Monday, October 28, 2013

Honors Reads: Steinbeck's 'Sea of Cortez' with Prof. Christian Kiefer

The American River College Honors Reads continues, in which the Honors students and faculty explore one book in depth. This semester's selection is John Steinbeck's The Log from the Sea of Cortez.

Prof. Christian Kiefer (English) introduced the latest Honors Reads talk, framing the Sea of Cortez in the context of travel narratives.

The writer John Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts journeyed the coast of the Gulf of California on the boat Western Flyer.

The Western Flyer in the Sea of Cortez. Source: Flickr/Hollywood History Tours

The route of the Sea of Cortez in the Gulf of California Source: Wikimedia

After Prof. Kiefer's introduction, his students did readings from their essays on the Sea of Cortez:
  • Rebekah Nand, "The Social Construction of Reality and Non-Teleological Thinking"
  • Christian Rice, "Science, Steinbeck, and Subjectivity"
  • Katie Rosander, "Steinbeck, Humanity, and the Question of Existence"
  • Martin Monson, "A Glimpse of Perfection: Truth and Perfection in The Log from the Sea of Cortez"

Prof. Kiefer and his students did a Q&A with the audience.

During the readings and discussion, the Honors students exchanged several thought-provoking ideas from the Sea of Cortez. A few points: 

Teleological (purpose existing in Nature) vs. non-teleological thinking (order in Nature is an illusion)

From the Sea of Cortez (Chapter 14)
“Teleological thinking"... is most frequently associated with the evaluating of causes and effects, the purposiveness of events.
In contrast,
Non-teleological thinking concerns itself primarily not with what should be, or could be, or might be, but rather with what actually “is”— attempting at most to answer the already sufficiently difficult questions what or how, instead of why.
Does Nature have a purpose? Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson weighs in on Minute Physics.

The teleological vs. non-teleological question blends into the purpose of the Sea of Cortez journey itself. According to the Honors Reads group, the Sea of Cortez expedition looks more like a "joy ride" than a tightly-scripted scientific mission (Chapter 21):
The lies we tell about our duty and our purposes, the meaningless words of science and philosophy, are walls that topple before a bewildered little “why.” Finally, we learned to know why we did these things. The animals were very beautiful. Here was life from which we borrowed life and excitement.
Philosophy professor Jesse Prinz (City University of New York), writes that experiencing wonder is a human endeavor, even in science. 

The concept of umwelt

Umwelt = any organism or species overall perception of their current surroundings and previous experiences, which will be unique to each organism.
Source: Biology-Online

Umwelt appears in the Sea of Cortez. For example (Chapter 11):

It is difficult, when watching the little beasts, not to trace human parallels. The greatest danger to a speculative biologist is analogy. It is a pitfall to be avoided— the industry of the bee, the economics of the ant, the villainy of the snake, all in human terms have given us profound misconceptions of the animals.
Source: xkcd

Neuroscientist David Eagleman offers a good explainer on umwelt:
In 1909, the biologist Jakob von Uexküll introduced the concept of the umwelt. He wanted a word to express a simple (but often overlooked) observation: different animals in the same ecosystem pick up on different environmental signals. In the blind and deaf world of the tick, the important signals are temperature and the odor of butyric acid. For the black ghost knifefish, it's electrical fields. For the echolocating bat, it's air-compression waves. The small subset of the world that an animal is able to detect is its umwelt. The bigger reality, whatever that might mean, is called the umgebung.
The interesting part is that each organism presumably assumes its umwelt to be the entire objective reality "out there." Why would any of us stop to think that there is more beyond what we can sense? In the movie The Truman Show, the eponymous Truman lives in a world completely constructed around him by an intrepid television producer. At one point an interviewer asks the producer, "Why do you think Truman has never come close to discovering the true nature of his world?" The producer replies, "We accept the reality of the world with which we're presented." We accept our umwelt and stop there.
In addition, Eagleman adds a social application from appreciating umwelt.
I think it would be useful if the concept of the umwelt were embedded in the public lexicon. It neatly captures the idea of limited knowledge, of unobtainable information, and of unimagined possibilities. Consider the criticisms of policy, the assertions of dogma, the declarations of fact that you hear every day — and just imagine if all of these could be infused with the proper intellectual humility that comes from appreciating the amount unseen.

The next Honors Reads talk is by Prof. Edward Hashima (History) on November 13, 4:30 pm - 6:00 pm, in Room D107.

Source: Wikimedia

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