Wednesday, 2 July 2008

“Perfectibilism” in science fiction narratives about biological destiny

Sci fi author Robert J Sawyer proves himself an eloquent critic of the most reactionary strands of biologism underpinning the genre. I think it fair to say though that many of his points, and the basic underlying approach, will be familiar to anybody versed in the basics of cultural studies type reading methods. But there are still some provocative revelations that make it worth watching all 3 parts (some of which are more specifically related to the wasteland of television, that evidently periodically requires a tonic of revitalisation, oftentimes provided by sci fi).

The part I most enjoyed was his comprehensive demolition of the cultural legacy of Star Wars, and the thought occurred to me that any assessment is complicated by the fact that Lucas' work does not easily fall into the Darwinian paradigm (despite the prominence of the genetic aristocracy of the Jedi Knights). The conception of "The Force" appears closer to Intelligent Design, typifying an energy force behind all living things, albeit something only accessible to an enlightened elite. Hence it is probably more accurate to say that George Lucas manages in effect to combine the worst of both worlds, Darwinism and Intelligent Design.

I will try to tread carefully here, because afterall, why should one in principle exclude apriori a paradigm on the basis that it is kept afloat by ghastly political fellow travelers? Darwinism has long being championed by eugenicists, Nazis and the like, and yet its contemporary supporters conveniently forget this when they attempt to take ID to task because of its unfortunate association with the Christian Right. What may prove more compelling is the possible generalisability of the concept of "perfectibilism" outside of its original context of application. Indeed, this ambition is potentially radical, and has been taken up in a particular fashion by those currently associated with the "posthumanist" project. I take it that sociologists such as Steve Fuller have in mind its possible socialist applications, along with a wait and see pragmatic scientific approach, wherein, in other hands (i.e. not the Christian Right), it may someday yield positive research innovations.

As Fuller argues though, these ends tend to be lost sight of by the warrriors of the "science wars", such as Norman Levitt, who see merely epistemological relativism and undesirable political consequences:

"Had Levitt read my book a bit more carefully, he would have noticed that the relevant feature of Newton’s Unitarianism that motivated subsequent generations of scientists — I pay special attention to Joseph Priestley — is what is sometimes called “perfectibilism”, the Christian heresy that humans through their own will and intellect might become God. This is the radical implication of deus absconditus that Levitt misses. In the 20th century, this orientation animated such pioneers of artificial intelligence as Warren Weaver, Norbert Wiener, and Herbert Simon. I count these people as ID theorists just as much as Dembski and Behe.

...As any student of the history of science knows, challenges to the status quo often originate in strange, sometimes even unsavory, quarters. After all, Darwin’s own theory was kept afloat for its first half-century largely by an unholy alliance of capitalists, eugenicists, free-floating racists, and wishful theologians. The trick is for the challenger to expand from its initial base and secure the support of the broader scientific community. Darwin’s theory has certainly done that; ID has not. My book was written to show that there are good historical reasons for believing that ID’s scientific constituency could well extend beyond the offices of the Discovery Institute. Why Levitt should fear this prospect to such an extent that it compromises his critical judgment remains a mystery to me."

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