October 29, 2012 @ 2:28 pm
I’m alternating between three documentaries at the moment, a Ken Burns piece from 1997 about Thomas Jefferson, another historical biopic called The Buddha, and a third about four Shaolin monks living and teaching in the United States (wow, didn't realize they were all PBS films; support your local station!). The Toynbee thing is still floating around in there, too. I find myself doing that a lot, partly because I have an easily bored ten-year-old, and I rarely get to watch all of anything in one sitting (grumble, grumble, growl). The other, less aggravating, reason is that I’ve discovered that the sources often recombine in my head. Sometimes the results are just silly, but other times the recombinations and comparisons lead to unexpected insights.
There’s the interaction of personality with intellect and circumstance. The Toynbee tiler was such a recluse that he couldn’t really spread his message in any of the normal social channels. Jefferson was somewhat less sensitive, but still not an effective orator. However, he was lucky to have lived at a time when people read more, and according to the expert historians, his discomfort with personal conflict may have been the very thing that led him to phrase the Declaration of Independence in terms just abstract enough, just distant enough that people would agree not to examine them too literally. “The pursuit of happiness” can mean almost anything, as Bill Luster illustrates with UK basketball. (Go, Cats!) . In other words, his personality interacted with his environment in a way that enhanced the fitness of his message, the opposite of the Toynbee tiler’s situation. My students have maybe more trouble with that idea than with anything else in genetics. It’s not nature OR nurture; it’s always nature AND nurture, in varying degrees.
Jefferson’s mythic language formed the basis of America’s identity, but he also helped structure the American society in practical ways, by writing dozens of laws that dismantled the previous aristocratic society (“Structure yields function” is another one of those abstract foundational assumptions that every biologist knows and believes). He wanted a structure that would maximize the opportunities for social mobility. He proposed public schools, ended the first son’s advantage in inheriting property, all kinds of stuff, always at the level of society. His own personal life was pretty grief-stricken, apparently. His wife died young and made him promise on her deathbed not to remarry; only two of his six children with her lived to adulthood. An optimist, but often in an abstract way:
The most fortunate of us, in our journey through life, frequently meet with calamities and misfortunes which may greatly afflict us; and, to fortify our minds against the attacks of these calamities and misfortunes should be one of the principal studies and endeavors of our lives. The only method of doing this is to assume a perfect resignation to the Divine will, to consider that whatever does happen, must happen; and that, by our uneasiness, we cannot prevent the blow before it does fall, but we may add to its force after it has fallen. These considerations, and others such as these, may enable us in some measure to surmount the difficulties thrown in our way; to bear up with a tolerable degree of patience under the burden of life; and to proceed with a pious and unshaken resignation, till we arrive at our journey's end, when we may deliver up our trust into the hands of Him who gave it, and receive such reward as to him shall seem proportioned to our merit.
THOMAS JEFFERSON, letter to John Page, Jul. 15, 1763
The Buddha, on the other hand, was a genius of practical personal freedom. He worked at the level of the individual, apparently believing that the benefits would automatically bubble upwards to society in a bottom-up, emergent fashion. As far as I can tell, the Sangha rules that he suggested were meant for monasteries, for small groups of people living together like a family. They were not enforceable laws for a whole society. He never tried to insinuate himself with kings or emperors to magnify his power. There was that one emperor, Ashoka, who tried to build a state on Buddhist principles, but that was long after the Buddha himself was dead, I think.
Aside from the coincidence of the jazz band here at Tate Street Coffee choosing this exact moment to play “I Want to Be Happy,” this is the really cool part: multilevel selection theory integrates those two perspectives. There’s no assumption that one level is more important than the other, which is the usual starting point for philosophical debates, another either/or logical thing. Instead, which level dominates in a particular situation depends on the situation. Not in a linear way (2+2=4), but in a predictable way if you have the mathematical chops (which I don’t).
It’s cool to listen to these young jazz musicians, all male, sitting around talking shop on their break -- trading advice on finding gigs, that kind of stuff. There’s also an old guy in shades with a cane, a regular, who shows up to hand out burned c.d.s of obscure music and pass on his store of lore. We need more of that sort of intergenerational thang.
I broke out into a nasty extended case of mentoring myself during class on Friday, reminding my Honors students (the ones who showed up, anyway) to take advantage of the networking opportunities that A&T’s insanely popular Homecoming weekend offers. I didn’t say don’t get drunk & laid, but I did say don’t ONLY get drunk & laid. I told them to wear their Audubon/Toyota Together Green t-shirts to our departmental reception, and I printed out the dead-bird pictures they took during their service project as another macabre icebreaker. Maybe not such a great idea at a dinner buffet, but the best I could think of at the moment. It is almost Halloween, after all. Typically, it didn’t occur to me to pitch MentorNet to the alumni until it was too late. Next year, assuming I haven’t yet found enlightenment and stepped off the Wheel of Time.