Deep in the brain

An article about brain parasites that breed in cats and spread to creatures, possibly including humans, that then become unreasonably attracted to cats appeared in the March 2012 issue of The Atlantic.  The article triggered vast amounts of comment around the web; I’ll just mention that it appeared at about the same time Gregory Cochran argued on his “West Hunter” blog that the likeliest biological basis for homosexuality is a brain parasite.  If this strikes you as an obnoxious point to make, you are well on your way to grasping the nature of Dr Cochran’s mission.

The late Christopher Hitchens often irritated me, though not in the way that Dr Cochran sets out to irritate people.  I read his column in The Nation for many years, and always wondered what percentage of their working day that magazine’s widely praised fact-checkers spent correcting his misstatements, exaggerations, and outright falsehoods.  A few always slipped through; my personal favorite was this, from his column of 22 October 2001:

There are others who mourn September 11 because it was on that day in 1683 that the hitherto unstoppable armies of Islam were defeated by a Polish general outside the gates of Vienna. The date marks the closest that proselytizing Islam ever came to making itself a superpower by military conquest. From then on, the Muslim civilization, which once had so much to teach the Christian West, went into a protracted eclipse. I cannot of course be certain, but I think it is highly probable that this is the date that certain antimodernist forces want us to remember as painfully as they do. And if I am right, then it’s not even facile or superficial to connect the recent aggression against American civil society with any current “human rights issue.”

I agree that it is foolish to regard the attacks of 11 September 2001 as an act of political protest, but that is not because Hitchens was right in his suspicion that their perpetrators chose the date 11 September from an obsession with the events of the seventeenth century.  A correction appeared in the following issue pointing out that the Ottoman forces actually suffered their defeat on 12 September 1683, not 11 September.  Hitchens, in his next column, dug his heels in and argued that because the battle began the previous day, he shouldn’t have to give up his point.  In defense of this apparently preposterous stance, he quoted a remark in which Hilaire Belloc put the battle on 11 September, then said that Belloc’s “awful ‘Crusader’ style is just the sort of thing to get him noticed by resentful Islamists.”

The same column in which Hitchens tried to salvage his theory that 9/11 was a reprisal for Hilaire Belloc’s prose style includes a quote from G. K. Chesterton.  Chesterton and Belloc were so closely associated that in their day they were often referred to as “Chesterbelloc.”  This issue of The Atlantic includes an essay by Hitchens about Chesterton, who was apparently one of his favorite authors.  I didn’t think of it in 2001, but it explains a great deal about Hitchens to think of him as a follower of Chesterton and Belloc.  Like those men, he was a prolific writer who prided himself on a fluent style, showed significant erudition in a wide range of fields, and did not particularly trouble himself about questions of fact.  Also like Chesterton and Belloc, he was an insistent and grossly unfair apologist for his religious ideas.  Chesterton and Belloc defended the Roman Catholic church by presenting every other faith tradition in an absurdly negative light; Hitchens simply added one item to their catalogue of strawmen when he set up shop as a professional atheist.  The essay in this issue raises the possibility that Hitchens imitated at least some aspects of Chesterton and Belloc’s work deliberately, as well as exhibiting an influence that stemmed from his early and long exposure to them.

Sandra Tsing Loh describes the difficulties she faces adjusting to the idea that her father, Eugene Loh, is in a long, terminal decline, and that she is his caregiver. The article’s hook is “Why caring for my aging father has me wishing he would die.”  I shouldn’t think that would require much explanation.  It is difficult to watch a loved one suffer irretrievable losses, stressful to take care of another person, and natural to resent unfamiliar responsibilities.

I suspect that everyone who has ever occupied Ms Tsing Loh’s current position has at least momentarily wondered how much nicer things would be if the other person would just hurry up and die already.  If Ms Tsing Loh had written a short story about a fictional character in her position who couldn’t shake that thought, she would have explored a facet of the human experience* that needs acknowledgement.  By choosing to forgo the distancing mechanism of fiction and write a first person account, complete with photographs of Mr Loh, she is performing an entirely different sort of speech act.  She is not only confessing to this wholly predictable, probably well-nigh universal human response; she is also confronting her father and everyone else who loves him with a demand that they discard pretenses that have become conventional because they often make life more comfortable for people in their situation.  That demand, if met, would create a new kind of social situation, one which would be “honest” in the sense that it leaves raw emotions unconcealed.  However, that very honesty is another form of role playing, in which the members of the group play roles that might be appropriate in a therapeutic setting, though not necessarily so in the setting of a family group that is supposed to survive for many generations.  To keep people together for that long under all the stresses that come with family life, it’s necessary to develop a shared understanding of boundaries and to define ways to renegotiate boundaries.  Without those understandings, it’s impossible to predict each others behavior, which means that it is impossible to communicate without leaving the impression that one is saying more than one intends.  If Mr Loh were to recover the ability to read, I can hardly that he would not flinch when he realized that he was the theme of sentences like “if, while howling like a banshee, I tore my 91 year old father limb from limb with my own hands in the town square, I believe no jury of my peers would convict me.  Indeed, if they knew all the facts, I believe any group of sane, sensible individuals would actually roll up their shirtsleeves and pitch in.”  He might laugh, but I’m sure he would flinch.

*I’m familiar with the arguments against the phrase “the human experience”, and I still like to use it.  If you rehearse those arguments in the comments, be prepared to read long discussions of the thought of Irving Babbitt in response.

About these ads
Previous Post

4 Comments

  1. bill

     /  March 3, 2012

    First, you are misleading your readers: Dr. Cochran has said male lack of attraction to women may be the result of a death of brain cells due to a side effect of an infection. He doesn’t rule out parasites, but neither does he argue they are the more likely of the two.

    Second, because you find the hypotheses to be distasteful ( “if this strikes you as an obnoxious point to make”) doesn’t mean science should ignore hypotheses you dislike and doesn’t mean people like Cochran ought to shut up, which seems to be what you wish to happen. (BTW, since you alighted on the parasitic mention to the exclusion of the side effect of a common infection, haven’t you yourself, in your own estimation, been “obnoxious?”)

    This idea has been around for some time. More and more scientists who know anything about evolution and fitness believe it to be the most likely explanation and wish it to be examined. I first heard of it about 5 or so years ago from my chem professor who is a strong believer in it. Turns out several of my science profs believe it to be the explanation that makes the most sense.

    Sadly, it seem you want science to examine the world only when science doesn’t disrupt your own silly little beliefs about the natural world. How ignorant of you. You should go back to living in the hills.

  2. acilius

     /  March 3, 2012

    Now, now. If I’d wanted Dr Cochran to shut up, I would hardly have gone out of my way to mention him in a note on Kathleen McAuliffe’s article about Jaroslav Flegr.

    Nor is there any connection between the question of whether Dr Cochran’s hypothesis is true and the question of his rhetorical agenda. Look again at the last few paragraphs of his post, and I don’t see how you can avoid the conclusion that he is deliberately trying to irritate and provoke readers who believe that biological evidence of the “naturalness” of homosexuality will somehow change the minds of antigay types. As I’ve made clear in earlier postings here, I think this belief is misguided, and doubt that there is even much point in having opinions about homosexuality. However, a great many people do hope that research into the biological basis of homosexuality will, by some unspecified mechanism, convince people who now think of it as a vice that it is in fact a virtue. Ill-founded as this hope may be, it is so close to the hearts of those who entertain it that any argument to the contrary can be counted upon to trigger their anger. For most researchers, the prospect of meeting such an angry reaction would be a dreary one. For Dr Cochran, it is plainly enticing. That may mean that he’s right at home in the blogosphere, but it also explains why I felt it necessary to warn my readers what they would be getting into if they followed the link I provided.

  3. Bill: are you trying to say that someone actually listened to what I said about homosexuality, other than Paul Ewald and Bill Hamilton? Peopling are actually joining my secret army of the night?

    Wow.

  4. acilius

     /  June 11, 2012

    Thanks for commenting, Dr Cochran!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 81 other followers

%d bloggers like this: