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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life

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Tooth and Claw, Tums and Nicotine Patches
by Michael Andre ||
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Richard Morris
The Evolutionists
W.H. Freeman, NY.

Richard Morris is widely admired in the small world of alternative presses and daring websites. A witty poet, Morris was the publisher of Camels Coming Press and, more famously and most helpfully, the executive director of COSMEP. The acronym stood for different things in different years but it was basically a Committee of Small Magazine Editors and Publishers. Richard edited an invaluable monthly newsletter and answered every query by return mail.
     Nevertheless, beginning in 1979, on the side, Morris has written science books for commercial publishers. His most recent book, The Evolutionists is his most involving.
     I'm a mediocre birder who spends an occasional night camping out in the Catskills or the Adirondacks. My most exotic pet was an iguana. Academic biology ended for me with my freshman year in college.
     The polemic in The New York Review of Books offends the birder and backpacker within. Such invective leads inevitably to nicotine patches and Tums. Nature may be red in tooth and claw but so is The New York Review. I have, in fact, out of medical necessity, let my subscription lapse. Stephen Jay Gould is The New York Review's favorite writer on biology. Worse yet, he also has a column in Natural History, the magazine published at The American Museum of Natural History. Until now, Gould was a writer I was certain to skip.
     Morris, however, has sorted through Gould's friends and foes and, without taking sides, rendered their ongoing debate meaningful and even hip. I finally get the genome, emergence, species sorting, punctuated evolution, the selfish gene. Morris also convinced me, inadvertently, that evolutionary psychology has approximately the same truth as phrenology. But that, too, is good to know.
     The truth is, Morris loves science. He thinks it's the truth. Most people, including myself, are highly ambivalent. For instance, the evolutionists of Darwin's time observed that species evolved first into many races. Some races prospered, some even evolved into further species. Kipling was a great writer but the attitude behind phrases like "lesser tribes without the Law" have placed him forever in a strange moral limbo. Not long ago, Adolph Hitler was the most famous such evolutionist. I doubt that God, if He exists, would put Hitler in limbo.
     But at the moment the real foes, to Morris, are religious fundamentalists. Whether from homicidal, creationist, anti-abortionist Christians or suicidal, polygamous, anti-democratic Mohammedans, many now do truly tremble once again at priestly decree.
     I loved The Evolutionists. I have read it several times. Nevertheless, Assyrians, selected poems published in 1991 by The Smith, remains to my mind his best book. Poetry and fiction teach us about human nature. The best practical attempt at a theory of human nature by scientists remains psychoanalysis. But biology and evolution teach us, alas, only about biology and evolution.

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