Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Edward O. Wilson

The evolution of spite

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Finally, the evolution of spite is possible if it, too, raises inclusive fitness. The perpetrator must be able to discriminate relatives from nonrelatives, or close relatives from distant ones. If the spiteful behavior causes a relative to prosper to a compensatory degree, the genes favoring spite will increase in the population at large. True spite is a commonplace in human societies, undoubtedly because human beings are keenly aware of their own blood lines and have the intelligence to plot intrigue. Human beings are unique in their capacity to lie to other members of their own species. They typically do so in a way that deliberately diminishes outsiders while promoting relatives, even at the risk of their own personal welfare.

Edward O. Wilson, Sociobiology

Written by nevalalee

August 12, 2017 at 7:30 am

The sound and the furry

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Last week, the podcast 99% Invisible devoted an episode to the editing and sound design tricks used by the makers of nature documentaries. For obvious reasons, most footage in the wild is captured from a distance using zoom lenses, and there’s no equivalent for sound, which means that unless David Attenborough himself is standing in the shot, the noises that you’re hearing were all added later. Foley artists will recreate hoofbeats or the footsteps of lions by running their hands over pits filled with gravel, while animal vocalizations can be taken from sound catalogs or captured by recordists working nowhere near the original shoot. This kind of artifice strikes me as forgivable, but there are times when the manipulation of reality crosses a line. In the fifties Disney documentary White Wilderness, lemmings were shown hurling themselves into the ocean, which required a helping hand: “The producers took the lemmings to a cliff in Alberta and, in some scenes, used a turntable device to throw them off the edge. Not only was it staged, but lemmings don’t even do this on their own. Scientists now know that the idea of a mass lemming suicide ritual is entirely apocryphal.” And then there’s the movie Wolves, which rented wolves from a game farm and filmed them in an artificial den. When Chris Palmer, the director, was asked about the scene at a screening, it didn’t go well:

Palmer’s heart sank, but he decided to come clean, and when he did, he could feel the excitement leave the room. Up to this moment, he had assumed people wouldn’t care. “But they do care,” he realized. “They are assuming they are seeing the truth…things that are authentic and genuine.”

When viewers realize that elements of nature documentaries utilize the same techniques as other genres of filmmaking, they tend to feel betrayed. When you think about the conditions under which such movies are produced, however, it shouldn’t be surprising. If every cut is a lie, as Godard famously said, that’s even more true when you’re dealing with animals in the wild. As David Mamet writes in On Directing Film:

Documentaries take basically unrelated footage and juxtapose it in order to give the viewer the idea the filmmaker wants to convey. They take footage of birds snapping a twig. They take footage of a fawn raising its head. The two shots have nothing to do with each other. They were shot days or years, and miles, apart. And the filmmaker juxtaposes the images to give the viewer the idea of great alertness. The shots have nothing to do with each other. They are not a record of what the protagonist did. They are not a record of how the deer reacted to the bird. They’re basically uninflected images. But they give the viewer the idea of alertness to danger when they are juxtaposed. That’s good filmmaking.

Mamet is trying to make a point about how isolated images—which have little choice but to be “uninflected” when the actors are some birds and a deer—can be combined to create meaning, and he chose this example precisely because the narrative emerges from nothing but that juxtaposition. But it also gets at something fundamental about the grammar of the wildlife documentary itself, which trains us to think about nature in terms of stories. And that’s a fiction in itself.

You could argue that a movie that purports to be educational or “scientific” has no business engaging in artifice of any kind, but in fact, it’s exactly in that context that this sort of manipulation is most justified. Scientific illustration is often used when a subject can’t be photographed directly—as in Ken Marschall’s wonderful paintings for Dr. Robert D. Ballard’s The Discovery of the Titanic—or when more information can conveyed through an idealized situation. In Sociobiology, Edward O. Wilson writes of Sarah Landry’s detailed drawings: “In the case of the vertebrate species, her compositions are among the first to represent entire societies, in the correct demographic proportions, with as many social interactions displayed as can plausibly be included in one scene.” Landry’s compositions of a troop of baboons or a herd of elephants could never have been captured in a photograph, but they get at a truth that is deeper than reality, or at least more useful. As the nature illustrator Jonathan Kingdon writes in Field Notes on Science and Nature:

Even an outline sketch that bears little relationship to the so-called objectivity of a photograph might actually transmit information to another human being more selectively, sometimes even more usefully, than a photograph. For example, a few quick sketches of a hippopotamus allow the difference between sexes, the peculiar architecture of amphibious existence in a giant quadruped, and the combination of biting and antlerlike clashing of enlarged lower jaws to be appreciated at a glance…”Outline drawings”…can represent, in themselves, artifacts that may correspond more closely with what the brain seeks than the charts of light-fall that photographs represent.

On some level, nature documentaries fall into much the same category, providing us with idealized situations and narratives in order to facilitate understanding. (You could even say that the impulse to find a story in nature is a convenient tool in itself. It’s no more “true” than the stories that we tell about human history, but those narratives, as Walter Pater observes of philosophical theories, “may help us to gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded by us.”) If anything, our discomfort with more extreme kinds of artifice has more to do with an implicit violation of the contract between the filmmaker and the audience. We expect that the documentarian will go into the field and shoot hundreds of hours of footage in search of the few minutes—or seconds—that will amaze us. As Jesse David Fox of Vulture wrote of the stunning iguana and snake chase from the new Planet Earth series: “This incredible footage is the result of the kind of extreme luck that only comes with hard work. A camera crew worked from dusk to dawn for weeks filming the exact spot, hoping something would happen, and if it did, that the camera would be in focus.” After shooting the hatchlings for weeks, they finally ended up with their “hero” iguana, and this combination of luck and preparation is what deserves to be rewarded. Renting wolves or throwing lemmings off a cliff seems like a form of cheating, an attempt to fit the story to the script, rather than working with what nature provided. But the boundary isn’t always clear. Every documentary depends on a sort of artificial selection, with the best clips making it into the finished result in a kind of survival of the fittest. But there’s also a lot of intelligent design.

The golden age

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Butterflies and Moths

On Sunday, my wife and I held a birthday party for our daughter, who was turning four. It was supposed to be something small and affordable, but it inevitably spiraled out of control, with balloons, customized cupcakes, and a winged princess dress that combined Tinker Bell with Belle from Beauty and the Beast. (Beatrix dubbed it her Tinker Belle party, which made her old man proud.) Before long, we were forced to consider the problem of party favors. The guest list consisted mostly, but not entirely, of little girls—a couple of boys had been grandfathered in, if that’s the right word, from the precedent of prior birthdays. This presented a dilemma. I wanted to be consistent with the party’s theme, just because I’m insufferably obsessive, but I didn’t want to ask a boy to accept a bag full of fairy and princess trinkets. For all the obvious reasons, I also didn’t want to designate separate bags for boys and girls, so the favors had to be both fun and gender neutral. At last, I hit on the idea of a nature theme, since the party was being held at the Oak Park Conservatory. I cobbled together some goodie bags with toy cameras, stickers, fruit snacks, and a selection of vintage Golden Guides that I remembered from my childhood, which I bought at bargain prices online. Looking at the results, which were undeniably a bit twee, my wife said: “You really went full Wes Anderson on these, didn’t you?”

But I’d do it again. And it rekindled my love of Golden Guides, the line of paperbacks edited by Herbert S. Zim starting in the early fifties for Western Press. The first thing you need to know about a Golden Guide is that it has a pair of printed rulers on the edges of the last two pages, one calibrated in tenths of an inch, the other in centimeters. When I was younger, this feature impressed me mightily, and it immediately enhanced each book’s apparent usefulness. I often engaged in vaguely apocalyptic daydreams about what book I would keep if I were allowed just one one, and while a Golden Guide was never at the very top of the list, the fact that it was a book and a ruler at the same time was a definite point in its favor. The second thing you need to know about these guides is that they’re all the same size. To be specific, they’re four by six inches, which you can verify—as I’ve just done—by using the ruler in one Golden Guide to measure another. These dimensions were once fairly common for paperbacks, but they’ve fallen out of style, which is a shame. It’s a beautiful size, just large enough to fit comfortably in the palm of your hand or in a pocket, and it’s particularly pleasant to hold a stack of four or five Golden Guides at once. Each one is exactly one hundred and sixty pages long, a length that is somehow just right to contain all useful information about Botany and, oddly, its subsets like Flowers and Trees, too. It’s a lesson, if you like, on how all knowledge can be expanded or contracted to fit the space available.

Golden Guides

But the most important thing about the Golden Guides is that the illustrations are paintings, all gorgeous and finely detailed, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that they’re unforgettable. I’ve just glanced at the four titles that I have left over from the party, and I want to record the names of these artists: James Gordon Irving, Dorothea and Sy Barlowe, Nicholas Strekalovsky, George Sandström. Irving, who provided the pictures for eight guides, gets his own Wikipedia page, and I was delighted to discover that the Barlowes illustrated the classic Dinosaurs: A Pop-Up Book. Of Sandström, I’ve only been able to find a short obituary, which notes:

His son Cortright said that when he was growing up, his father’s studio was full of stuffed animals and strange objects—including a moon rock—which he was using as a model for an illustration.

I love the casualness of that aside. Including a moon rock! George Sandström once held a piece of the moon in his hands. As for Strekalovsky, I haven’t been able to find out much, but I’ll never forget his painting of the emperor scorpion in Spiders and Their Kin, which I immediately sought out as soon as I got my hands on my new copy. It was just as revolting and beautiful as I remembered.

And it’s because of their illustrations and design, I think, that these books continue to mean so much to me. When you leaf through an authoritative volume like Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson’s The Ants, which is like a Golden Guide expanded to its ultimate Proustian dimensions, you can see why nature illustrations are often preferable to photographs: they allow you to depict idealized scenes and specimens that might be impossible to capture on film, heightening reality so that you can more easily understand it. (As Wilson writes of Sarah Landry’s illustrations for Sociobiology: “Her compositions are among the first to represent entire societies, in the correct demographic proportions, with as many social interactions displayed as can possibly be included in one scene.”) You get much the same feeling from these Golden Guides. A photograph of an emperor scorpion—which is a harmless species, by the way—is so insistently horrifying, for good or for bad, that it’s hard to get past your instinctive reaction. Strekalovsky’s painting is easier to study at length, and you can scrutinize its details until you realize that it looks rather nice. When you flip rapidly through any of these books, you get a soothing sense of a world that has been observed, recorded, and neatly labeled in a way that may have only been possible in the fifties. Its picture of reality may not be entirely true, but it’s reassuring for a child, and even for a grownup who feels overwhelmed by all the information that he hasn’t yet mastered. I may never be able to identify trees at a glance, but thanks to Trees, I’m confident that I could. Judging from the response of the kids at the birthday party, they seemed to feel it, too, or at least to respond to the pleasures that these guides afford. One of the two boys in attendance looked at the books and whispered: “Do I get one of these?” He did. But I was tempted to keep them all for myself.

Mycroft Holmes and the mark of genius

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Sidney Paget illustration of Mycroft Holmes

“Original discoveries cannot be made casually, not by anyone at any time or anywhere,” the great biologist Edward O. Wilson writes in Letters to a Young Scientist. “The frontier of scientific knowledge, often referred to as the cutting edge, is reached with maps drawn by earlier scientists…Somewhere in these vast unexplored regions you should settle.” This seems like pretty good career advice for scientists and artists alike. But then Wilson makes a striking observation:

But, you may well ask, isn’t the cutting edge a place only for geniuses? No, fortunately. Work accomplished on the frontier defines genius, not just getting there. In fact, both accomplishments along the frontier and the final eureka moment are achieved more by entrepreneurship and hard work than by native intelligence. This is so much the case that in most fields most of the time, extreme brightness may be a detriment. It has occurred to me, after meeting so many successful researchers in so many disciplines, that the ideal scientist is smart only to an intermediate degree: bright enough to see what can be done but not so bright as to become bored doing it.

At first glance, this may not seem all that different from Martin A. Schwartz’s thoughts on the importance of stupidity, which I quoted here last week. In fact, they’re two separate observations—although they turn out to be related in one important respect. Schwartz is talking about “absolute stupidity,” or our collective ignorance in the face of the unknown, and he takes pains to distinguish it from the “relative stupidity” that differentiates students in the same college classes. And while Wilson isn’t talking about relative stupidity here, exactly, he’s certainly discussing relative intelligence, or the idea that the best scientists might be just a little bit less bright than their smartest peers in school. As he goes on to observe:    

What, then, of certified geniuses whose IQs exceed 140, and are as high as 180 or more? Aren’t they the ones who produce the new groundbreaking ideas? I’m sure some do very well in science, but let me suggest that perhaps, instead, many of the IQ-brightest join societies like Mensa and work as auditors and tax consultants. Why should the rule of optimum medium brightness hold? (And I admit this perception of mine is only speculative.) One reason could be that IQ geniuses have it too easy in their early training. They don’t have to sweat the science courses they take in college. They find little reward in the necessarily tedious chores of data-gathering and analysis. They choose not to take the hard roads to the frontier, over which the rest of us, the lesser intellectual toilers, must travel.

Marilyn vos Savant

In other words, the real geniuses are reluctant to take on the voluntary stupidity that science demands, and they’re more likely to find sources of satisfaction that don’t require them to constantly confront their own ignorance. This is a vast generalization, of course, but it seems to square with experience. I’ve met a number of geniuses, and what many of them have in common is a highly pragmatic determination to make life as pleasant for themselves as possible. Any other decision, in fact, would call their genius into doubt. If you can rely unthinkingly on your natural intelligence to succeed in a socially acceptable profession, or to minimize the amount of work you have to do at all, you don’t have to be a genius to see that this is a pretty good deal. The fact that Marilyn vos Savant—who allegedly had the highest tested intelligence ever recorded—became a columnist for Parade might be taken as a knock against her genius, but really, it’s the most convincing proof of it that I can imagine. The world’s smartest person should be more than happy to take a cushy gig at a Sunday supplement magazine. Most of the very bright endure their share of miseries during childhood, and their reward, rather than more misery, might as well be an adult life that provides intellectual stimulation in emotional safety. This is why I’ve always felt that Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s smarter older brother, knew exactly how his genius ought to be used. As Sherlock notes drily in “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans”: “Mycroft draws four hundred and fifty pounds a year, remains a subordinate, has no ambitions of any kind, will receive neither honor nor title, but remains the most indispensable man in the country.” 

Yet it’s Sherlock, who was forced to leave the house to find answers to his problems, whom we love more. (He’s also been held up as an exemplar of the perfect scientist.) Mycroft is hampered by both his physical laziness and his mental quickness: when a minister comes to him with a complicated problem involving “the Navy, India, Canada, and the bimetallic question,” Mycroft can provide the answer “offhand,” which doesn’t give him much of an incentive to ever leave his office or the Diogenes Club. As Holmes puts it in “The Greek Interpreter”:

You wonder…why it is that Mycroft does not use his powers for detective work. He is incapable of it…I said that he was my superior in observation and deduction. If the art of the detective began and ended in reasoning from an armchair, my brother would be the greatest criminal agent that ever lived. But he has no ambition and no energy. He will not even go out of his way to verify his own solution, and would rather be considered wrong than take the trouble to prove himself right.

Mycroft wasn’t wrong, either. He seems to have lived a very comfortable life. But it’s revealing that Conan Doyle gave the real adventures to the brother with the slightly less scintillating intelligence. In art, just as in science, technical facility can prevent certain artists from making real discoveries. The ones who have to work at it are more likely to find something real. But we can also raise a glass to Mycroft, Marilyn, and the geniuses who are smart enough not to make it too hard on themselves.

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.

How is a novelist like a naturalist?

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Edward O. Wilson

A naturalist is a civilized hunter. He goes alone into a field or woodland and closes his mind to everything but that time and place, so that life around him presses in on all the senses and small details grow in significance. He begins the scanning search for which cognition was engineered. His mind becomes unfocused, it focuses on everything, no longer directed toward any ordinary task or social pleasantry…From time to time he translates his running impressions of the smell of soil and vegetation into rational thought: the ancient olfactory brain speaks to the modern cortex. The hunter-in-naturalist knows that he does not know what is going to happen. He is required, as Ortega y Gasset expressed it, to prepare an attention of a different and superior kind, “an attention that does not consist in riveting itself to the presumed but consists precisely in not presuming anything and avoiding inattentiveness.”

Edward O. Wilson, Biophilia

Written by nevalalee

September 21, 2013 at 9:50 am

Quote of the Day

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We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically, and make important choices wisely.

Edward O. Wilson

Written by nevalalee

June 23, 2011 at 7:46 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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