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Sunday, June 29, 2014


I have just finished reading a very striking book recommended to me by my big sister, Barbara:  Neanderthal Man:  In Search of Lost Genomes, by Svante Pääbo.  It tells, in fascinating detail, the successful effort over thirty years and more to reconstruct and sequence the genome of Neanderthal Man from bones as much as forty thousand years old.  The narrative gripped me because I have been interested in Neanderthal Man since my early teens, during which I would go repeatedly to the Museum of Natural History on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to stare at the crania and jawbones and femurs displayed on glass-covered tables.  But Pääbo’s book also interested me for a quite different reason, which I shall write about today.

Imagine, if you will, that you are attending, at the University of Massachusetts, one of the meetings called on special occasions for the assembled faculties of Humanities and Fine Arts, Social and Behavioral Sciences, and Natural Sciences and Mathematics, or HFA, SBS, and NSM, as we referred to them – a budgetary crisis, perhaps, or the seizure of the Administration Building by protesting students, or the installation of a new Chancellor.  There you are, in a large lecture hall, surrounded by five or six hundred of the members of the Arts and Sciences faculty.  Many are men, a good many are women, most are white, a handful are black, some are old, some are young, some are fat, some are thin, most are dressed casually, although here and there one can spot a tie and jacket or a dress.  But all are Professors, and since the discussion, such as it is, touches on matters that are the special academic territory of no one, it is quite impossible to tell which department someone is from unless you happen to know him or her.  It would be natural to imagine that what unites them – each one is a Professor, after all – quite dwarfs whatever differentiates one from another.  And yet, as Pääbo’s book brought home to me yet again, nothing could be farther from the truth.

What do academics do day by day in the course of their professional research careers?

Philosophers read books and journal articles, think, talk to colleagues, and write essays which they send off for possible publication to academic journals.  They also review the journal submissions of other philosophers [anonymously] and these days perhaps post comments on blogs.  It is extremely rare for two or more philosophers to co-author a journal article or a book – indeed, the only great piece of philosophy I can think of that bears the names of two authors is Principia Mathematica by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead.  Philosophers also go to professional meetings, where they deliver or comment on or simply listen to professional talks, but those activities are in the nature of outings, we might say, rather than an essential part of their research,

Anthropologists gather up their camping gear and travel to parts of the globe that they, at least, consider remote [although the people who live there do not, of course, consider them remote, since they are home.]  They spend a good deal of time learning a language that is perhaps only spoken and not written, and they try to forge personal relationships with people on whom they have dropped in as if from the sky.  They spend a year or more “in the bush” learning as much as they can about the religious beliefs, family relationships, burial practices, and ways of getting a living of the community they come to think of as “their people,” before returning to their home campus, where they write up what they have learned.  Usually, although not always, they travel in groups, and since such expeditions are expensive, they spend time back home writing funding proposals.

Paleontologists spend a good deal of time scouring promising-looking rock outcroppings or hillsides for signs of fossilized bones, very often in very lightly populated areas.  They set up camp and stay for weeks or months, almost always in groups.  Once they find a bone, they painstakingly brush away the surrounding dirt, trying to reveal the bone without damaging it.  Then they bring it back to their home campus and study it with whatever sophisticated equipment they can muster.  Quite often, the small group camped out at a dig consists of a senor Professor and his or her graduate students.  When it comes time to write up the finding along with speculations about its origins, the research report will carry three or four or even ten or twelve names.  The precise order in which those names are listed is of the very greatest importance for all involved, as it has significant implications for the career of each.

Biochemists, Chemists, Microbiologists and the like do all of their work in groups.  To enter that academic profession you must be accepted into someone’s lab, there to wash bottles and do other menial chores until you work your way up to actually designing new experiments.  There is a ferocious on-going competition among laboratory groups to publish first, with the Nobel Prizes, the big research grants, and the name professorships going to the winners.  It costs a great deal to set up a science lab these days – ten years ago or more, when I was till at UMass, the rule of thumb was that when a department in the sciences hired a new Assistant Professor, it would cost half a million to outfit him or her with a lab.  By contrast, the principal expense incurred by the hiring of an Assistant Professor in the Humanities was the name plate for the new faculty member’s office door.  [When I moved to Afro-American Studies in 1992, I found in my new desk drawer an old nameplate from a previous occupant – it read “James Baldwin”!]

Pääbo describes in the most extraordinary detail the teamwork required by fifteen or more superb, highly trained specialists to extract the traces of Neanderthal DNA from ancient bones, testing for and setting aside the inevitable pollution of the ancient materials both by bacteria and by the countless humans who had handled them over the ages.  One of the great strengths of his account is the honestly with which he details the personality quirks and conflicts that interfered with, and in some cases actually improved, the functioning of the group.

There is nothing like this – I repeat nothing – in the field of Philosophy, nor in Literary Criticism, Historiography, Sociology, or Political Science.  Each of these fields has its own distinctive array of experiences, of course, but they are utterly different from the experiences recounted by Pääbo.  It is obvious that these differences in the daily professional routines of the various academic disciplines must find some reflection in the substance of what their practitioners produce, and yet very rarely is this fact discussed.


Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Like team and individual sports? Think of *all* the sports movies, Rocky, on the one hand, and The Bad News Bears, on the other. You can't tell the sort of story that is told about the Bears about Rocky?

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

By the way, Von Neumann & Morgenstern....

Juhani Yli-Vakkuri said...
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