The Origin of Teepees – Jonnie Hughes

First point: groan at that pun title. It is terrible. Even I don’t approve.

Second point: I was sold on reading this book (which I borrowed, so I haven’t given it any money) on the grounds that it was “totally wrong but still interesting”. This was… not an inaccurate description, but one that, in my opinion, lacks emphasis.

I found this book infuriating.

The concept is a pseudo-travelogue, in which the author tries to determine how ideas “evolve”, through trying to discover how the teepee has changed, and what was the original teepee… hence the name. This is not a particularly stunning idea even as it stands, and then the author does it to absolute death.

Actually, he likes doing that.

He has a couple of metaphors he will not drop. I thought the first one would die when it stretched across the entire first chapter, but it was still clinging grimly onto life when we closed the final one. Several more insisted on popping up again and again, despite never really having been clever enough for their first outing… for example, Hughes talks about seeing the world through various “goggles”, like Darwinist goggles, or feminist goggles. He proposes in his introduction to provide the reader with a new sort of goggles (included free with the book!) that will allow them to see the world differently, in the same way that Darwinism changed how people viewed the world. It was cute for approximately a second, and then I started grumbling. I read sections aloud to the flat. I gesticulated.

And this whole attitude of not letting go of a cute idea is something that persists throughout. The author finds a neat metaphor or way of explaining something, then proceeds to bludgeon the evidence and reality into line to fit into it. It’s godawfully contrived at every juncture, and half the time just out and out wrong. He is convinced that the evolution of ideas (and memes) can be directly compared to the evolution of living organisms (and genes). I think even at the most cursory glance, the majority of readers would dismiss this notion. But he will not let it go… and evidence be damned. So language change doesn’t fit into your ideas of how idea-evolution works? We’ll just skim over that in a brief and incredibly vague paragraph. NOTHING TO SEE HERE. He latches onto the idea of genes and how they relate to evolution, and has to get memes as the kernels of ideas to work in the same way.

Speaking of which, I am no evolutionary biologist (yes, I’m sure you’re all stunned by that revelation) but when even I can spot the dodgy biology, things have gone rather poorly. Well, to my knowledge, it’s not so much that he’s wrong as he is criminally, wilfully and persistently misconstruing things. He never outright says it, but the whole thing reads like evolution is purposeful and genes somehow have… a vague intelligence and an endpoint they want to reach? And I’m sure if you put it to him, he’d say that he understood that that’s not true… but the way he writes stinks of it. And he talks about ideas the same way, as sentient things with desires and aims that make us do things, with some sort of deliberate intent… it’s rather infuriating.

This is by no means the sum of his failings – he does sometimes slip into dismissive, snarky atheism… which I find a bit annoying and very cheap – but it’s probably the worst two and the ones that most stick with me. That and the tone… I felt incredibly patronised the whole way through, in part by his determination to stick to an exhausted metaphor, like my poor little mind couldn’t cope with an unadorned fact or explanation.

All this being said, I enjoyed reading it… but that’s because I do quite enjoy getting angry about things. It was, indeed, completely wrong, but an interesting experience. But I wouldn’t advise anyone to repeat it themselves unless they had a pressing desire to rage at those nearby.

 

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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