Monday, December 30, 2013

The Gravity of Evolutionary Theories

It’s time to tackle here, if only briefly, an issue that tends to make my blood boil: that people do not ‘believe’ in evolution. For what these people laughingly call ‘reasons’ they choose not to accept the overwhelming evidence demonstrating the fact of evolution. It is probably one of the most well-documented phenomena in the whole of science. I’m not going to waste my time arguing the details here, which would not convince these people in any case. No amount of evidence could ever do that. What I am going to take issue with, however, is the argument, made by these people, that evolution is only a theory, and that, therefore, other theories (usually creationism) are of equal standing and should therefore be taught alongside (if not instead of) evolution. This is a complete misunderstanding of what is meant by those who speak about the (or a) theory of evolution.

Let’s get this cleared up once and for all. Evolution is not a theory. Evolution is a well-established and undeniable phenomenon about which certain theories—the best known being Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection—have been proposed, tested and further developed. Darwin and biologists today are not proposing the theory that life forms on this planet have undergone a long process of evolution. This is the given fact. What they are doing is proposing natural mechanisms by which this process occurs. The theory of evolution by natural selection—the survival of the fittest—is one such (well-supported) theory; but other mechanisms are also considered.

When biologists talk about ‘the theory of evolution’ they are doing so in the same way that physicists talk about ‘the theory of gravity’. Gravity is a given, well-known phenomenon, about which we have certain theories. I don’t suppose that many biblical fundamentalists doubt the reality of gravity as a phenomenon. But then again, one can never be sure…

Sunday, December 29, 2013

On Being an A-fée-ist

I have a word of advice for people who do not believe in gods or a god: Don’t define yourself (or let others define you) as an atheist. To do so is to bind yourself too closely (albeit by negation) to a particular belief system.

There are many things I do not believe in, but I don’t define myself or my beliefs in terms of them. For example, I don’t believe in fairies; but I don’t define myself as an a-fée-ist. (See the clever pun there?) Defining myself as an atheist would be like defining myself as a non-Frenchman. It is only one of many things that I am not, so why single that one out for a special mention?

What may be loosely called my atheism is a not particularly helpful and decidedly negative way to describe my position towards the world and my relationship to what may be broadly termed ‘spirituality’. Those who have followed this blog will know that I in fact consider myself to be a very spiritual person, but that this has no connection with religion, no dependence on a god of any kind, no connection with an afterlife, nor anything necessarily to do with a ‘higher’ state of being. It is not even very closely connected with morality or ethics. Spirituality has to do with how the right brain perceives (and sometimes constructs) reality. It has a great deal to do with connections and holistic or gestalt perception. All of this has a perfectly natural explanation, although this in no way invalidates the experience.

The difference really enters in when we begin to interpret these experiences. I would say that this interpretation begins during (and not just after) the experience. The experience is already itself shaped to a large extent by prior beliefs and experiences. Once the conscious process of interpretation has begun, there is a vast gulf between how I understand these experiences and how traditional religious and spiritual systems understand them. And I will object strongly if someone asserts (as happens from time to time) that, ‘see, you do believe in God after all.’ I don’t. Nothing is gained (and much is lost) by applying the word ‘God’ to any part of this experience.

Although I have used the word ‘spiritual’ here, I hesitate about its use, because it is so easily misinterpreted. It carries almost as many unhelpful connotations as the word ‘God’. It is difficult to think of a word that is not similarly tainted or cannot be similarly misinterpreted in the context of this discussion. By the word ‘spiritual’ I mean no more (and, just as certainly, no less) than what I experience when I am moved by a piece of music, a great painting, a wonderful poem or a beautiful sunset. These experiences are ‘transcendent’ (another potentially problematic term) because the total experience is greater than the sum of its parts—the parts that would usually be separated and dissected in a purely reductionist view of reality. This reductionist approach is not wholly wrong; it is simply not wholly right either.

In short, I will not describe myself as an atheist, because to do so is to let theism define me.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

On the Perils of Emails

This blog is prompted by an email conversation in which I was recently involved, and which included a number of recipients and ‘copy to’ folk. The danger of emails has been pointed out to me more than once. When you write something in an email, even if you are addressing that email privately to one person, there is always the danger that the email will ‘escape’. It could be a deliberate leak, or it could be a simple mistake of sending an email to other people that still contains the email trail. I suspect that many a politician has been caught out by careless words that have escaped in this way. There is also the issue that an email has the potential for immortality. A spoken word, although it cannot be taken back, nevertheless lives on only in people’s memories (unless it is recorded in some way, of course). An email, once sent, cannot be recalled—but nor does it dissolve in the ether.

People also often say of email conversations that the words on the screen can be easily misconstrued, because they are not accompanied by a tone of voice and body language, and because they sometimes lack context. This is true, although I think the spoken word is also very easily misunderstood, and it can be difficult to correct such misunderstandings when the other person is already flouncing around the room and flapping their arms in an indignant frenzy. The advantage of emails, however, is that there is time to carefully consider your words and pause before hitting the send button. There is actually less excuse for writing something inappropriate in an email than for saying something inappropriate in a face to face conversation.

My advice when writing emails is to try to avoid saying anything that you would not want the rest of the world to read, because one day it just might! My other piece of advice is to read over an email very carefully before pushing that send button. There’s nothing worse than the ‘Oh shit’ feeling that descends upon you when you realise that perhaps you shouldn’t have said that!

PS. Happy Holidays and all that stuff, in case I don’t post anything here before then.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Does it grab me?

It is often said, these days, that a book must grab the reader on the very first page, if not from the very first line. It is necessary to draw the reader in immediately. It’s true, of course, that some of the greatest books or bestselling books (by no means the same thing) have very memorable opening lines. There are web pages where you can find lists of these, if you are keen. Of course, what one person considers a brilliant opening line or page, another will consider boring. These lists also tend to be rather short, suggesting that many very great books do not, in fact, have particularly memorable opening lines.

I suppose what is being claimed here—if we don’t take the assertion too literally—is that it is important to get the readers’ attention quickly, to make them interested from the beginning. But how early is early? I suspect that if we are ready to decide after the opening line, the first page, or even the first five pages (let’s say) then we may be depriving ourselves of the pleasure of reading a great many good books. Some books—I would suggest rightly and appropriately—begin at a slow pace. Some really good books even remain at a slow pace throughout! Yes, dare I say it: fast and exciting is not the (only) definition of a good read! And we all know that, really, don’t we? Jane Austen remains one of the most popular authors, even today.

So I am generally prepared to give a book twenty or thirty pages before I decide it’s not for me. And it could ‘not be for me’ for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it is not well written; perhaps the story doesn’t interest me; perhaps I don’t like the writing style; perhaps it is too difficult! This cannot be determined, I would suggest, from the first page, let alone the opening line!

Then, of course, there is the other side of the equation: a book may begin brilliantly, but offer nothing in what follows. So, again, I will not decide simply on the basis of the opening line or page that ‘this is for me’, any more than I will decide that it isn’t.

I suspect that our need to be ‘grabbed’ immediately is a further symptom of our society’s need for instant gratification, its quest for a quick fix, and its overall ADHD. We are impatient and we have short attention spans. Sometimes a good book requires patience and a little hard work. A society that lives on tweets and ten second news grabs is unlikely to have the patience to give a book a chance, if the first line doesn’t read like a clever tweet; or if the first scene does not involve big screen action.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

On Poetry

Recently I reviewed an anthology that included some poetry. A few weeks ago I edited another anthology that also contained poetry. Not only did this raise the issues, for me, of exactly how to go about editing or reviewing poetry; it raised the more fundamental issue of what actually constitutes poetry.

There was a time when poetry was much more formal than it is today. By ‘formal’ I mean quite literally that poetry adhered to certain specific forms, both in terms of rhythm, line structure and line length. I don’t know much about the technical language. Suffice to say that it was complicated, but also precise. There were also various forms to follow governing the rhyming structure of poetry.

Sometime during the twentieth century at the latest, much of this formalism was abandoned. What took its place was a free form kind of poetry. Not simply blank verse (i.e., non-rhyming), but seemingly possessing little or no formal structure. There may be subtle rules and structures to which poetry continues to adhere, but I suspect that most of us are unaware of them.

Today, when many people write poetry, they either follow a simple rhyming form, with lines that (sometimes) scan; or they write in an entirely unstructured way. While the former is clearly ‘poetry’, I generally find it uninspiring. Choosing a word because it rhymes with another has never seemed to me to be a particularly good criterion. It often leads to bad word choice or very questionable rhymes. The rhythm of such lines (if the author has paid attention to rhythm at all) often seems clunky.

On the other hand, I really doubt that some freeform poetry is really poetry at all.

One does not create a poem
Simply by spreading the words
Across several lines
In a manner
Something like this.

Much freeform poetry seems to be little more than prose with arbitrary line breaks.

So what, for me, are the essentials that differentiate poetry from prose? I would suggest three things:

1.     Words and phrases need to be used in unusual ways, images that jolt us out of our normal level of awareness.
2.     Words need to be placed. By this I mean that there is a reason for ending a line with this specific word rather than another—this may be for rhyming, but also for other purposes. The same is true of the word that starts the line, and, indeed, for the key words within any line.
3.     Lines need to possess some kind of rhythm; not necessarily, these days, any of the precise meters used in the past, but some kind of rhythm and flow, nevertheless. At the very least, lines are broken at that particular place for a reason, perhaps to create suspense, or to generate a specific juxtaposition of ideas.

Some of these elements will be borrowed from time to time in the service of prose. Used together, though, they constitute the minimum necessary before I would regard a collection of words and phrases to be a poem. There may be other elements that I have overlooked here.

People may object strongly to any kind of formalism in poetry. In my discussion here I have tried to keep formalism to a minimum. Nevertheless, if I am going to be asked to edit or critique poetry, I need to use some criteria. Now you know what they are.