|. . . 2001-11-19|
"The collapse of liberal denominations promises an increasing polarisation between consistent secularists and devout believers."Empty chatter about "the Christian West" or "the capitalist West" fogs perception, as universalizing abstractions tend to do: when we need to know the weather, we're told that clouds look like bunnies (or at least real clouds do). But what makes this particular parochialism dangerous rather than merely annoying is its easy slide into racism and aggression.
The reader a-thirst for closer analysis of Rise-and-Fall Clash-of-Culture rhetoricians might enjoy Robert Musil's 1921 essay, "Mind and Experience: Notes for Readers Who Have Eluded the Decline of the West":
For there is a favorable prejudice -- I want to use the word spiritual, let us say then in spiritual circles, but I mean in literary circles -- toward offenses against mathematics, logic, and precision. Among crimes against the spirit, these are happily counted among the honorable political ones; the prosecutor actually finds himself in the role of the accused. Let us be generous, then: Spengler is speaking approximately; he works with analogies, and these are always right in some sense or other. If an author is bent on referring to concepts by the wrong names or even confusing them with each other, one can eventually get used to it. But some key symbol, some kind of ultimately unequivocal connection between thought and word, must be sustained. Even this is lacking. The examples I have adduced, without having to look very hard, are only a selection among many; they are not errors of detail, but a way of thinking.
There are lemon-yellow butterflies, and there are lemon-yellow Chinese. In a certain sense, then, one can say that the butterfly is the winged, middle-European, dwarf Chinese. Butterflies and Chinese are both familiar as images of sexual desire. Here the thought is formulated for the first time of the previously unrecognized commonality between the great ages of lepidopteral fauna and Chinese culture. That butterflies have wings and the Chinese do not is only a superficial phenomenon. If ever a zoologist had understood anything about the ultimate and deepest ideas of technology, it would not have been left to me to be the first to disclose the significance of the fact that butterflies did not invent gunpowder precisely because the Chinese had done so already. The suicidal predilection of certain kinds of nocturnal moths for bright light is a relic of this morphological connection to Sinology, a connection hard to explain in terms of everyday reason.
It really makes no difference what it is that is to be proved by such means.
|. . . 2002-04-11|
Failing towards Freedom : Henry Adams, 1
That the effort to make History a Science may fail, is possible, and perhaps probable; but that it should cease, unless for reasons that would cause all science to cease, is not within the range of experience. Historians will not, and even if they would they cannot, abandon the attempt. Science itself would admit its own failure, if it admitted that man, the most important of all its subjects, could not be brought within its range.
- Henry Adams to the American Historical Association, 12 December 1894
History saw few lessons in the past that would be useful in the future; but one, at least, it did see. The attempt of the American of 1900 to educate the American of 2000, must be even blinder than that of the Congressman of 1800, except so far as he had learned his ignorance. During a million or two of years, every generation in turn had toiled with endless agony to attain and apply power, all the while betraying the deepest alarm and horror at the power they created.... the mind would continue to react. All the teacher could hope was to teach it reaction.
... Evidently the new American would need to think in contradictions, and instead of Kant's famous four antinomies, the new universe would know no law that could not be proved by its anti-law.
- The Education of Henry Adams, 1905
Social studies are an excellent idea; social sciences less so.
The problem springs (and I mean springs) from the confusion of description and prescription, the impulse to apply "knowledge" lickety-split to "practice," a confusion and impulse so built into human nature that only us kinda screwed-up people even perceive it, much less perceive it as a problem. If we try to study "how unhappiness develops," financial pressure will quickly switch us to the more profitable question of "how to prevent unhappiness": psychology turns into therapy, philosophy turns into self-help, sociology turns into genocide, and economics into utter insanity; pro-republic Machiavelli barely advanced into a science of politics before his research became funded and repurposed by Medici Technologies. Sure, everyone wants to be an authority, and that's harmless enough; the trouble is that people expect authorities to give orders.
Luckily if unprofitably, virtually all attempts at formalizing a "humanity" into a "scientific discipline" crumble -- such a relief after straining to hold it together! -- unless one assumes a static monoculture. Historical narratives demonstrably overlap without strictly determining each other, and therefore what's defined as history depends on the observer's chosen focus. Predictive history is impossible because both the facts and their interpretive framework are in the future. Even within a monoculture, even for a single interpeter and for a safely past-and-gone event, newly discovered facts (as Adams often mentions) can completely overturn an interpretation. As a result, the new and glorious science can only be defended by outrageously know-nothing rhetoric -- which hardly makes it a safer foundation for action.
History can only react. It doesn't tell us what to do; it only tells us "I told you so," and that's precisely its value. We need it not because we need prescience but because we need narratives. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fewer and dumber ways of interpreting the present.
|. . . 2003-07-01|
The Descent of Man
If God created man in His own Western (but not too Western) European image, why don't all men resemble Western Europeans? And if men are entitled to law and property, how can one justify enslaving men or colonizing their territory?
The enlightened eighteenth century killed both these birds and got a nice dinner out of 'em by casting the stone of degeneration.
That sounds a bit odd to American ears, since our local colonialist rhetoric restricted itself to filthy bloodthirsty savages (that is, the populations of Africa and the New World). But Sarah Jordan reminds me that Mother England also had to deal with the Middle East, India, and China, and an Oxbridgian could hardly claim that the English infantry was more civilized than those populations. Instead, he'd claim it was less depraved:
The effete East is decadent, and "savages" are just decadents who got so lazy they stopped putting on clothes in the morning. God wants the English, as His original representatives, to restore both groups to their hard-working hard-drinking natural ways rather than let them continue to squander their god-given resources in their god-forsaken countries.
As Jordan points out, although admirably unified, this self-justification had a blatant flaw: What man had done, man could do. If the savage African and the effete Asian had started off as pure as Adam or George IV but then been corrupted by their climates, wouldn't the same corruption sooner or later strike colonists? A hard question to turn away, given the gruesome evidence supplied by the colonists' persons.
If ideology was determined by rational argument rather than economics, then the advent of evolutionary theory would have destroyed racism.
Instead, the ideology stayed firmly in place and the justification flipped around it. In the enlightened nineteenth century, the colonized and enslaved went from "degenerate" to "primitive," and the colonists were no longer throwbacks to the golden age but pinnacles of progress, bred to resist rot. The awkward question of environmental factors no longer heckles us, smug in our Darwinian birthright.
So have creationists carefully thought through the possible consequences of their textbook revisions?
+ + +
Presumably not. I mean, is Supreme Designer really a term of praise? Myself, when I survey the vast panoply of life, I'm awestruck by the shoddiness of the job.
I think our friends in the news media would agree that it's easier to flatter a hands-off tough-talking take-charge delegate-everything pass-the-buck-and-overprice-the-ammunition kind of CEO (so like our own dear Queen) than a clumsy would-be mastermind.
|. . . 2003-07-13|
Failing towards Freedom
I am intrigued by this article because, like the woman cited in the first quote above, I often find myself torn between "a traditionally humanist right and an antihumanist left."
Surely, the solution is a postmodern humanist left? How?
Having not felt this conflict myself, I wonder at its prevalence in American graduate schools and bordellos. It may be that embodying "teacher" and "grader" roles in one person is bound to make hash of any investigation of authority. (One-man-bands of judge, prosecutor, jury, and executioner have a poor reputation for justice, despite their efficiency.)
When I learned that everyone is mortal, my breath caught and my heart skipped a beat, but I wasn't relieved of the need to breathe oxygen or circulate blood. I simply gained an awareness of death, which I could either ignore or bear in mind while operating heavy machinery.
Learning the extent to which conscious decision-making is a Pistol of preliminary bluster and unlikely retrospection didn't relieve me of the unpleasant duty to decide things. I only earned another bit of knowledge to work with or discard to the best of my ability.
Similarly, the knowledge that social values come from somewhere, can change, and often conflict might cushion the shock when we encounter differing values or unexpected results, or it might make us more likely to examine and readjust some of our values in the light of others (notably in the light of empiricism). Or it might just be something we drop.
But it certainly doesn't transform us from animals that make, hold, and live by social values into animals that don't. We aren't granted that luxury. (Nietzsche rarely wrote of himself as a new species; his "we"s and "our"s tend to be a bit humbler than that.)
And the knowledge certainly doesn't compel us to give up such constructed values as pleasure, or honesty, or understanding, or greatest good for greatest number, and to instead reshape our lives around such constructed values as short-term selfishness or xenophobic tribal allegiance -- any more than reading about digestive enzymes compels us to switch from delicious to repulsive food. A fella's still gotta eat.
|. . . 2003-09-29|
|Cardinal Richelieu, instead of being an innovative modernizer of France's military system... in fact failed to initiate effective reforms in military administration, and owed what limited success he had in expanding and strengthening the French army to improvised expedients and the cultivation of the great nobles and existing clientage networks.... funded not by a streamlined fiscal system, but through high taxes and short-term borrowing managed by officials whose corruption was encouraged by the system. Most of the armies' successes, moreover, were the product of decentralization and delegation of authority to military commands and officials, and what limited attempts Richelieu made to concentrate power in his own hands or those of his own clients produced a backlash that threatened to destroy the monarchy a few years later.|
|- Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. LV, No. 4, Winter 2002|
James R. Smither review of
Richelieu's Army: War, Government and Society in France, 1624-1642 by David Parrott
But France made out OK for a couple years, so it's easy to see how the story of Richelieu's prowess spread. What was he going to do? Deny it?
|There are as many perspectives as there are human souls and once again I’m learning that no easy conclusions can be drawn, and that what was called History in school was worse than watered-down fairy tales.|
|- Gail Armstrong|
It's not precisely true that history's always written by the victor. Only losers write anything, much less history books. (Burning them's another matter.) But it's true enough that the notion of victors grounds the historical genre.
The historian's job is to build a coherent narrative from whatever source material's available, with memory of hearsay usually providing the initial plot outline. Narrative prefers willed action with willed effects. And so we tell about someone planning this and gaining that, and someone else making a mistake and losing. And the winners (if any) tend to be the protagonists, unless we're playing weepy reactionary, in which case it's going to be awfully hard to avoid bathos.
When sources abound, our fiction becomes untenable, no matter how much the active parties might've clung to their own fictions for the sake of career and sanity. To write coherent post-literate pre-library-burning history is to ascribe motives glibly in the text and dispute or overturn them in the footnotes. (Which is why footnotes are often where the most interesting writing is.)
[That same narratological impulse has kept torture multiculturally acceptable for millenia. Torture produces a known story, and therefore it produces a coherent story, thus re-affirming the value of torture. (Those of us raised to abhor torture should bear in mind that we rely on grossly inaccurate eyewitness accounts for similar reasons.) It's no surprise that the Bush administration, with its faith in the confidently stated lie and in Matthew 25:29-30, should be the first American administration in some time to suggest bringing torture back into the legal system. Footnotes to be shredded before publication.]
When they link local weather conditions to a monarch's virtue, classic European and Chinese histories seem quaint to (most) contemporary humanities students, who know that weather is actually caused by butterfly wings. Could be, though, we maintain some quaint assumptions of our own....
Sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, I read a book (this was before I kept a journal about anything other than my sex life, so I don't have the title at hand) that brought two bits of research together. The first polled military scholars to determine who were the greatest military leaders in history and what determined that category; it turned out to be something like winning six major battles. The second collected a database of major battles and relevant commanders and calculated, based purely on chance, what the likely distribution of wins would be. The most likely number of winners of six battles was identical with the number of most-agreed-upon major military leaders.
Although the coincidence is merely suggestive, I've found the suggestion clarifying when brought to bear on questions like how did Grant turn from a drunken loser to a drunken winner (producing a narrative of growing wisdom and maturity) and then (as President) back to a drunken loser again (producing very confused narrators)?
Almost a century before that book's publication, confused Grant-watcher Henry Adams bid farewell to history when, after decades of mulling the elaborately unreliable allegiances of English-American diplomacy during the American Civil War, he found by reading memoirs and diaries that they'd been generated semi-randomly by the combination of an aging pathological liar, an airhead who took orders from his morning Bible reading, and a self-confessed bungler who hadn't thought through the consequences of his actions:
|All the world had been at cross-purposes, had misunderstood themselves and the situation, had followed wrong paths, drawn wrong conclusions, and had known none of the facts. One would have done better to draw no conclusions at all. One's diplomatic education was a long mistake.
His whole theory of conspiracy,— of policy,— of logic and connection in the affairs of man, resolved itself into "[a mistake of] incredible grossness."
All this was indifferent. Granting, in spite of evidence, that Gladstone had no set plan of breaking up the Union; that he was party to no conspiracy; that he saw none of the results of his acts which were clear to everyone else; granting in short what the English themselves seemed at last to conclude:— that Gladstone was not quite sane; that Russell was verging on senility; and that Palmerston had lost his nerve.... How should it have affected one's future opinions and acts?
Politics cannot stop to study psychology. Its methods are rough; its judgments are rougher still.... The problem would have been the same; the answer equally obscure.
|- The Education of Henry Adams|
Even in the presumable limit condition of fiction labeled as such, on the presumable author's own authority, we often find confusion, second-guessing, or admission of surprise ("I meant to make God the hero, but Satan kept taking over"). How much more murkiness might be expected from a Real Life Adventure with the cross-purposed interference of multiply improvising and scatterbrained plotters?
Does this mean history has nothing to teach us?
Even to this non-historian, it seems very insistently to teach lessons of (in no particular order) tolerance, skepticism, humor, and panic.
Those were never very popular lessons, however, and, except for the last, they're less popular now than ever.
|. . . 2006-02-13|
Since the capitulation of Paris the soldier has tended to sink more and more into a paid official, receiving his orders from financiers with his salary, without being allowed a voice even in questions involving peace and war. The same fate has overtaken the producing classes; they have failed to maintain themselves, and have become subjects of the possessors of hoarded wealth. Although the conventions of popular government are still preserved, capital is at least as absolute as under the Caesars, and, among capitalists, the money-lenders form an aristocracy. Debtors are in reality powerless, because of the extension of that very system of credit which they invented to satisfy their needs. Although the volume of credit is gigantic, the basis on which it rests is so narrow that it may be manipulated by a handful of men. [...] The aristocracy which wields this autocratic power is beyond attack, for it is defended by a wage-earning police, by the side of which the legions were a toy; a police so formidable that, for the first time in history, revolt is hopeless and is not attempted. The only question which preoccupies the ruling class is whether it is cheaper to coerce or to bribe.- The Law of Civilization and Decay: An Essay on History
by Brooks Adams (1895-6)
Brooks Adams never set "The Law" in a single line of Greek and arithmetic; his wife's suggested title was The Path to Hell: A Story Book. He thumps out a simple enough pattern, though.
History describes the inverse relationship of two emotions: Fear and Greed. ("That's not where I want to be.") As a population centralizes, Fear becomes less important, Greed more. The power (or status or survival — he makes no distinction) of an individual (or "organism", "type", "breed", "race" — he makes no distinction) in any community (or "culture", "civilization", "nation", "race" — he makes no distinction) is determined by whether Fear or Greed has the ascendancy. Military heroes and priests rule the Fearful; capitalists rule the Greedy. As Greed accelerates, the increasingly capitalistic community becomes dependent on cheaper external goods and labor. Eventually this leads to collapse, dispersion, and Fear.
The leading indicators (or the sole engines — he's vague) of cultural change are control of financial exchange and access to the units of exchange.
Follow the money: Rome plundered Europe and the Near East. The merchants plundered Rome. The Church plundered Europe. Italy plundered Constantinople. Portugal stole the Indies trade from Italy. Spain plundered the New World. The Dutch stole the ocean trade from Spain. Improved technology re-centered trade in England. England plundered India. Germany plundered France. Bankers plundered everyone.
So it seems to be a habit with us. What makes Adams's account most impressively legalistic is his tone, the attorney's habit of argument by inevitability. "She had no choice but to pull the trigger." "You have no choice but to find her guilty." "The Knights Templar might as well have argued with gravitation." "That ostentatious, sordid, and cowardly race, being better adapted, rose to dominance."
"a habit with us" - Seeing as how they've truncated your sense of us-ness down to somewhat minus the last 3 millenia, with an unspoken codicil that any pre-our-history human lives were larval and inconsequent, like indigenes generally, even the useful ones, it might get more toward the actual analysis of motivation to say "this here us".
Fear and Greed are the driving wheels of this particular clot of this particular primate spooge, what we are as a race, or specie, is rather larger than what passes for history now.
I see where you're coming from and I'm getting there, although I can't blame you if you're tired of waiting. I meant this first part as summary, not as endorsement. (I wonder how many "Little Nell must die" letters were sent to Dickens.)
|. . . 2006-02-15|
All this appreciably before Max Weber or Oswald Spengler.... It's tempting to say Brooks Adams was ahead of his time, except he hits anyone's time on his face.
Despite its recent crisis, the 1895 American elite wasn't in the mood for anti-imperialist pessimism. And neither were Marxists, really; although Adams thought capitalism incapable of avoiding civilization-shattering crises, he also thought humanity incapable of avoiding capitalism. We weren't heading for the dictatorship of the proletariat. We were heading for anarchy and subjection by fresher capitalists.
After the Great War, Spengler's race-mysticism was found more interesting than Adams's materialism. As late as 1944, the New English Weekly could complain that "the emphasis it lays on the economic factor" conflicted with "Otto Sieck's thesis that character changes are brought about by miscegenation."
But although Adams claimed wealth determined which representatives of which races ended up on top, he still expressed himself in racial reifications. This account of globalization is likely to be found distasteful by most fans of Hardt & Negri:
First, inventions from the East facilitated trade; then, the perfection of weapons of attack made police possible, and individual bravery unnecessary; on this followed the abasement of the martial and exaltation of the economic type; and finally that intense acceleration of movement by machinery supervened, which, in annihilating space, has destroyed the protection that the costly races long enjoyed against the competition of simpler organisms. [...] For nearly a century the inventions of Hargreaves, of Crompton, of Cartwright, and of Watt, enabled Lancashire to supply Bombay and Calcutta with fabrics, as, in the seventeenth century, Surat and Calicut had supplied London, and this superiority appeared assured until Orientals should acquire the momentum necessary for machinery. One effect in Europe was the rapid increase of a population congregated in towns, and bearing a marked resemblance to the "humiliores" of Rome in their disinclination for war. True to their instincts, the adventurers ever quickened their movements, ever extended the sphere of their enterprises, and, finally, just as the Second Empire verged upon its fall, they opened the Suez Canal in 1869. The consequences of this great engineering triumph have probably equalled in gravity the establishment of the gold standard, but the two phenomena had this marked difference. The producers saw their danger and resisted to the utmost the contraction of the currency, whereas the Canal was a case of suicide. Thenceforward grain, raised by the most enduring labour of the world, could be thrown without limit on the European market, and, agricultural competition once established, industrial could only be a question of time.
Even on its own terms the book's a mess, unable to resist a good torture scene anytime or anywhere, and digressing spectacularly into the vices of the Tudors.
Its own terms are what interest me.
Character changes are brought about by miscegnation. Also by adherence to racial-purity laws. Also by celibacy. Also by promiscuity. Also by tedious list-making. The character of those changes may be more of an issue.
"The character of" as in "The nature of" or as in "The person effected by"? If the latter, I agree. The characters of the miscegnator or tedious list-maker may be changed by their experiences, but not the characters of their descendents.
Oh but of course. Though cast in more subtle light than our dull gross vision has power to see. You mean predictable intentional change I think. Everything works changes on everything else. The glockenspiel effects the timpani, in its way, though we'll never hear it, still it does.
|. . . 2006-02-25|
Early Darwinian historians simply swapped Nature's will in for God's: Nature evolved homo sapiens, and then Nature evolved late nineteenth-century Anglo-Americans, and now it's just a matter of mopping up the kitchen.
Brooks Adams knew better. Biological evolution describes a process, not a project; by analogy, any rules governing human culture would continue to grind through the Gilded Age. Anyone who thought they'd reached the end of history hadn't understood history.
Relinquishing the throne of creation freed Adams to found a different lineage of errors.
Take, for example, his assumption that biology and culture conserve a constant quantifiable "energy" which is divvied out across each generation. Or his asides about a force of history which can no more be argued with than gravitational acceleration. In both cases, he seems to misunderstand evolution as (singular) survival of the (winner-take-all) fittest under a (singular) law rather than as an intention-free account of species diversification. He mistakes Darwin for Newton.
He's hardly alone. Because technology depends on reliably replicable results, non-scientists tend to picture science as a matter of finding trustworthy laws and formulas. But that doesn't cover even all laboratory sciences: Medical and psychological journals describe barely distinguishable correlations rather than universally valid laws, and the pressures of research funding encourage flexibility in what's considered significant. In the twentieth century, physics itself became probabilistic.
Most drastically, the characterization doesn't cover historical science. Historical sciences such as geology and evolutionary biology study contingencies, not eternal verities. What makes them scientific are the materiality of their problems, their evidence, and their suggested explanations.
Darwin's problem was the appearance of new species over time. His solution was divergent descent driven by material means.
What's the historian's problem? It doesn't seem to be divergence. Like later scientizing historians, Adams rummaged through the polymorphic transtemporal promiscuity of human culture and found cycles. But evolution isn't cyclical.
Biologists in the tradition of Darwin should not speak of the coming into effect of selection if:
1. Already disappeared characters suddenly re-appear in subsequent generations (= false negative selection).
2. Characters which seem to have been positively “selected” during ontogeny never re-appear in subsequent generations (= false positive selection).
Usually, genes, genomes, characters, individuals, populations, and species never do come back once they have been negatively selected, and that is eliminated by Darwinian selection. This is the very simple, but fundamental essence of Darwin’s idea of “natural selection” which, in that respect, was a clearly materialist one....
The situation in operant learning – and, by the way, also in conceptual change in science and culture – is even more revealing. Cases 1 and 2 are in this view not rare exceptional cases, but rather they constitute more or less the rule.
And the problem's certainly not species. Although biological taxonomy may be fuzzy in spots, it's brick solid compared to what we grasp and mold from the blooming buzzing muck of human chronicles. So far as history is conceived as anything but a chronological collation of citations from unreliable sources, history is nothing but variations on observer bias, and misanthopic pessimism isn't enough to correct our myopia.
After only 110 years, Adams's biases seem sharp, and his (to him) clean abstractions seem (to us) to morph and merge. His towering account is stabilized by the shiftiness of its foundations. Even the line between "civilization" and "barbarism" is blurred by his fascination with torture.
Living where and when he did, Adams restricts the purview of his general law of "civilizations" to Western Europe and, occasionally, their colonies. The barbaric Crusaders contacted the Saracens at the peak of their civilization — but what laws governed that civilization? China, Japan, Persia — they were out there, we suppose; unchanging, decadent....
Living where and when he did, Adams's idea of "economy" focused on the movement of precious metals. But the "money" of contemporary wealth is as imaginary, as reliant on the power of orthodoxy and law, as any kingship or priesthood: a shared nightmare from which we're afraid to wake up.
Living where and when he did, Adams pictured religion and finance as opposite extremes. Protestantism had won because conscience is cheaper than icons. Taking what would seem — and would continue to seem, among the elite, for some decades — the natural next step, Henry Adams pointed out that "Atheism is still cheaper than reformed religion."
But then again Henry also pointed out that the leaders of the Catholic church appear to have accumulated more wealth than Luther, Calvin, and Fox. And then again, Brooks represents the Anglican capitalists who consolidated lands and lowered the value of productive labor as more economically evolved than the Puritan farmers who were thereby forced into exile. And then again, as the economic power of those exiles grew...?
Well, living where and when we do, none of it makes sense. If capitalism and religious faith were ever in conflict, they made up by the time of the Spanish Civil War. For those of us who've survived into the 21st century, it's hard to picture them as anything but allies. The age of expensive miracles isn't past. It's just that the expensive miracle cures consist of selfish murdering assholes getting to feel good about themselves. Taking the long view, though, is that really so novel?
And then there are his easy personifications of "race" and "breed". In their rush to scientize, even skeptics like Brooks and Henry Adams stayed blind to the flaws of these selectively weighted non-random outliers-scrubbed sample sets. They knew many more WASP millionaires than they knew Jewish bankers — Jay Gould was as American as apples with razor blades. But that hardly registered, they'd known so few Jews who weren't bankers.
Maybe it wouldn't have mattered if they had. Young Louis Zukofsky's stubborn refusal of either "all you Jews" or "unlike most Jews" gambits rolled off Adams fan Ezra Pound with as little effect as every other non-artifactual experience. I'm-rubber-you're-glue is a hard game to lose.
* * *
The reader may wonder why I feel compelled to exhume and whump the peaceful corpse of Brooks Adams.
The point isn't he was an idiot. While he was alive he was smarter than me, possibly even as smart as you.
But now that he's dead, we have a bit of an edge. And I think this is a fairly common pattern.
Adams couldn't escape his time and place. That's not a mistake we've grown out of.
misanthopic trees never bloom
|. . . 2006-02-26|
But simply because it is possible to model a process in Darwinian or quasi-Darwinian terms does not necessarily imply that it is useful to do so. Darwin himself invoked natural selection to explain the existence of adaptation in nature – a phenomenon which cries out for scientific explanation and was conspicuously lacking one until Darwin’s own theory. But in many of the recent attempts to discern Darwinian processes at work in other domains, for example, in the realm of human culture, there is no comparable phenomenon which clearly requires, but totally lacks, a proper causal explanation.
We feel as though we ought to be able to tell the "story" of anything that changes over time — like America, or the vertebrates. But the things about which we can tell stories must either possess individuality, or they must be prepared to have individuality and all it entails — like ontogeny and closure — imposed upon them by the force of narrative.
That may be, but it's all pretty unsatisfactory.
Given how blatantly history and culture don't map the concerns of evolutionary biology, what attracts humanists to the rhetoric of evolutionary biology?
Darwinian evolution proposed to solve an otherwise unexplained mystery. In contrast, human history has too many explanations.
Somehow, though, on close inspection, they always seem to dissolve into a mist of unknowables, tautologies, unlikelihoods, and impossibilities.
Miasma in, miasma out. History amalgamates human actions into a reasonable narrative; human actions aren't rational. We intuit causality and teleology from our own experience of agency. But, fast talker though it is, human agency never quite finishes explaining things. Its story doesn't hang together.
In response, we might cook the books: haute cuisine chefs such as Objectivists and behaviorists eviscerate, blanch, bone, shred, filter, and pipe experience into occasional lever pushes by a mascaraed Gary Cooper.
Or we might find some supplemental force to fill the gaps of decision: gods, God, demons, spells, universal dialectic, conflicting drives, false consciousness, interfering modules, the selfish genes of our extinct ancestors.... But in describing them as "forces", we've only shifted the burden of teleological paradox on to where we hope it can't be questioned further, like a subpoenaed CEO's The Girl.
The principled skeptical historian, like the English professor who's sick of literature, would like to sweep the tainted debris of personality out of sight. "Evolution" appeals as a magically unliftable materialist carpet. But its magic material is Emperor's New Cloth. The explanations offered by evolutionary biologists are usually presented as not-disproven; the explanations offered by historians usually aren't presented in disprovable terms. The carpet can't be lifted because there's nothing there. Nothing except that same irritating multiplying dust-bunny.
Satisfaction will not be received. The scratch is just the itch's way of making another itch.
... what startles me in these paragraphs is the self-satisfied assumption of the finality of my conclusions. I posit, as a fact not to be controverted, that our universe is an expression of an universal law, which the nineteenth century had discovered and could formulate.
During the past thirty years I have given this subject my best attention, and now I am so far from assenting to this proposition that my mind tends in the opposite direction. Each day I live I am less able to withstand the suspicion that the universe, far from being an expression of law originating in a single primary cause, is a chaos which admits of reaching no equilibrium, and with which man is doomed eternally and hopelessly to contend.- "Preface to New Edition" of
The Emancipation of Massachussetts: The Dream and the Reality
by Brooks Adams (1919)
We (or our claustrophobia-enducing tiny little comment box) seem to have finally driven this dedicated reader round the bend:
This is fine and good mindwork. Excellent. It seems important for reasons I can't get my fingers on to recognize everything Darwinian movement happens to is already there. The growth medium having its own day in court, sort of thing.
And speaking of our comment box and evolution, today marks this primitive email-based response system's first instance of bot spam:
[Link removed] would any guy here do anything sexual with a girl in front of your friend Like your best friend? I don't know if I can do anything like that.
That evolution happens to stuff, that what is evolving is stuff that's been here since either:
a. an origin only describable by dogmatic mumbo-jumbo and requiring blind faith e.g. bigbang superstring fries-with-that; or,
b. It's always been here. If it's always been here, the room for conjecture as to further and as-yet unobserved attributes is very great.
Come to think of it, the whole idea that each society consists of a certain mass of energy seems awfully Herbert Spencer-ish, and I'd bet the ranch that is where he got it. It takes some doing now, really, to grasp just how gigantic a figure Spencer was at the time.
Oddly, though, Spencer doesn't really show up in the Adams material I've read. (Henry Adams mentions him once in a late letter as an English affliction to match the German Kant and French Comte.) For whatever guesses are worth, I'd guess that the two brothers thought of him more as symptom of the times than as personal inspiration -- which, of course, doesn't rule out unacknowledged influence....
|. . . 2006-02-28|
Samuel Butler's most cited statement on evolution must be "A hen is only an egg's way of making another egg." But his most prescient was "The power to make mistakes is one of the criteria of life as we commonly think of it."
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