Tuesday, April 15, 2003

After several days of fruitless searching in the woods behind our house, we finally observed the first queen bumble bee of the season from the open window of our moving car, as we pulled up to a stop light near the Western Michigan campus. She was cruising someone's front yard in search of a nesting spot; this probably wasn't prime real estate for a mama bumble, but I suppose it's all worth checking. Location, location, location. Welcome back, ladies!

Last night, the interim minister of the UU church in Portage gave a talk at our Kalamazoo church. The topic: What he learned about life from reading the work of -- and taking a course from -- Stephen Jay Gould. Gould's writing was, of course, the initial impetus for my studying evolutionary biology. I first read his essays when I was 27; a major newsmagazine had done a feature article on Gould, probably since he was being treated for cancer and most people at the time didn't expect him to survive for nearly 20 more years. I read the article and kept in the back of my mind the idea that I really needed to pick up the essays. A couple of months later, I solved an acrostic puzzle that contained one of Gould's quotes on the reification of intelligence. That clinched it; I made a stop at the bookstore and picked up a paperback copy of Ever Since Darwin. I started reading the book, and all of a sudden -- bingo! -- the world started to make sense. Nothing had ever made any sense of the planet for me before -- not religion or philosophy, not politics or economics, not art or literature. Those things did eventually begin to make quite a bit of sense to me later in life, but only after I began to think of the complexity of humans and humanity against the background of the amazing contingencies of biology.

After that it was Hen's Teeth and Horses' Toes. I took The Mismeasure of Man to the beach that summer. Then it was time to branch out into the work of other writers: Sagan, Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond, Douglas Futuyma. Along the way, I got married; after a few years Rick and I moved to a small city and began to do amazing things that we would have been too exhausted to do in a large one. Southwestern Michigan in the early nineties had a lecture series (a long story in its own right) that would have done a New York City or Berkeley venue proud. I heard presentations by Sir David Attenborough, Jane Goodall, Richard Leakey, Jean-Michel Cousteau, and the wonderful nature photographer Galen Rowell. I actually got to meet and speak with several of them; we often trace my final decision to study biology directly to my conversation with Attenborough in February of 1992.

And then, while I was a grad student, Gould was invited to lecture at Western. After his talk, I stood in line for his book-signing. I really wanted to tell him that I was becoming a biologist because of him. (We call this "ultimate causation" in the evolutionary-bio world.) Back in my Boston days I'd glimpsed him in the Harvard Science Center, but chose not to pester him while he was talking to colleagues. I did blurt something out as he signed my book in Kalamazoo. Gould was a famously brusque man; he really didn't say much. I don't remember feeling especially bad about it, though. I've never in my life expected the people I admire from a distance to be warm or wonderful in person. This may confuse some readers, but any fellow Myers-Briggs T will understand: That's never really been the part that mattered.

I've been comfortable with the idea of contingency since I started to read the work of Gould and other evolutionary biologists, but I'd never thought about the amazing contingency of everything that's happened in the last 19 years of my life upon my having picked up a newsmagazine in the mid-80s and decided to read a profile of a scientist previously unfamiliar to me. The insight gave me a wallop that has left me still reeling.

Without that contingency, I could easily have become someone like the Heaven's Gate casualty who wrote in a farewell note, "I've been on this planet for 31 years and there's nothing here for me." Though I was never overtly self-destructive, I was leaning towards that worldview in my late twenties. Things are very different now. As far as I'm concerned, if you can't find something important on the planet in your first thirty years, it may be time to plan on spending the next thirty years looking. Of course, you may already have found your first clues buried in the vicinity of page 40 of a popular newsmagazine. Would you realize it if you had?


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