Sunday, September 20, 2009

Books: The Changing Role of the Embryo in Evolutionary Thought, by Ron Amundson

I’m well accustomed to the contemporary impetus to hyper-contextualize art and literature—to pull the work down out of the space of the ideal, and tease it apart, qualifying or disqualifying it not by locating any intrinsic Quality (i.e. value, typically of a formal kind) but by revealing the historical and political machinations that, in the mind of the contemporary academic, somehow spring forth art and literature almost in spite of the artist or writer (as opposed to the traditional view, in which the artist or writer births his or her work by a kind of inspired and partnerless parthenogenesis).

Dabbling in extreme relativism myself at times, I fully understand this impulse (though by the nature of the writing here you see that I am ultimately against it). That said, I was always certain that this inclination to contextualize was safely trapped in the (wishy-washy) humanities. The colder realm of science, for example, would be immune to this obsessive historicization, because science moves forward as scientists discover new facts, and subjectivity and feelings don’t enter the lab. But reading Amundson’s book revealed to me that science is just as prone to this kind of infestation.

Amundson is a philosopher and a historian of biology, not a biologist proper, and it is the cross-pollination of these fields that allows this academic parasite ingress to what appears to be science. But in spite of its title, this is not a science book at all. Amundson offers none of his own laboratory research to demonstrate the viability of his argument (I won’t even call it a hypothesis). Instead, he recounts the history, beginning in the 19th Century, of biology’s attempt to understand the process by which life forms are generated. Highly polemical and peppered with as many unnecessary philosophy terms as science terms (woe to the reader who confuses “ontology” with “ontogeny”), Amundson frames that history as an as yet unresolved argument between developmentalists and geneticists (or proto-geneticists, for those 19th Century Darwinists who believed in adaptation, though they were uncertain of its mechanical means).

As a layperson who hasn’t thought about these things since AP Biology in high school ten years ago, my ultimate response to this argument may sound na├»ve to Amundson or a reader who has something invested in this controversy. But it seems to me that the development v. selection question is moot; both are valid and it simply depends on the direction in which one faces. The developmentalists, who demonstrate that fetuses of various species temporarily show homologous structures, have located a vestige of an inter-species relationship that fully supports the adaptationists’ belief that species diverge by mutation. Likewise, the adaptationists’ understanding of evolution on a population-level leaves room for the individual ontogeny to be the bearer of that evolution. Amundson admits that this is ultimately a chicken-and-egg question.

But if it is, why has he gotten his skivvies tied up in such a sweaty knot? For more than 250 pages, Amundson rather testily challenges primary and secondary sources, scourges certain 20th Century scientists for misreading certain 19th Century scientists, and creates a bogey man out of the Evolutionary Synthesis. In his concluding chapter, he then waffles a bit and concedes that it is awfully hard to make a case for the developmentalists inside the framework of the Evolutionary Synthesis (after he has spent so much effort discrediting that Synthesis!). Perhaps if he were an actual scientist Amundson would be pragmatic enough to make his argument with data, rather than (often opaque) rhetoric, and I might be more inclined to join his cause. As it stands, I’m still uncertain as to whether his cause even exists outside of his own academic paranoia.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Meeting at Telgte, by Gunter Grass

My dad sent me this book, an extremely elite thought experiment that envisions a meeting of the premier 17th Century German poets during the negotiations at the end of the 30 Years War. Gathering from far-flung regions of the country, the group finds their intended lodgings filled with loitering soldiers and stacks of paper outlining battle plans and failed treaty attempts, but allow an educated and foppish con-cum-highway-man to find them alternative lodgings in a nearby town—Telgte—at the inn of a surprisingly learned and adventurous wench (“The landlady, though undoubtedly a trollop, was nevertheless an extraordinary woman.”*)

Once there ensconced, the poets conduct their meetings, a few days’ symposium during which they sit in a circle and take turns reading their work for comment by the others. The reader sits in a chair of “honor” beside a potted thistle. The highly specialized and spirited conversation circles around their desire not only for political peace, but peace of language—a standardizing of their varying regional tongues—and arguments over poetry’s vocation (religious hymns or bawdy songs).

I don’t imagine anyone, oh, “normal,” would really like this book, and yet I found it completely fascinating and hysterical, and immediately thought of three friends who would as well. They are all poets, though. . .

*From page 15, this may have been my favorite sentence in the book, and is a prime example of Grass’ pitch-perfect sense of humor

To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account, by Saul Bellow

I had hoped for a more personal travelogue from Bellow in To Jerusalem and Back, with its subtitle “A Personal Account,” but found it (as thoughts on Israel so often are) bogged down by dissenting voices arguing piddling details over who was where first, and when “first” was, who killed how many when and where, whether this border should be here or there, and, because of its Cold War context (Bellow published the memoir in 1976), what roles Russia and the US are to have in the country’s future.

There are scattered gems in which the author describes a meal on the airplane next to a young Hassidic Jew, a friend’s relationship with his dog, which even goes with him when he ships out to sea as an engineer, and imagines a secret tape recorder hidden underneath the dinner table at which he sits across from Kissinger. But the bulk of words are given over to statistics, and he-said-she-said, and who is entitled to what.

Bellow is a graceful intellectual, and visits the country as an interlocutor rather than a polemicist. That said, he never commits to any proposed solution to this problem, which has as its very simple root a refusal by two groups to share—land, government, culture, and their god, who is quite obviously the same god. Since seeing the country myself ten years ago, my only response has been pure bewilderment that the religious icon hasn’t been removed from the nation’s flag, that it hasn’t been rechristened with a non-partisan name, that the students haven’t been fully integrated, by force if necessary, and taught to love and respect each other, and speak each other’s languages, along with English or French or some other objective third, shared tongue that would become the national language.

Bellow writes at a time when Israel’s first generation of leaders is passing on, but the country is still quite populated by Jews who lived through the Holocaust. In spite of history’s horrors (and I write as a person whose maternal grandfather lost his entire family to the camps before he grew into a man), the insistence on a Jewish “homeland” is preposterous to me; I suppose I am an American first—I hold the separation of church and state more sacred than any spiritual tenet.

The Sea Wolf, by Jack London

The Sea Wolf is everything I ever dreamed Moby Dick would be, but could never access through Melville’s barrier of whaling arcana. London gives us the battle between raw will and acculturated ethics straight-up, with enough clarity of syntax to allow a high school freshman access to the philosophical debate roiling under the castaway-meets-mutiny adventure.

Wolf Larson, captain of a seal-hunting ship, is all raw will: a self-made man with the body of a beast, ruthless in business, surprisingly well-read, but a materialist with no belief in the ephemeral notions of the soul, afterlife, or morality. He sees the ethical inclinations of narrator Humphrey Van Wyden, a gentleman writer and critic shipwrecked during a pleasure cruise and pulled on board the Ghost (Larson’s ship), as one of that man’s many weaknesses, along with his inability to earn his own meals through physical labor.

Rather than returning him to shore, Larson gives Van Wyden the moniker of Hump and puts him to work at the bottom of the ship’s ladder, as cabin boy and helper to the cook. Perhaps because of Van Wyden’s intellect, he develops a connection with Larson against his will, so that as the crew becomes increasingly mutinous and key men are lost to violence, Hump soon finds himself Mr. Van Wyden again, as First Mate. He has now learned not only to work for his meals, but to work the ships sails and navigational equipment, and he and Larson alone navigate the Ghost through a storm when all the other men are out on their sealing boats. All this time, he has spent nights arguing the nature of man with Larson, who continues to maintain that Larson’s ethics are mere weakness.

The deux ex machina comes with another castaway—the beautiful Maud Brewster, a poet and critic herself—who had been out sailing for her health when Larson’s crew saved her from her storm-smashed ship. Again, Larson refuses to return her to shore; clearly he has sexual designs on her, but Van Wyden is taken himself, and takes it upon himself to be her protector. Ironically thanks to his training through Larson’s brutality, the narrator is now equipped to steal a small sealing boat, load it with provisions, and escape with the willowy, frail Maud in the middle of the night. For days they paddle through hopelessly cold conditions until a tiny and uninhabited islet comes into sight.

There, they make house, combining knowledge Van Wyden picked up from other sailors with memories of shipwrecked characters in their favorite books. London is still obviously grappling with whether man is more mind or more creature. Though the house they build has two rooms, and Van Wyden is very clear about his passing nights alone in the beached boat until the second room is built, he admits to loving her, and finds himself referring to her as “my woman, my mate” in his most secret, silent thoughts.

The final challenge comes when Larson’s Ghost runs up on their islet, with no crew but Larson himself (all men lost in a run-in with his equally ruthless brother, Death Larson). Ravaged by unbearable headaches, blinded, and soon deaf, his body breaks before his will does, and he continues to try and foil the couple’s attempts to escape with the Ghost, cutting their repaired rigging, destroying the sails, and even setting his own bed on fire. But against all physical odds, using mathematics, engineering, and his new found will, Van Wyden gets the ship in working order just as Larson takes his dying breath. The couple sails the ship away from the islet after burying Larson at sea, and are soon rescued by another vessel.

There is something rather indulgent about reading such a straight-forward examination of the human condition; Melville buried his battle in the murkiest encyclopaedic ephemera, and pure philosophy would shy away from giving credence to Larson’s physicality. Though the captain is established as the hero’s tormentor and nemesis, we find ourselves sympathetic to Larson all the while. When Van Wyden is able to succeed precisely because he has absorbed some of Larson’s tendencies—physical strength, sexual desire, and most importantly, a confident will—London is condoning that antagonist’s convictions. But when that purely physical being expires by literal bursting in his brain, and Van Wyden is triumphant in his love, London tempers those convictions with humanist responsibilities.