In “Cormac McCarthy on the Santa Fe Institute’s Brainy Halls” (The Daily Beast, February 14, 2012 ) Nick Romeo reports on the Santa Fe Institute, former home of theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman ( now at the University of Vermont). Kauffman is one of the best-known self-organization of life theorists. More on him later. For now, Santa Fe:
The Santa Fe Institute was founded in 1984 by a group of scientists frustrated with the narrow disciplinary confines of academia. They wanted to tackle big questions that spanned different fields, and they felt the only way these questions could be posed and solved was through the intermingling of scientists of all kinds: physicists, biologists, economists, anthropologists, and many others.
So far so good.
It appears Santa Fe is now trying to integrate artsies with scientists:
Yet while Goldstein and McCarthy aren’t consciously trying to analyze topics as novelists, their perspective sometimes supplies a way of thinking that’s unusual among scientists. Bettencourt gave an example to describe the benefit of interaction with a novelist. “I was just talking with Cormac on crime in Mexico. It’s relatively well measured, but the motives are fluid and complicated. We were talking about organized crime, which involves many factors. You have to understand demographics, corruption, the police, the tolerance of people for violence, and to some extent part of the challenge is knowing the dirt, the visceral, the unquantifiable and messy aspects. Novelists tend to have a different view than physicists, who are always trying to abstract things away.” He continues, “The design here is to have an intellectually interesting place. And the payoff often doesn’t come immediately. But it’s impossible to do what we do without an environment so rich and diverse and haphazard.”
But then it all falls apart.
From a certain perspective, the opposition between humanists and scientists seems superficial. Authors like George Eliot and Charles Dickens read or were influenced by Darwin, and Darwin was a great lover of novels. He wrote in his autobiography that novels “have been for years a wonderful relief and pleasure to me, and I often bless all novelists.” As Gell-Mann remarked at lunch one day, “Novels are part of civilization, and thus interesting.” Our era of hyper-specialized subfields and mutually unintelligible vocabularies makes it easy to forget that borders between disciplines were once crossed more frequently.
If they really want integration, they will need to take the ghost of Darwin out and shoot it. Aim for the gizzard. If the gizzard’s location is unclear, aim for the hypostome.
So what if the historical Darwin may have liked novels? They were a key form of popular entertainment in his day. It would be far more remarkable if he didn’t like them.
Darwinism today is about why we are 99% chimps and not responsible for our actions, why the mind is an illusion (an idea that terrified Darwin, gleefully embraced by many of his followers), and why any theory in science, no matter how ridiculous, makes more sense than assuming there is a design behind it all.
As a matter of fact, either Darwinism or science will survive. Not both.
Let’s hope the artsies on offer at Santa Fe still believe in orderly sentences and coherent narratives, as if the reader were a thinking being. Not everyone seems to believe that these days.
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