Corporate Megatexts

Corporate Megatexts was a serial in three parts that ran here at Only a Game from May 3rd to 17th 2016. It considered the way that we ‘play’ with the fictional worlds of books, movies, and TV shows as if they comprised a single conherent setting and the conflict between authentic expansion of such megatexts and the commercial custodianship required to make this happen. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the “next” links to read on.

Here are the three parts:

  1. Authenticity
  2. Canonicity
  3. Faithfulness

Special thanks to Chris Billows, Rob Briggs, John Brindle, Geek Boy (AKA Al Swettenham), Scott Gibbens, Auriea Harvey, Alex Hempel, It's John, Matti Karhulahti, Metal Blackbird, Cuchlann, J.P.J. Garvin, Jeroen Stout, Jacek Wesołowski, and Jose Zagal for contributing to the discussions on Twitter that helped shape this short serial.

If you enjoyed these serials, please leave a comment. Thank you!

Corporate Megatexts (3): Faithfulness

Flash Gordon Star WarsThere are just three screenings of the new Star Wars-branded movie left in my city and I'll have survived the new release with my honour intact, and the film unseen. This is a small and entirely personal victory, a test of my free will and my principles. It does not matter to me whether the new film is ‘any good’, because my concerns are not about being entertained... there was never a shortage of ways to be entertained. My concern is about the meaning we make of our megatexts (i.e. fictional worlds with many contributing works), and our relationship to the corporations that own them. I want to examine this topic as a question of faithfulness, which is to say a matter concerning the practices of authenticity (discussed two weeks ago) – and this is categorically not just about ‘being a fan’.

Surviving J.J. Abrams’ heavily promoted Star Wars film was challenging because I actively wanted to see it. I fell in love with the 1977 Star Wars as a five year old (the movie that would later be retitled A New Hope), and although I don’t consider myself a fanboy and have had a love-hate relationship with George Lucas ever since – I endured Caravan of Courage for a start – I never stopped caring about how the Star Wars megatext was being handled. Taking the classic Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials of the thirties and cross-breeding them with E.E. Doc Smith’s Lensman space operas, Kurasawa’s Hidden Fortress, and a sprinkling of World War II aerial dogfight movies was a creative masterstroke.

Mind you, it was also extremely inventive to take the Hollywood Biblical-Historical Epics of the 60s as a template for the prequels, and to layer in a positively prescient reflection on US foreign policy – not that anyone noticed. (The Phantom Menace was released in 1999, four years before Operation Enduring Freedom). But errors in aesthetic judgement matter more to audiences than grand designs: Jar Jar was the harbinger of doom both in and out of the fictional universe of Star Wars as far as a great many fans were concerned. As a matter of custodianship, however, the prequels were unquestionably a commercial success, with returns on investment that outstrip Abrams’ movie, and challenging any of Lucas’ films on authenticity grounds seems like a losing prospect. No matter how disgruntled some fans of the original trilogy might have been in respect of the prequels, they were in no position to overthrow the House of Lucas. That particular throne had to be abdicated.

At a more personal level, I have to decide what my relationship with Disney and with Star Wars will be going forward. Working this out involves difficult questions about corporate megatexts, community, and even friendship. Fiction matters, but it can matter for good reasons and for bad ones. My rejection of the newest Star Wars-branded movie was a chance to test my own principles, but it was not just knee-jerk nostalgiarism that provoked me. Disney and LucasFilm owe me nothing as a childhood fan of Star Wars: fans ‘buy in’, they don’t and can’t ‘buy out’ like Disney can. What troubles me here is the sheer extent of my entertainment money going to one creative economy – Marvel, Star Wars, The Muppets, Pixar, Disney Classics... it’s a rare day I find myself in a cinema without paying the Big Mouse these days. Of course, you can say that Disney is just the money behind these productions, and that different creative forces are being funded by them. Or you could take a hard-line stance and simply refuse to pay them (although it’s worth noting that refusing to pay while still watching the movies through piracy still supports the corporate megatexts through indirect patronage and cultural participation).

The commercial power of fiction in our century lies in the megatext, and the corporate powers will always acquire the successful megatexts. There are no blockbuster movies without media corporations (nor AAA videogames and ‘event’ mini-series for that matter), so to reject Disney outright is to give up spectacle cinema cold turkey. Yet I don’t want my son to never experience this media form even if I also don’t want it to be his only experience of narrative media. And I don’t want to have to give up going to see the latest dumb superhero movie with an old friend, for whom each new release gives us an excuse to get together and reminisce about comics from our youth. What I need is a principled way of declining to participate in popular culture, one not based solely upon the mere capacity to entertain.

A few years ago, I wrote about the concept of faithful adaptation in the context of the Peter Jackson movies collectively entitled The Hobbit. Here, the question was the role of the source book in the ‘game’ being played with the movie. Faithful adaptation requires the source materials to accord authentically with the new production (in terms of make-believe theory, for the book to be a viable secondary prop in games played with the film). This concept can be extended to new works: a faithful extension of a megatext is one that offers ‘games’ to be played with any combination of earlier works that are part of the relevant canon. Thus determining faithful works depend upon the notion of canonicity, discussed last week.

Although last week’s discussion focussed on how creative people ended up in the role of ‘arbiter of canon’, it is also clear that fictional canonicity is a community practice. Sole authors wear the crown by tradition; in bigger projects, there are always multiple heirs to the throne, which can be passed down in a family but need not be. It is the ‘players’ of megatexts who determine, through agreement, or rather, alignment, who have this role. It seems as if we want a person to have a claim to Regent of Canon because then there are always answers to the ambiguous questions, as if our imaginative experiences were anchored in part upon them existing outside of us, always offering a final court of appeal. Perhaps we learned this habit from Plato’s view of reality, and if so it would be no coincidence since the nerds who sustain the practices of canonicity are also greatly into the sciences.

This means the concept of a ‘faithful work’ leads to the notion of a ‘faithful community’, and thus of faithfulness. A person displays faithfulness to any given canon when they withhold their support from works that deviate from it (the ones that are heretical, if you will). This all sounds overtly religious, and it should: prior to the twentieth century, the megatexts that nerds fought about were holy scriptures. It is no coincidence that the term ‘canon’ being applied in this context comes from the code of church laws in the Middle Ages. Contemporary usage of ‘religion’ as a derogatory term often obscures the way our religious practices are quintessentially human practices, and as such are shaped by situational factors such as tradition and ideals, whatever their ultimate meanings might be. These practices never go away, but they change – often radically – over the centuries.

So is my resistance to the new Star Wars movie an act of faithfulness? Not exactly. The faithful community of fiction I belong to that grounds my non-co-operation with Disney in this case is not Star Wars but Star Trek. In this regard, it is noteworthy that demands of custodianship could be invoked to explain why Abrams had to ditch almost every aspect of the thematic and moral background to the Star Trek megatext in order to bring it to as wide an audience as possible in the cinema. One of the things that was lost in this popularising move was the ethical role of the Prime Directive, which Roddenberry and his writers created to serve as a surrogate for Westphalian sovereignty by transposing the relationship between nations into the relationship between planets. It is noteworthy that a great many Trekkies and Trekkers do not support this concept in or out of the fictional world they love, since they favour international interventions around the world on ethical grounds that would be judged utterly unacceptable by any Starfleet captain. Here, as with the religious megatexts, there is a notable gap between faithfulness to the works in question and faithfulness to the moral practices they extol.

My own faithfulness to the Star Trek megatext is a key reason I withdrew my support for Disney’s Star Wars. It is because Abrams could not (indeed, would not) faithfully extend the Star Trek megatext (as I outlined last week) that I object to Disney handing him the keys to the Death Star just so he can blow it up. Again. Perhaps the new movie is a faithful extension of the Star Wars megatext for many of those who rejected the prequels – I have certainly heard fans of the original trilogy treating the new movie as if it were akin to the vain promise of mum and dad getting back together after an unpleasant childhood divorce. Most likely Disney’s custodianship of Star Wars is just yet another fork in the canon, creating ever more splintered communities and endlessly propagating the arguments over minutiae. This has been what communities of nerds have done for nearly two millennia, after all, and these days it is at least mostly harmless.

Corporations are not the enemy, but they cannot be our friends, for all the money they spend securing that mythos. They need us more than we need them, and they are adept at getting us to take them for granted. The challenge of twenty first century ethics increasingly entails forging and maintaining communities that are more than merely commercial, and in this regard corporations are indeed opposed to us. They are vested in the commercial communities of so-called late capitalism because this is what sustains them. It also happens to be what entertains us. In so much as faithfulness in fiction might give us reasons to break from the status quo, it could become something more than just pugnacious geeks arguing amongst themselves. My suspicion, however, is that our established loyalty to specific megatexts is a force stronger than faithfulness and authenticity. For myself, at least, I have strived to assert my humanity by resisting the inevitable pull of my childhood nostalgia. It is through nostalgia, after all, that the power of the corporate megatexts accumulates.

A new serial begins later this year.

Corporate Megatexts (2): Canonicity

Star Fleet Technical ManualThe reboot of a franchise has become so commonplace that seldom a second thought goes into pushing the button and burning continuity to the ground. However, for fans and lovers of any given megatext (i.e. fictional world with many contributing works) there is always an expectation of some degree of authenticity to each new addition. In science fiction and fantasy, genres where geeks form the bedrock of support, there is one particular ‘game’ that dominates questions of what is authentic: canonicity.

There is an inherent tension between the commercial viability of a franchise (the value of custodianship) and the demand for authenticity in the adaptation and extension of fictional worlds (last week’s theme). This aesthetic and moral conflict structures the growth and development of all the contemporary megatexts. In cases where nerd culture has a foothold (or indeed, a stranglehold), the question of what is canonical – of which works constitute the canon, or official components – is both fraught and crucial to understanding how nerds approach authenticity. The underlying process of defending canonicity against the impossibility of ever integrating disparate fictional works as if they were referring to a single universe is something I touched upon in Imaginary Games, but in the context of authenticity and megatextual networks it is worth reconsidering the rules of this game.

Last week, I suggested that it was possible to trace the networks for megatexts, and also to detect different games being played with them via disagreements. When it comes to authenticity, the networks foreground the relationship between fictional works and their creators, with the specific practices also varying to some degree depending upon the relevant medium. It is worth starting in books, where the situation is simplest. For any written story, the presence of a clearly identifiable sole author gives that person unprecedented power to establish or deny the authentic, authorised ‘games’ that can be played in our imagination. J.K. Rowling, for instance, is the final arbiter of any question about the Harry Potter universe as long as she lives. This power can be transmitted down the family line – from Frank to Brian Herbert, for instance, or from J.R.R. to Christopher Tolkien – although in such cases the ‘player’ of the megatext can choose to seal the canon, and treat the continuations as apocrypha or secondary texts.

Films, however, are conceptualised somewhat differently. Perhaps because they are inevitably produced by large teams, the mantle of arbiter of canon rarely falls onto an individual’s shoulders. The same pattern applies to TV shows, which are similarly the product of collaboration. In these cases, a ‘claim to the throne’ lies with a number of different people, depending on quite different circumstances. Directors, writers, and especially actors, all have a capacity to assert a claim to authenticity, even though the audience is not bound to accept it. Highlander 2, for instance, has clear continuity of cast but was outright rejected by fans like a failed organ transplant. There was simply too thin a claim to authenticity.

Star Trek is a particularly interesting case, one where multiple competing claims for creative inheritance lead to many available ‘games’, each with their own canon. There are fans for whom only the classic show ‘counts’, and others for whom the five live action TV series form a single megatext, with the animated series as apocrypha. Gene Roddenberry still held the crown during production of Star Trek: The Next Generation, passing it down to Rick Berman in 1989, who lost the throne with the cancellation of Enterprise in 2005.

It’s interesting to ponder what might have happened had Roddenberry died in the 1970s. Would Dorothy Fontana have become ‘Queen of Trek’ by the implied line of succession? It is notable that she is the only writer on the animated show whose work is given merit in canon discussions. She was also the only classic writer brought back to work on the Next Generation. The claims to the throne of canon arbiter become stronger the longer someone has been involved with the megatext in question.

The oddest branch in canon also relates to Star Trek. The technical artist Franz Joseph created blueprints for the USS Enterprise and other starships from the classic show, which were blessed as ‘official’ by Roddenberry. But in the 60s, megatexts were peripheral to media production and corporations were lax about subsidiary rights until Astroboy and Star Wars made it clear that successful monetisation of franchises was about more than the core product. Joseph licensed his drawings to Task Force Games, who then made the seminal tabletop wargame Star Fleet Battles. Canonicity forks here: the Star Fleet universe has all the races and ships of the Star Trek universe (the legal case TSR vs. Tolkien having established that races could not be copyrighted), but this secondary megatext clearly isn’t part of any of the Star Trek canons. Joseph had a disputable claim to the throne, but it remained securely with Roddenberry and Paramount, who became more vigilant about potential usurpation in the future.

When we come to the post-Berman resurrection of the Star Trek franchise, J.J. Abrams did not hesitate to cry “Code zero zero zero destruct zero” and detonate the existing continuity. But of course, this created a gap in the claim to authenticity, a problem pragmatically hurdled by having Leonard Nimoy bless the new movie by appearing in it as Spock. This act did not bridge the canons of the Star Trek megatext, which were irrevocably forked, but it met the minimum requirements for authenticity. In this regard, it is worth comparing William Shatner’s presence in Star Trek: Generations. Fans of the new TV shows were already on board, of course, but the majority of the cinematic audience weren’t necessarily in the same boat. Once again, a bridge to secure authenticity was required – and once again, it was an actor that did it.

It is thus clear that the defuse nature of the manifold of ‘games’ played with corporate megatexts permits extension only by the simultaneous risk of an ‘orthodox’ counter-fan base that rejects the new works and remains faithful to the originals (a theme I shall pick up in the final part of this seial, next week). Tactics to suppress or placate such resistance then becomes part of the corporate task of brand management. Yet it seems as if the role of actors as props in these imaginary games might outrank creators in establishing film canonicity, perhaps because by being on screen they are more prominently associated with the relevant fictional world. That’s why Nimoy had to bless Abram’s all-action, hollowed-out version of Star Trek (which could still be judged inauthentic against any and all prior games of canon up to that point, despite the legal authority of the owning corporation).

When Abrams was also tasked with continuing the Star Wars megatext in the cinema, the mighty G-canon (as LucasArts termed George Lucas’ primary continuity during his reign) represented a cult of resistance that needed to be addressed. In this case, on top of the claim of authenticity granted by securing the original cast (which was vital but not decisive) was the added power of Lawrence Kasdan – Star Wars’ very own Dorothy Fontana, since he co-wrote the latter two parts of the original trilogy. Since fans rate The Empire Strikes Back as the best of the movies, this play was both shrewd and effective. Avoiding the necessity of a reboot, Abrams used the heir apparent to secure his title as pretender to the throne long enough to validate his movie – yet had no interest in claiming the crown. Abrams role was as kingmaker in the consolidation of authority for Disney, whose acquisition of LucasFilm had set up the conditions for a potential ‘Star Wars of the Roses’. It is to the impact of this situation that the final part of this serial is addressed.

Next week: Faithfulness

Corporate Megatexts (1): Authenticity

Kutanagi v JohanssonWhen Paramount announced that Scarlett Johansson had been cast as Major Kusanagi in the live action adaptation of Ghost In The Shell, it launched another outbreak of accusations about ‘whitewashing’ – the appointment of white actors and actresses into roles with a clearly established ethnicity. Comic book writer Jon Tsuei advanced a strong criticism of the casting, not on the grounds of racial politics, but claiming that Ghost In The Shell is “inherently a Japanese story, not a universal one.” What are we to make of this claim, and of the circumstances that led to it?

This incident is an example of a clash of narrative communities, a phenomena that – with a notable exception I’ll save until later – is peculiar to the last hundred years. The reason we are facing these conflicts today can be traced to a serious gap between the aesthetic and ethical values that sustain contemporary media production. On the one hand, the giant global corporations that produce our most popular entertainments are propelled by an ethical and economic commitment to sustain their franchises by ensuring the money they make will exceed the cost of production. This is the burden of custodianship. On the other side is the question of authenticity in adapting or extending story materials, the demand that all materials be faithfully related. Tsuei’s objections to Johannson’s casting is a good example of an authenticity argument.

The problem of custodianship is often dismissed as pure profit motive, yet no-one is going to stump up millions of dollars to make (say) a blockbuster movie without the hope it can take even more money at the box office, or through other channels of monetisation. To be opposed to custodianship is to attempt to opt out of popular culture altogether – something Marxists certainly have reason to do, but that most people do not. The continued production of content is something most seem to view as beneficial, except where to do so would undermine the authenticity of what was made. Conversely, those pushing against the production of further content can appeal to the diminishment of the core materials, which is another argument from authenticity.

The question of authenticity relates directly to the kind of ‘game’ being played with the fictional world in question. We are not accustomed to thinking of films or books as being ‘played’, but whether this term is taken literally or figuratively, the point remains that there are multiple ways a work can be experienced. As I argue in “What are we playing with? Role-taking, role-play, and story-play with Tolkien’s legendarium”, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit movies are ‘played’ differently by someone who takes them as an adaptation of the book of that name than by someone who takes them as a prequel to Jackson’s movies of The Lord of the Rings. The problem of authenticity is always tied to a context.

Now there may be a temptation here to dismiss the issue of authenticity entirely as ‘subjective’, and a corresponding mistake of thinking that custodianship must be objective since the money, after all, can be counted. But successful custodianship must meet minimum requirements of authenticity lest the franchise be ‘milked dry’, and thus depends upon the very subjective elements that the economic factors are contrasted against. The desire to dismiss the subjective elements of a problem stems entirely from the mistaken assumption that they are infinitely variable, and thus cannot be meaningfully engaged with. However, once it is recognised that the experience of fiction entails different games, we are no longer dealing with the irreducible infinite. We are simply dealing with a manifold of practices, that is a set of different ‘games’.

Just as Bruno Latour has demonstrated that a grounded sociology is about tracing relations, a grounded study of fictional interplay is about identifying the network associated with the practices of the ‘game’ being played. This network includes all the works that form the megatext of the fictional world. This term ‘megatext’ is Charles Segal’s idea for understanding Greek mythology as inter-related, and I have extended this in my philosophy to contemporary media franchises like The X-Men, Star Trek, and Tolkien’s legendarium. The network also includes both the causal ‘players’ of the megatext (“I saw that movie”) and the hobbyists (“I’ve read every issue”), and all the people and companies entailed in creating the original media. The situation is further complicated by the interdependences: the X-Men megatext links to the Marvel comics megatext, and to the broader science fiction megatext, and more besides! The task of tracing such a network may seem insurmountable, but it is nothing of the kind – it is simply (as Latour notes for sociology) that you must trace things carefully, one step at a time.

While short cuts in network-tracing are risky, a subset of the manifold of ‘games to be played’ can be constructed to provisionally interrogate any megatext. In Implicit Game Aesthetics I took the conflicts between aesthetic values (evidenced by the arguments that are stated) as distinguishing between different ways of playing (indeed, of playing anything). I do not think it a coincidence that Latour uses the same method to trace his ‘modes of existence’. The provisional manifold for every megatext is thus the different ‘games’ revealed by the arguments between ‘players’. Some games are disagreements about the values of authenticity, but some are clashes between custodianship and specific values for authenticity.

In the case of Jon Tsue vs. Paramount, this is precisely the case: taking an authenticity position based around cultural embedding as his aesthetic context, Tsue argues that any attempt to disembed Ghost In The Shell from Japanese culture is a breach of authenticity. The unstated counter-argument from Paramount would presumably be that custodianship dictates a lead actress with box office draw. Without Johansson, therefore, there would be no movie. (This argument was indeed traced, on Paramount's behalf, by the Hollywood Reporter.) Supporters of authenticity could argue in such a case that it would be better not to make the film at all than to compromise the faithful relationship of the new work to the rest of the relevant megatext. Here, in brutal simplicity, is the crisis in authentic fiction brought about by the practical dominance of corporations in the ownership of all contemporary megatexts.

Next week: Canonicity

Can Players Have Rights?

1689 Bill of Rights Could there be a viable concept of ‘player rights’, and if not, are there any grounds for legally restricting games?

There have been several attempts to propose a ‘Player’s Bill of Rights’ (e.g. Graham Nelson in 1994, Raph Koster in 2000, Peterb of Tea Leaves in 2004, Ernest Adams in 2005, and Brad Wardell in 2008), but the tendency of these has been to present wish lists of requirements game developers should adhere to, motivated partly by personal frustrations, and partly by professional expertise. Such statements can be exceptionally useful as proposals of best practices for game design or commercial game development, but the ‘bill of rights’ aspect of such manifestos is best understood as an imaginative framing. It certainly helps such claims get noticed, but it does not rise to the level of a genuine claim to rights.

There are two possible ways that we might get clear of this problem. Firstly, we could involve many different players in a discourse on their issues – which will prove intractable in the face of the immense diversity of players, and the vocal bloody-mindedness of certain factions among them. The alternative, which I take up here, is to pursue a concept of player rights from similar philosophical groundings to the US Bill of Rights and the so-called Universal Declaration of Human Rights, namely Kant’s concept of Recht (what I will call ‘the rightful state’ or ‘rightful conditions’). This idea has been a substantial influence in the emergence of what are now asserted as ‘rights’, although it should be noted that the very first Bill of Rights (pictured above) was written in 1689 and reflected the earlier philosophy of John Locke (although this was also an influence on Kant’s work).

It is worth observing that of the above mentioned bills of player rights, Raph Koster’s A Declaration of the Rights of Avatars is closest in form to historical documents of this kind (being partly modelled upon them). But for these kinds of player rights claim to hold up, they must hold up on grounds parallel to historical rights legislature – and this is far from obviously the case, for reasons this enquiry will undertake to make clear.

Ethics vs. Rightful Conditions

Kant divided morals into ethics (which he saw as rational self-constraint) and the rightful state (which concerns civil law). Rightful conditions are distinct from ethics because Kant thought, as many of us do today, that freedom consists in setting your own ends (that is, your own life goals), without being unnecessarily constrained by others.

As Allen Wood explains, it was Kant’s proposal that the only justifiable role for coercion of any kind was to secure the external freedom of citizens – this and this alone is the rightful state for any nation. Kant did not consider it reasonable for anyone to be forced to adopt other people’s ends, since anyone who is constrained in this way is not free. But ensuring that everyone was able to set their own ends in a civil society means protecting against attempts to force other people to adopt ends that are not their own – and the only reasonable use of coercion would be to prevent this.

Such enforcement does not require anyone to adopt any specific end, it merely protects everyone against any such attempts to dominate their freedom. We are only free, the argument goes, if we are free to choose our own ends, our life goals, although we may be rightfully constrained in the pursuit of those ends because some things that we might intend to do would violate the rightful condition (e.g. murdering people who block your chosen end).

It is thus from the idea of a rightful condition that the authority of civil police arises, and also from the rightful state that concepts of human rights develop, to protect against external coercion. This sets the background to exploring the idea of player rights: if such an idea is valid, there must be a rightful condition for games.

The Ends of Games

To begin with we must ask: do we ever possess ends when we play? It is important to appreciate that an end is far more than just something you want. As I explain in Chaos Ethics, ends are imagined future states in your life that you actively commit to pursuing. You may heartily crave an ice cold beer but it cannot be one of your ends – although it could be one of your ends to own a brewery, say.

Either our gaming-ends – to reach Level 70, build a castle, 100% a game etc. – are truly ends in the sense that freedom implies, or else they are something akin to fictional-ends, hence (analogously to Walton’s quasi-emotions) quasi-ends i.e. imagined ends whose meaning occurs solely within fictional worlds and not in everyday life as such. This distinction is not that easy to settle, however. A player may genuinely want to 100% a game, but then lose interest and play something else – or may become so obsessed with World of Warcraft that they drop out of college.

Notice also that some kinds of game are difficult to imagine quasi-ends for – what I have called thin play games such as Dear Esther and Proteus do not afford much room for willing future states, as they are experiential, like other artworks. Similarly, you may want to win at Snakes & Ladders but it is not a plausible end to set, nor is becoming a master at this particular game a particularly plausible end, as it might be (potentially) for Chess or Tetris.

The safest answer is to provisionally treat ends within the fictional worlds of games as quasi-ends that nonetheless can affect the ends we set in life – such as the undergraduate who succumbs to the lure of Azeroth, and thus frustrates his original end to earn a degree. This approach helps us deal with ambiguities about the diversity of player responses to the very same games that should affect our assessment of whether and how players set ends in the games they (freely) choose to play.

Do Games Coerce Players?

For there to be a question of player rights in Kant’s philosophy there must be a possibility of coercion that should be excluded – so we must ask: can game developers force quasi-ends upon players against their will? It is not entirely clear that they can.

In the case of the MMO drop-out, it does not seem entirely reasonable to suggest the player was coerced by Blizzard so much as suffered a personal moral failure after playing their game (i.e. this is an ethical problem, not an issue with rightful conditions). Blizzard, World of Warcraft, and other players who know the drop-out are all implicated in the network of moral agency here, but implying coercion seems to massively overstate the level of responsibility of anyone involved. The same would appear to apply to scurrilous microtransactions that take advantage of frustrated players – they may be ethically questionable, but preying upon the impulses of players does not quite seem to be of the magnitude required to constitute coercion. After all, isn’t this more or less what casinos do?

What this suggests is that there cannot be any player rights based upon this idea of rightful conditions, which is where all our other uses of ‘rights’ descend from (even those older conceptions drawing against Locke). It may be immoral for developers to produce games that take advantage of compulsive tendencies, but it does not qualify as a breach of rightful condition. The developer, on the other hand, does have its ends unrightfully frustrated by players who acquire access to their game via piracy – namely their end of being compensated for their own work. But this was not the subject of this particular enquiry.

No Rights, Many Wrongs

The reason it sometimes feels as if there should be player rights is that some decisions developers make frustrate players and seem thoroughly unnecessary – not allowing cut scenes to be skipped being a classic example (included in both Ernest’s and Peterb’s bills of rights), or using inadequately specified puzzles (as Graham Nelson’s bill of rights argues against).

However, at best we can say that it is bad business sense not to appreciate the needs of players in this regard, and (on the other side of this coin) players ought to be aware that software development is expensive and time-consuming and even small features place significant burdens on developers if they are required to implement them. In this regard, ‘player rights’ as lists of bugbears are not something that can be justified as anything other than advice for best practices. (Of course, this doesn’t mean developers shouldn’t pay attention to such issues, only that they cannot be compelled to adhere to them!)

In other cases (such as with Brad Wardell’s bill of rights), certain specific demands concern the commercial relationship between a player and a supplier that do not actually relate to games at all. For instance, it might indeed be a breach of rightful condition to secretly install hidden software drivers in so much as the individual’s ends regarding being in control of their own computer are being thwarted. But this has nothing to do with playing games.

Issues like this do, however, suggest there might be software rights that could be pursued, depending in part upon the rather important question of whether users are effectively forced to use certain instances of software. Again, this idea lies beyond the scope of this enquiry.


On purely philosophical grounds, I can draw several conclusions:

  1. Games are not clearly coercive, and as such are not a suitable venue for protective rights.
  2. Software (including game software) can potentially be coercive and might qualify as breaching rightful condition.
  3. There is a moral distinction between games that do not cause players to set specific quasi-ends (some of which share kinship with other kinds of artworks) and those that do.

These latter games, where they are especially compulsive, might justifiably be subjected to legal limitations in so much as civil societies restrict narcotics and gambling for similar (moral) reasons – and it could be argued (although I will not do so here) that such things do breach rightful conditions, although this claim is certainly a matter of debate.

Along similar lines, game developers who prey upon players through manipulative microtransactions cannot necessarily be prevented from doing so as a question of rightful conditions – but this does not preclude them from being judged immoral, and as such communities might decide to institute laws to restrict access to such games by (say) age, or some other appropriate criterion.

Such laws would not necessarily be consistent with Kant’s concept of rightful conditions, except where in so doing they clearly protected external freedom. This might be justifiable when dealing with children, who we tend to treat as being more susceptible to external influences, but if we think an adult is sufficiently autonomous to get drunk, we should equally think them capable of being in control of their games. It is not that players have rights so much as it is that players have responsibilities – and not least of all, to themselves.

Galileo the Hero and Other Mythos Histories

Galileo Suggest Jesus was just another human and you horrify orthodox Christians – suggest Galileo wasn’t heroic, and you horrify orthodox Positivists. How do disputes over historical facts possess this power to induce horror?

The inability to bear contradictory conceptions is called cognitive dissonance by psychologists. Recently, we have made watching other people endure dissonance into entertainment – amateur ‘singers’ who become enraged when their lack of talent becomes exposed, or low-income lovers reacting violently when a lying partner is revealed. The experience is disorientating, and can invoke rage in certain cases, yet we all experience minor dissonance on a daily basis in pursuit of a consistent sense of self: the story we tell about ourselves has to be maintained against the ambiguities of life.  We expect to encounter a single consistent story about the world – history – and when this is threatened by rival accounts, dissonance occurs.

In Chaos Ethics, I use the term moral horror to describe cognitive dissonance in the context of ethics – the unsettling or fury-inducing response to incompatible ethical conceptions. Moral horror can be seen in the context of abortion, gay marriage, and many more cases of contemporary political disagreement. My additional claim in this piece is that because we possess moral values concerning truth, clashes over historical questions also evoke moral horror, and this is the reason that contrary historical claims can bring about dissonance. When positivists express outrage at the idea of creationism, for instance, it is because this suggestion transgresses their deeply held moral values concerning truth (see The Mythology of Evolution for this discussion). What on the face of it seems to be a factual dispute becomes a moral conflict: ‘you should not believe this (because it is not true)’.

We need moral horror – it is not something we should wish to eliminate. It is one of the few things that will motivate us to take action against that which we judge as morally wrong. But there is also severe danger any time cognitive dissonance is involved, because we are at the greatest risk of acting unreasonably whenever it affects us (just recall the poor victims of those ‘shocking’ day time talk shows). In the grip of moral horror, we are certain we are right, and cannot – quite literally – imagine how the other view of the world that horrifies us could be in any way reasonable. At most, we can tolerate the other perspective, which is a polite way of saying that we look down on these foolish others and patiently endure their being so obviously wrong. A key part of my purpose in exploring moral horror in Chaos Ethics is precisely to move past this intolerant tolerance, and to achieve this requires a deeper understanding of the role of imagination in morality – and history.

To unravel the moral horror of clashing histories we need to appreciate that our access to the world is mediated by certain imaginative patterns. Joseph Campbell referred to the mythic systems that are tied to lived practices as ‘living mythologies’ and it is the nature of such things that they are indeed lived. Often, this entails a relationship between the practitioners’ ethics and the stories of their mythos (i.e. a specific cultural vantage point, see the chapter on ethics in Imaginary Games for more on this). We cannot, as Jean-François Lyotard and others have suggested, break out of seeing the world through these ‘grand narratives’ – judging them as if we could get completely outside is simply, as Charles Taylor observed, yet another mythic point of view (what might be called the postmodern or relativist mythology). No, I’m afraid we all must imagine in specific ways if we are to imagine anything at all (whether fact or fiction), but as both Campbell and Raimon Pannikar drew attention to, we all have great difficulty in understanding our own mythologies as anything other than truth – and this is the root of the problem to be explored here, because it is this that sets up inevitable cognitive dissonance.

For the purpose of explaining the phenomena under consideration, let us treat any mythos as comprised of two elements – mythos stories that are recognised as stories by those who share them, and mythos histories that are taken as factual. Mythos stories have as their focus their moral content – Jesus’ parables are a great example, or Homer’s Odyssey as a guide to how a Greek warrior must be tempered before he can become a good husband. Conversely, mythos histories are read as informing chronology rather than morality, a key archetype being Jewish genealogies in the Torah (“Abraham begat Isaac” and so forth) that organize the passage of time. Indeed, the Abrahamic traditions are sometimes taken as having ‘invented history’ in the way it is often understood – perceiving time as both passing and consecutive, and also as heading somewhere  (see, for instance, Jacob Neusner’s The Christian and Judaic Invention of History). Homer and (later) Herodotus developed a concept of recording the past narratively, but it is only after Christianity brought Jewish practices to Rome that the mythic dimensions of histories became fully-fledged.

Now the problematic part of mythos histories is that the transition from ‘story’ to ‘history’ implies a move from an infinite space of possibility to a finite space of definite facts. There can be (it is assumed) only one history, or rather there can be only one true history. In those traditions partly descended from Plato’s Greek philosophy (especially Christianity and its offshoot atheisms) this is an especially likely habit, but via the sciences (which grow out of Christianity and Islam, and hence Platonic thought) the trend is now everywhere. What is more, wherever the prevailing assumption is to demand a single true history, there is a temptation for people to treat mythos stories as mythos histories. For example, orthodox Christian sects may recognize parables as ‘just stories’ but the Garden of Eden will be taken as history. This is by no means a given, of course – the majority of Christian groups draw their lines here very differently – but the point remains that the presumed line between fact and fiction becomes blurred within an individual’s mythos.

This phenomena is not constrained to religious traditions, as is usually assumed, but happens just as readily within non-religious contexts. For example, for many positivists Galileo is presented as having defended a suppressed yet true description of the arrangement of the planets (heliocentrism) against the erroneous dogma of the church. However, the records of the same event offer multiple alternative accounts - including that the clergy at the time were the sober scientists in this affair and that Galileo's techniques were not sufficient to prove what he had nonetheless correctly intuited. Similarly, the usual positivistic mythos history requires Galileo as a valiant hero maintaining the truth against the errors of the church – but this account is somewhat undermined by the cynic’s observation that Galileo’s offending manuscript brought trouble for him primarily by portraying his then-ally, Pope Urban VIII, as a simpleton. Woe betide anyone who suggests to an orthodox positivist that Galileo’s downfall was his own arrogance!

We can see in this example why a mythos history is more than just a neutral chronicle of events, and why it is sometimes difficult to separate ‘story’ from ‘history’. To hail Galileo as a scientific ‘martyr’ requires a mythos history that presents him as heroically resisting religious oppression, and bringing forth the world-changing power of empirical observation that is the ‘sacred’ value of positivistic non-religion. This particular episode comes across radically differently from the viewpoint of (for instance) the Chinese, who were never so invested in any specific cosmological arrangement, and who readily adopted Copernicus’ heliocentric cosmos when exposed to it by the Jesuits – and without the significant seismic upheavals attributed to Galileo’s ‘heroism’. This is directly contrary to what is claimed by, say, Luciano Floridi, whose mythos history (presented at a TEDx talk in Oxford) essentially requires Galileo, along with Darwin and Freud, to acquire the grand status of epoch-making scientific iconoclasts fighting religion (a mythos Bertrand Russell helped lay the groundwork for). It is not that this role does not match ‘the facts’ in each case, but rather that the account of these individuals purely as revolutionary is radically incomplete – as would be the case for any history presented solely from a single point-of-view. As the philosophers of the twentieth century never tired of emphasizing, all history is mythic history.

Rather than taking this situation to mark the ‘end of history’, I want to offer a slightly different approach. In Chaos Ethics, I draw against William James and (later, and independently) Michael Moorcock’s image of a multiverse, rather than a universe. This is not the multiverse of quantum physics, however (although Moorcock also helped inspire that), but rather the idea that beings and things experience their own separate worlds, and that none of these worlds can claim to be ‘the true world’ when taken alone. Thus while in an (imagined) universe there is only one true version of events, in an (also imagined) multiverse the facts depend upon the world you are in: it is false in most Christian worlds that ‘Jesus was an ordinary human’, but this is true in any positivist worlds. Crucially, no world-independent account is available in a multiverse, even though there is substantial agreement (at least between humans) about all manner of things. All facts always depend upon the world they are perceived from, but these diverse worlds are congruent in the majority of cases for any given species or entity provided the necessary translations can be performed accurately. Where they diverge, however, is precisely at the fault lines between contrary mythos histories – and these thus become a locus for unresolved cognitive dissonance.

This multiversal perspective is not something that can be expected to attain widespread acceptance since it requires a strong imagination to envisage. But it may only take a sufficient volume of intellectuals to adopt it (or something like it) to radically enhance our diplomatic power, and thus our capacity for effective, peaceful action on a whole host of pressing issues. Orthodox theists and positivists are unlikely to be able to talk to each other effectively – but their moderate colleagues could cross this bridge, and securing that dialogue would go a long way towards motivating substantial moral action in the developed world. By substituting a mythos superset for a singular and exclusive mythos history, the possibility of harnessing moral horror as a transformative influence can begin to seriously emerge. This is a powerful option since, as mentioned previously, it is moral horror that helps motivate reform on ethical matters – but only when it is properly aligned. Up until now, the potentialities of the multiverse have been used mostly for ‘spin’ – to obfuscate and deceive by using the gap between events and the mythic histories that record them solely for partisan gain. We can only speculate at what might be achieved if we began to use it instead as a tool for peace.

For more on moral horror, intolerant tolerance, and how to be a traveller in an ethical multiverse, check out my latest book Chaos Ethics.

Doctor Who and the Paradox of Fiction

Just submitted a paper to the British Journal of Aesthetics discussing Walton’s quasi-emotions in the context of my childhood hiding behind the sofa to escape from Daleks. It’s a lovely piece, but I have no idea whether they will take it! I suppose it is too much to hope that they will both accept it and publish it in time for the Doctor Who golden anniversary in November. Well, dreaming is free, right?

Imaginary Evolution (2): Fitness

Last week, the metaphor of “selection” led to questions about what “fitness” is supposed to mean. And now, the conclusion.

Imperata Grass The “confusion about fitness”, as Ariew and Lewontin call it, comes from ignoring a rather obvious problem. Contemporary science is in love with its numbers – empirically-minded people adore the precision of physics – but this infatuation with mathematics isn’t always appropriate. Indeed, British philosopher Mary Midgley observes that our use of the terms “hard science” and “soft science” embed a kind of hierarchical judgment – the more mathematical a science appears to be, the “harder” it is assumed to be, and “hard” beats “soft” much as rock-beats-scissors. But Darwin’s idea of fitness to environment doesn’t lend itself to a simple numeric measure – it’s a complicated, multi-faceted fiction, one that enables us to think differently about the nature of life, but only “softly”. For most kinds of life on our planet, there is no way to make fitness into a neat number, much less one with predictive value – there may be no way at all to talk about one animal being ‘more fit’ than another outside of the fiction the metaphors provide.

Attempts to provide fitness with a robust, mathematical meaning tend to fall prey of an assumed equivalence between reproductive rates and Darwin’s fitness to environment, as if ‘fitness’ was nothing more than a measure of the number of offspring a creature can produce. Ariew and Lewontin savage the assumptions behind this approach, demonstrating that it just won’t do to treat ‘reproductive fitness’ as a substitute for fitness to environment, and this for a number of reasons, including the fact that a great many organisms have overlapping generations, meaning that reproductive rates are not that simple to calculate. When problems such as these have been recognized, alternative solutions have been offered – but the only secure way of mounting the concept involves measuring actual changes in the abundance of particular species, at which point any kind of explanatory or predictive power has been abandoned.

Furthermore, the attempt to use rates of reproduction as a measure of fitness run into insurmountable problems concerning what it means to count individuals at all. If the idea is that an animal which has a thousand offspring is fitter than an animal that has ten offspring (and perhaps even that the former is a hundred times fitter!) we have to be aware that there are many forms of life for which this kind of simplified view doesn’t really make any sense. Many flowers, for instance, have offspring by seeds, but they also grow vegetatively by putting out underground runners that produce new flowers asexually (pictured above). These new flowers are essentially clones of the original plant – should they be counted as new individuals, or not? If they are individuals, what does this mean for trees, which consist of a vast knot of flowering stems woven together into branches and a trunk? If the flowers are all individuals, the tree can’t be counted as one single individual, but must be treated as many different individuals, despite our strong intuitions to the contrary.

The same problem occurs with colonial organisms, such as the coral polyps that make spectacular coastal reefs. Coral polyps sometimes reproduce sexually, but more commonly they reproduce asexually via a process known as ‘budding’. If fitness is to be measured by counts of offspring, is a polyp that produces a hundred sexually-produced polyps to be considered fitter than a polyp that manages to occupy an entire reef through budding? As Ariew and Lewontin put it, “the problem of fitness and relative evolutionary success demands a solution to the problem of defining an individual.” They trace these issues back to the influence of Thomas Malthus on evolutionary theory and conclude that the genetic notion of ‘reproductive fitness’ just doesn’t fit to Darwin’s fitness to environment.

Ariew has pursued the same issue of what fitness is supposed to mean with the philosopher Zachary Ernst, and identifying severe problems with every attempt thus made to mount ‘fitness’ onto a secure mathematical footing. They are all in favor “reconstructing” the concept of fitness “so that it can play its traditional role in evolutionary explanation.” They just do not believe anyone has actually solved this problem, nor indeed are they convinced that it can be solved. The hope is to secure a meaning for ‘fitness’ that will serve as an explanation for why a particular trait succeeds while others fail, and hence why animals with that trait prosper. But they are doubtful that this is possible.

Particularly at task is a widespread account of fitness we can call fitness as propensity or the propensity interpretation. The basic idea is much as we have already seen in reproductive fitness – the fitness of a particular animal is related to its expected number of offspring. To avoid all the pitfalls of this simplistic approach, however, a more advanced solution is needed which takes into account a ‘family’ of propensities, rather than just reproductive rates. Either way, the fitness of any given animal is taken to be a property of the animal itself, that is, of its natural propensities (hence, ‘fitness as propensity’).

For instance, John Beatty and Susan Finsen offer a solution to the fitness problem in terms of a family of propensities that jointly affect population growth. If all the relevant propensities are included correctly in the model, this should presumably allow fitness as propensity to function as intended – relating fitness to number of offspring by correctly modelling population growth as a consequence of multiple factors. The trouble is, under this approach, different propensities will be needed to consider fitness in any given instance, which means in order to meaningfully talk of ‘fitness’ we must already understand all the relevant factors that contribute to the success of particular traits.

Ariew and Ernst contend that “nature is too variegated. Different biological situations call for different algorithms to explain changes in trait frequencies.” They do not see much hope of salvaging a propensity interpretation that has any predictive value. Part of the problem is that the intrinsic properties of individual animals aren’t really enough to understand why particular animals thrive and others fail. For most creatures, the reasons why any given trait becomes more or less common just aren’t causally determined. In the absence of a general model, it is still possible to pursue a historical investigation into the circumstances that lead to a particular species, but any hope that all such histories might be collapsible into explanatory theories of fitness must be set aside.

In fact, ‘fitness’ is applied most successfully in evolutionary theories when Darwin’s fitness to environment is essentially ignored. Genetic models of evolution that use fitness as a mathematical term (denoted by the letter ‘w’) have prospered, treating fitness purely in terms of changes in gene ratios. These population genetic approaches to fitness work very well in terms of their formulation and application to specific problems in the laboratory. They can be made to fit to artificial selection experiments quite easily, since ‘selection’ in the lab has the literal meaning of a decision (one made by the experimental protocol). But at this point, we’re no longer explaining the nature of life in the same terms that Darwin was using.

What could be called genetic fitness in these kinds of theories doesn’t assess how well a trait or a creature fits to their environment at all, and as such these theories don’t provide any explanation for the changes in the relative abundances of real animals or their genes. This presents a rather significant problem that tends to be ignored: if the successful use of ‘selection’ and ‘fitness’ in population genetic models has no role for the causes of selection, we seem to have inadvertently thrown away Darwin’s theory in its entirety. These genetic models are acausal – they don’t deal in causation at all, whereas Darwin’s natural selection was presented precisely as an explanatory cause. As philosophers of biology Alexander Rosenberg and Frederic Bouchard put it: “In jettisoning fitness, acausal approaches seem to have jettisoned natural selection altogether.”

We are left with Sober’s “two faces” of fitness: a mathematical model, gainfully deployed by population geneticists, and the imaginative concept of fitness to environment that originates in Darwin’s theory. But these are not two faces of the same beast – they are entirely different animals, the later dealing with causes, and the former modelling probabilistic reproduction rates with no reference to causes. As Sober notes, “fitness began its career in biology long before evolutionary theory was mathematized” – in the interim, the term has not maintained a constant meaning at all.

Of course, as Sober later notes with biologist David Sloan Wilson, while mathematics has proved important in evolutionary studies “it isn’t true that only mathematics is important, nor is it true that mathematics is always important.” The imaginative aspect of selection and fitness may have little (or even nothing) to do with successful population genetic models, but it is still key to what Darwin’s theory is claimed to say.

If, as nearly everyone involved in studying evolution would attest, differential survivorship in response to diverse environments is an important part of the history of life, then we admit that Darwin’s imaginative imagery of selection, and the fictional account of fitness, are still important, despite having vanished entirely from the hard algebraic accounts of population genetics. Despite the supposed claims of “hard science” over “soft science”, the mythology in this case somehow offers more than the mathematics.

Extracted from the draft manuscript of Myths of Evolution, due from Zero Books in 2012.

Imaginary Evolution (1): Selection

In the first of two posts discussing the role of scientific metaphor in evolutionary theory, we look at what is meant by “selection”.

The trouble with trying to ferret out what Stephen Jay Gould called “canonical imagery” in science, and especially in evolutionary studies, is that science is thoroughly dependent upon metaphor – and even more so when scientists try to explain theories to a wider audience. Gould stated that he knows “no other subject so distorted by canonical icons: the image we see reflects social preferences and psychological hopes,” rather than data or theory.

But this critique doesn’t go far enough, since the theories themselves are equally packed full of metaphors with just as much power to distort thinking if not considered carefully. Gould notes: “If icons are central to our thought, nor peripheral frills, then the issue of alternative representation becomes fundamental to the history of changing ideas in science”. It is this issue of “alternative representation” that we need to address in considering the myths of evolution – because even if we believe that the facts don’t change, the way we present those facts does change, and different metaphors guide thinking in radically different ways.

Two of the central metaphors in contemporary evolutionary theories have been with the field more or less since its inception with Darwin: the metaphors of selection and of fitness. It is almost impossible to have a discussion of the subject without using these words, yet the terms are as much “canonical icons” as the Ladder of Progress (satirically pictured above) that Gould justifiably challenged. ‘Selection’ was only ever a metaphor, and in so much as the ‘fitness’ implied by Darwin’s theory can be rendered meaningful, it must be understood as a useful fiction. There is just as much risk of being misled by the imagery these terms conjure to mind as anything else in science, and yet it seems nearly impossible to excise them from the evolutionary lexicon.

Darwin was acutely aware of the fact that his use of ‘selection’ in Origin of Species was a metaphor. He received letters from Alfred Russel Wallace, the naturalist who was postulating a very similar theory at the same time as Darwin, expressing concern that the term ‘natural selection’ was too anthropomorphic, leading to a personification of nature as “selecting” or “preferring”. Philosopher Michael Ruse notes in this regard:

In his heart, Darwin seems never to have wavered, and he responded to those who criticized the term “selection” by pointing out that it was a metaphor, and who can do science without being metaphorical? “No one objects to chemists speaking of ‘elective affinity,’ and certainly an acid has no more choice in combining with a base, than the conditions of life have in determining whether or not a new form be selected or preserved.”

John F. Haught suggests that Darwin might have been more flexible in this regard, noting that the later Darwin writings sometimes seems to offer “natural preservation” as more suitable than “natural selection”, but whatever Darwin’s feelings the term selection has certainly stuck. Darwin publicly dismissed any problems with the metaphorical aspect of the term on the grounds that science was effectively impossible without metaphorical thinking, but this does not mean Darwin was blind to the kind of constraints on thought that specific images convey. He avoided using the word ‘evolution’ precisely because he didn’t want to take upon the baggage the term had already acquired in terms of conveying a sense of progress and destiny. He seems to have believed, rightly or wrongly, that the term ‘selection’ could sidestep this kind of implication.

In order to fully understand contemporary evolutionary theories, it is necessary to separate – in as much as this is possible – the metaphors from the facts, the myths from the models. A conscientious audit of metaphorical terms like ‘selection’ and ‘fitness’ has much to show us about both evolution and about science in general, but this kind of critique is usually avoided, perhaps for fear of adding fuel to the fire being tended by opponents to evolution. This concern is not warranted. People are perfectly entitled to reject a particular scientific theory for whatever reason they choose, and they are especially free to object to those theories that they suspect have been ideologically contaminated. Frankly, there is little doubt that the presentation of evolution in public has been distorted in this way, and this by people on both sides of the fence. A defence of evolutionary studies should rest on an honest understanding of the issues, and this necessitates an acceptance of the role of imagination in its operation.

When I call ‘selection’ imaginary, or suggest that ‘fitness’ is a fiction, I do not mean that all evolutionary theories are mere figments, but rather that these terms cannot be understood without reference to imagination. Metaphor is an imaginative activity – the process of thinking about one thing by comparison to another. Science, as Darwin recognized, thrives on this kind of analogical thinking, because science – in common with the arts – is fundamentally an imaginative activity. True, much of a research scientist’s time is absorbed in experiments, observation and data, none of which is enormously creative. But the experiments being conducted, and even more so the concepts that motivate those experiments, all began life as imaginative fictions. Every theory inevitably implies a story.

The fiction in which the term selection gets its meaning is that whereby it is as if something has made a decision that selects some animals and not others to survive (for natural selection) or to reproduce (for sexual selection). Because selection is intended as a scientific metaphor, it is generally considered poor form to indulge in speculations as to the obvious consequences of the fiction e.g. if we say that Mother Nature does the selecting, we’ve brought in a mythic figure (‘Mother Nature’) into what was supposed to be a sober, scientific term. This was precisely Wallace’s objection to Darwin’s use of ‘selection’ – these kinds of extrapolations follow all too easily. Darwin’s counter was that it is useful to think in terms of selection, the story does some valuable work for us in terms of focusing our attention onto what is happening.

This brings us to the other important part of Darwin’s fictional representation of how creatures change over time: fitness. Darwin didn’t actually use the term, but did make reference to individual animals being “fitter” or being more or less “fit” than others; it is from this informal discussion of a comparative scale of “fitter” animals that the modern concept of fitness develops. Philosopher André Ariew and geneticist Richard Lewontin are very clear on the role of metaphor in this part of Darwin’s ideas:

Different individual members of a species, then, ‘fit’ into the environment to different degrees as a consequence of their variant natural properties, and those that made the best ‘fit’ would survive and reproduce their kind better than those whose ‘fit’ was poorer. The word ‘fit’ (‘fittest’, ‘fitness’) is a metaphorical extension of its everyday English meaning as the degree to which an object (the organism) matches a pattern that is pre-existent and independently determined (the environment). This metaphorical lock-and-key fitting of the organism into the environment is reflected in the modern concept in ecology of the environmental or ecological ‘niche’ that species are said to ‘occupy’.

We can see here the fiction that Darwin was using in his original conception in Origin of Species: some animals ‘fit’ better into their environment, and these are ‘selected’ to survive. It is as if the world is a partially completed jigsaw, with a certain number of gaps for extra pieces. Those pieces that fit into the jigsaw persist, while those that don’t fit are discarded. The heuristic value of thinking this way is comparatively clear, and the benefits can be conveyed irrespective of whatever imaginative gloss we add to the core metaphor – the jigsaw image I just proposed, for instance, or Ariew and Lewontin’s lock-and-key image.

However, in the decades since Darwin, the term fitness has expanded to take onto its metaphorical shoulders far more than Darwin ever intended. In the words of philosopher of biology, Elliott Sober, fitness has “two faces”. It not only describes the relationship between an animal and its environment, as described above, but leads a double life as a mathematical term used in formulating predictions. In Sober’s words: “Fitness is both an ecological descriptor and a mathematical predictor.” Trouble is, this double life threatens to wear fitness rather thin; the strain of pretending that the mathematical face is still a fit to Darwin’s original use might just be too much for it to bear.

Extracted from the draft manuscript of Myths of Evolution, due from Zero Books in 2012.

Next week: Fitness

Folk Science Fiction

X-men If orthodox science fiction is dictated by current beliefs among scientists, what of the wider appeal to science fiction in contemporary stories? Perhaps, in parallel to the use of the phrase ‘folk tales’, we can call this ‘folk science fiction’.

In classical mythology, gods and magic lift the hero out of the ordinary world. In contemporary mythologies, it is more often science and technology playing this role. But except when the tales conform to orthodox science fiction, the distinction between technology and magic is merely cosmetic – and not just because of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous adage that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Superhero stories are perhaps the closest contemporary analogue to the classical tradition of recounting legends: they are told by many different storytellers, the details often change with each telling, and in the form of comics the episodic narrative is close to the ancient fireside oral tradition, where tales unfold night after night. While DC Comics established the genre – and in Superman and Batman have its most famous examples – it is Marvel Comics that currently occupies the larger spotlight.

Marvel threw itself with gusto into folk science fiction tales inspired by the Big Science of the sixties: nuclear power. Hence, boy bitten by radioactive spider (Spider-man, 1962); scientist transformed by lethal dose of gamma rays (Hulk, 1962); and mutant “children of the atom” (X-men, 1963). Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko developed a whole new “Atomic Age” spin on superheroics, before then chiefly comprised of patriotic fantasies and wild spin-offs from detective comics, a legacy felt most acutely in the case of Batman (1939) whose comic of origin was literally called Detective Comics.

With the rise of genetics in research communities, genetic engineering began to appear in orthodox science fiction, and this may have helped the X-men to grow in popularity outside of comic fanboys. Other Marvel characters have steadily drifted closer to orthodoxy over the years: recent Spider-man movies, for instance, favour a mutant spider bite as a justification for Peter Parker's powers (no more plausible than the original, but closer to orthodoxy than 'radioactive spider'). The 2000 Bryan Singer-directed X-men movie (pictured above) rocketed Marvel into the big league by quadrupling it's multi-million dollar budget in revenue, although the adaptation of Marvel character Blade two years earlier had been a stepping stone in terms of hooking Marvel up with better contacts in the movie community, and Warner Bros. successful adaptations of DC Comics’ Superman (1978) and Batman (1989) had already paved the way for this kind of  blockbuster superhero movie.

Cinemas are the cathedrals in which these new mythological stories are told. Today, comics are a lesser part of Marvel’s folk science fiction industry, largely a proving ground for movie concept, a business model gainfully employed by numerous old and new media companies today. Other folk science fiction myth cycles – Star Trek, James Bond – have long thrived in the temple of the silver screen, and some, like Star Wars, began there. Folk stories have always been popular media, while orthodox mythology has been the pursuit of the hierophant and the hermit. For science fiction, the scientist and the nerd fulfil these roles with varying degrees of fervour.

Identifying a storytelling tradition that can be termed ‘folk science fiction’ is not to belittle its value, but to place certain stories into a specific relationship with scientific research. This perspective raises many questions. Does the early science fiction of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells count as folk or orthodox science fiction? We do not need to decide, and looking back it can be hard to judge since what constitutes orthodox science changes with astonishing regularity, but Wells’ attitude towards science certainly leaned towards the ideological.

The important point to recognize is that authorized stories (i.e. facts) always acquire a mythology, and this is the case in any sphere where authority might be claimed: science, history, politics, religion – even art. For the “inner circle” of experts in each case, the myths must attain to some kind of ideological orthodoxy, since it is this upon which authority rests. But for the world at large, folk mythology is the shadow cast by that authority. Folk science fiction reveals the silhouetted shape of mythic symbols that are rooted in scientific research and theory, and thus expose the influence of science in contemporary culture – and perhaps also the vagueness of the general public’s grasp of empirical stories.