Goethe + Nazis; Surnames, Fate



Wahl appealed directly to Hitler—and met him in 1934—in an effort to obtain funding for the new Goethe museum . . . Hitler assented … and the museum opened in 1935. A bust of Hitler was erected in the foyer of the museum along with a display showing Goethe’s family tree—intended to disprove claims that Goethe had Jewish forebears: a kind of “Aryan certificate” . . . A plaque was put up to commemorate the Fuhrer’s generosity, and a Hitler mediallion rests in the cornerstone to this day. All of this is invisible to those who visit Goethe’s house and the museum today—more than 170,000 every year.

f a t e   i s   t h e   s u r n a m e

The name “Pepys,” says Mr. Clark, emerged in 1496, when one of Samuel’s ancestors entered Cambridge University; but it remained rare, with no more than 40 Pepyses alive at one time, from the 16th to the 18th centuries. In 2002, there were just 18 people keeping the name from extinction.

For a population this small, we should expect, says Mr. Clark, no more than two or three Pepyses, over time, to have enrolled in those venerable British markers of social prestige, Oxford and Cambridge; and yet there have been, to our knowledge, 58.

If your ancestors made it to the top of society—whether defined as the aristocracy or the professional elites of doctors or lawyers—the probability is that you have high social status too, and, unless you make some poor decisions, your children will also inherit your status, and their children too. Random variation over time will ensure that your descendants gradually do make poor decisions—they marry a struggling musician or choose to study art history over finance. And the sum of these decisions, along with such random misfortunes as not inheriting the family pool’s best genes, will ensure that, broadly, your class will regress toward the mean social status of society, but even then the regression will be slower than expected and less than complete.

Mr. Clark proposes the concept of “social competence.” The phrase doesn’t suggest a quality that is directly observable; rather, it can be thought of as the unity of, genes, values, material advantage, and the talent or tendency to select a mate who has the same social competence as you have. Its marker, Mr. Clark asserts, is the surname.

 s u r g e o n

This was the moment the surgeon chose to come downstairs.He was wearing a pale grey hat, and gloves to match.

 r e f e r e n c e   a n d   e x i s t e n c e

“How could a person originating from different parents, from a totally different sperm and egg, be this very woman?” Kripke asks. ”It seems to me that anything coming from a different origin would not be this object.” (113) Williamson responds that we have no choice but to acknowledge that a man as brilliant as Kripke must be aware that the precise genetic makeup of Elizabeth II could in principle have resulted from the fusing of different sperm and egg, as all of the genes of Elizabeth II—or mutations thereof—are floating around elsewhere in the population. “It simply cannot be true,” Williamson concludes, “that it seems to Kripke, as he claims, that Elizabeth II could not be born of different parents.”

 b o l t z m a n

Some of my colleagues are busy arguing about Boltzmann brains.

We’re living proof that atoms can be put together in an elaborate pattern that subjectively feels self-aware. So far, our physics research has turned up no evidence whatsoever suggesting that ours is the only possible path to consciousness. We therefore need to consider the possibility that there may be other kinds of atom arrangements that feel self-aware as well, and that some life-forms (perhaps even we or our descendants) will one day build such entities.

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