The March of Revision

Draft of 2012.10.05 ☛ 2015.07.02 ☛ 2016.12.12

A long time ago, several careers ago indeed, a bunch of us graduate students nabbed the Department van and drove from Oxford to Columbus to see Stephen Jay Gould speak at Ohio State University. For those of you too young or unfortunate to have heard Gould speak: he was good. Not merely TED-talk good, but a man who spoke as he wrote: with parentheses and ellipses and em-dashes, long big-bite cogent thoughts, paragraph-structured. And musical.

So imagine him. Imagine him alive or as a ghost, and in particular speaking about the Myth of Progress. I don’t honestly recall whether he talked about the Myth of Progress when he was speaking in Columbus that night; it might have been about Creationism (which was hot in those days) or some other irrationality. But today you and I, we’re going to chat a bit about the Myth of Progress, and I’m invoking Gould as its stalwart foe.

That said, this isn’t going to be about how Science (done right) can help people think in the world. Indeed, it’s about how Science (as she is done) is fucking up how people think. Including, I should emphasize, the majority of Science. And Engineering. And more or less all public policy therefrom derived.

So as it exists in my head, the Myth of Progress lives somewhere between being a folk heuristic, a bad habit of visualization, and a formalized misunderstanding of how the biological world actually works. The Great Chain of Being is one facet: the notion, expanded and locked in since the Neoplatonists, that the world is organized along a lovely axis leading (in some static sense) from imperfectly primitive on up to perfect and holy. The March of Progress illustration you’ve seen parodied in so many advertisements is another facet: the gamboling monkey, the crouching ape, the slumped cave man, the dude striding purposefully ahead, and so on. And so on.

Now Stephen Jay Gould, he wrote a lot on the subject of the Myth of Progress. I am not him, and heaven forfend I tread even near his eminent footsteps, so I am going to summarize what he said on the Myth of Progress for my own purposes here: It is not just bullshit, it’s dangerous bullshit.

Evolution doesn’t collapse down into a linear anything, and it’s not just wrong but misleading to take the branching network of descent and cross-breeding and abuse it that way. Evolution doesn’t proceed by discrete steps, and it’s not only wrong but misleading to imply that species replace one another. Evolution doesn’t even proceed when you get right down from it. It is always happening, everywhere, all over: all the things that ever happen among organisms and their environments are in a real sense “evolution going on”.

There are subtleties in this, of course. A lot of the more insidious ones even biologists fall prey to. There’s the tendency towards calling bacteria “primitive” because they were first. And don’t get me started on the swarm of philosophical traps that comprise the ill-formed notions of beginnings and endings, births and extinctions, even the nature and definitions of “individuals” and “species”. Some day when we’ve both got more time, we’ll do a bunch of onerous mythbusting on these themes.

Maybe. Who knows? But this morning I’m here to talk about writing.

Ah, tradition. You start with an idea or two, and maybe you outline or you blast out a textual draft, and then maybe you print it or you step away and come back to the top of the file, and work through it all, and maybe restructure it, and then there’s this phase where you see inconsistencies on a number of scales or notice shortcomings in references or links or illustrations, and you converge and you refine and you stay up late and then you’re done.

You write a little gamboling monkey of a draft, and you work your way up to the cocky dude with a spear on his shoulder. You slap him into an email attachment or a manila envelope, drop a cover letter on him, and off he goes, done. In the Record. Your baby.

Your property, among other things. Your reputation, your name, your ideas or at least your re-presentation of carefully acknowledged other people’s ideas.

OK, maybe it’s not that simple. Maybe you’ll get it back with some suggested corrections, and you’ll do a couple of further steps of the dance to move it to a more advanced state, and then that’s what’s done. Or maybe you realize later than is typical that there’s a different qualitative structure of your written thing called for, perhaps something that became apparent only after you’d mostly-completed an earlier version, and you revise, but then the refinement process starts again and… well, done is done.

You own that done thing. If you’re collaborating, maybe all of you own it. But it’s owned, right?

Now, some Unthinkable Things:

  1. You return to an earlier version of a written work in progress, and start refining that—without abandoning the other branch. In other words, you take a “written work” two different directions at once.
  2. You keep changing a work after it has been delivered without explicitly indicating that it has been changed.
  3. Somebody else takes an earlier (private) version of your work, and revises that in a different direction, without supplanting or replacing your completely personal one.
  4. You don’t give credit to other people’s ideas that appear in your work. No links, no citations, not even any block quotes.
  5. Somebody else builds on a “final” version of your work, and doesn’t explicitly acknowledge your contribution.

Bad, bad stuff. Icky squicky stuff for writers and scientists and photographers and more or less anybody in the Life of the Mind.

And yet, and yet, and yet.

Stuff happens, doesn’t it? All of them happen. Students of course do this stuff, mere primitive Students who have not yet been corrected. And insidious scoundrels, who have not yet been brought to justice. Oh, and the absent-minded sometimes will do some of those, especially the ones where they forget to give credit where due. And there’s unconscious plagiarism of course, and self-plagiarism, and there are some ritualized ways one can (for example) take a prior work and bundle it up in a new work by expansion or repurposing.

So those happen.

And then there’s this odd thing about the Public Domain: It permits all those things. You could put zombies in Pride and Prejudice if you wanted, without mentioning the lady who wrote it, but it might not be as widely read without the invocation of her reputation. If instead you took an obscure magazine-serialized anti-Catholic novel of the 1850s and set it in space, and nobody had ever seen it besides maybe ever-watchful Miriam Burstein… but it might [well] end up being a better book.

That’s just to speak of intention. There’s also just noise, isn’t there? What is “done”? You write until the writing is done, but you don’t count typesetting: there are a dozen other people sometimes between you shipping off your “finished” dude with his spear and the discounted book on the remainder shelf at the side of the book store. There are copy editors (hopefully), and copy-and-paste errors, and typesetting, and printing and imposition… all sorts of variation can crop up from “the system”.

And a librarian or a bookseller or an Information Scientist or maybe even just that rare English student who pays attention will spend as long as you like speaking on the subject of “versions” and “works” and “editions” and “variants”.

So, then. What is a book or a paper or a blog post or an invention, that a species is not? You cannot make the argument that a species is “real” where a work is not, because of course the notion of species is just as fraught. Which is why Stephen Jay Gould is in the room, his ghost watching and grinning (I hope), ready to jump in with a long well-formed sentence to remind you: None of these things is a thing. They can be useful. They can help us do work, and tell better stories about the world. But “species” has a history, and has bad edges; “individual” and “descent” even have bad edges, when you get right down to maternal effects on development and microflora and epigenetics and all that other stuff that’s useful in speaking of exceptions in biology.

Those exceptions are evident to any advanced practitioner. They leave the biologist a choice: to either steer well clear of problematic areas, or to jab a finger down inside to see what happens.


In software we have the beginning of a very different notion of the bounds of things. There is collaboration, there are anastomoses in the “tree” of software, and a growing cultural norm that reuse and reusability are not only permitted but rewarded. There are licenses, and there are reputations and livelihoods made by sharing. Great Minds of our day, like Clay Shirky and Steve Johnson, they’re poking at these very holes in the context of property, progress, ownership and collaboration. The law and the Internet, the social and the academic.

Me, I’m no Great Mind. I’ve got a monotonous boring old thing I always always do: I ask why? You might be tempted to spank a five-year-old who plays too often with the iterated “Why?” In my case… well, consider that astute observation of George Bernard Shaw’s before you try that approach.

What might happen if you let one of those Unthinkable Things happen? Just let it go. What might happen?


I don’t know. That’s why I ask. But there’s one thing I learned a long time ago about life in the world: Eventually everything happens. There is a niche, a context, a way of life in every approach.