Sunday, May 6, 2012

Experiments in Desultoriness

- Criticism is a word that too many people cringe at hearing, even though they themselves would rarely hesitate in commending, confusedly, the act of critical thinking. I remember reading a blog in which its editor was bemoaning the self censorship he has to constantly impose on his own writings so as to minimize the odds of receiving some unflattering comment. Not only him, but, he continues to enlighten us, this is also the reason why his ilk of free thinkers self-restrain. His rationale was that when someone criticizes others’ opinions, then she is in a way infringing on their freedom of expression. You’d expect a person who had long passed adolescence to have a slightly more sophisticated conception of this freedom of expression stuff.

The one and only creative process of all the mental processes that a human mind can muster on its own is criticism of one sort or another. Actually, when someone is listed as an influence of somebody else, then what is really being meant is that the former’s opinions and contributions had supplied raw material for the latter to produce her own in turn, chiefly by subjecting them to - you guessed it - criticism. Else, the influenced would have ended up only as the explicator of the influencer’s works or as her biographer.

- In a medium rife with plagiarism and regurgitated opinions, happening upon an original and nuanced opinion on the internet is a source of joy, whether or not one agrees with the writer. But the story does not usually end as happily as it starts. It is likely to occur that some commentators given to excessive compartmentalizing will begin heatedly discussing which side of two the author is really on, and what reasons are behind her paying lip service to the other!

Something within urges you to explain to them, in words of one syllable, that life resides mainly in its gradations and shades. But something else, within also, tells you that this would be of a futility equal to that of teaching an irrecoverably ponderous person how to dance ballet.

- One also stumbles upon appalling stuff while rambling online - like that is surprising news. Two memories of such occasions come rushing back to me at this thought. In one of them, a “prominent” male writer condescends to explain to our simple minds why “female bloggers” are superior. How did he go about accomplishing that feat? By stacking up nonsense that even in a state of stupor one would not, nay, make that can't, buy. My gripe with that though was not the writer himself, an old fart out of step with the world, but rather with the females who were intimately and gratefully thanking him - as if he had granted each her indulgence - for saying nothing more than “Listen women, I honestly have nary a positive thing to say about you, and that is mainly because I can’t get over my patriarchal mindset. But here is a clich├ęd cheap trick I learned in the past and I hope it will please you”. He then conjured an equally meaningless thing called “male bloggers”, and started thrashing them indiscriminately.

In the other occasion, a person was supposedly trying to use literature to deal the phenomenon of honor crimes its just lot. He starts the story by describing his soon-to-be-raped heroine. The girl never leaves home unless necessary. During her freshmen year she never talked to any person at the university, not even females. If you are wondering what she was doing with all that free time, then the answer is that the author does not make it clear, but you can rest assured that she partly spent it observing other girls to see who of them abided by her high standards of morals and honor, so that she makes a few select of them her friends in the coming years. Her shyness of men is deliberately made to smack of phobia or disdain. She never… easy there lad! What is it that you are trying to achieve?

It might be said that he was bending over backwards to win the conservative to his side. But that is effectively stepping backwards, retrograding. If it is not so obvious, the term “Honor Crimes” consists of two words: honor and crimes. This entails that the fight against those crimes is not a one to save lives only, but is also a struggle to emancipate, and that the two should go side by side, neither of them gaining any priority over the other at any point. The women who lost their lives on such grounds lost them not so much out of boredom on the side of the perpetrators, as out of trying to depart from the iniquitous norms of their respective societies. In this light, affirming and maintaining these norms and images become only that, affirming and maintaining. I can see the good intentions behind the guy’s attempt though.

While at it, I also have something to note about the current discourse on honor killings in the developing countries. At the moment, the pervading anti-honor-crimes rhetoric is that of brandishing the cases were the victims were raped or turned out to be “innocent”, while staying scandalously reticent on the ones where there were real sexual affairs. Here too concessions are not acceptable, because surely no one sober enough will ever endorse the act of extinguishing a soul for nothing. What is being argued over then? Thinking along these lines, it becomes apparent that any such concessions will be understood at the opposite side as a sign of their own victory, and a victory to be smug about at that.

- A fad is an interesting thing to observe as it replaces another, waxes, wanes and then gives way to the one next, in a never ending cycle. They serve as a constant reminder of how tightly linked we are to people that we’ve never even seen or heard of before, in that same vein of the popular “six degrees of separation”. But there are more practical conclusions that they can help us reach. Here I am talking about a very specific type of fads: that of what fills the “about” sections in online personal profiles. A quick look at this will often prove to be a fast and granted way to judge the cogitative abilities of the profile owner.

At the moment, one of the most fashionable expressions for describing one’s self online is “citizen of the world”. Every time I read this, I find myself laughing in ridicule. Can’t these people hear the “city” in the “citizen”? It will be said that what the word conveys today is not related to cities anymore. No denying. But to make my point, we need to explain the origins of the term. It probably dates back to the age of what we now call city-states. Back then the word was used to denote a specific type of inhabitants in any given state, viz. those who were entitled to a specific set of prerogatives (e.g. voting, protection abroad,... etc.) over any other type of dwellers in that city. Not much has changed ever since in this usage, except that now it is more likely for a state to comprise a group of cities instead of one only.

Having made the point, it becomes evident that calling one’s self a citizen of the world is as revealing as saying that somebody is a Brazilian of the world. The great Feynman himself would be in a bind to explain to us what is being said here. Along to the rescue may come the language evolution argument in its most risible form: "language evolves and there is nothing we can do about it". But that is stark devolution. And regardless of how you look at it, there is no lack of suitable words to use instead. Why not a resident? What about inhabitant? Or even the neologism of netizen? That last one does sound quite smart, given that it captures the reality of our current times. It is the internet that has melted the boundaries worldwide, if that is what they are so keen on telling us.

But no. It appears that humanity had long ago took an oath on itself to always appear as stupid as it can manage, and clearly, it can manage a lot.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Happy Darwin Day

It is probably a mild hyperbole saying that almost any of the several pieces of Darwin’s writings that I came across were radiating with an overwhelming intellectual presence, of the kind that intrudes into the deepest and most private corners of your mind without permission, imposing awe and eliciting recognition of his far-reaching genius, in the highest sense of both words.

This impression stays at first inexplicable. But in taking few steps back from any of these texts, considering it in a wider context, reengaging it and disengaging again, then repeating as needed, the conundrum suddenly gives way. The answer put simply, but aptly conveying the most sobering of its implications, is that a distinguished flair for writing is only second nature to profound thinkers. In a letter to his father, Darwin seems to have been well aware of this talent when he wrote "Whenever I enjoy anything, I always either look forward to writing it down, either in my log-book, or in a letter". Yet he also showed diffidence and harshly practiced self criticism when in his correspondence with others he would occasional write things like "I find it unutterably difficult to write clearly", "I am disgusted with my bad writing", or "How I could have written so badly is quite inconceivable".

Darwin's opinion notwithstanding, two of his books, in particular, stand out together as a most vivid and exhilarating incarnation of the whole spectrum of the higher order mental processes, which are: The Voyage of the Beagle, and his magnus opus, On the Origins of Species.

The Voyage of the Beagle can be thought of as a stereoscopic visualization of Charles’ trenchant faculty for perception. This can be realized by superposing a context in which the book is a travels-journal only and another where it is viewed as a herald of the theory of natural selection. In the former, this faculty expresses itself in a unique ability to efficiently winnow down a drowning range of details that could have certainly stupefied the senses of any other naturalist (Alfred Wallace, the unsung hero of NS, excluded). But with the eventual emergence of natural selection added to the backdrop, the token of a frightening capacity to intuit becomes the salient feature of this work.

In producing The Origins, Darwin established himself as one of the finest virtuosi of the thought process to have ever existed. Throughout the text you would find him busy not only weaving line after another of cogent arguments, preempting much of the debate spurred by its publication, but you would also find him confidently pointing out where his reasoning might go awry, acknowledging his own wants of knowledge, or describing what might constitute a destructive counter-observation to his theory.

The most telling feature of this book though is its striking consistency. This might sound odd, since a consistent structure is a strict prerequisite that any explanatory effort should satisfy before it can be taken seriously. It is that the coherence in Darwin’s arguments can’t be a mere happenstance, but only the product of a mental construct of the original phenomenon that undergirded his thinking in its regards. And since the conceptual scaffold for Darwin’s original formulation of the theory had passed largely unscathed into the modern evolutionary synthesis, we can easily infer the veracity of this mental model. Therefore, given the crippling lack of knowledge about heredity’s real substance and mechanisms that was characteristic of his time, one is bound to be overwhelmed while she is reading the book!

Put in another way, The Origins, just like its predecessor, can’t be fully appreciated without the advantage of hindsight. Darwin might have known close to nothing about the DNA, but with an unusually keen mind, he captured many of its features, even if in crude terms, and embedded them into the core of his theory. This is clearly the reason why out of all the different accounts of natural selection that were advanced by others in its wake, Darwinism was the only one conducive to the modern synthesis; with the rediscovery of Mendel’s genetic laws, and the successive conciliatory efforts of several bright minds, most notably those of Fisher's, the birth of neo-Darwinism was only a matter of course.

Since this is in a sense a celebration of a person, an extraordinary person, perhaps something about his idiosyncrasies is due. A strong affinity with science and nature ran like a dominating gene in Darwin's family, which spawned 10 fellows of the Royal Society, him included, and beginning with his parental grandfather, Erasmus, who himself was a theorist of evolution. The first expressions of this gene in Charles took the form of reveling in beetles collecting, and a more extreme one of his founding a club at Cambridge University for the sole purpose of consuming birds and animals "unknown to human palate" before. According to Darwin’s autobiography, this was the reason behind his father's utterly failed prediction when he once reproached him saying: "and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family".

But judging by this sample of his early life, it might be justifiable to claim that if it was not for the Beagle, this day would have passed unobserved. However, this celebrated expedition was not all bliss on Charles. Little after its return to England, he started suffering a mysterious debilitating illness that haunted him, with frequent respites, until his death. The nature of this affliction was never diagnosed during his life, a thing that later gave rise to much speculation about its origin.

To make things more complicated, there is enough evidence in literature to substantiate many different explanations for this illness. For instance, the proponents of a physical cause like to cite Darwin's descriptions of his potentially morbid encounters with disease vectors, such as the "Benchuca", or his granddaughter's memoir, Gwen Raverat, in which she notes that "it was a distinction and a mournful pleasure to be ill [at Charles']", possibly indicating an underling genetic disorder. On the other side, advocates of a psychological root have at their disposal an adequate repertoire of accounts on Darwin's antisocial and phobic behavior to draw on. But since this is not a crucial point anymore, there seems to be an emerging general consensus converging on a multifactorial origin of the ailment, a blend of physical and psychiatric etiologies.

Anyways,this celebration should be consummated by reminding ourselves of our old man's philosophy of solid reasoning and intriguing inquiry. Many happy returns!

Source: (image adapted)