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Thursday, October 15, 2009

NIETZSCHEAN EVOLUTION: the extravagance of the natural world

I was reading a book called The Herring Gull's World by Niko Tinbergen, a Dutch biologist, and came across a passage that made me think of Nietzsche's critique of Darwin. The passage deals with color sense in birds:

"In all these species, the bright colour-patterns concerned could not have developed without the species having a colour sense. But why do Little Owls have a colour sense? I think the solution is probably that in birds the power of colour-discrimination is a rather old acquisition, of which the species makes use or not. In other words, the colour sense was evolved first, and coloured structures with signal functions have developed as adaptations to various needs. If so, we may reasonably expect most birds to be able to distinguish between colours." (emphasis added).

Darwin and Darwinians have tended to make survival the central force moving evolution. This is what Nietzche critiqued in Darwin. Now if this passage from Tinbergen is correct, it implies that color sense in birds did not originally develop as a survival necessity, but as an extravagance, which only later developed a usefulness for survival, and this only in some of the species that had the trait. And if we get rid of the ideological content of Darwin's theory and look at its basic premise--that chance changes in living beings bring about the evolution of species--then such extravagance is to be expected (I would argue it is absolutely necessary). The changes brought about by chance processes may be harmful, indifferent or useful. Only the harmful ones would be definitively weeded out. The indifferent ones would be extravagances, excesses, things of wonder. Undoubtedly, over time, in new environments, in conjunction with other changes, these extravagances may become useful, but in the meantime, they are signs of the flourishing luxury of life, signs of the fact that the "struggle for survival" is not the norm, but an extremity. Extravagance, exuberance, excess are what provide the basis for the ever-changing interweaving of life.

On a broader level, this same point comes out in Loren Eiseley's beautiful book, The Immense Journey. The book is a poetic look at the marvelous meaninglessness of the evolution of life. Like Tinbergen, Eiseley makes it evident that the evolution of life must operate through extravagance, exuberant squandering, through excess of life. Only in this way can we explain the wide and marvelous variations of traits that allow adaptations to new environments--traits that must have developed before the journey to the new environment (otherwise the creature would not have survived their)--which thus may well have been useless when they were developing. Perhaps if science would detach itself from the utilitarian ideology that dominates our times, and particularly the science of our age, it might be able to see this more clearly, and so embrace the surreal marvel that is life...

Thursday, October 8, 2009

SUDDEN STUPIDITY: Laughing at an Academic

Thoughts upon reading Sudden Glory: Laughter as Subversive History by Barry Sanders

Academics are quite skillful at twisting, muddling and blurring meanings. This seems to be particularly true if they specialize in the humanities, the so-called liberal arts. Having earned a degree in this arena, suddenly one becaomes an expert in babbling the most absurd nonsense about anything and everything. Barry Sanders' book Sudden Glory: Laughter as subversive History is a prime example. Its title promises something subversive, more specifically, the treatment of laughter as something subversive. And in the preface, there are moments when that promise almost peeps out with its clownish face spewing bits of delightful poetic nonsense. But there the delight and the poetry seem to end.

Very early in the introduction, some questions arise about just what Sanders means by subversion. In fact, it becomes difficult not to think that perhaps the only thing he truly hopes to subvert is precisely whatever may be subversive in laughter. He immediately tries to link laughter--that most joyful expression of freedom from belief--with religion. In fact, he implies that laughter has its origins in religion (though, happily, being an academic of our times at one of the hipper private colleges, he is too immersed in the muddle of post-modern thought not to contradict himself repeatedly). Such a claim is certainly one way to undermine everything that is truly subversive in laughter. Simply link it to the institution that has acted throughout history the central ideological support for all the institutions of power. Sanders forgets (or perhaps ignores) that one of the central strategies of religion in enforcing the ruling order has been to lay claim precisely to those human traits that have the most potential--if left free--to lead to self-determination, refusal of authority, insubordination, for a spiritual realm, thus defanging them and transforming them into tools for upholding the ruling order. But Sanders is apparently among those who choose to ignore the obvious institutional and controlling nature of religion. Not that this is surprising since, as an academicm his world is the institutional world, and this book gives no evidence that he wants to defy it.

In this light, it is not at all surprising that he turns to academic feminism as an additional prop for his recuperative meanderings. Here we find that particularly awful form of feminism, based on sloppy anthropology, speculative history and a sort of cultural quasi-essentialism, that sees certain ways of acting in the world as having specifically feminine or masculine traits, particularly connecting it with a fairly religious idealization of Motherhood... That bizarre twist where after years of radical women fighting to free themselves from the limits of the institution of the family, this institution gets brought back in the name of feminism....

Thus, in a book supposedly about "laughter as subversive history", we find laughter--thatmost delightful outburst of joyful disdain--being chained to religion, gender roles, even the idea of the family... Indeed, the only thing that seems to be getting subverted so far is precisely the subversive potential of laughter as a joyous outburst against the sacred, the institutionalized, the expected,

In fact, in the first and second chapters after the introduction--"The Hebrews: Sacred Discontent" and "The Ancient World: Divine Origins of Laughter"--Sanders is quite explicit about his belief in the religious origins of laughter. Even though later, in the third chapter, he recognizes that philosopher tries to tame laughter, he seems unaware that before this, religion (when it didn't forbid laughter) was doing the same thing. It was not creating laughter, but seeking to rein it in, so that its destructive force, capable of killing gods, would never achieve this end, but rather gets turned towards upholding all authority by mocking non-conformity.

But Sanders continually contradicts himself on this matter. He himself keeps on stating that laughter is basically anti-authoritarian in nature, and this would inevitably make it blasphemous. And he repeatedly quotes those who speak of laughter as having a specifically anti-religious origin. Outstanding along these lines is the story he cites from Milan Kundera. Kundera attributes the origins of laughter to the Devil, laughing at the meaninglessness of the universe. The servant of divinity try to imitate the Devil in order to drive back his laughter. Here Kundera gives laughter a specifically diabolical, anti-theistic origin. Religion (the angel) takes hold of it to bring it under control. Kundera's (and Sanders') weakness is in not pointing out that the Devil's laughter was not merely derisive, but also joyful. I have frequently laughed at the meaninglessness of the universe, as if it is laughter at the greatest of jokes, it is also a joyful laughter, for it is precisely this meaninglessness, this godlessness, that proclaims that each of us has the freedom to create his or her own meanings... And that is what is subversive in laughter.