"The right loves genetic explanations for poverty or mental illness," claims Oliver James. The problem, he says, is that a decade of scientific research does not support their views, and that genes may never explain most psychiatric disorders and mental illnesses:
When the map of the human genome was presented to the world in 2001, psychiatrists had high hopes for it. Itemising all our genes would surely provide molecular evidence that the main cause of mental illness was genetic – something psychiatrists had long believed. Drug companies were wetting their lips at the prospect of massive profits from unique potions for every idiosyncrasy.
But a decade later, unnoticed by the media, the human genome project has not delivered what the psychiatrists hoped: we now know that genes play little part in why one sibling, social class or ethnic group is more likely to suffer mental health problems than another. ... Another theory was that genes create vulnerabilities. For example, it was thought that people with a particular gene variant were more likely to become depressed if they were maltreated as children. This also now looks unlikely.
This February's editorial of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry was entitled "It's the environment, stupid!". The author, Edmund Sonuga-Barke, stated that "serious science is now more than ever focused on the power of the environment … all but the most dogged of genetic determinists have revised their view".
More here (via Louise Gordon). The article has an odd claim attributed to Venter, about 30,000 genes not being enough. That and more, I think, are clarified in this brisk and entertaining 2007 lecture by Dr. Gregory Forbes on the "genes vs. environment vs. free will" debate.
We started out with moral sentiments and intuitions, which is also where we find the greatest continuity with other primates. Rather than having developed morality from scratch, we received a huge helping hand from our background as social animals. ...
At this point, religion comes in ... While I do consider religious institutions and their representatives — popes, bishops, mega-preachers, ayatollahs, and rabbis — fair game for criticism, what good could come from insulting individuals who find value in religion? And more pertinently, what alternative does science have to offer? Science is not in the business of spelling out the meaning of life and even less in telling us how to live our lives. We, scientists, are good at finding out why things are the way they are, or how things work, and I do believe that biology can help us understand what kind of animals we are and why our morality looks the way it does. But to go from there to offering moral guidance seems a stretch.
Even the staunchest atheist growing up in Western society cannot avoid having absorbed the basic tenets of Christian morality. Our societies are steeped in it: everything we have accomplished over the centuries, even science, developed either hand in hand with or in opposition to religion, but never separately. It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion. It would require a visit to a human culture that is not now and never was religious. That such cultures do not exist should give us pause.
... what would happen if we were able to excise religion from society? I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good. Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion.
I had meant to post some pictures of my Loire Valley vacation with Usha's family in August, along with a few travel impressions. Given that I have made no progress with the latter, I'm decoupling the two and posting the pictures for y'all to browse. This vacation was different from my usual ones: it was not planned by me, relatively expensive, and in a group. But it was perfectly enjoyable, largely because Usha's family is pretty cool (and I feel fortunate to be part of it), but also because the six-day, sixty-mile walk through the countryside was very pleasant; the chateaus were impressive; the local bread, wine, and cheese didn't disappoint either. Yummy food shots from four restaurants included.
Today, dear reader, is also the fourth anniversay of Shunya's Notes. Thanks for reading!
According to Lera Boroditsky, "the languages we speak not only reflect or express our thoughts, but also shape the very thoughts we wish to express. The structures that exist in our languages profoundly shape how we construct reality, and help make us as smart and sophisticated as we are." As one familiar with multiple languages, I am quite sympathetic to this viewpoint. This is largely why every vanishing language feels like a great loss to me. In an exchange with Joshua Knobe, Ms. Boroditsky sheds more light on the topic (via Cognition and Culture).
Last Hippie Standing is a documentary on Goa, "the hippie paradise of the 60s", with interesting footage from that period, including their wild parties and the Anjuna flea market. It tracks down and interviews some who never went back. It also looks at the more recent crop of ravers, hipsters, and vacation hippies who now visit Goa (45 mins; see video in larger format; via Leanne Ogasawara).
I also spotted a book by Arun Saldanha, Goa Trance and the Viscosity of Race, whose description looks promising. That said, his related article, White Ravers in a Goan Village, starts out well but then descends into jargon and obscure invocations of theory—the kind of stuff that gives contemporary academic writing on culture a bad name among general readers.
Also check out Lost in Goa, a story about a few Israelis in Goa, including how they think and relate to India. Israelies visit in large numbers after their mandatory military duty. "India is a decompression chamber that keeps these young Israelis from imploding and revivifies them so that they can rebuild themselves and function in the civilian world." The story is in three parts: one, two, three (via Louise Gordon).
The Kogi are relics of a pre-Columbian civilization, one of very few peoples who have remained separate from the European influences that have shaped the history of South America. They continue to live in austere traditional homes and wear only their homespun cotton clothes, as they have done for unknown generations. They follow their ancient belief system, in which Aluna is the mystical world in which reality is conceived. Their homeland, a great massif in coastal Columbia called Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, is rugged and remote enough to have preserved their isolation for hundreds of years.
This same geography is also responsible for providing the Kogi with a unique view of environmental degradation and climate change, since their mountains, which rise from the tropical waters of the Caribbean shoreline to over 18,000 feet (5,700 m), are home to nearly every type of ecological zone in the world. To the Kogi, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the heart of the world, and their spiritual leaders, Mamos, have been entrusted with its care. But over these recent decades they have witnessed so much change and destruction that they—who call themselves Elder Brothers to the Younger Brother of the West—feel they must step forth and engage with the West in order to impart a message, a warning, a lesson: our way of life is destroying the world, and we must learn to see the earth in a new way.
They have decided that the best way to communicate may be through the West's medium of choice: film. And to this end, they have teamed with documentary filmmaker Alan Ereira to make a documentary in which the Kogi hope to show us the way they see the world. As it's described on the film's website:
In the face of the approaching apocalypse, they will take us on a perilous journey into the mysteries of their sacred places to change our understanding of reality. It is a journey encountering the dangers, the terrors, the power of the force that they perceive as driving reality, and which is now being torn apart and about to be released not as benevolent life, but as savage chaos. This is an epic tale in which the struggles of other-worldly heroes, invoked in fearsome masked and costumed rituals, are interwoven with the contemporary crisis. They intend to show that their work has visible and measurable results, that they really are taking care of the entire Earth.
They have even trained an indigenous film crew to work alongside the professionals, so that what the modern film crew cannot see may appear to the camera. The Mamos (spiritual leaders) understand that they have to do this because humanity is wantonly destroying sacred sites for profit. They want to show how and why the resulting eruption of chaotic cosmic energy causes climate change, epidemics of new diseases, geological instability and a relentless increase in murderous conflict.
The Kogi have warned us of climate change once before, in an earlier documentary initiated by Ereira for British television in 1990. Ereira's film, From the Heart of the World: The Elder Brothers' Warning, seems to have come before it's time, since, as the Kogi realized, we didn't listen to them the first time.
What are Jacinto's first impressions of our society?
"The first thing that is noticeable to me is that this is still the world," he says. "What's visible is construction, what you have made. This is not something we, the Kogi, are used to seeing. You give precedence to the use of a thing rather than its source. That's the intellectual error. Ultimately, it's all nature." From Jacinto's viewpoint, when we glance at a car we might assess its cost and the status conferred on its driver. We don't recognise it as a clever piece of engineering of resources that once lay inside the earth.
The Kogi are witnessing some of this extraction first hand. Coal mining in the Sierra Nevada has boomed in recent decades (fuelled in part by the demand for cheap foreign coal in post-miners' strike Britain). Over centuries, they survived the wars waged on them by retreating further into the mountains, through dense rainforest and cloud forest dubbed "El Infierno" by settlers. There are still no roads to the Kogi's traditional settlements (Jacinto's home does not exist on official maps), but global capitalism is slowly conquering the Kogi's isolation.
Why is little brother so greedy? Jacinto chuckles and rubs his gourd, a sign he is thinking. (The mushroom shaped cap on the gourd, which men carry to symbolise their connection with the womb, is a sign of his accumulated thought.) "Habit," he says, finally. "That ambition to have more doesn't have a framework. It's just a drive to accumulate. The habit is a competitive one. 'What everyone else has I must have too, otherwise everyone else has power over me.' The consequences are evident, but it doesn't seem obvious to you," Jacinto says. "You can go and live in space, that's fine, but you don't seem to be able to go back to the understanding of how to live harmoniously with the earth. That's something you've forgotten."
Yet the Kogi hope we can still reconnect, by seeing the value they place on thinking and their spiritual world. "When you understand that, you begin to understand yourself a bit more," Jacinto says. "Originally, the great mama brought us into being so we would be guardians of nature. You, the little brother, was given this knowledge of how to treat the earth and the water and the air. At some point there was divergence and you, the little brother, went on a different path.
"We, by example, don't live like you do. You come to the Sierra, there are no factories, there is no industrial agriculture. Now we really want you to look at the images of how we live."
Excerpts from an article on the dark side of homeownership in America:
In today's economy, mortgages can be a millstone. That's new. Time was, workers expected to stay with one company for decades and see a steady rise in annual income. But these days, being in the workforce is a game of constant reinvention. Workers expect to change companies, even professions, multiple times. Households are much more likely now than in the past to see income dip dramatically ... For homeowners, quickly adapting to new financial realities is rarely an option. Homeownership may provide a sense of stability to families, but stability in today's economy isn't always a virtue. What families need in order to maintain income is the flexibility that homeownership works against....
In the U.S., homeownership typically goes with living in single-family detached dwellings. Eighty-nine percent of stand-alone houses are owned, while just 17% of apartments are. There is a logic to this: for a landlord, an apartment building provides an economy of scale that a suburban development doesn't. But that means that a system that glorifies and subsidizes homeownership pushes people to live in suburbs, where they, or developers, can find more-affordable patches of land on which to build. Of course, it's fine to choose to live miles from a city, but that choice comes with broader consequences. People who live in detached houses use 49% more energy ... than people who live in buildings with five or more apartments ... Suburban living requires driving a car practically everywhere, which in turn means that U.S. energy policy prioritizes cheap oil — whatever the geopolitical and environmental consequences....
[Tax breaks and subsidies to homeowners are not] fair: there are no blanket subsidies for the tens of millions of American families that rent either because they choose to or because they have to. Nor are these tax breaks efficient economic policy ... The U.K. got rid of its mortgage-interest deduction years ago, and its homeownership rate is still higher than that of the U.S. ... More unsettling yet is the way the mortgage-interest tax deduction entices people to borrow big: you get the deduction for the interest on the loan, not for owning the house or paying down the debt. ... a self-described "pro-ownership guy," recalls how his accountant once suggested he buy a larger house in order to get a better deduction ... In Switzerland, one of the world's richest nations, two-thirds of all families rent.