According to a conventional view, the most fundamental difference between humans and the other great apes is humans’ more highly developed capacities for thought and language – in other words, our superior intellects. A more decisive difference is the human capacity for feeling, and it is this that has enabled us to develop our cultures. As Damasio points out, however, cultural behaviours do not exist only in ‘minded creatures’. They can be found in very simple unicellular organisms, which rely on chemical molecules ‘to detect certain conditions in their environments, including the presence of others, and to guide the actions … needed to organize and maintain their lives in a social environment. For instance, bacteria can sense the numbers in the groups they form and in an unthinking way assess group strength, and they can, depending on the strength of the group, engage or not in a battle for the defence of their territory.’ Organisms without minds display kinds of behaviour we normally reserve for animals like ourselves; though humans do not descend directly from bacteria, our lives are governed by the same imperatives. The common thread linking the two is a process of homeostasis, operating in organisms to secure not only their survival but also a state of flourishing. This is where feeling comes in: ‘Feelings are the subjective experiences of the state of life – that is, of homeostasis – in all creatures endowed with a mind and a conscious point of view.’
In the summer of 1520, towards the end of his life, the great German artist Albrecht Dürer travelled from his home in Nuremberg to the Low Countries, to meet his new patron, the Holy Roman emperor Charles V. At the same time, halfway across the world in the middle of the Americas, the Spanish adventurer Hernán Cortés was carrying out his merciless siege of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán. By the time it fell, on 13 August 1521, much of the city lay in ruins, and as many as 100,000 of its inhabitants had already died. Many more were massacred as the victors set about plundering whatever they could lay their hands on. When the first shipment of spoils arrived in Brussels, Dürer was one of those who flocked to examine it. He was blown away. “All the days of my life,” he wrote in his diary, “I have seen nothing that rejoiced my heart so much as these things, for I saw amongst them wonderful works of art, and I marvelled at the subtle ingenuity of men in foreign lands. Indeed I cannot express all that I thought there.”
This vignette of cross-global inspiration is one of the highlights of David Olusoga’s new book, a richly illustrated companion volume to the two episodes he is presenting in the BBC’s new Civilisations. In outline, its format is fairly Eurocentric and conventional. Despite all the fuss that has been made about the TV project’s updating of Kenneth Clark’s 1969 series Civilisation, Olusoga’s own approach is framed in terms that would hardly have shocked audiences 50 years ago: the first half of the book considers contact between civilisations in “the European Age of Discovery” (from the 15th to the 18th centuries), while the second looks at the impact of industrialisation on the art and artists of the 19th century.
It’s become something of an article of faith that English-language readers are more eager than ever to devour literature in translation, and as the famous (but now outdated) three percent figure suggests, sometimes the only way to go is up. Much ink has been spilled in attempts to determine what is at the root of this world literature renaissance, and wishful thinking might suggest it’s that, as readers, Americans have simply become a whole lot more sophisticated and cosmopolitan in outlook. It’s a comforting thought, certainly, but not one borne out by sales figures, and anyone who’s spent more than two minutes in publishing also knows that while previous periods of soaring interest in literatures written beyond our shores may have been spurred on by attempts to understand cultures beyond our own (even this much is in doubt), this latest wave is, at least in part, as much a phenomenon of late-stage capitalism as of high-mindedness. Publishing international writers is now a no-brainer even in houses that haven’t traditionally published much in translation at all. It’s ever more rare to come across a recent college graduate who hasn’t spent a semester abroad, and yet there’s nothing to suggest that the increasing ease with which we move across borders (assuming we’re not one of myriad ostracized groups) has led us to engage more meaningfully with cultures beyond our own. But we like to feel that we are doing so, perhaps in the same way we watch the cinematic adaptation out of the sense that it will give us an idea of what the book is about. On the other hand, the new generation of independent publishing houses dedicated to literature in translation does attest to higher ideals in some corners.
“I take the first true measure of my body and decide that it’s shame, not sin, that’s unholy.” It’s 1955 Iran and Forugh Farrokhzad, a soon-to-be divorced mother, awakens to sex and art in Jasmin Darznik’s novel, “Song of a Captive Bird.” A few pages later, having begun an affair with a progressive Tehrani editor, Farrokhzad writes the poem that will make her both a symbol of female strength and a notorious “woman without shame,” as Persian mothers like to say. In it she confesses, “I’ve sinned a sin of pleasure / beside a body trembling and spent.” She doesn’t hide behind metaphor, and she isn’t the meek beloved of the old poems. She acts on her own desires. When she pines, it isn’t for a romantic savior but for a body. Tehran is scandalized.
Farrokhzad was Iran’s most celebrated — and controversial — female poet, and Darznik, the Iranian-born author of the memoir “The Good Daughter,” recreates her sexual and creative liberation while exploring the threat she posed to social order in prerevolutionary Iran. By the year of Farrokhzad’s debut, the “New Poetry” of Nima Yooshij and Ahmad Shamlou — both men — had made Iranian verse more accessible, freer in form and subject matter. But critics instantly denounced Farrokhzad as a silly girl, dismissing her work as an outgrowth of the national fascination with the hedonistic West, a trend Tehrani intellectuals called “Westoxification.”
It does require a fairly dystopian strain of doublethink for a company to celebrate how hard and how constantly its employees must work to make a living, given that these companies are themselves setting the terms. And yet this type of faux-inspirational tale has been appearing more lately, both in corporate advertising and in the news. Fiverr, an online freelance marketplace that promotes itself as being for “the lean entrepreneur”—as its name suggests, services advertised on Fiverr can be purchased for as low as five dollars—recently attracted ire for an ad campaign called “In Doers We Trust.” One ad, prominently displayed on some New York City subway cars, features a woman staring at the camera with a look of blank determination. “You eat a coffee for lunch,” the ad proclaims. “You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a doer.”
Fiverr, which had raised a hundred and ten million dollars in venture capital by November, 2015, has more about the “In Doers We Trust” campaign on its Web site. In one video, a peppy female voice-over urges “doers” to “always be available,” to think about beating “the trust-fund kids,” and to pitch themselves to everyone they see, including their dentist. A Fiverr press release about “In Doers We Trust” states, “The campaign positions Fiverr to seize today’s emerging zeitgeist of entrepreneurial flexibility, rapid experimentation, and doing more with less.
I visited the Old Library at Jesus College, Cambridge, last week. Prof. Stephen Heath gave an enlightening show-and-tell of the library’s incunabula to me and my fellow pilgrims, John Dugdale Bradley and Michael Gioia (Stanford alums, both). He brought out an astonishing succession of treasures, including Thomas Cranmer‘s Bible, with its triple columns for comparing the original language (Greek, on the pages I saw) to the Vulgate Latin and English.
“What would you like to see last?” he asked me. What could I say? I had no idea what wonders might be in the back rooms. “Surprise me,” I said.
And so he did. He brought out another Bible, this one from America. It was a 1663 Bible translated phonetically by John Eliot. The Natick dialect of Algonquin had no written form until he gave it one. He inscribed the particular presentation copy under my fingers for his alma mater at Cambridge, Jesus College. Was the Eliot name a coincidence? I remember a prominent New England family that spawned another famous Eliot, also with one “l”. On the other hand, I also knew that spellings of surnames were very fluid even into the 19th century.
When I got back to California, I checked on John Eliot, the Puritan missionary. He is indeed distantly related to T.S. Eliot, from the same Brahmin family in Massachusetts. Both descended from Andrew Eliot, whose family came to America via Yeovil and East Coker, Somerset.
But the Algonquin Bible haunted me for another reason: I recently attended a private screening in San Francisco of photographer’s Lena Herzog‘s Last Whispers, about the mass extinction of languages. I meant to tell her about the Algonquin Bible on my return, but now this blogpost will have to do. Perhaps the Algonquin language, which still has more than three thousand speakers, owes something to Eliot’s efforts.
I am writing to you in my personal capacity. This may not be the opinion of the people of Pakistan or the policy of the government, but I write to thank you in response to the generous letter you have written to Malala Yousafzai. Thanks for owning up that your comrades tried to kill her by shooting her in the head. Many of your well-wishers in Pakistan had been claiming the Taliban wouldn't attack a minor girl. They were of the opinion that Malala had shot herself in order to become a celebrity and get a UK visa. Women, as we know, will go to any lengths to get what they want. So thanks for saying that a 14-year-old girl was the Taliban's foe. And if she rolls out the old cliche that the pen is mightier than sword, she must face the sword and find it for herself.
Like you, there are others who are still not sure whether it was "Islamically correct or wrong", or whether she deserved to be "killed or not", but then you go on to suggest that we leave it to Allah.
There are a lot of people in Pakistan, some of them not even Muslims, who, when faced with difficult choices or everyday hardships, say let's leave it to Allah. Sometimes it's the only solace for the helpless. But most people don't say leave it to Allah after shooting a kid in the face. The whole point of leaving it to Allah is that He is a better judge than any human being, and there are matters that are beyond our comprehension – maybe even beyond your favourite writer Bertrand Russell's comprehension.
Allow me to make another small theological point – again about girls.
In 2013, Akbar Ahmed, a celebrated scholar of Islam and Pakistan’s former high commissioner to Britain and Ireland, was invited to speak at a mosque in Athens. What he saw there took him aback. The facility was less a house of God than an underground parking lot “of a particularly sinister aspect,” with its low ceilings, foul odor and atmosphere of bleak desolation. In all of Athens, he learned, there wasn’t a single purpose-built mosque serving the Muslim community. If these were the conditions under which hundreds of thousands of people worshiped, how then did they live and work? “These men had nothing to lose, and I could imagine the most desperate among them prepared to lash out in an unpredictable and even murderous manner,” Ahmed writes in “Journey Into Europe,” the latest installment of his series on Muslims around the world. “This, I felt, was Europe’s ticking time bomb.” European politics only exacerbated the tension. Five years ago, voters were already drifting toward far-right politicians who openly displayed their distaste for Muslims. Today, their views are practically mainstream. “Journey Into Europe” attempts to elucidate why relations between secular European countries and their Muslim populations have grown so fraught, and what can be done to improve them.
The bulk of Ahmed’s research comes from a listening tour he embarked on with a team of researchers between 2013 and 2017. They interviewed imams, community leaders, activists and ordinary people across the continent about the challenges European Muslims face today. Their findings are predictably grim. Across the board, interviewees reported feeling marginalized, stereotyped and prevented from professional advancement because of their background. Despite their multitude of experiences, they ended up lumped into the crude categories that conflate terrorists, Muslims and refugees; Arabs, Persians and Africans; recent immigrants with no facility in the local language and second-generation doctoral students fluent at the highest level. “We are in a cosmic depression,” a British psychologist laments.
Many patterns of discrimination, Ahmed notes, are rooted in colonial legacies that vary by country; in his assessment, Pakistanis in Britain are better integrated than, say, French citizens of Algerian and Moroccan descent. But even absent empire, many of the Muslims he speaks to find it hard, if not impossible, to fit in. “In Denmark they strangle you slowly, slowly,” one interviewee proclaims.Ahmed also documents how Muslim communities end up reinforcing negative stereotypes. Refugees bring with them sectarian and ethnic rivalries that make little sense in Europe. Ahmed’s own team of researchers was chased away from a mosque in Bradford, England, by a group of aggressive teenagers. What happened there “captures the current predicament of contemporary European Muslim society: angry and noisy young Muslims, unresolved issues concerning immigration, frequent violence and terrorism, often inspired by ISIS, the rise of the far right and its dangerous rhetoric of religious hatred and rampant Islamophobia.”
my dad asks, "how com black folk can't just write abut flowers?"
bijan been dead 11 months & my blue margin reduced to arterial, there’s a party at my house, a house held by legislation vocabulary & trill. but hell, it’s ours & it sparkle on the corner of view park, a channel of blk electric. danny wants to walk to the ledge up the block, & we an open river of flex: we know what time it is. on the ledge, folk give up neck & dismantle gray navigation for some slice of body. it’s june. it’s what we do.
walk down the middle of our road, & given view park, a lining of dubois’ 10th, a jack n jill feast, & good blk area, it be our road. we own it. I’m sayin’ with money. our milk neighbors, collaborate in the happy task of surveillance. they new. they pivot function. they call the khaki uniforms. i swift. review the architecture of desire spun clean, & I could see how we all look like ghosts.
3 squad cars roll up at my door & it’s a fucking joke cuz exactly no squad cars rolled up to the mcdonald’s bijan was shot at & exactly no squad cars rolled up to find the murders & exactly no one did what could be categorized as they “job,” depending on how you define time spent for money earned for property & it didn’t make me feel like I could see less of the gun in her holster because she was blk & short & a woman, too. she go,
this your house?
I say yeah. she go,
can you prove it?
It say it mine.
she go ID? I say it mine.
she go backup on the sly
& interview me going all what’s your address—don’t look!
& hugh say I feel wild disrespected.
& white go can you explain that?
& danny say how far the nearest precinct?
& christian say fuck that.
& white go can you explain that?
I cross my arms. I’m bored & headlights quit being interesting after I called 911 when I was 2 years old because it was the only phone number I knew by heart.
We’re used to thinking of ourselves as a finished product. The finish might not always be quite what we’d like, but it’s what we’re stuck with. From a single fertilised egg, we unfold in a progressive elaboration of cells and tissues until we come mewling and puking into the world. From there it’s a linear story that ends sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
But Shakespeare’s age-old narrative of decay, decrepitude and ultimately oblivion no longer works. We have the means to rebuild and replace failing tissues. I speak from personal experience. Over the past several months I have seen a piece of my flesh that was cut from my arm develop into a structure called an “organoid,” a miniature organ. In my case it has become a structure that some call a mini-brain: the size of a frozen pea, it displays many of the distinct features of a real brain that grows in a foetus. I’ve seen evidence that the neurons in such tissue can fire, signalling one another. It would be too poetic to call these signals thoughts, but they are the stuff of thought.
My flesh could have become something else, had the scientists so chosen. It could have become a kidney organoid, or one resembling a piece of heart or pancreas. It could have developed into light-sensitive tissue like that of the retina. And here’s the ultimate fact: it could have become an egg, or sperm, or something like an actual embryo, the beginnings of a being. It could have become any part of “me,” or every part. Here, then, is technology to stir tempting thoughts of cheating death, by replenishing the ailing body or even making a new, lab-grown self to “replace” the old.
Astronomers have long noticed an invisible elephant in the room — so-called dark matter, which seems heavier than all the visible stars, gas and dust in the cosmos by a ratio of 6-to-1.
Though no one knows what dark matter actually is, its presence has been inferred from its gravitational influence on ordinary matter in galaxy after galaxy — until now. Astronomers have found a galaxy that appears to be free of dark matter. The claim, reported today in the journal Nature, throws accepted wisdom about galaxy formation into question, and, if confirmed, may help elucidate dark matter’s true nature.
“It really is quite uncomfortable. It shouldn’t exist; it shouldn’t be real,” Marla Geha, an astronomer at Yale University who was not part of the discovery team, said of the strange galaxy. “Yet if you look at the data, that’s the conclusion you’re drawn to.”
Galaxy NGC 1052–DF2, a half-transparent smear of light 65 million light-years away in the constellation Cetus, hosts some 200 million suns’ worth of stars, and negligible amounts of gas and dust. And that’s it. According to the new study by Yale astronomer Pieter van Dokkum and colleagues, the galaxy’s visible matter accounts for its entire mass, a commonsense conclusion that turns out to be deeply strange.
People talk a lot about “totalitarianism” in the Trump era. I’ve never really loved the category: it seems to paper over some pretty deep differences between the entities one might call totalitarian. But if there was a “totalitarian” moment in my lifetime, it is unquestionably the period between 9/11 and the Iraq war.
It’s not simply that war criminals enlisted the aid of the press and every other ideological apparatus in our country to launch a massively destructive, destabilizing, and completely unwarranted war of aggression (the principal crime against humanity), although they did.
It’s not simply that after 9/11 thousands of people were rounded up and preventively detained, despite not having any ties to terrorism, although they were (and with nary a word, except for a few brave souls, of protest). It’s that there was a palpable shift in what were now unutterable but real conditions for everyday life.
Suddenly, there were soldiers on the streets, and also little American flags everywhere, even in places where they would never have been before. Unanimity in the press and – with very, very few exceptions – unanimity from all political elites. But strangest of all, a bizarre performance from some that this was the way things had always been. When you could literally point to a flag or an obsequious gesture to loving the military and know that, say just a week or two before, it hadn’t been there and yet the conversant would insist no, it always had been that way.
The Iraq war was not the result of “inexperience”. Indeed, its architects were adults in the room of the highest order. The Iraq war and its calamitous outcomes were not “unknowable”; outside of what passes for “expertise” and “experience” in Washington and the op-ed pages of leading newspapers there was near-unanimity among incredibly disparate analystspredicting nearly every horrific outcome that came to pass.
The dawn and rise of the American chef commenced when Americans, from coast to coast, and in large numbers, began voluntarily, enthusiastically cooking in restaurants for a living — a once forbidden and unrespected professional course — screw the consequences. Many started like Marder, spontaneously, rebelliously, often in isolation, with no idea there were others like them Out There. A few stuck their toes in the water in the 1960s, a few more in the 1970s, and then hordes jumped into the pool in the 1980s and ’90s, after which there was no looking back.
These weren’t the first American chefs, or even the first prominent ones. There had always been exceptions, like the astounding Edna Lewis, who for five years ending in 1954 had been the chef and a business partner at Café Nicholson in Midtown Manhattan— that she did this as both an African American and a woman in the 1950s is nothing short of miraculous. But those stories were few and far between, not part of an overarching national phenomenon. And the lower kitchen ranks were more often than not populated with lost souls who lacked ambition or the aptitude for a traditional career, weren’t pursuing a love of food and/or craft, or acting on Marder-like epiphanies, a version of which became a rite of passage for an entire generation. Professional cooking was viewed as menial, unskilled labor performed, often in unsavory conditions, by anonymous worker bees. The United States Department of Labor categorized chefs as domestics through 1976 when — after lobbying by the American Culinary Federation, who themselves required nudging by Louis Szathmary, the Hungarian American Chicago chef, writer, and television personality — it recognized them as professionals. Domestics suggests chauffeurs and housekeepers; most Americans regarded cooks as something grittier.
A crow flew into the tree outside my window. It was not Ted Hugh's crow, or Galway's crow. Or Frost's, Pasternak's, or Lorca's crow. Or one of Homer's crows, stuffed with gore, after the battle. This was just a crow. That never fit in anywhere in life, or did anything worth mentioning. It sat there on the branch for a few minutes. Then picked up and flew beautifully out of my life.
by Raymond Carver from When Water Comes Together With Other Water Vintage Books, 1986
A specter is haunting conservatism — the specter, indeed, of Marx. Those conservatives too young to remember the Cold War are increasingly suspicious of the economic and political prescriptions of the older anticommunism: capitalism as opposed to socialism; individual rights as opposed to collectivism. If they are not sure of Marx’s solutions, they at least share with him a sense of the problems, especially the meaninglessness and atomization of our social order. The alternative right is an alternative to precisely this fading consensus, wagering that race and nation have survived the ravages of liberal capitalism and can be a home again. But they in their own way are only the dark creatures of a broad, Enlightenment liberalism, their whiteness forged in the colonial encounter rather more than in the premodern past. Religious conservatives, in turn, have flitted from the supernatural constitutionalism of the older Christian right, in which America is God’s chosen nation, to an emphasis on natural law, in which our shared sense of right and wrong, of what marriage is and isn’t, can ground a common politics, to finally an unsettled flirtation with premodern forms of Christian polity, in which church and state should be distinct but integrally related in some way. What was solid is melting into air.
Patrick Deneen is the doyen of these dissatisfactions, having advanced them well before Trump, before even the failures of our financial and military adventurism became obvious a decade ago. His new book has its sights upon those hazy uplands where the non-liberals of the left, ambivalent about the sexual revolution, and the non-liberals of the right, ambivalent about ethno-nationalism, converge. That such leftists and rightists barely exist is more or less Deneen’s point: they indicate a way beyond liberalism, and liberalism has corrupted or destroyed them.
In any case, Pinker’s argument falters when he comes to the crucial question of happiness. What good are all our modern health, wealth, and safety if we aren’t living happier lives? Pinker is confident that psychologists can measure happiness just by asking people—either in surveys (“On a scale of 1-7, how satisfied are you with your life overall?”) or in real-time responses to a beeper signal (“How happy do feel right now?”). Of course, such methodologies ignore the ease with which we can deceive ourselves about how happy we are and, especially, the extent to which we aren’t sure what real happiness would be. More generally, they ignore any aspects of a phenomenon that fall outside the idealizations needed for rigorous empirical analysis. But even waving such difficulties, it turns out that there aren’t good data about how happy people have been over the ages. Pinker can only display graphs showing increases in reported happiness in most countries over the last thirty years. (But even so, the United States is an outlier and, he admits, “hasn’t gotten systematically happier over the years”.)
As a result, Pinker has to retreat to an argument based on the correlation between wealth and happiness: “we now know that richer people within a country are happier, that richer counties are happier, and that people get happier as their countries get richer (which means that people get happier over time).” But even if people in, say, medieval or early modern times got happier over the years, it doesn’t follow that their absolute felicity at any given time was lower than ours. In particular, they may, despite relative poverty and other material lacks, have had a much stronger sense of leading meaningful lives, perhaps due to religious belief and sustaining social values.
One day around 26,000 years ago, an eight-to-ten-year-old child and a canine walked together into the rear of Chauvet Cave, in what is now France. Judging from their tracks, which can be traced for around 150 feet across the cave floor, their route took them past the magnificent art for which the cave is famous and into the Room of Skulls—a grotto where many cave-bear skulls can still be seen. They walked together companionably and deliberately, the child slipping once or twice, as well as stopping to clean a torch, in the process leaving a smear of charcoal.
It’s nice to imagine that the pair’s Huckleberry Finn–like exploration became the stuff of legend in their clan, for at the time Chauvet Cave’s recesses were abandoned, its art and cave-bear bones were already thousands of years old, and soon thereafter a landslide would seal the cave entrance. Whatever happened, the pair’s adventure certainly became famous in 2016, when a large radiocarbon dating program that included the smear of charcoal discarded by the child confirmed that the tracks constitute the oldest unequivocal evidence of a relationship between humans and canines.*
You might think that fossil bones and ancient DNA would allow scientists to trace our relationship with canines through the transition from wolf to dog, but this is not straightforward.
Galaxies and dark matter go together like peanut butter and jelly. You typically don't find one without the other. Therefore, researchers were surprised when they uncovered a galaxy that is missing most, if not all, of its dark matter. An invisible substance, dark matter is the underlying scaffolding upon which galaxies are built. It's the glue that holds the visible matter in galaxies — stars and gas — together. "We thought that every galaxy had dark matter and that dark matter is how a galaxy begins," said Pieter van Dokkum of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, lead researcher of the Hubble observations. "This invisible, mysterious substance is the most dominant aspect of any galaxy. So finding a galaxy without it is unexpected. It challenges the standard ideas of how we think galaxies work, and it shows that dark matter is real: it has its own separate existence apart from other components of galaxies. This result also suggests that there may be more than one way to form a galaxy."
The unique galaxy, called NGC 1052-DF2, contains at most 1/400th the amount of dark matter that astronomers had expected. The galaxy is as large as our Milky Way, but it had escaped attention because it contains only 1/200th the number of stars. Given the object's large size and faint appearance, astronomers classify NGC 1052-DF2 as an ultra-diffuse galaxy. A 2015 survey of the Coma galaxy cluster showed these large, faint objects to be surprisingly common.
But none of the ultra-diffuse galaxies discovered so far have been found to be lacking in dark matter. So even among this unusual class of galaxy, NGC 1052-DF2 is an oddball. Van Dokkum and his team spotted the galaxy with the Dragonfly Telephoto Array, a custom-built telescope in New Mexico they designed to find these ghostly galaxies. They then used the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii to measure the motions of 10 giant groupings of stars called globular clusters in the galaxy. Keck revealed that the globular clusters were moving at relatively low speeds, less than 23,000 miles per hour. Stars and clusters in the outskirts of galaxies containing dark matter move at least three times faster. From those measurements, the team calculated the galaxy's mass. "If there is any dark matter at all, it's very little," van Dokkum explained. "The stars in the galaxy can account for all the mass, and there doesn't seem to be any room for dark matter."