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

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