[eDebate] ans Meagher re evolution
Sat Apr 26 15:30:18 CDT 2008
I am enjoying the discussion between Matheson and Meagher.
It should be no surprise that I conclude otherwise than Meagher on very many points, as well as objecting to Meagher's Revolutionary World Makeover Project.
I wanted to address one part of Meagher's Project that Matheson does not engage.
"To elaborate this point, consider the discourses of natural selection and evolution. On face, these are descriptive phenomena: over time, the species that survive are those that are best adapted to their environs. However, many seem to view this as a teleological phenomenon, a view rooted to significant extent in coloniality's discourse of Progress: over time, the BEST species live on and the worst ones die out. Evolution does the dirty work of making the world better, according to this view. Man sees its own narrative capacity as functioning as a teleological adaptation. Its forms of life are the best, and its job as a species (or genre of humanity) is to eliminate its dysgenic elements and promote its eugenic elements. However, Man does this on the basis of its belief that Man is isomorphic to humanity (or true humanity). As we are seeing, Man's belief in the promulgation of its ethnocentrically-derived criteria is not good for humanity at large and leads to a myriad of global problems."
This argument is poorly made and represents a style of critique which we should discourage. Sokol killed this crap off twelve years ago... but just like Creationism and Crop Circles, this zombie keeps lurching up, headless, missing limbs, and all.
I will answer line-by-line.
1) "To elaborate this point, consider the discourses of natural selection and evolution."
This presumes that Tom (and the reader) has sufficient access to "the discourses of natural selection and evolution." Participation in these discourses requires a minimal competence in science generally and in biology, chemistry, geology, zoology, and paleontology in particular. To pretend that he understands what those "discourses" are without access to them is just intellectual dishonesty and academic posing. One problem is that Tom will misunderstand those discourses in totality. Another problem is that Tom will focus on the few parts that he thinks he understands, elaborating complex criticisms of insignificant minutiae based on obvious misinterpretations. A third problem is that Tom runs the risk of being humiliated by those who regularly participate in those discourses.
The above difficulties are compounded when the audience, you and I, hand Tom the power to guide us through discourses with which we have little familiarity. Tom has just volunteered himself to be our fearless leader for a trek through unfamiliar lands. How noble of Tom to volunteer for such power: usually it is The French alone who are so noble...
I mentioned Alan Sokol's project of 12 years ago that dealt the death-blow to post-modern critique of science. I admit that it did take a few years for the word to get around to everyone that the jig was up, that the scam was blown, that the con was compromised. But... Tom... 12 years later and you still haven't gotten the memo?
Alan Sokol began from the premise that academic posers do not possess even the minimal understandings of science required to "consider the discourses of" the sciences. To prove his point, he wrote a ridiculous critique of the theory of gravity in the style of post-modern critique. His parody was published in Social Text, then one of the premier pomo academic outlets with the title "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." Here is an excerpt:
"In what follows, I would like to discuss the outlines of a liberatory postmodern science on two levels: first, with regard to general themes and attitudes; and second, with regard to political goals and strategies.
One characteristic of the emerging postmodern science is its stress on nonlinearity and discontinuity: this is evident, for example, in chaos theory and the theory of phase transitions as well as in quantum gravity. At the same time, feminist thinkers have pointed out the need for an adequate analysis of fluidity, in particular turbulent fluidity. These two themes are not as contradictory as it might at first appear: turbulence connects with strong nonlinearity, and smoothness/fluidity is sometimes associated with discontinuity (e.g. in catastrophe theory); so a synthesis is by no means out of the question.
Secondly, the postmodern sciences deconstruct and transcend the Cartesian metaphysical distinctions between humankind and Nature, observer and observed, Subject and Object. Already quantum mechanics, earlier in this century, shattered the ingenuous Newtonian faith in an objective, pre-linguistic world of material objects ``out there''; no longer could we ask, as Heisenberg put it, whether ``particles exist in space and time objectively''. But Heisenberg's formulation still presupposes the objective existence of space and time as the neutral, unproblematic arena in which quantized particle-waves interact (albeit indeterministically); and it is precisely this would-be arena that quantum gravity problematizes. Just as quantum mechanics informs us that the position and momentum of a particle are brought into being only by the act of observation, so quantum gravity informs us that space and time themselves are contextual, their meaning defined only relative to the mode of observation.
Thirdly, the postmodern sciences overthrow the static ontological categories and hierarchies characteristic of modernist science. In place of atomism and reductionism, the new sciences stress the dynamic web of relationships between the whole and the part; in place of fixed individual essences (e.g. Newtonian particles), they conceptualize interactions and flows (e.g. quantum fields). Intriguingly, these homologous features arise in numerous seemingly disparate areas of science, from quantum gravity to chaos theory to the biophysics of self-organizing systems. In this way, the postmodern sciences appear to be converging on a new epistemological paradigm, one that may be termed an ecological perspective, broadly understood as ``recogniz[ing] the fundamental interdependence of all phenomena and the embeddedness of individuals and societies in the cyclical patterns of nature." ( http://physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/transgress_v2/transgress_v2_singlefile.html )
The ensuing discussion ended Post-Modernism's academic pretensions as the cult leaders were exposed as charlatans and posers. Sokal's hoax was premised on the simple observation that the post-modern critics of science only pretended to be able to "consider the discourses of" science: the reality was that they only fooled themselves and their gullible readers into thinking they had any meaningful access to those discourses.
2) "On face, these are descriptive phenomena: over time, the species that survive are those that are best adapted to their environs."
This claim trades on a vague snippet of "the discourses of natural selection and evolution" for the purpose of opening a wedge for a social/political critique of science.
When that snippet of discourse is used at all, it is used ceteris paribus and "best adapted to" is a pointer to a value-neutral phrase. That is, other things being equal and over time, organisms with features which offer differential survival and reproductive advantages over competing organisms in given environments will be more likely to survive.
The concept that Meagher's snippet refers to does NOT claim that more intelligent, more beautiful, more organically unified, more advanced, more super-duper, more ethically pure, or BETTER species survive evolutionary time. It only proposes that a phenotype's differential ability to survive and reproduce in any given environment will affect its ability to survive over time. Sometimes, that means that really vile, ugly, despicable, pathetic, little organisms will survive.
The above snippet is also misleading in suggesting that how well phenotypes are adapted to their environments is the only or even the most important determinant of species survival over time. There are many other factors that enter into species survival over time, including sexual selection, the absence of species-terminating meteors and volcanoes and predator-species, gene selection pressures, and even the cost of growing the features which offer selection advantages.
This sentence is used to imply that scientists, specifically biologists, and more particularly evolutionists somehow unwittingly smuggle notions of "superiority" and "anthropocentrism" or "speciesism" into their science. Not only is this a misunderstanding and a misrepresentation of how this idea functions in "the discourses of natural selection and evolution," but it is used to smear an entire profession with a charge that they are at the forefront of combating. This dishonorable and dishonest move denigrates scientists by charging them with what they have been at the forefront of combating. Does Meagher really think that there would even be a concept such as "speciesism" without the idea of evolution, much less that it would have any moral, social, or political force?
3) "However, many seem to view this as a teleological phenomenon, a view rooted to significant extent in coloniality's discourse of Progress: over time, the BEST species live on and the worst ones die out."
I will not comment on whether or not the "discourse of Progress" is the result of "coloniality" other than to say 1) lefty claptrap making a complex reality simple enough for Meagher's Revolutionary World Makeover Project and 2) discourses of "progress" are so important to our common future that if "coloniality" significantly advanced them, then I will forgive "coloniality" almost anything.
Whether or not unidentified and unspecified "Many seem to view" natural selection and evolution as concluding this way, that is not how scientists think or talk about it. I no more trust Meagher to accurately represent the views of "many" than I trust him to represent the "discourses of natural selection and evolution": his rhetoric depicts the world in ways most conducive to his claims rather than fairly and with care.
This is a simple test of the point. Meagher, cite a single reputable evolutionary scientist, biologist, or even scientist of the past 50 years who concludes that: "the BEST species live on and the worst ones die out."
I will be even more generous than that. Meagher, cite a single MODERNIST of the last 50 years who has said or written: "the BEST species live on and the worst ones die out."
4) "Evolution does the dirty work of making the world better, according to this view."
Nutty, loopy left caricature of "the discourses of natural selection and evolution" in an attempt to denigrate them. The same crap pioneered by the recently-disgraced pomo cults, this time without any intellectual pretense.
One scientist, biologist, or evolutionary biologist of the last 50 years who says this, Meagher.
5) "Man sees its own narrative capacity as functioning as a teleological adaptation."
This is just blither now. Wynter scribbles a simplistic caricature of a mythical Eurocentric conception of "Man" and begins to talk to her stick-figure. She has her Man made into a life-sized blow-up doll so she never has to encounter the real persons her doll stands in for. Years later, Meagher walks into her office and strikes up a conversation with Man, oblivious to the fact that he is talking to a blow-up doll. Meagher reads Man's mind and concludes that Man "sees its own narrative capacity as functioning as a teleological adaptation." Just plain blither.
I must have missed this bit of knowledge, because I have never taken part in the thought "Our narrative capacity functions as a teleological adaptation." In fact, I am pretty sure that if I had thought that, I would have been disgusted with myself, filled with self-loathing, taken to retching on the spot. I am also pretty sure that if I asked 10,000 random persons on this Earth "Have you ever had the thought 'Man's narrative capacity functions as a teleological adaptation?" that "No." would win about 9,973 to 27 and that 26 of the 27 would follow-up with "Just kidding! Of course not!"
6) "Its forms of life are the best, and its job as a species (or genre of humanity) is to eliminate its dysgenic elements and promote its eugenic elements."
Misanthropy at its worst. The human desire for significance and meaning is transformed by Meagher into speciesism and anthropocentrism. The human desire for health, children, and actualization is twisted into an impulse for eugenics and a drive for genocide. Look, it is true that some people do think this way at some times, but those are hardly constitutive of Man. Or of the West, or of Modernity, or even of Colonialism. It may be an accurate depiction of what the plastic blow-up doll in Wynter's office thinks.
Not only do very few or no reputable scientists, biologists, or evolutionary scientists think this, but they CERTAINLY do not claim those as conclusions of evolution. True, there was an active eugenics movement in the early to middle 20th Century which contributed, by mixing with religious anti-semitism and revolutionary perfectability, to the Holocaust and other attempted exterminations. Different people will draw different object lessons from that historical horror. One I draw is that science needs to stick to science, to avoid being politicized and socialized: there will never be a shortage of political activists, social hucksters, and revolutionaries trying to use science to remake the world in their own image. Science is best served by defending science when necessary, advancing a scientific epistemic when possible, communicating scientific methods, practices, and results to nonscientists and generally remaining silent on the social and political questions of the day. Another lesson I draw is that the worst horrors occur when we insufficiently value individual human persons.
Finally, I don't know how to value non-humans any more than any of you do. This is difficult stuff. But I do know that simple answers like "all life is valuable" are absurd while claims like "only humans are worth anything" are clearly inadequate. I am speciesist in that I believe human beings are special in being able to represent themselves and the world much more deftly and with much greater complexity and are able to use those representations to make decisions and engage in actions which no other organisms appear able to accomplish. I hold those beliefs even though I would never advise that we burn down the ancient boreal forests of Vancouver just because huge bonfires are pretty. I struggle, occasionally, with eating life and will welcome tasty artificial nutrients which do not kill plants or animals in their manufacture. Finally, I am pretty sure that I value the Acanthastrea Lordhowensis in my reef tank in ways that it fails to value me. That doesn't make me "better" than the Acan Lord, but it does point to real differences between us which illustrate the absurdity of simple charges of anthropocentrism.
This is, like most of the rest of Meagher's rant, a caricature, a stick-figure rendering, reality made simple and stupid enough to function as What-Needs-Fixing by Meagher's Revolutionary World Makeover Project.
7) "However, Man does this on the basis of its belief that Man is isomorphic to humanity (or true humanity)."
Meagher participates in a criticism of modernity as incorrectly projecting its self-concept onto all of human existence. He does so by projecting his stick-figure rendering of Man onto ...
Since Meagher seems to enjoy playing silly games in simple virtual representations, let me sketch-out a quick script for caricatures of us to enact:
I will invite Meagher to point to a single scientist, biologist, evolutionary biologist, or modernist of the last 50 years who believes the above claim. He will answer that he is not speaking of individuals, but rather of the weltanschuung itself... I will mock him for being captured by an elaborated ideology, a fantasy comic-book rendering of reality that has come to organize all his thinking around its own virtual existence. He will object. I will point out that he is engaged in Fixing the World to make it conform to the Vision of it that he holds in his consciousness, that he embodies that which he critiques, that he is become the plastic blow-up doll Man.
He will cite Sylvia Wynter. I will mock her as one of those ideologically-driven academic posers humiliated by Sokol 12 years ago. He will take umbrage that I would so insult such an august and respected member of the academy. I will answer that appearances are often deceiving and that Ms. Wynter is a con artist out to Fix the World and, in particular, undo science with Wynter's Revolutionary World Makeover Project.
What do you think, Meagher? Good script?
8) "As we are seeing, Man's belief in the promulgation of its ethnocentrically-derived criteria is not good for humanity at large and leads to a myriad of global problems."
Is that what we are seeing? Really?
Look, this argument is poorly made and represents a form of critique that comes to nothing good. Alan Sokol killed this stuff off 12 years ago. It needs to stay dead.
Back to work after baby?how do you know when you?re ready?
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