Tuesday, December 24, 2013
Natalie Angier in The New York Times:
We may denounce the hyper-consumerism of the Christmas season until we’re Hanukkah blue in the face, but much of our economy relies on the strength of the gift-giving impulse, and with good reason: The drive to exchange presents is ancient, transcultural and by no means limited to Homo sapiens. Researchers have found striking examples of gift-giving across the phyletic landscape, in insects, spiders, mollusks, birds and mammals. Many of these donations fall under the rubric of nuptial gifts, items or services offered up during the elaborate haggle of animal courtship to better the odds that one’s gametes will find purchase in the next generation. Hungry? Why don’t you go ahead and chew on the droplets oozing from my hind-leg spur while I just take a few moments to deposit a sperm packet in the neighborhood of your genitals?
Nuptial gifts can also be a gift for researchers, allowing them to precisely quantify a donor animal’s investment in mating and reproduction, and to track the subtleties of sexual competition and collusion by analyzing the chemical composition of a given bag of courtship swag. “This is an incredibly cool and important topic in sexual selection that we’re just beginning to explore,” said Sara M. Lewis, a professor of biology at Tufts University who has written extensively about nuptial gifts. “The bright side of nuptial gifts is, here’s a way that males can contribute things that are essential to his mate and to his future offspring. “On the other hand, the gifts can be a source of sexual conflict, a way of manipulating the female into doing what he wants,” she said. “So there is a lot of back and forth over evolutionary time.” Other researchers are studying how animals use gifts socially, to foster alliances or appease dominant members of the group. Grooming among primates is considered a form of gift-giving, and in most cases, it’s the subordinates who do the tick-picking: betas groom alphas, females groom males.
Monday, December 23, 2013
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by Dave Maier
Last month in this space I discussed physicist Lawrence Krauss's suggestion that in advancing certain cosmological theories (concerning the early universe, dark matter, dark energy, and so on) he had thereby put to rest the age-old philosophical question "why is there something rather than nothing?". I agreed for the most part with those who think Krauss misunderstands the question if he thinks a physical theory – any physical theory – can answer or dispel it. There were a lot of interesting comments on the post (go read them), but I think people were sometimes talking past each other. Some of the confusion and/or disagreement concerns the concept of metaphysics, so that's today's topic.
We often see "metaphysics" or "metaphysical" used as a term of abuse. (I myself use it this way sometimes.) But not all such abuse amounts to the same thing. What exactly is metaphysics "in the bad sense"? And why is there also a "good" (or at least not necessarily bad) sense of the term as well? How does the latter devolve into the former, and how can we avoid such a thing? Or must we part ways with "metaphysics" entirely, leaving only a "bad" sense of the term?
A good place to start is the entry on "Metaphysics" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Its author might give us critics pause, since if there is such a thing as metaphysical Kool-aid, Peter van Inwagen has drunk as deeply of that toxic draught as any philosopher alive. However, except for the perfunctoriness of its final section, which grudingly examines (or at least mentions) the question "Is Metaphysics Possible?", most of the article is perfectly uncontroversial, as is appropriate given the venue (really, check it out for a good introduction). Metaphysics has always been part of philosophy, whether in the ancient form of a "science of being as such", or the modern welter of rather more specific questions about causation, modality, personal identity, mind and body, space and time, and so on.
Naturally this does not mean that such things must be unobjectionable. Maybe philosophy first barked wrongly up a single ancient tree (The Tree of Being?), turning in the modern period to bark equally wrongly up a number of related trees, and maybe what we should do now is cut out such barking altogether. But as van Inwagen points out, to say that the ancient "science" (as pursued, for example, in Aristotle's Metaphysics) was wrong-headed because there are no things that do not change is itself a "metaphysical" assertion in the modern sense; and the same is often true of contemporary dismissals of "metaphysics" broadly construed.
On the other hand, the Catch-22 nature of this defense of metaphysics, if that's what it is, should arouse our suspicions. It sounds like a "gotcha," like the blithe, infuriating assertion that "it takes a lot of faith to be an atheist." Indeed, it's the broader cultural spat between science and religion which provides a lot of the heat and lack of light (dark energy?) for most discussions of "metaphysics." We have to detach, or at least locate, the latter discussion to see it properly – if not to resolve it, at least to see who the players are.
by Emrys Westacott
Here are three sad predictions for the coming new year:
- One day during 2014 there will be yet another shooting rampage somewhere in America.
- The killer will be a male aged between fifteen and forty.
- Although there will be renewed calls for stricter gun control, the political establishment will neither address nor even discuss the fundamental questions raised by these periodic killing sprees.
In the wake of the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newton, Connecticut, when twenty children and six adults were killed by a lone gunman, there was much talk about the need for stricter gun control. President Obama urged Congress to pass laws that would strengthen background checks, ban assault weapons, and limit magazine capacity to ten cartridges; but a bill including these measures was defeated in the Senate. At the state level, over a hundred new gun laws have been enacted in 2013, but two-thirds of these loosen rather than tighten restrictions on the buying and owning of guns.
This is regrettable. Without question, laws that make it harder for potential killers (particularly individuals exhibiting signs of mental instability) to acquire guns (particularly semi-automatic assault weapons) would be a good thing. But we are kidding ourselves if we think the availability of such weapons is the main problem.
We need to ask this question: why is it that every few months somewhere in America a young man goes on a killing spree? The regularity with which this occurs suggests it is a symptom of a cultural malaise. So if we really want to address it meaningfully, we have to identify the underlying causes. That means we must first ask these questions:
- Why is our society producing these alienated, depressed, angry and mentally unstable young men?
- Why does their anger and alienation express itself in the form that it does—typically, a sudden volley of random violence?
Unless and until our response to these tragedies includes trying to tackle questions like these, it will remain superficial and ineffective. Sure, we can increase security at elementary schools; but the killer can always walk into a college classroom, a hospital, a restaurant, or a shopping mall. We can—and should—ban assault weapons; but a dozen people can still be killed with two revolvers. We can more or less eliminate some hazards: tight airport security reduces almost to zero the chances that someone will smuggle weapons or explosives onto a plane. But we cannot eliminate the possibility that a mentally ill person will get hold of a gun and shoot some strangers. No society can. All we can do is try to reduce the likelihood of such incidents. It's all about probabilities.
Say Something Obvious
The geometry of moonlight is triangular
Its pallid glow is whole, homogeneous and crisp,
never granular. Moon, mating with Sun
cries out like a bell, her rings are ecstatic and annular
Under a condensing cloud you’ll be singing in the rain
if you carry a tune while following your bliss
If it falls upon the skin of lovers it will hiss
We had a Harley once, too small to ride
to Champaign from N J, but we went anyway
Later, not even a kiss
The forearm muscles of the young,
their Palmaris Longus and Carpis Ulnaris,
are means to an end
they’re not there for show, but to work
In the old they sometimes give sharp hints
of what’s left to spend
Behind a blower in the snow
if the wind whips the plume just so
(colder bitter cheeks with every flake)
you may as well have been with Scott’s expedition
in Antarctica freezing in determination
dying from mistake
There’s good to be said for caution
and brashness too
…………………………….. reticence or passion
—you’ll only know which one was called for
when the day is through
by Jim Culleny
by Gautam Pemmaraju
Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me
The Carriage held but just Ourselves
- Emily Dickenson
The wise emperor of Marguerite Yourcenar’s masterful Memoirs Of Hadrian, says to his successor Marcus Aurelius that his frail, diseased body is fast approaching its demise. It is the evening of his life. Despite the “vague formulas of reassurance” that his loyal physician Hermogenes offers him in an attempt to mask the imminent end, the sage old man knows that he is sure to die of a dropsical heart. The time and place is uncertain, and he “no longer runs the risk of falling on the frontiers, struck down by a Caledonian axe or pierced by an arrow of the Parths…” but he does know that his days are numbered. His body, a faithful companion all these years, may well turn out to be “a sly beast who will end by devouring his master”. But what of the moment itself, Hadrian contemplates:
I shall die at Tibur or in Rome, or in Naples at the farthest, and a moment’s suffocation will settle the matter. Shall I be carried off by the tenth of these crises, or the hundredth? That is the only question. Like a traveler sailing the Archipelago who sees the luminous mists lift towards evening, and little by little makes out the shore, I begin to discern the profile of my death.
Often enough in literary descriptions we find familiar tropes: the inner light dims, an ethereal illumination brings in the uttara kshanam, a phrase used in literary Telugu to describe the dying moment. A most intriguing phrase if ever, it can be translated in numerous ways but the most literal one appears to me the most elegant. The moment exists ‘up there’, in some mystical northward quadrant, and as we approach it, it reveals itself. As we apprehend it, it embraces us. The Northern Moment is then the final one. It is the peak of earthly life. There is a wide fascination for the dying moment – how will it come to pass, in what circumstances, will it be filled with pain and suffering or under the comforting shroud of sleep, will it be in the presence of loved ones, or alone, on some forsaken highway? Will it be a ‘good death’ or a ‘bad death’? How indeed do we imagine our final moments?
by Brooks Riley
It is difficult to talk about metaphors without talking in metaphors: Metaphors are birds, around us all the time, but unnoticed unless we take the time to look at them. Or, metaphors are apples on the tree of life, the fruits of our search for meaning. You get the idea.
Here's a riddle: What can a human being see that no other creature on earth can see? A metaphor. We and the creatures all see the same objects, in the literal sense. But humans are able to see those objects as providers of meaning, a tree as a symbol for family or immutability. a puddle as a small inconvenience on the path of life. A pothole? Life is full of them in the metaphoric sense.
What are metaphors anyway except a parallel way of looking at things—like stepping into a second life to explain the first one.
Some people are happy just to beat a dead metaphor: ‘Life is a bowl of cherries', ‘All the world's a stage', ‘No man is an island' (not true!) or Pedro Calderón de la Barca's exquisite ‘. . . life is a dream, and the dreams are dreams.' La vida es sueño, y los sueños, sueños son. Others look for unexpected analogous connections in unusual places or events.
Some metaphors are so parasitic, they kill the host--so deeply imbedded into the language of certain events that they have lost their role as metaphor. In America we don't ‘stand' for office, we ‘run a race' for it, hence the image of two candidates at the starting line, Obama in his track suit, Romney in a body stocking, in the distance a tiny White House. When you pry the metaphor out of the electoral process, there are not enough words to describe it.
For reasons having nothing to do with literary endeavor, I have been searching for metaphors. Unlike Brad Leithauser's metaphor (in his recent, lovely piece in the New Yorker ‘Meet my metaphor'), which simply came to him while he waited in an airport, mine are the result of an active search.
by Charlie Huenemann
"... a lying tongue is a man's destruction." - The Wisdom of Solomon, 1.11
When I was ten years old, I happily discovered that I could say whatever I wanted in response to a question without lying. If my mother asked me if I had cleaned my room, I could say, "Yes, mother" - because she didn't ask whether I had cleaned it today. Or even if she had thought to ask whether I had cleaned my room today, I could still say "Yes, mother" - because she didn't ask if I had cleaned all of my room today (and surely I had managed to put at least one little thing away). And so on. To the extent I had any theory about it, I thought that I couldn't be accused of lying if other people hadn't taken the trouble to ask specific enough questions. At the same time, of course, I knew it was an unreasonable request, and I was in fact being a weasel.
Now imagine my delight in discovering that this golden evasion ticket is not merely a young brat's subterfuge; it is in fact remembered in history as a codified policy of some early Jesuits. Their own need for the policy and their application of it is seen best through an example.
A Jesuit in England in the early 1600s (according to Mario Praz) reportedly swore never to have been a priest, never to have been overseas, and never to have known or even seen a certain William Hawkesworth, who was a suspect in the Gunpowder Plot to assassinate the king. Later, after he had been found out, the priest explained that he had meant that "he had never been a priest of Apollo, he had never been across the Indian sea, never known the said Hawkesworth scientia scientifica [that is, with scientific knowledge], and never seen him in visione beatifica [in a beatific vision]". The priest's mind had been racing - as we can well imagine - and it was not his problem that the minds of his interlocutors simply had not kept up.
This is an example of what has been known as mental reservation, or honest dissimulation, or (even more colorlessly) non-mendacious linguistic deception, which the philosopher Jonathan Adler defines as "asserting what one believes to be true, inviting the drawing of a conclusion that one believes to be false".
by Brooks Riley
by Maniza Naqvi
Winnie Mandela's tribute to the cause, to Nelson Mandela and to her own life is expressed in "Part of My Soul Went With Him." (here). I read this back in 1986 and the title of the book says much about her: a remarkable, courageous and steadfast person. Tender and tough and above all loyal. I consider her story compelling.
Winnie Mandela was and is a hero to millions. Winnie Mandela kept Nelson Mandela present and amongst his people throughout his almost three decades of imprisonment. The mighty machinery of the Apartheid regime, sought to erase Nelson Mandela but she, Winnie Mandela, defeated them. In all those years, when even a photograph of him was unavailable to the people she kept his image vivid and present and vital. Nelson Mandela, prior to the West's and its media's embrace of him, was what he was to his people in a large part because of what Winnie Mandela presented him to be. She defined him. She carried out his principles. He did not renounce struggle by all means and she was his General in the battlefield carrying out his command. Body and soul. Other Generals. always men in other battles are decorated for their deeds of violence. Their excesses are forgiven and even lauded as part of the trauma and fog of war. There are others who are forgiven their transgressions given the context and go on to be Pope, Prime Minister or President.
by Thomas Wells
Like cigarettes, meat and dairy packaging should include no nonsense factual warnings about the negative consequences of one's consumption choices. Just as with cigarettes, there is a strong case that exercising one's sovereign right to free choice on personal matters requires that people be adequately informed about the significant negative implications of their choices by someone other than the manufacturer that wants them to buy the product. In this case the significant consequences concern one's ethical character rather than prudence (safe-guarding one's health), but the principle is the same.
I envisage ethical warning labels like this:
This chicken's beak was cut off, causing it intense pain until its death
This cow's babies were taken away and killed to keep it producing milk.
Like cigarette packaging in some countries the ethical warnings might include full colour pictures of the living conditions of the animals your food comes from. Pictures like this:
Servers of cooked animal products from lowly hot-dog stands to fancy restaurants would have to include these ethical warnings prominently on their menus.
The labels could be graded to reflect the conditions under which the source animals lived and died. That would allow better - but more expensive - standards of animal welfare to be recognised and encouraged.
It seems to me that such ethical warning labels are not only permissible in a free society; they are actually required by the liberal conception of freedom. A liberal society is defined by its respect for free choice in the private personal domain. What is not illegal is permitted. And what is made illegal should only be behaviour that harms others, rather than merely offending them by going against their private moral beliefs. In a liberal society, people are free to decide for themselves whether to do things that others strongly disapprove of, such as following 'weird' religions, or engaging in unorthodox sexual practices, or eating meat.
by Ben Schreckinger
Christmas is Wednesday, and as the recent (and absurd) controversy over the color of Santa’s skin indirectly reminds us, the holiday is an amalgam of various pagan and Christian traditions drawn from a diversity of times and places. In addition to the Gospel stories of Jesus’ birth, they include the hagiography of the 4th century Lycian bishop St. Nicholas, Roman Saturnalia, and the Scandinavian-Pagan Yule. It is remarkable that like a time capsule, this Christian holiday serves as a vessel in which parts of various pre-Christian belief systems, otherwise long-ago lost, stand preserved.
Their preservation is testament to the tenacity of human spiritual beliefs and traditions, which often manage to outlive the environments that first produced them. Far more fragile than beliefs are human institutions, whose shelf-lives only very rarely exceed a few centuries. The birth of Jesus represents the turning point Western history between its pagan and Christian periods, which are embodied by the institutions of the Oracle at Delphi and the Roman Catholic Church, respectively. The real Christmas miracle is that between them, these two institutions represent a continuity that spans the history of Western civilization, from about 1,000 years before the birth of Jesus right up to the present day.
To examine the two side-by-side tells us something about how Western civilization has evolved: from an individualistic, agonistic world into an organized, hierarchical one. It also teaches us about how human institutions live and die, giving us reason to suspect that the church will outlive every national government currently in existence.
The Oracle at Delphi was the product of an agonistic, individualistic world. Of those that sought its prophecies it made only one demand: “Know thyself.” The guidance it offered was ambiguous and could be a double-edged sword. In perhaps the most famous myth attached to the oracle (or the most famous moment in its history, if you believe Herodotus), the 6th century Lydian King Croesus sought guidance on whether to pursue an invasion of Persia. “If you cross the river, a great empire will be destroyed,” came the prophecy. Croesus attacked, but it was Lydia, not Persia that was destroyed.
The story epitomizes the Greek relationship to the divine, at the intersection of which sat the oracle. The gods were not benign protectors of humanity, but powerful supernatural beings with all the flaws and complex motivations of people. Their word was not meant to be taken at face value. They were just another force in the cosmos that a person had to contend with, sometimes friend, sometimes foe, sometimes something in between.
Compare that to the paternalistic embrace of the Roman Catholic Church. By the time the institution had matured in the early medieval period, there were few things it wanted less than for all the members of its flock to know themselves. The parish priest was their father, and the clergy claimed the exclusive right of exegesis — no one else was permitted to interpret holy texts. It called for obedience, rather than self-knowledge. This difference, too, of course reflects the orthodox Christian relationship between humanity and the divine, in which God is a benign father.
Strained Analogies Between Recently Released Films and Current Events: The Desolation of Smaug and The Cessation of Unemployment Insurance
by Matt McKenna
It is tempting to read The Desolation of Smaug, Peter Jackson's second installment in the Hobbit film trilogy, as a sweeping metaphor for the most grandiose concepts and topics currently under discussion on the cable news networks in the United States.
For example, Thorin Oakenshield's company of thirteen dwarves, a wizard, and a hobbit does bear surface similarities to what could reasonably be seen as a fantasy rendition of Occupy. After all, both groups consist of idealistic outsiders who attempt to reclaim once public land. However, this reading is undercut by the fact that Bilbo Baggins, the protagonist and titular hero, has joined the quest explicitly to render his services as the company's "burglar." It is fair to say that Occupy activists don't see themselves as burglars, and there is certainly no sense that Bilbo nor anyone else employed on the quest is attempting to reclaim the word from the lexicon of their oppressors. Furthermore, the social structure of the dwarves is anything but flat, and their decision-making processes are completely at odds with the typical methodologies of Occupy. Arguments comparing the film's heroes to members of the Tea Party movement can be made and summarily dismissed along similar lines.
Another tantalizing interpretation of the film is to see it as an allegory for the implosion of capitalism in an era of unsustainable equality. Indeed, the economically disadvantaged villagers of Laketown who aid the dwarves during their travels to Erebor refer to the arrival of our heroes as the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy. But which ancient prophecy? While the townspeople are literally referring to the diegetic prognostication that posits Dwarves will one day reclaim the Lonely Mountain, the audience is compelled to wonder if these characters are metaphorically referring to Karl Marx's prediction that capitalism--Smaug, the fire-breathing dragon--will collapse under the weight of its own success. But this reading quickly falls apart once the viewer realizes that Smaug the Terrible doesn't actually adhere to the tenants capitalism. In fact, Smaug is a textbook mercantilist, what with the hoarding of gold and the extraction of wealth from foreign lands. Now, if Smaug were to reinvest his ill-gained gold into fixing the missing scale absent over his left breast--a womp-rat sized hole which one assumes will cause him some discomfort in the third film--then this capitalism metaphor might have some legs.
Thus, the film is not a fantasy retelling of major political movements in the early 21st century, nor is it a critique of the world's dominant economic system. What, then, is it? Could it be that The Desolation of Smaug is a film that can only be coherently enjoyed as a literal tale of diminutive creatures with British accents attempting to liberate treasure from within a hollow and tritely named geological structure?
Of course not.
by Mara Naselli
Narrative omniscience in storytelling has often been described as God's point of view, but we can hardly take for granted God's existence anymore, let alone what we know of God's scope of vision. If we cannot imagine God's all-seeing, all-knowing perspective, then what becomes of the nature of omniscience in storytelling? There is a reason it has become an increasingly rare point of view in contemporary literature.
What can an author know of her characters? James Wood notes Muriel Spark raises this very question in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a short novel about a schoolmistress and her young charges, published in 1961. The story is set in the 1930s. Fascism is taking hold in Europe. Spark's superb control in the storytelling reflects the tyrannical authority of Miss Brodie herself. Miss Brodie is "a fascist and a Scottish Calvinist . . . , predestining the lives of her pupils, forcing them into artificial shapes. Is that what the novelist does too?" writes Wood. "That is the question that interests Spark. The novelist adopts Godlike powers of omniscience but what can she really know of her creations? Surely only God, the ultimate author of our lives, can know our comings and our going. And surely only God has the moral right to decide such things."
There is much we don't see in Spark's novel except through the slow reveal of the characters' own blindnesses. Think of works like Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot or Endgame. These characters are drawn sparely, but are still affecting and evocative. The austerity of context has become a hallmark of modernist literature. Its close narrative distance erodes the omniscient view. As a counterexample many have pointed to George Eliot's Middlemarch, published in 1872. This study of provincial life, as it was called, set in the 1830s amidst significant political and cultural change, is so richly drawn that no hillock, no hovel, no character's position or innermost aspiration goes unnoticed. The novel is chockfull.
Indeed, the narrator in Middlemarch speaks with a certain omniscience, but it is not distant and removed. It is not Godlike, in the usual sense. Zadie Smith calls Middlemarch a riot of subjectivity. The narrator in Middlemarch speaks as if she is there, moving from within one character's consciousness to another. And though we see the characters with a certain kind of fullness—access to their most inner thoughts and blindnesses—there is a lot we don't know about them, too. Perhaps there are different kinds of omniscience. And perhaps God, or at least our culturally and historically shaped notion of who God is and where God is, has something to do with it.
by Michael Lopresto
Can you understand why a little creature, who can't even understand what's done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child's prayer to "dear, kind God"!
--Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov
How is belief in God possible? Is it coherent to acknowledge the immense suffering of a child, on the one hand, and to believe in God on the other? The Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga compares God creating a world in which some people suffer to a mother insisting her child "take piano lessons or go to church or school," to help make sense of a moral justification for God creating a world in which evil exists. A mother can justifiably insist that her child does something that he doesn't enjoy, like go to school, because the mother is in a better position to know what is in the best interests of her child. But the speed with which theists like Plantinga extend the routine acceptability of making a child go to school, to the horrendous evil we find in the actual world simply defies belief.
Theodicy is the project of giving a moral justification for the evil that God has created or has allowed to occur. Will God be acquitted in the tribunal of morality? This project was founded in its modern from by the great German philosopher G. W. Leibniz, and continues today with philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga and Peter van Inwagen. The typical justifications given are that free will is valuable and therefore justifies the suffering we inflict upon one another, and that various evils are logically necessary means to get to greater goods. It is often thought that to save belief in God from being positively irrational, an intellectually satisfying answer must be given to the problem of evil. When posed with the question of why it is that God would allow someone to murder an innocent person, the theist might say that free will is an intrinsic good, and that giving humans free will means that they may freely choose to do the wrong thing; or that transgressions such as murder make possible higher goods, such as forgiveness and compassion.
Sunday, December 22, 2013
From The Talks:
Mr. Rushdie, do you have an optimistic view of the world?
What motivates you to write?
I’ve got nothing else to do! I always wanted to write. The only other plan that I had in my life is that I wanted to be an actor. That didn’t work out! I had always thought that if there was a film of Midnight’s Children, the part I would like to play is the fortuneteller. I thought, since I made up the plot of the novel, if the film ever gets made I should play the fortuneteller.
Well, now the movie has been made. Were you in it?
The director hired me, but I fired myself because the last thing you want to happen in that scene is for the audience to be thinking, “Isn’t that Salman Rushdie?” (Laughs) It would just take your attention away from where it should be. We cut the scene out in the end anyway.
But my greatest regret about a part that I wasn’t able to play, I was approached by Will Ferrell’s company to play a part in what was then called “Untitled Will Ferrell Nascar Movie,” which became Talladega Nights.
Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science:
The common cuckoo is famed for its knack for mooching off the parental instincts of other birds. It lays its eggs in the nests of at least 100 other species, turning them into inadvertent foster parents for its greedy chicks. For this reason, it’s called a brood parasite.
It’s not alone. Among the birds, the full list of brood parasites includes more than 50 members of the cuckoo family, cowbirds, honeyguides, several finches, and at least one duck.
Now, William Feeney from the Australian National University has found that brand of reproductive cheating goes hand in hand with its polar opposite: cooperative breeding, where birds raise their young with help from siblings or offspring, often at the cost of the helpers’ own reproductive success.
The two strategies couldn’t be more different but Feeney found that each drives the evolution of the other. In places where one is common, the other is too. Exploitation goes hand-in-hand with cooperation.
Mary Ellen Hannibal in Nautilus:
The life and work of the novelist Vladimir Nabokov referenced many symbols, none so much as the butterfly. Butterflies prompted Nabokov’s travels across the United States, exposing him to the culture and physical environment that he would transform into his best-known novel, Lolita. Butterflies motivated his parallel career in science, culminating in a then-ignored evolutionary hypothesis, which would be vindicated 34 years after his death using the tools of modern genetic analysis. And it was the butterfly around which some of Nabokov’s fondest childhood memories revolved.
Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia to an aristocratic family, and spent much of his childhood at the family’s country estate in Vyra, 40 miles outside of the city. The Nabokovs were forced to flee Russia in 1919 in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. After moving between England, Germany, and France, Nabokov came to the U.S., returning for the final years of his life to Switzerland, where he died in 1977. Nabokov rued the loss of Vyra, and called it a “break with my destiny.” In his student days at Cambridge University in England, he lamented the loss in a 1920 letter to his mother: “Will I really never return, is it really all finished, wiped out, destroyed…? I would like to describe every little bush, every stalk in our divine park at Vyra…”
Lepidoptera and his childhood home were inseparable to Nabokov, an idea he explored in his letters and his science. Especially in his autobiography, Speak, Memory (1951), he identifies Vyra as the place where his love for the butterfly began. It was at Vyra that his father, a liberal-minded nobleman, taught him the correct flick of the wrist required to decisively push the net over a fluttering insect.
Ananya Bhattacharyya in the New York Times:
At the heart of the fracas surrounding the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York who promised to pay her housekeeper $9.75 per hour, in compliance with United States labor rules, but instead paid her $3.31 per hour, is India’s dirty secret: One segment of the Indian population routinely exploits another, and the country’s labor laws allow gross mistreatment of domestic workers.
India is furious that the diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, was strip-searched and kept in a cell in New York with criminals. Retaliation from the newly assertive but otherwise bureaucracy-ridden nation was swift. American diplomats were stripped of identity cards granting them diplomatic benefits, and security barriers surrounding the American Embassy in New Delhi were hauled away. A former finance minister suggested that India respond by arresting same-sex partners of American diplomats, since the Indian Supreme Court recently upheld a section of a Colonial-era law that criminalizes homosexuality.
Notwithstanding legitimate Indian concerns about whether American marshals used correct protocol in the way they treated a diplomat, the truth is that India is party to an exploitative system that needs to be scrutinized.
Kenan Malik in Pandaemonium:
Which book am I most looking forward to in 2014? Perhaps, surprisingly, Marilynne Robinson’s forthcoming novel, Lila. Robinson’s life and writing is suffused with religious faith, indeed with a strong-souled Calvinism (though, improbably, she tends to see John Calvin more as a kind of Erasmus-like humanist than as the firebrand preacher who railed against the human race as constituting a ‘teeming horde of infamies’). Her most celebrated collection of essays, The Death of Adam, she describes as ‘contrarian in method and spirit’. It is an unfashionably sturdy defence of Calvinism. It is an equally unfashionable call to arms against cynicism:
When a good man or woman stumbles, we say, ‘I knew it all along,’ and when a bad one has a gracious moment, we sneer at the hypocrisy. It is as if there is nothing to mourn or to admire, only a hidden narrative now and then apparent through the false, surface narrative. And the hidden narrative, because it is ugly and sinister, is therefore true.
We have been, Robinson observes acutely, ‘launched on a great campaign to deromanticize everything, even while we are eager to insist that more or less everything that matters is a romance’. It is this combination of cynicism and sentimentality that oozes through much of contemporary life and against which Robinson bears arms.
There is much on which I disagree with Robinson, for there is a great distance between her view of the world and mine. And yet even in her wrongness she often possesses the power to illuminate and to make you question your certainties. And even in her wrongness the grace of her writing makes reading both a pleasure and an education.
George Plimpton interviews WS in The Paris Review:
STYRON : Not really. I get moments of alarm. Not long ago I received in the mail a doctoral thesis entitled “Sophie’s Choice: A Jungian Perspective,” which I sat down to read. It was quite a long document. In the first paragraph it said, In this thesis my point of reference throughout will be the Alan J. Pakula movie of Sophie’s Choice. There was a footnote, which I swear to you said, Where the movie is obscure I will refer to William Styron’s novel for clarification. This idiocy laid a pall over my life for a dark brief time because it brought back all these bugaboos we have about the written word. But in the nineteenth century they said that the railroads were going to jeopardize the written word; in the 1920s they said that the appearance of sound movies was guaranteed to drive novels into purdah; then later, television. All of these means of communication have existed happily side by side and parallel with writing. I don’t think for a minute that literature is going to perish. Marshall McLuhan’s prophecy of forty years ago simply didn’t pan out. Even the Internet and the idea of the electronic book reinforces my belief—they will not threaten the written word but actually complement writing, and perhaps even ultimately enhance it.
Some persons just by staying alive cause us discomfort. Such a man does not harm us, does not threaten us, shows us no hidden knife, does not snatch the gold-locket off a wife’s neck. He just keeps living. Year after year, through winter-summer-rain, he survives people’s apathy, pelting of brickbats and hot water. We think—it would be better if he died! May we not have to see his face again after tomorrow! But alas! The next day, too, we see him at the bend of the road, by the side of the Shiva temple, close to the railway-platform—just by staying alive, like a sleeping landmine, causing us discomfort!
by Angshuman Kar
from Nasho Square Feeter Jadukar
publisher: Saptarshi Prakashan, Kolkata, 2006