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Wednesday, 30 May 2007


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A White Bear

You don't have to explain atavism, Scott.


I know what it means, but I'm not in academia.


The meaning took me several seconds to recall, and in practice I might skip over it mentally.

Karl Steel

I think it means different things depending on how metaphorical you're using it. Since you're writing about evolution, you're probably going to be using it in a less metaphoric sense? Seems to me that the less metaphoric it is, the closer it is to biology and thus the more it has to be explained to a humanities audience.

Scott Eric Kaufman

AWB, you have a background in the sciences, though. I'm sure "germ-plasm" wouldn't have phased you either.

Wrongshore, I suppose what I should ask is, do you think my adviser will know what it means?

Minivet, believe you me, I only wish my committee wouldn't sweat the small stuff. (Not really, only in those last hectic days of detail-oriented work before I turn something in.)

Karl, I'm not using the term metaphorically at all, nor was London. When he speaks of atavism, he's talking about the reversion to an earlier instantiation of a type. He goes into great lengths in both Before Adam and The Iron Heel to define and provide an exemplar of atavism (More Monkey Than Man) or atavistic behavior (Capitalism!), which may be the source of my insecurity here.

Mike Russo

To offer another data point, I also know what atavism is off the top of my head. For reference, I do have a science background (albeit on the physical side of things), but the original source of my familiarity is almost certainly H.P. Lovecraft stories imbibed in my misspent youth.

I. Eaton

The three people in the room with me don't know what atavism is right off the top off our heads. In response to this failure I defined the word "meretricious" to make myself look smart but they were right to point out that I was only trying to distract them from my failure to know what atavism meant. For whatever it's worth.

Jonathan Dresner

"Atavistic" ranks as one of my favorite epithets, so I'm not exactly a normal sample....


I hadn't ever bothered to look up what 'atavism' means, other than gleaning that 'atavistic' is used to negatively describe some people's attitudes.

N. Pepperell

I'm with AWB. But then again, staff at my university keep sending their students to me to ask what words mean - it's making me feel like I need to run seminars on this new fangled thing called a dictionary.

Seriously, I think the term is clear enough. It's possible that something about the paragraph construction could make someone worry that the term might be used in some technical sense, or that they might need some special background to understand how you're putting it into play. But the word should be in common academic use outside specialised scientific literature.


I didn't know what it meant off the top of my head - although I thought I ought to. It didn't take long to look up. It is in much wider usage in non-scientific academic work than 'germ-plasm,' and is easier for a non-biologist to grasp without any explanation additional to the dictionary definition. Thus, I don't think it needs to be defined, even though I couldn't recall the meaning without using a dictionary.

Rich Puchalsky

"It is in much wider usage in non-scientific academic work than 'germ-plasm' [...]"

This is true, and it's why you should spend at least a paragraph defining it. There are a number of different ideological overlays of 'atavism', and a reader in the humanities might assume that any one of them was meant. I certainly wouldn't assume that anyone knows its more biological meaning.

The Constructivist

Find a way to get a more metaphorical word like "throwback" somewhere in the sentence near atavism, or just mention the little quickie def you gave in comments, and you should be fine. Don't your advisors have dictionaries?


To give a fuller explanation of why Rich Pulasky's right here, I assumed that I knew what atavism meant, but was apparently wrong. My familiarity with it is from social atavism as a (discredited) explanation for nineteenth century colonialism, where it was glossed as an inherent human desire for domination, with no discussion of the reversion to an earlier (cultural) form root. When I think about it, this is also the sense (an aggressive human nature) that I believe I've seen it in in common usage, though this may be an effect of my self-presumed understanding. I think this makes it analogous for me to "diaphanous," which for years I thought meant flowy rather than gauzy.
A dictionary is only of any good if you know that you need to use it.

Tim Lacy

Such an opportunity! But seriously, it all depends on your committee. I'd go conservative and give it a brief explanation in a footnote. - TL

Karl Steel

At any rate, and I'm sure you already know this twice over, you need to explain how atavism works in the stuff you're looking at, e.g., what counts as atavism. warning: painfully obvious stuff ahead. For London, what traits are thought to be superseded (but latent); what traits are thought to be transtemporal constants and thus incapable of appearing or at least of appearing atavistically? What does what he marks as atavism say about how he conceives of the present?

Karl Steel

In other words, define atavistic, but do so analytically rather than lexicographically.


I go with Karl.

Naadir Jeewa

I know what atavism means, but only because it was covered in New Scientist about 2 months ago.

Ray Davis

I know the term well because it was the diagnosis in a series of "Krazy Kat" dailies where Krazy felt a sudden compulsion to chase Ignatz and Offisa Pupp felt a sudden compulsion to chase Krazy. Following up on the Constructivist's idea, you might reproduce a couple of strips. stick a "(Fig. 1)" after your first use of the word, and then add a paragraph to explain "Krazy Kat".

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