Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Absurdist Social Criticism

After reading a long string of nonfiction books, I usually begin to crave some good fiction, and, as you know, I always have trouble finding it. I thought that I would attempt to explain how I came to develop my particular literary taste, because I don't actually know anyone whose taste is the same as mine. I was extremely late to develop any literary preferences and only began to when I was most of the way through college. I was more affected by film, and the film that had the greatest impact on me was Dr. Strangelove (1964); this was followed by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). In the interim, I came across some early Soviet fiction and was impressed by Mikhail Bulgakov in "The Fatal Eggs" and his novel, The Master and Magarita. When I was thirty-six, I read Lorrie Moore's short story, "How to Be an Other Woman" and thought that was good. Later, when I was about forty, I read Middlemarch and thought that it was the best novel I'd ever read. Through these works, I think you can get a sense of what interests me.

Dr. Strangelove, in addition to falling clearly within the absurdist tradition, contains a critique of government, and it finishes with an explicit statement of where its ineptitude can lead. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest features the antics of a funny subversive and the horrific incompetence of a mental hospital. This is probably Jack Nicholson's best performance, which helps, but I think it is a significant fact that the film was directed by Miloš Forman, a Czech. I read the novel, by Ken Kesey, and didn't find it nearly as good. The Master and Margarita is evidence of a talented writer living under a totalitarian regime and making fun of it as a consolation, while weaving in deeper human themes. "How to Be an Other Woman" describes in humorous terms how a woman might come to understand her relationship with a man who is engaged in a series of infidelities, and, as part of the collection, Self-Help, parodies advice books. Compared to the others, Middlemarch seems more like a  straightforward novel, but it contains much subtlety, and, because it was written in the English tradition, it skewers English society in ways that some readers may not recognize. While George Eliot always maintains sympathy for her characters, Edward Casaubon is clearly a foolish, self-centered intellectual who wastes time on an implausible grand theory; Rosamond Vincy is a fatuous bourgeois; Nicholas Bulstrode is a pious hypocrite – etc. This novel portrays English society in the Midlands of the 1830's and dissects it, showing both its strengths and its weaknesses, and does this with a delicate touch, while at the same time highlighting the relevant human foibles. The novel was written well before absurdism became a genre, but there is some unobtrusive social criticism. 

What I think you find in these works is astute social observation, and in most of them a critique of the reigning powers. In Dr. Strangelove, the American government, in effect, brings the world to an end. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the hero is lobotomized. In "How to Be an Other Woman," the narrator leaves you with the feeling that male-female relationships are like an infinite regress stacked against the female. In Middlemarch, humanity is seen to exist on a fragile basis over which people have little control, thus, in the end, the central characters, Dorothea Brooke and Will Ladislaw, go on to lead unexceptional lives, in contrast to Dorothea's high aspirations. 

In these works, I generally found close social observation and brainy critiques, and I don't often find comparable ones. Since I wasn't born in the U.S., I have always been skeptical of American ideology, and it is rarely questioned here. The early Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, including Poland, Romania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, on the other hand, were better environments for the flourishing of intellectual dissidents. Although Czeslaw Milosz's literary works were hardly radical, in his book, The Captive Mind, he outlined the rather intense psychological pressures that intellectuals were forced to endure. Comparatively, American intellectuals have never experienced any duress, and they have lived their lives in obscure corners of this capitalist utopia, hardly making a dissenting peep. Most American novels, as far as I know, consist only of basic storytelling, and, these days, are often about the experiences of groups adapting to the prevailing culture, without questioning it much. The literary atmosphere, rather than being energized by angry dissidents, is mellowed by M.F.A. programs that groom writers for the publishing industry. If a novel were actually interesting, it probably wouldn't be a bestseller.

As far as American fiction is concerned, I'm tired of trying the latest wunderkinds, such as John Kennedy Toole, David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, George Saunders and Lauren Groff, but I suppose I'll keep an open mind and attempt to read some future ones. As it is, I think I've wasted enough time on them already. It is ironic that with so much material readily available in the U.S. – a completely corrupt and incompetent president, a seriously dysfunctional federal government, rampant gerrymandering, unaddressed climate change and the botched handling of the coronavirus – writers can't do a better job. 

In recent years, I've been making stabs at Michel Houellebecq and László Krasznahorkai. Houellebecq has some of the characteristics that I like, but he has too many flaws. Foremost, he doesn't write perceptively about people, and his plots are always a little harebrained. The Map and the Territory, when read carefully, is a critique of the art market. However, because Houellebecq's writing is sloppy and his style is deadpan, many readers may not realize this. Submission was obviously the result of Houellebecq's desire to exploit fears that Islamic forces are affecting life in France. As in his other novels, all of the characters lack psychological nuance. It is easy for me to differentiate Houellebecq from works by people whom I think are good. I would guess that, though possessing some talent, he is in this for the money. Krasznahorkai is a better bet, because he hasn't sold out completely in order to make as much money as possible. In his case, he is one of the best writers ever to capture some of the complex psychological aspects of being human. For most readers, he would be too obscure, and they would be unable to appreciate his Kafkaesque qualities. Krasznahorkai's limitations are related to the fact that what he really knows well is Hungary, which, at this point, is hardly representative of most of the developed world. What I find is that he is one of the most psychologically astute writers, and that he, more than any other that I know, understands what it feels like to live in a repressive ideological state, which, frankly, is what the U.S. is, once you understand the nature of capitalist institutions. For this reason, I have chosen to read Krasznahorkai's latest book, Chasing Homer. I thought that his short story, "The Last Wolf," was one of the best I've ever read, so this is worth a try. Of course, Krasznahorkai is virtually unknown in the U.S. For example, Satantango, one of his best-known novels, currently has163 reviews on, whereas Lauren Groff's latest novel, Matrix, has 1171. Apparently, deciding whose fiction to read depends on your social media. Needless to say, I don't and never will have Facebook or Twitter accounts.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality

I've finished reading this new book by Kathryn Paige Harden, who is a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, also the director of the Developmental Behavior Genetics Lab and codirector of the Texas Twin Project. I was hoping that she would expand upon the discussion of research in single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) beyond Robert Plomin's in Blueprint and David Reich's in Who We are and How We Got Here, both discussed earlier on this blog. I was dismayed to find a meandering narrative, which seems unintelligible to me, attempting to take the genetic study of humans out of the hands of eugenicists and to convince politically correct progressives that genes do make a difference. The main purpose seems to be to promote equality as the solution to social problems, without emphasizing the role of genes in individual lives.

Because Harden is primarily concerned with the political implications of genetic research, I did not find the book interesting. Instead of emphasizing the science, she resorted to the ideas of philosophers such as John Rawls, whom I have no desire to read. I do sympathize with her, because, while I fall mainly in the genetic determinism camp, I also think that our genetic history as hunter-gatherers predisposes us to prefer egalitarian societies to the hierarchical ones associated with capitalism. Harden's strategy is to distance herself from Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, authors of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, a book that I also have no desire to read. However, she is reluctant to fully embrace Plomin and Reich, whom I think could arrive at a more coherent way to use genetic research than Hardin does in this book. 

Among the failings of the book are emphases on race and individual variation. To me, race is a dead subject, since in most cases it is not an accurate description of a person's genetic makeup. For example, most African-Americans have a significant percentage of genes inherited from Europeans. Harden devotes a lot of space in the book to arguing that individuals are genetically unique, with the exception of identical twins at the time of conception. This is basically a truism and ignores the fact that Reich has shown how the Yamnaya, as a genetically coherent group, became a dominant force in Europe and northern India, where they are still genetically present. In this vein, there is no discussion of how some ethnic groups were wildly successful after arriving in the U.S., while others were not. Although cultural factors must have influenced some of these outcomes, in my mind, genetics has also played a significant role.

One of the main thrusts of the book is that conservative writers such as Murray and Herrnstein should not be allowed to promote the idea that the U.S. is a meritocracy in which superior people should get what they deserve. Her main argument seems to be that luck always plays a role in success, and that even includes the luck of having good genes. I doubt that many conservatives will find this persuasive. It would make more sense to me if Harden had brought up the subject of behavioral economics, which indicates that everyone is confused, including wealthy capitalists.

To my way of thinking, Harden's line of argument would have been more interesting if she had discussed how the human genome equips us to deal with a wide variety of situations. At any given time, one set of genes may offer advantages, and at another time it may not. Arguably, the successful capitalists who have dominated Western cultures for three hundred years are destroying the planet, and in the end will prove to be a detriment to everyone, including themselves. However, Harden is merely a well-meaning psychologist, and such thoughts are beyond the scope of her academic milieu.

Another deficiency in Harden's thinking is her acceptance of American culture as it currently exists. Besides not criticizing capitalism, she does not comment on America's consumerism and conspicuous consumption. It is implicit in her writing that crass people who have lots of money are successful. To put it mildly, this is a dubious attitude to take (think Donald Trump). As a psychologist, I think that she could have done a much better job diagnosing the social ills that we are facing.

One serious issue, which seems completely beyond the scope of Harden's analysis, is the probable decline in the job market due to automation. It seems to me that the percentage of good jobs in the economy is likely to decrease in the foreseeable future. In this scenario, more people are likely to experience insufficient incomes and lower career success.

As you might expect from the foregoing, I'm not much of a fan of Harden at this point.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Born Knowing: Imprinting and the Origins of Knowledge

More than any of the other books that I've discussed on this blog, this new book by Giorgio Vallortigara is almost purely scientific. Although it is very short, it describes in some detail the research that he and others have conducted on early cognition in animals. The primary animals used in this type of research are newly-hatched chicks, because they are readily available and easy to test. Also, because they can be tested at a very young age, they are better-suited than humans or most mammals for distinguishing inborn patterns of behavior from those influenced by experience. Much of the challenge in this type of research is in constructing tests which clearly indicate the origins of specific chick behavior. For this reason, the discussion is quite dry and logical, and therefore the book, though extremely well-written, would not appeal to most readers.

I won't attempt to describe all of the tests in detail, because I'm mainly interested in the general findings. The most general finding is that infant animals are primed at birth to respond to specific stimuli, and that their attention to those stimuli is inconstant and changes as they develop. The earliest stimuli that chicks pay attention to relate to animacy, specifically whether an object has a face, is self-propelled and moves with biological motion. Of course, this mainly concerns the identification of the mother and siblings and is extremely important in early life. At this point in the research, it is not known whether this type of knowledge is encoded at the level of single neurons or within complex circuits of several neurons.

One interesting experiment involves the presentation to chicks of drawings of geometrically impossible objects, such as one conceived by Roger Penrose, along with similar geometrical objects that exist in nature. The chicks prefer the possible objects. According to Vallortigara, "Simply, during the course of evolutionary history, natural selection has promoted the incorporation into the nervous systems of certain statistical regularities that are typical of visual scenes in the natural environment." Another discovery with chicks, which was made fifty years ago, is that they automatically make visual choices as if light always comes from above, even when it doesn't. Human visual perception is similarly influenced by drawings, depending on how the shading is applied. Other experiments indicate that chicks engage in rudimentary thinking without language. This includes a rough way of performing addition and subtraction, along with a basic understanding of geometry.

Vallortigara is cautious about claiming that chicks or other animals have innate knowledge in these areas, partly because it is difficult to know exactly when experience begins in most species. However, he is unapologetic in claiming that there are no such things as "higher" and "lower" organisms, since all organisms are products of natural selection that applies equally to all organisms. In fact, chick research indicates that the rough cognitive plan of chicks isn't much different from the rough cognitive plan of humans.

I find these ideas interesting, because they relate to some of the ideas that I've expressed on this blog. As I said some time ago, humans are quite similar to chipmunks. These ideas also apply to what I consider to be some errors that have occurred in the history of ideas. Because, as animals, we prefer beauty and simplicity, we tend to use them inappropriately when we describe reality. Thus, for example, Occam's Razor may technically be incorrect when reality is actually very messy and complex, such as in the case of quantum mechanics. The fact that we prefer to keep things simple or aesthetically pleasing doesn't mean that reality is simple or aesthetically pleasing. This point, of course, was brought up earlier by Sabine Hossenfelder. Another bad idea, which I've been thinking about more recently, is the nature of language. Until recently, most philosophers thought that thinking requires language, and it is now empirically clear that that is not the case. It appears to me that many mathematically-minded thinkers are completely incorrect if they think that the universe is a mathematical entity. Specifically, Bertrand Russell once thought that he could completely explain the world by starting with logical notation and using it to generate all of mathematics. The actual situation seems to be that animals evolved to use mathematical conceptions – unconsciously for the most part – purely as a matter of survival. This suggests that mathematics is not identical with nature, i.e., Bertrand Russell was wrong, and, for that matter, so was Plato. Another mistake along these lines occurred in economics when the rational agent concept became widely adopted. In that instance, economists preferred the simplicity of the theory, though it was never an accurate description of reality. I should also note that one of the difficulties in developing AI is that computer scientists tend to assume that the human model is the best one to follow. It probably isn't, but, on the other hand, it would be hard for computer scientists to come up with something better than billions of years of evolution did.

I don't think that most of my readers would find this book enjoyable to read, but I think it is an excellent entry point for discovering much of the faulty reasoning that passes for knowledge and wins awards. Language and mathematics are perhaps the best tools that we have at our disposal, but one must be wary of their animal provenance.