What Questions Have Disappeared?

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New Geoffrey Miller

"Three 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 shoot snap.

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.

New Christopher Phillips


Or 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.

But 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?

Or 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 to it?

We 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 disparate entities.

Who 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.

CHRISTOPHER PHILLIPS is the author of ¨Socrates Cafe: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy¨, and founder-executive director of the nonprofit Society for Philosophical Inquiry.

New Tracy Quan

"Who 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.

New Joel Garreau

"What 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

"...the narrative shifted and ...the female sense of identity in the West, for the first time ever, no longer hinges on the identity of her mate ..."

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.

New Terrence J. Sejnowski

"Is God Dead?"

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.

New Ann Crittenden

"Is 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 Working Woman.

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John Brockman, Editor and Publisher

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