Sunday, 16 September 2012

Geek Idolatry

Right in the face of my heavy course load, I "decided" to digress and spend the entire early half of Sunday reading on the people who shaped the discourse on evolution, sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology. It is a tour de force exploration of the lives of brave, highly intelligent and brilliant, but also very crazy men.

Robert Trivers, whose dazzlingly productive years from 1971 to 1974 spawned four major theories that guide almost everything in the understanding of evolutionary social behavior today, suffered from breakdowns prior to his early career, some of which were apparently due to his obsessive reading, night after night, of Wittgenstein. He is still alive now and is living in Jamaica.

Edward O. Wilson stuck to his guns to fight for sociobiology as a field worthy of study. He was heavily criticized particularly by an academic majority that preferred to see human behavior as culturally based. In one public incident, a member of the International Committee Against Racism poured a pitcher of water on Wilson's head and chanted "Wilson, you're all wet" at an AAAS conference in 1978. Wilson later spoke of the incident as a source of pride: "I believe...I was the only scientist in modern times to be physically attacked for an idea."

There are too many people to talk about here. One last mention I'd like to make is of William D. Hamilton, whose ideas on kin selection and altruism, sex ratios, and the Red Queen, among many others, have distinguished him among the greats. Spending the last few years of his life increasingly interested in the controversial argument that the origin of HIV lay in oral polio vaccines trials conducted by Hilary Koprowski in Africa during the 1950s, he ventured on a field trip to the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo in 2000. He did not survive long after returning to London. A secular memorial service (him being atheist) was held, organised by Richard Dawkins. He was buried near Wytham Woods. He, however, had written an essay on My intended burial and why in which he wrote:
"I will leave a sum in my last will for my body to be carried to Brazil and to these forests. It will be laid out in a manner secure against the possums and the vultures just as we make our chickens secure; and this great Coprophanaeus beetle will bury me. They will enter, will bury, will live on my flesh; and in the shape of their children and mine, I will escape death. No worm for me nor sordid fly, I will buzz in the dusk like a huge bumble bee. I will be many, buzz even as a swarm of motorbikes, be borne, body by flying body out into the Brazilian wilderness beneath the stars, lofted under those beautiful and un-fused elytra which we will all hold over our backs. So finally I too will shine like a violet ground beetle under a stone."

Often, it's hard to say what's true and what isn't. We have a sense that it's there, and yet at other times people can see the world so differently that it's hard to believe there's an objective truth at all. Sociobiology has had its rise and fall, with evolutionary psychology as its modern (and popularly accepted) version. It will always be nice if what one proclaims as his philosophy is indeed true. But the curse and joy of the reality is that I don't think we will ever know. Some will see this as a pointless chase. I think the agnostic position is a sad one. Just because it is always out of reach means that we will always have more to discover about our humanity and to the intellectually curious, this always has the power to stir the heart and soul.

I have good reasons to believe in the truth of the work of these men (of which I will not elaborate here), and as it is now I am on a path that requires of me to extrapolate the basic foundations laid out by them into understanding the world we live in and the way we behave. However, truth isn't the issue here, although it is the main exposition of the life and career adopted by men like us. The pursuit of what one believes to be the truth is the real story, and for their valiant efforts these men have seared their names into the pages of the history of knowledge. Of course, one could also say that Hitler was a man who believed in the truth and virtue of his desire to establish the homogeneity of a superior race, and eliminating the lesser ones. But with science as a fair judicial system for the legitimacy of knowledge, we don't have a good reason not to discover the limits of our understanding of reality.

I hope for the courage and wisdom to be able to embark in that pursuit in a way that would do the prior work of these men any semblance of justice.

No comments: