Along the Ohio

Ruben Gold Thwaites. Afloat on the Ohio: An Historical Pilgrimage of a Thousand Miles in a Skiff, from Redstone to Cairo.

If this book were made into a film, its musical score should be Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony. The varied settings and historical reflections match up well with its varied musical themes. This narrative is similar to his Historic Waterways, but this is a longer trip, with his friend the doctor and his wife and 10 year old son together the whole time. It is historic in that much of the text concerns events that occurred in the previous two and a half centuries. The Ohio Valley is also where the battle to expand the colonies and later the United States beyond the Eastern seaboard took place: the accounts he gives of the conquest and settlement of the region sent me to Wikipedia to learn about the beaver wars, the Northwest War and other conflicts that my school history classes and U.S. stamp collection only left me with a few names like Fallen Timbers and General Braddock. The voyage takes Thwaites and his companions past the sites of Native American towns, forts, trading posts, ambushes, battles and settlements. George Washington spent much time before the Revolutionary War in the Ohio country, both as a military officer and as a surveyor, marking out lands both for his own speculations and for others. The struggles of the colonists from Virginia and Pennsylvania to drive out first the French and then the British from the Ohio had effects on the larger global struggles of these two nations. These were among the bloodiest conflicts in our history, although the later wars with the plains Indians have garnered more attention, along with those in the Hudson Valley and central New York, thanks to James Fenimore Cooper

The other part of the story is of the valley as it appeared in the late nineteenth century: The country they passed through was much more heavily settled and industrialized than the rural regions of Wisconsin described in Historic Waterways. Beginning at Redstone on the Monongahela, the banks were lined with coal tipples, oil and gas wells, mills and factories as well as river towns large and small, and farms that range from prosperous to squalid. There is more river traffic, including a steady procession of steamboats making waves that threaten to swamp their skiff or flood their tent on the bank. These are not bucolic streams but busy waterways in what was, in 1897, the industrial heart of America. The resources of the country were being rapidly converted into goods to be floated up or downriver or loaded onto railcars, which were already displacing the steamboats. Everywhere the waste from mills, mines and wells was being dumped on the banks or poured into the river itself. Thousands of Eastern Europeans were coming to the factories to earn a fortune that they could take back to the homeland, according to Thwaites’s informants, and already there were complaints about the downward pressure on Americans’ wages.

Below Cincinnati and Louisville, though, the river flowed through less developed country, and the rural poverty on both sides made it hard to find the supplies they needed for daily sustenance. Still, there were many well-kept farms and moderately prosperous towns. There was also a stark reminder that this was during the successful counter-reconstruction period, when the hopes of freed slaves were being overturned by southern whites. Thwaites reports, without comment, an exchange between a group of blacks working on an island on the Kentucky side and a black man on the Ohio shore. Their taunts are silenced when the Ohio man points out that at least he has not been put to work doing gang labor on an island that he can’t leave.

As in Historic Waterways, there is rich detail about the river, the weather, the people they meet along the way. The rivermen especially, have that independence of mind, along with a penchant for repartee, that is found in Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi or Richard Bissel’s wonderful A Stretch on the River. There is less of natural history, although his wife avidly botanized at every opportunity and he describes the wildflowers they find. So much of the country had been emptied of wildlife a hundred years of uncontrolled exploitation, and the air and water so polluted by slag, mine tailings, coal smoke and oil that fish and birds were becoming scarcer all the time. A more recent account of the devastating changes wrought upon the fish of the Ohio River (and the Great Lakes) by development, channelization and drainage can be found (if you can locate a copy) in the introduction to The Fishes of Ohio by Milton Bernhard Trautman. Ohio State University Press, 1957.

Throughout, Thwaites makes reference to the early narratives of travel in the Ohio Valley, which he himself played a major role in editing and publishing. I think I may want to read some of those myself.


Northern traveller: Ruben Gold Thwaites

Thwaites, Reuben Gold, 1853-1913 Historic Waterways—Six Hundred Miles of Canoeing Down the Rock, Fox, and Wisconsin Rivers. Chicago A. C. Mcclurg and Company. 1888 [I listened to the Librivox recording]

In 1888 Ruben Gold Thwaites, with his wife Jessie Turvill Thwaites and a physician friend, canoed three rivers in Wisconsin and Illinois. This book is an account of those trips. He describes the people, landscape and history of the areas they passed through, their encounters with farmers, townspeople and river people. Before much of the land adjacent to these rivers was drained for farming, there were long stretches of heavily-wooded bottom land, and the streams were shallow during dry spells, with confusing mazes of channels and islands. He describes encounters with barbed wire fences and with mill dams and mill races that would horrify most modern canoeists. Today, such things would be walled off or posted by the managers of our recreational rivers to prevent people from hurting themselves. Yet he and his wife, after cautious scouting to be sure, took them head-on, fending off with paddles and ducking under the strands of wire or the roofs of culverts. The closest I can come to a comparable account is in Snowshoeing Through Sewers: Adventures in New York City, New Jersey, and Philadelphia 1994 by Michael Aaron Rockland where he and a friend do something similarly crazy in Trenton NJ.

Gold Thwaites was a good naturalist, well acquainted with the plants and birds along the river, so I find it easy to picture the riverscapes he describes. The extensive marshes and winding channels at that time were still full of emergent plants, ducks, pickerel and sturgeon. He describes a humming swarm of mayflies headed upstream in the twilight, like a reverse river over their heads. His descriptions of the homes and the quasi-inns where they spent the nights are at turns amusing and appalling. Rural poverty was as pervasive or more so then than it is today. Many towns that had once thrived were bypassed by the railroads and were dying, their factories shut or burned and their dams and bridges crumbling in the late 1880’s.

I glanced at his other river voyage book Afloat on the Ohio: An Historical Pilgrimage of a Thousand Miles in a Skiff, from Redstone to Cairo on Project Gutenberg There is a fascinating account of their side trip up to Big Bone Lick, the salt springs famous for the vast quantity of prehistoric animal bone, especially mammoth, found by the early settlers, some of which ended up in museum collections. He also describes the poor health of the inhabitants of that swampy bottomland, because of endemic malaria. I’d like to read the rest on my Kindle or listen to it on Librvox, if that recording is as well read and produced as this one.

His profession was as a historical archivist: He was a prolific editor of early American historical documents, including the Wisconsin Historical Collections (volumes xi-xix, 1888-1911); The Jesuit Relations (73 volumes, 1896–1901); Early Western Travels, 1748-1846 (32 volumes, 1904–1907); Original Journals of Lewis and Clark (7 volumes, 1905); and similar works. Much of this was accomplished with support from the state of Wisconsin, which he worked hard to obtain, when his attempts to obtain private donations fell far short. I doubt that the current governor and state legislators are willing to fund such efforts. Links to his work can be found at  An appreciation of his life and work by Frederick Jackson Turner can be found at

Looking for the Logos of Life III

Pross, Addy. 2012. What is Life? How chemistry becomes biology. Oxford University Press. 200 pp.

Chapter 2 The Quest for a Theory of Life

Pross discusses previous attempts to develop what he calls a theory of life, beginning with Aristotle. The only aspect of Aristotle’s views that he describes, though, is telos. He also characterizes Copernicus, Bacon, Descartes, Galileo and Newton as banishing telos from the universe, instead of only from their philosophical explanations of motion. [It is worth noting that he retrospectively applies the name “science” to what they and others were doing.] Pross quotes Jacques Monod as saying that a purposeless cosmos is the most important discovery of the past 200,000 years. Besides being completely unverifiable and hence clearly unscientific, the supposed discovery doesn’t even seem that obviously useful. I guess you could say it frees us to do destructive experiments on animals, but our current regulations suggest that we don’t think that. Pross says it propels us into a new conceptual reality. What does he mean by that? Pross also adds that Schrodinger, in his What Is Life, said that the explanation of living things would involve as yet unknown laws of physics.

Pross thinks, along with Monod, that teleonomy requires an explanation. Isn’t teleonomy only supposed to be apparent purposiveness? So what is the problem? If we assume organisms lack real purpose and simply obey the laws of chemistry and physics, then there is nothing to explain except our perception of purpose. That may be a problem, the problem of consciousness. Is he going to solve that with his chemistry?

In his section on definitions of life, he carefully distinguishes individual living things, which cannot evolve, from populations, which can evolve, but he then talks about a population of mules, possibly not seeing that there can be no such thing.

He does seem to be on track in suggesting that most attempts to define life fail. The examples given either make mistakes like saying life is self-sustaining without qualification, instead of pointing to reliance on energy inputs, for instance, or only list some characteristics of life as known to us, or seem just ridiculous, like Freeman Dyson’s information definition.

Chapter 3 Understanding “Understanding”

Pross links understanding to induction, citing Bacon. He says all scientific explanations are inductive, being based solely on pattern recognition. True, patterns in some sense must match, but induction is a reasoning process, so it should describe not the explanation but the way it was derived. In that case, it seems clear that deduction plays as great a role as induction in our understanding. In talking about mathematics’ role in explanations, he goes from pattern recognition to pattern formulation, without noting that he’s moving between induction and deduction.

In discussing the problem of where the underlying patterns come from, that is, what is the reality behind them, he denies we can know that scientifically, and he quotes Wittgenstein to that effect. This would seem to put him into the linguistic positivists’ camp, but I doubt he’s that clear about questions like realism vs. anti-realism, although so far, his statements seem consistent with anti-realism. He does however seem to qualify himself at one point by saying that patterns are to some degree subjective. He also distinguishes quantitative, qualitative and statistical patterns. Then we get a dose of pragmatism to the effect that adequate understanding is whatever works. Then, in another twist, he says that the patterns we recognize are only reflections of the underlying reality of nature. Once again, it is not clear whether he’s an anti-realist, as he seemed to say earlier, or some sort of Kantian realist. Could he even be a Platonist? Images of reality?

The reductionism vs holism section doesn’t add anything. The problem is that he’s leaving out any discussion of the environment of life. If you frame the problem as what environment and what inputs do I have to supply to create a self-replicating molecular system that can undergo natural selection, you have a pretty good reductionist program for developing an understanding of life. If by life, you mean the biosphere, then you still have a long way to go, and it becomes necessary to use more complex terminology than what you would use to describe life in a simple experimental system.

Chapter 4 Stability and Instability

Pross agrees with my idea of auto catalysis: if something is auto catalytic the rate of formation increases as there is more of it around: dn/dt = rn provided you maintain steady inputs of reactants, while in a normal chemical reaction with a catalyst dn/dt = r, where n is the concentration of product and r is the rate of conversion of reactants to products. He expresses the idea in terms of the time required to produce a given amount of product, if you have a given amount of catalyst. For the Spiegelman RNA autocatalysis, you should get a logistic growth pattern, because the rate will be constrained by both the RNA and the protein enzyme acting catalytically. This seems like it ought to apply to PCR, for example.

Another thing about the RNA replication reaction is that it is template replication, so it actually yields copies with a highly specific structure – meaning that analogies to information become possible. Is that what all the talk about “information” in biology is, a physical analogy? How would the idea of a physical analogy apply to a computer or a brain? It seems as if information theory is a mathematical formulation applicable to understanding a variety of things, some of which (cells, telephone signals, computers) we think of as physical and others (language) that seem not to be. I would say that what goes on with cells is physical and the information is only metaphorical. A computer seems more problematic, especially since what it does can be represented as a Turing machine, and even though it isn’t a machine but a mathematical hypothesis its relation to meaningful information seems very immediate. Since information theory involves representations in mathematical symbols of concepts that are not physical, why invoke physical analogies? In all the physical systems covered by information theory, is there a point at which a mind is needed to interpret the meaning of the information? That seems to have been the original motivation in fields like cryptography, communications, etc. but in cybernetic systems there may be times when the information is used only by the machine. Still, someone has to eventually determine whether the machine is doing what it is supposed to, at least until we find ourselves in the Matrix, etc. Stephen Hawking apparently worries that this is where Artificial Intelligence is leading us. A biosphere is like that. It doesn’t need to be meaningful to us to be a biosphere.

What about crystal growth? Clonal growth?

What sense does it make to talk about kinetic dynamic stability or about the “efficiency” of maintaining a large population (p. 74) by rapid replication? I would think that in a way, autocatalysis is very unstable, because it tends to exhaust resources so quickly. He talks about Cyanobacteria being around for billions of years. Is persistence of a clade with little obvious development or change the meaning of stability? Success, might be a better term. To me, the Heraclitean flux is the only really persistent feature of the biosphere. Moreover, it looks as if the pace of change is accelerating: metazoans only in the last billion years, a full terrestrial biosphere only in the last 300 million years, hot blooded life only in the last hundred million, and cultural evolution only in the last six million? Is this all the result of auto catalysis? Is dn/dt = rn, where n is “information?”

It seems as if “stability” is not a very good word to encompass the persistence of biological entities through time, given the tremendous range of life histories found among living things. The mathematical complexities are very great (cf. Cole, L.C. The population consequences of life history phenomena. Quarterly Review of Biology Vol. 29, No. 2, Jun. 1954, pp. 103-137) and there are many dimensions to the whole problem of what is it that persists: genes, phenotype, species, clades? What about the stability of Redfield ratios? If true, it is an indication of an extremely widespread pattern. He claims the more stable replaces the less stable. Doesn’t that imply that species should last longer and longer in the fossils record? What is the actual pattern? TO BE CONTINUED

Looking for the Logos of Life II

Pross, Addy. 2012. What is Life? How chemistry becomes biology. Oxford University Press. 200 pp.

I found this an interesting and generally readable book, but I think it promises more than it delivers. My reflections on it are rather lengthy, so I’ll begin with:

Prologue and Chapter 1

Pross’s question is, “What is Life?” His book is offered as an advance over Schrodinger’s 1944 essay, What is Life? He will use “Systems Chemistry” to state a new law on the “emergence, existence and nature,” of living things. He claims to have found an overlooked form of stability in nature. According to Pross, “Darwinism is just the biological manifestation of a broader physical-chemical description of natural forces.” This will allow him to put forward a “generalized theory of evolution.”

Like Schrodinger, he starts with the laws of thermodynamics – heat transfer, entropy, etc. He sees his task as like Schrodinger’s: to account for the stability of a living cell, despite its being far from thermodynamic equilibrium. He also wants to explain how the first one could arise. He says the goal of that understanding is to be able to synthesize a living organism from scratch. I wonder whether in his “generalized theory of evolution” there is a deliberate echo of general relativity? Does this point to scientific hubris or is it an attempt to pump us a thesis is that is really not all that revolutionary?

The discussion begins by identifying certain “strange” characteristics of life that he thinks are problematic: life’s organized complexity, its purposeful and dynamic character, diversity, far-from thermodynamic equilibrium state and chirality (the “handedness” of amino acids)

Like almost every discussion of the origin of living cells, his begins by emphasizing the cell’s complex structure. I think he confounds small size with intricacy of design, which is ok, if you want to compare a cell to a refrigerator, but it seems odd to claim that an eye is a less intricate design than the ribosomes in the cells the eye is composed of. He tries to define complexity in terms of organization. Does that make sense? He uses the shape of a boulder to define complexity one way – what would it take to describe it precisely, I guess he means. He introduces the idea of information at this point. He claims that as far as the definition of a boulder, the exact shape is arbitrary, implying that the information describing a living cell is less so, but is this only because he ignores the internal composition of the boulder, how it acquired its particular shape and the relation between composition and shape, etc? He points out that even tiny changes in DNA can alter a cell, but this is potentially true of boulders as well, if we alter the makeup or distribution of components. Also, both cells and boulders can vary in exact makeup over quite wide ranges.

He says organized complexity and the second law of thermodynamics are inherently opposed. Cells need energy to maintain their ordered state. Does this really mean complexity is opposed to the second law? I find that physical scientists and some biologists make a very big deal out of what seems to me to be an artifact of looking at their experimental subjects in isolation. The opposition only arises if you ignore part of the system – the biosphere as a whole. Pross admits that this is the reason for the apparent contradiction.

Now he sets up another straw man: Darwinian theory only deals with biological systems, so it can’t account for the origin of the first, self-replicator, the protobiont. Darwin’s theory is biological and does not try to account for the origin of life, but does that mean a Darwinian theory can’t? Darwin himself says that natural selection is the result of natural laws, including presumably, those of chemistry and physics. In fact, apart from these, what are biological laws? Geometric growth is in a sense purely mathematical, but arguably so is a lot of physics and chemistry. Genetic variation and struggle for existence, even natural selection, are expressible in mathematical language. His question, “how did a system capable of evolving come about in the first place?” seems wrongly expressed, possibly because evolving is not the fundamental thing. Darwin’s is a theory of the origin of species. Is evolution a capacity or a faculty of living things? It seems more like the overall pattern that emerges. The word evolution has that troubling sense of preordination or unfolding.

He brings up chance and talks about how unlikely a cell is to form spontaneously. I guess you have to rule that out at some point. He refers to the “first microscopic complexity” coming into being, which seems to ignore that things are “complex” at the microscopic level in many ways other than being living things. He does not begin his argument by saying self-replication is the fundamental defining character of life, which I think unnecessarily draws out his discussion.

Talking about the apparent purposiveness of living organisms, he uses the word “teleonomy,” a coinage designed to avoid the supposed meanings of “teleology.” Pross says our interactions with the non-living vs the living world have a different quality, because of living things’ teleonomic character. He says we don’t use teleonomic explanations in the non-living realm, but then why is he always saying systems seek a lower energy state? Is the conservation of energy teleonomic? We can think of machines as having needs and of animals as machines. Teleonomy is a function of our way of seeing the world, not a measurable property of things: you can certainly think of a rock as wanting to fall or electricity wanting to discharge itself, and contra Pross, you can get some guidance from the laws of physics about the likely behavior of animals as well as trying to read their intentions in postures and expressions or consulting your own likely responses (putting yourself in their shoes). He sets it up as a stark duality, but is it? He then lumps under teleonomy things as diverse as chemotaxis and human voluntary behavior. He also identifies function with teleonomy.

In his long discussion, Pross never mentions the telos of teleonomy: self replication. Pross’s rhetorical withholding continues. It gets murkier when he does bring it up, because he says, while we can have a lot of goals as a human, we need to look at simple organisms to get at the real one. So is our purposiveness different from that of living things generally? He refers to it as a powerful replicating drive. What does “drive” mean? He claims teleonomy is as “real” as gravity. But gravity is in some way fundamental, as the physicists say, or at least an aspect of something more fundamental still, while teleonomy seems a by-product of self-replication. Teleonomy cannot, can it, be unified with the other forces of physics. He says gravity is quantifiable and teleonomy is not but that it doesn’t make teleonomy less real. He claims we stake our lives on the teleonomic principle when we drive our cars. What does he mean? Is it the design of the car or my ability to drive it to where I want to go and avoid hitting obstacles or going over cliffs?

Part of the problem is he starts talking about a teleonomic principle, not just teleonomy. Where did the principle come from? Teleonomy seems like an analogy to our own purposiveness, but what laws govern it? Is there any real similarity? Is the analogy in any way useful to reasoning accurately about living things?

Pross says, “Metaphysically…gravity and teleonomy are mental constructs that assist us in organizing the world around us [does he mean sense data?] So is he an anti-realist in the school of Hume and logical positivism or a Realist of the idealist school like Kant? Then again, the Scholastic ideas of gravity and teleology are organizing principles. Is teleonomy like the Scholastic gravity, going to be swept away by a better concept? At one point, he says “all inferred patterns are conceptual and are found nowhere else than in our minds.” How closely can he stick to this principle, and in that case, what is his book going to explain, patterns in our minds?

I think simply admitting that self-replication is a property of living systems, and not the goal, would obviate the need for teleonomy. If there is a need to talk about “purpose” to avoid prolixity when describing biological structures and behaviors that are aspects of self-replication, we should just use the term and not invent new words because we fear someone will accuse us of teleological thinking. I wonder if these constant verbal contortions are because we are still fighting battles with those who identify the ultimate cause with a Creator whose plans are often crudely anthropomorphic, like his appearance.

In the section of life’s great variety, Pross says, “non-living diversity is arbitrary.” That hardly seems true of geology or the atmosphere. Perhaps he means it is easier to see the relatedness of living organisms: classification of plants and animals by non-literate people is often very close to the scientific classification. He repeats the false characterization of species as, “each perfectly adapted to function and survive in its particular ecological niche.” So, he’s not an ecologist or evolutionary biologist, but even popular books like those by Steven Jay Gould warn against that sort of talk.

He claims further that there is an inescapable contradiction between the principle of natural selection and the principle of divergence [of character]. Again, this is not a bad point to bring up, but if it really were a contradiction, then something would be seriously wrong with our theories on the origin of species, and this is not the case. There is nothing preventing diverse things from being selected. If the conditions of life were always and everywhere identical, then selection would prevent divergence. The problem goes away once you include the idea that organisms exist in varying environments. He seems to confuse debates over mechanisms of speciation with debates over these two principles.

In the section on life’s far-from-equilibrium state, he seems to be setting up a straw man to knock over later. Yes, non-equilibrium thermodynamics is exceptional, but it is not confined to living things. The lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere are not in equilibrium, so why should it be surprising that processes occurred at some point that led to small parts of these moving further from equilibrium? As long as there is sunshine and radioactive decay, there’s the possibility of a system being supplied with enough energy to move it far from equilibrium. By far the trickiest part is to get the autocatalytic process going in an environment where it can be safe from degradation long enough to become robust enough to deal with the challenges of a changing environment and to diversify so as to occupy more places. But with no competition from already-existing organisms and billions of years…

I suspect the mystery of chirality (as he calls it) will prove to be another straw man. A phenomenon to be explained, yes, but not really that much of a mystery, at least not in the sense of requiring new principles to account for it.

His claim that we fully understand and can explain the characteristics of water or other inorganic substances, while we can’t understand living things also seems problematic. Do we really know all there is to be known about water? Again, he seems to be trying to hype up the level of mystery, instead of just saying that it’s a really complex problem. This would make his supposedly new principle seem more marvelous, I suppose. His promise is that he will reveal the hitherto hidden essence of life. TO BE CONTINUED.

Amphibious reflections

I have been carrying out a study of wood frogs Rana (Lithobates) sylvatica for a couple of years now on the campus where I work. We’re trapping frogs as they move toward the small vernal pond where they breed, to see how far away from the breeding site they overwinter. Wood frogs are explosive breeders, doing all their mating and egg-laying in a few days in late winter, after the pond thaws. The other night, after checking the traps and releasing the captured frog into the water, we stood on the N side of the pond and listened as the occasional calls began, gradually building up to a full chorus. I reflected that these frogs must have been coming to this pond for thousands of years to put their eggs in this collective womb, where their embryos can grow safely. Late winter after late winter, they have rasped out their certainty that another spring will arrive. The next morning sitting and contemplating, another thought occurred to me.

How is a college like a frog pond? Female frogs bring eggs to put in pond; parents bring students to college. Males come to inseminate eggs. Faculty plant the seeds of learning in the students.

Eggs are not simply passive matter, as Aristotle thought: they contain half the genome and are in many ways already non-genetically programmed to develop along certain lines. Rarely, eggs may develop apomicticly, not accepting any of the genes of the male. Students come already full of opinions, beliefs and predispositions that reflect their culture, social environment and upbringing. Some may refuse to absorb anything new.

Some frog eggs may already be badly damaged goods, burdened with issues that may stunt development and prevent successful growth and metamorphosis. New students can be the same.

Male frogs are intensely competitive, trying to inseminate as many eggs with their own seed as possible. Some faculty want to create exact copies of themselves; whole departments and program can become like this. Luckily, unlike frog eggs, students can undergo multiple fertilizations. The faculty, like the frogs, are driven by eros. As Socrates’ friend Diotima says in Plato’s Symposium, love is the desire to beget immortal beauty, wisdom and human excellence in the soul of another, as it was once conceived in the teacher’s own soul. Like male frogs, faculty love to engage in noisy display at times.

The male frog does not fill the egg up with stuff and shape it into what it is going to become. The male brings another part of the heritage of the frog population, new material that complements and completes what is already there. Good teachers sow ideas and let them complement, complete or rarely overwrite what is already in the student, sometimes supporting, sometimes challenging their beliefs and opinions.

The pond is the womb of the frog embryos, before and after they hatch. It must provide all the nutrition beyond what is in the egg itself, if the tadpole is to metamorphose into a froglet. A good pond contains a rich stock of nutrients and an active ecological community. A good college is an environment for learning. Students are not force-fed predetermined packages of nutrition, but instead forage for themselves in a place that holds a great store of thought from the past, especially recorded works of words and symbols. Unlike tadpoles, the students must learn to read these recorded thoughts and feelings for themselves.

A pond may be polluted, undergo eutrophication from excess nutrients, be invaded by predators or parasites, drained or have its water supply diverted, be filled in with sediment or disrupted by careless small boys or scientists. Like the pond, the college may allow the problems of the outside world to overwhelm it, become over-enriched with amusements, fall prey to ambitious or self-aggrandizing leaders, have its critical resources drained away or diverted, be destroyed to build something else or muddied up in the name of assessment or accountability by people who don’t realize the delicacy and vulnerability of what takes place.  As when ruling a great nation or cooking a small fish, a college must be handled very carefully, and those to whom a college is entrusted have tremendous responsibility.

If all goes well, in a few weeks or months the tadpoles reabsorb their childish tails, put forth their limbs and venture out onto the land to face the challenges of adult life well prepared. Likewise students, if they are well nourished, will leave behind the juvenile stage and enter into the vigor of young adulthood. Unlike frogs, it may be possible for them to return periodically throughout life to the pond to refresh and renew themselves.

Colonial lives

Hoyt, Eric.1996. The Earth Dwellers: Adventures in the Land of the Ants. New York. Simon and Schuster. 319pp.

Excellent book about ants at La Selva, the Organization for Tropical Studies’ field station in Costa Rica, both because it describes several species of very different ants from an ant’s eye view and for the endearing descriptions of two great myrmecologists, Bill Brown and E.O. Wilson, at work together in the field. Wilson is known to almost everyone, but Brown was also one of the greatest entomologists of the last century. Their contrasting personalities make them like characters from a movie about the adventures of two mismatched buddies. I was amused and edified by Hoyt’s description of their field techniques and sometimes reckless determination in the search for the miracle ant, Thaumatomyrmex. Brown’s views on taxonomic and systematic work, described here, are worth considering, and it is also worthwhile to look up his and Wilson’s published papers. Hoyt includes interesting biographical accounts of both men and quite a lot of readable information on the biology and evolution of ants and ants’ social behavior.

Wilson, E.O. and Jose M. Gomez Duran. 2010. Kingdom of Ants. Jose Celestino Mutis and the Dawn of Natural History in the New World. Baltimore. Johns Hopkins University Press. 96 pp.

Jose Celestino Mutis spent over forty years as a physician, botanist, linguist and priest in what is now Colombia (when he arrived from Spain in 1761, it was the New Kingdom of Granada). He began studying ants at the suggestion of Linnaeus, whose system he used in his work on plants. His detailed reports on ants are apparently lost, but this little book contains long quotes from his journals, which give accounts of his studies several species, including leaf cutter and army ants. Every aspiring naturalist should study these notes to appreciate Mutis’s clarity, perseverance and, above all, skepticism and honesty. This is best shown in the passages where he explains how he realized that the big-headed “soldier” ants were not the males, but instead, when he finally was able to observe copulation, males turned out to be the small winged individuals, who he originally took for young females, not fully grown. He expresses his gratitude to God for enabling him to correct his error and make such a wonderful discovery. In another entry, he reproaches himself for letting the press of his experiments on smelting metals in the mines cause him to forget to follow up on a potentially valuable observation. Another day, he forgets to record part of what he saw, and so with reservation, he allows himself to write it down the next day. He constantly refers to the need to check his conjectures with more observations and to try to reconfirm what others report to him. He often asks the local farmers for their views, but he never accepts them without the evidence of his own eyes. When he tries to estimate the number of army ants in a colony, he uses several independent methods of arriving at the number. As Wilson and Duran point out, about all you could wish of him is a naturalist is that he had included sketches of his ants to help modern myrmecologists identify them. They wonder why he did not do for ants what he did for plants: fit them into Linneaus’ system and have illustrations prepared. Despite owning a huge library, he was evidently not aware of Maria Sibylla Merian’s work on insects in Surinam or any published works on ants. He was quite on his own, with no prior experience and no expert to guide him when he began his work at age twenty-eight. Linnaeus had named only a handful of ants, all in one genus and with very sketchy descriptions. Although Mutis’s descriptions show him to be clear sighted, he does not attempt any sort of systematic classification of the species he encounters, based for example, on the number of petiole segments or the presence of a sting in the workers. This job was left to later workers. His greatest contributions were to the study of ants’ social behavior. He was without doubt one of the finest scientists of the 18th century. Perhaps only von Humboldt equals him as an observer. On the 200th anniversary of his death, the Colombian myrmecologist, Fernando Fernández and E.O. Wilson, named a new ant species, Pheidole mutisi (Fernández, F.; Wilson, E. O. 2008. José Celestino Mutis, the ants, and Pheidole mutisi sp. nov. Revista Colombiana de Entomología 34:203-208). 

Thanks to Wilson and Duran for making this gem available to naturalists.

Rau, Phil and Nellie Rau. 1918. Wasp Studies Afield. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press. 372 pp. [Dover Books reprint]

This is a fascinating early twentieth century work on solitary and social wasps. The Raus carried out their studies in the midwestern U.S. Their research covered hunting wasps with a wide range of prey. The wasps included both soil and wood nesting species in diverse habitats; one even dug in the clay infield of a baseball diamond. The Raus made detailed behavioural observations on many species and did experiments on paper wasp homing ability. They mention the drop off in aggression by paper wasps as winter approaches, all the brood matures and the workers die off and are replaced by overwintering queens. That’s just one example of many behaviors that I have noticed but not really thought about until they described it. Another good read for anyone who aspires to study insects in the field.

Looking for the Logos of Life I

Schrodinger, Erwin. 1967. What Is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell and Mind and Matter. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 178pp.

I wanted to put up this brief post before I launch into some much longer ones on books that purport to extend Schrodinger’s ideas and the tremendous biological discoveries that followed in the ensuing decades. I got started on this when I read another book, Eva Brann’s The Logos of Heraclitus [2011. Paul Dry Books. 160 pp], about which more later.

This is the first of a genre: physicists and chemists look at life. Schrodinger, in these lectures, delivered in Ireland in 1943, introduces the idea that life exists far from the thermodynamic equilibrium that physics sees most systems as tending towards. He is also the source of an idea I first heard when I was a graduate student, that organisms feed on “negative entropy.” The essay is worth reading for the quality of his reasoning and clear exposition, even though his predictions about the nature of the material carrier of heredity turned out not to be quite right.

Just one interesting thought: he points out that whatever molecule the hereditary material consists of carries out its functions in a way different from most of the enzymes in a cell. While most reactions in the cell rely on basically random interactions between molecules, in that you can only predict the general rate of reaction and not whether a specific molecule will react, there’s just one copy of a given gene in each cell. It has to be essentially certain that it will participate when needed in its particular role. Nevertheless, the basic processes of translation and transcription do involve many enzymes, along with the building blocks of nucleic acids and proteins, in what must be the usual sort of collectively predictable, individually unpredictable, dance. DNA is after all, a template, a fixed model against which to construct a product. Keeping that template stable and making sure it is copied correctly is the job of a whole complex set of enzymes in the cell. As Schrodinger points out, a big molecule like DNA can have the stability of a crystal, being held together by essentially the same forces.