Bell, Nabokov’s butterflies, and S.J. Gould

Daniel Bell of “The Post-Industrial Society” prophesy, dies at 91 (Source: NYTimes, Jan25/11)

Bell was something of a social prophet, announcing the end of global political ideologies such as the Communism of the USSR (See The End of Ideology). Later he predicted that service-based economies would come to supplant agricultural and industrial-based economies. He can be read as continuing the work of those such as Max Weber (in the study of the relationship between Protestant Work ethic and capitalistic consumerism). For a full article on Bell, check out this New York Times piece by Michael T. Kaufman.

Nabokov is the new Goethe, sort of… 
(Source: NYtimes, Jan26/11)

Goethe was not only one of the great writers of German Romanticism, but he was also a polymath, developing theories of optics and colour, as well as a theory of morphology. Though most conclude that his theories weren’t quite on the mark.

Vladimir Nabokov was also a polymath of sorts, in the classical sense. Besides writing “Lolita” and other works of greatness, he was also a curator of lepidoptera at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. And like Goethe, he developed speculative theories on his “other” interests, like the evolution of butterflies. The Polyommatus blue butterfly, he claimed, arrived in the Americas, coming from Asia over millions of years in a series of waves. Though this theory was not supported in Nabokov’s time (isn’t that the way these stories always go). But unlike Goethe, scientists, and literary folks aching for a leg up, are pleased as punch that gene sequencing has allowed Nabokov theory to be named “correct.”

Congratulations Nabokov, way to be good at everything.

Canada’s Gentle Internet Totalitarianism

(Source: JStor Jan26/11)

My first Internet connection was in Nova Scotia, it was about $40/month, and it was unlimited. Wow. Those were the days. When I was in Ontario working on my MA, unlimited Internet was like an Eden myth, or like telling cave-dwellers that there is indeed a sun outside of the cave. I found the same thing when I moved to Montreal. These are big voting populations that can’t remember a time when the Internet was a (relatively) open, uncapped, and unthrottled network of information exchange. No wonder Canada is now a gentle Internet totalitarian state. Yes people, the CRTC just sold us all out and let the major service providers stick their hands up our skirts.

Read up on this and make this a voting issue. We ought not just be pissed because our episodes of Castle don’t load fast enough to stream smoothly anymore (thank you Videotron), but also because all those ads you see on the side of pages, you’re paying for those now. See all those gateway pages and requests for surveys, you’re paying for those too, bit by bit.

I just knocked my mug on the floor, spilling my cold coffee everywhere. God spilling things pisses me off!

Anyway. I’d like to end with some news that really pleases me.

New Book on Stephan Jay GouldThe Science and Humanism of Stephen Jay Gould

For those of you who have yet to encounter Stephan Jay Gould, you might imagine what it would be like if Alberto Manguel wrote about natural history. That would be Gould, though with a more American prose style.

Gould, now deceased, was not only a revolutionary in evolutionary biology and palaeontology, but also a prolific essayist. His work was first introduced to me by my graduate supervisor, Dr. David Holdsworth, a polymath in his own right. Dr. Holdsworth, who has some interest in the applications of complex systems theory for theorizing ecological risk, often celebrates Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium: that the history of life, rather than being a slow and gradual progression from simple ancestors to current forms of complex organisms, is characterized by sudden explosions of diversity then catastrophic extinction (see Wonderful Life for a lovely book on the subject). I find this theory convincing, especially with the evidence supplied by Gould in a number of his books, but can only really agree on theoretical grounds. It seems to me that, with some blood and sweat, it could also resonate as a tool for understanding our discontinuous histories of knowledge.

MR press has just published a new book on Gould by Richard York and Brett Clark dealing with Gould’s attempt to synthesis natural history and humanism.

Gould has always shown a strong tendency toward humanism. While loathed by many of us in philosophy, after Nietzsche, for biologists, and philosophically-minded scientists more generally, humanism is often a desperate attempt to convince the world’s publics that something is wrong in the biosphere. Few were more concerned with this issue than Gould, for whom extinction was a subject of study. As a researcher of snails, Gould, like all in that field, was inspired by the life-long work of Henry Crampton on Partula, the great land snails of the South Pacific island of Moorea. The work was formative and canonical. Gould, then, also had the unfortunate burden of being one of the few to realize that after Crampton’s death, the Partula had become extinct.

(For more on Gould’s connection between extinction of the Partula and humanism see “A Reflective Prologue” in Eight Little Piggies. )

I once saw a lecture on the concept of an author’s “late work” and Gould typifies the idea of how one’s “late work” tends to turn more towards reflection and philosophy. Deleuze and Guattari claimed as much in their “late work” What is Philosophy? (It was late for Deleuze at least.) The same has been said of Beethoven. With Gould that relationship has always been there, but in his later books, likeThe Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox, and I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History, there is a more pronounced look at the relationship between natural history, the humanities, and the dangers to come.

I’m sure that York and Clark’s book will be able to loosen up some of the knots in Gould’s humanism, and I hope that this book will put Gould’s wonderful work out there for others to discover. Here is some information on Richard York and Brett Clark’s new book on Gould, The Science and Humanism of Stephen Jay Gould,and excerpt of the book available online.

Let’s end with a little interview that Gould did at Harvard in 2000. Most of the questions are not very thoughtful, but you’ll get a general feel for Gould’s humanism, natural history, and approach to essays. Notice how much he hates these questions.


4 thoughts on “Bell, Nabokov’s butterflies, and S.J. Gould

  1. Good sir, is your image for the CRTC’s ruling not a bit misleading? Usage caps != tiered internet. Not to say that both are not highly important issues, however. And yes, ads will add to part of your bandwidth usage, which is very unfortunate. Though personally I don’t have a problem with ads on websites, particularly video streaming ones, as the website owner has to make a living somehow.

  2. I don’t care about ads on websites, that’s how folks make money. But when my ISP subtracts their presence from my allotted capped amount of internet, I get mad. The web shouldn’t act like a magazine, where the price of the ads is in the prince of the magazine. That’s not how website owners make their money. With Videotron, they already charge $7 per gigabyte once you go over 40 gigabytes upload&download combined. In Ontario, you can get Internet bills up to $200 if your not paying attention to your usage (now they’ll give you widgets for that, which say things like “slow down buddy!” on them). Tiered internet is one thing, but the CRTC is making Canadians look like fools by opening us up to the wolves. Don’t you think? I cringe to think how much Internet will cost or how I’ll be allowed to use it.

  3. I really need to figure out to make this alert me to comments…

    At any rate, yes, the CRTC’s decision is entirely wrong. I wasn’t debating against that at all, I just thought the image the article you reference uses is an example of a different issue (that of net neutrality).

    Really the usage-based billing just shows that either the CRTC is in the pocket of the businesses it’s supposed to regulate, or they’re just uninformed about the technology which they should know about. The amount of data going through a pipe is completely irrelevant, your bandwidth is what is used to prevent devices on the route from getting overloaded. Western world ISP’s are just cheap and/or lazy about upgrading their networks to meet the demands of higher quantity of users.

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