When Rudy Is President
It’s true, as Nicholas Guyatt writes, that Rudy Giuliani and the Christian right make for an improbable couple, but that hasn’t stopped either from trying to court the other, each for impeccably pragmatic reasons (LRB, 15 November). Giuliani needs evangelical votes to win the Republican nomination, and while the Christian right may not approve of his views on abortion, his infidelities or his sleepovers with gay men, they’ll take a Catholic sinner over a Mormon like Mitt Romney. What’s more, Giuliani’s team of Middle East advisers – including Norman Podhoretz, a leading member of the bomb-Iran lobby, and Daniel Pipes, another hardline neoconservative – is not about to make the Christian right ‘gloomy’, as Guyatt puts it. In fact, it’s perfectly in line with the Christian right’s apocalyptic programme for the Holy Land. Rudy Giuliani isn’t their dream candidate, but the Christian right has always taken the long view. That’s why Pat Robertson has warmly endorsed Rudy, who will owe him some favours if he becomes president.
Nicholas Guyatt, in his piece on the US Christian right, mentions that at the funeral of the notorious religious huckster Jerry Falwell, one lamb from Pastor Falwell’s flock was caught with homemade bombs in his car, claiming that he’d brought them in case liberal protesters threatened the cortège. In the event, the protesters weren’t ‘liberal’: they were members of an even more extreme religious sect, the Westboro Baptist Church, which denounced Falwell as a ‘corpulent false prophet’. The WBC, whose members believe the Iraq war is God’s way of punishing America for its permissive attitudes towards homosexuality, have weathered years of denunciation by more moderate clerics, such as Falwell. Yet when I interviewed them at one of their demonstrations, WBC members said they regard the US Constitution, including its provision guaranteeing freedom of speech and religion, as one of God’s greatest blessings. It’s a melancholy fact that many US Christians appreciate their Constitution only when their own beliefs are the ones ridiculed and suppressed.
Ciudad del Este, Paraguay
Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings
A perceptible flurry in the dovecote. Here are some replies to my critics. It seems to me that Simon Blackburn has comprehensively missed the point (Letters, 1 November). He takes the problem I raised to be epistemological: ‘If two traits occur together, how do we know which was “selected” for?’ But I don’t do epistemology, and that isn’t what I’m worried about (nor, by the way, is it what worried Gould and Lewontin). My question was: how can the operation of selection distinguish traits that are coextensive in a creature’s ecology? Perhaps news about mountain hares and such tells us what colour was selected for in polar bears. But selection didn’t consider mountain hares when it coloured polar bears. Nor, quite generally, did it consider such counterfactuals as ‘what would happen to white bears if the colour of their environment changed?’
The same applies to Tim Lewens’s line of thought. The selection of colour in polar bears can’t be contingent on such counterfactuals as: ‘what if one dyed their fur green?’ In fact, it can’t be contingent on any counterfactuals at all. We can apply the ‘method of differences’ to figure out what colour evolution made the polar bear; but selection can’t apply the method of differences to figure out what colour to make them. That’s because we have minds but it doesn’t.
Some of my critics point out the importance of linkage as a mechanism that might explain why, for example, domesticated foxes have floppy ears. Quite so, but linkage is an endogenous trait, and adaptationism is committed to explaining phenotypes by reference to exogenous variables.
The same applies to the remarks by Steven Rose (Letters, 15 November). To give up on the idea that selection is determined by largely exogenous forces is to abandon adaptationism in all but name. No doubt, if we knew enough about the macro and microstructure of organisms (and of their ecologies) we would understand their evolution. If that’s adaptationism, then I’m an adaptationist too (and so is every materialist since Lucretius).
Jerry Coyne and Philip Kitcher make the usual mistake. In fact, I am not worrying about whether we can tell if ‘polar bears were selected for being white or for matching their environment’. I repeat: I don’t do epistemology. Nor do I deny that we can often focus on different aspects of the causal history underlying an episode of selection. The problem is that it makes no sense at all to speak of the aspect of a causal history that selection focuses on; to say (as it might be) that selection focused on the whiteness of the polar bear rather than its match to the surround. Selection doesn’t focus: it just happens.
Coyne and Kitcher then say that ‘the concept of “selecting for” characteristics is largely a philosopher’s invention.’ I don’t know who invented it, but that can’t be right. If the theory of adaptation fails to explain what phenotypic traits were selected for, it won’t generalise over possible-but-not-actual circumstances; it won’t, for example, tell us whether purple polar bears would have survived in the ecology that supports ours. It will not be ‘news to most knowledgeable people’ that empirical theories are supposed to support relevant counterfactuals. If adaptationism doesn’t, that is news.
Coyne and Kitcher suggest that evo-devo doesn’t purport to be an alternative to adaptationism but rather is ‘consistent with’ natural selection. That’s right but not relevant. Part of my point was that if adaptationism is independently incoherent (as, in fact, I believe it to be) then we’re in want of an alternative. Evo-devo may reasonably be considered a step towards supplying one.
They also say that it doesn’t matter whether selection can draw all the distinctions between traits so long as it can draw the important ones. I don’t know how they tell which ones are important, but they ought to bear this in mind: selection is insensitive to the difference between any traits that are even locally confounded (i.e. that are confounded in a creature’s actual history of causal interactions with its ecology). It can’t, for example, distinguish encounters with big tails from encounters with colourful tails if all and only the big tails Miss Peacock has come across are colourful. (Of course, we can tell the difference between selecting for one and selecting for the other; that’s because, unlike natural selection, we have minds.) If it isn’t important (to, for example, ethology) whether it’s big tails or colourful tails that lady peacocks like, then so much the worse for importance.
Finally, Coyne and Kitcher ask how anything but adaptationism can explain the match between a creature’s phenotype and its ecology. This question is entirely pertinent. But they will have to read about it in Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini (forthcoming).
Over the years, I’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to figure out which bits of Daniel Dennett’s stuff are supposed to be the arguments and which are just rhetorical posturing. In the present case, I give up. I’ll take it more or less paragraph by paragraph. Dennett speaks of the ‘steady advance of evolutionary biology into the sciences of the mind’. He provides no examples, however, and surely he knows that there is a considerable body of literature to the contrary. (See, for example, David Buller’s book Adapting Minds.) Even Dennett’s fellow-critics of my piece express, in several cases, attitudes towards the evolutionary psychology programme ranging from scepticism to despair: it’s a recurrent theme of theirs that Fodor is, of course, right about EP; but he’s wrong about natural selection at large.
I cite the fox experiments and the literature on evo-devo as evidence of the importance of endogenous factors in directing the course of evolution. Dennett does not deny that lots of endogenous factors constrain the course of evolution; or that the cases I cited are instances; or that appeals to endogenous variables are alternatives to natural selection. ‘Of course the information in the developmental processes is itself all a product of earlier natural selection.’ What’s the argument for that, I wonder. It appears, prima facie, simply to beg the question at issue.
Dennett can’t be bothered to correct my ‘breezy misrepresentation of Gould and Lewontin’. In fact, he can’t even be bothered to say what it consists in. That being so, I can’t be bothered to refute him.
‘The very concept of a spandrel depends on there being adaptations.’ This suggests that Dennett has utterly lost track of the argument. Of course the spandrels are free-riders on the architect’s design for the arches and domes. But the question I wanted to raise was precisely whether this account of selection-for can be extended to cases where, by general consensus, there isn’t any architect. In particular, I claim, Darwin overplayed the analogy between artificial selection (where there is somebody who does the selecting) and ‘natural’ selection (where there isn’t). How could anybody who actually read my article have missed this?
I said that metaphors like ‘evolution selects for what Mother Nature intends it to’ have to be cashed. The rules of the game require respectable adaptationists to give an account of selection-for that doesn’t appeal to agency. Suppose (what’s not obvious) that explaining the scientific results really does require a notion of biological function (hence of selection-for). It simply doesn’t follow that it requires a notion of biological function that is reconstructed in terms of selection history. Dennett must know that, de facto, there is no such notion. Biological function is itself an intentional concept, so appeals to it don’t cash the Mother Nature metaphor; they just take out loans on its being cashed sooner or later. It seems that everybody understands this except Dennett.
Finally, Dennett says I am worried about preserving my values in the face of scientific reduction. Where on earth did he get that idea? I’ve spent more of my life than I like to think about arguing that ontological questions about reduction are neutral with respect to epistemological questions about intentional explanations. As a matter of fact …
But on second thoughts, to hell with it.
The reader may wonder whether there are any general morals to draw from all this. There are three: don’t forget the importance of getting the counterfactuals right; don’t confuse your ontology with your epistemology; and do try to keep your cool.
Rutgers University, New Jersey
Hal Foster’s review of The Painting of Modern Life at the Hayward Gallery is illustrated with a reproduction of a painting by Liu Xiaodong bearing the title A Transsexual Getting Downstairs (LRB, 1 November). Without knowing anything about Chinese, I suspect a better translation would be Transsexual Descending a Staircase: the subject matter and the colour scheme (if not the figuration) suggest an explicit allusion to Marcel Duchamp’s work which has always been known in English as Nude Descending a Staircase.
As a professional German-English translator, I have found myself increasingly perplexed each time I read Adam Phillips’s essay on the new Penguin translation of Freud (LRB, 4 October).
As a consultant for Penguin, he suggested to the publishers that ‘each of the books should be translated by a different person, and that there should be no consensus about technical terms.’ He suggested that the ‘general editor should not read German,’ and that there should be ‘as little scholarly apparatus as possible … and no indexes, given what indexes imply about a book and its genre’.
It says a great deal about the current management at Penguin that following these suggestions, they appointed Phillips himself as the general editor. If he was not supposed to know any German and the individual translators were forbidden to co-ordinate terminology, why was there any need for the translators themselves to know German? The project would have been completed much more quickly and less expensively by employing a troupe of Chinese monkeys with keyboards. So much more open to unexpected combinations and possibilities, so unconstricted and free, so life-affirming. And those terrible anal-retentive indexes, which might enable readers to locate information they were looking for: so 20th-century, so superego.
Anthony Curtis remarks, in connection with James Strachey’s translation of Freud, that ‘it should be remembered that extensive work was done by the late Angela Richards on the Pelican Freud Library’ (Letters, 1 November). Although Curtis is right that The Interpretation of Dreams in the Pelican Freud Library acknowledges her contribution on the title page with the line ‘The present edition revised by Angela Richards’, he isn’t correct to state that ‘it became her full-time job to retranslate Strachey by checking his text against Freud’s’ in relation to her work on the Pelican Freud Library as distinct from her work on the Standard Edition.
The acknowledgment, ‘The present edition revised by Angela Richards’, in Volume IV, The Interpretation of Dreams (and also in Volume VI, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious), became during the mid-to-late 1970s the subject of a protracted dispute between the Institute of Psychoanalysis and Penguin about the nature and extent of her contribution. The dispute ended with the Institute, who shared the copyright of James Strachey’s translation with her, securing the withdrawal of the claim of revision. Penguin’s solicitors had to admit that no revisions or additions to the text of Strachey’s translation for the Standard Edition had been made in the Pelican Freud Library, but only corrections and amendments; and they advised Penguin to revert to the description of Angela Richards’s role in earlier volumes.
This reversion is evident in subsequently published volumes and in reprintings of The Interpretation of Dreams and Jokes, which simply state: ‘The present volume edited by Angela Richards’.
Curtis further mentions that Strachey left Richards ‘his share of the Freud royalties’. James Strachey died in 1967. Angela Richards was appointed editor of the Pelican Freud Library in 1968. Whatever else might have motivated him to leave her his share of royalties, he could not have done so to acknowledge his indebtedness for her extensive work on the Pelican Freud Library, but only to acknowledge his indebtedness for her extensive work on the final volume of the Standard Edition, Indexes and Bibliographies, including its 60 pages of ‘Addenda and Corrigenda’ to the 23 preceding volumes.
University of Bristol
Lowry on Lowry
Elizabeth Lowry’s article on Malcolm Lowry is interesting; and it’s always interesting – no? – to write on a person who has your name but not your life (LRB, 1 November). But she missed something that puts a different light on the last part of Lowry’s career. In the second half of his life, Lowry was drawn more and more into the heart of his new country, Canada. He had the Volcano haunting him. He had the bottle. But he also had the British Columbia woods, he also had the Pacific Ocean. A living space that suited him, that he had been searching for, for a long time. He still came from Wallasey. But now he was a back-to-the-land British Columbian. Vancouver had a literary scene, Lowry was part of it, it sustained him. He didn’t cure himself of drink, maybe. But he seems to have held it at bay at times. He swam in the sea. He walked beneath the evergreens. It was not chance that made him name himself, in some books, Sigbjørn Wilderness.
‘The Sources of the Nile’
In her lament for the lost lustre of ‘luxe’, Jenny Diski summarises a science-fiction story, ‘I can’t remember by whom’ (LRB, 1 November). She recounts the fantastic tale of a New York journalist, ‘lost in the Appalachians’, who discovers a clan of ‘hillbillies’ whose habits of dress predict future trends. That story is by the unfashionable but brilliant Avram Davidson (1923-93). Entitled ‘The Sources of the Nile’, it is not set in Appalachia or Ancient Egypt but New York, specifically the Bronx, just south of Davidson’s native Yonkers.
Where the Water Is
I trust the apocalyptic statements in Neal Ascherson’s Diary are more soundly based than his claim that the Greenland ice sheet forms the earth’s biggest store of fresh water (LRB, 18 October). About 70 per cent of the earth’s fresh water is in Antarctica.
Yes and No
Ross McKibbin writes: ‘Private housing is the rock on which Britain’s political economy is built and all political parties favour it and wish to extend it. It is ideologically central to British life. And it is central to the economy’ (LRB, 1 November). I read this on the day that the SNP announced it would ban the sale of council houses and push forward with the building of social housing. I think that UK political analysts would be more authoritative – more interesting? – if they included the whole of the UK in their analysis.
I would like to ask why you persist in giving so little space to letters? What is the point of this self-negation? Especially as you get these gems absolutely free.
University of Helsinki