Victorian questions about potential sexual partners:
'Are they from a good family?'; 'What are their accomplishments?';
'Was their money and status acquired ethically?' "
To our "Sex and the City" generation, these three questions sound
shamefully Victorian and bourgeois. Yet they were not unique to
19th century England: they obsessed the families of eligible young
men and women in every agricultural and industrial civilization.
Only with our socially-atomized, late-capitalist society have
these questions become tasteless, if not taboo. Worried parents
ask them only in the privacy of their own consciences, in the
sleepless nights before a son or daughter's ill-considered marriage.
The "good family" question always concerned genetic inheritance
as much as financial inheritance. Since humans evolved in bands
of closely-related kin, we probably evolved an intuitive appreciation
of the genetics relevant to mate choice taking into account
the heritable strengths and weakness that we could observe in
each potential mate's relatives, as well as their own qualities.
Recent findings in medical genetics and behavior genetics demonstrate
the wisdom of taking a keen interest in such relatives: one can
tell a lot about a young person's likely future personality, achievements,
beliefs, parenting style, and mental and physical health by observing
their parents, siblings, uncles, and aunts. Yet the current American
anti-genetic ideology demands that we ignore such cues of genetic
quality God forbid anyone should accuse us of eugenics.
Consider the possible reactions a woman might have to hearing
that a potential husband was beaten as a child by parents who
were alcoholic, aggressive religious fundamentalists. Twin and
adoption studies show that alcoholism, aggressiveness, and religiousity
are moderately heritable, so such a man is likely to become a
rather unpleasant father. Yet our therapy cures-all culture says
the woman should offer only non-judgmental sympathy to the man,
ignoring the inner warning bells that may be going off about his
family and thus his genes. Arguably, our culture alienates women
and men from their own genetic intuitions, and thereby puts their
children at risk.
The question "What are their accomplishments?" refers not to career
success, but to the constellation of hobbies, interests, and skills
that would have adorned most educated young people in previous
centuries. Things like playing pianos, painting portraits, singing
hymns, riding horses, and planning dinner parties. Such accomplishments
have been lost through time pressures, squeezed out between the
hyper-competitive domain of school and work, and the narcissistic
domain of leisure and entertainment. It is rare to find a young
person who does anything in the evening that requires practice
(as opposed to study or work) anything that builds skills
and self-esteem, anything that creates a satisfying, productive
"flow" state, anything that can be displayed with pride in public.
Parental hot-housing of young children is not the same: after
the child's resentment builds throughout the French and ballet
lessons, the budding skills are abandoned with the rebelliousness
of puberty or continued perfunctorily only because they
will look good on college applications. The result is a cohort
of young people whose only possible source of self-esteem is the
school/work domain an increasingly winner-take-all contest
where only the brightest and most motivated feel good about themselves.
(And we wonder why suicidal depression among adolescents has doubled
in one generation.) This situation is convenient for corporate
recruiting it channels human instincts for self-display
and status into an extremely narrow range of economically productive
activities. Yet it denies young people the breadth of skills that
would make their own lives more fulfilling, and their potential
lovers more impressed. Their identities grow one-dimensionally,
shooting straight up towards career success without branching
out into the variegated skill sets which could soak up the sunlight
of respect from flirtations and friendships, and which could offer
shelter, and alternative directions for growth, should the central
The question "Was their money and status acquired ethically?"
sounds even quainter, but its loss is even more insidious. As
the maximization of share-holder value guides every decision in
contemporary business, individual moral principles are exiled
to the leisure realm. They can be manifest only in the Greenpeace
membership that reduces one's guilt about working for Starbucks
or Nike. Just as hip young consumers justify the purchase of immorally
manufactured products as "ironic" consumption, they justify working
for immoral businesses as "ironic" careerism. They aren't "really"
working in an ad agency that handles the Phillip Morris account
for China; they're just interning for the experience, or they're
really an aspiring screen-writer or dot-com entrepreneur. The
explosion in part-time, underpaid, high-turnover service industry
jobs encourages this sort of amoral, ironic detachment on the
lower rungs of the corporate ladder. At the upper end, most executives
assume that shareholder value trumps their own personal values.
And in the middle, managers dare not raise issues of corporate
ethics for fear of being down-sized. The dating scene is complicit
in this corporate amorality. The idea that Carrie Bradshaw or
Ally McBeal would stop seeing a guy just because he works for
an unethical company doesn't even compute. The only relevant morality
is personal whether he is kind, honest, and faithful to
them. Who cares about the effect his company is having on the
Phillipino girls working for his sub-contractors? "Sisterhood"
is so Seventies. Conversely, men who question the ethics of a
woman's career choice risk sounding sexist: how dare he ask her
to handicap herself with a conscience, when her gender is already
enough of a handicap in getting past the glass ceiling?
In place of these biologically, psychologically, ethically grounded
questions, marketers encourage young people to ask questions only
about each other's branded identities. Armani or J. Crew clothes?
Stanford or U.C.L.A. degree? Democrat or Republican? Prefer "The
Matrix" or "You've Got Mail'? Eminem or Sophie B. Hawkins? Been
to Ibiza or Cool Britannia? Taking Prozac or Wellbutrin for the
depression? Any taste that doesn't lead to a purchase, any skill
that doesn't require equipment, any belief that doesn't lead to
supporting a non-profit group with an aggressive P.R. department,
doesn't make any sense in current mating market. We are supposed
to consume our way into an identity, and into our most intimate
relationships. But after all the shopping is done, we have to
face, for the rest of our lives, the answers that the Victorians
sought: what genetic propensities, fulfilling skills, and moral
values do our sexual partners have? We might not have bothered
to ask, but our children will find out sooner or later.
GEOFFREY MILLER is an evolutionary psychologist at the London
School of Economics and at U.C.L.A. His first book was The
Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature.
at least, certainly not the ones that have so far been submitted
to this list, since the questions posted are proof positive that
they have not disappeared at all, or at least, not altogether.
Sure, some questions have their heyday for a while, and then they
may disappear for many a moon. But the great question you posed
-- what questions have disappeared? -- shows that they were just
waiting for a question like this for someone to be reminded just
how much emptier our existence would be without certain questions.
I also think that some questions certainly have gone by the wayside
for a long time, though not necessarily the ones that so far have
been posed. We may ask, for instance, questions like, Has history
ended?, and then go on to offer up a response of one sort or another.
But when is the last time we asked, what *is* history? What different
types of history are there? What makes history history, regardless
of which type it is?
we may ask: Why have certain questions been discarded? But when's
the last time anyone has asked, What is a question? What does
a question do? What does a question to do us, and what do we do
may ask: How do people differ in how they think and learn? But
do we still ask: What is thinking? What is learning?
Instead, we seem to take for granted that we know what history
is, that we know what thinking is, that we know what learning
is, when in fact if we delved a little more into these questions,
we may well find that none of us hold the same views on what these
rich concepts mean and how they function. Which leads me to this
perspective: What *has* all but disappeared, I think, is a way
of answering questions, regardless of which one is being posed,
regardless of how seemingly profound or off-beat or mundane it
is. I'm speaking of the kind of rigorous, exhaustive, methodical
yet highly imaginative scrutiny of a Socrates or a Plato that
challenged all assumptions embedded in a question, and that revealed
breathtakingly new vistas and hidden likenesses between seemingly
these days takes the time and effort, much less has the critical
and creative acumen, to answer questions as those I've already
posed, much less such questions as ¨What is human good?¨
or ¨What is a good human?¨in the soul-stirringly visionary
yet at the same time down-to-earth way they did? We need a new
generation of questioners in the mold of Plato and Sorcrates,
people who dare to think a bit outside the lines, who take nothing
for granted when a question is posed, and who subject their scrutiny
to continual examination and consideration of cogent objections
and alternative ways of seeing.
PHILLIPS is the author of ¨Socrates Cafe: A Fresh Taste of
Philosophy¨, and founder-executive director of the nonprofit
Society for Philosophical Inquiry.
does your bleeding?"
Recently, I was relaxing in my hotel room with a biography of
Queen Elizabeth I. Her biographer noted that when Elizabeth R
wasn't feeling quite herself she would call for a good "bleeding."
I wondered about this practice which now seems so destructive
and dangerous, especially given the hygienic possibilities of
16th-century Britain. Even for the rich and famous. But Elizabeth
R survived numerous bleedings and, I imagine, lots of other strange
treatments that were designed to make her look and feel like her
very best self by the standards of her time. (Did she have
a great immune system? Probably.)
As dotty and unclean as "bleedings" now seem to a 21st century
New Yorker, I realized with a jolt that Elizabeth was pampering,
not punishing, herself and I was going to be late for my
reflexology appointment. I had scheduled a two-hour orgy of relaxation
and detoxification at a spa.
I imagine that the ladies at court asked each other, in the manner
of ladies who-lunch, "Who does your bleeding?" trading
notes on price, ambiance and service, just as ladies today discuss
their facials, massages and other personal treatments.
Some skeptics assume that the beauty and spa treatments of today
are as ineffective or dangerous as those of the Renaissance period.
In fact, there have been inroads. Germ theory helped as
did a host of other developments, including a fascination in the
West with things Eastern. The kind of people who would once have
gone in for bleeding now go in for things like reflexology and
shiatsu. That urge to cleanse and detoxify the body has long been
around but we've actually figured out how to do it because we
better understand the body.
The pampered are prettier and healthier today than were their
16th century European counterparts. I wonder whether, another
thousand or so years into the future, we will all look prettier
and healthier in ways that we can't yet fathom. This kind of query
might seem irresponsible, shallow, even immoral given the
real health crises facing human beings in 2001. But the way we
look has everything to do with how we live and how we think.
And I'm glad that bleedings are no longer the rage.
TRACY QUAN, a writer and working girl living in New York, is the author
of "Nancy Chan: Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl", a serial
novel about the life and loves of Nancy Chan, a turn-of-the- millennium
call girl. Excerpts from the novel which began running
in July, 2000 in the online magazine, Salon have
attracted a wide readership as well as the attention of the The
New York Times and other publications.
can government do to help create a better sort of human?"
The moral, intellectual, physical and social improvement of the
human race was a hot topic of the Enlightenment. It helped shape
the American and French revolutions. Creating the "New Soviet
Man" was at the heart of the Russian revolution that's
what justified the violence.
A central theme of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society was not just
that human misery could be alleviated. It was that core human
problems like crime could be fixed by the government eliminating
root causes like want.
That's all gone.
We now barely trust government to teach kids to read.
JOEL GARREAU, the cultural revolution correspondent of The Washington
Post, is a student of global culture, values, and change whose
current interests range from human networks and the transmission
of ideas to the hypothesis that the '90s like the '50s
set the stage for a social revolution to come. He is the
author of the best-selling books Edge City: Life on the New
Frontier and The Nine Nations of North America, and
a principal of The Edge City Group, which is dedicated to the
creation of more liveable and profitable urban areas worldwide.
New Naomi Wolf
narrative shifted and ...the female sense of identity in the West,
for the first time ever, no longer hinges on the identity of her
The question disappeared in most of Europe and North America,
of course, because of the great movement toward women's employment
and career advancement even after marrying and bearing children.
Feminist historians have long documented how the "story" of the
female heroine used to end with marriage; indeed, this story was
so set in stone as late as the 1950's and early 60's in this country
that Sylvia Plath's heroine in The Bell Jar had to flirt
with suicide in order to try to find a way out of it. Betty Friedan
noted in The Feminine Mystique that women (meaning middle
class white women; the narrative was always different for women
of color and working class women) couldn't "think their way past"
marriage and family in terms of imagining a future that had greater
dimension. But the narrative shifted and it's safe to say that
the female sense of identity in the West, for the first time ever,
no longer hinges on the identity of her mate which is a
truly new story in terms of our larger history.
NAOMI WOLF, author, feminist, and social critic, is s an outspoken
and influential voice for women's rights and empowerment. she
is the author of The Beauty Myth, Fire with Fire, and Promiscuities.
On April 8, 1966, the cover of Time Magazine asked "Is
God Dead?" in bold red letters on a jet black background. This
is an arresting question that no one asks anymore, but back in
1996 it was a hot issue that received serious comment. In 1882
Friedrich Nietzsche in The Gay Science had a character
called "the madman" running through the marketplace shouting "God
is dead!", but in the book, no one took the madman seriously.
The Time Magazine article reported that a group of young
theologians calling themselves Christian atheists, led by Thomas
J. J. Altizer at Emory University, had claimed God was dead. This
hit a cultural nerve and in an appearance on "The Merv Griffin
Show" Altizer was greeted by shouts of "Kill him! Kill him!" Today
Altizer continues to develop an increasingly apocalyptic theology
but has not received a grant or much attention since 1966.
The lesson here is that the impact of a question very much depends
on the cultural moment. Questions disappear not because they are
answered but because they are no longer interesting.
TERRENCE J. SEJNOWSKI, a pioneer in Computational Neurobiology,
is regarded by many as one of the world's most foremost theoretical
brain scientists. In 1988, he moved from Johns Hopkins University
to the Salk Institute, where he is a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator
and the director of the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory.
In addition to co-authoring The Computational Brain,
he has published over 250 scientific articles.
human nature innately good or evil?"
Another question that has fallen into the dustbin of history is this:
Is human nature innately good or evil? This became a gripping
topic in the late 17th century, as Enlightment thinkers began
to challenge the Christian assumption that man was born a fallen
creature. It was a great debate while it lasted: original sin
vs. tabla rasa and the perfectability of man; Edmund Burke vs.
Tom Paine; Dostoyevsky vs. the Russian reformers. But Darwin and
Freud undermined the foundations of both sides, by discrediting
the very possibility of discussing human nature in moral or teleological
terms. Now the debate has been recast as "nature vs. nurture"
and in secular scientific circles at least, man is the higher
primate -- a beast with distinctly mixed potential.
ANN CRITTENDEN is an award-winning journalist and author. She was a reporter
for The New York Times from 1975 to 1983, where her work
on a broad range of economic issues was nominated for the Pulitzer
Prize. She is the author of several books inncluding The Price
of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is Still
the Least Valued. Her articles have appeared in numerous magazines,
including The Nation, Foreign Affairs, McCall's, Lear's, and