One thing just about everybody knows about Mark Twain is that he had the pleasure of being able to say that the reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. But sure enough, the day arrived — April 21, 1910 — when those reports were right on the money. Or were they? Because here we are, a century later, and there’s still enough life in the old boy to debut the first volume of the Autobiography of Mark Twain (University of California Press; 744 pages) at the No. 2 spot on the New York Times best-seller list. Almost as good: he’s right behind Earth (The Book), co-authored by Jon Stewart, whose mix of dry wit and genuine moral outrage comes right from the Twain playbook. Samuel L. Clemens may be dead, but Mark Twain is doing just fine.
Why is Volume I just now seeing the light of day? At his death, Twain stipulated that the manuscript of his memoir was not to be published in its entirety for 100 years. He was concerned that it was too full of Twain unchained — acidic opinions and white-hot fulminations against the follies and wickedness of his time. Having seen his share of those — including the institutionalized sadism of slavery, the gluttony of the Gilded Age and the imperialist misadventures of the Spanish-American War — Twain had arrived at the not unreasonable but never popular conclusion that mankind “was not made for any useful purpose, for the reason that he hasn’t served any; that he was most likely not even made intentionally; and that his working his way up out of the oyster bed to his present position was probably [a] matter of surprise and regret to the Creator.” (See the 100 best books of all time.)
He was also writing during a time of American military expeditions abroad and criminal malfeasance in the business world — sound familiar? — and his views on those matters were not designed to broaden his fan base. Twain was well known in his lifetime as an opponent of the Spanish-American War, but he was probably smart to think twice about going public too soon with a description of American soldiers in the Philippines as “uniformed assassins.”
Twain did not rule out the publishing of parts of his manuscript before the 100-year mark, so long as “all sound and sane expressions of opinion are left out.” In the decades after his death, three successive versions appeared that were variously sanitized, abridged and tidied up. But as the centenary approached, the Mark Twain Project, a scholarly effort housed at the University of California, Berkeley, got going on this definitive edition of the book. It will eventually run to three volumes, about half of whose material has never been published before.
Because of the unusual way Twain produced it, the editors, led by Harriet Elinor Smith, had their work cut out for them. After decades of aborted attempts at an autobiography, Twain had decided by early 1904 to dictate his recollections to a stenographer. He had also decided to plunge every day into whichever moment of his life he pleased to consider, with no regard for chronology. “Talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment” is how he describes his working method. “Drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime.” (See the top 10 fiction books of 2009.)
This is just what he does, dipping into an item from his morning newspaper that leads him into a remembrance of a long-ago public lecture, which reminds him of a funny birthday party he once attended — at times this book reads like the one we all expected Keith Richards to write. Yet it’s a method that works a definite magic. It gives Twain’s volume of mostly 19th century recollections a distinctly 20th century feel. It makes him something like the first American modernist, a writer almost Proustian in his free-associational reaches into the past — no matter that Proust probably never had house cats named Plague and Pestilence, played a practical joke at the White House or spent an entire afternoon as a stumbling young huntsman being outwitted by a wild turkey.
The Bubbly Stream
Twain settled upon the idea of dictating his book while living in a rented villa near Florence, where he had gone with his wife Olivia in the hope of restoring her failing health (in vain — she died there in June 1904, after which Twain could not bring himself to return to his work until 18 months later, in New York). The villa was owned by the book’s first villain — Countess Massiglia, an American divorcée whose second husband, an Italian aristocrat, was on a diplomatic mission in East Asia while she pursued an affair with her chief manservant. Twain’s narrative languishes a bit while he reaches from the grave to defame, vilify and generally abominate the Countess — the kind of woman who would deliberately disable the phone Twain installed to summon doctors for his wife. Even Twain, who can abominate with the best of them, gets tiresome when he does it for 30 pages or so.
Is Immortality an Ethical Issue? | Aubrey de Grey | Big Think
Question: Describe an ethical dilemma you’ve faced in your life.
Aubrey de Grey: I’m not really a philosopher; I’m not really an ethicist, and it’s in particular I always get rather irritated when people suggest that there are ethical dilemmas associated with combating aging. I feel there are certainly plenty of psychological dilemmas – you know religious, economic and so on, but when it comes to the moral obligation or the moral issues plus or minus with regard to combating aging, I always feel that the issues are completely unequivocal, and really for me that’s been true throughout my life. I guess the best example I can use where it was a little bit of certainty was with regard to my views about whether God exists; you know whether I should be religious or not. On that really my decision was not to make a decision, so way back in my teens when this sort of thing is on people’s minds I guess I came to the conclusion that well okay what’s the difference; how would I run my life differently; how would I behave differently if I were religious versus if I were not religious, and I realized that there was no difference at all; that I already had decided that what I wanted to do with my life was to benefit humanity, to make a difference to the quality of life of people in general, and I realized that that’s fundamentally what scripture tells you to do in pretty much all religions. So I thought well okay why does it matter and therefore I have not in my view wasted my time trying to come to a decision on that.
Question: So you’re agnostic?
Aubrey de Grey: So I guess the best way to describe my own view is I’m agnostic.
The Neurological Origins of Religious Belief | Going Mental | Big Think
It has been known for some time that religious belief and behavior affect the brain—in the same way all habits, emotions and memories build neural pathways. But can we pinpoint specific chemicals, genes and clusters of neurons that give rise to religiosity, or to atheism?
Rutgers University evolutionary biologist Lionel Tiger thinks we can: “Religion is really made by the brain. It is a secretion of the brain,” says Tiger, who thinks the root of religious belief is an evolutionary drive to seek this “secretion”—namely serotonin—which provides the believer with feelings of well-being. A neurotransmitter that regulates mood and appetite, serotonin is linked to feelings of well-being when it floods the central nervous system.
“One of the ways of looking at religion is to what extent and how does it generate the serotonergic juices that make us feel good,” says Tiger. Attending a religious service, for example, can be a flurry of social activity and controlled procedure, which releases a cocktail of serotonin-led neurotransmitters in the brain. This chemical response “soothes” the organ, he says, echoing the results of recent studies. Working with neuroscientist Michael McGuire, Tiger has connected this research on serotonin as it works in the brain with the social aspects and origins of religion.
“Religion may be one of the main producers of the brain-soothing phenomenon in a way that is not that expensive or destructive or difficult. All you have to do is show up Sunday morning,” Tiger says. Religion, in this sense, becomes a self-created, self-consumed endeavor, he adds.
Tiger’s conclusion is that the neurochemical response of religion serves a biological need for humans, as shown in its absence. As an example, he points to France, a nominally Catholic country with low mass attendance and rare religious observance that has one of Europe’s highest rates of antidepressant consumption. “It may be that they’re taking the mass into their skull with a pill, so there is the pharmacological element of brain soothing,” he says.
Yet, religion is not all soothing, and serotonin itself cannot account for bouts of religious ecstasy and visions from—in Christianity alone—Pentecostal glossolalia and the charismatic movement stretching all the way back to Saul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus.
To get to the root of religious zeal, scientists are looking beyond neural chemistry to the architecture of the brain itself. There isn’t one part of the brain dedicated to processing the divine, as the pineal gland was once thought to be the seat of the soul. Instead, according to recent research, religiosity is dislocated and strung out along a neural network comprised of the frontal, parietal and temporal lobes.
Decreased parietal lobe activity, for example, has been linked to some religious experiences, while the decision-making and social aspects of religion seem to interplay in the frontal lobes. It is the temporal lobes that have been the focus of significant recent interest for their connection between epilepsy and religious visions and conversion. Epileptic seizures, and the brain chemistry at work between seizures, leads in some patients to a “gradual personality change which disposes them to mystical and religious thinking,” says neurologist Oliver Sacks in an interview with Big Think.
As well, a study published in February sampled patients’ level of spiritual belief and behavior before and after brain surgery. The surgery allowed the researches to determine if site-specific brain damage alters religiosity. The researchers found that damage to the parietal lobe—saddled on the mid-cerebrum—upset what are otherwise relatively stable levels of spiritual belief and behavior. These findings, the study notes, hint that the architecture of the brain itself, and changes therein caused by neurological and mental disorders, might be a neurobiological basis for altered spiritual and religious behavior.
The implications of a brain-based origin of religiosity are that the brain’s makeup determines ones level of belief, rather than choice or inspiration. More so, religious fervor might be induced through non-divine means by altering brain chemistry or structure. To test this, the cognitive neurologist Michael Persinger of Laurentian University, Canada, built a “God helmet” fitted with electromagnetic solenoids intending to induce religious experience. Famously, in 2003, evolutionary biologist, ardent atheist and Big Think expert Richard Dawkins tested the contraption without experiencing religious conversion.
The implications reach farther. If religiosity operates in specific parts and chemicals of the brain, then its origins might be written in the blueprints of life, our genes. To this point, research by geneticist Dean Hamer at the NIH finds God in a single gene–Vesicular Monoamine transporter 2 (VMAT2). Hamer identifies this as the “God gene,” a leading gene among many others written into our genetic code that predisposes people to religiosity. A genetic origin point of religiosity might stem from an evolutionary drive toward inclusion. In this way, learning a society’s religion, like learning its language, is hard-wired into humans through inherited genes.
I don’t believe religion is a neurological phenomenon, just a logical one. We all need logic and reason in our lives. The problem is not all of us are endowed with these in the same amount. Some of us are more rational. Plus, there are memes involved as well. No one is born religious you become after years in which you were told this and that. And now the interesting part: if you’re lucky enough to be one of those who are more logical/rational you get to shrug your shoulders after a while and return to your natural state, irreligious that is.
But like I wrote, we are very different one from another.
During the academic year that encompassed the fall term of 1964 and the spring term of 1965, I was a freshman in college. I was also in my first year of intercollegiate debate, after four years of interscholastic debate in high school. I’m sure debate has evolved in many ways in the last half-century, and I don’t really know what it’s like to be a debater these days, but back then, being a debater meant spending most of your weekends all school year long at debate tournaments, which were held at other schools. They typically began on Friday afternoon and ended around midday on Sunday.
I think it’s important to emphasize that not everything spreads in networks and not everything that spreads, spreads by the same mechanism. So germs spread differently than money, which spread differently than behaviors, which spread differently than ideas, which spread differently than emotions, and so on. So just because something spreads doesn’t mean it spreads the same way.
What Is Bad Parenting? | Laurence Steinberg | Big Think
Question: What is bad parenting?
Laurence Steinberg: So when I say bad parenting, I mean parenting that is excessively harsh, parenting that is inconsistent, or parenting that is excessively permissive. And lots of times kids get all three of those things together. So their parents will swing from being really, really harsh and punitive to not even caring, and being what most of us would consider to be negligent. And so those three things, the harshness, the permissiveness and the inconsistency, all have been shown to contribute to antisocial behavior during adolescence.
Four women with their kids at the doctor. After a brief analysis, the doc comes out and says: You are all obsessed with something!
To the first one:
- You are obsessed with sweets, you named your daughter Candy!
To the second one:
- You have an obsession with money. You called yours Penny!
To the third:
- Your obsession is alcohol. You named your kid Brandy.
At this moment the fourth one gets up and angrily calls her kid:
- Come on Dick, we’re leaving!