Monday, February 26, 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 19, 2024

Diary

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 11, 2024

What I Dislike About the United States

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Diary

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 3, 2024

Marriage

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


—Cathy Linh Che