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Thursday, 20 February 2020

Review: Pascal Boyer, Minds Make Societies

Human beings are born with big brains which grow bigger. The internal structure of those brains is amazingly complex. But there are long traditions in philosophy and social science which suggest that from the perspective of trying to understand how human societies and cultures are possible and why they are as they are, human beings might just as well have sawdust between their ears. Most often, it is simply assumed that human brains are so made as to be plastic to whatever impressions other humans try to implant there - that is at the heart of Locke’s understanding of how humans relate to their world. Children are blank slates onto which anything may be written. That is a position which is also to be found in Wittgenstein. 

At a slightly higher level of sophistication or stupidity, according to taste, the twentieth century produced leading psychologists - B F Skinner in the USA and Pavlov in the USSR - who thought that the way to make psychology into a science was to eliminate from its vocabulary the human mind and to study exclusively correlations between visible inputs and visible outputs: the visible reactions of pigeons and rats to the provision of electric shocks or food pellets. The idiocy of this approach culminated in B F Skinner’s Verbal Behavior (1957) which Noam Chomsky savaged in 1959 in one of the great scientific book reviews of the twentieth century: I was surprised to find no mention of it or of Chomsky in Pascal Boyer’s book.

Chomsky can claim to be a main source of inspiration for the kind of approach to culture and society which Boyer introduces and elaborates in this excellent book. But not the only source and the other sources Boyer explains as he goes along. 

There has been the inspiration of that neo-Darwinism which makes extensive use of game theory as a powerful theory to think with. This approach dates back at least to John Maynard Smith’s Evolution and the Theory of Games (1982). (Maynard Smith was Professor in the university where I taught, which explains why I made some use of his work in my own 1980s doctorate on Chomskyan linguistics).

Next comes the contribution of what we now call cognitive science which is very happy to study human minds and to do so in close collaboration with those more interested in artificial minds, sharing not just vocabulary but significant theoretical assumptions (about modularity, for example). So no one is now fazed when a theorist writes of human minds computing results.

Then - and perhaps not yet as well known or obvious - there is the contribution of  those theorists who have developed sophisticated models of communication starting from the idea of intentions and recognition of intentions rather than from the idea of communication codes

Finally, benefitting from these theoretical advances, observational developmental psychology has been able to take giant steps in understanding what young children bring to the world in which they find themselves. Wittgenstein once called the babble of the baby “nonsense”; developmental psychologists have called him out, showing how it develops and what it is doing. Likewise, the drawings of young children develop in  reconstructible stages which have a high degree of cross cultural universality and which  - importantly - proceed independently of surrounding visual cultures. Young children may look at adult pictures but they  do not copy them; they have their own ideas about what a picture should look like.

Boyer introduces us to a number of old topics to which (for want of a better shorthand) cognitive anthropology has contributed fresh understanding: tribalism, the madness of crowds, the origins and persistence of religious belief, the family, social justice, and - very interestingly and originally in chapter Six - limits to our own capacity to understand our own cultures and societies. At time, Boyer is able to quote  extensive research support for his arguments; at others, and as he acknowledges, we are still at the hand waving stage - knowing roughly the direction in  which we must travel but not yet having undertaken the journey.

He makes no use of the term meme, though he discusses its limitations towards the end of the book, nor does he use the term learnability which I have found useful: the things which cultures/societies present to new members as things to be learnt can connect more or less well to unlearnt dispositions, intuitions, computational capacities. Thus, there is quite a lot of support for the idea (for example) that atonal music is not learnable as a first music and that, in contrast, we are born adapted to tonal music. Boyer adds  to this an interesting claim that there is an unlearnt ability to improve on a corrupt version of a piece of tonal music - a piece with wrong notes etc.

At the end of his book (pages 272-76) Boyer tries to find a way to exit us from the endless debates about Nature and Culture by claiming that his new paradigm transcends that  folk psychology / folk sociology opposition. I am not convinced his argument succeeds though I can see why it would be politically helpful for it to do so. All of Boyer’s arguments depend on the idea that as a result of very long term neo-Darwinian evolution human beings are born quite well equipped or adapted in specific manners to make sense of and be able to operate in the worlds in which they are most likely to find themselves - there is an unpleasant duty upon researchers to paint the picture of those terrible worlds in which this will not be true. That adaptation helps explain how and why our social and cultural worlds are as they are.

But that idea of pre-adaptation just is a theory of human nature, even though it is primarily a theory about the human mind as something which shows trans-historical and cross-cultural uniformities and has little or nothing to do with blood or bodies or IQ. But the idea, even made that clear, is anathema to the Wittgensteinian cultural apologists, the social constructionists, and the politically correct. They may not (probably will not) understand that the theory is one which is interested in what humans have in common, not what differentiates them. They will just hear the word “Nature” and reach for their guns. Maybe it’s time to face up to the challenge rather than try to make it go away.

Monday, 3 February 2020

Review: Madeline Miller, Circe

If I was Madeline Miller, I would ask my publisher - rather firmly - to two do things when this book is next reprinted. First, remove all the product endorsements which run to eight sides (including front and back covers) on my copy. She does not need endorsements from the Wall Street Journal or the Daily Mail, from The Lady and Woman & Home, from all the other puffers who get to contribute their two penn’orth. Read enough of their combined puffing and it will get in the way of reading this book for what it is, a considerable achievement as a novel which requires some reflection to appreciate and probably modest prose to express. Second, she should ask for a decent cover, perhaps one entirely devoid of ornament as it would have been if Fitzcarraldo had published the book. But I’d compromise on something a bit less garish. You can’t have everything.

I am probably in the majority as a reader with a sketchy and uncertain knowledge of Greek mythology. I get the general idea and in case I don’t Miller reminds me, though never didactically. Three things are very important: Greek gods are ranked in importance (monotheism got rid of that idea); they mix and mess with humans all the time (something claimed only for Christ among the monotheisms) and, in contrast to mortals, they are immortal and cannot even enter as visitors the underworld of the regular dead (in the monotheisms, either there is one afterlife for all or else Heaven and Hell).

Immortality poses a problem for the novelist. Human mortality maps neatly into the idea that a novel should have a beginning, middle, and end. The immortality of a god poses a problem and it is a problem with which Miller has to cope, since her first-person narrator, Circe, is immortal. The drawback of immortality is that a god’s life can only be a story which unfolds in terms of  and then and then and then. Such stories become boring sooner or later. How does Miller deal with that?

In my edition of 333 pages she situates the rape of Circe at pages 164-165, and it is only the tiniest liberty to call that the exact mid-point. It must be deliberate, to create a turning point.

Circe gives birth to her son,  Telegonus, not quite two-thirds of the way through (page 212). What will happen to Telegonus then becomes the main focus of the reader’s attention for the simple reason that Telegonus, son of mortal Odysseus, is also mortal and immortal Athena threatens his life. A third of the book remains in which we will discover if Telegonus will live or die. And that is not an and then and then and then story. There is a wonderful emotional climax at pages 244 - 47 which plays on the theme of Greater Love in the form of a mother’s love for her child and as the tension from that subsides I thought that the novel could have been brought to an end, the outcome unresolved. But then Miller gives the book a new direction leading to a final emotional climax in which the opposition between immortality and mortality takes centre stage. (I won’t spoil the actual plot line).

There are only a few gags in the book, all of which I think involve some kind of half-anachronism: That’s the worst prophecy I’ve ever heard says Circe at page 86. Otherwise, there seems to be ( but wait for my conclusion) minimal anachronism. 

There is a massive and central play with Greek mythology and specifically Homer’s Odyssey or - perhaps more accurately - the deployment of Miller’s considerable classical learning to create a novel which runs in constant unspoken dialogue with the originals, and much more inventively than, say, West Side Story as a riff on Romeo and Juliet.

It’s a very strong novel, very well written by a woman with a woman (or, at least, goddess) as the central first-person narrator. Some reviewers clearly think their job is done when they label it feminist and even MeToo. That’s one reason why I think the eight pages of journalistic puff are a mistake: it leads readers to think that this is a book which will provide another obliging confirmation of what they already believe. But some readers prefer novels which aim a bit higher than that,

Just to be a bit awkward, if there was a moment when I felt the book just a bit too American it was when Circe gazes on an Odysseus initially described as if simply a hunk out of Hollywood (see for example page 188). Circe is a strong woman, no doubt at all about that, and a strong woman needs a strong man. But a Hollywood one? It's true, some disillusionment does set in as part of Circe's own self-discovery. Odysseus is swapped for a younger model, his son.

Less frivolously, there is a narrative thread in which Circe moves from someone who has the gift of very considerable (but rather ad hoc) magic powers -  a goddess-witch - to someone who comes to believe in the power of her own will, as if human. But when it comes to wishing for things which we can’t have, the triumph of the will is something up there with magic and miracles and prayer. We can't always get what we want, however hard we may want it. Human beings are so circumstanced that they cannot always win out over what resists or opposes them, however hard they pray, however hard they wish for miracles, however strong their will. They often need others to help them change the ways things are. Or they just have to wait for things to change,anyway. Circe triumphs as an individual, which is perhaps only right in a novel. But the triumph of the will is both a characteristically American Dream and a trap which has lured whole countries to destruction.

Monday, 13 January 2020

Review essay: Roger Scruton on Sexual Desire

The English philosopher Roger Scruton has died at the age of 75. I always thought his books on art and aesthetics very good and assigned them for student reading. At the same time I thought his politics bad.  The review of his book Sexual Desire, republished here for the first time since its original publication in 1986, sets itself the task of driving a wedge between the philosophy and the politics. If I was re-writing it I would be more critical of a Kantianism which is too morally serious to accommodate the playful elements which are an ordinary part of human sexuality and that would open up a different and rather bigger wedge. But if a smaller one is enough to do the job, that's fine.

Click on images to make them readable ...

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Review: Jon Day, Homing

This is a book where the fascination is in the detail. But to make detail fascinating requires a great deal of sense and skill. Without those, a writer will simply get bogged down, followed in short order by the reader. Jon Day succeeds in the task he has set himself by making frequent back and forth switches between his family life, his pigeons, the long scientific backlog of research into pigeon homing, literary treatments of pigeons, the more general  themes of home and homing, and so on. In other words, he does not behave like a Victorian novelist who reckons that until you have done the local topography exhaustively you mustn’t switch to the next topic. (Those geography lessons might be regarded as antecedents of the modern academic article’s  literature review …).

I read the book because I have admired Jon Day’s work as a book reviewer, work in which he is unusually thorough and insightful. This book also has an understated thoroughness to it and plenty of insight. It’s a very patient book, as if the work of a master craftsman. It belongs to the booming genre of creative non-fiction which has proved a haven for university lecturers who have little enthusiasm for writing unreadable and unread academic papers but who do actually know an awful lot about an awful lot of things and would like to share the knowledge.

Jon Day is a King’s College London university lecturer in English who cycles off to work, to his job  down the road,  without making any fuss about it in these pages. But in the context of settling down and starting a family, he develops a passion for pigeon racing, builds a pigeon loft in his garden, joins his local club, and very soon starts to compete in the races which are at the heart of the hobby.

As I understand it, pigeon fancying was one of those elaborate, working-class pastimes which developed in mostly urban areas in the Victorian period and were pursued exclusively by men. Those men were often migrants from the countryside, like those agricultural labourers who left the land of East Anglia for the not so far away slums of East London, a shortish train journey to Liverpool Street able to completely change your world.

Like dog racing and gooseberry fancying, the pastimes developed an elaborate language, lore, and extensive organisational infrastructure. And like academic life,  they were highly competitive activities. So the camaraderie of the clubs was always infused with rivalries which might break out into hostilities. Jon Day is a relatively young (born 1984) London professional getting involved with the pastime at the end of its life. The working class life into which it fitted now barely exists, certainly not in London’s East End. The big factories have gone, the docks,  the warehouses, the printing works, the breweries (Brick Lane was once dominated by Truman’s vast working brewery; now it is only the shell which remains). He has read the pigeon breeding and racing  manuals which even though they may be over a hundred years old still guide the novice into the fancy, but one of the few things he doesn’t do in this book is situate his pastime in this social past. My guess is that he could do that well if he wanted to. Maybe the archives are there.

I am sure we are going to read a lot more from Jon Day; he is a very good writer. A quick search shows he has an academic book out in 2020. He has already published other creative fiction on the topics of cycling in the city and fishing. 

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Review: Bram Stoker, Dracula

The story usually told is that the idea for Penguin Books came to Allen Lane when searching a 1930s railway station bookstall for something to read and finding only trash. I was reminded of that the other day when, having finished my book on a long outward journey to Leeds, looked for something to read on the way back. At first, it seemed that the W H Smith at this major rail station did not have any books at all, only arrays of magazines in which you could read about the latest outfit with which your Duchess of choice has wowed us; what adorable thing some royal child has contrived to do (smile adorably, wave adorably,….); and for those with more cosmopolitan tastes: What the Kardashians Did This Week.

But, losing hope and turning away, I spotted a very small and dismal display of books, mostly down-market self-help and genre novels. I picked the only one which looked as if it might be tolerable. I had never read Dracula but of course knew of it and knew that it was published in the nineteenth century (1897 in fact) and inferred that it might therefore have some meat to it. The publisher? Penguin Random House, though in conjunction with the EBC (the Establishment Broadcasting Corporation) which has done some adaptation of this now out-of-copyright work.

Dracula is a good read. It is a Victorian book and therefore long - 421 pages in my edition, much longer than a train journey’s read. Even I, who do not count myself a modern reader, found the final chase just a bit too drawn out. I am sure the EBC will find a way of dealing with that and adjusting the story to our modern attention spans.

But I liked the central stylistic choice in which the main characters take turns to write up each day’s events. I thought a long passage in which a clearly vulnerable Mina Harker is being left unattended very well-done: a passage which you read with increasing impatience and a growing desire to shout out to the bishops and knights You  have left your Queen unprotected! 

I was intrigued by a bit-part character who delivers a fascinating discourse on tombstones as fake-news frauds: the bodies aren’t underneath and even if they are, not the bodies of those memorialised above. I knew that there was a common Victorian horror of being buried alive (it did happen and the fear is played on in Dracula) but this was a different take on graveyards, about which I write in the book Between Remembering and Forgetting advertised in the immediately preceding Blog post here. 

And in a rare passage of light relief, Stoker has great fun  evading Victorian censorship in a passage in which a bit-character speaks with many blooms and bloods allowing the reader to reconstruct a discourse peppered with blooming and bloody. (Stoker worked as a London theatre manager at a time when stage plays were subject to fearsome pre-production censorship and must have had intimate knowledge of the problem). The whole passage made our dreary censored F***s and B******s look mechanical by comparison - and, indeed, they are increasingly mechanical secured by prurient little Apps. and their conglomerate users.

Those incidental passages are not the heart of the book, but they are perhaps places in which the author comes alive and escapes a little from the constraints of fidelity to his characters which he set himself when he decided to  use their diaries and letters as the vehicle for telling their story. Interestingly, both passages involve rude mechanicals speaking in faithfully-transcribed dialect; from his work in theatre,  Bram Stoker would have been intimately acquainted with how Shakespeare deploys his own mechanicals.

I won't spoil the plot by summarising it or telling you What Happens At the End.

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Advertisement: Trevor Pateman, Between Remembering and Forgetting

 Click on Image to Magnify

A linked set of twenty six essays exploring topics around individual and collective memory. There are discussions of the internet as  prosthetic memory; memorials and statues; oral history, notably in the work of Svetlana Alexievich; sentimental objects; forgetfulness as part of what enables both individual and cultural change. And much more ....

Hardback, 144 pages.       ISBN 9780993587962             £15

Enquiries to   or

Regular UK stockists include Waterstones

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