Descartes was wrong: ‘a person is a person through other persons’


Abeba Birhane in Aeon:

Few respected philosophers and psychologists would identify as strict Cartesian dualists, in the sense of believing that mind and matter are completely separate. But the Cartesian cogito is still everywhere you look. The experimental design of memory testing, for example, tends to proceed from the assumption that it’s possible to draw a sharp distinction between the self and the world. If memory simply lives inside the skull, then it’s perfectly acceptable to remove a person from her everyday environment and relationships, and to test her recall using flashcards or screens in the artificial confines of a lab. A person is considered a standalone entity, irrespective of her surroundings, inscribed in the brain as a series of cognitive processes. Memory must be simply something you have, not something you do within a certain context.

Social psychology purports to examine the relationship between cognition and society. But even then, the investigation often presumes that a collective of Cartesian subjects are the real focus of the enquiry, not selves that co-evolve with others over time. In the 1960s, the American psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané became interested in the murder of Kitty Genovese, a young white woman who had been stabbed and assaulted on her way home one night in New York. Multiple people had witnessed the crime but none stepped in to prevent it. Darley and Latané designed a series of experiments in which they simulated a crisis, such as an epileptic fit, or smoke billowing in from the next room, to observe what people did. They were the first to identify the so-called ‘bystander effect’, in which people seem to respond more slowly to someone in distress if others are around.

Darley and Latané suggested that this might come from a ‘diffusion of responsibility’, in which the obligation to react is diluted across a bigger group of people. But as the American psychologist Frances Cherry argued in The Stubborn Particulars of Social Psychology: Essays on the Research Process (1995), this numerical approach wipes away vital contextual information that might help to understand people’s real motives. Genovese’s murder had to be seen against a backdrop in which violence against women was not taken seriously, Cherry said, and in which people were reluctant to step into what might have been a domestic dispute. Moreover, the murder of a poor black woman would have attracted far less subsequent media interest. But Darley and Latané’s focus make structural factors much harder to see.

Is there a way of reconciling these two accounts of the self – the relational, world-embracing version, and the autonomous, inward one? The 20th-century Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin believed that the answer lay in dialogue. We need others in order to evaluate our own existence and construct a coherent self-image.

More here.

In Praise of Slowness

Henry Martyn Lloyd in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

TheslowprofessorIn an attempt to view its treasures in less than nine minutes and 43 seconds, three youths run recklessly through the Louvre, laughing breathlessly. The scene, from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 Bande à part, is one of French cinema’s most famous. Invoked in the conclusion to Michelle Boulous Walker’s Slow Philosophy: Reading Against the Institution, it is made to capture the malaise that grips contemporary philosophy in its institutional context, where the demands of speed and efficiency dominate at the expense of considered contemplation, and where the rapid production and consumption of knowledge have almost completely displaced the pleasures of the text. As Boulous Walker bluntly asserts, “this is not how we look at art.”

Godard’s image is striking for its visual poetry. By contrast, the dominant if somewhat covert image of Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber’s The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy is striking for its banality. Teenagers working casualized jobs on a minimum wage serve homogenized products devoid of nutritional or aesthetical value to obese, diabetic, and utterly docile consumers. Fluorescent lights accentuate garish plastic furniture and everybody smiles, although nobody knows why. Welcome to McUniversity.

Much has already been written about the corporatization of higher education, the state of the contemporary academy, and particularly the state of the humanities. There has been enough diagnosis. What is needed now is a response that seeks to identify and cultivate a space for resistance within the modern corporate university, for keeping “alive the craft.” It is against the consumptive “student experience” model of education, the productive “publish or perish” culture and their corollaries, that Boulous Walker and Berg and Seeber set themselves. And they do so with a much-needed sense of optimism that such resistance is still possible.

More here.

Semen Quality and the Menstrual Cycle

Jesse Marczyk in Psychology Today:

Horse_0Sticking to mammals just for the sake of discussion, males of most species endure less obligate parenting costs than females. What this means is that if a copulation between a male and female results in conception, the female bears the brunt of the biological costs of reproduction. Many males will only provide some of the gametes required for reproduction, while the females must provide the egg, gestate the fetus, birth it, and nurse/care for it for some time. Because the required female investment is substantially larger, females tend to be more selective about which males they're willing to mate with. That said, even though the male's typical investment is far lower than the female's, it's still a metabolically-costly investment: the males need to generate the sperm and seminal fluid required for conception. Testicles need to be grown, resources need to be invested into sperm/semen production, and that fluid needs to be rationed out on a per-ejaculation basis (a drop may be too little, while a cup may be too much). Put simply, males cannot afford to just produce gallons of semen for fun; it should only be produced to the extent that the benefits outweigh the costs.

For this reason, you tend to see that male testicle size varies between species, contingent on the degree of sperm competition typically encountered. For those not familiar, sperm competition refers to the probability that a female will have sperm from more than one male in her reproductive tract at a time when she might conceive. In a concrete sense, this translates into a fertile female mating with two or more males during her fertile window. This creates a context that favors the evolution of greater male investment into sperm production mechanisms, as the more of your sperm are in the fertilization race, the greater your probability of beating the competition and reproducing. When sperm competition is rare (or absent), however, males need not invest as many resources into mechanisms for producing testes and they are, accordingly, smaller.

More here.

Douglas Coupland: ‘The nine to five is barbaric’

Jon Card in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_2663 Apr. 07 17.02“The nine to five is barbaric. I really believe that. I think one day we will look back at nine-to-five employment in a similar way to how we see child labour in the 19th century,” he says. “The future will not have the nine till five. Instead, the whole day will be interspersed with other parts of your life. Scheduling will become freeform.”

In the same way the industrial revolution led to the creation of the weekend as a break from work, the cloud is altering our work schedule, Coupland says. He points to developments in Silicon Valley, where companies such as Facebook encourage staff to work from home on Wednesdays. Coupland explains that avoiding the San Francisco Bay area commute was part of the reason for this, but getting away from meetings and office politics is the most popular aspect of it with staff. “In the future, every day of the week is going to be a Wednesday. There will be no more weekends, it’ll be one smooth flow. I wish I could say that in the future there will be no meetings, but there will always be meetings.”

The demise of jobs will be unsettling for people both staff and employers, Coupland notes. No one really wants to be trapped in a job, but people still crave structure, he says. “Do people want to be in a job-job? God, no! But while most people like the notion of free time, actually having to deal with it is horrible. It’s a deal with the devil. At least when they’re employed they don’t have to do deal with the freefall; the nothingness of free time.”

More here.

“The Kingdom,” by Emmanuel Carrère

KingdomCarrereMichael Dirda at The Washington Post:

Emmanuel Carrère — one of France’s most admired contemporary writers — has long been drawn to fanatics and crazies. “The Adversary” sought to understand a man who, out of a sense of shame, killed his parents, wife, children and even his dog. In “I Am Alive and You Are Dead,” Carrère turned his attention to the visionary, frequently delusional science fiction novelist Philip K. Dick. “Limonov” tracked the life of Eduard Limonov, poet, memoirist and expert tailor, onetime butler to a New York millionaire and, after returning to his native Russia, founder of the extremist National Bolshevik Party.

Now, in “The Kingdom,” Carrère directs the spotlight on his own urbane, narcissistic self: Can a chic Parisian intellectual also be a Christian?

The result is an intense, compulsively readable book about the mystery of faith, seen from both an autobiographical and historical perspective. In it, Carrère depicts his spiritual journey and attendant confusions with a self-accusatory honesty that recalls both Saint Augustine’s “Confessions” and Dostoevsky’s “Notes From Underground.” But that’s just the beginning. He also speculates about the composition of the Acts of the Apostles and the four Gospels, proffering heterodox interpretations that aren’t just novel but novelistic. As Robert Graves reinterpreted ancient myth as a celebration of the suppressed cult of “the White Goddess,” so Carrère detects throughout much of the New Testament the covert presence of Luke, the Macedonian doctor who became a disciple of Paul.

more here.

Edward O. Wilson’s Proposal to Save the Biosphere

41ZJkCloHjL._SX327_BO1 204 203 200_Mark Jarman at The Hudson Review:

The great and essential biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson has published his latest warning about life on earth. Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life[1] completes a trilogy that includes The Social Conquest of Earth (2012) and The Meaning of Human Existence (2014). Of this trilogy Wilson writes, “[it] describes how our species became the architects and rulers of the Anthropocene epoch, bringing consequences that will affect all of life, both ours and that of the natural world, far into the geological future.” It may be hard to conceive of the “geological future,” when the geological past itself stretches back four billion years, but the new term Anthropocene identifies our current age as one in which humanity has affected not only global biology but geology as well.Half-Earth recounts what we ourselves, i.e., humanity, are doing to our very realm of living. It unfolds precisely and specifically with detailed examples of just how human activity has interrupted the course of evolution on the planet. Human enterprise, as Wilson describes it, looks like a deliberate, ongoing, and increasingly rapid Extinction Level Event. He has a proposal to avert catastrophe by setting aside half the planet as wild land for non-human nature. It is a pretty gloomy prospect to imagine the global cooperation needed for this proposal, but Wilson himself seems optimistic. After all, he believes, to do otherwise will inevitably result in our own annihilation, along with the flora and fauna we are leading and have led to extinction. And when he reminds us that what is wild and non-human includes the human body itself, a symbiotic zoo of microorganisms, most of them bacteria, one can understand the premise of his argument. What he calls the biosphere—everything on the planet that is living and makes life possible—cannot exist without the existence of wild nature, and humanity, vitally connected to that sphere, cannot exist, at least not as we now conceive ourselves to be. Travel to another planet is not the answer. Technological innovation is not the answer. The answer is simple, elegant, proactive and hopeful, and, Wilson reveals, already underway in many parts of the globe.

more here.

Le Pen’s Long Shadow

Jean-marie-le-pen-ap-imgDavid A. Bell at The Nation:

If you want to understand the populist fury now crashing over the West, France provides a good place to start. Not only has the country had its own Trumps for a long time now, but the conditions under which Trumpism can flourish have been present in France for much longer than in much of the rest of Europe and the United States. There is a good case to be made, in fact, that France was the “patient zero” of the West’s current epidemic of populist fever. 

Think of the conditions that helped propel Trump to the American presidency. Eco­nomic stagnation? Since the 1980s, the French economy has expanded at barely half the pace of America’s, and for all but a few brief moments over this long period, unemployment has remained stubbornly at over 8 percent. Resentment of entrenched ruling elites? A very high proportion of France’s political and business leadership graduates from a handful of small, ultra-elite grandes écoles, and is widely criticized as aloof and out of touch. Perceptions of national decline? In many ways, France has still not recovered, psychologically at least, from its loss of great-power status and its colonial empire. Loss of sovereignty? France has surrendered far more to the European Union than the United States has done to any combination of international organizations and multilateral trade pacts. Xenophobia and controversies over immigration? Already in the 1980s, the expansion of the French Muslim population was giving rise to alarmist headlines such as “La France islamique?” in the mainstream French press. Terrorism? Spectacular terrorist attacks traumatized Paris in the early 1980s and again in the 1990s, and again in our own moment. 

more here.

Getting Out Alive

Elaine Blair in The Paris Review:

Goobyecolumbus_tomkeoghWhat is “Goodbye, Columbus”? A story of a summer romance, a satirical sketch of suburban arriviste Jews in the fifties—sure. But when I stumbled on Philip Roth’s first book on the shelf of my high school library, “Goodbye, Columbus” seemed to me above all a brief against marriage. The story’s point—or so I thought of it—unsettled me. I had no intention of heeding it. I was for marriage, a born ball and chain. In the story, Neil Klugman, recently out of Rutgers and the army, works behind the desk at the Newark Library. His summer girlfriend is Brenda Patimkin, a Radcliffe student from tony Short Hills, New Jersey. “We lived in Newark when I was a baby,” she tells Neil—that is, before the Patimkins’ social climb. For Neil, Brenda’s allure is tangled up with his fascination of her prosperous world, and the closer the two of them get, the closer Neil comes to signing up for the whole Patimkin package: a fancy wedding, a lifetime management job at her father’s factory (Patimkin Kitchen and Bathroom Sinks), a country-club membership, a house in Short Hills, and, inevitably, babies. It’s cushy, but Neil isn’t sure he wants that life, while Brenda seems to consider no other.

The second time I read “Goodbye, Columbus,” I was in my late twenties, living in New York City, working in the editorial department of a magazine, and had no aspirations to move to the suburbs. I didn’t think I particularly resembled Brenda Patimkin or the rich young matrons of Short Hills, whose ranks she seemed destined to join, yet I felt very much the thing being cautioned against. I knew myself to be a future wife; I harbored dreams of having children. And I was surrounded by Neils, leery of family life. On the subject of family planning, a beau had recently leaned back in his chair and recited “This Be the Verse.” I have not forgotten his smugness, or my defensiveness: he had some pretty good writing on his side. He might have read aloud from “Goodbye, Columbus,” from a scene that preoccupied me in those days. While Brenda goes dress shopping in New York, Neil drives up to the mountains alone and observes a group of picnicking young mothers and children: “Young white-skinned mothers, hardly older than I, and in many instances younger, chatted in their convertibles behind me, and looked down from time to time to see what their children were about.” Neil has seen them in the mountains before; “in clutches of three or four they dotted the rustic hamburger joints that dotted the Reservation area.” While their kids feed the jukebox, the mothers, “a few of whom I recognized as high school classmates of mine, compared suntans, supermarkets, and vacations. They looked immortal sitting there.” They looked immortal sitting there. The irony needled me. The line stayed with me for years. I was sure, on last reading it, that Roth meant not that the mothers individually looked immortal but that the condition of motherhood—and fatherhood—was immortal, the inescapable, wearying lot of most of humanity. Neil was girding himself to get out while he could.

More here.

The genomic cancer strategy shift

Jim Kozubek in Nautilus:

Cancer-a-191A few years ago, James Watson, one of the co-discovers of the double helix structure of DNA, wrote a manifesto on cancer. He attacked the pursuit of cancer drugs based on next-generation personal genome sequencing, which seeks to unravel the genetic mutations that enable cancer. “The now much-touted genome-based personal cancer therapies,” he wrote, “may turn out to be much less important tools for future medicine than the newspapers of today lead us to hope.” Although next-generation sequencing is now affordable, and even allows us to read the genetic code of a single cancer cell, incident rates of new cases of cancer are still on the rise; and while the cancer death-rate is slightly down, most of the gains have been made in blood and immune cell cancers, like leukemia and lymphoma, not the solid-state tumors deep in our organs, which are harder to detect and treat. The use of personal genetic profiles to rethink cancer was no giant leap for mankind, and the press, Watson pointed out, began to report the hyperbole. We’re gaining “comprehensive views of how most cancers arise and function at the genetic and biochemical level,” he noted. But the vast set of tricks that cancer cells can use to escape cellular controls on their growth and migration means that the “curing” of cancers now unfortunately seems “an even more daunting objective” than it was in 1971, when Richard Nixon initiated the “war on cancer.”

Simply learning how to stop cells from becoming cancerous doesn’t seem to be a promising way to fight cancer, since hundreds of human genes are serious “drivers” that may alter multiple pathways—any chain of events that cells can readjust to alter energy use or production, or to grow and divide abnormally. Other molecules bind to DNA or to the proteins that holster it, resulting in cell types as diverse as bone, liver, or neuron—miraculous changes that can happen without ever altering the permanent code of a cell. (Each tissue or cell—no matter the type—has a unique epigenetic code that determines what genes are expressed and what type of cell it becomes.) When cells become cancerous, they may reverse these shapeshifting tricks, undergoing so-called “epithelial-to-mesenchymal cell transitions.” This turns dedicated cells—that is, cells working as a specific type—into free-floating cells. Their flexible shapes and ability to generate high amounts of the molecular fuel, ATP, allow them to achieve “anchorage independence.” They break from neighboring cells, becoming “motile,” or free to move elsewhere—to the brain, liver, or lungs, perhaps. Mutations to genes in some key pathways related to energy use or cell division can also enable cells to undergo unchecked growth or proliferation.

More here.

Friday Poem

Abandoning the Mechanical

—for my friends, the professors

It is sometimes this business
of having
to keep talking

I hear myself
making painful sounds
spinning and splattering
like a car
caught in the slush

I just want to
walk away, but I have
this fear
of needing to cover
so much desolate ground.

by Lou Lipsitz
from Seeking the Hook
Signal Books 1997

Walt Whitman on Beards, Alcohol, Dancing, and Ennui

From Signature:

ScreenHunter_2662 Apr. 06 21.48Manly health! Is there not a kind of charm — a fascinating magic in the words?

We fancy we see the look with which the phrase is met by many a young man, strong, alert, vigorous, whose mind has always felt, but never formed in words, the ambition to attain to the perfection of his bodily powers — has realized to himself that all other goods of existence would hardly be goods, in comparison with a perfect body, perfect blood — no morbid humors, no weakness, no impotency or deficiency or bad stuff in him; but all running over with animation and ardor, all marked by herculean strength, suppleness, a clear complexion, and the rich results (which follow such causes) of a laughing voice, a merry song morn and night, a sparkling eye, and an ever-happy soul!

To such a young man — to all who read these lines — let us, with rapid pen, sketch some of the requisites toward this condition of sound health we talk of — a condition, we wish it distinctly understood, far easier to attain than is generally supposed; and which, even to many of those long wrenched by bad habits or by illness, must not be despaired of, but perseveringly striven for, as, in reason, probable and almost certain yet to attain.

On Training and Ennui

The observance of the laws of manly training, duly followed, can utterly rout and do away with the curse of a depressed mind, melancholy, “ennui,” which now, in more than half the men of America, blights a large portion of the days of their existence.

More here.

Fish Changed in a Surprising Way Before Invading Land: Even before they grew strong legs, their eyes surged in size

Ed Yong in The Atlantic:

Lead_960Around 385 million years ago, fish started hauling themselves onto land. Over time, their flattened fins gradually transformed into sturdy legs, ending in feet and digits. Rather than paddling through water, they started striding over solid ground. Eventually, these pioneers gave rise to the tetrapods—the lineage of four-legged animals that includes reptiles, amphibians, and mammals like us. This transition from water to land is an evocative one, and for obvious reasons, people tend to focus on the legs. They are the organs that changed most obviously, that gave the tetrapods their name, and that carried them into their evolutionary future.

But Malcolm MacIver from Northwestern University was more interested in eyes.

The earliest tetrapods had much bigger eyes than their fishy forebears. MacIver always assumed that this enlargement happened after they marched onto land, allowing them to see further and to plan their paths. “That was an expectation fueled by ignorance,” he says. Actually, after studying the fossils of many fishapods—extinct species that were intermediate between fish and tetrapods—MacIver found that bigger eyes evolved before walking legs.

As the eyes swelled in size, they also moved to the tops of their owners’ heads, allowing them to peer out of the water surface like crocodiles do today.

More here.

Should America Have Entered World War I?

Michael Kazin in the New York Times:

06Kazin-master768One hundred years ago today, Congress voted to enter what was then the largest and bloodiest war in history. Four days earlier, President Woodrow Wilson had sought to unite a sharply divided populace with a stirring claim that the nation “is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured.” The war lasted only another year and a half, but in that time, an astounding 117,000 American soldiers were killed and 202,000 wounded.

Still, most Americans know little about why the United States fought in World War I, or why it mattered. The “Great War” that tore apart Europe and the Middle East and took the lives of over 17 million people worldwide lacks the high drama and moral gravity of the Civil War and World War II, in which the very survival of the nation seemed at stake.

World War I is less easy to explain. America intervened nearly three years after it began, and the “doughboys,” as our troops were called, engaged in serious combat for only a few months. More Americans in uniform died away from the battlefield — thousands from the Spanish flu — than with weapons in hand. After victory was achieved, Wilson’s audacious hope of making a peace that would advance democracy and national self-determination blew up in his face when the Senate refused to ratify the treaty he had signed at the Palace of Versailles.

But attention should be paid. America’s decision to join the Allies was a turning point in world history. It altered the fortunes of the war and the course of the 20th century — and not necessarily for the better. Its entry most likely foreclosed the possibility of a negotiated peace among belligerent powers that were exhausted from years mired in trench warfare.

More here.

Thursday Poem

First Lesson in Alchemy

Rabbit, swan, deer, butterfly . . .
Out of nowhere, and with empty hands,
my father brought the shadow world to life.

Usually it happened late at night:
he’d light a candle, fix it on the stand,
then rabbits, swans, deer, that butterfly

and creatures I had never heard described
changed one into the other. Understand?
My father brought the shadow world to life.

Spelled out like this, it doesn’t seem quite right,
quite true, this miracle of the midlands
where rabbits, swans, deer or even butterflies

were seldom to be seen in broad daylight
in the few square miles that confined our lives back then.
My father brought a shadow world to life?

And yet that’s what he did. Before our eyes
his simple gesture made the known expand.
Rabbits, swans, deer, butterflies . . .
Now my father gives the shadow world new life.

by Pat Boran
from New and Selected Poems
Dedalus Press, Dublin, 2007