July 20, 2006

George Hersey's The Monumental Impulse: A Declaration of Defeat

Attention conservation notice: 1600 words of pedantic whining about how a book on architecture didn't meet my parochial expectations. Also, it was mostly written and then abandoned to the gnawing criticism of the mice over a year ago.

I give up; it's got me beat.

I asked the good people at the MIT Press for a review copy of this, this thing, years and years ago, back when I was still regularly writing book reviews, because it sounded cool.

We humans owe an immense architectural debt to many other species. Indeed, the first hexagons humans saw may have been in honeycombs, the first skyscrapers termitaries (termite high-rises), and the first tents those of African weaver ants. In The Monumental Impulse, art historian George Hersey investigates many ties between the biological sciences and the building arts. Natural building materials such as wood and limestone, for example, originate in biological processes. Much architectural ornament borrows from botany and zoology. Hersey draws striking analogies between building types and animal species. He examines the relationship between physical structures and living organisms, from bridges to mosques, from molecules to mammals.

Insects, mollusks, and birds are given separate chapters, and three final chapters focus on architectural form and biological reproduction. Hersey also discusses architecture in connection with the body's interior processes and shows how buildings may be said to reproduce, adapt, and evolve, like other inanimate or "nonbiotic" entities such as computer programs and robots. The book is both learned and entertaining, and is abundantly illustrated with fascinating visual comparisons.

It would have been cool, too, if Hersey weren't an ignorant idiot. Oh, I'm pretty sure he's OK when it comes to purely architectural matters — though how would I know if he wasn't? What drives me up the wall every time I try to write about this book is that he gets everything else wrong.

Let's take history and languages first. Hersey is a professor of art history, and so I don't think it's unfair to expect him to get these straight. But we are talking about a man who can instance a spiral design from a Byzantine church as an example of an "Islamic spiral", whatever that may be (p. 47). He doesn't seem to realize (pp. 28–29) that the early Greek architects who first defined the classical orders wouldn't have used a Latin word (capitulum) to refer to the top of a column. I'm not even sure he realizes (pp. 7–8) that Hermes Trismegistus was a Hellenistic myth. For that matter, after presenting a fanciful analogy (pp. 17–18) between the ground-plan of Lemba, a Chalcolithic village in Cyprus, c. 3900 B.C., and cross-sectional diagrams of biological cells, he writes:

Certainly the builders of these dwellings would have known similar forms in their immediate surroundings — things that, unlike true body cells, were visible to the naked eye. One prototype would be the egg, which begins as a contained for a single-cell embryo embedded in the nourishing matter it will need in order to reproduce and grow. ... And then there are cell-like beehives, birds' nests, and plants. To the Greeks, moreover, and therefore maybe even to the Chalcolithic residents of Lemba, the word for cell (kutos) also meant uterus, and even the whole human body. So we must not relinquish the thought that the Lemba cells are the extended phenotype of builders whose own bodies, though they did not consciously know this, were put together similarly.
Let me try to extract everything that's broken in these sentences, and see what's left.
  1. Whatever they were speaking in Cyprus in 3900 B.C., it wasn't Greek, or even in the Indo-European family. Since kutos derives from the proto-Indo-European root *(s)keu- meaning "to cover" or "to conceal", it's irrelevant to the Lemban vocabulary and mentality. (See e.g. Calvert Watkin's Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, pp. 78–79.)
  2. He's right that kutos also meant uterus in Greek, but so what? Nobody thought mammals had eggs until the Renaissance, much less eggs somehow related to things called "cells". It's just as relevant that kutos also referred to "the fourth stomach of the ox".
  3. Suppose that the Lemban word for their houses was nothing at all like their word for "cell", and furthermore that their designs for their houses owed nothing at all to observations of eggs, birds' nests, beehives or anything like. Would that mean their buildings were not part of the builders' extended phenotypes? Obviously, the answer is "no", or at least that should be obvious to anyone who understands what "extended phenotype" is supposed to mean.
  4. He moves from "maybe" to "must not abandon" in the space of a sentence.
However, it does seem plausible that the Lembans would have noticed that eggs, birds' nests, and their houses were all roundish.

Bad as he is on history and languages, Hersey is worse at science and mathematics, and the history of science. He has no idea what "a topology" is (p. 51; at best this is a garbling of a curved manifold). He is capable of writing about distances "increasing at a fixed angle" (p. 45; he seems to mean rate), and of "steel molecules" (p. 13). He thinks sharks are not vertebrates (p. xvii). He literally does not know what a virus is (p. 15). (He also doesn't know when they were first discovered, nor when their shapes were first determined [pp. 15–16], and so his suggestion that illustrations of the shapes of viruses influenced some of Gaudí's designs on the Sagrada Família [p. 16] is just wrong.) He doesn't realize that DNA molecules don't actually look like the simple diagrams people draw of double helices, but are bent, folded and twisted, and so resemble spiral staircases not at all (pp. 6–8). And so on, and so forth.

Let me give a last example of the kind of thing which irritates the hell out of me; it comes from very early in the book (pp. xviii-xix), but it's central to whatever attempt at an argument Hersey makes.

Homo sapiens shares something that I don't yet dare call a gene sequence for building — shares it, perhaps homologously, perhaps convergently, with other constructing creatures such as birds, crustaceans, ants, termites, and bees. I will also be claiming, as a corollary, that the shapes of our monumental shelters, whether bicycle sheds or cathedrals, reflect and often derive from the shapes first created by these other species — species that, like us, are subject to the monumental impulse. ...
But now comes a paradox: certain ants, termites, honeybees, and birds build elaborate structures. So do humans. But, as humans, we are anomalous in doing this. Only a few other mammals build — most obviously beavers and badgers. Worse still, our own closest cousins, the other primates, hardly build at all. An African termitary might remind us of Wright, of a Gaudí spire, or of a skyscraper by Hermann Obrist. But no such thoughts come to mind when we look at the rudimentary retreats of chimps and gorillas. Thus any genetic homology that brackets us with the other builder-species will have to be very ancient and, also, will have to have bypassed our immediate ancestors and cousins.
This isn't a paradox for his idea — it's a refutation. The last common ancestor of humans and termites lived before the Cambrian explosion, presumably in the oceans; whatever bizarre wormy thing it may have been, it assuredly didn't build. Even if the genes "for" building in humans and termites are both descended from the same set of genes in that remote common ancestor, they are no more homologous than flight is homologous in birds and pterodactyls, because they both independently modified vertebrate forelimbs into wings. A little reading on comparative methods, and how homologies are actually established, would have kept Hersey from wasting his and his reader's time. (Similarly for the chapter on the reproduction and evolution of architectural designs, which is completely innocent of all actual work on, say, the evolution of technology, or even on the cognitive processes of architectural representation.)

The whole book is like that — a series of conceits which a little thought or research would've shown don't work, presented as real scholarship. To be fair, Hersey sometimes allows himself a certain levity of presentation: in chapter eight he claims (basically) that people like domes because they remind them of breasts, which he illustrates by juxtaposing a picture of the Taj Mahal with one he attributes to "D-Cup Superstars, February 1992". But even then, he concludes, on no basis whatsoever, that the Taj is "an architectural thernody to the queen's breasts" (p. 155), and means us to take that seriously.

I won't say that Hersey's book is bullshit, because Hersey buys it. But I will say it's crap. It's crap in the same way that much too much of what I read by scholars in the humanities is crap: Hersey doesn't think carefully and critically, he tries to use ideas he doesn't understand, he's sloppy about facts, and he thinks he's establishing reliable conclusions when he can't argue his way out of a wet paper bag. Lest by saying this I call up the wrathful wraith of Chun the Unavoidable, I hasten to add that (1) many scholars in the humanities are, indeed, excellent and careful scholars, who do not suffer from these debilities, and (2) I think this cannot in the least be blamed on any value of post-*ism, or or "theory" or anything of that sort. Certainly Hersey is not a post-*ist, and I have no reason to believe this sort of crappiness has become more common among humanists in recent years. (If anything, I'd guess that the causal arrows point from crappiness to post-*ism, rather than the other way. For this, too, however, I have no evidence.)

— But, you see, this is what always happens when I try to write a proper review of The Monumental Impulse: I end up wandering hopelessly off topic, in order to avoid having to think of all the ways the book vexed me.

Do not read this book.

Learned Folly; The Natural Science of the Human Species

Posted by crshalizi at July 20, 2006 00:45 | permanent link

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