Archive for the ‘evolution’ Category

Darwin & friends

November 18, 2010

“Are we still evolving?” That’s the question of the day. Most days lately, the answer would have to be: doesn’t seem so. Jerry Coyne, some researchers at Duke, and Time all say yes. But they’re not really asking the  more important and pointed question:  are we evolving culturally? Are we becoming a better, kinder, more peacable and cooperative species? Again, appearances usually suggest not. But it would have been easier to think otherwise a century and a half ago.

The 19th century was a crowded one, probably philosophy’s best so far. John Stuart (“of his own free will”) Mill is the most famous English utilitarian, but Jeremy Bentham is the one who came up with the “hedonic calculus” for determining the greatest good of the greatest number. (It’s not very reliable, unfortunately.) He’s under glass, now.

Auguste Comte was a positivist who also preached the  “religion of humanity,” sometimes aka “secular humanism.”

As for Darwin’s “friends,” you might say that with pals like these he didn’t need Intelligent Designers

Herbert Spencer, for instance, came up with “survival of the fittest” and (according to most mainstream evolutionists) badly misapplied evolutionary ideas to society in general. Social Darwinism is un-Darwinian.

But American philosophy generally  has been very friendly to the evolutionary hypothesis, in many ways a direct and favorable response to it.  Pragmatism is America’s indigenous philosophy – unless we’re talking about the thought of its indigenous peoples, of course.

The evolution vs. creation  debate had been raging in America even before Darwin published, in 1859. Ernestine Rose, one of many neglected female freethinkers in the 19th century spotlighted by Jennifer Hecht in Doubt, had an answer to those early IDers who were sure that oddities like blind fish somehow attested to divine architecture in nature.

What did she make of the world without a creator? One believer had told her that an eyeless fish living in a cave in Kentucky proved that there was a creator, since this showed design. Rose explained, “He forgot the demonstrable fact that the element of light is indispensable in the formation of the organ of sight, without which it could not be formed… [Hecht on the Scopes Trial… on Darwin15 answers to creationiststheistic evolution…theistic evol DS1…DS2 Coyne vs. ShermerHitch on theistic evoldefining religion…evol & meaning (Galaxy Song)]

James did not think there was any insuperable incompatibility between religion and the new Darwinian science. But for himself, he said,

I believe myself to be (probably) permanently incapable of believing the Christian scheme of vicarious salvation, and wedded to a more continuously evolutionary mode of thought.

Dewey called his version of pragmatism “instrumentalism,” and set up an experimental school to try it out. He wrote The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy (and other essays on this theme).

If all organic adaptations are due simply to constant variation and the elimination of those variations which are harmful in the struggle for existence that is brought about by excessive reproduction, there is no call for a prior intelligent causal force to plan and preordain them…

Philosophy forswears inquiry after absolute origins and absolute finalities in order to explore specific values and the specific conditions that generate them…

a philosophy that humbles its pretensions to the work of projecting hypotheses for the education and conduct of mind, individual and social, is thereby subjected to test by the way in which the ideas it propounds work out in practice. In having modesty forced upon it, philosophy also acquires responsibility.

Harvard’s turn-of-the-century philosophy department was a hotbed of pragmatism, but also included the metaphysical idealist Josiah Royce (who was James’s office-mate and next-door neighbor in Cambridge, MA) and the Spanish expat George (“those who do not remember the past”) Santayana. Lately, Richard Rorty (of Princeton and UVA, among other places) wore the mantle of neo-pragmatist.

Another recent Harvard philosopher, John Rawls, wrote A Theory of Justice. His colleague Bob Nozick came up with the Experience Machine.  Their colleague W.V.O. Quine (who I met in one of my professors’ kitchen in 1978, btw) said experience is a “web of belief.”

James’s favorite contemporary philosopher Henri Bergson, a “vitalist,” said there’s a mysterious “life force” behind everything.

Freud‘s philosophical credentials are challenged by some, but he expressed a forceful alternative to Cartesian rationalism and said we don’t know ourselves or our minds well at all. He liked to ponder the symbolism of cigars, too.

St. Louis Hegelians.” I’m from St. Louis, and the only Hegelians I encountered there were down in Columbia at Michael’s Pub. They weren’t all that deep, but at least one of them thought he was free.

But again, it was a different story back in the day. Even Dewey was a member of the tribe, though he was no midwesterner.

Finally, for now: at the TPA meeting the other day I attended a talk where an old (but misguided) friend contended that  “pluralists can’t be pragmatists.” That was irritating. I kicked the nearest percept I could find and repeated Dr. Johnson’s boast: “I refute you thusly.” My foot, or rather my idea of my foot, is still throbbing.

Speaking of evolution: Denis Dutton has interesting thoughts on the evolutionary origin of art, music, and creativity…

More on Nietzsche: Solomon on the Ubermensch and Will to PowerNihilism & the death of GodQuashing Rumors…]

“Why the future doesn’t need us”

September 13, 2010

In the Wired essay of this name, a few years old now but still startling to think about, Bill Joy was definitely not happy to contemplate the world without us. [Wiki bio]

His point was that we need to be charting a very different future than the one our present technological trend-lines– particularly in genetics, robotics, and nanotechnology– seem to be converging on. It’s not clear that he was playing Chicken Little in that piece, or that the sky will not soon fall. He was sounding an alarm. Have any of us heard it?

Well, Bill McKibben did. See his Enough: staying human in an engineered age. Like Joy, he too is now intensely preoccupied with green solutions to our woes. [350.org]

Some people call him Chicken Little, too, ever since End of Nature; and he keeps looking more and more like a prophet just barely ahead of his time. Let us hope Bill Joy was just wrong. Better yet, let’s act to make him wrong. That’s what he was really hoping we’d do, after reading Wired.

You could call him a Star Trek geek, too. He still seems to share the same Roddenberry vision of the 24th century he and I and many others were infected with on Thursday nights back in the late ’60s. Good for us, I say. But: where are our jet-packs?! Well, maybe they’ll be along soon enough, if he’s right about carbon nano-tubes and Moore’s Law, along with our replicators and transporters. We’ve already got our phasers and tri-corders. Live long and prosper!

(Wired continues its penchant for lapel-grabbing feature stories. Lately they’ve pronounced the death of the Web. Sounds, like reports of Mr. Twain’s death more than a century ago, a bit exaggerated.  And premature.)

NOTE TO CLASS: in addition to Bill Joy, the syllabus promised some discussion today of transhumanists and gerontologists, including Aubrey de Grey. Stay tuned, we’ll get to all that– and the idea of bio-enhancement— a little later. Meanwhile, take a look for Wednesday at some of the founding documents of the Long Now Foundation from Hillis &  Eno, et al, and then let’s get started with Brand’s Clock of the Long Now.

now

June 10, 2010

This is why we need a long clock.

The short one we’ve already got keeps ticking closer to midnight, closer to doomsday. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists calmly declares: it is 6 minutes to midnight.

The Doomsday Clock conveys how close humanity is to catastrophic destruction–the figurative midnight–and monitors the means humankind could use to obliterate itself. First and foremost, these include nuclear weapons, but they also encompass climate-changing technologies and new developments in the life sciences that could inflict irrevocable harm…

Such potential dangers are forcing scientists, institutions, and industry to develop self-governingmechanisms to prevent misuse. But developing a system to ensure the safe use of bioengineering, without impeding beneficial research and development, could pose the greatest international science and security challenge during the next 50 years.

The next 6 minutes.

“This is our life happening,” Michael Chabon has written, “and it’s happening right now.”

thoroughly modern Henry

June 7, 2010

E.O. Wilson opens his Future of Life with a charming, fanciful monologue directed at old Thoreau. The name is correctly pronounced with emphasis on the first syllable, marking its subject as a “thorough” naturalist, and Wilson’s first big point is that Henry’s world is not so far removed from ours as the short-term view of time and life incline us to imagine.

Thoreau’s brief time on Earth lasted just long enough for him to have caught the first edition of Origin of Species. He died in 1862, at 44, three years after Darwin’s detonation of the old delusion about our separability from the rest of nature. Thoreau understood our interconnectedness and our native biophilia implicitly. Thoroughly.

And he understood that time is a fast-flowing tributary uniting us with generations not at all far upstream or down. He would grasp Wilson’s point entirely:

I am old enough to have had tea with Darwin’s last surviving granddaughter… I discussed my first articles on evolution with Julian Huxley, who as a little boy sat on the knee of his grandfather T.H. Huxley, Darwin’s “bulldog”…as a child I could have spoken to old men who visited you at Walden Pond when they were children of the same age. Thus only one living memory separates us.

We’re connected across the years in a much tighter weave than we often allow. In this summer of the great spreading gulf oil spill, can any of us still seriously doubt that we’re connected to the planet just as tightly, or that when we scar it we injure ourselves? 

Wilson closes his epistle with a lament we must echo louder today:

The natural world in the year 2001 is everywhere disappearing before our eyes– cut to pieces, mowed down, plowed under, gobbled up, replaced by human artifacts.

No one in your time could imagine a disaster of this magnitude…

wider than the sky

April 6, 2010

Let’s begin at the end. The epigraph for Unweaving the Rainbow‘s final chapter is a clever thought from Marian Diamond: The brain is a three pound mass you can hold in your hand that can conceive of a universe a hundred billion light-years across. Just like that Contact opening sequence. And as Carl says in “Glorious Dawn“:

I believe our future depends powerfully
On how well we understand this cosmos
In which we float like a mote of dust
In the morning sky

But the brain does much more than just recollect
It inter-compares, it synthesizes, it analyzes
it generates abstractions

The simplest thought like the concept of the number one
Has an elaborate logical underpinning
The brain has it’s own language
For testing the structure and consistency of the world

But Emily Dickinson’s brain poem, which (among other enduring words) you can find chiseled in stone next time you amble past Vanderbilt’s Buttrick Hall— would’ve worked even  better to convey the staggering range of evolved, embodied mind.

The Brain—is wider than the Sky— For—put them side by side— The one the other will contain With ease—and You—beside—

Dawkins: We can get outside our universe, via the models in our brains. And, quoting the Medawar brothers: Only humans find their way by a light that illuminates more than the patch of ground they stand on. This reminds me so much (as so much does, I admit!) of John Dewey’s continuous human community, but with a truly cosmic spin. I never tire of repeating it, as some of you know too well:

The things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves. They exist by grace of the doings and sufferings of the continuous human community in which we are a link. Ours is the responsibility of conserving, transmitting, rectifying and expanding the heritage of values we have received, that those who come after us may receive it more solid and secure, more widely accessible and more generously shared than we have received it.

But what’s cosmic about brain modeling? The opportunity to survey and prepare possible futures for the links further on. When we adopt a truly cosmopolitan sensibility, and see ourselves as short-term residents but long-term investors in an unfolding epic of  human evolution and cosmic development (a distinction Dawkins drew back in ch.8), the sting of mortality desists. We begin to get the message: every improvement has to come about thru the individual’s dying. For this we get to live, for this we should even be grateful. Loyal Rue: “to the extent that I cherish my life, I have reason to be profoundly grateful for my death.” But maybe we don’t have to go that far, if we can begin simply not to resent the brevity of our time above ground.

We get to transmit our genes and our memes on down the line “more solid and secure,” and can take the most profound satisfaction– for some of us this will register as “spiritual”– in contemplating “links” we’ll never touch personally.

I’ve wrestled a lot with the meme question (see “A Pragmatic Perspective on Evolution and Culture“), and am still bothered by some of Dawkin’s formulations on this pregnant topic. I’ll give him the “selfish co-operators” tag and concede their full “futility” by analogy to those annoying, pointless replicators that lay us low and try to murder our joi de vivre.  And ok, a selfish geneplex does not a selfish person make, I get that.  But a selfish memeplex is something else, no?

Isn’t the point here to grab our memes by the short-hairs when we can and prune out as many selfish-inclining ones as we can? Agreed, “memes versus us” is misconceived. Not all memes are hostile (or annoying) viral invaders. Could some actually be our friends, allies, or (at least) tools for forging stronger links and transmitting a more solid legacy?

And: shouldn’t we resist thinking of them as more “fundamental to life” than organisms and persons? The subjective “I,” the person is no more an illusion than any other brain-modeled picture, and it’s one we have good reason– relating  to some treasured old memes about liberty and action– to retain.

But anyway, self-feeding co-evolution is promising. Bombs, books, critical mass, and off we go. The more you have, the more you get. Let’s get more of the good stuff, the compassion and intelligence and personal selflessness so lacking at this end of the chain of life.

So, the big question: What feeds our species-self’s evolution, and our cosmic development? Or, in terms of another analogy: what are the software innovations that might have launched a self-feeding spiral of hardware/software co-evolution to account for the inflation of the human brain? And what’s the best tool in our chest for hooking up those spiraling continuous links to the future of life?

Besides memes, Dawkins considers the very closely related advent of language, map reading, throwing (I love it, in the afterglow of Opening Day! He’s thinking of cricket but it works better with baseball: Could throwing have been the forerunner of foresight? Was the first word a mouth missile?),  sexual selection, and, naturally, poetry.

I wonder whether the ability to see analogies, the ability to express meanings in terms of symbolic resemblances to other things, may have been the crucial advance that propelled human brain evolution over the threshold into a co-evolutionary spiral?

For once, I don’t doubt. I pick all of the above, and some others we haven’t thought of yet. But we’d better keep on cranking out the metered lines. Emily agrees, though she paradoxically speaks of singing without words:

“Hope” is that thing with feathers — That perches in the soul — And sings the tunes without the words — And never stops — at all —

And that would be a great place to pause, not stop, but this was only the end of the end. Also worth noting in this chapter, the disquieting observation about co-evolution and children’s brains as natural seed-fields of memetic infection. We simply have got to teach our children well, and stop indoctrinating them.

And, I wonder: Is it reliably true that great ideas in philosophy survive in the meme pool for the best of reasons. Is it plausible that the Internet is the first meme-built vehicle of selfish-cooperative transmission? Is the iPad an example of hardware/software co-evolution? Are genes and memes?

In the penultimate chapter: Bongo Java’s notorious nun bun is back! It illustrates our indecent eagerness to see faces. He wrote that way before Facebook. Talk about foresight. And there’s more: I detect ’90s foreshadowings in these pages of Google Earth, game avatars, and the latest in Virtual Reality (with a shout-out to Jaron Lanier, whose new book we’ll read in “Future of Life” this Fall). Dawkins wrote nothing less than a stunning Book of Revelations. Poke yourself in the eyeball, Richard.

The inverted Einstein face is creepy but cool. We see what our brains have modeled and thus anticipate, we don’t see what they haven’t and won’t. Have you seen the basketball gorilla? They didn’t either. (Oops, neither do I. Looks like I mis-remembered the contents of this Shermer TED Talk, which is nonetheless very relevant to our theme today. Here, though, is a shorter ursine version of the phenomenon. I’m thinking the gorilla display was in a Dennett TED Talk, but I can’t find it.  Did find Dennett on memes, though.)

Here’s the clincher: we all have built-in VR software that more than accounts for our species’ tendency to swallow hallucinations, voices, visions, angels, divine visitations…  The models we build of our place in the cosmos, God-centered or not, are part of the environment in which our genes [and memes] are naturally selected.  “Be suspicious?” I’ll say.

And beware the lurking phantasmal homunculus [scroll down].

A few items from the middle of the book we’ve not talked about but should notice:

Ch.7: James on worms and risk assessment; miscalibrated coincidences that (for instance) turn some parents, even Protestants, into anxious pedophile-fearing basket cases; Oliver Cromwell’s bladder…

Ch.8: Tielhard de Chardin’s “tipsy, euphoristic” talk of mystical energy and strange vibrations, and others on quantum healing, the caring universe, etc. Deepak Chopra stands on the shoulders of giants.

Ch.9: Gaia, and rejecting “combat versus cooperation.”

And one more thing: the law of large numbers. Michael Shermer‘s very good at explaining this. [SciAm via Austin’s Atheism Blog] Here’s Shermer on ABC 20/20 a few days ago, valiantly trying to clean up a miracle mess the producers spend most of the segment making. “Miracles” happen all the time, it’s statistically inescapable and naturally explainable. But is anyone listening? Nowadays most of us build our brain models in collaboration with the mass viewing audience, not around the campfire but around our electronic hearths. Michael needs to revive his own tee-vee show.

If we continue to let our brains model intercessory prayers and supernatural miracles, that’s what we”ll see. We’ll flat miss the gorilla. (Wherever he is!)

Next up: Spirituality for the Skeptic redux, on passion and cosmic trust. (We’re trailing the syllabus by a class.) Good excuse to look at this again, and underscore my claim that we can’t abandon our commitment to persons. “We should never let ourselves off, never see ourselves as just the victims of various forces.” We, not our memes, decide who we are.

NOTE TO A&S STUDENTS: be prepared to talk a lot in class, I find myself with very little voice today.

grading w/vigor

March 20, 2010

It’s the weekend, but no sleeping in for me today. My presence at Mother-in-law’s house (an hour and a half down the pike) is required shortly.

So, I set the iHome to get me up and grading early. Wasn’t even going to indulge any morning reflections today. But then the dulcet voice of Richard Dawkins came on, lighting the dark, reading from the final sections of Greatest Show on Earth.  How can I possibly not reflect? (Strange, isn’t it, to have to choose between grading and thinking?) But I’ll be brief.

First, Dawkins was noting Darwin’s “bending over backwards” to console us for nature’s brutality in the struggle for existence. “When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt [dubious], that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.”

Simple reflection: I love that bold emboldened declaration, and try to live by it.

Then: “On Darwin’s worldview, everything about the human mind, all our emotions and spiritual pretensions, all arts and mathematics, philosophy and music, all feats of intellect and of spirit, are themselves productions of the same process that delivered the higher animals. It is not just that without evolved brains spirituality and music would be impossible. More pointedly, brains were naturally selected to increase in capacity and power for utilitarian reasons, until those higher faculties of intellect and spirit emerged… The Darwinian world-view does not denigrate the higher human faculties, does not ‘reduce’ them to a plane of indignity.”

And so, intellect and spirit are exalted by their association with humble origins. There is grandeur in this view of life.

And there’s no indignity in grading, either. “Up again, old heart.” (Emerson was an evolutionist too.) Vigor, health! Get happy!

“Killer Earth”

December 14, 2009

I’m not sure it’s really one of the year’s best ideas, but Peter Ward speaks for many when he says “We must overcome nature… We do not want to go ‘back to nature.”‘ Others will agree that Mother Earth would be just fine without us.  His Medea Hypothesis, named after the Greek mother who slaughtered her own children, says we’ve not been good biotic citizens, or children of the earth, for a very long time. “Life seems to be actively pursuing its own demise, moving earth ever closer to the inevitable day when it returns to its original state: sterile.”

But come on: “inevitable” it may be, but the worst kind of pre-sterility may still be entirely evitable. We’d best hope so, and act in accord with our hopes.  Dr. Flicker was right, we’ve got to enjoy ourselves while we’re here. We’re not sterile yet.

And isn’t it premature to declare that life is rare in the universe? We’ve really only just begun to murmur and to pioneer our little corner of the cosmos, let’s keep an ear to the stars and keep listening for a reply to Carl Sagan’s plaque.

“it’s true”

November 22, 2009

I’m not a Darwinian fundamentalist– I don’t think evolution supplants religion– but I understand what motivates alleged Darwinian fundamentalists like Richard Dawkins (though he rebuts the charge): sheer frustration with the intemperance of religious fundamentalists.

I delivered my standard mutual tolerance pitch on this theme in class Friday, making concession after concession to religion. I agreed with William James that religion is a meaning-quest, and as such is among the most important things humans can do… even making full allowance for the residual ungrounded supernaturalism, and frequent absurdity, of the various creeds and dogmas of faith.

But are theistic fundamentalists mollified, do they temporize their hostility to evolutionary theory in the face of such concessions? No. They still spout creationist nonsense, they repeat the confused canard that evolution is “just a theory,” and in the process discover their cozy compatibility with brethren from other traditions. Evolution seems to be the great unifier of  Judeo-Christian and Islamic anti-intellectualism.

Yes, it’s a theory… like gravitation is a theory. And like gravitation,  it’s true if anything is. Jerry Coyne is not a strict fundamentalist, he does not advocate jihad against religion; but like the barmaid and Carl Sagan, he endorses elementary instruction in critical thinking as the best solution. Ours is a time, yet another time, when the fragile candle-flame of reason and respect for natural reality gutters under the assault of pseudoscience and superstition. Time, again, to exorcise our demons.

If you don’t want to listen to Coyne or Dawkins, try Liam Neeson.

James bio – 6

October 16, 2009

jameslThe story continues. It’s the late ’70s, James is about to become a family man (Henry III was born in May ’79), his philosophical future is resolving into sharper focus, his brilliant but troubled sister Alice has begun a steep, inexplicable decline (diagnosed as “neurasthenic”), and his parents are nearing their respective ends.

William is now articulating some of his most distinctive positions. For instance,

On habit: “The great thing is to form habits which then leave the hemispheres free for higher flights…” 

On emotion: “No conscious event can occur without some parallel event occurring in the nervous system on which the conscious event depends… the bodily event is the condition, the mental event the consequence. What we esteem the highest is at the mercy of the lowest…”

On consciousness and human evolution: It “means the end of the reign of chance and the beginning of the reign of intelligence.”

On human “powers” and free will: We may profess a “natural faith that our delights and sorrows, loves and hates, aspirations and efforts are real combatants in life’s arena, and not impotent, paralytic spectators of the game.” And: “The trouble with determinism, fatalism, pessimism, the unconscious, and materialism is that in our better hours we feel such limited and limiting forces… to deny our most intimate powers all relevancy…” And: “the inmost nature of the reality is congenial to powers which you possess.”

On attention: “Emotional interests are the great guides to selective attention.”

On life as an adventure, without guarantees: “All that the human heart wants is its chance.”

On effort and free will: “What makes it easy to raise the finger, hard to get out of bed on a cold morning, harder to keep our attention on the insipid image of  a procession of sheep… It is a question of getting to the point where we want to will something or other…”

In January 1879 James publishes “Are We Automata?” No, he insists, and would insist to Dan Dennett today with his neuroscientific idea that our minds are assemblages of billions of miniscule cellular robots. But T.H. Huxley’s argument in the affirmative had sounded some characteristsic Jamesian themes too. For example: “In men as in brutes, there is no proof that any state of consciousness is the cause of change in the motion of the matter of the organism.” Remember, on James’s early psychological view we are sad because we cry, not the other way ’round.

But in “Are We Automata?” James is mainly concerned to keep free will in the game, and this seems to require a big role for the emotions as selective, attentive, and integral to the possibility of real human choices and acts. In the process, he says things that might remind you of Cartesian homunculi. The point of consciousness is to allow us to choose, just as a ship’s passenger may choose to seize the helm and “raise, lower, or reef the sail, and so, in small but meaningful ways, direct the voyage. Such a person, taking such actions, cannot be called an automaton.”

No. But neither is it clear that such an understanding of the role emotion plays in our lives is quite consistent with the James-Lange theory. When concept-laden theory confounds our actual experience, James will always opt for the preservation of experience. The details may need working out, but he’s typically happy to go back to the theoretical drawing board rather than deliberately distort perceptual reality in the name of a tidy but misleading picture.

(BTW: James would be fascinated by a story that appeared in the Times science section this week, suggesting the possibility that the Hadron Super-collider might actually interfere with time itself. Perhaps what we do really does alter the space-time causal landscape in tangible ways… does wiggle our dominoes, to return to a strange metaphor that came up in the course of one classroom discussion this week.)

It was during this time that James began experimenting with various psycho-active substances to see what effect they might have in expanding his consciousness and recognition of reality. Hilariously, he read Hegel under the influence of nitrous oxide with predictable results.

1882 was a year of loss. Darwin died, Emerson died. His mother died at age 71. Before the year was out, his father followed suit. James was abroad when his Dad began his final descent, and quickly drafted a letter that preceded him back to Boston. But it did not arrive in time for Henry Sr. to read.

It is a remarkable letter, one which I found it fitting to read to my own father* when his remaining days were few. William was still aboard ship on Dec. 21, continuing his Atlantic transit,  when his brother Henry stood at their father’s graveside  and  read aloud from that letter that began: “Darling Old Father…”

“The letter concludes: “As for us… we will stand by each other and  by Alice, try to transmit the torch in our offspring as you did in us… And it comes strangely over me in bidding you goodby how a life is but a day and expresses mainly but a single note, it is so much like the act of bidding an ordinary goodnight. Good night my sacred old Father. If I don’t see you again– Farewell! A blessed Farewell! -Your William”

Richardson rightly observes: “Letters, even undelivered, outlast life. It was a scene a novelist would be hard-pressed to improve.” *It sure was.

“Against Happiness”

October 13, 2009

grumpyEric Wilson is one of the comfortably-gloomy Gusses, the grumpy young men, leading a backlash against Positive Psychology. Here he is, participating in a round-table discussion of our right to remain grumpy… reviewed by Garrison Keillor… & on NPR.

The last page of his book is illuminating: he acknowledges friends and family and thanks them for tolerating his lifelong Eeyore-hood. eeyore1His parents have been “especially patient with my chronic gloom,” his wife has shown “remarkable endurance of my melancholy moods,” but his five-year old daughter has “consistently brightened my heart and made life worth living.”

Clearly, depressives take a toll on those they love (and probably feel bad about it), and they cast their impressionable young in a shadow of gloom we must all hope they’ll retain the strength and resources and genetic potential to avoid falling into themselves, when the spontaneous brightness of childhood dims.

A question: can pessimistic parents raise optimistic children? Should they try? You know the answer you’ll get to that, from Positive Psychologists like Martin Seligman and others. (Seligman at TED)

Apparently maternal depression is a harder handicap for children to rebound from than despondent Daddys, so Eric needn’t feel as guilty as he should with the other chromosome set. But if (as Prof. Levy said… as Marty Seligman said in fact, in The Optimistic Child) we really want future generations to understand more of the human condition, and want our children to be happy, we’d better start modeling that for them occasionally. If you’re inveterately (but not uncontrollably) morose, don’t you still owe it to your kids to rouse yourself to a semblance of enjoyment at least once in  a while? Nurture’s not all, but neither is it negligible.

My mother was diagnosed with what was then called manic-depressive illness early in my childhood. I didn’t understand why she had to live apart from us for long stretches of time, in a cold and cavernous institution that was (but yet wasn’t, somehow) like the hospitals I’d known as patient and visitor, when Mom was still relatively healthy and working as an R.N. Nor did I understand what “electro-shock therapy” meant. Then, when she came home, I didn’t understand why she wore a blank, emotionless expression and couldn’t remember or muster interest in, or enthusiasm for, much of anything at all.

My father, I learned eventually, despite his own challenging childhood, was blessed with a spontaneously-sunny, optimistic disposition that had been clouded through much of my youth by the sad shadow of my mother’s affliction. I didn’t see much of it then. I wasn’t a happy kid, or college student. It would be years until I discovered James’s discovery of Renouvier, and began to think that my own pursuit of happiness was something it might be worth looking into. As my bumper sticker proclaims, falsely in many situations no doubt, but gratefully in my own: It’s Never Too Late to Have a Happy Childhood.

In his own teenage wasteland, Wilson says, “I longed most to spend my days, especially in summer, lolling about in my dark bedroom. With my blinds dimming the morning sun to a gloomy beam, I would lie on my floor and stare at the stains on my ceiling [with] a tremulous air of failure… embracing blackness while the world sprang into light. I loved my cold seclusion… this winter of my mind’s own making.”

And then his Dad would barge in, raise the blinds, and encourage him to go play ball or swim or call a girl. What a spoilsport.

Most of us grow out of that particular form of adolescent self-indulgence, if we’ve been cursed by it. The mature Wilson is right: “those committed to happiness at any cost and those bent on sadness no matter what are not very different…  happy types, bent only on bliss, always take flight [from ambiguity]. But those who have committed their lives to dejection are no different. These sad types– those black-clad poseurs who identify only with the darkness– choose sullenness as one picks a religion or a haircut… They too live only partial existences.”

Good of him to admit that, and to encourage his little daughter to live in the light. If she ever finds herself thrown by life into the gloom of a real shadow, this attitude is probably not going to work for her. Hope she reads Rapt.