Thursday, 19 April 2007

Evolution all over again

Just thought I'd link this article to my blog...

DAVID BROOKS: The Age of Darwin

Standing on a hill in East Jerusalem, amid the clash of religious and political orthodoxies, stands a musty old museum devoted to human progress. When you walk into the Rockefeller Museum with its old-fashioned display cases crowded with ancient pottery shards and oil lamps, you can begin by looking at the stone tools of early man. Then you proceed room by room through the invention of agriculture and cities, winding up finally with the statues and reliquaries of the medieval era.

What you’re really looking at is a philosophy of history. The museum was set up in 1938, when scholars still spoke confidently of mankind’s upward march from primitive culture to higher civilization. History is portrayed here as a great, unified story, with crucial pivot moments when humanity leapt forward — when people first buried their dead, when they moved from animistic faiths to polytheism, when they learned to cultivate reason and philosophy.

These days, historians hate those kinds of unifying grand narratives, and the idea that history is a march of progress upward to the present. Yet I have to confess, I loved the Rockefeller Museum. Though it’s dense and dry, it rekindled the University of Chicago flame that lingers in every graduate’s soul and got me thinking all sorts of Big Thoughts. I also had the sensation — which I used to get during those sweeping old Western Civ courses — of seeing my own time from the outside, from the vantage point of some ancient spot.

And it occurred to me that while we postmoderns say we detest all-explaining narratives, in fact a newish grand narrative has crept upon us willy-nilly and is now all around. Once the Bible shaped all conversation, then Marx, then Freud, but today Darwin is everywhere.

Scarcely a month goes by when Time or Newsweek doesn’t have a cover article on how our genes shape everything from our exercise habits to our moods. Science sections are filled with articles on how brain structure influences things like lust and learning. Neuroscientists debate the existence of God on the best-seller lists, while evolutionary theory reshapes psychology, dieting and literary criticism. Confident and exhilarated, evolutionary theorists believe they have a universal framework to explain human behavior.

Creationists reject the whole business, but they’re like the Greeks who still worshiped Athena while Plato and Aristotle practiced philosophy. The people who set the cultural tone today have coalesced around a shared understanding of humanity and its history that would have astonished people in earlier epochs.

According to this view, human beings, like all other creatures, are machines for passing along genetic code. We are driven primarily by a desire to perpetuate ourselves and our species.

The logic of evolution explains why people vie for status, form groups, fall in love and cherish their young. It holds that most everything that exists does so for a purpose. If some trait, like emotion, can cause big problems, then it must also provide bigger benefits, because nature will not expend energy on things that don’t enhance the chance of survival.

Human beings, in our current understanding, are jerry-built creatures, in which new, sophisticated faculties are piled on top of primitive earlier ones. Our genes were formed during the vast stretches when people were hunters and gatherers, and we are now only semi-adapted to the age of nuclear weapons and fast food. Furthermore, reason is not separate from emotion and the soul cannot be detached from the electrical and chemical pulses of the body. There isn’t even a single seat of authority in the brain. The mind emerges (somehow) from a complex light show of neural firings without a center or executive. We are tools of mental processes we are not even aware of.

The cosmologies of the societies represented in the Rockefeller Museum looked up toward the transcendent. Their descendants still fight over sacred spots like the Holy of Holies a short walk away. But the evolutionary society is built low to the ground. God may exist and may have set the process in motion, but he’s not active. Evolution doesn’t really lead to anything outside itself. Individuals are predisposed not by innate sinfulness or virtue, but by the epigenetic rules encoded in their cells.

Looking at contemporary America from here in Jerusalem and from the ancient past, it’s clear we’re not a postmodern society anymore. We have a grand narrative that explains behavior and gives shape to history. We have a central cosmology to embrace, argue with or unconsciously submit to.

Monday, 16 April 2007

They're heeere...

My dear parents finally made their way to Budapest! They were here last 40 years ago and as they say, some things seem to have changed, as the present lack of Stalin's statues compared to their last visit...I always knew that they did a fair amount of outdoor activities back in Krakow, but the extent to which they've been tirelessly criss-crossing this town for the past few days has been pretty amazing. Every day they come back home and tell tales of new places - places I quite often can't recall despite having been here for a bit longer than those two...

Of course, the family obsession with food has come through as well on their trip and I just wish I had had a video camera to film their arrival. My parents brought two suitcases with them - one with a few things for their stay here, the other one full of food. This is no exaggeration, the list includes 9 types of cheese, 3 loafs of bread, ham, kielbasa, fruit, two cakes, butter, a load of beloved pierogi and bigos. What else could you ask for?

A note for those in Budapest: Farger has reopened, though the main back room remains closed...

Also, I've added a new Budapest photo album to my site - feel free to check it out!

Saturday, 14 April 2007

A note

Spring has officially hit the city. Couples in need of privacy, leaves on the trees, and flip-flops have been swarming across the city for days. Budapest's tourism is back in full swing, nightclubs harder to get into, and streets fuller of aimlessly wandering foreigners. Just on my way to this cafe there was a car parade of old VW cars - I guess you just never know what Hungarians are going to come up with next. A riot, parade, or late night hour at the Rudas bath, take your pick. I'm going to miss the streets of Budapest.

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

What's it gonna be?

I'm back! Long time no write, I know. I've been getting ready to go to Poland for Easter and arranging all my other upcoming trips and keeping busy at work, among other things. I've been really missing writing though, so here I am, back and ready to roll.

I've been discussing the future of marriage, monogamy, and birth rates with a few people recently and I think there are some - let's call them interesting for a lack of a better word, trends - going on in the society today. Parts of the new realities are worrying, while others perhaps calling for more tolerance in the social circles.

To start with marriage, which is becoming less and less of a popular thing in the West, the rates of divorce and number of couples staying together for all the reasons but the emotional ones show the future of matrimony in a pretty bleak light. People not only get married later, but also get divorced and re-marry more often than ever before. Increasingly more people live together, but do not see marriage as an essential part of their story. They also more and more often decide not to have children, whether married or not.

Western society is becoming more individualistic and in some sense, perhaps more decadent. Women's choice to have children later in life or not to have them at all has become more acceptable in Western societies and given more freedom to women's lives in professional and other ways. This trend is bringing much of a burden to especially Western European societies, which are now faced with a pretty serious birth rate problem. Is there anything we can really do about this though? Are the predictions about the future demographics of Europe really going do reverse the social trends in today's society and suddenly bring all the working women back home to raise babies?

What does marriage have to offer for most young people now that you really can live together and do most things relationship-wise without the need to be married? Civil unions for couples living together and issues such as gay marriage seem to cast yet new questions about how to define marriage, its purpose, and social value. I think the image of marriage will change even more in the coming years. Social acceptance for gay marriage and open relationships will increase in many circles, unless the society's pendulum somehow decides to swing back into conservatism. Maybe the new ways of living in relationships and otherwise will get a neutral light. Maybe just as women's going to work or being openly gay used to be controversial, these things too will find their way to meddle into modern lives?

Just an observation, I suppose.

Thursday, 5 April 2007

It's coming...

Hi everyone, I know you haven't been seeing much happening here, but I am actually working on a new post. It's one of those bigger ones, so I'm just taking time digesting things. Anyway, just wanted to say this, as I feel under an ever-increasing pressure of losing readership, which I would not like to see happen...

Oh yeah, for those in Budapest, you should know that Farger is gone! Yes, gone, the insides ripped out and no coffee! Nem tudom why, no! However, I did see the owner parading in front of it on his mobile phone with a smile on his face, so maybe they're just expanding before the summer or something...