Wednesday, January 25, 2017

How to Build a Biologist

Independent of the eternal virtues of good children's literature, the mature reader is characterized by a quest for realism in literature. Yet a mind not trained in the hard sciences cannot expect to distinguish between science and pseudoscience.
Such a mind will therefore often mistaken fantasy for reality and miss its aim. A reader not sensitive to scientific accuracy may well fall into the trap of preoccupying their minds with matters that are superficially important yet wholly without grounding in reality. That is where excellent books like How to Build a Dinosaur by Desalle & Lindley come to our rescue.

While the book fits snugly in the genre of popular scientific literature, it serves a higher literary good. It is less a work of fiction than a very prolonged movie review that often takes the shape of Biology 101. Jurassic Park is doubtless a modern movie classic, or at the very least it is universally known in most of the civilized world. The film's popularity justifies the authors' decision to make it the subject of their book because they come not to praise the movie, but to bury it and erect a far more interesting tale for us: they relate the real scientific problems that would arise if ever an endeavor like the one in Jurassic Park were attempted.

I choose to write about the original book, its' full title being The Science of Jurassic Park and the Lost World or How to Build a Dinosaur rather than the new 2009 book of the same shorthand title by Horner and Gorman not only because I have yet to read the latter, but because I seek not to enter into the biological debate over the practicality of actually reconstituting dinosaur life, but merely to expound upon the virtues of this sort of book for the purpose of refining and improving literature in the strict sense of good writing.The goal here is not to venture a polemic with A Feathered Dinosaur Tail with Primitive Plumage Trapped in Mid-Cretaceous Amber, but to demonstrate what may not immediately be obvious to the oblivious literary humanist: that knowing the content of "Current Biology" will actually help us become more discerning readers and writers.

For when we were very young, we delighted in fantasy and fairy tale not because of a burning desire to escape reality, but out of a mischievous conviction that reality was escaping us. The impatient nature of youth is to yearn for serious ventures of the adult kind. The best children's fantasy and fairy tales introduce young minds to dramatic themes adequate to their age and temperament. As such minds mature, they require a food that is likewise more mature to feast upon. Eventually, when the first signs of real changes in character appear - changes that the young mind which is halfway honest with itself perceives in itself, boys and girls leave fantasy and fairy tale and embark upon the serious novel. The serious novel, of course, is often a perilous voyage because a young mind is either not entirely ready for it or the novel is not entirely as serious as it appears. Still, like a bird learning to fly, we are eventually tossed to the wind by, if not family, then time itself.

As sophomoric readers we tend to risk forgetting the precise definition of "sophomoric", especially if we have demonstrated a tendency towards the humanities which, lacking any perceptible concrete achievements have therefore built around them an aura of elitism best encompassed by the word intelligentsia. Armed with this sort of self-perception, admitted into this elite club by a simple act of self-congratulation, we risk stagnation - particularly when we convince ourselves that psychology is a hard science and therefore literature which takes account of human psychology is somehow the be all and end all of what a great book ought to be.

We might even further shield ourselves from any self-doubt by convincing ourselves that by not watching rubbish popular films and not reading rubbish pulp fiction we are therefore implicitly preoccupied with only the highest of the literary arts. This conceit, like all conceit, deserves to be shattered and much as Nietzsche instructs philosophers to please use a hammer, so the lovers of literature would do well to enjoy a bad movie from time to time. It is only a bad movie which can give rise to the question "why is it bad?" It is all well and good to watch a movie like Jurassic Park and opine that it is bad because it is unrealistic. But why is it unrealistic? And not why in general - why precisely?

The literary intellectual no less than the biologist should be able to venture a basic answer to this question. The biologist is obliged to do so by his science, the man of literature by his art. The obligation of the biologist is easily recognized, of the man of letters less so. Yet fiction, if there is to be any value in it whatsoever beyond the mere exploitation of fantasy and emotion, ought to relate to reality. Good fiction always mirrors some reality. Imagination, as the word implies, is an image of something. If the thing imagined is hardly accurate - the image itself will be all the less interesting.

As any good writer will tell you, the difference between poor fiction and good fiction is that to write good fiction one must build imaginary plot, setting and character almost with the same care and attention to detail as when one is building a real house. The science fiction writers know this principle best. Asimov made it clear on many an occasion: science fiction, to be really interesting, uses the hypothetical realm of the imagination as a field for exploring the very real problems extrapolated from scientific fact. Not even the most abstract or surrealistic of fiction is any good unless it leaves an impression that impacts our real state of being. High fiction which is so high as to get us nowhere is no better than low fiction which merely excites the passions or appeals to the vulgar.

In order to write (and hunt down) the kind of fiction that a man of literary tastes ought to focus on, it goes without saying that having some understanding of realities that imaginative literature ought to reflect upon would be a good idea. This is likely why a liberal education is by definition an education in the arts and sciences. This is also perhaps why the liberal arts in our time are often so tiresome. The shambles of a liberal arts torn from scientific understanding is omnipresent in the predominance of subjectivity in the arts. Self-expression is everywhere, self-refinement nowhere. Self-expression is extremely easy; the only training required is the step-by-step procession by which shame, timidity, conscience, intimacy and taboo are shed in favor of an open mind. Self-refinement is extremely difficult because it requires us to guard all of these ancient virtues so that our self-expression can be made worthwhile.

Books like How to Build a Dinosaur, because they are written by scientific minds for inquisitive minds, help the imaginative lover of literature immensely. They are the perfect medium between science and fiction, and their utility goes far beyond the obvious virtue of serving to make for better science fiction. Such books help us see the world as it really is, as well as demonstrating to us that the reality of biology is far - far - more interesting than the vast majority of fictional and nonsensical visions of reality developed by the scientifically untrained mind. The mind which understands basic biology is ready to imagine a fiction that aims - as fiction always does - to be even more interesting than reality. Given just how interesting biology is - this may be a very tall order for literature.

 Note: Photograph courtesy

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