Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Guns & Genes

The New York Times published an op-ed piece by Seamus McGraw, “Hunting Deer with my Flintlock” (26 December 2011, page A27), and the article not only conjures some very old memories, but invites comment from an evolutionary perspective. The short narrative is engaging, mostly since I am now editing our fourth literary anthology entitled: Being Human: Call of the Wild. McGraw’s piece (though not a short story) hits the themes of the book: the contradictory sides of humanity – both the cruel and the caring.
The article describes the hunter’s fascination with the flintlock, and the responsibility (his word) of pruning out the destructive deer population near Bushkill, Pennsylvania. (As an undergraduate, I read Harry Caudill, so I am not insensitive to a region’s delicate ecological balance.) Nevertheless, most intriguing is how the narrator expresses his disdain for killing – twice he says, “I hate to kill” – and yet his stated intention is to be, rather, responsible (to his community and to the increasing deer population).
The article is a brilliant exposition of, first, our deeply-ingrained hunter/gatherer mental archetypes, and, second, our more highly-developed moral sense. At times, these two poles, ever in conflict, can collide, and the killer instinct can become paramount. Evolutionary psychologists tell us that most of our long human history was spent as hunters and gatherers, so those mental operations and mechanisms are still quite predominant in us. For a much shorter period of time we were agriculturalists (and have spent only a fraction of our history in towns and villages). We are hunters at heart.
The article is primal humankind, the hunter/gatherer with his elemental genes responding to his wild, forest environment. The narrator reminds us, through his own story, what it means to be part of a tribe. Though he emphasizes his solitude in hunting, he makes clear that he is part of two special groups: one that hunts and one that hunts with a primitive weapon. This is classic male humankind, when specific brain chemicals become excited at the risk of hunting and activated by a gratified feeling of the kill. The article is a wonderful testament to our human history, how in spite of our humane development and progress, our still-active, ancient psychic life can be prompted unconsciously. At the same time, the narrator expresses the advanced, conscious human brain, one that contemplates complex moral decisions and exhibits conscience.
So why tell this story? On the one hand it validates the aggressive, violent side of being human; and on the other hand, there is the side which over the course of human evolution has developed mechanisms to control such aggression. Other, less-developed primates also express social and empathic emotions (and are not always completely aggressive).
On a personal note, I once attended a wedding in Eastern Pennsylvania during hunting season and was surprised to see men walking down the streets casually carrying rifles. Later that day, at the wedding reception, the bride’s brother clinically told me how he took one of his dogs (that had somehow annoyed him) in the backyard and shot it in the head. I also recall reading in The Atlantic Monthly, about forty years ago (when I was a teenager), a story very similar to McGraw’s. The narrator wrote about his hunt, and then proceeded to explain how, in spite of his apparent brutality, he could go home, listen to Beethoven, have a French wine, and read Henry James. (I might have those facts wrong, but that was the gist of it.)
There is no gene to control appetite, and we still have canine teeth for some purpose; so perhaps (for many of us) the desire for fresh kill is uncontrollable. The question is: Who satisfies that primal desire and who resists?
- Gregory F. Tague

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

God & Science

In an article in The New York Times (Wednesday, 14 December 2011, Arts section, page one), “A Philosopher’s Book Sticks Up for God,” philosopher Alvin Plantinga is quoted as saying, “’It seems to me that many naturalists, people who are super-atheists, try to co-opt science and say it supports naturalism . . .’” More likely, scientists (or philosophers who do not limit their study to proving the existence of God) have started out with religion (apathetic, indifferent, or otherwise) and then, through study and research, have altered their beliefs (in accordance with their findings). Scientists are not born as atheists who then spend their career-oriented energies in disproving the existence of God. Scientists steer clear of abstractions and focus on empirical matters. One side (of this imaginary debate) need not be privileged over the other. When philosophers and scientists publicize such (imagined) distinctions, meaningful dialogue breaks down into accusations and turf wars. The need to defend one’s turf is a natural part of our ancestral, hominid history.
The article strongly hints at the age-old distinction between what is rational and what is not. Current brain science demonstrates that to make such a distinction is erroneous: while we are capable of reason, there are many areas of the brain firing simultaneously, many areas of which are primal and emotive and contribute, ultimately (or not), to a reasoned response. In fact, the rational parts of our brain (and to say “parts” is something of a misnomer) are dependent upon the so-called irrational parts. Emotions power reason. (Reason is incapable of self-activation). Simply, this is because part of our brain is an old structure (animalistic) that fires up first. So when the Times reporter says that the philosopher offers a “densely reasoned argument against . . .” – there is anger by using a part of the brain to launch an attack that only, in the (polished) end product, appears (wholly) reasoned. (Certainly Prof. Plantinga’s initial responses to Dawkins and Dennett were not reasonable but emotional: we do not reason back into emotion.) We need our highly-charged emotions in order to be rational. We are not, first, rational; we are, first, emotional, and subsequently capable of being rational. Rationality is a slow, deliberative process dependent upon emotion (an energized, quick response).
The article goes on to say how Theism has a God of order, a universe of order, and the creation of rational beings such as us. More likely, those products of nature that were not ordered did not survive; so what we see as order is really what has endured because it works in the natural order of things. This is not merely survival of the fittest (originally Herbert Spencer’s phrase), which means (as literary Darwinist Joseph Carroll has pointed out), survivors survive. Rather, while we can marvel at the beauty of the natural world, the facts prove that our wonder (an emotion) sees only the end result of millions of years of process and change. We behold the polished stone, not the rough cut.
At one time, there were as many as ten hominid species along with our ancestors roaming the earth. What happened to them but demise, so our survival exemplifies order but does not eliminate the fact that less ordered species lived with us side-by-side. Darwin takes pains addressing this notion of an orderly universe in The Origin of Species, to explain (reasonably) how the imperfection of the geologic record has not left us enough information to develop definitive answers about order (who and what came from where and why they ended up there). Darwin summons and marshals many other scientists (who preceded him) with support to make his points; he does not wave a magic wand or point to a hazy cloud – he rests his case on what appeals to the rational mind, evidence.
How could we be rational creatures when brain science of the past generation has demonstrated that emotions – what our hominid ancestors relied upon almost exclusively – play an important role in reasoning? The article quotes Prof. Plantinga as saying, “’You really can’t sensibly claim theistic belief is irrational without showing it isn’t true . . .” Evolutionary psychologists would agree and say that we need (since it is built into our human mind) to have (emotional) belief in something greater (to help us rationally explain the universe) – so theistic belief is true to both (which are really one) the emotional and rational aspects of being human. Importantly, many truths need not be rational – love, for example. But love is true (to life), nevertheless.
The article notes that Prof. Plantinga is a Calvinist. There were key preachers in England in the seventeenth century (Calvinists such as Benjamin Whichcote and Ralph Cudworth) who questioned what they had been taught, and it was people such as these who helped nourish the burgeoning scientific (and empirical) thinking and the philosophical revolution (away from religious abstraction) that began with Shaftesbury and Hutcheson and led up to Hume. Are we to take a step back into the (pre-Newtonian) thinking of the seventeenth century? Did not Newton rationally explain the order of the universe? As the Times articles says: “. . . even philosophers who reject . . . theism say . . . arguments for the basic rationality of belief . . .” are important. The brain is one massive unit of billions of neurons and trillions of synapses, and there is nothing that is wholly rational – everything interacts together simultaneously in a very small space. One might believe belief is rational, but essentially it is emotional. One can make rational explanations for many emotions – love, for instance.
The larger picture is how do philosophy and science cooperate? Many philosophers and scientists have worked together (Maxwell Bennett and Peter Hacker), and many scientists (such as E.O. Wilson who was raised on the Bible) have asked for a consilience (recalling the word of the nineteenth-century philosopher of science William Whewell). Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume, and Adam Smith (from the seventeenth to the eighteenth centuries) worked out elaborate delineations of human sympathy, and those findings have been borne out by research (in empirical studies, such as done by Marc Hauser and Frans de Waal). Before Darwin (and hence before an empirical gene science) Schopenhauer (a strong reader of Hume) built his entire moral philosophy on compassion. Emotions rule us, whether we like it or not. (Even Aristotle, as Martha Nussbaum has taken pains to point out, discusses the power of human emotion.)
In fact, recent thinking (Leda Cosmides and John Tooby come to mind) suggests (picking up from Darwin), that rationality is an emotion, and emotions are part of our (naturally selected) evolution. We need to be rational as much as we need other emotions, so it is no wonder we pride our human reason. We can be reasonable about emotions, but can we be emotional about reason? At any rate, all of these past thinkers, clearly, were not confined to one discipline, or to one corner of any discipline, but were concerned with engaging conversations among disciplines. What has happened to that great conversation (to employ the metaphor of Mortimer Adler)?
We have an animal nature (believe it or not), but such a nature does not hinder us: it keeps us going, physically, intellectually, and morally. Perhaps with some irony on the part of the Times reporter, the article ends by quoting Prof. Plantinga as saying, “’To call a philosopher irrational, those are fighting words . . .’” But is not fighting irrational – an emotional (and much needed), programmed response?
[Disclaimer: this post was written only in response to a NY Times article; the writer of the post has not read any books by Prof. Alvin Plantinga and is, simply, addressing the issues and concerns raised in the article.]
- Gregory F. Tague

Saturday, December 3, 2011

ASEBL Journal Announces a SPECIAL ISSUE to 

“George Orwell Charges Charles Dickens with Plagiarism:
Judge Not, That Ye Be Not Judged”
George Steven Swan, S.J.D.
Associate Professor, NC A&T State University, Greensboro, N.C.

What follows is the abstract by Dr. Swan. Read the full article (both erudite and entertaining) here, in either PDF or ISSUU format.

George Orwell charged plagiarism (unconscious or otherwise) against Charles Dickens. Orwell identified a story recited by Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers character Sam Weller, and alleged that its source was an ancient Greek author. Orwell reconstructs from his schooldays-memory this unnamed Greek’s prior version. These two items do share a resemblance. But Orwell’s tale derived from a Greek composition text by Arthur Sidgwick. The Sidgwick work having been published following the death of Dickens, Dickens is exonerated of the Orwell accusation. Sidgwick synopsized Weller’s story for students of Greek to translate. Orwell’s misindictment recalls a parallel to Sidgwick’s exploitation of Dickens’s Weller. For this text, presumably from Orwell’s own schooldays, included a summarization of Mark Twain’s The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. Not later than 1900, Twain knew himself to be a source exploited by Sidgwick. Yet Twain never cried plagiarism.

Ironically, Orwell himself was to implant into Nineteen Eighty-Four both a story-scenario and multiple details found in a novel by Roger Peyrefitte, Les Amitiés Particuliéres. Literate in French, Orwell definitely drew upon other French material in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Peyrefitte’s novel had been published in 1943 and 1945. Peyrefitte’s book was reviewed in Horizon during July 1946 by Orwell’s onetime-mistress and future-wife, Sonia Brownell. Editorially assisted by Sonia was Horizon’s lifelong friend Cyril Connolly. Horizon, Brownell and Connolly in July 1946 all tend to associate Orwell with Peyrefitte’s book. Orwell began Nineteen Eighty-Four around August 1946.