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Biology Rules

Review of E.0. Wilson's Consilience, with a supplemented introduction by Richard Morris.

by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould


S
alvos from the Opposing Camp:  In 1998 Edward 0. Wilson published a book titled Consilience, in which he discussed the prospects for unification of human knowledge, in particular the unification of the biological sciences and the humanities. "Consilience" was his term for such a unification. Wilson's book was not about sociobiology or evolutionary psychology. However, it drew on ideas developed in both those fields. Furthermore, Wilson was the founder of sociobiology. Thus it was not surprising that his book evoked responses from members of the other camp. In particular, Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould published articles about the book in the same issue of the magazine Civilization. The articles were intended to supplement one another.

Eldredge's contribution was ostensibly a review of Wilson's book. However, Eldredge devoted more space to making disparaging comments about evolutionary psychology and about authors such as Richard Dawkins than he did to discussing the book he was supposedly reviewing. He began the second paragraph of his review by saying,

So we find "evolutionary psychologists" like Stephen Pinker telling us that it matters not to the end result how parents rear their children—even though anyone who had ever been a kid knows otherwise. And Richard Dawkins, of "selfish gene" fame, recently appeared in a BBC Horizon film, Darwin's Legacy, telling his viewers that Hitler had given eugenics a bad name.

Eldredge then linked Dawkins's selfish genes and sociobiology together by describing sociobiology as a "brilliant, if skewed, theory that described the biological world as an epiphenomenon of a mad race between genes jockeying for position in the world."

Only then did Eldredge begin to speak about Wilson's book. Wilson claimed to be trying to integrate biology with the humanities, Eldredge said, but his intent was really quite different: "the 'reduction' of the humanistic fields into the ontology of evolutionary genetics." This kind of reduction just wouldn't work, Eldredge went on. Complex systems clearly had properties of their own, properties that couldn't be explained by reductionist methods.

After making some more references to Richard Dawkins, Eldredge returned to the subject of "Wilson's raid on the humanities," and rhetorically asked, "What…can the evolutionary history of the human gene have to do with human culture?" He then expounded on his views, insisting again that the behavior of large-scale systems could not be reduced to the workings of their components. Eldredge concluded by saying, in reference to Wilson's idea that systems of ethics derived, in part from our evolutionary history and our biology:

I shudder when I hear Darwin's beautiful idea of natural selection mangled when it is applied simplistically as a moral of how we do and should behave.…He [Wilson] is really not so far away from the darker side—as when Richard Dawkins tells us on television that Hitler gave eugenics a bad name.

If the readers of this review came away wondering what on Earth Wilson's book was about, they probably cannot be blamed. Eldredge used the review primarily as a platform for his own ideas. In fact, he did so rather forcefully. Using some of the language of the sciences of complexity (e.g., properties of complex systems), he had argued that the reductionist program of such biologists and Dawkins, and of scientists like Wilson and the evolutionary biologists, simply would not work. To be sure, Eldredge's "review" contained some sneering references, to Dawkins in particular. But of course by this time, the debate between the two camps had become quite heated. Eldredge was not the first to have spoken in this way.

Eldredge then yielded the floor to Gould. Gould's article, which immediately followed Eldredge's "review," was titled "In Gratuitous Battle." He began by commenting on the "phony war" between the sciences and the humanities and emphasized that "the sciences and the humanities cannot be in conflict because each encompasses a separate and necessary part of human fulfillment." Then, without making any references to Wilson, Gould launched into a discussion of "the classical error of reductionism." Like Eldredge, he made references to concepts developed in the sciences of complexity such as "emergent properties" and "nonlinear interactions." Gould stated,

I can't think of an Earthly phenomenon more deeply intricate (for complex reasons of evolutionary mechanism and historical contingency)—and therefore more replete with nonlinear interactions and emergent features—than the human brain.

Gould then went on to his main point. Admitting that human behaviors such as cooperation might have conferred Darwinian advantages under certain circumstances and that symmetrical faces might have indeed been a sign of freedom from genetic blemishes that would hinder reproductive success, he insisted that "no such factual findings can give us the slightest clue as to the morality of morals or the esthetics of beauty." In other words, the findings of the evolutionary psychologists provided no evidence to suggest that human systems of ethics and aesthetics had a genetic foundation. Furthermore, humans were able to free themselves from genetic constraints. "We may choose to insist on cooperation even if aggression confers immediate Darwinian benefit on individuals," he said.

Finally, returning to his original topic, again making no reference to Wilson, Gould said,

The humanities cannot be conquered, engulfed, subsumed or reduced by any logic of argument, or by any conceivable growth of scientific power. The humanities, as the most glorious emergent properties of human consciousness, stand distinct and unassailable.

Gould's article may have succeeded better as a literary essay than it did as a statement of his scientific beliefs. However, it contained arguments against the validity of the kinds of arguments employed by such scientists as Wilson and the evolutionary psychologists. By characterizing the humanities as products of the emergent properties of the human brain, Gould was implying that they were an aspect of human behavior that could not be reduced to mental modules or explained by reductionist methods. And his essay did complement Eldredge's contribution. Since Eldredge had already tackled the scientific issues, Gould was free to indulge himself by becoming more philosophical and making full use of his excellent literary style. Many of the readers of that issue of Civilization must have come away with the feeling that, whatever it was that Wilson had said, ethics and humanistic values were really not threatened by the efforts of such reductionist scientists as Richard Dawkins and Edward 0. Wilson.

Gould's article in Civilization was not an especially clear statement of his objections to the methods of evolutionary psychology. But perhaps he did not really need to outline these objections in detail. He had already done this in his essay "Evolution: The Pleasures of Pluralism," which had appeared in The New York Review of Books.


( Richard Morris, The Evolutionists, New York: W. H. Freeman, 2001, pp. 185-188. )



 

Everybody loves a rowdy scientific dust-up: Here, two world authorities on evolution take up their cudgels on behalf of the beleaguered humanities.

There is a periodic ritual in popular science writing, in which a biologist makes a claim of having finally reduced human identity into comprehensible components, only to be shot down by a ready squad of more humanistically inclined colleagues. I usually side with the humanists in these debates, and I'm pleased to be able to present the latest chapter in this vital contest.

Edward O. Wilson, a scientist of the highest caliber and a cherished explicator of the values of biodiversity, occasionally feels compelled to play the role of campus imperialist and lay siege to the humanities in the name of biology. He arrogantly describes his goal as a happy "consilience," and his call has been met with the same skepticism as the pope's invitation to all Christians to join under the one true church. Herein Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, traditional opponents of the more strident and reductionist applications of biological interpretations to human affairs, respond to Wilson's latest salvo.

A footnote: I am delighted to point out that both essays make use of musical metaphors. Niles is a serious musical instrument collector, as am I, and Stephen is a wonderful amateur classical vocalist. Music serves as a fortuitous meeting point of the humanities and the sciences. Musical instruments have usually inspired the highest technologies of a culture at any particular time, generally keeping a step ahead of weaponry, and music provides the most gorgeous way to express a prowess at numerical principles and puzzles. Furthermore, music serves as a living example of how technology can be conceived as an expression of the human passion to bridge power in the abstract.

Jaron Lanier, Civilization magazine, October 1, 1998.

 



Cornets and Consilience

by Niles Eldredge

T
he millennium draws nigh, and, predictably, the silly season has already begun. I am thinking, though, not of the "end is near" types, but rather of the prophecies of an increasingly strident group of gene-entranced evolutionary biologists who insist that everything human—our bodies, our behaviors, our cultural norms—devolves down to the competitive propensities of our genes to represent themselves in the coming generation.

So we find "evolutionary psychologists" like Stephen Pinker telling us that it matters not to the end result how parents rear their children—even though everyone who has ever been a kid knows otherwise. And Richard Dawkins, of "selfish gene" fame, recently appeared in a BBC Horizon film, Darwin's Legacy, telling his viewers that Hitler gave eugenics a bad name. (Though his face held the trace of a sly smile, Dawkins appeared to be serious.) These themes, of course, are not new. Evolutionary biologists have been looking anxiously over their shoulders since the '50s and '60s, when the triumphs of molecular biology began rapidly accumulating. Back then, the Nobel aura of DNA and RNA clearly threatened to take center stage away from the traditional and far less sexy field of population genetics, where mathematically trained geneticists had for decades been specifying the fates of genes in groups of organisms under various experimental, field, and purely theoretical conditions.

Thus evolutionary rhetoric—epitomized by Dawkins's selfish genes, but fashioned into a virtual academic industry with the rise of sociobiology in the 1970s—was forced to confront and somehow embrace the new genetic knowledge. Sociobiologists did so by inventing a brilliant, if skewed, theory that described the biological world as an epiphenomenon of a mad race between genes jockeying for position in the world.

The American playwright Robert Ardrey actually got the ball rolling in 1961, when, in his African Genesis, he reinterpreted paleoanthropologist Raymond Dart's analysis of the cultural and physical remains of the three-million-year-old species Australopithecus africanus as proof of our killer instincts: We murder and wage war, Ardrey believed, because our ancestors did—and such propensities live on in our genes. Likewise, we have been hearing for years that the male desire to rape and philander is purely a vestige of the ineluctable urge to leave as many offspring as possible to the next generation—an urge, of course, that itself reduces to our genes' desire to survive long after we ourselves are dead.

But the most recent hype has centered around the latest book by a man I generally admire very much: Edward O. Wilson. The "father" of sociobiology, Wilson has contributed much to such disparate fields as biogeography, systematics and ecology. My admiration for him stems especially from his diligent passion as a Paul Revere-like spokesman for the earth's vanishing ecosystems and species.

It is thus with something of a heavy heart I confront Wilson's "consilience." Wilson, of course, is well known for his ontological claim that in every conceivable sense and aspect of their being, humans are epiphenomena of the competitive behavior of their genes. What is new with his consilience is the epistemological claim that all ways of knowing the human condition—not just physiology and psychology, but philosophy (especially ethics), theology, economics… indeed, the entire gamut of what we traditionally call "social sciences" and "the humanities"—are in a real and formal sense inadequate insofar as they have not been "reduced"—distilled—to the deeper truths of the genetic shell game.

Consilience, Wilson tells us, means "jumping together"—and his ostensible task is to integrate biology with the humanities to form some grand new synthesis. But in several recent interviews I have seen, Wilson readily admits that what he really has in mind is something quite different: the "reduction" of the humanistic fields into the ontology of evolutionary genetics. The word "consilience" seems an odd choice—not least for its haunting similarity to a favorite word of one of Wilson's chief rivals at Harvard. Stephen Jay Gould uses "conflation" to mean the inappropriate juxtaposition of concepts. Conflation, in essence, means "confusion." So, to my mind, does Wilson's "consilience."

What to make of this word "reduce"? What does it really mean to "reduce" one area of human thought into another? Wilson, for example, claims that human ethical systems do not derive from philosophical first principles, but instead reflect the evolutionary status of human beings as social organisms who simply need sets of rules to get along—and to enable them to leave their genes behind before they die. That both the positive and the negative interactions among social organisms are in part heritable should come to none of us as a complete surprise. We humans have known seemingly forever that we are a form of animal life—albeit a peculiar form whose approach to the exigencies of life has become heavily shaped by something called "culture."

So what I find (so) disturbing about Wilson's thesis is not really the ontological claim that evolutionary biological history—as determined by our genes—has something to do with the human condition. Rape and philandering may indeed have less to do with making babies than with the expression of symbolic issues of power in males—but that simply means that nature does not completely override nurture. It does not follow, though, that there is no biological component at all to human behavior.

Rather, it is the epistemological side of Wilson's consilience gambit that strikes me as almost incomprehensibly silly. The philosopher Ernest Nagel was known for his formal analysis of "reduction" in the sciences. According to Nagel, any exercise in reduction must involve a formal translation of the language of one field into that of another: of chemistry, say, into physics. To reduce the description of a chemical reaction to pure physics would entail describing, say, the equation "2 H2 + O2 = 2 H2O" purely in terms of electrons, protons and neutrons. There's nothing wrong with this enterprise in principle—except that what we're left with doesn't tell us anything about either the quantitative or qualitative properties of water molecules. Moreover, why stop at electrons, protons and neutrons, since they themselves are composed of smaller bits of interactive matter?

Complex systems clearly do exist. They clearly have properties of their own—properties that intrinsically cannot be addressed by the reductionist enterprise no matter how clever. Richard Dawkins, for example, has claimed that ecosystems will ultimately be understood in terms of competition among genes. Ecologists, in contrast, seem distinctly underwhelmed by this prospect, preferring to describe such systems in terms of patterns of matter—energy flow among local populations of microbes, fungi, plants, animals—and in terms of their physical location. Sure, fungal species have evolved physiological adaptations for the adsorption of various forms of dead organic material. But the basic fact that there is an evolutionary history to all of an ecosystem's adaptations is of no direct, immediate relevance to the task of specifying what those internal dynamics are. It is only trivially true that information stored in the genes of each of an ecosystem's organisms underlies those organisms' anatomies and physiologies; there is simply no meaningful way to describe the ecosystem itself through a translation into the genetic "language" of its component organisms.

And so this business of "consilience"—Wilson's raid on the humanities. What, for example, can the evolutionary history of the human gene have to do with human culture? I am writing these thoughts in a room that is bedecked with the best examples from my extensive collection of Victorian and Edwardian cornets. I collect these horns for a variety of reasons, some deeply personal—every time I find one at a flea market, for example, I experience once again the thrill of getting my first horn in grammar school. Other reasons are more analytic: Cornets were invented, and their designs had "evolutionary" histories. They became virtually extinct when radios were invented—all but killing town bands—and when Louis Armstrong switched to the more brilliant sound of the trumpet. So, in my array of cornets I see intriguing parallels with my professional career as an evolutionary-minded paleontologist. My cornets can also be reduced to their value as investments. And then there is the rich emotional enjoyment of making music with my friends on these dear old things.

Am I, like every other organism on the face of the earth, leading an "economic" existence? Meaning, do I do the sorts of things required in our society to make a living, to provide bread for the table to sustain not only my own body but those of my immediate family as well? Sure. Is caring for my children going to help some of my genes make it to the next generation? Sure—possibly. But has the emotional and economic well- being that I can directly identify with my cornet-collecting mania become any the more explicable by acknowledging that I am a living primate mammal who eats and has already reproduced? I don't think so. Economics—an impenetrable maze to me—is the description and analysis of complex systems, subsets of our social organization. Do we compete in the marketplace because, at base, we are animals that need to eat? Sure. Is knowing something about genes going to help economists understand their systems? Wilson sure thinks so—yet in a recent issue of Structural Change and Economic Dynamics devoted to evolutionary models in economic theory, the point was repeatedly made that evolution's relation to economics depends very much on which version of evolutionary theory is chosen. Theories of evolution that try to get by with reducing the process simply to natural selection generation by generation ignore the nature and internal dynamics of large-scale biological systems. Indeed, such notions ignore the very existence of such systems. In contrast, I am of the firm opinion that the course of evolutionary history is changed only when ecosystems are disrupted by physical causes: The greater the destructive event—the global mass extinctions of the geological past, as when the dinosaurs and many other forms of life disappeared abruptly more than 65 million years ago, for example—the greater the eventual evolutionary response. No perturbation, no evolution.

My evolutionary worldview is thus very different from those of Wilson and Dawkins. I take seriously the existence of large-scale systems. Though smaller-scale systems with their own internal dynamics (like natural selection working within populations) do exist as component parts of larger-scale systems, the internal dynamics of the smaller-scale components never yield a usable description of the nature of the larger-scale systems. On the other hand, if we pursue this reductionistic bent, why stop at the level of the gene? Why not reduce all evolutionary biology to chemistry, and then down to physics? When we can describe ecosystems and species in terms of quarks and leptons, we will have the ultimate reductio ad absurdum!

I simply cannot take the epistemological side of consilience seriously at all. And I shudder when I hear Darwin's beautiful and simple idea of natural selection mangled when it is applied simplistically as a moral of how we do and should behave. I feel the same way when I read the gentlemanly E. O. Wilson admonishing us to recast our ethical systems in light of his version of evolutionary biology. He is really not so very far away from the darker side—as when Richard Dawkins tells us on television that Hitler gave eugenics a bad name.



In Gratuitous Battle

by Stephen Jay Gould

W
e have consistently combined two of the worst habits of human thought to create the false fear that advancing science, with its juggernaut of reductionism and materialism, will eclipse and then swallow the disciplines and practices collectively designated as the "humanities." The first bad habit—setting up dichotomies—may be deeply inbred into the mechanisms of cerebral action: We seem driven to order and classify, via systems of twofold divisions—good vs. evil, male vs. female, or culture vs. nature—and then, in a further unfortunate reflex, to rank or judge these alternatives. The second bad habit, making martial metaphors, represents an all-too-human potential for belligerence—a potential unfortunately realized in most cultural contexts.

When we put the two themes together, we fall into simplistic readings of history as a set of battles between armies of Light and Darkness. The valuations and allegiances may change, but the dichotomous pairings persist. Thus, when in the vigor of its innocent infancy, modern science proffered hope, and repression emanated from other quarters, "the warfare of science with theology" (to quote from the title of a famous 1896 treatise by A. D. White, the first president of Cornell University) struck many people as history's quintessential battle between enlightened progress and dogmatic turpitude. But today, when some of the many fruits of science seem to be threatening so much that we hold dear, and when the humanities appear to be so enfeebled and beleaguered, we often reverse the valuation—yet keep the same battle lines—when describing the supposed struggle between "the two cultures."

The greatest sadness of this situation lies in the irony that no such opposition exists, either in abstract logic or in genuine practice. Rather, our false categories and bad mental habits have constructed a phony war and then actually managed to impose its apparatus upon our social and intellectual landscape. Thus, many professionals in the humanities really do distrust or despise science; and, sad to say, many scientists do view the humanities as a frilly epiphenomenon of evolved consciousness, an artifact best studied by reduction to its Darwinian sources. What fate but increasing marginalization, irrelevance or extinction can possibly await the humanities, then, as science weaves itself ever more firmly and integrally into the fabric of our daily life? Even our primal fears now carry a technological spin: At the last millennial transition, we worried about a truly grand apocalypse; but at this turning, our nightmare of discombobulation arises not from fear that the lurid prophecies of Revelation Chapter 20 might come to fulfillment, but rather from a technological glitch that could lead computers to misread the transition by a hundred years.

I would modify Roosevelt's famous line and say that the only thing we have to fear is our fear itself. Those who worry about the fate of the humanities in an increasingly scientific world can only lose the battle if they agree that such a battle exists. (I do not, of course, deny the actual existence of such conflict, especially in climates of limited resources. I only insist that the battle arises as our own social construction, not as a genuine outcome of inherent opposition between the disciplines.)

I have nothing original to say about this gratuitous battle. My argument has been made a thousand times in a hundred different ways. At best, I am searching for a hundred-and-first way, one that might spark a little flicker of utility. The sciences and the humanities cannot be in conflict, because each encompasses a separate and necessary part of human fulfillment. I have no doubt that the human brain evolved through ordinary natural processes, and by the same principles that govern the rest of Darwinian biology. Furthermore, though I recognize the impossibility of scientifically testing such a proposition, I strongly suspect that all the glorious (and unseemly) capacities of the human brain arise from material properties of evolved neurology, and not by any infusion or "suraddition" of an ineffable property from some independent domain that might be called "spiritual." Finally, I take it as a point of logic (not of empirical observation) that the unique complexity of the human brain has spun off, apparently for the first time on this planet, a set of new conceptual categories—including moral and aesthetic judgment—as embodied in disciplines we call the arts and humanities.

At this point in the chain of statements, the classical error of reductionism often makes its entrance, via the following argument: If our brain's unique capacities arise from its material substrate, and if that substrate originated through ordinary evolutionary processes, then those unique capacities must be explainable by (reducible to) "biology" (or some other chosen category expressing standard scientific principles and procedures).

The primary fallacy of this argument has been recognized from the inception of this hoary debate. "Arising from" does not mean "reducible to," for all the reasons embodied in the old cliche that a whole can be more than the sum of its parts. To employ the technical parlance of two fields, philosophy describes this principle by the concept of "emergence," while science speaks of "nonlinear" or "nonadditive" interaction. In terms of building materials, a new entity may contain nothing beyond its constituent parts, each one of fully known composition and operation. But if, in forming the new entity, these constituent parts interact in a "nonlinear" fashion—that is, if the combined action of any two parts in the new entity yields something other than the sum of the effect of part one acting alone plus the effect of part two acting alone—then the new entity exhibits "emergent" properties that cannot be explained by the simple summation of the parts in question. Any new entity that has emergent properties—and I can't imagine anything very complex without such features—cannot, in principle, be explained by (reduced to) the structure and function of its building blocks.

Please note that this definition of "emergence" includes no statement about the mystical, the ineffable, the unknowable, the spiritual, or the like—although the confusion of such a humdrum concept as nonlinearity with this familiar hit parade has long acted as the chief impediment to scientific understanding and acceptance of such a straightforward and commonsensical phenomenon. When I argue that the behavior of a particular mammal can't be explained by its genes, or even as the simple sum of its genes plus its environment of upbringing, I am not saying that behavior can't be approached or understood scientifically. I am merely pointing out that any full understanding must consider the organism at its own level, as a product of massively nonlinear interaction among its genes and environments. (When you grasp this principle, you will immediately understand why such pseudosophisticated statements as the following are not even wrong, but merely nonsensical: "I'm not a naive biological determinist. I know that intelligence represents an interaction of genes and environment—and I hear that the relative weights are about 40 percent genes and 60 percent environment.")

I can't think of an earthly phenomenon more deeply intricate (for complex reasons of evolutionary mechanism and historical contingency)—and therefore more replete with nonlinear interactions and emergent features—than the human brain. Among these emergent features of consciousness, by far the most novel and interesting must be the birth of entirely new domains of inquiry Once consciousness emerges—with its intrinsic features of choice, (relatively) free will, explicit and abstract logic and reasoning, and capacity for self-reflection (including doubt, the ability to anticipate consequences, and so on)—then we cannot help fretting, even obsessing, about such issues as right vs. wrong or beautiful vs. ugly (Those dichotomies again!)

We have a collective designation—our own distinctive brand name—for the study and practice of activities based upon these novel criteria of human judgment and worth (as distinct from the factual aspects of nature and human life that are collectively called "science"). We call these novel activities "the humanities"—and they simply cannot be explained by reduction to the factual criteria of science, despite the imperialistic (or "hegemonic") assertions of any sociobiologist. The content of the humanities represents our clearest case for emergence (from the brain's material substrate in this case), because standards of practice and judgment in these disciplines rest upon new criteria that didn't exist on this planet before the emergence of human consciousness.

The humanities operate, then, with moral and aesthetic criteria that have neither meaning nor existence in the absence of a self-conscious moral and aesthetic agent to do the choosing. The factual criteria of science cannot adjudicate questions about the good and the beautiful—a situation arising as a property of the intrinsic logic of argument, not as a contingent limitation that science may overcome as it progresses. The factual simply doesn't imply the ethical or the beautiful. At most (and this would be no mean thing), science can develop an anthropology of morals and aesthetics—that is, we might learn that certain behaviors we admire (cooperation) or regret (aggression and xenophobia) bring Darwinian advantages in certain situations and may in fact have been practiced for these reasons at various times in our history; or we may find some genetic and Darwinian basis for an aesthetic attraction--to symmetrical faces, for example, because such countenances mark a potential mate as probably freer of genetic "blemishes" that would hinder reproductive success.

But no such factual findings can give us the slightest clue as to the morality of morals or the aesthetics of beauty. We may choose to insist upon cooperation even if aggression confers immediate Darwinian benefit upon individuals; and we may decide to forgo a biological feeling of comfort, viewing the challenge of certain asymmetries as preferable. Of course we do want to know the biological constraints thus entailed (hence the importance of the two "anthropologies" mentioned above)—for they would help us to understand the difficulties we face in trying to implement certain moral or aesthetic decisions—but these constraints cannot enjoin the decisions themselves in the emergent realms of morality and aesthetics.

As concrete illustrations of these principles, I close with two musical examples of the importance and the irrelevancy (yes, both at the same time) of scientific factuality for analysis and judgment in the humanities. Consider, first, the program of London's Westminster Chimes—a simple sequence with little aesthetic triggering, and therefore yielding a fairly satisfactory explanation in the factual terms of science. For years, I listened to the sequence: one peal of four tones on the quarter hour, followed by different peals of eight, twelve and sixteen tones on the half hour, three-quarter hour and next full hour, respectively. I wanted to figure out how complex the evidently automated mechanism for ringing such a program must be—and I assumed that the tune for each of the four quarter hours must have its own specially programmed set. But then, one lazy afternoon, I listened carefully to the peals of a nearby clock tower, and recognized the clever minimality of the system. Westminster Chimes, it turns out, works on a continuously cycling system of five sequences, each of four notes. (I'll use numbers for the seven notes of the major scale, with a bar below the number for a pitch in the next octave down, and a bar above the number for one in the next octave up--with apologies to my truly musical friends for this rough-and-ready system of my own construction):

    A: 3-2-1-5
    B: 1-3-2-5
    C: 1-2-3-1
    D: 3-1-2-5
    E: 5-2-3-1

Westminster Chimes rings the A series on the quarter hour; B and C on the half; D, E and A on the three quarters; and B, C, D and E on the hour--bringing the system back to A, all ready for the subsequent quarter hour. No big deal, but clever—and, for most questions we might think to ask, factually resolvable, since the issue inspires few aesthetic concerns.

Now, consider a moment that I regard as one of the most beautiful and heartrending in the entire history of music. Jephtha, in Handel's last dramatic oratorio of the same name, has, by a rash and foolish vow, unwittingly condemned his only child to be sacrificed in flames. His song of torment and resignation—"Waft her, angels, through the skies"—opens the drama's final act. I wondered, as I had for Westminster Chimes, what the notational basis of this aria might be—this time to such powerful emotional effect. And I was puzzled and disappointed at first. Could such beauty really be based on such simple, almost calculational, devices?

Waft her, an- gels, through the skies (sung twice)
5 3 6 2 7 7 1

Far a- bove yon a- zure plain
1 1 4# 4# 1 4# 5

Far a- bove y- on a- zure plain.
5 4 3 2 1 7 1 1

(I must apologize again for my musical ignorance. These are probably well-known devices with recognized names. But I approach them as an empirical rustic—"just the facts, ma'am," a supposedly righteous approach for a scientist.)

The first vocal phrase seems to play a little game: Handel just constructs the three possible pairs of notes around the middle note of the scale (number 4), moving symmetrically farther out until he reaches resolution on the tonic: 5-3, 6-2, 7-1. The second line then plays a different kind of symmetrical game—he splits the octave right in half, using the "forbidden" tritone (the augmented fourth) as the mathematically exact middle point and intermediate resting place between two invocations of the tonic, an octave apart. The third line then descends by steps from the dominant to the seventh below, and then, inevitably, goes back up for final resolution to the tonic.

Handel must be fooling us, I first thought—or at least manipulating us, perhaps by exploiting an intuition about the evolved emotional impact of simple mathematical sequences. But then I kicked myself and realized that we stand, here with Jephtha, far beyond the calculational cleverness of Westminster Chimes. If Handel had good intuitions about how to evoke deep emotional responses, so be it. This "feel" is then part of his genius in an aesthetic inquiry and judgment about the power of song to move our passions (in the literal sense of suffering with Jephtha). Of course, we want to know how Handel did it and why "it" works. But the meaning and impact of this sublime moment cannot be revealed or explained by such underlying mechanics. The beauty lies in Jephtha's plight (the extinction of his family line as well as the loss of his daughter), the aged Handel's struggle with blindness as he strove to finish his last great work in this genre, the quality of the particular tenor in the performance at hand, and so on. What could be more absurd, prima facie, than the claim that, because our key question about a minimally musical timekeeping device like Westminster Chimes can be answered mechanically, the impact and aesthetic qualities of any musical utterance should yield to the same kind of factual analysis?

I cannot speak for the practical politics and sociology of forthcoming culture in the next millennium, which threatens (at least at the outset) to be dominated by electronic technology just as an electronic glitch may burp us up into its being. The humanities may lose this political struggle, and become rarefied, marginalized or even extinct—at least by our current definition.

But we who love and support these enterprises (even those of us who operate as scientists on their day jobs) will have only ourselves to blame if such a disaster should befall the human spirit. The humanities cannot be conquered, engulfed, subsumed or reduced by any logic of argument, or by any conceivable growth of scientific power. The humanities, as the most glorious emergent properties of human consciousness, stand distinct and unassailable. Any complete human life, any hope for attaining the Old Testament ideal of wisdom, must join the factuality of scientific understanding to the moral and aesthetic inquiry of our most particularly human capacities. Why not try for perpetual balance and communion between these disparate sources of wisdom: "Whither thou goest, I will go"?


[ Niles Eldredge and Stephen Gould, "Biology Rules," Civilization 5 (Oct./Nov.): 86-88.]


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