Archive for February, 2013

Memento Mori

Posted: February 17, 2013 in History, Industrial Collapse, Science

Prior to the 20th century, the specter of early death was never far from people’s minds. Accordingly, death was integrated into life, meaning that as a normal fact of life, everyday knowledge of death made life precious. Average life expectancy in the mid-40s back then masks the reality that people, if they survived childhood, did in fact get old. What lowered the average was infant and child mortality. Cemeteries with graves preserved from that era demonstrate this pretty clearly. When early mortality rates began dropping due to a variety of factors, including improved diet, hygiene, and medicine, it may well be that omnipresent awareness of early death receded while a sense of stalking death remained. Today’s child mortality rates vary widely across the globe, with many African and Southeast Asian countries still reporting rates well above 100.

As early mortality rates declined, so, too, have fertility rates. Factors balancing these two trends are too complex to sort and summarize succinctly, but it’s curious to observe that as GDP per capita rises, wealthy populations tend to fall below the minimum replacement rate of 2.33 children per woman. The cluster of poor countries along the vertical axis of the graph below suggests that some peoples are still over(re)producing, perhaps in part because a high rate of early mortality requires more births to raise a child to reproductive age successfully.


Returning to The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist, I finished reading the book some while back (took more than two years, I think) but have two or three more blog posts to finish off my book blogging project. Warning: this is another long post.

Part One of the book is about the divided brain: its structural and functional attributes that make us who we are. This presumes identity resides mostly in the brain/mind rather than the body (probably my presumption, not McGilchrist’s). Part Two is how the brain shaped our world, referring more to human history, institutions, and values than physical setting, though that, too, is an outgrowth of our brain structure in light of how thoroughly mankind has shaped and engineered his own environment. Part Two traces through history from the ancient world to the Renaissance, the Reformation (and Counter-Reformation), the Enlightenment, Romanticism, the Industrial Revolution, and finally to the linked Modern and Postmodern worlds. (McGilchrist uses the form Post-Modern, which I will shorten to PoMo).

I had expected to be far more comfortable with Part Two than Part One owing to my greater familiarity with themes of human history and Western culture than with brain structure and function. It surprised me how much Part Two also discusses brain structure, but in hindsight, that makes good sense because the book’s thesis is that brain structure has had substantial influence on all of Western culture. What really surprised me, however, is that the section on Modernism and PoMo affords McGilchrist the opportunity to launch into a sustained harangue. Indeed, given the virulence of his attack, it felt like the book up to that point was merely a set-up to lay foundation for a rant fulminating in McGilchrist’s mind all along.

We have learned plenty in the last eighty or more years about the brain on drugs, both recreational (caffeine, alcohol, opium, cannabis, cocaine, crack, ecstasy, etc.) and psychiatric (Quaaludes, Valium, Zoloft, Prozac, Lithium, etc.). McGilchrist provides a withering account of what the brain is like on PoMo (a late-stage intensification of Modernism, really), which now constitutes our basic operating instructions or deep culture. The account includes a comparison of the PoMo mind with the aberrant psyche of schizophrenia, drawing heavily on the work of Louis Sass. Here is McGilchrist’s not-so-brief recap of right-brain (the Master) damaged individuals, defaulting excessive processing control to the left brain (the Emissary):