21L.449 | Spring 2002 | Undergraduate

End of Nature


Paper Assignments

  • Paper Assignment 1 (PDF)
  • Paper Assignment 2 (PDF)
  • Paper Assignment 3 (PDF)

Reading Assignments

Lecture 1: Introduction - The Image of Nature in Genesis.

Lecture 2: Forester, E. M. “The Machine Stops.”

  1. The Machine Stops depends upon a difference in the relation between people where body-language and nuances of expression carry important weight and relations–such as conference-calls like the one that preceded the Challenger disaster–that are managed via the operations of machinery. The former is referred to as “direct experience” and the inhabitants of the Machine have a horror of it. How valid is this opposition? Do we ever encounter each other directly? Our social identities have many aspects, and these aspects, more often than not, are tied to the considerable variety in kinds of social situations; explicit and inexplicit codes and conventions find expression in speech and behavior and mediate our experience of one another. Why should talking down a telephone, say, be any less immediate than the ritual gestures and speech of a conversation in a board room or during a presentation at presidential mansion?
  2. Hackers and nerds who frequent internet “chat-rooms” experience a novel freedom from their everyday social identities and often claim to have developed a series of new ones, to which they give mysterious, misleading, or comic names. Can media be a vehicle for the expression of an alternate social identity? Consider the difference between tools and machines. Tools, we know, can become extensions of one’s body. (The blind often claim that they feel what their canes are touching, not the cane that their fingers are touching.) Is a bicycle a tool or a machine? Can automobiles become an extension of your body? How about the hacker and his computer?
  3. What does it mean to live inside a machine? Is the machinery simply a metaphor, a stand-in for features of human relationships that Forster judged adversely? Or is the story actually about machinery and what happens to human relationships when human relationships become dependent upon machines, particularly in the way of communication? Or can these questions both be answered affirmatively—by raising the possibility that the story is about something in human nature (of which Forster does not approve) which does not depend upon the existence of machinery but which is encouraged by an increasing reliance of human beings to manage their relationships with one another by means of machines?
  4. Can people be part of a machine (or a machine-like process)? Would you regard the workers on an assembly-line as serving the conveyor belt, which embodies an idea of consecutive assembly that the workers do not have to grasp to perform their function? Can one regard the factory itself as a machine in which the workers are functioning parts?
  5. Workers might be elements of a machine-system but how about staff and management? Any corporate entity (e.g., a government or a business) with a table of organization regards each element as performing a distinct function within the system of the whole, as the system turns input into output. Is it necessary to understand how the system works at every stage to operate efficiently as a subordinate element within it?
  6. Some specific questions, among others about The Machine Stops: Vashti agrees to “isolate” herself to talk to Kuno. Is she in the presence of “several thousand people” when she hasn’t “isolated” herself? Why does she feel that she is “wasting time” when she agrees to talk to only one person? What does Kuno mean when he says that mankind is the measure of all things? The Book of the Machine is a set of instructions for operating the cell inhabited by each of the people of the Machine plus a set of timetables for various public facilities. Vashti holds it “reverently”, kisses it, and feels “the delirium of acquiescence.” What is she “acquiescing” to? Regard for the Machine is presented in the text as a kind of misplaced form of religious worship, and yet there is much talk that the present age has successfully banished superstition. Is this a contradiction? How about the notion that each year (p. 263.) the machine is served more efficiently and less intelligently? Looking at the stars or the Himalayas, Vashti thinks, “No ideas here.” What sort of ideas could one discover simply by looking at such things?

Lecture 3: Ancient Views of Nature: Aristotle. Physics. Bk II. and Cicero. Excerpt from On the Gods: The Discourse of Balbus.

Physics, Book II.

  1. The word physis in Greek means nature; the title of this book might well be The Nature of Things. Aristotle believes that understanding anything has to do with identifying the sort of thing it is and that this identification depends upon being able to identify its inherent principle of change–change in appearance, in location, in motion. Do we believe that change is inherent in things? Or is it always induced by externalities? Or a combination of both?
  2. Understanding the nature of things depends upon asking the right questions about them. The answers, for Aristotle, are aitai–a word usually translated as causes, but perhaps better translated as becauses, for they are the answer to a properly formulated question about why something is the way it is. Aristotle offers four aitai. What are they? Can you give an account of them?
  3. We can easily think of kinds of things that have no intellectual significance (Example: all physical objects that are approximately five inches from the nearest wall) or things that might have significance but do not exist (phlogiston, witches); but Aristotle believes that everyday perception and a trained intelligence can see into the nature of things–get at the inherent principle of change in things. Is this a naive assumption? Is it still in operation today?
  4. The inherent tendency to change is called eidos by Aristotle–usually translated as form, but it is also the ancient Greek word for idea and also for species. Do you see any connection between these things? He has a quarrel with the philosopher Antiphon about whether eidos is inherent or external in chapter one of Book II. What is the nature of the quarrel?
  5. Aristotle believes that there are two features of the world that do not submit to understanding the nature of things–luck or chance (tyche) and spontaneity or coincidence (automaton). What is his understanding of these features and how does it differ from our own?
  6. Inherent principles of change each make for change in a particular way. This way is called its telos, its end, its aim, its goal. Things in the world all possess a telos, and the purposeful activities of human beings constitute only one sort of teleological activity. Do we still employ teleological descriptions of the nature and activity of things? If things are properly described teleologically, does it follow that they have purposes?
  7. In chapter eight, Aristotle considers the idea that things happen, not “for the sake of something”, that is, in accordance with an end, an aim, or a goal, but rather of necessity, “just as rain falls, not to make crops grow but of necessity.” What is his argument against this view?

Balbus on The Nature of the Gods.

Cicero’s book, The Nature of the Gods, actually gives a précis of three ancient views of the nature of the universe. The second part of the book offers an account by one of the three disputants, Balbus, of the Stoic view. It is a view which insists that the teleological nature of things is evident and its denial flies in the face of the obvious. How does it differ from Aristotle’s view?

Lecture 4: Montaigne. “On Cannibals.”; Bacon, Francis. “The New Atlantis.”; Drayton. To the Virginia Voyage.; Marvell. Bermudas.; and Shakespeare. The Tempest.

  1. How serious is Montaigne’s account of the life of the Cannibals? What are the chief features of their lives? What enables the cannibals to live in the manner that they do? Would it be possible to import Cannibal institutions into the Europe of Montaigne’s day? Would you say that the Cannibals, as Montaigne describes them, live more or less according to nature than Europeans do?
  2. Drayton’s poem is typical of verse about the New World during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. What features of the world that it describes are of particular interest? How does it compare with Marvell’s Bermudas, which is somewhat later in time?
  3. Compare Montaigne’s Cannibals with the people of the New Atlantis. How do their institutions differ? If you had to live among one or the other, which would you choose? Why do the Atlanteans try to keep their existence hidden from Europeans? The chief institution in the New Atlantis is the House of Solomon; why are its practices kept secret from most of the people? Should there be such a thing as “forbidden knowledge”? Does the issue bear in any way upon the knowledge forbidden Adam in the Garden of Eden? What is the purpose of the House and its practices? Does it embody a reasonable notion of knowledge? One of its practices is to fiddle with natural kinds–breeding intermediate species of plants and animals. Would Bacon’s contemporaries have regarded this as ethical? Do we?
  4. Would Prospero have done well in the House of Solomon? How does his magic compare with their science? What is the scope of Prospero’s magic? Why does he require the services of Caliban, of whom he says, “We cannot do without him”? How does Caliban compare with Montaigne’s Cannibals? One of the courtiers (the good Gonzalo) quotes Montaigne verbatim (in the translation current in Shakespeare’s day) about the nature of an ideal commonwealth. The evil courtiers mock him. Is the quotation foolish? Is Caliban evil or just innocent? Why does Prospero abandon his magic when he returns to Europe? Both Ariel and Caliban yearn for freedom. Ariel achieves it; Caliban elects to remain in servitude. What ideal of “freedom” lies behind this contrast. To test his worth, Prospero condemns Ferdinand to (temporary) servitude. Is servitude a positive value today? What is its value in the play? What is guilty knowledge and why should we want to keep children from it? What is innocence and why should it be cherished? How “innocent” is a populace of the obligations of office? What is the value of chastity? Is it magical? Is the earth chaste? What is the implication of the courtly masque and the absence of Eros and Aphrodite?

Lecture 5: Shakespeare. The Tempest. (continued)

Lecture 6: Defoe. Robinson Crusoe.

  1. The earlier adventures of Robinson are usually left out of popular discussions of the book, with the result that readers new to the text are surprised to find them there. What do we learn about Robinson from that part of the book–from his relationship with Xury, the slave-boy, for example. Do you think that the assumptions about slavery that animate Robinson’s conduct were shared by the mass of Defoe’s readers?
  2. “I had been reduced to the state of nature”, exclaims Robinson about one third through the book. Has he? Some of Crusoe’s readers in later centuries thought that it spoiled the tale to let Crusoe have all the implements of civilization that he salvages from the ship for use on his island. Is their annoyance right or do they misconceive the book?
  3. What notion of “nature” does the book rely on? How does Crusoe’s island differ (by implication of the constraints that it imposes upon him) from the habitation of Montaigne’s cannibals or Prospero’s island?
  4. What does Robinson mean when he says, “I had to earn every experience before I had it.” Is this a condition to be valued or to be avoided? Does the idea behind the phrase offer any insight into the condition of the people in Forster’s The Machine Stops?
  5. Robinson often undertakes enormous labors that turn out to be useless, and not just because he has been lacking in foresight. For example: he oversees the construction of an enormous canoe, only to have a better one delivered into his hands by accident. What is the point of introducing such episodes into the story?
  6. It has been said that Defoe’s book is a hymn of praise for the Protestant work-ethic and the dignity of labor. What is your view of this judgment?

Lecture 7: Defoe. Robinson Crusoe. (continued)

Lecture 8: Linnaeus. Excerpts from The Economy of Nature.; White, Gilbert. Excerpt from The Natural History of Selbourne.; and Hume, David. Excerpts from Dialogues on Natural Religion.

Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

  1. At the outset of the dialogues (not reprinted here), one of the listeners refers to the “accurate philosophical turn of Cleanthes”, “the careless skepticism of Philo,” and “the rigid, inflexible orthodoxy of Demea.” The first paragraph in our excerpt gives the basis of Demea’s position. What about it makes for “rigid, inflexible orthodoxy”?
  2. How good is Cleanthes’s case that the whole universe is one vast machine, composed in turn of lesser machines? How does it differ from the case advanced by Balbus in Cicero’s dialogue?
  3. How close is Cleanthes’s argument both here and later in the text to Aristotle’s view of telos?
  4. In Part II, Philo argues that ideas have an inherent principle of organization and that without experience, one might well suppose that material parts might have a principle of organization in themselves, too. But experience convinces us otherwise, and this, he says, is the heart of Cleanthes’s view that the organized character of the universe implies a Divine Creator. What would Aristotle say of the distinction that Philo suggests between matter and mind?
  5. Expound Cleanthe’s argument about the “vegetable library”. Why is it invoked? How valid is the analogy to the case that he is making?
  6. What is the force or validity of Cleanthes claim that without anthropomorphism, the worship of deity is atheism?
  7. Cleanthes argues (in Part IV) that you have sufficiently accounted for a machine by pointing to the mind that invented it. Philo insists that this is like accounting for the movement of the earth by arguing that it is carried on the back of a celestial elephant. What is at issue in this quarrel and who has the better of it?
  8. How convincing is Cleanthes’s argument about the eye, in Part III? How would you refute it?
  9. Compare Philo’s example (in Part V) of the ship and the carpenters who made it with Cleanthes’s view that design is a mark of an intelligent and knowledgeable designer. Is it an effective refutation?
  10. At one point (in Part VII), Philo resorts to the alleged plausibility of the view that the universe is not a machine but a vegetable. Is the move valid? What issue does it address? Does it suggest a fallibility in Cleanthes’s position?
  11. When Philo (in Part VIII) introduces the notion that, given an infinity of time the chance movements of atoms alone must sooner or later create an ordered universe, Cleanthes counters with the thought that the universe is not merely ordered but is benevolently ordered. Rightly or wrongly, the difference between organized ideas and disorderly or random matter is presented as intuitively apparent by Philo; is it intuitively apparent that the arrangement of things in the world is benevolently intended? Suppose it looks like a benevolent arrangement: why cannot the random motions of atoms create it, given an infinity of time? In any case, is this turn in the argument a novelty or is their an ethical idea lurking in the very notion that the various parts of the world are well fitted to each other?
  12. In Part X, Philo succinctly poses “the problem of evil”. What is your sense of this problem? Is it a real one? Cleanthes believes that the problem affords the clearest evidence of the advantage of his view of God. Is he right?
  13. At the end of the dialogue, the transcriber of them offers the judgment that Cleanthes argued best in the discussion. Most scholars believe that Hume wrote this view into the end of his text in order to pacify the majority of his readers, who were possibly not ready for outright skepticism with regard to religious matter; these scholar hold that Philo gets the best of the argument. What is your view?

Lecture 9: Hume, David. Dialogues on Natural Religion. (continued)

Lecture 10: Rousseau. Excerpts from On the Origins of Inequality.

  1. Describe the state of nature as Rousseau conceives it. How does it differ from the state of nature in Hobbes.
  2. Hobbes’s says that the state of nature probably never existed “generally”. Rousseau describes it as a general condition of humanity but also that it may never have existed. Does this make a difference between the two philosophers? Why does it not matter to Rousseau’s argument (or so he seems to think) that the state of nature as he describes it never existed?
  3. What does “perfectibility” mean to Rousseau? (He actually invented the word for the sake of this argument.) Is it adequate to the task of indicating the decisive feature of humanity?
  4. Rousseau accuses other philosophers before himself of attributing to mankind in the state of nature only characteristics of mankind in a state of civilization. How adequate is the accusation? Can it be leveled at Rousseau as well?
  5. At the end of his text, Rousseau says that it would be impossible to explain the life of minister or a modern public official to a Caribbean (still the typical image in Rousseau’s day of someone who lives naturally), who would simply not understand how anyone could come to live in that way. What does Rousseau have in mind here? Does the difficulty–assuming that we admit it–invalidate the life of the minister or official?
  6. At length, says Rousseau, “man becomes a tyrant over himself and nature”. Can you explain this phrase? Can one tryrannize over oneself? Can one tyrannize over nature?
  7. How does Rousseau describe the course of history, during which humanity became progressively more civilized? What are its main stages? Rousseau describes the invention of law as a trick played by those possessing much property upon those possessing none. Is this account intelligible?
  8. Is Rousseau a partisan of the idea of progress? Do you believe in a course of progress marking the growth of civilized institutions?

Lecture 11: Rousseau. Excerpts from On the Origins of Inequality (continued), and Wordsworth. Selections from The Prelude.

Lecture 12: Wordsworth. Selections from The Prelude. (continued)

Lecture 13: Wordsworth. Selections from The Prelude. (continued)

Lecture 14: Thoreau, Henry David. Excerpts from Walden.

  1. Thoreau withdrew to the woods when he was twenty-eight to try an experiment in living. He gives his reasons, but the language of his explanations does not always make the matter clear. How would you put his reasons?
  2. Does it cast doubt upon the experiment to learn that he dined frequently at his mother’s or with his friends, all of whom lived within easy walking distance, that he brought his dirty linen to his mother so that she could wash it for him every week, that he could afford to spend his time on vacation, as it were, from the burdens of life because he was largely unburdened of the responsibilities that most people have acquired by the time that they are in their mid-twenties?
  3. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” What is quiet about desperation and why do most people suffer from it?
  4. Thoreau’s message lends itself readily to paradox. To take an example at random: “If I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior.” What is their about his view of life that pushes his expression to paradox?
  5. One part of Thoreau’s message has to do with his sense that people crave what they do not need but think they do–they labor under the burden of “unnecessary needs”, so to speak, a kind of collectively-induced illusion. The other part has to do with Nature and the need to live in right relation to it. Are the two parts deeply connected? Could one champion one part and condemn the other?
  6. Thoreau speaks of his wish to live deliberately, and he urges his readers at one point to “spend one day as deliberately as Nature”. What does that mean and how can it be done?
  7. Thoreau speaks occasionally of the local Indians and reflects with admiration upon accounts of them that have come down from the early settlers. What does he admire about them?
  8. In reflecting upon whether civilization (as opposed to the savagery of the Indians) represents a real advance in the condition of man, Thoreau asks us to consider whether it costs us more life to have a better dwelling than a tepee. How would we measure the amount of life that something costs us?
  9. Despite the proximity of civilization and its easy access, Thoreau asks us to accept that he lived largely isolated and self-dependent. He insists that he has kept a careful account of everything and we may examine his figures, and he argues that he learned to do without things that other think necessary, like salt, tobacco, and bread made with yeast. In all this he resembles Robinson Crusoe, involuntarily marooned on his island. How would you compare the attitudes of each to his situation? How would Thoreau respond if he were compelled to live with Vashti and Kuno in Forster’s Machine?
  10. Thoreau observes that the rain that confines him indoors is good for his beans, and if it should continue so long to rot the bean seeds, it would still be good for the grass on the hills, and therefore it would be good for him. How would you elaborate this sentiment? How does it compare with Cleanthes’s view (in Hume’s Dialogue) that all nature is a machine of interlocking parts?
  11. As Thoreau has good words for the American Indian, so he has harsh words for the immigrant Irish laborer, who is derided because he tries to live in a shack instead of a box, worries about the future, and tries to improve the lot of his family. In the chapter on Baker farm, Thoreau exercises his flair for paradox on a poor Irish family that has kindly offered him shelter in a rainstorm. “An honest, hard-working, but shiftless man was John Field [who] as he began with tea, and coffee, and butter, and milk, and beef, so he had to work hard to pay for them, and when he had worked hard he had to eat hard again to repair the waste of his system . . . " How would Thoreau defend himself against the charge that the Irish have done nothing to deserve this modest derision?
  12. What would Thoreau think of the passage in Genesis, in which we are told that the earth has been cursed, thanks to Adam’s transgression, and that we must labor incessantly (like John Field) to sustain ourselves?
  13. Thoreau speaks of his essential suburban surroundings not merely as Nature but also as “wilderness”. What is wilderness and how can the scrub forest of rural New England be identified with it?
  14. In a lengthy passage in chapter 17, which begins by saying that we need the “tonic of wilderness”, Thoreau argues that the sight and smell of a decaying horse gave him assurance of the health of Nature: “I love to see that Nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another.” Nature is not the garden of goodness, then. How does rejoicing in predation and mutual destruction fit in with Thoreau’s general views? How would anyone concerned with “the problem of evil” confronted by Philo (in Hume’s Dialogues) view the dead horse?

Lecture 15: Thoreau, Henry David. Excerpts from Walden. (continued)

Lecture 16: Thoreau, Henry David. Excerpts from Walden (continued), and Keats. The Grasshopper and the Cricket, To Autumn.

Lecture 17: Darwin. Selections from On the Origin of Species.

  1. Darwin begins with the deliberate selection practiced in the breeding of stock-animals and moves to the notion of unconscious selection. What is the point of this strategy? How does unconscious selection work? What do humans consciously select for? What do they unconsciously select for?
  2. Darwin was at pains to say that his theory was a theory of Natural Selection and not a theory of evolution. In fact, the word “evolution” does not appear in the book; the last word alone, evolved, is the only place where a cognate of “evolution” is used. Why do you suppose this is so?
  3. Darwin refers at one point (in chapter 3) to “the delicate balance of nature”. What does that phrase imply? To what extent is it appropriate to what Darwin is talking about?
  4. Chapter 3 is entitled, “The Struggle for Existence”. Where is that struggle most intense, from the standpoint of its relevance to the origin of species?
  5. To illustrate the “web of complex relations” that constitute Nature at any moment, Darwin invents an example having to do with the presence of “old maids” in a village area and the prevalence of red clover. What is the moral of the example? What is its relevance to the notion that global cataclysms have been imagined by some theorists to explain the sudden extinction of species that is revealed in the geological record of the planet?
  6. Discuss Darwin’s personification of Nature near the outset of Chapter 4. Does it help or confuse the argument to make Nature into an agent that does the selecting?
  7. To obviate possible confusions on this score, Darwin was eventually persuaded by colleagues to add to or substitute for “Natural Selection” a phrase borrowed from the philosopher Herbert Spencer, “the survival of the fittest.” Is this phrase a good one for the job that Darwin wanted it to do?
  8. In the light of Darwin’s over-all conception, how adequate is the idea of a tree–the typical image, which Darwin himself invokes, for representing lines of descent–to serve as an analogy for what Darwin is talking about?
  9. Darwin is also at pains to insist that Nature, in exercising selection, acts only “for the good of each being”, as if Nature were a beneficent agency. How appropriate is this implication to the theory? Is the history of life in Darwin’s view a history of progress and improvement? If so, what is the direction of progress? What is it that gets improved and in what respect is it improved?
  10. What is meant by convergent evolution? How does Darwin regard the idea and why does he regard it in this way?
  11. Darwin says that adaptative traits (he uses the word “characters”) are always beneficial to a species. Working with some of his examples, would you say that it therefore must also be beneficial to the individual members of the species, which possess the traits in question?
  12. A source of much confusion among Darwin’s first readers was the difference between “individual differences” and “single variations”. What is the difference and why is it a possible source of confusion if the two ideas are mixed up?
  13. In the first edition of the Origin, Darwin suggested that the habits and instinctual behavior of a species might be transmitted from generation to generation, just as anatomical features might be, but he omitted the suggestion in subsequent editions. Can you guess at his reasons for withdrawing the suggestion?
  14. Like most important notions, the concept of adaptation is not straightforward. One might suppose that a sheep capable of browsing both on mountainsides and level plains and therefore adept at the area in between would have a selective advantage over sheep capable of just doing one or the other, but Darwin argues for the reverse conclusion. What is his reasoning and how important is the issue to his theory?
  15. The idea of the eye as an “organ of extreme perfection” was already dealt with in Hume’s Dialogue. It was a well-entrenched idea and the source of much early criticism of Darwin’s views. What difficulty does the idea of “organs of extreme perfection” raise for Darwin’s theory? How well does he deal with it? What becomes of the notion of perfection in his hands?
  16. In this connection, an important idea in Darwin’s time was the notion that every sort of creature is extremely well-adjusted by reason of its anatomy to its necessities and to the habits that go with satisfying them. This adjustment of habit with anatomy and of both to the creature’s habitat was an important point in the theory of special creation. What is the theory of special creation? What are its ramifications in thinking about the biosphere as a whole? What is Darwin’s view of this theory and why does he take the position that he occupies with respect to it?
  17. Darwin distinguished between analogy and homology in identifying the “characters” or traits of different species. What is this distinction and how important is it to Darwin’s conception of the adaptiveness of organisms to their habitats?
  18. Linnaeus talks a good deal about what Darwin calls “providential design”, a notion that Darwin touches upon when he talks about the rattle of the rattlesnake, which many believed was put there by a benevolent Providence to warn other creatures of the danger posed by the rattlesnake. Darwin’s term for this sort of notion is the utilitarian theory, the idea that creatures have traits whose primary function is to benefit other creatures; we first met this idea in Cicero’s Balbus (when Balbus observes that the ox was obviously designed for plowing.) How does Darwin deal with the “utilitarian theory”? How would he explain the existence of the rattle in the tail of the rattlesnake?
  19. A prime example of the “utilitarian theory” concerned the adaptation of the social insects to the interests of the group, the most familiar instance being the sting of the bee, which is fatal to the insect that uses it. Why does this instance raise a difficulty for Darwin’s theory and how does he deal with it?
  20. Several times in the book, Darwin cites the maxim: “Nature is prodigal in variety, though niggard in invention.” What does this phrase mean? He believes that his theory can explain the truth of the maxim and the theory of “special creation” cannot. Why? In your view, is the truth of the maxim confined to the biological world or does it apply to civilization as well?
  21. Near the end of his book, Darwin repeats Hume’s analogy about the savage, looking on a ship as a wondrous contrivance quite beyond human comprehension. Explore the analogy in the context of Darwin’s argument. Which side would Darwin have taken, Philo’s or Cleanthes’s?
  22. How would Darwin speak about “the environment”, should he have been transported to the present and stumbled across this phrase?

Lecture 18: Darwin. Selections from On the Origin of Species (continued), and Frost, Robert. Design, Come In, The Most of It.

Lecture 19: Wells, H. G. The Island of Dr. Moreau.

  1. Many readers have often found this text dissatisfying because it does not seem to contain a clear point of view upon its materials. In this connection, many have claimed that it is an argument against vivesection, a tract against cruel forms of experimentation upon animals. What can be said against this view?
  2. In the light of your reading of the book, what is the point of the first episode, where the men in the life raft consider resorting to cannibalism?
  3. What oppresses Prendrick about the island at the end of the book–when he suffers, so to speak, from a spiritual hangover–is the aimlessness of things there. Is this aimlessness in line with a Darwinian view of life on planet Earth?
  4. Prendick’s first guess at what Moreau is doing leads him to suspect that he is trying to turn men into beasts; he learns that the truth is rather the reverse. Is the one occupation worse than the other or are they equally horrifying? Why do you think Well wrote this error into the thoughts of his main character?
  5. Moreau, of course, sees nothing wrong in what he is doing and argues about the meaninglessness of pain? In the view of Prendick, is the extent of the animal’s sufferings what is wrong with Moreau’s experiments or does his sense of horror have another source?
  6. Prendick says at one point that he might have “understood” Moreau if all this pain was administered for some humanitarian purpose. Would that be a valid justification for it?
  7. Prendick muses about the life of the animals on the island: Before they had been beasts, their instincts fitly adapted to their surroundings, and happy as living things may be. Now they stumbled in the shackles of humanity, lived in a fear that never died, fretted by a law they could not understand; their mock-human existence began in agony, was on long internal struggle, one long dread of Moreau–and for what? It was the wantonness that stirred me. (p. 98, Signet edition.) What would Darwin have made of the notion of “fitness” expressed in this passage. What are the implications of the thought that the animals, having become human beings, are now “unfit”–unadapted to their surroundings?
  8. Consider the following passage by Jacques Monod, the nobel-laurate biologist, on the development of language and intelligence, in his book Chance and Necessity:
    …recent experiments with a young chimpanzee seem to show that while apes are incapable of learning spoken language, they can assimilate and utilize some elements of the sign langauge deaf-mutes employ. Hence there are grounds for supposing that the acquisition of the power of articulate symbolization might have followed upon some not necessarily very elaborate neurophysicological modifications in an animal which at this stage was no more intelligent than a present-day chimpanzee. . . . It is evident that, once having made its appearance, language, however primitive, could not help but greatly increase the survival value of intelligence, and thus create, in favor of the development of the brain, a formidable and oriented selective pressure, the likes of which no speechless species could ever experience. . .. We see . . . that the selective pressure engendered by speech was bound to steer the evolution of the central nervous system in the direction of a special kind of intelligence: the kind most apt to exploit this particular, specific performance, rich in immense possibilities."
    How does Monod’s argument bear upon those offered by Moreau in Chapter 14 of the book? If there is something arguably horrifying about Moreau’s view of things, is there anything horrifying about Monod’s remarks?
  9. Moreau complains that somehow he cannot get at the seat of emotions, which, he says, “harm humanity”, that he wants to create a creature which is truly rational but the emotions thwart him. Does Moreau himself possess the sorts of emotions that he is complaining about? Is he striving to create a rational creature “in his own image”? Would this make the creature more or less human? Alternatively, is the liability to emotion a “mark of the beast”, as Moreau claims?
  10. At the end of the text, Prendick seems to have adapted Moreau’s view about humans, “who lack the calm authority of a reasonable soul.” In the end, he takes solace from astronomy and the contemplation of cosmic rather than planetary nature. Compare this with the last sentence in Darwin’s Origin. What solace can cosmic nature afford? How would you describe Prendick’s attitude? Is it an attitude endorsed by the book?

Lecture 20: Wells, H. G. The Island of Dr. Moreau. (continued)

Lecture 21: Huxley, T. H. “Evolution and Ethics,” and Hardin, Garret. “The Tragedy of the Commons.”

  1. What is the occasion for Huxley’s argument? What view of the implications of Darwinism is he trying to discredit?
  2. Huxley opposes the State of Nature and the Human State of Art (that is to say, artifice, the intelligent management of things) and insists that the two are in conflict. What was Aristotle’s view of this relationship? How would an intelligent Darwinist argue against Huxley’s notion of a conflict?
  3. Huxley links the State of Nature with Cosmic Nature and argues that on earth human artifice is the product of cosmic nature. If it seems contradictory, then, to speak of art as resisting cosmic nature, Huxley says, that is just too bad for logic. Is the opposition logically contradictory? What are the grounds of your answer?
  4. The emblem of artifice chosen by Huxley is the Garden–an image of nature, by implication, as thoroughly under control of human artifice as might be, “where every plant and every lower animal should be adapted to human wants and would perish if human supervision and protection were withdrawn”. How does this garden compare with the garden in Genesis? How does its supervision compare with the idea of breeding domestic animals in the first chapter of Darwin’s Origin?
  5. The Garden is subsequently transformed into a Colony. What are some of the implications of the analogy drawn between a colony (in allegedly “undeveloped” parts of the world) and civilization? Would Huxley accept them?
  6. In the colony, the struggle for existence would be completely abolished, among humans as well as among all species under their domestic administration. What view do you think that Forster, the author of The Machine Stops, would take of this situation?
  7. What is Huxley’s opinion of this ideal? What is the serpent in the garden? Is the ideal good but impractical, in Huxley’s view, or a false ideal, inherently wrongheaded? Or is it both, a wonderful fantasy but an impossible realization and therefore bad the moment one attempts to use it as a guide, to put it to any degree into practice? In answering, take into account Huxley’s view that direct selection of the best humans would be undesirable not just because we lack the knowledge to select the fittest but also because it cannot “be practiced without a serious weakening, it may be the destruction, of the bonds which holds society together.”
  8. In summing up his view, Huxley speaks of the force antagonist to natural selection “the ethical process,” which works “in harmonious contrast with the cosmic process, by promoting the efficiency of a group, “in the struggle for existence with nature, or with other societies”, but which also “tends to the suppression of the qualities best fitted for success in that struggle”. What does Huxley mean by “harmonious contrast”? What conclusion does he draw from the “double-bind” that mankind seems to be placed in by the action of natural selection? Is the effort to develop our distinctly human nature bound to destroy itself?
  9. In one sense, Gilbert Hardin echoes Huxley’s argument–the exercise of human intelligence finds itself ultimately in a double-bind and it leads quickly to behavior subversive of its own existence. What is Hardin’s account of this double-bind. How does it differ from Huxley’s? In another sense, Hardin’s conclusion is not Huxley’s; he insists that intelligence is capable of seeing the need for cooperation and that responsible governors can enforce it. The governor, however, must be capable of determining of two or more incommeasurable goods which are the ones to be sacrificed; it cannot rely upon calculating the greater good and choosing it, because the goods in question “do not compute”. Harden says that Natural Selection works this way. Is he correct? Is the governor not only to replace Natural Selection but also act as it does?
  10. Williams believes that Huxley has understated the case: Natural Selection is not merely ethically neutral, it is evil. What does he mean by evil? Is he right?
  11. For Huxley, the difficulty of ethical life lay in a tussle between self-regarding and other-regarding impulses. For Williams, it concerns a tussle between the interests of human beings and the interests of one’s genes. How does this shift in focus affect the condemnation of natural selection? What sense does it make to talk about “the interests of one’s genes”?
  12. Williams does not leave much room for thinking that the ways of nature might have some ethical counsel for humanity. Discuss some of the traits in higher animals that he sees as products of natural selection upon the constitution of the species’s genome. Can you find anything in Williams that would offer inspiration to a dedicated environmentalist?

Lecture 22: Williams, George. “A Sociobiological Expansion of ‘Evolution and Ethics’.”

Lecture 23: Faulkner, William. “The Bear.” In Go Down, Moses.

  1. Ike cannot see the bear until he has relinquished three things. Why did Faulkner choose these three? What values do they represent? Faulkner coined the deliberately awkward word relinquishment to stand for a practice that Ike has mastered. What does it mean and how could the reader practice it?
  2. What is wilderness, as Faulkner describes it in The Bear? How can a mere 100 square miles cut through by a railroad be called a wilderness? Explain as best you can what is lost when the wilderness is sold for logging at the end of the story. Elucidate the values that are represented by wilderness in the story and contrast these with the values represented by the commissary, the place where Ike and McCaslin have their long discussion on Ike’s twenty-first birthday.
  3. When Ike encounters a deadly snake at the end of the story, he lifts his hand and salutes it in the Indian way that he has learned from Sam Fathers, calling it “Grandfather”. What is the point of the ceremony?
  4. Why do Sam and Ike want to kill the bear? They corner the bear at one point, aided by a foolish dog called “the fyce” but they do not shoot at it. McCaslin thinks he knows why. Is he right? Eventually the bear is brought to ground by Lion, the dog with empty eyes. If the bear can be said to stand in one way or another for the spirit of the wilderness, what does Lion stand for?
  5. Critics of The Bear have argued that the long passage on the history of the family, written in so-called “stream of consciousness” style is an interruption of an otherwise nearly perfect text, and editions exist which eliminate that passage (virtually one-half the text) entirely. When Faulkner, in fact, originally published the story in magazine form, he omitted that section. Did he make a mistake in including it?
  6. As in some Greek tragedies, the characters in Faulkner’s The Bear labor under a curse. What is the nature of the curse in this text? Is it fulfilled? Lifted? Expiated? There are three deaths in the text and they take place as a result of the same action. How are these deaths related? Can any of them be regarded as tragic?
  7. Consider the third paragraph of The Bear, fetching out themes from it that are developed throughout the story and show their importance to the text as a whole. Explain the place of the last section of the story (section 5) with its predominant moment–the treeing of a bear, the encounter with a snake, the hysteria of Boon in connection with the frantic squirrels.

Lecture 24: Faulkner, William. “The Bear.” In Go Down, Moses (continued), and Leopold, Aldo. “The Land Ethic.”

Lecture 25: Le Guin, Ursula K. “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow.”

Lecture 26: Midgley, Mary. “Duties Concerning Islands,” and Callicot, J. Baird. “Animal Liberation.”

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2002