Saturday, December 09, 2017

World of Wonders

I read this book by the late Stephen Jay Gould shortly after it was published in 1989, and more or less randomly grabbed it off the shelf and re-read it recently. I'm not a scientist, let alone an invertebrate paleontologist, so the impressions that follow are strictly those of a layperson.

To be as brief as possible (and with no pretense of doing justice to a rich and intricately argued book), Gould's immediate subject was the rare assemblage of soft-bodied fauna discovered, a century ago, by Charles Doolittle Walcott in the geological formation known as the Burgess Shale in the Canadian Rockies. Walcott, a geologist who was the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution at the time, classified (Gould's word is "shoehorned") his new discoveries into existing taxa (mostly of arthropods), but subsequent work by Harry Whittington, Simon Conway Morris, Derek Briggs, and others revealed that many of the creatures properly belonged in previously unknown classes or even phylla that later become extinct. These Cambrian fossils, Gould reasoned, provided evidence that in the aftermath of the Cambrian explosion that produced the ancestors of the metazoan animals with which we are familiar (e.g. crustaceans, molluscs, vertebrates — and of course us) there was a wide diversity or disparity of body plans, many of which ultimately proved to be evolutionary dead ends. Instead of a steady progress of expanding diversity from a small number of original phylla, the analysis of the Burgess Shale fauna suggested a winnowing over time of possible avenues for evolutionary development. There may be more species now, but the roster of higher-level taxa was greater during the Cambrian than now. (Or so it seemed.)

Gould's broader argument, which he used the Burgess Shale reclassification to support, centered on the importance of contingency to the evolutionary history of life on earth. The lineages that became extinct were not necessarily essentially inferior to the lineages that survived; they perished because of circumstances that were equivalent, at least in part, to a roll of the dice. Climates changed, continents moved around, asteroids impacted the earth, etc. The fact that these lineages no longer exist (while others do) proves, in a certain sense, that they were less fitted to the challenges that followed, but since the challenges themselves were contingent and not predictable we can't say that a different roll of the dice might not have produced an entirely different outcome. A minor shift might well have led to the premature extinction of the chordates and hence precluded our own existence. (Gould's title alludes explicitly to Frank Capra's film It's a Wonderful Life, in which one small change holds the possibility of triggering a cascade of altered consequences.)

In the past thirty years continuing analysis of the Burgess fauna has, inevitably, complicated the picture considerably. It's no longer as clear as it seemed in 1989 that all of the re-classified species are true "weird wonders" that can't be contained within the familiar major phyla and classes. That process is highly technical and well beyond my ken, but although Gould, had he lived, might have been disappointed by the implications of more recent developments for his thesis, he was well aware of (and specifically notes) the fact that science proceeds by a grinding process of error and rectification. ("One cannot hope to do anything significant or original in science unless one accepts the inevitability of substantial error along the way.") His larger point, reading the role of contingency, remains open.

Ironically, one of Gould's main sources (fully credited and repeatedly praised in the book), Simon Conway Morris, has been one of Wonderful Life's most vigorous detractors. For Conway Morris, who has made a particular study of convergent evolution, the logic of evolution imposes such constraints that certain outcomes can be said to be predictable or even inevitable; one of them, in his opinion, is higher intelligence of the kind that we possess. Even if the chain of contingent events had been modified, for instance, so as to extinguish the primate lineage, "humanoid" intelligence would have been highly likely to evolve (or would eventually evolve) in another. Underlying Conway Morris's argument are his Christian beliefs and his philosophical antimaterialism (although criticism of Gould's book is not limited to those who hold such beliefs).

Though both scientists — Gould and Conway Morris — have used specific paleontological evidence to buttress their positions, the broader logical and philosophical arguments are fairly resistant to easy resolution by mere fact, and one suspects that if and when the classification of the Burgess fauna is finally settled, the debate will simply be continued in another venue. Regardless, Wonderful Life seems to me to hold up as a landmark of intelligent science writing for a general audience.

Saturday, December 02, 2017


One year when I was a kid we took a family camping trip to Quebec. I don't remember much about the trip except that we stayed at least a night or two in both Montreal and Quebec City; by now whatever specific memories of those cities I obtained at the time have long since merged with those of earlier trips and a later one I made as an adult. But I know that we headed north out of Quebec City, probably traveling through the Parc national de la Jacques-Cartier, stopping at campgrounds that I remember as being sparsely occupied, and here and there fishing meandering streams and ponds with cobbled shores. The road snaked through swamps and forests, and there were probably beaver lodges and maybe a moose or two. It was a Francophone area, and one morning when I was dispatched to fetch water from the campground's well a boy a year or so younger than me (he was the son of the couple who ran the campground) ran ahead of me, took my bucket, and worked the well-pump for me. When he was done I said merci — probably the only French word I knew — and he responded merci beaucoup, distinctly emphasizing the second word. Was he correcting my manners, or simply acknowledging that I had respected his assigned domain? For a long time I puzzled over the significance of this trivial exchange.

We continued north, heading for a small city that is today simply a borough of the larger city of Sanguenay, which stands on the river of the same name. I don't know why we had chosen that destination — possibly it was just mere curiosity — but as we entered the city we could see the river ahead of us, or at least that's how I remember it now. As we passed through an intersection a car ran a red light and collided with the front bumper of our truck. No one was hurt. When the police arrived they spoke to the young woman who was at the wheel of the car. Permis?, they asked. She didn't have one. She was barely older than I was, and had taken her parent's car without their knowledge.

Calls were made to insurance companies and, language barriers having been overcome, a local body shop was found. We probably spent a night in Chicoutimi, but if so I remember nothing about it. As soon as the damage was set to rights we headed south for home.

Fallen leaves

Above, and following: headstones in a burial ground on a former estate, now a public park.

Below: the deceased are not sent into the other world unprovided for.

Friday, November 24, 2017


Jenny Uglow, from Hogarth: A Life and a World, on Colonel Francis Charteris (1675-1732), landowner, cashiered military officer, and notorious "rake" (though the last word seems too mild):
The common people had long hated Charteris. In 1711 the Colonel was accused (but discharged with a warning) for collecting money from desperate debtors by fraudulently placing their names on the register of his company, since they could be freed by enlisting in the army. He also made a huge fortune from South Sea stock, and possessed vast acres in Lancashire. The "Rape-Master of Britain," he boasted of seducing well over a hundred women... His many crimes and misdemeanours — gambling, using loaded dice, bearing false witness, sexual assaults and denial of his bastard children — were detailed in a host of mock-solemn pamphlets, poems and broadsides.
Sentenced to the gallows for kidnapping, raping, and horsewhipping a servant, he made use of his connections to receive a royal pardon, but soon afterwards he died of natural causes, possible exacerbated by his stay in prison. Uglow continues:
At his funeral there were unseemly riots, with people hurling rubbish, sodden vegetables, dead cats and dogs into his open grave and trying to rip his body from its coffin.
In the first scene in A Harlot's Progress, shown above, Charteris is depicted as the man standing in the doorway to the right who is eyeing the fresh meat newly arrived from the countryside. He stands, Uglow observes, "with his hand suspiciously deep in his pocket." Plus ça change...

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving in the Five Points (1852)

In the 1850s, the Five Points area in lower Manhattan, a now obliterated slum occupying the area adjoining what is now the Foley Square district and Chinatown, had the reputation -- no doubt to some extent exaggerated -- as the most squalid and depraved neighborhood in New York. The missionary ladies of the Five Points Mission, when not inveighing against drinking, Roman Catholicism, and other perils, organized an annual feast for the children of the mission school and as many of the other local denizens as they could feed. The following description is from The Old Brewery and the New Mission House, by the Ladies of the Mission; New York, Stringer & Townsend, 1854. The feast was held in a large tent in a park called Paradise Square.

The morning of Thanksgiving dawned in cloudless beauty, and as the day advanced, not a shadow dimmed the horizon. The cool, pure atmosphere, and the glowing sunshine, seemed to inspire every heart with courage.

We met in the office of the Old Brewery, formerly the liquor store of the establishment. This was a low, long room, with cracked and stained walls, its only furniture, besides the Missionary's bookcase, being some benches, and the boxes of clothing supplied by our kind friends from abroad. Provisions began to arrive and soon it presented a most ludicrous aspect. Turkeys, chickens, and meats of every kind mingled in sweet confusion with cakes, pies, fruits, &c. — evergreens on the floor, crockery on the window-sills and benches, huge piles of clothing waiting for distribution, visitors pouring in, childish faces peeping through every window and open door — commands, opinions, directions issuing from every quarter.

The tent is sixty feet in diameter, and very lofty. It is circular in form, and around it were tiers of seats, meeting at a small platform, where the speakers stood, at the temperance meetings, and on the Sabbath, to preach.

Eleven o'clock arrived, and notice was given that the tables in the tent were ready for the ladies. The seats had all been removed, and four tables, nearly the length of the tent, and about three feet wide, had been arranged, two on either side of the furnace, leaving wide passages between for the visitors. Soon the evergreens were festooned around by the gentlemen, then the floor was strewed with clean straw, and table-cloths of white muslin laid over the tables. By this time, hundreds of ragged, dirty children, had collected around the tent and Brewery. The food, all gathered in the Brewery, had to be removed to the tent. A door-keeper was stationed at each place, a passage-way cleared, and then ladies and gentlemen were transformed into carriers and waiters, (we could not trust any of the little rebels to help, though we had plenty of offers.) As they passed through rank and file of the hungry watchers, loud cheers were given for each successive turkey, and three long and loud for a whole pig with a lemon in his mouth, and it was difficult to conclude whether it was most appropriate to cry over the want displayed, or laugh over the temporary plenty provided.

During the time of these preparations, others of a different character were transpiring. The ladies were trying to select, first our Sunday school children, and next any who seemed hopeful. These were washed and dressed, and then each received a ticket which admitted them to the Mission-room, where friends received and entertained them. In the tent was a scene of activity — gentlemen carving the meats, ladies cutting the pies and cakes, and forming them in towering pyramids, the younger girls filling paper bags with candies and fruit, workmen hanging the lamps, others filling a large wicker-stand with dolls and toys of various kinds. At half past four all was ready. On our tables were sixty turkeys, with beef, ham and tongue, in proportion, and sundry chickens, geese, &c. Pies, cakes, bread, and biscuit, celery and fruit, and candy pyramids filled the slight intervals, and the whole presented an appearance inviting to the most fastidious appetites. Plates and cups were arranged around for more than three hundred; the lamps were lighted, and the signal given. Hundreds of visitors stood in silent expectation, and in a moment the sound of childish voices was heard, and they entered in regular procession singing —
"The morn of hope is breaking,
All doubt now disappears,
For the Five Points are waking
To penitential tears; [..]"
They took the circuit of the tent, and were then arranged, standing around the tables. They stood, with folded hands, while all sang the doxology, and the Missionary asked a blessing upon the occasion. Not a hand was raised, not a voice was heard, until the ladies and gentlemen who had charge of the tables supplied their hungry visitors with food. Then all was glad commotion, and then was the time for joyous tears. Three hundred and seventy poor, neglected, hapless children, placed for an hour in an atmosphere of love and gladness, practically taught the meaning of Christian kindness, wooed and won to cling to those whose inmost hearts were struggling in earnest prayer for grace and wisdom to lead them unto God. [...] They ate and drank without restraint until all were satisfied, then again formed and commenced singing. In the central aisle was placed the stand containing the toys and cornucopias of candy, and another filled with oranges and apples. By these, two ladies were seated. The children marched by them, in as much order as the dense crowd would permit, singing as they went, "We belong to this band, hallelujah," and in each hand the ladies placed a gift as they passed, until all were supplied. Then all the children left the tent.

There was now an interval of a few moments. The tables were hastily replenished, and then notice was given to the visitors, that the company now about to assemble were the "outsiders," about whom we knew nothing, save that they were poor and wretched, and all were warned to take care of their watches and pocket-books.

They came in scores, nay in hundreds; they rushed in and surrounded the tables, men, women, children, ragged, dirty, forlorn. [...] And the children who accompanied them, miniature likenesses, both physically and morally. Alas! alas!
"It needed no prophetic eye to see
How many yet must the same ruin share."
And we could scarcely hope to snatch these from the vortex. We spoke to them words of kindness and encouragement, and they partook until not a fragment was left, and then quietly left the tent.

More than a half-century later, in 1904, the Five Points Mission was still organizing Thanksgiving dinners, by then for more than a thousand children of the Lower East Side.

Update (2013): Below is a solicitation for donations for the mission's 1867 Thanksgiving Dinner. The return mail envelope is addressed to the Rev. James Newton Shaffer (1811-1901), who served for thirteen years as the organization's superintendent.

Dear Friend : —

We are making arrangements for our usual
for the Children of this well-known poor neighborhood.

May we ask you to enclose to us in the directed envelope a contribution to this object? If more than enough for the Dinner is received, it shall be faithfully used in providing for the sick and poor as far as it will go, through the winter.

You are cordially invited to visit the Mission, and acquaint yourself with its work and its success.

J. N. Shaffer,

(Posted 2010 and at various times since.)

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Seasonal note

Feliz día de las mangostas.
None of us recalls the text of the law that obliges us to collect the dead leaves, but we are convinced that it would not occur to anyone to leave them uncollected; it's one of those things that go way back, to the first lessons of childhood, and now there is no great difference between the elementary acts of lacing your shoes or opening your umbrella and what we do in collecting the dead leaves on the second of November at nine in the morning.
Julio Cortázar's "With Justifiable Pride" can be found, in Thomas Christensen's translation, in Around the Day in Eighty Worlds (North Point Press, 1986). I have slightly modified his version in the excerpt above.

Image: Bioenciclopedia.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

On the Town (Peter Case)

Two nights after I caught the Vulgar Boatmen show at Martyrs' I headed out to Berwyn, Illinois, on the western outskirts of Chicago, because Peter Case also coincidentally happened to be playing in the area during my whirlwind business trip to the city. I'd seen Peter live three times before, but not for a span of several years, because the club where I used to see him has gone under. I hopped on the CTA's Red Line, switched to the Blue, and rode it in the company of a dwindling number of passengers to the largely deserted station at Oak Park overlooking I-290, then walked in the dark along the few blocks of South Oak Park Avenue that brought me to West Roosevelt Road and Fitzgerald's, where Peter was playing.

Fitzgerald's is a long-established venue in Berwyn. It has two performance spaces: a larger one (which I didn't enter) and the more intimate SideBar, which has the congenial atmosphere of the kind of neighborhood tavern or beer hall you don't see much anymore, at least where I live. I sat at a table on the forward end of a long bench, and more or less randomly ordered a Guinness draft, which arrived cold and dark and with a head as rich as whipped cream. The room gradually filled up, the opening act played a few tunes (including a version of "Spanish is the Loving Tongue," a great song I hadn't heard in many years), and then Peter came on. Working solo, he played a generous set of material from various phases of his career (including his Plimsouls hit "A Million Miles Away"), drew from his grab-bag of hilarious stories, and even revisited, briefly, some of the first songs he composed as an adolescent. The room has excellent acoustics and Peter was as in fine form as ever. I ordered a second Guinness. After the show I went over to say hello and buy a copy of his newest release, On My Way Downtown, which is just out from Omnivore Recordings, then headed back to downtown Chicago on a Blue Line train that was now vacant except for a few lost souls who appeared to be more or less domiciled on it. I made it to my hotel room around midnight.

The new record presents previously unreleased archival recordings of 18 songs that Peter and accompanying musicians performed in the studios of KPFK radio in Los Angeles in 1998 and 2000. The first nine tracks recapitulate the bulk of Full Service No Waiting (only two songs are missing), largely with the same band as the studio version; the others correspond either to tracks on his next record, Flying Saucer Blues, or to songs from earlier records. Since Full Service No Waiting is a particular favorite of mine (those with time on their hands can read my long post on it here) I was especially interested to hear how these KPFK recordings would sound. The answer is that they come across as both comfortingly familiar and refreshingly different, opening up a whole new angle of approach to the songs. The vocals have a more relaxed feel, the instrumentation is a bit more improvised (Greg Leisz is particularly good), and the whole thing conveys a pleasurable, informal sense of being in a room with good music and among old friends. It'll be essential for Case fans, but it's also not a bad place to start for those who don't know his songs at all.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Harmonic Convergence

The band known as the Vulgar Boatmen is based in Indiana. They don't play many gigs, and in fact as far as I know they basically don't play at all outside of Indiana and Chicago. I don't live in the Midwest, so even though I've been a fan for twenty-five years the chances of my ever seeing them live would seem to be about as good as the chances of my seeing a total solar eclipse.

But total solar eclipses, though rare, do occur. I didn't catch the celebrated one this past August, but in compensation a business trip took me to Chicago on October 19th of this year, which coincided precisely with a visit by the Vulgar Boatmen to a club called Martyrs' in Chicago's North Center. This is called fate; you don't mess with it.

I took the CTA's Red Line, then changed to the Brown Line. At some point during the trip I saw the lights of Wrigley Field in the distance. (The significance of this will be made clear below.)

I got off at a station called Irving Park. I walked along West Irving Park Road to the intersection with North Lincoln Avenue, then took a left. One of the cross-streets I passed was called West Larchmont Avenue. (The significance of this may be explained some other time.) I found Martyrs' without any trouble. I hadn't reserved a ticket ahead of time, but getting in wasn't a problem, maybe because people were home watching the Cubs play the Dodgers. I paid the cover charge, stepped inside, and found a table a little off to the side.

The opening trio, the Sunshine Boys, had already started playing. They were a guitar player and singer named Dag Juhlin, a bass player named Jacqueline Schimmel, and a drummer, Freda Love Smith, whose name I was vaguely familiar with. I liked them. I ordered an Ayinger Weissbier and sipped at it slowly.

The second act was Walter Salas-Humara. Walter was an original member, or at least an early member, of the Vulgar Boatmen, but went off on his own long ago, for a while as the lead singer of a group called the Silos. He was accompanied by Jonathan Rundman, who alternated between accordion and mandola and pitched in on vocals. Walter prefaced "I'm Over You" with a funny story that involved Hootie and the Blowfish and an unexpectedly large check from BMI.

There was a TV over the bar and facing the stage, and every now and then Walter would look up to see how the Cubs were doing. The Cubs were not doing well at all, and at some point in the course of the evening the TV was switched off.

After Walter's set I went over and bought a couple of CDs from him and said hi.

The Boatmen lineup for the evening, in case you're keeping a scorecard, was Dale Lawrence (lead vocals and guitar), Matt Speake (lead guitar), Jake Smith (bass), and Freda Love Smith (returning to the drum kit to pinch-hit for the absent Andy Richards). This was probably a better lineup than the Cubs were able to muster, on that night at least.

They opened with "Heartbeat," done as more of a rocker than the old recorded version, then played an energetic set of about 14 or 15 songs, including "Wide Awake," "Allison Says," "Mary Jane," and other old faves, plus a few covers I didn't recognize.

Dale called Walter Salas-Humara and Jonathan Rundman back to the stage, and together they ripped through an exuberant version of Michael Hall's gleefully antinomian anthem "Let's Take Some Drugs and Drive Around." It was hard to say whether it was Walter Salas-Humara or the beaming Freda Love Smith who was having the most fun on that one (see video clip), but when it was over I don't think anyone in the audience went home disappointed either, except, of course, for the Cubs fans.