Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Charles Darwin

The foundations of novelty

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Yesterday, I was leafing through the journalist Charles Duhigg’s recent book Smarter, Faster, Better when my eye was caught by a discussion of a study conducted several years ago by two professors at Northwestern University. It dealt with the importance of unexpected combinations in creative thinking, which is a subject that is dear to my heart, and they emerged with some fascinating conclusions. Duhigg writes:

The researchers—Brian Uzzi and Ben Jones—decided to focus on an activity they were deeply familiar with: writing and publishing academic papers…They could estimate a paper’s originality by analyzing the sources authors had cited in their endnotes…Almost all of the creative papers had at least one thing in common: They were usually combinations of previously known ideas mixed together in new ways. In fact, on average, ninety percent of what was in the most “creative” manuscripts had already been published elsewhere—and had already been picked over by thousands of other scientists. However, in the creative papers, those conventional concepts were applied to questions in manners no one had considered before. “Our analysis of 17.9 million papers spanning all scientific fields suggests that science follows a nearly universal pattern,” Uzzi and Jones wrote. “The highest-impact science is primarily grounded in exceptionally conventional combinations of prior work yet simultaneously features an intrusion of unusual combinations.” It was this combination of ideas, rather than the ideas themselves, that typically made a paper so creative and important.

As Uzzi later explained in an interview with Duhigg: “A paper that combines work by Newton and Einstein is conventional. That combination has happened thousands of times. But a paper that combines Einstein and Wang Chong, the Chinese philosopher, that’s much more likely to be creative, because it’s such an unusual pairing.”

The late Arthur Koestler called this phenomenon “bisociation,” and its appearance here inspired me to look up the original paper, “How Atypical Combinations of Scientific Ideas Are Related to Impact.” Its most intriguing insight—which Duhigg mentions only in passing—is that not all combinations are equally useful. As you might expect, the study found that the majority of published scientific papers draw on a conventional set of sources, with most of their references occurring within a predictable subset of journals. Yet a novel combination of references in itself isn’t any guarantee of originality or importance. In fact, papers that have “high tail novelty” alone are actually less likely to be widely cited than papers that don’t stray far from conventional wisdom. The best combination, it seems, is a core of conventional work spiced up with a few unusual ingredients. An article on their research in the magazine of the Kellogg School of Management makes this point more explicit:

What’s interesting,” says Uzzi, “is most of the work done is conventional. And some of the work is truly novel. And the chances of either one of those classifications of papers being hits is about the same.” Only about five percent of research papers that draw from only very novel or only very conventional sources were among the most highly cited papers in the database. But there was a third category of research that had nearly twice the likelihood of making it big: papers that relied mostly on conventional combinations of sources but also included a small subset of highly novel ones. “It isn’t all about novelty or conventionality. It’s about both,” explains Jones, who was somewhat surprised by this result…“You want to be grounded in something that’s well understood and yet be adding in the piece that’s truly unusual. And if you do those two things [and] stretch yourself in both directions, then you radically increase your probability of hitting a home run.”

This point is technically present in Duhigg’s book, but it’s easy to miss, and it strikes me as the real takeaway here. Innovation doesn’t happen when you combine ideas haphazardly, but when you incorporate novel insights into a more conventional foundation. I’ve noticed this pattern in my own work. When I first started writing science fiction, my favorite method for generating ideas was to browse through a stack of science magazines and pick two or three articles at random, trusting that I would find a connection between them if I looked hard enough. My early novelette “The Last Resort,” for instance, was a combination of articles about lake eruptions, snowmaking, and the snake pits of Manitoba. “The Boneless One,” which was my first really good story, did the same with bioluminescence, octopus intelligence, and an expedition to catalog genetic material in the ocean. It was a reliable trick, and it served me well over the course of half a dozen stories. Around the time that I wrote “Stonebrood,” however, followed by “The Proving Ground” and my upcoming story “The Spires,” I began to get tired of that process, and I tried a different approach. These days, I usually start with one big subject or setting that I’d like to explore—wilderness firefighting, climate change in the Marshall Islands, bush piloting in Alaska. From there, I’ll look for an unusual angle that ties back into the main theme, often by searching the archives of science magazines until I come up with a promising hook. Instead of choosing a few random ideas and treating them equally, in other words, I start with a central premise that feels like it would make a good story and then look for unexpected offshoots. In some ways, this approach is riskier, since it that initial hunch is wrong, it’s easier to follow it into a dead end. But the results seem better. In the past, some of my stories, like “The Voices,” have had visible seams. The ones that I’m writing now are more of a piece, but they haven’t lost their ability to surprise me along the way, which is the main reason that I write them at all.

Obviously, this is a very minor example, and it probably isn’t all that interesting to anyone but me. But the notion that we should proceed by adding novelty to an established foundation, rather than by combining ideas purely at random, is a valuable one. It’s similar to the familiar principle that it’s hard to do interesting work across multiple disciplines until you’ve mastered one field well, both because of the habits of thinking that it teaches and the body of information that it provides. It was partly for this reason that Charles Darwin spent years studying barnacles, or cirripedes, as the scientist Thomas Henry Huxley observed:

The great danger which besets all men of large speculative faculty is the temptation to deal with the accepted statements of facts in natural science, as if they were not only correct, but exhaustive; as if they might be dealt with deductively, in the same way as propositions in Euclid may be dealt with. In reality, every such statement, however true it may be, is true only relatively to the means of observation and the point of view of those who have enunciated it. So far it may be depended upon. But whether it will bear every speculative conclusion that may be logically deduced from it is quite another question…The value of the Cirripede monograph lies not merely in the fact that it is a very admirable piece of work, and constituted a great addition to positive knowledge, but still more in the circumstance that it was a piece of critical self-discipline, the effect of which manifested itself in everything [Darwin] wrote afterwards, and saved him from endless errors of detail.

What the barnacles taught Darwin, in Huxley’s words, was “the speculative strain” that certain ideas would bear, and this applies as much to individual projects as to the work of a lifetime. Random combination can be a valuable tool, but it needs to be the right kind of randomness. Creativity, as Gregory Bateson wonderfully put it, often consists of “a raid on the random.” But like most raids, it’s more likely to succeed when it starts from a position of strength.

Quote of the Day

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My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive…If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use.

Charles Darwin, Autobiography

Written by nevalalee

February 15, 2018 at 7:30 am

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The weight of paper

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Geological map by Henry Darwin Rogers

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on December 12, 2015.

Take a look at the map above, which was the work of the American geologist Henry Darwin Rogers. As the legend on the right indicates, its various colors represent different rock formations. It’s obvious that some areas are larger than others, but how would you measure the difference? When Charles Darwin—no relation—was writing The Origin of Species, he was faced with exactly this problem, and his answer was an elegant one: “I have estimated the areas by cutting out and weighing the paper.” And while his solution reminds us, in the words of Stanley Edgar Hyman, that “there is something formidable and relentless about [Darwin’s] active involvement” in personally investigating everything that affected his argument, it also testifies to the weight of paper. We often treat paper as a two-dimensional surface with zero thickness, but it isn’t, of course. In the old days, anyone who sent a letter by airmail became acutely aware of its physical properties, and publishers still have to think about it today. Above a certain size, a book becomes harder and more expensive to produce, which has subtly influenced the length of the books we’re used to reading. (A few titles, like Robert Caro’s The Power Broker or Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History, seem determined to push the limits of how many words can be packed between two covers.) But while I’ve spoken frequently here about the importance of using pen and paper to work out ideas, I’ve generally thought of it in terms of the act of writing with ink, and I haven’t given nearly enough emphasis to the properties of the paper itself.

I got to thinking about this while reading a blog post a while back by the tabletop game designer Max Temkin—most famous for Cards Against Humanity—on the testing process behind a game called Secret Hitler. It’s full of useful advice, like this: “Jon Sharp taught me a great rule for iterating based on observed player feedback: ‘double or half.’ If something isn’t working, double it or cut it in half to quickly diagnose the problem. I like to think of this as the ‘Dr. House’ approach to game design.” But what I liked about it the most, aside from its fantastic pictures of game prototypes, is how the physical feedback provided by the paper itself informed the design process. Temkin started testing the game with blank playing cards and generic card sleeves, and if you want to get even cheaper, he recommends pasting slips of paper over cards from the free sample packs you get at Magic: The Gathering events. (Temkin writes: “Nobody wants them except for game designers, who usually jump at the opportunity to fill their backpacks with cheap cardboard rectangles that are great for prototyping.” Which reminds me of how I like to hoard business cards, which are the perfect size for notes or putting together an outline.) And the physical cards led to immediate insights about what had to be fixed. For instance: “Secret Hitler uses several different kinds of cards, and we found that players were sometimes confused about what was what…Once the policy cards were a different size and shape, players could easily differentiate them from other cards in the game.”

Prototype for Secret Hitler

And while this sort of prototype seems like an obvious step in testing a tabletop game, it can also be useful for games that are meant to be played in a digital form. In his excellent book The Art of Game Design—which Kevin Kelly of Cool Tools has called “one of the best guides for designing anything that demands complex interaction”—Jesse Schell writes:

If you are clever, you can prototype your fancy video game idea as a simple board game, or what we sometimes call a paper prototype. Why do this? Because you can make board games fast, and often capture the same gameplay. This lets you spot problems sooner—much of the process of prototyping is about looking for problems, and figuring out how to fix them, so paper prototyping can be a real time saver.

Schell goes on to note that this approach is more intuitive for a turn-based game, but it can even be useful for games that unfold in real time. To prototype Tetris, for example, you could cut out pieces of cardboard with a razor blade and move them around the table: “This would not be a perfect Tetris experience, but it might be close enough for you to see if you had the right kinds of shapes, and also enough to give you some sense of how fast the pieces should drop.” And even for a game like Doom, you could put together something with graph paper, paper tokens, and a metronome to tick off the seconds: “This will give the feeling of playing the whole thing in slow motion, but that can be a good thing, because it gives you time to think about what is working and not working while you are playing the game.”

And what all these approaches have in common is the fact that paper, which is inherently rather slow and clumsy to manipulate, forces you to think more urgently about what is interfering with the user experience. Anything that the player shouldn’t have to think about consciously while playing, like physically keeping track of the cards, ought to be ruthlessly edited out, and the paper prototype magnifies such problems so that they can’t be ignored. (They can also be revealing in other ways. Temkin notes, delightfully, that the game piece being handled by the players who were assigned the role of Hitler became more worn than the rest, since it was the role that generated the most anxiety.) And this seems to be as true of outlining a novel as it is of testing a game. When I use cards to map out the action of a story, I stack them in piles—sorting each card by character, scene, or theme—and I can tell at a glance which piles are larger than the others. A stack that seems too small should either be beefed up or combined with something else, while one that is too large to handle comfortably should be culled or split into two or more pieces. You can even draw conclusions from which cards have become tattered from being handled the most, and I imagine that for projects of a certain size, you could even weigh the cards, as Darwin did, to get a quick sense of each section’s relative bulk. You don’t get this kind of information when you’re laying out the whole thing in text files, as I’ve recently found myself doing, which is just a reminder that I really should get back to my cards. In writing, as in any creative endeavor, you can’t afford to ignore any potential source of insight, and if you put it down on paper, you’ll do a better job of playing the hand you’ve been dealt.

The scribbling machine

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Portrait of Charles Darwin by George Richmond

Yesterday, I came across a fascinating account of the writing process of Charles Darwin, which he originally published as part of a short memoir of his life. Darwin notes that writing has never been easy for him, which has “the compensating advantage of forcing me to think long and intently about very sentence,” allowing him to see errors in his own work. He continues:

There seems to be a sort of fatality in my mind leading me to put at first my statement or proposition in a wrong or awkward form. Formerly I used to think about my sentences before writing them down; but for several years I have found that it saves time to scribble in a vile hand whole pages as quickly as I possibly can, contracting half the words; and then correct deliberately. Sentences thus scribbled down are often better ones than I could have written deliberately.

Darwin, in short, understood the value of an ugly first draft. You often get better results by scribbling down the whole thing “in a vile hand,” and then going back to revise it, than by laboring over each sentence before moving onto the next. And Darwin made a point of doing this at a time when it was much harder to crank out pages at a rapid pace than it is now.

It’s tempting—maybe too tempting—to draw parallels between Darwin’s creative process and that of natural selection itself. When you write a draft as quickly as possible, you introduce elements of chance: an awkward phrase, a sentence fragment that leads nowhere, or a typographical error can generate unexpected trains of thought. Even the appearance of the words on the page can direct your thinking along new lines. They’re all forms of random variation, and even if only one out of ten survives to the rewrite stage, it’s still worth it. But they only come into existence if the process of composition is loose and messy enough, which doesn’t happen when you work out each sentence before writing it down. There’s also a kind of momentum that results when you push against the physical limits of the medium, which forces you to draw on muscle memory. Darwin, as I’ve noted elsewhere, was a tactile thinker. To compare the area of geological formations on a topographical map, he cut them out with scissors and weighed them. He tickled aphids with a fine hair and made artificial leaves for earthworms by rubbing triangular pieces of paper with raw fat. A lot of this is simple experimental ingenuity, but there’s also a real sense in which Darwin thought with his eyes and hands. Writing as much down as rapidly as you can gives your eyes and hands a central role in the writing process. It introduces a few more collaborators, and thereby another source of variation.

Charles Darwin

And this is particularly important for projects that require you to master a large body of factual material. The section of Darwin’s essay that I found most interesting was the one that treated the problem of information management. Here’s how you did it in the nineteenth century:

Having said thus much about my manner of writing, I will add that with my large books I spend a good deal of time over the general arrangement of the matter. I first make the rudest outline in two or three pages, and then a larger one in several pages, a few words or one word standing for a whole discussion or series of facts. Each one of these headings is again enlarged and often transferred before I begin to write in extenso. As in several of my books facts observed by others have been very extensively used, and as I have always had several quite distinct subjects in hand at the same time, I may mention that I keep from thirty to forty large portfolios, in cabinets with labelled shelves, into which I can at once put a detached reference or memorandum. I have bought many books, and at their ends I make an index of all the facts that concern my work; or, if the book is not my own, write out a separate abstract, and of such abstracts I have a large drawer full. Before beginning on any subject I look to all the short indexes and make a general and classified index, and by taking the one or more proper portfolios I have all the information collected during my life ready for use.

Darwin had to be a master of organization to assemble the facts that he needed to make his argument, but he didn’t try to keep all of it in his brain at once—he reviewed his personal indexes and compiled a more general one before starting to write. But he also had to remain receptive to overall patterns. Attention to fine detail is important, but it also tends to limit our ability to see connections, as Gertrude Himmelfarb, one of Darwin’s biographers, points out:

His colleagues, the systematizers, knew more than he about particular species and varieties, comparative anatomy and morphology…It was with the sharp eyes of the primitive, the open mind of the innocent, that he looked at his subject, daring to ask questions that his more learned and sophisticated colleagues could not have thought to ask.

The result, which Arthur Koestler calls Darwin’s “amiable credulity,” was a strategy, conscious or otherwise, to preserve an awareness of the whole while focusing on the parts, which may be the hardest creative balancing act of all. His messy first drafts, which naturally led him to think in larger structural units, were another way in. Later in the same essay, Darwin writes: “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts.” And it was a machine that only worked because it knew how to scribble.

Written by nevalalee

December 13, 2016 at 8:34 am

The weight of paper

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Geological map by Henry Darwin Rogers

When Charles Darwin was writing The Origin of Species, he was faced with a tricky problem: how would you compare the areas of the different kinds of rock shown above? A quick look at the map by the geologist Henry Darwin Rogers—no relation—is enough to establish that some formations are clearly larger than others, but it isn’t immediately obvious how to quantify the difference more precisely. Darwin’s answer was an elegant one: “I have estimated the areas by cutting out and weighing the paper.” And while his solution reminds us, in the words of Stanley Edgar Hyman, that “there is something formidable and relentless about [Darwin’s] active involvement” in personally investigating everything that affected his argument, I also like how it testifies to the weight of paper. We often treat paper as a two-dimensional surface with zero thickness, but it isn’t, of course. In the old days, anyone who sent a letter by airmail became acutely aware of its physical properties, and publishers still have to think about it today. Above a certain size, a book becomes harder and more expensive to produce, which has subtly influenced the length of the books we’re used to reading. (A few titles, like Robert Caro’s The Power Broker or Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History, seem determined to push the limits of how many words can be packed between two covers.) And while I’ve spoken frequently here about the importance of using pen and paper to work out ideas, I’ve generally thought of it in terms of the act of writing with ink, and I’ve realized that I haven’t given nearly enough emphasis to the properties of the paper itself.

I got to thinking about this while reading a blog post by the tabletop game designer Max Temkin—most famous for Cards Against Humanity—on the testing process behind a game called Secret Hitler. It’s full of useful advice, like this: “Jon Sharp taught me a great rule for iterating based on observed player feedback: ‘double or half.’ If something isn’t working, double it or cut it in half to quickly diagnose the problem. I like to think of this as the ‘Dr. House’ approach to game design.” But what I enjoyed about it the most, aside from its fantastic pictures of game prototypes, is how the physical feedback provided by the paper itself informed the design process. Temkin started testing the game with blank playing cards and generic card sleeves, and for those who are trying to go even cheaper, he recommends pasting slips of paper over cards from the free sample packs you get at Magic: The Gathering events. (Temkin writes: “Nobody wants them except for game designers, who usually jump at the opportunity to fill their backpacks with cheap cardboard rectangles that are great for prototyping.” Which reminds me of how I like to hoard business cards, which are the perfect size for notes or putting together an outline.) And playing with physical cards led to immediate insights about what had to be fixed. For instance: “Secret Hitler uses several different kinds of cards, and we found that players were sometimes confused about what was what…Once the policy cards were a different size and shape, players could easily differentiate them from other cards in the game.”

Prototype for Secret Hitler

And while this sort of prototype seems like an obvious step in testing a tabletop game, it can also be useful for games that are meant to be played in a digital form. In his excellent book The Art of Game Design—which Kevin Kelly of Cool Tools has called “one of the best guides for designing anything that demands complex interaction”—Jesse Schell writes:

If you are clever, you can prototype your fancy video game idea as a simple board game, or what we sometimes call a paper prototype. Why do this? Because you can make board games fast, and often capture the same gameplay. This lets you spot problems sooner—much of the process of prototyping is about looking for problems, and figuring out how to fix them, so paper prototyping can be a real time saver.

Schell goes on to note that this approach is more intuitive for a turn-based game, but it can even be useful for games that unfold in real time. If you were prototyping a game like Tetris, for instance, you could cut pieces out of cardboard with a razor blade and move them around the table: “This would not be a perfect Tetris experience, but it might be close enough for you to see if you had the right kinds of shapes, and also enough to give you some sense of how fast the pieces should drop.” And even for a game like Doom, you could put together something with graph paper, paper tokens, and a metronome to tick off the seconds: “This will give the feeling of playing the whole thing in slow motion, but that can be a good thing, because it gives you time to think about what is working and not working while you are playing the game.”

And what all these approaches have in common is the fact that paper, which is inherently rather slow and clumsy to manipulate, forces you to think more urgently about what is interfering with the user experience. Anything that the player shouldn’t have to think about consciously while playing, like physically keeping track of the cards, ought to be ruthlessly edited out, and the paper prototype magnifies such problems so that they can’t be ignored. (They can also be revealing in other ways. Temkin notes, delightfully, that the game piece being handled by the players who were assigned the role of Hitler became visibly more worn than the rest, since it was the role that generated the most anxiety.) And this seems to be as true of outlining a novel as it is of testing a game. When I use cards to map out the action of a story, I stack them in piles—sorting each card by character, scene, or theme—and I can tell at a glance which piles are larger than the others. A stack that seems too small should either be beefed up or combined with something else, while one that is too large to handle comfortably should be culled or split into two or more pieces. You can even draw conclusions from which cards have become tattered from being handled the most, and I imagine that for projects of a certain size, you could even weigh the cards, as Darwin did, to get a quick sense of each section’s relative bulk. You don’t get this kind of information when you’re laying out the whole thing in text files, as I’ve recently found myself doing, which is a reminder that I really should get back to my cards when it comes time for my next big project. In writing, as in any creative endeavor, you can’t afford to ignore any potential source of insight, and if you put it down on paper, you’ll do a better job of playing the hand you’ve been dealt.

Asimov’s ABCs

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Isaac Asimov

By now, many of you have probably already seen the previously unpublished essay on creativity by Isaac Asimov that appeared last week in Technology Review. We owe its appearance to Arthur Obermayer, who worked for Allied Research Associates in Boston and asked Asimov, a friend of his, to sit in on some of their brainstorming sessions. Asimov eventually declined to participate further, saying that receiving access to classified information would inhibit his work as a writer, but he left behind a short piece on creative thinking and the conditions that encourage it, both individually and in groups. It’s a charming, useful read, and it centers on a point that I’ve made here many times before:

Obviously, then, what is needed is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected…Once the cross-connection is made, it becomes obvious.

Asimov mentions the famous example of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently saw a connection between Malthus’s “Essay on Population” and the problem of evolution, inspiring Thomas Henry Huxley to exclaim: “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!” This kind of thinking by combinations, or what Arthur Koestler calls “bisociation” in The Act of Creation, lies at the heart of all creativity, and that’s as much the case today as when Asimov was writing. Earlier this year, for instance, the lab headed by Eric Betzig—who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this month—announced an approach for improving the resolution and speed of microscopy images, using adaptive optics techniques that had originally been developed for astronomy and ophthalmology. Much of Betzig’s work over the last decade has consisted of taking cues from one field and joining them to another: “We combined the descan concept from the ophthalmologists with the laser guide stars of the astronomers, and came up with what amounts to a really good solution for aberrating but non-scattering transparent samples, like the zebrafish.”

Eric Betzig

These days, most scientific breakthroughs don’t arise in isolation, but through an intense collaborative process: the original paper cited above lists eight authors, headed by postdoctoral student Kai Wang and ending with Betzig himself. At times, as Asimov points out, stimulating connections can only emerge from an environment in which intelligent people have a chance to exchange ideas:

No two people exactly duplicate each other’s mental stores of items. One person may know A and not B, another may know B and not A, and either knowing A and B, both may get the idea—though not necessarily at once or even soon.

Furthermore, the information may not only be of individual items A and B, but even of combinations such as A-B, which in themselves are not significant. However, if one person mentions the unusual combination of A-B and another unusual combination A-C, it may well be that the combination A-B-C, which neither has thought of separately, may yield as answer.

The problem, of course, is that such ideas or connections don’t come on demand, and the pressure to show results, in academia and elsewhere, can inhibit the kind of relaxed, associative contemplation that inspiration requires. As Asimov notes: “To feel guilty because one has not earned one’s salary because one has not had a great idea is the surest way, it seems to me, of making it certain that no great idea will come in the next time, either.” He goes on to suggest that the thinkers be officially paid for “sinecure” tasks—reports, summaries, and other busywork—so that brainstorming sessions can occur without the additional distraction that arises when one’s livelihood is directly on the line. In other words, he proposes a model that allows for extended rendering time, those amorphous, sometimes unproductive, but always essential stretches of apparent inactivity that allow ideas to coalesce. (It’s the opposite, in fact, of the kind of intense focus on short-term results that drives so much of startup culture.) There’s no surefire recipe for innovation; insights, especially those that make connections between unrelated fields, don’t arrive on schedule. But it’s only by creating an environment in which such connections can emerge, and having the patience to wait, that we can come up with any insights at all.

Masters of the earthworm, or the generalist’s dilemma

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Buckminster Fuller

Over the past year or so, I’ve scaled back on the number of books I buy each month, mostly for reasons of shelf space. Every now and then, though, my eye will be caught by a sale or special event I can’t resist, which is how I ended up receiving a big carton last week from Better World Books. (As I’ve noted before, this is the best site for used books around, and a fantastic resource for filling in the gaps in your library.) The box contained what looks, at first, like a random assortment of titles: Strong Opinions, the aptly named collection of interviews and essays by Vladimir Nabokov; Art and Illusion by E.H. Gombrich, which was named one of the hundred best nonfiction books of the century by Modern Library; Cosmic Fishing, a short memoir by E.J. Applewhite about his collaboration with Buckminster Fuller on the book Synergetics; and best of all, Ernest Schwiebert’s magisterial two-volume Trout, which I’ve coveted for years. If it seems like a grab bag, that’s no accident: I really had my eye on Trout, which I ended up getting for half the price it goes for elsewhere, and the others were mostly there to fill out the order. But my choices here also say a lot about me and the kind of books and authors I find most appealing.

The most obvious common thread between all these books is that they lie somewhere at the intersection of art and science. Nabokov, of course, was an accomplished lepidopterist, and Strong Opinions concludes with a sampling of his scientific papers on butterflies. Art and Illusion is a work on the psychology of perception written by an art historian, and the back cover makes its intentions clear: “This book is directed to all who seek for a meeting ground between science and the humanities.” Fuller always occupied a peculiar position between that of engineer, crackpot, and mystic, and this comes through strongly through the eyes of his literary collaborator, who strikingly argues that Fuller’s primary vocation is that of a poet, and reveals that he briefly considered rewriting all of Synergetics in blank verse. And in Schwiebert’s hands, the humble trout becomes a lens through which he considers nearly all of human experience: in the first volume, he wears the hats of historian, literary critic, biologist, ecologist, and entomologist, and that’s before he even gets to the intricacies of rods, flies, and waders. As Schwiebert writes: “[Angling’s] skills are a perfect equilibrium between tradition, physical dexterity and grace, strength, logic, esthetics, our powers of observation, problem solving, perception, and the character of our experience and knowledge.”

Hilaire Belloc

In short, these are all books by or about generalists, original thinkers who understand that the divisions between categories of knowledge are porous, if not outright fictional, and who can draw freely on a wide range of disciplines. Yet these authors also share another, more subtle quality: a relentless focus on a single subject as a window onto all of the rest. Nabokov was as obsessed by his butterflies as Fuller was by the tetrahedron. Gombrich returns repeatedly to “the riddle of style,” or what it means when we say that we draw what we see, and Schwiebert, of course, loved trout. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that any of them became generalists by accident; it takes a certain inborn temperament, and an inhuman degree of patience and curiosity, to even attempt such a comprehensive vision. But it’s no accident that all four of these men—and most of the generalists we know and remember—arrived at their expansive vistas through the narrowest of gates. Occasionally, a thinker with global ambitions will begin by deliberately constraining his or her focus, in a kind of apprenticeship or training ground: Darwin spent long eight years studying the cirripedes, a kind of barnacle, in what Thomas Henry Huxley called “a piece of critical self-discipline.” He knew that you need to go deep before you can go really wide.

And that hasn’t changed. The entomologist Edward O. Wilson recently published a book entitled The Meaning of Human Existence, which would seem insufferably grandiose if he hadn’t already proven himself with decades of laborious work on the ants and other social insects. When we think of the intellectuals we respect, nearly all are men and women who made fundamental contributions to a single, clearly defined field before moving on to others. That’s the generalist’s dilemma: it’s hard to think in an original way about everything until you know one thing well. Otherwise, you end up seeming like a dilettante or worse. I’m acutely aware of my own shortcomings here: I’ve spent all my life trying to be a generalist, to the point of becoming a writer so I had an excuse to poke into whatever subjects I like, but I’ve rarely had the patience to drill down deeply. And while I’m content with my choice, I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone else. Hilaire Belloc once said that the best way for a writer to become famous was to concentrate on one subject, like the earthworm, for forty years: “When he is sixty, pilgrims will make a hollow path with their feet to the door of the world’s great authority on the earthworm. They will knock at his door and humbly beg to be allowed to see the Master of the Earthworm.” Belloc pointedly failed to take his own advice, but he has a point. We need to become masters of the earthworm before we become masters of the earth.

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