Friday, April 29, 2011


In which the blogger is taken by some things Richard Leakey said and wonders how to bring order out of the chaos of what he finds worthy of writing down.

Two weeks ago, as I futzed with a blog posting, I listened to NPR’s Science Friday where host Ira Flatow interviewed the famed paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey.  Though Flatow was his usual mildly irritating self, the patient, thoughtful Leakey drew me in with his responses.  I found two answers he gave particularly intriguing, and, as Flatow wrapped up the interview, I grabbed a notepad and wrote down what I remembered.  Later, after listening to the interview several times at the Science Friday website (Leakey was still brilliant the third time through), I compiled what I think is an accurate transcript of what so impressed me.

Leakey on the “Uniformity of Species”

One exchange started with a phoned-in question from “Larry,” who observed that the modern human species presents significant skeletal variability, and then asked, as I understand the question, how many individual specimens needed to be found in order to confirm that you were working with a distinctive hominid species.

Leakey’s startling and challenging answer was one.

Here’s his response as he gave it, complete with a couple of digressions and false starts:
Let’s turn it into a different sort of question on the same issue.  If you look at domestic animals, and I think humans are domestic animal[s] and have been since we developed a strong culture and different behavior patterns associated with being a cultural animal, but let’s leave humans aside for a minute and go to the plains of Africa, the national parks of Africa, or North America or Europe.  If you get a brown bear skeleton or you pick up a mandible or lower jaw or femur of a brown bear, it is going to be a brown bear and no anatomist is going to tell you it could be anything else.
The remarkable uniformity between the anatomy of different species is striking even for the poorly informed.  And so when you find a fossil that’s 2 million years old, the chances of it being abnormal and not characteristic are very, very remote indeed.
So I think when you find several skulls that are almost identical to each other at more or less the same point in time, the chances of this not being representative of that species at that time are simply discountable.  I don’t think you should be diverted by that.
And I think the difficulty is to pick up a Pekinese skull and compare it to the Great Dane in the domestic dogs and say, well, these clearly are different species.  Yet you know perfectly well they’re not different species, they’ve simply been bred by the human culture.
And I think, take modern humans out of the story for the moment, and look at wild animals and you will find that these precultural hominids were behaving just as wild creatures do today and every fossil you find is going to be distinctive and diagnostic of the species from which it is coming.
Modern humans as domesticated animals with the same anatomical variability reflected in other domesticated animals.  A “remarkable uniformity between the anatomy of different [wild] species.”  Every fossil “distinctive and diagnostic of the species from which it is coming.”

Wonderful stuff and I continue to wrestle with it.

Now For Something Completely Different – Global Warming

Later in the interview, Flatow interjected with a question, “Is global warming going to affect anything?”

Leakey took it seriously and, recognizing the centrality of this question, fashioned a response that rose above the distracting questions and issues that pollute today’s political and social discourse on global warming.  Here’s Leakey’s response:
I think global warming is going to have a huge impact.  It’s like evolution.  I think if we could accept there is evidence for climate change, forget who caused it, let’s not worry about that.  But, let’s look at the prehistoric record and recognize that climate change has happened before, and it’s because it’s happened before, we know the scale of possibilities.  And the change that we’re looking at is not unlike changes we’ve had before.
The difference is that we’re now 8 billion people.  Before, there were less than a million.  This is going to impact.  Rising sea levels today will be a very different impact to rising sea levels 500,000 years ago. . . . [Flatow comment omitted.]  It’s very clear if you look at the past record.  And when Homo sapiens appeared between 50 and 70,000 years ago, Lake Tarkana, where I work, rose 70 meters . . . in a moment.
Okay, perhaps about 7 billion, but still, that’s the essence of the issue.  The other day I heard  a paleontologist assert that we don’t know what caused periods of warming in Earth’s geological and environmental past and, so, he seemed to be saying that the contemporary issue is a MacGuffin (my term for his characterization, not his).  To Leakey, this is no MacGuffin.

Order Out of the Chaos

After creating the transcripts of Leakey’s response, I pondered where to save them.  It’s a question of long standing, applying broadly to all of the other quotations from my reading and elsewhere that I’ve written down over the years.

Where would they not be lost in the usual pile of papers, scattered notebooks, jumble of folders in filing cabinets, or jungle of computer files on my laptop?  Where could I stash them so that I would be able to retrieve them when needed?  And, perhaps most important, where might they live with the possibility that they’d bubble up unbidden to spark new thoughts or to take old ideas in different directions?

To a literate man or woman in the 17th, 18th or even 19th century, a commonplace book offered a logical place in which to store such written treasures.  Passages from literature, poetry, and scripture, drawings, thoughts and ideas, recipes, inventories of things, financial accountings, all found their way into blank journals that became commonplace books.  Above all, they served as a necessary accessory to reading – writing indeed complemented reading, as readers copied down the passages that spoke to them.  Young students using Johann Amos Comenius’ extremely popular 1658 publication Orbis Pictus, an illustrated children’s textbook for teaching languages that came out in many translations, learned the following [from this 1887 English edition, I have omitted the numbers linking lines in the English passage with the parallel passage in Latin]:
The Study,
a place where a Student,
apart from Men,
sitteth alone,
addicted to his Studies,
whilst he readeth Books,
which being within his
reach he layeth open up-
on a Desk, and picketh
all the best things out of
them into his own Manual,
or marketh them in
them with a Dash,
or a  little Star,
in the Margent.  (p. 120)
Sound advice for interacting with a book.  Dear student, copy the passages that move you or mark them in their margins.  [I was put on to Comenius by an informative page titled Manuals for Memory at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s website.]

The desire to improve the mind and the person, to bring mental order out of chaos, constituted a broad mission for many 17th and 18th century thinkers and it swept up the commonplace book.  The jumbled nature of what end up in the commonplace book challenged users.    According to Lucia Dacome, in Noting the Mind:  Commonplace Books and the Pursuit of the Self in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Journal of the History of Ideas, October, 2004, full copy available by subscription only),
The practice of commonplacing similarly came to be regarded as capable of bringing together the order of learning and the methodizing of one’s thoughts, the pursuit of self-improvement, and the fashioning of the polite individual.  While collecting and ordering notes and thoughts, compilers also worked on their own intellectual, moral, and social edification.  (p. 615)
How then to organize what accumulated within the covers of the commonplace book?

Users devised different strategies.  Simply dividing up the journal with a fixed number of pages per letter of the alphabet spelled inefficiency; sections with blank pages remained long after other pages were filled to overflowing.  Then, in 1686, philosopher John Locke’s A New Method of a Common-Place-Book offered a brilliant though somewhat complex solution (involving the first letter of the subject of the entry and the first vowel in that subject) that apparently came to dominate commonplace books from then on.  A flexible index (the key to his method) guided and recorded where entries were written in the body of the journal, enabled full use of all pages, and offered two pages (across which the index stretched) where related content just might be identified, and, perhaps, connections made.  [This paragraph was edited after the initial posting because I think I initially claimed more for the Lockean index than it may have actually delivered.]

Fermentation of ideas stimulated keepers of commonplace books.  It began with the rereading of their entries.  As Steven Johnson described in Where Good Ideas Come From:  The Natural History of Innovation (2010):
Each rereading of the commonplace book became a new kind of revelation.  You see the evolutionary paths of all your past hunches:  the ones that turned out to be red herrings; the ones that turned out to be too obvious to write; even the ones that turned into entire books.  But each encounter holds the promise that some long-forgotten hunch will connect in a new way with some emerging obsession.  (p. 66)
So, simply having the Leakey quotations somewhere I might be able to find them seems increasingly like a losing response to the issue.  I see promise in an electronic version of some sort of Lockean organized commonplace book that would foster cross fertilization among my randomly jotted down thoughts and ideas, excerpted passages from my reading, transcripts of a Science Friday interview, link to a Frazz comic strip that mentions Mary Roach . . . whatever might be dropped into my commonplace book.  My electronic holy grail.  And I haven’t found it.

It would connect the Leakey quotation on species uniformity with quotations copied earlier on how species arise, on genetic variation within populations, the genetic uniqueness of individual animals and plants, . . . .

Here is a moment where I wished I inhabited the Mac world so I could at least try DEVONthink.  In Where Good Ideas Come From, Johnson extolled the virtues of this software application that, from what I’ve read, facilitates creative linkages among the things you’ve collected.  Sadly, no true counterpart exists in the Windows world.

Though, of course, as with so much other technology, such an application may substitute for real thinking – establish myriad connections with the words of the knowledgeable and mask your own lack of thought.  Jonathan Swift would have agreed, apparently finding little merit in commonplace books.  In his scathingly satirical A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet.  Together with a Proposal for the Encouragement of Poetry in Ireland (1720), he wrote of poets and commonplace books:
There you enter not only our own original thoughts (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant), but such of other men’s as you think fit to make your own, by entering them there.  For, take this for a rule, when an author is in your books, you have the same demand upon him for his wit as a merchant has for your money when you are in his.
In A Tale of the Tub (1704), he was even more devastatingly wicked:
By these methods, in a few weeks there starts up many a writer capable of managing the profoundest and most universal subjects.  For what though his head be empty, provided  his commonplace book be full?

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this, learned something, too. Interesting that the internet preserves so many things, unchanging, fossilized almost.


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