Intriguing books found around the Sci Am office, part one: murder
Mar 21, 2008 04:15 PM
A Cultural History of Causality: Science, Murder Novels, and Systems of Thought By Stephen Kern
From Google Books:
This pioneering work is the first to trace how our understanding of the causes of human behavior has changed radically over the course of European and American cultural history since 1830. Focusing on the act of murder, as documented vividly by more than a hundred novels including Crime and Punishment, An American Tragedy, The Trial, and Lolita, Stephen Kern devotes each chapter of A Cultural History of Causality to examining a specific causal factor or motive for murder--ancestry, childhood, language, sexuality, emotion, mind, society, and ideology.
Riiight, so why is this a science book? Oh, here we go...
In addition to drawing on particular novels, each chapter considers the sciences (genetics, endocrinology, physiology, neuroscience) and systems of thought (psychoanalysis, linguistics, sociology, forensic psychiatry, and existential philosophy) most germane to each causal factor or motive.
I find it hard to believe that NO other book has traced the changes in "our understanding of the causes of human behavior." I'm pretty sure that's the exact subject matter of The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker
(another book I haven't read).
I think the operative concept here is the "cultural history" mentioned in the book's title, which if memory and Wikipedia
serve is more about how our notions of human behaviorâ€”nature and nurture, selfishness and altruismâ€”play out in the arts: "Hmm, should I kill the king, Horatio, or what? I dunno... What would John Galt do?" (Our resident quantum poet
must have some better examples.)
On further browsing, my prediction is confirmed:
Others have addressed changing ideas about causality in specific areas, but no one has tackled a broad cultural history of this concept as does Stephen Kern in this engagingly written and lucidly argued book.
Sounds promising. Real Jonah Lehrer
-style, hey-whaddya-know-art-IS-science kinda stuff. Then I back up one sentence and groan:
The book closes by considering the revolutionary impact of quantum theory, which, though it influenced novelists only marginally, shattered the model of causal understanding that had dominated Western thought since the seventeenth century.
I should hope that quantum theory didn't influence the average novelist, given that concepts like quantum teleportation
apply to PARTICLES and not HUMAN BEINGS.
Whatever. I'd still read it.
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