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The Ego and the ID

Hey there, budding Stochastic fans. If you’re reading us now, you can officially say you listened to us when we were underground. I’m new to this whole blogging-and-being-read thing, so please be kind while I stand in the shadows of giants.

A couple of months ago the Blogosphere was abuzz with news of Kurt Vonnegut proclaiming that we are “miracles of design” and “natural selection couldn’t possibly have produced such machines.” Around the same time, Orson Scott Card published an essay criticizing biologists and saying Darwinism currently functions as a religion.

Heavens above! Are all of our most beloved fiction writers anti-science? Well, possibly. I’d like to point out another much-adored traveler on the ID bandwagon: Vladimir Nabokov.

According to his memoir, Speak, Memory, Nabokov fully believes that the phenomenon of mimicry cannot be explained by evolution:

“Natural Selection,” in the Darwinian sense, could not explain the miraculous coincidence of imitative aspect and imitative behavior, nor could one appeal to the theory of “the struggle for life” when a protective device was carried to a point of mimetic subtlety, exuberance, and luxury far in excess of a predator’s power of appreciation. I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception. (125)

This is actually an argument I don’t believe I’ve heard before: Mimicry occurs to greater detail than could ever be detected by a predator, and therefore this excess detail is inexplicable by natural selection. I’m not nearly expert enough in the ways of evolution to give a specific reason for why this should be the case. My offhand guess is the extra details give some robustness to the illusion; in circumstances where the illusion might otherwise just disappear, it stays. The other offhand guess would be that he’s just wrong: These subtleties can, in themselves, be detected by predators. Biologists: please tear me and the good writer a couple of new ones.

At least I can speculate that Nabokov might have sided with scientists when it came to teaching ID in schools. A notorious elitist, the good writer likely would have given science to the plebes, confident that the true artists—and only the true artists—would find their way to the ultimate truth of design.


  1. #1 BigDumbChimp
    April 5, 2006

    “Heavens above! Are all of our most beloved fiction writers anti-science?”

    The Disco Institute knows all about science-fiction. Just read some of the posts on their blog.

  2. #2 James Killus
    April 5, 2006

    I can’t speak about Vonnegut, but Scott Card is a fairly committed Latter Day Saint, and doesn’t hide the fact. There are, of course, quite a few science fiction writers who are supportive of evolutionary theory. There are also more than a few who are Social Darwinists, which has the interesting characteristic of being ostensibly pro-Darwin and largely ignorant of modern evolutionary biology. I haven’t viewed the SF knowledgeable posts on the DI blog, but I imagine that they cherry pick their citations from that source just as they to for all others.

    I’ve been doing some amateur scholarly research on the views of evolution as seen in science fiction, and there are a lot of interesting perspectives to choose from. Most SF writers have a knowledge of evolutionary biology that is similar to most engineers, which is to say “not very good.” In fact, the most common depiction of evolution is SF is strongly teleological, with another well-represented component being a sort of “special creation” that applies to humans only (the “space travelers as Adam and Eve” story template). In each of these cases the bias towards simple narrative is probably important, but I suspect that there are other factors involved.

    But consider this as a topic for discussion: very few people actually understand the modern view of evolution, yet some people are ignorantly against it, and others are ignorantly in favor of it. Anyone care to speculate as to the reasons why this might be so, and what the differences between the two groups might be?

  3. #3 Matt McIrvin
    April 5, 2006

    I think it’s a mistake to describe Nabokov’s position with the name of Intelligent Design; he certainly wasn’t part of anything like the modern, religiously-motivated ID movement. It’s particularly incorrect to call his position anti-scientific, since he was himself a scientist (a good and serious one, if Gould can be trusted on the subject) and wasn’t even particularly far out of the mainstream of the time. In the 20th century prior to what is now called the neo-Darwinian synthesis in biology, there was a lot of skepticism among naturalists as to whether natural selection could really do all the things they observed.

  4. #4 Seth
    April 6, 2006

    James Hogan, author of the atheist/anarchist classic “Voyage from Yesteryear” and other strongly pro science books, has also gone to the dark side. He has not only embraced ID, but also holocaust revisionism.

  5. #5 Maggie
    April 6, 2006

    Matt, I definitely agree that he was not part of the modern movement and did not approach the topic with the mindset of “must…disprove…evolution…” But N’s thinking does seem to follow a very similar line to that of modern ID proponents, and he does heavily emphasize the idea of design detection (I’ll try to find another passage that exemplifies this better…don’t trust me yet).

    And, yeah, I probably shouldn’t have led into the discussion of Nabokov with the phrase “anti-science.” I meant to associate that more with the first two writers, and even then, I don’t think they’re opposed to scientific persuit or scientific thinking but are only anti-science in the sense that they look outside of science for answers to questions posed within science.

  6. #6 KatN
    April 7, 2006

    This is fairly off topic but could you put a link to stochastic on your front page? I only found you by doing a search and going through the daily zeitgeist link.