Thursday, October 14, 2004

A Reed Trembling in the Wilderness

Francis Crick, the biologist who established DNA as the chemical building-block of life, once delivered his assessment on man's worth.

"The Astonishing Hypothesis, is that 'You,' your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll's Alice might have phrased it: 'You're nothing but a pack of neurons.'"

Mark Steyn drily noted in his obituary the irony that Francis Crick could "only unmask the mystery of humanity by denying our humanity", as if intelligibility had the quality of diminishing what we love by depriving it of mystery and hence, majesty. Samuel Johnson believed that some men preferred the unattainable over the actual. "Hope is itself a species of happiness, and, perhaps, the chief happiness which this world affords". Elsewhere he enlarges on the point. "The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope". We've all heard the refrain:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.
(John Keats)

None of which explains the interest in the debate between President George W. Bush and Senator John F. Kerry. Glenn Reynolds felt the last was the most boring of the series. "So far this is the weakest debate of the three. That in part accounts for the glassy look in my eyes, though I've had that kind of a day anyway ..." No policy bombshells were dropped, so attention was chiefly focused on how the men spoke and moved. Ann Althouse had time to observe a drop of spittle forming in the President's mouth. "Bush is smiling a lot, and the left side of his mouth nevertheless turns down oddly. A glob of foam forms on the right side of his mouth! Yikes! That's really going to lose the women's vote." Nothing Kerry said all night provoked as much interest as his mention of Vice President Cheney's daughter's homosexuality. Her mother, Lynne Cheney,  was livid. The Washington Post reports:

Lynne V. Cheney, wife of Vice President Cheney, accused John F. Kerry on Wednesday night of "a cheap and tawdry political trick" and said he "is not a good man" after he brought up their daughter's homosexuality at the final presidential debate.

Roger Simon wondered why Kerry, when asked about his wife, brought up his mother.

Why did Kerry's mother feel she had to remind him "Intergity! Integrity! Integrity!" from her hospital bed when he told her he was thinking of running for President? What did she know? My mother would have assumed I would have integrity in the same situation.

The focus on small beer stood in opposition to what Crick, Johnson and Keats would have led us to expect: that people prefer their Presidential candidates to be more Olympian. Yet the impulse to closely inspect the candidates, to see the fleck of spittle, to catch them in an unguarded moment is rooted deep in our evolutionary makeup. It is almost as if, in an inversion of Crickian logic, we can only love and understand what we diminish. And for that reason people had to see the candidates up close. The National Academy of Sciences notes the evolutionary advantage conferred upon species that were able to recognize a predator's face in the background of foliage. In a long article on pattern recognition, they try to answer why living things have devoted so much neural processing power to recognizing patterns, such that the humblest animals can outperform the best supercomputers of the early 21st century.

Contour fragments in an image are linked together if they exhibit "good continuation," i.e., can be linked to form a smoothly curving extended contour. These are sound probabilistic inferences in a world where objects tend to have parts with coherent color and texture and are bounded by smooth contours. A survival advantage would accrue to those animals that had incorporated such factors in their visual processing.

Which in plain words meant that animals who could see a tiger amid the dappling of leaves stood more chance of surviving than one which could not. That instinctive compulsion is too important to ignore. Even today many of our most important decisions --  who we will trust as a prison cellmate, combat buddy or wife -- are based on an indefinable pattern recognition. We may choose a lawyer on his resume, but we will choose our allies in barroom brawl on personal assessment. Polls show that half the American public has found what it wants in John Kerry and an equal number have found it in George Bush. But what each has sought may be strikingly different.  Although the general populace was split evenly between Bush and Kerry, a Military Times survey showed soldiers preferred President Bush by a 73:18 ratio to Senator Kerry. That suggests those seeking allies in maintaining Roe vs Wade may see a welcoming visage in Senator Kerry; while those looking for someone to trust in a foxhole will take one look -- and fly. Which is no condemnation of Senator Kerry: elections are only secondarily about candidates, they are primarily referendums on ourselves.

What did you go out into the wilderness to see?
A reed shaken by the wind?
But what did you go out to see?
A man clothed in soft garments?
Indeed, those who wear soft [clothing] are in kings' houses.
But what did you go out to see?
A prophet?

Who knows what we have come for but ourselves.