Monday, November 06, 2006

gopnik pushes all my buttons

"Rewriting Nature" (Oct 23 issue) was sort of almost exactly what I was asking for last winter, when Margaret Talbot wrote that excellent essay on teaching intelligent design and I wanted Darwinism in its historical context. And Atul Gawande's thing on industrialized "labor" (10/9) seems to have garnered praise from diverse parties, expecting and otherwise, and broken TNY out of it's, I thought, rather Victorian approach to childbirth. Dreams come true!

Reading Gopnik on Darwin, I got pretty excited at the first mention of George Eliot (55) and I thought that the joke about "Variations Under Domestication" was a smart illustration of the problem Gopnik felt Darwin and the novelists set for themselves, "how to reconcile the endless variation of the world with a set of organizing principles." Note I took the word "natural," as in "natural world," out of Gopnik's original sentence. Natural world, my eye. Have we learned nothing from the case of the miniature dog?!? But I was hooked.

I also liked the continuation of the Darwin as novelist thing later,

Darwin had the gift—the gift of any good novelist—of making the story sound as though it just got pushed out by the descriptions. The plot seems to grow out of his observations rather than being imposed by his will; in reality, the plot came first, as it usually does. (56)

More on Darwin's rhetorical strategy, where television history meets the historical myth of empiricism,

Darwin was humble and modest in exactly the way that Inspector Columbo is. He knows from the beginning who the guilty party is, and what the truth is, and would rather let the bad guys hang themselves out of arrogance and overconfidence, while he walks around in his raincoat, scratching his head and saying, “Oh, yeah—just one more thing about that six-thousand-year-old Earth, Reverend Snodgrass . . .” (57)

I also liked the emphasis on change over time as a fact that must be faced (if I ever get around to that Gladwell thing about predicting films . . . ) as in "even when domestic breeders aren't trying to vary their cattle, the cattle vary anyway." (55)

I didn't see that the extended quotation on page 55 really supported the claim that Gopnik was trying to make about how Darwin used different kinds of knowledge and authority rhetorically. But if he did, I like that and think that puts him in the same potentially revolutionary position as Dirty Jobs Mike Rowe.

Eventually, I resented the use of the plural first person, "Admiring a scientist’s prose, we usually try to humanize it by mapping the pattern of metaphor within it: look, Einstein was a visionary just like Keats." We who? Actually, Adam, this kind of thing drives me nuts and I'm careful to avoid it.

Still, that bit of fluff was followed by this, which rocks, "But the remarkable thing about Darwin as a writer is not how skillfully he uses metaphor but how artfully he avoids it. He argues by example, not by analogy; the point of the opening of “The Origin” isn’t that something similar happens with domesticated breeds and natural species; the point is that the very same thing happens, albeit unplanned and over a much longer period." I bolded the similar because it's such a lovely point. No analogy. None, got that?

Yes, I got it, Adam. Therefore, do not use the second person to implicate me in the grand misreading, "Reading “Selection in Relation to Sex,” for instance, your urge to draw analogies between his study of the way that birds’ plumage and song affect their reproductive success and the way men dress up and show off in order to attract women is so overwhelming that you practically have to bite your tongue to avoid it. Darwin bit his." (56)

Bite your own. Still, it's a lovely point. No analogy.

But it is, as ever, Gopnik who is the analogy addict, "we are on a mental continuum with pheasants and peacocks. Analogy is avoided, and then the most unsettling analogy of all is grandly asserted, and without apology. They’re us; we’re them." (56)

We're not like them, and a continuum is not an analogy. An analogy has two planes, a continuum one, no?

I'm also reading, by chance, as it were, Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club in the evenings, which goes all over and through the historically determined logics of Darwinism. And statistics. It's very nicely written and either Menand is a very heavy influence on Gopnik and Gladwell or they are doing all his research for him. These things are so hard to tell.

Oddly enough there is some Victorian parenting in the Darwin thing and I had that deja vu cut and paste sensation all over again . . .

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