My Photo


Roll Call

Become a Fan

« Timothy Burke Beat Me to that Punch | Main | Dear Person or Persons With Whom I Share Plumbing, »

Saturday, 21 July 2007


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Suitable Insanity; or, You Silly Science, You, Reinforcing Social Prejudice with Your Silliness:


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Jonathan Dresner

Would Wharton have realized the depths into which she's dropped her reader, or is she just echoing the 'state of the art' of the day?

As to the excerpt itself, I think the ocassional "which we know now is absurd" (or some variant thereof; you'll think of something) might help.


I was going to write that I found it insane, but maybe I wasn't the ideal reader because maybe I knew something about evolution, etc.

Then my eye chanced upon “The Undying Germ-Plasm and the Immortal Soul” and it became apparent that this will sound insane to everyone.

John Attridge

Do colonies of infusoria form chalk cliffs? (Not quite sure I'm following.) But if so, this makes me think of the white cliffs of Dover. Is this guy sending a subliminal message (to me, here, now) that in fact England is the highpoint of social evolution, the most altruistic of nations? This is not crazy, it's brilliant. Brilliant!

Alternatively, the White Cliffs of Infusoria could be a landmark somewhere in the Wacky World of Victorian Science.


Hearing 'immortality' and 'Ernst Haeckel' in the same breath reminds me that this kind of talk isn't limited to 19th C. 'protista' and 'germ-plasm.' You do know that Haeckel had a hand in the definition of the concept stem cell, a definition which still has resonance and relevance today?

I think this article does a reasonable job of reviewing early terminology and exploration of SCs.

The idea of 'immortality' is important here as well -- stem cells were originally seen as defined by their ability to proliferate and self-regenerate, making them effectively immortal.

But it's only been in the last few years that we've been able to actually unravel what that means, in molecular and genetic terms.

Anyway. It's not like these ideas are just the 'bad science' of the 19th century. The strains and descendants of this kind of thought have seeped into the models and ideas of a lot of modern scientists, too.


The question, gentlemen, is not whether infusoria have an Immortal Soul but to what purposes these "forms of rudimentary consciousness" and social behaviors have been put. I ask you, are these germ-plasms Church of England or are they, as their teeming collectivity seems to indicate, (shudder) Papists? And how shall we send a force to claim them for the glory of Her Majesty, considering their very small size?

Ray Davis

The science of today is the mockery of tomorrow. (When we're lucky, anyway -- I occasionally get very panicked emails about spermatorrhea....)

My picks to click on Top of the Mocks: memes, subcellular material viewed as itty-bitty neoliberal capitalists, and the neuro-imaging fad: "Culturally influenced behavior causes brain activity!! It's outta control!" But I've seen some pretty absurd stuff about consciousness lately, too.

Rich Puchalsky

I'm not sure which parts of the paragraph you're actually picking out as bad science. I'm going to number some possibilities to try to get more clarity:

1. The idea that purposeful-seeming behavior implies consciousness. This, I agree, is an interesting Lamarckian pseudo-scientific bit as written in the example from E.D. Cope, with the discharge of cilia implying the learning of effects from experience.

2. The idea that organisms that reproduce by fission can be immortal. This idea is, as far as I can tell, still in use. If you agree that a single-celled organism has no individual consciousness, then really all it has is unbroken metabolic activity and an unchanged genetic code to say that it has not yet died. So it seems like a single-celled organism that reproduces by fission could be said to be immortal until a time is reached at which all of its descendents are either dead or their genetic material has mutated. This isn't immortality in the way that a person's soul is sometimes believed to be immortal, but it isn't mortality in the sense that a person suffers from either.

3. The idea that organisms with the same DNA form a single super-organism. The idea that a colony is best thought of as an individual seems pretty common in neo-Darwinian writing. And I've seen popular biological articles about the largest living organism being some form of fungus that spreads underground for miles with unchanging DNA; clearly that's on a similar principle.

John Attridge

4. Conclusions about other organisms, and particularly the evolution of other organisms, can be extended straightforwardly to humans, and human society: individualism leads to altruism.


Haven't had the chance to say so, but I do appreciate all the comments. I've taken them all into account -- as well as few others, emailed to me -- but haven't had time to respond, so busy am I finishing the chapter itself. Needless to say, if this ever makes it into a book*, you'll be thanked.

*Please please please let it be me let it be me.


Oddly, I study Barnacle Geese and Self castrating beavers. Not as I think you seem to be suggesting from a post-modern perspective. I use the conventional approach of cultural evolution myself although I am not a scientist. As I don't know anyone else working on such themes who exactly is incorrect and shitting for apricots? The remark with regard to reinforcing social prejudice I find particularly ironic (though not I would note in a P. modernist sense) As most of what I do is informed by an evolutionary perspective seems a bit weird.

I thought science worked on the basis of evidence rather than assumption? From peer review of published completed papers.


p.s with regard to social prejudice and other assumptions, I would draw this article to youre attention by W.F Bynum on A.O. Lovejoy.

Like Lovejoy I have an interest in Lord Monboddo, which is where I first came across A.O.L. Monboddo of course had a particular interest in the beaver. His work of course was not scientific but I think that is clearly demonstrated when it comes to discussing his very unusual taste in source material.

The comments to this entry are closed.