from different lineages may be shaped by the environment to become similar organisms. The experiments seem to show that both are partly right, but that convergence is not a universal phenomenon. Gould's views are often confused by his use of stylistic flourishes in Wonderful Life and other books. All of the experiments are limited by technical and conceptual problems. Experiments done in the wild lack controls, since the exact composition of each ecosystem isn't known or replicable. Even in more controlled lab settings, it is possible that, for example, unintended minor variations in vial temperatures produce different results.

The conceptual problems are more serious. From a scientific standpoint, there is always the stipulation that correlation does not imply causation. Thus, particularly in the field experiments, the actual physical causes behind each biological change may not be known. In a lab experiment in which there is a unicellular organism of known genetic composition, causation may be easier to determine, but there are still enough variables to make that difficult. Another basic problem has to do with the repeatability and predictability of an experiment; in biology this is far more problematic than in physics or chemistry. Finally, specific to biology is the question of phenotypic plasticity, or an organism's range of physical variability within its species. For example, a chameleon has the ability to change its color without becoming a different species, while most other organisms do not. Without an intimate knowledge of an organism's genetic makeup, including the genetic basis of its specific phenotype, it may be impossible to know whether an immediate environmental change has caused an evolutionary adaptation, as opposed to a variation within an existing genome.

Losos uses New Zealand as an example against convergence, since it contains no indigenous mammals or animals similar to mammals, though mammals flourish in other parts of the world in similar environments. Thus, the environment doesn't necessarily cause specific life forms to evolve. The experiments seem to show that something resembling convergence may occur when genetically similar organisms are placed in similar environments. However, organisms with significantly different evolutionary histories seem unlikely to respond similarly to the same environmental pressures. Therefore, as a general thesis, Conway Morris's version of convergence seems incorrect.

On a theoretical level, I have been thinking about how the very concept of species may itself be a man-made idea that simplifies the world for us but actually has less applicability than we think it does. Species that reproduce sexually have somewhat arbitrarily been defined as organisms in which the males and females produce non-sterile offspring. Sexual reproduction itself is a primary vehicle of evolutionary change, because parents do not have identical genomes, and one parent may confer a genetic advantage to offspring that the other does not. This aspect of evolution is hardly discussed in the book, because it would be more difficult to test experimentally than the purely environmental tests included. Large organisms such as humans can be seen as symbiotic collections of trillions of microbes. If humans were to become extinct, many of the species of microbes in our bodies would survive and continue to evolve. In that case, one might argue that environmental pressures arose and only the best-adapted microbes survived: perhaps this was merely a habitat change for the microbes. At this level of evolution, humans can be seen as a sort of meta-organism or superorganism made up of symbiotic microbes. Although we have many legitimate reasons to think of ourselves as a species, the fact is that, with the exception of identical twins, every person is different from every other. When you get down to the nitty-gritty of evolution, the processes are so complex that our categories seem inadequate. Ultimately, I think that determinism is at work, but in such a complex manner that we are unable to comprehend it at the subatomic level, and that we cover this up by using terms such as "species" and "randomness," though they can't really do the job.

Overall, I found the book interesting and informative, but its use of conventional publishing gimmicks to avoid scaring off sciencephobes doesn't really change the fact that it is probably of greater interest to evolutionary biologists than to the general reading public. Significantly, according to Losos, evolutionary biologists sometimes have to avoid using the e-word so as not to offend people whom they encounter while conducting their research. One would have hoped that by now science would have come out of the closet.