Culpa.

Say what you will about this Peter Watts guy, he sure has a way with punchy quotes. Just look at some of  the one-liners he’s come up with that various folks have pinched for their sigfiles, or stuck on the sidebars of their blogs. Just look at all the pithy wisdom quoted on GoodReads:

  • “Science is so powerful that it drags us kicking and screaming towards the truth despite our best efforts to avoid it.” (698 Google hits)
  • “We’re not thinking machines, we’re — we’re feeling machines that happen to think.” (>50)
  • “Brains are survival engines, not truth detectors.” (≈45)

That first one, especially — that got picked up and used everywhere in the wake of Climategate, The Scandal That Wasn’t. The only problem is, I wasn’t the first one to say it; that was a dude named Dan Brooks, an evolutionary biologist who used to teach at the University of Toronto (and who now spends his retirement walking the Earth like Kwai Chang Caine, bringing a Darwinian perspective to those places on the planet which need it. Should keep him busy for a while.) Dan and I have hung out for years, and ten years ago that sentiment — or one very close to it— slipped out of his mouth while a mixture of rum and Kahlua was slipping into it. I’d shared that basic sentiment for decades, but Dan really nailed it in a way I never had.

I’m not 100% sure where I first heard the brains are survival engines line, but I know it’s not mine. I think I read it in a book by either Stephen Pinker or Thomas Metzinger. And Feeling machines that happen to think hails from a documentary on brain science I saw back in the early nineties; I have no idea what name to attach to the talking head who first spouted those words. I only know I heard them and thought Wow, that’s concise— and more than a decade later, I put them into the mouth of one of the supporting cast from Blindsight.

I doubt that this list is comprehensive. I’m certain of it in fact, because that’s how the writer’s brain works; we pilfer from the real to inform the fictive. And after half a century on this planet, who the hell remembers whether you actually invented something or merely heard it while suckling at your nursemaid’s breast?

I’ve been pondering such imponderables in the wake of the grumbles that appeared after my last post; specifically, the muttering about “plagiarism” that showed up in the comments after I highlighted a line from “The Island” that resurfaced in “Bowl of Heaven”. I said then — and I say now — that I don’t believe there was any intent to appropriate content; Benford & Niven intended the quote as a tribute, that’s how I took it, and truth be told I peed my pants a bit when I encountered my words in their novel. But more to the point, if they’re guilty then I’m more so; because I didn’t port my stolen quotes as any kind of explicit homage. I just thought the words were cool and pithy and so I stuck them into other mouths of my own characters. There was no intent to plagiarize. I just wanted to make a point, and these other people had made the point better than I could have, so I used their words. If I’d known that Policy Lass and ClimateSight and ClimateBites were going to borrow those words in turn, and attribute them to me— if I’d known that that particular posting was going to go semiviral and get quoted as often as it did — I would have taken more care to acknowledge my sources.

That’s my problem with this blog; most of the time I still unthinkingly regard it as an ongoing and largely private conversation with friends over beers. I’m leaning across the table jabbing my finger in the air and making a point to my buddies, and peer review is the last thing on my mind. And the next thing I know my signal’s been boosted by the Open Laboratory Project and everybody and their dog is weighing in.

And that’s why I wouldn’t be tempted to complain about the Bowl’s cut’n’paste even if I didn’t regard it as explicit homage — because even then, it still wouldn’t necessarily be an act of intentional plagiarism. Because I’ve done worse in my time, with no ill intent. Because worse is a stupid word to use here anyway, since it implies levels of transgression — and all any of us authors ever do is steal from the real world. We build our characters from bits and pieces of friends and lovers and enemies, we recycle attitudes and haircuts and the characteristic twitch of an eye and splice them together into composite organisms. We do not invent; we steal.

All that said, I’m still a bit embarrassed that someone else’s words have been, thanks to my own careless lack of attribution, so firmly attached to me. I don’t worry about Dan’s reaction. He knows already, and that fucker plays hardball; if he was pissed I’d know in no uncertain terms. But the fact is, these are only those few cases of theft on my part that I know about; given the way fiction works, I’m 99% certain that I’ve stolen from a whole bunch of other folks without even knowing it.

You should thank me for it. If my writing contained nothing but my own insights, you wouldn’t want to read it.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Thursday March 07 2013at 05:03 pm , filed under fellow liars, ink on art, rant . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

11 Responses to “Culpa.”

  1. On the plagiarism front you are no Margaret Wente, that’s for sure. I’m not even sure Margaret Wente is Margaret Wente actually. And nothing she’s ever cribbed from anyone else ever sounded cool enough to be yours, so Margaret Wente is also no Peter Watts. And my point? There isn’t one. There’s just a roomful of chimps at typewriters faking Shakespeare and the rest of us.

  2. From now on I’m attributing every quote I share to you, Peter. Especially those three above.

  3. I like the quotes that you have atop the Root. Especially the James David Nicholl one. But I wish you’d kept the Utah Phillips quote – the old fellow should be kept in peoples’ minds.

  4. “None but gods have ever had a thought which did not come from the outside.” — Mark Twain

  5. Mike Bowen

    When it comes to writing, we are all Shakespeare’s monkeys.

  6. Dan Reid:
    “None but gods have ever had a thought which did not come from the outside.”— Mark Twain

    Which is in turn suspiciously close to Aristotle’s “There is nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses”.

  7. I suppose the phrases have turned out to be viral in a closer sense than intended. Little packets of rogue meme flitting off and crossing literary species boundaries. Is it possible to create the memetic equivalent of an ERV?

  8. I’ve probably quoted the middle of the three a few times (probably with attributation most of the time)

  9. Give thus to your detractors! ;)

    T.S. Eliot: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”

  10. Off-topic, but— *clink* — here’s to a fine time tomorrow evening. And may Toronto be dolphin-free. And for that matter dauphin-free. (See the Wattsy blurb at Chiaroscuro).

  11. Just sit back and you’ll hear a tale. A tale of a fateful trip. It started from this tropic port, aboard this tiny ship….

    I plead plagiarism. Nobody would seriously pay homage to Gilligan’s Island.