Caning Darwin

[cross posted at Liberty & Power]

Joseph Sobran suggests (conical hat tip to LRC) that people’s willingness to help or praise others refutes Darwinism and atheism, and defies Randian egoism. Let’s take these in turn.

Charles Darwin Darwinism: Sobran seems to imagine that if Darwinism were true, people would be interested solely in their own narrow survival and would have no genuine concern for others. This is wrong on two different levels.

First, Sobran mistakenly assumes that Darwinism commits us to holding that all our mental contents, all our beliefs and desires, are there solely because they promote survival. Yet Darwinism implies nothing of the kind. Natural selection explains our possession of various capacities for learning, choosing, being influenced; but natural selection by itself does not guarantee that these capacities will be exercised solely in survival-conducing ways. How could it? My belief that 666 is the square root of 443556 isn’t there because that belief has survival value; there may be cases where it would, but I doubt that it ever has. Instead my belief that 666 is the square root of 443556 is the product of a general capacity to figure things out (i.e., reason), and that capacity has survival value.

Second, even if Darwinism did imply that all our mental contents are directly explainable by natural selection, it still wouldn’t follow that we should be surprised at the existence of genuine other-concern. Suppose (and this does not seem to be an especially heroic assumption) that creatures who are inclined to cooperate with one another are more likely on average to survive than those who aren’t. What more does one need by way of an evolutionary explanation? Has Sobran never read Spencer? Or Darwin himself?

Sobran thinks it should be a puzzle for the Darwinian why human beings express varieties of concern that other animals lack. But he himself offers the answer: reason. And as I noted above, this is a perfectly Darwinian-compatible explanation.

The weirdest section of Sobran’s article comes when he suggests that “killing your own children” (this is Sobran’s tendentious description of abortion; he seems to have forgotten that before a woman has given birth she has no “children”) “makes some sort of sense from an atheistic and Darwinian point of view,” since “[i]f survival is a ruthless competition, your kids are your competitors.” Um, Darwinian natural selection promotes traits that enhance the likelihood of reproduction; survival is selected for only insofar as it promotes reproduction. (Of course we can outwit natural selection, and a good thing too; the view, mysteriously popular among many religious conservatives, that we should bow to the purposes of our genes surely contradicts Genesis 1:26.)

Atheism: I was initially puzzled as to how Sobran’s argument was supposed to be relevant to atheism, until I realized that he is treating atheism and Darwinism as equivalents. But they aren’t. One can be a Darwinian without being an atheist (for this we have the assurance of no less an authority than Pope John Paul II), and one can likewise be an atheist without being a Darwinian (as all atheists were, prior to the 19th century, and as many have been since).

Randian egoism: Sobran treats Randian egoism as though it counseled against genuine concern for others. But Randian egoism says no such thing; its conception of self-interest is modeled on Aristotelean eudaimonia, and most definitely includes various forms of other-concern. There is a dispute in Randian circles as to whether such concern is related causally or constitutively to self-interest; but such concern remains genuine in either case. Egoism is a doctrine of the ground of our legitimate concerns, not of their scope. If egoism is Sobran’s basis for rejecting Rand, he should reject Thomas Aquinas for the same reason.

The Wild Abyss

I’m a big fan of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, which has been called the “anti-Christian answer to Narnia.” (Though I’m a big fan of Narnia too. Knee-jerk pro-Christian attitudes and knee-jerk anti-Christian attitudes are both impediments to literary enjoyment, among other things.) It has also inevitably been compared with the Harry Potter series, though IMHO it’s much better written.

Lyra Belacqua and friend The books (mainly a trilogy, though there’s a fourth book of sorts, and rumors of a fifth on the way) take place in a parallel universe in which everyone’s soul is externalised in animal form (think “familiars”), and follows the adventures of a girl who may hold the secret to … well, it’s a long and complicated story, involving witches, gypsies, balloons, trepanning, talking bears, homosexual angels, human sacrifice, the rooftops of Oxford, holes in the fabric of reality, the I Ching, original sin, mental illness, the afterlife, lapsed nuns, Neanderthal skeletons, a frail and senile Jehovah, and a substance called “dust” which bears some resemblance both to the “dark matter” of contemporary physics and to the Jain version of karma. (Some plot points seem borrowed from Steven Brust’s To Reign in Hell.)

The theme of the series is the interplay between what Blake called “innocence” and “experience,” and the danger of overvaluing the former at the expense of the latter. At the end of the day I’m not sure that Pullman offers a coherent account of these two concepts, or that the ethical outlook of the third book can be reconciled with that of the first two, but the books are terrific nonetheless. The series is marketed as children’s fiction, but there’s nothing essentially juvenile about it.

The title comes from these lines of Milton’s:

Blake's Satan Into this wild Abyss,
The womb of Nature, and perhaps her grave,
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th’ Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds –
Into this wild Abyss the wary Fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and looked a while,
Pondering his voyage

Anyway, the first book, The Golden Compass (known as Northern Lights in England), is being made into what looks to be a beautiful, well-cast, and fairly faithful movie; check out the poster and trailer.

Some comments from the filmmakers have suggested that they plan to tone down the anti-Christian content. Other comments from the filmmakers have suggested that they don’t plan to do so. There’s not much anti-Christian content in the first book, though, so we’ll have to wait for the later films to see. Clone Wars (Some fans have also wondered how the films will handle the ending of the last book, which seems to imply sexual intercourse between the two main characters, both about thirteen years old. But that’s easy. The books take place within a few weeks of each other, but the studio plans to make its three films one every two years: thus by the time they get to the third film the stars will be 18.)

In other news, here’s the trailer for the new Clone Wars cartoon series, which seems to take place in the chronological interstices of the old one.

More clone wars? Hmm. That’s one period of Star Wars history that I don’t really feel I have a whole lot of still-unsatisfied curiosity about. Oh well.

More Spencer Nonsense, Part Deux

Earlier this month I wrote a letter to the New York Times and posted it here. Then I discovered that the Times would only print letters that haven’t appeared previously, so I deleted the letter from my blog. But since they didn’t print it anyway, here it is again:

To the Editor:

Patricia Cohen’s May 5th article “A Split Emerges As Conservatives Discuss Darwin” contains the following remarkable sentence: “Victorian-era social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer adopted evolutionary theory to justify colonialism and imperialism, opposition to labor unions and the withdrawal of aid to the sick and needy.”

Ms. Cohen’s charges against Herbert Spencer are false in every particular.

Herbert Spencer First: Spencer was in fact Victorian England’s leading opponent of imperialism; in Social Statics he described Western colonialism as bearing “a very repulsive likeness to the doings of buccaneers.”

Second: in his Principles of Sociology, Spencer hailed labor unions as a bulwark against the “harsh and cruel conduct” of employers, and advocated replacing the “slavery” of the wages system with self-governing workers’ cooperatives.

Third: far from advocating the “withdrawal of aid from the sick and needy,” he regarded the provision of such aid as a positive moral duty (though he stressed that it should be given in such a way as to avoid encouraging dependency).

Finally, inasmuch as Spencer developed and published his basic ideas on biological and social evolution prior to and independently of Charles Darwin, it makes little sense to describe him as a “Social Darwinist.”

Why do these bizarre distortions of a great humanitarian thinker persist?

Roderick T. Long

While, as I said, the Times didn’t print my letter, they did publish the following partial retraction:

A front-page article last Saturday about a dispute among some conservatives over whether Darwinian theory undermines or supports conservative principles erroneously included one social Darwinist among Victorian-era social Darwinists who adopted evolutionary theory to justify colonialism and imperialism. Herbert Spencer opposed both.

Score a victory for the Herbert Spencer Anti-Defamation League!

Wings Over Niagara

As I work my way through the lesser-known novels of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, I keep finding new material to blog about. I’ve speculated previously about the possible influence on Tolkien of Wells’ 1908 The War in the Air. I now suggest pushing the line of influence four years farther back, to Verne’s 1904 Master of the World – this in turn being a sequel to his 1886 Robur the Conqueror. (The usual complaint against these two books, Robur and Master, is that Robur himself is a less effective recycling of Captain Nemo, while the American balloon club is a less effective recycling of the Gun Club from the moon novels. These are fair complaints. They’re still worth a read, though.)

Verne's Master of the World Why do I think Verne’s Master of the World might have influenced Wells’ War in the Air? Well, in both novels the nations of the world, alert to military possibilities, are frantically vying with each other either to bribe or to capture the elusive inventor of a mysterious flying machine and learn its secret – and in both novels the chase leads ultimately to Niagara Falls as the site of the novel’s central action.

Robur incidentally begins at Niagara. Verne himself had visited Niagara, and writes about it in his lightly fictionalised 1870 memoir Floating City. Wells had visited it too; his famous proto-Randian quote on the subject comes from his 1906 The Future in America.

So okay, it’s not a decisive connection – Wells didn’t need Verne to think of flying machines, aerial warfare, or Niagara Falls – but it’s something ….

Incidentally, Master of the World itself contains a minor character named Wells, who leads the narrator to the hidden location of the flying machine. Wells and Verne were certainly aware of each other (Verne once complained: “I sent my characters to the moon with gunpowder, a thing one may see every day. Where does M. Wells find his cavourite [the anti-gravity metal Wells used in his own lunar novel]? Let him show it to me!”), and it’s tempting to imagine that the character was intended as a nod to Wells – thus pushing the chain of influence back farther still!

A Way With Words

Heard on the news today: “Lindsay Lohan has been battling sobriety.”

I’d say she’s been winning.

Happy Birthday, Star Wars

Today is the 30th anniversary of the original Star Wars.

Star Wars first entered my consciousness either just before or just after my 13th birthday, when I saw a homemade sign in the window of a Phoenix, Az. movie theatre announcing “COMING SOON: STAR WARS.” But I assumed it was some movie about wars among Hollywood stars, and I wasn’t interested.

But then I saw this comic book cover, complete with a green Darth Vader (the lefthand pic – of which the righthand pic is obviously a more polished version; both by Howard Chaykin), and I was hooked.

Howard Chaykin - STAR WARS

Then the magnificent one-page and two-page ad spreads started appearing in the newspapers. Soon I got the novelisation, by “George Lucas.” When I read it I thought, “wow, he’s a director, but he could really be a writer too; he writes just like Alan Dean Foster!” Only many years later did I find out the reason for that ….

McQuarrie - STAR WARS

Thus when I sat down on a May afternoon in San Diego to see Star Wars, I already knew it was going to begin with an Imperial spaceship chasing a rebel spaceship. So I scanned the opening starfield, expecting the ships to enter from the left or perhaps from the right …. Then wham! that magnificent overhead shot just blew me away. And everybody else too, apparently; I noticed that ads and commercials started emphasising the third dimension much more post-Star Wars than they had pre-Star Wars.

Star Wars opening scene

Like most Star Wars fans, sometimes I want to strangle George Lucas. But not today. Thank you, George.

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes