Sunday, November 30, 2014

1665. American's Founding Myths: On the Genocide of Native Americans

By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortis, Jacobin, November 27, 2014

“Enlightened and Christian Warfare in the 19th Century–Massacre of Indian Women and Children in Idaho” published in “Frank Leslie’s Illustrated,” August 1868.

Under the crust of that portion of Earth called the United States of America — “from California . . . to the Gulf Stream waters” — are interred the bones, villages, fields, and sacred objects of American Indians. They cry out for their stories to be heard through their descendants who carry the memories of how the country was founded and how it came to be as it is today.

It should not have happened that the great civilizations of the Western Hemisphere, the very evidence of the Western Hemisphere, were wantonly destroyed, the gradual progress of humanity interrupted and set upon a path of greed and destruction. Choices were made that forged that path toward destruction of life itself—the moment in which we now live and die as our planet shrivels, overheated. To learn and know this history is both a necessity and a responsibility to the ancestors and descendants of all parties.

US policies and actions related to indigenous peoples, though often termed “racist” or “discriminatory,” are rarely depicted as what they are: classic cases of imperialism and a particular form of colonialism—settler colonialism. As anthropologist Patrick Wolfe writes, “The question of genocide is never far from discussions of settler colonialism. Land is life — or, at least, land is necessary for life.

The history of the United States is a history of settler colonialism — the founding of a state based on the ideology of white supremacy, the widespread practice of African slavery, and a policy of genocide and land theft. Those who seek history with an upbeat ending, a history of redemption and reconciliation, may look around and observe that such a conclusion is not visible, not even in utopian dreams of a better society.

That narrative is wrong or deficient, not in its facts, dates, or details but rather in its essence. Inherent in the myth we’ve been taught is an embrace of settler colonialism and genocide. The myth persists, not for a lack of free speech or poverty of information but rather for an absence of motivation to ask questions that challenge the core of the scripted narrative of the origin story.

Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” celebrates that the land belongs to everyone, reflecting the unconscious manifest destiny we live with. But the extension of the United States from sea to shining sea was the intention and design of the country’s founders.
“Free” land was the magnet that attracted European settlers. Many were slave owners who desired limitless land for lucrative cash crops. After the war for independence but before the US Constitution, the Continental Congress produced the Northwest Ordinance. This was the first law of the incipient republic, revealing the motive for those desiring independence. It was the blueprint for gobbling up the British-protected Indian Territory (“Ohio Country”) on the other side of the Appalachians and Alleghenies. Britain had made settlement there illegal with the Proclamation of 1763.

In 1801, President Jefferson aptly described the new settler-state’s intentions for horizontal and vertical continental expansion, stating, “However our present interests may restrain us within our own limits, it is impossible not to look forward to distant times, when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits and cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent, with a people speaking the same language, governed in similar form by similar laws.”

Origin narratives form the vital core of a people’s unifying identity and of the values that guide them. In the United States, the founding and development of the Anglo-American settler-state involves a narrative about Puritan settlers who had a covenant with God to take the land. That part of the origin story is supported and reinforced by the Columbus myth and the “Doctrine of Discovery.”

The Columbus myth suggests that from US independence onward, colonial settlers saw themselves as part of a world system of colonization. “Columbia,” the poetic, Latinate name used in reference to the United States from its founding throughout the nineteenth century, was based on the name of Christopher Columbus.

The “Land of Columbus” was—and still is—represented by the image of a woman in sculptures and paintings, by institutions such as Columbia University, and by countless place names, including that of the national capital, the District of Columbia. The 1798 hymn “Hail, Columbia” was the early national anthem and is now used whenever the vice president of the United States makes a public appearance, and Columbus Day is still a federal holiday despite Columbus never having set foot on any territory ever claimed by the United States.

To say that the United States is a colonialist settler-state is not to make an accusation but rather to face historical reality. But indigenous nations, through resistance, have survived and bear witness to this history. The fundamental problem is the absence of the colonial framework.

Settler colonialism, as an institution or system, requires violence or the threat of violence to attain its goals. People do not hand over their land, resources, children, and futures without a fight, and that fight is met with violence. In employing the force necessary to accomplish its expansionist goals, a colonizing regime institutionalizes violence. The notion that settler-indigenous conflict is an inevitable product of cultural differences and misunderstandings, or that violence was committed equally by the colonized and the colonizer, blurs the nature of the historical processes. Euro-American colonialism had from its beginnings a genocidal tendency.

The term “genocide” was coined following the Shoah, or Holocaust, and its prohibition was enshrined in the United Nations convention adopted in 1948: the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

The convention is not retroactive but is applicable to US-indigenous relations since 1988, when the US Senate ratified it. The terms of the genocide convention are also useful tools for historical analysis of the effects of colonial- ism in any era. In the convention, any one of five acts is considered genocide if “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”:

killing members of the group;
causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life
calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Settler colonialism is inherently genocidal in terms of the genocide convention. In the case of the British North American colonies and the United States, not only extermination and removal were practiced but also the disappearing of the prior existence of indigenous peoples—and this continues to be perpetuated in local histories.

Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) historian Jean O’Brien names this practice of writing Indians out of existence “firsting and lasting.” All over the continent, local histories, monuments, and signage narrate the story of first settlement: the founder(s), the first school, first dwelling, first everything, as if there had never been occupants who thrived in those places before Euro-Americans. On the other hand, the national narrative tells of “last” Indians or last tribes, such as “the last of the Mohicans,” “Ishi, the last Indian,” and End of the Trail, as a famous sculpture by James Earle Fraser is titled.

From the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River and south to the Gulf of Mexico lay one of the most fertile agricultural belts in the world, crisscrossed with great rivers. Naturally watered, teeming with plant and animal life, temperate in climate, the region was home to multiple agricultural nations. In the twelfth century, the Mississippi Valley region was marked by one enormous city-state, Cahokia, and several large ones built of earthen, stepped pyramids, much like those in Mexico. Cahokia supported a population of tens of thousands, larger than that of London during the same period.

Other architectural monuments were sculpted in the shape of gigantic birds, lizards, bears, alligators, and even a 1,330-foot-long serpent. These feats of monumental construction testify to the levels of civic and social organization. Called “mound builders” by European settlers, the people of this civilization had dispersed before the European invasion, but their influence had spread throughout the eastern half of the North American continent through cultural influence and trade.

What European colonizers found in the southeastern region of the continent were nations of villages with economies based on agriculture and corn the mainstay. This was the territory of the nations of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Choctaw and the Muskogee Creek and Seminole, along with the Natchez Nation in the western part, the Mississippi Valley region.

To the north, a remarkable federal state structure, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy — often referred to as the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy — was made up of the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk Nations and, from early in the nineteenth century, the Tuscaroras. This system incorporated six widely dispersed and unique nations of thousands of agricultural villages and hunting grounds from the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic, and as far south as the Carolinas and inland to Pennsylvania.

The Haudenosaunee peoples avoided centralized power by means of a clan-village system of democracy based on collective stewardship of the land. Corn, the staple crop, was stored in granaries and distributed equitably in this matrilineal society by the clan mothers, the oldest women from every extended family. Many other nations flourished in the Great Lakes region where now the US-Canada border cuts through their realms. Among them, the Anishinaabe Nation (called by others Ojibwe and Chippewa) was the largest.

In the beginning, Anglo settlers organized irregular units to brutally attack and destroy unarmed indigenous women, children, and old people using unlimited violence in unrelenting attacks. During nearly two centuries of British colonization, generations of settlers, mostly farmers, gained experience as “Indian fighters” outside any organized military institution.

Anglo-French conflict may appear to have been the dominant factor of European colonization in North America during the eighteenth century, but while large regular armies fought over geopolitical goals in Europe, Anglo settlers in North America waged deadly irregular warfare against the indigenous communities.

The chief characteristic of irregular warfare is that of the extreme violence against civilians, in this case the tendency to seek the utter annihilation of the indigenous population. “In cases where a rough balance of power existed,” observes historian John Greniew, “and the Indians even appeared dominant—as was the situation in virtually every frontier war until the first decade of the 19th century—[settler] Americans were quick to turn to extravagant violence.”

Indeed, only after seventeenth- and early- eighteenth-century Americans made the first way of war a key to being a white American could later generations of ‘Indian haters,’ men like Andrew Jackson, turn the Indian wars into race wars.” By then, the indigenous peoples’ villages, farmlands, towns, and entire nations formed the only barrier to the settlers’ total freedom to acquire land and wealth. Settler colonialists again chose their own means of conquest. Such fighters are often viewed as courageous heroes, but killing the unarmed women, children, and old people and burning homes and fields involved neither courage nor sacrifice.

US history, as well as inherited indigenous trauma, cannot be understood without dealing with the genocide that the United States committed against indigenous peoples. From the colonial period through the founding of the United States and continuing in the twenty-first century, this has entailed torture, terror, sexual abuse, massacres, systematic military occupations, removals of indigenous peoples from their ancestral territories, and removals of indigenous children to military-like boarding schools.

Once in the hands of settlers, the land itself was no longer sacred, as it had been for the indigenous. Rather, it was private property, a commodity to be acquired and sold. Later, when Anglo-Americans had occupied the continent and urbanized much of it, this quest for land and the sanctity of private property were reduced to a lot with a house on it, and “the land” came to mean the country, the flag, the military, as in “the land of the free” of the national anthem, or Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”

Those who died fighting in foreign wars were said to have sacrificed their lives to protect “this land” that the old settlers had spilled blood to acquire. The blood spilled was largely indigenous.

1664. Alexander Grothendieck, Math Enigma, Dies at 86

By Bruce Weber and Julie Rehmeyer, The New York Times, November 18, 2014
Alexander Grothendieck in 2006

Alexander Grothendieck, whose gift for deep abstraction excavated new ground in the field known as algebraic geometry and supplied a theoretical foundation for the solving of some of the most vexing conundrums of modern mathematics, died on Thursday in Ariège, in the French Pyrenees. He was 86.

A vexing character himself, Mr. Grothendieck (pronounced GROAT-en-deek) turned away from mathematics at the height of his powers in the early 1970s and had lived in seclusion since the early 1990s. His death was widely reported in France, where the newspaper Le Monde described him as “the greatest mathematician of the 20th century.” In a statement on Friday, President François Hollande praised him as “one of our greatest mathematicians” and “an out-of-the-ordinary personality in the philosophy of life.”

Algebraic geometry is a field of pure mathematics that studies the relationships between equations and geometric spaces. Mr. Grothendieck was able to answer concrete questions about these relationships by finding universal mathematical principles that could shed unexpected light on them. Applications of his work are evident in fields as diverse as genetics, cryptography and robotics.

“He had an extremely powerful, almost otherworldly ability of abstraction that allowed him to see problems in a highly general context, and he used this ability with exquisite precision,” Allyn Jackson wrote in a 2004 biographical essay about Mr. Grothendieck for Notices of the AMS, a journal of the American Mathematical Society. “Indeed, the trend toward increased generality and abstraction, which can be seen across the whole field since the middle of the 20th century, is due in no small part to Grothendieck’s influence.”

His background and early life were tangled and harrowing. His father, whose name is usually reported as Alexander Schapiro, was a Jewish anarchist who fought against the Russian czarist government. He was captured by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution and eventually escaped to Western Europe. Along the way he lost an arm.

Schapiro made a living as a street photographer and met Johanna Grothendieck, known as Hanka, an aspiring writer who was married to a man named Alf Raddatz, in Berlin, in the mid-1920s. By then Schapiro had changed his name to Alexander Tanaroff, according to Mr. Grothendieck’s biographer, Winfried Scharlau. Introducing himself to Raddatz, Tanaroff said, “I will steal your wife,” and proceeded to do so.

Alexander Grothendieck, who for an unknown reason was named Raddatz at birth (not Schapiro, Tanaroff or Grothendieck), was born in Berlin on March 28, 1928.

Young Alexander’s parents left Germany as the Nazis took power — they participated in the Spanish Civil War — leaving him in the care of foster parents in Hamburg, where he first went to school. In 1939, he reunited with his mother and father in France, but his father was arrested, sent to an internment camp at Le Vernet and eventually moved to Auschwitz, where he died in 1942.

With his mother, Alexander lived in Le Chambon, where he finished primary school, and after the war attended college in Montpellier and later in Nancy, beginning his mathematical education in earnest. By the late 1940s he had entered the society of elite European mathematicians.

During the 1950s he taught in São Paulo, Brazil, and at the University of Kansas and lectured at Harvard. In 1958 he joined the faculty of the fledgling Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques (IHES), which became a leading institute for the support of advanced research in mathematics and physics. (It is now in Bures-sur-Yvette, south of Paris.)

In 1966, Mr. Grothendieck was given the Fields Medal, an international award considered among the highest in mathematics.

He is widely credited for advances that made possible long-sought proofs for befuddling problems, including Fermat’s Last Theorem, the 17th-century conjecture by the French mathematician Pierre de Fermat that no three positive integers — a, b and c — exist that will satisfy the equation an + bn = cn for any integer value of n greater than 2. The first successful proof was published by an Englishman, Andrew Wiles, in the 1990s.

Mr. Grothendieck’s work was also a steppingstone to solutions of other enigmas famous among mathematicians, but far more arcane. He was instrumental in proving an especially thorny set of hypotheses known as the Weil conjectures. But characteristically he did not attack the problem directly. Instead, he built a superstructure of theory around the problem. The solution then emerged easily and naturally, in a way that made mathematicians see how the conjectures had to be true.

He avoided clever tricks that proved the theorem but did not develop insight. He likened his approach to softening a walnut in water so that, as he wrote, it can be peeled open “like a perfectly ripened avocado.”

“If there is one thing in mathematics that fascinates me more than anything else (and doubtless always has), it is neither ‘number’ nor ‘size,’ but always form,” he wrote in a long memoir in the 1980s, “Reapings and Sowings.” “And among the thousand-and-one faces whereby form chooses to reveal itself to us, the one that fascinates me more than any other and continues to fascinate me, is the structure hidden in mathematical things.”

Mr. Grothendieck had long held pacifist views, and by the late 1960s he had also become consumed by environmentalism. In 1966, he refused to travel to Moscow to receive the Fields Medal as a protest against the imprisonment of Soviet writers. He traveled to Hanoi at the height of the Vietnam War and lectured in Paris about the trip. He resigned from IHES, at least in part because some of its funding came from the French Defense Ministry, though he was also feuding with the institute’s founder. And he helped found an organization, Survivre, that promoted environmental activism and opposed the proliferation of nuclear weapons. He studied Buddhism and mysticism.

Over the next two decades, though he taught mathematics for a time at the University of Montpellier, he gradually withdrew from society and, according to his biographer, began devoting himself obsessively to writing what he called his “meditations.”

Mr. Grothendieck was married at least once, to Mireille Dufour. They had three children. He had two other sons with other women. Information about his survivors was not available.

1663. Mass Ritual Sacrifice of Animals in Nepal

By, November 28, 2014
A butcher raises his blade over a buffalo calf before severing its head during a mass slaughter of buffaloes for the Gadhimai festival inside a walled enclosure in Nepal’s village of Bariyapur, near the Indian border, on November 28, 2014.

A great number of birds and other animals are killed during a Hindu festival in Nepal, where worshippers believe the act brings them good luck.

Starting on Friday, tens of thousands of animals are expected to be slaughtered during a two-day festival near the Gadhimai temple in the Nepalese jungles of Bara district, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of the capital city of Kathmandu.

The event, held near the border with India, involves the world’s largest sacrificial slaughter of animals including water buffaloes, goats, rats, pigs and birds.

Hundreds of thousands of participants are expected to attend, with most worshippers hailing from the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

By attending the festival in Nepal, people evade the ban on animal sacrifice in their own states.

Devotees believe slaughtering animals in the name of the Hindu goddess, Gadhimai, will end evil and grant their wishes.

In 2009, an estimated five million people visited the Gadhimai festival where more than 200,000 animals were killed.

The event is held every five years, though critics decry it as barbaric.

Numerous animal rights groups have made several attempts to stop the centuries-old ritual, including urging the Nepalese government to stop the killings.

The men involved in the slaughter of the animals are oftentimes largely unskilled, which leads to concerns that the animals are suffering needlessly, and dying slow and painful deaths.

After the festival, the meat, bones and hides of the animals are put up for sale to companies in India.

1662. January-October 2014 Temperatures Highest on Record

By Science Times, November 29, 2014

The global average temperature over land and ocean surfaces for January to October 2014 was the highest on record, according to NOAA. October was the hottest since records began in 1880. Credit: NOAA

The global average temperature over land and ocean surfaces for January to October 2014 was the highest on record, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It said October was the hottest since records began in 1880.

NOAA said the combined global land and ocean average surface temperature for the January-October period was 0.68°C (1.22°F) above the 20th century average of 14.1°C (57.4°F). For October, it was 0.74°C (1.33°F) above the 20th century average of 14.0°C (57.1°F).

The high October temperature was driven by warmth across the globe over both the land and ocean surfaces and was fairly evenly distributed between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. The Southern Hemisphere had its hottest October on record and the Northern Hemisphere its third warmest.

October marked the third consecutive month and fifth of the past six with a record high global temperature for its respective month (July was fourth highest).

The Tokyo Climate Center, which is a WMO Regional Climate Centre, also reported that October was the hottest on record. The record was also confirmed by data from NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

WMO uses a combination of datasets to compile its annual Statement on the Status of the Global Climate. Additional information is drawn from the ERA-Interim reanalysis-based data set maintained by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts.
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The above story is based on materials provided by World Meteorological Organization. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

1661. Does Evolution Explain Who We Are?

By Louis Menand, Permanent Revolution, November 26, 2014
Louis Menand

“The new sciences of human nature.” Well, why not? The old sciences of human nature didn't have such a fabulous track record. They gave us segregated drinking fountains, “invented spelling,” and the glass ceiling—all consequences of scientific theories about the way human beings really are. Possibly, there is a lesson there, which is that the sciences of human nature tend to validate the practices and preferences of whatever regime happens to be sponsoring them. In totalitarian regimes, dissidence is treated as a mental illness. In apartheid regimes, interracial contact is treated as unnatural. In free-market regimes, self-interest is treated as hardwired.

Maybe this is unfair to the new sciences of human nature, though. It could be that the problem with the old sciences was simply that they weren't scientific enough—that they were mostly wishful thinking projected onto dubious data about skull size and the effects of estrogen on the ability to balance a checkbook. Today's scientists might have the capacity to get right down there among the chromosomes and the neurotransmitters, and to send back reports, undistorted by fear, favor, or the prospect of funding, about what's going on. Maybe the new sciences of human nature are really scientific. It's worth a look.

Steven Pinker is a psychology professor at M.I.T. and the author of an entertaining and popular book on language (his specialty), called “The Language Instinct,” and a more wide-ranging volume, also popular, called “How the Mind Works.” His new book, “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature” (Viking; $27.95), recycles some of the material published in “How the Mind Works” but puts it to a more prescriptive use. Pinker has a robust faith in “the new sciences of human nature” (his phrase)—he was formerly the director of M.I.T.'s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience—but his views in “The Blank Slate” are based almost entirely on two branches of the new sciences: evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics.

These are both efforts to explain mind and behavior biologically, as products of natural selection and genetic endowment. Unless you are a creationist, there is nothing exceptionable about the approach. If opposable thumbs are the result of natural selection, there is no reason not to assume that the design of the brain is as well. And if we inherit our eye color and degree of hairiness from our ancestors we probably inherit our talents and temperaments from them, too. The question isn't whether there is a biological basis for human nature. We're organisms through and through; biology goes, as they say, all the way down. The question is how much biology explains about life out here on the twenty-first-century street.

Pinker's idea is that it explains much more than some people—he calls these people “intellectuals”—think it does, and that the failure, or refusal, to acknowledge this has led to many regrettable things, including the French Revolution, modern architecture, and the crimes of Josef Stalin. Intellectuals deny biology, according to Pinker, because it interferes with their pet theories of mind and behavior. These are the Blank Slate (the belief that the mind is wholly shaped by the environment), the Noble Savage (the notion that people are born good but are corrupted by society), and the Ghost in the Machine (the idea that there is a nonbiological agent in our heads with the power to change our nature at will). The “intellectuals” in Pinker's book are social scientists, progressive educators, radical feminists, academic Marxists, liberal columnists, avant-garde arts types, government planners, and postmodernist relativists. The good guys are the cognitive scientists and ordinary folks, whose common sense, except when it has been damaged by listening to intellectuals, generally correlates with what cognitive science has discovered. I wish I could say that Pinker's view of the world of ideas is more nuanced than this.

Many pages of “The Blank Slate” are devoted to bashing away at the Lockean-Rousseauian-Cartesian scarecrow that Pinker has created. What the new sciences show, he says, is that, contrary to “the romanticism of intellectuals,” nurture is usually no match for nature. Rehabilitation often fails to cure violent criminals; identical twins raised separately exhibit uncanny similarities; reading bedtime stories has little effect on I.Q. Findings like these suggest that there are limits to what we can expect from efforts to make people happier, smarter, and better citizens by manipulating their environment. When revolutionaries remake society from the ground up, on the theory that a new kind of human being will emerge, or when feminists argue that if little boys played with dolls and teacups the world would be a less violent place, they are, in Pinker's view, breaking eggs with no hope of an omelette. They are simply frustrating drives and instincts that will find an outlet sooner or later. It's not nice to fool human nature.

But where does this leave us? There are limits, after all, to the idea of limits. We manipulate the environment constantly in order to shape attitudes and behavior. We employ police to intimidate people into obeying traffic signs and anti-littering ordinances; we require kids to go to school; we air-condition workplaces and provide them with coffee stations. Peer pressure constrains the expression of sexual desire. Happy hours relieve feelings of stress. Religious services inspire people to do good works. Most of life is conducted in an environment of man-made stimulants and inhibitors, incentives and deterrents. Many impulses are channelled or suppressed, and many talents and feelings are acquired, and have no specific genetic basis or evolutionary logic at all. Music appreciation, for instance, seems to be wired in at about the level of “Hot Cross Buns.” But people learn to enjoy Wagner. They even learn to sing Wagner. One suspects that enjoying Wagner, singing Wagner, anything to do with Wagner, is in gross excess of the requirements of natural selection. To say that music is the product of a gene for “art-making,” naturally selected to impress potential mates—which is one of the things Pinker believes—is to say absolutely nothing about what makes any particular piece of music significant to human beings. No doubt Wagner wished to impress potential mates; who does not? It is a long way from there to “Parsifal.”

Pinker doesn't care much for art, though. When he does care for something—cognitive science, for example—he is all in favor of training people to do it, even though, as he admits, many of the methods and assumptions of modern science are counter-intuitive. The fact that innate mathematical ability is still in the Stone Age distresses him; he has fewer problems with Stone Age sex drives. He objects to using education “to instill desirable attitudes toward the environment, gender, sexuality, and ethnic diversity”; but he insists that “the obvious cure for the tragic shortcomings of human intuition in a high-tech world is education.” He thinks that we should be teaching economics, evolutionary biology, and probability and statistics, even if we have to stop teaching literature and the classics. It's O.K. to rewire people's “natural” sense of a just price or the movement of a subatomic particle, in other words, but it's a waste of time to tinker with their untutored notions of gender difference.

Having it both ways is an irritating feature of “The Blank Slate.” Pinker can write, in refutation of the scarecrow theory of violent behavior, “The sad fact is that despite the repeated assurances that 'we know the conditions that breed violence,' we barely have a clue,” and then, a few pages later, “It is not surprising, then, that when African American teenagers are taken out of underclass neighborhoods they are no more violent or delinquent than white teenagers.” Well, that should give us one clue. He sums the matter up: “With violence, as with so many other concerns, human nature is the problem, but human nature is also the solution.” This is just another way of saying that it is in human nature to socialize and to be socialized, which is, pragmatically, exactly the view of the “intellectuals.”

The insistence on deprecating the efficacy of socialization leads Pinker into absurdities that he handles with a blitheness that would be charming if his self-assurance were not so overdeveloped. He argues, for example, that democracy, the rule of law, and women's reproductive freedom are all products of evolution. The Founding Fathers understood that the ideas of power sharing and individual rights are grounded in human nature. And he quotes, with approval, the claim of two evolutionary psychologists that the “evolutionary calculus” explains why women evolved “to exert control over their own sexuality, over the terms of their relationships, and over the choice of which men are to be the fathers of their children.” Now, democracy, individual rights, and women's sexual autonomy are concepts almost nowhere to be found, even in the West, before the eighteenth century. Either human beings spent ten thousand years denying their own nature by slavishly obeying the whims of the rich and powerful, cheerfully burning heretics at the stake, and arranging their daughters' marriages (which would imply a pretty effective system of socialization), or modern liberal society is largely a social construction. Which hypothesis seems more plausible?

In 1859, Charles Darwin announced his conclusion that all life forms are the result of processes that are natural, chance-generated, and blind. There is, he thought, no “meaning” to evolutionary development. Evolution is just a by-product of the fact that organisms have to compete with one another in order to survive. If there were no struggle, if some organisms didn't have to die so that others could live, there would be no development. That is all evolution amounts to. This recognition seems to have made Darwin literally sick. But, ever since “On the Origin of Species” and “The Descent of Man” (1871), people have used Darwin's theory to explain why one or another way of managing human affairs is “natural.” The notion is that a particular arrangement must have been “selected for”—as though the struggles among individuals and groups and ideas were nature's way of making sure that we end up with the best. Evolutionary psychology is therefore a philosophy for winners: it can be used to justify every outcome. This is why Pinker has persuaded himself that liberal democracy and current opinion about women's sexual autonomy have biological foundations. It's a “scientific” validation of the way we live now. But every aspect of life has a biological foundation in exactly the same sense, which is that unless it was biologically possible it wouldn't exist. After that, it's up for grabs.

The other trouble with evolutionary psychology is that it is not really psychology. In general, the views that Pinker derives from “the new sciences of human nature” are mainstream Clinton-era views: incarceration is regrettable but necessary; sexism is unacceptable, but men and women will always have different attitudes toward sex; dialogue is preferable to threats of force in defusing ethnic and nationalist conflicts; most group stereotypes are roughly correct, but we should never judge an individual by group stereotypes; rectitude is all very well, but “noble guys tend to finish last”; and so on. People who share these beliefs probably didn't need science to arrive at them, but the science is undoubtedly reassuring. On one subject, though, Pinker does take an unconventional position. This is the matter of child rearing.

Here Pinker relies on a 1998 book called “The Nurture Assumption,” by Judith Rich Harris, which has been the object of some controversy in the field of developmental psychology. Harris claimed that “shared family environments”—that is, parents—have little or no effect on a child's personality. (Strictly speaking, she claimed that parenting does not account for the variation in differences in personality, which is what genetic science measures.) Biological siblings reared together are no more alike, or less different, than biological siblings reared in separate families. Half of personality, Harris argued, is the product of genes, and half is the product of what she called the “unique environment”—that is, the particular experiences of the individual child. Harris suggested that children's peers might be the principal source of this environmental input. This is distinctly not Clinton-era thinking. It was Hillary Clinton, after all, who sent parents of older children into a depression by announcing that personality is shaped in the first three years of life. If you missed those bedtime stories, there was apparently no way to make it up. Harris's theory makes nonsense of this anxiety, as it does of virtually all expert child-rearing advice, which Pinker calls “flapdoodle.”

What is personality, though? The answer turns out to be quite specific. The new sciences of human nature have discovered that personality has exactly five dimensions: people are, in varying degrees, either open to experience or incurious, conscientious or undirected, extroverted or introverted, agreeable or antagonistic, and neurotic or stable. (This is known in the literature as the Five-Factor Model, or FFM. The five dimensions are referred to by the acronym OCEAN.) All five attributes are partly heritable, and they are what behavioral geneticists look to for a definition of personality. It seems that there is no need for finer tuning, because OCEAN accounts for everything. “Most of the 18,000 adjectives for personality traits in an unabridged dictionary can be tied to one of these five dimensions,” as Pinker explains.

When Pinker and Harris say that parents do not affect their children's personalities, therefore, they mean that parents cannot make a fretful child into a serene adult. It's irrelevant to them that parents can make their children into opera buffs, water-skiers, food connoisseurs, bilingual speakers, painters, trumpet players, and churchgoers—that parents have the power to introduce their children to the whole supra-biological realm—for the fundamental reason that science cannot comprehend what it cannot measure.

Science can measure anxiety. This is not just because people will report themselves, in surveys, to be more or less anxious; it is also because a genetic basis for anxiety has been identified. People with a shorter version of a stretch of the DNA that inhibits the serotonin-transporter gene on chromosome 17 are more likely to be anxious. That chronic anxiety is biological—that it is not caused solely by circumstance—is shown by the fact that medication containing a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (that is, an anti-depressant) can relieve it. (Would medication count as nurture or as nature?) But that's just the biology. The psychology is everything that the organism does to cope with its biology. Innately anxious people develop all kinds of strategies for overcoming, disguising, avoiding, repressing, and, sometimes, exploiting their tendency to nervousness. These strategies are acquired—people aren't born with them—and they are constructed from elements that the environment provides. The mind can work only with what it knows, and one of the things it knows is parents, who often become major players in the psychic drama of anxiety maintenance. The mere fact of having “the gene for anxiety” determines nothing, which is why some anxious people become opera buffs, some become water-skiers, and some just sit and stare out the window, brooding on the fact that their parents did not read them enough bedtime stories. These people are unlikely to be relieved by learning that cognitive science has determined that bedtime stories are overrated.

An obsession with the mean point of the bell curve has sometimes led scientists to forget that the “average person” is a mathematical construct, corresponding to no actual human being. It represents, in many cases, a kind of lowest common denominator. Yet scientists like Pinker treat it as a universal species norm. The classic case of this kind of apotheosis of the average is the kind of study, reported in the Science Times, in which the ideal female face is constructed by blending all the features identified by people as most beautiful. The result is a homogenized, anodyne image with no aesthetic or erotic charge at all, far less alluring than many of the “outlying” variants used to derive it. Pinker's evolutionary theory of beauty has the same effect. “An eye for beauty,” he says, “locks onto faces that show signs of health and fertility—just as one would predict if it had evolved to help the beholder find the fittest mate.” Elsewhere, he explains that “the study of evolutionary aesthetics is also documenting the features that make a face or body beautiful. The prized lineaments are those that signal health, vigor, and fertility.” But if this were all the eye required the girl in the Pepsodent commercial would be the most desirable woman on earth. And the only person who thinks that is the guy in the Pepsodent commercial. People don't go for faces that deviate from the “ideal” because they can't have the ideal. They go for them because the deviation is what makes them attractive.

So it is with most of the things we care about—food, friends, recreation, art. Biology reverts to the mean; civilization does not. The mind is a fabulator. It is designed (by natural selection, if you like) to dream up ideas and experiences away from the mean. Its overriding instinct is to be counter-instinctual; otherwise, we could put consciousness to sleep at an early age. The mind has no steady state; it is (as Wallace Stevens said) never satisfied. And it induces the organism to go to fantastic lengths to develop capacities that have no biological necessity. The more defiant something is of the instinctive, the typical, and the sufficient, the more highly it is prized. This is why we have the “Guinness Book of World Records,” the Gautama Buddha, and the Museum of Modern Art. They represent the repudiation of the norm.

The point is self-evident, and you might think Pinker would just fold it into his theory. But he doesn't. Deviations make him suspicious, and modern art, in his book, is the prime suspect. Pinker believes not only that evolutionary psychology can explain why human beings create and consume art (it's mostly for reasons having to do with the drive for prestige). He believes that evolutionary psychology can explain what is wrong with art today—the decline of the high-art traditions, the loss of the critic's social status, and the “pretentious and unintelligible scholarship” of contemporary humanities departments. “I will seek,” he says, “a diagnosis for these three ailing endeavors.”

The key, it is no surprise, is the denial of human nature. “The giveaway may be found,” Pinker advises, “in a famous statement from Virginia Woolf: 'In or about December 1910, human nature changed.' ” She was referring, he says, to “the new philosophy of modernism that would dominate the elite arts and criticism for much of the twentieth century, and whose denial of human nature was carried over with a vengeance to postmodernism,” which is “more Marxist and far more paranoid,” and which gave us “Andres Serrano's Piss Christ (a crucifix in a jar of the artist's urine), Chris Ofili's painting of the Virgin Mary smeared in elephant dung,” and similar outré fare. But “Woolf was wrong,” he tells us. “Human nature did not change in 1910, or in any year thereafter.”

It seems that aesthetics, unlike cognitive science, is not a body of knowledge worth acquiring. Pinker thinks that any moral sophistication derived from exposure to élite art can be instilled much more effectively by “middlebrow realistic fiction or traditional education.” So if people want to hang a painting of a red barn or a weeping clown above their couch, he says, “it's none of our damn business.” The preference for red-barn and weeping-clown paintings has been naturally selected. In fact, the “universality of basic visual tastes” has been proved, Pinker points out, by the artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who, in 1993, surveyed people's artistic preferences for color, subject matter, style, and so on. They proceeded to make a painting that incorporated all of the top-rated elements: it was a nineteenth-century realist landscape featuring children, deer, and the figure of George Washington. Pinker notes that the painting exemplifies “the kind of landscape that had been characterized as optimal for our species by researchers in evolutionary aesthetics.”

Jesus wept. To begin with, Virginia Woolf did not write, “In or about December 1910, human nature changed.” What she wrote was “On or about December 1910 human character changed.” The sentence appears in an essay called “Character in Fiction,” which attacks the realist novelists of the time for treating character as entirely a product of outer circumstance—of environment and social class. These novelists look at people's clothes, their jobs, their houses, Woolf says, “but never . . . at life, never at human nature.” Modernist fiction, on the other hand, because it presents character from the inside, shows how persistent personality is, and how impervious to circumstance. Woolf, in short, was a Pinkerite.

Pinker needed only to have looked through any trot on modernist writing to see his error. One of Woolf's principal specimens of the new, post-realist fiction was Joyce's “Ulysses,” a novel about twentieth-century Dublin whose characters are all based on characters in the Odyssey. You can't get a much finer tribute to universal human nature than that. The modernists were obsessed with the perdurability of human nature. This is, as Woolf said, precisely what distinguishes them from the realists and romantics who preceded them. It's why Kandinsky “invented” abstraction (to help preserve, he said, “the element of pure and eternal art, found among all human beings, among all peoples and at all times”). It's why Picasso put African masks on the prostitutes in “Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.” “Heart of Darkness,” “Women in Love,” “A Passage to India,” “Sweeney Erect,” “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop”—they are as explicitly about the intractability of human aggression and desire as an evolutionary psychologist could wish. There is nothing Marxist about them. The preferred mode of orthodox Marxism was not modernism; it was realism.

“Postmodernism” might, indeed, be explained as a reaction against the modernist faith in “pure art” and human nature. But what does that have to do with beauty? Beauty is an effect produced by an object. Pinker has no more looked at the “postmodernist” work he reviles than he has read the Woolf essay he misquotes. Like Tom Wolfe, whose attacks on modern painting in “The Painted Word” he quotes, Pinker thinks that modern art is all ideas because it is only as ideas that he can experience it. In fact, Ofili's painting is not “smeared in elephant dung,” and Serrano's “Piss Christ” is not “a crucifix in a jar of the artist's urine.” It's a photograph of a crucifix in a jar of urine, and, technically and formally, a rather beautiful and evocative piece. It would satisfy a number of Komar and Melamid's populist criteria. Many people find it offensive, of course, but that reaction, too, is instinctive, and the discordance of the two sensations is part of the experience the object provokes. “Piss Christ” is not the most profound work of art ever created, but it is not just a crude prank.

As for Komar and Melamid's paint-by-polling: it is the art-world equivalent of the Science Times' ideal face. Komar and Melamid are satirists. They set out to find the visual lowest common denominator, and the work they produced (called “United States: Most Wanted Painting”) is preposterous even as kitsch. It tells us as much about art as a single dish combining all the flavors people said they liked would tell us about cuisine. Darwin's fundamental insight as a biologist was that, among members of a species, what is important is not the similarities but the differences. If human beings were identical, a single change in the environment could wipe out the race. Similarity, ultimately, is death. So why do Darwin's followers in evolutionary psychology want to make what people have most in common into a social good?

What the new sciences of human nature seem to show, for all their investigations down there among the genes and the neural networks, is that “human nature” is as much an abstraction as “God” or “the universal law.” It is a magic wand that people wave over the practices they approve of. If that makes them feel better, who can complain? Human nature is never the reason for their approval, though. It would be nice if we could justify our choices by pointing silently to our genes. But we can't. Our genes, unfortunately, are even stupider than we are. ♦


Comment by Alex Steiner

Menand's take-down of Stephen Pinker, whose book, 'The Blank Slate', purports to provide a new and 'scientific' understanding of human nature, is a brilliant dissection of the pretensions of the pseudo-sciences that claim that human nature consists of little more than our genes and the instincts we have developed as a result of natural selection.  Menand deconstructs the absurdity of the theories of Stephen Pinker and other practitioners of the pseudo-science of evolutionary psychology: theories that would reduce art and culture to the lowest common denominator of mediocrity, where paintings of weeping clowns and red barns are favored due to their expressing some (imagined) advantage in the struggle for survival that our ancestors on the African savanna faced. 

Menand also brings to the fore the political and social implications of Pinker’s brand of reductionism.  He writes,
The other trouble with evolutionary psychology is that it is not really psychology. In general, the views that Pinker derives from “the new sciences of human nature” are mainstream Clinton-era views: incarceration is regrettable but necessary; sexism is unacceptable, but men and women will always have different attitudes toward sex; dialogue is preferable to threats of force in defusing ethnic and nationalist conflicts; most group stereotypes are roughly correct, but we should never judge an individual by group stereotypes; rectitude is all very well, but “noble guys tend to finish last”; and so on. People who share these beliefs probably didn't need science to arrive at them, but the science is undoubtedly reassuring.
It is in Menand's discussion of realism vs. modernism in art that we have to point to an area of disagreement. Pinker who is profoundly anti-modernist, claims that the modernist sensibility was invented out of whole cloth and goes against the instincts of the average person who is much more comfortable with realism because realism most closely expresses the instinctual responses we have developed over the millennia through the mechanism of natural selection. Menand has no trouble puncturing Pinker's defense of middlebrow mediocrity, while exposing Pinker's complete ignorance of the history and culture of modernism.  (As Pinker has contempt for the historical and cultural sciences there is no particular reason to expect anything but ignorance from him in this area.) But Menand makes a misstep when he responds to Pinker's stupid characterization of Marxism as a source of
  "the new philosophy of modernism that would dominate the elite arts and criticism for much of the twentieth century, and whose denial of human nature was carried over with a vengeance to postmodernism,” which, Pinker says, is “more Marxist and far more paranoid."
But in correcting Pinker's cartoonish labelling of Marxism he writes, 
"The preferred mode of orthodox Marxism was not modernism; it was realism." 
That may have been true of Marxists such as G.V. Plekhanov who had a wooden ear for the modernist sensibility and whose reaction to the emergence of Cubism at the dawn of the 20th century was to call it "Nonsense cubed", but it was not true of many other Marxists and artists who were inspired by Marx.  In contrast to Plekhanov, whose pronouncements are well-known, the Marxist art critic Max Raphael approached modernist art with a fine sensibility and a Marxist analysis far more sophisticated than Plekhanov's.  But Max Raphael was little known and shunned by the international Stalinist cultural apparatus, which claimed to adjudicate art in the name of Marxism.  There were also vigorous debates among Marxists between defenders of realism and defenders of modernism, of which an exchange between György Lukács and Ernst Bloch is particularly notable.  This is a very complicated topic that I can only mention. For Pinker all such nuances are beside the point because he simply identifies Marxism with its Stalinist caricature.  Pinker’s method, in his book The Blank Slate, it to set up various straw men that he then tears down.  One of Pinker’s favorite straw men are “Marxists” who he claims deny the biological basis of human nature and therefore see it as a “blank slate” on which anything can be written.  While Menand has no problem in general in deconstructing Pinker’s tortured logic, his correction of Pinker's distortion of Marxism unfortunately leaves standing another caricature of Marxism. 

But despite this one problematic area in his essay, Menand's piece is a tour de force in the tradition of anti-reductionism. And anti-reeductionism has been one of the pillars of a dialectical philosophy of nature.  It was expressed by Engels in a prophetic remark in his Dialectics of Nature where he wrote, 
"One day we shall certainly “reduce” thought experimentally to molecular and chemical motions in the brain; but does that exhaust the essence of thought?”
Recent years have witnessed a small but growing reaction to the type of mechanical reductionism that has dominated discourse not only among scientists and philosophers, but in popular culture as well. Not a week goes by when the Science Times fails to publish an article on the theme that human psychology and culture are nothing more than responses to neural transmitters that scientists are "working out".  The opposition to this manufactured consensus was expressed in a recent book by a prominent contemporary philosopher, Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos. The book got some attention and was even discussed in a New York Times Op Ed piece. ( ) Other books and essays, some of uneven quality, have joined the discussion. Mention might be made of What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini (2010) and The Science Delusion by Curtis White (2014). And of course there are the classic statements against reductionism written against what Menand dubbed "the old science of human nature" by Stephen Jay Gould, and the dialectical biologists Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins. Menand’s essay is an important and elegant contribution to this body of literature.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

1660. Archbishop of Westminster Shocked by Effects of Gaza War

By Harriet Sherwood, The Guardian, November 23, 2014

Vincent Nichols, centre, the archbishop of Westminster, meets a priest at Der Latin church in Gaza City. Photograph: Mohammed Salem/Reuters.

The archbishop of Westminster said he was deeply shocked by his first visit to Gaza on Sunday, and that he had seen “a deeply depressing situation in a devastated region where people are trapped”.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the leader of the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales, toured neighbourhoods of Gaza that were virtually flattened during the 50-day war between Israel and Hamas in the summer. He visited a hospital and an industrial zone that were badly damaged by air strikes and shelling, and an orphanage caring for dozens of traumatised children, some of whom had been given up by parents unable to care for them.
“I was deeply shocked at the effects of war and endemic poverty,” he told the Guardian. “Pope Francis has said there must be an end to war, and when you see the effect in a place like Gaza it reinforces that.”

There was little sign of rubble being cleared, let alone reconstruction, he said. “It’s astonishing the number of people with the appearance of nothing to do – people just sitting on the streets. There is only the barest sense of order. This is not an economy that is going to be able to support its population.”

Nichols said he was concerned about “the innocent citizens of Gaza caught in a vice of conflicting ideologies – an almost impossible situation for them”.

The greatest fear was that the “rule of the extremists” was coming to the fore in the Middle East. “Political leaders must not be satisfied with a security or military response, but need to find a political solution,” he said.

Real political leadership was essential, he added, but “optimism is not the word that comes to mind, yet without it things will get worse.”

He had given an undertaking to the people he met in Gaza that he would try to widen public understanding of their situation, he said. Nichols has previously spoken in support of Palestinian Christians whose homes and livelihoods are threatened by a section of the vast concrete security barrier Israel is building near the West Bank town of Bethlehem.

During last summer’s war more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed in Gaza, while Israel puts its death toll at 66 soldiers and six civilians, including a Thai worker. About 17,000 homes in Gaza were destroyed and reconstruction costs have been estimated at £5bn.