David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: hugh kenner

C.D. Darlington, Sociobiology, and Reductionism in the Sciences

I recently ran across Hugh Kenner’s 1970 review of geneticist C.D. Darlington’s book The Evolution of Man and Society (1969). Darlington had done important work in genetics in the 1930s, but had revealed a penchant for troubling indulgences in “race science.” This was one of them.

Darlington’s book was an attempt to explain the entire history of humanity via genetic traits, with many excursions  into racial generalizations and invocations of both Social Darwinist and eugenicist tropes.

Darlington had already gotten into trouble for making some very suspect remarks about race over the course of his career, and the excerpts I’ve read of the book show it to be loaded with the kind of pseudoscience that continues to plague us in things like The Bell Curve. (No, I’m not going to read the whole  thing; I saw no signs of Robert Young’s review below being off the mark.)

Despite being deeply skeptical of the enterprise and explicitly disavowing the idea of racial superiority, I’m afraid Kenner still seems far too charitable:

Breezily confident that official historical motives are probably fraudulent, he often rises to majestic crankery. Like French farce, relying on one order of causation only, that which sweeps bankers to the doors of undulant blondes, such Swiftian reasonableness need not be wholly credited to be tonic.

But in looking up this happily forgotten book, I discovered Robert M. Young’s review, Understanding It All, which has an parable at the end that points out a fallacy common among scientists and other analytical types.

On the positive side, Darlington has raised very interesting issues connected with unconscious selection, sexual selection, monasticism, primogeniture, hereditary immunities, and the dynastic and social consequences of inbreeding (and incest) versus outbreeding. The book also touches on eugenic questions which cannot be answered with in the limits of science as now constituted. However, these matters are so inextricably interwoven with dubious assertions which are liable to reactionary and racialist interpretations that one would do better to start elsewhere

I have tried to convey the conclusion that in the opinion of one historian of biology this book is insidious, and its surface plausibility depends on ambiguities, premature conclusions and downright puns. At the end of the volume Darlington has listed ‘a succession of pioneers’; in the proof copy these were called ‘some precursors’. The list includes Paine, Malthus, Darwin, Marx, Galton, Bagehot, Tylor and Acton.

A psychiatrist colleague of mine turned up the other day to discuss problems of explanation in that confused discipline. I spoke of my preoccupation with trying to convey the problems raised by this book. ‘It is well-known,’ he said. ‘A specialised scientist stares down his microscope for 40 years and does very good work. Towards the end of his career he asks himself about the wider meaning of it all. He racks back the focus knob on the microscope, tilts the instrument back, and looks about him through its eyepieces. He stares hard for a time, a marvellous gleam comes into his eyes, and he exclaims, “I understand all!”’

This unfortunate sort of myopia, whose origins are rather apparent from this parable, too easily applies methodologies and principles applicable to one domain to any and all others. Kenner’s line bears repeating: this fallacy assumes that one purported causal order trumps any and all others.

The significance is not that this myopia is a privileging of the natural sciences above any other forms of understanding (although it is), but a privileging of one aspect of science above all other aspects.

The corresponding mistake made when attempting to address this fallacy, as with Edward O. Wilson in Consilience, is to think that unifications of scientific domains are unifications of methodology rather than of models. Unifying methodologies is the fast track to pseudoscience.

We are dealing, rather, with overlapping models, with overlapping “manifest images,” in Wilfrid Sellars’ term. So I conclude with a passage from Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man, 50 years old, to show how little the best lessons of philosophy of science have been absorbed.

Our contrast then, is between two ideal constructs: (a) the correlational and categorial refinement of the ‘original image’, which refinement I am calling the manifest image; (b) the image derived from the fruits of postulational theory construction which I am calling the scientific image.

It may be objected at this point that there is no such thing as the image of man built from postulated entities and processes, but rather as many images as there are sciences which touch on aspects of human behaviour. And, of course, in a sense this is true. There are as many scientific images of man as there are sciences which have something to say about man. Thus, there is man as he appears to the theoretical physicist — a swirl of physical particles, forces, and fields. There is man as he appears to the biochemist, to the physiologist, to the behaviourist, to the social scientist; and all of these images are to be contrasted with man as he appears to himself in sophisticated common sense, the manifest image which even today contains most of what he knows about himself at the properly human level.

Thus the conception of the scientific or postulational image is an idealization in the sense that it is a conception of an integration of a manifold of images, each of which is the application to man of a framework of concepts which have a certain autonomy. For each scientific theory is, from the standpoint of methodology, a structure which is built at a different ‘place’ and by different procedures within the intersubjectively accessible world of perceptible things. Thus ‘the’ scientific image is a construct from a number of images, each of which is supported by the manifest world.

Wilfrid Sellars, Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man (1962)

Those working deeply in a particular science should take time occasionally to deliteralize their studies, to prevent the apparent inexorable causalities of their field from enveloping the entire world. Economists, you too.

Hugh Kenner on Louis Zukofsky, Canadian Proofreading, the MLA, the OED, and Everything Else

Hugh Kenner was a very sharp, eccentric critic best known for his work on James Joyce and Ezra Pound (two writers whose critical apparati seem to welcome eccentrics more than most), but he also was responsible for a textbook on geodesic domes that demonstrated his reverence for R. Buckminster Fuller, and a tutorial book on the Heathkit computer. (Thanks to Dan Visel for educating me on those last points.) The Heathkit was a bit before my time, but let’s hear it for computer-polymath types: Kenner, J.M. Coetzee, Elvis Costello, Scott Miller, Ray Davis.

Kenner was also almost completely deaf, which had to have had a huge impact on how he perceived language, and a peculiar counterpart to Joyce’s near-blindness in the last decades of his life. It probably helped to account for his enthusiasm for Buster Keaton and Chuck Jones. (He wrote books on both.)

I was reading through his essay collection Mazes, which collects febrile bits and pieces from mostly popular magazines like Harper’s and Life and National Review (ugh), and while his opinions range from enlightening to crackpot, he does frequently pull out amazing anecdotes. A few that jumped out at me:

Critical Texts

[Edmund Wilson complains about his American classics project being suppressed by some MLA conspiracy.]

Edmund Wilson was especially funny about eighteen Twain editors reading Tom Sawyer, word for word, backward, “in order to ascertain, without being diverted from this drudgery by attention to the story or the style, how many times ‘Aunt Polly’ is printed as ‘aunt Polly,’ and how many times ‘ssst!’ is printed as ‘sssst!'” Since the MLA had ordained that “plain texts”–books you just read–were to await the establishment of “critical texts”–books that with full display of evidence sift out printer’s errors and restore lost auctorial revisions–we’d be waiting, he estimated, “a century or longer.”



Set promised trouble as early as 1881, when James Murray, the chief editor, came to doubt if the language contained a more perplexing word. An assistant had already spent forty hours on it, and Murray anticipated forty hours more. Set (the verb) was completed more than three decades later, and the time its final arrangement took Murray’s chief associate, Henry Bradley, was something like forty days, in the course of which he improvised twelve main classes with no fewer than 154 subdivisions, the last of which (set up) required forty-four further subsections.

The result, a treatise two-thirds as long as Paradise Lost, is from most points of view a triumph of ingenious uselessness, reminiscent of Yeats’s A Vision in being nearly impenetrable through sheer complexity of classification. Someone who had heard of hunters “setting” to fowl would toil long and hard through those columns en route to his quarry, low down in the final clause of #110: “set: to get within shooting distance by water.


Canadian Proofreading

A newspaper editor once told me why proofreading standards in Canada declined in the 1940s. Reading proof–a dull underpaid job–had once kept retired clergymen from starving. It was when the aged clergy commenced to draw pensions that papers had no recourse save to hire less literate drifters.


William Empson and George Orwell

[Is this really true?]

Orwell’s wartime BBC acquaintance, William Empson, warned him in 1945 that Animal Farm was liable to misinterpretation, and years later provided an object lesson himself when he denied that 1984 was “about,” some future communism. It was “about,” Empson insisted, as though the fact should have been obvious, that pit of infamy, the Roman Catholic Church.


Mortimer Adler

In thirty years Adler’s Institute for Philosophical Research have only made a start on repackaging “the whole realm of the great ideas”–so far “two volumes on the idea of freedom; one volume each on the ideas of justice, happiness, love, progress, and religion; and a monograph on the idea of beauty”? That such books will help save mankind is a notion so high-minded it verges on self-parody.

[I remember reading something or other by Adler for a class in high school and writing a sneering dismissal of it, referring to him as “Morty” all the way through. I don’t remember anything about the content, but I suspect the sort of tone Kenner describes is what set me off.]


Louis Zukofsky

No one that I’ve known knew English half as minutely as the late Louis Zukofsky, who began its acquisition at twelve and kept the habit of looking up everything including “a” and “the.”

[Is it common knowledge that Zukofsky’s first language was Yiddish? I feel like I should have known this a long time ago.]



Barthes has little to say about real literature. He flutters brightly around its edges: “Proust and Names,” “Flaubert and the Sentence.” Its coercive powers exceed what the codes account for. And decade by decade we keep remaking it in replenishing its power to remake us.


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