Brian Robinson sent me a tape of a recent talk by Richard Dawkins, a lament about the continued apathy of our general public toward science despite its gifts. Science can be fun but a lot of it can be difficult. He recalls receiving advice to make people laugh and to be sure than any demonstrations are ended by giving the audience something to eat.
Ed Wilson offers a similar complaint; that the sciences offer our most reasonable hope for managing population, imbalances of consumption, and elimination of waste, yet the humanities and the transcendentalists resist empiricism.
Konrad Lorenz, then, is a puzzle. I bought a copy of "The Natural Science of the Human Species," his first book recently available through MIT Press but written when he was a prisoner of the Russians, held in Armenia between 1944 and 1948. The book anticipates Wilson in a number of areas; it clearly is intended for human applications and speaks to the problem of a union between the humanities and natural sciences.
The book is a treasure, not only for its content and for its chaotic survival but also for the manner in which Lorenz produced it. He used scraps of paper, cadged from guards or cut from paper bags that originally held cement, 6 x 8 inches. The book ran 750 pages plus another 100 that were devoted to planning the book. He wrote without a desk or heat or even a decent light. Icicles are said to have grown from the walls inside his cabin; he attempted to tame young rats that warmed themselves against his body. He had pen nibs but sometimes had to use quills; he recorded his thoughts with diluted ink or potassium permanganate. He had no sources aside from a copy of "Faust I" yet the text was nearly free of error.
Science can more easily understand Wilson's or Dawkins' audience that it can Lorenz.
Some labels come to mind. He was a physician (diagnostically significant in itself!) and not only performed medical duties in the P.O.W. camp and wrote his book but also gave lectures, organized a performance of "Faust I," and organized variety shows and took roles in some of them. His style is described as "bombastic," and riddled with italics and exclamation points. (He also used the editorial/royal "we" but such may have been customary in those bleak days. I am also reminded of Howard Bloom's style in his list-serve communications!) He returned to freedom with his book (after traveling to Moscow to get permission to take it out of Russia and writing a duplicate copy for the Russian authorities), a crested lark and a starling (carrying one cage in each hand, a corncob pipe, and some items for keeping himself tidy.
He was obviously skilled socially, organizing shows and getting the guards to supply him with paper, and likely could have had a more comfortable existence with his medical skills. Yet he attempted to tame rats instead of killing them; he carried his birds home instead of abandoning or releasing them.
I think Lorenz is the clue that answers both Dawkins' and Wilson's puzzle about the rest of us. Being a scientist may be more of a talent (or a curse) rather than a product of social learning. Such people are not necessarily rare but they are also not a majority. Howard Gardner has remarked about the inability of most students to learn and apply scientific principles outside of the classroom and in formats apart from their examinations ... even engineering students at M.I.T. show these problems. He's noted the existence of "disciplinary experts" that know by third grade more than the teacher does about a particular topic and may have no regard for material that does not bear directly on his specialty. Lorenz was likely a disciplinary expert and would have been so even if Dawkins had given him food after each lecture.
Wilson grants most of us a "need" for religious belief (I cannot experience it, however, and neither can my son who was raised by his Catholic mother. I don't think Jimmy ever did even though he was reared away from my corrosive influence but such is a matter for "Grand Dad explanations) but does not take the complimentary step of considering scientific outlook a variably expressed talent. Dawkins, the supreme gene theorist, apparently feels that lectures and social learning will turn the average of us into the exceptional. What marvelous inconsistencies for both of my heroes! Wilson (but probably not Dawkins!) allows us aptitudes for theism; neither of them for empiricism.
I'm perhaps more comfortable with such variability between people; I marvel frequently at the range and subtleties of intact abilities in clients who carry labels for "ADHD" or varied learning and emotional flaws.* Thus, the gentleman or the lady (I know two such people!) who is gifted with plants and Latin names but who had major difficulty in school is interesting but no longer puzzling or bizarre. Each one is a marvel, a mosaic of abilities that may or may not be shared with other people.
Some of them also have sleep disturbances, highly determined natures, and an animated, overconfident style when discussing their talent. (I bet Lorenz didn't need a lot of sleep!) Many of them are extremely talkative, exquisitely sensitive to their place on the social hierarchy, and emotionally labile when outside their areas of depth. (I won't show my own problem with temporal lobe excitability by speculating that they might have had one!)
The M.I.T. edition of Lorenz' book has him in a faded picture on the cover ... on 1 leg, holding 2 crows ... one tough bird himself.
* Obviously, I'm still hooked on the Adaptationist model described in other essays over the past year or two.