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Saving Leonardo , and while we are here, the myth of the “Law of the Yukon”

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In this review of Nancy Pearcey’s Saving Leonardo, Christian historian Pearcey revisits the broader question of how science broke loose from reason. (I am thinking of all the “our brains are shaped for fitness, not for truth” rubbish from people who honestly believe that they are on the right side of science, and that that idea somehow helps science.)

Many thinkers were so impressed by the scientific revolution that they began to regard science as the sole source of truth. Whatever could not be known by the scientific method was not real. Science was no longer merely one means for investigation the world. It was elevated into an exclusivist worldview — scientism or positivism. (91)

– Evolution News & Views (March 22, 2011)

Yes. I couldn’t know that I liked sushi until a brain scan told me. My behaviour at the buffet wouldn’t be accepted as evidence. More significant was how it affected the world of the artsie:

Pearcey describes naturalism as an outgrowth of realism, only “…grittier, harsher, more pessimistic. It portrays humans as nothing but biological organisms, products of evolutionary forces.” (145) The Darwinian influence was most noticeable in literature. This literature was rugged, harsh, and at times blurred the lines between man and animal. Jack London was profoundly influenced by the writings of Darwin and Herbert Spencer, and we see in his writings a harsh, unforgiving world where survival of the fittest reigns supreme. (144, 150)

To see what this means, consider, artsies did not used to be considered flakes. Was Leonardo a flake? Michelangelo? Jane Austen? No, the flake who thinks that chimps trampling paint on a canvas is art was a product of these new ideas, not the old ones. There ceased to be any way of making a distinction. If it is in a frame, as Catbert said, it will look like art to you.

But one thing she said really set me thinking.

She mentioned Jack London. Ah yes, the Call of the Wild, and the Yukon. My birth province is Saskatchewan, but I passed part of my childhood in that frozen hell/land of opportunity/”land that God forgot”or however you like to see it, called Yukon (a territory of Canada). It is humans that define and set boundaries for nature, not the other way around, and we give pieces of it the names we see fit. That is the point, if anyone cares, of Genesis .

Here’s the funny thing: We knew nothing whatever of Spencer’s/Darwin’s “survival of the fittest. Yes, I read the book:

This is the Law of the Yukon:

“Send not your foolish and feeble; send me your strong and your sane —

[ … ]

But the others — the misfits, the failures — I trample under my feet.
Dissolute, damned and despairful, crippled and palsied and slain,
Ye would send me the spawn of your gutters — Go! take back your spawn again.

But, in real life in the Yukon of my own childhood in the late 1950s, people would think you were a dangerous nutter if you acted on such assumptions. And the nutter would have the problem, not the rest of us, believe me.

The real Law of the Yukon was: People had the right to break into an unoccupied dwelling, burn wood and eat food, provided they replaced it.

We lived that way. You couldn’t live there any other way. I wasn’t by any means the fittest kid myself but no one took that into account. Kids without competent parents were parcelled out into the community and, if possible, adopted, usually down south. A number of children actually stayed at our home, awaiting transit far down south to their adoptive parents, including a beautiful little two-year-old girl with the same name as me. I still can’t think why her mother would give her up (but it may not have been in her hands, after all; perhaps she was a TB patient). I can only hope the kid had a better life as a result, and one day understood.

Yes, doubtless, out in the boreal scrub, the northern wolf takes a wholly different view of life. So? If you had moved him to Hawaii, he’d still be a wolf, and if you had moved us to Hawaii, we’d still be human. There’s no getting past that. There’s just sinking of one’s own standards. Which is pretty much what Pearcey is taking about, and I am glad to sink the myth of the Law of the Yukon.

(Note:: For a real-world discussion of “animal art”, go here.)


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