Friday, May 17, 2013
A Chinese proverb: A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.
Which might be an acceptable epigraph for this blog. I can't imagine anyone coming here looking for answers. Certainly, providing answers is the last thing on my mind. I would like to think you come for song.
We are, I think, by and large, a community who distrusts answers, at least answers that are vehemently held. We are made uncomfortable by stridency. By dogma. By the desire to proselytize. We wear our truths lightly, gaily, as a song bird wears its feathers.
We are grateful to those who push back the clouds of ignorance and hold the reins of passion (click to enlarge). With Blake, we sing their praises, a song we have spent a lifetime learning.
We sing to celebrate.
We sing because we have a song.
Thursday, May 16, 2013
Blessed are the peacemakers, said Jesus. Indeed. But where are they to be found? If you believe E. O. Wilson, we are genetically programmed for conflict, universally, across all cultures. In The Social Conquest of the Earth he writes: "Our bloody nature, it can now be argued in the context of modern biology, is ingrained because group-versus-group was a principle driving force that made us what we are."
Us versus other.
Religions too have a biological origin, says Wilson. They are a way of reinforcing the "us," of creating cohesiveness. Every religious group believes it is the one true faith and all the others are wrong. Us versus them.
Blessed are the peacemakers? The Romans legions went into battle with the cry Nobiscum Deus. Deus lo volt! shouted Christian crusaders as they turned the streets of Aleppo and Damascus into rivers of blood. The belt buckles of the Wehrmacht proclaimed Gott Mit Uns. Allahu Akbar!, assert Muslim suicide bombers: There is no God but God!
Tribe, nation, ethnicity, religion. What would be do without the "other." War is humanity's curse, says Wilson, and it's hard to find reasons not to agree. (Unless you want to say war is male humanity's curse: violence is pretty much a boy's game.)
Oh, wait. Let’s skip to the end of the book. Perhaps the situation is not as grim as Wilson paints it in the earlier chapters. In the penultimate paragraph he writes:
So, now I will confess my own blind faith. Earth, by the twenty-second century, can be turned, if we so wish, into a permanent paradise for human beings, or at least to the strong beginnings of one. We will do a lot more damage to ourselves and the rest of life along the way, but out of an ethic of simple decency to one another, the unrelenting application of reason, and acceptance of what we truly are, our dreams will finally come home to stay.It all comes down, I guess, to "what we truly are." Genetically programed for conflict, or simply decent and unrelentingly reasonable?
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
In the final chapter of The Social Conquest of the Earth, E. O. Wilson doesn't have much good to say about organized religions. He calls them "stultifying and divisive." This from a good ole ex-Baptist boy from Southern Alabama. In particular, he says bluntly: "The conflict between scientific knowledge and the teachings of organized religions is irreconcilable."
In so saying, he stands in opposition to his long-time nemesis and fellow Harvard professor, the late Stephen Jay Gould, who wrote of science and religion as "non-overlapping magisteria," each with its own domain of knowing and instruments of discovery and discourse.
Are science and religion irreconcilable? It depends on what one means by "science" and "religion."
If by science one means that body of knowledge of reality that has been or can be empirically verified, then it's hard to see how science can rule out such supposed supernatural interventions as the Virgin Birth or Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. There's no form of time travel that would let us go back to the time in question and perform the medical examinations necessary to confirm or refute the supposed miracles. If someone chooses to believe these things, as many millions do, there is no way science can prove them wrong.
In this sense, Gould is right. What we have are two non-overlapping ways of knowing: revelation vs. empiricism, tradition vs. skepticism, one-off miracles vs. reproducibility. Can one hold to both ways of knowing at once? Well, yes, I suppose so, and many do, even a few highly successful scientists. But it surely must take some measure of cognitive dissonance.
No miracle has ever been confirmed empirically to the satisfaction of unbiased observers. The supposed miracles of organized religions are as various as the religions themselves, and the vast majority of believers accept the miracles of the religion they were born into and reject the rest. And let us not forget the fact that, for better or worse, modern civilization -- democracy, equality, technology, medicine, Enlightenment philosophical principles -- all followed from the application of the scientific way of knowing.
Not to mention the apparent hubris of those who claim access to the mind of the creator of billions of galaxies.
All of which suggests that Wilson is right too: If simplicity, consistency, and humility of mind are the criteria, science and traditional religions are indeed irreconcilable.
Tuesday, May 14, 2013
I've finally got around to reading E. O. Wilson's The Social Conquest of the Earth. Not much that is new, but a nice tying together of themes he has developed from Sociobiology to Consilience and beyond. I have nothing but admiration for the man; he is 83 years old and still prodigiously productive.
He is, of course, perhaps the world's leading authority on the social insects, especially ants. He is not afraid to assert similarities between eusocial insects and human societies, and looks for the origin of both in the dynamic of natural selection.
As it happens, as I read Wilson, I am getting daily reports on my friend Beth's new bee hive, her first. The hive is not just a buzzing confusion. It is a highly organized society, in which every individual has an specialized role to play. My curiosity piqued, I just spent a few hours browsing Mark Winston's The Biology of the Honey Bee, and I'm sitting here shaking my head and thinking: "Ain't nature wonderful," and "Ain't science wonderful."
But let me quote now, more or less at random, from a less scientific source, Susan Brind Morrow's more literary Wolves & Honey:
When we open the hive we rarely see the queen. She lives where the young are hatched and reared, in the middle of the lower combs, surrounded by pollen. The queen wanders through her territory all day long, slowly, regally, surrounded by her changing court of worker bees, which protect and wash her, brushing back her hair, bringing her food, carrying away her excrement. They touch her all the while with their antennae.And so on, page after page of astonishing social behaviors. Courtship. Sex. The rearing of young. Communication. Food preparation and storage. Grooming. Housekeeping. Defense.
As they lick and touch the queen the workers pick up substances secreted by her body. The workers constantly touch one another, and in doing so spread her pheromones throughout the hive, signally that the queen is alive and well.
The workers create a thin layer of larger cells on the edge of the comb for unfertilized eggs, which he queen lays at will. The unfertilized eggs develop into male bees, drones larger than the worker bees, even burly. The drones do no work. They wander through the hive as they wish, taking pollen and honey, and making messes wherever they go.
E. O. Wilson with his overarching theories of social evolution (of which more tomorrow), and Beth with her bees. The halls of Harvard, and the meadows of Plainville. They go nicely together. Hard to tell who has the greater enthusiasm.
Monday, May 13, 2013
I don't know much about the painter Henri Rousseau. When I was a young man I recall a period when I was fascinated by his "jungle" pictures, all that promiscuous tropical vegetation with their heart of darkness, especially "Virgin Forest With Setting Sun" (click to enlarge). There was something fiercely sensual about those paintings. The scarlet disk of the sun. The jaguar and its shadow locked in combat. The bed of cacti, daubed with blood. The gargantuan pink and yellow blossoms like a Greek chorus, wailing warning.
Does that sound over the top? Hyperbolic? Well, I guess you had to be there, in that 1950-60s stew of burgeoning nature and Catholic guilt, passion and restraint.
Those paintings don't particularly interest me now. Rather, I'm drawn toward another of Rousseau's works, "Carnival Evening."
Everything here is in perfect opposition to "Virgin Forest." The human figures, male and female, in cool repose, celebratory but demur. The summer house, dark and empty. The scrim of bare trees, faintly misted with the palest shade of red. A backdrop of cloud and stars. The moon, distant and circumspect. One black cloud, perhaps, but every life must have a hint of discontent.
Yes. This suits me now. I know; it looks like a Christmas card, but I like it. This universe of blue and gray, of backlit clouds and the faintest promise of passion. A cosmos, saturated from the first day of creation with inevitability. All the world's a stage and our little life is rounded with a sleep.
Sunday, May 12, 2013
Saturday, May 11, 2013
It is one of the wonders of science that we can tell exactly what distant galaxies, stars and nebulas are made of by a spectral analysis of their light. And the unsurprising answer is that they are made of exactly the same elements as the Earth.
I say "unsurprising," but that is only from our modern perspective. For most of human history it was assumed that the heavens were made of other stuff, less mundane, more ethereal. But no. It's hydrogen, helium, carbon, oxygen, and all the other familiar atoms that make up our terrestrial environment.
But not in uniform abundances. There is about ten times more of the heavier elements -- carbon and oxygen, say -- relative to hydrogen and helium in the shell of an exploded star (such as the Cat's Eye Nebula above) than in the surrounding gaseous medium. That's because heavy elements are forged in stars as they burn, fused from hydrogen and helium, and when a star dies explosively it sheds these elements to space -- to perhaps become in the fullness of time other stars and planets.
In the beginning, in the wake of the big bang, there was only hydrogen and helium. Stars, yes. Galaxies of stars. And big gassy planets like Jupiter. But no solid planets like Earth with cores of iron, shells of silicon and oxygen, and biospheres of carbon-based life. Many stars had to live and die in the arms of the Milky Way Galaxy to make the stuff of Earth and life. Starlight is the product. We are the ash.
There are about 1027 carbon atoms in a human body. That's 1000000000000000000000000000 carbon atoms, and every one was fused in a star that lived and died before the Sun and Earth were born. These atoms are passed around. I got mine from food, ultimately from the air and soil. I'm only using them temporarily. I'll give them back. Maybe some of my carbon atoms once resided in the body of Archimedes. Maybe some will eventually end up in my great-great-great-great-grandchildren's shoe polish or cucumbers.
You can never step in the same river twice, said Heraclitus. Everything flows. We are a river of atoms -- we coalesce, we effervesce, we disperse. A human soul is an eddy in a whirlwind. Enjoy it while you can.
(This post originally appeared in May 2009.)
Friday, May 10, 2013
One last reflection on writing.
In a recent New York Times Book Review last-page essay, the always interesting Pico Iyer praises writers who try different voices in their fiction. He recounts the ways our voice changes depending on who we are addressing, something that becomes especially acute in an increasingly globalized world where many different voices contend for attention.
Iyer acknowledges various novelists who have consistently adopted different voices based on their experience of cultural diversity -- Mohsin Hamid and Zadie Smith, for example. He writes: "What they are telling us is that for an increasing number of people worldwide, it's only by remaining constantly mobile, keeping you voice as fluid and versatile as the world around you, that you can begin to be true to who you really are.
My own life experience has been distressingly homogeneous, and I suppose because of that my voice has been dully consistent. I remember the first time I felt I had found my voice, after many years of struggling to become a writer. It was when I wrote the first sentence of The Soul of the Night: "Yesterday on Boston Common I saw a young man on a skateboard collide with a child." The child flew a few feet across the Common; I saw her fly across the galaxy. The rest of the book was an easy riff on that theme. And the next book, Honey from Stone, followed in the same comfortable voice.
I was off and running. Twenty-years of non-fiction, following that little girl's cosmic trajectory.
But fiction. Fiction is different. Fiction demands different voices, lest every character be the same. And not just the same, but atavars of the author. So now began a second challenge -- finding my way out of a voice that had served so well.
I suppose that writing in different voices was more challenging than finding my own, and consequently my fiction has been less successful than my non-fiction. But it has been personally gratifying. In Chattanooga, for example, I tried to tell the story in a half-dozen different voices. In the first draft, they all sounded rather alike. So then came the work of distinction: old, young, male, female, sexist, feminist. Only the reader will know whether I (and Dan) succeeded, but this I do know: In reaching for distinctive voices I discovered -- as Iyer suggests -- some hitherto unexpressed things about myself.
Thursday, May 09, 2013
Writing is, for most, laborious and slow. The mind travels faster than the pen; consequently, writing become a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by. A writer is a gunner, sometimes waiting in his blind for something to come in, sometimes roaming the countryside hoping to scare something up.A passage from E. B. White's contribution to Strunk and White. As someone with no fondness for guns or hunting, I can't say that I like his metaphor. At the same time, it has a certain relevance.
During my thirty-five years as a professional writer, I suppose I had several motives. Creativity: to make something instructive or beautiful. Ego: to accumulate some measure of acclaim. Money: to supplement my salary as a classroom teacher. I never stopped to think much about how I might be changing, what I might be learning, where I might be going. The ideas were coming faster than I could write them down. No waiting in the blind. No roaming the countryside. Bam! Bam! One wing shot after the other.
It was exhilarating. It was exhausting.
That's all over now. The pace is calmer. Ego and money have receded. Creativity is no longer an end in itself. It is gratifying to have some hundreds of people visit here every day, and for that I am grateful, but that's not why I write. Now, in retirement, writing is a tool, an instrument, like the mini-binoculars and X10 magnifier I carry in my backpack. Writing helps me see. Helps me understand. I write for the same reason I eat, for nourishment. That I have such a perceptive audience keeps me on my toes.
Sometimes I sit in my blind, this comfy chair on the third floor of the college library, in the midst of the Ps, Qs and Ns (literature, science, art). Sometimes I roam the countryside hoping to scare something up. Not as something to write about and sell, but as something to learn. Writing is a way of putting what I find on the stage of a microscope, of examining closely. Writing is a way of fitting novelty into an almost finished life.
Wednesday, May 08, 2013
After some fifteen years writing weekly for the Boston Globe, and dozens of essays and reviews for other journals, the college Communication Department tapped me to teach a course called "Non-fiction Writing for the Print Media." I didn't feel all that confident "teaching" writing. After all, I had acquired whatever skills I had by years of trying and failing. What I could offer the students, I thought, was inspiration and honest critique.
I did suggest, however, that they spend a few bucks on Strunk and White.
I refer to that slim little classic The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White.
The Strunk part goes back to the beginning of the last century, a self-published pamphlet Professor Strunk prepared for his students on proper English usage and effective composition. In the 1950s, the publisher Macmillan asked White to revise and edit the pamphlet for publication. White was a well-known contributor to the New Yorker and author of the popular children's books Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little. To Strunk's concise advice he added his own tips on effective writing.
In the first draft of the previous paragraph I wrote "a little self-published pamphlet" and "his own brief tips." But pamphlets are by definition little, and tips are brief. Strunk's Rule 13: "Omit needless words." Chop, chop was probably the best advice I gave my students. Good Strunk and White advice.
Omit needless words. Be concise. Advice that in my case might lead to extinction. The magazine articles I used to write ran to 3000 words. My Globe columns started out at about 1000 words, then slimmed down to 800. Then 700. Now I'm blogging at 300 words a day. The trend is clear.
Omit needless words. My last will be my epitaph:
Here lies Raymo,
True at last
To Rule 13.
Tuesday, May 07, 2013
Consider some of the great scientific advances of the last half-millennium: heliocentric astronomy, universal gravitation, atomic and molecular chemistry, evolution by natural selection, electromagnetic radiation, the germ theory of disease, anesthetics, general relativity and the equivalence of mass/energy, quantum theory, galactic astronomy, big bang cosmology, plate tectonics, DNA -- for starters.
Where did this stuff come from? Invention or discovery? Dredged up out of the bowels of nature, or cast like a mental net over unruly reality?
Here in the college library there are shelves of books debating the issue. This much seems certain: the so-called "scientific method" we were taught in school -- a mechanical truth-generating process that even a high-school sophomore could execute -- is a myth.
Good science is a mix of brains, energy, insight, courage, luck, competitiveness, money (or the lack of it), quality of instruments, being at the right place at the right time, and a host of other factors. Perhaps it is impossible to define science in sentence, or a paragraph. But we know it when we see it, and it is nothing like the automatic "method" attributed by our teachers to Francis Bacon. As the biologist Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, Bacon clearly understood that science is (in Gould's words) "a quintessential human activity, inevitably emerging from the guts of our mental habits and social practices, and inexorably intertwined with foibles of human nature and contingencies of human history."
Which is not to say, as Gould reminded us, that science is an arbitrary social artifact. In Bacon's own words, scientific understanding "is extracted…not only out of the secret closets of the mind, but out of the very entrails of Nature." All great science springs from a creative tension between mind and nature.
The writer John Steinbeck was something of a scientist. A young boy once asked him what he was searching for as he and his friend Ed Ricketts waded though a tide pool looking for small marine creatures. "We search for something that will seem like truth to us; we search for understanding; we search for that principle which keys us deeply into the pattern of all life; we search for the relations of things, one to another," answered Steinbeck.
Which pretty well summarizes what scientists do. It also summarizes what writers do. The difference? Science is a communal enterprise that demands consensus. Writing is a private venture which the artist pursues alone. Science is we. Art is I.
Over the next few days, I will be musing about writing.
(I lifted the Steinbeck anecdote from my friend the writer Brian Doyle, as I waded around in one of the teeming tide pools of his prose.)
Monday, May 06, 2013
Everyone who has heard of the poet William Carlos Williams will know his poem "The Red Wheelbarrow". It is so well known that I don't think I will violate copyright to quote it here in its brief entirety:
so much dependsIt is as succinct as a haiku. For those who know Williams only through this poem, one might lump him in with E. E. Cummings -- sentimental, lower case, nonstandard English. But Williams' work is more complex than that, as Williams himself was a complex and conflicted man -- a conventional family man, a physician, living all his life in his birthplace, Rutherford, New Jersey, in conflict with an unconventional poet, a potentially promiscuous rebel, friend of fast-living bohemian artists in Manhattan. He seems never to have resolved the conflict.
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Williams' medical training, I would assume, developed his talent for direct, prescriptive observation. "The Red Wheelbarrow" is as cool and collected as, say, the examination of a child with swollen tonsils. It was, by the way, one of Williams' own favorite poems, based on his observation of just such a juxtaposition of objects in the yard of a neighbor's house.
His scientific training might also have served to anchor him to a conventional lifestyle. We expect and forgive artists their dissolution, and think of scientists as stogy and square. Williams apparently had his Manhattan flings, but not without guilt and remorse.
I'm not a particular fan of Williams' poetry, but I identify, in a lurking way, with his conflict, and enjoy his poetry for that. As when he writes:
You know there's not muchAh, yes, the "but there comes…" You can guess the rest.
that I desire, a few chrysanthemums
half lying on the grass, yellow
and brown and white, the
talk of a few people, the trees,
an expanse of dry leaves perhaps
with ditches among them.
But there comes…
The great French physician Claude Bernard said, "Art is I, science is we." Willliams struggled between the I and we. The struggle is documented in his poetry. And that, for me, is his interest.
Sunday, May 05, 2013
Saturday, May 04, 2013
Some of you in my generation may remember National Geographic's "Everyday Life in Ancient Times" series of articles in the 40s and early 50s. How we poured over those full-page paintings! The legions of Lagash, led by King Eannatum in a golden chariot, cut down the armies of Umma; the battlefield littered with arrow-pierced bodies. A haughty visitor to the slave markets of Babylonia in the 18th century B.C. makes her choice from among nubile young women. Na'r, King of Upper Egypt smashes the heads of his enemies with a mace of ivory and gold. Scantily-clad boys and girls of Crete do handsprings between the horns of a charging bull. The courtesan Phryne poses nude for the Athenian sculptor Praxiteles. Alexander, in golden helmet fashioned in the form of a lion, defeats Darius at the battle of Issus; his spear transfixes a hapless Persian.
This was heady stuff for kids of the 40s and 50s, about as rich a diet of sex and violence as one could find in those days. It had the advantage of conveying a healthy dose of history along with the titillation. Scattered among scenes of nakedness and carnage were others that illustrated the origins of agriculture, writing, mathematics, music, coinage, civil engineering, law, medicine, and democracy.
All of this information had been dug up out of the ground by the archaeologists of the preceding century, many of whom themselves lived lives of Homeric scale.
Among the giants of early archaeology were Heinrich Schliemann, who as a boy read stories of Homer's heroes, Paris and Helen, Achilles and Hector, and of mighty Troy, burned and leveled by the Greeks, and after a lifetime of dreaming found the fabled city on the Anatolian plain, and in it "Piram's Treasure"; Arthur Evans, who unearthed at Knossos in Crete the fabulous palace of Minos, the legendary king, and the labyrinth of the minotaur; Howard Carter, who opened the tomb of Tutankhamen, filled with priceless treasure, only to be haunted by "the curse of the Pharaohs"; Leonard Wooley, who excavated the royal tombs of the kings of Ur, where richly attired queens were laid to rest with murdered ladies of the court.
Somewhere along the way from Schliemann's excavations of the 1870s to Wooley's Babylonian adventures of the 1920s, archaeology changed from a treasure-hunt into a science. Archaeological expeditions are still called campaigns, in the style of Napoleon's monument-snatching adventure in Egypt, but sensitivity to local cultures has replaced the imperialist attitude that the past belongs only to the privileged museums of Paris, London, and New York. The goal of archaeology has become exact description and cautious interpretation. The computer and the mass spectrometer now supplement the shovel and the pick.
National Geographic changed too. When I got married and started a family, one of the first things we did was subscribe to the magazine. By the time our kids were grown and we canceled our subscription, we had a closet full of yellow spines. The articles are no longer quite as titillating as they were in my youth, but the magazine remains one of the great instruments of family education.
(This post originally appeared in April 2009.)