Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Bernard Shaw's (Bizarre) Theory of Evolution

George Bernard Shaw is a fantastic playwright and social critic, but he is not a scientist.  This fact did not, however, stop him from writing a 60+ page manifesto refuting both natural selection and intelligent design, positing what he defined as a neo-Lamarckian approach, called "Creative Evolution," as the preface to his cycle of plays, Back to Methuselah (1921).  Of eyeless cave fish, intelligent design would say "god made them like this because the caves are dark," natural selection would say, "eyes require more energy than no-eyes, and are more subject to disease and injury than the lack of eyes, therefore those with a mutation for no eyes were better adapted to live in an environment where sight offered no advantage," while Lamarck's theory of use and disuse would say, "they don't use the eyes, so they lose them."  What Shaw does is take Lamarck's theory and give it a method of action.  So while natural selection operates through genetics, creative evolution operates through the will to change.  If this sounds very silly, don't worry.  It's much sillier. 

    "If you like eating the tender tops of trees enough to make you concentrate all your energies on the stretching of your neck, you will finally get a long neck, like the giraffe." (19)*

And it just gets weirder from there.  In response to Weismann's experiments in the heredity of acquired traits, in which Weismann cut off the tails of several generations of mice to prove that this would not result in a lack of tails in the offspring, Shaw provides an alternate method of experiment:  

"First, he should have secured a colony of mice highly susceptible to hypnotic suggestion  He should then have hypnotized them into an urgent conviction that the fate of the musque world depended on the disappearance of its tail...  Having thus made the mice desire to lose their tails with a life-or-death intensity, he would very soon have seen a few mice born with little or no tail.  These would be recognized by the other mice as superior beings, and privileged in the division of food and sexual selection." (41)

Don't worry, it gets weirder.  

According to Shaw, evolving is a lot like riding a bicycle.  No, seriously, he uses learning to ride a bicycle (and painting, and playing chess, etc) as an example.  When you start to learn something, you make a gain in each lesson, but by the time your next lesson comes around, you've backslid.  Eventually, though, you'll learn it so well that it will become an automatic process.  Whether it's riding a bike, painting, or something as simple as walking, this holds true.  Shaw then argues that, in this applies on an expanded scale between generations. He then argues that, all of evolution is the result of this, and that human gestation is literally the condensation of all the evolution that led up to mankind.  This is one of the central tenets of Creative Evolution.   That, over the course of countless generations, if it is willed enough, the time which it takes for a trait will be condensed drastically.  After all, it took millions of years to learn to walk upright and develop language, and now most people can walk and talk before they're two years old.  "The time may come when the same force that compressed the development of millions of years into nine months may pack many more millions into even a shorter space; so that Raphaels may be born painters as they are now born breathers and blood circulators." (21)    

But the great discovery and claim of Creative Evolution lies in the fact that all traits are a matter of will, and will alone.  To Shaw, there is no difference between the development of language, the possession of two legs, and immortality.  That's right, if we just want it enough, we can live forever!  This aspect of Creative Evolution, which forms the basis for the plays that make up Back to Methuselah, is explained thus:  

"Among other matters apparently changeable at will is the duration of individual life... Weismann, a very clever and suggestive biologist... pointed out that death is not an eternal condition of life, but an expedient introduced to provide for continual renewal without overcrowding.  Now Circumstantial Selection [Shaw's term for Natural Selection] does not account for natural death:  it accounts only for the survival of species in which the individuals have sense enough to decay and die on purpose... If on opportunist grounds Man now fixes the term of his llife at three score and ten years, he can equally fix it at three hundred, or three thousand, or even at the genuine Circumstantial Selection limit, which would be until a sooner-or-later-inevitable fatal accident makes an end of the individual." (15)

Shaw's Creative Evolution did not catch on, in science, pedagogy, religion, or much of anywhere else really.  The root cause of his theory seems lie in the fact that Shaw could not conceive of an existential universe that is not nihilistic, which says more about Shaw than the validity of natural selection.  As Shaw Natural Selection:  
"There is a hideous fatalism about it, a ghastly and damnable reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honor and aspiration, to such casually picturesque changes as an avalanche may make in a mountain landscape, or a railway accident in a human figure.  To call this Natural Selection is a blasphemy, possible to many for whom Nature is nothing but a casual aggregation of inert and dead matter..." (33)   

It is against this perceived "hideous fatalism" that Shaw is reacting, and is the root of the convoluted logic fundamental to this treatise.  Despite his wishes, the universe will not conform to no man's will, not even Shaw's.

* Penguin Books, 1961

Monday, June 29, 2015

Modern Library's Top 100, Readers' Choice

Modern Library's list of the top 100 novels of the 20th century is respectable and well-regarded for its distinction, if not its originality.  Commendably, they decided to see what the average reader thought the best books of the century were.  This resulted in a strange combination of modern classics, pulp writers with big fanbases, and a top ten overrun by Scientologists and Objectivists (the top ten contains three by L. Ron Hubbard and four by Ayn Rand).  So, in much the same spirit as my original project, I am embarking on another reading journey.  The difference here is that I will be updating every other Monday, alternating with my adaptation review series.  The list is as follows, starting with #100:

100. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
99. The Cunning Man by Robertson Davies
98. Illusions by Richard Bach
97. Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock
96. Suttree by Cormac McCarthy
95. Mulengro by Charles de Lint
94. My Antonia by Willa Cather
93. Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
92. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
91. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
90. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
89. Light in August by William Faulkner
88. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
87. Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert Heinlein
86. Double Star by Robert Heinlein
85. V. by Thomas Pynchon
84. It by Stephen King
83. The Puppet Masters by Robert Heinlein
82. Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton
81. The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy
80. Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
79. Watership Down by Richard Adams
78. Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis
77. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
76. At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien
75. The Call of the Wild by Jack London
74. I, Claudius by Robert Graves
73. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
72. The Door into Summer by Robert Heinlein
71. The Magus by John Fowles
70. The Wood Wife y Terri Windling
69. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
68. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
67. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
66. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
65. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
64. The World According to Garp by John Irving
63. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
62. Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
61. The Recognitions by William Gaddis
60. The Little Country by Charles de Lint
59. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
58. Greenmantle by Charles de Lint
57. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
56. On the Beach by Nevil Shute
55. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
54. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
53. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
52. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
51. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
50. Trader by Charles de Lint
49. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
48. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
47. Memory and Dream by Charles de Lint
46. One Lonely Night by Mickey Spillane
45. At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft
44. Yarrow by Charles de Lint
43. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
42. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
41. Someplace to Be Flying by Charles de Lint
40. Fifth Business by Robertson Davies
39. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
38. Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor
37. Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
36. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
35. Moonheart by Charles de Lint
34. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
33. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
32. The Worm Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison
31. Beloved by Toni Morrison
30. The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles
29. The Stand by Stephen King
28. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
27. Trustee from the Toolroom by Nevil Shute
26. Shane by Jack Schaefer
25. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
24. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
23. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
22. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
21. Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
20. Animal Farm by George Orwell
19. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
18. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
17. A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
16. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
15. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein
14. Dune by Frank Herbert
13. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
12. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
11. Ulysses by James Joyce
10. Fear by L. Ron Hubbard
9. Mission Earth by L. Ron Hubbard
8. We the Living by Ayn Rand
7. Anthem by Ayn Rand
6. 1984 by George Orwell
5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
4. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
3. Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard
2. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
1. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A couple comics from SMBC

I've linked to some stuff from Zach Weiner the guys at Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal before (here, here, and here).  Click on the images to go to the comic page on their website, featuring alt text and a bonus panel (click the red button to the lower right of the image).  

Monday, June 22, 2015

From Page to Screen to Screen: Hemingway's "To Have and Have Not"


To Have and Have Not was Hemingway's third novel, released in 1937, between two of his major works (A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls).   It's main character is Harry Morgan, a captain of a small boat in the Florida Keys and Cuba who makes a living chartering the wealthy for fishing trips.  Short on cash after being stiffed his payment by a client, Morgan agrees to smuggle some Chinese immigrants from Cuba to the US.  He tries to prevent Eddie, a rummy and his first mate, from going with him, but he sneaks on to the ship anyway.  Thinking he'll be double-crossed after loading the immigrants on his boat, Morgan kills the man who hired him and then leaves the Chinese on the shores in Cuba.

Times being tough, Morgan takes to running rum from Cuba to the US, and on one trip he and another mate, Wesley, are shot by the Cuban patrol.  Harry loses his arm and his boat is confiscated.  The novels shifts at this point, Harry's relationship with his wife is delved into, his troubled relations with the wealthy inhabitants of the Florida keys, a few of whom temporarily become main the focus of the book.  Hemingway swaps narrators and focuses on the Haves instead of the Have Nots for quite a while, before going back to Harry Morgan, who's agreed to steal back his boat and run some Cuban bank robbers back to Havana, but things don't go as planned.  The robbers kill Morgan's friend Albert and in the ensuing drama, a shootout leaves all the boat's occupants dead, including Morgan.

This is one of Hemingway's more marginal novels, along the lines of Across the River and into the Trees, and is in fact better known for the first of it's film adaptations.  The novels changing narrators and roving focus is a questionable choice, and has garnered divisive reviews.


To Have and Have Not (1944)

Length: 100 minutes
Director: Howard Hawks

To Have and Have Not is a classic of the Hollywood golden age.  Humphrey Bogart plays Harry Morgan, a captain of a charter ship in Martinique, a French colony in the Caribbean now under Nazi rule.  Morgan is no fan of the Nazis, but he remains staunchly apolitical.  Morgan and Eddie, played here as pure comic relief by Walter Brennan, turn down a job smuggling French resistance fighters into Martinique.  At the hotel bar, Morgan notices a young woman pick-pocket his charter's wallet (said charter owed him a little under a thousand dollars, and claimed he'd need to cash a check the next morning).  Morgan confronts the girl, and discovers that the charter had nearly two grand in cash and traveler's checks, as well as a plane ticket out of Martinique for the next morning.  The woman introduces herself as Marie Browning (Lauren Bacall, in her first film role), and together they confront the charter.  But the revolutionaries are attacked in the hotel bar, and the charter catches a stray bullet.  Morgan is questioned by the Gestapo and has his money confiscated.  In need of cash, he agrees to help the French resistance fighters.  As the film goes on, his relationship with Browning and desire to help the resistance grows.  The film also has an affable bar singer/pianist.

If the plot sounds a bit like Casablanca, that's because it is.  Casablanca was a big hit, and the studios wanted to strike while the iron was hot.  What's especially interesting is that one of the screenwriters was William Faulkner, who was not Hemingway's biggest fan.  I can't imagine it caused him much heartache to cut a lot of the Hemingway from To Have and Have Not.

The Breaking Point (1950)

Length: 97minutes
Director: Michael Curtiz

The Breaking Point stars John Garfield as Harry Morgan, a charter boat captain who ferries between Newport, California and Mexico.  His charter has them take him and a young, beautiful woman to Mexico.  The woman, Leona Charles (Patrice Neal), attempts to seduce Morgan, but is rebuffed.  After the charter strands Morgan, Leona, and Morgan's mate Wesley in Mexico, Morgan agrees to smuggle some Chinese immigrants aboard his ship.  When the man who hired him tries to double cross him, Morgan kills him and dumps his body in the ocean before releasing the immigrants on the Mexican coast.  When he gets back to California, he finds that one of the immigrants identified his boat, and it's being confiscated by the coast guard.

Morgan's relationship with his wife Lucy (Phyllis Thaxter) and their two daughters is a major part of the novel, and the relationship is fantastically complex.  Not melodramatic, mind you, but they clearly love each other very much but have their own issues and insecurities, and his continuing friendship with Leona Charles throws a small wrinkle into things.

Morgan finds out that the boat was released due to the efforts of the crooked lawyer that facilitated the deal with the Chinese.  The lawyer blackmails Morgan with the knowledge of the murder, and gets him to ferry some robbers to Mexico.  Morgan decides to double cross the robbers and turn them in for the reward.  Unfortunately, Wesley is on the boat when the robbers arrive, and they kill him.  Some time later, there's a shootout, on the boat, and Morgan is the only survivor, but he'll need his arm amputated.

The Gun Runners (1958)

Length: 83 minutes
Director: Don Siegel

The Gun Runners stars Audie Murphy as Sam Martin, captain of a charter boat that runs between Cuba and the Florida keys.  He works with an alcoholic first mate named Harvey (Everett Sloane).  A combination of a crooked charter and a gambling problem land Martin in money troubles.  He takes on a man named Hanagan (Eddie Albert) and his beautiful girlfriend Eva (Gita Hall) to Havana for what Martin believes is an affair, but is really a meeting for an arms deal with the Cuban revolutionaries which ends up with Hanagan shooting a Cuban military officer.   When they get back to the keys, Martin tells his wife what happened.  Lucy Martin, played by Patricia Owens, is the perfect wife.  Beautiful, supportive, trusting, their relationship is completely without trouble, despite the obvious troubles in their lives.

Anyway, Hanagan buys the papers on Martin's boat, and forces Martin to smuggle the guns and a revolutionary into Cuba.  When the revolutionary realizes that most of the boxes of guns are empty, Hanagan kills him.  They discover that Harvey had been hiding on the ship, and he jumps overboard when Martin gets them close to a shoreline.  Martin takes a bullet, but kills all the bad guys (which is completely believable; Murphy received the medal of honor for single-handedly holding off an entire company of German infantry).  He picks up Harvey, and the two head home.

Murphy did a lot of Westerns and war movies, and the director is best known for crime/action movies, most notably Dirty Harry and Escape from Alcatraz (although those were after The Gun Runners.  Siegel directed the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers as well as a bunch of crime thrillers with titles like Riot in Cell Block 11, Crime in the Streets, Private Hell 36).  The Gun Runners tries to keep some of this aesthetic, but it's hit or miss.


The Breaking Point (1950)

While none of the films go into the rich/poor issue as Hemingway does, The Breaking Point at least attempts to with Leona Charles, the beautiful socialite.  There is much more similarity with the plot of the novel in general, as Garfield is a bit darker than Murphy's Sam Martin, and less of a smooth talking maverick than Bogart's Morgan.  The relationship between Morgan and his wife is complex and sincere, whereas this relationship is absent in To Have and Have Not and drastically simplified in The Gun Runners.


To Have and Have Not (1944)
The Breaking Point (1950)

"You know how to whistle, don't you?"

I know, declaring a tie is a bit of a cop out.  But these movies are both fantastic and I honestly can't choose.  I've already discussed the relationship in The Breaking Point, but I haven't mentioned the incredible chemistry between Bogart and Bacall (who ended up getting married).  To Have and Have Not also has some great music, and fantastic acting.  While The Gun Runners is a solid film, it's not on the level of the other two.  Audie Murphy may have been one of the greatest soldiers of the twentieth century, but Bogart and Garfield are better actors.  These are two very different movies, the former lighter in tone with a strong romantic core, while the latter is darker and morally ambiguous.  Both films had excellent directors, and in an ironic twist, the film that wasn't trying to repeat Casablanca was directed by Michael Curtiz, who directed Casablanca in 1942.

Anyway, check back next week when I'll look at W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge (1944), and it's two adaptations.

The Razor's Edge (1946) starring Tyrone Power
The Razor's Edge (1984) starring Bill Murray (which is a pretty weird casting decision.  I'm interested to see how it pans out.)

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

On Dream Logic

Writing dreams is tricky, especially if you're trying to capture 'dream logic.'  But what exactly is dream logic anyway?  I was trying to figure this out, when I remembered part of a quote (whose source I don't remember) stating that dreams are completely logical while you're dreaming them and only become illogical when you apply the logic of waking life.  So, if I thought I'd flip that around, and figure out what dream logic was by applying it to waking life.  And that's when I realized that there is no such thing as dream logic, that the entire concept is a misnomer.  'Logic' is rooted in consistency.  Logic doesn't just dictate that 2 + 2 = 4, but that 2 + 2 will always equal 4.  This is not so in dreams.  It's easy to forget that the logic of the waking world is a result of that world.  That is to say, it is consistent because our experiences of it are consistent, and from those experiences we derive logic.  There is no consistency in dreams.   A single dream can contain contradictions, not to mention the contradictions between different dreams.  So what, then is dream logic?   

I think it's first and foremost a sense of credulity.  Within a dream, we may question why or how something is happening, but that it's happening at all, is never questioned.  Perhaps the greatest piece of dream-writing is Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.  Alice questions why and how things happen to her, her changes in size, for example, but she never doubts its possibility.  One incident from the novel that comes to mind is the baby that she rescues from the duchess.  The duchess is filling the house with pepper, and this baby won't stop sneezing.  Alice takes the baby from the house, only to discover that, a ways down the road, it has turned into a pig.  She is surprised that the baby turns into a pig, but she takes it in stride whereas you or I would freak out.  And we'd freak out because it's impossible, because it runs contradictory to everything we know about the universe.  It is, in the simplest sense, illogical.  But, as I mentioned, we derive logic from experience, and we enter each dream, for lack of a less loaded word, in a state of pure innocence, which is to say, zero experience. We derive dream logic from the contents of the dream, and each dream starts from scratch.  Which is all to say that there is no dream logic outside the dream.

Monday, June 15, 2015

An Update

I previously announced that I'd have a serialized work of long fiction that would update on alternating Mondays, but I am very unhappy with how it's been turning out and don't wish to subject you to it as it is.  I have something else planned, so stay tuned.  Sorry for any disappointment.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

What I'm Reading/Watching

The Great Shark Hunt by Hunter S. Thompson:  A collection mostly of his journalism, but with some interviews and other writings as well.

Mission Impossible (1996): I'd actually never seen it before, and I'm honestly pretty ambivalent about  it. 

I've also been listening to the Superego podcast, which is an improv sketch comedy series.