Links and Quotes: Science and Humanities; Babies; American Exceptionalism

Science and the Humanities

For decades, ever since C.P. Snow characterized the Two Cultures of science and humanities, debates have raged about the divisions between the two. Recently writer Leon Wieseltier posted a screed in the New York Times Book Review about, again, the affrontery of science to investigate topics traditionally within the province of the humanities. Among letters in response to his essay is this by evolutionary biologist David P. Barash, which I hope no one minds if I quote in full:

With friends like Leon Wieseltier (“Among the Disrupted,” Jan. 18), humanism doesn’t need enemies. The greatest weakness of humanism ­— painfully manifest in deservedly defunct postmodernism — has been its opposition to science, tantamount to and denying reality itself. A key component of this reality is the fact (not a contention) that human beings are part of the natural world.

Moreover, contra Wieseltier, we know for certain that our species is not central to the universe, that to recognize our animality — which is to say, our situation as products of evolution by natural selection — is not to give up on our quest for self-knowledge, but rather to identify precisely the starting point from which such self-knowledge can proceed. Mutually respectful and informed, the natural sciences and the humanities have an unprecedented opportunity to genuinely understand the world, including ourselves. If Wieseltier really thinks that humanists will find “substance” by derogating science, he isn’t a humanist, or a post-humanist, but simply ignorant.

I also like the letter from Michael Kaspari.

Human Nature; Babies

On a completely different topic: babies. Here’s an op-ed from last Sunday’s New York Times, by Michael Erard: The Only Baby Book You’ll Ever Need. The book he identifies is “The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings,” by David F. Lancy, from which the writer took this point:

Humans have a tremendous capacity for living inside their culture and accepting those arrangements as natural, and finding other arrangements weird, unnatural, even abhorrent.

Bottom line is, kids turn out just fine, no matter what culture, whatever parenting philosophy, they are exposed to. He contrasts cultures that “pick when ripe” vs “pick when green”. Whole essay worth reading, but here is a quote:

Professor Lancy calls the American way of doing pick when green a “neontocracy,” in which adults provide services to relatively few children who are considered priceless, even though they’re useless. One senses him rolling his eyes at modern American parents, impelled to get down on the floor to play Legos with their kids. But he admits that each culture evolves the child-rearing strategies it needs to reproduce itself, and he posits that pick when green is necessary in a complex society like ours. Whether it should be exported is another question.

Narrative vs Reality: American History

On the issue of narrative, here is a prime example, from Salon, about The right’s textbook freakout: What the fight over new A.P. history standards is really about

The textbook wars are about acknowledging the true history of the past vs the ‘narrative’ of American exceptionalism. (Cue David Barton.) To some people, it’s more important to instill in their children the idea that the US is the *most special ever country ever* because, well, because, it’s all about *us*. It’s just so. Never mind all those other people around the world who believe their countries are the most special. (And never mind the evidence about how standards of living in so many other countries, especially those in northern Europe, are so much higher than those in the US.)

In my narrative arc, it’s about everyone needs to feel special, regardless of evidence. Subtitle for this article: “Conservatives are at war with the College Board over U.S. history. But proper education isn’t among their concerns.” Quote:

The general contours of the debate, then and now, are eerily similar. In both cases, you have a small but dedicated bloc of reactionary populists who are fighting desperately to protect the truth from the advances of a radical, elitist cabal. And in both cases, you see those supporters of the new standards, who tend to be more educated and self-consciously cosmopolitan, react to the anti-reformers’ cries with a mix of bemusement and contempt.

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