Monthly Archives: January 2010

Mandelbaum’s Dante

I’m reading Dante again, by the way — Allen Mandelbaum’s translation. I was so impressed with his Odyssey that I went from bookstore to bookstore until I had finally tracked down copies of his Aeneid and Commedia. He’s also translated Ovid, Quasimodo, and Ungaretti, and I’ll snatch those up too if I can find them. For someone who is such a virtuoso at translating poetry (and from three different languages!), Mandelbaum surprisingly turns out to be a bit of a klutz when it comes to English prose, at least if his nearly unreadable introduction to the Inferno is any indication. A typical passage:

For Dante is an Aeolus-the-Brusque, a Lord-of-Furibundus-Fuss, the Ur-Imam-of-Impetus. Or, for brutish Scrutinists, who reach for similes among the beasts and not among the gods, he is the lizard that, “when it darts from hedge/ to hedge beneath the dog days’ giant lash,/ seems, if it cross one’s path, a lightning flash” (Inf. XXV, 79-81)

Note how the dead, bloated language suddenly springs to life as soon as he stops speaking for himself and starts translating Dante. Like Plato’s Ion, he has nothing to say except as a reciter of his favorite poets — of which, unlike Ion, he happily has more than one.

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Shaw and Darwin

Bernard Shaw’s preface to Back to Methuselah, “The Infidel Half Century,” is something you don’t see much of these days: a non-creationist attack on Neo-Darwinism.

Back to Methuselah was published in 1921, a good 15 years before the modern synthesis got underway, so “Neo-Darwinism” as Shaw uses the term means something different: not Darwin-plus-Mendel, but Darwin-minus-Lamarck. Unlike Darwin himself, who was willing to grant that Lamarckian processes (the inheritance of acquired characteristics) might play some role, the Neo-Darwinians broke with Lamarck completely and insisted that evolution was driven almost exclusively by what Shaw — not wishing to profane the name of Nature — insists on calling Circumstantial Selection.

It’s not that Shaw doesn’t believe in natural selection — he grants that it occurs and that it influences evolution — but he considers it to be an incidental process. He thinks of natural selection the way a more orthodox evolutionist thinks of genetic drift: It undeniably happens, but it’s not all that important and evolution could go on just fine without it. The real driving force behind evolution is voluntary change.

If you can turn a pedestrian into a cyclist, and a cyclist into a pianist or violinist, without the intervention of Circumstantial [that is, natural] Selection, you can turn an amoeba into a man, or a man into a superman, without it. All of which is rank heresy to the Neo-Darwinian, who imagines that if you stop Circumstantial Selection, you not only stop development but inaugurate a rapid and disastrous degeneration.

Let us fix the Lamarckian evolutionary process well in our minds. You are alive; and you want to be more alive. You want an extension of consciousness and of power. You want, consequently, additional organs, or additional uses of your existing organs: that is, additional habits. You get them because you want them badly enough to keep trying for them until they come. Nobody knows how: nobody knows why: all we know is that the thing actually takes place.

The details of this process are admittedly a little sketchy, even if we take the heritability of acquired characteristics for granted. It’s easy enough to imagine how a giraffe — the canonical example, which Shaw dutifully trots out (“I do not remember how this animal imposed himself illustratively on the Evolution controversy; but there was no getting away from him then; and I am old-fashioned enough to be unable to get away from him now.”) — might want a longer neck, try to get one by stretching, and succeed in lengthening its neck a bit. But when one tries to picture a cartilaginous fish “trying” to have bones, or a monkey “trying” not to have a tail (not to mention a plant or an amoeba “wanting” or “trying” to do anything at all), the theory seems to break down.

For Shaw, the important thing about Lamarckism is not the inheritance of acquired characteristics, but the importance of will in the evolutionary process. In fact, Shaw seems to think that the former depends on the latter — that acquirements are inherited if and only if they were acquired deliberately rather than by accident. (He expresses this in a rather confusing way, saying that only “habits” can be inherited, but makes it clear that he is using “habit” in a special sense which includes not only customary behavior patterns but anatomical features as well. A Shavian “habit” is any feature that is voluntarily acquired and thereafter becomes involuntary and automatic.)

Because of Shaw’s focus on the inheritance of voluntarily acquired characteristics, he dismisses the experiments of August Weismann — in which he cut off the tails of 20 successive generations of rats and observed that their offspring were nevertheless born with tails — as missing the point. Shaw considers it self-evidently ridiculous to suppose “that injuries or accidents coming from external sources against the will of the victim could possibly establish a [heritable] habit: that, for instance, a family could acquire a habit of being killed in railway accidents.” He proposes the following as an alternative experiment which, if it were practicable, would be more relevant to the Lamarckian hypothesis as he understands it.

The scientific form of his experiment would have been something like this. First, he should have procured a colony of mice highly susceptible to hypnotic suggestion. He should then have hypnotized them into an urgent conviction that the fate of the musque [sic] world depended on the disappearance of its tail, just as some ancient and forgotten experimenter seems to have convinced the cats of the Isle of Man. Having thus made the mice desire to lose their tails with a life-or-death intensity, he would very soon have seen a few mice born with little or no tail. These would be recognized by the other mice as superior beings, and privileged in the division of food and in sexual selection. Ultimately the tailed mice would be put to death as monsters by their fellows, and the miracle of the tailless mouse completely achieved.

The objection to this experiment is not that it seems too funny to be taken seriously, and is not cruel enough to overawe the mob, but simply that it is impossible because the human experimenter cannot get at the mouse’s mind.

The odd thing about this — okay, there are a lot of odd things about it, but one of the odd things about it — is how thoroughly Darwinian it is. A true Lamarckian would perhaps expect that, once the mice had been suitably hypnotized, they would somehow try very hard to reduce the length of their own tails and would succeed in doing so, if perhaps only to a very slight degree. (Exactly how this would be done is, as I have said, not so clear.) Their children would then be born with very slightly shorter tails, which they in their turn would shorten a bit by the same method, and after many repetitions of this process a generation of tailless mice would finally be produced.

Shaw predicts something completely different. Instead of the mice changing their own bodies by willpower and then passing on those changes to their children, he imagines that the mice’s desire for taillessness would somehow cause a few tailless mutants to appear a generation or two later, and that the tailless mutation would become the norm by means of a process which can only be described as eugenics — that is, self-imposed artificial selection, which is nothing more than a special case of Darwinian natural selection. The bit about the mutation arising “very soon” as a result of the mice’s desire (rather than arising eventually by chance) is the only hint of anything non-Darwinian in Shaw’s story.

Unlike the mouse story in the preface, which is not Lamarckian at all, the Back to Methuselah plays themselves do feature the inheritance of acquired characteristics. In the story, a few people read a book arguing that the human lifespan must be extended to at least 300 years, and as a result they themselves — not the next generation, as in the case of the mice — go on to live for 300 years! Somehow their desire directly causes sweeping physiological changes, which are then inherited by their children. The implication is that, had they instead read a book arguing that humans all ought to be nine feet tall, they could simply have taken thought and added the requisite cubits to their stature. (The physiological changes implied in increased longevity are internal and invisible, which helps make the story seem a little less obviously ridiculous. That’s probably why the mouse story, featuring a more obvious physical feature, used a different mechanism. It would be too clearly bogus if the mice’s own tails had simply disappeared after the hypnosis.) After that, eugenics — in the form of sexual selection and genocide — once again takes over. The long-lived people seek each other out as mates “for the good of the race,” and eventually they decide to kill off all the short-lived ones. No matter how hard he tries to be a good Lamarckian, Shaw’s imagination keeps being drawn back to Darwinian mechanisms.

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What I thought about Avatar

I finally went and saw Avatar, and, while it certainly does blow you away with its technical brilliance, I found just about everything else about it frustrating and disappointing.

The biggest disappointment is that, having demonstrated his ability to bring a totally alien world to life, Cameron doesn’t bother to populate it with totally alien aliens. Six legs and spiracles notwithstanding, most of the animals are instantly recognizable as having been based on specific terrestrial genera (Brontotherium, Tapejara, PantheraEquus, etc. — and of course Homo), and sometimes the resemblances get even more precise. The horse-analogues, rather than just being vaguely ungulate-like, specifically call to mind draft horses of the Shire breed, and the human-analogues (if that’s even the right word for something so human in every anatomical detail) are recognizably Nilotic under the blue skin. The alien humans are by far the worst. While the other animals may give the general impression of a Shire horse or a panther, they are still clearly not from earth. The people, though, are — well, people. The USB-cord thing in the hair is about the only thing that would make anyone hesitate to classify the Na’vi as primates, and human primates at that, albeit with atavistic tails. Not only do they lack spiracles, they have eyebrows and breasts and five-toed feet and long hair in the same place humans have long hair, and they smile and laugh and shed tears as an expression of sadness and speak a language with no features that would surprise Noam Chomsky. Talk about convergent evolution! They’re so thoroughly human that we don’t find it even remotely shocking or unsettling when the earth-human protagonist falls in love with one of them.

Which brings me to the second big disappointment: the complete lack of moral tension. The decision to turn against your own people and make war on them has got to be a monumentally difficult one, even when your own people are clearly the bad guys. Every instinct of loyalty and prudence is pulling you in the other direction, and to override those instincts requires heroism. Jake, though, doesn’t seem to wrestle with his choice at all. “How does it feel to betray your own race?” the colonel asks him at the movie’s climax — a question which apparently goes right over Jake’s head. As far as we can tell, he doesn’t feel anything in particular about turning against his species. The discovery that his people are the bad guys and that it is his duty to kill them — which should be at least as wrenching as learning that your father is Darth Vader — makes no discernible emotional impression on him. He doesn’t see “us” and “them” at all, only good guys and bad guys. This is all perhaps very morally admirable, but it comes so easily to him that it’s drained of its heroism. Courage means feeling the temptation to do the wrong thing but doing the right thing anyway; Cameron never manages to convince us that Jake feels the temptation. The same goes for the handful of other humans who join Jake, for whom betrayal is as easy as saying (almost in so many words) “Screw this, I’m switching sides,” and never looking back.

In an early scene Jake thanks his alien love interest for killing some nasty alien predators that were about to have him for lunch, and she rebukes him with, “Don’t thank. You don’t thank for this. This is sad.” I assumed at that point that Cameron was foreshadowing the ending of the film — that when the war had been won and the Na’vi were thanking Jake for helping them kill off the nasty humans who were going to bulldoze their village, he would echo those words back to them. I could hardly have been more wrong. With so many critics complaining about Avatar‘s very predictable plot, I guess I should be happy that Cameron managed to surprise me, but, well — you don’t thank for this. This is sad.

Still, though, when all’s said and done, the special effects were pretty damn cool.

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