130925_12362_dennett020.JPGThough the 1990s were dubbed, the “decade of the brain” by scientists, there is something extraordinary occurring in the present decade that shouldn’t be ignored. Some of the brain research done during the end of the last century has spurred scientists and humanists to think differently about many things. The leaders in this renaissance of brain science and philosophy are writing books and articles for a lay audience–so many it’s been hard to keep up with them (though I have tried my best to do so).

My favorite “brainiacs” in the field are Antonio Damasio, Daniel Dennett, Eric Kandel, Paul Bloom and Merlin Donald. Each has written several books pressing society to more seriously consider new discoveries about the brain and its workings in our daily lives.

Damasio famously debunked Cartesian dualism (the mind-body problem) and unveiled the complex palette of emotions built into our nervous system. Dennett “explained” consciousness from both a philosophical and scientific perspective. Kandel gave us a masterpiece about the neuroscience of “memory” and subsequent books about art.  Bloom spent his career studying how babies develop an inner sense of “moral” judgment. Donald gave us a theory of how the human “mind” evolved from the brains of early hominids over hundreds of thousands of years.

I have just finished a new book by Dennett, entitled From Bacteria to Bach and Back. Dan has never been one to overlook a pun when it serves his purpose as a writer. In it he attempts to synthesize much of the brain science and evolutionary theory that have informed his philosophy. Reviewers have praised the book for its broad sweep and lively writing, and I found it fascinating, though too clever by half.

Two of the big ideas in BBB are intended to shake things up: the concept of “memetics” as a science, and the radical idea that consciousness is “an evolved user interface” with the outside world. For anyone interested in philosophy or cultural history, these perspectives are fascinating.

The news here is that brain scientists are pressing society to take note of the major discoveries that will change the way we live in the very near future–through advances in medicine, pharmacology, behavioral science, psychotherapy and other fields–transforming the world for the better. Robert Sapolsky’s Behave is a case in point–a Stanford professor on the talk show circuit explaining the evolution of the human brain to TV viewers. A generation of brilliant researchers is breaking out of their laboratories and taking to the streets. Watch out, they’re dangerous, like wild baboons.

UNESCO’s Dilemma

August 25, 2015

Amidst widespread concern about the world economy and China’s seeming collapse, it was hard for UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, to get a message out about another ISIS travesty in the Middle East yesterday. Nevertheless, Irina Bokova, the director general, asked the international community to “stand united against . . . persistent cultural cleansing” by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, where some of the world’s most important archaeological sites have been looted and ravaged. Last week the militant group beheaded Khalid al-Asaad, Palmyra’s heroic keeper of historic sites. Over the weekend it was learned that the group had also destroyed the best preserved temple in the ancient city, as well as a fifth-century monastery nearby.

War and terrorism have wreaked havoc on ancient cultural artifacts for much of the last 30 years, particularly following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the destabilization of the Middle East. As UN peacekeepers struggled to keep warring factions in check, its cultural defenders were caught off guard by the new vehemence of extremist factions toward cultural symbols such as the Mostar Bridge. Artifact conservation had heretofore concerned itself with saving ruins from weather, neglect, and development. Now the threats became more immediate: mortars, hammers, bombs, and pure hatred.

My students in CHAPS, a program for cultural heritage preservation at Rutgers University, are acutely aware of UNESCO’s challenge. Their thesis topics now favor things like climate change and conflict resolution, factors that weren’t on my radar screen when I was a graduate student. They understand that without new tools for conserving world heritage sites, including political and social instruments, there will be little chance of saving many of the world’s most precious historic buildings and cities from destruction during the next century.

UNESCO has never been high on the United Nations priority list for funding or development, so there is little wonder that it cannot command attention when crises develop, even ones that threaten our common heritage so directly as those in Syria and Iraq. How can this watchdog for cultural sites conduct its business amid the cacophony of voices crying for social justice, economic equality, and political change in the world? The dilemma is stark: cultural heritage is more important than ever to humans looking for identities in a globalizing economy, yet that very heritage is lowest in priority among international political issues compared to things like terrorism, climate change, energy shortages, hunger, and crushing poverty.

Remembering Atrocities

December 24, 2014

Serf monumentThe photograph in this edition of Frozen Music comes from a remarkable archive of views of Russia taken around the turn of the 19th century. It shows a “monument to the freeing of the serfs” on a steppe somewhere in central Russia. The Russians have monuments to virtually everything political, even the murder of hundreds in the Ukraine by the Nazis at Babi Yar. When I was a tourist there in 1990, our guide assumed that all Americans would want to see the grim, horrible place where one of the war’s worst mass murders took place. I later attended a performance of the “Babi Yar” symphony by Dimitri Shostakovich in New York and was moved to tears. I will never forget that experience.

Americans don’t much like to remember horrible events, but something changed after 9/11. Now we have dozens of memorials to that tragedy throughout the land. My students in a class on architectural conservation are drawn to what is now called “negative heritage” sites like the defaced Buddhas in Afghanistan and the Mostar Bridge in Bosnia. One has even worked to save a Japanese internment camp in Canada. Memorials to heroes will persist, but our attention has shifted in the 21st century.

We need to remind ourselves that the worst parts of our natures are much in evidence in the world today, and amnesia about recent acts of violence, genocide, genital mutilation, racism, and other atrocities will only lead to more outrageous transgressions. When the Russians, during the time of Tolstoy, admitted the worst to themselves, they found the courage to overturn a bankrupt political system. Where is our resolve to do something similar today?

Art and Anthropology

October 16, 2009

News flash. Anthropologists, while busy discovering new missing links every other month, have noticed that early humans made art. Furthermore, it appears that artistic endeavor was predicated on crafting things that humans, then and now, found beautiful. Dennis Dutton, a professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, has written a book about this. In today’s New York Times he asks if today’s “conceptual” artists are producing “art” at all.

I have argued here and elsewhere that the pursuit of beauty, in all its forms, is a necessary factor in the making of paintings, architecture, poetry, music, sculpture–any fine art, and most applied arts. For the past century or so, conceptual artists have abandoned this pursuit, and, while many provocative works have appeared, art has suffered. Dennis correctly asks whether the works of such artists as Damien Hirst will remain in the canon a hundred years from now.

Perhaps it is ironic that scientists–particularly neuroscientists mapping the brain and anthropologists mapping human evolution–are making profound contributions to the understanding of art and music these days. Art critics, self-involved as they are, have generally not noticed these discoveries. Antonio Damasio’s critique of rationalism has dismantled much of the philosophical scaffolding that many artists and architects use to justify their work. Scientists analyzing the evolution of the brain continue to point out that aesthetic pleasure is hard-wired, not culturally derived. In short, those who argue that contemporary art has moved beyond the true and the beautiful are wrong.

Well, “chacun a son gout” and all that. Those who enjoy looking a medicine cabinets and embalmed sharks are entitled to spend millions on Mr. Hirst’s work. For me, the Museum of Natural History has better examples of animal parts. But let’s stop denigrating the legitimate work of artists and architects who spend their careers mastering the techniques and crafts that are necessary for artistic production as it has existed for thousands of years. Our old brains still respond to beauty.