Copyright kills

Copyright kills innovation (via No Rock And Roll Fun). During my masters in 2005, we had a tutorial about digital publishing and one of the texts for the class was this 1999 article by John Sutherland. After some descriptions of sharp practice by academic publishers, Sutherland gets down to the meat of what’s bothering him: the LRB, the TLS and the Guardian have all started republishing his work digitally, without paying a further fee. I don’t remember there being much sympathy for Sutherland among the aspiring young academics in the room. For one thing, I think most of us would have accepted publication on much worse terms than Sutherland was getting, and happily. For another, Sutherland’s distinction between the online and paper versions of a journal seemed absurd: the Guardian is the Guardian, whether it’s published in paper and ink or zeroes and ones. And lastly, I thought at the time of the seminar that there was something rather greedy about expecting to be paid in perpetuity for any piece of work. Sutherland’s final flourish in the article felt unearned:

One has to weigh advantages. The growth of databases and electronic archives is something to be encouraged. On the other hand, it would be unnatural not to feel alarmed at the commercial stranglehold which their creation permits. […] Freelance authors, as the romantic name for them implies, are less constrained than employees. Subservience is as corrosive in journalism as it is in academic research. Freedoms of thought and expression are at risk. Is this a price worth paying for the new conveniences of knowledge?

As students, the benefits of accessible knowledge were pretty obvious to us; the dangers of John Sutherland feeling “subservient”, not so much. After all, if knowledge isn’t accessible, it doesn’t matter how excellent it is. And as someone now trying to make money from writing, I’m more frustrated by my work being held offline than I am by the idea that there are people reading my words for free: I want to be able to use earlier work to advertise myself for new jobs, and I can’t do that through a convenient website when the publisher owns the copyright. I’m not denying that there’s a case for copyright, but the difference between my feelings and those expressed by Sutherland is that I expect being a writer to involve, you know, writing – rather than ticking along on the royalties from past work.

What Jerry Fodor got wrong


I’ve just started reading The Origin Of Species, and if that strikes you as the sort of book that an ex-Victorianist should have read when she actually was a Victorianist then hush up now, please. One of the depressing things about the assaults on evolutionary theory has been the willingness of supposedly-sensible sections of the press to indulge the moronisms of intelligent design for the sake of a snappy editorial angle. The New Scientist cover above caused a lot of people grief, but before that, the London Review Of Books was quite happy to run an article by Jerry Fodor whose bio describes him as “working on a book about what Darwin got wrong” and whose body copy gives little to no impression of him having actually read The Origin Of Species even as far as I have (page 14, as of last night).

Fodor thinks he’s spotted two clinching failures in Darwin’s theory of evolution, one “more or less conceptual”, the other “more or less empirical”. Here’s his science-shattering conceptual argument:

There is, arguably, an equivocation at the heart of selection theory; and slippage along the consequent faultline threatens to bring down the whole structure. Here’s the problem: you can read adaptationism as saying that environments select creatures for their fitness; or you can read it as saying that environments select traits for their fitness. It looks like the theory must be read both ways if it’s to do the work that it’s intended to: on the one hand, forces of selection must act on individual creatures since it is individual creatures that live, struggle, reproduce and die. On the other hand, forces of selection must act on traits since it is phenotypes – bundles of heritable traits – whose evolution selection theory purports to explain. It isn’t obvious, however, that the theory of selection can sustain both readings at once. Perhaps the consensus view among Darwinists is that phenotypes evolve because fit individuals are selected for the traits that make them fit. This way of putting it avoids the ambiguity, but whether it’s viable depends on whether adaptationism is able to provide the required notion of ‘selection for’; and it seems, on reflection, that maybe it can’t.

I’ve read this article over several times with the feeling that I must be missing something, because the LRB couldn’t really have published something as stupid as this sounds, could they? I mean, when he asks, “were polar bears selected for being white or for matching their environment?” it isn’t just me who considers that to be a meaningless tautology, is it? I can’t think of any sensible reason to make a distinction between the selection of creatures and the selection of traits. I can’t even imagine what that distinction could mean: the traits are part of the creature. If mutation throws up a new trait that’s advantageous (or the environment changes to make a previously neutral trait into an advantage) then the creatures with that trait breed more and pass on that trait. If mutation throws up a new trait that’s disadvantageous (or the environment changes to make a previously neutral trait into a disadvantage), then the creatures with that trait will probably die without passing that trait on to many offspring. And if a trait is neutral, then it might flourish or fail by association with other traits. There’s no difference, as far as I can grasp it, between natural selection of a trait and natural selection of a living thing – unless Fodor imagines that traits are roaming around autonomously somewhere.

The basic argument of Fodor’s article is (I think) that evolution can’t explain everything. Living things aren’t perfectly tooled for their environment, and the vulgar adaptationism that claims a purpose to every trait is in error. Maybe Fodor’s confused the science coverage in the national press with real science; otherwise, why would he bother writing several thousand words about something that’s so obviously accepted among biologists? Something, in fact, that comes up 11 pages into The Origin Of Species:

There are many laws regulating variation, some few of which can be dimly seen. […] Some instances of correlation [of seemingly unrelated traits] are quite whimsical: thus cats with blue eyes are invariably deaf; colour and constitutional peculiarities go together, many of which remarkable instances could be given amongst animals and plants. […] Hence, if man goes on selecting, and thus augmenting, any peculiarity, he will almost certainly unconsciously modify other parts of the structure, owing to the mysterious laws of the correlation of growth.

Darwin, Origin Of Species (Wordsworth, 1998), pp 11-2

That’s Darwin saying that not every trait is selected for, that some thrive because they’re related to other traits that are selected. When Fodor says, “An adaptationist might well wonder what it is about dogs, cats etc that makes curly tails good for their fitness in an ecology of domestication. The answer, apparently, is ‘nothing’. Curly tails aren’t fitness enhancing, they just happen to be linked to tameness, so selection for the second willy-nilly selects the first”, he isn’t making a clinching argument against Darwin, he’s reiterating something that was said at the foundation of evolutionary theory.

When Fodor claims that “it’s not out of the question that a scientific revolution – no less than a major revision of evolutionary theory – is in the offing”, it just sounds like it’s Fodor who’s finally bothering to catch up with everything since Darwin, and he doesn’t seem to have understood what Darwin said particularly well anyway. Maybe his book will give a better account of this incredible development, but as this article stands, it’s extraordinarily disappointing that the LRB would publish something so obscure and anti-science.


Some businesses trade in inconvenient physical artefacts as the vehicle for something else that’s actually desirable: the record industry sells CDs to people who want music, the film industry sells DVDs to people who want movies, the publishing industry sells books and magazines to people who want words. CDs and DVDs are niggling technological upstarts compared to the mighty book, and while the record and film industry have choked bitterly on the idea that consumers can now get what they want through the internet without the intermediary of a shiny little disc, books have been pretty much aloof from the internet’s ravening appetites.

Not any longer, according to Colin Robinson’s diary piece for the LRB, in which a redundant book editor explains the changes in the book market which led to him losing his job and ends up foretelling the DEATH OF SOCIETY. No, really. After totting up the sales of the Kindle, Robinson turns to look at “a wider, if less concrete threat to book publishing from the internet”:

Perhaps the problem has to do with more than just the way in which words are transmitted. People bowl alone, shop online, abandon cinemas for DVDs, and chat to each other electronically rather than go to a bar. In an increasingly self-centred society a premium is placed on being heard rather than listening, being seen rather than watching, and on being read rather than reading.

This is your basic social-networking-is-killing-social-life keening, a gentler version of the pathetic ‘Facebook is a terrifying instrument of youth decay (maybe)’ story that was knocking around the other week. The depressing thing about Robinson’s version of the ‘internets are bad’ theme is that he’s using it to discount what should be publishing’s best hope and mimicking the stupidities of the record industry by fixating on the idea that publishers sell books – instead of understanding that what readers want isn’t a hunk of paper, but the words printed on it.

Fair enough, Robinson’s just lost his job and that’s got to shake a body up. But ranting against mass literacy and specialisation is pointless: you can’t undo social developments just because they’re bad for publishers. Either the industry works out how to make a living from the internet, or it dies – and when the Authors Guild Of America does things like pressuring Amazon to remove the text-to-speech option from the Kindle, it seems as though publishing has already decided to go down fighting everyone.

There are a few assumptions in Robinson’s piece that feel right. Word processors and the internet make the production and distribution of text easier. The ability of the internet to put you in touch with people like you possibly gives more people the feeling that there’s an audience for their idea and encourages them to write. That’s not exactly the “increasingly self-centred society” that Robinson is berating, even if it does suggest likely problems with confirmation bias. And worse, Robinson has sort of missed the whole nature of publishing on the internet. Bloggers perpetually link to and comment on each other. Robinson’s piece, which is a straight posting of print material, not only doesn’t link to any other pages, it doesn’t even mention any other writers or what they have to say. From the evidence of his own column, it doesn’t seem like it’s the internet that has the problem with reading and listening.