Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Model
(But would it work if it were generalized?)

As you may have guess from the my post from the other day, the late Stephen Jay Gould is one of my intellectual heroes.  I have, to my sorrow, become convinced that a lot of his more theoretical biology is not right, or that he exaggerated the novelty and significance of some of  his ideas (a failing to which we are all prone).  But I still love him.  And I have to tell you that when I met Gould, he was immediately entered into the highly competitive "Famous Person who is  not a Jerk" hall of fame.  Others included in this august group include Simon Keynes, John Hines, Michelle Brown, E. O. Wilson, Sarah Beckwith, Bharti Mukherjee.  (Those who didn't make the cut include David Halperin, Maya Angelou, Joyce Carol Oates, Kathleen Biddick--sorry guys; maybe next time you won't be jerky to the little people).  But I'll tell the story of Gould and my undergraduate student's play and Gould's dinner with us later.  Now I want to talk about Gould's methodology and how I've tried to emulate it.  

Gould was a specialist on Cerion, a genus of land snails from Bermuda and the Bahamas.  He continued consistent, painstaking and excellent work on these snails throughout his working life.  He said that, to be a good scientist, you have to gather data with you own hands, do your own measurements, touch and feel the specimens.  Generalizing this kind of work beyond biology, I think of this kind of research as the "immersing yourself in the material" (such as translating for yourself very long texts or reading entire shelves of EETS material or the ASPR), and its results, in publications, as the "technical contributions" we make or the "technical research" we do.  In medieval studies the analogues would be emending (or un-emending) texts, discovering sources, re-dating material.  I think this is very, very important, and when I am in a position of judging people for endowed Chairs, tenure, fellowships, etc., I look to see if they've made any technical contributions and rate these much more highly than literary criticism or theoretical approaches. 

But Gould did not only do technical research on land snails in Bermuda and the Bahamas.  He also proposed and argued for some significant revisions of the Darwinian "new synthesis" (which had been developed when Mendelian models of heredity were coupled with the principle of Natural Selection; recent work that is called "Evo-Devo" -- Evolution and Development -- has integrated work in developmental biology into the new synthesis.  This is where bio is right now).  With Niles Eldredge Gould proposed "Punctuated Equilibrium," the idea that morphologies are static for long periods of time and then change rather rapidly rather than the continuous rate of very slow change that Gould attributed to Darwin (opponents of Gould noted that Darwin had at least made a few motions towards punctuated equilibrium and that Gould and Eldredge weren't as revolutionary as they claimed to be; the truth is somewhere in the middle -- Gould and Eldredge were excellent self-promoters, and not all Darwinians were complete gradualists, but Punctuated Equilibrium did more to change the thinking of theoretical biologists than opponents often admit).  With Elizabeth Vrba, Gould made other theoretical contributions, and in his final opus, published posthumously, he tried to revise the Evo-Devo paradigm somewhat (though there is still a lot of argument as to whether or not Gould's claims for being different are really true -- he wanted to focus on contingency in a historical sense and on constraints of possible body plans in the Evo-Devo sense--paleontologists I know say that they always believed in contingency (see K-T asteroid impact); developmental biologists whom I know say that a major part of their work is figuring out which biochemistry and morphology is absolutely constrained and which is more subject to variation).  

I would liken this aspect of Gould's work to aspects of theory or literary criticism in medieval studies: they are matters of interpretation, sometimes significant (because they lead researchers to new technical questions or they help to integrate many disparate facts), sometimes less so (because they are simply arguments over "spandrels" and how important they are in evolution or wholly insider debates). One difference might be that Gould was making a lot of the theory himself or at least modifying it significantly rather than taking the theory of X and applying it to the texts Y and Z.  Valuing this part of Gould's work is difficult.  I know one pretty prominent biologist who told me that "everything that Gould was right about was conventional wisdom and everything he was revolutionary about turned out to be wrong. Mostly he just changed emphasis."  I think changing emphasis is pretty important, but I am not a working biologist.  In literary study, I'm inclined to be a lot less interested or impressed by "The Seafarer: The 500th debate on the number of speakers" or "Yet another argument about 'ofermod'" or "How feminine is Grendel's mother?" than I am about work that integrates wide-ranging material (like that by Lapidge, Gretsch, Orchard).  

But in addition to his detailed technical work and his theoretical approaches, Gould also wrote a monthly column, This View of Life in Natural History, a magazine I had been reading since I was six years old.  Nerdy story:  when I arrived at college and first had a checking account (I only had passbook savings before then), the first two checks I wrote were to the American Littoral Society, which entitled me to their journal, Underwater Naturalist, and to the American Museum of Natural History (my favorite indoor place on the face of the earth, and where I hope someone can smuggle in my skeleton when I'm dead) which got me Natural History at college.  
Gould's "This View of Life" was the must-read for any issue of Natural History, and I can remember sitting in my windowsill at Morewood Gardens, at Carnegie Mellon, eating a quiet lunch and just loving learning about biology and evolution from Gould.  This was Gould's popular work, where he took technical materials from evolutionary biology and explained it clearly to interested laypeople (and every biologist I know read "This View of Life" religiously).   In "This View of Life," Gould made arguments about evolutionary theory for a wider audience, presented technical materials for lay readers, and he just wrote beautifully and entertainingly.  

I would liken this part of Gould's career to those medievalists, like Scott Nokes and Tom Shippey and Michelle Brown, who make a real effort, in different venues and in different ways, to explain medieval studies, and their importance, to lay people. This work not only helps to recruit new students and spread the word of important intellectual discoveries, but it makes the general public, parents, legislators and donors more willing to support medieval studies.  I also think--and here I am not a majority opinion, I think--that if you can't explain the technical materials in terms that a layman can understand (or you choose not to) you are abdicating an important responsibility of disseminating your work as well as doing it.  This doesn't mean that an article in ASE should read like a blog post (God forbid), but it does suggest that impenetrable prose is a failing.  In Wonderful Life, after all, Gould spends 118 pages on arthropod taxonomy and its significance, and that book made best-seller lists and I regularly teach it to first-year students in English 101 (as an example of extended argument and beautiful writing.  We don't skip the discussion of bi-ramous appendages and tagmosis in the cephalon).  

I will, of course, never reach Gould's level, but I have tried to model my career and my research on what I perceive of his approach (and the single best piece of advice I ever got about graduate school, I got from Wonderful Life, where Gould says that most important thing is the person you study with, not the place  you go.  Which is why I went to do my Ph.D. with Allen Frantzen despite the rest of the Loyola English department, the funding situation, etc.).   My idea is to balance real, technical contributions (my re-dating of the Rule of Chrodegang translation, for instance or, in Tolkien studies, my work on trying to figure out what Tolkien was trying to do with Goths and the ancestors of the Rohirrim) with more literary approaches (Blood and Deeds in Beowulf) and of course my theory in How Tradition Works, and at the same time doing outreach, involving undergraduates and the community in research, and communicating to as wide an audience as possible why what we do is interesting and important.   

The nice thing about this model is that I am never bored.  The bad thing is that I always have too much on my plate.  But thus far--at least 15 years since I really realized that I was going to be an academic--it has served me well.   I don't know if it is generalizable as a model of scholarship.  Elite places, correctly, in my view, value technical contributions more.  And it is a sad state of affairs that there is no humanities equivalent to Natural History (if anyone founds one, I volunteer to write the equivalent of the "This View of Life" column), so that kind of outreach is difficult.  But I can, without too much hesitation, recommend this kind of balancing.  Having to explain for a general audience sharpens your thinking.  Having to make technical contributions helps keep you out beyond the event horizon of the twin black holes of mere opinions: solipsism and politics.  Not eliminating your subjective, hard-to-argue literary intuition opens up more fields of inquiry than the re-trenchment approach of late 20th-century philology: "we will only speak of what we can absolutely prove."  

Finally, and here I shill for the liberal arts education yet again, the kind of polymath study that Gould did enables breakthroughs in all areas.  The more you know about what is going on in other fields, the more you can apply to the difficult problems in your own field.  And the more you stick with your technical projects, the more the other things will fall into place.  And really, in the end, Gould was just a great person to sit a listen to and argue with.  In my experience, the place to really find people like that is in the Science Center. Happy hunting.


Steve Muhlberger said...

Quite wonderful, thank you.

Isn't teaching undergrads outreach? The vast majority of them will never be scholars.

squire said...

Very nice tribute to Gould, also one of my favorite writers and the primary source of almost anything I know about evolutionary biology!

Perhaps one of the reasons This View of Life tends to work for the layman, in a way that humanists seem not to be able to emulate, is that Gould almost invariably has a reasonably well-known visual model to refer to when explaining a new theory: some animal, landscape, or even a person.

Wouldn't a humanities-oriented columnist need to refer more often to written works - which his/her lay readers might not have read?

Michelle said...

I wouldn't consider teaching undergrads outreach. There are still a lot of people who never go to a university. Many who do go to a university will still not have a class with a medievalist.

Well, the Heroic Age was founded to be such a middle ground. It has veered more toward the scholarly than it was originally intended, but there is still a willingness to engage the general public. I know for a fact that we reach many people who are not professional scholars because I have heard from some of them over the years.

Shawn said...

Gould was a blowhard and bully to his fellow colleagues at Harvard. (Especially to E.O.Wilson). And don't get me started on the Spandrels of Saint Marco fiasco.