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Wednesday, September 5, 2001
By Paul Ford
A message from the Ftrain metaphor control committee.
It is very hard to talk about evolution without anthropomorphizing it into a directed process, a cosmic actor which carved our fate. When I read about evolution, I usually sense the writers trying to squeeze it into some narrative form, seeking to give it a beginning (lightning strikes molecules which assemble into basic proteins), middle (billions of years of fuss and competition), and an end (humans, with a dash of genetic engineering mixed in with the Internet - right around the corner!). Steven Jay Gould is really good at not doing this, by the way, as is Richard Lewontin.
Evolutionary Psychology and Sociobiology are often used as a philosophical swiss-army knives; you can claim a biological drive towards anything - rape, or father-killing, or drug abuse, or why women wear dresses and makeup, especially if you skip straight from DNA to human action, without stopping to examine culture (culture being soft, unscientific, and unstructured).
Anyway, that's not my point - the book which argues better than I against the excesses of Evolutionary Psychology is - I miss my books - on the right side of the fourth shelf from the bottom of the bookshelves leaning on the south-facing wall of my apartment in Brooklyn, out of reach, or otherwise I'd quote a bit, and it's a hardback called Alas, Poor Darwin; I bought it at Revolution Books on 19th St. in Manhattan when I was out with a friend, and it cost $25 hardback. If you have it, the bit I want to quote right now is in the introduction or first chapter, running around two pages, and it's an argument against the thesis of Thornhill and Palmer's A Natural History of Rape.
I know it was inexcusable to put that much meaningless detail about the location of a book, in space, right here, but I was so happy recalling the shape and content of my bookshelves right then - I would spend 1000 New Israel Shekels to run my fingers over my books bent spines right this moment, beautiful softcovers and cloth-bound volumes, dictionaries and folios, piled three deep and stuck in boxes under the bed, a tiny room choked with books, most of them half-read, a huge planet of intellectual options in a space the size of my current bathroom.
The thesis of Thornhill's book is that men have an innate biological desire to rape; the thesis is spotty and bell-curvish to say the least. The problem is in the awful reductionism. Think of culture as a kind of TV set. We watch the picture on the TV and it influences our actions and we seek to emulate what it shows. Now, as you know, the image is not manufactured on the T.V., but comes across some wires or through the air. Imagine that the T.V. set itself is a body, and the signal is culture. What evolutionary psychologists like to do, I feel, is look at the T.V. - the tube, the tuner, the channel display - and try to imagine what people are seeing, ignoring all the signals - which is fine until you move from describing the function of the different parts of the T.V. to trying to predict what's going to come on at some given part of the day. So when I read a book like How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker, it feels like an issue of T.V. Guide written by staring at the blank screen and imagining the image. They disregard the programming - or they wrap it in the concept of “memes” - again, seeking to graft a narrative, a structure, onto incredibly arbitrary concepts.
Oh, well. It's not exactly like that either. I think I'd give that metaphor a .5 success ratio in describing what I was actually thinking.
Also, Alas, Poor Darwin is a flawed book, and some of the essays are third-rate, but some of the authors are quite good at catching the Evolutionary Psychologists skipping over major piles of evidence in support of badly biased assumptions on human nature. See Give us the proof for a summary of the argument by the book's editors.
Anyway, back to evolution, which is not a narrative. But let's stop off in Arizona, first. The Grand Canyon, a lovely and strange part of the United States, is a product of erosion, the result of millions of years of steadily flowing water. The shape of the canyon is what's left, what wasn't washed away; the stone that's still in the Grand Canyon is hard enough, and far enough away from the center of the river, that it has remained.
I like to think of evolution as a process of erosion, like the one that created the Grand Canyon, not as one of construction. Yes, the human body and the spirals of DNA are miraculously complex adaptions - but the adaptions were not put there; they were not added but left as various things happened.
Each adaptive structure is a compilation of small changes, and each of these changes is what was left when other structures were washed away in competition with other organisms, be they virii or tigers, or by bad weather; all the tigers and bad weather merge into a river of actions and pressures running through time, sometimes trickling, sometimes raging and flooding, but always moving. And that is a process, but it's eternal, unchanging, like a machine; natural selection is no more a “story” than ice becoming water, then becoming steam is a story.
Yet there is this sense that we can control evolution, that it's a process with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that we are at the end of the story, because humans always thing we're at the end of the story. We've figured out the major, life-giving unit of replication, the genome, so we feel certain the question of authorship of the genetic text will soon be resolved, and we can finally all work together to write volume 2.
Soon, it seems, we'll be able to dam Darwin's river, which washes away unfit species, and let it flow only as much as we wish. But this is complete hubris, because all we can really do is change its flow a bit, alter its speed, dam up some tributaries. We may change what defines the “fittest” in the survival of the fittest, but we can't control the survival part.
Anyway, that's my point, that most metaphors for evolution are broken. When I was thinking about it, before I wrote it down, it was a point of absolutely sterling brilliance. As I wrote it down, I realized just how little I knew, but still felt certain of my point. And now that I'm done - well, I'm done.