Archives for February 2009

Princeton University Press churns out a few Obama officials!

Apparently President Obama knows his stuff when it comes to selecting key governement positions.  The latest rumor from this article in the Wall Street Journal has our very own Alan Krueger (author of the recent book WHAT MAKES A TERRORIST) being tapped as Timothy Geithner’s assistant secretary for economic policy.  Also in the administration is Cass Sunstein (author of the PUP books A CONSTITUTION OF MANY MINDS and REPUBLIC.COM 2.0), Obama’s choice to be administrator of information and regulatory affairs, and Anne-Marie Slaughter (author of A NEW WORLD ORDER) was tapped for director of the State Department’s policy-planning staff. 

And last but certainly not least is Fed Chair Ben Bernanke, author of two books by the Press–one of which is more timely now than ever (ESSAYS ON THE GREAT DEPRESSION and INFLATION TARGETING).

Philosophy on Film – “Examined Life” at the IFC Center

From the NY Times:

WHEN the documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor speaks of a cinema of ideas, she means it more literally than most. Her first film, “Zizek!” (2005) accompanied the Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek on a lecture tour. Her second, “Examined Life,” opening Wednesday at the IFC Center, recruits a wide array of thinkers and theorists to muse out loud about the role of philosophy in our lives, playing off the Socratic observation that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Examined Life is composed of interviews with a virtual who’s who of philosophers including several PUP authors–Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cornel West, and Martha Nussbaum.

Join Director Astra Taylor and Kwame Anthony Appiah for a special screening of the movie tonight at the IFC Center. Show times are 7:35 and 9:45. Contact the IFC Center for tickets and more information.

Birdscapes Tuesday Trivia, Answer #3

Yesterday, we posted a trivia question:

What is the state bird of Tasmania?

A trick question! Tasmania is the only Australian state that does not have an official bird. From Birdscapes:

Australia has the emu as its national bird (it is thought never to take a step backwards) and the state birds are:

  • New South Wales: laughing kookaburra
  • Queensland: brolga (a large crane species)
  • Victoria: helmeted honeyeater (an endemic subspecies of the yellowtuftedhoneyeater—I wonder how many people in Melbourne could
    identify one?)
  • South Australia: Australian magpie
  • Western Australia: black swan
  • Northern Territory: wedge-tailed eagle
  • Australia Capital Territory: gang-gang cockatoo

Only Tasmania wouldn’t play this game (why don’t they settle for their subspecies, the clinking currawong?). But all these other states have a floral emblem too, and most have a mammalian one (in South Australia, it’s the hairy-nosed wombat).

METAPHYSICS – The Evolution of Evolution

The Evolution of Evolution”*


                                   Tony Rothman


            If there is a grand truth about science, it is that science is a collective enterprise.  Researchers trade ideas, borrow any that come their way.  Colleagues and rivals are indistinguishable, borrowing becomes what in other circles goes by the name of theft; opponents are generally recognized, sometimes not, more often in the vast flood of papers, lost.  Vanishing few are the discoveries made by a single individual.  Strange, then, that even today the media so often portrays the great advances of science as springing fully formed from the brow of towering geniuses who work in splendid isolation.

            No better example can be found than in the current celebration of Charles Darwin’s two-hundredth anniversary.  Certainly no scientific theory of the last four hundred years has had as much impact on human thought and culture as evolution.  Yet, the shallowness of the reportage merely highlights the fact that more than any other theory, evolution has been deprived of a public genealogy.   

             Some schoolchildren do know that the famously dilatory Charles Darwin was spurred to complete his Origin of Species upon receipt of an essay by Alfred Russell Wallace containing “exactly the same theory as mine.”  Less well known is that Charles was indebted for many of his ideas to his own grandfather, Erasmus, whom he conspicuously failed to acknowledge.

            Born in Nottinghamshire in 1731, Erasmus Darwin was the seventh child of Robert and Elizabeth.  He studied medicine at Cambridge and Edinburgh, became the most successful physician in England, meanwhile inventing a plethora of devices that included a horse-drawn carriage whose steering mechanism is that used by automobiles today.  His experiments in electro-shock therapy stimulated not only the livers of his patients but the imagination of Mary Shelley and her writing of Frankenstein.  Friend of Ben Franklin, Erasmus was the first to understand cloud formation, made contributions to geology, was an early convert to Lavoisier’s theory of combustion and became, to top it off, the leading English poet of the day.  He also proposed the theory of evolution.

            As early as 1770 fossils unearthed during the construction of the Harecastle tunnel convinced Erasmus that life as we know it was descended from a common ancestor.  To the family coat of arms, three scallop shells, he even added the motto E conchis omnia (“everything from shells”).  The first of his ideas he published in two long and wildly successful poems, The Loves of the Plants and The Economy of Vegetation, which not only make it clear that he believed in a common ancestor of man, but in something like the big bang theory.  His ideas are further elucidated in the posthumously published Temple of Nature and his 1000-page treatise, the Zoonomia of 1794. 

While natural selection may not be quite announced in the Zoonomia, Erasmus observes that males of certain bird species are armed with claws which the females lack and concludes these weapons cannot be for fighting external enemies; they are for fighting “for the exclusive possession of the females.“  He goes on to say, “The final cause of this contest amongst the males seems to be, that the strongest and most active animal should propagate the species, which should thence become improved.”  Erasmus also reiterates his belief that all creatures descended from common “filaments,” or molecules.  In the most celebrated passage of the Zoonomia he asks

…would it be it be too bold to image that in the great length of time since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind, would it be too bold to image that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions, and associations; and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end.


Erasmus’s willingness to accept geological timescales for the age of the Earth was incredibly foresighted.  In this he was more modern than Charles, who had to contend with physicists who refused to accept a geologic age for the Earth. (It goes without saying that here Erasmus outdistances creationists of our own era.) 

On the other hand, his idea that species might mutate through “volitions” does seem to veer in the direction of Lamarck, who followed a few years later and believed that characteristics acquired during the lifetime of an organism ( a giraffe stretching its neck to obtain food) would be inherited by its offspring.  Erasmus, though, apparently had more general mechanisms of heredity in mind, understanding that the differentiation of birdbeaks “had been gradually produced during many generations by the perpetual endeavor of the creatures to supply the want of food.”

            To some extent it may indeed have been due to a confusion with Lamarck that Darwin’s ideas were discredited, though by the time Zoonomia was published, England was soon to go to war with France and nobody wanted to hear about the brotherhood of man or atheistic theories.   

   Why Charles Darwin, born in 1809, was so reluctant to acknowledge his own grandfather is a matter for psychologists.  In his Autobiography, Charles overflows with praise of George Lyell, about whose Principles of Geology he says, “The science of Geology is enormously indebted to Lyell–more so, as I believe, than to any other man who ever lived.”  As for his grandfather, however, we know that while a student at the University of Edinburgh Charles studied the Zoonomia closely.  Yet the only mention of it in the Autobiography comes during a conversation with Robert Grant, a lecturer at Edinburgh who tried to convert Charles to the views of Lamarck and Erasmus.  “I listened in silent astonishment, and as far as I can judge, without any effect on my mind.  I had previously read the Zoonomia of my grandfather, in which similar views are maintained, but without producing any effect on me.  Nevertheless, it is probable that the hearing rather early in life such views maintained and praised may have favored my upholding them under a different form in my Origins of Species.  At this time I admired greatly the Zoonomia; but on reading it a second time after an interval of ten or fifteen years, I was much disappointed; the proportion of speculation being so large to the facts given.”

In his defense, Charles took pains to point out that Erasmus was the wild theorizer and he the meticulous observer.  “I look at a strong tendency to generalise as an entire evil,” Charles once wrote to a close friend.  Indeed, perhaps the main reason The Origin of Species of 1859 occupies its deserved position in the canon of great and influential books is that it overflows with facts and observations.  Yet Origin also overflows with hundreds of names.  Not one is Erasmus. 

 At the age of seventy, Charles had a change of heart and penned a biography of his grandfather, publishing it as a 127-page preface to an 86-page essay on Erasmus by Dr. Ernst Krause of Germany.  The attempt backfired.   Not only did it touch off a lifelong feud with family friend Samuel Butler, author of Erewhon, who correctly accused Darwin of gross tampering with Krause’s essay as to minimize Erasmus’ contributions, but Charles’ own essay as published damns Erasmus with faint praise.  Of his evolutionary ideas Charles says almost nothing, deferring that task to Krause.  It turns out that Charles had allowed his daughter Henrietta, who hated everything Erasmus stood for, to censor the work.  All favorable passages, including the final peroration in which Charles praised Erasmus for his generosity and prophetic spirit, were cut.  It was only in 1958 that Darwin’s granddaughter Nora Barlow restored some passages and appended correspondence relating to the controversy.  Well, as Charles put it to T.H. Huxley, “the history of error is unimportant.”

Erasable.  Anthropologist Loren Eiseley* has pointed out that Origin  was already in proof when Lyell himself caught Darwin in the act of ignoring Lamarck.  In the first edition, Darwin omitted “by inadvertence” Wallace’s name in the final summary, despite the historic joint announcement and publication of their papers.  Of course, as Darwin told Lyell, he “never got a fact or idea” from Lamarck.  One wonders what Charles would have said about Edward Blyth.

In fact he said nothing.  Blyth (1810-1873) was a friend of Darwin’s and a pioneering naturalist who wrote major papers on heredity and zoology for The Magazine of Natural History.  In those papers Blyth clearly saw the importance of variation and sexual selection, although he mistakenly interpreted natural selection as a force tending to stabilize species, rather than to diversify them.  In 1835 Blyth wrote, “…as in the brute creation, by a wise provision, the typical characters of a species are, in a state of nature, preserved by those individuals chiefly propagating, whose organisation is the most perfect, and which, consequently, by their superior energy and physical powers, are enabled to vanquish and drive away the weak and sickly, so in the human race degeneration is, in great measure, prevented by the innate and natural preference which is always given to the most comely…”

   Could Darwin have been unaware of Blyth’s work?  Well, they were friends.  Furthermore, by tracing Darwin’s own footnotes Eiseley has been able to determine that Darwin was in possession of and read the same issues of Natural History in which Blyth’s papers appeared.  Yet, in Origin Darwin repeats many of Blyth’s assertions almost verbatim without acknowledgement and Eisley makes a convincing case that it was Blyth, not Thomas Malthus as Darwin claimed, who started him on the road to natural selection. 

If any other precursors to evolution are now forgotten more than Edward Blyth they must be Sir William Lawrence (1783-1867) and Patrick Matthew (1790-1874).*  Lawrence is forgotten intentionally because his book Natural History of Man, published in 1819, came to conclusions so distasteful to those times (and in part to ours) that it was suppressed.  A professor at the Royal College of Surgeons and called by T.H. Huxley “one of the ablest men whom I have known,” Lawrence did not arrive at natural selection and believed that species were fixed.  Nevertheless, he emphatically rejected Lamarck’s dominant notion of acquired characteristics and stated that  1) The physical, mental and moral differences in the races of man are hereditary; 2) The different races have arisen through mutations; 3) Sexual selection has improved the beauty of advanced races and governing classes; 4) “Selection and exclusions” are the means of change and adaptation; 5) The study of man as an animal is the only proper foundation for research in medicine, morals and even in politics.  “The diversification of physical and moral endowments which characterize the various races of man,” he wrote, “must be entirely analogous in their nature, causes, and origin, to those which are observed in the rest of the animal kingdom and therefore must be explained on the same principles.”  The origins of man “cannot be settled by an appeal to the Jewish scriptures.”

   Lawrence’s insistence on treating man as an animal utterly offended England of his day.  The Church was outraged, Lawrence was repudiated by the leaders of his profession.  The Lord Chancellor refused to allow copyright for the book on the grounds that it contradicted Scripture.  So crushed was Lawrence by the affair that he withdrew Natural History from circulation and clammed up for the rest of his life.  Nevertheless, both Darwin and Wallace read Lawrence.  Darwin does not seem to have been impressed but Wallace was.  Indeed he may well have taken Lawrence’s ideas to their logical conclusion in postulating natural selection.  We also know that Blyth cited Lawrence as a major source and in that way he indirectly influenced Darwin.

When Charles learned of Patrick Matthew’s book, On Naval Timber and Aboriculture, published in 1831, he himself wrote, “Mr. Patrick Matthew… gives precisely the same view on the origin of the species…as that propounded by Mr. Wallace and myself…He clearly saw…the full force of the principle of natural selection.”

Certainly Matthew, writing twenty-eight years before Darwin, states, “…As the field of existence is limited and pre-occupied, it is only the hardier, more robust, better suited to circumstance individuals, who are better able to struggle forward to maturity, these inhabiting only the situations to which they have the superior habit of adaptation and greater power of occupancy than any other kind …This principle is in constant action…those only come forward to maturity from the strict ordeal by which Nature tests their adaptation to her standard of perfection and fitness to continue their kind of reproduction.”  Matthew however, in contrast to Darwin, was a catastrophist and viewed evolution as being spurred on by geologic upheavals, interrupted by eons of stability (in this he seems to share certain ideas of modern theories.)

Little is known about Matthew and it does not appear that Darwin knew of his work before publication of Origin of the Species.  Nevertheless, while with hindsight we tend to view naturalists such as Lawrence and Matthew as merely highlighting Darwin’s correctness, in their own time they did not consider themselves Darwin’s precursors.  They should be credited for their own accomplishments and, as we celebrate Darwin’s two hundredth, let us remember that science would look very different if shadows never haunted the wings.


* A different version of this essay appeared in Everything’s Relative and Other Fables from Science and Tecnology (Wiley, Hoboken, NJ, 2003).

* Loren Eiseley, “Charles Darwin and Edward Blyth,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 103, 94-158 (1959). 

* See, e.g., Kentwood Wells, “Sir William Lawrence: a study of  pre-Darwinian ideas on heredity and inheritance,” and “The historical context of natural selection: The case of Patrick Matthew,” J. Hist. of Biology 4, 319-361 (1973); 6, 225-258 (1973) and references therein.

Franz Kafka in the News

FRANZ KAFKA:The Office Writings edited by Stanley Corngold, Jack Greenberg, and Benno Wagner, has been in the news recently. Read Alexander Provan’s thoughtful round-up of recent Kafka books, including this one, in The Nation. In addition, Eric Banks reviews the book in the Barnes & Noble Review.


Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn’s HEROES AND COWARDS, a groundbreaking study of 40,000 Civil War soldiers that reveals the benefits and limits of diversity, has been making the news in the past few days. Larry Gordon discusses the new book in the Los Angeles Times, an article that has been picked up in a number national papers including The Baltimore Sun, and David Glenn writes about it in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Birdscapes Tuesday Trivia, Question #3

Just to recap, we are posting trivia questions drawn from the book Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience by veteran birder and former chief executive of Cambridge University Press Jeremy Mynott. We hope you will post your guesses and explanations below in the comments section. The official answer will follow by a day, so check back again soon!

Birdscapes Trivia, Question #3 –

What is the state bird of Tasmania?

Answer will be posted tomorrow.

Peter Dougherty on publishing Akerlof/Shiller’s ANIMAL SPIRITS

Our Director Peter Dougherty was invited by the Seminary Co-op bookstores in Chicago to write about our new book ANIMAL SPIRITS: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism in their “Editors Speak” forum, and for your reading pleasure, here it is!  According to their website, “Editors Speak” will present a rare opportunity to literary and university press editors to discuss and explain the books they have published. While serving on one hand as a review of the book, we also hope this will offer a unique insight into the publishing process and the choices made before a book goes to press.  You should check out their site regularly to see what’s cooking over there. 

But I digress…. Peter shines a light on the fascinating back story of how ANIMAL SPIRITS came to be, and its role not only in this current financial disaster but for economists and public policy folks of the future.

Skip Gates ride the airwaves on WNYC

Click to listen to the podcast of the Brian Lehrer show!

Birdscapes Tuesday Trivia, Answer #2

Yesterday, we posted a trivia question:

What have Saddam Hussein, Hitler, Napoleon, Mexico, Albania and the Royal Air Force got in common?

The question may sound like the set up for a bad joke, but the actual answer is that all of them used (or continue to use, in some cases) the eagle as an emblem. As Mynott notes,

“Eagles seems inevitably to attract the epithets ‘majestic’ or ‘magnificent,’ and they have been of enormous symbolic importance over the ages and in many cultures across the world. They were the birds of augury for the Greeks; the emblem of empire and power for the Romans, Charlemagne, Napoleon, Hitler, and Saddam Hussein (not an altogether wonderful team, but the Royal Air Force uses it too); and an icon in many mythologies and religions (in Christianity, for example, an eagle is almost a standard fitting on church lecterns)…By common agreement the eagle really is the king of birds, and therefore the ideal logo for all manner of commercial as well as political purposes worldwide. “

Mynott also reports that The Scotsman conducted a poll in 2004 in which the eagle was named favorite bird and selected as an emblem of Scotland. Mynott writes of this outcome:

“But with just one pair in England and the Scottish birds largely restricted to wilderness areas, how many people have ever seen one, except on TV? You would think a “favourite” bird would also have to be a familiar one, like a favourite chair or book? Could you have a favourite film you had never seen, or a favourite town you had never visited? Or does the eagle’s mystique actually depend on its remoteness?”

Was George W. Bush the heir of Woodrow Wilson? Woodrow Wilson School interview with John Ikenberry and Anne-Marie Slaughter

The Woodrow Wilson School taped an interview with Anne-Marie Slaughter and G. John Ikenberry, two of the contributors to The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-first Century. View the interview below, or visit the WWS Web site where they’ve posted a great article about John Ikenberry and his research.

Also, just prior to departing for Washington, DC and a new post with President Obama’s administration, Anne-Marie Slaughter lectured at the Carnegie Council in New York. “Everybody wants to be Wilson’s heir, or at least everyone in the last decade,” she noted at the beginning of her presentation before turning to the subject of the book in which she, along with Ikenberry, Thomas J. Knock and Tony Smith, considers George W. Bush’s foreign policy in relation to Wilsonian ideals. A complete transcript of the evening, including an insightful Q&A session, is available here.

Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn Take the Page 99 Test

On Friday the 13th, HEROES AND COWARDS: The Social Face of War took the Page 99 Test.

The question is, did they pass or fail?

Okay, perhaps that isn’t the question, but as the site quotes the wonderful Ford Madox Ford: “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.”

Not a bad way to check out a book!