22 September 2006

Pop Culture and the PIG

I've apologized so many times for not posting that I'm going to have to start apologizing for writing an apologetic post, so I'm not even going to bother with that today. Instead, I'm just going to write the damned post I wanted to write and be done with it.

Long story short, I have recently procured a job at a local large-chain bookstore, and one of the fringe benefits (i.e. instead of an increase in pay) I have the opportunity to "check out" books from the store as if it were a library. Which is a good thing, because it means that I've had a chance to peruse The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design without actually having to have my hard-earned money go to Jonathan Wells. Now, since I'm still a poor undergraduate (working for six-and-change at a bookstore, at that) I'm not even going to try to critique the scientific arguments (such that they are) in the book, or to make more than generalized comments about the book as a whole. Instead, like any other twentysomething Gen-Whatever, I'm going to comment on the pop-culture references Wells makes.

Pop-culture? In what purports to be an essentially scientific/political book? Yep, in three places during the text (I skimmed over most of the book, so I may have missed on or two) Wells provides little cutesy info-boxes that contain snippets of TV sitcom dialogue, two from an episode of Friends, and one from Seinfeld.

Not really having been a fan of Friends (well, I watched most of the first season when it first premiered during my early teen years) and not having watched a lot of Seinfeld since it went off the air, I had to look up transcripts of the episodes in question, which Wells made especially difficult by not referencing episode numbers or airdates. I understand that the boxes are meant humorously, to provide a sort of lightheartedness as one goes through the text, but this lack of a reference strikes me as just one more example of the shoddy work that went into preparing the book, as those of us actually curious as to how the quotes appeared in context had to do a bit of web searching to get the information needed to track down the episodes.

I'll start with Seinfeld -- from page 139 of the book:
From Seinfeld: Kramer has an altercation with a monkey at the zoo
Kramer: So, so what do you want me to do?
Mr. Pless (zoo official): Well frankly, we'd like you to apologize.
Kramer: Yeah, well, he started it.
Mr. Pless: Mr. Kramer, he is an innocent primate.
Kramer: So am I. What about my feelings? Don't my feelings count for anything? Oh, only the poor monkey's important. Everything as to be done for the monkey!

I searched it out, and it turns out that this exchange occurs towards the end of the sixth season, in episode 109(link goes to transcript), "The Face Painter". First of all, note that the quote in question is placed totally without context -- the reader of the book has no idea what exactly this exchange is about, without actually remembering the episode. Placed as it is, I can only surmise that Wells is "arguing" that the scientific authorities (i.e. Mr. Pless) are attempting to impress upon the ID crowd (i.e. Kramer) the nature of primate emotion, and essentially are equating the hurt feelings of some monkey with those of a human being. Wells seems to be using this exchange as a proxy for the (supposed) absurdity of placing human beings anywhere within the animal kingdom, that placing primates and human beings on the same ontological level would be to deny any meaningful difference between human and animal feelings.

Let's look at the exchange in a bit more context, shall we? I'm quoting from the above transcript, and make no allowances for its technical accuracy, for I have no seen this episode, and don't have a copy handy. Since the sections in question are scattered through the episode, I'll be placing in places where nonrelated plot should go.
Jerry enters his apartment carrying a bag of groceries. As soon as Jerry closes
the door, we hear Kramer's door open and close. That moment, Kramer walks in.

Kramer: Hey, Jerry? You're a smart guy, right?

Jerry: No question about it.

Kramer: Alright, you know I'm supposed to go on this special tour today with
George's girlfriend.

Jerry: At the zoo?

Kramer: Yeah, but before I met up with her, I stopped to look at the monkeys,
when all of a sudden I am hit in the face with a banana peel. I turn and look
and there is this monkey really laughing it up. Then someone tells me that he
did it. Well, I pick up the banana peel and I wait for that monkey to turn
around. And then I *whap* let him have it.

Jerry: Kramer, you threw a banana peel at a monkey?

Kramer: Well, he started it!

Jerry: It's a monkey, Kramer!

Kramer: Well, he pushed my buttons, I couldn't help it, Jerry.

Jerry: Well, I still think it's wrong.

Kramer: Alright, alright, fine. You take the monkey's side, alright, go ahead.

Jerry: I'm not taking anyone's side.

Kramer (walking out): Cause I know what happened, Jerry.

Kramer is in the office at the zoo.

Mr. Pless: Ah, Mr. Kramer?

Kramer: Yes.

Mr. Pless: Thanks for coming.

Kramer: So, uh, what did you want to see me about?

Mr. Pless: Well, Mr. Kramer, to get right to it, we're having a bit of a
problem with Barry.

Kramer: Barry?

Mr. Pless: The chimpanzee.

Kramer: Oh. Well, uh, what's the problem?

Mr. Pless: Well, he's not functioning the way he normally does. He seems
depressed. He's lost his appetite. He's even curtailed his autoerotic
activities. And we think this is directly related to the altercation he had
with you the other day.

Kramer: So, so what do you want me to do?

Mr. Pless: Well, frankly we'd like you to apologize.

Kramer: Yeah, well he started it.

Mr. Pless: Mr. Kramer, he is an innocent primate.

Kramer: So am I. What about my feelings? Don't my feelings count for
anything? Oh, only the poor monkey's important. Everything has to be done for
the monkey! Look, I'm sorry. I--

Kramer enters.

Jerry: Hey.

Kramer: Hey. Well, I just spoke to your girlfriend.

George: Girlfriend, yeah, right.

Kramer: Anyway, she asked me to apologize to Barry.

George: Barry?

Kramer: The monkey.

Jerry: Well?

Kramer: Nothing doing. Jerry, I didn't do anything. It's the monkey that
should be apologizing to me.

Jerry: Well, I don't think that's gonna happen.

Kramer is at the zoo, talking with Barry, the monkey.

Kramer: Anyway, I um, I just want to say that I'm sorry. I lost my temper and
I probably shouldn't have. I took it out on you and, look, if I've caused you
any problems as a result of my behavior, well then, I'm sorry. I apologize.
Even though, Barry, between me and you, we both know that you started it. I
mean, who's kidding who? But they tell me that you're very upset, and god
forbid I should disturb the very important monkey, I'm just hoping we can put
this behind us, let's just move on with our lives, ok? So no hard feelings?

Kramer moves in for a handshake, Barry spits water all over his jacket. Kramer
gets defensive and Barry starts screaming and climbing the cage bars.

So basically, the storyline goes thusly: Kramer gets hit in the had with a banana peel, looks around to see a monkey through the peel at him, gets mad and throws it back. The monkey becomes depressed over its injured feelings, and Kramer is called upon by the zoo to apologize to the monkey, which he at first refuses to do because "the monkey started it". After mentioning the issue to Jerry, Kramer eventually decides to be the "better man" and apologizes to the monkey, albeit in a bit of a self-serving way, and gets water sprayed on him for his efforts.

Setting aside that this is sitcom humor all the way, and that obviously the interactions of Seinfeldians has little bearing on reality (Matt Silberstein's claims of the show being a documentary notwithstanding), what exactly does this have to do with ID? Kramer lets his emotions get the better of him, responds in kind to what is essentially a monkey being a monkey, and refuses to acknowledge the effects of his actions. Seeing the context, it is clear that in the Wells-quoted exchange, it is Kramer, not the zoo official, who sees the monkey as being in some sense equal to himself, in that he assumes that the creature has a similar moral sense and ability to show restraint that a human being should. If Kramer is supposedly standing in for ID, it's clear that Wells has not really thought out his use of this popular culture moment before including it in his book.

It's also a pretty silly scene, very much in-tone for the series, which was full of lighthearted fun being poked at various social conventions in what was often a slapstick, cartoony way.

More serious for the purposes here are the two Friends references from pages 155 and 188. Taken from episode 203 (numbered differently from the Seinfeld episode above, this was the third episode of the second season), this B-plot element actually refers to Phoebe (a hippy ditz used to great "dumb-blonde" moments on the show) disbelieving in evolution, and Ross (a paleontologist whose neurotic habits were his comic forte) trying to convince her otherwise.

Youtube actually has a video of the entire subplot edited together, but I will reproduce the sequence from the transcript here for those without access to video.
Phoebe: I'm sorry, but sometimes they need help. (Everyone groans) That's fine. Go ahead and scoff. You know there're a lot of things that I don't believe in, but that doesn't mean they're not true.

Joey: Such as?

Phoebe: Like crop circles, or the Bermuda triangle, or evolution?

Ross: Whoa, whoa, whoa. What, you don't, uh, you don't believe in evolution?

Phoebe: Nah. Not really.

Ross: You don't believe in evolution?

Phoebe: I don't know, it's just, you know...monkeys, Darwin, you know, it's a, it's a nice story, I just think it's a little too easy.

Ross: Too easy? Too...The process of every living thing on this planet evolving over millions of years from single-celled organisms, is-is too easy?

Phoebe: Yeah, I just don't buy it.

Ross: Uh, excuse me. Evolution is not for you to buy, Phoebe. Evolution is scientific fact, like, like, like the air we breathe, like gravity.

Phoebe: Ok, don't get me started on gravity.

Ross: You uh, you don't believe in gravity?

Phoebe: Well, it's not so much that you know, like I don't believe in it, you know, it's just...I don't know, lately I get the feeling that I'm not so much being pulled down as I am being pushed.

(There’s a knock on the door.)

Chandler: Uh-Oh. It's Isaac Newton, and he's pissed.

Ross: How can you not believe in evolution?

Phoebe: Just don't. Look at this funky shirt!

Ross: Pheebs, I have studied evolution my entire adult life. Ok, I can tell you, we have collected fossils from all over the world that actually show the evolution of different species, ok? You can literally see them evolving through time.

Phoebe: Really? You can actually see it?

Ross: You bet. In the U.S., China, Africa, all over.

Phoebe: See, I didn't know that.

Ross: Well, there you go.

Phoebe: Huh. So now, the real question is, who put those fossils there, and why?

Ross: Ok, Pheebs. (He’s holding two little toys.) See how I'm making these little toys move? Opposable thumbs. Without evolution, how do you explain opposable thumbs?

Phoebe: Maybe the overlords needed them to steer their spacecrafts.

Ross: Please tell me you're joking.

Phoebe: Look, can't we just say that you believe in something, and I don't.

Ross: No, no, Pheebs, we can't, ok, because—

Phoebe: What is this obsessive need you have to make everyone agree with you? No, what's that all about? I think, I think maybe it's time you put Ross under the microscope.

Ross: (To Chandler) Is there blood coming out of my ears?

(Ross enters carrying a briefcase.)

Phoebe: Uh-oh. It's Scary Scientist Man.

Ross: Ok, Phoebe, this is it. In this briefcase I carry actual scientific facts. A briefcase of facts, if you will. Some of these fossils are over 200 million years old.

Phoebe: Ok, look, before you even start, I'm not denying evolution, ok, I'm just saying that it's one of the possibilities.

Ross: It's the only possibility, Phoebe.

Phoebe: Ok, Ross, could you just open your mind like this much, ok? (Holding her thumb and forefinger close together) Wasn't there a time when the brightest minds in the world believed that the world was flat? And, up until like what, 50 years ago, you all thought the atom was the smallest thing, until you split it open, and this like, whole mess of crap came out. Now, are you telling me that you are so unbelievably arrogant that you can't admit that there's a teeny tiny possibility that you could be wrong about this? (Monica and Rachel are intrigued.)

Ross: There might be…a teeny…tiny…possibility.

Phoebe: I can't believe you caved.

Ross: What?

Phoebe: You just abandoned your whole belief system. I mean, before, I didn't agree with you, but at least I respected you. How, how, how are you going to go into work tomorrow? How, how are you going to face the other science guys? How, how are you going to face yourself? (Ross slowly closes the briefcase and walks out hugging it.) Oh! That was fun. So who's hungry?

Anyone who has ever attempted to argue science with an antievolutionist will probably experience a touch of Deja Vu when reading or watching this sequence, as in tone and structure it is very much what arguing with antievolutionists is actually like. No matter how much knowledge one presents of the science involved, antievolutionists only need a simple, "Well, I just don't believe it," or, "there are a lot of possibilities out there," to be completely secure in his or her antievolutionism. Though the character on the show comes to her antiscience position through new age beliefs while most creationists are instead religious fundamentalists, the upshot of the anti-science beliefs (and the frustrations they can cause by the reality-based community) are very similar.

Note also that Phoebe presents no evidence for her position except for a bit of far-flung (and shakily connected) metaphorical hyperbole connecting atomic theory to evolutionary biology. Ross takes a large amount of time (for a TV comedy show anyway) attempting to show her why her beliefs are unreasonable, even going so far as to literally bring museum pieces to his friend to personally demonstrate the power of evolution.

Phoebe never even bothers to look into the suitcase, and while she "wins" the confrontation insofar as the episode is concerned, she does so by denying the concept that scientific knowledge is provisional, believing that if there is the tiniest shred of doubt in evolutionary biology, that Ross's entire belief system must be completely destroyed, and by wearing down Ross's defenses by simply refusing to hear any of what he has to say.

"Fun", indeed.

It's interesting that in both of these cases, the anti-evolution character is the "dope" of the show, used entirely for comic effect and rarely if ever allowed to show any serious intent. Kramer's slapstick entrances and Phoebe's awful songwriting are notorious in sitcomland, but for a supposedly serious scientific/political argument to identify with either of these two characters only shows what buffoonery the ID movement really is.

Maybe at the next ID conference, Wells or Dembski will sing Smelly Cat to all the participants. That's probably be worth the cost of airfare.

11 September 2006


The blindingly brilliant, devastatingly handsome owner of this blog has kindly invited me as a guest poster. I've got a couple of ideas just about ready to come off of the fermenter, and will post them here in due time. Peace, y'all.