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Friday, 22 July 2005


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Adam Roberts

This is really fascinating, Mr Non-Capo. I've not read the Sulloway book, but of course you're right to flag up that Darwin's contribution was the mechanism of natural selection, rather than the root idea that organisms change from generation to generation -- that idea is far older than Chambers, older even than the Chevalier de Lamarck. That's common sense; any farmer who selectively breeds, as homo sapiens has been doing since farming was invented, knows that organisms change over generations. The real question is how; and the really amazing thing is that Darwin was able to identify how without possessing an understanding of genetics.

But isn't the point about Chambers' contribution more that he established the deep-time background without which natural selection wouldn't have had time to operate? Darwin couldn't have written The Origin of Species if he'd assumed the world was made in 4004 BC atfer all.

Your thesis sounds really fascinating, and I for one am looking forward to reading it, should I ever get the chance. Does Chambers use the phrase 'monstrous' to describe new births, by the way? (excuse my ignorance) That's a word with an interesting pedigree.

Oh, and Althusser and Foucault are on about rather different things, I'd say.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Adam, Sulloway wrote the article, Secord the book; that might not've been clear, esp. since the essay in question can only be read by subscribers. (If only you knew one, and could send him an email, the article could be yours!)

I think you point to how Darwin could discover the mechanism without an understanding of genetics: he knew about selective breeding. And he counted on everyone else knowing the same; thus, the Origin opens with a discussion of the accepted truth of selective breeding, then moves to the discussion of the implications of the fact that organisms change over generations. It's a brilliant rhetorical stroke.

I think the more customary source for the theory of "deep time"--a phrase, oddly enough, not coined by an evolutionary biologist but a journalist, John McPhee, in Annals of the Former World--is Lyell's The Principles of Geology. Darwin's early contributions to the geological sciences all extend from Lyell's uniformitarianism. (David Dobb's unfortunately titled but incredibly well-written and informative Reef Madness is an excellent intro. to this discussion.) As for reading my dissertation, the more the merrier! (Actually, I slipped a paragraph from it--the one on Babbage--into the middle there, so you've actually already started.)

Sean McCann

Aceph, I don't think my remark depended on structural homology necessarily (and I don't think it's quite fair to attribute a methodology to me on the assumption that I'm operating in a new historicist vein). I'm quite willing to accept your argument that Althusser and Foucault were quite opposed to each other, and more than willing to recognize that this antagonism, in the context of postwar French intellectual life, had political significance--especially re the CP. And I wouldn't even deny that a significant difference exists that's evident in their understandings of subject formation and appropriate politics among other things.

What I did mean to say is that, as you note, some arguments up close seem significant that at a distance look like the narcissism of small differences. For all their differences, F and A probably had more in common with each other than either did with, say, Habermas--perhaps a reflection of the fact that, despite their different attitudes, each shared a fascination with the way structuralism appeared to promise the end to the human subject. In that context, I think it's no surprise that American intellectuals (who by and large have no feeling about the CP at all) could care less about the differences that mattered to F and A.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Sean, I didn't mean that as an attack on your position or person. Your point got me thinking, and then thinking some more, and then a little more. And as I'm sure you know, I didn't mean the categorization of your work as new historicist as an insult: it describes my own as well, and that's in large part the reason I think about structural homologies for lengths of time most would consider unhealthy. All of which is only to say that if I did have an assumption about your methods, it's only because I really respect Gumshoe America and consider what I took to be its foundational homology to be strikingly brilliant. The same thing applies to New Deal Modernism, and is the reason I contracted to work with Szalay.

In other words, my perpetual glibness--glibidity?--notwithstanding, I don't want you to think my calling you a new historicist was anything other than the compliment I intended it to be. You've me thinking about what constitutes a valid vs. an invalid dismissal of the issues important to people, and that's a healthy conversation to be having with yourself when knee-deep in a dissertation. What I fear--daily without end--is that I'll be attracted to an homology that illegitimately whitewashes significant differences between positions. Hence the airing of these anxieties.

Scott Eric Kaufman

"You've me thinking"? I won't edit it. That's a perfectly legitimate use of a contraction.

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