Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate centers on the age-old argument of nature verses nurture. This book presents the argument that both factors play a major part in the makeup of individuals. Along the way, the author takes on what he contends is a pervasive but invalid view that most human behavior is based upon culture and has almost nothing to do with biological evolution.

First, the book sets out to prove the point that biological evolution impacts human behavior in a major way. Pinker outlines how human violence, cooperation, family structure, sexuality and many other aspects of human behavior all have their origins in survival strategies and thus evolution.

Pinker is not arguing that culture is not an important factor. Instead, he is arguing what he contends is a common belief that environment is the only driver of human personality. The author presents evidence that human actions and cultures are, to a great extent, driven by evolutionary biology. Furthermore, many differences between people also stem from the particular sets of genes that we posses. Pinker describes the tendency for biology and evolution to influence behavior by the ubiquitous term “human nature.”

Pinker describes the central augment of this work in a nutshell,

“about half of the variation in intelligence, personality, and life outcomes is heritable— “

Next, the author sets out to highlight how, throughout the twentieth century and even earlier, various scientists, political movements and ideologies have advocated a counter narrative. That alternate interpretation is that individuals and society are one hundred percent malleable and can adopt any patterns or customs based entirely upon the environment, particularly culture. Thus, the term “The Blank Slate” is the book’s title.

Pinker tries to paint a picture of the social sciences, political and social movements, etc. that are dominated by folks hostile to the idea that human evolution has had a great impact upon our culture. He attributes much of this resistance to political and social motives that have overridden the scientific method and rational thinking.

Pinker highlights some of our worst policies and social theories propagated by both the political Right and Left to be based on the Black Slate. He argues that many pernicious ideologies, including Nazism and Communism, are based on it. He contends that at the core of these thought systems is the belief that the human mind is infinitely malleable.

Pinker spends a lot of time addressing how certain scientists have perpetuated this myth. He is particularly critical of the many who have done so for reasons that he contends are political. He also highlights the unfair attacks on scientists and philosophers who have tried to argue that many human differences as well as activity stem from biology. The author also describes how certain scientists who advocated for the validity of a biological evolutionary view have been unfairly and outrageously stigmatized as racists and Nazi sympathizers.  

Finally, the author argues against what he contends is the false assertion that biological causes of human behavior will allow folks to somehow excuse immoral acts. He makes a strong defense of morality in a world where morality is part of our genetic makeup.

Pinker is very fair. He takes both the political and cultural Right and Left to task for what he contends is untenable denial of the genetic origins of behavior. He points out that, ideologically, both sides have expended a lot of energy in pushing the validity idea of the Blank Slate to the detriment of society.

I am very much with Pinker on his view of human behavior being influenced by evolutionary biology. It seems clear for anyone who has studied evolution and human behavior that human personality and actions are the result of a combination of nature and nature. A lot of our culture as well as the things that humans do can be linked to survival strategies that humans evolved with. I also agree with him that such conclusions in no way invalidate the value of ethics, morality and decency.

However, as Rachel of Hibernator's Library points out here, one question arises: does Pinker overstate how much resistance there has been to this balanced view of human nature? Many books, articles and popular opinions seem to support the notion that we are a combination of nature and nature. Perhaps Pinker is trying a little too hard to prove this point.

Yet, Pinker has a point that we have a lot of ideologies, as well as scientific thought, that seems to deny any connection between biology and behavior. Furthermore, in recent decades, unfair and slanderous attacks have been conducted on proponents of the theory of biological factors driving behavior.

Having read Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, I can describe that book as a kind of follow up to this one. In it, the author outlines how certain human characteristics that have roots in human evolution are expressing themselves more and more as society progresses. Positive behavioral traits such as cooperation, empathy, nonviolence, etc. are winning out as societies throughout the world change. My commentary on that book is here.

This book is full of ideas. Though I have some disagreements with him, I find that Pinker’s view of humanity is very close to my own. I believe that this is one of the books that is important for anyone who wants to understand humanity and our cultures. It helps us understand who we are and why we are the way we are. I highly recommend it for folks who are curious about these subjects.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The below  commentary contains spoilers.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton is set in upper class New York City during the 1870s. It is an exploration of society, morals, character, conventionality and conformity.

Newland Archer is a young man who is a free thinker and a member of New York’s elite.  He is a lover of art and literature. He questions society’s conventions and is even critical of oppressive gender-based expectations. He has a dynamic mind and personality, and he yearns for more than what New York society is offering him.

At one point he ponders the society that he lives in,

"In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought”

The book opens with his engagement to May Welland. Coinciding with the engagement is the return of Countess Ellen Olenska to New York society. Ellen is a woman fleeing Europe where she was involved in an emotionally abusive marriage. The Countess is a person of depth and substance. As the narrative progresses the attraction between her and Newland becomes increasingly apparent. Ellen is a complex and brilliantly drawn character. She is a nonconformist who is ethical and who displays an almost passive stoicism towards things that she cannot change.

The pair’s esteem for one another grows and grows until finally, before his marriage to May, Newland reveals his love to Ellen. Though it becomes apparent that she also loves Newland, Ellen rebuffs his offer for complex reasons, but partially because it would be unfair and detrimental to May.

Newland goes on to marry May but continues to be obsessed with Ellen. He eventually becomes bored and angry with May’s conventionality and becomes depressed at the prospect of a long life with her. He continues to attempt to connect with Ellen and eventually begins planning to run away with her. However, he is ultimately rebuffed by Ellen for ethical reasons. In the end, his efforts at freeing himself from society by running off with Ellen prove to be fruitless.

The tragedy here is that due to social obligations, Ellen and Newland can never be together. This book is essentially a protest against the conventionality and dishonesty inherent in society as well as the smothering restrictions that these things place upon people.

If this was all that there was to it, this book would be a brilliant character study as well as a critique about the confining nature of society and conventionality.  

I think that there is something else that is at least of moderate importance going on in this novel.  There is a counterpoint playing alongside Ellen and Newland’s relationship.

It would have been easy and natural if Wharton had portrayed May as completely vacuous or malicious, but she is not. I get the sense that Newland is underestimating her in some ways. Though she is no rebel or free thinker and possesses multiple flaws, May shows some surprising emotional intelligence. Before their marriage, suspecting that Newland is infatuated with someone else, she offers to free him. This is an offer that Newland does not take.

Later, she shows much tenderness toward Newland. After her death, he finds out that she understood a surprising amount of things about him in ways that he never suspected. It turns out that she empathized with some of his pain.

Though she does scheme to keep Newland and Ellen apart, can a wife, especially one living within the society depicted in this book, be blamed for such actions? A perceptive reader cannot help but sympathize with her just a little.

In the following passage, Wharton both illustrates the problems that the couple are having while highlighting some of May’s virtues,’

“May had shown a tendency to ask him to read aloud whenever she saw him with a volume of poetry: not that he disliked the sound of his own voice, but because he could always foresee her comments on what he read. In the days of their engagement she had simply (as he now perceived) echoed what he told her; but since he had ceased to provide her with opinions she had begun to hazard her own, with results destructive to his enjoyment of the works commented on.”

I also do not think that Newland’s behavior can be viewed as completely virtuous. May gives him an escape before marriage, but he goes ahead and marries her anyway. After the marriage, he continues his obsession and pursuit of Ellen. At one point, he is prepared to abandon May and run off with Ellen.

May and Newland represent a mini tragedy within this novel. Near the book’s end, decades after the main events of the narrative take place, it is revealed that May has died. The couple’s son, Dallas, comments to Newland what his perception of his parents’ relationship was,

“You never did ask each other anything, did you? And you never told each other anything. You just sat and watched each other, and guessed at what was going on underneath. A deaf-and-dumb asylum, in fact!”

Looking at May with some empathy and at Newland’s behavior with a critical eye adds new dimensions to this work. I am not claiming that this novel is not a cry against conventionality and the shallowness of society, but perhaps Wharton is saying that such rebellion imposes a cost to the rebels as well as to innocents.

A lesser writer would have made May less sympathetic. Newland’s actions would have seemed a little more justified. By endowing her with virtues, Wharton is adding levels of complexities to this book. All this might muddle the theme a bit, but it raises the aesthetic quality of this book by several notches.

This is a fantastic novel. The characters are complex and a joy to read about. The plot is engaging. The writing is superb. Had the plot and characters been more simplistic, this still would have been a very worthy read, but by adding additional nuance, Wharton has fashioned a brilliant novel. I highly recommend this work to anyone who generally likes novels of this type.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

From time to time, I will be blogging about books relating to feminist themes. Some of my general thoughts on feminism and the issue of violence directed at women are here.

Some of the statistics on eating disorders included in the original version of this book were criticized as being inaccurate. Wolfe has acknowledged the inaccuracies and the version of the book that I read includes the corrected data.

Naomi Wolf is an author and commentator. Over the years, she has weighed in on all sorts of political and social issues. She is also a former adviser to President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

In this work, Wolf builds a complex and nuanced argument, supported by many pages of data and examples, as well as philosophical musings. First, she argues that modern society has created a false image of feminine beauty. This image is restrictive. Beauty is not only subjective, but the vast majority of men and women view sensual beauty as a much larger spectrum than that which is being fed to the public.

At one point, in a quote that I find to very insightful, she writes about men in regards to this point,

"Many, many men see this way too. A man who wants to define himself as a real lover of women admires what shows of her past on a woman’s face, before she ever saw him, and the adventures and stresses that her body has undergone, the scars of trauma, the changes of childbirth, her distinguishing characteristics, the light in her expression. The number of men who already see in this way is far greater than the arbiters of mass culture would lead us to believe, since the story they need to tell ends with the opposite moral. The Big Lie is the notion that if a lie is big enough, people will believe it. The idea that adult women, with their fully developed array of sexual characteristics, are inadequate to stimulate and gratify heterosexual male desire, and that “beauty” is what will complete them, is the beauty myth’s Big Lie. All around us, men are contradicting it. The fact is that the myth’s version of sexuality is by definition just not true: Most men who are at this moment being aroused by women, flirting with them, in love with them, dreaming about them, having crushes on them, or making love to them, are doing so to women who look exactly like who they are. The myth stereotyped sexuality into cartoons by representation”

Wolf argues that women in particular and society as whole have been programed and thus have become obsessed with this false image of beauty.

I find that Wolf’s arguments on this matter are very convincing and I am in strong agreement with her here.

The author’s next contention is that this Beauty Myth, and society’s obsession with it, is extremely detrimental and oppressive towards women. In chapter after chapter, Wolf lays out a case of how women are harmed by this myth. Not only does it narrowly and falsely define beauty and sensuality, but it forces women into a no win situation as they attempt to adhere to this myth in a supposed attempt to reach success in multiple facets of life. She explores its economic, legal, social, physical, psychological and emotional (In the area of emotion, she argues that men have been oppressed, too) effects upon women. Wolf gets into a lot of detail here as she explains both the expected and the unexpected ways that this phenomenon has been an encumbrance upon women.

Though I do not agree with all her arguments, when it comes to the big picture, Wolf presents a very convicting case here. The information that she provides is intricate, and some of her philosophical musings are complex and difficult to convey in a single blog post. In one example, she illustrates how the legal system has allowed all sorts of employers to discriminate against women based upon their appearance and presumed attractiveness. I have taken several business law and human resource related classes, and I was already familiar with some of the cases that are presented here. I agree the results were outrageous and harmful to society.

Some of Wolf’s final conclusions seem to go into shakier territory. Wolf envisions nearly utopian benefits if society dispensed with these falsehoods and discrimination. She contends that men’s emotional connection to women is being fouled and corrupted by the myth. Thus, if men resisted the myth, women and the men who love them would begin to drive revolutionary change,

"But with the apparition of numbers of men moving into passionate, sexual love of real women, serious money and authority could defect to join forces with the opposition. Such love would be a political upheaval more radical than the Russian Revolution and more destabilizing to the balance of world power than the end of the nuclear age. It would be the downfall of civilization as we know it— that is, of male dominance; and for heterosexual love, the beginning of the beginning."

In terms of these ultimate conclusions, I think that sexism is very complicated. While a more inclusive and less obsessive societal view of beauty and sensuality would be very beneficial to men and women, I think that the barrier that Wolf sees between the sexes in terms of heterosexual love is exaggerated. This ‘joining of forces’ to overthrow male dominance seems farfetched.  There are other factors aside from The Beauty Myth driving sexism and misogyny that need to be addressed separately. I believe that society addressing these issues and that positive change will continue, but at an evolutionary, not revolutionary pace.

This book contains a lot of ideas. There are other arguments that I disagree with. In particular, I found Wolf’s comparison between Nazi medical experiments and the modern cosmetic surgical industry to be untenable and ill-considered.

I think that it is important to note that Wolf is not advocating an abolition of all efforts of women to enhance their beauty and/or sensuality. She goes on to extoll the joys found in the efforts that people take in making themselves attractive and sensual. She writes,

“what I support in this book is a woman’s right to choose what she wants to look like and what she wants to be, rather than obeying what market forces and a multibillion-dollar advertising industry dictate"

And later,

we have to separate from the myth what it has surrounded and held hostage: female sexuality, bonding among women, visual enjoyment, sensual pleasure in fabrics and shapes and colors— female fun, clean and dirty. We can dissolve the myth and survive it with sex, love, attraction, and style not only intact, but flourishing more vibrantly than before. I am not attacking anything that makes women feel good; only what makes us feel bad in the first place. We all like to be desirable and feel beautiful.”  

Though The Beauty Myth is more than twenty years old, I should note that it has been somewhat updated by the more recent introduction included in my edition as well as by Wolf’s 2011 essay, A Wrinkle in Time, which is available all over the Internet. Though parts of the book still seem a little dated, the bulk of it, as well as its main contentions, still seem to be relevant.

Despite my quibbles with some of her points, I find most of Wolf’s arguments moderate and reasonable. As I outlined above, I am in agreement with her on the majority of her points.

This book is bursting with insights and important points. I have only scratched the surface in terms of Wolf’s arguments, and the detail in which she makes them. This book delves into the nuts and bolts of our culture and how we view and deal with gender and sensuality. Thus, this is an important book for both women and men to read.

Friday, January 15, 2016

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

This post contains major spoilers.

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster is the story of Lucy Honeychurch. Like other works that I have read from Forster, this is a story about people striving for and struggling to make human connections. Having previously read both a Passage to India and Howards End, I found a lot of parallels in this book.

Lucy is full of life and beginning to appreciate the diversity inherent in the world and in people. The novel opens in Florence, Italy, where she and her friend Charlotte Bartlett are visiting as tourists. There she encounters a host of other English travelers and expatriates.  Among them are Mr. Emerson and his son George Emerson. The older of the men is intelligent, dynamic and empathetic, but in the terminology of our present day, he would be called verbally unfiltered. He speaks what is on his mind to the consternation of the book’s more conservative characters.  Thus, he is often a driver of major and minor events. George is moody and depressed but is also philosophical.

Eventually Lucy and George become attracted to one another. Though she will not admit it to herself, the pair falls in love. Socially, it seems that the two would make an unacceptable couple due to the Emersons’ odd nature. Thus, Lucy flees Florence in an attempt to get away from George.

Later in the narrative, Lucy returns home to England. Lucy becomes engaged to Cecil Vyse, a man who is cultured and who is a lover of art and literature. Unfortunately, Cecil is also priggish and stifling to Lucy. When George moves into the same neighborhood that Lucy lives in, complications ensue.

Like Forster’s A Passage to India, but to a much lesser degree, this novel contains several transcendental moments for the characters. These moments revolve around the common theme of understanding a certain meaningless to life and an ensuing leap to find meaning. However, unlike A Passage to India, which contained in depth metaphysical musings, this work only touched upon such higher intellectualizing. My commentary on that novel is here. My opinion in regards to A Room with a View is that it presents a lot of ideas that were present in Howards End as well as in A Passage to India, but that they are less developed here. I remember that those books contained more sophisticated musings relating to several themes, including Forster’s favorite, the value and difficulty in striving for human connections.

Like I often do, I would like to devote a few words to a particularly interesting and insightful, but fairly minor, point in the narrative.

After a talk with George, Lucy comes to understand that Cecil is boorish, cold and a terrible match for her. She decides to break off the engagement.

As is illustrated in Howards End, as well as in a Passage to India, however, Forster is all about people with differences attempting to connect and coexist. It turns out that Cecil is more thoughtful than is initially apparent. At being informed by Lucy that she is breaking off the engagement, he responds,

"…I fell to pieces the very first day we were engaged. I behaved like a cad... You are even greater than I thought." …"I'm not going to worry you. You are far too good to me. I shall never forget your insight; and, dear, I only blame you for this: you might have warned me in the early stages, before you felt you wouldn't marry me, and so have given me a chance to improve. I have never known you till this evening. I have just used you as a peg for my silly notions of what a woman should be. But this evening you are a different person: new thoughts— even a new voice—"

Nothing like this came from Cecil earlier in text. However, it is apparent that Lucy never voiced criticism of his behavior before. It seems that Forster is illustrating the tragedy of missed opportunity here. It is not at all clear that Cecil would be capable of change, and even if he were, Lucy is in love with George. However, I think that Forster is leaving open the possibility that he might have gained by constructive criticism. The author never depicts connections as easy, and folks attempting to connect and understand what is different often run into all kinds of trouble, as is illustrated in this failed relationship. All of this adds so much complexity and nuance to this work.

This is a very worthwhile book. The themes, of which I have only scratched the surface of above, are intriguing. Several of the characters, including Lucy and the Emersons, are well crafted, complex and interesting. The story is compelling. Though perhaps a little less far along in terms of developed themes than Forster’s later novels. This is an entertaining and very compelling book.