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Wednesday, 30 September 2009
The Tasteful Ape: Darwinism and the Arts

by Mark Signorelli (October 2009)

Robert Fagan begins his course for the Teaching Company on “Human Evolution and Prehistory” in precisely the manner which would be expected of any good scientist nowadays – with an expression of contempt for religion, and an insistence that his account of man's origins will be untainted by “mythology” and claims of the “supernatural.” True to his word, the immensely intriguing narrative he unfolds throughout the first dozen or so lectures, beginning from man's primate ancestors, and continuing through the Australopithecines – robust and otherwise – to the various hominid migrations out of Africa, progresses with nary a hint of theology. But when he arrives at the topic of the cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira, those beguiling phenomena, Dr. Fagan's wonted empiricism fails him, and he can employ only the most unscientific terminology to express himself; he pronounces those works “a miracle."
Posted on 09/30/2009 5:34 PM by NER
19 Oct 2009
Send an emailInfovoyeur

He does well to skewer the monism of Gottschall et al as a domain seeks to explain all or more than it can (here due perhaps to careerism; traditional literary criticism seems mined out, what is the Next New Thing for power?). One in a history of monisms, good ideas overapplied--Huntington's climatic determinism, etc., etc...... Indeed, the epicenter of literature is "the aesthetic use of language" thence outward to writer's stance tone voice, and yes to ideas including morality and ethics, and Aes. Darw. cannot touch scrimshaw Emily Dickinson, oceanic Walt Whitman, bramble-bush G. M. Hopkins... Of course, Signorelli has his own fervent values, perceptible in his tone: transcendent (?) social morality etc. etc.  Which are also stances, but for me now, vital yet vulnerable... (Would Signorelli veer to pole of essentialist absolutist etc.? No matter; a useful piece to stimulate...)

7 Oct 2009
Send an emailM.J. Hoogendoorn

Perhaps I should add to my previous comment, for clarity:

`If it weren't beneficial to survival, the practice would have died with it's practitioners.´

The beauty of this argument is, of course, that it is universally applicable to whatever behaviour or trait that exists. 

Though I agree with the author´s argument, that a Darwinist should be able to point out a particular gene for the trait he tries to explain, I don't think that insisting on the existence of a particular (set of) gene(s) is enough to defeat this universal argument.

Moreover, a Darwinist explanation should take into account, that a particular gene may bring about both beneficial and harmful traits. The gene that programs Europeans to have light skin, for example, has as the beneficial effect, that the skin produces vitamin D in Northern regions, a trait that has obvious survival value. The flipside of this genetic coin is, that it also programs for being susceptible to sunburn and skin cancer. No one in his right mind would explain the latter traits as being brought about by natural selection, because of it's survival value. With the author I fear, however, that some would explain cultural practices, such as the bleaching of dark skin in such terms.

7 Oct 2009
Send an emailM.J. Hoogendoorn

How about the proposition: Every year, a number of adolescents commit suicide before they reproduce. Therefore, suicide before reproduction has survival  value. 

Whoever wrote 'Not in Our Genes'?