30 October 2014

Book Review: Steven Pinker: The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (Viking Adult: 2014)

The Mighty Pinker Has Struck Out
By Charles Euchner


Charles Euchner is a case writer and editor at Yale School of Management. Author or editor of books on civil rights (Nobody Turn Me Around), writing (The Big Book of Writing), public policy (Urban Policy Reconsidered, Playing the Field, Governing Greater Boston), baseball (The Last Nine Innings), and more, Euchner has contributed to The Boston Globe, The American, CommonWealth, Newsweek, Education Week, The Big Roundtable, The New York Times, and many other publications. Previously he served as executive director of the Rappaport Institute at Harvard University. He blogs at TheWritingBeat.com.



Somewhere, right now, someone is bemoaning the decline of writing. Grammar scolds lay down the law on the “proper” ways to speak and write. Business executives complain about the poor quality of emails. Government bureaucrats wade through piles of regulatory documents, sending some back for rewrites. And of course teachers grouse that texting and social media make their jobs impossible.
Statistics support the complaints. By one account, American businesses suffer $204 billion in lost productivity every year because of poor writing. Businesses and colleges must run remedial courses on writing. But writing programs—in schools and companies—usually make little difference. Less than half of the 2,300 students tracked in a four-year study said their writing had improved in college.
To the rescue comes Steven Pinker, the rock-star language maven from Harvard. Pinker is celebrated for his friendly and lucid style. The subtext of his writing might be: Here, let me translate what those eggheads are saying—and how you should think about these academic debates. So he would seem to be the ideal person to offer a thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century. And that is just what he sets out to do in The Sense of Style, which he sees as a successor to Strunk and White’s classic but outdated Elements of Style.
A definitive writing manual seems the next logical step for Pinker’s work. After writing two scholarly tomes early in his career, he has become a popularizer of intellectual ideas. In The Language Instinct, The Blank Slate, and How the Mind Works, Pinker offers erudite tours of the mysteries of thinking and acting. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, he argues that the world is becoming a safer, less violent place. In the ongoing debate about evolution, Pinker argues that all kinds of abilities—including family feelings, sharing, aggression, ethnocentrism, morality, spatial orientation, logic, probability, and even understandings of physics, biology, and psychology—are built into our DNA. 
Surely, all of these innate abilities could be used to help people write well. Writing is, above all, an act of sharing and storytelling, those distinctively human activities.
Alas, Pinker fails. His guide is a mess. The best part of the book explores “classic style,” in which the writer “orients the reader’s gaze,” pointing out interesting or important things in a conversational style. But Pinker gets lost in a maze of academic exercises and random prescriptions. For 62 pages Pinker expounds on abstract models for analyzing writing. For 117 pages, he renders judgment on a random assortment of quarrels on word usage. Very seldom does Pinker actually explain how to build a piece of good writing, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph.

09 October 2014

Adolf Meyer writes to Henry Head about Aphasia

My dear Dr Head: Dr. Noble from Sydney, who has visited us recently, told me that you are preparing a work on Aphasia. It occurred to me that inasmuch as my attitude toward the Aphasia problem coincides to quite an extent with your own but also has taken into consideration the "best" way of keeping relations with brain physiology, you might be interested in my Harvey Lecture, which, I suppose, is not very readily accessible. I also enclose a reprint of my course in the teaching of brain anatomy, which is an upshot of suggestions received through my early work in comparative anatomy and a few but much appreciated contacts with Hughlings Jackson. Believe me, very truly yours, Meyer.

25 March 1922, Letter from Adolf Meyer to Henry Head, Meyer Papers I/1633 Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives.

13 September 2014

Critical Response: “Northern Light and Northern Times: Swedish Leadership in the Foundation of Biological Rhythms Research” by Jole Shackelford Transactions of the American Philosophical Society vol. 103 part 2 (2013), pp. v-96”

In his aptly titled Northern Light and Northern Times: Swedish Leadership in the Foundation of Biological Rhythms Research (link), Jole Shackelford tackles the complicated and fascinating history of chronobiology. Hitherto a topic only explored in any serious way in a landmark essay by Alberto Cambrosio and Peter Keating, Shackelford’s long essay explores the social, institutional, and intellectual history of biological rhythms research chiefly in the period from 1930 to 1970 and places that history in both a longer history of ideas and a considered view of the torn geopolitical circumstances that dominated the globe in the modern and postmodern epochs. Shackelford in particular pays much attention to the first meeting of the ‘chronobiologists’, which took place at Ronneby Brunn in 1937. From there, his essay explores Swedish neutrality in the turbulent years of the 1940s and 1950s and closes with a discussion about the emergence of a more international society after 1949. That Shackelford’s emphasis is on the Swedish history of science in the modern period in particular adds a further valuable dimension in a historiography too-often dominated by a focus on Germany, France, Britain, Canada, and the United States. The essay is a pleasure to read and also a highly informative and illuminating exposition which could start many a budding historian of biology and neuroscience onto an interesting investigation of metaphor, space and time, and biology. Worthy of the hour it will take you to read this informative history!    

02 September 2014

Political Descent and the Politics of Evolutions

Two quotes that pair nicely with my review of Piers J. Hale's excellent book.
To furnish the most unremitted excitements of this kind, and to urge man to further the gracious designs of Providence, by the full cultivation of the earth, it has been ordained that population should increase much faster than food. This general law (as it has appeared in the former parts of this essay) undoubtedly produces much partial evil, but a little reflection may, perhaps, satisfy us, that it produces a great overbalance of good. Strong excitements seem necessary to create exertion, and to direct this exertion, and form the reasoning faculty, it seems absolutely necessary, that the Supreme Being should act always according to general laws. The constancy of the laws of nature, or the certainty, with which we may expect the same effect, from the same causes, is the foundation of the faculty of reason.
Malthus, Population: The First Essay, 1798 (reprint 1996), pp. 126-7
I might show, for instance, that while man derives great advantages from his highly developed intellectual faculties, the human species in general suffers from them at the same time considerable disadvantages; since these faculties confer the means for doing harm as easily as good, and their general effect is always to the disadvantage of those individuals who make least use of their intelligence, and this is necessarily the case of the greater number. It would appear therefore that the main evil in this respect resides in the extreme inequality of individuals, an inequality that cannot be entirely destroyed. Nevertheless, it may be inferred with still greater certainty that the thing most important for the improvement and happiness of man is to diminish as far as possible this enormous inequality, since it is the origin of most of the evils to which he is exposed.
Lamarck, Zoological Philosophy 1809 (trans. 1959), p. 361

Book Review: Piers J. Hale, Political Descent: Malthus, Mutualism, and the Politics of Evolution in Victorian England (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2014)

 
“Malthus,” philosopher of biology Robert J Richards has observed, “brought Darwin to recognize the tremendous fecundity of organisms and their consequent struggle to acquire the necessities of survival” (Richards 1987, 100) but Darwin also, “misread Lamarck from the beginning, for clearly neither the Histoire naturelle nor the Philosophical zoologique invoked will to explain the inheritance of acquired characteristics”(Richards 1987, 93). Piers J. Hale’s Political Descent: Malthus, Mutualism, and the Politics of Evolution in Victorian England is not only about this moment of Charles Darwin’s close reading of both Malthus and Lamarck, Hale’s fascinating and provocative study is also about the ways the legacy of that reading came to haunt intellectual modernity and after. For the Victorians, Hale writes, “biology and politics were mutually informative subjects”. That is surely true now as well. Thus in a book ostensibly restricted to Malthus, mutualism, and politics, we find so much more.
Political Descent must be situated historiographically in a longstanding debate among historians of biology about the politics of evolution. Adrian Desmond, Robert J. Richards, Janet Browne, Peter Bowler, and many others have had much to say on these matters, and most historians readily accept Adrian Desmond’s assertion that evolutionary ideas – particularly Lamarckian ones – were associated with radical politics. Hale’s contribution to this debate is to show firstly, as most historians recognize, that Darwin’s discovery of a Malthusian mechanism for natural selection, moved the politics of evolution into a more normative political dialogue, while secondly showing, which most historians have missed, that a strong tradition of anti-Malthusian, heavily Lamarckian thought persisted into the twentieth century. The politics of evolution, Hale demonstrates in Political Descent, was thus much more contested than historians have hitherto recognized.
In broad brush detail, Political Descent tells a story that is about the formulation of theories of natural law and the advance of secularization. It is a book about labor and industry, individual struggle and social evolution, political norms and radical politics, and the relationship between culture and biology. Famous ‘Darwinians’ and ‘evolutionists’ grace its pages – Spencer, Chambers, Wallace, Huxley, Kropotkin, Galton, Weismann, and Pearson. There, too, however, are seemingly less likely figures for a history of biology – Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Beatrice Webb, William Morris, Herbert George Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Benjamin Kidd, and many others. All saw the question of whether natural selection acts on individuals or groups to be essential to answer, and appropriately for our Neuro Times, most also recognized that the answer would have immediate ramification for the study of mind, brain, and human behavior.

29 August 2014

How Lamarck Divided the Species

Here is a fact worthy of readers attention. From Jean-Baptiste Lamarck:

In order to avoid ambiguity and hypothesis, I divide the entire known animal world in my first course of lectures at the Museum in the spring of 1794 (the year II of the republic) into two perfectly distinct groups, viz: Animals that have vertebrae; Animals without vertebrae.


J. B. Lamarck, Zoological Philosophy. Translated by Hugh Elliot (New York and London: Hafner Publishing Co, 1963), p. 62.
 

28 August 2014

A Further Note on "Contagious Shooting"

In my recent history of "Contagious Shooting," I suggested that mechanical metaphors would be mobilized in media discourse to shape further public attitudes about the physiological nature of police over-reaction. Yesterday, Joel F. Shults, writing in The Washington Post, delivered this fine nugget:

Brain processes take time and often move slower than reality. A study published in 2003 showed that it takes a shooter about one-third of a second to recognize a threat, then each trigger pull takes one-tenth of a second. But the mental process of deciding to stop shooting takes longer than the decision to shoot. The result is that another two or three shots can be fired as the senses, brain, nerves, and muscles put on the brakes. In other words, an officer can execute several trigger pulls after a visual input indicates a subject is no longer a threat.

Further, multiple shots don’t guarantee that a person will not continue to advance or attack. And it can take over a second for a body to fall to the ground after being fatally shot. This leaves even more time for shots to be fired before an officer’s finger stops pulling the trigger.

In total, whatever happened in Ferguson likely happened in the time it takes to sing the first four words of the national anthem – and the officer was forced to make quick decisions to keep up.

Take a look at the study. Just do it.

23 August 2014

The Trial of Rebecca Schuman's Tractatus

Rebecca Schuman hates academia so much that she gets paid to write a regular column for Slate.com about it. And she positively hates on anyone who fails to recognize her viewpoint and faun over her logic. Fully realizing that for her the road leading to fame and glory as an education pundit is lined with blazing righteous indignation about all of the problems in higher education she sees and knows can be corrected if we just get rid of all the tenured and tenure-track faculty, who, of course, are egotistical jerks, Schuman writes contempt with unmatched panache and is a leading stylist in the art of derision. She manages almost always to write about problems everyone agrees are problems in ways that makes it seem that she is the only one with the adroit logic to see and solve the problem. Her solution is simple: fire everyone. And probably burn all the libraries too. And destroy the buildings. And ignite effigies of philosophers that do not meet with her approval. And, after all of that, recommend truth and reconciliation commission for adjuncts and students, who have been traumatized by the horror that is the tradition of universities for centuries.

19 August 2014

The Recent History of “Contagious Shooting” (1982-2006) and more recent events in Ferguson, Missouri

In the decade since the “Decade of the Brain” the neurosciences have acquired a spectacular cache in the humanities and social sciences. One need look no further than the work of Nikolas Rose and Joelle M. Abi-Rached, scholars who argue in their striking volume Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and Management of the Mind that governing in the future will occur through the brain (2013). While for contemporary neuroscientists and neurologists such an expansion of a-disciplinary neuroscience might and probably should represent a crisis in terms of the public face of their science and practice (see Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld 2013), I would suggest that when combined with other disconcerting trends in governence these developments have wider implications in terms of global civil society, policy, common law systems, jurisprudence, and economics. Such a starting place may seem very far away from Ferguson, Missouri. But I think that isn’t the case at all. And in this long essay, I’ll try to explain why.

13 August 2014

The Neurologists: A history of a medical specialty in modern Britain, c 1789-2000

“An important contribution to our understanding of specialization in medicine. Casper's carefully researched and lucidly argued study presents an illuminating picture of the way in which British neurology developed an intellectual and ultimately institutional identity separate from that of elite medicine generally. It is a complex and nuanced story that cannot be explained by technological innovation or market incentives alone.”
 
Charles Rosenberg, Harvard University

“A most substantial and illuminating contribution, not only to the history of neurology, but also to our understanding of scientific-medical disciplines and the relationship of science to its broader context. Casper uses the confusing and often contradictory usages of the words "neurology" and "neurologist" by historical actors in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as points of departure for a convincing and richly contextualized historical account of neurology and the dynamics of specialization.”

Professor Daniel Todes, Johns Hopkins University


The last twenty years in the English speaking world have seen the rise of a new cultural discourse derived from neurology and neuroscience. Found everywhere in this contemporary moment are cultural products that celebrate these fields: fMRI brain scans, case studies of neurological patients, works of science fiction focusing on cybernetic creatures, films about amnesia, hallucinations, and multiple personality disorders, popular science books, and, not least, an overwhelming imagery of brains, spines and nerves. How we arrived at this moment deserves consideration and contemplation. What is it about neurology and neuroscience that makes such perceptions self-evident? Telling this story requires a history devoted to analyzing the rise of medical and scientific neurology. The Neurologists is that book.
 
When I set out to write my book, I wanted to give my readers an opportunity to answer those questions. At the same time, no comparable book on neurology existed. In beginning my research, I felt very much at sea. What historically had been the differences between neurology and psychiatry? Was neurology synonymous with neuroscience before the advent of neuroscience? How did physiology and pathology fit into the story? Could Freud really be called a neurologist? Such questions were not, and are not, easy to answer. I hope, however, that The Neurologists provides readers with a place to start. Although I realize that many may disagree with my interpretation about the reasons underpinning the specialization of neurology into a branch of medicine, I suspect many new scholars interested in these topics will find it a useful place to begin.
 


23 May 2014

20 April 2014

Jonah Lehrer's New Blog

Jonah Lehrer has started a new blog (link here). I am personally of the opinion that he should be given a third (if last) chance.

Forgiveness is a virtue known only to humans. Forgetfulness is a still better advantage. I think we all would do well to exercise both more frequently. Am I wrong?

31 March 2014

NeuroPun: RAF Brain Centre



From the awesome New York Public Library Digital Collection (link here).