Wednesday, August 17, 2005

"Perhaps we're just that kind of creature"

Today I started reading a book about evolutionary psychology by the philosopher David J. Buller called Adapting Minds. (It is discussed in this recent article in Slate). It begins thus:
Several years ago, I spent a semester's leave in London, put up in a flat off Kensington Gardens on someone else's dime. During that semester, I was fortunate enough to spend my days reading evolutionary biology, pursuing applications of evolutionary theory to problems in contemporary philosophy of mind, and my nights in outstanding pubs or at home watching surprisingly superb British television. (It was always easier to find an interesting program on the four channels we received in our London flat than on one hundred American channels.)
This is what I consider a bad start. The author is trying to win me over, to have me see him as fascinating regular guy whose prose style isn't your typically plodding academese. That's why he mentions drinking in "outstanding" pubs and watching TV. But to me he comes off as pompous. I hate it when intellectuals demean television (and by extension those who watch it). If you get 100 channels, moreover, some of them show lots of British programming. If you have a VCR or DVR you can watch Blackadder and Prime Suspect all day and night. At this point I considered putting the book aside, but I'm glad I didn't, because here's paragraph #2:
One night at home, I happened into the end of an immediately gripping program on the BBC. In a scene I was convinced I would not have found on American television, a naked heterosexual couple was engaged in foreplay. Within moments, there was a jump cut to another scene, and I found myself taking a ride that Albert Einstein never imagined. In one of his famous thought experiments, you may recall, Einstein asked us to imagine how events would appear to an observer riding a beam of light. That's all very interesting, I suppose, but to someone with an abiding and not-strictly-professional interest in human sexuality, it simply doesn't compare to the ride I, as a suddenly devoted BBC viewer, was then taking. For a camera had been strapped to the male's erect penis, and I was riding the male's penis and viewing the copulatory act from within the female's surprisingly well lit vagina.
Well, well! The reference to Einstein is surely gratuitous know-it-all showing off, but the little detail about the vagina being "well lit" is pure poetry. It continues in that vein, but this is a blog and I believe in keeping things concise. Get the book yourself if you want to know what happens next.

Having been intrigued by the introduction, I went searching for reviews online and, via John Hawks excellent blog (he is an anthropology prof at my alma mater), found one by cogsci allstar Jerry Fodor in the TLS. It's a pretty negative review full of well-argued criticisms. I particularly liked his turns of phrase in this concluding statement:
First blush, there seem to be all sorts of things that we like, and like to do, for no reason in particular, not for any reason that we have, or that our genes have; or that the Easter Bunny has, either. Perhaps we’re just that kind of creature.
That is something to ponder.


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