Thursday, September 30, 2004

It’s About Russia

I just finished reading James W. Valentine’s new tome on the evolution of the big animal groups, On the Origin of Phyla. Valentine is a heavy hitter in the phylogeny business, but his book, whose title self-consciously echoes Darwin’s epochal book, doesn’t offer any similarly earthshaking insights. I think that’s a significant result in itself. Trying to work out the particulars of a process that occurred 600 million years ago is bound to be a long slog, especially since the precursors of the various groups were tiny worm-like creatures with soft bodies that leave few fossil remains. Scientists are winnowing down the available hypotheses, however, and nobody seems to see any need for explanations that involve notions beyond what is already familiar in evolutionary thinking. Indeed, the more-or-less automatic advance of molecular biology can be expected to provide more and more reliable family trees as time wears on, though as Valentine is careful to point out, interpreting the floods of data on the genetic affinities of living organisms is far from automatic and we may never precisely identify the sponge with an attitude that was the authentic metazoan Adam. The nature of the evidence may limit us to telling likely stories about our most distant ancestors, but the point is that the stories sound more likely all the time. The subject evolves. It isn’t in crisis.

In most of the sciences, books aren’t very important because the crucial developments appear in research articles. In evolutionary biology, however, books have a larger role because of the continuing challenge of putting together a vast and heterogeneous mass of evidence to draw meaningful conclusions about living things. The grand example is the Origin of Species, a masterpiece of synthesis that is still an inevitable work 145 years after its publication; but there are a number of important books by Mayr, Dobzhansky, Stanley, Grant, Gould, Simpson, Wilson, and others that are structurally similar to Origins. I don’t think physics or chemistry has a similar bibliography. There are wonderful books in these sciences, but, aside from Galileo’s Two World Systems and Newton’s Principia, they tend to be textbooks, not the primary exposition of new ideas. Valentine’s book is hardly in a league with Tempo and Mode in Evolution, let alone the original Origin; but it’s a worthwhile example of the type.

Valentine thinks that the earliest metazoans probably lived on the floor of shallow seas. I’m a benthic form, myself, a sort of intellectual brachiopod subsisting on whatever nutritious morsels lodge in my lophophore. It is hardly surprising I have a bias in favor of inductive methods. One of the larger pieces I’ve strained from reading Valentine and other such books is that most of the creativity of evolution normally occurs at the earliest stages of the emergence of a group of organisms when some lucky founder arrives in an empty geographic or ecological zone. In that absence of competition, anything works brilliantly if it works at all. Fundamental principle of evolution (and marketing): If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.

An evolutionary flowering doesn’t necessarily occur because an organism develops a new adaptation. Most often some Elmer Fudd of a worm lucks into a new scene and its offspring rapidly develop into a whole range of new forms, some of which include morphological novelties that could only emerge under conditions of lessened competition. When the ancestors of what would become insects diverged from the ancestor of what would become fish, there is little likelihood that the first members of the first group looked very different from the members of the second or that what differences they did have had anything to do with being like an insect or being like a fish. That probably came later. By the same logic, the fact that there are a limited number of types of animals at any taxonomic level doesn’t imply that there are only so many basic types that work. It may just be that “when some region of adaptive space is already occupied, novelties produced to reinvade that space will usually be less well adapted than are the inhabitants, and will lose out in any sorting. Thus the Cambrian radiations may have produced enough metazoan types to occupy the broad range of available marine environments, thereby foreclosing the production of additional bodyplans.”

We tend to think of the Theory of Evolution as the explanation of how new living things emerge but most evolutionary mechanisms ceaselessly work to prevent novelty. At the beginning of every new epoch, a thousand flowers bloom precisely because a disaster or some other contingency has created a temporary cessation of competition. In nature as in history, competition merely puts a high finish on conformity and routine—the perfected Brontosaurus, the New Improved Chevy, Brad Pitt.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Making the Short List

The mathematical romance Flatland takes place in a two-dimensional world whose inhabitants are mystified by the occasional visits of three-dimensional interlopers who can effortlessly accomplish such amazing stunts as escaping from a loop without breaking the line. We don’t live in Flatland, of course, but to judge from our public discourse, we have decided to act as if we did, ignoring the depth of the world in a search for radical simplicity. It would be dubious enough to operate with the notion that particular individuals and groups have an essence that is unchangeable without divine intervention. We go beyond that to claim that this postulated center or axis is either good or evil, which is to say that our fundamental category of judgment is actually not even two-dimensional or simply linear but binary. No wonder that our thoughts are like infantile graffiti scrawled in smeary crayon on the nursery wall. But it’s not that we don’t know better. Stupidity, long promoted to the laboring and servile classes as the virtue of simplicity, is also admired in leaders as a sign of strength and a token of solidarity with the People. We chose to be crude. But maybe this sort of thing can be overdone.

Mind you, I don’t dispute the value of oversimplification. Even the most elaborate theory is a cartoon version of an intractably complex reality; and my own thinking is exceedingly narrow, an obsessive meditation on the theme of selection itself. For me, culture does not transcend nature or differ from it in essence or operate according to novel laws. It is simply an infinitesimal subset or subgroup of nature insulated from the remainder by various active mechanisms. To complain about this situation is pointless since it is constitutive of any possible human world—you might as well curse the nature of things—but my objection is not to the fact that the human agenda is so narrow but that it is often the wrong agenda, a poor selection. That, and the fact we often seem to omit the recognition of the narrowness from the list of the six permissible ideas.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Revolutionary Justice?

Effective political action always involves the mobilization of unpleasant human emotions. Lately the right has been better than the left in playing on the resentments of the population. While dismissing concerns about material inequality as class hatred, the Republicans have played on the envy that so many middling people have for the possessors of disproportionate amounts of cultural capital. True, the merest idiot can become rich by inheriting millions while even the most privileged child has to work to become educated, but this modest element of fairness makes things worse. Even the saddest loser can identify with one of our lumpenmillionaires since the difference between the wretchedness of the pleb and the splendor of the mogul is mostly just luck or can be imagined to be luck. The sorriest specimen on earth can identify with Donald Trump. Indeed, being a sorry specimen makes it all the easier. Meanwhile the hateful thing about cultured people is not the possibility that they are fakes, but the suspicion that they aren’t. As Nietzsche pointed out over a hundred years ago, it is not the presumption of merit that offends. It’s merit itself.

There is no general way of getting around the human propensity to hate the competition. A worker who works too hard will be restrained by the other workers. A black kid who tries to escape the Inner City will be pulled back by his friends and relations—the so-called crab bucket effect. In their endless celebration of mediocrity, the Republicans merely apply the same principle to politics. One can fight this tactic by promoting candidates like Clinton, the Galactic Mule of American politics, whose tremendous charm made people forgive him his competence; but there aren’t very many Clintons around. And the situation gets worse because our form of civilization really does tend to debase and infantilize most people, thus increasing their need for psychic compensation.

What’s needed is an appeal to some equally problematic but powerful psychological mechanism. Unfortunately, the obvious and probably necessary choice is the premeditated awakening of the sense of political justice, by which I do not mean the benign and healing process of assessing responsibility for what happens, but the reckless and imperative desire to punish political enemies.