Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Jay Gould’

19 JANUARY, 2015

The Paradox of Intellectual Promiscuity: Stephen Jay Gould on What Nabokov’s Butterfly Studies Reveal About the Unity of Creativity

By:

“There is no science without fancy, and no art without facts.”

The history of human culture is rife with creators hailed as geniuses in one domain who also had a notable but lesser-known talent in another — take, for instance, Richard Feynman’s sketches, J.R.R. Tolkien’s illustrations, Sylvia Plath’s drawings, William Faulkner’s Jazz Age illustrations, Flannery O’Connor’s cartoons, David Lynch’s conceptual art, and Zelda Fitzgerald’s watercolors. Only rarely, however, do we encounter a person who has contributed to culture in a significant way in both art and science.

No one, argues Stephen Jay Gould — perhaps the greatest science-storyteller humanity has ever had, a man of uncommon genius in the art of dot-connecting — better merits recognition for such duality of genius than Vladimir Nabokov, a titan of literary storytelling and a formidable lepidopterist who studied, classified, and drew a major group of butterflies, and even served as unofficial curator of lepidoptery at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.

In a spectacular essay titled “The Paradox of Intellectual Promiscuity,” found in his altogether indispensable final essay collection I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History (public library), Gould uses Nabokov’s case to make a beautiful and urgently necessary broader case against our culture’s chronic tendency to pit art and science against one another — “We have been befogged by a set of stereotypes about conflict and difference between these two great domains of human understanding,” he laments — and to assume that if a person has talent and passion for both areas, he or she can achieve greatness in only one and is necessarily a mere hobbyist in the other.

Gould writes:

We tend toward benign toleration when great thinkers and artists pursue disparate activities as a harmless hobby, robbing little time from their fundamental achievements… We grieve when we sense that a subsidiary interest stole precious items from a primary enterprise of great value… When we recognize that a secondary passion took substantial time from a primary source of fame, we try to assuage our grief over lost novels, symphonies, or discoveries by convincing ourselves that a hero’s subsidiary love must have informed or enriched his primary activity — in other words, that the loss in quantity might be recompensed by a gain in quality.

Nabokov's drawing of 'Eugenia onegini,' named for Aleksandr Pushkin's novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, which Nabokov translated. The illustration appeared on the endpaper of 'Conclusive Evidence,' Nabokov's autobiography.

But Gould argues that neither lamentation of such “intellectual promiscuity” detracting from the primary endeavor nor the manufactured comfort of believing that one domain enriched the other is an appropriate response to Nabokov’s two great loves, literature and butterflies. Gould unambiguously annihilates a common misconception about the great author:

Nabokov was no amateur (in the pejorative sense of the term), but a fully qualified, clearly talented, duly employed professional taxonomist, with recognized “world class” expertise in the biology and classification of a major group, the Latin American Polyommatini, popularly known to butterfly aficionados as “blues.”

No passion burned longer, or more deeply, in Nabokov’s life than his love for the natural history and taxonomy of butterflies. He began in early childhood, encouraged by a traditional interest in natural history among the upper-class intelligentsia of Russia (not to mention the attendant economic advantages of time, resources, and opportunity).

[…]

The reasons often given for attributing to Nabokov either an amateur, or even only a dilettante’s, status arise from simple ignorance of accepted definitions for professionalism in this field.

[…]

Nabokov loved his butterflies as much as his literature. He worked for years as a fully professional taxonomist, publishing more than a dozen papers that have stood the test of substantial time.

That he received an annual salary of merely a thousand dollars during his six years at Harvard’s zoology museum and worked under the vague title Research Fellow shouldn’t be used as evidence of Nabokov’s amateurishness — in making a larger point about the rich history of people working on what they love for little or no pay, Gould points out that several esteemed curators at the museum during his own tenure worked as volunteers for the symbolic annual salary of one dollar. In one of his many spectacular, almost outraged asides — Gould’s signature intelligent zingers — he drives home the point that there is little correlation between merit and prestige:

Every field includes some clunkers and nitwits, even in high positions!

Returning to the two camps of explaining Nabokov’s dual giftedness — and parallel talents in general — Gould writes:

In seeking some explanation for legitimate grief, we may find solace in claiming that Nabokov’s transcendent genius permitted him to make as uniquely innovative and distinctive a contribution to lepidoptery as to literature. However much we may wish that he had chosen a different distribution for his time, we can at least, with appropriate generosity, grant his equal impact and benefit upon natural history… However, no natural historian has ever viewed Nabokov as an innovator, or as an inhabitant of what humanists call the “vanguard” (not to mention the avant-garde) and scientists the “cutting edge.” Nabokov may have been a major general of literature, but he can only be ranked as a trustworthy, highly trained career infantryman in natural history.

Even Nabokov’s butterfly drawings, Gould points out, were great but far from masterworks of natural history illustration, especially in comparison to the work of such visionaries as butterfly-drawing grand dame Maria Merian.

One of Maria Merian's pioneering butterfly drawings. Click image for more.

Here, we are reminded of another perilous pathology of our culture — in the cult of genius, as in any cult, we leave no room for nuance; mere greatness is not good enough — one must lay a claim on grandeur. This is perhaps the most extreme testament to how perfectionism thwarts creativity.

But despite his mere greatness at lepidoptery, Nabokov regarded his time at the zoology museum as the most “delightful and thrilling” in his adult life — so creatively electrified was the author there that his years at Harvard even produced history’s most epic and entertaining account of food poisoning. But his love of butterflies began much earlier. In fact, one of the very first things Nabokov wrote in English, at the age of twelve, was a paper on Lepidoptera. The only reason it wasn’t published was that it turned out the butterfly in question had already been described by someone else.

This remark, which Gould makes rather in passing, made me wonder whether the incident instilled in young Vladimir an early reverence for attribution of discovery. As Gould later notes in another passing mention, Nabokov frequently voiced annoyance with scientists and science-writers not attributing discovery — not acknowledging the person who discovered and named a butterfly species. Therein lies a broader, and rather timely, lament about our culture’s failure to honor discovery as a creative act and a subset of scholarship — such a scientist, after all, doesn’t invent a species, for it already exists in nature, but discovers it, names it, and contextualizes it in the canon of natural history. It is no coincidence that Nabokov’s own role at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology was that of curator, for this is the task of the curator — to describe, arrange, and contextualize what already exists in such a way as to shed new light on its meaning, to discover and un-cover its significance and place in the canon of ideas.

Embedded in this act is also a lineage of discovery, similar to the “links in a chain” metaphor Pete Seeger used for creativity: I learned of Nabokov’s pet peeve about discovery thanks to Stephen Jay Gould — perhaps the greatest curator of scientific ideas the world has ever known, the greatest contextualizer of such ideas in the popular imagination — and you learned of it via me, and the person you tell about this will learn of it via you. All of us are links in the evolutionary chain of ideas, much like each butterfly species discovered is a link in the evolutionary chain of natural history. This is why Richard Dawkins, in coining the word meme, used a metaphor from evolutionary biology to describe how ideas spread: “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain.”

But back to Nabokov: His dedication to the integrity of discovery prompted him to write a short poem titled “A Discovery” in 1943:

Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss
Poems that take a thousand years to die
But ape the immortality of this
Red label on a little butterfly.

It might also be why he was so passionate about the integrity of detail. In a motto that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s memorable assertion that “a writer is a professional observer,” Nabokov instructed his literature students:

Caress the details, the divine details. In high art and pure science, detail is everything.

Butterfly drawing by Nabokov, August 1958 (Courtesy of Nabokov Museum)

In this, Gould finds the reconciliatory unity between Nabokov’s two great loves and how they communed with one another:

Although time spent on lepidoptery almost surely decreased his literary output, the specific knowledge and the philosophical view of life that Nabokov gained from his scientific career directly forged (or at least strongly contributed to) his unique literary style and excellence… Perhaps the major linkage of science and literature lies in some distinctive, underlying approach that Nabokov applied equally to both domains — a procedure that conferred the same special features upon all his efforts.

[…]

Among great twentieth-century thinkers, I know no better case than Nabokov’s for testing the hypothesis that an underlying unity of mental style (at a level clearly meriting the accolade of genius) can explain one man’s success in extensive and fully professional work in two disciplines conventionally viewed as maximally different, if not truly opposed. If we can validate this model for attributing interdisciplinary success to a coordinating and underlying mental uniqueness, rather than invoking the conventional argument about overt influence of one field upon another, then Nabokov’s story may teach us something important about the unity of creativity, and the falsity (or at least the contingency) of our traditional separation, usually in mutual recrimination, of art from science.

Therein, Gould argues, lies the only true solace in the accusation of “intellectual promiscuity.” Debunking the two false explanations of the Nabokov paradox — that “lepidoptery represented a harmless private passion, robbing no substantial time from his literary output” and that “his general genius at least made his lepidoptery as distinctive and as worthy as his literature” — Gould writes:

Nabokov’s two apparently disparate careers therefore find their common ground on the most distinctive feature of his unusual intellect and uncanny skill — the almost obsessive attention to meticulous and accurate detail that served both his literary productions and his taxonomic descriptions so well, and that defined his uncompromising commitment to factuality as both a principle of morality and a guarantor and primary guide to aesthetic quality.

Science and literature therefore gain their union on the most palpable territory of concrete things, and on the value we attribute to accuracy, even in smallest details, as a guide and an anchor for our lives, our loves, and our senses of worth… Of all scientific subfields, none raises the importance of intricate detail to such a plateau of importance as Nabokov’s chosen profession of taxonomic description for small and complex organisms. To function as a competent professional in the systematics of Lepidoptera, Nabokov really had no choice but to embrace such attention to detail, and to develop such respect for nature’s endless variety.

[…]

The universal and defining excellence of a professional taxonomist built a substrate for the uncommon, and (in Nabokov’s case) transcendent, excellence of a writer.

Young Vladimir and Véra Nabokov by Thomas Doyle from 'The Who, the What, and the When: 65 Artists Illustrate the Secret Sidekicks of History.' Click image for more.

But Gould’s most important point of all has little to do with Nabokov and everything to do with the toxic mythologies of creativity to which we, as a culture and as individuals, subscribe:

An ancient, and basically anti-intellectual, current in the creative arts has now begun to flow more strongly than ever before in recent memory-the tempting Siren song of a claim that the spirit of human creativity stands in direct opposition to the rigor in education and observation that breeds both our love for factual detail and our gain of sufficient knowledge and understanding to utilize this record of human achievement and natural wonder.

No more harmful nonsense exists than this common supposition that deepest insight into great questions about the meaning of life or the structure of reality emerges most readily when a free, undisciplined, and uncluttered (read, rather, ignorant and uneducated) mind soars above mere earthly knowledge and concern. The primary reason for emphasizing the supreme aesthetic and moral value of detailed factual accuracy, as Nabokov understood so well, lies in our need to combat this alluring brand of philistinism if we wish to maintain artistic excellence as both a craft and an inspiration.

[…]

If we assign too much of our total allotment to the mastery of detail, we will have nothing left for general theory and integrative wonder. But such a silly model of mental functioning can only arise from a false metaphorical comparison of human creativity with irrelevant systems based on fixed and filled containers — pennies in a piggy bank or cookies in a jar.

Gould ends by exhorting us:

Let us celebrate Nabokov’s excellence in natural history, and let us also rejoice that he could use the same mental skills and inclinations to follow another form of bliss.

[…]

Human creativity seems to work much as a coordinated and complex piece, whatever the different emphases demanded by disparate subjects-and we will miss the underlying commonality if we only stress the distinctions of external subjects and ignore the unities of internal procedure. If we do not recognize the common concerns and characteristics of all creative human activity, we will fail to grasp several important aspects of intellectual excellence-including the necessary interplay of imagination and observation (theory and empirics) as an intellectual theme, and the confluence of beauty and factuality as a psychological theme-because one field or the other traditionally downplays one side of a requisite duality.

[…]

I cannot imagine a better test case for extracting the universals of human creativity than the study of deep similarities in intellectual procedure between the arts and sciences.

No one grasped the extent of this underlying unity better than Vladimir Nabokov, who worked with different excellences as a complete professional in both domains.

[…]

Nabokov broke the boundaries of art and science by stating that the most precious desideratum of each domain must also characterize any excellence in the other — for, after all, truth is beauty, and beauty truth.

Gould seals this beautiful truth with a line — an exquisite, ennobling, oft-cited line — from one of Nabokov’s interviews:

There is no science without fancy, and no art without facts.

I Have Landed remains one of the finest tapestries of thought ever woven in the history of science storytelling. Complement this particular thread with Nabokov on inspiration, censorship and solidarity, what makes a great writer, what makes a great reader, and his sublime love letters to his wife.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

10 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Stephen Jay Gould, the Greatest Science Essayist of All Time, on Evolution and Storytelling

By:

“Any decent writer writes because there’s some deep internal need to keep learning.”

Harvard’s Stephen Jay Gould (September 10, 1941–May 20, 2002) was a man of uncommon genius and arguably our era’s greatest science essayist. In March of 2000, he took part in the annual meeting of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, themed Challenges for the New Millennium, at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Despite the poor sound and video quality, this interview recorded at the event takes us on a wide-ranging tour of Gould’s singular mind, exploring such timelessly fascinating subjects as the secret of great writing, the importance of history in science, the evolution of evolutionary theory, and the challenges to science literacy among the general public.

Transcript highlights below.

When the interviewer suggests that Gould is “a man on a mission to teach us how to think about evolution correctly,” he rebuts with a heartening testament to the only true reason to do anything, one articulated even more passionately by Ray Bradbury and by Charles Bukowski:

If I have a mission … and this might sound not exactly what you expect of people, but again, ask any writer and, on this note, nobody’ll tell you anything different … I write those essays for myself — any good writer has to. That is, of course I want to facilitate learning … it’s great, but I think if you did it only because you felt some desire to impart something to other folks [and] you weren’t doing it out of some deeply internal need, you could only do it for a while — once you got the success, there wouldn’t be an impetus anymore. I think any decent writer writes because there’s some deep internal need to keep learning.

On the qualities his favorite essays have in common:

The [essays] I like best best usually take up an unknown or an odd subject, something that was was never written about — but — if you can use something that is unknown to illustrate a larger generality, then I really get pleased.

On why pattern-recognition is the key to human creativity and fundamental to our evolutionary wiring for storytelling — something Gould himself excelled at:

The mind, basically, is a pattern-seeking machine… We tend to seek patterns… and then we tell stories about them. I think we’re pretty much conditioned to look for a pattern and to try to interpret it in terms of certain stories.

Though he shares some of Richard Feynman’s concerns about the failures of scientific culture in modern society, specifically regarding creationism vs. evolution, Gould holds greater faith in the supremacy of critical thinking over ignorance. When the interviewer marvels how he can be so popular given he writes about evolution in a country that still teaches creationism in some school curricula, Gould replies:

Why should it be contradictory that writers on evolution be popular? Creationism is a small, dogmatic minority in this country, and they make more noise than their numbers. And it’s a distressing issue, and it’s true that the vast majority of Americans don’t know a lot about the history of life and don’t think a lot about evolution — but it’s such an intrinsically fascinating subject that the majority of Americans are very favorable for science and very interested in it, and there’s hardly a concept that’s been discovered by science that’s more intrinsically exciting to people than evolution and the study of how life came to be as it is.

For more of Gould’s enduring genius of science communication, see his extensive literary legacy and the especially wonderful, bittersweet I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History — the tenth and final collection of his essays, originally released months after Gould’s death in 2002 and republished in 2012 with a brilliant cover by Sam Potts.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

23 MAY, 2013

Uncommon Genius: Stephen Jay Gould On Why Dot-Connecting Is The Key to Creativity

By:

“The trick to creativity, if there is a single useful thing to say about it, is to identify your own peculiar talent and then to settle down to work with it for a good long time.”

“Originality often consists in linking up ideas whose connection was not previously suspected,” wrote W. I. B. Beveridge in the fantastic 1957 tome The Art of Scientific Investigation. “The role of the imagination is to create new meanings and to discover connections that, even if obvious, seem to escape detection,” legendary graphic designer Paul Rand seconded. Indeed, longer ago than I can remember, I intuited the conviction that creativity is a combinatorial force — it thrives on cross-pollinating existing ideas, often across divergent disciplines and sensibilities, and combining them into something new, into what we proudly call our “original” creations. Paula Scher has likened the process to a slot machine; Dorion Sagan has asserted that science is about connections; Gutenberg has embodied it. And some of history’s most celebrated creators have attested to it with the nature of their genius.

A slim and near-forgotten but altogether fantastic 1991 book by Denise Shekerjian titled Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas Are Born (public library | IndieBound) synthesizes insights on creativity from conversations with 40 winners of the MacArthur “genius” grant — artists, writers, scientists, inventors, cultural critics.

In the first chapter, titled “Talent and The Long Haul,” Shekerjian seconds the notion that a regular routine is key to creativity:

There’s no use trying to deny it: a conscious application of raw talent, far more than luck or accident, is at the core of every creative moment. … The cultivation of aptitude, far more than coincidence or inspiration, is responsible for most creative breakthroughs.

[…]

The trick to creativity, if there is a single useful thing to say about it, is to identify your own peculiar talent and then to settle down to work with it for a good long time. Everyone has an aptitude for something. The trick is to recognize it, to honor it, to work with it. This is where creativity starts.

Among the geniuses illustrating her point is the great paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, whom we lost eleven years ago this week and who has done more for the popular understanding of science than anyone since Carl Sagan by demonstrating why science and philosophy need each other with his singular blend of a humanist’s sensitivity and a scientist’s rigor. But Gould’s greatest gift, per his own account, is what Arthur Koestler has famously termed “bisociation” — the ability to link the seemingly unlinkable, which lies at the heart of innovation, the kind of pattern-recognition science says fuels creativity and is the architecture sustaining all “original thought.” Gould tells Shekerjian:

My talent is making connections. That’s why I’m an essayist. It’s also why my technical work is structured the way it is. How do the parts of the snail shell interact? What are the rates of growth? Can you see a pattern? I’m always trying to see a pattern in this forest and I’m tickled that I can do that. … I can sit down on just about any subject and think of about twenty things that relate to it and they’re not hokey connections. They’re real connections that you can forge into essays or scientific papers. When I wrote Ontogeny and Phylogeny I had no trouble reading eight hundred articles and bringing them together into a single thread. That’s how it went together. There’s only one way it goes together, one best taxonomy, and I knew what it was.

But this gift — the same crucial talent-of-the-future that Vannevar Bush identified in 1945 when he presaged “a new profession of trail blazers … who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record” — wasn’t, perhaps because of its abstract and thus intangible nature, easy for Gould to identify at first:

It took me years to realize that was a skill. I could never understand why everybody just didn’t do that. People kept telling me these essays were good and I thought, All right, I can write, but surely what I’m doing is not special. And then I found out that it’s not true. Most people don’t do it. They just don’t see the connections.

Gould notices another aspect of his poorly understood kind of genius — people’s tendency to conflate it with a kind of general-purpose, omniscient intelligence:

A lot of people think I’m very well read because I quote all these sources and they’re reasonable quotations. They’re not hokey. They’re not pulled out. And I keep telling them, ‘I’m not particularly well read. I just don’t forget anything.’

I’m not badly read — I’m just sort of an average intellectual in that respect — but the thing is, I can use everything I’ve ever read. Most people cannot do that. They’ll probably access just a couple of percent of what they have. So, therefore, when they see me citing so much they assume I have fifty times more but I don’t. I’m using a hundred percent of what I have. They’re using two percent of what they have.

With a sentiment Steve Jobs would come to echo just a few years later in his famous proclamation that “creativity is just connecting things,” Shekerjian summarizes:

Gould’s special talent, that rare gift for seeing the connections between seemingly unrelated things, zinged to the heart of the matter. Without meaning to, he had zeroed in on the most popular of the manifold definitions of creativity: the idea of connecting two unrelated things in an efficient way. The surprise we experience at such a linkage brings us up short and causes us to think, Now that’s creative.

But she concludes by emphasizing something celebrated creative minds like Alexander Graham Bell (“It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider … who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree.”) and Thomas Edison (“Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application.”) also knew — the idea that genius is nothing without consistent effort:

Stephen Jay Gould’s talent for forging vital connections happens to go to the heart of creativity, but, even so, it’s a talent that wouldn’t amount to much if he didn’t work at it. Endurance counts for a lot in cultivating talent to the point of being able to do creative things with it — endurance and a concentration of effort to a specific sphere of activity. As D. N. Perkins, another researcher in the field of creativity, put it: Be creative in a context, for to try to be original everywhere, all at once, all the time, is an exhausting proposition.

For more of Gould’s genius, see the indispensable I Have Landed — the tenth and final of his timeless essay anthologies, originally published in 2002 mere weeks after Gould passed away from cancer. As for Uncommon Genius, it is uncommonly excellent in its entirety.

Thanks, Ken

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.