Are Human Beings Unique or Not? Part 2

Human beings are storytelling creatures.

How many times have I said this over the course of my life? Far too many to count. It’s my very most favorite fact about us. It’s a source of absolute delight to me. We’re the only animal that has been observed to tell stories. It begs a question in response to my last post re: what, if anything, makes humans unique from other animals:

Why didn’t I list storytelling as the characteristic that makes us unique?

Why did I end up with something as depressing as “we’re the only animals who sometimes hate ourselves?”

Storytelling is built into the most basic functioning of our brains. It’s how memory works. It’s how we make sense of the world. For something so deeply embedded in us, it can’t be something entirely unique to us—it must be based on antecedent mental abilities in the animal world. So, as with so many things, storytelling is a unique expression but not unique in its essential nature.

Continue reading “Are Human Beings Unique or Not? Part 2”

Are Human Beings Unique or Not?

I recently took a leadership class that talked about ethics. The instructor said something interesting:

Humans are the only animals that rationalize behavior we know is wrong.

I think that’s correct—but I would add the caveat: “The only animals that we know of…”

When I was a kid, people still preached the idea of Man the Rational Animal. The persistent Enlightenment belief that what distinguishes us from other animals is our ability to reason.

Even as a kid, I knew this was a load of crap.

Continue reading “Are Human Beings Unique or Not?”

Why I’m Fascinated by Ancient History

How History and Speculative Fiction Intersect

I’m fascinated by ancient history—the archaic and classical Mediterranean, ancient Egypt, Sumeria and Mesopotamia. Mostly, though, I love studying paleoanthropology and archaeology—the Paleo- and Neolithic periods, the evolution of human kind and our spread across the face of the planet.

Recent history doesn’t particularly interest me. I understand the proximal importance of the Modern Era, the World Wars, the Cold War, etc., to the present day but it doesn’t capture my imagination. I look at the world during that time and I see something very much like the world I was born into. It’s too familiar to be fascinating.

I’m fascinated by ancient and prehistory because these eras are so vastly different from the world I live in. In a review I wrote of Madeline Miller’s novel, The Song of Achilles, I refer to the “alien-ness of Bronze Age Greece”. I read articles like this one about Kennewick Man and it’s shocking to realize just how little prehistoric life resembles my own. How vastly different it was than anything I’ve ever known.

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The Importance of Deep Reading

I’ve long wondered about the differences between reading in print, reading online, and reading in mobile formats. Science is bearing out my belief that our brains apprehend and process language differently in different mediums.

Technology is changing the way we read, with a much greater emphasis on skimming and speed reading. Apps like Spritz—well-intentioned though they may be—intrinsically promote an idea that reading isn’t worth investing time, a belief that deep reading is flawed because it’s inefficient.

I can’t believe that this is a good thing. So I was very happy to read this article:

Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer by Annie Murphy Paul (posted by Time on June 3, 2013)

It’s an excellent summary of the importance of deep reading. Intentional, invested, slow reading.
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Book Review: Everything Is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger

Everything Is Miscellaneous book cover
Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder by David Weinberger. New York: Times Books, 2007.
The central thesis of Everything Is Miscellaneous is one with which I completely agree: digital information environments allow us to organize, access, and interact with information in new and previously undreamt ways. It allows us to transcend the limitations of physical storage and communication media, to free information to be everywhere and anywhere all at the same time.

It allows information to be whatever we need, whenever we need it. There exists more potential now to add more value, not just to information itself, but to the ways we access and interact with it. Mr. Weinberger offers us a powerful and compelling vision for our digital information world.

These three quotes perfectly sum up what this book is about:

From p. 212:

The difference in the digital order is the difference between the annoying interactions you have on a product support line… and the conversations you have with real people. … The potential for connections from the trivial to the urgent is characteristic of the new miscellany. We are busily creating as many of these meaningful connections as we can.

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Echo Chambers

There have been a couple of occasions when I’ve voiced my concern about the internet and social media being a giant echo chamber, a forum which encourages solipsism and makes it easy for us to avoid challenge, disagreement, and other perspectives.

I’ve concluded that I’m wrong about this. Not that there aren’t plenty of solipsistic echo chambers online, but it’s nothing to do with the inherent nature of the internet or social media. It’s to do with the inherent nature of human beings.

Consider—Outside of school and work assignments, no one is required to read books they don’t want, to talk to people they don’t like, to see or listen to things they don’t agree with, and many people don’t. We’ve always either avoided or sought out challenge and disagreement, accord and reinforcement, each based on our individual natures. Preaching to the choir, seeking affirmation of our beliefs and opinions, burying our heads in the sand… These things have always been how we behave.

Very few individuals handle disagreement or conflict well. Most people do everything they can to avoid it. This has always been true.

The internet may bring our echo chambers to a larger scale and make them more explicit—but this isn’t a flaw inherent to the internet itself. Indeed, maybe making our echo chambers so much more explicit helps us to counter them.

And the internet also makes it easier than ever before in history for people to encounter ideas and perspectives they never knew existed. This is a good thing, no matter how much it sometimes makes us uncomfortable and scares us.

The Decline of Reading in America?

Earlier this month, I explored some stats about reading in America as a jumping-off point to emphasize my desire to be more aware of how different the world can be for different people.

What I didn’t talk about was how much those stats scared me. I understand that as an avid life-long reader my perspective is biased, but I believe that reading is one of the most important things a person can do to grow, to realize their best self, and to keep their mind healthy.

Last week, the Pew Research Center released a report (PDF) which showed that nearly a quarter of American adults haven’t read a single book in the past year in any format. That’s nearly triple the percentage from 1978. For me, this is terrifying.

So I was quite happy when I came across this article through Stephen Abram’s blog:

The Decline of the American Book Lover—And why the downturn might be over. by Jordan Weissmann (posted on The Atlantic on January 21, 2014)

I hope the author is correct in this reading of the data. I hope the state of reading in America isn’t so dire.

And let’s look at this number from the other way ‘round—just over three quarters of adult Americans still read, and most pretty regularly. That’s not nothing.