Friday, April 22, 2011

Simpson story #1

Back in Tucson in 1983-4, I worked as G. G. Simpson’s secretary, during the last couple of years of his life.  But I was also inspired by the emerging analytical tools of cladistics, and drew particular intellectual inspiration from Niles Eldredge and Joel Cracraft’s Phylogenetic Patterns and the Evolutionary Process.  So inspired was I, in fact, that I even named my adopted cat Willi, after the godfather of phylogenetic systematics, Willi Hennig.
               Unfortunately, I didn’t know much about caring for cats, and I overfed Willi, and he became a fat blob, and one day he just exploded.  Well, he didn’t explode actually, but he died, in my shower stall.  I was quite broken up about it.
               So that afternoon I went in to do some typing for Dr. Simpson, and as we sat in his study he could tell I was a little upset, and I told him that my cat had died earlier in the day.   “Too bad.  What was his name?” asked Dr. Simpson.
               I told him.  “Willi”.
               “Mm,” said Dr. Simpson, without even looking up.  “Who’d you name him after?”
               Um....  Holy Shit!  I couldn’t tell Simpson that I had named my cat after Hennig.  That would be like saying I had named my cat after Charles Manson or Josef Stalin, he’d never talk to me again.
               Um... Um...  Um...  “Mays,” I finally said. 
               “Oh,” said  Dr. Simpson.  “Good ballplayer.”  And he continued his work.

It’s mildly interesting that chimps are born facing in the same direction as humans are (toward the westward sky?) as a recent report has it.
But whatever merit the observation may have is more than negated by the authors’ articulation of  its meaning.
Although the study does not tackle that question, it certainly helps to quash the outmoded idea that humans are distinct from the rest of the animal kingdom. "In a broad sense I think humans tend to believe we are unique," says Hirata, "but that belief is not based on facts."
The fact that a chimp couldn’t possibly articulate that thought as he did, is, ironically, too obvious to be noted by the scientist.  GGS, in The Meaning of Evolution (1949) followed Julian Huxley in ridiculing this pseudo-scientific attitude as “nothing-butism”. 
After all, since they understood evolution to refer to the production of difference, the statement that "we are not unique" could reasonably be construed to mean "we have not evolved," could it not?

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