The Phenotypical George Will*
The Phenotypical George Will*
(The Washington Post Column herewith criticized, captioned “How Congress Trumps Darwin” [by George Will] trails this piece by DI Editor, Dusty Schoch; immediately following are anchoring comments by DI Senior Associate Editor, Dr. Leonard Carrier)
February 8, 2009
I read George Will’s columns for the same reason my wife does crossword puzzles – to exercise the brain as a hedge against Alzheimers’ onset. Plus–I can add to my vocabulary because he inevitably tosses in a word he knows most will have to retrieve from the dictionary because his context doesn’t give a clue.
There’s so much (deserved) reverence for Will’s work out there that I think he likely receives too little negative feedback. He’s so patently smart few will question whether there is even the crudest correspondence between his captions and thesis sentences and the body of his stream-of-intellect compositions. The plaintive cry that “The Emperor has no clothes” comes to mind.
Today (Feb. 8, 09) for example, his column’s caption is “How Congress Trumps Darwin”, but instead of learning his opinion of whether our government has any chance of remediating global warming (presumably his central theme if not focus), we learn the vast amount of philosophical trivia Wills has mastered (or through Google mustered) and can cram into one intellectual exhibition. I never know if the joke is on him or us. All his analogies are apt, while most of his assertions (always more insinuations than clear declaratives, as George, argumentatively is a Will of the wisp…never leading with a limb that could be pinned to canvas) elude. But the verbal meanderings, as masturbatory as they are , are still fascinating—not because they enlighten, or in any way support their promise (thesis sentence or essay caption) but because they invariably challenge, provoke and … entertain. They make us stretch…and grow. But so do crossword puzzles. Even when the emperor has no clothes, it’s great fun to ponder what he thinks he’s wearing and why he’s strutting. Same with Will’s intellectual and philosophical meanderings.
But today, I really was hoping I’d get an idea of what this great intellect thinks about our chances of survival, either by way of Darwinian science, or legislative fiat. Instead, Will drags out the ironies of ancient history and the macro ironies of how that history is or isn’t reflected in man’s follies of today.
Let me quote from the center of his thesis today: “After Copernicus dislodged humanity from the center of the universe, Marx asserted that false consciousness—we do not really ‘make up our minds’—blinds us to the fact that we are in the grip of an implacable dialectic of impersonal forces. Darwin placed humanity in a continuum of all protoplasm.”
This paragraph is, as informative art, full of sound and fury and signifying (clearly) nothing, because it is so much disjointed…stuff–mostly intellectual preening by Will who’s demonstrated in the paragraph that his giant cortex can relate the mental machinations and memes (I’m Willing Will a bit here, aren’t I) of Marx, Copernicus, Darwin and us in a single sentence. But the sentence—at the end of our day– is a dog that just didn’t hunt. So, for the most part is the greater part of what Will writes these days. One wonders: What was it about Will’s personal origins and passage through his career and society’s milieu that evolved his writing bent from empirical to lyrical? Is his present writing style his adaptive mechanism of journalistic “survival”? Or is it an errant and potentially malignant mutation we aught to help him excise in the bud (or publishing polyp)?
He could, and I contend should, do so much better. I was about to say “more” but it’s exactly the opposite: Will should write, create, analogize, allude, allege, insinuate less. What he should (and I say could) do more for us is…simplify…clarify…exemplify.
What “good” was accomplished—what lesson instructed– in Will’s pointing out the (obvious) irony that in a single democracy (ours) a state judiciary tried a teacher for teaching Darwinian evolution and a hundred years later (through the federal government) legislated a law designed to alter natural evolution? We are facing now the threat of global extinction through mankind’s over-burning of fossil fuel causing CO-2 blanketing. And Will is glibly concerning us with the ironies inherent in our history of human folly and environmental management. What a waste of brain matter (Will’s).
I know the ignorance and narcissistic nature of the average statesman is appalling to Will and perhaps all thinking people. But George Will occupies a powerful podium in the television and print media, and he’s wasting it with prosaic and polemic preening…mental masturbation. If he wants to teach philosophy, let him head a class at Harvard. But as a columnist with his (well-earned) wealth of readership among our country’s intellectuals (which are the movers and shakers), he should be offering more in return for the trees being sacrificed to disseminate his sagacities. We don’t need any more glib court jesters; 8 years of Bush and Cheney provide fodder enough for the comedians of the next millennium. . What we need from our intellectuals—and Wills qualifies here in spades—is constructive ideas. Artful ideas always wind up saving mankind from its self-constructed catastrophes.
And, by the way, George (in case you’re reading this) – you missed the important boat in your historic sketching of Darwin. You want the TRUE irony existing today between the evangelical fundies, creationists and their collective pariah –empirical Darwinians? Here it is: Although you were “right” in saying Darwin rejected a “creator god”, he clearly embraced all versions of creator gods in his writings post “Origins of the Species”. When castigated by his religious colleagues for indirectly slighting the sacred cows of creator gods across the board, he sincerely and clearly endorsed the social currency (value) of all religions. He explained that the axioms of his “Origins” (survival of the fittest) applied as certainly in social as in individual man. First, he taught, species survive and evolve because of individual (genotypical) and social (phenotypical) adaptations. Churches and religions, he explained, are socially-evolved methods (adaptations) for group survival, as the majority of humans in any group or clan is (without religion) unreasonably and dysfunctionally obsessed with individual mortality and the like, and that, without the morality and ethicalities (and mythologies) adopted and promulgated by religious authorities, social progress (evolution) would have been very unlikely.
So, Darwin saw more than simply “beauty” in natural evolution…he saw social pragmatism.
But, I have (perhaps appropriately in the case of criticizing Will with the same intended tone Oscar Wilde crafted his “Critic as the Artist”) diverted from my intended plan and path. My intent was to encourage our brilliant commentator and columnist to keep on trucking through the courts of kings and idiots like Bush, but with (as he might put it) less Falstaffian aloofness and more Darwinian directness. Will has far too much brains and talent to induct himself to public service as passively-aggressive court jester. Will needs to fall out of his forensic addiction to turning a philosophic phrase and into a habit of using his inordinate verbal and intellectual armament to muckrake mistakes and propose solutions to our culture’s many many dire challenges, from the fiscal to the environmental. I perhaps used the wrong parable when I echoed the proverbial cry, “The Emperor Has No Clothes.” I think the words a man uses are, functionally, his intellectual “clothes”. In this sense, Will needs to heed the words of Polonius. The apparel does often “proclaim the man”, but before that, he told his son – “But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy”.
That other Will (Shakespeare) also instructed us all, even as he was admonishing this same overly-effusive father (Polonius)…. Please… “More matter and less art!”
Please, Will, give us more matter and less art. I know you can do it.
Your still fond fan,
Robert R. Schoch
Robert R. (Dusty) Schoch is an attorney, inventor (author of Milton Bradley’s “Crack the Case”; most recent environmental patent http://www.freepatentsonline.com/6048407.html; designer (United Features Syndicate-licensed “Snoopy’s Dream Machines”) and manufacturer (D.C.S. International, Inc.), Inventor’s representative and broker of novel inventions (President and C.E.O. of I.D.E.A.S. , “Invention Design Enhancement And Sales”) and writer (novels, essays, screenplays) living in High Point, N.C. BA (English) degree, UNC Chapel Hill, JD (law) U. of Ala., Tuscaloosa. Dusty is founder and scribe of the B.E.A. (“Barristers et al”) a N.C.-based, politically-independent foreign policy think tank. He is also co-editor (foreign policy) of DeclaringIndependents.com, through the contact link of which readers are invited to correspond with him. His soon-to-be published novel and soon thereafter to be released movie, “Ex Machina” are the story of an environmental hero who succeeds in saving the world from …us.
HOW CONGRESS TRUMPS DARWIN
Sunday, February 8, 2009; Page B07
“Descended from the apes!” exclaimed the wife of the bishop of Worcester. “Let us hope that it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known.”
An American majority resists such an annoying notion, endorsing the proposition that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.” Still, evolution is a fact, and its mechanism is natural selection: Creatures with variations especially suited to their environmental situation have more descendants than do less well-adapted creatures.
This Thursday, the 200th anniversary of the births of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln, remember that Lincoln mattered more. Without Darwin, other scientists would have discerned natural selection. Indeed, Darwin’s friend Alfred Wallace already had. Without Lincoln, the United States probably would have been sundered into at least two nations. Probably into more: Southerners, a fractious tribe, would not have played nicely together in the Confederacy for very long.
Unlike Lincoln, Darwin still disturbs humanity’s peace of mind. Some people flinch from the idea of natural selection, a.k.a. “survival of the fittest,” because it suggests Lord Tennyson’s “nature, red in tooth and claw.” But Darwin, in the last paragraph of “The Origin of Species,” saw beauty:
“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
Walt Whitman, seared by Lincoln’s war to guarantee the nation’s survival, adopted a materialist’s mysticism about the slaughter: Human immortality is in earth’s transformation of bodies into an “unseen essence and odor of surface and grass, centuries hence.”
After Copernicus dislodged humanity from the center of the universe, Marx asserted that false consciousness — we do not really “make up our minds” — blinds us to the fact that we are in the grip of an implacable dialectic of impersonal forces. Darwin placed humanity in a continuum of all protoplasm. Then Freud declared that the individual’s “self” or personhood is actually a sort of unruly committee. All this dented humanity’s self-esteem.
Still, many people of faith find Darwinism compatible with theism: God, they say, initiated and directs the dynamic that Darwin described.
In the end, Darwin, in spite of perfunctory rhetorical references to “the Creator,” disagreed. As a scientist dealing with probabilities, and with a profoundly materialist theory, he had no intellectual room for a directing deity that wills a special destination for our species.
Darwin’s rejection of premeditated design helped to validate an analogous political philosophy. The fact of order in nature does not require us to postulate a divine Orderer, and the social order does not presuppose an order-giving state. As a practical matter, we cannot expel government from our understanding of society as Darwin expelled God from the understanding of nature. But Darwinism opens the mind to the fecundity of undirected, spontaneous, organic social arrangements — to Edmund Burke and Friedrich Hayek.
Speaking of government, in 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act. It said that when identifying an “endangered” or “threatened” species, the government should assess not only disease, predation and threats to its habitat but also “other natural . . . factors affecting its continued existence.” Natural factors?
Four years later, the act held up construction of a Tennessee dam deemed menacing to the snail-darter minnow. Ed Yoder, a learned and sometimes whimsical columnist, noted that it was under Tennessee’s “monkey law” that John Scopes was tried in 1925 for teaching biology in a way considered incompatible with Genesis. While not equating Tennessee’s law with “a measure so enlightened” as the 1973 act, Yoder noted:
“Both measures involve legislative interposition in the realm of biological change; and which will have involved the greater hubris is yet to be seen. Tennessee’s ambitions were comparatively modest. It sought only to conceal the disturbing evidence of natural selection from impressionable school children. The Congress of the United States, one is intrigued to learn, intends to stop the nasty business in its tracks.”
With that accomplished, it should be child’s play for Congress to make the climate behave. Pick your own meaning of “child’s play.”
Len Carrier’s* Anchoring Remarks
Thanks for letting me see your commentary on Wills’ piece. I agree with your critique–just a lot of mental gymnastics on Will’s part. But I’d offer a harsher criticism. I think Will is a phony. His father, Frederick Will, was a philosopher and a true intellect. George doesn’t measure up, intellectually or morally, so he tries to hide his inadequacies through sheer linguistic legerdemain. Here’s what I mean regarding his latest piece. He cites Darwin’s theory of natural selection as opening the mind to Edmund Burke and Friedrich Hayek. Why Burke and Hayek? Why not Keynes and Krugman? Will is slyly insinuating that there’s some connection between evolution and conservative political thinkers, whereas there’s no connection at all. Darwin’s theory was value free. What natural selection has wrought is not “better”; it is simply that which has adapted best to its environment.
Quoting Yoder’s comments with apparent approval with regard to the Endangered Species Act is a prime example of Will’s dishonest argumentation. Are we supposed to believe that the Tennessee Dam is simply a case of natural selection’s getting rid of the snail darter, and that we shouldn’t get in the way of evolution? This is outrageous. First, constructing dams involves conscious choice, not blind evolutionary drift. Second, if we think that certain species such as the snail darter are important to us, then, by all means, we should protect them. If we follow Will’s logic, then we shouldn’t try to prevent diseases because that would get in the way of evolution by natural selection. Will’s conclusion seems to be that we can’t do anything about global warming (a typical right-wing stand)–but to use Darwin’s theory to bolster this head-in-the-sand attitude is blatantly fallacious.
I noticed a couple of typos in your comments, which I’ve highlighted in red. I don’t see anything wrong with the substance of your remarks, aside from their giving Will too much credit.