Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Joseph Stiglitz, Sheila Hale and John Banville.

The Price of Inequality by Joseph Stiglitz

“Economic power is shifting to the east, putting huge pressure on tax revenues. Meanwhile social needs are rising – because of economic inequality (including 25 million unemployed in Europe), on the one hand, and social pressures from demographic changes, on the other”, writes guest-editor David Miliband in his leader for the New Statesman this week. In this context, the publication of Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality is timely. Stiglitz has been “a notable crusader against austerity economics and in favour of tighter controls on financial capital”, writes Robert Kuttner in the NS. Kuttner praises Stiglitz’s “rare combination of virtuoso technical economist, witty polemicist and public intellectual”, as well as the economist’s “refusal to pull his punches” – a characteristic that has left him marginalised in Barack Obama’s Washington. “That is a huge loss for sensible policy,” warns Kuttner. The Price of Inequality moves beyond the social effects of rising inequality, to examine its negative economic consequences in producing a macroeconomic drag. Furthermore the economist demonstrates a hardening of class lines, with the top 1 per cent transforming into a hereditary elite. Stiglitz considers how a more egalitarian society is better suited to maintain macroeconomic balance. Significantly, Stiglitz argues that severe economic inequality is accompanied by a significantly uneven influence on the setting of economic rules. “This puts at risk not just decent capitalism but democracy, too,” Kuttner concludes.
Yvonne Roberts, writing in the Observer, praises Stiglitz for his passionate description of how “unrestrained power and rampant greed are writing an epitaph for the American dream”. Stiglitz does so not according to a revolutionary creed, “but in order that capitalism be snatched back from free market fundamentalism and put to the service of the many, not the few”. In this sense, Stiglitz joins a band of economists including Paul Krugman and Michael J Sandel “who are trying to inject morality back into capitalism”. But Stiglitz’s remedies to curb the wealth of the top 1 per cent are too extreme for Samuel Brittan, writing in the Financial Times. “For most of my writing career”, Brittan writes, “I have been unmoved by the 'equality' brigade”. Brittan finds a reflection of the state of US politics in “the shrillness and bitterness” of The Price of Inequality. Stiglitz’s unsurprising advocation of managed capitalism - top tax rates above 70 per cent, restoration of union powers and curbs on globalisation, leaves Brittan with waning sympathy. 

Titian: His Life by Sheila Hale

In a new biography of Titian, Sheila Hale attempts to plug the gaps in our knowledge of the Venetian painter, following the last full biography in English published in 1877. Mark Hudson, writing in the Telegraph, deems that the celebrated “richness and complexity” of his paintings is not reflected in details of his life. Hale may be “full of arcane and intriguing facts about the city”, but Hudson feels that “the book doesn’t get us much closer to Titian as a human being”. Hudson forgives this - “devastating revelations about such distant events can’t be summoned out of thin air”. Despite crediting to Hale an “evident, sometimes wide-eyed, awe of the artist”, Hudson observes that “Venice itself is Hale’s first love” and “rather than try to minutely integrate the art and the life, she provides great wodges of socio-cultural context then tries to weave Titian into it.” Hudson questions the complex “artistic personality” that must lie beneath, but concedes that “where there’s a good story to be told, Hale retells it efficiently” and seems happy to finally see shadows of contemporary characters “step into the light for the first time.”
The Independent's Fisun Güner laments a shy portrayal of Titian's character, saying “the artist appears as the shadowy companion to the thing that really seems to fascinate this biographer, Venice itself.” Güner finds that the biography makes for an enchanting journey through Venice, and while Titian himself is more difficult to explore, “it's easy to lose oneself in this absorbing portrait of La Serenissima”. Güner stops to note Titian as the “hard-headed businessman” in Hale's account, and though heaped under her “devotional praise”, “Titian didn't embody the Renaissance ideal of the artistic genius”; what Hale shows instead is a compelling but strategic account of what few facts we know about Titian and his city. Michael Prodger makes a similar judgement in the Guardian, adding that Hale's biography is “an example of measured scholarship, judicious opinion, and telling framing detail”, emphasising Titian as Hale portrays him: the great and humble genius we know him as today. 

Ancient Light by John Banville

“Prose stylists share a tendency to ripen and then rot”, observes Claire Kilroy in her review of John Banville’s Ancient Light for the Financial Times. While Banville’s The Sea won him the 2005 Man Booker Prize, The Infinities (2009) “proved a perplexing read”. Left at a crossroads, Ancient Light – the third instalment in Banville’s Cleave trilogy, finds the author electing “to have a moment”. Banville revisits Alexander Cleave, an actor whose only child Cass lost her life in mysterious circumstances in Italy. 10 years later finds the retired Alexander still lost in the difficulty of his daughter’s death, narrating a tale that is “illuminating and often funny but ultimately devastating”.  The strands of Alexander’s life blend “into a single meditation of breath-taking beauty and profundity on love and loss and death, the final page of which brought tears”.
A “sense of distortion, of objects and people being turned into things of “fragments and disjointure” persists throughout” as Alexander looks back at a love affair with his best friend’s mother from his teenage years, writes John Preston in the Telegraph . “We’re in a world where the past is more vivid than the present, and the dead somehow more alive than the living”, observes Preston, noting that while Banville’s use of language “dips into self-consciousness at times, it can also be startlingly brilliant”. But Preston considers the two halves of the book – the idyllic account of Alexander’s affair and the more “forced” contemporary narrative, and finds a combination that ultimately makes for “an uneasy pairing”. Leyla Sanai in the Independent  agrees that Banville “perfectly captures the spirit of adolescence, the body yearning for sexual experience, the mind blurring eroticism and emotion” and is “astute on the emotions of sexually abused boys who crave the sex but may resent their lost childhood”. Like Kilroy, Sanai finds that Banville’s rich, startling imagery makes for a reading experience “akin to gliding regally through a lake of praline”, his Nabokovian prose “a slow, stately process, delicious and to be savoured”.
Prophet warning: Joseph Stiglitz (Photo:Getty)
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How nature created consciousness – and our brains became minds

In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Daniel C Dennett investigates the evolution of consciousness.

In the preface to his new book, the ­philosopher Daniel Dennett announces proudly that what we are about to read is “the sketch, the backbone, of the best scientific theory to date of how our minds came into existence”. By the end, the reader may consider it more scribble than spine – at least as far as an account of the origins of human consciousness goes. But this is still a superb book about evolution, engineering, information and design. It ranges from neuroscience to nesting birds, from computing theory to jazz, and there is something fascinating on every page.

The term “design” has a bad reputation in biology because it has been co-opted by creationists disguised as theorists of “intelligent design”. Nature is the blind watchmaker (in Richard Dawkins’s phrase), dumbly building remarkable structures through a process of random accretion and winnowing over vast spans of time. Nonetheless, Dennett argues stylishly, asking “design” questions about evolution shouldn’t be ­taboo, because “biology is reverse engin­eering”: asking what some phenomenon or structure is for is an excellent way to understand how it might have arisen.

Just as in nature there is design without a designer, so in many natural phenomena we can observe what Dennett calls “competence without comprehension”. Evolution does not understand nightingales, but it builds them; your immune system does not understand disease. Termites do not build their mounds according to blueprints, and yet the results are remarkably complex: reminiscent in one case, as Dennett notes, of Gaudí’s church the Sagrada Família. In general, evolution and its living products are saturated with competence without comprehension, with “unintelligent design”.

The question, therefore, is twofold. Why did “intelligent design” of the kind human beings exhibit – by building robotic cars or writing books – come about at all, if unintelligent design yields such impressive results? And how did the unintelligent-design process of evolution ever build intelligent designers like us in the first place? In sum, how did nature get from bacteria to Bach?

Dennett’s answer depends on memes – self-replicating units of cultural evolution, metaphorical viruses of the mind. Today we mostly use “meme” to mean something that is shared on social media, but in Richard Dawkins’s original formulation of the idea, a meme can be anything that is culturally transmitted and undergoes change: melodies, ideas, clothing fashions, ways of building pots, and so forth. Some might say that the only good example of a meme is the very idea of a meme, given that it has replicated efficiently over the years despite being of no use whatsoever to its hosts. (The biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for one, didn’t believe in memes.) But Dennett thinks that memes add something important to discussions of “cultural evolution” (a contested idea in its own right) that is not captured by established disciplines such as history or sociology.

The memes Dennett has in mind here are words: after all, they reproduce, with variation, in a changing environment (the mind of a host). Somehow, early vocalisations in our species became standardised as words. They acquired usefulness and meaning, and so, gradually, their use spread. Eventually, words became the tools that enabled our brains to reflect on what they were ­doing, thus bootstrapping themselves into full consciousness. The “meme invasion”, as Dennett puts it, “turned our brains into minds”. The idea that language had a critical role to play in the development of human consciousness is very plausible and not, in broad outline, new. The question is how much Dennett’s version leaves to explain.

Before the reader arrives at that crux, there are many useful philosophical interludes: on different senses of “why” (why as in “how come?” against why as in “what for?”), or in the “strange inversions of reasoning” offered by Darwin (the notion that competence does not require comprehension), Alan Turing (that a perfect computing machine need not know what arithmetic is) and David Hume (that causation is a projection of our minds and not something we perceive directly). Dennett suggests that the era of intelligent design may be coming to an end; after all, our best AIs, such as the ­AlphaGo program (which beat the human European champion of the boardgame Go 5-0 in a 2015 match), are these days created as learning systems that will teach themselves what to do. But our sunny and convivial host is not as worried as some about an imminent takeover by intelligent machines; the more pressing problem, he argues persuasively, is that we usually trust computerised systems to an extent they don’t deserve. His final call for critical thinking tools to be made widely available is timely and admirable. What remains puzzlingly vague to the end, however, is whether Dennett actually thinks human consciousness – the entire book’s explanandum – is real; and even what exactly he means by the term.

Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, seemed to some people to deny the existence of consciousness at all, so waggish critics retitled it Consciousness Explained Away. Yet it was never quite clear just what Dennett was claiming didn’t exist. In this new book, confusion persists, owing to his reluctance to define his terms. When he says “consciousness” he appears to mean reflective self-consciousness (I am aware that I am aware), whereas many other philosophers use “consciousness” to mean ordinary awareness, or experience. There ensues much sparring with straw men, as when he ridicules thinkers who assume that gorillas, say, have consciousness. They almost certainly don’t in his sense, and they almost certainly do in his opponents’ sense. (A gorilla, we may be pretty confident, has experience in the way that a volcano or a cloud does not.)

More unnecessary confusion, in which one begins to suspect Dennett takes a polemical delight, arises from his continued use of the term “illusion”. Consciousness, he has long said, is an illusion: we think we have it, but we don’t. But what is it that we are fooled into believing in? It can’t be experience itself: as the philosopher Galen Strawson has pointed out, the claim that I only seem to have experience presupposes that I really am having experience – the experience of there seeming to be something. And throughout this book, Dennett’s language implies that he thinks consciousness is real: he refers to “conscious thinking in H[omo] sapiens”, to people’s “private thoughts and experiences”, to our “proper minds, enculturated minds full of thinking tools”, and to “a ‘rich mental life’ in the sense of a conscious life like ours”.

The way in which this conscious life is allegedly illusory is finally explained in terms of a “user illusion”, such as the desktop on a computer operating system. We move files around on our screen desktop, but the way the computer works under the hood bears no relation to these pictorial metaphors. Similarly, Dennett writes, we think we are consistent “selves”, able to perceive the world as it is directly, and acting for rational reasons. But by far the bulk of what is going on in the brain is unconscious, ­low-level processing by neurons, to which we have no access. Therefore we are stuck at an ­“illusory” level, incapable of experiencing how our brains work.

This picture of our conscious mind is rather like Freud’s ego, precariously balan­ced atop a seething unconscious with an entirely different agenda. Dennett explains wonderfully what we now know, or at least compellingly theorise, about how much unconscious guessing, prediction and logical inference is done by our brains to produce even a very simple experience such as seeing a table. Still, to call our normal experience of things an “illusion” is, arguably, to privilege one level of explanation arbitrarily over another. If you ask me what is happening on my computer at the moment, I shall reply that I am writing a book review on a word processor. If I embarked instead on a description of electrical impulses running through the CPU, you would think I was being sarcastically obtuse. The normal answer is perfectly true. It’s also true that I am currently seeing my laptop screen even as this experience depends on innumerable neural processes of guessing and reconstruction.

The upshot is that, by the end of this brilliant book, the one thing that hasn’t been explained is consciousness. How does first-person experience – the experience you are having now, reading these words – arise from the electrochemical interactions of neurons? No one has even the beginnings of a plausible theory, which is why the question has been called the “Hard Problem”. Dennett’s story is that human consciousness arose because our brains were colonised by word-memes; but how did that do the trick? No explanation is forthcoming. Dennett likes to say the Hard Problem just doesn’t exist, but ignoring it won’t make it go away – even if, as his own book demonstrates, you can ignore it and still do a lot of deep and fascinating thinking about human beings and our place in nature.

Steven Poole’s books include “Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas” (Random House Books)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times