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Re: [biopoet] Cataloguing Versions?

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  • Jeff Turpin, Supervising Archeologist, T
    On the general topic of evolution and evolutionary biology in literature, leave us not forget Isaac Asimov s Foundation series and Arthur Clarke s Childhood s
    Message 1 of 2 , Jan 7, 2007
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      On the general topic of evolution and evolutionary biology in literature, leave us not forget Isaac Asimov's Foundation series and Arthur Clarke's Childhood's End, which are both overtly about social, psychological, and biological evolution and, I think, both pretty successful attempts. JT
      ----- Original Message -----
      Sent: Saturday, January 06, 2007 11:44 PM
      Subject: Re: [biopoet] Cataloguing Versions?

      Joseph Carroll wrote:
       "Reading through a lot of Darwin at any given time, one runs into various rhetorical and imaginative models--trying them on.  Some are dark and gloomy--the wasteful, painful, cruel and inhuman processes of nature.  Some are grand and sublime--the evolution of the mind of man from the lowliest origins. Some are serene and detached--the endless processes of nature.  Possibly as people absorb evolution into their basic vision of life, they will adopt various versions of the emotionally charged implications of these visions.   Conrad picked up on the more negative version, speaking of what a "droll thing life is--that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose" (Heart of Darkness).  But there are other options."
      I wonder if it would be useful to try to catalogue some of the "various versions" that Joe alluded to. For instance, Conrad seems to be objecting to the absurdity with which evolution seems to color life, almost as though Darwin is a proto-existentialis t.
      I've been thinking a bit about the uses of neuroscience in contemporary fiction, as I consider neuroscience to be part and parcel of ev. theory. Two more types to add to the catalogue, then, might be a sort of "evocative" response that treats the brain's material status as a source of poetic inspiration, and what I'll call the "retro/satirical" response, which sees blatant neuro-materialism as merely the latest manifestation of human greed, pettiness, and selfishness.
      In Anil's Ghost, Michael Ondaatje takes the evocative road on pg. 134-35, a meditation on the amygdala. I wish I could reproduce the whole page, but I will just take the essence. "Amygdala.  The name had sounded Sri Lankan when Anil first heard it. Studying at Guy's Hospital in London, having cut tissue away to reveal a small knot of fibres made up of nerve cells. Near the stem of the brain....She remembers the almond knot. During autopsies her secret habit of detour is to look for the amygdala, this nerve bundle which houses fear--so it governs everything. How we behave and make decisions, how we seek out safe marriages, how we build houses that we make secure."
       Ondaatje is a poet and we see him wrapping his tongue around the word "amygdala" as if it was a flower, attending to its etymology in "almond knot," and finally connecting it to character and theme. Ah, to be reduced to a brain in Ondaatje's fingers--wouldn' t be so bad, would it? One can only wonder what he would do with the temporal-parietal- occipital junction...
      In contrast, in the Corrections (yes, I'm big into Franzen these days), the author satirizes our sense of ourselves as material entities, treating them as just another excuse to behave badly or absolve ourselves of responsibility for our actions. Here he is on pg. 137: "Although in general Gary applauded the modern trend toward individual self-management of retirement funds and long-distance calling plans and private-schooling options, he was less than thrilled to be given responsibility for his own personal brain chemistry, especially when certain people in his life, notably his father, refused to take any such responsibility. But Gary was nothing if not conscientious. As he entered the darkroom, he estimated that his levels of Neurofactor 3 (i.e. serotonin: a very, very important factor) were posting seven-day or even thirty-day highs, that his Factor 2 and Factor 7 levels were likewise outperforming expectations, and that his Factor 1 had rebounded from an early-morning slump related to the glass of Armagnac he'd drunk at bedtime."
      Franzen is a social satirist and perhaps an old-fashioned moralist, and he does a fabulous job of spoofing the way knowledge of the brain might become just another form of narcissism, the latest version of the American dream of success through self-improvement.
      Both writers make a pretty good case. I'm glad I don't have to vote.
      All best,
      Tim Horvath

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