November 9, 2012, 12:25 pm
“Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present.” That refrain pops up regularly in Cloud Atlas, the just-released major motion picture based on the best-selling novel by David Mitchell. To my recollection, the quotation doesn’t appear in the book itself, but the sentiment surely does, along with this follow-on: “And by each crime, and every kindness, we birth our future.”
As a biologist intrigued by Buddhism, and who is exploring the parallels and convergences between this modern and largely Western science and that ancient and largely Eastern “wisdom tradition,” I find myself increasingly convinced that Kipling was wrong: The twain have met, and for the most part, they get along swimmingly.
Nonetheless, I and many other Buddhist sympathizers part company with traditional Buddhist beliefs when it comes to the doctrine of reincarnation. As we…
October 26, 2012, 3:35 pm
Photo by J. Cantroot
It is a truth both obvious and profound that all creatures perceive the world via their own unique sensory mechanisms. Thus, when the philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote his oft-cited essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” ethologists as well as nonscientists couldn’t help agreeing with his conclusion: We don’t know, and the deeply frustrating reality is that we probably never will.
Not only is each individual necessarily separated from every other, but members of different species are even more cordoned off, not merely as a matter of existential isolation and loneliness, but as a genuine, hard-core, physical, and biological fact.
Of course, we human beings can take advantage of elaborate technologies, through which we create remarkable prosthetic extensions of our senses—not just…
September 17, 2012, 1:56 pm
The September 17th issue of The New Yorker contains a lengthy essay-cum-book review (in that magazine’s inimitable, occasionally impenetrable, and almost patentable style) by Anthony Gottlieb, titled “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Subtitled “How much do evolutionary stories reveal about the mind?,” its answer is: Not much. Enough there to catch my attention, and, I hope, that of many of The Conversation’s readers, since both evolution and the mind are much on the public and scholarly mind, as well they should be. Even more attention-grabbing, in my case, was the book highlighted: Homo Mysterious, written by yours truly and just published by Oxford University Press.
That’s the good news, at least for me. The bad news is that Gottlieb takes a dim view, not so much of evolution per se, but of its ability to cast meaningful light on human behavior generally. Presumably, our…
August 31, 2012, 1:11 pm
In an aversion to animals, the predominant feeling is fear of being recognized by them through contact. The horror that stirs deep in man is an obscure awareness that in him something lives so akin to the animal that it might be recognized.
Recently, I was walking through the upper meadow of our property (we live on 10 rural acres east of Seattle), when I startled a coyote that had just ripped into a juvenile rabbit. The coyote either wasn’t very clever, or not very hungry, or was perhaps especially frightened, because in any event, she dropped the rabbit and loped away. I was left to confront a tiny, bedraggled, hopelessly lacerated fellow mammal, whose intestines were slithering onto the ground, but who was still very much alive. We looked into each other’s eyes.
I don’t know what the poor rabbit saw—whether it “recognized” me somehow—but in those …