Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

March 13, 2012 Leave a comment

So much to love here. Not Dostoyevsky’s prose style–which is: loquacious; firmly prosaic. Not his characters–who are maybe not types, but certainly universals. Hard to have real dramatic action, perhaps, in a novel that above all makes philosophical ideas incarnate in the flesh.

And there’s the speciality of the novel: putting full-blooded ideas, theories, discussions of God and the fate of Russia in the mouths of the drunks, the peasants, the idlers outside the courtroom before the verdict is decided. There’s no narrator including allusions and references to make his characters look dumb by comparison: the narrator takes on the person of a humble witness to his characters, and it’s the characters themselves who wrestle with their heady ideas, not in writing or half-jesting while drunk, but whenever they meet. Even the children think. There is talk of the Russian soul and the national character: and this is maybe the one moment where I’ll grant weight to that talk, because the transformations in Russia at the time are immense and easily felt at every level–there’s no Zeitgeist being invoked, but rather the rapid transformations that are so evident that they are plain for all to see. The characters are trying to create, not invoke, the Russian spirit, imagine what it will be like with the pulls of atheism and the end of feudalism and people like Ivan coming back from the universities while people like Fyodor Pavlovitch are still the dominant model for the family.

The defense counsel’s query as to what makes a father fits naturally in this setting, where it’d be so hard to pull off almost anywhere else. The wrenching, rending scene at the end with Ilusha’s funeral and Alyosha gathering together the children to remember this time when they were good forevermore is a perfect cap for a novel about where beauty and salvation can be found amidst the vagaries of human actions and the chaos of the social fabric. And it is fitting that children are wise men in this new time, that Alyosha left the monastery and went out into the world and the message he learns to bring is the practical solution to Ivan’s question about a world where children suffer–his practical solution is spiritual. And Alyosha laughs gaily with the children, he learns how to do that while out in the world, where in the beginning he felt all lost when Father Zossima’s body decayed. The children are the answer: Ilusha’s body doesn’t decay, and a kind of new covenant is made with the children at the stone where Ilusha wanted to be buried, even as the holy rites continue to be said over Ilusha’s orthodox grave.

I suppose I’ll have to talk about “The Grand Inquisitor” at some point–but honestly, it didn’t strike me too much, except as beautiful prose and something I can relate to. Dostoyevsky is on so many existentialism syllabi, and I have to admit I don’t really understand why. Yes, Ivan is asking what we can do good in a world without God–but he certainly isn’t nihilistic about the solution! It’s Pushkin’s “sticky little leaves” that he clings to, not barren philosophy, and he’s keenly interested in the answer for how to find meaning. He’s basically a romantic atheist. He sounds most like Alyosha when the two brothers are talking, and he speaks of loving humanity so much–not so different from his novice brother. Alyosha has to learn to find the practical solution to how to treat the children: Ivan, though he’s seen the world, retains his novice-like love for it, and though maybe he struggles with the philosophical questions, he doesn’t get too occupied with them–it comes back to people and love. Alyosha kisses the ground for faith; Ivan for love.

Easily the funniest section of the novel: Ivan, in his delirium, talking to the devil-that-may-or-mayn’t-be-him. So great! One of the funniest things I’ve ever read. Even better because he’s up to the task, and he’s playing even as he’s tormented–something that can’t be said for the second funniest scene, Fyodor Pavlovitch in Zossima’s chambers at the initial family meeting, where we just see a fawning idiot.

I can’t believe how little really happens in this 800-odd page book. There’s no doubt as to who committed the murder on the reader’s part (maybe there should be, but anyway, we’re led from the beginning to think it’s by far not the point). Sure, there is a large cast of characters and triangles between them, and the many variants of Dmitri’s story are all rich in detail. But it’s hardly a real murder mystery. Maybe it’s a history of the brothers, as Dostoyevsky mentions–but it’s a very thin history, really. Mostly people just talk a lot about ideas, and get caught up in conversations and confabulations with each other. Even as Dmitri’s statement is being taken, we are privy to how the prosecutor writes it down, and know what acrobatics he’ll do at trial. We have several versions of the facts, none related as that actual night is related–who knows about the pouch with 1500 rubles being sown into Dmitri’s cap? We know he’s innocent of the crime, though we’re not sure how, and we know he might as well be guilty.

So where’s the interest? In the endless varieties of talk, the justifications and defenses by the characters of their own behavior, and the best courtroom speeches I’ve read in a while. In the sense of aliveness and action we get at only one place in the book, as the audience are talking outside before the jury reaches its decision–the only clipped conversation in the book. In each character anticipating the tricks the other is going to pull and falling for them anyway, but only half-way (when the prosecutor warns the jury that the defense will try to call for mercy, and he doesn’t use an emotional style at all, but gets the same effect; when Dmitri interprets what he’s saying in terms of what the prosecutor will undoubtedly think, coherent or not). A grand psychological novel with no fleshed out characters, a mystery where facts don’t matter much and nothing much happens–what a book.

I have to agree with the people who uphold this as a document of faith: why say Dostoyevsky must really have had strong faith if he can write Ivan’s critique of God and still believe. The ideas in this book go beyond political and philosphical–even mathematics comes in, and I was surprised that Lobachevsky had reached popular culture (or learned culture only?) by then:

” If God really exists and if he really has created the world, then, as we all know, he created it in accordance with the Euclidean geometry, and he created the human mind with the conception of only the three dimensions of space. And yet there have been and there still are mathematicians and philosophers, some of them indeed men of extraordinary genius, who doubt whether the whole universe, or, to put it more wildly, all existence was created only according to Euclidean geometry and they even dare to dream that two parallel lines which, according to Euclid can never meet on earth, may meet somewhere in infinity. I, my dear chap, have come to the conclusion that if I can’t understand even that, then how can I be expected to understand about God?” – Ivan, p. 274 in Penguin edition

Categories: Books

Oliver Sacks – The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

[Public Service Warning: These posts on books are generally too long to be good reviews or blog posts, and too scattered. I put them here mostly as reading notes for myself, in the absence of a good system of keeping track of things read and thoughts had. But I figure they might as well be public–no harm in it, anyhow.]

I’m very sympathetic to Oliver Sacks: as a writer, I have a soft spot for narratives in science. And I’d always like to think that science can help us speculate on the Big Questions, so I’m intrigued when Sacks muses on issues of identity and the soul in the midst of these case studies. And even though his philosophy is lacking much of the time, I tend to enjoy that he tried, and take his speculations for what they are: wishful, though earnest, musings; philosophy lite meant to point out a direction more than travel a rabbit hole.

So, I deeply enjoyed these vivid case studies, and I found them instructive too–even when I groaned a little at the misinterpretation of Hume, the use of Wittgenstein as a glossy epigraph only, or the grandiosity of adding a page-long postscript on the nature of the soul to a simple neurological case study. And even though Sacks’ love of smart people grated (If I hear “there didn’t seem to be anything wrong: he was a man of great cultivation and charm” or any variant, ever again…), I suspect that there would be no Sacks as we know him without it–that same love drives him to explore the subtleties and varieties of how intelligence and the creative, remembering mind present.

Some studies that stood out:

*The recurring musings on time and memory occasioned by patients with various kind of aphasia. From Luis Bunuel:

“You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives…Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing…(I can only wait for the final amnesia, the one that can erase an entire life, as it did my mother’s…)”

—Jimmy, who remembers his early life vividly, and speaks of it like the present: uses “not just the formal or fictitious present tense of recall, but the actual present tense of immediate experience.” (24) Sacks’ examination of him is illuminating: he tests what memory loss there is by asking him to write down the names of three objects Sacks has just hidden, and thereby pinpoints exactly how many seconds the memory loss entails. He asks about how many elements there are and how many planets to locate Jimmy in memory-time. He can tell that there are faint echoes of recent memories in Jimmy from how Jimmy remembers “some doc” tested him, though not what he was just asked to do in the test. Chess is too slow of a game for him to play it; checkers is fine.

“My note was a strange mixture of facts and observations, carefully noted and itemissed, wit irrepressible meditations on what such problems might ‘mean,’…I kept wondering, in these and later notes–unscientifically–about a ‘lost soul,’ and how one might establish some continuity, some roots.” (29) He brings in Luria’s account of Korsakov’s and Studs Turkel’s account of The Good War to make sense–unscientifically–of Jimmy’s experience. He reconstructs Jimmy’s life from hospital admission records and his brother’s reports. He makes the crushing bedside mistake of asking Jimmy how it can be himself, who looks so old, in the mirror.

Luria and Sacks write–they always write each other–and Luria advises, “There are no prsecriptions in a case like this. Do whatever your ingenuity and your heart suggest…But a man does not consist of memory alone. He has feeling, will, sensibilities, moral being–matters of which neuropsychology cannot speak And it is here, beyond the realm of an impersonal psychology, that you may find ways to touch him, and change him. And the circumstances of your work especially allow this, for you work in a Home, which is like a little world, quite different from the clinics and institutions where I work.”

What to do for Jimmy? Sacks asked the Sisters if he had a soul still–they said, “watch him in chapel and see.” He saw intensity, steadiness of attention.  “Seeing Jim in the chapel [he calls him Jim now, more dignified, not kiddie] opened my eyes to other realms where the soul is called on, and held, and stilled, in attention and communion.” “He was perfectly organized in Bergsonian ‘intentional’ time; what was fugitive, unsustainable, as a formal structure, was perfectly stable, perfectly held, as art or will.” (38)

**The eponymous man, who sees features of an image but not the whole, the abstract–and seemingly makes up features that aren’t there, when questioned, without knowing he’s doing so. He can also process schematic, abstract things (playing cards, Platonic solids, cartoons once he’s picked an identifying feature–but not the faces of people he knows, unless they have a memorable outstanding feature. He calls a rose: About six inches in length; a convoluted red form with a linear green attachment.” (12) He has no trouble with auditory or olfactory stimulus identification, and he can recognize objects that he’s using.

**Christina, who has a dream about losing proprioception and then does, after the surgery. She compensates with learning physiology and LOOKING at every body part as she moves it: so she slowly learns to move again, but only when she can give it her undivided attention. She feels “her body is blind and deaf to itself”–she still feels disembodied, not-her. Sacks found hundreds like her later: all taking an overdose of vitamin B6.

**A woman with CP who hasn’t used her hands in 60 years: the sensations are all there, but no perception–she feels pain, heat, movement, but can’t recognize any object put in her hands. She’s highly verbal and literate – people have been talking to her for 60 years. The “dead” feeling is paralleled by electrical silence in the relevant nerves. When she’s pushed a little, though, by impulse she was induced to use her hands–food kept just a little bit out of reach. She starts out recognizing forks as a flat thing with tines–then suddenly intuits its organic objecthood and use. Then she became highly animated with her hands, and known locally as “The Blind Sculptress of St. Benedict’s.” The idea of “developmental agnosia,” and the ability to learn at 60 what most learn at 2.

**Mr. MacGregor, who diagnoses himself after seeing a video of him walking “on the tilt”: “is there a kind of spirit level in the brian, Doc? Can it be knocked out by Parkinson’s” – Sacks: “the picture I love to see: a patient in the actual moment of discovery–half-appalld, half-amused–seeing for the first time exactly what is wrong, and, in the same moment, exactly what there is to be done.” (72) The work of Purdon Martin on Parkinson’s patients in The Basal Ganglia and Posture, Martin “endlessly thoughtful and ingenious in designing a variety of mechanisms and methods…to achieve an artificial normality of gait and posture: lines painted on the floor, counterweights in the belt, loudly ticking pacemakers–to set the cadence for walking. In this he always learned from his patients…” They together design a literal level protruding from the bridge of his glasses, and he learns to use it.

**Patients who just seem to stop knowing the left side of the world exists: the image of a patient spinning around in her chair, always to the right, bisecting her portion each time so she can get most of it even though she can see but half at a time. Zeno’s patient.

**Agnosias and people who can detect what Head calls “feeling tone,” and thus, one feels, can’t be lied to. (Note: I first heard this term from Studs Terkel’s Division Street…)


**”Witty Ticcy Ray,” about Tourette’s. Sacks locates the disappearance of talk about Tourette’s in “the turn of the century, a split had occurred, into a soulless neurology and a bodiless psychology”–some doctors thought of Tourette’s as mythical. The integral role of the Tourette’s Syndrome Association, formed by patients, in driving research into Tourette’s: genetic and developmental factors, the associations and reactions that characterize it, evolutionary basis, the body-language, grammar and linguistic structure of tics, the role of cursing and joking in various neuropathologies. The disturbance is in the highest parts of the “old brain,” whereas in Parkinson’s–which leads to excesses of motion but not action–it’s in the midbrain. Many Tourette’s sufferers are also great improv musicians. Luria saw Tourette’s as the most interesting disease for a window into human nature. Being free from tics when engaged in some other “kinetic melody.” He could only take Haldol well after being “prepared” for life without Tourette’s in therapy–after coming to believe there was a self to him beyond the disease. And now he only takes it on weekdays: he needs the Tourette’s self for his music on weekends, needs to “let fly.”

—Doing “street neurology” to see the severest forms of Tourette’s, the imitator’s. Naturalistic studies: Meige and Feindel’s Tics, Rilke’s portrait in the Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge. A woman who mimics and caricatures all passers-by, each for a few milliseconds, doing a kind of frenzied dance that draws crowds around her (which only makes the ticcing worse, giving her more to imitate).

**The Korsakov’s patient, with amnesia, who is always chattering and “making up” stories–his brother walks by, and he says “and there’s my brother” in the same easy tone–it takes the docs a while to realize that this part is true. Only finds peace in the garden, away from people with whom he feels pressure to be the comedian and tell stories. Doesn’t exhibit a sense of being “lost” or realization of the lack of inner feeling.

**Mrs. O’C, who heard Irish songs in her head constantly, clearly, when none were playing. She was having temporal lobe seizures–that got less intense after a few days: in the beginning, she couldn’t “hear” over the music. Another, Mrs. O’M, who had 3 songs she didn’t like on repeat in her brain, and who was developing amusia too–all the hymns in church started to sound the same. Hughlings Jackson on the strange phenomenon of a musical epilepsy: “It is not very uncommon for epileptics to have vague and yet exceedingly elaborate mental states at the onset of epileptic seizures…The elaborate mental state, or so-called intellectual aura, is always the same, or essentially the same, in each case.” Experiential hallucinations. A duality of perception–“I know you’re there, Dr. Sacks. I know I’m an old woman with a stroke in an old people’s home, but I feel I’m a child in Ireland again.” Always memories, these, never fantasies, according to Wilder Penfield’s studies. Why the preponderance of MUSICAL memories? Penfield calls them random–but “we know from the stud of ‘free associations’ tha the most seemingly trivial or random thoughts may turn out to have an unexpected depth and resonance, but that this only becomes evident given an analysis in depth.” Mrs. O’C’s seizures gave her back memories of a lost childhood: though she doesn’t remember the details now, she feels a sense of completeness and groundedness now that she didn’t before. [See Esther Salaman, A Collection of Moments, and Dostoyevsky on his seizures. Also see Penfield and Perot, “The Brain’s Record of Visual and Auditory Experience.” See also reviews of vision studies, older–David Marr 1982–and recent–Ramachandran.]


“Let us note…that the removal of the minute, convulsing point of cortex…can remove in toto the iterating scene, and replace an absolutely specific an equally specific oblivion or amnesia. There is something extremely important, and frightening here: the possibility of a real psycho-surgery, a neurosurgery of identity (infinitely finer and more specific than our gross amputations and lobotomies, which may damp or deform the whole character, but cannot touch individual experiences.” (148)

Central question for Sacks here: “Thus a gulf appears, indeed a chasm, between what we learn from our patients and what physiologists tell us. Is there any way of bridging this chasm? Or, if that is (as it may be) categorically impossible, are there any concepts beyond those of cybernetics by which we may better understand the essentially personal, Proustian nature of reminiscence of the mind, of life? Can we, in short, have a personal or Proustian physiology, over and above the mechanical, Sherringtonian one?” Sherrington calls the mind “an enchanted loom,” weaving patterns of meaning.

In high school, I was fascinated by the brain and neuroscience. But I realized at some point that I had lots of questions and no idea of how I wanted them answered–I didn’t think “memories originate in the hippocampus” would be sufficient, nor is the more refined geography of the brain we now have a map to. Sacks points towards the types of answers I realized I’m interested in–must follow up on more recent science and see what’s going on in this vein of Hughlings Jackson, Luria and Sacks, and how much of this is real speculation.


The Beak of the Finch and Experimental Evolution

February 9, 2012 Leave a comment

“You can’t ‘preserve’ a species.” – Grant and Grant

Passing through an experimental evolution lab this summer, I got used to the idea that we can experimentally test evolutionary theory and the operation of selection (only?) in small, simple systems, like the yeast the lab used, bacteria, or viruses. “Experimental evolution” to me meant evolution studied at the level of genes and especially single mutations, fitness determined by who remains standing in the petri dish. So the single most striking experiment described in Jonathan Weiner’s Beak of the Finch was the observed drastic decrease in elephant tusk length among populations subject to poachers looking for ivory. I don’t know how elephant tusks work–if growth is based on Bmp4 expression, it’s not too surprising to me that a “macro” trait like tusk length could quickly evolve in response to selection pressure at the genetic level–but with all the debate and discussion about the unit of selection and macroevolution, the tusk example was enlightening.

This book is the story of Peter and Rosemary Grant’s 20-year vigil on the Galapagos Islands, particularly Daphne Major. For being that, it’s amazing how much the book focuses on the research: there is a human drama that unfolds in these pages, but it’s almost entirely told through the long progression of experiments and scientific life in the field, with some recourse to Darwin’s history. I want to learn that narrative trick!

The acceptance of quantification as rigorization makes me a little uncomfortable in all these “experimental evolution” and especially ecological studies. Mostly I think it’s good–taking detailed measurements has surely led to striking demonstrations of the power and quick-acting scale of natural selection, and how big a difference a tiny variation in beak trait matters. That’s an important lesson for all of us who would constantly wonder how selection on variation, which many think of as a piecemeal, slow process of accumulating very slight benefits, could result in qualitative differences in who survives, the generation of a major phenotypical innovation, or the origin of species. And I can see how this minute empirical measurement is partly an antidote to Darwin’s florid Victorian prose and the geometric landscape theories of the great mathematical population geneticists of the early century. But it also seems that desire for illuminating numbers can blind researchers studying evolution like this to the need for sophisticated interpretation and to hold down the fort against the allure of trumpeting a murkily visible trend. For example, there’s a recurring theme of one researcher declaring that there’s been no natural selection in Darwin’s finches, and  the Grants coming back with minute year-by-year measurements and saying that, while there’s little net change in characteristics, there’s actually strong selection oscillating rapidly. Certainly, that’s a vital distinction, especially as a corrective to the idea that nobody could ever observe natural selection in action in the timespan of a human lifetime. But I think there’s a danger of swinging too far in this shiny new direction: the fact that there’s little net variation is also very important.

Some highlights of the drama of observing Daphne: The description of the difficulty of landing on Daphne, everyone’s least favorite part of the trip–there’s only really one ledge to land on, and that after repeated partial offloadings as the swells move the boat above and below the ledge. The story-cum-legend about the scientist who was walking clad only in shoes on the island and got attacked by a barnacle that clamped onto his balls. The description of the Grants back in Princeton analyzing the data with such detailed, knowing affection, as they swap labelled stories: “‘He’s been a good producer of fledglings, 2666,’ Peter says, this time without even looking at the screen.” (118) The sense of a wunderkammer somewhere in two Princeton offices, full of vegetation and food and families and songs, all in tables of data. The times when the data really does seem to make a clear point: for example, how Darwin’s finches really are much more variable than most, a natural laboratory for natural selection–sparrows, closely related to finches, rarely deviate in beak length more than 10% from the mean on the remote island of Mandarte, B.C. (ostensibly similarly isolated conditions for accelerated evolution to take place), whereas in the Galapagos 4% of the cactus finches differ from the average beak by more than 10%. (p. 47) The sheer carefulness of the data collection and care taken in what to measure is stunning: there’s an index for difficulty-of-eating among the seeds (and every seed on the island is accounted for), and the Grants know just how much  force it takes to crack the toughest seeds. The careful correlation of measurements and behavior: telling what kind of finch discovered the mericarp by whether the cover is peeled back or bitten through, and how many seeds are left. Careful experimental design: Peter Boag tested for heritability of beak dimensions, ruling out that big-beaked parents get more food for their babies (not with Darwin’s finches, but on Mandarte–the egg-swapping would be quite catastrophic in such a small, fragile ecosystem!)

I got to revisiting some of my half-remembered thoughts about the difficulties in Darwin’s theory while reading this book. Prime among them–and I look forward to going back to this when I read Grant & Grant’s book about their research, How and Why Species Multiply–is observing “the ever-turning sword,” the actual origin of new species. It was never quite observed on Daphne–but there were big steps. The image of the evolutionary tree as having loose, tangled webs, and not clean breaks, at the branching points, is a powerful one–and this summer, I learned how important the visualizations we rely on are in evolutionary thinking (witness the insidious, helpful idea of a fitness landscape). Dolph, one of the researchers, even made an actual empirical fitness landscape out of all the measurements for Darwin’s finches!!!!

Two particular points of interest: the light shed on Darwin’s gradations between kind, variety and species, and how they’re borne out on Daphne–many of these finches “are so intermediate in appearance that they cannot safely be identified…In no other birds are the differences between species so ill-defined.” There’s a saying at the Charles Darwin Research Station: “Only God and Peter Grant can recognize Darwin’s finches.” One of the impetuses of Grants’ research was a monograph published by David Lack, Darwin’s Finches, which put to rest the idea that prevailed for a while that they  aren’t new species at all, but “a hybrid swarm” of varieties on the Galapagos, “offering  no scope for natural selection.” Lack saw that the birds weren’t breeding together, but the ground finches were eating the same seeds–he saw that in a wet season, when seeds are plentiful. Then looking over the data at home, he saw that the closest together species in their beaks never live together on one island, and inferred competition. The Grants were the first to really see competition and the principle of divergence in play on the island, and not just infer it happened in the past.

On the problem of adaptation, a neat experiment with crossbills showed proof-of-concept that little fitness advantages can accumulate to make big adaptations: the beaks of the crossbills were filed down, and each generation grew a little more of a crossbill back; each generation was more fit than the last in terms of its ability to crack the pinecones it’s adapted  to. The other one, more shocking, is the key role for hybrids that the Grants posit as a result of their observations: they found, contrary to all received wisdom, that sometimes the hybrids were successful far beyond what any of the “pure-breds” could do, and it wasn’t uncommon for two different species to attempt mating. Number 006, the tiniest fulginosa on the island, always pairs with a fortis, and is the most successful of her species on the island breeding-wise. (123) The numbers for bird hybridization are striking: there are 10,000 bird species known, and 1,000 are known to have mated with other species.  In some cases the rates are even higher: 67 of 161 species of ducks and geese have interbred that we know–and probably more, given the patchy state of our knowledge (we didn’t even notice that the best-studied birds ever, on the Galapagos, were interbreeding until after a 20 year vigil). This extends the role of hybridization and its power, known to produce ne wplant species “literally overnight,” to the animal kingdom. At least half of the world’s flowering plant species came from interbreeding. Does a number on the biological species concept! Hybridization is also common among Bufo toads, many insects, and many fish. Evidence also points to the role of human motions and ecology in increasing the rate of hybridization: we disturb habitats and introduce invasive species that mix with the local gene pool, and hybrids can back-cross (“introgressive hypbridization,” Edgar Anderson called it) to mix the gene pool even more. Hybrids can fill special niches their parents can’t, and humans are creating such mixed up niches all over the planet: we see this in wildflowers in the Delta, where different species inhabit different fields, which the farmers have treated with different chemicals. Anderson also argues that “ecologically dominant” species, like humans currently are, could have driven the evolution of new niches in the past too: e.g. at the colonization of new islands or continents, the first land vertebrates invading terrestrial vegetation, the first large herbivorous reptiles or the first large land animals. (Stebbins and Anderson, “Hybridization as an Evolutionary Stimulus”)

On the modern speed of evolution, Weiner goes beyond the pat “we have lots of drug-resistant strains” line. He writes of two people who took antibiotics for a few days, and then sampled the bacteria in their body: almost all were drug resistant. As they note, it’s different seeing fast evolution in a lab and in our own bodies. There are examples of all the different ways a pest can avoid the effects of a pesticide: dodging it, not letting it get inside, developing an antidote, or inactivating it once it’s inside.

And there are interesting stories to liven things up (it’s really a page turner!) Not of Darwin’s personal life or the Grants’ per se, but personal anecdotes in the course of doing research. Darwin could’ve seen natural selection in action if he’d been of a mind to, as he kicked stones in his garden to count laps and noticed the death of 4/5ths of the bird species on his grounds one winter, something like the effect of an El Nino or a drought on the Galapagos. Darwin discovered 537 species of plant in 3 tablespoons of mud in his tabletop experiment.  Two engineers created “two new letters to the alphabet of life,” adding synthetic X and K to A, C, T, and G. The book doesn’t get personal, but there’s a great sense of personal investment and the importance of these scientific stories in it. I’ll be trying to get my hands on Weiner’s other books.

To Read:

“Direct Demonstrations of Natural Selection” in Natural Selection in the Wild, for more examples of experimental evolution studies

*Grant and Grant, How Species Multiply

*Anderson’s work

*Darwin’s journals

Categories: Books, Evolution

Wisdom and Research, or, Why I Think I’m a Scholar but not a Scientist

February 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Before I write the following, I have to acknowledge my debt to the writings of Emily Rutherford, who’s prompted me to reflect in writing on my scholarship and why it matters to me–and later, in forthcoming essays, on how scholarship has changed my thinking on love.

I’ve discovered remarkable things about myself in my time off. A prime force in these discoveries is the freedom to read what I want to read, and think about what I want to think about. I mean that last in two ways: that I can think about whatever I want, and that I can decide carefully what it is I really want. This time has also been the first in a long while when I don’t feel too much pressure to produce–papers, solutions, screeds for a publication–and especially, to be engaged in new mathematical research. With the mountains of free time that release has opened up, despite working full-time and rehearsing often, I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking and loving, and not so much research.

In learning how to learn in an unstructured, entirely self-motivated environment, I’ve rediscovered the basic truth that one needs a driving question to learn naturally. I struggled for a while with a list of subjects I wanted to learn–some neurobiology here, some theory of computation there–but I didn’t get very far when the subject was on my to-do list as a word in itself, exhorting myself to open up a textbook and just read. I got a lot farther on my “side” projects that were driven by wanting a good answer to a question–what’s a gene? How is the concept of information related to thermodynamic entropy? How has the concept of a “species” changed through history? And so I rediscovered more forcefully what I should have known, that all information is useless except in a context, except as grist for interpretation. And also that there are more natural ways to learn than in a lecture hall or from a seminar reading list. Of necessity, I’ve learned to structure my own reading lists, and that doing so is an empowering act.

I’ve still been reflecting a lot about my desired professional path and my relationship to my studies. With distance and time, the patterns of my interest are easier to discern. I haven’t abandoned studying math and science–not by a long shot. But I’ve found what I’ve known for a while in my heart, that math and physics and biology are studies that add color to the world and feed my spirit and help me get up in the morning–but I don’t need to be doing research to get that boost from them, and in fact it’s better (for the moment?) if I’m not. It used to stress me out that I couldn’t imagine writing a monograph on symplectic integrators even though I find the subject fascinating, or that I had the disturbing thought I don’t care about advancing the state of knowledge. That thought seemed almost heretical for someone who is deeply invested in learning and even scholarship in a narrow sense; it made me feel like a pretender where genuine pursuit of knowledge is concerned.

Now I am gaining a better understanding of the multifarious ways in which smart, genuinely interested people make scientific study a part of their lives without being professional scientists. More importantly, I know my own heart better, and I trust and like myself better–and I know enough to say now that I (1) have an abiding love of science, and (2) don’t see it as a potential profession right now. I’ve read about the professionalization of science in the 19th century, and the deep ambivalence towards it amongst a group of committed natural philosophers and intellectuals. I’ve seen myself take joy in being able to explain a part of the world to myself–or to friends or children–using science, and take all that joy from the love of understanding people and the world involved, rather than the possession of knowledge. And I know that science has its greatest power for me as a humanizing force that connects me to long arcs of history, to a pursuit greater than myself or anyone but tied up with all of us. Whether or not it becomes a profession, I recognize its primary importance for me–which is for me as a human being, as one who seeks meaning and beauty and connection; not necessarily as a seeker of scientific truth.

Something else has been going on in my thinking on scholarship: my growing interest in doing all I can to make humanities scholarship my profession. I’ve been deeply drawn to it and deeply troubled by it for a long time, and my basic anxiety was that I’d love to put a sign that says “Theory-Free Safe Zone!” on my office door if I become a humanities scholar. Literary theory mostly sounds alarums of “bullshit!” or “why does this matter?” in my mind. Poststructuralism, feminism, Marxism, semiotics, psychoanalysis, ecocriticism, disability studies–anytime I come across an article that sets forth a “reading” of a text from a particular theoretical lens (especially 20th century theory, especially French), I usually feel either alarmed, wronged, or bored. I am deeply invested in the study of literature as a part of cultural history and for its internal logic: studies that affirm how literature matters and how it works from a writer’s-eye view. If I have any discernible theoretical orientation thus far, it is more in my allegiances to modes of historical practice than literary as such. This is so even though I’ve no idea how to do cultural history yet, I have deep anxieties about it as someone who focuses on the primary role of productive base over ideological superstructure, and in many ways I use literature to get away from study of society.

But at the same time, the study of literature means so much more to me than being able to spend my time with books I like. I had a graduate seminar last spring term where the eminent professor would end by asking if we liked the reading, asserting that we all come to the study of literature at the start out of a basic love of books. Well sure, I have that. But part of my anxiety about literature has been that I seem to want to use it to talk about everything but the books: I need my studies of literature to speak to something greater, and certainly not to a simple matter of personal gut reaction. I’m not so worried about that now that I understand myself as a humanities scholar better.

That same impulse that connects me to the study of science is what drives me to study literature and history: to feel connected to humanity throughout the ages, to be a part of something greater, to find my humanity and my better, better-loving self in wisdom in all the ways it has been recorded and communicated. I wish to understand how certain texts work as a technician, to study literary history partially as a history of technical and stylistic innovation, as one could comfortably do in the visual arts or music. That’s how I can do literary and cultural history (someday, when I have more tools to do it rigorously)–not by making larger claims about the actual, direct agency of art or culture as a productive or transformative force in society, which I will always be deeply uncomfortable with–but by understanding in its fullness our human, personal and collective reactions to art and its effects, why it is so glaringly inadequate to boil the study of art down to a question of liking.

The fundamental questions on which my studies turn are about how and why a work of art matters, or has mattered and been valued for various people or groups in other times, and how I as a scholar and teacher can cultivate that sense of mattering, wonder and love in others. I don’t wish to claim that it should matter to all people, or to enter the canon wars or the Culture Wars: I know that what I study, the reading of literate people with leisure time, has very little connection with how the mass of people spend their time. But I’ve also seen art transform people’s lives, whether in the prison writing workshops I’ve been a part of or the queer open mics or slam poetry. And I also know art matters deeply to me, it has been my education as a human, it has brought me out of innumerable darknesses: and I need to understand what allows these works of art and gems of science to do that, so that I may better pay forward the love I have learned and constantly renew my commitment to living well as these texts have taught me to do. That’s the difference that tips me towards the humanities: I wish to reap and sow the wisdom that we have to new ends in new people, and it matters less to me that I find a novel solution to a problem than that I engage with the complex, beautiful problem of life that we are each trying to solve, together and alone, and curate, preserve and teach some of the things that have helped some of us do that.

Categories: Books, Education

Oliver Sacks: A Leg to Stand On

January 8, 2012 Leave a comment

I love Sacks’ project, following Luria, of a “romantic science,” what we might now call “humanistic medicine.” His and Luria’s essays are some of my favorite and most memorable reading, ever. But there’s something that’s always puzzled and unsettled me about Sacks: I’m always left with the suspicion that he doesn’t have a lot of empathy for his patients. Now, I have no sense of Sacks as a clinician (I’ve never read a single thing he’s written for medical circles), and I’m not among those who criticize him for “exploiting” his patients as interesting stories to sell books with. Still, he uses a language of virility and health-as-virtue that doesn’t sit easily with his “romantic science” project for me.

The first hint of this for me is in “A Leg to Stand On,” with the curious disjunction between his articulateness in describing his own experiences and his compete unfamiliarity with the feeling of unexpected helplessness that comes with being a patient (“I wanted to pursue the point, but there was something in their tone and manner that made me desist. I felt curiously helpless…and I thought, ‘Is this what being a patient means?'” — pg. 47) Can he really be so surprised by this feeling after 15 years of working with patients? As a patient, I remember thinking that kind of thought before I was ten years old…surely one who puts such emphasis on the human side of medicine should understand this basic thing?

Yet he does understand something of the human side of medicine–the soul, the spirit, the whirling thoughts, the demotion of the reasoning faculty even in one such as him. When he’s narrating his stream of consciousness, it’s poignant, like in: “Secretly, half-skeptically, hesitantly, yearningly, I addressed myself to this unimaginable ‘Thou’ [of the Psalms].” (p. 115) I enjoy his meditations on Leibniz and Nietzsche and the Metaphysicals on the nature of the soul, and I even think those were the thoughts that were swirling in a learned head like his. And maybe Sacks has exaggerated his breezy sense of virility when he opines on things like, “I forged ahead, keeping up a brisk pace despite the gradient, blessing my energy and stamina…Strong quads, strong body, good wind, good stamina–I was grateful to Nature for endowing me well.” (p. 19) But he pulls these moves repeatedly: seeming to like his witty patients better (he talks in “The Man who Mistook…” about how he dreaded working with patients with MR), calling people simpletons in what doesn’t seem like just the normal language of the time, describing his own world in epic terms and relating his case histories with some of the air of a freak show, or at least an “interesting phenomenon” that offers a chance for Sacks to indulge in grandiose reflection. Sometimes I like those wildly speculative moves–but the ego behind them can drive me  a little crazy. And the condescension he gets away with by applying it to himself too (his former self, his sick self, not the “real” one): He takes the healthy idea of a place to have a peaceful interlude before entering harsh reality again and makes it into something distasteful: “If we could not face the world, the world could not face us, with our lineaments, our habiliments, of sickness and affliction. We inspired horror and fear…and for the world’s sake, no less than our own, could not be let out.”

But there are little sympathetic moments. His description of the Convalescent Home is rich and profound in its new understanding of the community of patients, and he puts better than I many themes that I see recur in my own writing on patienthood. There’s his recollection of “the summer of 1938, [when] I discovered that the whorled florets were multiples of prime numbers, and I had such a vision of the order and beauty of the world as was to be a prototype of every scientific wonder and joy I was later to experience.” (p. 34) Or when he describes having the distinct feeling that the little tiny village church below was playing the Mozart Requiem as he thought he was dying, or when he ecstatically speculates, “I felt…that life was itself music, or consubstantial with music; that our living moving flesh, itself, was ‘solid’ music…was music, I wondered, the very score of life–the key, the promise, of renewed action and life?” (119)

The flights of intellect are dazzling–but only as character-pieces. A lot of the science is outdated, and the philosophy wrong: Hume doesn’t treat the self as nothing but a bundle of momentary impressions. We recognize many mental illnesses among the seemingly well now. No, in a sober state, we can’t say music is the key to health, though it makes some strong claims to centrality. Some of it is outdated through no fault of Sacks’: we have a much better neurological understanding of “free will” and ideomotor responses now. And for all the self-congratulation, there’s the childish sense of wonder, adventure and delight that lets us excuse it, brush it off as not posturing: when he hears back from Luria, we share his excitement and don’t notice the hubris: “If such a thing happens it can only be understood, and used. Perhaps it was your destiny to have the experience; certainly it is your duty now to understand and explore…Really you are opening and discovering a new field.” (197)

And finally, the beginnings of his journey towards a “romantic [neuro]science” is thrilling. Reading Head on the train and noticing the dual language of neurology and poetry (sequence/series/complex procedures vs. wholeness/completeness/ perfection/melody), Sacks’ memory of his father saying of Head “He was the most rigorous of scientists, but he was a poet too. He felt the music of movement and speech, but as a neurologist he could not explain it.” The conflicting passions for theory and life.

I don’t agree with the cult of experience (“you can only know what you’ve experienced,”) but if it made Sacks a better doctor, so much the better. The book ends with the beginning of a humbling and exciting journey for Sacks, back to the case studies of Weir Mitchell and around the margins of the neurological literature in search of the descriptions that are “known to hundreds of thousands of patients, but entirely unknown in the medical literature,” the “early days” that are unspoiled by concepts.

Sacks asks doctors to forget their neurological studies and terms for a moment, to pay attention to the singularity of patients’ descriptions in their own words. I love him for that. He is a little too quick to draw shaky metaphysical implications from his case studies; maybe he bends the stick too far; but his project is a sympathetic one, and it’s easy to cut him slack. I wouldn’t take this as good science–but it’s a good vision.

And there’s further reading in neuropsychology to be had in this vein. Noting that Luria and Head both were themselves the humanizing forces in their new neuropsychology (and their texts are still of the “mechanical” sort), Sacks goes further with the idea (as much Leontev’s and Zaporozhets’ as Luria’s) of the “science of doing,” observation in natural environments and the study of the whole system.

Sacks is disenchanted with a Hume he invents, one who sees nothing of the self or soul behind the perceptions. But this nonetheless leads him in wonderful directions, pursuing a “neurology of the soul” that takes on the existential questions too. I’ll get to his success in an empirical way later when I discuss the case histories in “The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat”–but for now, let’s leave with the exchange of “music is the solution!” between Sacks and Auden, and the universal image of a transformative ecstatic experience, having discovered new vistas, while stepping off the train with two bulky volumes under arm. We all have to find our ways to come back from that land of transformation and art to the quotidian of the living.

But for now, I’m off to discover Darwin the father in his Biography of an Infant and brush up on Kant and Hume to see how Sacks’ philosophy checks out. Might make a stop by Weir Mitchell too, and see what I can dig up on Auden and Sacks. Can always count on Sacks for an inspiring reading list.

Joan Roughgarden – Evolution’s Rainbow

January 8, 2012 Leave a comment

I learned many things from this book, on the biology side. Roughgarden’s case studies of varied gender expression and sexuality in animals are fascinating, and she is careful to take you through what they might “mean”–the function of third (and further) genders, the failures of “deceit theory” to account for the presence of “effeminate males” (since birds can verifiably tell the difference between females and female-looking males), the usefulness of cooperation as a valid concept in evolutionary theory. Colorful examples abound: fishes (wrasses) that change sex based on environment (open sea or reef), plants that change sex based on time of day (with the excellent name “flexistyly”). I’m willing to allow the possibility that, to use her example, different species of Idaho squirrel have different mating habits during their 20-minute mating window (with the male inserting a sperm plug or not) according as which the female prefers, or is more pleasured by.

There are other interesting ideas to perhaps add to our thinking on mate choice: how can we study whether animals in a population acquire a “reputation”? It’s certainly true that courtship behavior and parental care is frequently carried out in full view of others in the group. The idea of a population’s reproductive skew as partially determined by the level of distributional inequity in reproductive opportunity is appealing, especially as an alternative to the pure selfish rhetoric in traditional literature: “stealing” mates, “wasting” resources on others, etc. Family structure does seem to be fluid in the animal world, and behavior towards other animals partially governed by the best strategy for getting others to help. There are detailed discussions of “extended families” in tamarins, African hunting dogs, birds, and several other groups: the tamarins in particular exemplify how polyandry can be necessary to raising young in a cooperative setting–matings take place in view of other males with no sign of aggression, and males cooperate to take care of the young. And maybe it couldn’t be another way: mothers usually birth twins, and they are each 50% of her weight by the time they can walk or climb on their own–a monogamous couple isn’t enough to raise them.

The point is also well taken that the words we use to describe animal behavior reflect entrenched beliefs, so that males can be described as “cuckolded” in peer-reviewed publications in respectable journals, and everyone deceives each other. This was partly affirmation of my confusion over the so-called “problem of cooperation” and why it’s a problem at all. I do find it hard to subscribe to Dawkins’ “genes are the fundamental unit of selection” selfish-gene model. There’s just too much going on in the environment, and I want a theory that imputes meaning to our time on Earth…

To me personally, the book was most disappointing in its discussion of homosexuality in humans–just because that’s what I was most looking forward to in it, I think. She’s unwilling to speculate much there (despite wild speculation re: trans issues), and her belief that there’ll never be a biological theory of homosexuality seems to run counter to the call for more study of homosexuality in other animals and for more nuanced studies in the social sciences.

But there was a lot to make up for that. The stories of animal homosexuality were delightful and convincing (even excluding “homosexual, heterogendered” courtship between individuals of the same sex and different genders). I don’t believe cohabitation and the alternating assumption of the “male” role in courtship qualifies certain asexual anolis species to be called “lesbian lizards” (too much human/social baggage there), but it’s fascinating of itself. And it’s nice to see the doubters get hit where it hurts: she points out that even geese marriages, the poster children for lifelong stable, monogamous couplings, are 15% male-male. (And they love each other, too: the male shows despondent grief after his partner dies, just as in straight couples.)

On the function of feminine males, I’m not sure I think Roughgarden’s theories are totally plausible, but they seem to be a good counterbalance to the deceit theorists. And at least they make nice stories (not, of course, a criterion for a good scientific theory): Consider the red-sided garter snake that makes Manitoba’s interlake region a hotbed of snake-watching. (There’s even a monument to garter snakes in the town!) Thousands of garter snakes live in a single den in the winter, then emerge, mate and disperse; mating occurs in “mating balls” with one snake courted by many others. At the den entrances, the ratio of males to females is 10:1. It turns out all males secrete feminine hormones: Roughgarden’s theory is that male garter snakes just emerging from the den want to roll around in the sun and “wake up,” so they can signal with female hormones–and males watching  this would rather welcome this new guy than attack him, with so many others around who could jump on you. (Notable here is the lack of deceit theory–the males know the feminine male is indeed a male).

Part 2 of the book goes into development, where I think the treatment is a little weaker (it’s farther from Roughgarden’s area of expertise, which is ecology.) The most interesting thing I got from this was a BIOLOGICAL definition of gender: I’m used to thinking of “sex = biological characteristics, gender = how you feel.” Roughgarden takes the female to be the one with the larger gamete size, and that’s it. She then traces how sex (how a gamete matures) is influenced by gender (what type of tissue the gonad it lands in has) and vice-versa, and the complicated role of SRY in gender determination. She also solved a big mystery for me: how males and females can be so different while having only about 60 genes on their sex chromosomes (and about 4x that between two people on nonsex chromosomes). Two main culprits–evolution on the Y chromosome, and the extent of X inactivation–if there’s not much, the females have most of another chromosome to work with to effect these differences.

Continuing the theme of biological gender differences, the discussion of birds had a lot to offer: e.g. in speciese where males sing and females don’t, there’s a marked difference in the size of nerve cell clusters for learning and making song. Moreover, hormones control the size of these nerve cell clusters, varying with both age and time in the breeding season; they also control aspects of personality, often in very simple ways. Overall, the development section made me appreciate transgenderism as a biologically-based phenomenon, and not just something about “how you feel inside.”

The last thing of note for me was perhaps the “gay gene” discussion–basically, most biologists agree that homosexuality has some genetic basis, and the search for one gene is kind of pointless for a complex trait like this–we’ve only found things that sometimes make tiny differences.

Ultimately, though, despite all the things I learned about the biology, this book drove me a little crazy. Roughgarden has a clear axe to grind, and I think it weakens her book.  What could’ve been a solid, scientifically-based, well-researched book of half the size on a coherent chunk of material became a bloated thing that’s half science and half poorly-defended manifesto. Sure, it’s good to challenge the social sciences to take a broader view of sex and gender, and to point out biases in the literature. But Roughgarden pulls some stunts that really weaken her credibility for me: for example, calling theories “diversity-repressing” as if that were the end of their credibility, bringing in the Bible, arbitrarily focusing on the T in LGBT, and laying out a trans agenda. When she does these things, suddenly the copious footnotes vanish. I’d rather she have done more with the science and less explicitly with a “feminist critique,” or that she publish the political implications as she sees them separately.

As it is, I can recommend the scientific insights, but not much of  the editorializing woven in. And ultimately I’m not convinced that Darwinian sexual selection theory needs to be wholly overthrown: to me, its strongest point is that reproductive success can be selected for independently of survival probability, and we should look for reproductive explanations when a trait seems like it wouldn’t be naturally selected for. Yes, Darwin speaks of universal gender types; but he spoke of blending inheritance too, and the Modern Synthesis simply updated him with our new understanding of genetics; we could do the same with our understanding of sex and sexuality.


My favorite factoid: gay people’s otoacoustic emissions (little sounds emitted from our ears) are different than straight peoples’. Hello, gaydar! 😉


Categories: Books, Evolution