From the mind of G.G. Simpson

20 09 2007

George Gaylord Simpson is one of my most favorite scientists, and I think that only Stephen Jay Gould has had a larger impact on my intellectual evolution. Indeed, not only was Simpson a brilliant scientist, but he was a fantastic writer as well, and even though many of his books are no longer entirely accurate they are still a pleasure to read (his first book, Attending Marvels: A Patagonian Journal, is especially good). Given Simpson’s influence and accomplishments, it is of little surprise then that Leo F. Laporte has been considerable time researching the scientist, and in 1987 a selection of Simpson’s letters to his family was published under the title Simple Curiosity. While I have yet to finish the book, I found the following passage, from a letter to George’s sister Marthe dated Jan. 25th, 1926, especially interesting, and have reproduced the relevant parts of it here;

The reconstruction of the past, even so great a past as that which lies before me here, can add only a melancholy significance to the fact which we know but dare not realize that the present must become as truly past and perhaps even more irrevocably. As for science, one who is not engaged in it can hardly realize to what extent petty motives dominate even here. The highest possible scientific motive is simple curiosity and from there they run on down to ones as sordid as you like. And all our scientific interpretations and theories are simply meaningless. There are facts, of course, in any workable use of the term facts, but with us as with artists and other impractical people here facts are considered as only so much mud and straw unless they can be piled up into a hypothesis, gaily stuccoed and concealed with theory. And like other futile edifices of man these are inhabited for a brief space giving glory to the proprietor of the most unusual or striking and then left to melt back to dust and be forgotten, or worse yet, to become curiosities for generations with other “latests”.

Don’t think I am bitter or unhappy about my work. I like it very much and get pleasure out of it. I am also achieving considerable success. [emphasis mine]

As a friend and teacher once told me, science is continually undertaken for the next generation. While some researchers may have the pleasure of having their hypothesis accepted (or even vindicated) in their own lifetime, it is the next generation of scientists who will look at the information from a different standpoint, hopefully freer of the motives or trains of thoughts of those that trained them. In a moment of melancholy, this can be an awfully depressing thought, while in truth it is an amazing and liberating thing to know that even if hypotheses or ideas eventually die away, what each scientist brings to their discipline might be useful to later generations on inching towards the reality of the workings of nature. As Leo Laporte suggests in the introduction of the book, however, Simpson seems to have outlived his own influence, his fears of 1926 of being forgotten in favor of “the latest” being somewhat realized. In fact, it was not so much that his ideas were discarded, but rather that what he had done became so accepted that it was almost taken for granted, nearly divorced from Simpson himself (especially Simpson’s contributions to combating notions like vitalism, finalism, orthogenesis, and aristogenesis in evolution).

This particular letter also reflects worries that would haunt Simpson for the rest of his life; the fear of not being able to contribute to science, not receiving recognition for his work, and being forgotten as if he had never even existed. Such worries are perhaps most poignantly reflected in a book that G.G. never intended to be published; The Dechronization of Sam Magruder. The absolutely wonderful work, a short novella about the titular character cast back into the Cretaceous, allows as much insight into the scientist as any of his more straightforward letters, and in the Afterword Stephen Jay Gould (who knew Simpson personally) reveals that the lonely Sam Magruder is G.G. Simpson. Gould writes;

I knew Simpson during the last fifteen years of his life, when he was the most honored and the most revered paleontologist in the world. Yet I never encountered a man so apparently lonely (save for the comfort of immediate family), so dissatisfied, so craving so recognition, yet so incapable of satisfaction. I wanted to shake him (or hug him, if he would have permitted either) – and tell him how much we all loved him, how his work had been our chief joy and inspiration. But no one could find a middle ground to please him. One either spoke truly and therefore had, at least on occasion, to express some disagreement with something he had once said – and this he could not bear. Or else one played the toady and agreed with everything he said – and this he could bear even less, for his fierce intellectual honesty could not tolerate false ingratiation. And so, one of the world’s most honored scientists wallowed in a miasma of doubt and anger, always fearing that future generations would ignore him and that all his work would ultimately go for naught.

While I do not wish to “[wallow] in a miasma of doubt and anger” as I proceed through my intellectual evolution, whatever form it eventually takes as the years tick on, I can relate to Simpson’s worries. The more I seen to take in, the less I seem to understand (and the more questions seem to remain). Even though I continually try to take in more information about nature and how it works, my grasp of it is tenuous at best, although I can’t think of any more enjoyable pursuit than those that I engage myself in whenever time permits. As I had mentioned before, however, one can look at the ever-changing body of knowledge of science with disappointment and disdain, or with hope that what we do today will allow future generations to come that much closer to understanding. In Quest for the African Dinosaurs, paleontologist Louis Jacobs is frank about his own doubts involving his discoveries in Malawi & Cameroon; he has opened up new areas for exploration, but his particular analysis of the finds may or may not last. Before describing his last day in Malawi, Jacobs concludes that there is still a great need for scientists to study the ancient world he helped to uncover;

All of the studies done thus far are preliminary. More work needs to be done on everything. The frogs are unstudied, the mammallike croc is not yet named, nor are the Malawi-saurus [later officially named Malawisaurus] or our new species of diplodocid formally named. The stegosaur and theropods need detailed examination. What will they tell us? The questions go on and on. It will be years before the final reports are completed. It will be years before Elizabeth has turned in her finished dissertation and returned to her country to undertake new investigations in Malawi’s fossil beds. Even after that has happened, scholars will forever employ the specimens collected in our Malwai expeditions, and those from Cameroon, just as they use books in a library, for their own research purposes. Ideas will constantly be revised, eternally updated, never static. What we think now about Malawi-saurus and the other fossils from Africa is sure to change in the future. In one sense the means that what is being said today is sure to be wrong, or at best, not completely right; in a more important sense it means that what is being said now will help us be closer to the truth next time.

While the ultimate satisfaction of having a hypothesis vindicated (or the frustration of a beloved one being struck down) may escape many scientists for many years, there is satisfaction in contributing to science even if the analysis is incorrect. Perhaps this is why it is so enjoyable to be paleontologist, and why so many bone sharps like R.T. Bird could find in fossil hunting so much enjoyment without overly worrying about the more academic aspects of the field; even if an analysis is wrong, every bone that comes out of the ground helps to further the understanding of vanished worlds, the ever greater accumulation of material allowing each new generation of scientists to notice new ideas, refine old ones, and become ever more accurate if freedom of thought and inquisitiveness are allowed to persist. For my own part, I can’t think of any other line of inquiry I’d rather associate myself with, nor any other that sparks my imagination in quite the same way. If I ever will contribute to this science (or any other) will remain to be seen, but I am sure the feelings that I have expressed are not unique.


Actions

Information

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s




%d bloggers like this: