Sunday, December 31, 2023

Henry David Thoreau: A Life I

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 10, 2023


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

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

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

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

Friday, December 1, 2023


 According to Harvard Medical School:

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

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

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

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

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