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Letters

Vol. 32 No. 14 · 22 July 2010

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What Darwin Got Wrong

The crucial sentence in Peter Godfrey-Smith’s review of our book, What Darwin Got Wrong, is: ‘If one [but not the other of two linked traits] is causing increased reproductive success, it is being selected for, in the sense that matters to evolutionary theory’ (LRB, 8 July). A number of other reviewers of the book have made much the same suggestion, but it won’t do. The theory of natural selection claims that the explanation as to why a particular kind of creature evolves a particular trait in a particular ecology, is that for that kind of creature in that situation, having the trait is a cause of fitness. But then it can’t also claim that ‘in the sense that matters’ ‘a trait was selected for’ means that it is a cause of reproductive success. If it did mean that, the theory of natural selection would reduce to a trait’s being a cause of reproductive success explains its being a cause of reproductive success, which explains nothing (and isn’t true). This is all old news; because John’s being a bachelor is his being an unmarried man, John’s being a bachelor doesn’t explain his being an unmarried man. Psychologists who hoped to defend the ‘law of effect’ by saying that it is true by definition that reinforcement alters response rate made the same mistake that Godfrey-Smith does; it took 50 years or so for them to get over it. Must we now have that yet again? Something really is seriously wrong with the theory of natural selection, and stipulating that it is true by definition won’t fix it.

Jerry Fodor & Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini
Rutgers University, New Jersey & University of Arizona, Tucson

March on the Savoy

Bernard Porter quotes an item from the 1940 Home Intelligence Reports, saying that as the Blitz intensified, there was ‘talk’ on the Isle of Dogs of ‘marching to West End to commandeer hotels and clubs’ (LRB, 8 July). He adds: ‘That would have set the working-class cat among the pigeons.’ Forget ‘would have’. A Communist councillor called ‘Tubby’ Rosen was chairman of the Stepney Tenants’ Defence League. With the East End suffering the most from bombing, Rosen addressed a large meeting in the Commercial Road and condemned the government for failing to provide deep shelters in Stepney, while ‘up West the government’s rich friends and their girlfriends sleep cosy in double beds … in their own private, deep shelters. Comrades, it’s about time we took them over!’

He led a march to the Savoy Hotel, whose cellars had been turned into shelters with comfortable bunks for patrons. (Some regulars, including the Duke and Duchess of Kent, Margot Asquith and Lady Diana Cooper, had bunks reserved for them.) Headed by half a dozen pregnant women, the marchers quickly occupied the lobby; some tied themselves to pillars; others ran down to the shelters. A few entered the restaurant and ordered food before the doors were locked. Employees panicked; someone called the police and asked them to expel the militants. The police refused, pointing out that the Savoy Hotel came under the Inn-Keepers’ Act and therefore the Stepney people, as bona fide travellers asking for a meal, had a right to be served. Hugh Wontner, the managing director, was a sensible man: he ordered that tea be served to all the demonstrators. The occupation ended peacefully, and censorship ensured that newspapers gave the story little space.

Derek Robinson
Bristol

Bernard Porter relates that high morale (at least among the working class) preceded the government’s attempts to raise it. That certainly accords with my own experience in Glasgow during the Second World War. I would go further than his contention that Lord Haw-Haw’s broadcasts from Germany were preferred to the BBC’s simply on account of their greater accuracy. Despite our leftist anti-Fascism, Haw-Haw was regarded with something close to affection: his description of the king and queen as ‘stuttering Georgie and grinning Lizzie’ went down a treat and there was real outrage at his execution.

Colin McArthur
London SE14

The End of the UK

David Runciman’s gloomy forecast of ‘the end of the UK’, because of the political consequences of devolution, ignores a central factor: in the words of Vernon Bogdanor in The New British Constitution, devolution ‘has turned Britain from a unitary state into a quasi-federal state’ (LRB, 27 May). Allan Tanner’s reply hints at this in predicting the inevitable ‘further devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’ and expressing bafflement at England’s reluctance to consider alternatives to what he calls the ‘Westminster system’, which I take to mean our current ‘quasi-federal’ and self-evidently transitional constitutional arrangements (Letters, 24 June). I’m baffled by this, too.

When Runciman is surprised by the absence of uniform swings at the general election, and concludes that ‘seen from one perspective, devolution has now made the United Kingdom more or less ungovernable,’ he is picking out a feature of federal constitutions, even quasi-federal ones, which is quite unsurprising to voters in the US, Australia, Canada, Switzerland or Germany, who take it for granted that there’ll be swings in different directions in different federal units – the reason often being that state governments can be unpopular whichever party runs them, which will affect the swing in that state accordingly. No one in a federation would think that this makes her country ungovernable. The same thing happened in the UK, with an unpopular Labour ‘federal’ government at Westminster, a popular Conservative Party in England and anti-Conservative (so pro-Labour) sentiment under a minority SNP government in Scotland. Other inconsistent sentiments dominate Wales and Northern Ireland.

Once we have the nous to move to a fully federal system for the four nations of the UK, these apparent anomalies will be seen as commonplaces. They seem now to make the UK ungovernable only because our existing constitution is a hopeless mixture of unitary and federal elements. As long as it stays that way, there can be no answer to the West Lothian question, and the Westminster government and Parliament will continue to struggle to play two inherently incompatible roles simultaneously. On the one hand, they are federal governing bodies for the whole of the UK in matters not devolved to the three smaller nations; on the other, they govern England in all matters. The composition of the House of Commons, with its numerous non-English members, is obviously quite unsuitable for an English Parliament and the composition of the government it produces is almost equally inappropriate for an English government, as we saw when Brown and Darling of Scotland, supported by an assortment of Scottish friends, were running the show, having been democratically elected by the whole of the UK to do so.

By the same token, it’s the lack of a proper distribution of powers between the federal centre and the four constituent nations that makes it ‘very hard’ for Runciman ‘to imagine how a Conservative administration in Westminster … will be able to impose painful spending cuts on Scotland and expect to survive there as a political force’. Revenue distribution among the constituent units of any federation is invariably a difficult and controversial issue, but in a fully fledged federal system, once Scotland (say) knows what its share of the national revenue will be, and given both full internal self-government and extensive tax-raising – or tax-lowering – powers, it will be up to the autonomous Scottish government to decide where, if at all, to impose cuts, not the federal government at Westminster. Runciman’s reluctance to apply the federal principle to the many anomalies he identifies leads him to the conclusion that ‘underneath the uncertainty is the steady, barely perceptible unravelling of a patched-up, threadbare UK constitution.’ It’s the residual unitary features of the constitution, though, that are unravelling, including most prominently the absence of devolution to an English Parliament and English government, whose eventual creation is now inevitable, and the institution of which will complete the process of federalisation that began with devolution. The political leader who spots this, picks it up and runs with it, will surely score a famous try.

Brian Barder
London SW18

Shifting the Rubble

I was intrigued by Rosemary Hill’s discussion of the shifting interconnections between class, travel, antiquarianism and the incipient professionalisation of architecture and archaeology in the 18th and early 19th centuries (LRB, 24 June). My great-great-grandfather the architect Edward Cresy (1792-1858), from a long line of upwardly mobile Kentish carpenters and builders, set off in 1816 with his friend George Ledwell Taylor on what they rather self-mockingly described as the Grand Tour, largely on foot. Their Architectural Antiquities of Rome appeared in 1821 and The Architecture of the Middle Ages in Italy (including the first modern survey of the Leaning Tower of Pisa) in 1829. The illustrations show them at work with plumb lines and sketchbooks while aloft on sturdy scaffolding, and Taylor in his autobiography describes various archaeological digs for which they enlisted the muscle of the local peasantry. Cresy himself certainly got his hands dirty back in England, reporting finds made while trenching his own vegetable garden.

Both men were elected to the Society of Antiquaries, but were also active in the formation of a number of other groups, such as the Architects’ and Antiquaries’ Club (‘for social and scientific purposes’) in 1819, the Architectural Society, and in 1834 the British Archaeological Association and the Dartford Society for the Advancement of Useful Knowledge. Cresy’s career follows a trajectory from the classical preoccupations of the early 19th century, through the Gothic imaginings of the Regency to the utilitarian concerns of the Victorian age, but underpinned throughout by structural interests as much as aesthetic ones. He insisted on being both architect and civil engineer and his last appointment was as superintending inspector for the General Board of Health, reporting on the sewerage, drainage and water supply of 16 towns in the South of England.

It should perhaps be emphasised that field archaeology involves heavy manual work. In the early 1950s I participated in excavations in the City of London, the numerous sites having been cleared in a preliminary way by the Luftwaffe. The Roman and Medieval London Excavating Council employed two splendid navvies to shift the rubble, and the few volunteers supervised by even fewer archaeologists carried out the barrowing, trowelling and so forth preceding the more delicate operations conducted by the professionals, whose expertise was far too scarce to waste on manual labour – though the navvies had themselves become pretty knowledgeable.

Diana Burfield
Witney, Oxfordshire

Alien Intelligence

I find it surprising that the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, discussed by David Kaiser, should always be written about as if evidence for its existence were mainly a question of communication (LRB, 8 July). The nearest extrasolar planets are Epsilon Eridani b, about 10.5 light years from Earth, and the four-planet system of Gliese 876, about 15 light years away. Assuming the speed of light to be the highest possible speed, exchanging messages with any intelligence on these planets would take a minimum of 21 or 30 years respectively. Any distance in light years in excess of the average human lifespan would make communication impossible.

Giovanni Carsaniga
Hove

Not Entitled

In his review of my edition of The Sonnets and Efraín Kristal’s edition of Poems of the Night by Borges, Michael Wood claims that Borges’s more classical prosody in his verse is a ‘retraction’ of his experiments in prose, thus oddly suggesting that an author’s more expansive range somehow diminishes his creative accomplishment (LRB, 8 July). Wood is entitled to his opinion; he is not, however, entitled to quote from a translation under review in a version he has ‘slightly modified’. The translation of a poem is an independent work of art created by the translator, not a transcription. Wood’s ‘modified’ citations do not serve as a direct critique of the translations – a legitimate reason to offer alternate readings – but seem to be small attempts to improve on otherwise acceptable versions. Such tampering with a published text is tantamount to altering any other text under review as a way of ‘correcting’ what the author has actually written. This not only violates critical ethics – ironic in light of a book Wood himself co-edited on the ethics of translation – but displays a rather serious misunderstanding of what a translator does. If Wood wants to translate poetry, let him try, but to ‘slightly’ vandalise what others have done is not a good way to begin.

Stephen Kessler
Santa Cruz, California

Michael Wood writes: Stephen Kessler’s point about quoting texts verbatim is a good one and I can see why he doesn’t like being ‘slightly modified’. But the accepted convention of reverting briefly to an original syntax or diction in order to allow the reader to see something that is otherwise occluded can be helpful. As for the notion that every translation (or indeed every poem) is a work of art, Mr Kessler is just kinder than I am.

Enemies of All Mankind

Bernard Waites’s account of the judicial sabotage of the international ban on slave-trading following the Napoleonic Wars is perfectly correct, but it does not falsify what I wrote (Letters, 8 July). It was indeed the case that slaving became assimilated to piracy; but, like the common law prohibition of slave-holding in the previous century, this took decades to achieve in the face of sometimes dogged judicial opposition. In both instances, the first expedient was to decide that the ban might apply in Britain or to British vessels, but that it could not affect what was done in the colonies or by foreign ships. That was the story of English law following Mansfield’s historic decision in James Somersett’s case in 1772 (a decision Mansfield himself later went back on), and it was the story Waites tells about the Admiralty Court’s retrograde decision in the case of Le Louis, which was still having effects as late as 1860. But the fact that some judges are resistant or obstructive to new developments does not mean that the law has not changed. It means that change in the law is a process which can take time – unless Parliament intervenes, which the UK Parliament for decades failed to do.

Stephen Sedley
London WC1

All This Blah

I must take exception to Jenny Turner’s characterisation of the Battle of Ideas conference, specifically, the bit with me in it (LRB, 8 July). She writes, of a debate about government food guidelines, ‘Just for once, I think, why can’t all of us bloody intellectuals shut up with our endless posturing opinions and listen to why parents go on feeding their children quick, soft, cosy junk? Is it because, secretly, we know the answer, and just can’t bear to think about the utter pointlessness of all this blah?’ In fact, the whole point of my talk (transcript available on request) was that there are drivers behind poor nutrition that are entirely to do with social inequality, and nothing at all to do with people needing more information about raisins from the government.

Zoe Williams
London SW4

Not So Impartial

I was intrigued by Corey Robin’s analysis of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s adherence to constitutional originalism; in particular his conclusion that Scalia ‘reflects rather than refracts the spirit of the age’ (LRB, 10 June). Unfortunately, the reality is rather more prosaic. Scalia has applied his constitutional theory with varying rigour depending on the political context. In Bush v. Gore, for example, he jettisoned originalism in reaching the majority decision which gave George W. Bush the presidency. The original constitution plainly gave each state the power to decide its electoral vote and that ought to have meant that the Supreme Court had no power to intervene in the Florida courts’ consideration of Florida’s vote. The lasting damage that judgment did to the court’s standing led Justice John Paul Stevens to conclude: ‘Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.’

Alex Bailin
London WC1

Seamew

Jeremy Harding’s comments on Caliban’s main course of ‘seamew surprise’ are surely far from being ‘anybody’s guess’ (LRB, 24 June). A knowledge of German would have told him that the word ‘mew’ is closely related to the word Möwe, ‘gull’. ‘Sea’ tells us the rest.

Roy Kift
Düsseldorf

Citizen and Vintner

Charles Nicholl’s article about Christopher Mountjoy contains a small error – Philip Henslowe had no involvement in the Swan playhouse – and a possible misreading of archival sources (LRB, 24 June). Although it might indeed add to the story of ‘Mountjoy’s social world’ had his sureties Benjamin Flint and Laurence Strowbridge, described as a goldsmith and a vintner, actually practised these trades, the citizens of early modern London did not always, or even very often, undertake the trade associated with the livery company to which they belonged. Citizens invariably cited their corporate membership as part of their civic identity: being called a ‘citizen and vintner’ does not guarantee that Strowbridge ran a tavern or supplied wine.

Tracey Hill
Bath

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