Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The Island of the Colorblind by Oliver Sacks

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

It has been a couple of years since I read an Oliver Sacks book, and I needed a beach read (yes, we go to the beach in the winter here in California…), so I picked this one up. I previously read and reviewed Musicophilia

Sacks was a neurologist, writer, researcher, teacher, and (in his spare time), a pianist. His books cover a fairly wide range of neurological topics, and reveal Sacks to have an astonishingly wide range of knowledge. He seems to know a little about everything, to observe everything, and relish knowledge for its own beauty. There are a lot of examples in this book and the other, where he realizes he has an interesting tidbit that doesn’t fit neatly in the narrative, so he puts it in a long endnote. (There are over sixty pages of endnotes in this book, most of which follow interesting “rabbit trails” related to details in the main body of the book. Definitely read these!) Sacks is also such a music fan, he can’t help working musical references in. In the introduction, he mentions that his soundtrack for writing the book was Tobias Picker’s The Encantadas, a work for orchestra and narrator - with words from Herman Melville’s account of his visit to the Galapagos. 

Rather than write a treatise about a topic, Sacks tells stories. Stories about his patients, stories about his research, stories about friends and family, and so on. This is a big reason why Sacks’ books are so much fun. He really cares about and enjoys people, and his empathy really shows. 

The Island of the Colorblind is about two different trips Sacks took to Micronesia. In each case, he was learning about and researching a particular disease which was endemic to a particular area. 

The title of the book is drawn from the first trip, which constitutes the first half of the book. The island of Pingelap is home to a concentration of people who have a type of colorblindness called congenital achromatopsia. This is a genetic condition that is total colorblindness. Unlike the more common form, where reds and greens get confused, this condition is characterized by a total inability to see color at all. The condition has other, rather unpleasant, symptoms, such as an inability to see clearly in bright light, involuntary eye movements, and poor visual acuity. Unlike the more common red/green colorblindness, achromatopsia is not a sex-linked genetic defect - it is equally common in men and women. 

Achromatopsia is quite rare in most places in the world - Sacks finds two individuals with it who assist him in his research, neither of which had actually met anyone else with the condition until later in life. However, on Pingelap, it affects about a third of the residents. Why is this so? Well, islands are somewhat isolated. In the case of Pingelap, about 200 years ago, the island was nearly destroyed by a hurricane, and there were only a few dozen survivors. With this limited of a gene pool, the recessive gene for achromatopsia spread throughout the population. How it got there is unknown, but it seems plausible that one of the explorers/colonizers from the past had the mutation, and left it behind in the gene pool sometime before the hurricane. 

Sacks travels to Pingelap (and a few nearby islands) with Knut Nordby, a Norweigian scientist with achromatopsia. Knut is able to greatly add to the expedition’s success because of his own experience (which aids in knowing how and what to test) and the natural bond that develops between him and others with the condition - they literally can recognize each other at a distance. 

While the research is the main theme, there are plenty of other incidents and details which are fascinating. Sacks seems to make friends wherever he goes, and gets as much out of the experience as possible. From the local food to the plant life, Sacks makes the islands come alive. Perhaps this is because, as the first few pages indicate, Sacks is fascinated with islands. 

The trip wasn’t all business, either. Sacks and Knut are taken by boat to the far side of Pohnpei to see the ruins of Nan Madol. I admit, I had never heard of the place before reading this book, so I had to look it up. Apparently, it is one of the wonders of the world, and thoroughly mysterious. The only ancient city built on coral reefs, it is believed to have been the capital of an extensive empire. It was constructed largely of giant basalt columns, similar to those found at Devil’s Postpile. Somehow or other, these gigantic rock columns - which weigh many tons - were transported from the other side of the island - which is about the size of New York City. They were then assembled log-cabin style into massive structures which have survived mostly intact for hundreds of years. All food and water had to be brought in by boat, which implies an extensive supply network. And then, about 350 years ago, it was abandoned. Anyway, if you want to read more about it, this Smithsonian article is interesting. 

The second half of the book concerns a trip to Guam, to research lytico-bodig disease - a form of ALS with other complications (parkinsons, dementia, other neurological symptoms) - that occurred with great frequency on the island of Guam. “Occurred” in the past tense is the best way to describe it, because, as of the mid 1990s, when Sacks visited, the condition appeared to only occur in people born before 1952. 

The cause of this disease has been a longstanding mystery, although there is now a promising theory. When Sacks wrote the book, he had to concede that efforts to discover the cause and mechanism had failed - and that it might never be found, because new cases in younger people were not occurring. 

The theories were many, but they had all, after extensive research, failed to prove true. The most likely seemed to be a connection to the consumption of cycad seeds. These were known to be toxic, but could have the toxin leached out. Also, the cycad connection failed to explain why younger people were apparently immune from the disease, despite eating cycad. Was it an increased consumption during World War Two? Was there a genetic component? That theory didn’t pan out, as there was no statistically significant genetic pattern. If anything, the pattern followed families, not genetics, which implied some environmental toxin or pathogen. 

Sacks didn’t end his research with the book, however, but continued to look into the issue. In 2002, he published a paper along with Paul Alan Cox on their theory that the cause was a toxic amino acid which was indeed connected with cycads. However, it was actually from a cyanobacteria that lives symbiotically with cycads. This bacteria was then ingested by a flying fox, and then concentrated in the nerve and brain cells of that creature. These were then eaten by humans, allowing a dose far greater than that of eating cycad seeds. I can’t find a free version of that 2002 paper, but you can read more recent detail on that in this paper by Cox and others in 2003, and this paper from 2012 which looks more broadly at cyanobacteria toxicity. It is fascinating stuff.

In the course of the discussion, Sacks goes off on a tangent about the history of cycads - one of the most ancient plants. His fascination with them goes back to his childhood. (He’s like this about everything - he loves it all and wants to tell you all about it!) 

One thing that stood out to me that Sacks observed in Guam was that the more family-oriented culture adapted far better to progressive neurological disease than our own Western cultures have. Caretaking is both normal and a community endeavor. Nobody complains about caring for family or neighbors. It just gets done, and is accepted as part of life. It is a far cry from our own tendency to go all “every man for himself” whenever something uncomfortable or unpleasant happens to someone else. It is a reminder that there is nothing inherently superior about our own culture. Like every culture, it has its strengths and weaknesses. And there is nothing magical about a particular moment in the past either. Circumstances change, cultures change, and our best bet is to try to make what we have the best and kindest it can be. 

I selected this book (out of the many Sacks books) by the fact that it happened to be checked in at the time - I needed a book for the next day. But, I have come to believe that there is no such thing as a disappointing Oliver Sacks book. No matter the topic, his vast knowledge, his ear for a compelling story, and his compassionate and empathetic approach to life combine to make a thoroughly enjoyable experience. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

From time to time, I have cases that take me out of our local area. To get through the longer drives - particularly when traffic is involved - I like to bring audiobooks with me. Most of my audiobook listening is with the kids on our vacations, so when I get a drive by myself, I pick books that wouldn’t work for younger people. (Although, as you can tell from our listening list, my kids are a bit different in their tastes.) 

I try to read a variety of books, by a variety of authors, and this includes authors outside of the “old, white, and male” group. I try to read books in translation, books by non-American authors, and books with different perspectives. Latin America is large and diverse, of course, so it is a bit overbroad to use the term “Latin American” to describe a single type of literature. That said, I know that I haven’t read as many books from the various romance-language speaking parts of the Americas as I should. I kept running across How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents on lists of essential works by Latinx authors, so I put it on the list. Our library happened to have an audiobook version when I went at the last minute to find something to listen to. 

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is the first novel by Julia Alvarez, written in 1991. She had previously published poetry and a few essays (in addition to her teaching job.) Alvarez was born in the United States of Dominican parents, but moved back to the Domincan Republic when she was an infant. Her parents’ first attempt at immigration didn’t work out for them. Ten years later, however, her father got involved in a failed plot to assassinate the dictator, and they had to flee to the United States. She remained here even after the political situation improved, although she spent many summers in the “old country” visiting relatives who remained there. 

This sense of being of two cultures and yet not of either is central to Alvarez’ writing, and is particularly present in this book, which, while not strictly autobiographical, contains a lot from Alvarez’ own experiences. 

The book isn’t so much a novel as a collection of related short stories. There are fifteen stories in all, told from various perspectives, some in first person, others in third person. It would be unfair to say there is no unifying plot, because there is the story of the Garcia girls, but the incidents do not so much form an arc as they do a mosaic of the themes. 

Not only that, but the story is told in reverse order, starting with the “present day” and working back to the childhoods of the sisters. It is divided into three sections, named after the dates - which are also in reverse order. So, the first part is called “Part One: 1989-1972” and tells five stories of the adult Garcia sisters: Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofia. The second part tells of the adolescence of the girls after they come to the United States. The third section tells of their childhood and how they came to flee their homeland. Within each section, the stories also take place in reverse chronological order. This is a bit disorienting, as Alvarez foreshadows (or is that aftshadows?) the events we hear about later. I’m not entirely sure I liked the format, but I’m probably a bit OCD about it. 

In the story, as in the author’s life, the girls grow up in wealth and privilege - dad is a doctor, but has an inherited estate, servants, and so on. This is why the family is able to escape to the US: he has connections which allow him to get a visa and practice medicine in New York. The childhood incidents are fascinating, but also a bit disturbingly sexual. In the Dominican Republic, an insane sculptor works naked and appears to be getting off on his works - Sandra sees him accidentally. Later, in the US, Carla is harassed by a pedophile. (The scene where she is interviewed by police officers and struggles with her limited English skills is fantastic.) There is an incident of “playing doctor” with a cousin. A certain sexuality pervades the book throughout, in part because, well, life includes sex, and gives plenty of opportunities for significant emotional entanglements. Yolanda has a relationship with a jerk who keeps wanting to fuck her. (His words - his lack of romance is why he never got it.) Sofia takes a trip to Columbia so she can sleep with her boyfriend (no overnights at her parents’ house!), but ends up breaking up with him, meeting this German guy, and (maybe) getting pregnant. When she returns home, she writes him, and he writes back - with naughty details. Dad, snooping around, finds the letters and comes unglued. Sofia flys to Germany, proposes to Otto, and they get married, with a child following...a barely respectable time after. This is actually one of my favorite stories, because Sofia is such a badass when she faces dad down about his violation of her privacy. (At this point, all the children are adults, so it isn’t a “protect the teens” thing. 

Other themes in the book are identity and assimilation. Yolanda is the central character in that sense. She has many nicknames, and it bothers her. She feels fragmented. One of those is simply Yo. Which is the Spanish word for “me.” It is obvious for other reasons too, but this is solid proof that Yolanda is the stand-in for the author. Yolanda too becomes a poet, teacher, and writer. Yolanda seems to struggle with identity the most; indeed, at the end of the story - the beginning of the book - she appears to be tempted to stay in the Dominican Republic permanently yet struggles to express herself either in Spanish or English. 

I could mention pretty much any of the stories as compelling. Alvarez is a good writer, who is particularly excellent in her use of words. The voices of the different characters are recognizably different, as are the voices of the girls as children compared to their voices as adults. A lot of care went into the writing, and the result is delightfully literary. The choice of the backwards narrative and the way things are often assumed but not explained until later means that you really have to pay attention - and remember details so that they make sense later. I am glad that I listened to this mostly in one day. (I had a quarter of it left which I finished in a few days of driving around town.) 

The audiobook we listened to had multiple narrators, one for each of the four girls and one for the third person stories not from the specific perspective of one of them. I confess I don’t recognize any of them (Blanca Camacho, Annie Henk, Annie Kozuch, Noemi de la Puente, Melanie Martinez), and I have no idea which narrator played which character. However, the quality was good, so I give a thumbs up to the narrators. I think the book is actually a good one to listen to, because the Spanglish and accented characters sound so delightful when done right. 

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents works either as an immigrant story, a coming-of-age story, an exploration of identity, or as just a compelling human story. I am glad I read it, and intend to read more by Alvarez. 

Monday, February 24, 2020

Calypso by David Sedaris

Source of book: Borrowed from the Library

This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. Although I was at least aware of David Sedaris, I had never read anything of his, and likely would not have picked up one of his books on my own. We had a great discussion about this book, I must say, as Sedaris writes thoughtfully on the complexities of family, mental illness, and life.

Sedaris’ books are officially classified as non-fiction - and they are largely autobiographical in nature. However, he does take some artistic and comedic license with things - he is a comedian and entertainer, not a historian. That said, as we lawyers are all too aware, memories are tricky things, and two participants in a conversation will often remember them differently. Since many of the stories involve conversations within the family, it would not surprise me at all if Sedaris’ accounts are roughly as “factual” as the average memory. 

The Sedaris family sounds rather...interesting. David was one of six siblings in a close(ish) Greek-American family. He and his siblings and his father still get together regularly, and stay in the same house for a week or two at a time. Honestly, there is no way in hell that happens ever again in my own family. (It’s a long story, but there are definitely broken relationships there.) The Sedarises are quirky, to say the least. Very quirky. And David is probably the craziest. (At least, since his humor is self-deprecating, he portrays himself as the craziest. And he may be right.) 

Calypso is in many ways, David’s attempt to deal with his sister Tiffany’s suicide. And also with his aging and increasingly non-functional father. These themes run through the book, and keep coming up as Sedaris tells his stories. The book shows a bit of a darker side to the family. His mother became increasingly alcoholic after the kids moved out, and her ability to hold the family together failed. When she died of cancer in her 60s, Sedaris’ dad descended deeper into his hoarding tendencies. But, the family still continued to get together as best they could. 

The book opens with a description of some of the trips the family took to the Outer Banks, followed by David’s decision to purchase an island home. All of these homes have cutesy names, so Sedaris and his siblings decide their house needs one too. The name they settle on, “Sea Section,” is, believe it or not, the least inappropriate of the options they consider. Dad is mortified. 

Although there are themes running through the stories, they are not truly connected in plot. They were mostly published elsewhere first - Sedaris writes regularly for The New Yorker and occasionally for other magazines and websites. The locations vary from rural England, where Sedaris lives with his partner, Hugh, to Japan, to various places in the United States where David puts on his show and sells his books. 

The England episodes are pretty funny. David is a bit OCD, and ends up a slave to his FitBit. This in turn leads to increasingly long walks where he picks up garbage. (And comments on how commonly he finds KFC and condoms…) Eventually, he has a garbage truck named after him. That’s not fiction or artistic license, by the way. That’s completely true. 

Also hilarious is the time he and his siblings shop at this ludicrously expensive and completely impractical clothing store in Tokyo. Among other things, David ends up buying a smock and culottes. 

Sedaris with one of his several (!) pairs of culottes.

The stories are often amusing, but also bittersweet. David and his siblings are still processing the suicide of a mentally ill sibling, and the descent of their father into right-wing nuttiness. (They forbid all radio and TV at the beach house, and dad nearly drives them crazy looking for his Fox News and Talk Radio fix.) 

There were some specific passages which stood out. One involved politics. David was born in New York, but when he was kid, the family moved to North Carolina, which was, shall we say, a rather different culture. (Because of the age differences of the kids, David doesn’t speak with a southern accent, but his younger siblings very much do.) Apparently, the Sedaris parents were out at a restaurant or bar when the news came that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. And the other patrons stood and clapped. The Sedaris parents were left wondering where they had moved to… It is thus ironic that David’s dad would later go down the racist rabbit hole of Tucker Carlson and Rush Limbaugh.   

I also liked Sedaris’ description of his experience being a short man. (He’s 5’5”, apparently, a bit shorter than I am.) 

I know that straight me sometimes have it hard when it comes to finding a girlfriend, but I thought that for people like myself - “pocket gays,” we’re sometimes called - it was no hindrance. In retrospect, I guess I wasn’t paying much attention. The Washington Post has a regular feature in which they send two people out on a date and then check in to see how it went. Recently the couple was gay. Both stood more than six feet and listed in their “Deal-Breakers” box “short men.” They did not, I noticed, exclude white supremacists or machine gun owners.

Yeah, that is a bit disturbing. I would certainly consider white supremacy to be a deal breaker were I on the dating market. 

Rather amusing was the section on crazy diets. 

As I grow older, I find that the people I know become crazy in one of two ways. The first is animal crazy - more specifically, dog crazy. They’re the ones who, when asked if they have children, are likely to answer, “A black Lab and a sheltie-beagle mix named Tuckahoe.” Then they add - they always add - “They were rescues!”
The second way people go crazy is with their diet. My brother, Paul, for instance, has all but given up solid food, and at age forty-six eats much the way he did when he was nine months old. 

I think Sedaris nails it with that one. Obviously, I know people who make dietary changes due to illness or other legitimate medical reasons. But there is definitely a kind of “mid-life crisis” that involves an obsession with diet - an increasingly restrictive diet. 

Sedaris also scores a nice one with this description of Bible Belt passive-aggressiveness. 

Increasingly at Southern airports, instead of a “good-bye” or “thank-you,” cashiers are apt to say, “Have a blessed day.” This can make you feel like you’ve been sprayed against your will with God cologne. “Get it off me!” I always want to scream. “Quick, before I start wearing ties with short-sleeved shirts!”

I know, not everyone who says “have a blessed day” is intending to give a little religious middle finger to others. But that is the meaning of the saying, and why it originated. And the Southern Baptist deacon look is...accurate. 

Sedaris also hits on a pet peeve of mine, particularly when travelling through the [ahem] white and rural areas of our country. 

More often than not, your breakfast room will have a TV in it, tuned to a twenty-four-hour cable-news network. Sometimes, you see two TVs or more. At a place I stayed at in Kentucky one year, there were eight. After I ordered, the waitress went around with her remote and activated each one, making me think of a lamplighter, if lamps were instruments of torture rather than things that make it easier for you to see how old and tired-looking you’ve gotten. “People like it,” she said when I asked her if it was really necessary at six o’clock in the morning. 
You hear this a lot in America, especially when you’re complaining about televisions, or loud music, or, more common still, television and loud music together in the same room. “People like it.”
“Yes,” I always want to say, “but they’re the wrong people.” 

Preach it, David! While you are at it, how about mentioning the people who cannot seem to hike or sit on the beach or chill around the campfire without blaring some loud music. 

Quite fascinating was the chapter on how David came out as gay. Here are some excerpts. 

When my mother called me a queer, my face turned scarlet and I exploded. “Me? What are you talking about? Why would you even say a thing like that?”
Then I ran down to my room, which was spotless, everything just so, the Gustav Klimt posters on the walls, the cornflower-blue vase I’d bought with the money I earned babysitting. The veil had been lifted, and now I saw this for what it was: the lair of a blatant homosexual.
That would have been as good a time as any to say, “Yes, you’re right. Get me some help.” But I was still hoping that it might be a phase, that I’d wake up the next day and be normal. In the best of times, it seemed like such a short leap. I did fantasize about having a girlfriend - never the sex part, but the rest of it I had down. I knew what she’d look like and how she’d hold her long hair back from the flame when bending over a lit candle. I imagined us getting married the summer after I graduated from college, and then I imagined her drowning off the coast of North Carolina during one of my family’s vacations. Everyone needed to be there so they could see just how devastated I was. I could actually make myself cry picturing it: How I’d carry her out of the water, how my feet would sink into the sand owing to the extra weight. I’d try mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and keep trying until someone, my father most often, would pull me back, saying, “It’s too late, son. Can’t you see she’s gone?”
It seemed I wanted to marry just so I could be a widower. So profound would be my grief that I’d never look at another woman again. 

Not only is this hilarious, but it is a pretty good explanation for why telling gay folks to just suck it up and have a heterosexual marriage is not merely ludicrous, but profoundly damaging. I mean, David Sedaris seems pretty harmless, but I can’t imagine knowing your spouse fantasized about your death so he could eliminate the pressure to be heterosexual. Later, David puts his finger on a key dynamic. I think a lot of people, particularly of my parents’ generation and older, just wish they didn’t have to deal with the fact that LGBTQ people exist in our world. 

“I just don’t see why you have to rub everyone’s noses in it,” certain people would complain when I told them. Not that I wore it on T-shirts or anything. Rather, I’d just say “boyfriend” the way they said “wife” or “girlfriend” or “better half.” I insisted that it was no different, and in time, at least in the circles I ran in, it became no different. 

Times are definitely changing, though. My kids talk about same sex relationships, transgender people, non-binary people, and so on, with a natural ease that I have never known. It turns out that the “confusion” that we were warned would come about if our children saw gay or transgender people was really this: the kids would have no confusion at all, but the old folks would continue to lose their shit. And us Gen Xers kind of experience the whiplash of going between our parents’ and kids’ generations and having to code switch. A lot. 

There is another interesting episode in England that I want to mention. Sedaris befriends this fox, kind of going against a lot of his neighbors who consider them pests. He describes this interview on the subject thus:

“I know how much people love to save wildlife, but how would you feel if a fox killed your chickens or turkey?” someone named Pat Stokes asked. 
To this a man responded, “My chickens are cunts.”
I don’t know if this made him pro-fox or if he was just stating the facts. 

I definitely am on the “just stating the facts” side. Chickens are assholes. All of them. Every last one. They are horrid to each other, and as soon as the alpha gets made into soup, the next biggest chicken terrorizes the rest. I don’t like killing, and I could see feeling bad about eating other delicious animals. But I have never ONCE felt guilty for eating a chicken. Nasty, cruel, mean buggers, the whole lot. 

Speaking of assholes, I really felt with Sedaris the disorientation of the election of Trump, and the way that so many of my friends and family supported him - and his most evil, toxic policies. This exchange kind of sums it up: 

I join my family on Emerald Isle for Thanksgiving and have a great screaming fight with my Republican father, who yells at one point, “Donald Trump is not an asshole!” I find this funny, but at the same time surprising. Regardless of whether you voted for him, I thought the president-elect’s identity as a despicable human being was something we could all agree on. I mean, he pretty much ran on it. 

Exactly. I have heard this whole “Trump isn’t racist” bullshit from so many. But, he pretty much ran on it! That was always the whole point. That was his platform, those are his policies, and that’s who he is. And yes, if you support his racist policies, you are a racist. Own it. Just don’t try to claim that it is compatible with following Christ, because it isn’t. 

One of our book club members saw David Sedaris live a few years back, and she said he was hilarious. And also came hours before the show to talk and sign books - and stayed literally for hours afterward. If he comes this way again, I might have to go to a show. 

One final thought. One of the themes of our discussion of this book is how Sedaris walks a fine comedic line. On the one hand, he isn’t particularly politically correct (whatever that means these days), and he reveals some pretty personal stuff about his family. But, as one member pointed out, Sedaris is never mean. He isn’t cruel. He isn’t laughing at people or humiliating them. He does point out foibles - but he doesn’t make it personal. He does not wish to embarrass people, but humanize them. And a lot of his humor is self-deprecating. He is one of those comedians who doesn’t make you feel dirty for laughing along - or afterward. 


Just for fun, here is the list of books that our book club has read. At least the ones I have read too. Most of these were read for the club, but a few were ones I read previously - those posts pre-date the club discussion - and some I read afterward, because I missed the discussion. 

Thursday, February 20, 2020

A Taste for the Beautiful by Michael J. Ryan

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

In case it wasn’t obvious, I have been fascinated with science since I was a kid. This led to a lot of internal conflict between the militant Young Earth Creationism that was part of the Fundie homeschool culture I grew up in, and the obvious falsehoods that were necessary to believe for that viewpoint to work. My dad, at least, wasn’t committed to a young earth, so I felt that I had some freedom. As I got into my teens, I realized that I couldn’t believe in a timeline which didn’t match observed reality, and started a journey away from that. Eventually, in part because of my continued extensive reading on scientific topics, and in part because of my discovery of the rich tradition of non-literalist approaches to Genesis (dating back...before Christ, actually…), I came to peace with an acceptance of the truth of mainstream science. 

One of the fun things about accepting that there is overwhelming evidence in favor of evolution, even if we don’t have all the details (it’s amazing we have as much as we do, given the time scales), is being able to explore what we know and have learned even just in the last few decades about how life develops and changes. A great many things just make more sense that way, to be honest, including the wacky and often inefficient ways that traits work. 

A Taste for the Beautiful is about sexual beauty and attraction, and how it evolved in specific (and interesting) cases. The author is a researcher who has studied various animals - most pertinently, amphibians in Central America and their calls. (This forms a good bit of the book, which is a good thing.) 

The central idea of the book is that scientists often focus primarily on the males of the species they study, which means a focus on how the traits that attract females function and develop. In Ryan’s view, this misses a lot of the point, because beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Thus, it is more illuminating to examine why the beholder finds things beautiful - from there, it becomes somewhat more obvious how the “beautiful” trait evolved. 

Ryan takes a look at some basic ideas first. A central one to understanding life on Earth is that evolution and natural selection do not result in perfection. A trait need not be perfect to survive. It just has to be good enough. It is easy to see this in nature. Everything is a compromise. There is no such thing as a creature with endless endurance, high speed, and deadly reflexes. (If there was, it would likely devour everything else, then die of starvation…) Rather, you see creatures which have just enough fitness for their roles, enabling them to survive long enough to reproduce. 

I have heard this described elsewhere as the inherent “kludginess” of evolution. The human brain is a marvelous example of this. We actually do not have particularly “powerful” brains, if you think about it. A pocket sized calculator can do math far faster than we can, mechanical devices have better precision, and our memories...well, they are no great shakes. What human brains DO have, however, is a set of kludges - shortcuts - that enable us to think flexibly, think in analogies, and leverage our limited memory and processing speed in ways that solve the particular problems we encounter using what we have. It’s pretty impressive when you think about it. 

Everything in nature is like this, though. All vertebrates share a basic bone architecture, which is adapted for all kinds of locomotion, from swimming to flying to running to standing erect. If an engineer were to design a creature from the ground up, it is unlikely that it would look like anything currently in existence - let alone look strikingly similar despite widely different functions. 

When Ryan applied this basic idea to that of sexual beauty, he found that the eye (or nose or ear) of the beholder didn’t respond to sexual attraction in a sui generis way - it didn’t require unique traits used solely for sexual response. Rather, the pathways tended to be already used for something else - more basic stuff like finding food or avoiding being eaten. 

A great example of this is something most of us never think about: why do we universally, across cultures, as far back as history records, use the color red as a signal to stop, and green as a signal to go? (It’s crazy but true - this didn’t originate with the industrial revolution - it goes back to prehistoric times.) Ryan notes that most animals have vision that is either monochromatic, or a dichromatic version of color. (In that case, one could tell the difference between red and violet, but not see a significant difference between, say, green and yellow.) Humans, however, along with many of their primate relatives, have trichromate color - which allows a full rainbow experience. (At least in the visible color range - other animals vary in the wavelengths they see.) The ability to distinguish quickly and easily between green and red turns out to be hugely important to many primates. Why? Well, leaves are green...and fruit is red or yellow. Hey, that makes sense! We speed past the trees, but the fruit catches our eye. (Not in this book, but in other sources I have read, is the observation that animals that eat fruit in the New World and in Oceania don’t tend to have this, in large part because native fruits are more likely to be green, and thus the ability to see red isn’t as important.) 

From this ability to see color, humans found they were able to do other things. Humans (rather uniquely among animals), express emotion through blushing, to give one example. 

Color is just one, though. Ryan looks at pattern, which is pretty interesting. Cats are highly sensitive to patterns, particularly certain shapes and edges. This helps them avoid falling off things. But it also means that they have some...interesting reflexes. Hence the “cats and cucumbers” videos. I presume that oblong fruits remind cats of snakes, at least at first glance, and the reflex takes over before they think. For what it’s worth, our cat doesn’t care. But certain noises or motions can occasionally spook her - and she has a solid four foot vertical leap when startled. 
Starting from this framework, Ryan makes a case that the specifics of sexual beauty don’t come out of the blue, but utilize traits already present. The ear is already sensitive to a frequency that aids in hearing predators, so that frequency is used in frog calls. Patterns that already mean food or danger can be repurposed as attractiveness. 

This is kind of the central theme of the book, but it is far more detailed and varied than just that. Ryan spends a chapter each on sight, sound, and smell; and looks at the downsides of beauty - it can also attract predators, or make a creature less fit in some other way. It is, so to speak, a fight between reproduction and survival, with plenty of tradeoffs. Also quite fascinating was the chapter on how preferences can be fickle, and often change rapidly. 

Throughout, the book is well supported by research (much of which was done by the author), and avoids going beyond what can be seen from the results. Like all good science writers, Ryan is realistic about what we can and cannot know, and what we do and do not know. He doesn’t try to make a case he cannot adequately support by evidence. 

I think, however, that he does shed an interesting light on the evolutionary specifics of how traits develop. This book makes a good companion book to Sex on Six Legs, which more specifically looks at insects, but without the depth of information on the evolutionary details.   

A Taste for the Beautiful strikes a good balance between detail and readability, and is both fascinating and informative. Ryan clearly loves his topic, and makes it come alive.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

Source of book: I own this

Anyone who, like me, cares about Shakespeare, or classic literature in general, is likely to have run across the name Stephen Greenblatt more than once. He is generally considered to be the founder of “New Historicism” as an approach to literary theory. Although obviously beyond the scope of this blog post, the central idea, as I understand it, is that literature is a product of its time, rather than the result of Great Men (and occasionally women) of Genius™. In this sense, it parallels the shift from a “Great Man” theory of history to one of cultural movements and moments. As it applies to, say, Shakespeare, you would have Harold Bloom on the one hand, arguing that Shakespeare changed everything about how we think of humanity, and Greenblatt on the other, arguing that Shakespeare came about as a result of the cultural moment he was born into. (Note: both of these are huge oversimplifications of both positions.) One might call it the cultural/historical/artistic “nature versus nurture” argument. My own view, having read both Bloom and Greenblatt (and Ron Rosenbaum’s marvelous book on Shakespeare, The Shakespeare Wars, which addresses both sides) is that there is some truth to each. 

This is kind of an introduction to The Swerve, which actually isn’t about either Shakespeare or literary theory. It did, however, win the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction, and is a thoroughly fascinating book. 

The Swerve is the story of the recovery of On The Nature of Things, a long poem by the Roman poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus, known to us as Lucretius. While Lucretius was hugely influential in his lifetime - the late days of the Roman Republic - and afterward, his works largely disappeared during the Middle Ages. Most, sadly, have been lost forever. On The Nature of Things survived, however, and was rediscovered by Poggio Bracciolini in 1417. To Poggio, we owe the preservation of a long list of classical works, and his efforts were - as Greenblatt describes - crucial to the Renaissance, and indeed to modernity itself. 

In writing this book, Greenblatt decided to fill in quite a bit of background, from what is known of Lucretius, to the Epicureans who influenced him. Sadly, Epicurus’ writings have been mostly lost, and are known only through those who wrote about him later. That said, Lucretius was an Epicurean, and his poem does give us a lot of information about what they believed. The story starts, however, with the Renaissance. 

The Renaissance was always a troublesome topic for the Fundamentalist subculture I grew up in - particularly evident in the religious history curriculum. For ideological reasons, it was necessary to address the Middle Ages, and either defend it as a golden age when religion had vast secular political power (see: Doug Wilson), or explain it in a way that makes a distinction between Roman Catholic theocracy and Protestant Dominionism. Neither approach is particularly truthful about the Renaissance, of course, because honesty would require an admission that much of the history of organized Christianity is, well, embarrassing as hell. 

There is some truth to the idea that the Middle Ages got a bad rap, of course. And any argument that starts with glorifying the Roman Empire is bound to lead to problems of various kinds. (As Clive James put it, the pax romana and the pax sovietica have a lot in common, namely totalitarianism and violence.) But, on the other hand, some facts are pretty hard to dispute. When Christianity took over the failing near-corpse of the Empire, it took a catastrophic anti-intellectualist approach to knowledge, leading to the destruction of hundreds of years of writing on science, philosophy, medicine, politics, ethics, and much more. This base of knowledge was largely forgotten (in the West, at least) for a thousand years, and had to be “discovered” all over again. And when they did come to light through the efforts of Poggio and others, the Church repressed and persecuted and slaughtered to try to keep the truths known to the Greeks and Romans from coming to light. That’s the inconvenient truth. 

The rediscovery of ancient writing and art led to the Renaissance. Which led to the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment and modern democracy and the Scientific Revolution and a renewed belief in human rights. 

There is no doubt, in any case, that something huge happened in the Renaissance. 

Something happened in the Renaissance, something that surged up against the constraints that centuries had constructed around curiosity, desire, individuality, sustained attention to the natural world, the claims of the body. 

And this is, I think, still at the heart of the Culture Wars™ that continue to roil our own society. Fundamentalists and theocrats of all ages have always sought to place constraints on curiosity, on desire, on individuality, on science, and on embodiment. Greenblatt specifically notes the worship of pain and suffering as “spirituality”: the floggings, the sleep deprivation, and other “disciplines” in the service of spirituality. All these were threatened by the Renaissance. 

The first few chapters tell of the life of Poggio, who was quite the fascinating character. He was, for much of his life, an employee of the Church, including a job as the private secretary to the Pope. He was not clergy, however, but a layman, and thus could (and eventually did) marry. He was also, as his writings give ample evidence, snarky as hell. Here is a bit of his opinion of monks:

With his friends in the curia, Poggio shared jokes about the venality, stupidity, and sexual appetite of monks. And their claims to piety left him unimpressed: “I cannot find that they do anything but sing like grasshoppers, and I cannot help thinking they are too liberally paid for the mere exercise of their lungs. They extol their labor as a kind of Herculean task, because they rise in the night to chant the praises of God. This is no doubt an extraordinary proof of merit, that they sit up to exercise themselves in psalmody. What would they say if they rose to go to the plough, like farmers, exposed to the wind and rain, with bare feet, and with their bodies thinly clad?” 
Just reading the bits about the popes of the time contained in this book is enough for one to seriously doubt Catholic dogma. And, in a way, to appreciate that modern popes are relatively well behaved. 

After giving the background on Poggio (which is a great story by itself), Greenblatt turns to the Epicureans, who are the most misunderstood of the Greek schools of philosophy. Epicurus himself was quite the ascetic in his personal life: he taught that the highest pleasure consisted in being a consistently good and moral person. 

Hey wait a minute…

Yes, the stereotype of Epicureans as libertines and gluttons and immoral greedy graspers is completely false. It was invented by early Christian philosophers who saw that Epicureans were a serious theological threat for other reasons, and decided to slander them so that the real issues would never be discovered. (And yes, there is solid proof of this in the surviving writings.) 

At the heart of the issue was the fact that Epicureans subscribed to a naturalistic view of reality. Following the view of Democritus, they believed that the natural world consisted of “atoms” - tiny indivisible particles which combined in an infinite variety according to the laws of nature and the accidents of chance, and formed everything. 

Hmm, that actually sounds...right? 

Following up on this, the Epicureans believed that while the gods may exist, they cannot possibly care about the mere natural world. Furthermore, they believed that the soul (if it even existed) died with the body, and that thus, there was no afterlife. And, because of this, there was no point in living in fear - like religion peddled - and that it was perfectly legitimate to seek to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. 

One might divide the beliefs up into the scientific (what is the nature of reality?) and philosophical (how shall we live?) Philosophy, of course, is a matter of belief and opinion. We have literally been talking about these ideas since the dawn of human history. 

But science? Well, it is astonishing how prescient Epicurus, Lucretius, and the Epicureans really were. These sound more like Modern Era beliefs, not ancient ones. Here is a partial list:

-          Everything is made of atoms
-          The elementary particles of matter are eternal
-          The elementary particles are vast in number, but limited in kind
-          All particles are in motion in an infinite void
-          Nature ceaselessly experiments, leading to variety arising from natural processes
-          The universe was not created solely for humans
-          Human society began, not in a golden age, but in a primitive battle for survival
-          Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder
-          There is a hidden natural explanation for everything that alarms or eludes you

That does sound a bit modern, right? And rather like mainstream science too. Few even in the general culture would dispute the existence of atoms, and the rest of it, including the fact that there is a natural explanation for pretty much everything, even if we haven’t found it yet. (The greatest problem with the “God in the Gaps” argument is that it leads to an ever-shrinking god…) 

The Epicureans were indeed right about a whole lot, but they weren’t the only ones. It is quite astonishing to look back to ancient times and realize that the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Persians, the Chinese, and other great civilizations of the distant past knew a lot of what we “discovered” in the last 600 years.

Case in point: 2200 years ago, Eratosthenes not only knew that the earth was round (which was known LONG before he came along), he calculated its actual circumference within 1% of its actual value. Which, considering the rather primitive measuring equipment he had, is amazing. 

Which means that Columbus, in addition to being a nasty, evil man, was also a freaking idiot. The idea that he and he alone believed in a round earth is silly on its face, but also: he should have known that he had travelled less than half the way around. (You can file this under “things history books gloss over because they make European ‘heroes’ look less heroic.”) 

In addition to this, the passage in the book on the Library of Alexandria, and its sad demise is worth reading. Particularly infuriating was the murder - lynching really - of Hypatia, one of the most badass women - a respected polymath and philosopher in her day. Her lynching had the effect (among others) of destroying any chance of peace between the forces of Christianity, and “pagan” philosophers. It remains a stain on the legacy of the Church and a tragedy which still reverberates in our own time, under the banner of “religion versus science.” 

Another related idea with the same general theme is the term “humanist.” In Poggio’s time, there were two movements within the Roman Catholic world. One was the Fundamentalism which led eventually to the Inquisition. The other went by the name of “humanism.” These days, we call it by the name “Christian Humanism” to distinguish it from a more secular version - and it had a tremendous impact on the future. We owe the whole idea of religious tolerance to the Humanist movement. And such things as modern science, freedom of speech, separation of church and state, and so on. In the Renaissance, the two big names were two of my own heroes: Thomas More, and Erasmus. Also considered to be Christian Humanists would be Soren Kirkegaard, G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and T. S. Eliot. (Hey, some of my favorite writers!) If I were to describe my own belief system, I think that would be the most accurate way to describe it. I am a Christian Humanist, and have been as long as I can remember, even if I didn’t know the term. (That might be an interesting future post.) 

Poggio and his fellow “humanists” spent their spare time finding, reading, and copying ancient manuscripts. In doing so, they preserved much of what we know about Greek and Roman literature. But they also invented a new kind of handwriting. 

What Poggio accomplished, in collaboration with a few others, remains startling. They took Carolingian miniscule - a scribal innovation of the ninth-century court of Charlemagne - and transformed it into the script they used for copying manuscripts and writing letters. This script in turn served as the basis for the development both of italics and of the typeface we call “roman.” They were then in effect the inventors of the script we still think of as at once the clearest, the simplest, and the most elegant written representation of our words.

The Swerve also spends a good bit of time looking at a crucial dispute between the humanists (and the Epicureans) and the Roman Church: the use of fear for profit. Reformer and martyr Jan Hus gets a few pages, in particular his denouncement of the sale of “indulgences” as a shameless attempt to profit from the fears of the faithful. Fears the Church instilled in the first place. One thing this book does well is tie together the objection of Epicureans/humanists/reformers of all eras to the Fundamentalist project, which is to exert control by use of fear. 

One fascinating episode in the book occured in the aftermath of the execution of Jerome of Prague for heresy (Poggio was particularly horrified that he was arrested and killed after being promised safe conduct.) Still reeling, and unsure of his own position, Poggio visited the legendary baths and hot springs at Baden. There, he observed a rather different cultural environment, with naked bathing and, well, Epicurean living in action. He noted the usual drinking and singing, but also noted that there was no quarreling - everything was in fun. In pleasure. He had this to say about it:

We are terrified of future catastrophes and are thrown into a continuous state of misery and anxiety, and for fear of becoming miserable, we never cease to be so, always panting for riches and never giving our souls or our bodies a moment’s peace. But those who are content with little live day by day and treat any day like a feast day. 

I do not think it is an accident that our own day’s Fundamentalism is inextricably wedded to consumerism and the panicked pursuit of wealth. It is a never-ending rat race, both materially and spiritually - and is actually the polar opposite to true Epicureanism. 

In contrast to the use of fear to control, and the rat race of futile attempts to obtain spirituality, Lucretius suggests a different approach. He wasn’t an atheist - more of a deist, like our founding fathers. He saw no problem in visiting religious shrines, provided you contemplate things “in peace and tranquility.” But the idea that religious observance can either anger or propitiate the gods seemed ludicrous to him. (And, come to think of it, Christ and the prophets seemed rather skeptical of religious observance as well…) The endless obsession of most religion with a god who is in turn obsessed with rewarding and punishing human beings rang hollow to Lucretius. 

Lucretius insisted that such hopes and anxieties are precisely a toxic form of superstition, combining in equal measure absurd arrogance and absurd fear. 


The serious issue is that false beliefs and observances inevitably lead to human mischief.


That got good really fast. This is, in my experience, one hundred percent true. My former faith tradition (white Evangelicalism) is obsessed with their hopes and fears about getting things exactly right so God doesn’t fry them for eternity. It’s Salvation by the Rules™. And it does indeed exhibit both absurd arrogance (tell me about it...this is like my life experience with Fundies) and absurd fear of getting things wrong, and worse, being too damn accepting and kind to those outside the increasingly narrow tribe. This is the mischief that results. Fear and arrogance combine to produce hate and a pathological lack of empathy for those who look or believe differently. 

Lucretius had an explanation for this too - and Greenblatt lays it out eloquently. 

The arts of civilization - not given to man by some divine lawmaker but painstakingly fashioned by the shared talents and mental power of the species - are accomplishments worth celebrating, but they are not unmixed blessings. They arose in tandem with the fear of the gods, the desire for wealth, the pursuit of fame and power. All of these originated in a craving for security, a craving that reaches back to the earliest experiences of the human species struggling to master its natural enemies. That violent struggle - against the wild beasts that threatened human survival - was largely successful, but the anxious, acquisitive, aggressive impulses have metastasized. In consequence, human beings characteristically develop weapons that turn against themselves.

This has been my argument with Fundamentalists over the very nature of the Bible, and the connected questions of morality and ethics. We really cannot separate any historical system of ethics from history and culture - or our lizard brains. Which is why a rule and fear based approach to the Bible and to religion itself leads, not to some return to a golden utopian age, but to the mere re-creation of the injustices and evils of the past. Inevitably, this also leads to jihad against people who are different. 

Whether or not Greenblatt proves his case about just how much Lucretius and The Nature of Things was responsible for the modern era and modern thought is debatable. But there is no doubt that the discovery of the literature of the past opened new vistas of thought and eventually shattered the fear and authoritarian power of toxic religion, and made the Enlightenment and our modern era possible. Steven Pinker has made a solid case that these inherently modern ideas: separation of church and state, the golden rule as the basis for all morality, equality and human rights, and the realization that “shit happens” - have greatly reduced violence. We can certainly recognize the influence of Lucretius and the Epicureans in this change, from the Enlightenment to the Utilitarians.

This book is a fascinating bit of history, regardless of your personal philosophical leanings. I myself, as a Christian Humanist, would love to read Lucretius now, which means Greenblatt succeeded. The book itself is well written - not dry at all, despite significant intellectual and historical content.  


If you are interested in reading something shorter, but definitely fascinating, by Greenblatt, his article in The New Yorker on St. Augustine and sex is excellent.

It is a bit disturbing to realize just how much of Western Christianity's toxic relationship with sex comes from a guy whose formative years were shaped by his parents' bad marriage and his mother's unhealthy, quasi-sexual relationship with him.