Phlosopher Daniel C. Dennett and his scarecrow
August. Edge is quiet. The conversation is on hold. The Edge community has hit the road... Dennis Overbye walked on the beach on Fire Island with his daughter Mira, now 16 months old;Nicholas Humphrey encountered the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett and his scarecrow in Blue Hill, Maine; Gregory Benford hung out in Japan with a robot named Asimo; David Fokos made a pretty picture in Martha's Vineyard; Jaron Lanier learned about clannishness and the perception of enemies by leaving Berkeley and traveling to Indiana; Daniel C. Dennett sailed the coast of Maine; Timothy Taylor enjoyed Wagner's Valkyries at the State Opera in Vienna; David Berreby contemplated territoriality and variety on his roof in Brooklyn; Steven Pinker delighted in meeting his 19-year-old mother and 25-year-old father through their honeymoon pictures of 50 summers ago; Delta Willis left her houseboat on the Hudson river in New York City for Swansea; James O'Donnell schmoozed with 123 7-foot tall fiberglass bears in Berlin; [Page 2:] John Horgan communed with rehabbed birds and read blood-soaked books; George Dyson checked in from Interstate 90 in South Dakota; William Calvin matched up the apes in the San Diego Zoo with people he knows; Alison Gopnik gathered with 26 immediate family members in the Umbrian Hills; Hans- Joachim Metzger used his imaginary two-camera-device make black light objects in Munich; Irene Pepperberg traveled with a parrot in Europe and talked to people about animal cognition; Margaret Wertheim visited a Jules Verne-like chamber for studying plasmas in New Mexico; Susan Blackmore endured the hottest summer in Bristol in 343 years by working in her garden; Marc D. Hauser introduced trained eagles to simulate attacks on the poor innocent monkeys rhesus monkeys on the Island of Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico; Keith Devlin watched one of the Palio races for the first time in Siena; Roger Schank stayed at home on the beach in Palm Beach, Florida; and Paul Davies fulfilled his childhood dream of visiting the independent country of San Marino...
Nancy and I didn't venture very far from Manhattan this summer. it was our first summer with Mira, now 16 months, shown here with me on the beach at Fire Island. She, of course, is a trip all by herself.
Blue Hill, Maine
It's been a long summer. I and my family spent two very happy weeks in the first part of August in Maine, staying with Dan and Susan Dennett, whose farm in Blue Hill is conveniently close to my wife's parents home on Deer Isle.
Ayla and the children revelled in her parents' attention, while I and Dan hung out at the farm, repaired his barn, talked about stuff and played anagram scrabble—or rather played anagram scrabble and talked. (Have you heard of this new game? It's totally addictive .. and the rule seems to be—Susan will confirm this—Dan wins.)
I went from there to a conference on Evolution and Religion, organised by David Smith, in Portland, Maine, under the auspices of the New England Institute. David is plowing a lonely furrow, championing Evolutionary Psychology in the teeth of the know-nothing conventional culture of psychology in the US. The conference was great. David is great. He deserves all our support.
Then, home to Cambridge, and on to two blessed weeks at our house in Kerry, Ireland. The weather in Ireland was Mediterranean (while this summer the Mediterranean coast has been like the Sahara). We took a boat to the Skellig Isles, craggy rocks jutting out of the sea, six miles from the mainland, where from about 600 to 1200 A.D. a community of Christian monks had a monastery. Bernard Shaw wrote about their life "I tell you the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived and worked in: it is part of our dream world."
am researching the subject of "reasons to live".
The monks of the Skelligs present as great a paradox as any.
than anything else, what I enjoy most about Martha's Vineyard are
the wonderful, varied beaches, many of them with few or no people
Working next to the water with my 80-year old 8x10 view camera
feels very meditative and grounding. I feel a connectedness with
which I just never seem able to acquire sitting at home in my urban
However, I did ship my camera equipment out and spent a couple days working by the water. I now find that 90% of my photographs feature water in them. Using long exposures ranging from 20 seconds up to 60 minutes, I have tried to filter out what I call the "visual noise" of everyday life—all the short-term, "instantaneous" events within a scene that preoccupy our visual perception—in order to reveal the fundamental, underlying forms of our world. It is these forms that I think we respond to on a visceral level.
am continually interested to see people looking at my photographs—to
see them physically relax. People seem completely comfortable
and at ease with these images, happy to accept them as evidence of
a reality, even though they show a world which we never see!
ocean never looks this way, and yet people are not troubled by
do they even question it. However, I think that by stripping
these scenes down to their fundamental forms—removing the visual
viewer is able to breathe a sigh of relief, similar to the relief
one experiences switching off a static-ridden radio station.
This has been the Summer of clannishness. On every level it seems that humans are clumping into opposing groups to an even greater degree than usual, at least from the perspectives available to me.
Most of my time has been spent in Berkeley, with sojourns to Toronto, Dartmouth, and various points in the interior of the USA, like Indiana.
While visiting Indiana to give a lecture, I saw big block letters on a billboard spelling out a slogan that I couldn't even believe at first, "Nuke Berkeley." I must say, Berkeley doesn't have much of anything kind to say about Indiana either.
My European friends have started to seem like distant aliens. They don't read the same news, or even share the same political vocabulary as Indiana, and lately can barely even talk to Berkeley.
Scientific communities seem punchier than usual as well. I recently wrote to a physicist who was a stranger to me simply to praise a textbook he had written, but when I mentioned that I was friendly with his ideological opponents in the quantum gravity debates, he became rather cold and dismissive.
I think of myself as a liberal, but by Berkeley standards I'm a reactionary conservative. For the first time in my life, I haven't felt free to speak my mind in casual conversations. For instance, a friend of mine in town made a point of trying to board a commercial flight recently while wearing a button that said, "Suspected terrorist." He said he was trying to make a statement about the deterioration of civil liberties—that all citizens were being treated like terrorists. The pilot said he was uncomfortable with the button and asked him to take it off. This resulted in a stand-off, and eventually my friend left the plane.
In the Berkeley context this story is about evil police state repression of free speech, but to me, having lived through the attack in NYC, it seemed more like a case of attempted hate speech and the resolution a simple matter of kindness to the pilots. If someone wore a button saying, "Suspected Nazi", or "Suspected rapist", I would feel the same way. The unintentional point would be more powerful than the intended point.
While I'm ready to state this opinion in print and get some diffuse and delayed grief for it, it wouldn't be worth the trouble to state it in most conversations I seem to find myself in in Berkeley. My opinion might be wrong, but I'd prefer to feel free to state it, and it's strange to me not to have that freedom in the ultra-polarized climate we are living though at the moment.
I wish there was more scientific study of clannishness and the perception of enemies. Anthropologists and primatologists can tell us a few things, but what I'm most curious about is the genetic components of the idea of "the enemy." Maybe if we understood the part of us that can be activated to fear the appointed enemy of the moment, we could learn to soften our worst impulses.
A month before the attacks I had published an interview with Global Business Network in which I toyed with the idea of regularly spraying anti-depressive or perhaps euphoria-inducing pharmaceutical compounds on the Middle East and Afghanistan. Probably too late to try that idea.
It turns out that the "Nuke Berkeley" part of Indiana I visited was very pro-Prozac, since the stuff was manufactured there, and local mythology held that a higher concentration of people were using it in the neighborhood than anywhere else. As for Berkeley, well, it would seem to be one of the more self-medicated places I've visited, judging from the odors that reach you on the sidewalk and what you see growing in home gardens. Is it possible that we're medicating ourselves into a state of increased paranoia?
That thought has occurred to me in the past to explain aspects of the Berkeley side of the divide. Since the '60s there's been a tremendous cachet to paranoid thinking in "progressive" culture. Some of the most prominent progressive thinkers have specifically been technicians of paranoia enhancement, such as Chomsky and Pynchon. It's much easier to be taken seriously in Berkeley if you're manifestly paranoid. This seems a shame to me, since it is a self-disempowering stance.
On a purely anecdotal basis I observe that a certain paranoid edge seems to rise over time in many of the drug users I have known, even though the drugs in question have been quite varied. The literature does seem to support the idea that varied disruptions can induce paranoia, and I wonder how closely paranoia is followed by the phenomena of exaggerated enemy perception or clannishness.
One of the sad casualties of the recent financial scandals was the support of unusual scientific research by the accounting firm Ernst and Young. After the Enron scandal and all the rest, accounting firms were told to narrow their businesses in order to avoid conflicts of interest. E&S had been a key source of support to researchers like Stuart Kauffman who were interested in finding new scientific paths to understanding human affairs. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio and I had been among the "Ernst and Young Fellows" before the fall.
We were about to embark upon some new lines of thinking about biological components to economic and political behavior. One of the noisiest trends in economics follows from the astonishing recent discovery that humans are "irrational", rather than the rational players of classical economic models, but even that's probably not quite the right idea. It's not that people are irrational, but that our sense of rationality arises out of a long biological history and reflects different survival pressures than we face today. We are not irrational, but differently rational.
An example of the sort of biologically-informed economics one might be able to do is to identify a sweet spot in the otherwise undifferentiated continuum between socialism and Laissez Faire capitalism. This has to do with the sense of reward. An argument against pure socialism is that people need to be able to earn rewards in order to be motivated to achieve excellence.
To the degree that socialism has ever existed, it does seem to have produced rather complacent, static, and grey societies. But how much reward does a person really need to be offered in order to feel motivated? Does a CEO need 10 times, 100 times, or 1000 times the reward of the lowest paid worker to be optimally motivated? Is it possible to examine the biology of the reward pathways in the human brain to say something about this? Could biology serve to help find a point of compromise? There don't seem to be any other ideas on the table for resolving the dispute between Indiana and Berkeley, so biology ought to be given a chance.
p.s. Regarding the above "postcard" image...Berkeley hosted an "only here" conference called "Mind States", in which Sue Blackmore, V.S. Ramachandran, and I were joined by a crush of speakers interested in the psychedelic experience. I've personally never used drugs, not even alcohol, and an amused Timothy Leary used to call me "The control group" when he was alive.* [see editor's note] At any rate, a wonderful photographer named Dean Chamberlain created portraits of some of the speakers and the image here is what he made of me and some of my musical instruments. His exposures last for hours, during which he moves about with assorted lights in order to create an extraordinary saturated ambience. My talk at the conference was about cephalopod cognition, so the portrait has an underwater theme with assorted stuffed cephalopods showing up (can you find them?)
Ed. Note: Leary
said the same thing to me in 1965. Jaron was 5 years old.
Pickering Island, Maine
Fog is to be expected when you're sailing on the coast of Maine, and it pays to have a few good books along to read while waiting for the scale-up that let's you see where you're going. When not sailing or rebuilding my barn this summer, I've been finishing off overdue writing projects and preparing for a seminar I'm teaching this fall at Tufts with Nassir Ghaemi, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School who has a Masters in philosophy from Tufts: "Broken Minds". (And no, you can't audit it; we're overbooked with students taking the course for credit.)
also been thinking a lot about religion. The taboo against subjecting
religious practices to scientific scrutiny leaves us more or less
voluntarily blindfolded about some of the most potent and dangerous
phenomena in the world today. It is time to defy that taboo. For
thousands of years, human beings have lived in a sort of culturally
induced trance, subjugating their wills to invisible beings and
forces, laboring and sacrificing, building great temples, painting
great pictures, composing great music-and killing great numbers
of differently entranced human beings—all for the greater glory
of ... something unknown and mysterious. How can the astringent
world of science compete with the reassuring warmth of communally
shared secrets and ceremonies, the spine-tingling beauties of religious
ecstacy? People want their lives to be decorated with mystery, punctuated
by magic, spiced with adventures of "the
The summer began in Austria. I was guest professor in Vienna last semester, teaching archaeological method and theory and laying the groundwork of research for my new book on material culture. My association with the Institute of Prehistory stretches back to my early days of digging when a small group of us, mainly but not exclusively Cambridge students, were annually hosted by Professor Herwig Friesinger at his marvellously well-run site of Gars/Thunau in the Kamp valley, northwest of the capital. This time I had a family to bring with me. The girls attended Viennese schools and learnt German while developing cake- and schnitzel-eating skills. We enjoyed Wagner's Valkyries at the State Opera and ambient music with my composer friend Hans-Joachim Rodelius.
The journey was an education in itself—first Bradford to the North Sea coast at Hull; overnight ferry to Zeebrugge; the two-day drive through Germany; arriving to haul everything four floors up to our splendid appartment in the Porzellangasse. In contrast to flying, we absorbed the extent of Europe in real terms: fields, hills, river crossings, the changes in topography and the styles of the houses. But to be exact this was the extent of western Europe. There is an old saying in Austria—"the Balkans begin in Vienna", and we made a series of exciting day trips—visas no longer required—to the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, each only about an hour's drive distant.
The east-west boundary goes back before the Iron Curtain. Nor is it simply that the Turks got no further than Lower Austria in A.D. 1529. There is a clear edge here even 20 million years ago. My old friend Hans Tuzar, who directs the Krahuletz Museum in Eggenburg, took us all fossil hunting on the edge of the old Pannonian sea. Look out eastward nowadays from what was once the cliff edge of western Europe over what was once ocean, the rolling lowlands of the Weinviertel ("Wine Quarter") rapidly give way to the Hungarian Puszta, westernmost outlier of the great Eurasian steppelands. Behind you is the reticulated, hedged and walled world of the west; in front the vast flat spaces that reach, almost unbroken, to the borders of India and China. Like Suleiman the Magnificent, the Iron Age Scythian nomads got no further than this in their raids westwards from South Russia. And, coming out of the west, this was also one of the last settled stopping places for the Celts before they began their ravages of Transylvania and Thrace to eventually reach and sack Delphi in 279 B.C. Hans and I are now planning to excavate the fortress of a particular Celtic tribe called the Kampi (after whom the Kamp valley is named)—a tribe famous enough to be known to the Alexandrian geographer Ptolemy.
The ancient geographers knew Europe pretty well, right through to the remote island of Ierne, known to Greek traders by at least 530 BC. By sheer chance we ended our summer there. An Irish television company rang to ask if I could come over to talk about sex and death in the Neolithic. We had scheduled a family camping trip to Scotland but we took the Holyhead-Dublin ferry instead. After doing the television archaeology bit around the massive 5000-year old passage tomb complexes of Newgrange and Knowth in the bend of the river Boyne, we headed southwest to the Dingle peninsula. At Gallarus Oratory we pitched tent, rather grandly, on the westernmost campsite in mainland Europe. The place was dotted with the corbel-vaulted beehive huts of the prehistoric inhabitants. They knew beyond doubt that they were at an edge too, all Europe to their back, and only the Atlantic ahead. But I thought of you, over the glittering horizon in NY, and reflected on how our inner geography conditions everything we see, and the perspective of prehistory conditions it yet further.
a book due and no cash to speak of, I spent the summer, when
it wasn't raining, on the roof of my building in Brooklyn. Thinking
about how and why people get persuaded that they're members of
meaningful tribes—ethnic, religious, national, sports-fan,
These two show my parents on the exact beach in Truro on which my wife and I have a summer cottage. We reconnoitered this stretch to find the exact place they were standing; it wasn't hard, because many of the houses in the photo are still there. But beaches constantly morph because of erosion and deposition, and this one has accreted several hundred feet of sand in the past five decades. The spot where my mother is standing is now a good walk away from the water line. The Provincetown skyline behind my father is virtually identical, a testimony to the town's preservation efforts.
The next three were taken at that other Massachusetts tourist destination, Harvard. By another coincidence, this is a significant locale for me fifty summers later: I have just moved back to Harvard, after 21 years at MIT. The first photo shows Harry and a friend John Harvard's shoe a traditional good-luck rub. John is still there, his left toe still shiny, but University Hall in the background has changed. The awnings, an adaptation to summer sun before the use of air conditioning, are gone. The ivy is gone, too, belying the "ivy league" designation; it was taken down when I was a graduate student in the late 1970s because it was damaging the historic buildings.
This one shows Harry and a friend at the Harkness Commons at Harvard, a block from where I now live. The brick ledge is still there (the shrubs are only a bit bigger), as is the space-age sculpture reflected in the glass. The complex was designed by Walter Gropius, Dean of the Graduate School of Design, a nice example of postwar International Style, with several low geometric buildings in a large open space connected by crisscrossing paths. At the time it must have looked fantastically futuristic; now it strikes many as archaic and inefficient, and there are rumors that it will become a victim of Harvard's expansion plans.
In this last photograph, taken on the steps of the Widener Library, the building hasn't changed in the interim, only the people. Seeing this couple, young enough to be my children, is overwhelming; it fills me with the foolish desire to tell them about the careers, family, and changed world of the half-century to come.
After 32 years in New York City (22 of them on a houseboat at the 79th Street Boat Basin) I moved to Swansea, Massachusetts, north of Newport, Rhode Island. Surprisingly painless was this, because of e-mail, streaming radio, and Zabar's online. Withdrawal peeked with the August blackout, when I became sentimental about the one in Manhattan in 1977: chocolate covered strawberries were gratis at Ruskay's, and sidewalk venues on Columbus Avenue wafted clouds of Cannabis, perhaps because police were otherwise occupied, or because it was the 70s. Now the minds of baby boomer are altered free of charge, gaps in speech as spotty as our dream to change the world.
I became sentimental about that lost dream (more the current nightmare), I pull myself up by my own bra straps: How wonderful to sit here on a dead end street in New England yet feel in touch with friends in London and Nairobi, to edit my own web site, or better yet, read Edge.
My plan for the winter is to return to the distant past, exploring Zanzibar and the Swahili culture. Coastal East Africa combines previous interest in archeological sites plus current ramifications of terrorism, a span of 2,000 years tied together by the classic Arab dhow, with its lateen sail. I thought about navigating these subjects when sanding the dagger board for my new/old Sunfish, to be launched Labor Day weekend with a ceremonial Swahili feast, poetry, and a red wine toast to Wilfred Thesiger, the cranky explorer who died recently in London at the age of 93. Known for his desert walks, Thesiger eschewed technology and was rabid about science education.
My summer postcard image was taken in the backyard of the 1906 bungalow where I now live, replete with a fireplace, herb garden, and a massive bedroom/riverview, all unaffected by the tide. The house is only 200 yards from the shore. A new rudder will guide me in new waters. As a New York friend said about my departure, "Change is good, even when it's bad."
All the best,
These are a few of the 123 7 foot tall fiberglass bears that spent the summer doing the hokey-pokey on what may still be the site of the future US Embassy in Berlin. It's right by the Brandenburg Gate, on land that was part of no-man's land. If the Germans had left the Wall in place, the Americans would now feel more secure about building on that site, so until our fear of the world is placated, the site is empty and these bears—each one decorated thematically to represent a different country (the mostly red guy is Hungary, the blue one is Ukraine, land of my godchildren)—meant to suggest a more pacific vision of the family of nations.