"Do genes influence human behavior?"
This question bit the dust after a brief but busy life; it is
entirely a second-half-of the-20th-century question. Had it been
asked before the 20th century, it would have been phrased differently:
"heredity" instead of "genes." But it wasn't
asked back then, because the answer was obvious to everyone. Unfortunately,
the answer everyone gave yes! was based on erroneous
reasoning about ambiguous evidence: the difference in behavior
between the pauper and the prince was attributed entirely to heredity.
The fact that the two had been reared in very different circumstances,
and hence had had very different experiences, was overlooked.
Around the middle of the 20th century, it became politically incorrect
and academically unpopular to use the word "heredity";
if the topic came up at all, a euphemism, "nature,"
was used in its place. The fact that the pauper and the prince
had been reared in very different circumstances now came to the
fore, and the behavioral differences between them was now attributed
entirely to the differences in their experiences. The observation
that the prince had many of the same quirks as the king was now
blamed entirely on his upbringing. Unfortunately, this answer,
too, was based on erroneous reasoning about ambiguous evidence.
That children tend to resemble their biological parents is ambiguous
evidence; the fact that such evidence is plentiful agreeable
parents tend to have agreeable kids, aggressive parents tend to
have aggressive kids, and so on does not make it any less
ambiguous. The problem is that most kids are reared by their biological
parents. The parents have provided both the genes and the home
environment, so the kids' heredity and environment are correlated.
The prince has inherited not only his father's genes but also
his father's palace, his father's footmen, and his father's Lord
High Executioner (no reference to living political figures is
To disambiguate the evidence, special techniques are required
ways of teasing apart heredity and environment by controlling
the one and varying the other. Such techniques didn't begin to
be widely used until the 1970s; their results didn't become widely
known and widely accepted until the 1990s. By then so much evidence
had piled up that the conclusion (which should have been obvious
all along) was incontrovertible: yes, genes do influence human
behavior, and so do the experiences children have while growing
(I should point out, in response to David Deutsch's contribution
to the World Question Center, that no one study, and no one method,
can provide an answer to a question of this sort. In the case
of genetic influences on behavior, we have converging evidence
studies using a variety of methods all led to the same
conclusion and even agreed pretty well on the quantitative details.)
Though the question has been answered, it has left behind a cloud
of confusion that might not disappear for some time. The biases
of the second half of the 20th century persist: when "dysfunctional"
parents are found to have dysfunctional kids, the tendency is
still to blame the environment provided by the parents and to
overlook the fact that the parents also provided the genes.
Some would argue that this bias makes sense. After all, they say,
we know how the environment influences behavior. How the
genes influence behavior is still a mystery a question
for the 21st century to solve. But they are wrong. They know much
less than they think they know about how the environment influences
The 21st century has two important questions to answer. How do
genes influence human behavior? How is human behavior influenced
by the experiences a child has while growing up?
JUDITH RICH HARRIS is a writer and developmental psychologist;
co-author of The Child: A Contemporary View Of Development;
winner of the 1997 George A. Miller Award for an outstanding article
in general psychology, and author of The Nurture Assumption:
Why Children Turn Out The Way They Do.
Philip W. Anderson
"A question no longer: what is the Theory of Every Thing?"
My colleagues in the fashionable fields of string theory and quantum
gravity advertise themselves as searching desperately for the
'Theory of Everything", while their experimental colleagues
are gravid with the "God Particle", the marvelous Higgson
which is the somewhat misattributed source of all mass. (They
are also after an understanding of the earliest few microseconds
of the Big Bang.) As Bill Clinton might remark, it depends on
what the meaning of "everything" is. To these savants,
"everything" means a list of some two dozen numbers
which are the parameters of the Standard Model. This is a set
of equations which already exists and does describe very well
what you and I would be willing to settle for as "everything".
This is why, following Bob Laughlin, I make the distinction between
"everything" and "every thing". Every thing
that you and I have encountered in our real lives, or are likely
to interact with in the future, is no longer outside of the realm
of a physics which is transparent to us: relativity, special and
general; electromagnetism; the quantum theory of ordinary, usually
condensed, matter; and, for a few remote phenomena, hopefully
rare here on earth, our almost equally cut-and-dried understanding
of nuclear physics. [Two parenthetic remarks: 1) I don't mention
statistical mechanics only because it is a powerful technique,
not a body of facts; 2) our colleagues have done only a sloppy
job so far of deriving nuclear physics from the Standard Model,
but no one really doubts that they can.]
I am not arguing that the search for the meaning of those two
dozen parameters isn't exciting, interesting, and worthwhile:
yes, it's not boring to wonder why the electron is so much lighter
than the proton, or why the proton is stable at least for another
35 powers of ten years, or whether quintessence exists. But learning
why can have no real effect on our lives, spiritually inspiring
as it would indeed be, even to a hardened old atheist like myself.
When I was learning physics, half a century ago, the motivation
for much of what was being done was still "is quantum theory
really right?" Not just QED, though the solution of that
was important, but there were still great mysteries in the behavior
of ordinary matter--like superconductivity, for instance. It was
only some twenty years later that I woke up to the fact that the
battle had been won, probably long before, and that my motivation
was no longer to test the underlying equations and ideas, but
to understand what is going on. Within the same few years , the
molecular biology pioneers convinced us we needed no mysterious
"life force" to bring all of life under the same umbrella.
Revolutions in geology, in astrophysics, and the remarkable success
of the Standard Model in sorting out the fundamental forces and
fields, leave us in the enviable position I described above: given
any problematic phenomenon, we know where to start, at least.
And nothing uncovered in string theory or quantum gravity will
make any difference to that starting point.
Is this Horgan's End of Science? Absolutely not. It's just that
the most exciting frontier of science no longer lies at the somewhat
sophomoric or quasi-religious level of the most
"fundamental" questions of "what are we made of?"
and the like; what needs to be asked is "how did all this
delightful complexity arise from the stark simplicity of the fundamental
theory?" We have the theory of every thing in any field of
science you care to name, and that's about as far as it gets us.
If you like, science is now almost universally at the "software"
level; the fundamental physicists have given us all the hardware
we need, but that doesn't solve the problem, in physics as in
every other field. It's a different game, probably a much harder
one in fact, as it has often been in the past; but the game is
PHILIP W. ANDERSON is a Nobel laureate physicist at Princeton
and one of the leading theorists on superconductivity. He is the
author of A Career in Theoretical Physics, and Economy
as a Complex Evolving System.
"Are women and men equal?"
No doubt, there are differences between women and men, some obvious
and others more contentious. But arguments for inequality of worth
or rights between the sexes have wholly lost intellectual respectability.
Why? Because they were grounded in biologically evolved dispositions
and culturally transmitted prejudices that, however strongly entrenched,
could not withstand the kind of rational scrutiny to which they
have been submitted in the past two centuries. Also because, more
recently, the Feminist movement has given so many of us the motivation
and the means to look into ourselves and recognize and fight lingering
biases. Still, the battle against sexism is not over and
it may never be.
DAN SPERBER is a social and cognitive scientist at the French
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Paris.
His books include Rethinking Symbolism, On Anthropological Knowledge,
Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach, and, with Deirdre
Wilson, Relevance: Communication and Cognition.
"Can science answer moral and ethical questions?"
From the time of the Enlightenment philosophers have speculated
that the remarkable advances of science would one day spill over
into the realm of moral philosophy, and that scientists would
be able to discover answers to previously insoluble moral dilemmas
and ethical conundrums. One of the reasons Ed Wilson's book Consilience
was so successful was that he attempted to revive this Enlightenment
dream. Alas, we seem no closer than we were when Voltaire, Diderot,
and company first encouraged scientists to go after moral and
ethical questions. Are such matters truly insoluble and thus out
of the realm of science (since, as Peter Medewar noted, "science
is the art of the soluble")? Should we abandon Ed Wilson's
Enlightenment dream of applying evolutionary biology to the moral
realm? Most scientists agree that moral questions are scientifically
insoluble and they have abandoned the Enlightenment dream. But
not all. We shall see.
MICHAEL SHERMER is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine,
the host of the acclaimed public science lecture series at Caltech,
and a monthly columnist for Scientific American. His books include
Why People Believe Weird Things, How We Believe, and Denying History.
"What is the next step in the evolution of democracy?"
A question no longer being asked is how to make the next step
in the evolution of a democratic society. Until very recently
it was widely understood that democracy was a project with many
steps, whose goal was the eventual construction of a perfectly
just and egalitarian society. But recently, with the well deserved
collapse of Marxism, it has begun to seem that the highest stage
of civilization we humans can aspire to is global capitalism leavened
by some version of a bureaucratic welfare state, all governed
badly by an unwieldy and corrupt representative democracy. This
is better than many of the alternatives, but it is hardly egalitarian
and often unjust; those of us who care about these values must
hope that human ingenuity is up to the task of inventing something
It is proper that the nineteenth century idea of utopia has finally
been put to rest, for that was based on a paradox, which is that
any predetermined blueprint for an ideal society could only be
imposed by force. It is now almost universally acknowledged that
there is no workable alternative to the democratic ideal that
governments get their authority by winning the consent of the
governed. This means that if we are to change society, it must
be by a process of evolution rather than revolution. But why should
this mean that big changes are impossible? What is missing are
new ideas, and a context to debate them.
There are at least four issues facing the future of the democratic
project. First, while democracy in the worlds most powerful country
is perceived by many of its citizens as corrupted, there is little
prospect for serious reform. The result is alienation so severe
that around half of our citizens do not participate in politics.
At what point, we may ask, will so few vote that the government
of the United States may cease to have a valid claim to have won
the consent of the governed. As the political and journalistic
classes have largely lost the trust of the population, where will
leadership to begin the reform that is so obviously needed come
A second point of crisis and opportunity is in the newly democratized
states. In many of these countries intellectuals played a major
role in the recent establishment of democracy. These people are
not likely to go to sleep and let the World Bank tell them what
The third opportunity is in Europe, where a rather successful
integration of capitalism and democratic socialism has been achieved.
These societies suffer much less from poverty and the other social
and economic ills that appear so unsolvable in the US context.
(And it is not coincidental that the major means of funding political
campaigns in the US are illegal in most of Europe.) Walking the
streets in Denmark or Holland it is possible to wonder what a
democratic society that evolved beyond social democracy might
look like. European integration may be only the first step towards
a new kind of nation state which will give much of its sovereignty
up to multinational entities, a kind of nation-as-local-government.
Another challenge for democracy is the spread of the bureaucratic
mode of organization, which in most countries has taken over the
administration of education, science, health and other vital areas
of public interest. As any one who works for a modern university
or hospital can attest to, bureaucratic organizations are inherently
undemocratic. Debate amongst knowledgeable, responsible individuals
is replaced by the management of perceptions and the manipulation
of supposedly objective indices. As the politics of the academy
begins to look more like nineteenth century Russia than 5th Century
BC Athens we intellectuals need to do some serious work to invent
more democratic modes of organization for ourselves and for others
who work in the public interest.
Is it not then time we "third culture intellectuals"
begin to attack the problem of democracy, in both our workplaces
and in our societies? Perhaps, with all of our independence, creativity,
intelligence and edginess, we may find we really have something
of value to contribute?
LEE SMOLIN is a theoretical physicist; professor of physics and
member of the Center for Gravitational Physics and Geometry at
Pennsylvania State University; author of The Life of The Cosmos.
Rodney A. Brooks
"What is it that makes something alive?"
With the success of molecular biology explaining the mechanisms
of life we have lost sight of the question one level up. We do
not have any good answers at a more systems level of what it takes
for something to be alive. We can list general necessities for
a system to be alive, but we can not predict whether a given configuration
of molecules will be alive or not. As evidence that we really
do not understand what it takes for something to be alive, we
have not been able to build machines that are alive.
Everything else that we understand leads to machines that
capitalize on that understanding machines that fly, machines
that run, machines that calculate, machines that make polymers,
machines that communicate, machines that listen, machines that
play games. We have not built any machines that live.
RODNEY A. BROOKS is director
of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and Chairman of
iRobot Corporation. He builds robots.
"Why Teach Mathematics?"
questions are so rarely asked that we are astonished anyone would
ask them at all. The entire world seems to agree that knowing
mathematics is the key to something important, they just forget
what. Benjamin Franklin asked this question in 1749 while thinking
about what American schools should be like and concluded that
only practical mathematics should be taught. The famous mathematician
G.H. Hardy asked this question (A Mathematicians's Apology)
and concluded that while he loved the beauty of mathematics there
was no real point teaching it to children.
Today, we worry about the Koreans and Lithuanians doing better than us
in math tests and every "education president" asserts
that we will raise math scores, but no one asks why this matters.
Vague utterances about how math teaches reasoning belie the fact
that mathematicicans do everyday reasoning particularly better
than anyone else. To anyone who reads this and still is skeptical,
I ask: what is the Quadratic Formula? You learned it in ninth
grade, you couldn't graduate high school without it. When was
the last time you used it? What was the point of learning it?
ROGER SCHANK is the Chairman and Chief Technology
Officer for Cognitive Arts and has been the Director of the Institute
for the Learning Sciences at Northwestern University since its
founding in 1989. One of the world's leading Artificial Intelligence
researchers, he is books include: Dynamic Memory: A Theory
of Learning in Computers and People , Tell Me a Story: A New Look
at Real and Artificial Memory, The Connoisseur's Guide to the
Mind, and Engines for Education.
a myth or a reality?"
Is enlightenment a myth
or a reality? I mean the enlightenment of the east, not west,
the state of supreme mystical awareness also known as nirvana,
satori, cosmic consciousnesss, awakening. Enlightenment is the
telos of the great Eastern religions, Buddhism and Hinduism, and
it crops up occasionally in western religions, too, although in
a more marginal fashion. Enlightenment once preoccupied such prominent
western intellectuals as William James, Aldous Huxley and Joseph
Campbell, and there was a surge of scientific interest in mysticism
in the 1960s and 1970s. Then mysticism became tainted
by its association with the human potential and New Age movements
and the psychedelic counterculture, and for the last few decades
it has for the most part been banished from serious scientific
and intellectual discourse. Recently a few scholars have written
excellent books that examine mysticism in the light of modern
psychology and neuroscience Zen and the Brain by
the neurologist James Austin; Mysticism, Mind, Consciousness
by the philosopher Robert Forman; The Mystical Mind by
the late psychiatrist Eugene d'Aquili and the radiologist Andrew
Newberg but their work has received scant attention in
the scientific mainstream. My impression is that many scientists
are privately fascinated by mysticism but fear being branded as
fuzzy-headed by disclosing their interest. If more scientists
revealed their interest in mystical consciousness, perhaps it
could become a legitimate subject for investigation once again.
JOHN HORGAN is a freelance writer and author of The End of
Science and The Undiscovered Mind. A senior writer
at Scientific American from 1986 to 1997, he has also written
for the New York Times, Washington Post, New Republic, Slate,
London Times, Times Literary Supplement and other publications.
"Is the Central Dogma of biology inviolate?"
In 1957, a few years after he co-discovered the double helix,
Francis Crick proposed a very famous hypothesis. It states that
"once 'information' has passed into protein it cannot get out
again. In more detail, the transfer of information from nucleic
acid to nucleic acid, or from nucleic acid to protein may be possible,
but transfer from protein to protein, or from protein to nucleic
acid is impossible." After it had proven to form the foundation
of molecular biology, he later called this hypothesis the "Central
Dogma" of biology.
In the last years of the last millennium, Crick's dogma fell. The reason?
Direct protein-to-protein information transfer was found to be
possible in a class of proteins called "prions." With the aid
of a catalyst, prions (short for "proteinaceous infectious particles")
cause another molecule of the same class to adopt an infectious
shape like their own simply through contact. Thus, prions are
an important and only recently discovered mechanism for the inheritance
of information through means other than DNA. Such an important
discovery merited a recent Nobel Prize for Stanley Prusiner, who
doggedly pursued the possibility of a rogue biological entity
replicating without the assistance of genes against a back-drop
of resistance and disbelief among most of his colleagues. Further
testimony to the significance of prions comes from the current
BSE crisis in Europe. Now that we know how they work, prions
and the diseases they cause may begin popping up all over
ROBERT AUNGER is an anthropologist studying cultural evolution, both
through the now much-maligned method of fieldwork in nonwestern
societies, and the application of theory adapted from evolutionary
biology. He is at the Department of Biological Anthropology at
the University of Cambridge, and the editor of Darwinizing
Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science.
David G. Post
"... can there really be fossil
sea-shells in the mountains of Kentucky, hundreds of miles from
the Atlantic coast? "
This question about questions
may be a useful way to differentiate "science" from "not-science";
questions really do disappear in the former in a way, or at least
at a rate, that they don't in the latter.
A question that has disappeared:
can there really be fossil sea-shells in the mountains of Kentucky,
hundreds of miles from the Atlantic coast?
I came across this particular
question recently when reading Thomas Jefferson's 'Notes on the
State of Virginia'; he devotes several pages to speculation about
whether the finds in Kentucky really were sea-shells, and, if
so, how they could have ended up there. Geologists could, today,
"...from what source do governments get their legitimate power?"
Perhaps another question dear to Jefferson's heart
has also disappeared: from what source do governments get their
legitimate power? In 1780, this was a real question, concerning
which reasonable people gave different answers: 'God,' or 'the
divine right of Kings,' or 'heredity,' or 'the need to protect
its citizens.' By declaring as 'self evident' the 'truth' that
'governments derive their just power from the consent of the governed,'
Jefferson was trying to declare that this question had, in fact,
disappeared. I think he may have been right.
DAVID POST is Professor of Law at Temple University, and
Senior Fellow at The Tech Center at George Mason University, with
an interest in questions of (and inter-connections between) Internet
law, complexity theory, and the ideas of Thomas Jefferson.
David G. Myers
money buy happiness?"
Three in four entering collegians today deem
it "very important" or "essential" that they become "very well-off
financially." Most adults believe "more money" would boost their
quality of life. And today's "luxury fever" suggests that affluent
Americans and Europeans are putting their money where their hearts
are. "Whoever said money can't buy happiness isn't spending it
right," proclaimed a Lexus ad. But the facts of life have revealed otherwise.
Although poverty and powerlessness
often bode ill for body and spirit, wealth fails to elevate well-being.
Surveys reveal that even lottery winners and the super rich soon
adapt to their affluence. Moreover, those who strive most for
wealth tend, ironically, to live with lower well-being than those
focused on intimacy and communal bonds. And consider post-1960
American history: Average real income has doubled, so we own twice
the cars per person, eat out two and a half times as often, and
live and work in air conditioned spaces. Yet, paradoxically, we
are a bit less likely to say we're "very happy." We are more often
seriously depressed. And we are just now, thankfully, beginning
to pull out of a serious social recession that was marked by doubled
divorce, tripled teen suicide, quadrupled juvenile violence, quintupled
prison population, and a sextupled proportion of babies born to
unmarried parents. The bottom line: Economic growth has not improved
psychological morale or communal health.
DAVID G. MYERS is a social psychologist at Hope College (Michigan) and
author, most recently, of The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger
in an Age of Plenty and of A Quiet World: Living
with Hearing Loss.
William H. Calvin
"Where did the moon go?"
When, every few years, you see a bite taken out of the sun or
moon, you ought to remember just how frightening that question
used to be. It became clockwork when the right viewpoint was eventually
discovered by science (imagining yourself high above the north
pole, looking at the shadows cast by the earth and the moon).
But there was an intermediate stage of empirical knowledge, when
the shaman discovered that the sixth full moon after a prior eclipse
had a two-third's chance of being associated with another eclipse.
And so when the shaman told people to pray hard the night before,
he was soon seen as being on speaking terms with whomever ran
the heavens. This helped convert part-time shamen into full-time
priests, supported by the community. This can be seen as the entry-level
job for philosophers and scientists, who prize the discoveries
they can pass on to the next generation, allowing us to see farther,
always opening up new questions while retiring old ones. It's
like climbing a mountain that keeps providing an even better viewpoint.
WILLIAM H. CALVIN is a
neurobiologist at the University of Washington, who writes about
brains, evolution, and climate. His recent books are The Cerebral
Code, How Brains Think, and (with the linguist Derek Bickerton)
Lingua ex Machina.
"When will disease be eradicated?"
By the middle of the twentieth
century, scientists and doctors were sure that it was just a matter
of time, and not much time at that, before most diseases would
be wiped from the face of the Earth. Antibiotics would get rid
of bacterial infections; vaccines would get rid of viruses; DDT
would get rid of malaria. Now one drug after the next are becoming
useless against resistant parasites, and new plagues such as AIDS
are sweeping through our species. Except for a handful of diseases
like smallpox and Guinea worms, eradication now looks like a fantasy.
There are three primary reasons that this question is no longer
asked. First, parasites evolution is far faster and more sophisticated
than anyone previously appreciated. Second, scientists don't understand
the complexities of the immune system well enough to design effective
vaccines for many diseases yet. For another, the cures that have
been discovered are often useless because the global public health
system is a mess. The arrogant dream of eradication has been replaced
by much more modest goals of trying to keep diseases in check.
CARL ZIMMER is the author of Parasite Rex and writes
a column about evolution for Natural History.
"What Questions Have Disappeared...And
Why?" Funny you should ask that. "And why? " could itself be the
most important question that has disappeared from many fields.
"And why?": in other words, "what is the explanation for
what we see happening?" "What is it in reality that brings about
the outcome that we predict?" Whenever we fail to take that question
seriously enough, we are blinded to gaps in our favoured explanation.
And so, when we use that explanation to interpret regularities
that we may observe, instead of understanding that the explanation
was an assumption in our analysis, we regard it as the
inescapable implication of our observations.
"I just can't feel
myself split", complained Bryce DeWitt when he first encountered
the many-universes interpretation of quantum theory. Then Hugh
Everett convinced him that this was the same circular reasoning
that Galileo rejected when he explained how the Earth can be in
motion even though we observe it to be at rest. The point is,
both theories are consistent with that observation. Thanks
to Everett, DeWitt and others, the "and why" question began gradually
to return to quantum theory, whence it had largely disappeared
during the 1930s. I believe that its absence did great harm both
in impeding progress and in encouraging all sorts of mystical
fads and pseudo-science. But elsewhere, especially in the human
philosophies (generally known as social sciences), it is still
largely missing. Although behaviourism the principled refusal
to ask "and why?" is no longer dominant as an explicit
ideology, it is still widespread as a psychological attitude in
the human philosophies.
Suppose you identified
a gene G, and a human behaviour B, and you undertook a study with
1000 randomly chosen people, and the result was that of the 500
people who had G in their genome, 499 did B, while of the 500
who lacked G, 499 failed to do B. You'd conclude, wouldn't you,
that G is the predominant cause of B? Obviously there must be
other mechanisms involved, but they have little influence on whether
a person does B or not. You'd inform the press that all those
once-trendy theories that tried to explain B through people's
upbringing or culture, or attributed it to the exercise of free
will or the logic of the situation or any combination of such
factors were just wrong. You've proved that when people
choose to do B, they are at the very least responding to a powerful
influence from their genes. And if someone points out that your
results are perfectly consistent with B being 100% caused by something
other than G (or any other gene), or with G exerting an influence
in the direction of not doing B, you will shrug momentarily,
and then forget that possibility. Won't you?
DAVID DEUTSCH's research in quantum physics
has been influential and highly acclaimed. His papers on quantum
computation laid the foundations for that field, breaking new
ground in the theory of computation as well as physics, and have
triggered an explosion of research efforts worldwide. He is a
member of the Centre for Quantum Computation at the Clarendon
Laboratory, Oxford University and the author of The Fabric
can I stop the soul of the deceased reanimating the body?"
At a particular point (yet to be clearly defined) in human cultural
evolution, a specific idea took hold that there were two, partially
separable, elements present in a living creature: the material
body and the force that animated it. On the death of the body
the animating force would, naturally, desire the continuation
of this-worldly action and struggle to reassert itself (just as
one might strive to retrieve a flint axe one had accidentally
dropped). If the soul (or spirit) succeeded, it would also seek
to repossess its property, including its spouse, and reassert
its material appetites.
The desire of the disembodied soul was viewed as dangerous by
the living, who had by all means to enchant, cajole, fight off,
sedate, or otherwise distract and disable it. This requirement
to keep the soul from the body after death did not last forever,
only so long as the flesh lay on the bones. For the progress of
the body's decomposition was seen as analogous to the slow progress
the soul made toward the threshold of the Otherworld. When the
bones where white (or were sent up in smoke or whatever the rite
in that community was), then it was deemed that the person had
finally left this life and was no longer a danger to the living.
Thus it was, that for most of recent human history (roughly the
last 35,000 years) funerary rites were twofold: the primary rites
zoned off the freshly dead and instantiated the delicate ritual
powers designed to keep the unquiet soul at bay; the secondary
rites, occurring after weeks or months (or, sometimes in
the case of people who had wielded tremendous worldly power
years), firmly and finally incorporated the deceased into the
realm of the ancestors.
Since the rise of science and scepticism, the idea of the danger
of the disembodied soul has, for an increasing number of communities,
simply evaporated. But there is a law of conservation of questions.
"How can I stop the soul of the deceased reanimating the
body?" is now being replaced with "How can I live so
long that my life becomes indefinite?," a question previously
only asked by the most arrogant pharaohs and emperors.
TIMOTHY TAYLOR lecturers in the Department of Archaeological Sciences,
University of Bradford, UK. He is the author of The Prehistory
is the Great American Novel?
question haunted serious writers in the early 20th century, when
critics sought a product that measured up to the European standard.
Now it is dead, and the underlying notion is in ICU. What happened?
Well, the idea itself was never a very good one. It had breathtakingly
hazy contours. It ignored the work of authors like Melville, Hawthorne,
Wharton, and Twain. And it seemed to assume that a single novel
could sum up this vast and complex nation. I'd like to think its
disappearance reflects these problems.
But technology also helped shelve the question. As media proliferated,
literature grew less central. If the Great American Novel appeared
tomorrow, how many people would actually read it? My guess: Most
would wait for the movie.
McNEILL is the author of The Face, and principal author
of the best-selling Fuzzy Logic, which won the Los Angeles
Times Book Prize in Science and Technology, and was a New York
Times "Notable Book of the Year".