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Letters

Vol. 30 No. 1 · 3 January 2008

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Consigliere

As Greg Grandin shows in his demolition, Henry Kissinger has been a master at ‘sucking up to P’, whatever the human consequences (LRB, 29 November 2007). What Grandin doesn’t tell us is that Kissinger has also made a fortune doing so, as a consultant to multinational corporations and foreign governments. While advising Nixon Kissinger met many of his future business partners, including the governments of China and Indonesia and a long list of multinational corporations. US-Chinese rapprochement has been especially good for Kissinger Associates, the private consulting firm he founded five years after he left office. Although its clients are a secret, it’s widely known that the firm has introduced a number of major American corporations to the Chinese government. Six months before the massacre in Tiananmen Square, Kissinger established China Ventures, a limited investment partnership, of which he was chairman, CEO and general partner. After the Chinese army fired on student protesters, Kissinger left no doubt where his sympathies lay: ‘no government in the world would have tolerated having the main square of its capital occupied for eight weeks by tens of thousands of demonstrators.’ Kissinger has also helped Freeport-McMoRan, a ruthless mining company based in New Orleans, to do business in Burma, and on the island of Irian Jaya, conquered by Indonesia’s generals when Nixon was in power. Being Nixon’s chief consigliere turned out to be quite a lucrative career for the former secretary of state.

Max Zweig
Lenox, Massachusetts

Where Do Dead Norsemen Go?

Greenlanders, Neal Ascherson writes, ‘don’t mind what happens to the bones of “Norsemen"’ (LRB, 18 October 2007). In fact, the agreement between Denmark and Greenland on the repatriation of museum objects from the Danish National Museum to the Greenland National Museum and Archives specifically includes human remains, whether Inuit or Norse. Greenland owns the remains but they are curated at the Panum Institute in Copenhagen.

Joel Berglund
Gothenburg

Resistance is Surrender

Slavoj Žižek is a delightful provocateur and a gifted intellectual comedian (LRB, 15 November 2007). One day he’s denouncing do-gooder capitalists like George Soros by insisting that capitalism is an irredeemable system of structural violence; the next he’s informing the left that there’s no chance of ever overcoming it. One day he’s embracing Lenin as a man whose aim was to destroy all states for ever, the next he’s arguing that the state must be maintained as the only remaining bulwark against capitalism. If you ask Žižek to review a book your readers are unlikely to learn much about it. Thus he pays a good deal of attention to Simon Critchley’s Infinitely Demanding, but largely for his own purposes.

Critchley is one of the few intellectuals who have taken seriously the possibility that those who are actively engaged in fighting capitalism might have something relevant to say. He has tried to understand what they are attempting and to work out how the tools at his disposal might be helpful. His book does not simply propound a Levinasian ethics, understood as an infinite responsibility to the other, but is itself an attempt to practise one. Žižek appears to object to this project on principle. When you shave away the posturing, his real message is that intellectuals have always been, and always must be, whores to power. He can’t quite come out and say this, so he conveys it in a series of rhetorical manoeuvres, mostly based on the use of the term ‘we’. ‘We’ are intellectuals, ‘we’ are the left (since the left apparently consists primarily of intellectuals), but ‘we’ also seem to include anyone from Tony Blair and the Democratic Party in the US to the current rulers of the People’s Republic of China. As a result ‘we’ obviously cannot stand opposed on principle to cruise missiles and interrogation chambers because our real brothers and sisters are not those being blown up by or strung up in them, but rather, those pushing the buttons and calculating stress positions.

I’d offer two points readers might wish to consider. First, capitalism will not be around for ever. An engine of infinite expansion and accumulation cannot, by definition, continue for ever in a finite world. Now that India and China are buying in as full players, it seems reasonable to assume that within fifty years at most, the system will hit its physical limits. Whatever we end up with at that point, it will not be a system of infinite expansion. It will not be capitalism; it will be something else. However, there is no guarantee that this something will be better. It might be considerably worse. Might we not do well at least to consider what something better might be like? If nothing else it seems an odd moment to call off all speculation about alternatives. And if one does wish to think about alternatives to capitalism, how better to do this than to engage with those building such alternatives in the present?

Why is Chávez the model? Why not, say, Evo Morales, who, unlike Chávez, really was placed in power by, and remains answerable to, genuine social movements? Could we imagine Žižek, even in his fantasies, patiently listening to the demands of the directly democratic assemblies of El Alto? Chávez may be a virtuoso performer but he is also a political comedian holding power with no real responsibility except to give his audience pleasure.

David Graeber
Goldsmiths, University of London

Hooray!

Perhaps Alexander Zevin was out of the States in 2005 since he thinks Americans never protest on structural matters such as the division of national wealth (LRB, 29 November 2007). That year saw many ‘co-ordinated “actions"’ that eventually frustrated an attempt to privatise Social Security. A coalition of many secular and religious organisations was formed, led by the Working Families Party and the Service Employees International Union. Handbills and posters were printed. We marched, we held mass meetings, we signed petitions, we made lobbying visits to Congress. We succeeded.

Sam Abrams
Rochester, New York

Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings

Jerry Fodor persists with two provocative claims: first, that natural selection explanations are incoherent; second, that there is some alternative explanation for adaptive phenomena such as camouflage or beak shape (Letters, 29 November 2007).

To show the incoherence of anything, you have to address it in the form in which its professional expositors deploy it. In large numbers of articles and books, published from 1859 to the present, evolutionary biologists use the following style of explanation. A characteristic of an organism (the colour of an animal’s coat, say) is as it is because of a historical process. In some ancestral population there was a variant type that differed from the rest in ways that enhanced reproductive success. (White polar bears, for example, more camouflaged than their brown confrères, were better at sneaking up on seals, were better fed and left more offspring.) If the variant has a genetic basis, its frequency increases in the next generation.

Is this incoherent? Nothing Fodor says bears on that question. Instead, he opposes a very particular way of presenting the explanation. Some people think we can talk of ‘selection for’ a characteristic, and identify rather precisely the traits that have been ‘selected for’. Fodor tries to argue that this is wrong: that there is no single correct answer (whether we know it or not) to the question of whether it was the whiteness of polar bears or their blending in with their surroundings that was ‘selected for’. Whether he is right is a philosophical issue about which people can disagree, but it has nothing to do with the coherence of Darwinian explanation. Natural selection proceeds if three elements are in place: variation in a trait, an effect of the variation on reproductive success, and some means by which the trait is inherited. Both the whiteness and the environmental blending emerged from the historical process that the selection explanation describes.

Although Fodor follows a long line of people, including Darwin himself, who recognise constraints on natural selection, he advocates something far more ambitious than his predecessors. He wants a replacement of natural selection, not supplements to it. Some of the signatories to this letter have emphasised the importance of constraints, and have written against the hyper-Darwinian practice of seeing adaptation everywhere. None of us has ever supposed that the appeal to constraints could eliminate all mention of selection.

Cases of convergent evolution are vivid illustrations of natural selection’s importance. Ichthyosaurs, sharks and dolphins share a similar body form; marsupial and placental mammals have counterparts that are almost identical in form. In different lines of descent, similar traits emerge. Fodor would have us believe that natural selection plays no role whatsoever in explaining these facts. Indeed, he doesn’t say how he thinks convergence – or any adaptation – should be explained, but merely tells us that he and a coauthor have something up their sleeve. The task they envisage is far more ambitious than that attempted by brilliant evolutionary theorists who have wanted to ‘expand’ Darwinism (for example, Stephen Jay Gould). Given the evidence that at least one of these would-be revolutionaries has little acquaintance with the biological theory he aspires to replace, we have little reason to think they will succeed.

Simon Blackburn, Jerry Coyne, Philip Kitcher, Tim Lewens, Steven Rose
University of Cambridge, University of Chicago, Columbia University, University of Cambridge, Open University

Jerry Fodor writes: Blackburn et al have a number of complaints about what I wrote. The first is exegetical: they say that the kind of adaptationism I’ve attacked is not one that paradigm adaptationists endorse. I think that even a cursory glance at the relevant literature shows this is false. The standard current formulation has it that a main goal of evolutionary theory is to explain the distribution of phenotypic traits in populations of organisms, and that natural selection is the key to such explanations: organisms are selected for the ecological fitness of their phenotypes. Patently, any such theory is in want of a coherent account of what it is for a creature to be selected for some or other of its traits. But I don’t propose to argue the exegetical point. Let those the shoe fits wear it. I’m content if what I wrote serves a cautionary function: if you find yourself tempted to espouse this sort of adaptationism, don’t!

Their second claim is that there is no incoherence (or, anyhow, none of the sort that I alleged) in selection theory as correctly understood. They don’t, however, say what the correct understanding is. Rather, they offer some potted polar bear history: ‘White polar bears … more camouflaged than their brown confrères, were better at sneaking up on seals, were better fed and left more offspring.’ I don’t know whether this story is true (neither, I imagine, do they), but let’s suppose it is. They ask, rhetorically, whether I think it’s incoherent. Well, of course I don’t, but that’s because they’ve somehow left out the Darwin bit. To get it back in, you have to add that the white bears were selected ‘because of’ their improved camouflage, and that the white bears were ‘selected for’ their improved camouflage: i.e. that the improved camouflage ‘explains’ why the white bears survived and flourished. But now we get the incoherence back too. What Darwin failed to notice (and what paradigm adaptationists continue to fail to notice) is that the theory of natural selection entails none of these. In fact, the theory of natural selection leaves it wide open what (if anything) the white bears were selected for. Here’s the argument. Consider any trait X that was locally coextensive with being white in the polar bear’s evolutionary ecology. Selection theory is indifferent between ‘the bears were selected for being white’ and ‘the bears were selected for being X.’ What’s ‘incoherent’ is to admit that the theory of natural selection can’t distinguish among locally coextensive properties while continuing to claim that natural selection explains why polar bears are white. Do not reply: ‘But it’s just obvious that, if the situation was as Blackburn et al describe, then it was the whiteness of the bears that mattered.’ The question is not what is obvious to the theorist; the question is what follows from the theory. Why is it so hard to get this very rudimentary distinction across?

Having got all that wrong, Blackburn et al add that ‘Fodor tries to argue that … there is no single correct answer … to the question of whether it was the whiteness of polar bears or their blending in with their surroundings that was “selected for".’ But I don’t argue anything of the sort. Since the hypotheses that the bears were selected for being white and that they were selected for matching their environments support different counterfactuals (what would have happened if their environment had been orange?) they can perfectly well be distinguished in (for example, experimental) environments in which one trait is instantiated and the other one isn’t. I don’t claim that locally coextensive properties are indistinguishable in principle. I claim that, since the theory of natural selection fails to distinguish them, there must be something wrong with the theory. (I also don’t claim to have ‘some alternative explanation for adaptive phenomena’; only that there had better be one sooner or later; and that it’s a plausible guess that, when there is, it will explain adaptive phenomena largely by appeal to endogenous constraints on phenotypes.)

Finally, they say that whether I’m right about all this is ‘a philosophical issue’. I don’t know how they decide such things; maybe they think that philosophical issues are the ones that nobody else cares about (a masochistic metatheory that many philosophers apparently endorse). Anyhow, the kind of philosophy I do consists largely of minding other people’s business. I am, to be sure, in danger of having insufficient ‘acquaintance with the biological theory that [I aspire] to replace’; but I’m prepared to risk it. A blunder is a blunder for all that, and it doesn’t take an ornithologist to tell a hawk from a handsaw. Tom Kuhn remarks that you can often guess when a scientific paradigm is ripe for a revolution: it’s when people from outside start to stick their noses in.

When Fascism Comes

Nicholas Guyatt cites Sinclair Lewis as the source of the remark ‘When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross’ (LRB, 15 November 2007). It’s a good one, but it comes from Upton Sinclair. It reminds me of something similar said by George Orwell: ‘When fascism comes to America, it will come with a smiling face.’ Always difficult to be sure about these, but here’s an apt follow-up, which is certainly to be attributed to H.L. Mencken: ‘Some great and glorious day the plain folks of this land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.’

Sheldon Litt
Stockholm

Round the Horn

My madrigal group has sung ‘Thule, the Period of Cosmographie’ by Thomas Weelkes on many occasions, with variable results, especially the slippery semitones around Fogo, burning ‘amidst an ocean full of flying fishes’. Ruth Padel (LRB, 29 November 2007) is unsure whether Fogo is Tierra del Fuego, or the volcano called Fogo off Senegal. It seems more likely to be the African volcano: difficult to imagine flying fishes around Cape Horn.

Richard McClean
Stockport

Film v. Still

David Simpson believes, correctly, that he only ‘imagined … blood spurting out of the side of the man’s head’ in Eddie Adams’s iconic photograph of General Loan executing a Vietcong suspect on 1 February 1968 (LRB, 29 November 2007). What he didn’t imagine is the NBC footage that captured the entire incident on film and aired on the Huntley-Brinkley Report on 5 February. Twenty million Americans saw it, and an unedited version was shown later on a network special. In the uncut version, after the point-blank pistol shot, the victim can be seen collapsing to the ground with a spout of blood arching a foot above his temple then subsiding with intermittent surges to become a trickle. The clip was also included in the 1974 documentary, Hearts and Minds.

James Valentine
Woodland Hills, California

Unfair to Ms Bhutto

Tariq Ali’s assertion that Benazir Bhutto’s return to Pakistan was at the instance of some foreign country is insulting to the welcoming rally of nearly three million people and to the memory of the 179 people killed and nearly six hundred injured in the attack on the rally (LRB, 13 December 2007). Ms Bhutto had announced her plans to return long before General Musharraf struck at the judiciary and long before the promulgation of the National Reconciliation Ordinance admitting that the cases against her were politically motivated and not tenable. To say that Ms Bhutto saw 179 innocent people butchered to ‘demonstrate her popularity to the world’ is something that even the most biased writer should be incapable of asserting.

Nazir Dhoki
Media Office, Pakistan People’s Party, Islamabad

Mistake

All being well, which it wasn’t, the last sentence of Roger Parker’s piece in the last issue would have read: ‘Divas and scholars will thus need to rejoin their battles from time to time, but at least for now the ground on which they enact the struggle looks firm.’ Our fault.

Editor, ‘London Review’

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