Illustrating Quotes

Authors: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
Categories: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
Darwin singled out the eye as posing a particularly challenging problem: 'To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.' Creationists gleefully quote this sentence again and again. Needless to say, they never quote what follows. Darwin's fulsomely free confession turned out to be a rhetorical device. He was drawing his opponents towards him so that his punch, when it came, struck the harder. The punch, of course, was Darwin's effortless explanation of exactly how the eye evolved by gradual degrees. Darwin may not have used the phrase 'irreducible complexity', or 'the smooth gradient up Mount Improbable', but he clearly understood the principle of both. 'What is the use of half an eye?' and 'What is the use of half a wing?' are both instances of the argument from 'irreducible complexity'. A functioning unit is said to be irreducibly complex if the removal of one of its parts causes the whole to cease functioning. This has been assumed to be self-evident for both eyes and wings. But as soon as we give these assumptions a moment's thought, we immediately see the fallacy. A cataract patient with the lens of her eye surgically removed can't see clear images without glasses, but can see enough not to bump into a tree or fall over a cliff. Half a wing is indeed not as good as a whole wing, but it is certainly better than no wing at all. Half a wing could save your life by easing your fall from a tree of a certain height. And 51 per cent of a wing could save you if you fall from a slightly taller tree. Whatever fraction of a wing you have, there is a fall from which it will save your life where a slightly smaller winglet would not. The thought experiment of trees of different height, from which one might fall, is just one way to see, in theory, that there must be a smooth gradient of advantage all the way from 1 per cent of a wing to 100 per cent. The forests are replete with gliding or parachuting animals illustrating, in practice, every step of the way up that particular slope of Mount Improbable. By analogy with the trees of different height, it is easy to imagine situations in which half an eye would save the life of an animal where 49 per cent of an eye would not. Smooth gradients are provided by variations in lighting conditions, variations in the distance at which you catch sight of your prey-or your predators. And, as with wings and flight surfaces, plausible intermediates are not only easy to imagine: they are abundant all around the animal kingdom. A flatworm has an eye that, by any sensible measure, is less than half a human eye. Nautilus (and perhaps its extinct ammonite cousins who dominated Paleozoic and Mesozoic seas) has an eye that is intermediate in quality between flatworm and human. Unlike the flatworm eye, which can detect light and shade but see no image, the Nautilus 'pinhole camera' eye makes a real image; but it is a blurred and dim image compared to ours. It would be spurious precision to put numbers on the improvement, but nobody could sanely deny that these invertebrate eyes, and many others, are all better than no eye at all, and all lie on a continuous and shallow slope up Mount Improbable, with our eyes near a peak-not the highest peak but a high one.

Richard Dawkins
It might be useful here to say a word about Beckett, as a link between the two stages, and as illustrating the shift towards schism. He wrote for transition, an apocalyptic magazine (renovation out of decadence, a Joachite indication in the title), and has often shown a flair for apocalyptic variations, the funniest of which is the frustrated millennialism of the Lynch family in Watt, and the most telling, perhaps, the conclusion of Comment c'est. He is the perverse theologian of a world which has suffered a Fall, experienced an Incarnation which changes all relations of past, present, and future, but which will not be redeemed. Time is an endless transition from one condition of misery to another, 'a passion without form or stations, ' to be ended by no parousia. It is a world crying out for forms and stations, and for apocalypse; all it gets is vain temporality, mad, multiform antithetical influx. It would be wrong to think that the negatives of Beckett are a denial of the paradigm in favour of reality in all its poverty. In Proust, whom Beckett so admires, the order, the forms of the passion, all derive from the last book; they are positive. In Beckett, the signs of order and form are more or less continuously presented, but always with a sign of cancellation; they are resources not to be believed in, cheques which will bounce. Order, the Christian paradigm, he suggests, is no longer usable except as an irony; that is why the Rooneys collapse in laughter when they read on the Wayside Pulpit that the Lord will uphold all that fall. But of course it is this order, however ironized, this continuously transmitted idea of order, that makes Beckett's point, and provides his books with the structural and linguistic features which enable us to make sense of them. In his progress he has presumed upon our familiarity with his habits of language and structure to make the relation between the occulted forms and the narrative surface more and more tenuous; in Comment c'est he mimes a virtually schismatic breakdown of this relation, and of his language. This is perfectly possible to reach a point along this line where nothing whatever is communicated, but of course Beckett has not reached it by a long way; and whatever preserves intelligibility is what prevents schism. This is, I think, a point to be remembered whenever one considers extremely novel, avant-garde writing. Schism is meaningless without reference to some prior condition; the absolutely New is simply unintelligible, even as novelty. It may, of course, be asked: unintelligible to whom? -the inference being that a minority public, perhaps very small-members of a circle in a square world-do understand the terms in which the new thing speaks. And certainly the minority public is a recognized feature of modern literature, and certainly conditions are such that there may be many small minorities instead of one large one; and certainly this is in itself schismatic. The history of European literature, from the time the imagination's Latin first made an accommodation with the lingua franca, is in part the history of the education of a public-cultivated but not necessarily learned, as Auerbach says, made up of what he calls la cour et la ville. That this public should break up into specialized schools, and their language grow scholastic, would only be surprising if one thought that the existence of excellent mechanical means of communication implied excellent communications, and we know it does not, McLuhan's 'the medium is the message' notwithstanding. But it is still true that novelty of itself implies the existence of what is not novel, a past. The smaller the circle, and the more ambitious its schemes of renovation, the less useful, on the whole, its past will be. And the shorter. I will return to these points in a moment.

Frank Kermode
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