Intelligent Design

Dr. Alexander Responds on Nabokov

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In Science writer defends Nabokov from the suggestion that he was not a Darwinist the UD News Desk noticed Victoria N. Alexander’s paper defending Nabokov’s Darwinian bona fides.  Dr. Alexander has responded with this comment:

Thanks for bring attention to my paper. Nabokov is a complex thinker. That’s one of the reasons why you’re having a hard time resolving what appear to be contradictions in some of the things I’ve written about. His views are neither completely like your own nor completely like mine, and it takes a bit of distancing to be able to appreciate his views on their own terms.

One of the issues noted above is whether or not Nabokov critiqued Darwin. In Nabokov’s day the neoDarwinists were coming into vogue and there are considerable differences between neoDarwinists and Darwin. Nabokov liked Darwin better than these newcomers, many of whose theory have since been proven wrong. But Nabokov did not think Darwinism (without the neo) explains mimicry, for many good reasons. In fact, the most famous case of mimic butterflies has since been found to be a hyrbrid. They’ve interbred: that’s why they look alike!

Since writing the paper that you cite above, I’ve done more research on Nabokov and more findings have come out that support my thesis. I have a new paper coming out in a book called Fine Lines: Nabokov’s Science and Art by Yale UP in a few months, which takes the argument a bit further, into the area of Biosemiotics, which is my field within the Philosophy of Science.

Here is a snippet:

“In one of Nabokov’s most poetic passages on mimicry in “Father’s Butterflies,” his fictional scientist proposes the existence of an “even force” that “animates” the universe, a “thought-engendering rotation” which

‘gave rise in nature to the lawlike regularity of repetition, of recognition, and of logical responsibility to which the apparatus of human ratiocination, the fruit of the same agitated woodlands, is subordinate.’ (Nabokov’s Butterflies 226)

Biosemioticians likewise argue that proto-semiotic relations in nature, relations of similarity (icons) and contiguity (indices), create law-like regularities, and eventually relations of arbitrarity (symbols), from which human language emerged. …It may be that Nabokov saw a primitive kind of semiotic intelligence in nature … He seems to say … that intelligence emerges from significant coincidences” and relations. And this is why reductive Newtonian science alone cannot explain it.

Teleology has always been tied up with notions of chance. I call myself a teleologist, although I don’t think that you and I use that term in the same way. I’m more of an Aristotelian. Throughout history, Teleologies have changed and adapted to science, religions, philosophies and prevailing beliefs. There is not one theory of teleology. In my book The Biologist’s Mistress: Rethinking Self-Organization in Art, Literature and Nature, I present a history of the relationship between purpose and chance. I am not a believer in a God, but I do believe in poetry or poiesis, maybe even Poiesis. Some well known theologians appreciate my argument: they interpret my “semiotic causality” to be a variation on the idea that the word was God and etc. This does not displease me. There is a lot of fruitful intuition in religion and in poetry from which scientists can learn.
VNA

4 Replies to “Dr. Alexander Responds on Nabokov

  1. 1
    butifnot says:

    Biosemioticians likewise argue that proto-semiotic relations in nature, relations of similarity (icons) and contiguity (indices), create law-like regularities, and eventually relations of arbitrarity (symbols), from which human language emerged.

    I’m trying to think of all the ways this is meaningless nonsense and wishful [wrong]thinking.

  2. 2
    Upright BiPed says:

    Dr Alexander,

    Thank you for responding on UD. I hope you’ll consider contributing here as you see fit. Semiosis is occasionally a part of the fruitful discussion here.

  3. 3

    butifnot @1:

    Yeah, I had the same thought.

    I guess on a charitable reading we would be happy that at least there is an acknowledgement of things like semiosis, arbitrary symbols, etc. That is important.

    The stuff about “proto-semiotic relations” is less useful. Hint: Anytime someone in the context of discussing origins uses the term “proto” you can take it to the bank that there is no substance behind the word and that they have no concrete idea what that “proto” thing could be or how it could function. It is virtually always just a surrogate term used to coyly admit that the existing (non-proto system) could not have arisen directly in its current state.

    Also, I’m curious how these “relations” could — themselves, without any intelligent intervention or influence — “create” new relations from which language emerged.

    Finally, the “law-like” statement is a basic category error. Law-like processes — by definition — cannot produce information-rich systems. They are anathema to it.

    So, yes, the entire paragraph contains so many errors it is hard to know where to start in critiquing it.

    —–

    Note, I’m not suggesting that Dr. Alexander holds to what is stated in the quoted paragraph. I take it she is trying to describe what some others have proposed. I also applaud Dr. Alexander responding to the request and providing a comment for posting. With Upright BiPed I would welcome her engagement here, or an occasional guest post.

    Incidentally, Dr. Alexander, if you are reading this, I think you would find some good discussion partners here regarding semiosis, self-organization, law-like processes, and similar concepts. In particular, Upright BiPed has spent some time on semiosis and has a very clear understanding, in my view, of the issues that are relevant and critical to the requirements of such systems and, therefore, their possible origin.

  4. 4
    VNAlexander says:

    Thank you for your courtesy, Eric Anderson. I would be happy to discuss semiotics with you, Upright BiPed and others.

    “Proto-semiotic” refers to inanimate self-organizing systems, which can sustain themselves for some period of time, but which have no memory systems and cannot reproduce themselves with a difference (as living systems can) and so cannot adapt, i.e. change in meaningful ways. Thus abiotic self-organized systems are not fully semiotic. But fully semiotic systems are composed of interconnected self-organized systems. I hope that’s clearer why “proto” is a useful term here.
    By law-like I was referring to habits–in the Peircean sense–which are generally flexible.

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