A Foot in the River

Why Our Lives Change -- and the Limits of Evolution

[Amazon Link]

Another book in the "thought I would like it better than I did" category. (And after I persuaded the library at the University Near Here to purchase a copy, too!)

The author, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, is a British historian, now at Notre Dame. His broad subject here (as the subtitle hints) is cultural change, and his concern that the notion of "evolution" should not be applied to such changes.

At first his writing style seemed lively and picturesque. As the book wore on, I found it increasingly irritating, opinionated, and unfocused. So it goes.

It didn't help that I've been reading a lot about "cultural evolution" over the past few months, for example: Darwin's Unfinished Symphony by Kevin Laland; The Evolution of Everything by Matt Ridley; The Secret of Our Success by Joseph Henrich. They love using the E-word to describe cultural change. Ridley, for one, describes it as "ideas having sex", producing unexpected results that get selected/deselected in unpredictable ways.

You don't have to buy into this whole notion all the way, but it seems that these writers are onto something. In his dissent, Fernández-Armesto doesn't really engage with this idea, but instead quibbles that "evolution" is a misleading misnomer, with too many Darwinistic implications to be a useful metaphor. That's not a bad argument—nobody wants to misuse a metaphor, or mindlessly apply inapplicable biological lessons. But that's it. Fernández-Armesto mentions (for example) Kevin Laland in a couple of spots, but never seems to fully explore (or understand?) his findings or arguments.

Charles Murray comes in for scorn for The Bell Curve, which Fernández-Armesto describes unfairly. He's also unfairly dismissive of Herbie Spencer.

In a generally positive WSJ review of the book, J.R. McNeill notes that Fernández-Armesto is "striving too hard for effect"; one of his provocative points is that “cannibalism is typically—you might almost say peculiarly—human and cultural.” McNeill then rattles off numerous examples of non-human, not-cultural cannibalism in nature. Geez, if only a scientist had pre-reviewed the book before publication.

And Princess Diana—Felipe's not a fan! "She was, I thought, and think still, a morally abominable person, shallow, meretricious, promiscuous, selfish, exhibitionistic, and talentless." Yeah, but as near as I can remember, she avoided speaking ill of the dead.

Not that Fernández-Armesto's argument depends in any way on Di's alleged character flaws. He just wanted to let us know, a drive-by slagging.

Last Modified 2017-11-15 2:45 AM EST