February 28, 2008

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, February 2008

Norman Geras, Discourses of Extremity: Radical Ethics and Post-Marxist Extravagances
Four essays in two parts. The first half is about the need for Marxists to be explicit about their moral commitments, and a call to work out what constitutes justice in the conduct of a violent revolution, by explicit analogy with just war theory. The second is an extended controversy with Laclau and Mouffe, denouncing them for their manner of leaving Marxism, misrepresentations of the Marxist tradition, idealism, etc., etc. (The analogy of the chain is very good, but not good enough to save historical materialism.)
Jack Campbell, Dauntless, Fearless, Courageous
Mind-candy. Covers unusually horrible and not actually indicative of contents. Fairly grim military science fiction, mixing a take on the Anabasis, the disasters-of-total-war (parts of which seem intended as comments on current events, but not especially heavy-handedly so), and many well-thought-out relativistic battle scenes. Not my usual thing but oddly compelling. Third volume ends with a huge cliff-hanger; more are forthcoming.
Wiktor Stoczkowski, Explaining Human Origins: Myth, Imagination, and Conjecture
If you read the fifth book of Lucretius's De rerum natura, you will find (starting around line 925) an account of the development of the human race from a primitive condition like that of the other animals to the civilization of the last century BC. It sounds startlingly modern — obviously wrong in some details, but not that different from what one would get from a synoptic over-view of human evolution today. Stoczkowski's thesis is that this is not because Lucretius was very smart and/or very lucky, but that the "hominisation scenarios" one finds in such works of paleoanthropology are really exercises in speculative or conjectural history, part of a continuous tradition which descends from antiquity through the Enlightenment, of which Lucretius was very much a part, and that this tradition has very rarely had all that much contact with archaeological findings or proper scientific procedures more generally. His book is an analysis of the tradition, especially as found in a few dozen prominent scholarly texts, accompanied with arguments that the recurrence of its themes cannot be explained on the grounds that they are empirically well-supported, or even the only conceivable alternatives. They just sound plausible. The argument that cooperative hunting on the savannah requires spoken language would seem to entail that lions can, in fact, speak, only we've failed to understand them; this is absurd, but remarkably popular. (Stoczkowski is especially good on the subject of teeth, but would take too long to summarize.)
As Stoczkowski is at pains to state, none of this means these recurring ideas are wrong, but they are weak, and it's distressing to see them recycled from generation to generation, at most reshuffled and occasionally inverted. (He has obviously been influenced by Levi-Strauss, but no familiarity with structuralism is needed, or even helpful.) He concludes with a plea to abandon conjectural history in favor of seeking truth from facts, accompanied by a reminder that it simply may not be possible to learn the answer to many questions about the evolutionary history of our species.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; The Progressive Forces; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Writing for Antiquity; The Natural Science of the Human Species; Philosophy

Posted at February 28, 2008 23:59 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth