Posted on February 4, 2016
I’m reading a fascinating book by Arthur Koestler called The Case of the Midwife Toad about an Austrian scientist named Paul Kammerer, who committed suicide after being accused of falsifying experimental results.
Kammerer believed in the theory advanced by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who advance a theory of evolution a generation before Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859.
Lamarck’s theory was quite different, though, in one essential respect: unlike Darwin, he believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics.
Charles Darwin and the Darwinists of the present era believe that the only traits we pass on to our progeny are those that we ourselves inherited from our parents. They believe that the process of evolution is due to random mutations that occur over thousands of years.
“Since they are random,” Koestler explains, “most of these mutations produce harmful or lethal, but there must also occur from time to time a few lucky hits which confer some minute advantage on the carrier of the mutated chromosome, and this will be preserved by the operation of natural selection.”
Many scientists have wondered how this random process could produce the many astonishing adaptations that the world’s creatures have developed over the eons. Koestler quotes one such scientist who compared this theory to “throwing bricks together in heaps in the hopes that they will arrange themselves in an inhabitable house.”
Lamarck and Kammerer believed that characteristics acquired in response to intense and persistent challenges of the environment over several generations become eventually inherited. For Lamarck it was the long neck of the giraffe. For Kammerer it was the small callosities with thorny spines on the forelimbs of the male midwife toad, which give it a better grip on the female when mating.
While geneticists have long argued that the inheritable DNA of a creature cannot be changed by that individual’s experience, some modern researchers in “epigenetics” have found ways in which acquired traits could be inherited through a process involving “daughter cells,” whatever they are.
These epigeneticists style themselves ‘neolamarckists.’
I know next to nothing about biology, but I think the Lamarckian theory is a more sensible way to account for the complex adaptations that species make to survive in a changing world. Think of the nests birds build, or the wasps that lay their eggs in the abdomen of some unfortunate host beetle.
And if our experience is indeed passed along in some way, that would provide an explanation for the ‘collective memory’ of mankind that Jung talks about. It would explain the sense of deja vu that we feel with no apparent explanation and the sense of familiarity we feel when faced with primeval symbols and archetypes.
Why, if Lamarck and Kammerer are right, then a guy like me could have a dream and see things that happened long ago in the dim recesses of history.
Posted on January 5, 2016
The paperback I carry in my pocket when I’m called to substitute teach is The Letters of Pliny the Younger. I figure if I leave it lying around it might give me a scholarly air.
Pliny and his uncle (Pliny the Elder) were both Roman senators in the first century. Pliny the Elder was commander of the fleet in the Bay of Naples when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, and he was killed trying to rescue the people of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae.
Pliny’s letters include his correspondence with the emperor Trajan when Pliny was governor of Bithynia, in which they famously discuss what to do about these pesky Christians.
Some of the Christians had been accused anonymously, and Trajan states categorically that anonymous accusations “have no place in our judicial system.” Interestingly, Pliny reports that two of the leaders of the Christians were women.
Pliny decided to ask the accused three times if they were Christians, and if they persisted in saying they were, to have them executed for “stubbornness and unshakeable obstinacy.”
In a letter to Licinius Sura, Pliny presents a scientific puzzler like they used to have on “Car Talk.”
“I have brought you a small present from my native place,” Pliny writes, “a problem fully worthy of your great learning.
“There is a spring which has its source in a mountain and then runs down over the rocks to a small artificial grotto, where it is caught and held for a time; then it flows into Lake Como.
“This is its remarkable feature: three times a day it fills and empties with a regular increase and decrease of water, and this can be seen quite clearly and is a great pleasure to watch. You settle yourself close by for a meal and also a drink from the ice-cold water of the spring; meanwhile it ebbs and flows at regular intervals.
“Put a ring or anything else on the margin where it is dry, and the waters gently creep over it until it is covered, then reveal it again as they gradually recede. If you watch long enough, you can see the process repeated a second and third time.
“Is there some hidden current of air which opens and closes the vent and outlet of the spring? We see this happen with bottles and similar vessels with narrow restricted necks, which, though tilted downwards, pour out their contents in jerks with a repeated gulping sound as if checked by the opposing inrush of air.
“Or is there something to drive back the outflow of the spring in the same way as rivers flowing into the sea are turned back if they meet an opposing force of wind and tide?
“Or is there a fixed supply of water in a hidden channel, so that the stream diminishes and flows slowly while water accumulates after it has emptied, but flows faster and increases when the supply is sufficient?
“It is for you to investigate the cause of this phenomenon, as you have the ability. I have done more than enough if I have managed to describe it clearly.”
The spring is still to be seen in the 16th-century Villa Pliniana. Leonardo da Vinci recorded it in his notebooks.
Modern hydrologists believe the variations in the flow of the spring are due to “the principle of the siphon.”
Here’s a link that will tell you more than you ever wanted to know.
Posted on December 28, 2015
Here at Harmony House, we had a lovely Christmas.
We had a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.
Our angel was kind of secular, but very beautiful all the same
The stomp rockets were the big hit of the day.
You’re supposed to stomp on the red thing, but there are all kinds of ways to fire them. That’s Orestes at left, fleeing the Furies.
Then we went down to the river to see if there was a house with Huck Finn’s dead dad in it. There wasn’t. But it was so warm we almost went for a swim!
The three wiseguys were glad to get some fresh air. They spend all year in a plastic bag to preserve their lustre..
Posted on December 4, 2015
My daughter Sarah was in town to speak to students at her alma mater, the Academy at Charlemont, about her careeer in modeling and comedy and her work at the non-profit UROK.
Then we went back to New York where she introduced me to soup dumplings (yum!) at the Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen at 49th and 8th.
She introduced me to the staff at UROK.
And we went to see the memorial to William Tecumseh Sherman by Augustus St. Gaudens.
They say the Angel of Victory seems to be leading Sherman’s horse into Bergdorf’s, where they’ve decked out the windows for the holiday season.
Posted on November 29, 2015
At a tag sale several years ago, I found three paintings by an amateur artist that I thought I might donate to the Museum of Bad Art, which was located in my hometown of Dedham, Massachusetts, and has since relocated to Somerville.
Two of the paintings showed lovers lounging in the nude and the other showed a professorial looking gentleman with frizzy gray hair.
I finally figured out who the professor is. It’s Bertrand Russell, the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician, philosopher, and famous advocate of free love.
Posted on November 6, 2015
Just arrived in Toronto for a visit to the Yorkville neighborhood and the entertainment district courtesy of the Hazelton Hotel and the Soho Metropolitan. Flew in on Porter Airways.
Yorkville is a friendly brick-lined neighborhood where high-rise buildings rub shoulders with old fashioned houses,
The Hazelton Hotel fits right in.
There’s lots of great shopping here. We toured Holt Renfrew, which started in 1837 making fur hats for Queen Victoria and now has stores all over Canada,
We dined at the Hazelton’s restaurant, which is called One. The octopus was fantastic.
Watch this space for more food and fun in the ultra-cool City of Toronto.
Posted on October 19, 2015
I have a weekly Skype meeting with my friend Vince Walker in Huntington Beach (Surf City), California, but it was fun to meet in person with him and his wife Atsuko when they made a whirlwind trip to the East Coast this weekend.
We had brunch at the Cushman Cafe in Amherst, where we enjoyed the music of Masala Jazz.
From there we took a beautiful walk through the woods to Puffer’s Pond, where we enjoyed the year’s first snow flurry. The weather cleared up quickly, and we saw a great blue heron standing on the dam.
After taking the scenic walk around the pond, we still had a little time before they had to head to Boston to catch their flight home, so we went to the Emily Dickinson Museum, one of those great cultural assets that locals rarely visit.
All in all it was a great visit, especially considering we had only a few hours.
Posted on October 5, 2015
So why was the theology professor walking up and down the New York waterfront counting to ten in the language of the Mendi?
The story of the slave ship Amistad is one that is often simplified to make Americans feel good about their country: a group of Africans enslaved in Spanish Cuba escape their chains, take over the ship, and force their captors to sail to America, the Land of the Free, hooray!
In fact it’s a bit more complicated than that, and if we dip into the complexities of the story, we can learn a lot more about the world at that time and about our country, which was not, at that time, the Land of the Free.
We can also see how individuals, doing the best they could, played a role in the outcome of the story, and in this way changed history.
“The Amistad Story,” published by The New Haven Colony Historical Society is a wonderful volume I picked up at a tag sale which tells the whole story in all its complexity, but also includes some simple facts, which are these:
The captain of the Coast Guard cutter which took possession of the Amistad off the coast of Long Island took the ship to Connecticut instead of New York.
Why? Because slavery was illegal in New York, but still legal in Connecticut, so he could get his salvage claim when the slaves were returned to their Spanish owners in Cuba.
Simple fact number two: the President of the United States (Martin van Buren) and his Secretary of State (John Forsythe) wanted the Africans aboard the Amistad returned to slavery in Cuba.
The Spanish government was demanding the return of the slaves under the terms of Pinckney’s Treaty and the Adams-Onis Treaty which applied to cargoes recovered from pirates.
It’s important to point out that the Amistad was not a transatlantic slave ship, but rather a ship which transported slaves from Havana 300 miles along the coast of Cuba to Guanaja.
The Amistad slaves had been kidnapped from the African nation of Mendi, but according to the Spanish government, they had been enslaved in Cuba since 1820.
Both Spain and Great Britain had banned the transatlantic slave trade, but it was thriving in Cuba, and the American consul in Havana, Nicholas Trist, was “reaping tremendous financial benefits.”
Isn’t that the American way?
The only way to prove that the Africans on board the Amistad were not Cuban slaves was to take their testimony, to show they had been kidnapped in Africa, but nobody in Connecticut could understand them beyond a few basic words.
It was then that Josiah Willard Gibbs, a professor of theology and sacred literature at Yale University, showed what he was made of.
He learned to count to ten in the language of the Mendi, and then he walked up and down the waterfront in New York counting in Mendi until he found a British seaman who was familiar with the language and could take testimony from the liberators of the Amistad.
That wasn’t the end of the story, of course. They needed the help of a former president of the United States, John Quincy Adams, to plead their case, but JQA got the job done, and the rest, they say, is history. The slaves on board the Amistad were returned to their homes.
Posted on September 3, 2015
In yet another attempt to throw some stuff out, I tackled some old magazines I’d been saving, including a pile of old New Yorkers in a box with some of my mother’s things. I started reading through them, and “Nope. Can’t toss these, Too entertaining.”
Cast in point an article in the March 8, 2010 edition by Patricia Marx about shopping in Brooklyn.
“If Brooklyn were a country,” she writes, “its chief exports would include artisanal pickles, eco-friendly yoga wear, Red Hook-made Saipua soap, and books written by men named Jonathan.”
Marx also shares an insight about what hipsters hate:
“According to the depressingly astute Web site stuffhipstershate.tumbler.com, among the many things that fill hipsters with loathing are: Starbucks, lip gloss, hard sciences, monogamy, standing up straight, flip-flops, condos, spiky hair, cell phone holsters, U2, biceps, the Kindle, Seth Rogen, knowing their bank balance, Manhattan, bras, running, oldsters, other hipsters, and You.”
“They also hate staying in one place too long,” she continues, “so let’s follow them northward to Greenpoint, and not give a damn what they think.”
Posted on August 17, 2015
You know how it is when you make one of those giant beach books your own. It’s a bit of a pain to lug around, but you go to it for daily sustenance month after month after month.
You know, like Nicholas and Alexandra, or a Michener tome.
And then at last, it’s over, and you feel you’ve lost a friend. But if you flip that around, it really means you’ve found a friend. Whoever it was that wrote the book turns out to be a kindred spirit.
After more than six months, I’ve finally finished And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer, (1433 pages in paperback) and not only have I made a good friend, I’ve made a dozen of them, and I’ve met their children and their grandchildren, and even their great-grandchildren.
I feel like I’m on the beach at the Sandy Beach Club in South Conway, New Hampshire, looking at the children frolicking in Conway Lake, and saying, “That’s got to be Lucy’s boy.”
Lucy’s brother Brad died tragically at a young age many years ago. He was a lot older than I was, but he took the time to make me and my brothers part of the gang when we were outsiders.
He introduced us to Lou Christie (Two Faces Have I) and the Beach Boys (If everybody had an ocean…) and then, we heard, he died in an accident hitchiking in Sweden.
Years later as I took a plunge into the water and came to the surface, here was his lookalike nephew.
“I know who you are,” I said. “You’re the spitting image of your uncle.”
In And Ladies of the Club, you make friends with families and follow them over generations, and gain real insights into daily life, and politics, and economics, and fashion and the social norms from 1868 to 1932.
The novel opens with a tableau of graduation ceremonies at the Waynesboro Female Academy in 1868, when Sally Cochrane first fixes her eye on Captain Ludwig Rausch, and Anne Alexander establishes her claim on his friend Captain (and Dr.) John Gordon. Both captains have been honored as heroes in the Civil War.
We learn all about Anne and Sally and their friends and their families, and their children’s families, and what it’s like to die of rheumatic fever, or tuberculosis, or diphtheria, and what it’s like to be a country doctor when there’s just not much that you can do.
Captain Rausch starts a rope company and becomes a tycoon, and a political mover and shaker, while Captain Gordon is haunted by his grim battles with his memories of death in the Civil War hospitals.
President Rutherford B. Hayes and William Tecumseh Sherman both make appearances, and not just cameos, either. Hayes expresses his concern over the power of money in politics, and General Sherman comiserates with Captain Gordon over the loss of Gordon’s young daughter. (Sherman lost a child during the war.)
Throughout the novel, we see many points of view, but the most central one is Anne Alexander, though we come to know her by her married name, Anne Gordon.
She’s really a heroic figure, but you don’t think of her that way. She’s just Anne. It wasn’t until after I had finished the book that I realized that Anne lost her mother at an early age, her brother in the Civil War, her father, her young daughter, her husband, and finally, her son, to heart disease in his forties.
Through all of this she soldiers on, hardly giving a thought to her own cares, providing love and support to those in need.
Even when she is near death herself, she befriends the granddaughter of a friend and shows her old magazines and newpapers and letters about the old days, and we get a glimpse of how this novel came about.
The relationship between the young writer and the octogenarian humanitarian is a real delight. The icing on the cake you might say.
This novel was published with little acclaim in 1982. Then, in 1983, Grace Sindell heard a library patron returning the book say it was the best she had ever read. Ms. Sindell read it in two days, agreed, and sent it to her son Gerald, a Hollywood promoter, who got Putnam to republish it. After it became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, it went on to be a national bestseller.
Helen Santmyer, then in a nursing home, was amused more than anything else. “Ninety percent of the hoopla,” she said, “is because I’m such an old lady.”
I disagree. The hoopla was from readers like me, who found in this book the closest thing we’ll ever see to a Great American Novel.