Monday, March 02, 2009

Nights over Earth

Night flight, red eye from California to the Midwest. An orange glow on dry prairie grass, rusty metal and torn concrete: a ride at dawn from Detroit to the heart of the Great Lakes region, the suffering heart of the continent, amidst harsh winter ice, ailing steel factories and struggling automotive industries. Large blue skies over the frozen plain, then coffee round the corner, then talks and the usual merry-go-round of the academic "let's pretend that we like what we are doing". The social structure of science, the one by which we are all more or less forced, some willingly and happily, some (like me) kicking and screaming, to go around for the usual frantic show of talks in this or that place, is essentially based on the concept of territoriality, not in the geographic sense, but in the sense of creating and maintaining certain spheres of influence. Like animals mark their territory with piss, scientists mark it with talks, either defining their sphere of action by selecting who speaks in their (as opposed to others') seminars and who goes to their (as opposed to others') conferences, as well as by where one agrees to give talks. It replaces the exchange of olfactive signals, a powerpoint instead of urine based detection of boundaries: the same attention in avoiding stepping into somebody else's territory and the same occasional skirmishes that follow the voluntary or involuntary probing of the permeability of these seemingly invisible but in fact very clearly marked boundaries. Everything is handled with the likes of courtesy and civilized manners, of course, but the tension is visible underneath and the meaning unmistakable. Why is this the case, why is it needed? The fierce competition for meagre resources is of course partly to blame for the development of well marked territoriality: just as in certain kinds of animal groups a marking of an individual as belonging to a well defined group ensures that it will partake of resources the group will be able to secure, maintaining well defined boundaries between spheres of influence of various individuals in science and definitely recognizable marks of belonging to one or another of these community is an evolutionary strategy of adaptation to the harsh selection imposed by the scarce resources (fundings, positions, recognition) available in the environment. Then why is it bad? Well, for once, because it has nothing to do with science: if making or accepting an invitation ends up being largely motivated by asserting one's belonging to a certain sphere of influence or trying to generate one, we might as well simply replace all that with some odor essences to wear that will produce the same effect, without the need for a the long and painful process of preparing and delivering lectures. Of course, in nature also the kind of display that accompanies the assertion of territoriality is expensive in energetic terms: colored feathers and asses, guttural sounds and screeches, flapping wings and inflated necks, so why not the similarly expensive cost of spending several days preparing slides for a one hour presentation? We are as much the process of evolutionary selection as all these other phenomena. Those scientists who do not wish, for whatever reason, to play this game end up selected against by the environment, in terms of funding, positions, and all that, and they risk dropping out of the race. Those who survive, the ones selected favorably for survival by the environment, are those who have the most colorful asses and wave them accompanied by the loudest screeches, that is to say, the alpha males. It may not have anything to do with the science we do, but it has a lot to do with the science of which we are part of the observed experiment, the science of evolution. Another incontrovertible piece of evidence for its marvelous predictive power, in fact. Once again, like every single time I go to a conference or give a talk (and that's a lot of times), I cannot help thinking of Huxley's "Ape and Essence", which I reviewed in this blog some time ago. "The aims are ape chosen, only the means are man's": I'd rather say, with respect to the social practice of science, that it is the aims that are man's, namely the science itself, but the means are definitely still the ones of the social apes, the baboon tribes; and what Huxley's says about Reason can indeed be said about science: "Papio's procurer, bursar to baboons, Reason comes running, eager to ratify."

Cruelty and compassion come with the chromosomes;
all men are merciful and all are murderers. [...]
Only in the knowledge of his own Essence
has any man ceased to be many monkeys

(Aldous Huxley, Ape and Essence)

(The images in this blog entry are from Detroit City Poems by Estimmel and from Darby Sawchuk's
Travel Photography)