Saturday, May 12, 2012

All Those Sevens Are Lisa's Fault

Not the wife. This one.

She succumbed to that dreaded internet virus, the meme. Struck with wonder at her prose, I thought the worst I could do is show the world how horrid my own attempts at fiction are. The rule is simple. Page seventy-seven of the the latest work-in-progress. Go to line seven. C&P the next seven lines/sentences/paragraphs. I've decided not to use my latest WIP, but rather the first draft that I am going to begin a rewrite on Monday. Remember, as you read - this is a FIRST DRAFT.
 Her eyes seemed to bore through Kelly now. “The two of you, sitting there, him saying, ‘That’s right, Kelly! See, you can play whatever you want!’ I hated that thing, I didn’t want you growing up thinking it was something special, like he did.”
“Then why did you get me that guitar when I was fourteen?”
“Because I thought, ‘Well, he’ll pick it up and realize he can never really play it, and then I can get rid of it.’ Sure enough, you were just like him, you could play it, couldn’t you. So you wanted all that other stuff, and I kept thinking, ‘Better to let him get it out of his system now.’”
Her eyes were filling with tears, now, but her voice showed no emotion other than obvious anger. Anger at him, anger at his long, lost, musical father.  “Then you hooked up those, those others, Jamie Tolliver and Davey Shea, a drunk just like his wastrel father, and that Harlan Truesdale with all his money. And Melissa Ericson, I know what kind of girl she’s always been. Always had her nose up in the air because she was looking up at people from being on her knees. Any girl who’d spend all her time with a bunch of boys, wasting their time, had only one thing on her mind.
“I put up with it, though. Even when you decided to be a bum, and drive around in that awful Tolliver boy’s car and play your music I thought being broke for a few months would teach you a lesson. You were like your father that way. You earn a few bucks, you get people whispering in your ear, and the next thing I know you’re on TV and the radio and now you’re living all alone in Arizona, and it’s all because you think music is a way decent people earn their living.”
The wind seemed to go out of her sails for the moment. Kelly was too stunned, just too goddamn overwhelmed to respond. She was breathing harder than normal, her thin cheeks flushed.
“The day your father died, he was on his way home from one of those horrible auditions he was always going to. Did you know that? Someone had called someone who had called someone else who had called your father, and off he went. He was going to New York, he said. Broadway, he said. All he had to do was go to this audition and play and sing and he said we would have it made. All that he had made was dying under some truck and I was stuck with a three year old child to raise on my own, who ended up just like his father."
You can tell me it sucks. It won't hurt.

A Mountain: Final Note Toward A Medium Opus XIV

I was thinking this would never end, if that's any comfort.

It all began with two distinct thoughts after reading an article nearly thirty years ago: How is it possible I cannot grasp the meaning of the phrase "one billion kilometers"? How is it possible the "laws of celestial mechanics" could be completely wrong? Over the ensuing years and decades, I've ventured far and wide as the initial path branched off, sometimes several times, until the relationships among the variety of things I was studying started to look nonexistent. What possible relationship exists among the theology of Jurgen Moltmann, the philosophy of Isaiah Berlin, the cosmology of Hawking, and the detailed description of the life and times of the ai-ai?

It wasn't a flash of light that illuminated the many dark paths. It wasn't some marvelous book of wisdom or thought or insight that made me stop and think, "Wow! So that's it." Rather, it was the realization that all these shared one thing in common: Me.

I say that with absolutely no boasting. They were meaningful and important precisely because they were meaningful and important to me. That did not and does not mean I am under any obligation to make any other individual care about any of them. Their importance for me shaped the way I thought and, more important, how I communicated my sense and understanding of the world to others. Beyond that, well, so what? The tie that bound them together is the language I choose to use to describe my understanding of the world, but that is hardly a big deal. That's all any of us do.

Far from something that brought a sense of pride, this coalescing understanding made me understand even more how little I had about which to boast. After all, what had I learned? That the world exists quite independent of me and my concerns; that we human beings, in trying to make our way in the world, run up against obstacles to our understanding that are impossible to overcome; that the world, and the larger universe in which we exist, is filled with all sorts of strange and beautiful things and creatures and events and none of it has anything to do with me. Even those things that seem so intimately connected with human life - the need for clarity in matters of social life, for example; an understanding of the faith I claim as central in my life - do not concern themselves with me, in particular. All these things, even the far less certain realities of human society and religious practice, exist without me being a part of them. They existed before I came a long. Centuries after I'm dead and dust, they will continue in ways that I cannot, now, imagine.

The only thing that really matters for me is how I make my way through this life. Living with others, being with those I love, struggling against those things I understand dehumanize and are otherwise detrimental to the full flowering of the humanity of others. These matter; even then, however, they only matter to me and for me.

There's a famous saying that describes the way of wisdom in Zen Buddhism: "First, there is a mountain. Then, there is no mountain. There is a mountain."  I spent a very long time indeed denying the existence of the mountain, insisting there had to "be" "more". Understanding that meaning was nothing more than the way we human beings put words together about things started to clear the haze. I started to see that mountain, but I wasn't sure if I was really seeing it.
A couple weeks ago, though, when those photos from the Cassini Spacecraft showing the geysers on Enceladus flashed on my computer screen, I understood that it was, in fact, just a mountain. That lack of understanding about what "one billion kilometers" might actually mean? Nothing more than a specific instance of human wonder, undamaged even by the mathematical detail. It is more than possible to look at the night sky, or listen to the rustling of the leaves on a forest floor, or look in to the face of another person, and for all that we can describe what we know and understand about these things, still let what we don't understand be a part of our understanding. As for those "laws", well calling them "laws" is a bit presumptuous. Mathematical descriptions of possible resolution of the movement along the arcs circumscribed by the ellipses to which certain objects are restricted are not "laws"; they serve as ways not only of understanding and interpreting the variety of things we encounter, but also of predicting how we should interpret our encounter with events of a similar class under similar conditions. When those Shepherd Moons were found to trace a mutually orbiting double helix - the path around which both revolved in a spiral motion was itself an elliptical line; that spiral, though, was nothing the understanding of celestial mechanics could have predicted - the scientists encountering the phenomena came to the conclusion pretty quickly that our understanding of celestial mechanics, for all it had been pretty well developed (we got a spacecraft from Earth to Saturn, right on schedule after all) was also fairly primitive. That understanding had to change precisely because the data encountered didn't fit our understanding. Again, no big deal.

Everything's connected because we human beings have to understand all this stuff, and so much more, to make our way through life in this world. None of it is any big deal. Our understanding of it is no big deal; it's all there, for the taking, should any of us be so inclined. Not being so inclined, however, doesn't make one somehow less human.

All that is, well . . . it just is. That's it and that's all. No big deal, no mystery, no deeper meaning or significance to any of it. We do not lose a scintilla of awe or wonder, fear or joy, when the clouds lift and the mountain stands there, clear and real. It is just as worthy of celebration as before; it just doesn't mean anything, is all.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Growing Beyond Yourself: Some Thoughts On Rob Horning

It was 1985 when the professor from whom I was taking American History I made sixty people look stupid. Having just moved through the election of 1800, and celebrating the victory of Jefferson and the democratic idea over the hemi-aristocracy of John Adams and the Federalists, Gary Ostrower said a few words about the power and strength of Jefferson's ideas on the power of the sovereign individual, on the potential of such sovereign individuals to successfully guide a nation to greatness, and on the persistence of individuality as part of the necessity for our republican form of government. Heads were nodding around the room; had it been a church service, I probably would have heard some "Amen!"s.

Ostrower turned and asked us if we agreed with these ideas. Did we think that America was a place that, perhaps unique among other nations and cultures, created opportunities for self-expression and disdained conformity. With one voice, the congregation affirmed this solemn declaration of American greatness.
"How many of you are wearing blue jeans?"

Everything in the class stopped. Like that, Ostrower had produced the pin that pricked the balloon of our self-conscious, conformist individualism.

I got to thinking about that moment when I was reading Rob Horning's "Outgrowing Oneself". I can't think of a more persistent, thorough, insightful, engaging cultural critic than Rob Horning.
“Dance the Night Away” by Van Halen was playing, and next came “Mysterious Ways” by U2. The transition was seamless and unremarkable, only I can remember when I was in high school, when listening to U2 and not Van Halen was of intense social importance, when the difference was glaring, and it dictated how one wanted to perceived and whom one felt comfortable hanging around with. It seems incredibly silly now, but growing up in semi-rural, semi-suburban Upper Bucks County, the discontinuity between Van Halen and U2 created a space in which to exist, and a hope that one might turn out to be something other than what the suburban environment seemed to promise. You could listen to something like the Beastie Boys and think your friends were the only other people who got it — them and maybe some idealized people out there who also would have been your friends if you weren’t so isolated. The special few who would redeem the future.
With its veneer of conformity, suburbia imparts a sense of aggrieved, threatened individuality, but more important, it gives its children a constitutive myopia about it, making it impossible for them to see that the ambitious discontentedness, the certitude that one is far more special than the mediocrity of shopping malls and chain restaurants and the rest, is part of the code for reproducing the suburbs, not a disruptive mutation. In short, it would be weird if you didn’t feel alienated.
As with so much of Horning's work, I find myself nodding in agreement. At first. Then, I might say, "But, wait . . ." It was this piece that made me understand the source of that persistent "but". For all that we exist within webs that reduce even that by which we define ourselves, individually and collectively, to bits of stuff that can be replaced without thought with other bits of stuff, the relationships among culture, the capitalist manipulation of culture, and individuals and groups for whom various cultural referents become touchstones is less one-sided that the picture Horning presents here.

Even Marx, for all his persistent dwelling on the insidious ways social relations not only create the economic conditions in which the warring classes find themselves, but also the larger superstructure by which the classes understand themselves in broader cultural contexts, would never insist on a description in which there is so much fatalism, such a pervading sense of powerlessness in the face of the relentless drive to commodify all reality. These relationships were dialectical precisely in the sense that there existed sources of power on both sides, even if not acknowledged or used, that created the dynamics of social and cultural conflict, apart from the central conflict over the means of production. 

Horning's position has far more in common with strands of Marcuse's idea of "totalitarianism" in which the dialectic has completely disappeared. In particular, One-Dimensional Man paints so gloomy a portrait of human beings under late capitalism, one wonders how Marcuse could see fit to argue a way out from under such a regime.

There is most certainly more than an element of the totalitarian spirit in the way capitalism seeks to strip meaning from human life, reducing even those elements for which "meaning" is intensely subjective and ill-defined (albeit not in the way Horning so aptly defines in the first paragraph) to items to be bought and sold, traded and interchanged without thought precisely because they are products which can, in the final analysis, find their only real intersubjective value in the price one is willing to pay for them. Without yielding one inch in agreement with this, I think it is also important to add that part of the possibility of resistance, whether it is social, political, or cultural, lies precisely in individuals and groups who are unwilling to allow such simplistic commodification and reduction. The kind of overweening totalitarianism described by Marcuse, and hinted at by Horning, is just the place where such systems show their inherent weakness. Resistance to being defined in the many ways capitalist ideology demands begins with the "No" we utter when we realize it has happened.

Were we powerless in the face of the relentlessness of such power, we wouldn't even be able to recognize it for what it is, to name it, and to mourn our powerlessness in the face of it.

It is precisely because social groups refuse to allow our lives and our culture to be reduced to marketable entities that are interchangeable with other, seemingly similar, entities that cultural conflict, in an at least quasi-Marxist way, is even possible. For all that I find something fatalistic in Horning's work, a view of the powerlessness individuals and groups have in the face of the unrelenting demands of capitalist ideology, I am very glad we have someone doing the work Rob does.

Words Mean Things II: Notes Toward A Medium Opus XIII

Moriah is taking European History in school. A couple weeks back she asked me to review an assignment she had due. For each major event, she had to produce a list of terms, related photographs, and major points for each term used. She confessed she was unclear about the names of the major antagonists in the First World War; were France and Britain and Italy the Triple Alliance or Triple Entente? I told her that they were the Alliance. "So, the Triple Entente were the bad guys," she said. 

"No," I said. "They weren't 'the bad guys'. There aren't 'good guys' and 'bad guys' in the world."

In the wake of the September 11th attacks, there was much ballyhoo over President Bush's use of the phrase "Axis of Evil" to describe the regimes of Libya, Iran, and North Korea, none of which had anything to do with the attacks on the United States. Throughout much of the rest of his Presidency, Bush would often call terrorist groups "evil doers". The use of this word became a focus of some debate among some on the right who claimed that "liberals" and others were somehow unable to call evil by its name; by using the words he had, Pres. Bush had not only correctly called out al Qaeda, but had stolen a march on domestic political opposition. Who would want to oppose an Administration that was actively opposed to evil and those who do it?

Calling the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington "evil" is, indeed correct. Technically, those who envisioned the attacks, planned them, funded them, hired those who would carry them out, actually did carry them out, then celebrated their accomplishments are, indeed, evil. My on-going problem with this formula is simple enough to state: So?

"Evil" as an epithet adds absolutely nothing to our understanding of the root causes of the rage against the United States. As a practical matter, it became a way of avoiding doing the far more difficult work of understanding al Qaeda and related groups. What need do any of us have to understand "evil". It is, by definition, unintelligible, existing solely for its own sake, in need of neither justification nor intelligent analysis.

Moral understanding is a peculiar form of clarifying particular events.  Unlike other ways of understanding the world, moral pronouncements are absolute.  There is no such thing as "less evil".  Whether rooted in religious commitments or some general sense that certain acts lie beyond the pale of acceptability, once such judgments are made, further investigation is no longer needed.  Even the shorthand of such kinds of labeling, "good guys" and "bad guys", makes analysis superfluous.  It is also morally questionable; why attempt to understand what is clearly outside acceptable norms of human conduct?

Our ways of describing and labeling events and persons and groups have weight; they carry implications for how we move forward together.  Seeing a world abounding in evil-doers and bad guys certainly makes it easy enough to find one's place in the world; it makes understanding the world impossible.  Our moral sense, a product of our collective sense of how best to live together in big and small ways, is an important part of what makes us human. Compassion, empathy, the fellow-feeling that leads us to mourn with those who suffer even if we share no immediate connection with them are necessary personal and social attributes; their expression is often what people understand as their greatest asset.

We humans also have a horrible penchant for cruelty and depravity, expressed interpersonally and socially in any number of ways.  While it may well be necessary to understand instances of the expression of these tendencies as "evil", we cannot allow that to call a halt to the necessary work of understanding the why's and wherefore's of them.  Precisely because the judgments embedded in our moral vocabularies, whether the simplistic one my daughter used or the more sophisticated-sounding ones used by the varieties of our moral scolds, are absolute, we need to take care their weight doesn't prevent us from the important work of understanding what brought about the events in question.  Precisely because "meaning" resides not in events or persons or object, but only words, the weight of meaning in moral judgments, far too often, removes our ability to find any other meaning in those we call evil.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Shaken: Notes Toward A Medium Opus XII

You lethargic, waiting upon me, waiting for the fire and I attendant upon you, shaken by your beauty Shaken by your beauty Shaken.
William Carlos Williams, Paterson
The way through the world is more difficult to find than the way beyond it.
Wallace Stevens
Some people find themselves overwhelmed by this life and the many ways it undermines our confidence that living, not just surviving but thriving, is its own reward, offered to those who are willing to risk. Whether because of personal tragedy, perhaps, or being caught in the crossfire of forces beyond our control or even our ken, so many people find themselves, as an old phrase has it, "too much with this world."

An odd turn of phrase, I think, because it suggests that "this world" is a place so filled with darkness and depravity that to sink in to it is to mire oneself without hope of escape, except death. I would be the last to claim there is no such thing as evil in the world. I just wrote quite a bit about some of the horrors we encounter when we look around us. If this all this life had to offer, I wonder how it is possible any of us move forward, day to day.
Life, however, is not just strange and terrible; it is also punctuated by moments of such power, to which we assign a variety of words such as love and grace and even beauty, they can come close to breaking us. It is often suggested that the power of beauty and love are so much greater than evil is demonstrated precisely because such moments are rare and brief.  Imagine, if you will, existing for all time in that single moment when you held your new-born child in your arms for the first time. Or perhaps that eternal second when you gazed in to the eyes of the first person for whom you felt real, honest love.

Even speaking of the possibility of the existence of such moments leaves us struggling to find the words to do them justice; they become smaller, somehow, less vital if we try to describe them, or even narrate them. The world is more than just the terrors we know far too well. It is also, occasionally so filled with joy and wonder we can find ourselves staggering to grasp the events we have experienced. 

The human need to understand the world as best we can, a survival strategy all living creatures possess to some degree or other in order to succeed, includes an ability, unique to Homo sapiens sapiens (so far as we can know), to experience singular events as qualitatively distinct in a way for which our normal means of communication has only limited descriptive power. We speak of them as ineffable, perhaps; transcendent is another word, implying that for all their uniqueness, their singularity in time and space they also, in some way we cannot understand, spread beyond those moments, filling much of the rest of our lives with some kind of meaning that is, yet, beyond our ability to articulate. Beauty, joy, the peace that comes with sharing a moment with a beloved Other, love - these are things that, in whatever form they present themselves, offer the opportunity to say, "Yes" even in the midst of all the clamoring voices demanding only "No" as a response.
After the final no there comes a yes and on that yes the future of the world hangs.
Wallace Stevens
For all that there are strange and terrible things in our Universe, perhaps a near infinity we cannot even imagine yet, to concede either to ignorance or fear the final judgment on these matters is an act not only of moral and existential cowardice; it is an act of singular, perhaps even purposeful, amnesia. Even as death takes our loved ones, sometimes a bit at a time, are we going to yield the field in the face of those moments, much shorter by some temporal measure of events, that nevertheless weigh as much in the scale as these drawn out times of pain and loss and suffering? We human beings have a gift, as I say, unique in the Universe. We can experience joy and beauty so powerful it leaves us shaking, mute in our attempts to convey the events and their import, yet assured that existence, for all its terrors, also holds moments that defy our sometimes overwhelming preference to give in to fear. 

Stripped of the slightly indigo prose, love and beauty and joy exist as much as hatred and ugliness and sorrow; these experiences of the better things life has to offer are so fleeting precisely because of the immense power they hold, the danger that power poses to our equanimity. Human beings can survive long bouts of depression; I do believe living too long in those moments when happiness overwhelms us would leave us a husk, unable to function.

Understanding this reality was a necessary part of coming to grips with my changing understanding of the world. Even something as technical as physics contains a kind of beauty that cannot be reduced to equations or their interpretation. All of life shares in this singular quality: From the array of experiences and events through which we human beings live, we find meaning and purpose, always with the occasional surprise that at any moment, something that breaks the bounds of our ability to make clear may yet occur. We may be left shaken by the experience, but it will always remain with us, these defining moments that escape our ability to define.

Behaving Badly

Monday was graduation at my seminary alma mater. The commencement address was given by the President of The University of Notre Dame.
So of all the questions posed in this campaign season -- the most important one is rarely asked. Now, when the country is increasingly diverse, when the number of disputed moral questions is rising, when citizens have deep and opposing passions that neither side will give up for the sake of civility -- Can citizens of the United States learn to express their convictions in more skillful, more respectful ways?
"Neither side will give up for the sake of civility". Right there is the nub. "Civility", whatever else it might mean, has somehow been elevated as a high social good; that people hold passionate, convicted views on any number of issues is nothing compared to the demand that we not let these passions override the need for civility.

What a load of crap.

With all due respect to the Rev. John Jenkins, CSC, I fail to see how some arbitrary understanding of "civility" overrides other social goods. Like, oh, social justice and compassion. Or maybe racial justice and economic democracy. Perhaps the multiple violations of our Constitutionally guaranteed rights from government intrusion by both the Bush and Obama Administrations are important, but nearly as important as being civil? Seriously? At what point did it become more important that we disagree without rancor than pursuing justice? At what point did we suddenly understand it was a far better social good not to get all upset when some people say things that violate what others feel are basic social or personal moral rules? Why, if I may be so blunt, should I be civil with those who advocate positions that I find not only socially disruptive but morally reprehensible?

Then, of course, there's the construction in which this is set. "Neither side" will yield, therefore both sides - because there seem to be only two sides - are equally at fault. Never mind Nixon's Southern Strategy, combined with the demand for "law and order" were little more than continuing the politics of racial division, but expanding them beyond the borders of the old Confederacy. Never mind the decades in which people critical of this or that policy of the United States government were not only in error, but enemies of the state. Never mind the on-going vilification of the incumbent President for his race, the religion of his father (in which he was educated for a time); the insistence that his politics pose not only a danger to the smooth operation of the economy, but are actively antithetical to our traditions and principles and laws. All this, and so much more, did not emerge from "both sides".

This odd point-of-view, that we all have to play nice in the sandbox of the public square, even when some who wish to play by the rules are constantly harassed by a band of bullies who will stop at nothing to take the sandbox for themselves, believing it to be theirs and theirs alone, is not limited to persons in positions of authority like President Jenkins. An FB friend, a United Methodist minister in Indiana, made a point of calling out "hateful" comments on a story about Sen. Richard Lugar's defeat in the Republican primary on Tuesday. The problem is, the comments in question just aren't that hateful. While there is certainly a certain amount of disdain sprinkled with sarcasm, in particular at the notion that Lugar, facing his first serious primary challenge in his career, wasn't up to the task of actually campaigning, there is nothing hateful about them. Yet, as the op-ed in question makes clear, a career like Lugar's isn't necessarily a good thing, particularly in a participatory democracy. Not only should Lugar's age, 79, be a legitimate issue for voters, but far more generally it's a good thing that folks challenged him. Our politics had become sclerotic not least because the same people held the same offices year and year after year. Lugar, for example, first won election to the United States Senate when the parents of children voting for the first time this year were in grade school. I do believe, for all that he deserves the thanks of a grateful state for his years of service, being defeated in a primary is hardly a sign of the decline of the West. Chiding Lugar for his complacency isn't "hateful". It's just politics.

I am quite tired of calls for civility in our public discourse. For some reason, it is believed that if we disagree with an air of comity, that might lead to a willingness to act in the nation's best interests. This belief, shared not least by our current President who continues to act as if giving the Republicans something will induce them to return the favor, is demonstrably false. Yet, here it is yet again, on display as a prominent cleric and academic advises matriculating seminarians to observe the rules of civility, even when faced by opponents who share none of our social, political, or moral priorities. 

Seriously. No.

It is far better to speak our minds, even if this violates someone's notion of "civility", than it is to adhere to these rules (whatever they might be) for one simple reason: People disagree about stuff. These disagreements are important, because they impact our lives, the lives of our fellow citizens, and the state of the nation as a whole. Disagreements get ugly because people care about these things a great deal. It would be nice, I suppose, if folks who honestly and fervently believe that gay marriage will destroy the social fabric of the United States and those who think a country that discriminates against a class of citizens for no reason justifiable under law is not only acting against its principles but promoting ongoing bigotry and even violence against some of its citizens could sit down, agree to disagree, and try to work something out. They can't, however, because, however you come down on the matter of same-sex marriage, your opponent promotes a position that violates one's sense of personal and social morality. How is civility possible?

How is waving goodbye to a politician who many feel outstayed his welcome "hateful"? Did anyone in the comments linked above accuse Lugar of a crime, accuse him of some horrid violation of moral conduct? Are there accusations not rooted in fact about Lugar's personal background, political philosophy, or actions as a United States Senator? Had any of those things appeared, I might go along with the description. As they stand now, though, I found the comments slightly amusing, and rooted in notions with which I share some agreement. If that makes me "hateful", then I suppose I'll wear the badge with pride. When simple disagreement, and the fact that important matters are sometimes discussed with volume and emotional involvement, become social vices, I do believe the cure is worse than the alleged disease.

Here There Be Monsters: Notes Toward A Medium Opus XI

If you don't think there are horrors among us, check this out:

 The parasite, Leucochloridium paradoxum, takes over not only the physiognomy of the snail, but its behavior, leaving the snail vulnerable to predators in order for the parasite to continue its reproductive cycle. The first time I heard about this, I was terrified. Not quite as disquieting as the previously mentioned parasitic wasps - the eggs are hatched inside a caterpillar and, when they hatch, devour it from the inside out; I once watched two burst out of a large, green caterpillar on a tomato plant in our garden in Virginia, not the most pleasant experience - but certainly disquieting. Evolving together, the flatworm had developed the ability to strip the snail of its usual behavioral patterns in order to further its reproductive ends. There is just something unnerving at the thought of a creature taking over another in this way.

It was watching some documentary on parasites when it all started to come together for me. There are monsters in this world, and they are not unearthly horrors or supernatural beings. They, like us, are creatures who have evolved strategies to survive and thrive at the expense of other creatures. This is a nice description of some more things that could make anyone uneasy.

They aren't the only monsters on the planet.
The Moors murders were carried out by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley between July 1963 and October 1965, in and around what is now Greater Manchester, England. The victims were five children aged between 10 and 17—Pauline Reade, John Kilbride, Keith Bennett, Lesley Ann Downey and Edward Evans—at least four of whom were sexually assaulted. The murders are so named because two of the victims were discovered in graves dug on Saddleworth Moor, with a third grave also being discovered there in 1987, over 20 years after Brady and Hindley's trial in 1966. The body of a fourth victim, Keith Bennett, is also suspected to be buried there, but despite repeated searches it remains undiscovered.
Brady and Hindley recorded one of their victims, a sixteen year old girl, begging for her life, screaming in horror at the things they did to her.  They would sit and listen to the tape as sexual foreplay.

Then, there are the monsters that gather in packs.
In the light of long-established and heavily "gendered" strategies of intercommunal conflict in the Balkans, it was hardly surprising that the gender-selective massacre of non-combatant males would emerge as the dominant and most severe atrocity inflicted on the civilian population in the modern Balkans wars. Regardless of their often-atrocious maltreatment of other population groups (including the destruction of entire cities and the mass rape of women), Serb forces -- and to a lesser extent Croats and Muslims -- concentrated their attention systematically on "battle-age" men. As the Bosnian Prime Minister Hasan Muratovic described the Serb strategy in 1996, "Wherever they [the Serbs] captured people, they either detained or killed all the males from 18 to 55 [years old].
While the line from parasites to psychopaths to genocide might seem nonexistent, it was in fact the parasites that convinced me the link exists. After reading Mayr, I went back and read both The Origin of Species and The Voyage Of The Beagle. Then, I perused various of Gould's articles from Natural History. This late education in the surprising and marvelous details of the contemporary theory of evolution not only tamped by enthusiasm for some broader, comprehensive "philosophy of science". It also demonstrated that, by and large, all the odd phenomena for which we continually assigned some odd, metaphysical source - whether it was comets bringing disaster; illness brought on by an invasion of creatures; the destruction of whole populations for political reasons - were little more than instances of events for which mundane explanations existed.

It is a commonplace of discussions in the history of ideas that the emergence of the mechanical understanding of the universe, then the theory of evolution by natural selection "disenchanted the world." No longer a domain where causes for events included unseen spiritual forces, the world and the larger universe all became little more than puzzles to solve, questions that would yield answers without an appeal to invisible beings or moral forces that had been, up until then, reified in everything from the plague to the famous Lisbon earthquake in 1755. Not only was the world a place open to human understanding; the ability to understand the world through the various tools human beings had developed had removed the sense of wonder and awe from the phenomena under investigation. No longer beautiful points of light in the night sky that form pictures as we gaze upward, the telescope revealed thousands, tens of thousands, more such lights, which were discrete objects an unknown distance from us, similar in kind to the sun we human beings see each day. Nothing marvelous about that, right?

Rather than the punishment, just or not, for sins known or unknown from the hand of God, diseases and other natural disasters were removed from the arena of moral casuistry and set down, firmly and fully, within the world as events to be studied, phenomena to be understood and, as Bacon pointed out, if understood they could be controlled. We no longer live in a world filled with agents of evil who manipulate objects, animals, people, or even nations to pursue whatever nefarious purposes they might desire. It's just stuff. It's animals, even creepy animals, living their lives as they've evolved over the millennia; we no longer need to wonder if, say, an earthquake struck a city, killing even those nominally faithful when the roofs of their churches collapsed upon them (a point in the discussions over the theodicy of the Lisbon earthquake) that might be some kind of judgment upon the dead. It's just the plates that make up the earth's crust, jerking loose after getting stuck together. The jolts are pretty horrific. They are not, however, a judgment from God.

Ours is a world no longer filled with monsters, at least in some transcendent sense.

The one joker in this deck of disenchantment, it has always seemed to me, is the infinite capacity human beings possess to visit massive violence on other human beings. While we may be able to remove all sorts of natural occurrences, from disease to the occasional disaster, from the realm of moral judgment and metaphysical causation, surely the existence both of individuals and groups willing not only to cause massive pain and suffering but to take pleasure in it leaves room for transcendent evil. A realm exists, it seems, in which our moral judgments, emotional responses, and the facts of the matter justify not only some kind of juridical determination of moral viciousness, but the implication that the source lies outside the normal range of human action. While horrifying, parasites are nothing more than critters doing what critters do, living out their lives. Whether the individual or paired psychopath killing for sport or sexual release or simple joy, or a political organization that uses mass death and terror as a tool of policy, how is it possible to understand these events without an appeal to external, metaphysical evil?

Part of the problem with this question is confusing our obvious and justifiable revulsion at the persons responsible for these events, and our refusal to place such monstrous events within the realm of human possibility, which results in the insistence that no human being would act these ways without an impetus from outside. Except, of course, the acts these individuals perform are intelligible within wholly natural categories of understanding. Disgust at the acts is certainly understandable; excluding those who perform such deeds from the human race, calling them "monsters", creating an unbridgeable gap between them and the rest of us in order to insulate ourselves from the corollary that flows from the insistence that these acts are both intelligible and fully human. If these are people just like us - although, perhaps in the case of the psychopathic or sociopathic murderer missing something key in their emotional make-up - then what separates us from them? Are we capable of such terrifying acts against our fellow human beings? Sad to say, frightening even, the answer is yes.

While there is nothing wrong with pronouncing some kind of moral judgment upon the individuals and groups involved in such deeds, we must be cautious not to separate them from the realms of possible human action, agents not of psychological dysfunction or political calculation but rather of forces from some agent of outside evil. The category error here is clear: the line connecting the parasitic worms, serial killers, and politically motivated mass death is just this: they are "natural" occurrences, wholly intelligible within categories and frames of reference that need no external, metaphysical source for our innate revulsion.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Dragging The Monsters Into The Light

I've never spoken about this, but I had occasional bouts of insomnia as a child. Nothing major or disruptive. Just, once in a while, I'd awaken at three-thirty or four in the morning and, unable to sleep, would pull the chain on my lamp and reach for a book. I had the top part of an old Hoosier cabinet converted in to book shelves, on which sat among many titles, The Little King, The Little Queen, and The Little Monster, Harold and the Purple Crayon, and Where The Wild Things Are.

While the first two stories had their charms, it was Sendak's marvelous tale of a little boy who conquers the monsters who inhabit his room at night that always had pride of place. Not that my childhood was a time of monsters. On the contrary, I think I was a cossetted, if not spoiled, child, with a large area of security around me provided by parents who pushed and prodded in many areas, all the while giving me time and space to be a child. Far from a place filled with worry and fear, my room at night was a space of comfort and safety; in this, I now know, I was in a distinct minority. Far too many children, when the light goes out at night, see and hear in the darkness far too many disturbing, hurtful things. Sendak's refusal to sweep this aspect of childhood under the rug, but face it head on, perhaps in the process offering children the tools for beginning to gain control over those parts of their lives that only came out after dark, is among the masterful acts of artistic courage in our lifetimes.

With his passing, Sendak has left us not only the marvelous creatures who inhabit their own land, ruled over by a child who refuses to be cowed by them, but a large legacy of children's literature that never once flinched from telling children the often painful truth that the world is a difficult, sometimes even horrible place. All the same, it is a place where children, who are and understand themselves to be among the most powerless people nevertheless have resources to confront these ugly realities. Perhaps, given time and imagination and courage, they can even master them. We offer our children great possibilities when we hand them works of literature like this, works that do more than just entertain. Through the power of Sendak's prose and images, we tell children that the dark need not be feared, but can in fact be conquered on their own terms.

Adults forget the many fears children face, the way a whole new world comes in to existence when the light switch is flicked and the door snicks shut at night. Sendak remembered, though. Rather than reassure children with the unknowable comfort of adult realities (I tell my girls all the time, "There's nothing in the dark that isn't there in the light."; surely a sign I, too, have forgotten what it means to lie huddled under a blanket because of a noise, a passing shadow, or sad to say, far worse), he offered them a way through the fear to the possibility of freedom and that most elusive and dreamed-of adult state of affairs: control over the things that terrify us.

Tuning Out Without Turning On

Matt Taibbi's column in Rolling Stone sums it up pretty well:
The apathy factor in American presidential politics has seemingly never been higher. As if to combat this, we're getting stories now about how this election is closer than you'd think, how Obama is in for a "tight race" or a "fierce fight" with Romney, and how the Republican challenger is "closing in" to a "statistical dead heat." They're going to say this, and they may even have numbers to back it up, like this week's Gallup poll showing Obama with just a two-point lead. But I think it's a mirage. The people who work for the wire services and the news networks are physically incapable of writing sentences like, "This election is even more over than the Knicks-Heat series." They are required, if not by law then by neurological reflex, to describe every presidential campaign as "fierce" and "drawn-out" and "hotly-contested." But this campaign, relatively speaking, will not be fierce or hotly contested. Instead it'll be disappointing, embarrassing, and over very quickly, like a hand job in a Bangkok bathhouse. And everybody knows it. It's just impossible to take Mitt Romney seriously as a presidential candidate. Even the news reporters who are paid to drum up dramatic undertones are having a hard time selling Romney as half of a titanic title bout. 
Obviously Republican voters do hate Obama and genuinely believe he's created a brutally repressive socialist paradigm with his health care law, among other things. But Romney was a pioneer of health care laws, and there will be dampened enthusiasm on the Republican side for putting him in office. Meanwhile, Obama has turned out to represent continuity with the Bush administration on a range of key issues, from torture to rendition to economic deregulation. Obama is doing things with extralegal drone strikes that would have liberals marching in the streets if they'd been done by Bush.
I've said much the same thing. Despite the many weaknesses Pres. Obama has displayed, there is no way Mitt Romney can win this year. This is a pity, really. Were the Republican Party the Party of Eisenhower and Robert Taft (at least the good Taft, not the McCarthy-coddler), it might raise a protest or two about the continued abuses of Executive authority and power, including an ongoing program run out of NSA to spy on American communications begun shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Sad to say, the Republicans hitched their wagons not to these men of (relatively speaking) honor and integrity, but rather to Richard Milhouse Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush. Add to that the on-going freak out on the right because the incumbent is (a) black and (b) has a non-Western name and we have this horrid stew of ugliness driving an already teetering party in to the morass of insanity where it currently festers.

I care deeply about politics. I care even more about governance. Because I care about politics and even more about governance, I am not, as I have stated previously, voting for Barack Obama in November, for precisely the reasons Taibbi outlines above (and many more, not least his on-going reticence regarding gay marriage; why this has to be about his comfort with the matter is beyond me, considering LBJ's well-known personal attitude toward African-Americans that was no barrier to him being a great leader for Civil Rights among our political class). Obviously, Mitt Romney does not deserve the votes of anyone who actually cares about governance. This is going to be among the more dull election years in living memory, with the possible exception of 1984.

Wake me when it's over, if you would, please.

Words Mean Things I: Notes Toward A Medium Opus XI

Of all the things they teach in seminary, the most important is vocabulary. You can't understand what all those folks through two thousand years and more of Church history (if you take seriously the Jewish roots of the Christian faith, then our faith tradition extends far back in time from the life of Jesus) if you don't understand the words. Just as philosophy uses words in specific ways that are different from mundane usage, so, too theology appropriates words and phrases for particular purposes. The difference between philosophy and theology on this point is the vocabulary and grammar, the syntax and structure of theology are unique. It is difficult to take theological language and set it down, say, in botany or even existentialist philosophy and make oneself at home. How much sense would it make to start blabbing about the hypostatic union in a class on ornithology?

There's a reason for this. It is summed up in the title to this post: Words mean things. Meaning is important. If words could mean whatever we wish them to mean, like the walrus in Alice in Wonderland, we are nearing the realm of chaos. Meaning flows from language through our lives back to language again. Of all the things that irk me, the claim that we are in the realm of metaphor or symbol when we talk God-talk makes me want to scream. If this is the case, pretty much anything will suffice to make intelligible the ineffable experience of the communities called Christian. Why not borrow the poetry of Rilke or William Carlos Williams (OK, I really like Williams, and there are theological themes there . . .) instead of deploying theological language? If it's all symbolism, we can use the songs of the Gershwins if we wanted.

This is not to say that we have to use the same, tired, many would say quite dead language borrowed from the Greeks, the Latinate West, and the Germans. Are we compelled to speak Spanish or Francophone African to be clear about how we understand our experience of God today? I think it is vital that we, particularly we Christians living in North America, understand how limited our understanding of the faith is, hemmed in by the narrow concerns of our (mostly bourgeois) way of living and our history of dehumanizing others, defining "human" by similarity of skin color and cultural milieu, and understanding difference as dangerous, threatening error. All the same, we North American Christians need to demand the integrity of our own experience of the encounter we have with God, and its various expressions. In order to do this, we need to be clear that the words we deploy have meaning. For this reason, we must always always always choose our words with the utmost care. 

Dutch Thomist Josef Pieper has a tiny volume, the transcript of a lecture he gave, entitled Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power in which he argues for the meaningful integrity of language. It is in the manipulation of language that power demonstrates its contempt for the powerless. In demanding meaningful discourse from those in positions of authority, we are demanding a respect for the substance of communication. Falling back on "symbol" and "metaphor" allows for the manipulation, and eventual destruction of other human beings precisely because we become used to them no longer understood as human.

So, too, with theology. Even learning the vocabulary of theology isn't enough; it's a starting point for joining a conversation that has ranged over time and space and language and culture and even, in recent decades, gender. One has to be aware of the plurality of discourses as well as the specificity and substance of the meanings invoked by the use of various words if one wants to "do" theology right. Not that this is either onerous or exclusive; it is little more than acknowledging that theology is little different from chemistry or pottery; you can't do the work of making our experience and the understanding of that experience intelligible if you don't know how to talk about it in ways that others who share similar experiences can understand.

Theology, like vocabularies in general, are not up for grabs. They are points of contention, to be sure, the focus of conflict; this is only because they are the one source of meaning in human social life. Our world is not only unintelligible without discursive interchange; it is empty, a surd, a meaningless flux of images and experiences that, absent meaningful, linguistic expression, just is. Words make our world. They take our collective experience and give it form and substance. All this is to say that this lesson first came in discussions with those who, in my opinion preferring an easy out from making any commitment to the substance of theological language, decided it would be easier to say, "It's all metaphor, really." It isn't, and is an easy out from the heavy lifting of actually learning something. 

When we proclaim our faith, we are making a commitment to a meaningful, substantive discourse that, as I have said repeatedly, can be summed up, "Jesus is Lord." Just as Jesus himself said the whole of the Law and Prophets could be summed up in the commandments to love God and love our neighbors, so, too, can meaningful Christian discourse and faith be summed up in those three words. Because, as I repeat, words mean things.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Justice To The Living World: Notes Toward A Medium Opus X

Since the Scientific Revolution, the philosophy of science has been characterized by an almost exclusive reliance on logic, mathematics, and the laws of physics. But in recent years we have witnessed a laudable state of ferment in the field. This unrest seems mainly from the growing realization that any philosophy of science must do justice to the living world as well as to the physical one.
Ernst Mayr, Towards a Philosophy of Biology, p.v.
It was my great good fortune to take high school biology with Bill "Mo" McGee. A trained geneticist, Mo had worked for a while with the US Forest Service, in a project to assist in the revival of various species of southern pines that faced, in the 1950s, something of an attack. The group with which he worked managed not only to save the trees, but get them to thrive. As my father said once while visiting our home in Virginia, "Mo would love it here. He knew everything about these southern pines."  

Mo was also unafraid to bring up Charles Darwin. In fact, he was quite clear that it was impossible to understand biology without understanding what Darwin taught; it was impossible to understand the living world, medicine, even what we were learning in our labs when we dissected everything from a sheep's eye to two-foot long sharks (removing the eyes, the nasal bulbs, and the spinal cord from its cartilaginous sheath) without understanding what Darwin said about the development of life on earth. He did so simply, directly, without muss or fuss or even mentioning that there might be a controversy about the subject. 

While I have always maintained an interest in what is loosely termed "naturalism" - a fascination with the study of various species of plants and animals as they live out their lives in the world - it wasn't as high on my list as other things; other than the occasional grumpy mumble whenever I read about some yahoos going after Darwin's theory of evolution, I didn't pay nearly enough attention as I did to other things. Fast forward from that dim lecture hall in 1980 to the book shop in the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian in 1998. Lisa and I traveled to DC for a quiet, family Fourth of July. Moriah was days away from her first birthday, and despite typical heat and humidity, it was nice enough to stroll through the streets of the nation's capital, visit our favorite museums, and generally spend a pleasant day together. While in the gift shop after seeing the major sights, I was perusing the books shelves when one title practically smacked me in the face. 

I had left CUA and the philosophy of science a year before; I faced the choice either of full-time graduate student work for many years, or full-time fatherhood, which really didn't seem like much of a choice. All the same, my still unformed thoughts on the subject swirled about, and the book was inviting me to take it home. The opening paragraph of the Preface, the epigraph above, was more than intriguing. It was a reminder of a point that had been made, over and over, by several faculty in the School of Philosophy: Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection was not science. Mayr himself cites none other than Karl Popper writing in 1974 that the theory was a "metaphysical research program". Precisely because it, and the larger science within which it worked, was different from physics, the theory of natural selection was different in kind from theories in physics, astronomy, and even chemistry, most philosophers held it in a certain kind of contempt. Kuhn, whom one might have thought would have mentioned Darwin in a book explaining scientific revolutions, talks more about Benjamin Franklin - whose work in electricity altered the study of the field - than he does Charles Darwin, or Gregor Mendel, or even Watson and Crick. "Science", it seems, is physics and, as long as it pays homage to physics, chemistry. 

I wrote yesterday that reading Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life was like a huge bomb going off, forever altering how I understood matters of life and evolution and necessity versus contingency. Reading Mayr was similar; by reminding readers that biology was a science, just different in its assumptions, methods, and structure than physics or chemistry, he forced this reader to reconsider the whole question of "philosophy of science". Already familiar with the divide between what the Germans call the natural sciences and the human sciences, I realized that even in the natural sciences, there was a divide between those who understood themselves to be discussing "science" and other, lesser things.  

Like biology. 

Mayr argues in this series of essays that the reduction of "science" to physics is mirrored in these same philosophers, and many practitioners of the scientific enterprise, with a demand that biology reduce itself, at the very least, to biochemistry. Because chemistry itself faces the demand to reduce to physics, the through-line here should be clear enough: Biology, with its preference for qualitative research and description, its basic research program - natural selection - priding itself on its inability to predict specific events in the future but only describe the past, should surrender to the Truth that, at heart, we living things are little more than masses of particles in motion. If we can understand the chemistry and physics of living creatures, that should teach us all we need to know, as well as serve the usual, predictive, function of scientific theories that natural selection happily eschews. Like many who thought they might know a thing or two, reading Mayr was a lesson in the reality that, as that old song says, "Don't know much biology." 

Part of the problem non-biologists have with biology is the reality that it encompasses a wide variety of sub-specialties that study specific questions that can only be understood within a larger framework. As the various levels of study - from biochemistry through histology to anatomy and physiology - each demonstrates a certain amount of integrity; at the same time, these lower-order specialties exist within a whole that cannot be reduced to these specific areas of study. This is best demonstrated by our flirtation with genetic reductionism. It is often argued that, should we find specific genetic sequences that can be linked to anything from alcoholism to cancer, we could intervene during gestation to prevent the development of what are considered these "faulty" sequences. The problem with this view is that DNA does not "determine" our life. Deoxyribosenucleic acid codes for the metabolizing of proteins. That's all it does. As specific proteins are metabolized, the resulting chemical reactions produce higher-order phenomena, the creation of cells with specific metabolic functions. These cells, in turn, become organized through chemical tracers used for communicating function, in tissues. This synthesis to ever higher, non-reducible structure and function results in the creation of a tree, a frog, or a person. 

That there is a correlation between certain gene sequences and alcoholism is now well-known. This does not mean, however, that a person with that particular gene sequence is destined to be an alcoholic. Even should an individual with that particular gene sequence live within a context in which alcohol consumption is accepted and practiced, there is no cause-and-effect that links this particular genetic sequence to alcoholism. Many other factors, some biological while others are behavioral, come in to play. We cannot reduce our understanding of individuals to DNA. With the rare exception of certain physiognomic traits - hair and eye color, say - higher-order phenomena, including disease and behavioral and psychological dysfunction, cannot be understood from a study of genetics. It may well lead to certain paths for further research; DNA, however, is not destiny. We may look the way we do thanks to our genes. We are not, however, who we are, even in a biological sense, because of our DNA. 

The matter is further complicated by the fact that biology deals not only with individuals. It also has to consider populations. Natural selection works both on the individual level, as genetic variation results in specific differences between individuals; it also works within the larger pool of genetic variation to produce, over time, either greater diversity that can lead, over time, to specific differentiation, the heart of evolution by natural selection, or should a population become isolated and genetic variation shrink, to extinction. We cannot understand evolution if we forget that it is constantly at work within populations, using the total pool of genetic variation within a population. Responding to ever changing environmental circumstances, evolution works to enhance those biochemical differences that result in individuals who are more likely to provide offspring, adding their distinctiveness to the larger population. Speciation occurs within populations, thanks to the large pool of available genetic information. It cannot be reduced to specific differences between individuals even within the same consanguineous, reproducing population. 

Understanding that biology is different in kind from physics and chemistry, yet nonetheless has an integrity, method, and self-understanding no less sophisticated than either dealt, in essence, a huge blow to my thoughts regarding philosophy of science. How was it even possible to use those three words together when, in fact, what most people engaged in the pursuit were really attempting was a description of physics? Furthermore, the success and on-going practice of the various fields of the biological sciences, as well as the refinements of Darwin and Mendel and the success of this synthesis in guiding research mocked the insistence of those who insisted that biology, or the theory of natural selection, or medicine, are not sciences. They are, and folks studying in the field are quite happy with the designation. All those folks who nod in approval at Popper's comment about "metaphysical research program[s]" demonstrate more a kind of intellectual blindness than they do an acumen about biology that biologists themselves lack.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Wonderful Life: Notes Toward A Medium Opus IX

I grew up watching all those great old nature programs on television. Marlin Perkins and Wild Kingdom, obviously, but there were others. When I was older, episodes of Nova and Nature on anything having to do with animals or natural history would find me seated front and center. Ours is a world filled with wonders and horrors, sometimes both at the same time - nothing gives me the willies quite like contemplating parasitic wasps, let me tell you - and every time we learn something new about the world, it just becomes all the more wonderful.

In the winter of 1989-1990, I read one of two books* that would shape the way I thought about all sorts of thing. Stephen Jay Gould was the nature columnist for Natural History magazine, a professor of biology at Harvard University, and a die-hard baseball fanatic of the first water. He published many of his columns as collections; Wonderful Life, however, was a marvelous study in historical detective work. It concerns the reconstruction of the fossilized remains of the Burgess Shale, a massive formation in Canada that was discovered and mined for what it told paleontology about an extinct ecosystem. The only major deposit from a mass extinction during the Cambrian period, hundreds of creatures, many of which found nowhere else, had their deaths recorded despite the fact they were all invertebrates, soft-shelled creatures without any bony structures to survive the hundreds of millions of years between them and us. Gould recounts how decades of accepted interpretations of the creatures within the Burgess was overturned once it became possible, through three-dimensional computer modeling, to recreate the creatures who left, in essence, two-dimensional representations of themselves. What had been understood as separate creatures suddenly, through the images offered by the computers, became parts - organs and body sections - of the same creature. The end result was a completely different understanding of the fauna of the Cambrian oceans.

Gould took the title of his book from the 1947 Frank Capra film, in which Jimmy Stewart discovers what the world would look like without him. Part of the problem with the original reconstruction of the Burgess Shall fauna was the scientists who worked on the remains began with known classifications of various animalia. The results, therefore, found precursors to later creatures. The new models, on the other hand, demonstrated whole ecosystems in which later families, orders, even phyla were totally absent. The Burgess Shale, rather than capturing in stone a snapshot of the evolution of known animals, in fact showed us a mass of animals that bore no relation to later creatures. Through the historical accident of mass-extinction (one of several that have hit our planet; the one during the Cambrian is only second in terms of the extent to which it extinguished so much life, with something like 92% of animal and plant species disappearing completely) these creatures left no trace of their existence in the genetic record. The question this reality posed, for Gould, was simple enough: What might our world have looked like had that mass extinction not occurred?

Our world, from the perspective of natural history, is an accident. Nothing like necessity lies behind the marvelous diversity of life, including human beings. These creatures, of which we only know anything thanks to chemistry and geology, would have made the Earth a very different planet had they not been extinguished in one of the several Great Dyings. Stripped of the wonder such thoughts should inspire, there is something terrifying in this thought. We human beings, regardless of our religious or ideological or other commitments - even those that insist they owe nothing to metaphysics - insist there is something special about us as a species. We continue, even when we should know better, to celebrate the significant difference between us and all other animals, even as those things we insist mark that difference - tool-making and using; language as the communication of discrete bits of information; sociability; even the capacity for the violation of accepted social norms - continue to show up in animals both near and far from us in the genetic tree.

Gould's humbling narrative, offering the merest hint not only that things could have been different, but that they were, indeed, very different, was little less than the equivalent of a nuclear bomb for me. In all honesty, I can't even remember how I thought about such things before reading Gould. Take a gander at the birds out in your feeder. The dog curled up on the floor or cat on your lap. Look in to the eyes of the person who shares your life, the faces of your children. None of this exists because it has to. There is nothing of necessity here. That we human beings, with our vaunted skills and intelligence and language and all the rest exist is not necessary. Indeed, going back to the creatures who exploded in development and variation after the Cambrian mass-extinction - even those things didn't exist because they had to. Our world is as it is, including we human beings contemplating it as it is, as an accident. Period. I realize this makes people uncomfortable. That doesn't make it any less the way things are.

*The other is Parke Godwin's Waiting for the Galactic Bus, the only work of science fiction I read at least once a year. If you want to know what I really think about things like life, death, the afterlife, ethics, politics, and John Wilkes Booth, check it out.

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