Thursday, February 12, 2015

Ravens in Winter - Bernd Heinrich

Alone in the Western Maine woods, Bernd Heinrich spends the winter watching ravens. Watching, and wondering. The wonder-full Ravens in Winter is a book of field biology through-and-through. It is both a powerful evocation of the care that a scientist can have for 'his' subjects, and the lengths which one must be willing to go to craft a lucid and nuanced scientific argument. Rather than hide his missteps and difficulties, his mistaken hypotheses and failed experiments, it is precisely Heinrich's transparency which communicates that most elusive of scientific matters, the relationship between investigator and subject.

Heinrich starts from a simple premise: why do ravens appear to share food in the winter? Of what benefit could this possibly be in the northwoods where conditions can be exceedingly harsh and food often scarce? For five winters Heinrich sets natural experiments, trying as best the field scientist can to isolate variables, rule out false hypotheses, and remain aware of the role his own lens plays on how he sees the problem. However, what Heinrich recognizes is that, to speak meaningfully about the ravens he follows so closely, he cannot suppose to maintain a type of neutral distance. Witness the lone biologist racing the sunrise to climb a 70-feet plus pine, so as to better understand the formations which the ravens fly in each morning. See, also, how he rears numerous ravens in a hand-made aviary in his backyard, trying different foods, different social arrangements, and different stimuli. Heinrich throws himself into the ravens' world and finds many unexpected surprises.

Primarily an account of scientific research, Ravens in Winter builds to an adventure of the mind and spirit. We learn about Heinrich's home in the woods, and, indeed, about the biologist himself from the ravens which he has come to study. As his work is to tell the story of these birds, the ravens, also, tell a story about how a biologist makes sense of his work. While his methods may be occasionally unorthodox, what is clear is that Heinrich cares for his work. It may be suggested that it is precisely this care which allows him to speak so meaningfully about these mysterious and wonderful creatures.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Inferno - Dan Brown

Another of Robert Langdon's breathless adventures through a historic European city and their famous art. This time we are taken on a whirlwind tour of Florence (the home of Dante), Venice, and, moving a bit further afield, Istanbul (spoiler). With Brown and Langdon we know what we are getting ourselves into and, though he throws us a bit of a monkey-wrench this time through, the eagerly expectant reader will not be disappointed.

As usual, Langdon is more or less a vehicle to tell Brown's story and obliquely deal with a larger point of social morality. This time over-population is on docket - don't worry, Malthus gets his fair share of air time. Brown appears to be a close scholar of art (from my own grossly under-informed perspective). The same cannot be said for his treatment of the population conundrum. Admittedly we get a one-sided perspective of the issue from the deranged antagonist, but within this world of circulating elites, doctors, and professors, we cannot help but wish for at least one slightly more nuanced conversation about such a complex, and charged issue. Brown is, once again, asking us to reflect on our daily exercise of unexamined moral issues. However, in this case, overpopulation reads as too much of a rhetorical crutch. This, along with Brown's other normal hooks, do not quite come together. The reader is left waiting for the big unifying moment. Left waiting.

By the end Langdon's adventures truly are a sideshow to Brown's fetish for a type of illusive truth which our modern world misses. At heart his stories are broadly declensionist treatments of the modern situation and how voices from the past would or can speak to them. Brown's juxtaposition of modern technologies against classic works of art and poetry suggest a critique of the contemporary state of grand human endeavors. Once again technology is the weapon and the creations of yesteryear provide the map to our hoped-for safety. The popularity of his stories might suggest something profound, and perhaps profoundly troubling, concerning our modern condition.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Unitiarian Conscience: Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1801-1865

During the early years of the 19th century, the Unitarian intellectuals represented one of the preeminent voices of progressive American social and religious thought. Perhaps most famous for giving birth to the Transcendental movement of Emerson and Thoreau, the Boston community of Unitarians was, in the early years of the American republic, a driving force in its own right. The ministry of such men as William Ellery Channing, Henry Ware Jr., and Levi Frisbee, along with their relationship to America's leading light in education - Harvard University - brought a galvanizing voice to that much needed American position which held religion and reason hand-in-hand.

Forged and tempered in the philosophical schools of Burke and Locke, and broadly educated in the liberal arts, the Harvard trained Unitarians sought to reconcile nature and intellect, empiricism and aesthetics within a unified, coherent, thought system. In the face of a not inconsequential rise in Calvinism, this community often provided a starkly contrasting voice concerning the issues of the day. This is not suggest a base relativism or simply liberal heterodoxy. This community of preachers and writers was secure that the foundations of their faith were strongly constructed. Their conception of the holy was not undermined, but rather was strengthened, by contemporary developments in the sciences. In one of his most famous sermons, Unitarian Christianity, William Ellery Channing would proclaim his faith that, "God never contradicts in revelation what He teaches in his works." Channing's faith was grounded in his conception of the perfect Divine, and he would not let an overbearing Calvinism, nor a type of anything-goes universalism of the Transcendentalists, pervert what he saw as a unification of the intuitively understood and immediately apprehended experience.

While Howe's work paints a clear picture of the Unitarians, it is less clear why the Transcendentalists and Unitarian's differences proved insuperable. While it is true that the universalist thread of transcendentalism has become inextricably linked to much of American Unitarianism, it would be incorrect to assume either that such was fated, or that those who fought against the eventuality of this transformation provided a reason and faith system that was either incoherent, or that was easily discarded. While the relative conservatism of the mainline Boston Unitarians struggled to adapt its views to the slavery question, or to the type of radical social democratic thought that would come to define much of American protestantism and liberal political discourse, the conceptual worldviews held by these broadly educated and deep-thinking men provided real alternate conceptions of moral leadership in a democracy. The questions which they struggled  with, how to reconcile liberty with order, and how to bring reason and conscience to bear upon the problems of society, are with us still. As clear voices for a modern bourgeois values system, the Unitarians provided insight into the world approaching the coming generations of Americans.