Thursday, March 28, 2019

Genesis: The Deep Origin of Societies

This new book by Edward O. Wilson is extremely short, which is a plus, but I didn't find it particularly satisfying. I had a similar reaction to Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life, which was published in 2016. I guess this is to be expected, given that Wilson is now almost ninety. He seems to be a compulsive writer, and producing new books must be his hobby. Still, he always provides many examples from the zoological world, and in this case he roughly traces evolution from the earliest times to the present. The stages he lists are:
1. The origin of life
2. The invention of complex ("eukaryotic") cells
3. The invention of sexual reproduction, leading to a controlled system of DNA exchange and the multiplication of species
4. The origin of organisms composed of multiple cells
5. The origin of societies
6. The origin of language
The primary subjects discussed are social evolution, eusociality, group selection and the emergence of modern humans. If you are already familiar with the concepts, there is little new here.

Throughout nature, most species survive primarily with the selfish behavior of individuals. Although we tend to associate altruism with high status within the animal kingdom, it is no more than an evolutionary accident. There is a spectrum of cooperation that enters natural selection and varies from no cooperation to complete cooperation. Schools of fish, flocks of birds and swarms of insects protect individuals from predators and are one of the simplest forms of cooperation. In the extreme case of ants and termites, individual survival may be completely subordinated to group survival, and most individuals are incapable of reproduction. Under group selection, fitness may be conferred to a group as a whole rather than to individuals. Quoting David Sloan Wilson, the evolutionary biologist, Wilson sums up the difference between individual and group selection as follows: within groups, selfish individuals win against altruists, but groups of altruists beat groups of individuals. At times, I found that there were so many examples of adaptation that it was difficult to think of eusociality as a distinct process. Occasionally it is unclear exactly how a behavior is encoded in genes, and it may be triggered only under certain conditions. In this respect, Wilson isn't much clearer than Jonathan Losos in Improbable Destinies: the underlying processes are so complex that descriptions seem like oversimplifications.

I had been hoping that Wilson would have more to say about modern humans. There are a few interesting facts, but Wilson is not an anthropologist, and while he is fairly philosophical for a scientist, he isn't particularly philosophical by other standards. One reviewer criticized him for linking homosexuality to eusociality. Wilson may be correct, but from a research standpoint that view seems controversial. An area that interested me was research on aggression in chimpanzees and humans. Chimpanzees have been observed patrolling the border of their territory and capturing and eating babies from neighboring groups. There is a table listing archaeological and ethnographic evidence of human mortality due to warfare. Known groups of hunter-gatherers have always had a small percentage of adult deaths attributable to warfare. Thus, Rousseau's idea that life used to be better seems merely to be a variation of the Garden of Eden myth from the Bible.

In Wilson's explanation, modern humans developed on the savannas of Africa. He thinks that wildfires burned animals, and humans began to eat cooked meat this way. Soon they were keeping fires and eating meat regularly. Meat provides nutrition more efficiently than plants, and a carnivorous diet takes less time and effort than a vegetarian diet. Wilson thinks that meat consumption is associated with the rapid increase in the brain size of modern humans. I have often wondered why I like fires so much: it's probably because my ancestors sat beside them for hundreds of thousands of years.

Wilson does not engage in the kind of speculation about the future of mankind that I enjoy. He seems comfortable thinking of us as a type of animal and leaving it at that. To me, it isn't an idle thought to consider the conditions in which human existence might become more peaceful and sustainable. This could be facilitated by conditioning people to believe that they all belong to the same group, as I've mentioned before. A world government would help, but Wilson doesn't pursue such ideas.

Sunday, March 17, 2019


After being engrossed with Rousseau for so long, I was having a hard time finding something new to read. At this stage in my life, I get bored immediately by most popular books, and I gave up on one that I had started. What happens usually in the case of popular nonfiction is that the main ideas in the book can be summed up in a few sentences. Quite often, after reading the introduction, there is no point to reading further. I find that there is so little information on most pages that I start to skim them quickly in search of new content. Often there isn't much there – for hundreds of pages. Rather than forcing myself to read something that I didn't like, I looked around and discovered that Edward O. Wilson is about to publish a new book. I've ordered it and will wait for that. Wilson is getting very old, but he has ideas that are more relevant today than ever.

I am still interested in the influence, or, more often, the lack thereof, of intellectuals in their societies. Rousseau, for instance, seems to have influenced aesthetic trends. He popularized the idea of individual freedom and the enjoyment of nature, which relate more to lifestyle choices than to anything substantive. He had no effect on the Industrial Revolution and very little on subsequent political systems. Much of the research in science that has been conducted since the beginning of the Enlightenment has been of service mainly to capitalism, and scientists themselves have tended not to become public intellectuals. My thought is that, with all of the anthropogenic changes taking place on the planet now, it would be appropriate for more biologists to speak out about the environment in the way that Edward O. Wilson has. I think that science has advanced far enough that, when articulated properly, it can serve to redirect public policies into directions that would be beneficial for everyone. Wilson's ideas have been unpopular in the humanities, but he knows what he's talking about and should not be ignored.

Part of the problem in the U.S., as noted by Tony Judt, is that intellectuals here do not play the same public role as those in France do. If there is a problem in France, it is that French intellectuals as a group are now of fairly low quality. Although, say, Michel Houellebecq doesn't have quite the same stature in France as Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre or Michel Foucault did, I wouldn't consider any of these four scientifically informed. Most public intellectuals in both the U.S. and France are drawn from the arts and humanities, which limits the scope of their knowledge. The U.K. seems to produce some scientifically-oriented public intellectuals, such as Martin Rees and Richard Dawkins, but Dawkins is an unnecessarily polarizing figure. Scientifically-oriented public intellectuals in the U.S. tend to be either advocates of capitalism, like Steven Pinker, or dogmatic atheists in the vein of Richard Dawkins.

My interest in public intellectuals dates back to my reading of the New York Review of Books, which, as I've said, was extremely disappointing. The writers there opposed the ideas of E.O. Wilson, did nothing to prevent the election and reelection of George W. Bush, and nothing to prevent the Iraq War. There were articles by Steven Weinberg and Freeman Dyson, but they tended to be apolitical and conservative. I haven't read it for several years, but they probably also did nothing to prevent the election of Donald Trump. As the premier outlet for public intellectuals in the U.S., the New York Review of Books has produced social results that can only be called pathetic. The sloppy thinking, laziness and stupidity that underlies the ineffectiveness of that publication is associated with its emphasis on the arts over the sciences and its knee-jerk service to academics in the humanities.

While my orientation is probably more towards the humanities than the sciences, I increasingly find that the humanities are more subject to the influence of popular trends that reinforce ideas with no scientific basis. It would be easy to write an entire book of examples, but I'll just mention a couple of critical ones. The most obvious fallacies perpetuated in the humanities are those stemming from political correctness. Thus, while scientific evidence continues to accumulate indicating that humans embody genetic determinism – just the same as other species – in the cultural environment at most universities, the myth persists that improved educational opportunities for the economically underprivileged could eradicate their lack of access to good jobs. Though I think that people should be treated the same, this doesn't mean that they are literally the same. For me, one of the greatest fallacies is that the democratic process is a panacea for social inequality. What I notice, particularly now that the Internet is altering the way in which human cognition functions, is that large segments of the population, whether liberal or conservative, are increasingly incapable of making informed decisions, even when those decisions have a direct impact on the quality of their lives. In my view, we are well past the time when science ought to be the basis for most public policy decisions, and the failure of traditional intellectuals with backgrounds in the humanities is beginning to seem astounding.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Solitary Self: Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Exile and Adversity IV

The epilogue consists of a summary of Rousseau's contributions and a description of the influence of his work over time. The material was drawn by the editors from essays and lectures previously published by Maurice Cranston.

Rousseau was a force in the backlash against the rationalism of the Enlightenment, and it was no coincidence that he broke with some of his Parisian friends. Rationalism manifested itself not only in the sciences, but also in the arts. He opposed the formalism in the musical theory of Rameau, and his popular opera, Le Devin du Village, introduced a new musical style to Paris that later influenced Mozart. His novel, Julie, which became the main source of his popularity, was the first romantic novel and added a new kind of realism to literature, with an emphasis on the beauty of nature. Before Rousseau, people didn't generally hike, and they typically thought of mountains as forbidding and dangerous places that should be avoided. The Romantic poets of England and Germany were probably the most obvious adopters of Rousseau's ideas. Further on in time, he may indirectly have influenced Henry David Thoreau and the hippie movement. Very loosely, he might be linked to environmentalism. I think that his most enduring work is Confessions, which is still quite readable and marked the beginning of the modern autobiography.

In his political writings, it seems that Rousseau fizzled quickly. This was partly because his views changed over time, and even the later ones seem incoherent to me. He started out with Geneva and tried to make that his model, but his later modifications got him into trouble there. He read Hobbes and Locke, probably in an attempt to be intellectually thorough, but I think that he was out of his depth. His thinking on politics is so far from mine that I don't take him seriously at all. I fall within the rationalist school of thought, and, in my view, Rousseau and most political thinkers don't frame their questions properly. Although nationalism and patriotism are instinctively appealing, on an increasingly crowded planet they now seem like foolish ideas. To me, the main questions to be addressed are whether all people will be treated equally under the law and whether the governing body is capable of making sound decisions, without bias. If a government does this job, its form is irrelevant to me, and I wouldn't necessarily care whether it was a democracy, a monarchy, a dictatorship or a communist regime. The primary obstacles to good governance, I think, are incompetence and corruption. One need only look at the federal government of the U.S. to see how badly it works in these respects. The Constitution is largely obsolete. Many laws are poorly conceived and badly written, and Congress, the Supreme Court and the president all make bad decisions. Beyond the cognitive limitations of humans there is the self-interest of individuals and groups. Though the Founding Fathers fell short with respect to equality, they wisely separated church and state and designed the branches of government in such a manner as to balance power, but in the long run they failed to prevent special interests from infiltrating and manipulating each branch. This is why I favor, when it becomes technologically feasible, an AI-based world government. Taking humans out of the process could be a vast improvement that would benefit everyone.

Rousseau can't be faulted for not knowing what the world would be like in 250 years. Who now knows what it will be like in 2270? I have enjoyed this biography even though it became tedious at times. It was possible to overcome Cranston's limitations as an academic by ruminating over the material that he provided. As I move away from fiction, I increasingly find a deep immersion into someone else's life more satisfying, whether I identify with the biographical subject not. There was a special flavor to Rousseau's life, because he lived in a time when people's worldviews were quite different from the ones we have now.

Friday, March 8, 2019

The Solitary Self: Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Exile and Adversity III

The remainder of the book, apart from the epilogue, covers the period from 1765 to 1778, and the last chapter was pieced together from Cranston's notes and other sources by the editors after Cranston died. While there are some comments on Rousseau's character, the final chapter seems incomplete to me, though I'm not sure that Cranston would have had more to say.

Gradually, Rousseau's reputation as a heretic increased in Môtiers, aided by the local preacher. At first there were minor incidents on the streets, but then, in September, 1765, Rousseau's house was stoned, breaking windows, and he decided that he and Thérèse would have to leave. After weighing several possibilities, Rousseau moved to the Isle de St-Pierre on Lake Bienne, northwest of Bern. At this stage, he had some income from his previous publications and expected more to come from his forthcoming Collected Works and Dictionary of Music. He also accepted money from George Keith. Rousseau loved the island and imagined retiring there, but he was soon informed by Bernese authorities that he would have to leave because of his publications.

He initially traveled to Strasbourg with his dog and was treated like a celebrity. As had been suggested by friends, he decided in November to move to England with assistance from David Hume, among others. At the time, Hume was in Paris working in the office of the British ambassador, but his employment there was ending. While in Paris, Rousseau was mobbed, and he was worn out by a constant stream of social engagements. Intellectuals flocked to Paris in those days, because it was the only place in the world where they could count on being treated like royalty. A few years later, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson could be found living it up there. Rousseau had been working on Confessions in Môtiers and finished it while in Paris. Hume accompanied him to England in January, 1766.

Rousseau's English episode was truly bizarre, and I don't think it is adequately explained in the book. Immediately after arriving, Rousseau developed a persecution complex. After the usual fussing about not accepting gifts, he and Thérèse moved to the vacant Wootton Hall in Staffordshire. There isn't a very good record of what Rousseau did while he lived there, because he left no writings about it. It appears that he immediately began carrying on with the local aristocratic women, just as he had in Montmorency. He liked the house and the countryside, but Thérèse was rejected by the servants because she could not comport herself properly as the lady of the manor. His relationship with Hume was good up to a point, but it suddenly took an abrupt turn. A joke, which originated with Horace Walpole, had been circulating for some time. The joke was a fictitious letter from King Frederick II of Prussia to Rousseau. In the letter, Frederick offers to take in Rousseau and persecute him at his pleasure. The gist, of course, is that Rousseau likes to be persecuted. Rousseau eventually found out about the joke, and in his mind he linked it to Hume, who lived in the same house as Walpole. To make matters worse, the son of Dr. Théodore Tronchin, Rousseau's greatest enemy in Geneva, lived in that same house. When the joke appeared in the St. James Chronicle, Rousseau also noted that the editor was a friend of Hume. He immediately severed his relationship with Hume in an exchange of letters. Hume, wanting to protect his reputation, perhaps in a mistake of judgment, published the letters under the assumption that Rousseau would publish his. Thenceforth, Rousseau thought that he was the victim of a massive conspiracy conducted by all of his enemies, and that he was unsafe in England. He left England permanently in May, 1767.

The remaining eleven years of Rousseau's life are covered in fewer than fifteen pages, so there is far less detail in this section than there is for any other period. In 1767 he lived in Normandy under the protection of the Prince de Conti. In 1769 he moved to Monquin, near Grenoble, and married Thérèse. In 1778 he retired with Thérèse to a cottage in Ermenonville, near Paris. Throughout this period he continued to write, but produced only lesser-known works. One of them was an analysis that had been requested by Poland for its constitution. He died from a stroke on July 2, 1778 at the age of sixty-six. Initially he was buried in Ermenonville, but, after the Revolution, his body was moved to the Panthéon in Paris, where he still lies, along with Voltaire, who died a month before him. Thérèse survived him by twenty-two years.

There is hardly any discussion in the book on Rousseau's character. Since I don't find his ideas particularly interesting and think that much of his current importance comes from his vague association with the French Revolution through a few of his phrases supporting equality and individual freedom, I think that his psychological makeup is more worthy of attention. The only insightful comment in the book comes in a footnote quoting Jean Starobinski:

[Rousseau] never agreed to recognize the long-term effects of what he did. He pursued only immediate goals, hence, he never wished for all the embarrassing repercussions and dishonorable aftermath. He put his children in a public orphanage, but only because they were unwanted consequences of immediate pleasures savoured in all innocence with Thérèse.

I think that his unsupervised upbringing and extended adolescence with Mme. de Warens allowed him to develop habits that diverged considerably from social norms. No one draws attention to the fact that he was repeatedly fired from jobs and did not leave "home" with Mme. de Warens until he was thirty. While most people recognize that even if they don't like their jobs they have to support themselves, Rousseau decided that he should never have to be an employee. Furthermore, he decided that taking handouts from benefactors was a little like being an employee, so he wouldn't do that either. It also appears that, as in the case of Hume, if there were any whiff of disapproval, Rousseau would permanently disassociate himself from that person, especially if he or she wasn't an attractive young female. I think that one of the greatest omissions of this biography is the lack of follow-up on what the women in Rousseau's life who survived him had to say about him after he had died. In particular, I would have liked to know the final thoughts of Sophie d'Houdetot, the Comtesse de Boufflers, the Marquise de Verdelin, Mme. de Luxembourg and Thérèse, because they probably understood him better than others. Rousseau knew something was wrong with the way that he had handled his children, but his account of it in Confessions reads more like a rationalization than a mea culpa. Much of Rousseau's writing intentionally places him in a position of high moral authority, and it is possible that this was a cover for his actual laxity as demonstrated by his life. In that sphere he seems more like a hedonist who gave little thought to the consequences of his actions and valued relationships only when they served his needs.

There is a short epilogue that I have yet to read, and after that I'll be done.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

The Solitary Self: Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Exile and Adversity II

In 1763, George Keith, the governor of Neuchâtel, retired to Scotland, while Rousseau remained in Môtiers. Rousseau continued to write, and his next major work was Letters from the Mountain, which was directed specifically at the government of Geneva and was published in 1764. This caused him additional trouble in Geneva, and finally Rousseau gave up on effecting any changes there or making a return. Once again, Cranston is boring me to tears with superfluous details, which are doubly irrelevant as I don't care much about politics or Rousseau's political ideas. It appears that Voltaire actively worked behind the scenes to damage Rousseau's reputation in Geneva while outwardly pretending to like him. Cranston has yet to provide an adequate explanation of why Voltaire disliked Rousseau so intensely. One problem may have been incompatible personalities: Rousseau was charming and needy, while Voltaire, in Cranston's description, was witty and sarcastic. It may also have been a simple matter of professional rivalry, but I don't think that Cranston provides either a satisfying explanation or sufficient information for the reader to arrive at one. Some of Rousseau's contemporaries did think that Rousseau was crazy, but Cranston seems to downplay this possibility – he had a conflict of interest in the sense that, as a biographer, he presumed that Rousseau was worthy of study.

Life in Môtiers itself was a mixed bag for Rousseau. During the winters he became infirm, and he developed sciatica. Suffering pain, at one point he contemplated suicide. Then it seems that each year, when spring arrived, he began hiking, and suddenly he became robust again. Visitors could hardly keep up with him in the mountains, and he started a new hobby, botany, though he was only interested in it pictorially and not scientifically.  Thérèse didn't like Môtiers and thought that they were unpopular with the locals. Although in theory Rousseau should have liked them, as they would demonstrate the benefits of rural life, uncorrupted by cities, he actually preferred sophisticated people who were capable of engaging in stimulating conversation. Montmorency had been quite close to Paris, whereas Môtiers was in the middle of nowhere.

Rousseau continued old correspondences and started new ones. Cranston likes to draw attention to instances in which Rousseau demonstrated bad manners. With Rousseau in his fifties, friends were beginning to get old and die. He seems to have been terrible at letters of condolence, and in the ones he wrote he tended to change the subject almost immediately to the suffering that he was undergoing. He was particularly insensitive when writing to Mme. de Luxembourg after M. de Luxembourg had died. He also developed a flirtatious correspondence with one of his young female admirers, who went to the trouble of having a painting made of herself and then shipping it to him: he barely acknowledged its receipt, and the relationship collapsed for a while before recovering later.

Another area in which I find Cranston a little obtuse is in his lack of recognition that Rousseau loved attention whenever it associated him with higher social status. If Rousseau had been a true "hermit," as he had made himself out to be, he would have detested contact with the outside world. Yet, the more famous he became, the more visitors he wanted to see. Mind you, his favorite visitors didn't simply get brief audiences with him: they actually stayed with him in his house and ate meals with him prepared by Thérèse. A young, ambitious James Boswell, visiting from Scotland, stopped by and flirted with Thérèse, who was nineteen years older than he was. Someone representing Corsica wrote to request that he draft a constitution for the country, and he accepted with alacrity.

At this point in his life, with the mixture of fame and notoriety, and how he chose to handle it, Rousseau seems more interesting to me. Even so, his indifference to and avoidance of science, I think, made him a marginal thinker in historical terms. I will make two more posts before finishing and will try to wrap my final thoughts in the second post.