Posts Tagged ‘Horses’

The Cheltenham Festival is Decadent and Depraved

February 12, 2016

Shark Hunt Pic

A few weeks ago I blogged about how a group of my friends had come back dazed, shocked and annoyed from a day at the races in Cheltenham. They’d been in one of the beer tents when I group of hunt supporters from the surrounding country gentry came in. They were shocked at how personally graceless, arrogant and condescending they all were, combined with their physical repulsiveness. ‘They had no chin!’ wailed one of my friends. They were all agreed that they were fairly hideous. I put it down to the proverbial inbreeding in the British aristocracy and the horsey set.

Reading through the collected journalism of Hunter S. Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt, it seems that Dr Gonzo had the same experience of the type of Southern aristocracy, who attended the Kentucky Derby, in a piece he wrote for Scanlan’s magazine, ‘The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved. This was the first piece to have the term ‘Gonzo’ applied to it. It’s an account of how Thompson and the caricaturist, Ralph Steadman, went to cover the 1970 Kentucky Derby. This took place against a backdrop of political tension and the expectation of violence by the Black Panthers, expectations that were gleefully stoked by Thompson himself. As drugs were very definitely banned and unavailable there, he and Steadman got drunk instead and caused chaos in their own way. Thompson hit various people with the can of Mace he was carrying, while Steadman innocently nearly started fights by showing people the drawings he’d made of them. They reacted angrily, to Steadman’s astonishment. In Britain people had only ever taken the caricatures as a good-natured joke. Not so in the Southern US, and at the Kentucky Derby, which Thompson described to Steadman as like a giant outdoor loony bin.

And the inmates Thompson particularly wanted Steadman to sketch in this alfresco madhouse were the inbred, horsey aristocracy. Thompson says

He had done a few good sketches, but so far we hadn’t seen that special kind of face that I felt we would need for the lead drawing. It was a face I’d seen a thousand times at every Derby I’d ever been to. I saw it, in my head, as the mask of the whisky gentry – a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture. One of the key genetic rules in breeding dogs, horses or any other kind of thoroughbred is that close inbreeding tends to magnify t5he weak points in bloodline as well as the strong points. In horse breeding, for instance, there is a definite risk in breeding two fast horses who are both a little crazy. The offspring will also be very fast and also very crazy. So the trick in breeding thoroughbreds is to retain the good traits and filter out the bad. But the breeding of humans is not so wisely supervised, particularly in a narrow Southern society, where the closest kind of inbreeding is not only stylish and acceptable, but far more convenient – to the parents – than setting their offspring free to find their own mates, for their own reasons and in their own ways. (‘Goddamn, did you hear about Smitty’s daughter? She went crazy in Boston last week and married a nigger!’)

So the face I was trying to find in Churchill Downs that weekend was a symbol, in my own mind, of the whole doomed atavistic culture that makes the Kentucky Derby what it is.

Thompson and Steadman don’t actually find that characteristic, Southern decadent face, until the end of the Derby. They finally see it as days of boozing and a diet of fish and chips and French toast, when they look in the mirror. It’s a funny piece, with Thompson’s trademark vitriolic wit. And it seems on both sides of the Atlantic there is a stereotypical face belonging to the local equestrian gentry. Thompson saw it at the Kentucky Derby. My friends saw its English counterparts at the Cheltenham Races. Thompson did get one thing wrong in his description of that part of the sporting gentry. They may have been decadent, but they weren’t doomed. The influence of such inherited wealth was declining, until Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan revitalised it. It led to what Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd hailed as a ‘social restoration’. And it has led to some fine examples of decadent atavism, like David Cameron, George Osborne and the Eton toffs, getting into power.

Never mind the Cheltenham Races or the Kentucky Derby. The entire British cabinet is decadent and depraved.

Advertisements

Buffon’s Scepticism of Evolution

May 6, 2013

From the way the history of the theory of evolution is presented, you could be forgiven for believing that no-one had considered it as a possible explanation for the origin of life before Charles Darwin in the mid-19th century. Other theorists of evolution had appeared earlier in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century – Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, Lamarck, Chambers, the author of the Vestiges of a Natural History of Creation, and finally the co-discoverer of Natural Selection with Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace. Yet as Rebecca Stott has demonstrated in her book, Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists, some philosophers had considered that life had evolved as far back as the time of Aristotle and one of his followers, Theophrastus. One of the pioneers of modern evolutionary theory was G.L. leclerc, Comte de Buffon. His Natural History, published from 1749 to 1767 was an encyclopedic discussion of the history of the Earth and its creatures. It created a taste for natural history amongst the French public, and shaped the way it was investigated in France for over a century. His esxsay on the pig is considered one of the classics of French Enlightenment writing. Examining the animal’s physiology, Buffon argued that it contained vestiges indicating its descent from an earlier species. Buffon was cautious about expressing his personal views of the history of the Earth. It appears, however, that he was probably much more sceptical about the Genesis account of the creation of the world than he appeared in his writings. In his History and Theory of the Earth of 1749 he argued that the world was formed through gradual, uniform geological processes. His essay in the same volume ‘An Examination of Other Theories of the Earth’ attacked scholars who attempted to mix natural history with theology. While Buffon acknowledged the possibility that animals could be formed through evolution, he was sceptical of its ability to do so.

Buffon opens his essay, ‘The Ass’ with the statement that ‘This animal, even when examined iwth minute attention, has the appearance of a degenerated horse’. He then proceeds to describe the similarities and differences between the two animals. He then expanded this argument to consider the similarity, in body plan, between humans, horses, and other kinds of animals, including birds, reptiles, whales and fish. He suggested that this showed

‘that the Supreme Being, in creating animals, employed only one idea, and, at the same time, diversified it in every possible manner, to give men an opportunity of admiring equally the magnificence of the execution and the simplicity of the design’. Buffon was sceptical of the existence of the taxonomic families into which contemporary biologists grouped animals. For him the only animal divisions that really existed were those of species. ‘If these families really existed’, he argued, ‘they could only be produced by the mixture and successive variation and degeneration of the primary species: and if it be once admitted, that there are families among plants and animals, that the ass belongs to the family of hte horse, and differs from his only be degeneration; with equal propriety may it be concluded, that the monkey belongs to the family of man; that the monkey is a man degenerated; tha tman and the monkey have sprung from a common stock, like the horse and ass; that each family, either among animals or vegetables, has been derived from the same origin; and even that all animated beinigs have proceeded from a singlespecies, which, in the course of ages, has produced, by improving and degenerating, all the different races that now exist’. If this was true, it would mean that ‘no bounds could be fixed to the powers of Nature; she might, with equal reason, be supposed to have been able, in the course of time, to produce from a single individual, all the organised bodies in the universe’.

Buffon rejected this, first arguing from Scripture that God had formed each creature individually. He then stated that since the time of Aristotle twenty centuries previously, no new species had been seen to emerge. He noted that although Nature proceeded with gradual and often imperceptible steps, the gap between different creatures was not always equal. He then went on to suggest the number of variations that had to be produced to form a creature of a different species from, and which could not breed with, those of its parents. He believed that if evolution existed, it always acted through degeneration, which invitably produced weak and infertile offspring. Buffon therefore concluded that

‘Though, therefore, we cannot demonstrate, that the formation of a new species, by means of degeneration, exceeds the power of Nature; yet the number of improbabilities attentind such a supposition, renders it totally incredible: for, if one species could be produced by the degeneration of another, if the ass actually originated from the horse, this metamorphosis could only have been effected by a long succession of imperceptible degrees. Between the horse and ass, there must have ben many intermediate animals, the first of which would gradually recede from the nature and qualities of the horse, and the last would make great advances to that of the ass. What is become of these intermediate beings? Why are their representatives and descendants now extinguished? Why should the two extremes alone exist?’

Buffon concluded that the ass was a unique animal, not at all descended from the horse.

‘We may, therefore, without hesitation, pronounce the ass to be an ass, and not a degerated horse, a horse with a naked tail. The ass is not a marvellous production. He is neither an intruder nor a bastard. Like all other animals, his family, his species, and his rank, are ascertained and peculiar to himself. His blood is pure and untainted; and, though his race be less noble and illustrious, it is equally unalloyed, as ancient as that of the horse.’ Buffon ends his discussion of the ass by arguing for its good qualities, qualities that also demanded respect.

Now Buffon was clearly hindered in considering the potential of evolution of create new species through the lack of fossil evidence for them available in his time and the lack of knowledge of geological deep time. It was only decades later, with Hutton and Lyell, that biologists were able to provide ages of the Earth that allowed for the development of species by the gradual, imperceptible steps of time that biologists required. What Buffon’s essay also shows, is that many biologists and natural historians in Buffon’s day also rejected evolution because they did not see it as a scientifically viable theory, apart from its conflict with the authority of Scripture. This attitude continued into the 19th century. Most of Darwin’s opponents were other scientists, not theologians.

My point here is that the conflict over the theory of evolution in the 18th and 19th centuries was not simply that of theology versus scripture, but also over scientific validity of the theory itself. When Bishop Samuel Wilberforce famously debated Huxley over Darwin’s theory, he opened the debate by saying that even if the theory was theologically offensive, it would still have to be accepted if it was true scientifically. Unfortunately, the 18th and 19th century debates and conflicts over Evolution tend to be presented as simply between advancing science and backwards religion. While one element of the conflict was on religious grounds, the scientific element of the debate also needs to be remembered and included.