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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.