Wednesday, February 17, 2016

MY PATH FROM earnestness, which betrays an embarrassing naïveté TO ironic detachment.

Eons ago when I was young and naive and suffering all the pangs of ignorance and making enemies as fast as I could meet, analyze and open my mouth at them, I could have used this book, but better late than never. I came upon this book just about the time the 20th Century tipped over into the 21st and all computer hell broke loose. Not. One of the books that helped the world make sense to me. 

"The Postmodern Mind"  from THE MORAL ANIMAL by Robert Wright

All told, the Darwinian notion of the unconscious is more radical than the Freudian one. The sources of self-deception are more numerous, diverse, and deeply rooted, and the line between conscious and unconscious is less clear. Freud described Freudianism as an attempt to "prove to the 'ego' of each one of us that he is not even master in his own house, but that he must remain content with the veriest scraps of information about what is going on unconsciously in his own mind." By Darwinian lights, this wording almost gives too much credit to the "self." It seems to suggest an otherwise clear-seeing mental entity getting deluded in various ways. To an evolutionary psychologist, the delusion seems so pervasive that the usefulness of thinking about any distinct core of honesty falls into doubt.

Indeed, the commonsense way of thinking about the relation between our thoughts and feelings, on the one hand, and our pursuit of goals, on the other, is not just wrong, but backward. We tend to think of ourselves as making judgments and then behaving accordingly: "we" decide who is nice and then befriend them; "we" decide who is upstanding and applaud them; "we" figure out who is wrong and oppose them; "we" figure out what is true and abide by it. To this picture Freud would add that often we have goals we aren't aware of, goals that may get pursued in oblique, even counterproductive, ways-and that our perception of the world may get warped in the process.

But if evolutionary psychology is on track, the whole picture needs to be turned inside out. We believe the things—about morality, personal worth, even objective truth—that lead to behaviors that get our genes into the next generation. (Or at least we believe the kinds of things that, in the environment of our evolution, would have been likely to get our genes into the next generation.) It is the behavioral goals—status, sex, effective coalition, parental investment, and so on—that remain steadfast while our view of reality adjusts to accommodate this constancy. What is in our genes' interests is what seems "right"—morally right, objectively right, whatever sort of rightness is in order.

In short: if Freud stressed people's difficulty in seeing the truth about themselves, the new Darwinians stress the difficulty of seeing truth, period. Indeed, Darwinism comes close to calling into question the very meaning of the word truth. For the social discourses that supposedly lead to truth—moral discourse, political discourse, even, sometimes, academic discourse—are, by Darwinian lights, raw power struggles. A winner will emerge, but there's often no reason to expect that winner to be truth. A cynicism deeper than Freudian cynicism may have once seemed hard to imagine, but here it is.

This Darwinian brand of cynicism doesn't exactly fill a gaping cultural void. Already, various avant-garde academics—"deconstructionist" literary theorists and anthropologists, adherents of "critical legal studies"—are viewing human communication as "discourses of power." Already many people believe what the new Darwinism underscores: that in human affairs, all (or at least much) is artifice, a self-serving manipulation of image. And already this belief helps nourish a central strand of the postmodern condition: a powerful inability to take things seriously.

Ironic self-consciousness is the order of the day. Cutting-edge talk-shows are massively self-referential, with jokes about cue cards written on cue cards, camera shots of cameras, and a general tendency for the format to undermine itself. Architecture is now about architecture, as architects playfully and, sometimes, patronizingly meld motifs of different ages into structures that invite us to laugh along with them. What is to be avoided at all costs in the postmodern age is earnestness, which betrays an embarrassing naïveté.

Whereas modern cynicism brought despair about the ability of the human species to realize laudable ideals, postmodern cynicism doesn't-not because it's optimistic, but because it can't take ideals seriously in the first place. The prevailing attitude is absurdism. A postmodern magazine may be irreverent, but not bitterly irreverent for it's not purposefully irreverent; its aim is indiscriminate, because everyone is equally ridiculous. And anyway, there's no moral basis for passing judgment. Just sit back and enjoy the show.

It is conceivable that the postmodern attitude has already drawn some strength from the new Darwinian paradigm. Sociobiology, however astringent its reception in academia, began seeping into popular culture two decades ago. In any event, the future progress of Darwinism may strengthen the postmodern mood. Surely, within academia, deconstructionists and critical legal scholars can find much to like in the new paradigm. And surely, outside of academia, one reasonable reaction to evolutionary psychology is a self-consciousness so acute, and a cynicism so deep, that ironic detachment from the whole human enterprise may provide the only relief.

Thus the difficult question of whether the human animal can be a moral animal—the question that modern cynicism tends to greet with despair—may seem increasingly quaint. The question may be whether, after the new Darwinism takes root, the word moral can be anything but a joke.

(pp. 324-326 in The Moral Animal by Robert Wright)

Friday, June 19, 2015


Tonight I pulled out an old movie that I long ago transferred from tape to DVD, called Battle Cry. As I watched this Marine Corp fable, crafted by Leon Uris, for the fourth or fifth time, I was telling Mertie that if she wanted to know me as I existed mentally when I was 17, that movie had it all. It encapsulates all I believed about men, women, sex, marriage, courage, honor, love, faithfulness, war, children, prostitutes, America, WWII, male camaraderie, extra-marital sex, family relations, barroom behavior, smoking, drinking and love affairs. Battle Cry was released February 8, 1955 when I was a high school senior. Influenced by that movie and too many John Wayne movies to list, four months later, on June 15, 1955, I was on a train to Great Lakes Naval Training Center. I also told my wife if she wanted to understand my smashup and alcoholic drinking I suffered through from around 1964 through 1976 when I stopped drinking, all she has to think about is how the 1960s and early 1970s interacted with my outworn beliefs. The movie is one cliche after another from start to finish, yet I found myself crying from time to time as I watched it. I suppose I was crying over the lost innocence of the young man I was. Later, another movie followed me into the sort of person I became with a college degree in English after I dropped out of graduate school. That movie was Five Easy Pieces with Jack Nicholson as Robert Dupea who also had college degrees, drank too much and worked strictly blue collar.

I write this not to invite my friends to check these movies out but, like most writing, to remind myself about who I was and who I am and about the growth of consciousness and awareness that comes with a good education and a much better grasp of normative human values and reality. What happened during the middle decades of the 20th Century divided forever those who never gave up that false fable of reality offered by Battle Cry and those of us who suffered through and got beyond the movie Five Easy Pieces.

Modern Teapublicans live in a world about 60 years out of date, some even 2,000 years out of date. This is why they are full of the same kind of fear I was filled with during the 1960s. Let us hope that their fears do not destroy the American Dream by trying to return us to a heroic myth about the past much like Hitler and Mussolini wanted to return their nations to a mythic reality that never existed. When I put it this way, I realize we must not be naive enough to imagine that the far right could not impose some fascist reality onto America. If our society became unstable enough and if the middle class became fearful enough, America could easily slip into a fascist nightmare. I fear the modern Teapublican by trying to destroy and destabilize our American government hopes unconsciously to bring about a return to mythical times they thought were so much better than modern times. Fascism cannot come from the liberal dream any more than liberals brought fascism to Italy and Germany. Liberals support modernity not ancient myths. They were persecuted in those two nations right alongside the Communists.

Monday, March 30, 2015



I found this material by Richard Dawkins quite interesting. It seems that when the father’s and mother’s chromosomes join to make the first cell, the bits and pieces of their chromosomes fit together quite haphazardly as pieces of one “cross-over” to bits of the other.

“A gene is defined as any portion of chromosomal material that potentially lasts for enough generations to serve as a unit of natural selection.” —Richard Dawkins

This is his photo on twitter
And furthermore: “Individuals are not stable things, they are fleeting. Chromosomes too are shuffled into oblivion, like hands of cards soon after they are dealt. But the cards themselves survive the shuffling. The cards are the genes. The genes are not destroyed by crossing over, they merely change partners and march on. Of course they march on. That is their business. They are the replicators and we are their survival machines. When we have served our purpose we are cast aside. But genes are denizens of geological time: genes are forever.

“Genes, like diamonds, are forever, but not quite in the same way as diamonds. It is an individual diamond crystal that lasts, as an unaltered pattern of atoms. DNA molecules don't have that kind of permanence. The life of any one physical DNA molecule is quite short—perhaps a matter of months, certainly not more than one lifetime. But a DNA molecule could theoretically live on in the form of copies of itself for a hundred million years. Moreover, just like the ancient replicators in the primeval soup, copies of a particular gene may he distributed all over the world. The difference is that the modern versions are all neatly packaged inside the bodies of survival machines.

“What I am doing is emphasizing the potential near-immortality of a gene, in the form of copies, as its defining property. To define a gene as a single cistron is good for some purposes, but for the purposes of evolutionary theory it needs to be enlarged. The extent of the enlargement is determined by the purpose of the definition. We want to find the practical unit of natural selection. To do this we begin by identifying the properties that a successful unit of natural selection must have. In the terms of the last chapter, these are longevity, fecundity, and copying fidelity. We then simply define a 'gene' as the largest entity which, at least potentially, has these properties. The gene is a long-lived replicator, existing in the form of any duplicate copies. It is not infinitely long-lived.” —Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1989 paperback edition), p. 35.