So it seems that I’ve drawn the attention of the luminary Brian Leiter. In response to my gloss on The Domestication of Humans, Leiter writes a post entitled “I’m Not Sure if This is a Joke”. Leiter writes:
I am hoping it is. An excerpt:
Inverting the way we commonly talk and think about domestication, the book will explore how grasses, grains, various animals such as wolves, cows, cats, goats, and microbes, as well as technologies have conspired to domesticate human beings for their own ends. Throughout North America and other parts of the world, for example, grass cultivated humans to be beings that love lawns and large grassy areas for their sports so that humans would spread grass all about the world, thereby getting itself replicated. Likewise, cows, in a sinister plot against other herd animals, cultivated humans to have a particular love of beef so that they might get replicated and spread across the globe, cornering the market on prime pieces of grazing land.
(Thanks to a pseudonymous reader for sending me to this, shall we say, unusual blog.)
Alas Brian, it’s not a joke, though I will confess to a bit of strategic hyperbole. In what context does such a project make sense? Well, in the context of continental theory where my work is primarily situated. What might motivate such a project within the framework of continental theory? Well, the fact that most continental theorists argue that humans in some way or another construct reality. Among the continentals we have the Kantians that argue that the mind structures reality, the phenomenologists that argue that intentionality structures reality, the linguistic and semiotic idealists that argue that language and signs construct reality, those that argue that power and discourse constructs reality, and the hermeneuts that talk about how history constructs reality. Everywhere we have continentalists arguing, in a manner that repeats the story of Adam in the Garden of Eden, that humans are sovereigns that construct reality.
My little project, which perhaps suffers from hyperbole (but how else do you draw attention to an important point), merely tries to draw attention to the role played by nonhumans in the development and construction of humans and their societies. What role did grains play in human development? How did it influence the structure of our societies? What role did the bubonic plague play in the development of humans and society? What role have domesticated animals played in the development of humans and our societies? What role have technologies and modes of communication like writing and the internet played in the development of humans and society? In other words, my project tries to draw attention away from the obsessive focus of continental philosophers on mind (as construed by Kant), intentionality (as construed by the phenomenologists), language and power (as construed by the French crew of ’68), to the role played by geography, technology, animals, plants, weather, and microbes in the development of humans and their society. Therapeutically (and as a Nietzschean I’m sure Brian can appreciate the idea of philosophical therapy), such a project hopes to draw attention to extra-human factors in the development of humans. Moreover, as a staunch defender of Darwin, I’m sure that Leiter can appreciate my attempt to treat humans as among other entities in evolutionary processes, rather than granting them a privileged theological place.
In an update, Brian shares an email he received from one Mohan Matthen who is a philosopher of mind and biology at University of Toronto. Matthen writes,
It’s a wacky idea, but not without a sane and sober (and brilliant) precedent.
Grasses coevolved with humans: certain grasses became nutritious so humans would consume them and excrete their seeds all over so that the grasses themselves prospered. (Jared Diamond discusses this case in Guns, Germs, and Steel. He also observes that natural selection acts oppositely on fruits and seeds: fruits evolve to be good-tasting to attract animals to eat them; seeds within the fruits evolve to be hard or bitter or even poisonous so that they are not chewed up, but are rather spat out or excreted whole, to reproduce.) Fruits coevolved with old world monkeys: the fruit developed colour so that they are easily visible to these monkeys; the monkeys developed colour vision so they could spot the fruit. The monkeys found a source of nutrition; the plants that grew the fruit got propagated wherever the monkeys went. (J. D. Mollon has developed the co-evolution thesis for colour vision.)
Of course, in the above cases, there is natural variation on both sides, from which the mutual benefit can evolve. Some plants of a species have attributes that make them apt to be taken up by humans in a way that aids their reproduction; others have these attributes in lesser measure. Similarly, among humans there are some who are prone to eat the grass and fruit with such attributes and others who do not. The former of each kind prosper. That’s co-evolution, and if it can be described as the domestication of plants, then the opposite description is equally apt. But I didn’t see much about co-evolution in the blog that you linked.
Quite right. Matthen is right that in my post I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to co-evolution (the book will), but otherwise his observations get right at the heart of the project I’m proposing. While there are glimmers of light here and there, an analysis of these dynamics in the development of humans and human societies are glaringly absent in the linguistophilia of contemporary continental theory. Is the title of my book a provocation? You betcha! Is it a necessary move in a body of decadent theory that’s so blinded by narcissistic love of the human that it is unable to recognize that humans are among the rest of beings and that we don’t rise above those beings? Absolutely! I’m flattered by the attention that I’ve received from a celebrity like Leiter today and impressed that he did the update. This has been a banner day for a blog that ordinarily only receives between 1500 and 3000 hits a day. I’m glad to have the attention and hope Leiter will follow the project as it develops over the next year or so.