Jesus, History, and Mount Darwin: Part 6
In part five, Kennedy explored the "provability" of Darwin's theory and looked at two types of thinkers: Totalizers and Tentative Investigators. Socrates and Plato, he said, were "Totatlizers"; Aristotle was a "Tentative Investigator." Today Kennedy expresses his respect for Aristotle's approach as he reflects on the messiness of the natural world and the inability of scientific models to fully reflect it.
Aristotle is most often presented in textbooks as a systematic thinker; however, if you read his books, you will realize that he was a Tentative Investigator, a tinkerer. Even his books on methods of logical thinking come together as a sort of Swiss Army knife approach to being an intellectual. Back when I was a college student, I read two books that impressed me with the importance of Aristotle: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), a travel-thinking book, and Saint Thomas Aquinas: “The Dumb Ox” (1933) by G. K. Chesterton. The tinkering, earthy, humanistic Aristotle is a theme in both. Over the decades since then I have increasingly found wisdom in Aristotle’s methods. G. K. Chesterton wrote that Aristotelian thinking “might be a humbler or homelier thing than the Platonic mind; that is why it was Christian.” He noted that when following in the steps of Aristotle one walked a “lower road,” one humbled in the manner of God “when he worked in the workshop of Joseph.”
For Aristotle natural history and ancient history required different fold-out tools from his pocketknife. Natural history depended upon observation and use of various types of categorizing and generalization. Natural history could be done by oneself alone. Ancient history, on the other hand, required a courtroom approach, the evidence, analysis, and judgment all being aspects of a social art. Human history was political for Aristotle.
The four of us, sweating as we hiked upward through switchbacks, decided to take a rest. On a big rock, I laid out the map, compass, and altimeter/barometer and pointed to Mount Darwin in the distance. Dave looked at the map and compass and corrected me.
“No. That rise in the ridge next to it is Darwin.”
I, being his former professor, corrected his error. I checked the map’s compass variation and adjusted it again to magnetic north. I showed him, based on our elevation, where we were on the trail. If we were there on the map, then the real Darwin was at this angle from us.
Dave, a veteran of the first Gulf War whose Navy job was in the high-tech bowels of the aircraft carrier Constellation, was not impressed. “No. That one is Darwin.”
“No,” I replied. “Look at the way that rock points up. That is the pinnacle of Darwin.”
“No. A little to the left is Darwin.”
He wouldn’t back down. This was mountain orienteering. I think I should have some authority here. As for Dave, yes, he had lots of training and experience with maps and instruments; however, it was my compass! We agreed to disagree. I gathered the tools of my leadership, and humped my pack onto my back.
Nature is Messy
“Nature is messy,” a geologist tells writer John McPhee, “Don’t expect it to be uniform or consistent.” McPhee’s books on geology tend to emphasize the humbling effect of the real earth on the overly-intellectual geologists who want to over-simplify it. In Rising from the Plains (1986), McPhee rambles through Wyoming with an aging U.S. Geological Survey geologist who heaps disdain on “Megathinkers” who don’t get dirty working in the field. Field geologists have to be more humble and face every day the quirky and irregular aspects of places like Wyoming. The government, however, is downsizing the regional offices. “The name of the game now is ‘modelling,’ on office computers at the national office.” He describes modelers as working in a “black box” where the earth becomes an abstraction and the awkward individual facts evident in the field get smoothed over.
Maps are models. Every map or globe is an abstraction making trade-offs with reality. Modeling was one of the tools of natural science in the Aristotelian pocketknife. Generalizations that smooth over the particularities can be very useful. Maps are generalizations. Maps are abstractions. Reality is so messy that it is oftentimes more useful to not look too closely. Step back from the messiness and a person can often find abstractions more useful than reality.
Hiking up the switchbacks leading to Mount Darwin we shared the trail with several people that I noted were carrying GPS units. At the technology counter at backpacking stores I have heard people fall into raptures of amazement that the little screen shows their position exactly on the earth. Trouble is: a GPS unit actually calculates its position by triangulation with satellites, and then correlates that position to a map in its memory—not to the actual earth.
To get really picky, the GPS unit does not work directly with the actual shape of the earth. The actual earth is slightly flattened. GPS uses an ideal sphere as a model upon which it imposes circular latitude and longitude lines. When a handheld GPS calculates its position by latitude and longitude—which is its best work—it is not calculating its place actually on earth. It is calculating its place on a sphere that is a close representation of a non-spherical earth. This is one of the reasons a GPS will always be slightly imprecise. As with most things, the further we dig, the more squishy our knowledge.
The earth is elastic in erratic ways. Not only is the earth’s shape and distribution of its mass not stable, the earth also wobbles, causing the north and south poles to wobble. The poles don’t wander too far, but with poles whose positions aren’t stable. We can’t know our precise latitude on maps because latitude is an angle measured from wobbling north and south poles. The problem affects astronomers and such things as the target systems inside intercontinental ballistic missiles. Today there is an International Terrestrial Reference Frame that uses computer models to quantitatively estimate polar motion and its effects. It is very accurate; however, we still can only estimate the future latitude of a point on earth and any statement of position is accurate only within a range of unknowing.
Magnetic north is also problematic. When hiking in the back country, the first thing to do with a map is to use a compass and the information about magnetic variation on the map to orient magnetic north to true north. Good maps tell you the average magnetic variation for a general region for the publication year of that map. Extremely good maps such as nautical charts from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tell you the yearly rate of variation change and have lots of information about areas of magnetic disturbance where your compass will not work. All these maps go bad after a few years. There is a short window of accuracy to maps and their magnetic predictions. Magnetic north wanders erratically. Every day it wanders over a region of about 85 km. Year to year, it heads in a generally northwest direction. Also, the intensity of its force is diminishing. There is a possibility that it might flip-flop soon, as it has done erratically in the past, thus causing all compass needles to go through a period of pointing nowhere and eventually pointing south instead of north.
A GPS is not dangerous to use. It is only dangerous to be overconfident about what it tells you. For Dave and me, with our maps and compass laid out on a rock, the weaknesses of our information are not a problem. Navigating in the High Sierra is pretty simple. The deep assumptions and problems submerged in my map won’t affect us. On the other hand, knowledge of its deep assumptions and instabilities can encourage a little humility and care along the way.
Much that goes on in universities is like what goes on inside a GPS unit. We find it useful to create models, and then study the models as reality. However, all members of universities should strive to be wise about keeping the “useful” separate from the “true.” At universities, we are supposed to try and hold to them both. We get into trouble when we assume that they are identical or only care about one or the other.
After trekking up a bunch of switchbacks, we reached Blue Lake at 10,400 feet. We were through the steepest part of our day’s hike and were seeing an increasing amount of snow and ice. I kept an eye on the barometer, looking for trends that would show a change in the weather. We had a high-pressure air mass over us the whole weekend, keeping bad weather away and blue skies above, but I watched barometric pressure anyway as we were going up. We were climbing late in the season, and big mountains can create their own weather. If the barometric pressure started dropping faster than it should with the higher altitude, we would be looking at rain or snow. Though Blue Lake was pleasantly surrounded by trees, we were headed up above tree-line where we could see only chunks of rock.
Up close, the High Sierra ridges are not pretty. The High Sierra is being violently pushed up as California, geologically, keeps jamming itself into Nevada. Approaching from the west, it is easier to see that Mount Darwin and Mount Mendel are really just two high spots on a long sharp ridge. Approaching from the east, we won’t see Mount Mendel (13,710΄) until we are on the ridge leading to Darwin’s summit.
Theodore Solomons, when naming the Evolution Group in 1895, did not name Mount Mendel. At that time, Gregor Mendel (1822–1884) was unknown to all but a tiny few scientists. He is considered the father of genetics, the field that, more than any other, has partnered up with Darwinism in mutual confirmation and explanation. The peak’s name was proposed by the Sierra Club in 1942. The peak had not been named earlier because many thought the peak was already named after Alfred Russell Wallace. But Wallace had another peak. Even the 1912 and 1918 USGS maps misnamed the peak. So when the confusion was worked out, there was an unnamed summit next to Mount Darwin. With genetics growing and elementary textbooks praising Mendel as a model scientist his was the perfect name for the mountain.
Beginning around 1900 scientists began to realize that Mendel offered a controlled, experimental method to get at what Darwin only observed in the wild. Mendel found a multi-generational, mathematically understandable pattern in peas that enhanced the conviction that there was a physical mechanism in living things acting as a shuffler of traits. Mendel’s experiments did not prove randomness, but they did show that a variation and selection process was happening with mathematical consistency. Mendel’s work showed that it might be possible to use his patterns of hybrid peas to make models of evolution, especially models that, sidestepping any messiness, could reach deep beyond ancient history back into the natural history of human beings.
Dave and I wanted to get over to the top of Mount Mendel when we reached the top of Darwin, but it seemed unlikely that we would have time on this trip. Standing on the summit of both Mount Darwin and Mount Mendel would be a thrill, but we did not have unlimited time and Steven was walking slower than I expected.