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Letters

Vol. 29 No. 22 · 15 November 2007

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It’s the Oil

Jim Holt sees Russia and Opec as suffering from the Bush administration’s ‘success’ in Iraq (LRB, 18 October). On the contrary, Russia has benefited hugely from the sky-high oil prices: last year it overtook Saudi Arabia as the world’s number one oil producer. But clearly Russia sees Iran as a strong stakeholder in Iraq and has chosen to ally itself with Tehran, helping to build that country’s nuclear facilities, and showing openness to the idea of Iran’s proposed (and Opec-like) natural gas cartel, in which Bahrain has also expressed interest. All oil-producing countries have benefited from record oil revenues.

It isn’t true, either, that American interests are served by breaking Opec. In fact, US oil interests are closely aligned with Opec’s: both would be happy with a price of $60 per barrel. Some have suggested that Bush would want to pump Iraqi oil maximally in order to drive world oil prices down, but this is in direct conflict with the prevailing desire of US oil executives, who cautioned that Iraq’s oil should not be pumped at more than 3 million barrels per day.

Kenneth Anderson
Baltimore, Maryland

Good day, Comrade Shtrum

John Lanchester suggests, in his review of my translation of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, that the reception of the first edition in 1986 ‘may have been muted by the criticisms of the book in its own introduction’ (LRB, 18 October).

It would be nice to believe that I really do wield such influence. It is more likely, however, that Lanchester simply underestimates how difficult it has been, during the last thirty years, to establish a readership for a 20th-century Russian writer purely on the basis of literary merit. Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn became famous in the West not because of literature but because of politics; Osip Mandelstam’s fame owes a great deal to the eloquence of his widow. Varlam Shalamov and Andrei Platonov, however, did not benefit from any major international scandal, nor have their life stories been told by their widows, and to this day they remain relatively unknown in the West, even though Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales is far more vivid and subtle an evocation of the gulag than anything by Solzhenitsyn, and even though Joseph Brodsky, at the height of his fame, repeatedly hailed Platonov as the equal of Joyce, Kafka, Musil or Proust.

I was, I fear, over-critical, on the Amazon website, of the existing translation of Grossman’s short novel Everything Flows, and I regret that Lanchester chose to quote my criticisms. Nevertheless, he should not have written that ‘Chandler thinks that translation a mistake.’ What made me indignant was not that the translation should have been published in the 1980s, but that it should have been republished quite recently. I am glad to be able to say that Harvill Secker expect soon to be commissioning a new translation from me.

Robert Chandler
London W14

Our Brazilian Ally

In attempting to place Roberto Mangabeira Unger’s thinking in context (‘Unger’s Brazilian background must be relevant here’), Tom Nairn twice misses the mark (LRB, 18 October). First, although his point that Brazil has been amazingly detached from the 20th century’s warlike nationalism is right, it is not the case that it was ‘neutral in both great conflicts’. Although technically neutral at the start of the Second World War, the Vargas government allowed US air bases on its Atlantic coast and in January 1942 broke off diplomatic relations with Germany, Italy and Japan. In July and August that year German submarines sunk several Brazilian merchant vessels, and on 22 August 1942 Brazil declared war on the Axis. The 25,000-strong Brazilian Expeditionary Force that landed in Italy in late 1944 played a key part in the Allied victory at the Battle of Monte Castello, the northward pursuit of German and Italian forces and their final surrender.

Second, by proposing that ‘Unger has lower-middle-class origins as good as anyone else’s,’ when he grew up with a grandfather who had been foreign minister in the 1920s, led the coup that deposed Vargas in 1945, and was then a state governor and senator, as well as having one great-uncle who was a renowned jurist and twice a minister during the Goulart government (1961-64) and a second great-uncle who was a well-known poet and president of the state oil company under Goulart, Nairn presumably seeks the elimination of the term ‘elite’ from the lexicon and wants to cause a collective crisis of identity among the millions of regular members of Brazil’s lower-middle class.

Tony Gross
Brasilia

In June 1917, Brazil revoked its neutrality and seized German ships. In November 1942, I was on a troopship in a large convoy heading for Freetown in Sierra Leone on its way to Durban. It changed direction and went instead to Bahia in Brazil. The explanation given to us was that Brazil had just entered the war against the Axis powers and the convoy’s visit would provide an early opportunity for Brazil to give practical effect to the new friendship.

Alan Harris
Bridport, Dorset

After Strachey

Adam Phillips writes that he always admired Strachey’s translation of Freud and that other translations, such as those by my late father, W.D. Robson-Scott, had not been illuminating (LRB, 4 October). It is interesting that, at the outset at least, Strachey was less than enthusiastic about the task of translation. Ernest Jones, in a letter to Freud of 5 December 1927, wrote that Strachey was disinclined to take on the translation of Future of an Illusion because his

intolerance of work, about which you doubtless know more than I do, has not been improved by his having eight patients a day … After half an hour’s pressure all I got from him was a promise that he would try dictating the translation of one chapter as an experiment to see if it would be less laborious that way. Just after that, it happened that Robson-Scott, who has been three years in analysis with me … showed me some translation work he had done from the German. His work is purely literary and he is in some ways more gifted than Strachey in felicitous expression. So I asked Strachey if he would like some help from him. Greatly relieved he begged that Robson-Scott should do the translation on the condition that he revised it, which I shall of course do myself.

In February 1928 Jones wrote to Freud that the translation is ‘almost finished and is excellent’; it was published later that year.

Markie Robson-Scott
New York

Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings

Jerry Fodor makes the striking claim that evolutionary biologists are abandoning natural selection as the principal, or even an important, cause of evolutionary change, and that ‘it’s not out of the question that a scientific revolution – no less than a major revision of evolutionary theory – is in the offing’ (LRB, 18 October). This is news to us, and, we believe, will be news to most knowledgeable people as well. The idea of natural selection is, in fact, alive and well, and remains the only viable explanation of the apparent ‘design’ of organisms – the remarkable fit between them and their environments and lifestyles – that once was ascribed to the divine.

Fodor’s ‘conceptual’ charge against natural selection is that the whole notion is incoherent. Breeders can select for features of organisms, because they can identify the traits they wish to develop. Unless you have some illicit personification – Mother Nature – who observes and chooses, natural selection doesn’t work like that. So, to cite Fodor’s example, we can’t tell whether polar bears were selected for being white or for matching their environment. This is very odd reasoning. The concept of ‘selecting for’ characteristics is largely a philosopher’s invention, one put to hefty work by philosophers of mind and language in particular as they strive to understand how psychological states can have content. Fodor knows all this, but he seems to know nothing about the way the notion of natural selection has been used in evolutionary explanations for the past 148 years.

Darwin would have seen the history of the polar bears along the following lines: some ancestors had different versions of the hereditary material that caused them to be paler than their fellows; this difference caused them to be less visible to their prey in their Arctic environment, and thus to have an edge when it came to hunting; that edge made them more successful in leaving descendants who inherited the fortunate variation. After Mendel, Thomas Morgan, Watson and Crick, we can do better: the ancestral bears had some difference in their DNA (perhaps a mutation or a gene rearrangement); that difference led to a difference in the type or expression of proteins affecting the biochemistry of hair follicles; that difference led to paler fur and a better match to the surroundings, producing greater prowess in hunting and increased reproductive success. Nobody has to decide if there was selection ‘for’ the modified DNA, or ‘for’ the protein differences, or ‘for’ the different organisation of the cells, or ‘for’ the whiteness, or ‘for’ the camouflage.

It is easy to see that natural selection makes sense of the important distinctions. Suppose, by some accident, that all and only the bears with the lucky variation were born on a Thursday. It would not follow that bears have been selected ‘for’ being born on Thursdays. This was an important insight underlying the work of Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, cited by Fodor. In philosophical discussions, that insight has grown in an extraordinarily distorted fashion, so that philosophers struggle to develop a notion of ‘selection for’ that will discriminate finely among all traits. That is a mug’s game, as Fodor correctly sees. It is a large leap, however, to suppose that the fact that you cannot make all distinctions means that you cannot make any. As the bear example illustrates, biologists can make the important distinctions. Whiteness and camouflage (along with protein balances and forms of genetic material) are candidates ‘for’ natural selection because they figure in the causal history of the changes in the bears; being a Thursday’s cub isn’t a candidate because it doesn’t play a comparable causal role.

Fodor’s second argument turns on an ‘empirical’ issue. Allegedly, ‘serious alternatives to adaptationism have begun to emerge.’ The rival mechanisms Fodor cites are supplements to natural selection, not replacements. Moreover, they are further articulations of ideas that have been evolutionary orthodoxy for generations. The first of Fodor’s alleged alternatives is ‘evo-devo’, the field of evolutionary developmental biology. The remit of evo-devo is to explain how adaptive differences in animal form – say, the camouflage patterns on butterfly wings that protect them from predators – have resulted from the way the genes themselves behave (how particular genes deposit pigment in the right place on a wing). Evo-devo is not an alternative to adaptation; rather, it is a way to explain how the genes mechanistically produce adaptations. In fact, Sean Carroll, one of the most prominent ‘evo-devotees’, notes in his recent book, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, that evo-devo is completely consistent with the Darwinian theory of natural selection producing adaptations via cumulative genetic change. The constraints of development may tell us why an eye, for example, has a particular form (our retina lies behind the blood vessels and nerves that feed it because retinas evolved from everted portions of the brain), but they cannot tell us why eyes are there in the first place. They are there because the gradual acquisition of vision gave animals a leg up in the evolutionary struggle for existence.

Similarly, as Fodor notes, many features of organisms can be by-products of evolution rather than the direct objects of natural selection. Our blood is red, for example, not because it is good for blood to be a particular colour, but because the haemoglobin molecules that carry oxygen absorb light in such a way as to make them red. But the ‘by-product’ explanation cannot explain apparent design. Why are so many animals camouflaged to match their background? Can that be a result of evo-devo or a mere by-product of something else? Neither is likely. Experiments have shown that more camouflaged animals are eaten less often by predators. This is exactly what you’d expect if natural selection built such adaptations, and not what you’d predict if camouflage resulted simply from developmental constraints or was a by-product of something else. And how do Fodor’s alternatives explain the sharp teeth of sharks or the ability of some Arctic fish to load their blood with ‘antifreeze’ proteins to keep them from freezing solid in cold waters? Adaptation is not a failed explanation: it is a testable hypothesis, and has been tested – and confirmed – many times over.

Jerry Coyne, Philip Kitcher
University of Chicago, Columbia University

I love the style of Jerry Fodor’s latest attempt to fend off the steady advance of evolutionary biology into the sciences of the mind. He tells us that ‘an appreciable number of perfectly reasonable biologists’ are thinking seriously of giving up on the half of Darwinism that concerns natural selection. Did you know that? I didn’t. In fact, I wonder if the appreciable number is as high as one. Fodor gives no names so we’ll just have to wait for more breaking news. He does provide two of his favourite foretastes, however: evo-devo and the famous case of the domesticated Russian foxes. These interesting developments both fit handsomely within our ever-growing understanding of how evolution by natural selection works. Briefly, evo-devo drives home the importance of the fact that in addition to the information in the genes (the ‘recipes’ for making offspring), there is information in the developmental processes (the ‘readers’ of the recipes), and both together need to be considered in a good explanation of the resulting phenotypes, since the interactions between them can be surprising. Of course the information in the developmental processes is itself all a product of earlier natural selection, not a gift from God or some otherwise inexplicable contribution. The foxes are a striking instance of how selection acting on one trait can bring other traits along with it – which may then be subject to further selection. It corrects the naive assumption that everything is directly evolvable – docile foxes with zebra stripes, or green foxes, or pigs with wings – but nobody makes that assumption, aside from the straw men constructed by some ideologues.

I won’t bother correcting, one more time, Fodor’s breezy misrepresentation of Gould and Lewontin’s argument about ‘spandrels’, except to say that far from suggesting an alternative to adaptationism, the very concept of a spandrel depends on there being adaptations: the arches and domes are indeed selected for, and they bring spandrels along in their wake. No ‘perfectly reasonable biologist’ has claimed that the hugely various and exquisitely tuned sense organs of animals, or the superbly efficient water-conserving methods of desert plants, are spandrels, even if they spawn spandrels galore.

What could drive Fodor to hallucinate the pending demise of the theory of evolution by natural selection? A tell-tale passage provides the answer: ‘Science is about facts, not norms; it might tell us how we are, but it couldn’t tell us what is wrong with how we are. There couldn’t be a science of the human condition.’ There can indeed be a science of the human condition, but it won’t tell us, directly, ‘what is wrong with what we are’. It can, however, constrain our ultimately political exploration of what we think we ought to be by telling us what is open to us, given what we are. Fodor’s mistake, which he is hardly alone in making, is to suppose that if our minds are scientifically explicable bio-mechanisms, then there could not be any room at all for values. That just does not follow, but if you believe it, and if you cherish – as of course you should – the world of values, then you have to stand firm against any physical science of the mind. It’s admirable, in a way, if you like that kind of philosophy. But it is better to repair the mistake; then you can have a science of the mind and values too. And you don’t have to misrepresent science out of fear of what it might be telling us.

Daniel Dennett
Tufts University

Jerry Fodor’s attack on ultra-Darwinian pan-adaptationism (and Flintstone evolutionary psychology) is spot on, but he does less than justice to Darwin, or to modern pluralistic evolutionary theory. Fodor argues that Darwin was unwise to draw analogies between the artificial selection employed by animal breeders and the mechanism of natural selection. But whether the selection pressure is provided by breeders choosing among pigeons for the most spectacular fantail, or a lion-rich environment selecting for faster-running antelopes, the analogy holds. The difference is that, far more than in artificial selection, the natural environment itself changes in response to the presence of the faster-running antelopes (more intensive grazing, reduction in lion population or whatever). The metaphor of selection is unfortunate as it implies that the ‘selected’ organisms are merely passive, whereas in fact organisms select environments just as environments select organisms.

Furthermore, Darwin was himself a pluralist; as he insisted in later editions of the Origin of Species, natural selection is only one of a number of motors of evolutionary change. Modern selection theory (in the hands of other than ultra-Darwinists) recognises multiple levels at which selection works: gene, genome, organism (phenotype), population and species. It also recognises that what evolves is not an adult phenotype but an entire developmental system (faster-running antelopes do not emerge fully grown). By contrast with pan-adaptationism, pluralistic evolutionary theory recognises the presence of spandrels (non-adaptive features of a phenotype, such as the red colour of blood) and exaptations: features originally selected with one function which then come to have another, such as feathers, which were a thermo-regulatory mechanism before they took on their role in flying birds.

Steven Rose
Open University, Milton Keynes

Jerry Fodor tells us: ‘There is no Mother Nature.’ This is biology’s common assumption (and was probably Darwin’s), but it does not come out of science. It is a piece of metaphysical dogma. Many philosophers and scientists argue that ‘mind’ is part of the fabric of the universe, and this embedded intelligence might indeed be equated either with ‘Mother Nature’ or with God in such a way that imbues the universe with purpose. This is a perfectly reasonable position, and Fodor’s denial is simply a decision, common to all atheists, not to take this position seriously. Darwin’s idea of evolution by means of natural selection is perfectly compatible with the idea of God, as many theologians and quite a few scientists acknowledged as soon as Origin was published.

It is a long time now since I read Dobzhansky’s essay of 1973, but it was not called ‘Nothing in biology makes sense without Darwinism’. It was called ‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution’ (American Biology Teacher, Vol. 35). Since Fodor is at pains to point out that ‘evolution’ should not be conflated with ‘Darwinian natural selection’, this is a strange lapse. In fact, Dobzhansky admired Teilhard de Chardin, who came very close to saying that intelligence is embedded in the fabric of the universe.

Colin Tudge
Wolvercote, Oxfordshire

San Marco may well have spandrels, but what Jerry Fodor describes as ‘those more-or-less triangular spaces that you find at the junctures’ – junctions, surely? – ‘of the arches that hold up a dome’ are actually pendentives, the principal innovation of Byzantine architecture. A spandrel has nothing to do with a dome, being the panel formed between the curve of the arch and the horizontal base of the entablature it supports. Spandrels are therefore flat, while pendentives are curved in three dimensions.

Kit Evans
Celles, France

Not Over Yet

If Obama is ‘tanking badly’, as August Kleinzahler puts it (LRB, 18 October), then why is he raising more money from individuals than any other Democratic or Republican candidate in the race? If he has ‘lost the plot’, why is he in a tie for the lead in Iowa, arguably the most critical early primary state?

Rory Finnin
New York

L’Ovalie

Jeremy Harding repeats the myth that William Webb Ellis was responsible for the distinctive feature of rugby football in 1823 (LRB, 18 October). In fact the myth first surfaced in 1876, when an antiquarian bookseller called Bloxham – who left Rugby in 1820 – wrote an account for the school magazine. He wasn’t sure of the date and gave no source for his information. The story then vanished until 1895, the year of the split between the Rugby Football Union and the Northern clubs who later formed the Rugby League. Old Rugbeians had provided the first five presidents of the RFU. They considered themselves the rightful owners of the game; now it was slipping out of their hands. To counter this working-class threat, the Old Rugbeian Society set up a committee of inquiry into the origins of the game. Its actual purpose was to reclaim Rugbeians’ heritage. It faced two problems: a total lack of proof that Ellis did anything memorable in 1823, and a respectable body of evidence that rugby football owed nothing to Ellis.

Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, went to Rugby in 1833; he told the committee that running with the ball was considered suicidal in his day. The only man still alive who had been at school with Ellis was the Rev. Thomas Harris. The committee badgered him on his deathbed, but he insisted that he remembered Ellis only as a cricketer. No matter: the committee had already made up its mind. Even before it announced its findings, it had ordered the inscribed stone commemorating William Webb Ellis’s supposed action; it now stands in the headmaster’s garden.

Derek Robinson
Bristol

Here in French Catalunya, locals assure me that after the war in 1945 the Vichyite rugby union elite continued to persecute the workers’ game of rugby league by insisting that if it were to be played again it could not be known as ‘rugby’ but as le jeu à treize. The workers resisted and now we can watch both versions in what departmental posters proclaim to be le pays des deux rugbys. However this official reconciliation hasn’t stopped one local 13-a-side fan I know refusing to watch the World Cup match between France and England and then congratulating me on England’s victory. Vive la Résistance!

Robin Chapman
St Hippolyte, Pyrénées-Orientales

Ka mate, the name of the haka performed by the All Blacks, is neither PT for adolescents nor grim, as Jeremy Harding suggests: it’s a celebration of life and survival. The haka’s author, Te Rauparaha (a tattooed man, although not dreadlocked), had evaded enemy pursuit by hiding in a pit. When he climbed out, he was met by a friend rather than the foe he had feared. To celebrate his escape from probable death, he sang and danced a haka. The haka ends: ‘A step upward, another step upward! A step upward, another … the Sun shines!’

Fiona Johnston
Auckland

London WC1

Even one referendum looks out of the question these days, so debate about the correct plural form of the word seems redundant, but Ken Sunshine (Letters, 1 November) blunders twice in trying to use the word ‘agenda’ as an analogy: first, because it is a perfectly regular Latin neuter plural gerundive (‘things to be done’), not a bogus English pluralisation of a gerund; second because it is treated as singular in English (hence ‘agendas’). Still, it neatly illustrates his point that schoolboy Latin is a poor basis for English pedantry.

Thomas Venning
A pedant writes

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