Friday, December 2, 2011

Meditation -- simple but deep

The Miracle of MindfulnessThe Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an almost indispensable guide toward establishing an understood meditation practice. Why, how and what: that is, why meditation, how to meditate, and what is meditation, actually. No nonsense, no hoo-ha, no mystification: this is a book my son uses In PRISON to help prisoners discover how they can avoid despair, rage, bitterness, and actually find compassion for themselves and others.

An affectionate title many of his students use to refer to Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced "thick not hawn") is "Thay," a Vietnamese term for teacher or respected teacher. Like calling someone "Maestro" or "Rabbi" or "Pastor."  Some people will say that "Thay" caters too much to Western middle-class desires for self-help and self-actualization and self-ish personal happiness, but I say, okay, start there if that's where people are. And not only the middle-class craves help and personal development. It's just that the middle class generally has the time and the means to articulate it for themselves and "buy in" to retreats and books and DVDs and CDs. But youth at risk and people on the edge need it just as much if not more.

Many of Thay's books are at least accessible and straightforward. I myself have taken transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings and have formally "Taken Refuge" in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
And I started with this, and with his book called simply Anger.  Almost nine years later and I continue to aspire to the path of Buddhism.  A great spiritual teacher, Bo Lozoff, wrote a touching book on practice called Deep and Simple, and in truth that is the spiritual path, just that deep and just that simple: stay aware and open your heart.  Breathe: you are alive.

This book is a great introduction and can pay off in almost instant if gradual changes.

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Nebraska and Transcanada's XL Pipeline Plans

A follow-up to my report of hearings before the Natural Resources Committee of the Nebraska legislature, with good news and bad news.

Good News!:
On November 7, the committee began hearings on several bills that would in the future regulate large pipelines.  Past efforts have been defeated and is it fair to say that Transcanada's serious lobbying and palsy-walsy glad-to-meetcha efforts might have been instrumental in that?  Perchance?  At any rate, the special session of the legislature had been called only days or weeks before--again, due to pressure but this pressure on the governor came from the people of Nebraska.   Go, Big Red!  Because the issue had been raised in the past, there were several bills ready to consider.  Senator Annette DuBas (pronounced  "doo-BOSS") submitted LB1, which had been carefully vetted for constitutional/legal issues, and stood a good chance of being effective, but a poor chance of getting out of committee, since five of the eight members are generally disinclined toward the long view, and usually vote for the quick bucks.  Natural Resources Committee, yes.  Another was ideal but had about a wiener dog's chance in an altercation with a dobermann.  (Senator Haar's bill, which deal with the whole issue forthrightly and truthfully and thoroughly.)  Another bill was a hastily written retaliation on the governor for having called the special session: it assigned the governor and a special panel to regulate pipelines in the future.  Giving the guv the old hotfoot,  it seems.

Despite everything, the committee agreed to pass LB1 on to the legislature for debate, four of the opposition gang agreeing and one (Senator Smith) just flat out refusing to go along with the idea.

Meanwhile, Obama announced his decision to send the federal permit application back for examination of conflict of interest.  His stance said he would make the final decision personally, and that Transcanada should "consider an alternate route."  The President acknowledged that he understood the concerns of Nebraskans when he said job creation should never be at the expense of the health and future of tomorrow's families.

So BOLD Nebraskans (our anti-pipeline loose alliance) took up the charge of appearing and lobbying for the legislative debate the following Monday, November 14.  Imagine everyone's surprise when the speaker of the house announced that he had made contact with Transcanada, and THEY AGREED TO REROUTE THE PIPELINE 'OUT OF' THE SANDHILLS!!    Elation and jubilation.  Whoops:  well, they "agreed" to move it from the Ogallala Formation in the sandhills which is the area in which the most danger would be posed to the High Plains Aquifer.  That's not quite "out of the sandhills."  AND Speaker Michael Flood announced that part of "the deal" would be an offer by Nebraska to pay TWO MILLION dollars of anticipated costs of a new Environmental Impact Statement. 

I personally would have voted against this deal were I a senator.  I think they were going to have to move it
anyway because of the feds (and here I assume they've looked at the GOP Candidate Sideshow and decided Obama does have a pretty good reelection chance), and they knew it.  What better move than to acquiesce and do the thing they had flat out refused to consider only a month or two earlier in meetings with key state senators!!

And, moreover, Senator Dubas's bill passed.  Amended and lashed, no doubt.  But the representative from my district, Sen Karpisek, had already expressed the sentiments of most of us--i.e., in favor of regulation. Transcanada is "exempt" from this bill, however.  Another little piece of candy for the corporates!

But good work:  the point-person for BOLD Nebraska is Jane Kleeb, and she has my total gratitude and admiration.  Especially now that I've seen the level of hatred, disrespect and contempt displayed publicly by at least one of the representatives to Nebraska's unique unicameral.  I'm thinking of moving to his district so I can campaign against him.

Nebraska and Transcanada Keystone XL Pipeline plans

November 9, 2011

Amazing what a little group of people can do.

Here in Nebraska we (and not some "special interests" environmental group, as the conservatives like to call us), we ordinary citizens have put up a valiant struggle to prevent Transcanada Corporation from ploughing right through our state without more than the resistance of a few extraordinarily heroic individual farmers and ranchers who have refused to be bullied into signing away easements with this dirty oil-carrying giant in the face of harassment and threats.

Put yourself in this position:  you are a rancher, for instance, and one day you get notice that Transcanada needs to come onto your ranch to survey for a pipeline that's "coming through."  You try to get more information; it's a maze.  You contact your state representative--what's going on?  Many of them don't answer.  There's no state permit, no official state regulations, no laws even about whether or not a foreign corporation has the right to force you to lie down and roll over.

So you tentatively say no.  And over the next 3 years you are continually phoned, contacted, mailed, by different "land agents" purporting to represent Transcanada.  Some of them say the pipeline has passed the only requirement--an Environmental Impact Statement!  You actually get a letter giving you 30 days to sign an easement agreement or they will begin Easement Condemnation processes against you.  Your legislator says, "See an attorney."  Attorneys cost money.  All this costs time and energy.  Ranching and farming in Nebraska is sometimes a time-draining and expensive proposition. 

Finally you find out where this "pipeline" is coming from, and see that a 36" diameter pipe is to come through 8 miles of your sandhills pastures, pastures of native prairie because that's what holds these sand-dune soils in place.  You picture what such construction will mean, and what it will do to even the roads with their own tentative purchase.  One rancher testified that the pipeline would mean taking 8 miles of pasture out of production--for maybe 20 years!!  Otherwise, cattle herds grazing on the disturbed soil would aggravate erosion, and the line was supposed to go on a NW-SE diagonal:  just what the prevailing winter winds do.
Bad plan.  But who's going to ask a mere rancher?  Who's going to listen?  Who's going to answer such a rancher?

I heard one rancher give this solid testimony on Monday, Nov. 7, at a hearing of Nebraska's Natural Resources Committee.  With four of the most sneering and hostile state legislators I can imagine in my wildests dreams presiding.

A State Senator Carlson afterwards dragged the rancher through a catechism of questions:  Are you an environmentalist?  Are you against fossil fuels?  Do you believe in Global Warming?  In other words, Sen. Carlson implied, the rancher was just pretending to worry about his ranch, his business, his relationship with a huge and hostile foreign company, and the soil and prairie:  he was probably masking his true sinister identity as a rabble-rousing special-interest damned Environmentalist. The attitude made it clear  that unless you answer all those questions right, you're not a patriot, damn you! 

I was shocked at this insolent treatment of a Nebraskan who had taken time off from his work, gone to the trouble and expense of coming for the whole day to Lincoln, had braved the bristling halls and offices of "important people" and dared to report his position, his analysis, his story.  I knew there were members of the committee that usually oppose anything like conservation and environmental concerns.  Now I think  I saw enough to convince me that for at least three of them "natural resources" means "things to be converted into cold cash for you and me and our friends," although I never thought I'd see such open contempt and disrespect in a public setting.

Leonard's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms, by Stephen Jan Gould, a review.

Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural HistoryLeonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Stephen Jay Gould, eminent evolutionary scientist and prolific writer, died in May of 2002, some of his previous forecasts--about "the end" or "the penultimate reflections," or "before the millennium calls a halt"--seemed to be eerie foreshadowings of the virulent cancer which killed him. He had, however, long planned to end his columns for Natural History magazine, and the books that collected them, with the January 1 issue of 2001, the date he would celebrate as the first day of the new century. I think it rounded out to an even 300 successive issues for which he delivered, on time and on the dime, some very polished and often profound pieces of sophisticated science writing for the public.

In Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms(1998), Gould presents twenty-one essays which span his unique mix of interests in science, society, art and literature and history. Gould is first and foremost an evolutionary biologist and paleontologist, but he is also a science historian. The history of science, studied in its cultural contexts, is a sobering study of how much we are all—scientists included--shaped by mostly unconscious cultural expectations. We "think" that what we "think" is the result of "thought and observation," whereas the extent to which our beliefs are shaped by unthinking prejudices should humble us all.

I am reading all of Gould's books this year (or as long as it takes), having read fifteen thus far of some twenty-six, and I am reading them in roughly chronological order. One of the problems with such a diachronic, or longitudinal, study is not knowing the changes in context, in social politics, and philosophy, over the twenty-one years from 1977 to 1998. Nor do I know how much has changed since then, as I write now in late 2011. Moreover, I am not a scientist, only one of his interested general public. I may not fully grasp the innuendos of a given essay, what the topical debate was at the time he wrote it, if he changed his mind later, or how widely accepted his beliefs were or are. To claim to represent Gould's views on any subject, then, is rather like the common fallacy of claiming that Shakespeare believed, because he wrote it, that "there's nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so." Because I do know Shakespeare, and the background and context, I know that, far from believing that, he saw it as a moral equivocation leading to human chaos. He gave those lines to someone he considered to have very wrong values: Iago, in Othello, to be precise Therefore, I think to be safe I'll just sketch a few of Gould's essays here, hoping to entice readers to pick up a few books by this deep, graceful, humorous and above all ethical philosopher of science.

One of the biographical sketches that caught my attention was a story of Leonardo DaVinci's notebooks on natural history. Yes, the Mona Lisa, and The Last Supper, yes, his war machines, his irrigation ideas, but also his novel observations of such preconditions to establishment of contemporary geology as the temporal and historical nature of horizontal earth strata, the differentiation in size of riverine deposits from source to mouth, the presence of fossils and emphatic argument that they are remains of organisms, and their deposition at different times---and many more "first" analyses. Now look at the Mona Lisa again in its entirety and notice even her figure and hair as extended figuration of the processes of "living nature" in the background.

On the other hand, Gould argues, DaVinci is not the original "Yankee at Camelot," nor is he a Space Alien. His observations, in fact, reveal the timeliness of certain early debates. DaVinci died in 1519, a time of great interest and curiosity. The Renaissance did not subscribe to a "flat earth" mythology; that it did was first suggested in the 1800's, perhaps as a way to claim that modernity had advanced!

There are many curious and provocative gems in this book: The origin of Aquariums and how they changed the graphic representation of marine environments. The controversy over Linnaeus's terms and illustrations for the clam, which presented it as basically a living female genital (which seems to reveal deep mental disturbances in the consciousness of the all-male science fraternity in the "Enlightenment").

The theory of evolution proposed as one of "increasing cephalization"—i.e., having more and more "head-room" (by which theory a child is more evolved than an adult) and, most impressively, the gyrations the theorist went through to try to classify data so that it would seem to support the theory.

Then there is a fascinating Art History essay on paleolithic cave art and various theories about its chronology and function. French structuralist theory, as alluring as it once looked, makes what now seem artificial and baseless suggestions of "function and meaning" here. Structuralism looks for opposing values, and decides to make male-female the axis for differentiation, and then decides cow-like animals are female and horse-like animals are male. Am I too much the sarcastic feminist if I say, "Well, of course!"?

The more interesting aspect of the theories, however, relates to ideas about chronology. I am a scholar of art history as it pertains to performance and literary art, and I am well aware of the "Whiggish" and Positivist interpretation of all art history according to modernist superstitions about progress in civilizations. Such interpretations—i.e., that the later is better, or vice versa--underlie methods for estimating chronology by determining, on no particular concrete scale, what is "better." Whatever features the better art has are supposed superior, advanced, progressed, developed; i.e., later in time. (With the exception, of course, of periods of "decadence," which complicate the issue.) But would the new be better if you didn't already know it was new?

Gould cleverly traces this double-bind in dating cave art as theorists looked for "an internal criterion that could order this earliest art into a chronological sequence." They settled, predictably on "the venerable technique of art historians of later times—the analysis of styles." Gould argues that if we had only Michaelangelo's The Last Judgment and Picasso's Guernica, and did not already know that Picasso was several centuries later than Michaelangelo, and knew nothing of the rest of art history in Europe from the 1500s to the 1900s, the two pieces of art could not be ordered in time. The so-called "analysis of styles" would be reduced to mere statements of differences. Neither painting could objectively be called better or worse, earlier or later.

In 1986, cave-art theory summed up: "From the earliest images onward one has the impression of being in the presence of a system refined by time" representing "15,000 years of apprenticeship followed by 8,000 years of academicism"(Ruspoli). Gould raises his familiar complaint about social positivism, by reminding us that even Darwinian evolution "is not a theory of progress." In fact, any "progressivist paradigm for the history of art" is based on the fact that "it just 'feels right' to us that the very earliest art should be primitive. Older in time should mean more rudimentary in mental accomplishment." The corollary, of course, is that closer to our time, in fact in our time precisely, should mean more (one of the magic words) "advanced."

Imagine the chagrin when carbon-dating and other newer techniques of science were able to determine that, in fact, the paintings denoted "earlier" in this theory were no older, or newer, than others. Both "kinds" of paintings supposedly discerned by the art historians (remember, "apprenticeship" and then "academicism") were equally distributed throughout time. There was no such development or progress or progressive change.

We are in our times accustomed to see everything, it seems, change at near-light-speed rates. We live immersed in a bath of public relations (both blatant commercials and more subtle spin doctors for psychology, medicine, philosophy, health, etc.) which continuously chime, "The Newest! The Latest! The Best!" It is therefore deeply engrained in us that progress is inevitable and normal, and that we, each younger generation even, is better, is the "coming thing," is "the beginning of the new." Maybe we would be wiser to realize what Buddha observed 600 years before Common Era time: All is impermanent. Not necessarily better or worse; always changing. I'm sure there is an Old Testament prophet who says something similar. Maybe "there is nothing new under the sun."

At least we have the writings of Stephen Jay Gould who reminds us again and again that we are not the apex of creation, neither as a civilization nor as homo sapiens, and nudges us toward being content with the beauty of differentiation and diversity, always with vivid examples and always, or almost always, with patience and wit.

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Angle of ReposeAngle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A story that starts with a love between two intellectual young American women in the 1850s has me halfway won already. Susan and Augusts are artistic young women in the East and then Thomas comes along to make it an artistic and literary threesome until Thomas proposes to Augusta. Somewhat suddenly Susan resolves to marry Oliver Ward, someone she doesn't know very well, an engineer "in the west." How a genteel Quaker and professional illustrator (of Longfellow & other poets at first) adapts to the crudeness and heartache following her husband from mining sites in such frontier areas as Leadville (CO), Michoacan and Idaho to finally reach an "angle of repose" in Grass Valley (CA) for the last 50 years of her life is the question that is asked by her invalid grandson, who himself is forced into an angle—whether of repose or not is part of the question—an angle of reclined existence at least, strapped in a wheelchair because of a serious bone disease and fighting with his adult son to avoid being placed "in a home."

Stegner writes of the conquest of the west in all its brutality (except for the genocide of the native American nations), its protocapitalist exploitation of the land and the people alike. Susan's husband Oliver fails, or is fired for principle, or is pushed aside in place after place. Three children are born as they trek from place to place, and as her career grows through publication of stories from the west published in major magazines in the east. (She is based on the letters of Mary Hallock Foote.)

The story is fragmented, fractured and refracted through various materials and from different perspectives as contemporary research finds letters, newspaper clippings and obituaries, reads her stories and studies drawings and portraits. It is said that Stegner first became successful as a novelist when he developed the device of telling a story about the American west through a contemporary man with his own eccentricities and personality. The narrator in this story, however, Lyman Ward, retired professor, serves that role, but I found him simply self-important and selfishly judgmental---my reaction representing perhaps a postmodern and feminist insight into the very fifties-like stand-in for the author, similar to the way the "narrators" of Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and John Updike became to many women of the late twentieth-century included in what David Foster Wallace called the "Great Male Narcissists." A little overmuch of that flavor here.

Stegner is known as one of the greatest American writers about "the west," and was notably an environmentalist before that word came into vogue, and an expert biographer of John Wesley Powell, the first explorer and government scientist to begin agitation for the conservation of water in the west. Stegner wrote all of his books in a remarkable "personal literary partnership" with Mary Stuart Page, his wife of 59 years (per Arthur Schlesinger Jr. tribute). He worked on passage of the Wilderness Act, served on the board of the Sierra Club, and helped prevent dams at Dinosaur National Monument in CO. Angle of Repose was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1972.

Although I think it's merely pretty good as literature, as a window into the true story of "how the west was won," and an intellectual woman's struggle to find a place in that conquest, I recommend it. It's an easy read except for the personality of the narrator perhaps.

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Dinosaur in a Haystack, by Stephen Jay Gould, a review.

How better to summarize this 1995 book by paleontologist and science historian Stephen Jay Gould than simply to say, " 34 Natural History Essays, 460 pages, with a valuable Index and Bibliography ranging from William Blake and both Bacons (Sir Francis of Elizabethan science and Roger the contemporary painter), Humphrey Bogart, P.T. Barnum, Lewis Carroll, Anton Chekhov and Noam Chomsky, to Lord Bertrand Russell, Oliver Sacks, Mary Shelley, Voltaire, and E.O. Wilson. Not to mention the scientists!

Gould, professor at Harvard and NYU, curator and important theorist himself in evolutionary science, was all his life engaged in an effort to eradicate the chasm between science and social understanding, or between academic and intellectual discourse and the rest of "us." His concern is always to eradicate faulty or downright false ideas about science in general and evolution most particularly. He constructs graceful, often humorous, but meticulous arguments about important ideas, starting from a detail, e.g., a historical event, a curious happenstance in the life of some artist, politician, or scientist, or even sports star, and leading with precision to general conclusions and theories.

        Take, for example, one essay which is going to be deadly serious and worrisomely abstract about the debate between Gradualism (or Uniformitarianism) and Catastrophism (or Punctuated Equilibrium, as one of Gould's major scientific theories has it). But Gould doesn't start talking in the abstract or scientific jargon: he starts with some innocuous and amusing remarks on "Tongue Worms, Velvet Worms, and Water Bears." Illustrations of these eerie tiny creatures add greatly to the interest; one species is aptly called Hallucigenia. Gould leads the reader gently around to the fact that some scientists have cited these creatures as arguments against the Cambrian Explosion. And here we are embarking on geology and paleontology and the history of life, but carried along by little living fantasias to provoke the curiosity and by transparent prose. What is the Cambrian Explosion? A geologically brief time (a mere 5 million years!) nearly 550 million years ago. What exploded? Life! Most major groups of today's creatures first appear in discernible fossils during that "explosion" of life forms.

       Gradualists find it unlikely that this all happened so (relatively) fast. It goes against the grain of almost unconscious expectation of uniform and gradual changes. Gould, the original 20th-century "catastrophist" in a way (and I oversimplify) is delighted therefore to share new data that uses Tongue Worms et al. to affirm the Cambrian Explosion.The argument against it cited the Tongue Worm phylla as representative of most early life in that it was soft-bodied so we couldn 't know much about origins because of course there aren't fossils before the Cambrian Explosion because soft bodies wouldn't leave fossils. So maybe the phylla of Tongue Worms evolved well after the supposed burst. But a new method for identifying the presence of "shell-less bone-less chicken-less eggs" found that these weird tiny creatures did, in fact, first occur during that 5-million-year episode of "Let there be (multi-celled) life!" Can you imagine the intellectual satisfaction of actually following this elucidation?

       Dinosaur in a Haystack takes its name from a curious phenomenon, that of not finding Dinosaur fossils where they were not really expected to be. A common theme of Gould's penetrating essays on the interaction of social gestalts and scientific theories is that finding anything requires, first, the capacity to imagine that the thing exists somewhere, and, second, the ability to predict where to look. Plus, the third, a conviction that one must look painstakingly. The proverbial needle in the haystack is impossible to find in a casual search, especially if the searcher is not really sure there is one. Once the search is motivated by expectation of value and an image of what is being sought, then it makes sense to take apart the haystack straw by straw, with the inevitable result that if it's there it will be found.

       The particular example here of missing dinosaurs is part of a six-essay centerpiece under the general title "Origin, Stability, and Extinction." All six deal with the problem of expectations, the difficulty of theoretical changes, and how changing expectations or models then begin to yield new results. The dinosaur example figures in a discussion of the once ridiculous suggestion that a large meteor or part of a comet "struck the earth at the end of the Cretaceous period, sixty-five million years ago, triggering one of the five great mass extinctions of life's history," the one which killed all, yes, all dinosaurs. Gould notes that when Nobel-winning physicist Luis Alvarez and colleagues including his son Walter, Helen Michel and Frank Asaro, "first proposed their radical hypothesis of catastrophic extinction," it was met with rejection, containing both "ridicule and vehemence."

       Beyond the general difficulty of accepting such a new and unheard-of proposition, the hypothesis entailed a larger and more general historical debate in evolutionary science: the above-mentioned Gradualism vs. Catastrophism. The Alvarez hypothesis was announced in 1979, coincidentally only a few years after Gould himself and colleague Niles Eldredge had staked their young careers on publication of an anti-gradualist thesis in "Punctuated Equilibria" (1972). Most paleontologists, however, argued that although the dinosaurs became extinct over a period of time toward the end of the Cretaceous era, there was literally no evidence that they had all died in such a short period as would be caused by a single event. And what kind of event could possibly affect the whole globe so quickly?
       Part of the hold of Gradualism is that it allows for the myth that all of life has been evolving naturally toward the creation of the ideal creature, the highest and most complex creature, our humble selves. If catastrophes actually figure significantly in evolution, then the role of chance, of contingency and specific histories, would argue against steady advancement toward improvement. Nevertheless evidence began to accrue to support the Collision thesis: some of it geographical—a crater off the Mexican Yucatan; some of it mineralogical—involving unusually high concentrations of a mineral rare in indigenous earth, and "shock crystals" or "shocked quartz." So scoffing paleontologists were challenged—either to find or definitively not-find-- fossil evidence.

       The argument that dinosaurs died off gradually, over a long period of geological time, was based on the way fossils seemed harder and harder to find in strata over a long era. There were no dinosaurs right up to the very edge of the supposed "cataclysm," so they were already all gone by then, supposedly. A determined search, straw by straw, as it were, was made in order to prove that the dinosaur fossils disappeared before the sudden "end" of the era which would coincide with a cataclysmic event. When the later strata of formations were gone through, "straw by straw," the various scientists issued graceful acknowledgment of defeat: "there is no significant change (in occurrence) between the lower, middle, and upper thirds of the formation. . . .These findings are consistent with an abrupt extinction scenario." The "missing" dinosaur remains were found, after all.

       Finally, in 1994 there was visual confirmation of what an asteroid might do to a planet when the Shoemaker-Levy comet fragments bombarded Jupiter. One fragment produced "a fireball that exceeded the brightness" of the entire planet, and a gas plume some 1300 miles in height. Fragment G, the largest, was only about 2.0 to 2.5 miles in diameter. The Cretaceous-ending object was 6.0 miles across. Doubters became believers as the physics of planetary impact were vividly demonstrated.

       Cultural paradigms die slowly, often agonizingly, for societies and for individuals. To change the very framework through which we view the world is wrenching and disorienting. Imagine today how many fundamentalists—with no science training and relying only on popular, often distorted impressions of evolutionary theory—simply cannot bear to contemplate what seems to them only a wild and unsupported theory which would (again, in the popular distortions of evolution) honor only the bestial in human beings, deny divine agency, contradict their religious foundations and endorse cruel competition, chaotic mayhem. Even if one is not a Christian fundamentalist, I think one needs a strong science background to resist the image that Social Darwinism seems still to project as justification for the worst excesses of dog-eat-dog corporate capitalism. (See new book by Robert H. Frank, The Darwin Economy ! Ox-pucky!)

       There are also essays here on re-visioning what is right in front of us, partly because of new technology, but also because of slowly shifting paradigms. For instance, scientists can now conceive of asking whether a thirty-acre fungus is to be granted status as an individual? And since female aphids—dare we call them mothers?—can generate up to a billion little aphids parthenogenetically (i.e., without sexual fertilization), are these offspring individuals, or clones, or can clones be individuals? At last, it seems scientists are coming around to my way of thinking (I say this only partially in jest, as a Buddhist in philosophy and practice with its vision of being/not-beging "one with everything") and beginning to loosen rigid culturally biassed definitions of individuality. Nineteenth-century science, confined and defined as it was in Europe, was not likely to notice or consider any alternative definition of individuals as long as the model or ideal "progressive" society was one in which the individualist end of the continuum was obviously either God's idea or the idea that had replaced God.

       Perhaps even thirty or twenty years ago a question of the individuality of a vast fungus would have been considered out of bounds. For one thing, what could be the "test" or "evidence" of individuality? Thus the organic complexity of a fungus was left in limbo, but believed to be completely different from the social sense of individuality. In fact, the "Humongous Fungus Among Us" (Gould) was a bit scary ideologically, simply too much like Star Trek's Borg, a cancerous envelopment of individuals who thereby lost their separate beings and were subservient to the oppressive "commune." In the sauve qui peut mindset of nineteenth and early twentieth century, "separation" and "individuation" literally defined the progressive and fully matured individual. From this perspective scientists and philosophers (and psychologists) argued that social insects are not individuals; they have no individual freedom. (See my review of Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter mystery, Whose Body? and reference to "a few backward individuals.")

       Genetic science has been a major factor in shifting science's purview. And now (perhaps) the fungus is an individual, by genetic analysis. The aphid clone is—a clone of perhaps a billion. All right, billion individuals. Bees and ants are individuals even without individual competition to leave the most (personal) progeny. It seems whenever males are not the kings of a portion of creation, and I am talking of the negligibility of the males in ants, bees and aphids, the Buddhist principle of interbeing is given more room to reverberate. Fish who change gender to suit the needs of the school!! Medusas, or other kinds of jellies, which are individuals without a single brain and without benefit of sexual reproduction, being made up of a big cohort of sisters, or a consort of sorority? I'm straying from Gould here, but no wonder.

       I tell you, this evolution/paleontology/biology/science stuff is a gas. And Gould, -- well, he's a mine, from which we derive pure energy. Elegant, thorough, coherent, articulate, and (usually) clear and graceful. This 1995 book is a little on the self-indulgent side of his work, it seems to me, but still: these collections of his Natural History columns are readable, literate, often humorous, and always food for serious thought. Even for non-scientists. Like me.  By the way, the anti-gradualist essay was reprinted in book form in 2007 as
Punctuated Equilibrium.  Readable.  Even for non-scientists. Yes, like me.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Whose Body by Dorothy Sayers, a review and commentary.

Alternative Title: "A Few Backward Individuals."

      I often re-read "light" books for restful diversion: The Lord of the Rings , some of John LeCarre's George Smiley stories, or any Dorothy Sayers mystery, for example. And thus I have just read the light but richly written mystery Whose Body again for the umpteenth time. And discovered something new which increases my admiration for Sayers and my enjoyment of the book.

      This new reading comes because this last year I have been reading Stephen Jay Gould's books (thirteen, so far), especially essays from Natural History magazine (1974-2001). Gould, who died in 2002, was a distinguished and literate evolutionary biologist, paleontologist, professor, and science historian, and one of his favorite topics, or targets, is false generalizations from biological sciences used inappropriately and often inaccurately to draw predictive and reductive conclusions about human beings. Or the reverse—the way cultural prejudices dictate how someone, even a scientist, interprets what is observed.

Reading Whose Body after this year-long exploration of Gould's lectures on bias in the history of science, I for the first time saw the topicality and importance of the theory which Sayers gives to a character who is a (fictional) highly esteemed and accomplished physician. She displays artful linguistic facility in creating a believable facsimile of such theorizing, and a strong moral compass in her ethical evaluation of it. And because that theory is of ideological significance for her era, the twenties and thirties (and, sadly, still meaningful for our own times), I all the more admire both her' linguistic facility in creating a believable facsimile of such writing, and her ethical evaluation of it in the book's resolution.

     Late in the mystery, Lord Peter Wimsey, ducal cadet (if I may say so for the pure joy of language, meaning the younger brother of a duke), man about town, antique book collector and amateur detective, reads a newly published book by the aforesaid physician Sir Julius Freke, a minor figure in the puzzling case Wimsey is investigating. Its theory is that all human thought, behavior and feeling is based on specific physical phenomena in the brain. Thus the human conscience, far from being a still small voice--of God or ethics or social responsibility--is described as a useless vestige of "tribal" levels of culture (which needless to say, in the 1920s in England were considered unworthy). In a society of free and full individuation, the formation in the brain which causes conscience is, according to the theory, useless, like the vermiform appendix--except that far from having an unknown effect, it serves to enslave people to cowardice:
Conscience in man may, in fact, be compared to the sting of a hive-bee,which, so far from conducing to the welfare of its possessor, cannot function, even in a single instance, without occasioning its death. The survival value in each case is purely social; and if humanity ever passes from its present phase of social development into that of a higher individualism, as some of our philosophers have ventured to speculate, we may suppose that this interesting mental phenomenon may gradually cease to appear; just as the nerves and muscles which once controlled the movement of our ears and scalps have, in all save a few backward individuals,become atrophied and of interest only to the physiologist. [emph. mine]

As he reads, Lord Peter suddenly experiences a shuddering eclaircissement: he knows what crimes were committed in his mysterious case, who, why, and how. And readers, by following his line of reasoning to the resolution, are artfully persuaded against the proposition that the utter superiority of modern "man" will lie in achieving "full individuation," becoming free enough to cast off any acquired sense of obligation to others, and boasting with Shakespeare's Richard III, "I am myself alone."

Cultural paradigms are so insidious and assume so natural a shape in our minds that Sayers stirs my admiration by the subtlety of her construction of passages in the fictionalized book about the harm done by the brain's relic of an out-moded human conscience, and by her social consciousness in constructing the plot around it. This ideology, which preaches a higher individual imperative than social responsibility and responsiveness, is deadly serious business. Freud and Darwin, like Nietzsche, are steeped in the capitalist ethos of Adam Smith and Malthus, and their sciences are therefore dyed in its shade. It has arisen again today in the wake of the Reagan-era's instigation of war on American democracy with massive deregulations. The onslaught of the Neo-Conservatives has more than pushed back all the progressive ideas of the sixties and seventies. We've been taught that we are beyond History. That means forgetting history; it's done. When we forget history we are readily duped.

The myth of the Superiority of Western Civilization was the justification for the massacre of natives in the Americas, for the industrial-scale kidnapping of African men, women, and children to be exported as slaves for European colonialists and "white" (European) owners in the Americas, the justification for the invasion of 75% of the world by less than 20% of the world's population, all of this over the course of four centuries, approximately 1492 to 1970. For us, then, to blame German Nazi theory on an erratic and eccentric Adolf Hitler and absolve the longer history of European Colonialism is blind apologism.

And the struggle to return to that myth, and to the Social Darwinism of the supposed advantages of unfettered laissez-faire capitalism and imperialism is at a crucial turning-point it seems to me, with the rise of, first, the Tea-Party (corporate-sponsored mayhem like the Junker sponsorship of the small but fanatic National Socialists) and then the counter-force of October,2011: the Occupy Wall Street movement which brings sentimental and nostalgic tears to the eyes of us old Movement people. And a protective fear for the demonstrators, for from 1956 to 1975 we saw the iron fists and the murderous guns—in Selma, Little Rock, in Berkeley, in Memphis (MLK 1968), in Chicago, in Oakland, in Ohio at Kent State and at Jackson State in Mississippi.

The present and pressing danger of this ideology is monstrous; "astute reader" Jesse Kaufman (my son) just sent me an ad for a new book advertised in The New Yorker (Oct 17, 2011). The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good by right-wing tout Robert H.Frank. Darwin as the father of true economic science!! I know whose Darwin this will be, and I know the subtext of the "Common Good." Naked aggression (free-market cut-throat capitalism) in order to achieve the "improvement of the race" by "weeding out the weak." Herbert Spencer said it all, so well that he convinced Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford to throw away their Christian conscience and realize that competition gets rid of racially inferior people, for the "common good." Oh, S.J.Gould, come back, come back to the Five and Dime!

Thus I reiterate my admiration of Dorothy Sayers' overtly anti-war stance and twenties feminism with its far-seeing social consciousness in her distrust of the great British Brain Trust! After all, World War I had just demonstrated to anyone paying attention a German militarism based on a false equation of Darwin's evolutionary biology with the Herbert Spencer distortion arguing that any mercy shown to the weak essentially creates an inferior human race. That inaccurate equation is at the back of much resistance to Darwinism today, Darwin, who says nothing whatsoever about social ethics for human beings. If you think he does, naturally you would reject the very science as infected with Victorian colonialist mentality. And you will know nothing about 20th century alterations and corrections of evolutionary theory which certainly negate the concept of a never-ending war for domination, and, rather, realize evolution comes about during environmental changes which favor totally unpredictable genetic combinations.

And yet, "everybody loves a lord," and Sayers' Lord Peter, the paragon of British peers, strums all those heartstrings that tie us to our anachronistic love of class, and especially nobility ( as shown by the adulation of the "Royal Wedding" last year of the British millionaires Will and Kate). All the Wimsey mysteries batten on that guilty admiration, that covert sense of social hierarchies. Readers are charmed by Lord Peter because there is no virtue he does not possess. I mentioned antique book collecting, and man about town (all the noble dames scheme to hitch him up to their daughters). Drives a Daimler, recklessly and fast. Dines fastidiously but richly. Has an unequalled "palate" for wines. His valet is imperturbably strict about appropriate and impeccable perfection in Wimsey's dress and grooming. Can pal around with low-class clownish figures, adapt the dialect and pose of most regional eccentricities, and speak seriously about scholarly topics with the Warden (University President) of Harriett Vane's fictional Alma Mater. Plays Bach or what-have-you exquisitely. Punts well (on the river; great at cricket, and even sings. Nervous disorders from his heroic service in the war (WWI), lionized by the men in his command (he was a Major), and troubled by all injustices, large and small, his own anachronistic position among them. Filthy rich but not obnoxious about it. Of course we readers idolize him or fantasize ourselves as his chosen mate or both. It's what art does: it hooks us to certain values and characters and rewards us for the infatuation.

And, as in Whose Body, the process has its pros and cons. All mystery books partake of one central axiom: to provide the reader with a world in which mysteries can be resolved, in which there are ways to "find out the truth." It's lovely when the mystery writer knows that she (or he) has bigger things in hand and does them well. Many mysteries (Arthur Conan Doyle, for instance, and Agatha Christie, with all her delightfully eccentric country-house characters) rely for "order" as much on cultural hierarchies and prejudices as on clever sleuthing . In most British mysteries, Sayers included, Jews and Scots will be money-loaners or sometimes investment sharks; girls with bad grammar (and too many commas) will be no better than they should be, the darker races will be servile and underhanded while orientals are subtle and sinister.

One of the most febrile of these is Christie's The Big Four. A few quick quotations will suffice:
we know him, as it were, only by the impress of his mind—and in passing, Hastings, I will tell you that I begin to understand that mind very well—a mind most subtle and Oriental—every scheme and plot that we have encountered have emanated from the brain of Li Chang Yen. [italics mine]
And the very best passage (or worst, obviously):
There's good reason to suppose that he's the man behind it all. . . . The world-wide unrest, the labour troubles that beset every nation, and the revolutions that break out in some.
Talk about combining conspiracy theory (or fever) with Colonialist racism! Christie is not alone, of course; one of the ways to establish a sense of order and of a smaller controllable world in Victorian ideology (Colonialism) is to affirm that the "world out there" is the source of all corruption: people who've been to Africa, to Egypt and "Arab countries," or the sinister East, or the Americas (especially South America) can, knowingly or not, bring back intrusive evil: curare as a South American poison as well as a host of other imagined ones from "out there" in the Colonies, Egyptian curses and poisonous asps, "thuggery" and "running amok" and other phrases derived from southeast Asia, sinister Chinese secret gangs, Indian cobras, etc. A recent Sherlock Holmes film (Robert Downey, Jr., and Jude Law) turned upon a secret cult that was infiltrating the British aristocracy; its rites and symbols were all from the "third world," i.e., the colonies. A Conan Doyle story turns on a woman's attempts to conceal her "yellow" (half-African) child from her later husband.

In No Motive, Daphne Du Maurier depicts a woman who has repressed any knowledge of having had a baby when she was a girl after she was improperly chaperoned and got drunk on a visit to the camp of traveling agriculture workers in the hops fields, called "hoppers." When she commits suicide, there's no apparent motive--she's happily and wealthily married. A detective is called in, a rather anonymous presence in the story, a "canny Scot" named Black,who  tracks down the story of the woman's life in bits and pieces and finally interviews a passing salesman who had been the last one to see her alive. Black knows by then that the girl had given birth to a baby at a very young age; he knows about the improper visit to the "hoppers'" camp; and that the baby boy was so red-haired it was called "Carrots." Black meets the young salesman, Tom Smith: "He had a thin, rather pinched face, like a ferret, and his eyes were pale blue and close together." The salesman is defensive even before Black speaks. When asked about the woman he saw that day, he confesses that he took more money from Lady Farren than he reported to the company. "A note of self-pity crept into his voice. He almost whined."

Black "had a sudden vision of crowded tents, and lorries, and mattresses, dumped in a field where the hops grew beside tall poles, and bursts of laughter, and the smell of beer, and a shifty-eyed redheaded fellow like this boy, hiding behind a lorry." And, in fact, this salesman "turns out" to be the child whose memory Lady Whatsername had suppressed.  Seeing him caused her suicide, or something like that.  Because, as we all know, if a nice young girl got very drunk and had a sexual encounter with an itinerant farmworker, the baby would have traces of a low-class criminal shifty attitude, and a sneaking "ferrety" look with his eyes close together, and would inevitably have an unmanly and dishonest way of life.

I suppose most people who read this will probably not even notice the assumptions, not if the mystery is compelling and suspenseful and the characterizations sharp, because they are the usual assumptions of mystery books: "murder will out." Class will tell. Cherchez la femme. Watch out for getting "gypped" or "jewed down." And probably 90% of the writers will be unaware of these ideas as unsupported prejudice. They're just truisms of the trade. Like the white hats have to beirectors still assume, white skins and testosterone?) the good guys and they win. Because? Because most people who read have white hats? (Or, writers and d

In times of insecurity, most of us seek eternal verities, and so we read mysteries when we're tired, because order will be restored and justice will prevail, poetic justice at least. I wonder what ideological traces future readers will find in Tony Hillerman, Robert B. Parker, Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky. Traces that we can't even see as cultural bias now because, as Che said, we are in the belly of the monster.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Eight Little Piggies by Stephen Jay Gould; a Review

Oooh. The day has come. One Stephen Jay Gould book too many, and my head has exploded. I've struggled for several weeks with this review, but it won't cohere. In lieu of a "book review" proper, then, I offer these observations. If you already know Gould and his popular and literate writings on science, go ahead and skip to the next paragraph. If you don't know him, you can turn to almost any of my other reviews for enthusiasm and encomium. I think he's one of the most important writers of the twentieth century especially for his understanding of human bias and the way cultural expectations limit and inform what science finds and reports, as well as how public opinion interprets science, or Mis-interprets. He died in 2002, after a productive career as biologist, paleontologist, and evolutionary theorist; he taught at Harvard for most of his career, and was widely lauded for his Evolutionary theory of "Punctuated Equilibrium" (developed with Niles Eldridge, 1972) as well as for his writing about the History of Science. He is entertaining, literate, amusing, lucid and always generous to his ideological opponents: he epitomized civil discourse. And is sorely missed. On the other hand, when opponents claimed that Punctuated Equilibrium was "Evolution by Jerks," he quickly quipped that Gradualism was "Evolution by Creeps."

This book is something like the sixth collection of his popular essays, on most of Gould's usual topics: evolution, the history of ideas, anatomical peculiarities, animal and human behavior, and opposition to human determinism. Reviewing Bully for Brontosaurus just last month I mentioned Gould's essay on DiMaggio's record hitting streak, and compared it to Gould's unbroken streak of monthly essays for Natural History magazine. In the introduction, Gould remarks how much he enjoyed it when Bruce Bochte, a former major league baseball player, made the same comparison. Gould was then (pre-1993) standing at 208 successive issues since January 1974, and would publish four more books of the collected columns before his death in 2002. The columns were planned to end in January of 2001, a goal Gould accomplished.

What's new in this book is a marked shift in Gould's style to a freer, more irreverent choice of analogies and parenthetical comments, as well as a venture in a new direction : "contemplative and highly personal ruminations." He also explicitly takes up a "theme of transcendent (and growing) importance . . . . anthropogenic environmental deterioration and massive extinction of species on our present earth." He professes to have previously avoided it not because he didn't find it important, but because he felt so strongly about it, referring to Wordsworth's phrase about "thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears" and, he adds parenthetically, "perhaps for words as well."

And what Gould says about environmental destruction is powerful. For one thing, he directly addresses the way "Development" boosters distort evolutionary theory to make it seem to give its blessings to extinction of species. I said that Gould usually deals civilly with his opponents on issues of science and political interpretations of it. In an essay called "The Golden Rule," he makes a bit (or a bite) of an exception, citing a June 7, 1990 pro-development "opinion piece" in the Wall Street Journal by Michael D. Copeland "(identified as 'executive director of the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Montana')."

Copeland cited me in the service of a classic false
argument—the standard, almost canonical misuse of my
profession of paleontology in debates about extinction
. . . . to uphold arguments by developers about the
irrelevance (or even, in this case, the benevolence)
of modern anthropogenic extinction. This standard error
is a classic example of failure to understand the
importance of scale. (45)

Copeland neatly twists the words of "Mr. Gould" referring to the Permian extinction's "estimated 96 per cent extinction of species" and yet a claim that "the actual number of living species has probably increased over time." Copeland's conclusion, and what he implies Gould and other paleontologists might say, is that "we may be wasting time, effort and money on animals that will disappear over time, regardless of our efforts."

The time scales—hundreds of millions of years-- of evolution and geology on earth cannot conceivably, Gould argues, be grasped in a way that justifies rapid destabilization. We may indeed "all disappear over time," but to predict that a mass extinction would not bring catastrophe to our human cultures, Gould observes, is a fantasy, and to argue that recovery of "number of living species" will occur skips the little detail that such recovery may take place about 10 million years down the road, and is thus irrelevant if our entire species has so little prospect of surviving that long in rapidly destabilized environmental conditions. Gould quite acutely sums up:

to say that we should let the squirrels go [a species
threatened by the development for which Mr. Michael D.
Copeland was promoter and mouthpiece
] because all species
die (at geological scales) makes about as much sense as
arguing that we shouldn't treat an easily curable childhood
infection because all humans are ultimately and inevitably
mortal. (46)

Gould further argues that paleontology shows us this:

1. We live on a fragile planet now subject to permanent
derailment and disruption by human interventions;
2. Humans must learn to act as stewards for this threatened
world. (ibid.)

He sums up the reality:

[The] planet will recover from nuclear holocaust, but we
will be killed and maimed by billions, and our cultures
will perish. . . .The earth will prosper if polar icecaps
melt under a global greenhouse, but most of our major cities,
built at sea level as ports and harbors, will founder,
and changing agricultural patterns will uproot our
populations." (48)

Serious food for thought and ammunition for our thinking about these issues. And this is just one essay, of thirty-one.

It's a hefty book, at 435 pages in the Norton paperback, with—Bless Academia!—a full and rich Bibliography and an Index. It's the ninth book by Gould I've read this last year (2010/2011) and the thirteenth since I first discovered The Flamingo's Smile some time in the late 1990s. I meant to read all his books and it looked like I could easily and happily do that in a year. My theory was that the more time I spent reading him the better, combining as he does good reading and important information. Up until a month ago, I thought I had only two more books to go. I was mistaken! I now have a list of 26 books. No wonder I have foundered on book #13—I'm only halfway through!.

I recommend the book, absolutely, but by the end of it I felt that perhaps I preferred the more straightforward writer that I knew from earlier books. Or perhaps—and this is the worm beneath the nail—my discomfiture, and my trouble with reviewing the book came because of uncertainty. In Eight Little Piggies Gould writes about contemporary genetic research and theories like the "molecular clock" which, it is proposed, may override natural selection and random variations as the mechanisms for evolutionary change. As Gould argued strenuously for natural selection, and therefore for the survival struggle, I began to suspect that perhaps I myself have been guilty of the cultural bias he so often evokes. Perhaps my 'search image' for arguments against the excrescences of class society, against Herbert Spencer's translation of "survival of the fittest" to justify cut-throat Capitalism, were over-riding my rational understanding. Perhaps I have been misreading Gould. And misrepresenting. Perhaps I had a hard time writing about this book because I could not make it say what I wanted it to say. Perhaps...perhaps this has all been just a dream.

This is a book of riches, but only one in a vast dragon's hoard, it seems. And danger lurks when one suspects that HC SVNT DRACONES. I hope someone out there will explore this territory and report back.

August 2011

Friday, September 9, 2011

Pere Goriot by Honore de Balzac: A Review.

Intrigued by the frequency with which 20th-century theorists Bakhtin and Lukacs cite Balzac as the quintessential modern novelist, I decided to read some Balzac at last, and found this translation of Pere Goriot ("Father Goriot") by M.A. Crawford, entitled Old Goriot. I had amazingly missed Balzac altogether in my undergraduate French major. The very name causes a delicious shudder of the Iowa ladies in the musical play Music Man, so perhaps Balzac was too socially radical for my era in the Bible Belt. Curious.
I had a hard time getting started with the book, partly because protracted description of a boarding house in a poor area of Paris in 1819 failed to give me a clear picture or to make me understand why Balzac insisted it was dreary. The other cause of resistance was fear that it would be too pitiful, with innocents suffering either in silence or in page after page of mournful emotions. Somehow, however, I began to trust Balzac, whose authorial voice from the very beginning seems almost contemporary, sensible and serious, and even intimate. He stresses his intention to tell the story truthfully: "All is true!" he avers, writing it in English in the original for emphasis. "Will it be understood outside Paris? One may doubt it. Only between the heights of Montmartre and Montrouge are there people who can appreciate how exactly, with what close observation, it is drawn from life." I finally became enrapt with the story and with the narrator so much that I intend to read more Balzac, even perhaps tackling it in French!
A sketch of the story: young Eugene Rastignac has come to Paris from the provinces to study law and lives on the meagre support of his family who, although poor, have distant connections to nobility, and provide him with an introduction to a pivotal Paris socialite. He becomes dazzled and obsessed with wealth and success and infatuated with its elegant beauties, both the women and the lifestyle. Meanwhile he lives in the aforesaid "dreary boarding house" with an aged man, Goriot, who is "despised by all the others." "There always is such a laughing-stock" in social groups, Balzac observes. "By what chance had the oldest lodger drawn on him this half-spiteful contempt, this half-pitying persecution, this lack of respect for misfortune? Perhaps he had laid himself open to them by those vagaries and eccentricities which the world forgives less easily than vices. These questions go to the root of many social injustices."
When Eugene discovers and discloses that Goriot is, incredibly, the father of two of the most bewitching and extravagant young women Eugene has seen, the boarders change their attitudes toward the impoverished man who they had thought was simply dreary, probably dissolute, and certainly mindless, and the stage is nearly set.
In addition to being a counterpoint to young Eugene's personal ambitions with those same daughters, Goriot's relevance lies precisely in his "fatherhood." I question the translator's decision to call the English version "Old" Goriot: it is not Goriot's age that is at issue, but what the title "Pere" means in full. It means most directly "Father," and Goriot is an absolutely devoted father, his joys only those of his daughters and his personal griefs reduced to theirs also. A joking medical student interested in one of the century's early pseudo-sciences, phrenology, feels Goriot's skull for keys to his personality: "I've had a look at his head," says Bianchon. "There's only one bump on it—the bump of paternity; he will be an Eternal Father"(a joke on "Heavenly Father" as we say it in today's English). Already, when Eugene meets Goriot, the retired merchant had settled his fortune almost completely between the daughters to procure them good marriages, and been reduced by his own consent to living more austerely than any of the other boarders. We can also see "Pere Goriot" as "Pops" Goriot, and thus "Pere" can mean both a kind of old humble fool, as well as being a beatific symbol
As the story unfolds, the characters all take on more personality, and more influence in the plot. A fascinating temptation is laid out for Eugene by another most interesting lodger, a well-spoken rather bold and influential man. This Monsieur Vautrin outlines for him the endless drudgery that awaits Eugene if he should try to work himself up into the freedom and pleasures of the world he sees with such desire, the world of wealth and influence and beauty and leisure. On the other hand, he offers Eugene immediate access to that world, in a wife worth at least a million francs, a fresh young girl who is already half in love with him, if Eugene will only consent to share 200,000 of it, that and consent to the death which Vautrin assures him will instantly befall the only person who stands in the way, a selfish dolt, a simpleton.
What will Eugene choose? What awaits him as he attempts to win the hearts of elegant society beauties, women about whose happiness he is constantly asked by Father Goriot who begs Eugene to recount their social successes at a ball or at the opera, their clothes, their appearances What will become of Father Goriot? When does affection become foolish infatuation? When do principles represent only a shallow naivete?
It's a simple but intricate plot, and even the Countess Anastasie and Baroness Delphine, as well as several of the seemingly "untouchable" nobles, develop complexities of character that I did not expect. In short, this is indeed a "modern novel" and not a melodrama, although suffering is extreme. But the suffering is extreme because the social system is extreme: Eugene early learns that, in Balzac's words, "human beings are packed in strata, layer above layer, in the framework of society." The way these strata relentlessly press, influence, and shape human destiny is Balzac's real subject matter. and it is this "realistic" sense of class that marks Balzac as such an original writer at the time, prefiguring modernism at its full more than naturalism or the realism of mere verisimilitude.
Pere Goriot is one of forty-four Balzac novels published from 1828 until the author's death, in a sequence that Balzac designated in 1842 as "The Human Comedy" ("La Comedie Humaine"). He envisioned the eventual creation of many more with perhaps 4,000 characters in all, and explained this intention in a famous Preface, sketching the way he wanted to portray characters from every aspect of society during his era: from the civil wars of the French Revolution, to Napoleon, and the Restoration. He did not then know about the abortive Parisian Revolution to come in 1850, the year of his death and the year in which all hope of a society of equality for nineteenth-century France finally ended, perhaps. Or was that what killed him?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Bully for Brontosaurus, by Stephen Jay Gould. A review.

I was recently troubled to see Stephen Jay Gould described in an alleged "review" on as some self-promoting intransigent "Atheist," so I want to start my review of this 1991 book by citing its epigraph:

Pleni sunt coeli/ et terra/gloria eius. Hosanna in excelsis.

("Heaven and earth are full of thy glory: Hosanna in the highest.")

And in his essay on probability, logic and Joe DiMaggio's record hitting streak, Gould wrote: "The best of us will try to live by a few simple rules. Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with thy God, and never draw to an inside straight." (472, "The Streak of Streaks").

As I near the end of this year of reading Stephen Jay Gould's complete works (book-form), I begin to run out of superlatives. I am in fact in the same position as a 1941 Yankees fan after one of the games in DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak: such a fan could laughingly say of the game "Nothing new. Just another hit!" And I can say of Bully for Brontosaurus: "Nothing new. Just another hit!" It's hard to find adjectives to distinguish one book in such a long streak of excellent books. Gould's amazing feat is to have so many books all maintaining superior levels of intelligence, articulation, patience, scientific knowledge, literacy, history and compassionate philosophy. So here is "just another hit in the streak" of Gould's writing in natural history, logic and veracity, and related subjects like art, music, history, philosophy, architecture, poetry and sport.

I can also say that at least one of his books of essays should be required reading for any adult concerned with one of the following areas of needful thought.

1. Evolution. First of all, what is the scientific definition of Evolution and what does it mean? Many of us admit that we don't understand all the theorems of physics, let alone quantum physics, so we don't offer opinions about whether the law of inertia is "true" or not, and certainly can offer no thoughts about relativity. So why is every prating fundamentalist political candidate ready to reject what is not a matter for laypersons to decide? What IS science's theorem of evolution? Is it "Descent with Modification" or "Survival of the Fittest"? Does evolutionary theory entail Hobbes' "War of all against all"? Is "Survival of the Fittest" a struggle between individuals to see which can dominate? Is it gladiatorial? "Nature red in tooth and claw"?

Who is Herbert Spencer, and what relationship do his nineteenth-century philosophy and political applications have with Darwin and Darwin's theories? Why is it so important to know the difference? Do we begin a long moral slide to Fascism, specifically Hitler's Nazi propaganda and killing machines, when we subscribe to evolutionary ideas? Whose? Darwin's? Darwin, who said, "Talk of fame, honor, pleasure, wealth, all are dirt compared with affection"?

Understanding these issues might help to explain why honest and well-intentioned people like William Jennings Bryan for example (see below), and some misguided religious figures have campaigned inexorably against "it," mistaking capitalism, scientism, past German militaristic fascism, and Herbert Spencer's and Nietzsche's philosophical theories, for Evolution.

Editorial aside. After Michelle Bachman's recent (Fall, 2011) bald stump speech claim that "Evolution is not a scientific fact, just a theory, with gaps," I have to add that most such fundamentalists and conservatives who reject Evolution have no base of knowledge from which to make such claims and do so only to "be popular" (i.e., to appear more pietistically Christian), since their political and philosophical stances are certainly Spencerian "Survival-of-the-Fittest" and even Fascist in their eagerness to rid the world of inferior and lower-order people. The attorney general of Nebraska recently compared people on welfare to raccoons, and many rightwing political doctrines hold that all Arabs are Muslims are Ragheads are Terrorists are Evil and represent not just obstacles to our access to their oil but the anti-Christ. Hitler used the Jews and Gypsies and Commies and Degenerates (gays) as hatred-incentives; today's Hitlers use Arabs and Commies and Feminists and Gays and the poor. Gould would have said all this more clearly and more kindly. [End of editorial.]

2. Evolution and theology. Does evolution inevitably conflict with Christianity, or with Christian fundamentalism, or at least with the creation story in Moses' Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament, mainly Genesis)? If we are not to believe anything except what Genesis tells us, how are we to believe that the earth circles the sun and that space probes do not locate the stars and sun and moon "above" us, but all around, infinitely all around? What is the main intellectual reason to deny "Creation Science," or now "Intelligent Design" a place in the science curriculum of public schools? Are all scientists who "support" evolution necessarily atheists? Is there an inherent contradiction between religion, morality, and science? Or are there simply different appropriate "fields" and methods of study? Science does not claim to explain or explain away what is not a question verifiable by scientific examination. Science itself offers no theological opinions, despite what individuals may or may not believe.

3. Social Policies and opinions that mask as Science. Aside from evolution itself, there is the problematic fact that some alleged scientists try to use science to justify class privilege, laissez-faire capitalism, and racial and gender hierarchies. History has provided a wealth of examples: Criminal types. Childish or effeminate races and cultures, with the clear understanding that child is of a lower moral order than an adult and that the masculine of anything is innately superior to the "feminine." (See St. Augustine for theology that pictures the infant and child as corruption and damnation and females as the source of sin.) People who are feeble, reprobate, degenerate, inferior. Supposedly scientific studies that predicate criminality, intelligence, depravity, on the 'innate' characteristics of social classes, races, genders, nationality, or physiognomy. Gould is an infallible guide to such charlatans and offers good guides for recognizing why these theses sometimes sound so good and authentic until they are closely examined.

4. Ignorance, or inadequate education.Finally, the underlying problem in all these areas besides dishonesty and self-interest: inadequacy of logic, clarity, statistical training, scientific methods (and knowing there are several), comprehension of such concepts as geologic 'deep' time. For instance, we do not realize the stars we see are essentially random distributions in space. We see patterns, and many societies have given those patterns 'meanings.' We don't know random when we see it! In another book, Eight Little Piggies Gould says of our easy mistakes about deep geologic time and human historical time, that we cannot grasp the right scale. In the scale of millennia, most species become extinct. But in the scale of human history, human existence here and now, that doesn't mean we should be careless about destroying the very habitat for which we are so fit, and which our children and children's children will rely on. We also don't understand statistics very well(and here Gould cites the wonderful Twain exclamation "Lies, damned lies, and statistics!"). For instance, an average or mean income of $5,000 for a "town" of 10 families could mean that nine families have nothing and one family has $50,000.

Gould addresses misunderstandings of the "Mean"(or "Average") here in one of his most personal essays, recounting how, because he works with statistics, tendencies, distributions and correlations, he was able to avoid despair in 1982 when –diagnosed with a rare and serious cancer at about age 40—he learned it was "incurable" with a median mortality of only eight months after discovery. Gould in fact survived another twenty years. If that sounds like a miracle, you need to read Section Nine of Bully for Brontosaurus on "Numbers and Probability" which is presented so lucidly you won't even remember why you didn't understand "mean, median and mode."

Probably one of the two most important contributions Gould made to evolutionary science was to comprehend and elucidate the misconceptions, even among scientists, of evolution as "Progress" based primarily on statistical and "tendency" misunderstandings. The "Progress" metaphor of history is seen primarily as a story of "advancement" toward complexity of organism, and is based, finally, on the image of "us" as the crowning glory. Oliver Sacks wrote of Gould, "No one has written of our illusions about progress in nature with more wit and learning." A way to think about the logical fault behind the idea of progress in evolutionary history is hinted at by considering a drunk who staggers along beside a wall and finally falls into the gutter on the other side of the sidewalk as "headed for the gutter all along" (in a non-figurative sense). Some events can only vary in one direction; no life form could ever develop that is "less" than one-celled. So the "distribution" is and must be skewed. That does not mean either tendency or intention. Think about it; read here, and maybe get the book Full House for a thorough statistical elucidation of tendencies (along with an explanation of why .400 hitting in baseball is a thing of the past).

The greatest of Gould's lifelong achievements, however, was perhaps social, and not scientific. He was an implacable opponent of demagogues and charlatans that falsely enlist bad "science" for social or personal gain, as well as a debunker of fuzzy thinking and the "unthinking emotionalism that can be a harbinger of fascism" so easily. Yet Gould was almost inimitable in his patient and—in my view—generous explications of falsehoods, their perpetrators and their camouflaged contradictions. One of the essays here was a paragon of such civil discourse, an examination of why William Jennings Bryan had spent the last decade of his life campaigning with fervor to abolish the teaching of evolution in American Public Schools.

The book's title refers to the complexities of, and rationale for, scientific taxonomies and the ticklish opposition between "Brontosaurus" (popular title) and "Apatosaurus" (technically correct), and there are less weighty topics considered in Bully for Brontosaurus: The unique adaptive traits and intelligence of Platypus and Echidna which are often ignored because the demeaning labeling of them as "lesser mammals" implies they are therefore inferior, when they are only distinct. The historical reasons we have the inferior QWERTY keyboard (all those letters, very common letters, typed by the weak littlest fingers) instead of a more ergonomically efficient one are located in the old key-jam tendencies of obsolete typewriter technology. The Cardiff Giant hoax of Cooperstown NY is compared to "that other one," Abner Doubleday's invention of baseball, and an interesting history of baseball ensues, arguing that it came from versions of stickball, from the "non-cricket" side of class divisions in England. In Dr. Gould's Cabinet of Curiosities are rudimentary limbs which are not "partial wings," a painter's theories of camouflage in nature, plus a literal buffet of topics: choral singing, Lavoisier, Kropotkin the" anarchist," and Voyager's trip out of the solar system. Justice Scalia and Jimmy Carter appear as guests whom Gould treats with warmth and welcome.

In his Preface, Gould notes that some people look down their noses at "popular science writing." He compares his style to vulgarisation, and claims that in France it has only positive connotations, unlike cheap or sensationalist dumbing-down which of course he opposes on all counts. But eloquently, wittily, with erudition and charm. And an intelligence that—because of his writing—has not passed away.

A Post-Script on William Jennings Bryan

Having been raised in Nebraska, where William Jennings Bryan is somewhat of a folk hero as a gallant Populist native son, I was surprised to read about the earnestness of Bryan's campaign against Evolution. Bryan? Who opposed war, argued for the independence of the Philippines, for women's suffrage, for the direct election of senators and the graduated income tax? Bryan the Populist, the champion of "the little man"?

Gould points out that from 1904 until WWI in Bryan's famous "Prince of Peace" speech delivered all over the world, he said merely, "While I do not accept the Darwinian Theory, I shall not quarrel with you about it" (420). What could have changed his mind so drastically? It is often claimed that Bryan's last years—he died just days after his "humiliation" by Clarence Darrow at the 1925 Scopes Trial in Tennessee—represent a degeneration in general. The Encyclopedia Britannica at one time lamented that this heated campaign was "inconsistent with many progressive causes he had championed" (Gould, 418).

Gould, however, honors Bryan's claim that his opposition to evolution after WWI was completely consistent with his lifelong beliefs, and Gould sets out to find out how and why he became so adamant. What Gould found is a lesson again in the necessity of separating a poorly understood scientific theory from its supposed social and political proponents. William Jennings Bryan listed three reasons for opposing evolution, all ideological: "For peace and compassion against militarism and murder. For fairness and justice toward farmers and workers and against exploitation for monopoly and profit. For absolute rule of majority opinion against imposing elites."

Why had Bryan interpreted the science of Origin of the Species as inimical to these causes? Gould found convincing evidence that two specific books had alarmed William Jennings Bryan toward the end of World War I, which one must remember he opposed so vehemently that he resigned from Wilson's staff in protest of U.S. entry into the war. First, a report of conversations of the German Great General Staff at their headquarters where American Vernon Kellogg was "tolerated" in the international and nonpartisan effort for humanitarian relief of Belgians. Kellogg reported that "The creed of the Allmacht (omnipotence) of a natural selection based on violent and competitive struggle is the gospel of the German intellectuals." He wrote that the Germans believed that the "human group which is in the most advanced evolutionary stage. . .should win in the struggle for existence" (Gould, 424). Thus Kellogg as well as the Germans, it seems, conflated this militant doctrine with Darwin's scientific theories about species. [The British, French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese and even Belgians, along with Americans, had long practiced the theory in colonial conquest, slavery, genocide, and imperial expansion but without, perhaps, the jargon? jpr]

The other book, written by English commentator Benjamin Kidd, conveyed the same idea about Evolution but for a contrary reason. Kidd was a philosophical idealist and believed Darwin had created a terrible social force to liberate the "pagan soul" "previously (but imperfectly) suppressed for centuries by Christianity and its doctrines of love and renunciation"(425). It was not the science he objected to, but the "hold which the theories. . .obtained on the popular mind in the West." He thought that "everywhere through civilization an almost inconceivable influence was given to the doctrine of force as the basis of legal authority. . . "(425).

Thus a science about origin of species becomes conflated with, and blamed for, Nietzsche's nihilistic Ubermensch and Spencerian social ideology at a time of the most inflamed Imperialist struggle of the West (Europe & its "white" colonies both present and former) against the rest of the world. Germany, Italy, and Japan decide to use this ideology in extremis to wrest a share of the world's colonialized wealth. And suddenly we have an imaginary crusade for force and hatred by some "elite" powers to overthrow the former naive and innocent Christians of the world. I oversimplify as Gould never does, but then he is exemplary and I am impatient. I am already older than he lived to be, and have accomplished so relatively little that I admit to irascibility. It's mostly at myself and my social impotence, so please, Christians and anti-evolutionary readers, (if you've read this far) don't blame science, or Gould, for my little bursts of sarcasm. (Elsewhere Gould takes on Spencer, whom he uncharacteristically labels "that Victorian pundit of just about everything" and Spencer's crude and effective translation of imperial aims into "pseudo-scientific" doctrine. See The Panda's Thumb.)

"The Darwinian theory" which Bryan agreed to tolerate in 1904, he thus attacked after he became convinced of its viciousness by this equation of Spencer's bare-knuckles capitalism, German militarism and ideology, the glorification of force, and the potential overthrow of Christian "love and renunciation," with the innocuous science of Darwin and its insights about the origin of species. Bryan misunderstood evolution to argue that man reached "his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate—the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak"(421). He remarked that this conception "would weaken the cause of democracy and strengthen class pride and the power of wealth." All of this anathema proceeded from the mouth of scientists and intellectuals, supposedly, and Bryan's populism like all populism always skirted the danger of reactive anti-intellectual know-nothing politics. After Bryan read the direct testimony that Germany's aggressions were associated with precisely the social ideology Bryan feared, the one both they and he attributed to Darwin, he changed the "Prince of Peace" speech. "And fell into a declension...And all we mourn for" (Polonius, Hamlet).

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

"Cutting for Stone," by Abraham Verghese. A Review.

       Verghese is a new author to me; he has, understandably, only two previous books, for besides being a writer, he is a physician who also holds two appointments at distinguished medical centers in Stanford and San Antonio. This book only just misses my 5-star superlative rating, but it was compelling, intelligent and intricate, reflective and shot through with symbolism and analogy. Cutting for Stone is set primarily in Ethiopia, with India as the background, and the US—New York and Boston--as a third setting. It takes place in a panoramic twenty-five years of Ethiopian life, rich with detailed understanding of the people and culture and its geopolitical history. It is an intensely sensual novel—the smells, tastes, flowers, seasons and skies of Ethiopia especially. The narrator Marion Stone, one of two identical boy twins, even begins his distinction in medicine by his sensitivity to the smells of different medical conditions, a talent he shares with his obstetrician mother Hema.
       The story proper begins when four people from India come separately to a medical clinic in Addis Ababa at a key moment in history: "It was 1947, and the British were finally leaving India; the Quit India Movement had made the impossible come about. Saintly Amma slowly let the air out of her lungs. It was a new world, and bold action was called for, or so she believed. "

       In 1954 at the clinic are born identical twin boys and their lives become inextricably interwoven with the politics and history of Ethiopia, including a tragic failed coup against Emperor Haile Selassie, the struggles of the Eritrean people, a successful but disastrous military uprising and dictatorship, and finally a more stable and humane revolution. The novel is well worth reading if only for the vivid realities of Ethiopian life conveyed through its intersection with an understaffed and underfunded medical clinic run by a Christian matron who sets her jaw against the endless donation of Bibles and religious material, believing that their patients need medicine, not missionary zeal.

       The people of Ethiopia themselves figure not just as exotic or pitiful "natives" but as complex characters, their humanity more fully realized than in most stories set in Africa and written by non-Africans. Verghese shows Emperor Haile Selassie as a dictator responsible for the country's poverty. His caprice and paranoia and resplendent lifestyle (20 are Rolls Royces among his 26 cars) are set against the results of his rule: rickets, malnutrition, joblessness, prostitution, and untreated diseases. Nor does Verghese spare some of the country's customs like genital mutilation ("female circumcision"), and the too-frequent tragedy of girls in labor too young, resulting in sometimes immediate death of baby and mother, or sometimes a lingering hideous condition leading more slowly to the same conclusion: a condition called "fistula," where a baby's head being ground against an immature pelvis in impossible labor destroys vaginal tissue, leading to ulcerations where the bladder leaks constantly into the diseased remains of a stinking vagina.

       This introduces the second unique beauty of the book, although the word "beauty" may seem a strange word to use after a description of "fistulas," but what distinguishes the book above all, I think, is something which online reader chat cites as obstacle. It is what definitively rescues the story from being romantic or exotic: the intense language of physiology, details of medical procedures, of colon surgery, liver transplants, disastrous labors, babies dying, twisted colons, "Version" clinic in which women from the country are taught how to reposition breech babies. In these scenes, the body glistens and throbs, or it dries and fades, it leaks, it smells, while human language and skills survey, senses alert, and then intervene, cutting, clamping, removing, replacing, resectioning. In a brief prologue the narrator, Dr. Marion Stone speaks from Ethiopia of his career at age fifty: "I venerate the sight of the abdomen and chest laid open. I'm ashamed of our human capacity to hurt and maim one another, to desecrate the body." His language is that of reverence:

       My fingers "'run the bowel' looking for holes that a blade or bullet might have created, coil after glistening coil, twenty-three feet of it compacted into such a small space. The gut that has slithered past my fingers like this in the African night would by now reach the Cape of Good Hope, and I have yet to see the serpent's head. But I do see the ordinary miracles under skin and rib and muscle, visions concealed from their owner."

     Intense scenes of medical engagement function almost as a counter-narrative. Although often suspenseful and dramatic, they are written in the language of a densely precise science, arcane and esoteric to the layperson. It is also a historical language, recording the conquests of human anatomical challenges like the marking of ascents of Everest, and also ignoring the Sherpas:
               There is a Chvostek's sign, a Bos's sign, a Courvoisier's sign, a Quincke's sign— no limit it seems                 to white men naming things after themselves. Surely, the world is ready for an eponym honoring
                a humble compounder [Adam, an untrained Ethiopian] who has seen more relapsing fever with
                one eye than you or I will ever see with two.
So writes Ghosh, the male third doctor at the Addis clinic, in a struggle from Ethiopia to have an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

     The third great beauty of Cutting for Stone is a deeply lodged poetic imagery, a resonance of sensuality and intelligence, of sympathy and anger. The title itself comes from the Hippocratic oath "I will not cut for stone," an enigmatic phrase, and "cutting for stone" continually unfolds new levels of resonance. One of the four expatriates of India is the Anglo-Indian surgeon Thomas Stone, a hidden character, self-withheld. The twin boys will be given his surname, and the middle name derived from their dead birthmother: they are thus named Marion Praise Stone and Shiva Praise Stone. One, Marion, will become a surgeon also, thus someone who lives "cutting," while the other is a savant who never completes schooling but nevertheless revolutionizes treatment of "fistulas," another kind of "cutting edge." The twins are physically linked in utero, but an instant decision to separate them—to cut them apart--in an emergency Caesarean section, has a long psychologically symbolic, and mortal, aftermath. They will search history for their antecedents, "cutting" to the bone.

       The book is not short on humor, either: a panicked nursing attendant at the birth which sets the plot going cries out, "Japanese twins! Japanese twins!"—the hapless girl thus begins her role in the story getting things not quite right, always. But even she develops, grows, changes, plays her part. There are no caricatures here. Attitudes toward sexuality are consistent with the no-nonsense vision of the human body, its miracles, mysteries and its misfunctions, its dominant role in determining our lives.

        It's a wildly adventurous story, but the adventures are never gratuitous. Ghosh is at one point arrested as an "acquaintance" of the first coup's leader, General Mebratu, who is based on a historical figure. Marion Stone has to flee Ethiopia through the underground of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front. After a wild near-disastrous flight in a cargo plane, Hema applies a coercive maneuver to the pilot's testicles. Her move is not a crude self-defensive reflex: "she was thinking of the Frenchman's balls, of rugaeform folds, of the median raphe that separated one bollock from the other, of the dartos muscle, the cells of Sertoli."

She succeeds in immobilizing and overpowering him (she is equally tall). "The Frenchman, his eyeballs sinking in their sockets, nodded mutely. France had colonized Djibouti and parts of Somalia, and they had even jockeyed with the English in India before settling for a foothold in Pondicherry. But on this steamy afternoon, one brown soul who would never be the same again, and who had Malayalis, Armenians, Greeks, and Yemenis backing her, showed that she was free."

There is not very much anti-colonial talk in the book; there doesn't have to be, for the very heart of the book is Post-Colonial in flavor, philosophy, realism and determination. It was a grand experience to be taken into this world in which the US is a strange and dispiriting place of great wealth and great inequality and injustice. In a particularly moving scene, the mission Matron explodes at a Houston church visitor who is concerned that the mission should "teach Christianity." She points out the window: "When you look around Addis and see children barefoot and shivering in the rain, when you see the lepers begging for their next morsel, does any of that [sectarian] nonsense matter the least bit?" "God will judge us, Mr. Harris, by—by what we did to relieve the suffering of our fellow human beings. I don't think God cares what doctrine we embrace." The book also takes that view: Hema's pantheism, Ghosh's pragmatism, the Christianity of Sister Mary Joseph Praise, the Ethiopian Christianity of Gebrew the watchman, cheerful atheism: there are no doctrines that matter besides dedication to relieve suffering.

       So why not five stars in my opinion? I don't really know. I think it's because almost all the main characters, and especially the ones we get to know best, are men. I'm a woman; I don't like to live in a world where one of the women characters is a beautiful dead girl, and one (an Eritrean named Genet) is always incomprehensible, her motivations and emotions unexamined, and she acts throughout as a kind of doom for the main characters, a constant irritation and emptiness and erotic stimulant who almost kills Marion. Hema, the strongest woman character, is eventually swallowed up in mothering, and Matron is a minor character. Maybe that was the small disappointment that haunted my reading.

     I still plan to reread it, however, and I do strongly recommend it.

"The Lying Stones of Marrakech," by Stephen Jay Gould. A Review.

     Published in 2000, this collection of essays from Natural History Magazine is subtitled Penultimate Reflections in Natural History because the "millennial issue" of January 2001 was to carry the 300th in an unbroken series of Gould's monthly columns since 1973, which would be the last.
     His "Preface" doesn't say why he was ending the series. Like John Lennon at 30 observing that he had, "goddess willing, a good 40 years of productivity yet," Gould had good reason to expect ample years for more writing and research in Paleontology and Evolutionary Biology, unless he knew then that a swift malignant cancer would soon snuff out his light in 2003.
     Here, however, the brightness of Gould's searching brain assays the very foundations of science (especially paleontolgy and "evolution")and its nemesis, Social Ideologies founded on distortions and prejudice. He investigates the difference between questions which can or cannot be asked of science, the crucial difference between valid scientific methods and theories which are often demonstrated to be mistaken or misinterpreted, on the one hand, and fraudulent evidence, invalid methods and inappropriate topics like God's existence, whose religion is 'right,' and which human beings are 'more valuable' or 'more evolved' than others. It is in his probing analysis of the devastating effects of the latter that his light is most valuable.
     Let us take Darwin's theory of "descent with modification" as a scientific thesis, and the fulminations of that "chief Victorian pundit of nearly everything "(as Gould calls him) Herbert Spencer, so-called philosopher when he should more rightly be called apologist to Capitalism "bloody in tooth and claw." Spencer took Darwin's findings and turned them on their heads: he devised the slogan "survival of the fittest" to mean that evolution is the history of Progress, and thus the struggle for existence is purification; Thomas Huxley called his theory the "gladiatorial" school of evolution. "As many historians have noted, this theory should really be called "social Spencerism."
     Specifically, Spencer called for an end to all state-supported services--education, postal services, regulation of housing, even public sanitary systems. He thought that any social intervention in suffering is counterproductive because it promotes the "vitiation of the race through the multiplication of its inferior samples." Charities and philanthropists he calls "pauper's friends" who "defeat the sharp...spur to the lazy and so strong a bridle to the random."
     Does his program sound familiar in 2011? Andrew Carnegie who had been troubled by a devout Christian conscience was vastly relieved that Spencer "reconciled God and capitialist society"; Carnegie had worried about the suffering of the poor, but now "I got rid of theology" and realized that "All is well since all grows better." He acknowledged that "while it may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race" and concluded that we should welcome the "great inequality of environment, the concentration of the hands of a few" because it was "essential for the future."
Gould studies the interweaving of such social ideology with political slogans such as those that justified the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire tragedy of 1911 when the horrifying spectacle of human beings leaping from the upperstories of the Trade Center buildings to escape fire in 2001 was prefigured in the deaths of all 50 young women who were forced to jump from the 8th through 10th floors of the Asch building because all safety exits had been blocked. Another 110 women perished in the fire.
     This fascinating and important lesson in the ideology we could call today neo-conservatism is only a fraction of the assets of this important book.
     Highly, highly recommended