Letters - Summer 2009

Response to Our Spring Issue

By Our readers | June 1, 2009

Evolution’s Purpose

Brian Boyd’s essay in the Spring 2009 issue of the Scholar describes the purpose-driven life—purpose  being the result of evolution rather than the cause. I would like to add to that concept by suggesting a description of the mind that includes purpose. The brain stores information about what was seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or felt a second, a minute, an hour, months, and years ago. It also stores a person’s thoughts about this information. When a person senses a situation, a portion of the brain receives the sensory contact, and the body reacts instantly in accordance with its genome. The mind quickly accesses memory, remembers thoughts about other similar situations, controls the brain and body, and modifies the reaction. Thoughts in the mind are sequential memories from the brain.

The mind uses memory to create purpose, art, design, and philosophies that are beyond the genome of the brain and body. The mind depends on the brain, but it is not natural; it’s supernatural. Thoughts in the mind range from scientific theories that can be proved to beliefs that do not need proof. This helps people adapt their diverse genetic characteristics to both the physical and social environment.

Daniel M. Kirkhuff
Wichita, Kansas

Professor Boyd’s essay attempts to assuage feelings that many still have—that the theory of evolution paints a picture of life without purpose or meaning. Unfortunately, he fails in his task, and the muddled logic that often characterizes his efforts only serves to hint further at the difficulties of extending the theory beyond its origins and into the realms of thought and behavior. Boyd’s central thesis is that purpose exists only as a product of evolution occurring over vast spans of time: “We should not forget that despite our thinking of purposes as prior to actions, they have emerged over long stretches of evolutionary and individual time. Intentions are efficient routes to objectives clearly defined only after many preliminary stages of variation and selection within animals’ evolutionary and individual pasts.” (The emphasis is mine.) Yet when it suits his rhetorical purpose, he does not shrink from asserting just the opposite, that in fact purpose arrived ready-made at the moment the first living organisms appeared, before there had been time for any such preliminary stages of variation and selection. “Maintaining such a highly improbable and functional arrangement of matter [i.e., life] became life’s first purpose.” While Boyd’s logic seems more than a little strained elsewhere as well, I suspect the problem lies less with the author than with the theory he defends: perhaps if evolutionary theory itself could present us with a less-simplistic and one-dimensional view of nature, then its proponents would have an easier time explaining why we feel such a deeply rooted, lofty sense of purpose, and then we would not be so easily disappointed when forced to confront the theory of evolution.

William A. Dirks
Taipei, Taiwan


Spring Fever

As a dowser, I enjoyed Kate Daloz’s piece in the Spring issue. I never graduated beyond peach or willow limbs, but I have enjoyed the ability to find water sites for wells, water mains, water-line breaks, and so forth. I, now retired, also found it useful in my career as a heart surgeon, where I could perceive a sensitivity to blood flow in my patients.

William Mattingly
Wausau, Wisconsin

I can appreciate the Montgomery, Vermont, select­board’s public embarrassment about paying Edith Greene for services they can’t under­stand. I suggest that she return to the town’s water the uranium she says she banished. Then, perhaps, they’ll understand enough to cut her a check. Meantime, Edith Greene, brava.

Sabra Morton
Lexington, Massachusetts


Friends and Letters

Thank you for the selection from the correspondence between James Salter and Robert Phelps, and for Michael Dirda’s handsome tribute to the latter (Spring, 2009).

Poet and critic Louise Bogan, not easily impressed, became very fond of Phelps; among other interests, they shared a curiosity about astrology. The volume of her collected criticism that he co-edited with Ruth Limmer, A Poet’s Alphabet (1970), is a monument of great humane writing.

Two homages to Colette in addition to Phelps’ compilation of her “autobiography,” Earthly Paradise (1966), are worth mentioning: his 1980 selection of Letters, and the beautifully produced Belles Saisons: A Colette Scrapbook (1978). How much we readers owe Phelps, not only for his advocacy of wonderful authors, but for being the sort of person one wishes to know; and, through the warmth of his writings, feels that one does.

Warren Keith Wright
Arbyrd, Missouri


The Unkindest Cut

I’ve wondered for 50 years who Hall was; thanks for clearing this up for me. In Jeremy Bernstein’s article in your Spring issue, however, I read that Hall got into trouble with the vivisectionists for experi­menting with live animals. Shouldn’t that read “antivivisectionists?

Stephen Browning
Menlo Park, California

Editors’ reply: Yes, of course. Thank you.

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