Thursday, February 12, 2009

Evolving and Thinking: Hampshire College Launches Darwin Anniversary Celebration

Darwin Day Arrives:

It’s a shame in more ways than one that today's publicity stunt by the Hampshire Students for Justice in Palestine will dominate any press coverage of my college this week. What we—and the wider world—should be talking about is the genuinely exciting scholarly and pedagogical work that takes place here day in and day out: highlighted at the moment by the launching of a meticulously planned year-long series of events celebrating the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Darwin: “Darwin Across the Disciplines.”

Today’s kick-off event took the form of a birthday party (with coffee and cake) built around “Darwin and Me” (I? me? proof that usage or at least attitudes have “evolved” since the controversies over Winston cigarettes and good grammar vs. good taste, back in the day when one could still advertise cigarettes on tv?). Herewith, a synopsis:

Philosopher and organizer Laura Sizer introduced the event with some remarks on Darwin’s place in intellectual history and his legacy. In her own work, he was of signal importance as a pioneer of rigorous research into the emotions who demonstrated that humans and animals in fact shared similar practices: a welcome reminder in several regards, for most people know Darwin—if at all (which seems increasingly doubtful in the US)—as the theorist of evolution alone.

Evolutionary biologist Charles Ross then explained his clever participatory Darwinian social-intellectual exercise, “Evolving Hampshire”:
[an] attempt to model the principles of descent with modification (evolution) and natural selection. Throughout the spring the campus community will watch an idea evolve as it moves from class to class. Participating classes in a variety of disciplines will answer the question: “What is Hampshire?” The question will start in one class, then move through a series of classes over time, with selected answers moving forward with modification.
Each student in a class will select the best answer from those produced by an earlier group (generation). Then, individuals will modify the answer from the perspective of their course’s focus or discipline,
* * *

Faculty from a wide variety of disciplines spoke (generally, with one PowerPoint slide per person) for five minutes each about the ways that evolution (writ broadly) played a role in their thinking and work.

• Psychologist Rachel Conrad spoke on Darwin as an originator of developmental psychology. Referring to one of her long-standing personal and research interests, she called attention to the subtle relational thinking in his unpublished writings, such as the observations that he made of his son, and the memorial that he wrote upon the death of his daughter. The conclusion: The conventions of academic discourse can sometimes obscure the richer lessons that a writer sees but often does not write about in formal work. (A nice point for Rachel, in particular, as she is a psychologist during the work day and a poet in her leisure hours.)

• Professor of Visual Art Robert Seydel took the Chinese ideogram, “hsin,” or new—beloved of Ezra Pound—as the point of departure for a series of observations on the rise of new open rather than closed literary forms, in particular, the American long poem, from Whitman to Pound, to Willialms, to the present. All these authors defined poetry, he said, as “works of the field, works of evolution.”

• Geologist Steve Roof, with the aid of a large graph, spoke of Darwin’s contributions to geology: specifically the evolving notion of the age of the earth, from the Renaissance to the present. It was really like punctuated evolution—marked by alternating periods of stability and rapid change—rather than a smooth curve, he said. Darwin, he explained, was “a key player in all this,” as could be seen from his work on the evolution of coral atolls. The debates over the age of the earth, Steve argued, displayed a sort of “evolutionary” logic of their own, for one can see how ideas rose and fell, and how the judgment of fitness of a given idea very much depended on the cultural environment of the moment. Scientific ideas, he said, go extinct when proven wrong. Ideas, like genes and evolutionary innovations, outlast the individuals who bore them.

• Professor of Dance Rebecca Nordstrom gave the most unusual presentation in that it took the form of a kinetic performance. She taught the audience an eight-count gestural phrase and then led us through a series of variations: slow, then quick and energetic, and finally, heroic and demonstrative. Her larger point was that “movement is learned.” Showing a slide of dancers cavorting across a stage, she reminded us: “we’ve evolved to be bipeds—but we’ve also evolved to be what you see in the picture—to dance upside down and on our hands.” She also reminded us that frequent back pain is a legacy of the combination of large head and bipedal posture. Her engaging parting advice was to use that head to help the back: occasionally, imagine that your head is a helium balloon, light and buoyant, floating upward.

Christoph Cox spoke about his work as a Professor of Philosophy and also as a curator of avant-garde art installations. In philosophy, he said, Darwin was most valuable for having helped to eliminate the ontological notion of essentialism, or fixed types in nature. He proceeded to draw a parallel between what he called the fixed linear forms of classical music and the corresponding physics of the time. He contrasted this model with the experimental music of the modern era, in which a composer produces not a completely dictated work, but instead a set of parameters that, in the course of performance, acquire a sort of existence of their own: not unlike the children whom we educate and then send into the world.

• Professor of Evolution and Cognition Sarah Partan chose to emphasize Darwin’s role as an animal behaviorist. As she noted, and as we saw today, many fields can claim him. Like both Rachel Conrad and Laura Sizer, she cited the influence of his The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. His finding of the continuity of expression helped to break down the earlier artificial distinction between so-called higher and lower species. Noting that Darwin was one of the greatest and most meticulous observers of nature, Sarah used as an example his analysis of the expressions of hostility and submissiveness on the part of the dog (in which the opposite emotion is represented by an opposite body posture).

I chose to speak on historical genetics, proceeding from the observation that, whereas the Nazi legacy had driven us to deny the existence of race, modern science seemed to be pushing us in the opposite direction and thereby provoking consternation. In the words of one influential anthropological blogger: “Ethnicity Strikes Back.” After outlining some of the principal findings of Jewish genetics, I focused on three cases in which genetic evidence has largely borne out oral tradition of descent: (1) Many descendants of the priestly caste of Cohanim possess a common Middle Eastern marker dating back 3000 years. (2) The same marker also appears among the priestly caste of the black Lemba of South Africa, who display Jewish practices and claim to have arrived centuries ago by boat from a place that sounded like Yemen. (3) Members of the priestly tribe of Levi, unlike Cohanim, display a divergence between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. The Ashkenazi Levite Modal Haplotype is of Central Asian rather than Middle Eastern origin and appears to represent the legacy of the Turkic Khazars who converted to Judaism in the early Middle Ages.

• Professor of Computer Science Lee Spector won the prize for most complex slide, for it contained an array of digital animations, which he proceeded to explain in detail. One of the most exciting developments in the sciences has been the field of evolutionary computation, in which he is a leader. As he put it, "Darwin showed how organisms evolved for success in the random environment of the natural.” "Maybe we can steal that algorithm that we received from Darwin and use it for solving problems—use it to design things that we can’t design for ourselves.” He explained a variety of examples that we were watching on-screen, from simple experiments to technological applications, such as an antenna that could be programmed to reconfigure itself for changing tasks. A brave new world, indeed.

It was a fitting conclusion to a stimulating series of talks. Professor of Biology (and Resident Curmudgeon, as he prefers to be known) Lynn Miller set the tone for the question-and-answer session when he provocatively challenged the underlying assumption of the whole event by declaring that Darwin’s ideas of evolution rested on a hypothesis (lacking a mechanism) that only gained relevance and true credibility following Mendel’s discovery of genetics. As one could imagine, the ensuing discussion was a lively one—as the year’s series of events promises to be.

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