Monday, 23 July 2007

Suitable Insanity; or, You Silly Science, You, Reinforcing Social Prejudice with Your Silliness The greatest hurdle in writing about works informed by turn-of-the-last-century science is communicating how unscientific it was. Unlike medievalists, who have the luxury of discussing barnacle geese and self-castrating beavers, I address works with the patina of reputable science—the toys and methods are patently modern, the problem lies in the conclusions drawn with their aid. Individually, each of these conclusions is merely incorrect; combined, they form the keystone for many a house of scientific horror, each built to the idiosyncratic specifications of its inmate-owner. Compounding my difficulty is that from the street, these monstrosities are indistinguishable from the stolid brownstones flanking them on either side. Only when you open the front door and step into a mud-walled bathroom in which a stove sits beneath a sign reading "FOR SHITTING APRICOTS" do you sense something is amiss. In short, convincing you that a conventional-sounding statement about social evolution is no more rational than a foyer dedicated to disposing peaches ain't the easiest stunt to pull. Here's my malformed attempt: Early in ["The Descent of Man"], [Edith] Wharton mentions [Professor Linyard's] authorship of “Ethical Reactions of the Infusoria” and “The Unconscious Cerebration of Amoeba” (314). These microscopic animals are not, however, his area of expertise: “On the structure and habits of a certain class of coleoptera [beetles],” Wharton writes, “he was the most distinguished living authority” (318). His interest in infusoria indicates the speculative—almost unscientific, but certainly unprofessional—cant of his thought. That he extends his investigation into the ethics of infusorial reaction points to a metaphysical tendency extant prior to writing [his popular mockery of metaphysically informed "science"] The Vital Thing. Infusoria are so named because they appear in infusions of decaying organic matter. Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, debates as to the classification of infusoria persisted. “Though the term Infusoria has usually been applied to all the Protozoa provided with cilia or flagella,” declares A.S. Packard in 1875, “it is not restricted to the highest [Ciliata] division of the Protozoa” (87). In the same issue of The American Naturalist in which Packard’s essay appears, noted evolutionist T.H. Huxley places them within the category of “Endoplastica,” which “while not forsaking the general type of the single cell, attain a considerable complexity of organization” (66). Infusoria are thus single-celled animals with uncharacteristic complexity; unless, that is, they are not animals at all. David S. Kellicott, delivering the keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Society of Microscopists, notes that it is without question that “these [infusoria] teeming in the hay infusion are alive,” then asks, “but why relegate them to the animal kingdom rather than to the vegetable?” (14). He then reminds his fellow microscopists that no lesser light than Ernst Haeckel proposed a third kingdom, Protista, in which to include animals with chlorophyll-bearing bodies. Straddling the fence between animal and vegetable, infusoria and related protozoa occupied a central place in early debates about the evolution of mind. The eminent neo-Lamarckian E.D. Cope argues that It is evident…that...

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