Weekend Essay Links


Essays are like cupcakes: they're tasty, abundant, idiosyncratic, and small enough to finish without feeling you've overindulged - which leaves you vulnerable to the self-deception that just one more is a good idea. So here are some weekend reading suggestions for a lazy Sunday.

--At SEED, Carl Zimmer's love letter to natural history museums as functional wonder cabinets:

Gradually, royalty's cabinets of wonders turned into libraries of flesh and rock, where scholars could research the workings of the world. Ole Worm, a 17th-century anatomist, became famous for his collection of narwhal skulls, stuffed lemurs, dried armadillos, and other natural specimen. Museum Wormianum, an illustrated catalogue of Worm's collection, was published posthumously in 1655, and what makes his illustration so mesmerizing is the strange way in which nature's fractal beauty appears so unnaturally organized. It's the same jarring effect seen in Cooper's photographs of modern natural history collections. (more at SEED)

--Howard Garner at Slate reviews Dacher Keltner's Born to be Good. Garner says "There's only so much science can tell us about human morality," which btw follows nicely on the comment discussion in my earlier post about a Darwinian think tank.

I don't think that we are born with a tendency toward good or evil. Nor do I believe that we can derive morality, or immorality, from science. At most, given an agreed-upon definition, we can establish the antecedent conditions that lead to a moral or immoral life, a good or bad pattern of behavior, or, most often, shards of both. How and why and when good and evil behavior arises are human stories, grounded in history and culture. We could know everything there is to know about the genes and the brain of the newborn Hitler, but we could never have predicted what he would do, any more than we could have predicted the life course of Mahatma Gandhi or Joan of Arc or our contemporaries Nelson Mandela and Slobodan Milosevic. (more at Slate)

--Artist Christopher Reiger at Hungry Hyaena is inspired by a fit of optimism to explore the links between eudaimonia, dystopia, optimism, and extinction:

Broken down to its Greek etymological roots, eudaimonia means "good spirit." Although I don't explicitly agree with the paleontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who believed in ethical and moral orthogenesis, a progressive, goal-oriented evolution of both the physiological and the conscious toward perfection (de Chardin dubbed the end point of orthogenesis the Omega Point), I'm amenable to Aristotle's less pious faith in goodness. The great philosopher wrote that "every art and every scientific inquiry, and similarly every action and purpose, may be said to aim at some good." He believed that eudaimonia is the ultimate goal of humankind, that we strive above all to be good creatures. (more at Hungry Hyaena)

--In the New Scientist, Stephanie Pain describes Europe's deep freeze of 1709, when the temperature in Paris sank to -15 °C (~5 F), and stayed there for 11 days:

A three-week freeze was followed by a brief thaw - and then the mercury plunged again and stayed there. From Scandinavia in the north to Italy in the south, and from Russia in the east to the west coast of France, everything turned to ice. The sea froze. Lakes and rivers froze, and the soil froze to a depth of a metre or more. Livestock died from cold in their barns, chicken's combs froze and fell off, trees exploded and travellers froze to death on the roads. It was the coldest winter in 500 years. (more at the New Scientist)

--At the New Atlantis, Matthew B. Crawford argues that viewing the human mind as a reducible, modular machine - as neuroimaging often encourages us to do - leads to not merely misperceptions, but social abuses, and is furthermore bad PR for science:

Those who would use science to solve real human problems often must first translate those human problems into narrowly technical problems, framed in terms of some theoretically tractable model and a corresponding method. Such tractability offers a collateral benefit: the intellectual pleasure that comes with constructing and tinkering with the model. But there is then an almost irresistible temptation to, as E. A. Burtt said, turn one's method into a metaphysics--that is, to suppose the world such that one's method is appropriate to it. When this procedure is applied to human beings, the inevitable result is that the human is defined downward. Thus, for example, thinking becomes "information processing." We are confronted with the striking reversal wherein cognitive science looks to the computer to understand what human thinking is. (more at the New Atlantis)

--Morgan Meis (a 3quarksdaily editor) situates the late John Updike amid the pantheon of great American writers striving for a uniquely "American" literature:

There was, for all practical purposes, no such thing as an American literature until the mid-19th century. Nobody knew how to write in America, nobody knew what an American novel would look like, how it would sound. Nathaniel Hawthorne worried about that problem all the time. Eventually he grasped toward a kind of American Gothic, a version of Romanticism that was colored by the deep pull of the wilderness and the stark morality of Puritanism. That's not unlike what happened to the 19th-century painters. Romanticism -- for the landscape painters -- seemed like a way forward, a way to contribute to the European project and to be American at the same time. But they never achieved the full fusion between liney and painterly that would have to wait until Abstract Expressionism. Poe, Melville, Whitman -- they all toyed around with this formula in their own ways. They produced legendary fiction, but it was the fiction of extremes. It never really touched upon the day to day, the simple mundane truths of a life lived on American shores. (more at The Smart Set)

A wonderful thing about both cupcakes and essays is that they're bite-sized. No commitment is required. Slogging through a book with which you disagree is a dismal endeavor indeed; an essay, on the other hand, is the perfect vehicle for a new flavor you're not sure you like, but haven't had the chance to try. 3quarksdaily is a wonderful hub for finding essays. Some of these are from 3quarks, some via friends, and some from the aether.


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Excellent post! I love finding new things to read, and you are most right about essays being lovely and bite sized.

I wanted to let you know (if you didn't already) that the picture of the cupcakes you used above is from a place on 7th street in DC that sell cupcakes EXCLUSIVELY. It's awesome.

Yeah, I took the photo. :) I want to review Red Velvet Cupcakes when I have a chance, but I've only had one cupcake so far from them, so it's unfair for me to compare it with Georgetown cupcakes (which is currently my ideal.) I'd like to have a cupcake party in which blind taste tests are conducted on cupcakes from CakeLove, Gtown Cupcakes, Red Velvet Cupcake, Hello Cupcake, and Lavender Moon (Alexandria) but the logistics of getting fresh cupcakes from all of those places is rough. ;)