The Power of Names

Shakespeare invited us to consider, “What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet.”  The Bard’s musings on the subject notwithstanding, the truth is that names do hold a fair bit of power in forging our perception of other people, as well as ourselves.

If you are a foreign-born individual who goes about in your adopted land of residence with a first name that points clearly to your nation of origin, you immediately know how vital a role a name can play when trying to integrate yourself with the local population (so much so that many foreigners will give in, and change their foreign-sounding names to something more palatable to the culture they aim to assimilate in).  Although few of us will readily admit to it, we are all susceptible to making generalizations about people we come across in our daily life based on superficial features.  Names are definitely one such feature.  That is not to say that every assumption made about someone based on such features is either wrong, or malicious.  It’s not wrong (factually or morally) to deduce that a person with an obviously Asian sounding name is in some way culturally connected to Asia.  Same with a man named Hans Gunterkind most likely being of some kind of Germanic heritage,  Jean-Pierre Neauvoix being French.  So on and so forth.

(It goes without saying that the contemptible part in forging a preconception about someone isn’t the initial preconception itself, it’s what you do with it from there on forward.  If on recognizing you’re about to speak with Chen Huiyin leads you to assume she is probably Asian before seeing her, no sensible person will raise an eyebrow for that assumption.  If, however, you further take your preconception to assume she is in some way personally inferior to someone who isn’t Asian, that’s where we run into issues of bigotry that will rightly be condemned by much of the public at large.)

Issues of what might be called ethnic names aside (are not all names relatively ethnic to different cultures, one might be inclined to ask here?), there are naming norms within American culture that occasionally shape our interactions with each other.  When you’re in the middle of everyday America and come across the name Kevin, it is unavoidable that you will imagine a man.  Unless you just happen to know a woman named Kevin, but even then you are likely to ascribe it to a rare anomaly.  What if over the course of the next three decades a swarm of new parents decide that Kevin makes for a great name for their baby girls, and the social paradigm shifts so that suddenly you run into more female Kevins than male ones?  Would you easily adjust to the new cultural trend, or still stick to the norm you had been accustomed to of Kevin being a predominantly male name?  If this sounds like an unlikely scenario to happen, think about how the name Ashley in America at the start of the 20th Century changed from mostly male to predominantly female by the start of the 21st Century.

Not to belabor a point past my humble reader’s generous patience, but it would feel disingenuous not to touch on my personal experience here.  Growing up in continental Europe as a boy named Sascha/Sasha the social assumption about it was that my parents must be bland, unimaginative, and possibly even a tad bit conservative in their leanings, precisely because boys named Sascha/Sasha are so common to come across there.  At the time, it formed a personal impression of myself being just another average lad going about my business, similarly to how I imagine an American youth named Michael or David would feel on the matter in contemporary American culture.  When I moved to the U.S. in my early teens I came to find out that my name was somewhat of a peculiarity to my peers; one that definitely demanded further explanation on my part.  Suddenly, I was no longer merely a random guy with an average-to-boring name, I was a random guy whose androgynous-to-feminine name invited further conversation (occasionally schoolyard taunts, too, but I’m pretty good at deflecting unkind commentary and rolling with the punches, so I bear no negative grudges from it).

I would argue that your name is the most basic qualifier of your identity, and people’s reactions to it forms a great deal of your learned behavior when interacting with others.  I can honestly say that the change in perception in how people reacted to my name on moving to the U.S.–as opposed to the reaction I received for it back in Europe–did affect how I carry myself and interact with others to some non-trivial extent.  At least in that I know when I introduce myself to others, I can be sure of two things:  1. I will be pegged as foreign regardless of my citizenship status, 2. I may be asked an awkward follow-up question regarding my name (to which, when I’m feeling lazy, my typical response will be either “My parents were really hoping for a girl, and were surprised when I popped out, dick-swinging and all,” or “I wanted to be able to better relate to women, but Nancy Sunflowerseed sounded too butch, so Sascha had to do”).

Believe it or not, the purpose of this post was not to regale anyone with anecdotes about naming cultures, as a clever ruse to sneak in a dick-swinging joke.  It’s to touch on a greater point about forging better writing habits and being mindful of one’s intended audience’s social palate.  Sooner or later, just about all writers find themselves fretting over picking out the perfect name to convey their characters’ personalities and backgrounds effortlessly to the reader.  And there are definitely right and wrong names one can decide on, for the roundabout reasons stated above.

If you’re writing a story about a street-wise, inner-city black kid, born and bred in the Bronx, but is named Hans Jorgenson Gunterkind, well you better be ready to explain how the hell that came to be.  Same if you’re writing a story about a 15th Century Samurai named Steven.  While clever names can add exotic intrigue to characters, and piece together unspoken–unwritten?–context about their personal interactions with their environments, it can also needlessly distract the reader if it’s not really meant to be a focal point of the narrative.

It’s perfectly fine to be bold and go for something unconventional when you’re crafting your written world, but don’t bend over backwards to convey uniqueness unnecessarily, to the point that it hinders the readers ability to become immersed within the narrative.  A story that has five characters named Mike to show the absurd commonality of the name can be witty and fun, or it can end up confusing and frustrating to the reader.  Take a moment to consider how the greater world you have created interacts with this dynamic, and whether it helps or hurts the story you’re setting out to tell.  Reading practicality should not be dispensed for the sake of creativity; they should operate together to form a coherent story that can be enjoyably read.

You can’t please everyone, and someone will hate your work no matter what or how you write.  Which is why the starting point for all my writing advice is to always start with being honest with every story’s first reader: its author.  And if, as you put pen to paper (or, more realistically, fingers to keyboard), what seemed like a great name in the first outline is becoming harder to work with as the story progresses, rather than forcing the narrative to conform, there is no shame in revising the basics–character names included.

Suck on that, Shakespeare, is what I’m really trying to say here.


Modern Dating in a Nutshell…

We meet before seeing each other.

We talk before speaking a word.

We keep it casual, lest we look desperate.

We get desperate, signaling the end.

We value communication, but mind what we say.

To call is too forward, best not try it too soon.

Can’t text too often; don’t text too seldom.

Experience matters, but don’t shame aloud.

We complain about all the rules, but we judge if they’re not followed.

We lose interest and blame the other, before blaming ourselves.

We complain some more, lamenting our follies.

We go repeat the steps, knowing it will be different every time.


The Pitfalls of Self-Help

Despite the occasional lighthearted derision that accompanies the self-help genre, the fact remains that self-help books, programs, and seminars dominate a sizable chunk of exactly the sort of alternative many people turn to in hope of gaining a base level of understanding concerning some matter that they feel is eluding them, and the lack of which they feel is causing them either personal or professional setbacks.

Some self-help deals with finances, with promising titles like Get Rich Now!–Here’s How!, or All the Money-Making Habits of Successful People Whose Success You Can Copy, Too! [Disclaimer:  No intentional real titles of self-help materials will be used in this post, so as not to distract from the larger point being made by anyone’s need to defend personal loyalties and heroes.]  While most competent financial self-help material will include helpful tips on money management and fiscal responsibility (i.e. set up emergency savings, spend within your means, fully research any potential investment opportunities before committing, etc.), it is a statistical guarantee that they will not live up to the grander claims their marketing implicitly (and often explicitly) makes–such as making anyone actually rich through their work (other then the financial self-help gurus selling the product, of course).  The sheer disparity in the number of people who turn to this sort of self-help, and the low (and I do mean, low) number of actual millionaires it has produced through decades worth of publications and lectures should serve to indicate that many of the promises being made in this genre are (if you pardon the pun) bankrupt, at best.

A much larger sector of the self-help industry deal with matters of self-improvement.  Happiness, depression, anxiety, confidence, dating, attractiveness, sex (oh, especially sex!), or any combination of perceived personality flaws and life dissatisfactions; all of which are the bread and butter for most self-appointed self-help experts.  The titles in this category of self-help always give the impression that all of the personal hangups you’re experiencing, and that are keeping you from being the sort of person you wish to be, do in fact have a ready-made remedy, and are only a few pages (and supplementary seminars, lecture events, and oh-so-many dollars) away.  These would be titles like Finding Happiness, or Rules for Life, or How to be Confident, and Maybe Even Get Laid! [Reminder Disclaimer: All titles are meant as fictional, and all resemblances to real self-help work are purely coincidental.]

Like the financial self-help mentioned above, self-improvement self-help also often comes with some sound advice about presenting yourself in the best light possible; i.e. being assertive with others about your needs and wants, being honest with yourself about your real needs and wants, and possibly even something about the benefit of practicing good hygiene for even measure.  The part that they won’t advertise to you (at least not upfront, before you pay for the material being sold) is the reality that the only way–yes, the only way!–to overcome any personal flaw is to get up and force yourself to do things differently than you have been up to this point.

No book can or will teach you how to get the nerve to ask someone out on a date, or how to mimic what people are attracted to.  The only way for you to learn that is by trying, failing, and learning from previous mistakes through repeated exposure.  Same with gaining overall confidence.  Reading about what body language, habits, or tricks confident people exhibit will do nothing to make you confident–exposing yourself to emotionally vulnerable situations, repeatedly and consistently, until they stop feeling like vulnerable situations is how you’ll become confident in whatever you are pursuing.  Because your confidence in a situation is directly correlated with your comfort to said situation, and the only way to increase comfort (and by extension, confidence) is through familiarity.

If you’re thinking, “Hold on, I’ve actually read some self-help that said that exact thing…”, you’re right.  The problem is that it’s a sound piece of advice that takes no more than one whole paragraph to give.  However, there is no marketability in doing that alone, because it reveals the charade of the structure before the charlatan has had the chance to seduce you into his or her enterprise.  Just telling people it’s up to you to go out and practice the skills you wish to have until you’re a pro, and that no one can do it for you, either directly or by proxy of a formula or a life guide, takes away the bottom line that stuffs the pockets of these individuals who have shamelessly turned the self-doubt and insecurities of others into their professions.  Whether it serves to help any of these lost people to overcome their setbacks in the long run, or not, is irrelevant to them.

There is an obvious irony in the term self-help that many have pointed out at one time or another, but the main issue with self-help isn’t that people are looking to someone else for guidance or means by which to understand aspects in their lives (or about themselves) that they are dissatisfied with.  There is no shame in needing help, and it is unquestionably brave to ask for help when you know you are opening yourself up for judgment, and scrutiny, and possible criticism.  The problem is that quite often turning to self-help gurus becomes a substitute for actually taking the necessary actions to resolve whatever is really causing you grief.

Buying and reading the books, going to the lectures, fretting over memorizing the techniques, participating in the forums, sharing the quotes, the memes, the events on social media, they all give the illusion that you are advancing forward towards some kind of personal progress through whatever system of method is being sold to you, but in reality it is more of a self-sustained loop meant to keep alive the career of these very same gurus that–if they wanted to–could condense the relevant bit of their “self-help” into one paragraph, and step aside to let you truly learn and grow as best as you ever will be able to on your own.  But they won’t do that–they can’t do that.

There will always be one more book you have to read.  One more lecture you have to watch.  One more nuance they have to extrapolate on, over and over again.  And they do this because they know that the vulnerable individuals who are most likely to seek out their material will have the sort of insecurities that will make them indefinitely dependent on the personality they come to trust for guidance, rather than cut the tether to be self-sufficient with whatever insight they think they’ve gained.  For these self-help gurus to exploit this vulnerability to sustain their lucrative careers of preaching banal life advice and inflated self-importance, is anything but helpful–it is parasitic.

Remembering the Alamo: the Power of Myth in Cinema

The other day I got a chance to revisit John Wayne’s epic war film The Alamo.  As one can assume from the title, the film depicts the events surrounding the 1836 Battle of the Alamo, whose legacy served to inspire popular support for the ongoing independence movement led by the white American colonists living in what was then Mexican territory.  It would be an understatement to say that the film does not strive for historical accuracy.  Rather it focuses more on the mythical nostalgia that has developed among the white Texan population since the battle (and persists to this day); fervently espousing a message of freedom and republicanism over tyrannical oppression as a likely allegory to the Cold War struggle taking place during the film’s release in 1960.

In Gunfighter Nation, historian Richard Slotkin defines myths as “stories drawn from a society’s history that have acquired through persistent usage the power of symbolizing that society’s ideology and of dramatizing its moral consciousness” (p. 5).  Within the history of Western expansionism, the Alamo stands as a hallmark of American fortitude, where the legacy of the event has all but displaced any concern for veracity by its admirers.  This is the sentiment on which John Wayne builds his tale of The Alamo, occurring chiefly within the framework of the Western genre that his own quasi-mythical persona helped create in American culture.  The message that Wayne is adamant to reverberate throughout the film is the idea of nostalgia.  As evident by how the plot begins and mounts its climax with Sam Houston prophetically commenting on the need for future generations to remember and uphold what is being done in 1836, to keep it in their hearts as the life of Texas.

Although the film’s setting is in Texas, depicting a Texan struggle for freedom from oppression, John Wayne’s constant reminiscing about republicanism—a clear attempt to mimic his perceived Jeffersonian ideal of democracy—transforms the entire narrative into a classic tale of American virtue relatable to all red-blooded patriots.  It doesn’t take much to realize that Wayne’s Davy Crockett is not meant to be an accurate representation of his historical namesake, but an emblematic stand-in for Wayne’s personal principles (as seen by the dialogues his Crockett gives, where the lines often closely match Wayne’s 1977 patriotic oration America: Why I Love Her).

This is best seen in the first exchange between Colonel William Travis and Davy Crockett, where Crockett proclaims, “Republic, I like the sound of that word.  It means that people can live free, talk free, go or come, buy or sell, be drunk or sober, however they choose.  Some words give you a feeling.  Republic is one of those words that make me tight in the throat.”  Of course, the irony that Texas is being freed by slaveholding Americans is absent from Wayne’s proclamation.  Instead, he focuses on the myth that Americans (in particular white Southerners) heralded the true spirit of the Texan cause: freedom.  This is vital in establishing the message that we are viewing a battle between right and wrong, and since an independent Texas is presented as the land of opportunity, hope, and future, all who stand against it can only be on the side of despair and tyranny.  The essential myth Wayne accomplishes here is the substitution of frontier Texas into contemporary America’s struggle against the evils of the world.

The film itself acknowledges its affirmation of myth over fact in a telling scene in which Crockett reads out a forged letter he had written under Santa Anna’s name, urging the American men to leave Texas at once.  The pompous tone of the letter causes Crockett’s men to see it as a clear attempt of intimidation, and as men they are obligated to respond harshly to such antics.  Crockett does immediately admit that he in fact wrote the letter, but justified it on the basis that its contents were in line with what Santa Anna might have written.  Nevertheless, the men are so agitated at the possibility of Santa Anna addressing them so self-righteously that they readily take up the Texan cause for freedom and independence as their own.  Never mind that the letter was a fake, created and existing solely in Crockett’s imagination.  Moreover, no man present bothers to question how Crockett, a native of Tennessee, whose knowledge of Santa Anna stems solely from hearsay, could possibly know what sort of message Santa Anna would give to these Americans.  And no one cares, because the reasoning behind established myth “is metaphorical and suggestive rather than logical and analytical” (Slotkin, p. 6).

The Alamo is a film that needs to be analyzed through the time it was made in order to fully grasp its underlying theme.  In 1960, the United States was engaged deep within the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union, a conflict which to most Americans stood as the absolute battle between liberty and tyranny.  Of course, in 1960, America had little idea of how the conflict would eventually unfold in the next three decades, thus it became a dire priority to raise American consciousness against the forces of oppression on the other side of the world.  John Wayne, being a staunch anti-Communist, anti-Leftist patriot, creates a historical narrative that serves as a helpful analogy for the American people to grasp how the fight against tyrants is an American virtue that reaches deep into the country’s roots.

For Wayne, promoting such a message could also have been an attempt to atone for his failure to serve in World War II, an inconvenient truth for a man who built his career on portraying brave patriots who answered the call of duty for their country.  In reality, the fact still remains that John Wayne could only live up to his image in make-believe movies, never in real life, which perhaps fostered much of his simplistic dialogue promoting war against perceived tyranny.  The opening scene of The Alamo starts with a harsh condemnation of Santa Anna as a malicious dictator, determined to “crush all who oppose his tyrannical rule.”  Just as the Cold War narrative between the Unites States and Soviet Union was simple, so is the narrative between Santa Anna’s Mexico and the American-Texan forces in 1836–it is simply a fight between right and wrong.

Little background information is given about any of the major characters involved in the fight for Texan independence.  Nor is there much said about why a large population of white Americans are living in Mexico to begin with, or how they are specifically being oppressed by their adopted country.  Crockett and his men are the only white settlers shown actually immigrating to Texas, and the only background on Crockett is that he was in Congress before becoming a raccoon-hat wearing adventurer on the frontier.  Although his time in Congress is portrayed more as a mundane series in his life, rather than having been a worthwhile endeavor on his part (Crockett’s negativity towards policymakers is likely a reflection of Wayne’s own frustration with contemporary politicians who are not doing enough to combat the menace of the Soviet Union).

It also does not take much to see that Santa Anna is meant to be a representation of the archetypal Soviet dictator—though perhaps not so much on par with a Stalinist megalomaniac, as a boorish Khrushchev autocrat.  As a result, John Wayne is attempting to blend the urgent threat of the present with a treacherous (yet, ultimately defeated) enemy of the past; hence, Crockett’s nostalgic musing about the state of his mind right before a noble, though hopeless, battle as “Not thinking; just remembering.” Yes, a battle may be lost, but the final outcome has always been victorious for those who choose the right path; the war will still be won in the end.

John Wayne’s The Alamo heavily orientates around the notion of cultural nostalgia, and how this looking towards the past serves to foster a positive consciousness towards the future.  Wayne does not care to provide a reliable history lesson to his viewers, however.  Instead he provides a needed myth that retells a known story the way he believes it ought to have happened, and ought to be seen.  In that sense, he is foreshadowing the lines that will be uttered in one of his better cinematic works, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “This is the West, sir.  When the Legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  The Alamo is the legend, not just to Texas but all freedom loving Republics (i.e. America as a whole), and for John Wayne, if it is to be remembered at all, it better be done the right way–his way.

The Cynic’s Political Dictionary

  • Centrist: adj. the act of claiming to not care about identity politics in order to feed one’s own already narcissistic self-value.
  • Communism: adj. crippled by Progress (see Progress).
  • Conservative: adj. a desire to recapture an imaginary Golden Age, and cease caring.
  • Corporation: adj. the benchmark of personhood for Conservatives; n. the Great Satan of Liberals.
  • Economics: v. the act of attempting to predict the future, through a broken crystal ball.
  • Elections: n. the greatest theater production money can buy.
  • Family Values: absolute control of the person (see Person), and her/his genitalia.
  • Fascism: v. the act of feigning fear.
  • Free-market: n. the omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent God of Libertarianism (see Libertarianism).
  • Independent Voter: n. a disgruntled Conservative/Liberal; n. a committed Moderate (see Moderate).
  • Labo(u)r: n. an archaic animal of antiquity that invokes nostalgia in Liberals (see Liberal), and disdain in Conservatives (see Conservative).
  • Liberal: v. a state of perpetual inability to cease seeing faults everywhere in society.
  • Libertarianism: n. the completely rational belief that faceless, easily corruptible conglomerates are more honest and trustworthy than faceless, easily corruptible governments.
  • Middle-class: n. a mythical being with no clear definition; adj. a rhetorical token point.
  • Moderate: n. white bread.
  • Person: adj. act of being valued by your monetary and/or societal contribution; n. a corporation (see Corporation).
  • Politics: adj. the art of self-interest.
  • Progress: v. the infantilization of humanity; adj. hope for change with no plan to act.
  • Religion: adj. a source of false humility for the socially powerful, and a source of false power for the socially humiliated.
  • Socialism: n. the elder brother of Communism (see Communism); adj. being beyond redemption.
  • The People: n. a device that creates the impression of human compassion.
  • Voting: v. a dramatic tragedy.

In Defense of Mary Sue

There are two distinct ways in which the term Mary Sue gets used in literary works (as well as any other fictional medium, really).  The most common usage today is in the context of the perfect protagonist.  This could mean a character that has a seemingly limitless aptitude for displaying/learning skills that go well beyond the realm of reason even within the reality of the fanciful narrative in which s/he exists.

Think of characters that are described as flawless physically, and around whom all the other characters gravitate towards, whether the plot necessitates it or not.  Obvious examples are characters brought to life within the pages of fan-fiction, but I would say that such writings are somewhat of a given on account that they are meant to be tributes to existing characters, thus overemphasizing said characters attributes might be unavoidable in this genre.  More worthwhile examples of Mary Sues are characters that are actually successful, and one could say well-respected, within literature.

Characters like James Bond and Nancy Drew in their original literary inceptions could very easily be argued to fit this description.  James Bond speaks every language of every country he steps foot in, can fight (and always win) in every fighting style confronted with, and can (and will) seduce any woman he desires because every woman he meets just naturally lusts after him without hesitation.  Likewise, Nancy Drew effortlessly picks up any activity she tries, is seemingly liked by everyone and often complimented on just how great she is by the other characters, and of course understands investigative deduction and forensic science well beyond what ought to be plausible for a person her age.

A word needs to be said about not going overboard and pinning the Mary Sue label on any character that just happens to be either capable, or powerful.  For example, although Superman is essentially a god-like character in many regards, he’s not really a Mary Sue as the term is commonly used.  Notwithstanding the fact that he has a fatal weakness in kryptonite, a lot of the narrative around Superman centers on the way his immense power keeps him on some scale separate–even isolated–from the very people he is dedicated to protect.  No matter how humane he is, he is never going to be human, and will always be an outsider in that regard in the only world he knows as home (especially since his birth planet no longer exists).  In this sense, there is a genuinely ongoing tragedy underlying the Superman saga, whether it is explicitly stated or not, in a way Mary Sues don’t really have to deal with.

There is a secondary definition to a Mary Sue, and it involves authors who essentially write themselves into the plot of their stories as a means of wish-fulfillment.  To put it simply, when the main character in a story is written as a idealized version of the author her/himself, and is written in a way to fulfill the perfect protagonist archetypes described above, then we have a Mary Sue on our hands.

I can see why people dislike either incarnation of the Mary Sue trope sneaking into the pages of a story.  Perfect character can get stale very quickly, because they are largely unrelatable to the vast majority of readers.  Moreover, the overreaching plot of a story will become very boring if we can tell from the start that the main character will always save the day, get the love, or that every obstacle encountered is just a superficial plot piece that offers no real danger in the long run.  However, despite all this reasonable criticism on why not to write characters in this way, the fact is that Mary Sues can actually resonate with readers if they find the story engaging enough–compelling writing just have a way of trumping all tropes.  The two examples of James Bond and Nancy Drew can attest to this just by how prolific both characters have been through the decades.  (It should be noted that I am aware how Bond has been greatly “de-Sued” in his cinematic portrayal over the years, in particular in the most recent Daniel Craig films, which show him as a far more vulnerable and broken person than he ever was in print.)

What this tells me is that people don’t mind Mary Sues so much as they like to use Mary Sues as a convenient way to write off a work of fiction they probably disliked to begin with.  And I get that, too.  Sometimes, characters in a book can just rub you the wrong way.  I for one absolutely loathed Holden Caulfield when I first read The Catcher in the Rye, and am still not too found of the little shit to this day.  (I’ve mellowed out about him because I’ve come to terms with the possibility that he’s a character I’m not meant to like.)  If I discovered that Holden was written to serve as an idealized stand-in for J.D. Salinger my opinion would not be swayed one way or the other.  This brings me to the final point I want to make on this topic, and it deals with the issue people have of authors writing themselves into the characters.  As anyone who has ever written fiction can confirm, it is unavoidable that some part of you will come through, in some way, in every character you will ever create.  I’ll even go as far as to say that I have never written a character that didn’t reflect some aspect of my personality, morbid curiosities, lived experiences, faced dilemmas, overcome setbacks, learned failures, and hard fought successes.  And I know that people will object that I’m shamefully stirring away from the genuine opposition leveled against Mary Sues (i.e. an author’s perfect protagonist wish-fulfillment), but I would argue that the fear of not wanting to create a Mary Sue-type character may be holding some writers back from exploring the full depth they can push themselves to because they are too paranoid about falling into this trope.  What I would urge instead is for a different approach.

You shouldn’t just see yourself as the author of the story, but remember that you are also its first reader.  You are the first one who will look through the characters’ eyes and see the world as it is written for them to see.  Regardless of whether you are a novice or been doing this for years, it is no easy feat to create an entire world from whole cloth, and then give to it a pair of eyes (several pairs, if we are being honest) for others to share in the experience.  It can be a rather frustrating task to even know where to start.  My take on the matter is simply to realize that, as you’re struggling to give sight to your story’s narrators, it is perfectly fine to first start with the pair of eyes ready made in your head, and expand from there without fear of breaking some unwritten rules of storytelling.

Darwin’s Use of Natural Selection, and Metaphors in Science

From its initial publication on November 24th, 1859, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species revolutionized the scientific field through its presentation of evolutionary theory as the biological process capable of accounting for the diversity of life observed in the world.  And the key means by which Darwin proposed evolution to be possible was a mechanism he called natural selection.

From the start, controversy arose against Darwin’s strictly naturalistic explanation for the emergence of new species, and opposition formed swiftly to denounce evolution by natural selection as an insufficient theory that is unscientific in its analysis.  Most of the early opposition was religious in nature, but a more legitimate note of dissent came from Darwin’s own colleague Alfred Russel Wallace, who criticized Darwin’s choice of diction in referring to the evolutionary process by the term natural selection as misleading to the general public, because it needlessly implied a selector in the process.  Darwin countered Wallace’s objection by making the case that, for explanatory purposes, natural selection served as a sufficient term as it gives people a descriptive (albeit metaphorical) idea of how the wholly naturalistic phenomenon operates in comparison to the widely familiar practice of artificial selection.

Wallace himself was a proponent of evolution (often referred to as its co-discoverer along with Darwin), and was by no means opposed to the idea of natural selection.  He simply preferred the phrase “survival of the fittest” as a much better alternate to natural selection, arguing:

Natural Selection is, when understood, so necessary and self-evident a principle, that it is a pity it should be in any way obscured; and it therefore seems to me that the free use of “survival of the fittest,” which is a compact and accurate definition of it, would tend much to its being more widely accepted, and prevent it being so much misrepresented and misunderstood.[1]

Wallace thought that among the scientists in the field, who understood their work, the use of natural selection was not an issue, but among those who did not understand evolution and its process, the metaphor would fail to convey Darwin’s true meaning.  Undoubtedly aware of the attacks his and Darwin’s theory was already being subjected to, Wallace must have been worried that confusing people about the function of natural selection with metaphorical language would only serve to move skeptical minds further away from embracing evolutionary theory.

Darwin responded by agreeing that natural selection can be misleading to some, and even decided to incorporate “survival of the fittest” alongside natural selection as a compromise to Wallace in subsequent editions of On the Origin of Species.  But Darwin also commented how through the continued use of natural selection, his intended meaning will become more widespread, and weaken the sort of objections Wallace made.[2]  Despite these concessions on the issue, Darwin remained largely dismissive of Wallace’s concern, even bluntly responding that Wallace overstated the case for the opposition, and implied that certain individuals will misinterpret any term simply because they are too keen on scrutinizing over matters that are trivial to the average person.[2]

Darwin introduced the concept of descent through modification (i.e. evolution) in Chapter I of On the Origin of Species by drawing parallels to the artificial selection observed in animal domestication[3], something most of his readers would have been familiar with at the time.  He does this as a means of easing his audience into his argument in Chapter IV, where he finally makes his case for natural selection.  The confusion Wallace referred to can be argued here by Darwin’s parallel between artificial and natural selection, and his stating how, “this preservations of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variation, I call Natural Selection,”[4] because it indicates the presence of intelligent oversight (as is the case for artificial selection), when in reality no such implication need be made for the process to function.  Though in his exchange with Wallace, Darwin appeared to be shrugging the matter off as a nonissue, he nevertheless thought it important to both defend his use of natural selection, and clear up any confusion about his intent in later editions of the book:  “It is difficult to avoid personifying the word Nature; but I mean by Nature, only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws, and by laws the sequence of events as ascertained by us. With a little familiarity such superficial objections will be forgotten.”[5]  Thereby reiterating his confidence that by continually familiarizing the public with his true intended meaning for natural selection, the term can be salvaged and the misguided dissent will disappear.

Charles Darwin insisted that metaphorical terms are needed in science for the sake of expressing an idea, and that it is the general descriptive quality that ought to be focused on by readers, not so much the personification of abstract concepts.  For example, when one says that particles are physically attracted to one another, few actual think there is some sort of conscious intimacy taking place between the consciousness-devoid matter.  Same goes with the description that gravity pushes down on a table, in that nobody would claim that the result caused by the force is driven by a self-awareness to hold on to the object.  In the case of natural selection, while in a literal sense a misnomer, it is nevertheless an apt description of the mechanism taking place.

Despite what is often asserted within anti-Darwinian circles, evolution by natural selection is actually not a completely random phenomenon, in that there does occur a mode of selection.  To explain it simply:  Different variants exist among and within different species, exhibiting different traits; some of them will be better adapted to a given environment, thus they will better survive in said environment, leaving more descendants with the same beneficial traits than the less adapted species.  It is blind, unguided, and in the long-run goalless, but also not really random, in that nature itself non-randomly provides the setting in which the various random traits will either flourish or flounder.  Thus, although the selector is an unintelligent and unaware agent, it is a selector nonetheless; a natural selector.  Meaning that Darwin’s use of natural selection as a metaphorical expression to describe the mechanism of evolutionary theory is a fitting one, and an entirely justifiable one.

Natural selection, as a term, is metaphorical only in the broad sense, but very descriptive in light of the proper understanding of the science involved in its function.  Darwin was right to point out that, given enough promotion, a phrase will begin to take on the definition popularly assigned to it even among the most stubborn minds.  Originally, the Big Bang was coined as a dismissive mockery of the theory, and is neither accurate not descriptive, but it has such wide use that objections have been thoroughly forgotten, and nobody emphasizes its metaphorical implications.  This leads into the main point, and it is one that Darwin himself indirectly made to Wallace, how for those who are opposed to the implications of evolution no term or explanation will be justifiable, and misconstruing natural selection is a means by which to either conform the concept to their personal liking or discredit it as insufficient.  The same would happen with “survival of the fittest,” or any other alternative phrase that could be proposed.  And it is through the merit of its work that science is judged, not by its ability to accommodate to the ignorance of its detractors.


[1] Francis Darwin and A. C. Seward, eds., More Letters of Charles Darwin:  A record of his work in a series of hitherto unpublished letters (London: John Murray, 1903. Vol. 1.), 270.

[2] Francis Darwin and A. C. Seward, eds., More Letters of Charles Darwin:  A record of his work in a series of hitherto unpublished letters (London: John Murray, 1903. Vol. 1), 272.

[3] Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species ed. James Secord (Oxford: University Press, 2008), 111.

[4] Darwin, Origin of Species, 141.

[5] Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species, 6th edition (London: John Murray, 1872), 63.