Thursday, August 18, 2005

Crimes of Pedagogy

To a remarkable but largely unremarked extent, what the public knows about nature and science is simply the pedagogy of textbooks. The common notion that animals fall into distinct groups marked by unambiguous structural characteristics, for example, reflects the examples teachers use to explain taxonomies. Many taxa contain members that have secondarily lost features that were once definitive of their group—the notion that there is a central plan that plays unchanging substance to the superficial accidents of wing color or tooth shape or behavior is deeply misleading since even basic body plans can change drastically over time. We only know the animals belong together because we can trace their common ancestry through transitional forms. And even when common features persist, there is a temptation to assume that they are functionally fundamental simply because they have persisted, even though some diagnostic features—the details of wing venation in insects, for example—are probably as accidental as the ridges on a finger print. They just happened to be the elements that, for some reason or for no reason at all, didn’t change in a given phylogeny.

By fostering an exaggerated belief in the naturalness of kinds, the just-so textbook version creates a largely artificial mystery, the impression that macroevolution differs qualitatively from microevolution. This may be one of those instances in which there is no answer to a question because there really isn’t a question to answer. Granted that genetic changes are always discrete, Natura semper fecit saltus, but the leaps in question only appear to be impossibly great if you imagine a spectacular vault from the picture of the living starfish on page 121 and the picture of the living hummingbird on page 124 instead of the tiny hop involved in the original divergence between one obscure species of deuterostome invertebrate and another in the slimy bottom of some Vendian estuary.

I was reminded of this issue by a report on the BBC on a strange looking invertebrate from the Cambrian that is said to embarrass the taxonomists. Vetustodermis planus is evidently hard to place in one of the recognized phyla, but it is hardly weirder than many a common living organism. The recherché bugs pictured in Grimaldi and Engel’s splendid new book Evolution of the Insects are every bit as bizarre as any relic of the Burgess Shale; but since they don’t fall on a crack between one group and another, nobody thinks they challenge evolutionary theory.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

“It has yet to be proved that acerbity or gloom is detrimental in an historian.”

I’ve been very gradually reading Syme’s immense book on the Roman historian Tacitus, mostly for the pleasure of spending as much time as possible with Sir Ronald’s austere wit. Unfortunately, the contemporary relevance of the subject matter intermittently interferes with the untroubled appreciation of the great classicist’s sheer virtuosity. The unfolding of present events brings ancient dilemmas in and out of focus. Roman writers of the empire like Tacitus and Seneca were greatly admired and closely read at the end of the Renaissance, no doubt because they spoke to the ethical predicaments of ambitious men in an age of burgeoning national empires—the literati of the Chinese Age of Warring States would probably have appreciated them as well. They certainly speak to an important group of modern individuals. And they speak to me as well.

Tacitus took up history writing after a not insignificant public career that began in the tyrannical regime of Domitian and extended into the time of Trajan, the second of the so-called five good emperors. Although a member of the Senate who sometimes evinced a certain nostalgia for the Republic, Tacitus did not write to restore a past that was gone for good and, for that matter, gone for good reason—he had no illusions about the fatal shortcomings of the old system of anarchic competition between selfish aristocrats. His great theme was not retrospective at all. It addressed the question of how virtuous men could live decently and usefully in the imperial present. The end of political liberty limited the prospects of ambitious men, but it didn’t absolve them of responsibilities to their country or to mankind. Even in its palmist days, the Roman Empire was only maintained by the strenuous efforts of a host of generals and officials. If the German barbarians didn’t sack Rome in the first century, if the Parthian horsemen didn’t overrun the East, it wasn’t because they weren’t trying. The Empire needed leaders who could some how function in an autocratic regime even though the emperor feared able men and often rewarded incompetence. (nec minus periculum ex magna fama quam ex mala’ — no less danger from a good reputation than a bad one — as Tacitus wrote, defending his father-in-law Agricola from the Tiber chapter of the Swift Boat Veterans) But what can integrity mean in a milieu in which dissimulation and flattery really are the prerequisites for career advancement?

Maybe it would be a good time to come out with an inexpensive paperback edition of Tacitus for the benefit of all the serious people in this country who are attempting the difficult act of behaving well in a vicious system.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Standard Oil Song

The whole is, at most, the sum of its parts; but figuring out the anthill by tracking individual ants is very hard work. For example, the Iraq War was undertaken through the efforts of a host of individuals with multiple and changing motives so it has become an on-line industry to figure out how we brought ourselves to strip off our clothes and jump in this particular cactus patch in the first place: Oedipal one-upmanship, routine miscalculation, hubris, the search for a political distraction, the urge to play tin soldiers with real soldiers, indirect support for Likud, Wilsonian idealism, American exceptionalism, profiteering by well-connected contractors, the Monroe Doctrine as applied by people with an uncertain grasp of geography. Or maybe what we’re experiencing is the strategic version of the disassociative effect of computer games. For ex officio statesmen personally unfamiliar with the blood and shit of real war, blowing people to bits from high altitude is like playing Doom. The electronic mediation makes it all rather flat and unreal. Or it could be argued, in the alternative, that action in this instance resulted from a case of Presidential nerves. Making an irrevocable decision wasn’t evidence of resolution: it was a substitute for resolution. Cortez burned his boats in order to commit his men to a desperate mission. Bush burned our boats to commit himself. And then there’s the oil.

It is customary at this point to remind everybody of every reason that oil wasn’t really at the root of the thing even though it is obvious, and usually admitted, that we certainly wouldn’t be so deeply involved in the Middle East if it weren’t for the petroleum. It is argued that actually occupying Iraq doesn’t increase the world’s oil resources at all or even secure them for the United States at a lower price. Since oil is fungible stuff whose cost is determined by the global market, what matters is overall production, not who sells which oil to whom. If a regime decided not to sell to us, the overall effect would be nil so long as they sold to somebody. Of course a fanatical government could decide not to sell its oil to anybody, but no nation could afford such a course for long. During the sanction years, even Saddam, who certainly hated us, sold as much oil as we’d let him. What else was he going to do with it? So who physically controls the oil fields is not crucial. Only people naïve about economics think otherwise. However.

The problem is that there is an important group of influential people who are naïve about economics and many of them play key roles in developing our foreign policy. Practitioners of realpolitik are often addicted to a crude mercantilism, in the current instance to a mercantilism that assumes that what matters is who possesses the crude. Looking at foreign policy as a huge map exercise, one can imagine them thinking to themselves that putting a marker in Mosul was part of a solution, though we surely know by now that they had no clue what the men and women represented by the marker were going to do once they got there or how that was supposed to keep the price of oil under $50 a barrel. Bear in mind that these are the same guys who occasionally float the idea that we may eventually have to seize the Saudi oil fields by military force, evict the Arabs, and run the plants ourselves.

It may be true that oil was not a rational motive for invading Iraq, but that doesn’t mean that oil wasn’t a large part of why we went there.