MT VOID 10/06/00 (Vol. 19, Number 14)

MT VOID 10/06/00 (Vol. 19, Number 14)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 10/06/00 -- Vol. 19, No. 14

Table of Contents

Outside events: The Science Fiction Association of Bergen County meets on the second Saturday of every month in Upper Saddle River; call 201-447-3652 for details.

Chair/Librarian: Mark Leeper, 732-817-5619,
Factotum: Evelyn Leeper, 732-332-6218,
Distinguished Heinlein Apologist: Rob Mitchell,
HO Chair Emeritus: John Jetzt,
HO Librarian Emeritus: Nick Sauer,
Back issues at
All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted.


My editorial on romance and selfish genes drew a response from Dirk Ruiz. I thought his response and mine counter-response might be of interest. (It also means there will be one less editorial I have to write.) The following will be entirely his comments except for my responses in square brackets.

Having spent four years in psych grad school having to put up with evolutionary psychologists, I developed a strong aversion to this brand of "theorizing". And so, I would like to present a rebuttal to the evolutionary viewpoint, in bullet-list format:

[Interesting. I am willing to consider any brand of theorizing. I probably theorize in many different brands. I don't even mind mixing brands.]

++ Drawing conclusions from animals is dangerous: they're not us, and we're not them. Pick a behavior, and you can find lots of animals who do it that way, lots of animals who do it the opposite way, and even more animals who never do it at all. Chimps or Bonobos, which do we most resemble?

[What is the difference between psychology and introspection? In introspection you look inward and find your own answers about yourself. In psychology you draw conclusions from others, conclusions that are dangerous because as you say "they're not us, and we're not them." Everything you say about animals is true of humans also. Animals raised in human society may have minds more alien to us than any human mind, though I am not sure even that is true. Humans can be very different. But in addition humans probably are more likely to be intentionally deceptive. If you ask "Chimps or Bonobos, which do we most resemble" I can return with Arabs or Indians, whom do we most resemble?]

++ How in the hell do you objectively measure a dog's *happiness*?? Or any other animal behavior that supposedly supports a given evolutionary viewpoint. These measurements rely on so much interpretation that they are all but meaningless.

[I would say that if you really are having trouble telling when a dog is happy or not you are not trying very hard. Dogs communicate when they are happy or sad very well. Usually it is easier to tell happiness with a dog than it is with humans. And yes, in both cases there is a certain amount of interpretation. But I do not accept an argument that our interpretation of dog emotion is invalid just because it is a different species. That seems to me to be on the same level as an argument that dogs don't have emotions at all because they don't have souls.]

++ Evolution is a very blunt instrument. All these factors that evolutionary theorists claim are important for the survival of the species come together in one final decision: live or die. That does *not* lend itself to selecting out subtle little traits here and there. Evolutionary pressures impinge on the few traits that really make a live-or-die difference in the environment. The rest of the traits just kind of muddle along.

[Even there we disagree. First it is not a live or die decision; it is a spectrum of fertility with high fertility at one end and death at the other. And I would say that the Heike crabs, the ones with the samurai faces on their backs, show how subtle evolution can be. (In one area of Japan where a sea battle was fought, fishermen throw back crabs that have what look like human faces on their shells. Over the years in order to survive the crabs have acquired very human looking faces on their shells. The more human-looking the face, the more likely the crab to survive.)]

++ Evolution is not necessarily a gradual shaper, as so many evolutionary theories seem to claim. Consider the bird's wing. Of what use is 1/4 of a wing? 1/2 of a wing? Wouldn't the quarter- winged bird have died out, the appendage being useless (if not fatal) for flight?

[Your point is correct though your example is bad. Evolution can be fast. Though even the gradualists do not say that there was ever one-quarter or one-half a wing. It would have been a more arm-like appendage that gradually became more wing-like. Hops became glides and glides became flights as this was happening.]

++ Evolution does not preserve the BEST genes, but rather only those genes that a) happen to be there at the time, and b) satisfice the goal of letting the species as a whole exist in this particular environment. ("Satisfice" here means that the genes make do; they do not optimize.) If the environment changes, it might well be bye-bye species! So much for "best".

[When you are a gene, having the characteristics that improve the odds you get into the next generation is its own reward. If you do not like the value judgement "best," fine, do not use it. Just say "best suited to the environment."]

++ The "environment" in which we evolve is largely a social one, in which we can help "weak" individuals survive long beyond their "natural" lifetimes. Since social environments are complex *changeable* responses to physical environments, existing social circumstances, history, ideas, etc., I would claim the concept of evolution becomes almost meaningless as a simple explanatory principle.

[You are right that to a large extent we can compensate for an individual's weakness. And it helps level the playing fields. This comes down to the "nature and nurture" question. But there are families in which genius runs. The Bachs and the Bernoulis are examples from history. It seems very likely there is a strong genetic component to the success of so many members of the family.]

++ This current style of pseudo-evolutionary theorizing (evolutionary psychology, evolutionary sociology, what have you) is not science; it is storytelling. You observe some phenomenon, and then conclude that it's there because evolution somehow helped it get there. So, off you go, looking for some kind of evolutionary process (preferably one that is shrouded in the mists of time, so that it cannot be verified) that will explain it. Since you cannot verify the process, it's just a convincing-sounding story. I could just as easily come up with another story, equally convincing. E.g., people who respond to romantic stimuli are more likely to go home and have sex, which means they produce more offspring, which leads to their genes being propagated. The unromantic, by contrast, fail to reproduce.

[Well, admittedly my theory is speculation. That is frequently the point of this column, to look at different possibilities. To create seed hypotheses. I had never heard of romanticism as being a possible manifestation of genetic principles. To me just the sheer glut of romantic stories in our literature begs a scientific explanation. I suppose the kind of science fiction that I like takes some phenomenon around us that has never really been considered in scientific terms and looks for a scientific explanation. This is the kind of thing that Nigel Kneale does. If you look at how powerful evolution is in molding life. It takes only a few years for moths to change color to adapt to their environment. Then there are the Heike crabs that in a relatively short period of time have obliged the locals by displaying samurai faces on their shells. A force that powerful could have created our romantic sensibility.]

[-dr and mrl]

BICENTENNIAL MAN (a film review in bullet list form by Mark R. Leeper from the Toronto International Film Festival):

Capsule: Isaac Asimov's story comes to the screen with the best of intentions, but there is just a little too much warmth and sweetness for most adult audiences to fully appreciate it. A robot who is already nearly perfect struggles to become human. Robin Williams and Embeth Davidtz star. Pleasant without being satisfying. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), +1 (-4 to +4).

In the year 2005 a father (Sam Neill) surprises his family with a new robot (Robin Williams) whom his family dubs Andrew. But there is more to Andrew than just Asimov's famous Three Laws of Robotics. The laws make certain that Andrew is benevolent, but he is considerably more. He has a streak of creativity and independent thinking that supposedly robots do not have. Rather than being an appliance, he has the rudiments of actually being human. The family has two daughters. One who is simply called Little Miss (Hallie Kate Eisenberg as a child and Embeth Davidtz as an adult) immediately takes to Andrew while older daughter Lloyd immediately wants to see Andrew discredited and destroyed. The father comes to take a fatherly interest in Andrew. We see Andrew doing some very human things like showing compassion for a spider and trying to master the complexities of human humor.

Racial themes enter the story as a human woman comes to love Andrew and he loves her in return, but Andrew is only a machine becoming human. It is years before a real romantic relationship is possible between him and a human. But robots are essentially immortal and as the title implies, we see Andrew over the course of two hundred years. This means even though it is a longer than average film, 131 minutes, it still covers superficially mostly only the more important events of Andrew's life. It seems almost as soon as you meet characters they are old and dying.

One thing the film does not handle very well is the view of society during the passage of so much time. Change is coming to our society at an accelerated rate. One need only look at the rate at which our own society has changed in the last 40 years. Forced with showing the changes in society over 200 years or ignoring them, the producers have almost entirely had to steer clear. We see minor and superficial changes, but not nearly the amount we would expect. We are left with an uneasy feeling that society has stagnated, but for some relatively small advances in the sciences relevant to the story.

Even when Isaac Asimov's story "The Bicentennial Man" was first published, it far from original. Asimov had been writing for years about benevolent robots who were misunderstood. Ray Bradbury wrote the story "I Sing the Body Electric," produced on TWILIGHT ZONE, about a family getting a grandmotherly robot and learning to love her. Asimov combined this and with some more complex themes for his novel. However, the wish to become human and the slow transition to fulfilling that wish was plundered from the novel and used very publicly in STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION with the character Data. The viewer has agonized over Data's attempt to learn to deliver humor and it seems unfair to make the viewer do it again. That and much more of Data's difficult road to becoming human is recapitulated in this film. Like STAR TREK, this film never questions the smug assumption that being human is the highest state of being. At its best BICENTENNIAL MAN holds up a mirror to show us what it means to be human. But where it rings false the writers fall back on Andrew being a robot. That makes its observations undependable.

Some of the visuals are very good, but some are surprisingly flawed. In particular the futuristic skylines are unconvincing. If Andrew behaves too much like Data, he also looks a little too much like C3PO. Kudos should, however, go to the design of the robot makeup and mechanism. The faces maintain the look of metal and still are expressive to what is perhaps an unrealistic level.

Not surprisingly, this is Robin Williams's film. Somehow his attempts to be a normal human are touching but never as powerful as Cliff Robertson is in the comparable film CHARLY. Sam Neill, after this film and THE DISH, seems to be vying for the title of the mellowest actor on the screen. Embeth Davidtz has a harder role than Williams. If Williams does not seem quite right, well, he is a robot. Davidtz is quite good as a human, which is harder. Young Hallie Kate Eisenberg, known for Pepsi and Independent Film Channel ads, is her usual sweet self falling a little short of being cloying. Oliver Platt is always watchable. Chris Columbus directed and previously directed Williams in MRS. DOUBTFIRE. James Horner's score is unremarkable.

While this film does not have all the resonance that a film aimed at an adult audience should have, it should be good for a young adult audience. I give it a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]

SADE (a film review in bullet list form by Mark R. Leeper from the Toronto International Film Festival):

Capsule: This is by no means the gore and sadism festival that viewers may at first expect. The Marquis de Sade is arrested and in the hands of the Jacobins in the Terror after the French Revolution who daily commit more atrocities than in his fiction. De Sade is presented as the one great romantic in a festering world of evil. Rating: high +1

French language


URBANIA (a film review in bullet list form by Mark R. Leeper from the Toronto International Film Festival):

Capsule: This is a film that tries to do too much and is ham-handed in most of what it tries. In a sort of irritating bait and switch it takes a poorly wrought revenge story set in the gay community of some big city and dresses it up comedy about urban myths. The main story might have some power if told more comprehensively but the mod-film editing and serious pacing problems get in the way. Rating: -1


THE GRIFTERS (a film review in bullet list form by Mark R. Leeper from the Toronto International Film Festival):

Capsule: A particularly gruesome triangle of two women fighting over the possession of a young promising con man. One of the women is his mother, an expert con on her own, who wants her son out of the business. The other is a young gifted con artist who wants him for her partner. Rating: +2


THE LEGEND OF RITA (DIE STILLE NACH DEM SCHUSS) (a film review in bullet list form by Mark R. Leeper from the Toronto International Film Festival):

Capsule: A Baader-Meinhof style German terrorist flees West Germany and finds herself hidden in East Germany where she must live a like a normal East German. In this unstable environment she tries to build a life. Rating: +2

German language


TO DIE (OR NOT) (a film review in bullet list form by Mark R. Leeper from the Toronto International Film Festival):

Capsule: A TV writer tells six stories of untimely deaths. Then circumstances cause him to reconsider his morbidity and the stories change accordingly. This is a gimmick film that is supposedly telling us something about death. The message, however, is mostly lost and the gimmick is not very interesting. Rating: 0

Catalan language


Quote of the Week:

     Democracy is the art of running the circus from the monkey
                                   -- H. L. Mencken