Tag Archives: memes

2007-04-26: Tales Before Tolkien

Tales Before Tolkien

The Roots of Modern Fantasy (2003)

ed. Douglas A. Anderson (1959-)

This is a somewhat interesting book related to Tolkien’s creative triumph. It collects 22 fantasy stories that were written “before Tolkien”. Shortly after collectors had published folk-fairy tales came the first German kunstmärchen or “literary” fairy tales artistically composed by a single author. Fairy tales for children were soon followed by fantasy for adults.

The earliest tale in this book is from 1812; the latest from the 1930s. The editor’s introductory notes tell which were definitely or likely known by Tolkien, and which were likely or definitely not.

Some of the tales are better than others, but the range illustrates what the fantasy literature landscape was like before Tolkien made his very big mark. I can recommend it to Tolkien fans for that reason alone.


2007-04-01: The Gifts of the Jews

The Gifts of the Jews

How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (1998)

by Thomas Cahill (1940-)

This is the second volume in a series based on the success of Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization; the series is aptly called The Hinges of History. The notion appeals to me, as I’m much more interested in the history of ideas than in battles or personalities.

In this book, Cahill traces the evolution of the worldview that sets the Jews apart from all other people of their time and place. He opens with a description of the Sumerians, and accepts the hypothesis that they were typical of their time, with a cyclic view of time (“the wheel of time”), in which everything that happened had happened before and would happen again, and was an expression of the changeless natures of the gods and goddesses who ruled the various aspects of the world and people.

Out of this worldview (if not literally out of Sumer), came the semitic trader Avram (Cahill uses a translation by Fox, with names spelled as closely as possibly to the original), to become Avraham, following a voice that directed him to Canaan. The innovation here is the individual directed by the voice (of God) directed to him personally. The other innovation with this covenant is circumcision. The most peculiar aspect of Avraham’s story is his willingness to follow the voice to the extent of sacrificing his son, Yitzhak. Yitzhak’s son Yaakov/Israel is the last of the patriarchs to have the personal experience of God. Another innovation by this stage of the story is faith. Sumerian or Egyptian religion was founded on ritual, not faith. Avram, Yitzhak and Yaakov had faith in the voice they heard. Prior to this, there was no sense of history; after, there is the sense that God is a real personality, who intervenes in history, changing its course, making it unpredictable.

Yaakov’s son Joseph does not hear the voice, but has talents that stand him and his people in good stead. Then centuries pass until Moshe. By his time, the Israelites are numerous in Egypt but not free to go: their labor is needed. By some chance, this Egyptian-named Israelite has a position in and access to the Pharaoh’s court, but knows who his people are. He identifies with the underdog, and defending one, kills an Egyptian official, and becomes a fugitive. In the Sinai desert, he not only hears the voice, but sees the burning bush that is not consumed. Though obviously ill-suited for leadership, he is called to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, and successfully does so.

In the process, another innovation becomes apparent. Anyone who knows God, even a simple nomadic herdsman, can have wisdom greater than the earthly representative of a great god like Ra. God is on the side of little people with no worldly power.

Cahill addresses the reality of the Exodus story, and contrasts it with the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Epic makes no attempt to convince the reader that it is historical; it is all once-upon-a-time, indeed timeless, archetypal. The story of the Israelites on the other hand is embedded in earthly time. And for us today, this is the sort of time that is Real, not the archetypal cycles of myth. The tales that were passed orally (in multiple forms) through generations before being written (in multiple forms), edited, and redacted have the sort of specificity that convinces us that the writer has no doubt that the events actually happened. Furthermore, the fact that they happened is the whole point; otherwise the stories have no point at all, no Avram, no Moshe, no God. For the others of the time, anything unique was typically monstrous (e.g., Oedipus); for the Israelites, everything was unique, as was each person’s relation to God. The importance of the past is that it brought us to the present. Hence the Israelites’ concern with genealogies, including wives. History doesn’t repeat; it isn’t a cycle. History is a process unfolding in time, whose end we don’t know, but whose ruling precepts can be discerned.

When Moshe hears the voice, he brings commandments. Cahill points out that other cultures had ethical guidelines, but they were always in a legal framework or worldly-wise advice. The Commandments are the first and last time such a code is given to humans without justification or elaboration (other than the later scribal commentary). At this point Cahill refers to the story “The Blue Cross” by G. K. Chesterton, which is a nice setting for a similar moral lesson. The Commandments are in two sets: those about God and those about man. Among those about God is the innovation of the weekend (Sabbath). This is not derived from any earlier society. The proper Sabbath behavior developed by the scribal commentators included study, or “the universal duty of continuous self-education.” This innovation leads to “a democratic obligation that those in power must safeguard on behalf of those in their employ. The connections to both freedom and creativity lie just below the surface of this commandment: leisure is appropriate to a free people, and this people so recently free finds quickly establishing this quiet weekly celebration of their freedom; leisure is the necessary ground of creativity, and a free people are free to imitate the creativity of God. The Sabbath is surely one of the simplest and sanest recommendations any god has ever made.” The covenant is made more explicit: those who keep the Commandments are God’s people.

Cahill points out that the benefits of following the Commandments do not include rewards, such as eternal life. Instead, virtue is its own reward. The elaboration into the detailed laws retains something of the brutality of the ancient world, but also includes protection for widows, orphans and travelers. “The bias toward the underdog is unique not only in ancient law but in the whole history of law. However faint our sense of justice may be, insofar as it operates at all it is still a Jewish sense of justice.”

Following the rebellion of the tribe while Moshe is on Sinai, there is a great slaughter at God’s inexplicable behest. In describing this, Cahill quotes Augustine of Hippo: “We are talking about God. Which wonder do you think you understand? If you understand, it is not God.” So Taoist. Cahill also contrasts the figures of Avraham and Moshe: the one “a wily character who seemed up to any challenge”, the other “the humblest man on earth”. The final lesson from Sinai concerns the fire as transforming from “a symbol of the storm god’s anger to the refining fire of God’s love”. “There is no way around life and its sufferings. Our only choice is whether we will be consumed by the fire of our own heedless fears and passions or allow God to refine us in his fire and to shape us into a fitting instrument for his revelation, as he did Moshe. We need not fear God as we fear all other suffering, which burns and maims and kills. For God’s fire, though it will perfect us, will not destroy, for ‘the bush was not consumed.’” Cahill also quotes Allen Ginsberg: “The only poetic tradition is the voice out of the burning bush.”

Cahill starts the description of Israel’s transformation from tribe to nation with the story of Moshe looking over the Promised Land, knowing he will never set foot there, and then quotes Reinhold Niebuhr: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.” He then says, “That accomplishment is intergenerational may be the deepest of all Hebrew insights.”

Cahill describes the establishment of the kingship, and finds David, as expressed in the Psalms, the first literary figure with a sense of self, a figure referred to as I. This is the beginning of the interior journey that occupies most of the rest of Cahill’s book. In the struggles of the kingdom, Israel and Judah split, and many defeats are inflicted. The prophet Elijah seeks refuge in Sinai, and experiences God’s hurricane, earthquake, and fire. But God is not in them . “And after the fire, a still, small voice.” This is the message that God is not in any of the elements of creation. He is in us, the personal conscience. As prophets like Amos said, to serve God is to act with justice. “One cannot pray and offer sacrifice while ignoring the poor, the beggars at the gates. But more radical still: if you have more than you need, you are a thief, for what you ‘own’ is stolen from those who do not have enough. You are a murderer, who lives on the abundance that has been taken from the mouths of the starving. You are an idolator, for what you worship is not the true God. You are a whore, for you have bedded down with other gods, the gods of your own comfort and self-delusion.” In these days, this was a radical innovation. For the surrounding peoples, and for many Jews, religion was about sacrifice. As the shattered nation sought to understand what was happening to them, they recalled the prophets’ words, and understood that God wanted not sacrifice, but justice. Cahill points out that there was no such word as spiritual in the ancient world. The Jews came to learn and teach that humans have an inside, where God dwells and teaches them how to behave, if they can only listen.

Cahill closes with:

The Jews gave us the Outside and the Inside – our outlook and our inner life. We can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words, in fact – new, adventure, surprise; unique, individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice – are the gifts of the Jews.

This book is well worth reading, and I look forward to the next volume in his series.


2007-03-15: The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract

The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (2001)

by Bill James (1949-)

After reading Moneyball, I wanted to know more about James and his views on baseball. This book is in three parts: The Game, Player Ratings and Comments, and Reference.

The Game describes the game of professional baseball as it was played in each decade from the 1870s through the 1990s, plus a section on the Negro Leagues. This was the part I enjoyed most. I knew baseball had changed, but James has detail – lots of detail. He also has opinions and an interesting way of putting them.

Over many years James has refined his statistical basis for rating players. His latest method, reaching a state he was satisfied with just as this book was supposed to go to press, is called Win Shares. Originally it applied only to hitters, but his refinements extended the method to pitching and fielding. His provides ratings for the 100 best players at every position, explains them in some depth, and compares them with those of other baseball writers and organizations.

I read all of Part I, and Player Ratings for those I had heard of. Anyone interested in baseball should find something to like here, even if only an argument.

To whet your appetite, here are some samples of his writing.

[The 1900s, p. 81] The Chicago Cubs in 1906 won 116 games. This remains the record for wins in one season. The cubs also won 223 games in two years (1906-1907), which is the record for wins in a two-season span, and 322 games over three years (1906-1908), which is the record for wins over a three-season span. They won 426 games over a four-season span (1906-1909), which is the record for wins over a four-year span, and they won 530 games over a five-season span (1906-1910), which is the record for wins over a period of five years.

The Cubs won 622 games over a six-year period (1905-1910), which is a record, by far. The only other team to win 600 games in a six-year span was the Cardinals of the 1940s, although many teams have lost 600 games in six years, proving that it is easier to stay in last place than it is to stay in first.

The Cubs won 715 games in seven years (1940-1910); this is also a record. They won 807 games in an eight-year period (1904-1911), which, again, is a record; the Yankees won 799 between 1936 and 1943. They won 898 games between 1904 and 1912, which is a record for wins over a nine-year period, and they won 986 between 1904 and 1913, which is a record for wins over a ten-year period.

He goes on to discuss the contributions of Tinker, Evers, and Chance to this record, an interesting discussion that illuminates how he thinks about baseball (i.e., deeply).

[The 1930s, p. 158] Pete Jablonowski was a graduate of the University of Michigan, 1927. He was a major league pitcher on and off for the next several seasons, but changed his name in 1934 to Pete Appleton. He did better as Pete Appleton, winning 23 games for Toronto in 1935, then having his best major league season with the Senators in 1936. He was able to stay in the majors until 1942, when he left to join the Navy.

In Bill Stern’s version of the Jablonowski/Appleton story, Jablonowski changed his name to change his luck, and sure enough, his luck did change as soon as he changed his name. But you know what? On November 9, 1933, Jablonowski got married. His wife’s maiden name – I am not making this up – was Aldora Leszcynski. He changed his name to Appleton a few months later – and don’t you just know what the real reason was? After all those years of being Aldora Leszcynski, the woman just couldn’t stomach the prospect of going through the rest of her life as Aldora Leszcynski Jablonowski.

The book is full of little stories like that.

[The 1990s, p. 316] History shows nothing more clearly than that one cannot anticipate history. This is true, I think, because many of the things that we all know turn out, when put to the test, to be untrue, or to be true only up to a point.

Having said that, four things about the future of baseball seem so obvious to me that I am willing to put them on record in a hard-cover book, so that the next generation of sportswriters can make fun of me twenty years from now.

The four things are interesting, but I don’t feel like retyping them. On page 320, he says

Baseball’s poetic and lyrical celebrants are fond of pointing out that baseball is the only major team sport without a clock. What these people don’t understand is that, until about 1945, baseball did have a clock. It was called the sun. Baseball games, until the advent of night ball, had to be crisply played because they often didn’t start until late afternoon, and they had to be finished by sundown, and sundown then was an hour sooner than it is now.

He discusses the notion of clutch performance, which he disbelieves in, and gives his opinion forcefully. He points out that there is no statistical basis for believing in it. Then he says

[Player Ratings and Comments, p. 349] But, since this elusive “clutch ability” has no particular statistical dimension, it has become popular within the discussion as a bullshit dump. All discussions have bullshit dumps; we need them. Our logic, whatever it is that we are talking about, can never be completely worked out; all subjects worthy of discussion are too complicated to be fully encased in logic. Thus, in all discussions, the least precise areas become bullshit dumps, elements of the discussion which are used to reconcile our formal logic to our intuitive sense of right or wrong, justice or injustice, accuracy or inaccuracy, reason or madness, moderation or extremity. “Psychology” is a common bullshit dump. I am not saying that psychology is not real or that psychologists do not know what they are talking about. What I am saying is that since human psychology affects almost everything within our sight in undocumented ways which are never fully understood, psychology inevitably becomes a bullshit dump which we can use to justify or explain what is otherwise unjustified or inexplicable.

“Karma” is a popular bullshit dump. In politics, “sensitivity” is a bullshit dump; so is the “influence of the media.” Witchcraft used to be a major bullshit dump, but has lost its audience.

He also has an interesting discussion of six rules he would like to see changed, or at least enforced differently, to improve the spectator’s experience of the game. This is a really good, but very long, baseball book.


2007-02-24: iWoz


Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I invented the personal computer, co-founded Apple, and had fun doing it (2006)

by Steve Wozniak (1950-) with Gina Smith (?-)

This is more interesting than I thought it would be. Though Gina Smith helped with the actual writing, the voice seems to be the authentic Woz, as I’ve heard him in interviews.

The best parts for me are the story of the stages by which he developed and learned the complex of ideas that went into the Apple II. The later parts are less interesting.

When he talks of his personal life, and his interest in cognitive development, I was interested in the “flying tours” he gave his infant kids (and other peoples’ kids), where he allowed them to determine the route through the house by looking and the muscle movements he learned to interpret.


2007-01-26: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

A Search for Who We Are (1992)

by Carl Sagan (1934-1996) and Ann Druyan (1949-)

I might have read this book before I started writing these reports; much of the content is familiar to me.

For someone just becoming curious, but with a bit of science background, it is a good introduction to the evolutionary background for human nature.

They invoke Niels Bohr’s aphorism: “Clarity through breadth.” However, once they get past cosmology, their breadth is primarily in the biological realm. They also have this good cautionary advice: “We urge the reader to bear in mind the imperfection of our current knowledge. Science is never finished. It proceeds by successive approximations, edging closer and closer to a complete and accurate understanding of Nature, but is never fully there.”

For those of a mystical bent, they provide: “Nanrei Kobori, late Abbot of the Temple of the Shining Dragon, a Buddhist sanctuary in Kyoto, said to us ‘God is an invention of Man. So the nature of God is only a shallow mystery. The deep mystery is the nature of Man.’”

Regarding the reaction to Darwin they provide two quotes:

I detest all systems that depreciate human nature. If it be a delusion that there is something in the constitution of man that is venerable and worthy of its author, let me live and die in that delusion, rather than have my eyes opened to see my species in a humiliating and disgusting light. Every good man feels his indignation rise against those who disparage his kindred or his country; why should it not rise against those who disparage his kind? – Thomas Reid, letter of 1775

When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Cambrian [geological] system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled. – Charles Darwin, The Origin Of Species, Chapter XV

Another quote:

In the life of a man, his time is but a moment, his being an incessant flux, his sense a dim rushlight, his body a prey of worms, his soul an unquiet eddy, his fortune dark, and his fame doubtful. In short, all that is of the body is as coursing waters, all that is of the soul as dreams and vapours; life a warfare, a brief sojourning in an alien land,; after repute, oblivion. Where, then, can man find the power to guide and guard his steps? In one thing and one thing alone: the love of knowledge. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, On Impermanence

Regarding the animal sources of much of human nature:

We go to great lengths to deny our animal heritage, and not just in scientific and philosophical discourse. You can glimpse the denial in the shaving of men’s faces; in clothing and other adornments; in the great lengths gone to in the preparation of meat to disguise the fact that an animal is being killed, flayed, and eaten. The common primate practice of pseudosexual mounting of males by males to express dominance is not widespread in humans, and some have taken comfort from this fact. But the most potent form of verbal abuse in English and many other languages is “Fuck you,” with the pronoun “I” implicit at the beginning. The speaker is vividly asserting his claim to higher status, and his contempt for those he considers subordinate. Characteristically, humans have converted a postural image into a linguistic one with barely a change in nuance. The phrase is uttered millions of times each day, all over the planet, with hardly anyone stopping to think what it means. Often, it escapes our lips unbidden. It is satisfying to say. It serves its purpose. It is a badge of the primate order, revealing something of our nature despite all our denials and pretensions.

In the notes to chapter ten, there is a fascinating story of using close observation of nature to get close to birds for watching. Anyone who reads the book should not miss it.


2007-01-14: Moneyball


The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (2003)

by Michael Lewis (1960-)

This is a fascinating book about an aspect of baseball that had escaped my notice.

Sabremetrics is an approach to analyzing the statistics of the performance of baseball players, to determine the most important contributions to winning. Though the effort started in the 1970s (or earlier), it was not used successfully by baseball insiders until Billy Beane became general manager of the Oakland A’s. With one of the smallest payrolls in baseball, the A’s have won more games than nearly all of the teams with much larger payrolls.

The book is based on a season’s inside view granted by the A’s to Lewis, apparently to ensure a more widespread appreciation for their success and the methods they’ve used. Since that success depends on the ignorance of others, it’s a little hard to understand why they cooperated with the book. I suppose the answer is pride. At the end of the book, Beane nearly accepts the GM position in Boston, but eventually stays at Oakland. It seems he was tempted to move as a way to prove to himself that his worth was recognized; once the offer was made, he seems to have been satisfied. Still, he might have wanted a little more widespread recognition, and perhaps to rub the noses of other managers in their lack of success using the old ways.

The term ‘sabremetrics’ comes from the Society for American Baseball Research, and follows the approach of Bill James. As a result of reading this book, I have started looking into James’s work. It gives another way of looking at baseball, and of analyzing the potential of minor leaguers. Maybe it can be applied at local games.


2006-11-10: Understanding Comics

Understanding Comics

The Invisible Art (1993)

by Scott McCloud (1960-)

This book was mentioned in an odd context: as containing insights into the presentation of ideas in graphical and textual form, applicable to the making of effective PowerPoint presentations. I am not much interested in either PowerPoint or comics, so the mere fact that I read the book is somewhat interesting.

McCloud (whose work I’m otherwise unfamiliar with) approaches comics as an art form, and so appropriate for serious criticism and understanding.

Using a face as an example, he shows a sequence of drawings from a near-photographic rendition to a circle-line-two-dots, and says: “When we abstract an image through cartooning we’re not so much eliminating details as we are focusing on specific details. By stripping down an image to its essential ‘meaning,’ an artist can amplify that meaning in a way that realistic art can’t.”

He describes several dimensions along which variations in style or approach can be applied to the creation of comics, such as complex-simple, realistic-iconic, objective-subjective, specific-universal, pictures-words. He illustrates the second with a series of faces, with the smiley-face exemplifying the iconic. Of the last he says: “Pictures are received information. We need no formal education to ‘get the message.’ The message is instantaneous. Writing is perceived information.  It takes time and specialized knowledge to decode the abstract symbols of language.” Thus he re-labels the dimension as received-perceived. He further says: “When pictures are more abstracted from ‘reality,’ they require greater levels of perception, more like words. When words are bolder, more direct, they require lower levels of perception and are received faster, more like pictures.

On page 52-53 McCloud constructs a triangle with edges labeled ‘The Representational Edge’ (bottom), ‘The Retinal Edge’ (left), and ‘The Conceptual Edge’ (right). He labels the lower left corner ‘Reality’ and the lower right ‘Meaning’. The far right side is mostly empty beyond a line labeled ‘The Language Border’. Within this triangle, he has drawn over a hundred faces from various comic artists’ works. It is an interesting exercise, though I don’t really know what to make of it.

Starting on page 169 is some relevance to presentations, introduced with the statement that “the creation of any work in any medium will always follow a certain path. A path consisting of six steps. [idea/purpose, form, idiom, structure, craft, surface] First: The impulses, the ideas, the emotions, the philosophies, the purposes, of the work … the work’s ‘content.’ Second: The form it will take … will it be a book? A chalk drawing? A chair? A song? A sculpture? A pot holder? A comic book? Third: The ‘school’ of art, the vocabulary of styles or gestures or subject matter, the genre that the work belongs to …  maybe a genre of its own. Fourth: Putting it all together … what to include, what to leave out … how to arrange, how to compose the work. Fifth: Constructing the work, applying skills, practical knowledge, invention, problem-solving, getting the ‘job’ done. Sixth: Production values, finishing … the aspects most apparent on first superficial exposure to the work. In all the arts it’s the surface that people appreciate most easily, like an apple chosen for its shiny skin.” Later he says, “In practice, any aspect of comics may be the one which first draws an artist into its orbit. Still, the learning process for most artists is a slow and steady journey from end to beginning, from surface to core.”

As I read this, perhaps because of the way I was prompted to read it, I was tempted several times to copy pages and take them to work; however, it seems unlikely to appeal to, or even be comprehensible to, my coworkers. It might be more interesting to Chad, as a summary view of one artist’s view of art.


2006-11-12: What Is Thought?

What Is Thought? (2004)

by Eric B. Baum (1941-)

I probably learned of this book from a book review in Science or American Scientist. It is not easy to read, and could have used a little more editing. Nonetheless, it is interesting and thought-provoking. The title is a deliberate play on Shrödinger’s 1944 What Is Life?, which is credited with attracting ‘hard’ scientists such as Francis Crick to biological problems. Baum hopes to attract computational thinkers to the problems of mind.

He begins by stating a bold thesis: “Semantics is equivalent to capturing and exploiting the compact structure of the world, and thought is all about semantics.” A significant part of the book is devoted to describing in some detail this notion of the distinction between syntax (the superficial aspects of the world revealed by the senses, an enormous and enormously complex collection of information) and semantics (the infinitesimally smaller collection of information that allows explanations, predictions and actions in the world).

Baum discusses Church and Turing, and reminds me of the other equivalent formulation: Emil Post’s production system. These take a starting string (e.g., A B A B C B C) and a set of rewrite rules (e.g., x B A B y -> x C B y). Matching and rewriting yields new strings (e.g., A C B C B C). The declarative nature of the syntax, and the matching and variable binding operations, seem to me to offer a promising approach for a higher level of neural-circuit simulation than neural nets, an approach closer to symbol processing.

Baum has worked on neural nets, and addresses a reason they are not more widely used. (This follows an introduction to ideas of complexity and its quantification.)

The inability to understand how nets get to their conclusions is one reason they are not applied more often in exactly this kind of context. For example, a trained medical diagnosis net exists that is more accurate than the average emergency room physician at deciding whether to admit to the hospital people complaining of chest pain, and yet no one is quite willing to replace the judgment of doctors with this net.

This lack of explainability is a practical problem for applications involving people, but it is not an argument demonstrating that the net cannot understand. Indeed, lack of explainability is to be expected if the net does understand. The point is, understanding corresponds to a compact description. Compact description is not the whole story in understanding, but it is integral to it. The trained net already compresses a huge amount of data, which is the reason it understands the process well enough to classify examples it has never seen before. A further understanding of the workings of the net would then require a further compression. That should not exist, or the data are not as compressed as they could be.

In discussing the difference between reaction and reflection in thought, he invokes the impact of evolution on the innate capabilities of the brain, a recurring theme.

It should not be surprising that thought is mostly reactive. First, evolution created us to survive and reproduce, and survival and reproduction are mostly real-time processes. To reflect at the wrong time is to be eaten by a tiger while you are deciding what to do, or to miss saying something witty to a potential mate at an opportune moment. Second, it is seemingly much easier to evolve reactive systems than reflective ones. Simple neural net learning algorithms or simple hill-climbing algorithms can be seen in simulation to give reactive solutions to various toy problems. Evolving complex intermediate representations turns out to be a lot harder, and historically seems to have happened later.

Nevertheless, there is a place for reflection. The contrast between reflective humanlike thinking and reactive behavior is perhaps most deeply respected by ethologists.

Baum goes on to describe how ethologists were influenced by the “Clever Hans” episode to draw a firm line between human mental abilities and animal behaviors. He refers to The Animal Mind (Gould and Gould) for a more modern approach.

Among human abilities is cheating detection. All humans are more adept at detecting when someone is breaking a rule than in performing general logical inference. Baum infers the existence of a special module in human brains for this capability.

Another human capability is the way that metaphor pervades language, to an extent that indicates it is fundamental to our thought processes. He refers to Metaphors We Live By (Lakoff and Johnson). For Baum, metaphor comes from code reuse. “When we understand a concept, it is because we have a module in our minds that corresponds to that concept. The module knows how to do certain computations and to take certain actions, including passing the results of computations on to other modules. Metaphor is when such a module calls another module from another domain or simply reuses code from another module. Then we understand whatever the first module computes in terms of what the second module computes.” After further discussion and examples of metaphoric influence on thought he has this amusing aside.

One cogent point that Lakoff makes repeatedly in his books and essays is that we are prisoners of our metaphors. We understand the world in terms of our metaphors, but our metaphors are not exact, and as a result, we can be mistaken about the world when we apply an inappropriate metaphor. Actually, the most compelling and (to my mind, amusing) example of this phenomenon is Lakoff himself. Lakoff, who is very politically concerned and describes himself as politically liberal, wrote another book, Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don’t (1996). The point of this book is that we are trapped in our metaphors, and that liberals regard the government as a nurturing mother whereas conservatives regard the government as a stern father. He tries to write about how these metaphors color the respective views, how the views can be seen as coherent from the point of these metaphors. But even as he is attempting to stand aside and analyze the thought processes, he is utterly unable to escape his own metaphors. As he debates the merit of the two positions, nowhere is he able to realize even for an instant that the government is not a parent at all, nor even a person, and that all kinds of things he believes implicitly are thus based on a hopelessly inappropriate metaphor. Since he can’t escape the metaphor, he doesn’t even appear to understand that he is confused.

He goes on:

Our political reasoning is a particularly good example of our illogicality. It can’t possibly be fully logical: half the people are on one side of any issue and half on the other, which implies that that they are not all logically correct, and in fact there is no particular reason to believe that any of them are logically correct. People are simply not evolved to reason logically about politics.

An interesting (if technical) aspect of his research has been to add the concept of property rights to collections of agents attempting to evolve solutions to problems. With that notion, long chains of agents don’t evolve, presumably because the early ones are too far from the reward associated with success. By enforcing a distribution of reward throughout a chain (by an auction-like mechanism), long chains can evolve. However, if money is created or leaks out of the system (by theft), the tendency of agents to maximize their own rewards prevents globally optimal solutions from evolving.

Contrasting toy research problems with the difficulties faced by real people and other  creatures, Baum ends chapter 11 with:

The problem of reasoning about the world is thus hard. But people have made enormous progress at it. As I discuss in chapter 13, this is largely because of language. Individuals engage in computationally intensive searches, trying different ways of extending their knowledge. When someone finds a new discovery, a new sequence of thought that goes on beyond what is fully constrained by old modules and yet that usefully exploits structure in the world, he builds a new module in his mind. And, crucially, because human beings have language, he is able to guide others to construct the new module. Thus people over tens of thousands of years built vast numbers of modules that exploit the structure of the world in new ways. These provide massive numbers of new constraints that continue to allow us to extend. We have thus greatly extended the program of thought. It is our access to this huge additional program that, in my view, separates human beings from other animals.

He is talking about memes and memic processes, and this is a fit example for memetics.

In section 12.4 Baum asks, “What inductive bias did evolution start with?”, referring to the predilection of a system to learn certain kinds of things, or in certain ways. As evolution is based on the manipulation of molecules in three-dimensional space, he suspects Euclidean topology is a strong bias. He contrasts this bias with the bias of programmers attempting to construct intelligent programs to play Go or chess. Rather than incorporating the human appreciation of the two-dimensional topology of the boards, they focus on strings of bits or other symbols; there is no sense that bits representing neighboring stones or threatening pieces are connected to others. Baum doesn’t have specific proposals based on this observation, but it occurred to me that perhaps a generalization of Post’s production systems to 2-, 3- or 4-dimensional objects, rather than 1-dimensional strings of symbols might be worth investigating. Similarly, a tree-like object might provide a connection to grammar-like computation. These ideas might fit with another inductive bias he identifies: real-time performance. The more levels of abstraction that must be spanned in a computation, the longer it will take to perform. Other biases he identifies are causality, and hill-climbing (in an abstract sense) to approach locally optimal solutions. Together, these biases lead to rapid, shallow computations, but with potentially great parallelism; though low-level computations might be shallow, a hierarchical arrangement of modules might organize a broad computational into a relatively small, serial computation at the level of awareness.

In the introduction to chapter 13, he says

Section 13.2 reviews the model of mind proposed in this book and discusses language in this context. Two features are particularly relevant. First, if thought is the execution of a complex program, built as the interaction of many semantically meaningful modules, then words can naturally be seen as labels for modules, and sentences can naturally be seen as desribing how modules are put together into a given computation. I discuss in this context the question of how language interacts with computation. I suggest that the semantics is contained in the actual code and that attaching to the code thus does relatively little directly to facilitate thought. Thus, I suggest that language is descriptive rather than integral to thought. On the other hand, there is the possibility that the advent of sophisticated grammar facilitated or was made possible by a new way of combining modules, such as a new standardization of interface.

Second, I reiterate that the construction of the mental program is a cumulative process, with new computational modules built during life on top of old ones, and that the search for such useful code is computationally hard, taking place on an extremely rough fitness landscape with many local maxima. Progress is thus made in increments, with some new module or change made to the code allowing advance to the next sticking point. These facts taken together suggest that the advance in thinking of humans over monkeys could in principle be explained purely by invoking language for communication rather than ascribing to it a role in the computation itself.

In discussing internal rewards (the mechanisms driving our drives), he says (after talking about orgasm and other rewards)

It seems clear that the universal desire of children for the praise of their parents is built in. This is built in with some distinctions as well, for example, the fictional literature, the psychological literature, and general experience all concur that human sons very much want the admiration of their fathers and are often bitter when they don’t get it. This built-in goal allows the passage of complex behaviors from parents to child. It allows culture to evolve and be passed on, with massive effects on evolutionary fitness, and on our lives.

This instinct for parental approval is not exclusively a human characteristic, for example, bears can’t forage for a particular food unless they are shown how by their parents. The built-in goal of emulating parents and seeking approval of parents, combined possibly with the built-in goal of instructing children, allows complex behaviors like salmon fishing to be passed from generation to generation of bears. Alaskan brown bears and grizzly bears are genetically indistinguishable and live only miles apart but look substantially different. The brown bears are bigger and heavier with huge shoulder muscles because they have been instructed by their parents how to harvest the rich food sources in their coastal environment and thus eat better and behave differently.

Baum tells this bear story in nearly identical words in two places.

In discussing awareness, he mentions “perhaps the most interesting suggestion about awareness is that it has been carefully engineered to be ignorant of facts known to deeper recesses of our minds, for the purpose of making us capable of lying more effectively.” He explains this, then goes on:

So what, then, is awareness? Why do we sense this computation the way we do, with a sensation of consciousness, of being aware and engaged in things? Why should we not sense the rest of what is undoubtedly going on in our minds?

The most straightforward theory is simply this. There is code at the top of this hierarchy, code that controls speech and action, that makes decisions and perhaps feeds back credit assignment. This code does not directly sense all the underlying computation; all it sees is summary bits fed to it by underlying processes. But this upper-level code is what outputs through speech and action. So, when we ask questions of ourselves, when we introspect, when we describe our thought processes to others, when we talk about what we are feeling – all of this is controlled by the upper-level code, the upper-level modules. These upper-level decisions and computations are what we report because the upper-level modules are doing the talking. Indeed, “upper-level” may be a slight misnomer. Speech and action are controlled by modules specifically evolved for controlling speech and action, which may be deliberately fed disinformation by other modules, specifically to control what we say and do in a manner advantageous to our genes. What we are verbally aware of, then, is the disinformation, not the true information only known to subconscious processes that direct the flow of information. So, it is not clear in what sense we can say that our verbal awareness is at the very top of some hierarchy. (Of course, the same could be said of the President of the United States, who although nominally at the pinnacle of the hierarchy of government may be fed disinformation by his subordinates.) … Awareness is simply our ability to talk about our summary of the world and direct our computational abilities against portions of it.

In the epilogue to his chapter on consciousness, Baum says

As I write these words on my laptop, I am sitting on the Kärntnerstrasse, a walking street in the heart of the old city of Vienna. I am sitting in one of a number of small pavilions in the center of the street that serve in the summer as cafés or bars. The sides of this pavilion are open, but there is a sail suspended horizontally overhead to keep off the sun. This particular bar has served me three Caiparinhas, on which they have a special at 40 shillings. They make an excellent Caiparinha, placing the right amount of appropriately coarse sugar in the bottom of the glass before carefully mashing in the limes, adding ground ice then strong dark rum and then more ground ice; as with much food preparation in Vienna, they pay proud attention to detail. The excellent thing about my location in the middle of the Kärntnerstrasse, aside of course from the fine weather and the antique beauty of the street itself, is that a flow of perhaps ten people per minute, many of them beautiful women, passes by the pavilion, and I am enjoying the floor show. Thankfully, the fact that I can intellectually understand that my mind is nothing but an evolved computation does not in any way detract from my enjoyment of life or from my desire to live a fruitful and moral life. That enjoyment and that desire are built in, and I feel them as keenly as I was designed to.


2006-08-06: Silent Spring

Silent Spring  (1962, 2002 40th anniversary edition)

Rachel Carson (1907-1964)

Reading this book is necessary to understand the blooming of environmental consciousness since the 1960s. For those who haven’t read it (me until now), but are interested in (or at least aware of) environmental issues, it is eye-opening to see how the chemical insecticide industry steamrolled governments into massive application of poisons to the land without considering the impact on life.

The afterword to the 40th anniversary edition by Edward O. Wilson says the following:

Forty years ago, Silent Spring delivered a galvanic jolt to public consciousness and, as a result, infused the environmental movement with new substance and meaning. The effects of pesticides and other toxic chemical pollutants on the environment and public health had been well documented before Silent Spring, but in bits and pieces scattered through the technical literature. Environmental scientists were aware of the problem, but by and large they focused only on the narrow sector of their personal expertise. It was Rachel Carson’s achievement to synthesize this knowledge into a single image that everyone, scientist and the general public alike, could easily understand.


2006-07-07: The Oxford History of the American People

The Oxford History of the American People (1965)

by Samuel Eliot Morison (1887-1976)

This book was recommended by Kevin Drum’s blog at www.washingtonmonthly.com. The appeal was in large part that the book ended with JFK, and so can provide a view of American society untainted by “The Sixties” and all that followed.

Although the book is interesting, and well enough written (though it emphasizes naval power for unexplained reasons), I was reading several other books at the same time, and exceeded the number of renewals allowed by the library. Following are brief notes, up to the election of Andrew Jackson, p. 422.

Page 182, regarding the attitudes of the colonists in 1776:

Thus the situation between England and her American colonies, while it had points of friction, was far from explosive. “The abilities of a Child might have governed this Country,” wrote Oliver Wolcott of Connecticut in 1776, “So strong had been their Attachment to Britain.” But the Americans were a high-spirited people who claimed all the rights for which Englishmen had fought since Magna Carta, and would settle for nothing less. They were not security-minded but liberty-minded. That is why they met the attempts of the government of George III to impair these liberties, first with loyal expostulation, next with indignant agitation, finally with armed resistance.

Make no mistake; the American Revolution was not fought to obtain freedom, but to preserve the liberties that American already had as colonials. Independence was no conscious goal, secretly nurtured in cellar or jungle by bearded conspirators, but a reluctant last resort, to preserve “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Page 268, regarding the perceived import of the American Revolution to old Europe:

They were right. As the English historian Lord Acton stated, “It was from America that the plain ideas that men ought to mind their own business, and that the nation is responsible to Heaven for the acts of the State – ideas long locked in the hearts of solitary thinkers, and hidden among Latin folios – burst forth like a conqueror upon the world they were destined to transform, under the title of the Rights of Man . . . and the principle gained ground, that a nation can never abandon its fate to an authority it cannot control.” Many, alas, have done so, but their people have always suffered for it.

Page 307, regarding the reconciliation of rival interests, during the Constitutional Convention:

How were the rival interests of seaboard merchants and back-country farmers (expressing the age-old antagonism between town and country), creditors and debtors, produce-exporting Southerners and trading Yankees, to be reconciled? Madison observed that the larger the political unit, the less likelihood of class or sectional injustice; he pointed out that Rhode Island was the place where one class had been riding roughshod over every other. “All civilized societies,” he said, were “divided into different sects, fashions, and interests, as they happened to consist of rich and poor, debtors and creditors, the landed, the manufacturing, the commercial interests, the inhabitants of this district or that district. . . . Why was America so justly apprehensive of Parliamentary injustice? Because Great Britain had a separate interest. The only remedy is to enlarge the sphere, and thereby divide the community into so great a number of interests and parties, that a majority will not be likely to have a common interest separate from that of the whole or of the minority.”

Enlarge the sphere, and balance the interests: has not American history proved Madison’s wisdom? And has not the completely contrary communist theory, of recognizing no interests except those of the “workers” and the state, brought an end to personal liberty wherever put into effect?

Page 338, regarding the formation of political parties in 1794:

That year, 1794, saw the crystallization of unstable political elements into national parties. European issues are apt to reach America without shadings, all black and white. Thus the French Revolution seemed to some a clean-cut contest between monarchy and republicanism, oppression and liberty; to others it was a fresh breaking-out of the eternal strife between anarchy and order, atheism and religion, poverty and prosperity. Americans of the first way of thinking joined the Republican party; others, the Federalists. Sectional and economic groups were polar to the completed parties; but in the reverse order to general expectation. Formerly democratic New England, especially the seaports, became the headquarters of the pro-British Federalists; whilst the landed interest, particularly in slaveholding communities, was swept by Gallomania.

The explanation is largely social and economic. In New England the clergy had been worrying over the younger generation: students preferred to read Voltaire and Gibbon rather than Jonathan Edwards. Tom Paine’s scurrilous Age of Reason caused the sincerely religious to repudiate the party that supported France. Paine himself, by a nasty attack on Washington, identified Jeffersonianism with Jacobinism in the mind of the average Northerner. But the planters of Virginia seem to have been immune to religious panic and so certain of the loyalty of their own slaves that the massacre of white people in Haiti when “”liberty, equality and fraternity” were applied in that French colony did not alarm them. Virginia’s opposition to British capital and sea power was part of her hatred for Northern capital and Hamiltonian finance schemes. The writings of the French philosophes and économistes enabled country gentlemen to rationalize their instincts that land was the unique source of wealth, that trade and finance were parasites. Chief local philosopher was Colonel John Taylor “of Caroline” a Virginia county. His pamphlets declared that every dollar made by merchants came out of the farmer’s pocket, that England through her disregard of “true economic principles” was a “sinking nation,” and that trade with her was draining America of her wealth. These absurd notions became doctrine in the South; and it took them long to die.

Page 375, regarding the legacy of Thomas Jefferson:

Of all the ironies in American history, the career and influence of Thomas Jefferson are the greatest. This Virginia aristocrat and slave-owner proclaimed the “self-evident” truth “that all men are created equal.” In so doing he undermined and overthrew both Tories and Federalists, who believed that man was created highly unequal and that the best, not the most, should govern. The Federalists, but for Jefferson – and their own folly – might have continued for another generation to direct the government along conservative and national lines; might even have settled the Negro question without war, which Jefferson’s disciples were unable to do. His Southern supporters accepted Jefferson’s principles with the reservation that they applied only to white men, and used them mainly as a stick to beat the Federalists and win power. But the Northerners whom Jefferson converted to his views took him seriously and literally. They came to believe that political equality meant all Americans, no matter what race or color; that democracy meant rule of the majority, not by a cultivated minority of merchants and landowners. Long did the art of politicians ignore or muffle this ambiguity; but when the issue became really acute in 1860-61, the society which Jefferson loved, and which still worshipped his name, repudiated both his basic principles; and in so doing was overthrown by the society which had taken those principles to heart.


2006-03-25: Consilience


The Unity of Knowledge (1998)

by Edward O. Wilson (1929-)

Wilson has revived the word consilience in his attempt to promote greater cross-reinforcement among disparate areas of study. He illustrates the concept in terms of the most physical of sciences, from physics through evolutionary psychology. Then he undertakes the greater challenge: to convince the anthropologists, sociologists, humanists, politicians, economists, and artists that they need to participate with other areas of study if they are to generate results that matter.

His tone is a bit arrogant and it seems doubtful that many current practitioners will listen to him. He is really hoping that the newer generations of scholars and artists will receive his message. I doubt they’ll get it directly from this book.

There are many interesting things mentioned along the way, and they cover a lot of ground. Here are the ones I marked during my reading.

Wilson describes his early years as a student. He was already a naturalist, but had just learned about evolution – an epiphany, as he puts it. “I had experienced the Ionian Enchantment. … It means a belief in the unity of sciences – a conviction, far deeper than a mere working proposition, that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws.”

“If the world really works in a way so as to encourage the consilience of knowledge, I believe the enterprises of culture will eventually fall out into science, by which I mean the natural sciences, and the humanities, particularly the creative arts. These domains will be the two great branches of learning in the twenty-first century. The social sciences will continue to split within each of its disciplines, a process already rancorously begun, with one part folding into or becoming continuous with biology, the other fusing with the humanities. Its disciplines will continue to exist but in radically altered form. In the process the humanities, ranging from philosophy and history to moral reasoning, comparative religion, and interpretation of the arts, will draw closer to the sciences and partly fuse with them.”

“Every college student should be able to answer the following question: What is the relation between science and the humanities, and how is it important for human welfare? Every public intellectual and political leader should be able to answer that question as well.”

“A balanced perspective cannot be acquired by studying disciplines in pieces but through a pursuit of the consilience among them. Such unification will come hard. But I think it is inevitable. Intellectually it rings true, and it gratifies impulses that rise from the admirable side of human nature. To the extent that the gaps between the great branches of learning can be narrowed, diversity and depth of knowledge will increase. They will do so because of, not despite, the underlying cohesion achieved. The enterprise is important for yet another reason: It gives ultimate purpose to intellect. It promises that order, not chaos, lies beyond the horizon. I think it inevitable that we will accept the adventure, go there, and find out.

Wilson quotes George Scialabba writing of Michel Foucalt:

Foucalt was grappling with the deepest, most intractable dilemmas of modern identity. … For those who believe that neither God nor natural law nor transcendent Reason exists, and who recognize the varied and subtle ways in which material interest – power – has corrupted, even constituted, every previous morality, how is one to live, to what values can one hold fast?

Wilson then says: “How and what indeed? To solve these disturbing problems, let us begin by simply walking away from Foucalt, and existentialist despair. Consider this rule of thumb: To the extent that philosophical positions both confuse and close doors to further inquiry, they are likely to be wrong.

To Foucalt I would say … it’s not so bad. Once we get over the shock of discovering that the universe was not made with us in mind, all the meaning the brain can master, and all the emotions it can bear, and all the shared adventure we might wish to enjoy, can be found by deciphering the hereditary orderliness that has borne our species through geological time and stamped it with the residues of deep history. Reason will be advanced to new levels, and emotions played in potentially infinite patterns. The true will be sorted from the false, and we will understand one another very well, the more quickly because we are all of the same species and possess biologically similar brains.”


“Science, to put its warrant as concisely as possible, is the organized, systematic enterprise that gathers knowledge about the world and condenses the knowledge into testable laws and principles. The diagnostic features of science that distinguish it from pseudoscience are first, repeatability: The same phenomenon is sought again, preferably by independent investigation, and the interpretation given it is confirmed or discarded by means of novel analysis and experimentation. Second, economy: Scientists attempt to abstract the information into the form that is both simplest and aesthetically most pleasing – the combination called elegance – while yielding the largest amount of information with the least amount of effort. Third, mensuration: If something can be properly measured, using universally accepted scales, generalizations about it are rendered unambiguous. Fourth, heuristics: The best science stimulates further discovery, often in unpredictable new directions; and the new knowledge provides an additional test of the original principles that led to its discovery. Fifth and finally, consilience: The explanations of different phenomena most likely to survive are those that can be connected and proved consistent with one another.”

“Here is how reductionism works most of the time, as it might appear in a user’s manual: Let your mind travel around the system. Pose an interesting question about it. Break the question down and visualize the elements and questions it implies. Think out alternative conceivable answers. Phrase them so that a reasonable amount of evidence makes a clear-cut choice possible. If too many conceptual difficulties are encountered, back off. Search for another question. When you finally hit a soft spot, search for the model system – say a controlled emission in particle physics or a fast-breeding organism in genetics – on which decisive experiments can be most easily conducted. Become thoroughly familiar – no, better, become obsessed – with the system. Love the details, the feel of all of them, for their own sake. Design the experiment so that no matter what the result, the answer to the questions will be convincing. Use the result to press on to new questions, new systems. Depending on how far others have already gone in this sequence (and always keep in mind, you must give them complete credit), you may enter it at any point along the way.

Followed more or less along these lines, reductionism is the primary and essential activity of science. But dissection and analysis are not all that scientists do. Also crucial are synthesis and integration, tempered by philosophical reflection on significance and value. Even the most narrowly focused researchers, including those devoted to the search for elemental units, still think all the time about complexity. To make any progress they musty meditate on the networks of cause and effect across adjacent levels of organization – from subatomic particles to atoms, say, or organisms to species – and they must think on the hidden design and forces of the networks of causation. Quantum physics thus blends into chemical physics, which explains atomic bonding and chemical reactions, which forms the foundation of molecular biology, which demystifies cell biology.

Behind the mere smashing of aggregates into smaller pieces lies a deeper agenda that also takes the name of reductionism: to fold the laws and principles of each level of organization into those at more general, hence more fundamental levels. Its strong form is total consilience, which holds that nature is organized by simple universal laws of physics to which all other laws and principles can eventually be reduced. This transcendental world view is the light and way for many scientific materialists (I admit to being among them), but it could be wrong. At the least, it is surely an oversimplification. At each level of organization, especially at the living cell and above, phenomena exist that require new laws and principles, which still cannot be predicted from those at more general levels. Perhaps some of them will remain forever beyond our grasp. Perhaps prediction of the most complex systems from more general levels is impossible. That would not be all bad. I will confess with pleasure: The challenge and the crackling of thin ice are what give science its metaphysical excitement.”

Wilson quotes Herbert Simon on the complexity of concept formation: “What chiefly characterizes creative thinking from more mundane forms are (i) willingness to accept vaguely defined problem statements and gradually structure them, (ii) continuing preoccupation with problems over a considerable period of time, and (iii) extensive background knowledge in relevant and potentially relevant areas.” Wilson puts this in a nutshell: “knowledge, obsession, daring”.

In his section on the mind, he describes the organization of the brain:

The Human brain preserves the three primitive divisions found in throughout the vertebrates from fishes to mammals: hindbrain, midbrain, and forebrain. The first two together, referred to as the brain stem, form the swollen posthead on which the massively enlarged forebrain rests.

The hindbrain comprises in turn the pons, medulla, and cerebellum. Together they regulate breathing, heartbeat, and coordination of body movements. The midbrain controls sleep and arousal. It also partly regulates auditory reflexes and perception.

A major part of the forebrain is composed of the limbic system, the master traffic-control complex that regulates emotional response as well as the integration and transfer of sensory information. Its key centers are the amygdala (emotion), hippocampus (memory, especially short-term memory), hypothalamus (memory, temperature control, sexual drive, hunger, and thirst), and thalamus (awareness of temperature and all other senses except smell, awareness of pain, and the mediation of some processes of memory).

The forebrain also includes the cerebral cortex, which has grown and expanded during evolution to cover the rest of the brain. As the primary seat of consciousness, it stores and collates information from the senses. It also directs voluntary motor activity and integrates higher functions, including speech and motivation.

The key functions of the three successive divisions – hind- plus mid-brain, limbic system, and cerebral cortex – can be neatly summarized in this sequence: heartbeat, heartstrings, heartless.

Describing emotions, he describes the approach of Antonio Damasio, distinguishing primary and secondary emotions. Primary emotions are those called inborn or instinctive. They require little conscious activity beyond recognition of elementary stimuli, called “releasers” because they release wired-in responses. Examples of releasers for humans are “sexual enticement, loud noises, the sudden appearance of large shapes, the writhing movements of snakes or serpentine objects, and the particular configurations of pain associated with heart attacks or broken bones.” Secondary emotions are refinements that incorporate personal history and cultural tradition. “To meet an old friend, fall in love, win a promotion, or suffer an insult is to fire the limbic circuits of primary emotion, but only after the highest integrative processes … have been engaged. We must know who is friend or enemy, and why they are behaving a certain way. By this interpretation, the emperor’s rage and poet’s rapture are cultural elaborations retrofitted to the same machinery that drives the prehuman primates. Nature, Damasio observes, ‘with its tinkerish knack for economy, did not select independent mechanisms for expressing primary and secondary emotions. It simply allowed secondary emotions to be expressed by the same channel already prepared to convey primary emotions.’”

Wilson then goes on: “What we call meaning is the linkage among the neural networks created by the spreading excitation that enlarges imagery and engages emotion. The competitive selection among scenarios is what we call decision making. The outcome, in terms of the match of the winning scenario to instinctive or learned favorable states, sets the kind and intensity of subsequent emotion. The persistent form and intensity of emotions is called mood. The ability of the brain to generate novel scenarios and settle on the most effective of tem is called creativity. The persistent production of scenarios lacking reality and survival value is called insanity.” I find his short summary rather glib, and doubt it will be useful in the form he gives.

In addressing the role of Art in the mind, he says: “Art is the means by which people of similar cognition reach out to others in order to transmit feeling. But how can we know for sure that art communicates this way with accuracy, that people really, truly feel the same in the presence of art? We know it intuitively by the sheer weight of our cumulative responses through the many media of art. We know it by detailed verbal descriptions of emotion, by critical analyses, and in fact through data from all the vast, nuanced, and interlocking armamentaria of the humanities. That vital role in the sharing of culture is what the humanities are all about.” Again, this is rather glib. He might be counting on ‘communication’ being more effective in all channels (not just the arts) than is realistic.

He directly addresses memetics: “The natural units of culture can be reasonably supposed to be hierarchically arranged components of semantic memory, encoded by discrete neural circuits awaiting identification. The notion of a culture unit, the most basic element of all, has been around for over thirty years, and has been dubbed by different authors as mnemotype, idea, idene, meme, sociogene, concept, culturgen, and culture type. The one label that has caught on the most, and for which I now vote to be winner, is meme, introduced by Richard Dawkins in his influential work The Selfish Gene in 1976.

The definition of meme I suggest is nevertheless more focused and somewhat different from that of Dawkins. It is the one posed by the theoretical biologist Charles J. Lumsden and myself in 1981, when we outlined the first full theory of gene-culture coevolution. We recommended that the unit of culture – now called meme – be the same as a node of semantic memory and its correlates in brain activity. The level of the node, whether concept (the simplest recognizable unit), proposition, or schema, determines the complexity of the idea, behavior, or artifact that it helps to sustain in the culture at large.”

The largest leap in Wilson’s work is the connection between genes and culture. His ideas seem likely to be roughly correct, but I expect he will fail, at least on the basis of this book, to convince people who don’t already accept most of his premises. Here’s one paragraph illustrates the interaction between genes and cultural environment:

Heritability has been a standard measure for decades in plant and animal breeding. It has gained recent controversial attention for its human applications though The Bell Curve, the 1994 book by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, and other popular works on the heredity of intelligence and personality. The measure has considerable merit, and in fact is the backbone of human behavioral genetics. But it contains oddities that deserve close attention with reference to the consilience between genetics and the social sciences. The first is the peculiar twist called “genotype-environment correlation,” which serves to increase human diversity beyond the ambit of its immediate biological origins. The twist works as follows. People do not merely select roles suited to their native talents and personalities. They also gravitate to environments that reward their hereditary inclinations. Their parents, who possess similar inborn traits, are also likely to create a family atmosphere nurturing development in the same direction. The genes, in other words, help to create a particular environment in which they will find greater expression than would otherwise occur. The overall result is a greater divergence of roles within societies due to the interaction of genes and environment. For example, a musically gifted child, receiving encouragement from adults, may take up an instrument early and spend long hours practicing. His classmate, innately thrill-seeking, persistently impulsive and aggressive, is drawn to fast cars. The first child grows up to be a professional musician, the second (if he stays out of trouble) a successful racing-car driver. The hereditary differences in talent and personality between the classmates may be small, but their effects have been amplified by the diverging pathways into which they were guided by the differences. To put genotype-environment correlation in a phrase, hereditability measured at the level of biology reacts with the environment to increase hereditability measured at the level of behavior.

Wilson’s mechanism linking genes and culture is the epigenetic rule: “The epigenetic rules, I believe, operate, like emotion, at two levels. Primary epigenetic rules are the automatic processes that extend from the filtering and coding of stimuli in the sense organs all the way to the perception of the stimuli by the brain. The entire sequence is influenced by previous experience only to a minor degree, if at all. Secondary epigenetic rules are regularities in the integration of large amounts of information. Drawing from selected fragments of perception, memory, and emotional coloring, secondary epigenetic rules lead the mind to predisposed decisions through the choice of certain memes and overt responses over others. The division between the two classes of epigenetic rules is subjective, made for convenience only. Intermediate levels of complexity exist, because more complex primary rules grade into simpler secondary rules.”

“At the highest levels of mental activity complex secondary epigenetic rules are followed in the process called reification: the telescoping of ideas and complex phenomena into simpler concepts, which are then compared with familiar objects and activities. … Reification is the quick and easy mental algorithm that creates order in a world otherwise overwhelming in flux and detail. One of its manifestations is the dyadic instinct, the proneness to use two-part classifications in treating socially important arrays. Societies everywhere break people into in-group versus out-group, child versus adult, kin versus nonkin, married versus single, and activities into sacred and profane, good and evil. They fortify the boundaries of each division with taboo and ritual. To change from one division to the other requires initiation ceremonies, weddings, blessings, ordinations, and other rites of passage that mark every culture.”

In discussing human nature, one important feature Wilson mentions is contractual agreement, based primarily on the ability of humans to detect cheating, which is triggered when the cost and benefits of a social contract are specified. “More than error, more than good deeds, and more even than the margin of profit, the possibility of cheating by others attracts attention. It excites emotion and serves as the principal source of hostile gossip and moralistic aggression by which the integrity of the political economy is maintained.”

In discussing social sciences: “To infuse psychology and biology into economic and other social theory, which can only be to its advantage, means teasing out and examining microscopically the delicate concepts of utility, by asking why people ultimately lean toward certain choices, and being so predisposed, why and under what circumstances they act upon them. Beyond this task lies the micro-to-macro problem, the ensemble of processes by which the mass of individual decisions are translated into social patterns. And beyond that, framed by a still wider scale of space and time, is the coevolution problem, the means by which biological evolution influences culture, and the reverse. Together these domains – human nature, micro-to-macro transition, and the coevolution of genes and culture – require the full traverse from the social sciences to psychology and thence to the brain sciences and genetics.” He then mentions a few areas where studies already contribute to this program. He points out that decisions are seldom computerlike in their calculation and rationality, rather involving heuristic shortcuts and emotional judgements. Here he follows Herbert Simon’s notion of satisficing.

Wilson has strong opinions about the arts and art criticism. “The defining quality of the arts is the expression of the human condition by mood and feeling, calling into play all the senses, evoking both order and disorder.” He believes there is no biological difference to be found between artistic masters and ordinary people. “What the masters of the Western canon, and those of other high cultures, possessed in common was a combination of exceptional knowledge, technical skill, originality, sensitivity to detail, ambition, boldness, and drive.” Of course, this catalog has its own problems, but the gist of it seems right. “Artistic inspiration common to everyone in varying degree rises from the artesian wells of human nature. Its creations are meant to be delivered directly to the sensibilities of the beholder without analytic explanation. Creativity is therefore humanistic in the fullest sense. Works of enduring value are those truest to these origins.” This view opens the possibility of understanding artistic expression on the basis of biologically determined human nature.

Wilson takes aim at deconstructionist criticism of the postmodern school, which explicitly rejects science as a privileged method of knowing the world: all points of view are valid. These “scholars search instead for contradictions and ambiguities. They conceive and analyze what is left out by the author. The missing elements allow for personalized commentary in the postmodern style. Postmodernists who add political ideology to the mix also regard the traditional literary canon as little more than a collection confirming the world view of ruling groups, and in particular that of Western white males. The postmodern hypothesis does not conform well to the evidence. It is blissfully free of existing information on how the mind works. Yet there is surely some reason for the popularity of postmodernism other than a love for chaos.” He points out its revolutionary spirit and the fact that the talents and emotional lives of large segments of the population, in particular women, have been neglected for centuries by the traditional canon.

If we are to believe the evidence from the biological and behavioral sciences gathered especially during the past quarter century, women differ genetically from men in ways other than reproductive anatomy. In aggregate, on average, with wide statistical overlap, and in many venues of social experience, they speak with a different voice. Today it is being heard loud and clear. But I do not read the welcome triumph of feminism, social, economic, and creative, as a brief for postmodernism. The advance, while opening new avenues of expression and liberating deep pools of talent, has not exploded human nature into little pieces. Instead, it has set the stage for a fuller explanation of the universal traits that unite humanity.

Looked at with a different perspective, postmodernism can also be viewed as one extreme in an historical oscillation in literary world view. The great American critic Edmund Wilson noted, in 1926, that Western literature seems “obliged to vibrate” in emphasis between the two poles of neoclassicism and romanticism. Conceived very broadly, the cycle can first be picked up in the Enlightenment with Pope, Racine, and other poets who drew on the scientists’ vision of an orderly world. They were replaced  in public esteem by the rebellious romantic poets of the nineteenth century, who yielded in turn to Flaubert and others returning to rational order, who gave way to a flow in the opposite direction as embodied in the modernist writings of the French Symbolists …. Because each of the extremes proved ultimately “unbearable” as a regaining fashion, Wilson said, it guaranteed reversion toward the opposite pole.

This, of course, is pretty glib and Wilson is having fun with it, rather than fully explaining it. Still, there is some truth in it.

The same mood swing can be seen in recent, post-Wilsonian literary criticism. Earlier in this century scholars stressed the personal experiences of the authors and the history of their times. In the 1950s the New Critics insisted on drawing out the full meaning of the text, without much concern for personal history of the author. They agreed with Joseph Conrad’s famous dictum that a work of art “should carry its justification in every line.” In the 1980s the New Critics quite suddenly gave way to the postmodernists, who argued the opposite approach. Search, they said, for what the text does not control, and explain the entirety as a social construction on the part of the author. Their stance has been summarized in a pointed manner by the poet and critic Frederick Turner, as follows: Artists and poets should dismiss the constraints of Nature even in a time of ecological crisis, ignore science, abandon the forms and disciplines of the arts and hence their own culture’s shamanic tradition, turn away from the idea of a universal human nature, and, having freed themselves from such stifling confinement, favor snideness and rage over hope and uplifting emotions. According to Turner, a reversal in fashion is already beginning. “The tradition of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Beethoven and Goethe is not dead. It is growing up in the cracks of the postmodern concrete.”

Later: “Can the opposed Apollonian and Dionysian impulses, cool reason against passionate abandonment, which drive the mood swings of the arts and criticism, be reconciled? This is, I believe an empirical question. Its answer depends on the existence or nonexistence of an inborn human nature. The evidence accumulated to date leaves little room for doubt. Human nature exists, and it is both deep and highly structured.”

Wilson gives the outline of the theory of gene-culture coevolution he developed with Charles Lumsden:

  • During human evolution there was time enough for natural selection to shape the processes of innovation. For thousands of generations, sufficient for genetic changes in the brain and sensory and endocrine systems, variation among people in thought and behavior caused personal differences in survival and reproductive success.
  • The variation was to some degree heritable. Individuals differed the, as they do today, not just in what they learned from their culture but also in their hereditary propensity to learn certain things and to respond by statistical preponderance in particular ways.
  • Genetic evolution inevitably ensued. Natural selection, favoring some of the gene ensembles over others, molded the epigenetic rules, which are the inherited regularities of mental development that comprise human nature. Among the most ancient epigenetic rules I have described to this point are the Westermarck effect, which inhibits incest, and the natural aversion to snakes. Those of more recent origin, perhaps no more than a hundred thousand years ago, include the swift programmed steps by which children acquire language and, we may reasonably presume, some of the creative processes of the arts as well.
  • Universals or near-universals emerged in the evolution of culture. Because of differences in strength among the underlying epigenetic rules, certain thoughts and behavior are more effective than others in the emotional responses they cause and the frequency with which they intrude on reverie and creative thought. They bias cultural evolution toward the invention of archetypes, the widely recurring abstractions and core narraqtives that are dominant themes in the arts. Examples of archetypes I have already mentioned are Oedipean tragedy (violating the Westermarck effect) and the serpent images of myth and religion.
  • The arts are innately focused toward certain forms and themes but are otherwise freely constructed. The archetypes spawn legions of metaphors that compose not only a large part of the arts but also of ordinary communication. Metaphors, the consequence of spreading activation of the brain during learning, are the building blocks of creative thought. They connect and synergistically strengthen different spheres of memory.

In his last point is the germ of an important aspect of human nature: all human communication is at its root a creative process, on the part of both the sender and receiver of communication. After making his point about the biological basis for the arts, Wilson makes sure his message isn’t interpreted as mechanizing the arts:

The growing evidence of an overall structured and powerful human nature, channeling development of the mind, favors a more traditional view of the arts. The arts are not solely shaped by errant genius out of historical circumstances and idiosyncratic personal experience. The roots of their inspiration date back in deep history to the genetic origins of the human brain, and are permanent.

While biology has an important part to play in scholarly interpretation, the creative arts themselves can never be locked in by this or any other discipline of science. The reason is that the exclusive role of the arts is the transmission of the intricate details of human experience by artifice to intensify aesthetic and emotional response. Works of art communicate feeling directly from mind ot mind, with no intent to explain why the impact occurs. In this defining quality, the arts are the antithesis of science.


When addressing human behavior, science is coarse-grained and encompassing, as opposed to the arts, which are fine-grained and interstitial. That is, science aims to create principles and use them in human biology to define the diagnostic qualities of the species; the arts use fine details to flesh out and make strikingly clear by implication those same qualities. Works of art that prove enduring are intensely humanistic. Born in the imagination of individuals, they nevertheless touch upon what was universally endowed by human evolution. Even when, as part of fantasy, they imagine worlds that cannot possibly exist, they stay anchored to their human origins.  As Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., master fantasist, once pointed out, the arts place humanity in the center of the universe, whether we belong there or not.

Several special powers were granted to the arts by the genetic evolution of the brain. First is the ability to generate metaphors with ease and move them fluidly from one context to another. Consider the technical language of the arts themselves. A plot first meant a physical site and building plan, then the stage director’s plot or blocking plan, then the action or story blocked out. In the sixteenth century a frontispiece was a decorated front of a building, then the title page of a book ornamented with a figure, and finally the illustrated page that precedes the title page. A stanza, which in Italian is a public room or resting place, has been appropriated in English to mean the room-like set of four or more lines separated typographically from other similar sets.

In both the arts and sciences the programmed brain seeks elegance, which is the parsimonious and evocative description of pattern to make sense out of a confusion of detail.

In addressing archetypes, which he says arise from the epigenetic rules that constrain culture, Wilson provides a list of examples:

In the beginning, the people are created by gods, or the mating of giants, or the clash of titans; in any case, they begin as special beings at the center of the world.

The tribe emigrates to a promised land (or Arcadia, or the Secret Valley, or the New World).

The Hero descends to hell, or is exiled to wilderness, or experiences an iliad in a distant land; he returns in an odyssey against all odds past fearsome obstacles along the way, to complete his destiny.

The world ends in apocalypse, by flood, fire, alien conquerors, or avenging gods; it is restored by a band of heroic survivors.

A source of great power is found in the tree of life, the river of life, philosopher’s stone, sacred incantation, forbidden ritual, secret formula.

The nurturing woman is apotheosized as the Great Goddess, the Great Mother, Holy Woman, Divine Queen, Mother Earth, Gaia.

The seer has special knowledge and powers of mind, available to those worthy to receive it; he is the wise old man or woman, the holy man, the magician, the great shaman.

The Virgin has the power of purity, is the vessel of sacred strength, must be protected at all costs, and perhaps surrendered up to propitiate the gods or demonic forces.

Female sexual awakening is bestowed by the unicorn, the gentle beast, the powerful stranger, the magical kiss.

The Trickster disturbs established order and liberates passion as the god of wine, king of the carnival, eternal youth, clown, jester, clever fool.

A monster threatens humanity, appearing as the serpent demon (Satan writhing at the bottom of hell), dragon, gorgon, golem, vampire.

Expanding on his theme:

If the arts are steered by inborn rules of mental development, they are end products not just of conventional history but also of genetic evolution. The question remains: Were the genetic guides mere byproducts – epiphenomena – of that evolution, or were they adaptations that directly improved survival and reproduction? And if adaptations, what exactly were the advantages conferred? The answers, some scholars believe, can be found in artifacts preserved from the dawn of art. They can be tested further with knowledge of the artifacts and customs of present-day hunter-gatherers.

This is the picture of the origin of the arts that appears to be emerging. The most distinctive qualities of the human species are extremely high intelligence, language, culture, and reliance on long-term social contracts. In combination they gave early Homo sapiens a decisive edge over all competing animal species, but they also exacted a price we continue to pay, composed of the shocking recognition of the self, of the finiteness of personal existence, and of the chaos of the environment.

These revelations, not disobedience to the gods, are what drove human-kind from paradise. Homo sapiens is the only species to suffer psychological exile. All animals, while capable of some degree of specialized learning, are instinct-drive, guided by simple cues from the environment that trigger complex behavioral patterns. The great apes have the power of self-recognition, but there is no evidence that they can reflect on their own existence – the complexity of the universe means nothing to them. They and other animals are exquisitely adapted to just those parts of the environment on which their lives depend, and they pay little or no attention to the rest.

The dominating influence that spawned the arts was the need to impose order on the confusion caused by intelligence. In the era prior to mental expansion, the ancestral prehuman populations evolved like any other animal species. They lived by instinctive responses that sustained survival and reproductive success. When Homo-level intelligence was attained, it widened that advantage by processing information well beyond the releaser cues. It permitted flexibility of response and the creation of mental scenarios that reached to distant places and far into the future. The evolving brain, nevertheless, could not convert to general intelligence alone; it could not turn into an all-purpose computer. So in the course of evolution the animal instincts of survival and reproduction were transformed into the epigenetic algorithms of human nature. It was necessary to keep in place these inborn programs for the rapid acquisition of language, sexual conduct, and other processes of mental development. Had the algorithms been erased, the species would have faced extinction. The reason is that the lifetime of an individual human being is not long enough to sort out experiences by means of generalized, unchanneled learning. Yet the algorithms were jerry-built: They worked adequately but not superbly well. Because of the slowness of natural selection, which requires tens or hundreds of generations to substitute new genes for old, there was not enough time for human heredity to cope with the vastness of new contingent possibilities revealed by high intelligence. Algorithms could be built, but they weren’t numerous and precise enough to respond automatically and optimally to every possible event.

The arts filled the gap. Early humans invented them in an attempt to  express and control through magic the abundance of the environment, the power of solidarity, and other forces in their lives that mattered most to survival and reproduction. The arts were the means by which these forces could be ritualized and expressed in a new, simulated reality. They drew consistency from their faithfulness to human nature, to the emotion-guided epigenetic rules – the algorithms – of mental development. They achieved that fidelity by selecting the most evocative words, images, and rhythms, conforming to the emotional guides of the epigenetic rules, making the right moves. The arts still perform this primal function, and in much the same ancient way. Their quality is measured by their humanness, by the precision of their adherence to human nature. To an overwhelming degree that is what we mean when we speak of the true and beautiful in the arts.

I find this notion appealing, and I think there is a lot of truth in it. I don’t know that truth can be applied, except for a believer in this truth becoming a practitioner of some art, and developing works that express the truths that humans need now, and aren’t likely to absorb by analytical or rational means.

In discussing ethics, Wilson notes that the word ought is shorthand for the behaviors that society first chose (or was coerced into), and then codified for its own protection. He also points out that the empiricist approach to finding the roots of morality in epigenetic rules has revived the notion of moral sentiments as used by Enlightenment philosophers such as Hutcheson, Hume and Adam Smith. “By moral sentiments is now meant moral instincts as defined by the modern behavioral sciences, subject to judgment according to their consequences. The sentiments are thus derived from epigenetic rules, hereditary biases in mental development, usually conditioned by emotion, that influence concepts and decisions made from them. The primary origin of the moral instincts is the dynamic relation between cooperation and defection. The essential ingredient for the molding of the instincts during genetic evolution in any species is intelligence high enough to judge and manipulate the tension generated by the dynamism. That level of intelligence allows the building of complex mental scenarios well into the future.”

After describing the process by which moral sentiments could arise and spread in the population, he says: “The dark side to the propensity to moral behavior is xenophobia. Because personal familiarity and common interest are vital in social transactions, moral sentiments evolved to selective. And so it has ever been, and so it will ever be. People give trust to strangers with effort, and true compassion is a commodity in chronically short supply. Tribes cooperate only through carefully defined treaties and other conventions. They are quick to imagine themselves victims of conspiracies by competing groups, and they are prone to dehumanize and murder their rivals during periods of severe conflict. They cement their own group loyalties by means of sacred symbols and ceremonies. Their mythologies are filled with epic victories over menacing enemies.” These ideas can be used to explain the importance of first impressions (in convincing someone that you are part of their tribe), and the effectiveness of removing young, impressionable people from their home tribe and forcing them into a new tribe, as some cults and all armies do.

After going over some of the issues, he says:

Little wonder, then, that ethics is the most publicly contested of all philosophical enterprises. Or that political science, which at foundation is primarily the study of applied ethics, is so frequently problematic. Neither is informed by anything that would be recognizable as authentic theory in the natural sciences. Both ethics and political science lack a foundation of verifiable knowledge of human nature sufficient to produce cause-and-effect predictions and sound judgments based on them. Surely it would be prudent to pay closer attention to the deep springs of ethical behavior. The greatest void in knowledge insucha venture is the biology of the moral sentiments. In time this subject can be understood, I believe, by paying attention to the following topics.

  • The definition of the moral sentiments: first by precise descriptions from experimental psychology, then by analysis of the underlying neural and endocrine responses.
  • The genetics of the moral sentiments: most easily approached through measurements of the heritability of the psychological and physiological processes of ethical behavior, and eventually, with difficulty, by identification of the prescribing genes.
  • The development of the moral sentiments as products of the interaction of genes and environment. The research is most effective when conducted at two levels: the histories of ethical systems as part of the emergence of different cultures, and the cognitive development of individuals living in a variety of cultures. Such investigations are already well along in anthropology and psychology. In the future they will be augmented by contributions from biology.
  • The deep history of the moral sentiments: why they exist in the first place, presumably by their contributions to survival and reproductive success during the long periods of prehistoric time in which they genetically evolved.

His last chapter is titled “To What End?”, and is a strong (and emotional) appeal to observe the importance of preserving as much as possible of the remaining ecosystems on the planet. He labels the common approach exemptionalism, meaning that its proponents feel exempt from the laws of nature. He says:

For the committed exemptionalist, Homo sapiens has in effect become a new species, which I will now provide with a new name, Homo proteus, or “shapechanger man.” In the taxonomic classification of Earth’s creatures, the diagnosis of hypothetical Homo proteus is the following:

Cultural. Indeterminately flexible, with vast potential. Wired and information-driven. Can travel almost anywhere, adapt to any environment. Restless, getting crowded. Thinking about the colonization of space. Regrets the current loss of Nature and all those vanishing species, but it’s the price of progress and has little to do with our future anyway.

Now here is the naturalistic, and I believe correct, diagnosis of old Homo sapiens, our familiar “wise man”:

Cultural. With indeterminate intellectual potential but biologically constrained. Basically a primate species in body and emotional repertory (member of the order Primates, Infraorder Catarrhini, Family Hominidae). Huge compared to other animals, parvihirsute, bipedal, porous, squishy, composed mostly of water. Runs on millions of coordinated delicate biochemical reactions. Easily shut down by trace toxins and transit of pea-sized projectiles. Short-lived, emotionally fragile. Dependent in body and mind on other earth-bound organisms. Colonization of space impossible without massive supply lines. Starting to regret deeply the loss of Nature and all those other species.

He provides an interesting summary of the Biosphere 2 experiment, and the lessons to be learned from its failure. He provides this summary of the state of the world:

The global population is precariously large, and will become much more so before peaking some time after 2050. Humanity overall is improving per capita production, health, and longevity. But it is doing so by eating up the planet’s capital, including natural resources and biological diversity millions of years old. Homo sapiens is approaching the limit of its food and water supply. Unlike any species that lived before, it is also changing the world’s atmosphere and climate, lowering and polluting water tables, shrinking forests, and spreading deserts. Most of the stress originates directly or indirectly from a handful of industrialized countries. Their proven formulas for prosperity are being eagerly adopted by the rest of the world. The emulation cannot be sustained, not with the same levels of consumption and waste. Even if the industrialization of developing countries is only partly successful, the environmental aftershock will dwarf the population explosion that preceded it.

This pessimistic assessment is disputed only by people who don’t know what they are talking about. Wilson has some advice for those who like to avoid or minimize the likely consequences of humankind’s present course, but they seem unlikely to be effective.

This book should be read by anyone who aspires to influence public policy, including voters in democratic places.


2005-09-25: What the Dormouse Said

What the Dormouse Said

How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry (2005)

by John Markoff (1949-)

The premise of this book appears to be that the personalities of the people who moved computing from the glass-enclosed priesthood into the living room were shaped from the major currents of the so-called “counterculture” of the 1960s. Among these, Markoff emphasizes drugs (especially LSD), anti-war feelings (including avoiding the draft by working in defense industries), and general anti-establishment feeling.

The book is weak in building the case. Certainly some of the key participants shared the attitudes that were widely held in place and time they lived, but Markoff doesn’t really make a case that these “shaped” the industry. It is just as plausible that the industry would have arisen from mainly technical considerations.

The part I found most interesting was chapter 5, Dealing Lightning. This describes the “Mother of all demos” by Douglas Engelbart in 1968, where he showed his Augment system. The nature and impact of the demo are well known, but Markoff has documented much of the behind-the-scenes activity that made the demo work. He names the key people and describes their roles. This chapter alone made the book worthwhile for me.


2005-08-29: What Lincoln Believed

What Lincoln Believed

The Values and Convictions of America’s Greatest President (2004)

by Michael Lind (1962-)

Naturally, I am intrigued by a book that appears to address real-world examples of values. Unfortunately, like most discussions of values, this book leaves Lincoln’s values implicit. Nonetheless, there is a lot that is interesting in the book.

The book is about government, and Lind starts with a survey of the nature of government in 1863. There were few democratic republics, and the very idea was in danger of extinction. The most liberal great power in Europe was Britain, but only 3 percent of adults could vote; even after reforms in 1884 the electorate was only 12 percent. Mostly people were governed by petty or greater princes, kings and emperors, operating through hierarchies.

Before describing what Lincoln believed, Lind lists a couple of things he didn’t believe, but which have been imputed to him. He wasn’t a ‘mystical unionist’, as Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, claimed. He wasn’t a populist; he supported government aid to promote industry and agriculture, but not social welfare programs. He believed in equality of opportunity, but not of results. He was not a proponent of civil rights for Negroes, or any other non-white-Europeans; he explicitly favored segregation, and removal of non-whites from the continent.

The ideal that inspired Lincoln was liberal democracy, an Enlightenment ideal that had been embraced by Jefferson and others of the Founders. However, this notion was under attack in the slave-holding regions; some there held that the phrase ‘all men are created equal’ meant that men of the English civic heritage had equal claims to the social rights that flowed from English history.

Lincoln referred to himself as a “Henry Clay Whig”, and he supported the aims of development of that tradition. For most of his life, those aims were thwarted by the politicians of the South. To promote industry would raise their costs (due to tariffs on European goods), and would shift wealth to the Northern states. However, he didn’t always apply his intelligence to the detailed analysis of economic matters, and some of the examples and arguments he used for persuasion are shallow or fallacious.

Lincoln was willing to circumvent Constitutional guarantees to maintain the Union. He believed that the government was entitled to do what it must to maintain itself; otherwise democratic government would always be subject to violent resistance when some faction disagreed with the result of an election.

Lind claims that Lincoln was convinced in 1864 that he would lose his bid for reelection. But he dismissed the idea of suspending elections.

Of course, Lincoln has been made a symbol for civil rights, including Eleanor Roosevelt arranging for Marianne Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking from the same spot. However, Lincoln believed that non-whites were inherently inferior to whites, and should be segregated. For many years he promoted the idea of colonization of Africa or Caribbean islands with free blacks; at one point one of his cabinet members pointed out that using the entire military and merchant fleet to transport blacks to the nearest possible colony would not keep up with half of the birth rate. At the end of the war, he believed that blacks would be largely confined to the South, with laws in the North and West forbidding their migration. Similarly, Asians in the West and Native Americans were denied civil rights.

Lind describes the shifts of allegiance to various political parties. I didn’t follow all of it, but the constant theme seems to be the dominance by Southern politicians of a party that is willing to deny the Jeffersonian ideal of equality, right down to today. He also refers to three Republics: up to 1860, from 1860 to 1932, and since. I haven’t seen this formula before, and it might be peculiar to Lind; it might have a kernel of usefulness, but seemed somewhat contrived.

Near the end of the book, Lind has a speculative section on what would have been different without Lincoln. He examines a variety of scenarios that make different politicians President in 1860. In all of his examples, even those where the Union is restored, government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” perishes from the earth, at least for the foreseeable past.

He closes with a quote from Lincoln’s speech at Independence Hall on February 22, 1861 as he traveled to his inauguration. Lincoln summarized the political creed of the United States: “The theory of our government is universal freedom.”


2005-06-12: Cicero


The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician (2001)

by Anthony Everitt (1940-)

This book was recommended by one of the progressive bloggers, perhaps Steve Clemons or Josh Marshal.

As the subtitle indicates, it covers two subjects: Cicero’s life, and the political times in which he lived. A lot happened in his lifetime, and he was a big influence in his time. More or less coincidentally, Cicero’s voluminous correspondence was preserved, and complements his more formal writing. Together, his works had an important influence in preserving the Greek ways of thought for many centuries.

The book itself is quite interesting, opening with the assassination of Caesar. Cicero played no part in the conspiracy, and yet Brutus, brandishing his bloody dagger, hailed Cicero as the natural beneficiary of its effects. Cicero seems to have been miffed that he wasn’t included in the plot.

I found the book interesting for its descriptions of the political strains of the transition from the Roman Republic to the Empire. The constitutional norms had begun to break down in the century before Cicero, but he was a strong proponent of restoring the former forms. The new approach, founded on naked force and disrespect for traditional governmental and family values, could not be stopped by rhetoric and appeals to logic and foresight.

Cicero was not from a family with a tradition of influence in politics, but through application and thoughtfulness he advanced himself. Without a traditional power base or an illustrious past to support him, he was obliged to continually promote himself; in this effort he made himself somewhat of an object of ridicule. Generally fond of topical witticisms, and enjoying the typically cruel joke at the expense of someone else’s reputation, he had a tendency to alienate those who might forgive and later support him. Most dangerously, he incurred the ire of Octavian, which eventually contributed to his proscription and death.

Of course, we can’t know if we are in a transition such as Rome experienced in Cicero’s time. If we are, the parallels in breakdown of political comity and appeal to the baser natures of the people are available for detailed comparison.

Everitt mentions the excellent sources available for this period, but also alludes to the missing information. Apparently the exact nature of the Roman ‘constitution’ is not certain. In addition, certain parts of Cicero’s own record are missing, perhaps censored in the period following his death, during which Octavian became Augustus.

I would like to look a bit into Cicero’s letters, and perhaps some of his later philosophical writings. Everitt recommends the Loeb Classical Library. He also mentions Polybius as a source on the Roman constitution, and the portion of Appian’s history covering the period from Tiberius Gracchus to Caesar’s assassination. Cornelius Nepos wrote about Cicero’s friend Atticus.


2005-04-02: Getting Things Done

Getting Things Done

The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (2001)

by David Allen (1945-)

I was alerted to this book by a Mac-oriented web site that promoted some software to assist with adopting Allen’s approach.

When I started at IITRI in 1995, they gave me a Franklin Planner and instructions on how to use it. I never got into the habit, and basically wasted it, largely because I found it too complicated.

Allen’s approach is to simplify (and reduce stress) by getting everything out of your head and into a trusted, reliable system. This way you can be sure to find out what you should be doing next. By trusting your system, you don’t worry that you’ve forgotten some task that will later hurt you.

I don’t claim to have fully implemented his system, but I have adopted some features of it, and find it does help. From what I’ve read of others’ experience, it takes several weeks of practice to reliably develop the necessary habits. I intend to continue using it, and hope to expand its use from the office to home.


2005-04-02: The Best Democracy Money Can Buy

The Best Democracy Money Can Buy

The Truth about Corporate Cons, Globalization, and High-Finance Fraudsters (2004)

by Greg Palast (1952-)

Greg Palast is often assumed to be British, because his work commonly appears in The Guardian and The Observer newspapers, as well as on BBC. However, he is an American investigative reporter, working in a country where no media outlet is willing to risk employing him or using his work. This in itself is a depressing fact about America in these times.

The actual material is even more depressing. Reading it must convince anyone that the people in the most wealthy and powerful circles of our society are thoroughly corrupt.


2005-04-02: All I Did Was Ask

All I Did Was Ask

Conversations with Writers, Actors, Musicians, and Artists (2004

by Terry Gross (1951-)

I’ve listened to Fresh Air since 1990, when Unisys assigned me to work near Philadelphia. I heard it intermittently on WHYY, and really liked Terry Gross’s thoughtful style of interviewing. When the show was picked up on a Washington NPR station, I was able to listen a little more regularly (it’s on too early for afternoon drive-time).

I saw Terry herself interviewed on TV, and first saw what she looked like, when she was promoting this book. She looked pretty uncomfortable being the subject of the interview.

I got the book from the library, and read about half of the 39 interviews, as well as the Introduction. It was interesting to learn a little of her background, and how they put together the interviews, allowing for editing.

It was also interesting to read one or two interviews that I had (partially) heard on the radio. They read much as I remembered hearing them.

These interviews are with artistic people, not political figures. They have a wide range of ages and a corresponding variety of viewpoints. I would recommend the book to anyone; they will likely find a few interviews with people they find interesting. Among those I especially enjoyed were Dustin Hoffman, Johnny Cash, Michael Caine, Mickey Spillane, and Maurice Sendak.


2004-02-18: Will in the World

Will in the World

How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (2004)

by Stephen Greenblatt (1943-)

Greenblatt is a Harvard professor, editor of The Norton Shakespeare, and has clearly pondered the ways in which a person’s background thought affects his expression, or at least the ways in which the known, surmised, and conjectured background thought of William Shakespeare affected his expression in the sonnets and plays.

I read this book not long after Michael Woods’ In Search of Shakespeare, and the early parts of this book contained a lot of familiar material. However, the two works have different objectives and approaches. I found them both very interesting.

Greenblatt describes the constraints on players of the Elizabethan period, and the religious, social, and entertainment communities in which Shakespeare came of age. Addressing his later work, Greenblatt describes Shakespeare’s innovations, particularly what he calls the opacity of motivation: a way of describing a character’s actions without explicitly describing his thought processes, rather allowing the audience to infer them from more or less subtle hints implicit in the behavior. The final chapter describes how thoughts of retirement must have influenced his latest plays.

I found it interesting to learn how the fortunes of his company were affected by the accession of James, and the ways in which Shakespeare probed the limits of censorship or royal acceptance. I also hadn’t known of his business success in setting up for a long retirement.

Greenblatt acknowledges many scholars and biographers. Interestingly, among them is Woods and the movie Shakespeare In Love.

As often happens, this work inspires me to read further. I would like to look into the Norton Shakespeare, though I can’t tell if I will give this project enough priority to actually accomplish it (it’s over 3,000 pages!).


2005-02-05: We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families

We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families

Stories from Rwanda (1998)

by Philip Gourevitch (1961-)

This is a very interesting, if somewhat depressing, book. The title is a sentence from a letter sent by a group of Seventh-Day Adventist pastors to Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, the head of their church, an appeal for him to find a way to prevent their murders in the 1994 genocide. His reply was “Your problem has already found a solution. You must die.” They were Tutsis and he was Hutu. Gourevitch obtained a copy of the letter from Ntakirutimana when he interviewed him in Laredo, Texas.

The book is about the background of the genocide, the planning and carrying-out of the genocide, and the aftermath of the genocide, through 1998. Gourevitch visited Rwanda several times from 1995 to 1998, and seems to have had good access to the new regime that came in after the Hutu Power regime was pushed out, particularly Kagame. He is sympathetic to the Tutsi victims, and critical of the way that the international community, including the UN and the US, failed to act in time to prevent a terrible tragedy. He also portrays the difficulties of Hutus and Tutsis continuing to live together in post-genocide Rwanda.

Among the comments I found interesting:

The “authors” of the genocide, as Rwandans call them, understood that in order to move a huge number of weak people to do wrong, it is necessary to appeal to their desire for strength – and the gray force that really drives people is power. Hatred and power are both, in their different ways, passions. The difference is that hatred is purely negative, while power is essentially positive: you surrender to hatred, but you aspire to power. (page 129)

[P]ower largely consists in the ability to make others inhabit your story of their reality, even if you have to kill a lot of them to make that happen. In this raw sense, power has always been very much the same everywhere; what varies is primarily the quality of the reality it seeks to create: is it based more in truth than in falsehood, which is to say, is it more or less abusive of its subjects? The answer is often a function of how broadly or narrowly the power is based: is it centered in one person, or is it spread out among many different centers that exercise checks on one another? And are its subjects merely subjects or are they also citizens? In principle, narrowly based power is easier to abuse, while more broadly based power requires a truer story at its core and is more likely to protect more of its subjects from abuse. (page 181)

Bonaventure [who escaped the attacks] believed that survival was meaningless until one found “a reason to survive again, a reason to look to tomorrow.” This was a widely held view in Rwanda, where depression was epidemic. The so-called survival instinct is often described as an animal urge to preserve oneself. But once the threat of bodily annihilation is relieved, the soul still requires preservation, and a wounded soul becomes the source of its own affliction; it cannot nurse itself directly. So survival can seem a curse, for one of the dominant needs of the needy soul is to be needed. As I came to know survivors, I found that, when it comes to soul preservation, the urge to look after others is often greater than the urge to look after oneself. All across the ghastly countryside, survivors sought each other out, assembling surrogate families and squatting together in abandoned shacks, in schoolyard shanties and burned-out shops, hoping for safety and comfort in hastily assembled households. A shadow world of the severely traumatized and achingly bereft established in the ruins. The extent of orphanhood was especially staggering: two years after the genocide, more than a hundred thousand children were looking after one another in homes that lacked adult presence. (page 228)

While he was interviewing a survivor, Odette Nyiramilimo, she asked: “Do the people in America really want to read this? People tell me to write these things down, but it’s written inside of me. I almost hope for the day when I can forget.” (page 238)

Nobody ever talked seriously about conducting tens of thousands of murder trials in Rwanda. Western legal experts like to say that even the lawyer-crowded United States could not have handled Rwanda’s caseload fairly and expeditiously. “It’s materially impossible to judge all those who participated in the massacres, and politically it’s no good, even though it’s just,” the RPF’s Tito Ruteramara told me. “This was a true genocide, and the only correct response is true justice. But Rwanda has the death penalty, and – well, that would mean a lot more killing.”

In other words, a true genocide and true justice are incompatible. (page 249)

On my return to Goma [to see Hutu refugee camps in Zaire], I learned that it was true that the International Organization for Migration had planned an evacuation convoy to rescue the Tutsis in Kitchanga [where Hutus continue to massacre Tutsis], but that the plan had been scrapped. The IOM mandate did not permit it to assist “internally displace” people in crossing international borders. The UNHCR and dozens of other humainatarian organizations that had the lucrative catering contracts for the camps in Goma all had similar limitations in their mandates, which prevented them from saving the Mokoto survivors. Most aid organizations prohibited themselves from transporting anyone anywhere, and cold provide relief only on the spot; many refused to conduct operations that involved armed security, lest their “neutrality” should be compromised; still others maintained that it would violate their humanitarian principles to further the aims of “ethnic cleansing” by removing Tutsis just because Hutus threatened them. Individual aid workers I spoke with agreed that it was more human to “ethnically cleanse” people than to leave them to be murdered. But it became clear that their organizations’ first commitment was not to protecting people but to protecting their mandates. “Everything is lies here,” Father Victor, the Mokoto monk, told me in Goma. “All these organizations – they will give blankets, food, yes. But save lives? No, they can’t.” (page 289)

[General Kagame said,] “I think we should start accusing these people who actually supported the camps, spent a million dollars per day in these camps, gave support to these groups to rebuild themselves into a force, militarized refugees. When in the ned these refugees are caught up in the fighting and they die, I think it has more to do with these people than Rwanda, than Congo, than the Alliance. Why shouldn’t we accuse them? This is the guilt they are trying to fight off. This is something they are trying to deflect.”

It was true that the victory of the Pan-African alliance Kagame had put together in the Congo had constituted a defeat for the international community. The major powers and their humanitarian representatives had been pushed out of the way, and, he said, “they are angered, and the guilt is exposed by the defeat.” He said, “they have not determined the outcome, so again this is something they cannot stomach.” He said, “Kabila emerges, alliance emerges, something changes, Mobutu goes: things happen, the region is happy about what is happening, different people have had different ways of supporting the process. And they are left out, and everything takes them by surprise. They are extremely annoyed by that, and they can’t take it like that.” (page 340)

It would be interesting to get other views about Kagame, who is portrayed as a heroic founding-father figure for Rwanda. But regardless of the accuracy of the portrayal of him and his movement, the stories of Rwanda are disturbing and interesting.


2005-01-10: The First Three Minutes

The First Three Minutes

A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe (updated 1977)

by Steven Weinberg (1933-)

I’ve been aware of this book for decades, but wasn’t moved to read it until I recently started reading a book about string theory, ostensibly for a popular audience. This book is also aimed at a popular audience, having originated in popular lectures. Unfortunately, I found it somewhat unsatisfying.

Although it is well known that even a single equation will cut the sales of a book, Weinberg claims not to require mathematics, yet constantly expresses mathematical formulas in English sentences and large numbers in words; these take up more room and communicate less clearly than their mathematical equivalent, and are really cheating the reader. Without at least a little math, the text amounts to hand-waving (in some areas, arm-waving). I doubt that the subject can be understood by a mathematically illiterate reader; I consider the attempt to avoid mathematics at all cost to be a wasted effort. Weinberg does provide an appendix full of math, but I didn’t read it. I also doubt many other readers have read it.

I think the subject could be presented in a better way, with the approach used in Gravitation (which of course is not a popular book). Multiple “tracks” through the material could be provided. One track could have lots of pictures and simple notions of the basic concepts (particles, energy, temperature, time), but little quantitative information. Another track could refine the concepts with measurements and other quantitative aspects, including arithmetic and algebra to relate derived quantities. A third track could provide enough math to demonstrate that the first two tracks were not just hand-waving, without trying to derive the necessary equations, simply explaining them.

On a related note, the book has too many references to the work that it summarizes. It’s not as if the target reader could look up any of it, or has any idea who the people named might be.

Aside from those concerns, I thought the subject was well chosen, and I haven’t seen any better treatment. I liked the chapter about the history of the detection of the 3K background radiation; it gives a glimpse into the human side of scientific fashions. Certainly a lot of readers left the book on their desks or coffee tables, without gaining any understanding of its subject, but some at least might have gained a little (or improved their) understanding beyond the various mythologies floating around in our culture.