Thursday, June 02, 2005

Why Second Base is Scoring Position

You may have encountered a news story about the effect of the hormone oxytocin on the human propensity to trust other people. Sprayed in the nose, it apparently makes the subject more willing to risk giving money to a stranger. That’s really not so surprising. It has been known for quite a while that the hormone elicits maternal behavior so that it wouldn’t be surprising if it played a role in other kinds of bonding. But I expect that other conclusions remain to be drawn. For example:

Oxytocin, which does many other things as well, plays a key role in lactation. When the nipples of a nursing mammal are stimulated, oxytocin is rapidly released from the hypothalamus and stimulates the initial step of milk secretion. Which is supposedly why the washing and manipulation of the utter is an important preliminary to milking a cow. But the oxytocin not only promotes milk but also the milk of human kindness; and presumably, it is not only released when a baby does the sucking. Sexual caresses of the breasts probably also lead to oxytocin release and thereby increase willingness of a woman to take the plunge, always a risky choice.

In the Frogs of Aristophanes, Euripides quotes one of his own lines, “Persuasion, save in speech, no temple hath.” But Persuasion, who the Greeks imagined to be a goddess who helped out the bridegroom on the wedding night, might have another temple or two after all.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Minerva’s Kingdom

It has been repeatedly pointed out that the E.U. is not Holy, Roman, or an Empire. After the other day, it may be supposed that it is hardly even a union. I take a more hopeful view, though perhaps only because of a near total ignorance of European politics. Speaking parochially, I’d like to see Europe stick together, but not too well. In the ideal case, the E.U. would form a conglomeration of states far too strong to mess with but rather too loosely organized to throw its weight around aggressively.
House Rules

Finding things out has never been easier, at least for people who are already well educated and want to know. Unfortunately, the availability of reliable information does not guarantee that the public will be well informed. Very few take the trouble to educate themselves; and it remains exceedingly difficult and very expensive to convey simple facts to the mass of the population; and that’s true even in the minority of cases where corporations, political parties, and religions aren’t actively promoting ignorance and spreading lies.

I think we routinely overestimate human curiosity. People are fond of trivial novelty, of course, but the real surprises in this world require effort to comprehend. My nephew quotes a line from a song that goes (more or less): “Each household appliance’s another new science;” but an unknown idea is more hateful to most of us than a new fangled telephone is to your grandpa. Heraclitus said, “If one does not expect the unexpected one will not find it out.” If follows, apparently, that one will not find it out. Which partly explains why most of our political debates are fought over obsolete issues that have only an indirect or symbolic relationship to the real problems of the time. At great personal cost, the participants finally learned how to argue about abortion or state’s rights or stem-cell research. It’s just too much to ask that they learn a new game just because the old one is largely irrelevant; and any political agent who tries to alter the stale agenda has to fight not only his opponents but human inertia, which, contrary to Cicero, is the real power against which the Gods themselves struggle in vain.

We pretend that the ideological struggles of the day revolve around technical economic issues or the specifics of constitutional law as if whether prices are set by a governments or cartels is the most important problem with world trade and gridlock in Washington is a consequence of a quarrel over the proper construal of the doctrine of Federalism. Privatization arguments are particularly irrelevant, or so it seems to me, since the enormous corporations that stand to inherit traditional governmental functions are more like states than firms anyhow—the real issue is whether you prefer dirigisme or feudalism since, at least for the time being, a true third way is a very notional option. The great contests of our time are not about the how as much as the for whom, the cui in cui bono. Of course the shills for the various interests have every reason to perfume their advocacy with an incense of academic disinterest; and the people, for their part, would prefer to think that there is a nonpolitical solution to political problems; but over and beyond, or perhaps beneath, these particular motives is the tendency of minds once at rest to remain at rest.