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Thursday, February 28, 2013

The strangeness of being WEIRD

http://xkcd.com/

by John MacBeath Watkins

There's a psychology paper out called The Weirdest People in the World? which explores the different ways that different societies construct reality. It has some empirical proof of some of the things I've discussed in our The Strangeness of Being Human series of posts.

First of all, the structuralist notion of how language gives us the categories we use to think has spread to most of the social sciences. Joe Henrich was doing field work as an anthropologist when he decided to test the universality of human notions of fairness by giving a fairly standard test to the Machiguenga, a people who live north of Machu Picchu in the Amazon rain forest. The test he gave them is called the prisoner's dilemma, modified so that he was offering the subjects money rather than offering to deprive them of their freedom. This is fairly standard, because the usual subjects of psychological tests -- psychology undergraduates -- cannot readily be imprisoned by their instructors or graduate students.

So, instead of offering to imprison the subjects unless they cooperate with each other, the test involved giving them money to divide, with the understanding that one person would offer some portion of the money, and the other would decide whether to accept the offer, with the understanding that neither would get any money if the offer was refused.

It had been thought a matter of settled science that human beings insist on fairness in the division, or will punish the offering party by refusing to accept the offer. This was thought an interesting result, because economics would predict that accepting any offer is better than rejecting an offer of some money.

But the Machiguenga acted in a more economically rational manner, accepting any offer, no matter how low.

“They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game,” Henrich said.

That was a startling result in an experiment that had been tried probably thousands of times with consistent results. Startling enough that Henrich was able to land a MacArthur Foundation grant to try the experiment in a variety of cultures.

He tried it in 14 other small-scale societies and found that no response was universal.

Now, there's a thing called the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism, which speculates that language has such a strong influence on the way we construct reality that people whose language categorizes things differently might even see them differently. A lot of the research on this, strangely enough, has focused on how people see color.

It makes a great deal more sense to suppose that the way people construct their notions of fairness is subject to Sapir-Whorf. But the entire notion that human beings might be different in different societies fell into disrepute in anthropology, based on the ethnocentric work done by some early researchers.

The disrepute was sufficient that the anthropology department at the University of British Columbia wouldn't hire Joe Henrich. Instead, the university created a position for him in which he found himself working with the psychology department, in particular with Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan, his co-authors in writing The Weirdest People in the World?  The title refers to the acronym Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.

Not all the influences they found appeared to be from language. WEIRD people grow up on a man-made environment with less contact with the natural world than most people through history and through the rest of the world, for example.

From the article linked earlier:

While studying children from the U.S., researchers have suggested a developmental timeline for what is called “folkbiological reasoning.” These studies posit that it is not until children are around 7 years old that they stop projecting human qualities onto animals and begin to understand that humans are one animal among many. Compared to Yucatec Maya communities in Mexico, however, Western urban children appear to be developmentally delayed in this regard. Children who grow up constantly interacting with the natural world are much less likely to anthropomorphize other living things into late childhood.

I suppose the folkbiological reasoning step is where people start saying of their pets "he thinks he's people!" rather than just thinking they are people.

The work opens up a field of study that is of interest to me -- how cultures adapt us to the world.

From the same article:

Henrich has challenged this “cognitive niche” hypothesis with the “cultural niche” hypothesis. He notes that the amount of knowledge in any culture is far greater than the capacity of individuals to learn or figure it all out on their own. He suggests that individuals tap that cultural storehouse of knowledge simply by mimicking (often unconsciously) the behavior and ways of thinking of those around them. We shape a tool in a certain manner, adhere to a food taboo, or think about fairness in a particular way, not because we individually have figured out that behavior’s adaptive value, but because we instinctively trust our culture to show us the way.

Most really good ideas are simple. This one, that culture is a storehouse of knowledge, is one of the founding ideas of conservatism, as anyone who has read Edmund Burke is aware. Modernist, rationalist approaches to knowledge are just catching up with this. It seems curious to me that conservatism has not adopted a structuralist approach, but like the Marxists before them, they have an ideological aversion to one of its claims. Just as the Marxist approach says that people will act rationally to overthrow their masters, and are suffering from false consciousness if they fail to, many influential American conservatives believe that people will act rationally based on their self-interest. The sort of organic conservative Burke was has little to do with the libertarian-tinged completion of modern American conservatism.

So I suppose it is left to pragmatists to explore the mystery of the structure of human thought, a structure that shapes all our minds but cannot be entirely contained in one mind. At the point where one mind could not hold all the knowledge of a culture, we became that strange creature whose mind swims in a sea of symbolic meaning that we call human, and a rich and strange world it is.

Interesting infographic here: http://www.bestpsychologydegrees.org/american-psychology/


The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

1
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/06/to-read-is-to-become-stolen-child.html
2
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/03/on-disenchantment-of-world.html
3
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/02/blue-man-speaks-of-octopus-ink-and-all.html
4
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/05/bicameral-mind-and-strangeness-of-being.html
5
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/05/structure-of-thought-and-death-of.html
6
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/11/ane-how-will-our-minds-be-rewired-this.html
7
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/07/sex-death-and-selfish-meme.html
8
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/10/what-is-soul-of-man_10.html
9
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/11/stories-language-parasites-and-recent.html
10
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/god-language-and-structure-of-society.html
11
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/be-careful-who-you-are-more-on.html
12
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-strangeness-of-being-weird.html
13
Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
 14
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/03/night-of-unread-do-we-need-ethnography.html
15
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/03/when-books-become-part-of-you.html
16
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/drunk-on-milk-of-paradise-spell-of.html
17
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-power-of-forbidden-words-and.html
18
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/so-like-filler-words-you-know-they-uh.html
19
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
20
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
21
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
22 
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
23 
Why do we need myths?  
24 
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone
25 
"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word
26
On being a ghost in a soft machine

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?

by John MacBeath Watkins

Much of the 20th century seems to have been about a flight from meaning.

Oh, don't get me wrong, it's not the century's fault. After all, it was the 19th century in which Hegel noticed that language negates thing in their singularity, replacing them with concepts -- as Andrew Gallix puts it, "Words give us the world by taking it away."

We've  discussed before the way words create an existence for thing separate from those things. This imbues the world with meaning, gives objects a spiritual essence that is separate from those objects, and can result in human constructs from religion to Plato's Cave.

But the 20th century saw a great flowering of human intellect  People began to appreciate the importance of language in constructing our reality, and as soon as they began to understand its power, they began to distrust it.

Consider the words of Samuel Beckett:
It is indeed becoming more and more difficult, even senseless, for me to write an official English. And more and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the nothingness) behind it. Grammar and Style. To me they seem to have become as irrelevant as a Victorian bathing suit or the imperturbability of the true gentleman. A mask. Let us hope the time will come, thank God that in certain circles it has already come, when language is most efficiently used where it is being most efficiently misused. As we cannot eliminate language all at once, we should at least leave nothing undone that might contribute to its falling into disrepute. To bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind it – be it something or nothing – begins to seep through; I cannot imagine a higher goal for a writer today. Or is literature alone to remain behind in the old lazy ways that have been so long ago abandoned by music and painting?...
What lurks behind it? An odd phrasing that, and an odd goal. It's as if a fish wished to see what lurks behind the sea by drilling holes in it. Beckett's mind, like mine, swam in a sea of symbolic thought made possible by language. His strange and sparing use of it was compelling because, in fact, it had meaning. His work was more abstract, and more a product of our strange world of symbolic thought than the robust and playful naiveté of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, which had a firmer tie to the world of discrete objects Hegel thought language distanced us from.

The modernist, almost art deco, goals that  Beckett outlined may seem quaint today, like a chrome, streamlined hood ornament of the sort he himself would have disdained.

But the discomfort with the power of language had not yet reached its climax. In his 1967 book, Of Grammatology, Belgian author  Jacques Derrida argued that writing isn't just a representation of spoken language, but affects the nature of knowledge, which  would seem like a deeper insight if Socrates had not beat him to it by a couple of millennia. Socrates believed that the written word would change the way knowledge would be passed along, the choice a teacher has to pass knowledge to a soul or the right sort being lost along the way.

Derrida, however, was worried about the violent hierarchy of signified over signifier. It sounds like a misreading of Ferdinande de Saussure to me, but never mind, I can't bring myself to care enough about Derrida to argue about him.

As Beckett observed, painting and music had strayed from adherence to meaning long before literature did. Art first ceased to be representational, then was allowed to be representational as long as it was ironic. I will leave it to you, gentle reader, to explain why the picture at left is art rather than a mere trademark violation.

A careful listening to John Cage's 4 minutes, 33 seconds, will reveal that this is the duration of complete silence the musicians keep. Yes, keep listening, at some point some Luddite has got to realize what this will mean to the American Federation of Musicians if it catches on, unless The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) can collect royalties on any period of 4'33" in which no musician is being paid to perform.

Yet no performance of 4'33" I have yet heard includes a sudden blast of sound from some rebel trombone. The modernist flight from meaning has triumphed so far. I live in hopes that the legacy of my cousin, Al Hood, a jazz musician who taught improvisational jazz, will inspire someone to rebel in the middle of a performance of that piece.

But so far, no. The man who recorded Not Quite Rite had, I must confess, a limited influence, in part because you have to be awfully good in an uncommon way of being good enough to make music the way he did when he and his friends were practicing above my bookstore in the Neptune Building.

But of course, to believe that you must make a sound, must make a meaning, to communicate with an audience as my cousin Al did became passe in modern art and music. What was Beckett talking about? This:


A complete flight from meaning and representation. I suggest that this is shallow. I suggest that to refuse to play the game of representation is to forfeit the game.

I suggest that meaning is the air our minds breathe, the sea in which minds swim. To refuse all sign and signified, or to seek to undermine them, is to seek to undermine our minds.

Would you rather read a sonnet by Shakespeare or Gertrude Stein assuring us that "as rose is a rose is a rose?" (I knew that, by the way, even before she told me.)

I've been told that the character of a journalist is someone who is fascinated by power, but abhors the use of power. Perhaps modernists like Beckett became fascinated by the power of language, but abhorred the use of the power of language. Which makes it strange that Beckett's use of language was so powerful...as was Derrida's...wait, did those guys trick us, or only themselves?

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

1
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/06/to-read-is-to-become-stolen-child.html
2
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/03/on-disenchantment-of-world.html
3
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/02/blue-man-speaks-of-octopus-ink-and-all.html
4
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/05/bicameral-mind-and-strangeness-of-being.html
5
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/05/structure-of-thought-and-death-of.html
6
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/11/ane-how-will-our-minds-be-rewired-this.html
7
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/07/sex-death-and-selfish-meme.html
8
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/10/what-is-soul-of-man_10.html
9
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/11/stories-language-parasites-and-recent.html
10
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/god-language-and-structure-of-society.html
11
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/be-careful-who-you-are-more-on.html
12
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-strangeness-of-being-weird.html
13
Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
 14
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/03/night-of-unread-do-we-need-ethnography.html
15
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/03/when-books-become-part-of-you.html
16
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/drunk-on-milk-of-paradise-spell-of.html
17
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-power-of-forbidden-words-and.html
18
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/so-like-filler-words-you-know-they-uh.html
19
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
20
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
21
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
22 
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
23 
Why do we need myths?  
24 
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone
25 
"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word
26
On being a ghost in a soft machine

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Be careful who you are: More on the strangeness of being human

by John MacBeath Watkins

The recent death of Brunhilde "Hilde" (Schneider) Van Hout, mother of my friend Gwen Van Hout Knechtel has set me to thinking about how the death of a loved one affects us.

Perhaps we believe in the soul not so much in the hope that we won't really die as in the hope that those we love in some way continue on. And I'm sure they do. Hilde and her husband Remy, who died in 2005, were remarkable people who touched many lives.

They were Dutch Indonesian, and left Jakarta, where Gwen was born, because of political unrest, moving first to the Netherlands, then to the U.S. They helped many Indonesian immigrant families find their feet. And, of course, they shaped the character of their children, including Gwen, who became a teacher.

Hilde and Remy live on through all the lives they have touched, and all the lives their children have touched. They were kind, big-hearted, practical people who valued culture, and Gwen is like that as well, and she's had a hand in shaping a great many kids as a teacher.

And that's important to remember, because human beings live in a strange environment incomprehensible to every other creature on earth. Our minds swim in a sea of symbols that we hardly even notice, and the memes that help construct our minds are as important a part of us as the genes we pass on to our offspring. Perhaps they are more important, because we pass them on far more promiscuously than we pass on our genes. Knowing Hilde, and Remy, and Gwen, and her husband Grant, has helped shape me, after all, and I'm no relation.

I cannot say whether the soul lives on and gets its just reward in the afterlife, though if we do, I'll know when it happens. I can say we live on in spirit, a ghost that haunts every life we've touched, and the meaning we've given our lives lives on through the lives of all those who have known us. So be careful who you are, and hope you are as welcome living on in the minds you've shaped as Hilde is.


The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

1
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/06/to-read-is-to-become-stolen-child.html
2
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/03/on-disenchantment-of-world.html
3
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/02/blue-man-speaks-of-octopus-ink-and-all.html
4
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/05/bicameral-mind-and-strangeness-of-being.html
5
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/05/structure-of-thought-and-death-of.html
6
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/11/ane-how-will-our-minds-be-rewired-this.html
7
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/07/sex-death-and-selfish-meme.html
8
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/10/what-is-soul-of-man_10.html
9
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/11/stories-language-parasites-and-recent.html
10
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/god-language-and-structure-of-society.html
11
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/be-careful-who-you-are-more-on.html
12
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-strangeness-of-being-weird.html
13
Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
 14
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/03/night-of-unread-do-we-need-ethnography.html
15
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/03/when-books-become-part-of-you.html
16
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/drunk-on-milk-of-paradise-spell-of.html
17
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-power-of-forbidden-words-and.html
18
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/so-like-filler-words-you-know-they-uh.html
19
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
20
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
21
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
22 
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
23 
Why do we need myths?  
24 
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone
25 
"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word
26
On being a ghost in a soft machine

Friday, February 15, 2013

New version of "The mermaid swims away"

The Mermaid, by Howard Pyle


by John MacBeath Watkins

The mermaid swims away
supple in the river of moonlight
near  the dawning of the day.
The sailor decides to sit tight
while his dreams drown in a coffee cup
and gulls will soon cry out in flight.
While smoke from the breakfast stove curls up
so she sinks from the coming morning bright

The darkness is retreating and his watch is nearly done
and her love burns off like fog in the harsh light of the day
for she cannot bear the beating of the sun.
Like a dream he cannot keep in mind the mermaid swims away
to the cool, dark place from whence the mermaids come.

She said the sea had salt from tears
of mermaids he could never understand
he said the sea salt's blood, my dear
from sailors whose bones whiten in the sand.
And the moon moves slow and heavily
as it sinks down to the sea
with dreams all slow and heavenly
of the day that's yet to be.

"You'll flee the sun's hot, fearful eye
and dive to the darkest deep,"
said he, "and I'll lay out my socks to dry
and stumble off to sleep."

The darkness is retreating and his watch is nearly done
and her love burns off like fog in the harsh light of the day
for she cannot bear the beating of the sun.
Like a dream he cannot keep in mind the mermaid swims away
to the cool, dark place from whence the mermaids come.

We should prepare for future meteor strikes

by Jamie Lutton.

For those of you who don't read the paper or keep track of current events, there was a meteor strike last Friday over the skies of Russia.  A thousand people were hurt by the shattering glass, but no one was killed (at least, I had not heard of any deaths, at the time of writing this). .

Online, there are some fine videos of the meteor coming in, taken by dash cameras on Russian cars. It left a trail like a jet engine across the sky, and one witnesses reported they heard a sonic boom so loud that they nearly went off the road. This meteor broke windows over hundreds of miles.
 
I hate it when I am right. I had been predicting something like this for years. 
 
No, I am no astronomy expert, but I read a lot of science articles about space. The real experts have been quietly worried about something like this happening to Earth for years. This worry was accelerated by the impact on Jupiter of several large fragments of a comet, the Shoemaker-Levy comet, back in 1994. This strike was predicted by  astronomers a year earlier  Astronomers all over the world then had time to line up their telescopes and watch the comets hit Jupiter.


The hit was spectacular, Jupiter, a very large gas planet, was 'lit up' from the strike for months; a hole was opened in Jupiter's atmosphere the size of the Earth, and was visible for weeks afterwards.

The best book about this is Comets; Creators and Destroyers by David H. Levy.  In this book he describes how he spotted the comet, predicted it's trajectory, and observing the collision, as well as the differences between an asteroid and a comet.

This strike, which left large holes in Jupiter's atmosphere, one  the size of the Earth, fed the scientific community's interest, and anxiety about, in tracking objects in the sky.

We have known that meteors strike the Earth frequently.  Erosion and volcanic activity have erased most of the traces of their impact, but it is easy to go to Arizona and see one crater  that is a mile across, a collision that occurred only 50,000 years ago.

Also, oddly enough, just 105 years ago, in 1908, there was an 'air burst' meteor hit, very like this one over Russia, called the Tunguska EventThis meteor strike flattened 80 million trees over 830 square miles, fatality count unknown.

Russia, being the largest landmass, would naturally have the most meteor hits.  This event had puzzled scientists for years, until they figured out it was a meteor burst in the air.   The meteor, as it skimmed through the atmosphere, would probably have killed many thousands if it had hit a populated area of the Earth..
          
Perhaps we will choose to ignore this warning. After all, the strike happened in Russia, not here, and nobody died this time.

Americans tend to ignore foreign news unless it affects the price of oil.  There is a project on paper, Operation Safeguard, that is an attempt to tackle this problem, but it has not been funded by the present administration.

But I bet the Russians are not so sanguine. I would not be surprised if President Putin   makes  at least some effort to talk about preventing future meteor strikes like this one.  This strike was seen by hundreds of thousands of people over hundreds of miles, and injured over a thousand from flying glass.

It  was a terrifying event to live though.

We should be glad that this strike did not happen, say, in 1962, before technology was advanced enough to analyze the strike quickly, and when Russian-American relations were very tense, around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. .

This strike could have set off World War III.

Present technology could not detect meteors as small as this before they hit.  But the technology could and will  be improved, if we fund the research into this problem. And present day astronomers can detect bigger meteors than this one, as long as the funding is in place to watch the skies.

As I said, I have been worrying about something like this happening since 1994. As the mathematician said in Jurassic Park, ' I hate it when I am right".

Lets hope world leaders learn from this that we must fund the astronomers who are watching the sky. I wish that President Obama would fund NASA more generously, as we need to be prepared for any eventuality. At least the Russians, with this shot across the bow, must be considering funding their astronomers, and their space program to be an imperative.
           
         

Thursday, February 14, 2013

God, language and the structure of society: The strageness of being human meets rethinking liberalism

by John MacBeath Watkins

My friend Brad, who blogs as usedbuyer 2.0,  has encouraged me to take my series of posts on the strangeness of being human to the vexed question of religion, so here goes.

Jan van Eyck's Last Judgment

As we've discussed in this post, I have a theory of spirituality based on language. When people invented language, they created an existence for things that is separate from those things. Everything had a real existence and a symbolic existence.

But the strange world of symbols the human mind lives in (and, in part, is made up of) was only about as visible to people as air is to us or water is to fish, because it is the sea our minds swim in, so we did not interpret the strange, non-physical existence of things as a linguistic phenomenon. We instead thought of that in terms of spirits.

This does not mean that spirits and gods and soul do not exist. It means whether or not they exist as supernatural phenomena, they exist in the social construction of reality. It is that complex, symbolic world that makes humanity so strange compared to other animals.

When we think of the soul, for example, we think of the continuation of our consciousness separate from out bodies. But what is human consciousness?

In large part, we are made up of each other -- our minds (or consciousness, or soul) are shaped by the interactions we have with others. From the base state of the animal we are, with certain capabilities, we become human through a process of aculturation. Every person we interact with shapes us, sometimes because we accept their views or their behavior, sometimes because we reject them, thereby setting the boundaries of our selves. And that part of ourselves that has become a part of others lives on after us, a ghost in the very structure of human consciousness.

The complexity of our culture depends on how many minds are in communication, and what knowledge they carry, communicate, and play with. Researchers Adam Powell1,3, Stephen Shennan2,3, and Mark G. Thomas1,3,  in a paper titled Late Pleistocene Demography and the Appearance of Modern Human Behavior, argue that upper paleolithic behavior -- the jewelry, art, and complex tools that indicate complex symbolic thought -- appeared more than once in human history, but disappeared when something caused the population to crash. This could be a drought, a famine, or a plague. Not only did the number of people in a society matter, so did the trade and communication with other people.

We can imagine that in a small group, the knowledge available has to be as much as parents can communicate to their children. Upper paleolithic culture needed more minds to hold it, more knowledge than the single family unit (or even a small hunting group) could contain in its few heads. Part of that  knowledge would be about how to more fully exploit the food sources in the environment, allowing it to support a more dense populations and thereby making more minds available to hold the knowledge of the culture.

With the increasing complexity of society came the problem of coordination. Wild  minds were as much a danger to social cohesion as rogue males. We still had our evolved sense of wanting to belong to a family and a pack, but the symbolic world gave our persons an existence that was not entirely organic, and that needed to be integrated into a cohesive whole as much as our naked-ape organic persons did.

The instrument of this is what we call religion. It organized our minds as part of a people, usually with a creation myth explaining why our group was special. We called upon this ethereal world of spirit/symbol to explain the unexplainable. We called upon it to coordinate society. If Julian Janes is right, we formed a sort of societal hallucination that contained the way to live together and prosper.

Janes held that prior to about 1,200 BC, human minds were not self-conscious. In fact, since he defined consciousness in terms of the metaphorical space inside our heads that we regard as ourselves, he claimed that humanity was not truly conscious prior to that, sharing a sort of dream world where the gods spoke to us and told us what to do. The command and the action were such, he said, that "volition came as a voice that was in the nature of a neurological command, in which the command and the action were not separated, in which to hear was to obey."[1]

The remnant of this system still crops up, according to Janes, in schizophrenia.

The myths did not die out when our minds became self conscious (which Janes theorizes we did because the world was changing too fast for the social hallucination to correctly instruct us.) It is still a part of us, still motivates us, but it is now mediated by self-consciousness.

But of course, religion and myth was not the only possible use of the world of symbols we had invented. Symbols could also be mated to our problem-solving ability directly, to solve problems for ourselves through an internal dialogue we call reason.

Our problem-solving ability, existed before this, and we solved problems with symbolic thought. But I do not need to talk myself through most of the problem solving I do, like setting a crate were I can stand on it to reach something. It helps to do that when I'm thinking about my own life, or solving a higher-level problem. And reasoning can solve complex problems quickly.

But the advent of agile, self-conscious minds led to a tendency to question the myths central to social cohesion. Socrates was executed for causing the youth to question the religion of their society.

And Plato, that intellectual Quisling, eventually settled on agreeing with Socrates' opponents. In The Laws, he talks about a perfect society based on certain truths. If someone questioned those truths, he would come before the nocturnal council, which met at night, away from prying eyes. They tried to persuade the miscreant to recant, and if they failed to, instructed him to keep quite about his doubts. If he would not, he was killed. It was practically as if he had thought through  the actions of Socrates and decided it was right that he was killed.

Leo Strauss, the intellectual father of the American neoconservative movement, agreed with Plato. He thought that the leaders of American society needed to foster the national myth, essentially the myth of American exceptionalism, even if they did not themselves believe it. And though parts of The Laws read like a preamble to the inquisition and even in The Republic Plato spoke of banning those forms of music he thought inimical to civic virtue, Strauss though Plato was the advocate for freedom and Thomas Hobbes was authoritarian, which makes me question how perceptive he could have been. More on Hobbes in a moment.

Plato was dedicated to the notion that objects have an existence outside themselves. His parable of the cave elevates the symbolic existence of objects to a perfection and permanence of existence that no real object has. The myth has people sitting in a cave, looking at a shadow play, and thinking that the shadows are the real objects. In this story, the real world is the shadow and the thing casting the shadow was the ideal form, making the idea more real than the object.

This was a translation of the spirituality of symbols into the world of reason. Just as religion had elevated symbolic/spiritual existence above real existence, Plato did so, but called those spirits ideal forms. Not surprisingly, this held a certain attraction to religious orders, and Thomas Aquinas made Plato the basis for his views on intolerance to religions other than the state-sanctioned one (on most subjects, he valued Aristotle more.)

Reason and religion, the material and the spiritual, have continued to have a difficult relationship. Just as the first flowering of religion in European history resulted in the Greek explosion of knowledge and the youth questioning the gods, the Enlightenment brought forth the questioning of religion, both by reformers and by people who did not believe in the supernatural.

Leaders of churches reacted to this, sometimes violently. The reformers of the middle ages sparked the Inquisition, as a less wasteful method of dealing with heresy than the Albigensian Crusade, in which soldiers asked the papal representative, who had ordered him to put the heretics to the sword, how he would know who they were.

“Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius - Kill them all for the Lord knoweth them that are His,” was the reply.

The church tried to deal with the questioning of its authority with reason and law after this. The Jesuit order was trained in logical debate to debunk theological attacks. Inquisitors operated within a framework of law, under the principle that the body must sometimes be broken for the soul to be saved.

But the questioning continued. The Goliards, rebel priests, wrote satirical songs and poems featuring the corrupt Father Golias, but the church prevented them from performing mass so that they could not get a living, and labeled them "bohemians" in an effort to identify them with the gypsies that were generally considered lawless and rootless (and were thought to have come from the kingdom of Bohemia.) To this day, rebel poets are called "bohemian."

As Europe emerged from the middle ages, the questioning intensified, becoming the Reformation. Because kings relied for their authority on divine right, wars were fought over what sort of believer should rule which country. The 30 Years War depopulated Germany as much as the Black Plague had. Those wanting to understand religion, and reason about how they should believe, wanted to be able to read the Bible, which meant either learning Latin or getting a translation. The Church correctly perceived that it would lose much of its authority to interpret the Bible if common people could read it, so made it illegal to possess a translation into the local language.

Fox's Book of Christian Martyrs recounts the trials of people who gathered in secret places to read the Bible to one another risked the death penalty for doing so. They came to be called lollards, from a Dutch word for "mutterer." It was not wise to raise your voice while reading a forbidden text to your fellow rebels.

Thomas More is remembered as a martyr to conscience. It is less often remembered that he had protestants tortured and burned at the stake for their beliefs, or that the principle he died for was that the church should be able to govern the actions of kings.

But reason, and the disenchantment of the world that went with it, was on the march. As kings fought battles over who had the divine right to rule, people rose up against rulers they regarded as apostates,

Thomas Hobbes, tutor to Charles II (who was not a Tudor) and one of the leading intellects of his day, saw the problem clearly and knew that for his pupil to reign after the regicide that killed his father, a new form of legitimacy was needed. The English Civil War, like the 30-years war, was in large part happening because the nation's religious identity had fractured, making any king an apostate to one or another large constituency. Hobbes wrote about physics, among other things, and was enough of a materialist to argue that though god exists, he must be a material being. This nearly got him the death penalty.

So Hobbes looked to the material world, and borrowed the logic of the marketplace: You need a king because he does an important job for you. He enforces the rule of law that makes your continued life and any fruits of civilization you might wish to enjoy possible. In finding a new source of legitimacy for sovereigns, Hobbes hoped to give it to his pupil, Charles II, as an absolute monarch, though the logic of his theory did not actually lead in this direction. If you should accept the sovereign because you need the service he or she provides, what if the sovereign sucks at the job? Shouldn't such a sovereign be replaced at the discretion of the governed?

It was a major turning point in civilization when the ruler was judged by usefulness rather than divine right.Church and state had to be separated because no church could define a civilization as they once had.

But if the pattern of civilization defined by religion (and, in Julian Janes' view, forming a sort of hive mind for a civilization) was no longer possible as more people came to think for themselves, why should religion continue to exist?

Well, ideas have a sort of evolutionary life. Those that lead to death and destruction tend to die out, those that lead to prosperity and fecundity tend to prosper. Presumably, the sort of civilization as mass hallucination that Janes describes would evolve over a long period of time and produce a stable living situation. And while religion might no longer provide the best guide to who should reign as sovereign, it might provide moral guidance, a social framework in which to meet and mate, and a support network for the individual.

For such an idea or institution to survive, it need not be true in a literal sense, though it might be. It would need to serve its believers well, so that they could pass on the belief. It might serve human nature well, giving a comforting sense of certainty in answer to otherwise unanswerable questions. Which brings us to the question of truth and belief.

"Truth" is a word we use to describe that which we believe without question. Aesop's Fables contain truth, even though we know they are not literally true, because they say things we intuitively feel increase our understanding of how the world works. The parable of the sower is in the Bible, but we do not insist that it is literally true. It is true in a mythic, poetic sense, in that it communicates a larger truth through fiction. And different sects disagree about which parts of the Bible are this sort of truth and which parts are literal truth.

But if we use the word "truth" to describe that which we believe without question, how do we decide what to believe? This is not as simple as making a choice from the available options. Truth is not like possession, and we don't gain it by going shopping. Belief is an emotional commitment akin to love, which I may have mentioned in another post, is why when we speak of truth, we often speak of beauty. And once we fall in belief with a truth, we'll stand up for it as if it were our own beloved, even if it causes no end of trouble.

I may wish to believe, but if the evidence is against the thing I wish to believe, truth will seep beneath every door I close on it.

If we are in love with logic, we might view someone asking favors of his or her "invisible sky buddy" with contempt. If we are in love with orderly traditions and eternal justice, we may comfort ourselves with the knowledge that that contemptuous bastard who referred to god that way will burn in the pits of hell while we watch from a salubrious heaven (this was once a popular theme in Christian art, and was called the agonistic fancy.)

There are truths that stalk us like wild jungle beasts however we might try to shake them, beliefs as attractive as a puppy's eyes or as comfortable as the bed you share with a lover. Belief seduces us, ambushes us, creeps up on us shyly trying to attract our attention. And every attempt to tell us how to find the right beliefs falls short. The logical positivists tried to invent a completely logical way of knowing the truth (at least mathematical truth) but Kurt Gödel showed in 1931 that it is impossible to have a complete and consistent set of axioms for all mathematics, demonstrating that even in the most logical of human pursuits, belief cannot be founded solely on logic.

And while we may easily do reality testing with the physical world (did I remember to turn the oven off? I'd better check) reality testing in the ethereal world of symbolic thought is not so easy. This is why churches like to claim there is proof in the physical world, whether it is the miracles of the Catholic Church or the argument that William Paley made about the irreducible complexity of life, churches have recognized that in providing tangible proofs, they are fighting for their very existence. Fantasy writer Terry Pratchett wrote a book titled Small Gods, in which gods depend for their power and even their very existence on the belief of their followers. The book is an allegory for the power and existence of churches.

The question about what the place of religion in society is to be will depend on this. I suppose, from a pragmatic point of view, it will have an important place as long as it serves important functions. But in an increasingly unchurched society, we must wonder, how true will religion be tomorrow? After all, we don't believe things because it is convenient to do so, or if we do, we are often disabused of our belief. But if believers are in a position to pass their beliefs on, those beliefs that help those who hold them will pass them on.

Perhaps that will be God's Work, or perhaps it will be the survivors of a seething meme pool. Believe what you like.


The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

1
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/06/to-read-is-to-become-stolen-child.html
2
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/03/on-disenchantment-of-world.html
3
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/02/blue-man-speaks-of-octopus-ink-and-all.html
4
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/05/bicameral-mind-and-strangeness-of-being.html
5
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/05/structure-of-thought-and-death-of.html
6
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/11/ane-how-will-our-minds-be-rewired-this.html
7
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/07/sex-death-and-selfish-meme.html
8
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/10/what-is-soul-of-man_10.html
9
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/11/stories-language-parasites-and-recent.html
10
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/god-language-and-structure-of-society.html
11
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/be-careful-who-you-are-more-on.html
12
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-strangeness-of-being-weird.html
13
Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
 14
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/03/night-of-unread-do-we-need-ethnography.html
15
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/03/when-books-become-part-of-you.html
16
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/drunk-on-milk-of-paradise-spell-of.html
17
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-power-of-forbidden-words-and.html
18
http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/so-like-filler-words-you-know-they-uh.html
19
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
20
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
21
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
22 
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
23 
Why do we need myths?  
24 
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone
25 
"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word
26
On being a ghost in a soft machine
More on rethinking liberalism here:


Rethinking liberal theory 1: Thomas Hobbes, blasphemer and patriot
Rethinking liberal theory 2: The outlaw John Locke, terrorist, liberal, and advocate of freedom
Rethinking liberal theory 3: A compact to protect property, or a conspiracy to create meaning?
Rethinking Liberal Theory 4: John Milton and the many shapes of truth
Rethinking Liberal Theory 5: Adam Smith, moral philosopher of the marketplace
Rethinking Liberal Theory 6: Mythmaking and manufacturing
Rethinking liberal theory 7: Hegel, the end of history, and the triumph of the liberal idea
Rethinking liberal theory 8: Liberalism and individualism: The invention of the Util and the way west 
Rethinking liberal theory 9 Property and freedom: Why language is the basis for the social contract 
Rethinking Liberal theory 10: Physiocrats & mercantilists: The economic philosophies of the founding fathers
Rethinking Liberal Theory 11:Stateless income, global capital, and the death of empires
Rethinking Liberal Theory 12:Capitalism:So much more than market
Rethinking liberalism 13: What is money?

Friday, February 8, 2013

Building Meerkat: An alternate rig

by John MacBeath Watkins

I built Meerkat around an El Toro rig, which I was able to get for far less than the cost of a new sail.

Now I'm laid up with a left hand that I can't even type with, but I've got no problem using the mouse, so I took a little time and learned to draw rigs with Delftship.

Here's a cartoon of the current rig, and I caution you that the measurements are approximate.



The boat is fairly quick under this rig, even though the sail is blown out and exhibits a crease along the battens.

Photos by Mitch Reinitz, www.emelarphotography.com
This was during the CWB Norm Blanchard WOOD regatta. They are selling pix of the races, by the way, so if your boat was in it, stop by their site.

This is where you go to buy the pix: http://www.emelarphotography.com/%3C...l%20me%3C/a%3E

Now, I like the simplicity of the rig, but sometimes launching off a beach I wish I could raise and lower the sail more easily. suppose I wanted to reef the sail, I'd have to work against the friction of the luff groove in conditions that would be a bit hairy.

Much better to have a rig that will come down at a rush, so I can tie in the reef at my leisure.  All this says to me, balanced lug rig, and 54 sq ft instead of 38 plus the roach (which varied, but usually means you end up with about 48 sq. ft. of sail on a racing El Toro.) A rig that can be reefed is more useful to families, who can send a 60 lb. child out with less sail area than a 200 lb adult.


Of course, I can't actually build this rig with one hand shooting unbearable pain through me every time I try to do something with it, but a man can dream.


More posts on this topic:

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/06/building-new-boat.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/07/building-meerkat-very-small-catboat.html 

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/07/building-meerkat-very-small-catboat_25.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/07/building-meerkat-very-small-catboat-yet.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/07/putting-on-goop-building-meerkat-very.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/08/building-meerkat-very-small-catboat.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/08/building-meerkat-saga-continues.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/08/building-meerkat-very-small-catboat_16.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/09/building-meerkat-very-small-catboat.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/09/meerkat-now-black-by-popular-demand.html

 http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/09/splash-launch-and-first-sail-building.html

 http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/10/meerkat-victorious-building-meerkat.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/10/meerkat-gets-meerkart-and-some-sailing.html 

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/11/picture-of-meerkat-racing.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/02/building-meerkat-alternate-rig.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/03/by-john-macbeath-watkins-well-its.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/04/building-meerkats-crabclaw-rig.html

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Another day, another wrongful conviction: Perverse incentives in law enforcement

by John McBeath Watkins

There's a disturbing story out of Texas, about a man wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife serving 25 years in prison while the actual killer was free to kill again.

From NPR:

How was (Michael) Morton finally freed? His wife's brother had found the bloody bandanna the police left later that day, and he turned it in. For years, Williamson County fought Morton's requests to have the evidence in his case tested. Prosecutors ridiculed his efforts and taunted him, saying they'd consider DNA testing the evidence only if Morton would first take responsibility for the crime.
It was when a Texas appeals court finally ordered the bandanna DNA-tested last year that law enforcement's arrogance was blown to pieces. After remaining silent tor months, Anderson, the former Williamson County district attorney and now a state judge, held a press conference.
"As district attorney at the time, and as woefully inadequate as I realize it is, I want to apologize for the system's failure to Mr. Morton and to every other person who was adversely affected by this verdict," Anderson said.
Christine Morton's blood was found on the bandanna, as was the blood of another man, Mark Alan Norwood. Norwood has a long criminal record, including assault, and is now in jail awaiting trial
Not that the prosecutor needed to wait for DNA testing to come along.
The other bombshell occurred when the appeals court ordered the defense attorney and sheriff's files opened completely. The exculpatory evidence found there stunned Texas legal circles.
 The prosecutor in the case, Ken Anderson, has apologized to "Mr. Morton and to every other person who was adversely affected by this verdict,"

And who might the others "adversely affected" be?

A year after Christine Morton was murdered, An Austin woman named Debra Baker was murdered, and the DNA evidence points to the same man as allegedly killed Morton.

Anderson is now being investigated, and claims he broke no laws. He might be right, there are a lot of states where prosecutorial conduct  is not a criminal offense. I suppose his defense will blame the sheriff in the case, who is safely dead. But however the blame is apportioned, it highlights some perverse incentives in our legal system.

How does a prosecutor get to be a judge? By being a good prosecutor. How is his performance measured? By his conviction rate and success in securing convictions in high-profile cases.

How does a sheriff get re-elected? By making arrests, especially in high-profile cases, and assuring the voters that he's sent the villains to prison.

Now, we've discussed some of the perverse incentives in drug cases, but we should recognize that there are perverse incentives in all cases. Cops are judged by the number of tickets  the wright, the number of cases they close, and how quickly they locate the guilty party. Incentives do strange things to the way people think, allowing them to justify to themselves things that without the incentives they might not believe.

As Upton Sinclair said in his 1935 book, I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

Add to this what we've learned about the unreliability of eyewitnesses and how easily it is manipulated by police questioning witnesses, and you can see that even in the absence of bad faith, there's plenty of room for convincing people -- cops, prosecutors, judges and juries -- that the innocent are guilty.

We would never have known some of this if DNA testing hadn't come along. I was working as a reporter on the police beat for a newspaper in Texas when the Department of Public Safety (the name always reminded me of the Terror following the French Revolution) was taking Henry Lee Lucas around the state tying him to
 about 350 murders. Lucas actually confessed to about 600, but the 350 were the ones deemed "believable" by the Lucas Task Force -- until Hugh Aynesworth, a journalist, noticed that to commit some of those murders in different places at nearly the same time, Lucas would have needed to travel at speeds not humanly possibly. Suspicious prosecutors then interrogated Lucas about crimes they deliberately made up, and Lucas confessed to the imaginary crimes.

But before all that was known, I was talking to a veteran officer who said he'd sure like to talk to Lucas, there were some cases he'd like to clear. The statement struck me as off, so I asked if he had reason to think Lucas was involved. He shut up at that point, and I hope rethought the lure of easily closing cases with confessions that might not be true.

It seemed likely to me that a bum who had confessed to, at the time of that interview, more than 100 murders, might just be a pathetic loser who liked being the center of attention. And I don't have any super powers, just a tendency to observe critically.

Lucas was facing numerous death penalty cases at the time, as prosecutors signed on to the gravy train of easy convictions that would boost their reputations. The ones that exposed the hoax were perhaps thinking farther down the road, to the possibility of cases being overturned, or perhaps they had already made their reputations. There was also the matter of families that didn't believe Lucas's confessions to the murder of their loved ones, and wanted the actual killer arrested.

But there were also police ready to take the easy way, and take the easy case closing.

I'd like to think cases like this will change the way the criminal justice system works, but that line of Upton Sinclair's keeps coming back to me:

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Remains of Richard III found

...But Jimmy Hoffa is still in the hunt.

200 years of Pride and Prejudice

by Jamie Lutton


The 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice is upon us. This book is considered the greatest novel ever written in English by a woman.
       But often long before women pick this book up, they read one of the many 'shades' of this book - pulp romance fiction.
 
This book invented an archetype --perhaps borrowed from Cinderella -- that a poor but plucky girl, after some misadventures, would win the heart of a rich and handsome suitor. The genius of this book is that it is her characters are believable, and the misunderstandings are plausible. Her skill was to not just make the reader invest their interest in her hero and heroine, but that her dozens of minor characters were all interesting, eccentric and sometimes hilarious, drawn in deadly thumbnail sketches. The effect this book, and all of her books, had on twentieth century writers of popular fiction is incalculable. Her works became the  'Bible' of all romance novel authors, and every line has been stolen and rewritten by slavish imitators.
     .
.I do not pretend to a great enough knowledge on how Austen influenced main stream authors in the main; except you can see her influence on Dickens.
   
I can however, reference modern forms that endlessly imitate Austen. There  is whole huge publishing industry devoted to churning out books that vaguely  resemble Pride and Prejudice and Austen's other books.
    
This book alone has been copied in one way or another by thousands of authors of  books.
    
There are hundreds of pulp writers of 'Regency Romances' that began to sprout up in the 1960's, an industry that is still churning them out today. There is the distant cousin, the Harlequin romance, which is an even larger enterprise; teeming thousands of titles have been printed. 
    
Lastly, some modern, much more serious writers consciously took her fable and turned it on its head as in the novels of Fay Weldon or Joyce Carol Oates. The DNA of this novel  is in many, many books.
  .  
When I was a bored young teen dropout, at age 14, long before I discovered Pride and Prejudice, I picked up and read bad 'regency romances' I bought at the local paperback shack for seventy five cents, then passed on to my mother. They were our guilty pleasures we shared, as these books were mostly vapid, terribly written with stiff wooden dialog. But they nearly universally were set in the early Regency.  (We were both speed readers, and my mother was pleased to see me reading instead of raising heck in some fashion.)
       
This period appeals  to cheap novelists as upper-class women had  more freedom before the Victorian era, wore clothing that was lighter and easier to move about in, and the upper class men were not yet caught up in middle-class morality, (that Shaw mocks in his play Pygmalion). The men and women of that class frequently obsessed with their clothes, drank too much, and gambled. The men frequently wenched, fought duels, prize fights, etc, Generally both sexes carried on openly in a way their children and grandchildren hid, in the prim Victorian era. .
     
There is the background of the English wars against Napoleon, and the recent French Revolution and the horrors of the Terror. This was a great background for a 'good guy' or 'bad guy made good' by the infrequence of endless, endless plucky heroines.

In Austen's actual novel Pride and Prejudice there is little mention of these  wars, except for the soldiers who were stationed nearby and a terrible distraction to the younger sisters in the books.

The Regency romances  I read, all the hundreds of them all sort of run together, except for the novels of the mid 20th century English writer. Georgette Heyer.
     
Hers stand out; and in fact may have created the market for the floodgate of fluff that followed her.
      
This author of at least 37 of these yarns, she wrote them from the late 1920's to the 1970's.  She had the time and money to research each of them so that they exactly fit the time they were written, down to details of clothes, swearing habits, historical events, and the minutiae of what young women could and could not get away with.

As she wrote them,through time, her style changed. She did not necessarily get better, as all of her books are similar in quality,  but her characters had less improbable adventures, and became more like Austen's, being drawing room comedies instead of intrigues involving cross dressing, kidnapping and swordplay. But they all focus on romance between a plucky heroine and a rich hero.  I have not found any other romance writer who could approach Austen with her subtlety, wit and understatement.

It is the humor that so many of these hack writers lack. That, and Heyer's men are appealing, and three dimensional.

Heyer is so good that hundreds of  writers have stolen from her directly, with wholesale theft of plots, themes and writing style.  She created the market for the endless romance novel market.  But the reading of romance is circular; in the end, all roads lead to Jane Austen's masterpieces.

Why read Jane Austen? Why read Pride and Prejudice?  Well, she is the real thing. She writes about her own time, not an an imagined past as Georgette Heyer does (and all the others).

No research can match the eyes of this writer, who fictionalized the truths she saw around her. When reading about her  world, the astute reader will realize that she has been stolen from for plot, atmosphere and circumstance, without developing the reality she created.

The endless Harlequin or Regency romances feature poor but plucky girls and clueless, grumpy, but always rich men, as a shadow of Darcy's wealth and Elizabeth's wit.  But here is Austen's genius.

Elizabeth the heroine is shown in her home, with her reckless little  sisters, her father and her impossible mother. You see her going about her day.

In the first paragraph of this novel, the grasping necessity of marriage is brought up, that any well off young man 'was seen as the rightful property of one or the other of their daughters'   You can see the forces that shaped Elizabeth's intelligence, her wit, and her bravery.  Too often the heroines of other novels, even Heyer's, you don't see where the young girl comes from. Not enough effort is made to create a world, with pages of background and description.And what made Darcy Darcy is evident by his friends,  how people around him treat him, his snobbishness, his isolation, and his need to protect his little sister.  He seems plausible and real.

The romance novelists who slavishly copy Austen, even those who make a great effort, forgo the background to the characters, and do not fill them out enough..

There is a section in The Republic by Plato when Socrates talks about what is real and what is a shadow.  He does this in this dialogue by talking about shadows in an imaginary cave that look real, but are but shadows of real things. Austen comes close to being real, a mirror of the real world, or how the real world should be, anyway. All her endless imitators fail as they do not capture reality.  Some writers, like Dickens, a near contemporary of hers, made their own reality, but his was the shadow of the terror of poverty from his childhood. Dickens (my opinion) keeps telling the story of his childhood in his novels, over and over.

Austen's genius came from watching her female contemporaries go about their lives, and she satirizes the byzantine negotiations for marriages for young girls. All of the girls, have  hopes for love an security, and settling for convenience, or many times not marrying at all, like Austen herself. The woman's fate, she shows, was tied to who she married, not who she was, and that this byzantine struggle mapped out what her fate would be; happy, unhappy, poor, single. Living at home the rest of her life, or with a husband who loves her and can provide for her.

This is an era before careers for women, when they had to make their way by how good a 'deal' they can strike with a man, with one's parents interfering or helping along the way..

I would recommend that everyone read Pride and Prejudice.  Male readers especially should pick this book up and try it, if only to observe the marriage desperation that is  now thankfully out of date. This desperation, played out off stage in women's conversations when women struggle for a place in a world where marriage is the only career option open for them.

This book also speaks to the intelligent and lonely among us, who wish for a soul mate when surrounded by dimmer people who do not ever get the humor of existence.

The supply of such readers is endless. They self select as they like novels, and so like the ready escape they offer from the cares of the world.

A careful reading of this world should not make anyone want to live in it, when we live in a world with so many more choice, anesthesia for childbirth, and dentists, say.
 
It is good idea to read 'the real thing', instead of the many imitation. To remember Plato's Cave again, the problem with modern readers is that many are satisfied with the pale imitations, and do not tackle the real books.

The reader of the romance novel, who never looks up to read the fiction written then -  Pride and Prejudice (or the Jane Eyre by Bronte, which is also about the plucky girl/rich man story, albeit a darker version of that) is caught in the world of the faded zero of this time. I had read probably over a hundred bad copies of Pride and Prejudice before I read this book of Austen at 16; when I did read her I was jolted at how much better it was. It was then I began to read more critically. From reading Heyer and some the other imitators, good bad terrible first, I saw the plagiarism clearly.

This was the beginning of my critical thinking about literature.

It was about that time I started to read history, wanting to know even more about the Napoleonic Wars, the Regent, and the times that Jane Austen lived in. 

If your taste runs to light fiction, and there is nothing wrong with that, I suggest after reading Pride and Prejudice, and perhaps some of her other novels, and that if you have been reading pulp romances already, to try Georgette Heyer's novels
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Try one of her more satirical titles, like The Unknown Agax or The Tollgate. She is the best of the 'plagiarists'; and critics as respected as Jessica Mitford call her 'one of the great guilty pleasures'