John Kirsch Remembered

4 04 2008

John Kirsch, an amazing instructor, zoology professor, researcher and friend, died of pancreatic cancer a year ago tomorrow, on April 5, 2007. Though I hardly knew the man outside of the Hoofer Sailing Club, I heard rave reviews of his lectures, and I thought he was a fantastic sailing instructor. He gave the impression of being a decades-long veteran of the sport, when, in reality, he had only been sailing for a year or two longer than I myself had. A friend of mine has posted a website in remembrance of him, and I felt the need to post John’s rather eloquent final lecture (ever) to his zoology course, less than a year before his death.

John Kirsch final words for last Zoology lecture

May 5, 2006 

My Final Words:

Now, were I smart, I would  stop here … but today is rather special and I need to ask you a favour.  Not only is this the last day of class for the year, and the last of my series of lectures, but it is probably also the last undergraduate lecture I will ever give, having tendered my resignation a few days ago.  Not that I am going anywhere, really:  Ill see you tomorrow at the review session, and again at the final exam.  And, so long as my joints hold out, I expect to continue instructing at Hoofers and hope see some few of you on the water.  Nonetheless, I ask you to stand in for 35 or 40 generations of students while I say a few Last Words – of apology, explanation, and thanks.

The line between Instruction and Indoctrination is a fine one, and not always obvious; if I have sometimes crossed it, it is because of beliefs passionately held; and given that the first rule of judging propaganda is to consider the source, I think you deserve to know what some of those beliefs are and why I hold them. [Certainly I have never wanted to be anyones positive role-model, intellectual or otherwise – I regard it as far more important that you learn from my mistakes rather than my successes, which in any case are quite modest.]

Einstein once said that he found the most mysterious thing about the universe to be that we can in fact understand it; and surely one of the major human discoveries was of a way of thinking that closely mirrors and explains reality – the suite of logical and experimental techniques we call the scientific method and its indispensable complement, mathematics. [I came to this conclusion after some time sampling the delights afforded by other ways of knowing, one of the glories of the American liberal arts educational system being that it gives young people a chance to do this.  But my paintings looked too much like Cézannes, my poetry was too much like Matthew Arnolds or really bad Shakespeare (one fellow creative-writing student remarked that an elaborate blank-verse play I wrote would make a very good silent movie), and so I became a scientist, partly by default but primarily because it became apparent that science offered the best and surest path to true knowledge.]

[Gertrude Stein, on her deathbed, is said to have lain moaning Whats the answer?  Whats the answer? – then suddenly sat upright and asked Whats the question?  Science is about framing questions, and although it is fashionable – and logically correct – to say that we can never prove anything, I think that is intellectually wussy: on a recent Nova episode about the Cassini mission to Saturn, which successfully delivered a probe to the surface of Titan, a NASA scientist compared this remarkable accomplishment to tossing a basketball from Boston through a hoop in Los Angeles – or maybe it was farther – without even touching the sides!  Pretty good for provisional and supposedly obsolete Newtonian mechanics.]

As a biologist I find our ability to understand the universe quite unsurprising: if we did not – in general – perceive the world realistically, wed probably soon be dead!  As is often the case, a poet – in this case, Wordsworth – says it most succinctly:

How exquisitely the individual mind

… to the external world

Is fitted; and how exquisitely too …

The external world is fitted to the mind.

While I am aware that the argument is circular, that doesnt make it wrong.  And, in any case, it  describes beautifully the positive feedback mechanism that underlies Natural Selection.

It follows that, if my first motivating belief is in the power of scientific method, my second conviction is of the literal truth of Evolution, though I do have grave doubts about the omnipotence of Darwin=s mechanism:  after all, most species do not adapt, but go extinct.  The profound reason for this is that however deterministic the relation of environmental demands to available variations, the operative word remains available:  in the end, adaptability depends upon random mutations and the dice-roll of genetic recombination.  It was this fact, the opportunism of change, and the appalling waste represented by almost universal extinction that drove Darwin to – or very near – atheism; and indeed I consider that religious conservatives are correct in regarding evolution as the enemy of faith.  Many scientists – some of my colleagues in Botany and Zoology among them – will tell you that there is no conflict, but I think this is wishful thinking.  You cannot have Darwin and God both, unless you are content with a deity who kick-started the universe and then lost interest in it.  This, clearly, is not what most people of faith hope for, but rather a personal deity, imminent and engaged in the operation of the world.

[Recent attempts to revise American history notwithstanding, the notion of an absentee landlord of the universe was of course the position of our founding fathers; and while I have no reason to doubt that they were an admirable group of committed Deists, ardent Unitarians, gentle Quakers, and polite Anglicans, Deism provided a convenient support to their political agenda of excluding established religion from government.  Yet surely the most vocal believers today are Theists; and it is perfectly understandable that  the separation of church and state should be as repugnant to them as the union of these two institutions was to Jefferson.]

It is certainly not my intention to tell you what to believe – only what I believe, or do not believe, and how it has influenced my teaching.  [When the mathematician and astronomer Laplace proudly presented a copy of his Celestial Mechanics to Napoleon, the Emperor looked it over and remarked how odd it was that he, Laplace, had done such a wonderful job of describing the universe without once mentioning its Creator.  Laplaces reply was that he had no need of that hypothesis.  By this he probably meant only that science and religion should be kept separate – something that is getting to be harder and harder to maintain in these disUnited States – rather than that one must be discarded in favour of the other.  But not everyone can live such a schizophrenic life.  Certainly I cannot.  I suspect that were there a Drake Equation for assessing the likelihood of God (as there is for the existence of extraterrestrials), it would deliver a negative value.]

I see no evidence of design or purpose in living things, and if I did I would be highly suspicious that I was imposing order where there is none.  After all, the fatal flaw in the Intelligent Design argument is precisely the blasphemous presumption that we can impute our own notions of good design to God – a presumption the Greeks called hubris and is the very genesis of tragedy.

As much as I would sometimes like to think differently, my deepest conviction is that there are neither gods nor extraterrestrials in the universe, and we must have the courage to be alone.  But does this mean that we are adrift without a moral compass?  I think not.  In this course we have argued that every aspect of an organism, whether anatomical, physiological, behavioural, or ecological, must be examined with a view to how it might – or might not – facilitate fitness.  Religion itself is surely an adaptation, but if one rejects the metaphysics, an evolutionary ethics is the obvious substitute.  Critics have taken that suggestion to mean that, in the conduct of human affairs, whatever is biologically natural is somehow Aright.@  Yet Biology is not necessarily Destiny.  An essential part of being human means being able to transcend the biological constraints which have shaped us, when it is appropriate to do so.  Most dramatically, I have argued in my conservation lecture that for our own long-term survival, much less that of other creatures, we must vigorously resist the most emblematic of evolutionary impulses, the mindless drive to make endless numbers of copies of our genes.

More positively, and because of our phylogenetic history as social organisms, I further suggest that the evolutionary world view mandates that we must care for each other.  It is unfortunate that I have not had time to discuss behaviour, because if I had it would seem less of a paradox when I say that caring for others means, first of all, fulfilling yourself.  You have a social, if not moral, obligation to be good stewards of your genetic potential, to become “all that you can be” if you’ll forgive me for borrowing the Army’s recruiting catch-phrase [(which is right up there with Guinness is good for you – but, as Martin Luther said in defending his musical compositions, there is no reason why the Devil should have all the good tunes … or advertising slogans)].

At the same time, and while we rightly honour Olympians for extending the boundaries of their exceptional physical potentials, we should be humble as well as responsible stewards:  one’s genetic profile is an accident of birth.  Much mischief has been perpetrated in the name of the supposed superiority of certain combinations of alleles over others, and not only the Bad Guys are guilty of oppression and ethnic cleansing:  it is not widely appreciated, for example, that the Nazis modelled their racial laws on the theories and methods of American eugenicists (including the practice of forced sterilization of the so-called “unfit”).

Rather, pride appropriately resides in what you accomplish despite your genetic limitations.  When I decided, about eight years ago, to become an athlete after a lifetime of scorning organised sports, it was definitely a departure from what I am naturally competent at doing.  Of course, there are some things that you will never become really good at unless you start early in life:  playing a sport is certainly one; mastering a musical instrument, learning a foreign language, or doing mathematics efficiently are others.  But I am prouder of what I’ve accomplished as a sailor than almost anything else I’ve done with my life, precisely because it was so hard.  (And a bonus is that I now understand better why most people are so crazy about playing sports – it is a way of doing something physical together without having to feel guilty about it!)

There is another reason you should never be afraid of trying something new and out of character (Panel 1).  We humans now live an extraordinarily long time, and it is therefore unsurprising that passions which we once thought would last a lifetime diminish, whether those enthusiasms be for a particular kind of music, food, literature, professional activity, or (sad to say, perhaps) a particular person.  Renewal lies in reinvention, as Scrooge McDuck implies in this panel recreating the moment in 1947 when he first met his nephews and started a new life of wonderful adventures in their company (Panel 2).  I look forward to emulating Scrooge.

And finally this:  the Chinese have the marvelous custom that, when a speaker has finished a presentation, he or she applauds the audience, in thanks for their politeness and attention.  And so I end by applauding you, and through you the many generations of biology students who preceded you, in appreciation of your patience and good humour, and in sincere gratitude for allowing me to pursue the vocation of teaching.  How well I have fulfilled that calling is not for me to judge, but it has been an honour, a privilege, and a deep pleasure to serve you as best I can.  I shall miss you greatly, and wish you well.

John Kirsch: UW-Madison Professor of Zoology, Hoofer Sailing Instructor, Friend – April 8, 1941 – April 5, 2007





Genious in small bits

15 11 2007

I, as I may have posted here before, am a huge fan of Post Secret. If you haven’t been there, check it out.

Frank Warren, the creator and curator of the project, spoke in Madison recently, and his talk was very inspiring. His thoughts in starting the project were very simple: 1) have people send in anonymous secrets on postcards and 2) display them to the public. It is an amazing project that has moved millions of people, and it truly is a simple, ingenious idea. When Frank spoke to us in Madison, he said that people often asked him how he came up with such a great idea. His response to us was that there are millions of ideas out there that just take people with a little thought and creativity to start up.

I believe I’ve found one such project. It’s called Face 2 Face, and it’s by artists JR and Marco. It’s better to show than to tell, so here are a couple videos.

FACE 2 FACE trailer by JR and Marco
Uploaded by 28millimetres

FACE 2 FACE – EXPO PARIS
Uploaded by JR





Frank Warren Speaks!

22 10 2007

Tonight I went to see Frank Warren of PostSecret speak. He was really inspiring.

He spoke about how he got started with the project, what the secrets mean to him and what he hopes to accomplish. He told a lot of good stories, some funny, some sad and many hopeful. He read some fresh secrets that he had never read before and even opened an envelope with some secrets that had been handed to him at his last speaking engagement.

At first, when he spoke, Frank came off as a little cheesy. His talk of the secrets and how they help him learn and grow reminded me of pastors and teachers speaking to us during high school devotion. In school it felt insincere, but Frank’s talk slowly pulled me in, and I felt myself following with what he said.

He spoke about the first big media exposure he got after the initial bit from the site. It was a video for an All American Rejects song called Dirty Little Secret (which I can’t link to. Thanks, YouTube, for making my version of Flash incompatible with half of your videos.) Frank was offered $1,000 to use his secrets in the video. Instead, he requested that they donate $2000 to Hopeline, a suicide hotline at 1-800-SUICIDE.

The sentiment of his that I felt most in tune with was that he felt he does not censor the cards of others. I felt like sometimes he might have wanted to, but he said he only takes down cards by request. His feeling was that so much of art, be it music, photography, painting or otherwise, is chosen to be displayed in boardrooms. This is raw, though. This is created by people and shot directly to Frank’s mailbox. He’s absolutely right not to censor it. I was fortunate to go to the talk.

By the way, he shared a secret with us. It’s in the first Post Secret book.





Censorship

24 04 2007

My hero, Nick Gurewitch, was interviewed in Esquire. His comment regarding what material was off limits for his comic strip was interesting:

Esquire: Is there anything you won’t joke about?

NG: No, I don’t see any reason to avoid a topic. If you can make a powerful enough statement, it provides an understanding of the miraculous and it’s entirely worth its weight in nastiness. You can make a movie like A Clockwork Orange and get away with showing an event like rape, and if contributes to a point that is marvelous I think you’re totally within your right to do so.

Well said, Nick. For those who don’t know how much I love it, go check out Nick’s comic, The Perry Bible Fellowship. Be forewarned, it’s edgy.





Society, socializing, sociability and community

25 03 2007

A band I like, Wookiefoot, sings a song that has lyrics I really like: “Come unity come unity, come unity, come.” The idea is that we need to make ourselves part of our community, whether that’s local or global.

This point was illustrated to me recently when I went down to the park to toss the frisbee around with some friends. My sister and her friend came, then we had another buddy show up by car and one more a half hour later by bike. The day was the first beautiful Wisconsin day we’ve had in a long time, and the park began filling up: three girls kicking a soccer ball here, two games of hoops there, even a guy plowing through the ice on the lake with his kayak (crazy). There were probably seven other groups playing frisbee, ranging in size from two to six people per group.

Since the ability to throw a frisbee halfway decent is about all it takes to play ultimate, we decided to try forming a game. As we went from group to group, one after another said they weren’t interested in playing. We got two groups of two and absorbed one other from a group of six while two more groups had good reasons for deferring. Overall it was a poor-sized game relative to the number of people in the park who could actually toss a disc.

I wonder if this is another sign that our generation is unwilling to socialize. I’ve read theories by some who suppose that the loss of community is the death of every society. I notice everywhere that neighbors are usually unwilling to socialize unless forced. True block parties rarely happen (unless you call the drunkfest that is the Mifflin Street block party a genuine block party.) Our sociable neighbors back at my parents’ house are leaving and being replaced by people who keep to themselves. Even the neighbors upstairs in my apartment rarely make the effort to talk. Granted, I haven’t often initiated contact with them, but still, chance meetings should be conducive to more than a simple grunted “Hi.”

To add to that, my generations’ sense of social responsibility seems to be low. Volunteerism and activism seem to be things of the past. I still see people volunteer, but it seems that all too often it’s for class credit or resume padding. Todd Gitlin made me aware of the bigger form of activism that goes on. We spend money to show our support for causes rather than activating to make changes. Think of the red “AIDS ipod”, $5 of which goes to AIDS research, or fair trade coffee or any number of other spending choices. While I don’t mean to bash this kind of spending (because it is worth the consciousness), I feel that promoting capitalism for the sake of helping others doesn’t quite make sense. Why not take a role in the community and working with people directly? Work at a food shelter once a week, do some kind of counseling or perform another selfless act.

Am I completely off base? Are college students becoming more active in relieving the world’s problems? Are university students becoming more caring instead of less caring?





So spake Wikipedia:

8 05 2006

Most definitely recommended, as per my experiences: www.alessonislearned.com


Something else. Note the last line:

Solipsism (from the Latin ipse = “self” and solus = “alone”) is an extreme form of skepticism, saying that nothing exists beyond oneself and one’s immediate experiences. More generally, it is the epistemological belief that one’s self is the only thing that can be known with certainty and verified (sometimes called egoism). Solipsism is also commonly understood to encompass the metaphysical belief that only one’s self exists, and that “existence” just means being a part of one’s own mental states — all objects, people, etc, that one experiences are merely parts of one’s own mind. Solipsism is first recorded with the presocratic sophist Gorgias (c. 483375 BC) who is quoted by Sextus Empiricus as having stated:

  1. Nothing exists
  2. Even if something exists, nothing can be known about it, and
  3. Even if something could be known about it, knowledge about it can’t be communicated to others

Solipsism is generally identified with statements 2 and 3 from Gorgias.

But, in introducing methodological doubt (via Cogito ergo sum) into philosophy, Descartes created the backdrop against which modern interpretations of solipsism subsequently developed and were made to seem, if not plausible, at least irrefutable.

Solipsism is logically coherent, but not falsifiable, so it is not testable by current modes of the scientific method.