Up@dawn 2.0

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Discussion Questions Jy 24

Sandwalk Adventures - we've designated one week for this; you can spend a 2d week on Darwin if you wish, or you can use that time to research and reflect on your final project.*

  • We're reading this because it introduces Darwin and natural selection in a fun and quirky way, and because its focus on his "sandwalk" thinking path makes literally graphic the peripatetic aspect of his thought. Anglo-American minds do tend to be peripatetic. Why do you think walking around in circles is so productive of creative thought, for some of us? Have you tried it yourself? Does that work for you?
  • Do you read graphic novels (we used to call them comic books)? Do you find this format appealing, annoying, or a matter of indifference?
  • Evolution is a subject of notorious misunderstanding and misinformation, particularly in regions of America where science generally is thought to be hostile to religion. Some schools still resist the subject, nearly a century since the Scopes Trial in Dayton TN (see below). Would something like Sandwalk Adventures, suitably presented in an age-appropriate style, be a good way of introducing evolution to children? How should schools address the topic? Should school boards be allowed to dictate curricula?
  • Pick any page of Sandwalk Adventures and explicate some aspect of evolutionary theory mentioned or implied there.
  • The notion that mites in his brow might mistake Darwin for a god is amusing, but serious scholars (Michael Ruse, for instance) have argued that various versions of Darwinism have indeed taken on the trappings of religion. The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, like Ruse an evolutionist, wrote critically of "Darwinian fundamentalism." Considering that Darwin himself said "the whole subject [of God] is beyond the scope of man's intellect," what would he think of this "Darwinism as religion" phenomenon, and the polemics that have grown up around it? 
  • Do you think a deeper understanding of evolution would bring us closer to "the answers to life's big questions" (assuming the answer is probably not "42")? What are some of those questions? 
  • "How all of this has come to be" is a question Darwin thinks he can answer, but not why. Why not?
  • What's the difference between saying "life shapes itself" and "natural forces shape life"?
  • One of the mites says it's not enough to be told there's been time enough for epochal changes in life to occur gradually, he needs proof or evidence. Are committed believers in specific creation stories typically receptive to evidence that confounds their longstanding convictions? How can we become more receptive to objective truth, and less subject to prejudice and unproved prior conviction?
  • "Why do [we] feel compelled to drape the elegant wonders of nature is a gaudy gown of mumbo-jumbo?"
  • "Species come and go, but life is continuous...we are all connected, and the story of that connection was carved into the stones and strata of the earth... [Darwin's] a better storyteller than you thought.": isn't this a story to rival any religion, and isn't it (as Loyal Rue said) "everybody's story"? Why, then, doesn't everybody accept it?
  • "But then Darwin had a novelist's problem when he sat down to write" (Adam Gopnik, Angels and Ages, see below)-if Darwin had a novelist's problem in figuring out how to tell "everybody's story" most effectively and persuasively, what might he have learned from Henry James AND what might Henry have learned from him? Did they both do a good job of conveying important (if for some inconvenient) truths about the human condition?
  • Gopnik says Darwin "re-enchanted the lovers of Earth," William James said "the Earth... must reassert its rights." Does the evolutionary hypothesis underscore the importance of natural events, and make supernatural explanations less appealing to you?
  • Does Darwin's "first postulate for how life is shaped: individuals within species are variable" gain support from, or lend support to, J.S. Mill's and William James's philosophies? How does individual intra-species variation relate to philosophic pluralism and individualism? (Thinking particularly here of Mill's defense of eccentricity, which produces variation and something for nature to select.)
  • Darwin protests that his mating choices were "limited by the strictly proscribed nature of my social class," hence his happy marriage to cousin Emma but also the loss of 10-year old Annie Darwin to illness. What would Henry James say about that? What say you?
  • "Survival of the fittest" has often been misconstrued to mean survival of the "strongest," but Darwin was clear that "evolutionary fitness isn't a measure of physical prowess" but a reflection of reproductive success. This confusion motivated William Jennings Bryan's opposition to evolution, for instance. Would a better (though admittedly less catchy) phrase have been "Fitness of the survivors"? Or should the term "fitness" be replaced entirely, in this context? Could a bit of verbal tweaking have prevented much of the confusion and rancor surrounding the evolutionary idea?
  • The idea of "theistic evolution" is alluded to on p.72-"If it looks like it happened naturally, then that's the way [God] wants it... he must have guided the process somehow." Is this a harmless concession evolutionists should make to theists, or does it promote continued misunderstanding of natural selection? What's the harm of such misunderstanding, if any?
  • "Life is shaped by those that pass on their traits..." Is this true only of genetic influence and inheritance? Or can life also be shaped by those who pass on their traits by other means? Can life be shaped by books, songs, works of art, etc.? (This was the original meaning of "memes," by the way, before the internet hijacked and diluted the concept. "Passing ideas onto a new generation can be just as important as passing along some physical adaptation.")
  • Why do some "defend the sanctity of stories about creation and wonder with acts of fear and intimidation?"
  • Did the Crick-Watson-Franklin discovery of the double helix, and subsequent advance of genetic science in our time, illustrate Darwin's statements that mystery fuels science and don't know does not imply can't know
  • COMMENT: "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science."
  • "The really vital question for us all," said William James, is "What is this world going to be? What is life eventually to make of itself?" Is that another way of putting Emma Darwin's question "What other legacy is there?"
  • Is it unfortunate that Darwin called the process of natural winnowing in the struggle for survival "selection"? What might be a more descriptive (if not catchier) term? Natural consanguinity, perhaps?
  • "Individuals don't evolve." Why is it so hard to convey this simple point, to those who continue to object that they've never observed evolution directly?
  • "There is a grandeur in this view of life." Agree? Why or why not?
  • Stay tuned
  • Post yours
*Final post due no later than Friday, August 11: 1,000+ words on the relevant Anglo-American topic of your choice. My suggestion: select an additional text, possibly one mentioned on the syllabus or in one of my subsequent posts, or one that you've come across independently, and give us a book report/critique. Try to relate it to as many of our texts, topics, and discussion threads as you can. Remember, a blog post is a less formally constraining medium than a conventional term paper. Have fun with the medium: include links, graphics, videos etc. Also include a final tally of how many runs you're claiming for the summer. Comment on classmates' final posts (remember, each comment is a base & every four bases is another run).

Alternate final post suggestion: convene an imaginary round-table discussion with the Jameses, Mill, Darwin, and yourself as moderator. Transcribe the proceedings, posing any discussion questions you like. You may use actual quotations and your imagination to fashion the dialogue you think they might have with you.
"Darwin evolving" (posted Jy 16)-Don't let me rush you, if you're still thinking about Henry James or, like me, are virtually abroad at the moment. (Today I'm on the  Yorkshire Moors with Charlotte & Emily.)

But if you're ready to look ahead to Darwin (and beyond-it's time to think about your final projects)...

I always love to tell people about my first landlord, an old zoologist at the University of Missouri named Winterton Curtis who was one of the scientific experts not allowed to testify at the Scopes Trial in Dayton TN in 1925. My parents (and I) rented rooms from him in his home, while my Dad attended Veterinary school in the early '60s, and later maintained a cordial friendship with him. He used to visit when I was a kid and pull dollar bills from my ears. My Dad thought that must be why I was always so fascinated by the concept of evolution.

Image result for winterton curtis Image result for winterton curtisImage result for winterton curtis

Dr. Curtis wrote, in 1921,
The humanistic philosophy of life, which flowered in Greece and which has blossomed again, is not the crude materialistic desire to eat, drink, and be merry.  It is a spiritual joy in living and a confidence in the future, which makes this life a thing worthwhile. The otherworldliness of the Middle Ages does not satisfy the spiritual demands of modern times. Science and Human Affairs From the Viewpoint of Biology
Of the Scopes Trial itself, he wrote of the 1925 Dayton Tennessee spectacle:
The courtroom audience impressed me as honest country folk in jeans and calico. “Boobs" perhaps, as judged by Mencken, and holding all the prejudices of backwoods Christian orthodoxy, but nevertheless a significant section of the backbone of democracy in the U.S.A. They came to see their idol “the Great Commoner” and champion of the people meet the challenge to their faith. They left bewildered but with their beliefs unchanged despite the manhandling of their idol by the “Infidel” from Chicago.... A Defense Expert's Impressions of the Scopes Trial
Image result for evolutionary progress caricature 
Did you see the new New York Times story on Dayton, Tennessee and its long-overdue civic recognition of Clarence Darrow? Now that would be a timely road-trip. Let me know, seriously.

One guy who did an instructive and entertaining roadtrip to Dayton was Darwin's great-great... grandson Matthew Chapman, whose book Trials of the Monkey I heartily recommend.

Don't miss the chance for a virtual spin (or a few) around the Sandwalk-Charlie used to go round and round, as he puzzled out his Origin of Species.

Down House slideshow from Google Maps...
John Dewey's Influence of Darwin on Philosophy summarizes what a game-changer natural selection was and is. It begins,
THAT the publication of the "Origin of Species " marked an epoch in the development of the natural sciences is well known to the layman. That the combination of the very words origin and species embodied an intellectual revolt and introduced a new intellectual temper is easily overlooked by the expert. The conceptions that had reigned in the philosophy of nature and knowledge for two thousand years, the conceptions that had become the familiar furniture of the mind, rested on the assumption of the superiority of the fixed and final; they rested upon treating change and origin as signs of defect and unreality. In laying hands upon the sacred ark of absolute permanency, in treating the forms that had been regarded as types of fixity and perfection as originating and passing away, the "Origin of Species " introduced a mode of thinking that in the end was bound to transform the logic of knowledge, and hence the treatment of morals, politics, and religion...

William James, who was as good a friend of religion as philosophy ever had, said "I believe myself to be (probably) permanently incapable of believing the Christian scheme of vicarious salvation, and wedded to a more continuously evolutionary mode of thought."

And, here's an exciting new book making the case for Darwin's huge impact in 19th century America. Thoreau and Emerson were among those most profoundly impacted.

Also worth a look, in this vein, is the Darwin-Lincoln connection. They shared a birthday, and a "sacred cause"...
If you like the graphic format, there's
One of the best accounts of the Scopes Trial is
My old landlord, muse, and ear-dollar extractor Winterton Curtis also contributed to this literature:

The Darwin bibliography is immense, but here are just a few more titles that have caught my attention lately:
And don't overlook the compendious website Darwin online.

Darwin's "a better storyteller than you thought"... as Loyal Rue says, he's telling "Everybody's Story"...

What did Edwin Stanton actually say at Lincoln’s deathbed? ... Stanton stood still, sobbing, and then said, simply, “Now he belongs to the ages.” Or was it "angels"? Is Lincoln's legacy secular and historic, or supernatural and transcendent? (Is that a false dichotomy?)

"Then I discovered, as have generations of readers since that fateful day in 1859 when the entire first print run sold out in a day, that it is not just a Great Book but a great book, an absorbing, wonderful adventure in argument, a beach read in which your view of the world is changed in the end even if your view of the world was agreeable to it at the beginning. It's a Victorian hallucinogen, where the whole world suddenly comes alive and begins moving, so that the likeness between seagulls and sandpipers on the beach where you are reading suddenly becomes spookily animated...

As long ago as the early twentieth century, the shared birthday of Darwin and Lincoln seemed central enough to an idea of liberal democratic civilization to have inspired a proposal for a binational, transatlantic holiday: the birthday of the two, ...

But then Darwin had a novelist's problem when he sat down to write: how to reconcile the endless variation of the natural world with a set of organizing patterns. (“Variation under Domestication,” the title of the first chapter of On the Origin of Species, could be the title of the collected works of George Eliot, as, for that matter, selection in relation to sex could be that of Anthony Trollope's")..."

“If I had my life to live over again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week.”

“A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.”

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.” 

“...But I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice... I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe what he can.”

“The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an agnostic.”

“The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognise that we ought to control our thoughts.”

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”

“We can allow satellites, planets, suns, universe, nay whole systems of universe, to be governed by laws, but the smallest insect, we wish to be created at once by special act.”

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives,
not the most intelligent that survives.
It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

“Freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follows from the advance of science.”

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
Darwin's dog has her day-

Darwin's dog PollyWords cannot begin to express the loss of this great wire-haired white bushy animal. An eagle-eyed observer. A keen hunter. Lost to the world for today and tomorrow. And that’s not me I’m barking about, but my master, Dr. Charles Darwin, who never had much to say to us, submissive as he was; he loved collecting those words, as much as his bugs and his barnacles, lining them up just so, sometimes bounding up, paws flailing, speaking them aloud (while I lay curled in a tufted basket before a fiery hearth) and taking one turn around the study before collapsing back into his sagging leather chair on wheels that he rolled up to his desk where he scratched at his books some more, leaving a long, long trail of tracks for all who could read his scrawl. Those words would lead any seeker right to where you could find him.

But, I didn’t need to. I was always by his side. I was the constant day and night companion to the squire of Down House. (Underfoot by day and yanked by the mistress off his bed at night). I answer to Polly. He called me that, “Oh, my good, good girl Polly,” he’d say. A small white Fox Terrier with black button nose and pleading eyes, I jumped to his every command from the terrible day I got there to the terrible day when he was gone.

You see, we critters are not so much the seeing but the sniffing kind, and when I first came to Down my litter of puppies was taken away from me. I lay down and when I opened my eyes, the devil herself was sitting on my belly holding me down (drowned they were, though that hag never owned up, but there my little pups were, still in their sacs like stuffed wet socks) and I went wild, wild, oh so whining wild. Spinning like a whirling dervish. Dis-POSSESSED, I had nothing to lick. To lick down, the mine that moments before was me.

Dr. Charles, quiet as he was, somehow had an instinct for my trouble and gave me his hands and his face to lick for hours on end until I could lick no more, snuggling into his chest where I simply sat and got comfort from that strong heart of his, ’til our beats were one, and I finally closed my eyes again and fell into a long sleep. This was bonding.

So he was a hunter as you all know, and a seer into the dog condition, as only I can tell you, but he was a lot more. He was nothing if not methodical. His kind have things called clocks. I heard them gonging all the time in Down House, reminding everyone to fall in line, not to stray off, but who needed clocks with Dr. Charles making his way around the oblong gravel Sandwalk morning, noon and sometimes evenings too. It comforted him and it thrilled me to hear the tick-tock of his iron-shod walking stick as he made his way around the walk, every now and then pausing to push his tiny nose into the head of a flower. He wanted to have what we have and if ever there were a man who deserved our superior snout, it was Dr. Charles. When he wasn’t stooped over looking under duff or turning over stones for worms, he was arching his back and shading his eyes, scanning the sky, pointing in wonder at the high-flying tumblers and the double-crested Baldheads, and then making his way to the pigeon loft at the end of the Sandwalk to listen to the low cooing of the males and the trumpeters laughing, and to count the new little wispy squabs and take his measurements of the various Rock doves in the aviary. He said that keeping pigeons in coops had to be the world’s most boring hobby but you’d never guess it to see his face light up at the yawning beak of a peeper.

His walks would lead us sometimes beyond the brick walls of the Sandwalk, out into the wild “Big-Woods” of the Orchis bank, where one day I so spooked a squirrel that my bark sent him scurrying up Dr. Charles’ leg clear onto his back, while he stood still as a statue, with the mother screaming bloody murder from a beech bough. He seemed to know our ways or want to, and that made him able to creep up very, very close. His prowling about was always to look and never to pounce.

Sometimes he seemed more comfortable with us than with them. He was always letting me out on the verandah or in through the drawing room window, cheering me on to bark with an ear-scratching whisper “those naughty, naughty people.” He was tender and playful, egging me on, and when I was scolded by one of the naughty people, he commanded me to be “a good little girl, now sit still,” and then producing a small biscuit from his pocket he’d place it on the top of my nose, urging me to stay and then he’d wink and I caught it and we both jumped for joy and I’d stand at attention for more. Sometimes out of the blue he patted the funny patch of red hair on my back, that had grown in red after a burn, and say with special fondness “Oh, Polly, you’re your father’s girl, you are.” Though I don’t know who else’s I’d be, and never knew him. Now, Dr. Charles was bald up top, but something about that red tuft of hair delighted him and made me feel special. So who would quibble with that?

Whether I came from wolves or jackals and how my kind found their way from the wild to the trash heaps to the hearths of man doesn’t much matter to me. We did. But it does to them, because you see, they think they came from us … Well, it’s a long twisting story with lots of dead ends, but one of their word trails from people of long ago gives it away, saying: “The dog is what we would be, if we weren’t who we are.”* So if I sniff it right, they think they lost something.

Being of the here and now, my paws firmly rooted in this earth and not yesterday or tomorrow, my nose was always at his feet. So when he took to his bed, with fever, coughing and crying out, and his hands now cold and clammy and his breath smelling sour, there was a stinking rot about him and I sensed his body becoming stiff and still like the earth. The play skittered right out of him, like a rogue breeze escaping to fresh air. There was no more going out, no whistle, no ticktock of his stick, no tasting the salt of his hand.

I began to ache and slink away from a body whose life was leaving him as he cried to stay. With me! I held my breath, swallowed my cry and the lump in my throat began to swell. A muffled whimper was all I could do.

Oh, they made fun of Dr. Charles, the naughty people did, for being sappy about dogs, for claiming we could return affection. [But the loving tickle of my belly or the taste of his tears returned in kind is something of the nature only he and I knew.] Dr. Charles once caught me barking at a parasol that was idly lolling in the wind on the lawn and he likened that to people’s belief in spirits. But that last day when I padded in to find him lying in the arms of our mistress, the wind blew the curtain twisting to be let out into the afternoon sunshine … and I jumped and with all the wolf in me, let go a longing howl to follow.

But he didn’t respond. Not even a lick and a promise. They latched the window and drew the drapes and his time stopped. The wind had swept him away as if there were no tomorrow … leaving no scent, no trace, no heart to rest a weary head on.

The outside lost its color, its voice, its touch, its breath. The old dog had gone away. They took his body and placed it in a gonging church. They took mine and buried me in a sack under the Kentish Beauty apple tree in the orchard, which was forever bearing fruit. … It was as if we’d taken one last turn on the Sandwalk, and he’d skedaddled off the path, and lost track of time.

*An Aboriginal Dreamtime saying

(born—unknown *** died—
one sundown after my master)
* * *
Thursday, April 20, 1882
Polly died.
All the sons arrived.

No comments:

Post a Comment