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Friday 3 June 2011

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The Jane Austen circus act, one event not featured at the Emerging Writers' Festival this weekend, VS Naipaul notwithstanding. By Judy Horacek.

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Since 1986, the Frankfurt Book Fair, the global publishing industry’s biggest showcase event, has invited individual countries to be the Fair’s guest of honour. In 1986, it was India, the only country to have been guest of honour twice (the second time was 20 years later). Most guests of honour have been Latin American or European. In 2004, the guest of honour concept was stretched to include all of the Arab world. China was in the spotlight in 2009, despite its mixed scorecard in relation to its writers. Last year, Argentinian literature was guest of honour, and this year it’s Iceland (Halldór Laxness, anyone?).

The Fair has just announced its guest of honour for 2012 – one of literature’s minnows, an antipodean island nation that punches far above its weight in the literary world, with a proud tradition of innovative writing that has hitherto been unfortunately neglected. Of course, we’re referring to, err, New Zealand. A report of the announcement by Fair director Juergen Boos, visiting Auckland for the occasion, said Kiwi literature was typified by “its vibrant blend of European-derived literature and indigenous traditions in storytelling”. Boos cited a bunch of great New Zealand writers that included novelists Katherine Mansfield, Janet Frame, Keri Hulme, Alan Duff and Witi Ihimaera, as well as poet Hone Tuwhare – the first to translate Maori poetry into English.

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03 June 2011

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Image of an ant via WikiCommons

It’s one of the most mysterious aspects of animal behaviour, one even Charles Darwin struggled with: why would an animal choose to sacrifice itself to help other members of its own species, at the expense of passing down its own genes? It’s a question fundamental to biology because it amounts to an investigation into the evolutionary logic of goodness.

An 81 year-old Harvard biologist – a colossus of the science – has stirred a hornet’s nest, so to speak, by turning his back on biology’s most widely accepted explanation for animal altruism. Called the father of biodiversity, Edward O. Wilson has revised his earlier theories on evolutionary altruism. In so doing he’s come under stinging attack from fellow scientists. “I don’t know what’s gotten into E. O. Wilson,” writes one blogger.

An article Wilson co-authored last August in Nature magazine called ‘The evolution of eusociality’ sees Wilson fundamentally reassessing his thoughts on what might be called ‘altruistic’ behaviour in socially highly-developed species like ants and bees. Among the five dissenting letters the magazine published following the article’s publication – which Richard Dawkins slammed as a disgrace – one letter was signed by no less than 137 scientists. Much is at stake – one journalist reporting on the controversy called it “a high-stakes inquiry into the nature of good”.

The theory most commonly accepted for evolutionary altruism is kin selection theory, where the logic of altruism is, roughly speaking, ‘if I can’t pass on my genes, I can at least act to pass down genes that are very similar to mine’. For example, in a eusocial insect colony, according to Wikipedia, “sterile females act as workers to assist their mother in the production of additional offspring.”

In his article, Wilson opts for another, decidedly less fashionable theory, called group selection. Group selection posits that genes survive according to the benefits they bestow a group, regardless of their kinship – in other words, that social cohesion determines genetic survival. One of Wilson’s two co-authors, Martin Nowak, says their revival of the theory is based on mathematics – and that the maths of kin selection theory just doesn’t add up. He adds its a maths the article’s critics haven’t engaged with.

The implications of the argument stretch beyond biology. Wilson claims group selection applies to humans too. “Human beings have an intense desire to form groups, and they always have,” Wilson recently remarked. “This powerful tendency we have to form groups and then have the groups compete, which is in every aspect of our social behavior … is basically the driving force that caused the origin of human behavior.”

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The Emerging Writers Festival concludes on Sunday, so if you haven’t already immersed yourself in the ‘festival for writers’ check out the events programme. Here are some highlights.

  • The Writer’s Toolkit is a series of workshops that runs all day tomorrow. Workshops include writing for TV, writing smartphone apps, writing opinion pieces, literary podcasting, indie publishing, writing comics and graphic novels and researching.

  • Living Library, also tomorrow, features a bunch of writers in different genres and styles who can be ‘borrowed’, for 15 minutes at a time, just like a library book. The living library books include lit crit Emmett Stinson, poet and playwright Julian Fleetwood, editor Jo Case, novelist and short story writer Paddy O’Reilly, YA novelist Kelly Gardiner, If:Book director and digital writer Simon Groth, and translator Leah Gerber. Borrow as many ‘books’ as you like, but you must book ahead.

  • The Page Parlour takes place on Sunday at the Atrium in Federation Square, with 40 stalls featuring a vast variety of indie books, literary journals, posters, hand-crafted story books, zournals, and zines.

  • Also at Fed Square on Sunday, the 48 Hour Play Generator sees a bunch of writers performing a play they’ve written in just two days, hosted by RRR’s Richard Watts.

  • What better to close a festival for writers than with a Spelling Bee at Gertrude’s Brown Couch on Sunday night?

And in between you can kill some time at Rue Bebelons, the festival hub.

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03 June 2011

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