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09 DECEMBER, 2011

What Does It Mean To Be Human? 200 Years of Defintions and Reflections

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What Aristotle has to do with the women’s suffrage movement, Darwin, and M. C. Escher.

Last year, we explored what it means to be human from the perspectives of three different disciplines — philosophy, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology — and that omnibus went on to become one of the most-read articles in Brain Pickings history. But the question at its heart is among the most fundamental inquiries of existence, one that has puzzled, tormented, and inspired humanity for centuries. That is exactly what Joanna Bourke (of Fear: A Cultural History fame) explores in What It Means to Be Human: Historical Reflections from the 1800s to the Present.

Decades before women sought liberation in the bicycle or their biceps, a more rudimentary liberation was at stake. The book opens with a letter penned in 1872 by an anonymous author identified simply as “An Earnest Englishwoman,” a letter titled “Are Women Animals?” by the newspaper editor who printed it:

Sir, —

Whether women are the equals of men has been endlessly debated; whether they have souls has been a moot point; but can it be too much to ask [for a definitive acknowledgement that at least they are animals?… Many hon. members may object to the proposed Bill enacting that, in statutes respecting the suffrage, 'wherever words occur which import the masculine gender they shall be held to include women;' but could any object to the insertion of a clause in another Act that 'whenever the word "animal" occur it shall be held to include women?' Suffer me, thorough your columns, to appeal to our 650 [parliamentary] representatives, and ask — Is there not one among you then who will introduce such a motion? There would then be at least an equal interdict on wanton barbarity to cat, dog, or woman…

Yours respectfully,

AN EARNEST ENGLISHWOMAN

The broader question at the heart of the Earnest Englishwoman’s outrage, of course, isn’t merely about gender — “women” could have just as easily been any other marginalized group, from non-white Europeans to non-Westerners to even children, or a delegitimized majority-politically-treated-as-minority more appropriate to our time, such as the “99 percent.” The question, really, is what entitles one to humanness.

But seeking an answer in the ideology of humanism, Bourke is careful to point out, is hasty and incomplete:

The humanist insistence on an autonomous, willful human subject capable of acting independently in the world was based on a very particular type of human. Human civilization had been forged in the image of the male, white, well-off, educated human. Humanism installed only some humans at the centre of the universe. It disparaged ‘the woman,’ ‘the subaltern’ and ‘the non-European’ even more than ‘the animal.’ As a result, it is hardly surprising that many of these groups rejected the idea of a universal and straightforward essence of ‘the human’, substituting something much more contingent, outward-facing and complex. To rephrase Simone de Beauvoir’s inspired conclusion about women, one is not born, but made, a human.

Bourke also admonishes against seeing the historical trend in paradigms about humanness as linear, as shifting “from the theological towards the rationalist and scientific” or “from humanist to post-humanist.” How, then, are we to examine the “porous boundary between the human and the animal”?

In complex and sometimes contradictory ways, the ideas, values and practices used to justify the sovereignty of a particular understanding of ‘the human’ over the rest of sentient life are what create society and social life. Perhaps the very concept of ‘culture’ is an attempt to differentiate ourselves from our ‘creatureliness,’ our fleshly vulnerability.

(Cue in 15 years of leading scientists’ meditations on “culture”.)

Bourke goes on to explore history’s varied definitions of what it means to be human, which have used a wide range of imperfect, incomplete criteria — intellectual ability, self-consciousness, private property, tool-making, language, the possession of a soul, and many more.

For Aristotle, writing in the 4th century B.C., it meant having a telos — an appropriate end or goal — and to belong to a polis where “man” could truly speak:

…the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and therefore likewise the just and the unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, or just and unjust, and the like, and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state.

In the early 17th century, René Descartes, whose famous statement “Cogito ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”) implied only humans possess minds, argued animals were “automata” — moving machines, driven by instinct alone:

Nature which acts in them according to the disposition of their organs, as one sees that a clock, which is made up of only wheels and springs can count the hours and measure time more exactly than we can with all our art.

For late 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, rationality was the litmus test for humanity, embedded in his categorical claim that the human being was “an animal endowed with the capacity of reason”:

[The human is] markedly distinguished from all other living beings by his technical predisposition for manipulating things (mechanically joined with consciousness), by his pragmatic predisposition (to use other human beings skillfully for his purposes), and by the moral predisposition in his being (to treat himself and others according to the principle of freedom under the laws.)

In The Descent of Man, Darwin reflected:

The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind. We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals.

(For more on Darwin’s fascinating studies of emotion, don’t forget Darwin’s Camera.)

Darwin’s concern was echoed quantitatively by Jared Diamond in 1990s when, in The Third Chimpanzee, he wondered how the 2.9% genetic difference between two kids of birds or the 2.2% difference between two gibbons made for a different species, but the 1.6% difference between humans and chimpanzees makes a different genus.

In the 1930s, Bertrand Lloyd, who penned Humanitarianism and Freedom, observed a difficult paradox of any definition:

Deny reason to animals, and you must equally deny it to infants; affirm the existence of an immortal soul in your baby or yourself, and you must at least have the grace to allow something of the kind to your dog.

In 2001, Jacques Derrida articulated a similar concern:

None of the traits by which the most authorized philosophy or culture has thought it possible to recognize this ‘proper of man’ — none of them is, in all rigor, the exclusive reserve of what we humans call human. Either because some animals also possess such traits, or because man does not possess it as surely as is claimed.

A Möbius strip, from a 1963 poster of the woodcut by M. C. Escher: 'Which side of the strip are the ants walking on?'

M. C. Escher's 'Möbius Strip 11' © The M. C. Escher Company -- Holland

Curiously, Bourke uses the Möbius strip as the perfect metaphor for deconstructing the human vs. animal dilemma. Just as the one-sided surface of the strip has “no inside or outside; no beginning or end; no single point of entry or exit; no hierarchical ladder to clamber up or slide down,” so “the boundaries of the human and the animal turn out to be as entwined and indistinguishable as the inner and outer sides of a Möbius strip.” Bourke points to Derrida’s definition as the most rewarding, calling him “the philosopher of the Möbius strip.”

Ultimately, What It Means to Be Human is less an answer than it is an invitation to a series of questions, questions about who and what we are as a species, as souls, and as nodes in a larger complex ecosystem of sentient beings. As Bourke poetically puts it,

Erasing the awe-inspiring variety of sentient life impoverishes all our lives.

And whether this lens applies to animals or social stereotypes, one thing is certain: At a time when the need to celebrate both our shared humanity and our meaningful differences is all the more painfully evident, the question of what makes us human becomes not one of philosophy alone but also of politics, justice, identity, and every fiber of existence that lies between.

HT my mind on books

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08 DECEMBER, 2011

How the “Most Beautiful Woman in the World” Invented a System for Remote-Controlling Torpedoes

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“When you talk to a sympathetic mind about technology, gender, age and experience disappear completely.”

In 1937, the dinner table of Fritz Mandl — an arms dealer who sold to both sides during the Spanish Civil War and the third richest man in Austria — entertained high-ranking Nazi officials who chatted about the newest munitions technologies. Mandl’s wife, a twenty-four-year-old former movie star, whom he respected but also claimed “didn’t know A from Z,” sat quietly listening.

Hedy Kiestler, whose parents were assimilated Jews, and who would be rechristened one year later by Louis B. Meyer as Hedy Lamarr, wanted to escape to Hollywood and return to the screen. From these dinner parties, she knew about about submarines and wire-guided torpedoes, about the multiple frequencies used to guide bombs. She knew that she had present herself as the glamorous wife of an arms dealer. And she knew that in order to leave her husband, she would have to take a good amount of this information with her.

Richard Rhodes’s fascinating new book Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, explores a golden age of creativity among artists in Europe and America, whose job was to entertain but who were inclined to something more, and the war’s effect on these brilliant, frustrated exiles.

An MGM studio portrait of Hedy Lamarr, 1938

Rhodes, author of four books about the creation of the atomic bomb, intersects Hedy’s story with that of American composer George Antheil, who lived during the 1920s with his wife in Paris above the newly opened Shakespeare & Co, and who could count among his friends Man Ray, Ezra Pound, Louise Bryant, and Igor Stravinsky. When Antheil attended the premiere of Stravinsky’s Les Noces, the composer invited him afterward to a player piano factory, where he wished to have his work punched out for posterity. There, Antheil conceived of a grand composition for sixteen player pianos, bells, sirens, and several airplane propellers, which he called his Ballet mecanique. When he premiered the work in the US, the avant-garde composition proved a disaster.

Composer George Antheil during the 1920s in Paris, when he was living above the newly founded Shakespeare & Co with his wife.

Antheil and his wife decamped for Hollywood, where he attempted to write for the screen. When Antheil met Hedy, now bona fide movie star, in the summer of 1940 at a dinner held by costume designer Adrian, they began talking about their interests in the war and their backgrounds in munitions (Antheil had been a young inspector in a Pennsylvania munitions plant during World War I.) Hedy had been horrified by the German torpedoing of two ships carrying British children to Canada to avoid the Blitz, and she had begun to think about a way to control a torpedo remotely, without detection.

Hedy had the idea for a radio that hopped frequencies and Antheil had the idea of achieving this with a coded ribbon, similar to a player piano strip. A year of phone calls, drawings on envelopes, and fiddling with models on Hedy’s living room floor produced a patent for a radio system that was virtually jam-proof, constantly skipping signals.

The patent filed in 1941 by Hedy and Antheil for a 'secret communication system'

Antheil responded to Hedy’s enthusiasm, although he thought her sometimes scatterbrained, and Hedy to Antheil’s mechanical focus as a composer. The two were always just friends and respected one another’s quirks. Antheil wrote to a friend about a new scheme Hedy was planning with Howard Hughes:

Hedy is a quite nice, but mad, girl who besides being very beautiful indeed spends most of her spare time inventing things—she’s just invented a new ‘soda pop’ which she’s patenting—of all things!”

In the center, Heddy Lamarr, with George Antheil to the right and his wife Boski Antheil to the left

Engineer Nino Amarena interviewed Hedy in 1997, and as he explains, her true interests were revealed immediately:

I never felt like I was talking to a movie star, but to a fellow inventor. When you talk to a sympathetic mind about technology, gender, age and experience disappear completely…”

Amarena went on to explain how the mind of the artist and the mind of the inventor were really quite similar:

More often than not, the inventive process follows a cascade of ideas and thoughts…unconnected and unrelated. It takes a clear state of mind…to suddenly and serendipitously see the connections between the unrelated concepts.”

(Cue in Blexbolex’s minimalist meditation on creators vs. inventors.)

Hedy’s Folly isn’t the story of a science prodigy or a movie star with a few hobbies, it’s a star-studded picaresque about two undeniably creative people whose interests and backgrounds unlocked the best in one another — the mark of true inventors.

Ed. Update: Reader Carmelo “Nino” Amarena, an inventor himself, who interviewed Lamarr in 1997 shortly before her death, writes:

Ever since I found out back in 1989 that Hedy had invented Spread Spectrum (Frequency Hopping type only), I followed her career historically until her death. My interview with her is one of the most notable memories I have of speaking with an inventor, and as luck would have it, she was underestimated for nearly 60 years on the smarts behind her beauty. One of the things she said to me in our 1997 talk was, ‘my beauty was my curse, so-to-speak, it created an impenetrable shield between people and who I really was’. I believe we all have our own version of Hedy’s curse and trying to overcome it could take a lifetime.”

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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06 DECEMBER, 2011

Evolution: The Natural History of Animal Skeletons, Stripped Down

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What a flamingo, a capybara, and a guinea pig have to do with the beginnings of recorded time.

When Gunther von Hagens put together his traveling display of half-stripped bodies playing sports, chess, fencing, riding a similarly half-stripped horse, and generally acting like their human counterparts, audiences were horrified and fascinated. Bodyworlds was gross anatomy on parade, and to some it might have felt more like body snatching than an education in muscle mass and movement. But Von Hagens, for all his showmanship, emphasized that these bodies, preserved hopefully forever, were for learning. The entertainment was incidental.

The image that opens the Patrick Gries and Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu’s stunning book Evolution takes Von Hagens horse and rider and strips it completely, bone against black in a beautiful high-resolution photograph. The result is somehow even more animated, more eternal, and the quote paired with it, from the eighteenth-century naturalist Comte de Buffon, reveals the project at hand:

Take the skeleton of a man. Tilt the pelvis, shorten the femurs, legs, and arms, elongate the feet and hands, fuse the phalanges, elongate the jaws while shortening the frontal bone, and finally elongate the spine, and the skeleton will cease to represent the remains of a man and will be the skeleton of a horse…”

Human being (Homo sapiens) riding a horse (Equus caballus)

For hundreds of years, natural history museums have offered body worlds of their very own, skeletons stripped down for study, sometimes posed in their natural habitats looking about as natural as a pork chop in the jungle.

Evolution, published originally as a large-scale coffee table book in 2007, now in a physically smaller but expanded edition, provides a stark contrast of black and white and bone. Patrick Gries’ photographs against black backgrounds transform animal skeletons into tender and lively creatures, as animated in death as they were in life, while Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu, a professor of natural science, provides a concise summary of each animal’s place in the evolutionary ladder.

Greater flamingo, Phoenicopterus ruber, Africa, America, Eurasia

These skeletons are so far beyond death that we can see in them almost a new kind of creature, where the bones are animated without muscle, and skulls manage to look at us without eyes. Gries poses the skeletons provocatively: a leopard pounces mid-air onto its prey, a piranha is about to snap, a black swan preens its missing feathers, a wood pigeon flies off the page.

Cheetah, Acynonyx jubatus, Sub-Saharan Africa

The book is organized according to the principles of, you guessed it, evolution, but de Panafieu prefers to tell the smaller stories of the parts rather than the whole: of predator and prey, of teeth and digits, of specific changes in fish, of brains and their carrying-cases, skulls.

Hermann’s tortoise, Tesudo hermanni, France

Mostly taken from the Museum of Natural History in Paris, the animals represented here are from all over the globe, land and sea, big and small: the flamingo, the guinea pig, the okapi, the capybara, the house mouse, the little owl, stunningly-ribbed snakes, sea sponges, the nurse shark, seahorses, the pilot whale, the common carp. the sacred ibis, Humbolt’s wooly monkey, and of course, the human.

Ring-tailed lemur, Eulemur mongoz, Madagascar

A rare book that is both a complete work of art and a complete work of science, Evolution dismantles the natural history museum into its parts, revealing a stripped-down animal kingdom and the commonalities at its core.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

In 2011, bringing you Brain Pickings took more than 5,000 hours. If you found any joy and stimulation here this year, please consider a modest donation.





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