Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Don Cesar and Darwin

Due to a huge number of requests (thanks, JM!), I’ve decided to begin this blog with an entertaining childhood story about Jeff. Actually, Jeff was a teenager (18, I think), but he acted like a child in the situation I’m about to describe (we all did!):

Jeff, Duane (best man at Jeff’s wedding), and I went to St. Petersburg Beach one spring break. We soon got bored with our dump of a motel (the Shalimar—not as exotic as it sounds!) and decided to check out what we were missing down the beach at the very posh Don Cesar, a pink art deco 5 star hotel frequented by the rich and famous. We arrived in the lobby and wandered around, admiring marble, golden oak, and chandeliers. Duane and I were curious to see much more than the lobby; we were determined to somehow get to the top penthouse floor. But how? The elevators would not allow us access. But the stairs might be an option! I remember Jeff consistently mumbling, “doesn’t sound like a good idea, really, doesn’t sound like we should go up there.” Duane and I ignored the mumbling, grabbed Jeff’s arm, and headed for the stairs. The three of us started clomping up flights and flights (we weren’t exactly being stealthy), Jeff trailing behind and grumbling. We finally approached the penthouse floor (I think about eight or nine flights up), and reached for the door to enter paradise. Just as we reached for the door, it swung open and a security officer stood before us, yelling, “What the hell are you kids doing up here?!” There was a flurry of movement behind me and Duane, and a string of curses uttered (mostly “shit, shit”) as Jeff high-tailed it, rushing down the stairs as fast as he could. Security guy shoved past us to run after Jeff, screaming, “stop, stop, you little truant!” Duane and I were still standing at the top of the stairs, mouths open as we watched the guard gaining on Jeff. Long story short, the security guy (who we aptly named Weasel-faced Arse) caught Jeff, escorted us all down to the lobby (all the while telling us he had the power to put us in jail for trespassing) and banned us from the hotel. Moral of the story: When faced with a fight or flight situation, Jeff will choose flight.

Now for something completely different! Another great book I’ve come across during my studies is the second volume of a biography written by Janet Browne called Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. Browne does a brilliant job of locating Darwin in the Victorian context, explaining reactions to his work, both far and wide. She also challenges misconceptions concerning Darwin’s theoretical positions (based on her painstaking research--she refers to correspondences, notebooks, etc, so she presents a comprehensive picture of the man).

By referencing Browne’s biography, I was able to build an argument for what I consider to be Darwin’s “feeling for the organism”. Social scientists like David Pepper have called Darwin a perpetuator of the imperial tradition in ecology, but in fact, I’ve found that this reading is based on cursory engagement with Darwin’s work. Joseph Hooker, who collected plant specimens for Kew Gardens, was the imperialist, while Darwin (after his Beagle voyage—the only time that he traveled far from England) stayed at home, absorbed (for instance) in the lives of worms and climbing plants. Here’s an example of Darwin’s method of study (which relates to McClintock’s), in an excerpt from the thesis:

Darwin challenged scientific orthodoxy through his explanations of climbing plants’ movement: “It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the tip of the radicle thus endowed, and having the power of directing the movements of the adjoining parts, acts like the brain of one of the lower animals.” (p. 428, Darwin, The Power of Movement in Plants) Julius Sachs, a well respected botanist at the time that Darwin published The Power of Movement in Plants ridiculed the conclusions presented because they gave plants an agency that at the time was only afforded to animal species:
“Darwin discounted mechanistic explanation and believed he could show
that the tip of the root was the active agent…plants were not thought of as actively responsive agents like animals…Darwin’s proposals were made
some years before the concept of animal and plant hormones was fully articulated.” (p. 467, Browne)
Darwin, like McClintock, was thinking beyond the scientific paradigm, or orthodoxy, of his time; his conclusions derived from close observations that transformed objects of study into subjects of study.

Thanks for your comments, look forward to reading more!

Next blog: Cockroaches and An Artist of the Floating World


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