05 June 2008

Where have all the brain cells gone?

In 1969, the Maurer family, including 16-year-old Johan, moved from the center of Evanston, Illinois, to the city's northwest corner, just a few blocks from Skokie to the east and Wilmette to the north.

(Fourteen-year-old Ellen was not around for the move; she was in foster care in Ann Arbor, Michigan.)

Our next-door neighbors to the north were the Blackwells. In my own family, alcohol was king; when I needed a break, the Blackwells quietly welcomed me into their home.

Eugene Blackwell had an MBA from the University of Chicago and spent a lifetime in advertising and newspapers. He had an insatiable appetite for ideas, as I found when I started exploring his library. He encouraged me to take home books from his library and--best of all--report back to him on what I found.

These days, as we've been preparing our house for the rental market, I've come across a lot of things I've not seen for years. One of these was the spiral-bound notebook in which I kept track of my reading for Eugene Blackwell. I'm really impressed by my 16-year-old self--all the more so since I am not sure my brain has truly kept up. Back then, I seem to have devoured books that now would take me a lot longer to read. Where have all the brain cells gone? But as I follow my own sons' reading patterns with admiration, it's nice to take a bit of credit for what I might have passed on.

Here are some of the books I excerpted in my Blackwell notebook. They probably reveal less about me than about the times I grew up in, and some of the intellectual fashions of those times. After all, many of these books were the pop psychology and pop politics of their day:

Robert Ardrey, The Territorial Imperative, New York, Atheneum, 1966. Maybe the biggest single theme in my reading was war and my attempt to understand it. In 1969, I had just started to reject the militarism of my mother. Thanks to my diaries, I can trace my own evolving commitment to nonviolence, which was in turn part of my journey to Christianity. Here's one of Ardrey's passages I found noteworthy:
The fun, one might say, has gone out of the border. The concerted defense of a border by forty, fifty, or a hundred animals leaves the intruder in a condition less stimulated than stupefied. And so the more sophisticated and highly evolved among primate speciels--the great apes, the baboons, the langurs, the vervet, rhesus, and Japanese monkeys--no longer intrude but maintain each other's exclusive space by avoidance.

If this be so--and I am speculating, since we possess no fossil record of ancient behavior to confirm this evolutionary progress from defense to avoidance--then a great red question mark must overhang the human species: Why has man, with all his intellectual resources, been incapable either through intuition or instruction of absorbing a lesson so obvious to monkeys and apes? Why do we still intrude when the consequences are apt to be more painful than paying? [pp245-46]
(I can't help reflecting how alien this universal use of "man" now feels to me.)
And finally we must know that the territorial imperative--just one, it is true, of the evolutionary forces playing upon our lives--is the biological law on which we have founded our edifices of human morality. Our capacities for sacrifice, for altruism, for sympathy, for trust, for responsibilities to other than self-interest, for honesty, for charity, for friendship and love, for social amity and mutual interdependence, have evolved just as surely as the flatness of our feet, the muscularity of our buttocks, and the enlargement of our brains, out of the encounter on ancient African savannahs between the primate potential and the hominicd circumstance. Whether morality without territory is possible in man must remain as our final, unanswerable question. [p. 351]
Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation, New York, Macmillan, 1964.
I loved the fact that Arthur Koestler began his examination of the creative process with a serious look at humor. (I laboriously copied out this related chart.) But I read the many stories of creative breakthroughs with great interest, and pondered this warning:
Modern man lies isolated in his artificial environment, not because the artificial is evil as such, but because of his lack of comprehension of the forces which make it work--of the principles which relate his gadget to the forces of nature, to the universal order. It is not central heating which makes his existence "unnatural," but his refusal to take an interest in the principles behind it. By being entirely dependent on science, yet closing his mind to it, he leads the life of an urban barbarian. [p. 264]
Anthony Storr, Human Aggression, New York, Atheneum, 1968. More fodder for my fascination with war.
... I have endeavoured to make it plain that aggression is a drive as innate, as natural, and as powerful as sex, and that the theory that aggression is nothing but a response to frustration is no longer tenable in the light of biological research. It is vitally important that we finally discard the kind of futile optimism which is implicit in the frustration-aggression hypothesis, and face the fact that, in man, as in other animals, the aggressive drive is an inherited constant, of which we cannot rid ourselves, and which is absolutely necessary for survival. [p. 109]
Lt.-Gen. E.L.M. Burns, Megamurder, New York, Random House, 1966.
Mr. [Herman] Kahn points out that most Americans seem to think, rather self-righteously, that although the united States possesses in the SAC and Polaris submarines such a terrifying power of destruction, "We would never start a nuclear war." Nevertheless, he goes on relentlessly, the United States would be obliged to do exactly that, to start a nuclear exchange, if the Soviet Union should invade Western Europe with conventional forces and if the existing NATO conventional forces were unable to resist them. [p. 206]
American Anthropological Association, War: The Anthropology of Armed Conflict and Aggression, Garden City, Natural History Press, 1968. Although Eugene Blackwell's books had already prepared me to see humans at war as a biological and psychological phenomenon, not just a political one, this book War finished the job. I saw it on display in the new books section of the Evanston Public Library, and read it cover to cover in record time. Any illusion about war as a thoughtful tool, wisely wielded by intelligent leaders in full command of their motivations, was demolished by this symposium-in-print.
... The capacity for human aggression is an outcome, in part,of natural selection for heightened sentiment structures focused about self-identity and cooperative social structure. Natural selection for complex and prolonged cooperation has endowed man with greater degress of affect interplay than in other animals. These are necessary for other-commitment which develops through self-commitment. But the social and symbolic structures which permit him to perform shared tasks to insure his existence also insure frustration, pain, and group conflict. In short, groups mean conflict. [Ralph L. Holloway, Jr., p. 42]

... The main process of preparing a people for war is simply training them to participate obediently in mobilization for concerted action in emergencies. War does not require training a people to hate an external enemy. Since training for mobilization is unavoidable, and the elimination of intergroup hostility wold be irrelevant, it is clear that the prevention of war will not be accomplished either by eliminating its basis in psychological preparation or by improving human nature. Rather the problem of ensuring peace must be approached by the innovation of political and administrative safeguards that guarantee that alternative processes of conflict resolution are not interrupted by war-by-mistake. [Anthony F.C. Wallace, p. 182]
Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1961.
For many reasons, I do not believe that the twentieth century will see a disarmed world, but it may see a world government or the equivalent. Until that day arrives, it will be of great value to try to keep, indeed make, the problem of national security intellectually and diplomatically simple, and the diffusion of nuclear weapons wold seem to go exactly the wrong way. The two-power case seems both intellectually and practically more controllable than the Nth-power case. The diffusion of nuclear weapons not only complicates the over-all analytic problem, but the stakes at risk if events go badly would seem to be less in the two-power than in the Nth case. [p. 494]
Herman Kahn and Anthony J. Wiener, The Year 2000: A framework for Speculation on the Next 33 Years, New York Macmillan, 1967. Much of this book consists of lists of changes, trends, influences, social and scientific innovations, and demographic developments, along with possible wars and other cataclysms, all categorized by varying degrees of likelihood. It's fascinating to compare predictions and outcomes; and, interestingly, these Cold-War era thinkers turned out to be optimistic more often than pessimistic.
If computer capacities were to continue to increase by a factor of ten every two or three years until the end of the century (a factor between a hundred billion and ten quadrillion), then all current concepts about computer limitations will have to be reconsidered. Even if the trend continues for only the next decade or two, the improvements over current computers would be factors of thousands to millions. If we add the likely enormous improvements in input-output devices, programming and problem formulation, and better understanding of the basic phenomena being studied, manipulated, or simulated, these estimates of improvement may be wildly conservative. And even if the rate of change slows down by several factors, there would still be room in the next thirty-three years for an overall improvement of some five to ten orders of magnitude. Therefore, it is necessary to be skeptical of any sweeping but often meaningless or nonrigorous statement such as "a computer is limited by the designer--it cannot create anything he does not put in," or that "a computer cannot be truly creative or original." By the year 2000, computers are likely to match, simulate, or surpass some of man's most "human-like" intellectual abilities, including perhaps some of his aesthetic and creative capacities, in addition to having some new kinds of capabilities that human beings do not have. If it turns out that they cannot duplicate or exceed certain characteristically human capabilities, that will be one of the most important discoveries of the twentieth century. [p. 89]
Paul R. Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, New York, Ballantine Books, 1968.
Our entire economy is geared to growing population and monumental waste. Buy land and hold it; the price is sure to grow. Why? Exploding population and finite resources. Buy natural resources stocks; their price is sure to go up. Why? Exploding population and finite resources. Buy automotive or airline stocks; their price is sure to go up. Why? More people to move around. Buy baby food stocks; their price is sure to go up. Why? You guess. And so it goes. Up goes the population, and up goes that magical figure, the Gross National Product (GNP). And, as anyone who takes a close look at the glut, waste, pollution, and ugliness of America today can testify, it is well-named--as gross a product as one could wish for. We have assumed the role of the robber barons of all time. We have decided that w are the chosen people to steal all we can get of our planet's gradually stored and limited resources. To hell with future generations, and to hell with our fellow human beings today. We'll fly high now--hopefully they'll pay later. [pp.149-150]
Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy, Pocket Books, 1954. As a result of borrowing this book from Eugene Blackwell's shelf, I decided to take the experimental elective in philosophy that was offered in my last year of high school.
The mind of man (and here at last is the great thesis of Kant) is not passive wax on which experience and sensation write their absolute and yet whimsical will; nor is it a mere abstract name for the series or groups of mental states; it is an active organ which molds and coordinates sensations into ideas, an organ which transforms the chaotic multiplicity of experience into the ordered unity of thought. [p. 267]
Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture, Garden City, Doubleday, 1969. Little did I know, when I first read this book, what a fertile set of ideas it contains for Quaker dialogues on the roles of boundaries and doctrine, the shape of worship, and the constant, subtle struggle against elitism.
The truth of the matter is: no society, not even our severely secularized technocracy, can ever dispense with mystery and magical ritual. These are the very bonds of social life, the inarticulate assumptions and motivations that weave together the collective fabric of society and require periodic collective affirmations. But there is one magic that seeks to open and vitalize the mind, another that seeks to diminish and delude. There are rituals which are imposed from on high for the sake of invidious manipulation; there are other rituals in which men participate democratically for the purpose of freeing the imagination and exploring self-expression. There are mysteries which, like the mysteries of state, are no better than dirty secrets; but there are also mysteries which are encountered by the community (if such exists) in a stance of radical equality, and which are meant to be shared in for the purpose of enriching life by experiences of awe and splendor.
Norbert Wiener, God & Golem, Inc.: A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion, Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press, 1964.
As engineering techniques become more and more able to achieve human purposes, it must become more and more accustomed to formulate human purposes. In the past, a partial and inadequate view of human purposes has been relatively innocuous only because it has been accompanied by technical limitations that made it difficult for us to perform operations involving a careful evaluation of human purpose. This is only one of the many places where human impotence has hitherto shielded us from the full destructive impact of human folly. [p. 64]

Render unto man the things which are man's and unto the computer the things which are the computer's. This would seem the intelligent policy to adopt when we employ men and computers together in common undertakings.... What we need now is an independent study of systems involving both human and mechanical elements. [p. 73]
Theodore J. Gordon, The Future, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1965. Once again, the discussion of war drew my attention:
It is an oversimplification to say that the war syndrome, the battle archetype, is derived purely from the primal instinct for self-preservation. It has in it elements of group psychosis, chauvinism, pride, glory, and mysticism. Successful elimination of war must be based on a solution that satisfies the intrinsic drives that cause war.

We can look around our contemporary society for other situations which are not war, yet satisfy the same drives. Sports? Partially. Picture the frenzied support of the home team. Law? Religion? Economic competition? Three elements are missing from most of these which are present in the war situation: personal participation in support of the group, finality of decision, and personal risk. It is my contention that measures designed for total war elimination may be only temporary until a non-war solution is found which has these three elements present to a large degree, at least until evolution or education has carried us to the point where the primal archetype is no longer important. [pp.58-60]
My notebook also includes quotations from Robert M. Hutchins' The Learning Society. It ends in 1971 with two newspaper items: "Documents bare pre-Tonkin plans to hit N. Viets," by Murray Marder and Charles M. Roberts, a Washington Post article I copied from the June 14, 1971, Chicago Sun-Times; and and the full text of Judge Gurfein's decision in the New York Times/Pentagon Papers case, from the June 21, 1971, Chicago Tribune.

Rediscovering this notebook brought back a flood of memories from four decades ago. Few of those memories are more precious than time spent with Eugene Blackwell and his books. Right now we're in the process of packing up most of our books for storage--although eleven boxes have been sold to Powell's Books. What will we do to be sure the remaining books don't remain in boxes indefinitely? Will I be, in some way, a Eugene Blackwell to someone else?

Righteous links:

The Pew Forum, "Assessing a More Prominent 'Religious Left'"

I have a massive collection of Quaker Life issues. One that fell open on its way from one pile to another was the May 2000 issue with Vera Dyck's "The Healing Power of Open Worship," and my accompanying column. "No Shortage of Power."

Preach it, Fleming Rutledge!! "When God Disturbs the Peace."

I really wanted to say something to mark the occasion of Obama's crossing the primary finish line for his nomination as the Democrats' candidate for the U.S. presidency. But the Noli Irritare Leones thoughts are close to mine, and better organized.

Jeff Healey, rest in peace. (Here's his version of "How Blue Can You Get," at the 2006 Notodden Blues Festival.)

And here's Robert Nighthawk. This clip is a real time capsule, for better or for worse. Some of the best musicians sang lyrics I can barely stand to hear--this is a good example. Meanwhile, the Maxwell Street culture recorded here is all but gone, except in a few films and clips like this one.

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