Friday, December 16, 2005

dec 5 issue: margaret talbot on Darwin in the Dock

My favorite things about this article, short version: Judge Jones' jokes and Talbot's appreciation of them, lots of mention of the film Inherit the Wind, the strong narrative structure of the article itself - complete with the surprise upset of the school board villians - and the openended but generally upbeat ending. And I like the way, for better or worse, Talbot's looking for clues as to how this will turn out. Makes for supsense-filled courtroom drama.

My favorite things about this article, long version:

"The trial also allowed the lawyers to act as proxies for the rest of us, and ask of scientists questions that we'd probably be too embarassed to ask ourselves." (67)

This actually follows something that is important for me, "[The judge] seemed particularly engaged when Kevin Padian, a paleontologist at Berkeley, started showing slides of pre-historic animals in order to illustrate that we have a lot of transitional fossils demonstrating the evolution of fish to amphibians and of dinosaurs to birds." (66)

The first quote I appreciate, because, like most people I know, I accept the theory of evolution on faith. Faith in my biology teachers and the scientific method and the existence of evidence somewhere out there that someone else has studied and that they have interpreted correctly. I admit it; I don't know the theory of evolution to be the best explanation for the development of species based on my own first hand knowledge or study. And neither do most of the scientists I know.

The second quote here does the same thing for me, but puts that faith in concrete terms. I have faith in this Padian fellow, and his fellows, and their fossils.

"Considering how often it is said that evolution is 'just' a theory, for instance, it is clear that many people either do not know or do not accept the scientific definition of a theory. The lawyers for the pro-evolution side went to great lengths to make the point that, although all science is provisional, a scientific theory is a powerful explanation that unites a large body of facts and relies on testable hypothesis. As Padian testified, it is not 'something that we think of in the middle of the night after too much coffee and not enough sleep." (69)

Owch. That smarts. But it's always a good idea to ask, "What is theory?" during business hours.

"The 'teach the conflicts' rationale for working intelligent design into public science classes has a certain appeal. It sounds to some people like a healthy aversion to orthodoxy. Of course, most scientists don't like it, because in science - as opposed to, say, literary criticism - interpretations can be wrong. Kevin Padian, the paleontologist told me, with characteristic bluntness, that the problem with this approach is that 'it makes people stupid. It pretends there is conflict when there is not and it wastes children's time." (77)

Again, a bit of zinger. But what I like that in the end evolution is science because it rests on a certain kind of disciplinary evidence. (Talbot makes clear that it also rests on the results of repeated experiments, but that doesn't do as much for me. Oh well.) And I love disciplinary evidence as much as the next literary critic. Maybe more. And that is why I think it is fun to teach writing. Because you get to tell undergrads about the joys of evidence.

I'm still interested in hearing more - what about popular notions of heredity that predate contemporary genetics type evidence, or our knowledge of the fossil record? Did Mendel theorize from peas and to people or did that come later? What about comparisons of horse breeding and people breeding? How did they think people inherited things before they used genes as an explanation? I generally tend to be suspicous of arguments about long lost twins with identical husbands and all that that implies . . . but I'm still fascinated by the historical evolution of the theory of biological evolution, so to speak.

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Blogger mzn said...

I liked this article too, especially the way it invites you to marvel at the explanatory power of scientific theories. Who doesn't love powerful, compelling explanations?

Now to be nit-picky: perhaps some literary critics believe there are no wrong interpretations but this is a matter of debate, and it's disappointing that a defender of scientific inquiry would demonstrate indifference to the accuracy of a claim about the humanities. This is the journalist's phrasing, mind you, not the scientist's. And what makes it obnoxious, to me anyway, is the expectation that NYer readers will nod along in assent with this "conventional wisdom": "Ah of course lit crit is a free-for-all compared with science!"

As for the twins studies, what I have read makes them sound incredibly convincing. I recommend Pinker's The Blank Slate. It's not just that they marry similar spouses--twins are alike in myriad ways, and ways that adoptive siblings are not. I know why the thought of it creeps you out, but just imagine sharing all of your DNA with another person. Boggles the mind!

9:34 PM  
Blogger zp said...

How funny. I saw The Blank Slate in the apartment of a friend of a friend and I must say, I was totally intrigued . . . but in a dismissive kind of a way.

And the "no wrong answers" thing is totally for suckers, but I kind of liked it for that reason . . . contrary, I know.

I've been meaning to ask you, and maybe chocolate lady, too, and lindy . . .

"though a recipe involves temporal duration and progression ('bake until golden brown . . .'), it is not normally thought of as a narrative (the story of a pie)." (Edward Branigan, Narrative Comprehension and Film, pg. 4)

Or, what are the pros and cons of recipe as narrative or non-narrative form?

I should maybe make this a post or a meme or something.

10:27 PM  
Blogger mzn said...

It's my bedtime so I must be brief, or at least briefer than I might be otherwise.

I often wonder if recipes should be considered narratives or not. The standard recipe in the impersonal present tense ("add butter, stir well, bake for 2 hrs.," etc.) lacks characters, and I think that having characters should be a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for narrativity. But if you write a recipe in the first person past tense ("I added the butter, stirred well, baked for 2 hrs.") it would seem that the narrator is the character who follows a chain of goal-directed events and that would make it more acceptable to me to call it a narrative. The first-person past tense, however, makes it seem less like a recipe. Perhaps recipeness and narrativitiy are to an extent incompatible? I will think more and get back to you.

11:48 PM  

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