Brain Pickings

Page 6

The Optimism of the Oyster

From the rudiments of consciousness to the redemptions of conservation, with a side of existential reckoning.

The Optimism of the Oyster

“Obviously, if you don’t love life, you can’t enjoy an oyster,” Eleanor Clark wrote in the book that won her the National Book Award, published exactly 100 years after On the Origin of Species. For Darwin, these strange and quietly wondrous creatures furnished a different kind of enjoyment. He had come under their spell as a college student, accompanying two of his mentors as they waded into tidal pools to collect oyster specimens. By twenty-five, having fused the enchantment of oysters with his growing passion for the deep time of geology, he was exulting to a friend:

When puzzling about stratifications, etc., I feel inclined to cry “a fig for your big oysters, and your bigger megatheriums” [extinct prehistoric giant sloths].

As natural history, evolution, and anatomy began revealing the unsuspected complexity of this organism long perceived as incredibly simple — and, in consequence, treated more like a lifeless rock than like a creature — to “enjoy” an oyster in the culinary sense became a less carefree endeavor. The biologist and anatomist T.H. Huxley — Darwin’s greatest champion against the first tidal wave of dogmatic attacks on evolutionary theory — captured the dismantling of the convenient delusion:

I suppose that when the sapid and slippery morsel — which is gone like a flash of gustatory summer lightning — glides along the palate, few people imagine that they are swallowing a piece of machinery (and going machinery too) greatly more complicated than a watch.

Art from “The Oyster: A Popular Summary of a Scientific Study,” 1891. (Available as face mask, and stationery cards, benefitting the Billion Oyster Project.)

From the dawning scientific knowledge of the oyster, a different kind of enjoyment arose — a kind consonant with Richard Feynman’s Ode to a Flower. Here was a creature at once rugged and tender, like life itself. Here was an emissary of a primordial Earth that carries the ancestral root of consciousness — that crucible of our capacity for enjoyment — in its tiny brain and nervous system fringed with a dark mantle of myriad nerve endings ceaselessly scanning the environment for threat and dispatching signals to the brain to slam the shell shut.

Out of such simplicity arose cognition, consciousness, the emotional machinery of love. All these billions of years of evolution, and still the same impulse animates our days and our songs — what to seal in, what to keep out, what to trust.

Art from “The Oyster: A Popular Summary of a Scientific Study,” 1891. (Available as a print, a face mask, and stationery cards, benefitting the Billion Oyster Project.)

But the history of our species is the history of convenient delusions — those willful blindnesses that allow us to live with ourselves: By the end of the nineteenth century, oysters were being sold by the bushel at three for a penny and eaten by the dozen at fine restaurants and street foodcarts alike. An entire industry of shuckers employed a whole new labor force. There were oyster-eating championships and champions who could open and eat 100 oysters in three minutes. Travelers remarked that in New York, “oysters in every size and variety of flavor are as cheap as oranges are at Havana.”

By the final decade of the century, early voices of dissent and ecological wakefulness were being raised. In the 1891 book The Oyster: A Popular Summary of a Scientific Study, the Johns Hopkins University zoologist William K. Brooks cautioned:

The fact, which for many years we strove to hide even from ourselves, [is] that our indifference and lack of foresight, and our blind trust in our natural advantages, have brought this grand inheritance to the verge of ruin. Unfortunately this is now so clear that it can no longer be hidden from sight nor explained away, and every one knows that, proud as our citizens once were of our birthright in our oyster-beds, we will be unable to give to our children any remnant of our patrimony unless the whole oyster industry is reformed without delay. We have wasted our inheritance by improvidence and mismanagement and blind confidence.

Gilded oyster from the cover of “The Oyster: A Popular Summary of a Scientific Study,” 1891. (Available as a print, a face mask, and stationery cards, benefitting the Billion Oyster Project.)

More than a century later, with the Atlantic Coast oyster beds overfished to the brink of ruin and entire marine ecosystems devastated by pollution, Mark Kurlansky picks up the admonition and hones it on an edge of optimism in his fascinating book The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell (public library). Lamenting that “the only thing New Yorkers ignore more than nature is history” — a statement as true if we substituted “Americans” (as a national identity) or “modern humans” (as a civilizational identity) for “New Yorkers” — he writes:

The history of New York oysters is a history of New York itself — its wealth, its strength, its excitement, its greed, its thoughtlessness, its destructiveness, its blindness and — as any New Yorker will tell you — its filth. This is the history of the trashing of New York, the killing of its great estuary.

New York is a city that does not plan; it creates situations and then deals with them. Most of its history is one of greedily grabbing beautiful things, destroying them, being outraged about the conditions, tearing them down, then building something else even further from nature’s intention in their place.

Writing nearly a decade before the founding of the Billion Oyster Project — one of the most inspired and inspiring restoration, conservation, and ecological education endeavors of our time — Kurlansky regards the extraordinary resilience of the oyster against a century of overfishing and pollution to envision a future in which the restoration of the oyster is both a function of and a catalyst for the restoration of our humbler and more harmonious relationship with the natural world:

A fresh oyster from a clean sea fills the palate with the taste of all the excitement and beauty — the essence — of the ocean. If the water is not pure, that, too, can be tasted in the oyster. So if someday New Yorkers can once again wander into their estuary, pluck a bivalve, and taste the estuary of the Hudson in all the “freshness and sweetness” that was once there, the cataclysm humans have unleashed on New York will have been at last undone.

For a lovely real-life helping of actionable optimism, join me in supporting the noble work of the Billion Oyster Project with a donation, then revisit the great marine biologist and epoch-making voice of ecological conscience Rachel Carson on science as a portal to our spiritual bond with nature and how the ocean illuminates the meaning of life.

BP

José Ortega y Gasset on the True Meaning and Measure of Intelligence

“Intelligence asserts itself above all not in art, nor in science, but in intuition of life.”

José Ortega y Gasset on the True Meaning and Measure of Intelligence

In her spare, stunning poem “Optimism,” Jane Hirshfield reverences the “blind intelligence” by which a tree relentlessly orients toward the light to survive — a kind of unreasoning, life-hungry intuition distinctly different from the way we humans define and measure our own intelligence, our measurements and definitions mired in myriad cultural biases and blind spots. The Western model of intelligence, with its fixation on the logical-mathematical mind, is in some deep sense the ultimate “blind intelligence,” dappled with blind spots that obscure so much of the raw, unmediated attentiveness to life that make it not only survivable but worth living.

That is what the great Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (May 9, 1883–October 18, 1955) explores in a wonderful aside toward the end of On Love: Aspects of a Single Theme (public library) — the gauntlet he throws at our culturally inherited, unexamined ideas about love and what makes us who we are.

Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Lamenting the “extremely small” number of truly intelligent people, Ortega hastens to anchor the lament in a definition of intelligence rooted not in the intellectual snobbery of Western high culture, which equates intelligence with erudition and acumen in the narrow domain of verbal-mathematical ability, but in something more akin to the Eastern notion of mindfulness — the sort of unclouded perception and clarity of consciousness at the heart of Buddha-nature and Zen-mind. In consonance with Simone de Beauvoir’s insistence that intelligence “is nothing else but the presence which is attentive to the world and to itself,” Ortega writes:

By intelligence I mean only that the mind react to happenings with a certain sharpness and precision, that the radish not be perpetually seized by its leaves, that the gray not be confused with brown and, above all, that objects in front of one be seen with a little exactness and accuracy, without supplanting sight by mechanically repeated words.

Echoing Sherwood Anderson’s observation that “most people remain all of their lives in a stupor,” Ortega rues that most people spend most of their lives with the radish fully engulfed by the leaves:

Ordinarily, one has the impression of living amid somnambulists who advance through life buried in an hermetic sleep from which it is impossible to stir them in order to make them aware of their surroundings.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Observing how much more influenced by our environment and cultural milieu we are than we realize — something reflected in the original Latin use of the word genius in the phrase genius loci, “the spirit of a place” — and how much our habits sculpt our fate, he adds:

Probably, humanity has almost always lived in this somnambulistic state in which ideas are not a wide-awake, conscious reaction to things, but a blind, automatic habit, drawn from a repertory of formulae which the atmosphere infuses into the individual.

Much of the erudition we mistake for intelligence is the product of this trance, intoxicated with the atmosphere of ideologies invisible to those living under the dome of their time and place — we need only look at eugenics and phrenology, once regarded as pinnacles of science, to shudder with the fact of such culturally constructed fictions. Half a century before Siddhartha Mukherjee confronted these damaging “slips between biology and culture” in his superb inquiry into the dark cultural history of IQ and why we cannot measure intelligence, Ortega writes:

It is undeniable that a large pat of science and literature has also been produced in a somnambulistic trance; that is to say, by creatures who are not at all intelligent… Science and literature, as such, do not imply perspicacity; but, undoubtedly, their cultivation is a stimulant which favors the awakening of the mind and preserves it in that luminous state of alertness which constitutes intelligence. The difference between the intelligent person and the fool is, after all, that the former lives on guard against their own foolishness, recognizes it as soon as it appears, and strives to eliminate it, whereas the fool enchantedly surrenders to their foolishness without reservations.

Art from the 19th-century French physics textbook Les monde physique. (Available as a print, as stationery cards, and as a face mask.)

Half a millennium after the polymathic physicist, philosopher, inventor, and mathematician Blaise Pascal considered the limits of the logical mind against intuition, and a generation before philosopher Martha Nussbaum made her penetrating case for the intelligence of emotions, Ortega offers an antidote to the common cultural snobbery about what intelligence means — the kind of snobbery particularly virulent among the privileged and overeducated. Echoing Henri Bergson’s perceptive and paradoxical observation that “the intellect is characterized by a natural inability to comprehend life,” he writes:

I consider it a grave misfortune if, in any period or nation, intelligence remains, practically speaking, reduced to the limits of the intellectual. Intelligence asserts itself above all not in art, nor in science, but in intuition of life. The intellectual, however, barely lives; they are usually a person with poverty of intuition; their acts in the world are few and they have very little knowledge of [love], [work], pleasure, and passion. They lead an abstract existence, and can barely throw a morsel of authentic live meat to the sharp-pointed teeth of intellect.

Complement with Proust on how our intellect blinds us to the wisdom of the heart, then revisit Ortega’s sweeping meditation on love, attention, and the invisible architecture of our being, in the final pages of which he shines this sidewise gleam on intelligence.

BP

The Truelove: Poet and Philosopher David Whyte on Reaching Beyond Our Limiting Beliefs About What We Deserve

“if you wanted to drown you could, but you don’t because finally after all this struggle and all these years you simply don’t want to any more, you’ve simply had enough of drowning and you want to live and you want to love”

The Truelove: Poet and Philosopher David Whyte on Reaching Beyond Our Limiting Beliefs About What We Deserve

Few things limit us more profoundly than our own beliefs about what we deserve, and few things liberate us more powerfully than daring to broaden our locus of possibility and self-permission for happiness. The stories we tell ourselves about what we are worthy or unworthy of — from the small luxuries of naps and watermelon to the grandest luxury of a passionate creative calling or a large and possible love — are the stories that shape our lives. Bruce Lee knew this when he admonished that “you will never get any more out of life than you expect,” James Baldwin knew it when he admonished that “you’ve got to tell the world how to treat you [because] if the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble,” and Viktor Frankl embodied this in his impassioned insistence on saying “yes” to life.

The more vulnerable-making the endeavor, the more reflexive the limitation and the more redemptive the liberation.

That difficult, delicate, triumphal pivot from self-limitation to self-liberation in the most vulnerable-making of human undertakings — love — is what poet and philosopher David Whyte, who thinks deeply about these questions of courage and love, maps out in his stunning poem “The Truelove,” found in his book The Sea in You: Twenty Poems of Requited and Unrequited Love (public library) and read here, by David’s kind assent to my invitation, in his sonorous Irish-tinted English voice, in his singular style of echoing lines to let them reverberate more richly:

THE TRUELOVE
by David Whyte

There is a faith in loving fiercely
the one who is rightfully yours,
especially if you have
waited years and especially
if part of you never believed
you could deserve this
loved and beckoning hand
held out to you this way.

I am thinking of faith now
and the testaments of loneliness
and what we feel we are
worthy of in this world.

Years ago in the Hebrides,
I remember an old man
who walked every morning
on the grey stones
to the shore of baying seals,
who would press his hat
to his chest in the blustering
salt wind and say his prayer
to the turbulent Jesus
hidden in the water,

and I think of the story
of the storm and everyone
waking and seeing
the distant
yet familiar figure
far across the water
calling to them

and how we are all
preparing for that
abrupt waking,
and that calling,
and that moment
we have to say yes,
except it will
not come so grandly
so Biblically
but more subtly
and intimately in the face
of the one you know
you have to love

so that when
we finally step out of the boat
toward them, we find
everything holds
us, and everything confirms
our courage, and if you wanted
to drown you could,
but you don’t
because finally
after all this struggle
and all these years
you simply don’t want to
any more
you’ve simply had enough
of drowning
and you want to live and you
want to love and you will
walk across any territory
and any darkness
however fluid and however
dangerous to take the
one hand you know
belongs in yours.

“The Truelove” appears in the short, splendid course of poem-anchored contemplative practices David guides for neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris’s Waking Up meditation toolkit, in which he reads each poem, offers an intimate tour of the landscape of experience from which it arose, and reflects on the broader existential quickenings it invites.

Couple this generous gift of a poem with “Sometimes” — David’s perspectival poem about living into the questions of our becoming, also part of Waking Up — then revisit the Noble-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska on great love and James Baldwin, who believed that poet are “the only people who know the truth about us” — on love and the illusion of choice.

BP

Richard Dawkins on the Luckiness of Death

“The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia.”

Richard Dawkins on the Luckiness of Death

We are born into the certitude of our eventual death. Every once in a while, something — perhaps an encounter with a robin’s egg, perhaps a poem — staggers us with the awful, awe-filled wonder of aliveness, the sheer luck of it against the overwhelming cosmic odds of nonexistence. But alloyed with the awe is always the half-conscious grief that one day the light of consciousness will be extinguished. It is a heavy gift to hold, this doomed delirium of aliveness. It is also a buoyant gladness, if we are limber enough to stretch into the cosmic perspective that does not come naturally to us small, Earth-bound bipeds corticed with tender self-importance.

Consider this.

For each of us, one thing is true: Had any one variable been ever so subtly different — had your parents mated on a different day or at a different altitude, had the early universe cooled a fraction of a second faster after the Big Bang, you would not exist as the particular constellation of atoms configuring the particular consciousness that makes you you. Because chance plays such dice with the universe, and because the die dictates that the vast majority of energy and matter never had the luck of cohering into this doomed delirium of aliveness, it is, in some profound and practical sense, a staggering privilege to die — one that betokens the privilege of having lived. To lament death, then, is to lament our luck, for any negation of the possibility of death is a negation of the improbable miracle of life, a wish for there to be nothing to do the dying — nothing to have partaken of the beautiful, bittersweet temporality of aliveness.

Possible Certainties. Photograph by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

It is easier to bend the intuitive mind into this correct but counterintuitive perspective while walking in a cemetery at the height of summer. Doing this very thing while thinking these very thoughts, I was reminded of a passage from one of the most lucid and lens-clearing books written this side of Darwin — Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (public library) by the visionary and often controversial (which is the social fate of every visionary) British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

A civilization after Marcus Aurelius celebrated mortality as the key to living fully, half a millennium after Montaigne observed that “to lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago,” and a scientific epoch after Darwin contemplated the meaning of mortality in the wake of his beloved daughter’s death, Dawkins writes:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?

Complement with astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson’s exquisite “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” Nick Cave on grief as a portal to aliveness, and Christopher Hitchens on how to live with our mortality, then revisit the science of how alive you really are, examined through the curious lens of trees and Alan Turing.

BP

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