The Unnatural History of the Natural Universe, Composing, 07/08/2013

The edits to my ecophilosophy project are going slowly, but I have a solid handle on how I want to change it. The reason why a lot of dissertations aren’t really suitable to publish as a standalone book is because they’re too narrowly focussed, written to demonstrate advanced research skills rather than appeal to a general enough audience for a university press or intellectual publishing company to make a sustainable amount from it. My own dissertation doesn’t have that problem, as I had always conceived of it as a project that would have a more popular appeal. I demonstrated my ability to do in-depth research by using the details of in-depth investigations into several philosophical areas to link them into a solution to a problem that stretched across a breadth of areas. Less conventional, more difficult, but far more rewarding. And I still got it done in four years. 

But the main goal that I want to achieve with my ecophilosophy project edits is making sure the central ethical point is clearly at the front of the text throughout: what is most valuable in all of creation is the singular, unique, remarkable, rebellious, unforgivingly and uncompromisingly individual. In a specifically environmentalist context, the world is better when we encourage diversity. What else is diversity but strangeness, deviance, a proliferation of beautiful freaks. The departure from normality is actually the most natural of all: the mutations, the adaptations, the divergences, the singular.

During my dissertation defense, my external examiner asked me where my own personal perspective was in this collection of impeccable research. I didn’t have an answer then, mostly because during its composition, I was afraid to make the problem personal. I didn’t want my ego to get in the way. But really, this valorization of the strange and the mutant is where my personal ethics and the environmentalist moral philosophy I describe in the project converge. 

This attitude has been part of my personality for as long as I can remember. People who know me, know that I’m a bit of a strange person. Most of the time, people like it, because I’m witty, remarkable, and insightful. I’m not modest, though. And I’ve always been drawn to people who are also remarkably not quite like the people around them. Misfits who carve out a place for themselves. A weird mutation that creates its own social niche just by being who he is. Who I am. Who my doctoral supervisor is. Who my mentors are and were. Who my heroes are.

Of the many things I love about Matt Smith's Doctor is the
look on his face when something surprises or amazes him.
Look back at my Werner Herzog post from last month and you’ll see an example of the kind of person who’s a personal hero for me. They can be real or fictional. My first successful publication (not my first to be published, but the first one I submitted that got published) is an essay in the volume Doctor Who and Philosophy. I think I’m a better writer now than when I wrote that, but I’m still proud of it, and it’s probably the most widely read work I’ve written so far. The Doctor has always been a fictional hero to me, I think for this deeply philosophical reason: if Doctor Who as a show has an ethic, it’s the validation of the weird and unusual, what escapes classification.

I always try to read something for pleasure as well as whatever professional research I’m working on at the time. For my pleasure reading, I just finished Unnatural History, an old Doctor Who novel by Kate Orman and Jonathan Blum, one of the best books in the Eighth Doctor Adventures range from the late 1990s. It’s a cultish pulp sci-fi book, but it’s a very good pulp sci-fi book. The central villain is an alien naturalist of the worst stripe. In the story, a rift in spacetime has opened up in downtown San Francisco and has spilled all manner of strange creatures throughout the city. Griffin the naturalist has arrived too, bent on capturing all these freaks and rewriting their timelines and biology to make them fit the classifications he’s learned. Any creature that doesn’t fit the taxonomy of his textbooks must be forcibly modified to do so or destroyed. Everything must conform to a neat and orderly classification system. The world must make sense, and it must be a single sense: his. 

There's an old line from the Tom Baker era that fits this concept very well. "The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don't alter their views to fit the facts; they alter the facts to fit their views. It can be very uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering."

Griffin the naturalist is, in this trippy little piece of sci-fi literature, a paradigm villain for Doctor Who and for my own ecophilosophy project. His vision of the world will allow no difference, while the Doctor embraces his strangeness for the gift it is. And so do I. I learned from my mentors well.

A funny little sci-fi show can carry more philosophical weight than it gets credit for.


  1. The valorization of the weird and unique -- reminds me a great deal of a story by Frank Herbert, great poet of the ubermensch, who had a soft spot for highly evolved oddity. Called Seed Stock, it was published in The Book of Frank Herbert and may be of interest.

    Lack of modesty, lack of humility -- high-risk strategies in academia!

    PS apologies to your readers for my constant commenting; I'll back off for a while and let other voices be heard. Will continue to enjoy the posts, of course.

    1. Tom, there aren't any other voices who bother to comment on the blog page itself. You're always welcome.

      Frank Herbert is actually on my reading/research list for a fiction project I've been gestating for a couple of months. I've never actually gotten into Dune until now.