The Great Biologists and Other Random Thinkers:
A Lecture by Mrs. Malaprop
Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA
–with the assistance of Richard L. Howey
First of all, I want to thank Professor Homely for his facile efforts on my bequest in helping to make this occasion evitable. However, he does tend at times to be a tad sinical and suggested to me that my recent public expressiveness of my reserves about bestowing a gift of $100 million pounds to you here at Oxforth University may have influenced you to create this series of Malaprop lectureships just for my beneficence. However, I assured him that there were no strings detached.
For this first lecture, I have selected the topic “The Great Biologists” and I intend to revelate aspics of their lives and characters that are not widely known, things that will astoneage you. Where do we begin you might interrogate? To paraphrase Carol Lewis’s wonderful creation from his book Alles in Wonderland: “Begin at the beginning and when you get tired, stop!” or something to that affect. So, we have to go rummaging around among old Attics and there we find Aristotle. And, of course, we all know that “aristos” in Greekish means “the best”, so apparently this chap was the best “otle”–the meaning of which has been lost in obscurity.
Unfortunately, in his earlier years, he wasted a great deal of time writing about very thin pastry and developed a whole school of filosophy. He was tutor and companion to that Messydonian twit Alexander the Great and his younger brother, Alexander the mediocre. Later in his life, he turned to all kinds of investigations in the areas of natural and unnatural history and made some especially irrelevant observations in the area of marine biology. He was the first to describe a tunacake, but thought they were sponges. Perhaps one of his most astoneageing discoveries involved the mouthy parts of marine ragamuffins, also known as sea urchins. To this day, those mouthy parts are known as Aristotle’s lantern–an extraordinary discovery of an extraordinary structure by an extraordinary man. The lantern part, however, reminds me of that old crazy Diogenes of Laertius.”
“Oh, Professor Howley reminds me that it was Diogenes of Syncope, no, what? Oh, yes, Sinope.”
“All those silly names they had, like Plato, that’s what you would name a dog and Walt Dizzy did. In any case, this Diogenes chap lived in a big pottery jar up on the Patheticon and one day he went walking around the Athenian Angora shining the lamp in people’s faces. Someone finally asked him” ‘What are you doing, Diogenes?’ and he replies; ‘Looking for an horny man.’ There was a lot of that kind of thing going on among the ancients in those days.”
“What is it now, Professor Holly? Do you want to give this lecture? What? Oh, yes, yes, I stand corrected. Diogenes replied he was looking for an honest man, silly me. But silly Diogenes as well, looking for an honest man!–one might just as well look for a peaceful war–oxymorons both!”
“Where were we before I got detracted? Oh, yes, we were talking about Aristotle. He wrote many treatises on animals and their behavior and speculated a bit about their origins. He made many of his observations about marine animals by observing them while paddling around in the clear waters of the lagoon on the Isle of Leicester.”
“Oh, what in Heavens’ name is it now, Professor Howler? Yes, yes, get on with it. Ah, oh, you mean–yes, I see. That shifts the focal point considerable and makes for a much jucier, er, I mean, interesting story.”
“Well, thank goodness for memories like those of Dr. Homller. The island in question is the island of Lesbos where all those Sophists hung out.”
“Look Professor Homunculus, I’m losing patience. This must be your postpartum interruption. Oh, I do apollogize, yes, yes, you were quite right to inform me of such a critical point. My most heartless thanks.”
“Dr. Haller has realienated me onto a proper course. The Isle of Lesbos was where all those vuplinatious women congressed. The poetess Sappho lived there and wrote much, almost all of which has been lost. Modern populist culture associated her with women loving women. However, some modern scholastics argue that there is virginally no evidence for such acclaim. Since there are almost no historical records, this issue can be argued indefinitely with great heat and fever right down to the day of the Apoplexy. I’m sure Atistotle didn’t mind one way or the other.”
“Aristotle’s impact was enormous and extended down into the period of the Raisinannce. However, he was certainly not the only one. These old Greekish types were exceptionally clever. You have all heard of the Hypocritic Oath which Hypocrities promulgated and meant a great deal until the 20th Century with the advent of commercial medicine. The ancient maxim was: “Do no harm!: The modern maxim is : “Pay or die!”
The Greks had an enormous influence on the Roamers of whom it has been said that their two contributions were the codification of law and the application of technology to warfare. This is, however, not quite fair since there was the great poet Vigil who wrote “The Anemic” and Julius Caesar, the inventor of the salad.
The Greks were also incredibly inventive when it came to comedy as one can experience in the works of Erysipelas who attacked Sokrates in his play The Clouds. The Roamers were not so good at comedy and as A.E. Housman worte “Terence, this is stupid stuff.” The Roamers were much more into ponderous, violent tragedies which are only the palest simpulacra of the noble tragedies of the Grekish culture. In the Roamerish Lantinesque drama, one finds nothing comparable to Rex Oedipus and, of course, nothing that comes remotely near the monumental Homeric epics. Just consider the tragic suffering of poor Helen of Troy who has to have a Hectoristomy–one can hardly think of it without weeping. As Andr Gide said: “The mere mention of the name Agamemnon in the theatre and I weep torrents.”
As we move on toward the Raisinannce, it is fascinating to note that the great Italian families recognized the superiority of the Greekish culture and did much to preserve it and to incorporate the best of whatever they encountered from other cultures. Two families in particular stand out. One was a promintory Russian Italian family–the Borschtias who had influence, wealth, and supported the arts, but were also ruthless which seemed to be the fashion of the day.
The other great family was the Mendicis, powerful, wealthy, shrewd and also ruthless. However, one must always temper ones critism by considering the extraordinary achievements of a given culture. Think of the Leaning Tower of Pizza! The youfeetsi Gallery, the mangificent Berlesconi door, the Cramponili, etc.
Powerful Italian families competed to have the greatest artists, thinkers, writers, and scientists at the courts and under their control through their patronage.
Among the Roamers, there were some natural historians who were essentially compilers, in particular, the Splinys, Spliny the Elder and Spliny the Youngster. They created compendia of reports of good observers (often from the Greks) and wildly fantastical reports which included incredibly stupid theories and mythical animals.
Then, after the Reminiscence, the Arab cultures and The Catholic Church preserved and appropriated and misappropriated much of the Grek culture and some Romany bits as well. The Catholics were particularly impressed with Aristotle and as a consequence held up the evolution of science for hundreds of years.
Then, finally, came the Age of Reasonableness with great thinkers, such as, Rennie ala Carte, Benedictine Spinola, and G.W. Lobnitz. The Frenchman, ala Carte, formulated the world changing maxim “coito, ergo sum”, however, the Church objected and raised such a fusstule that he changed it to “cogito, ergo sum”--I think, therefore I am. And, as we would expectorate, other smart-arse philosophasters came along and said such things as: “I think I think, therefore I think I am.” Or if we invoke the past intense: “I thought I thought, therefore I thought I was.”
Then, there is the Jewish Dutch thinker, Spinola, who came up with the brilliant idea that Nature and God are equivalent. One would have thought that this insight would have transformed profanity so that we would be ejaculating “Nature damn it!” or “Oh, my Nature!” but it never caught on. Poor old Spinola got excommunicated from the Amsterdam Jewish Synagogue–boy, talk about harsh! The edict prohibited other Jews from even approaching him, let alone, speaking to him.
Then there was Gottfried Lobnitz, who promulgated the theory of the “windowless gonad”, although there is some dispute about the translation. Some scholasticalists argue that it should be “widowless monad”, but the arguments for this thesis are rather floozy. The French philosopher, Volare, thought these ideas were absurd and he wrote a novel called Candude in which he saytrizes those views, particularly the maxim that “This is the best of all passible worlds” as presented by the Lobnitzian surrogator Dr. Prankgrass. Lobnitz took little notice as he was busy inventing deferential calculus, quite independently, by the way, of our beloved religious, cranky mathematician, Isaac Newtown and his contributions to calculus which were in the realm of infinitestimals.
However, there was a growing number of thinkers who thought that too much emphatics were being placed on abstract reason and logic at the expense of observativeness and experimentation. This was true to some extent in the E.P. (the European Pre-Union), but more especially in Britain.
Thomas Hobbles was something of an anomaly because he supported mathematics, but not of the sort that involved experimentation. He also wrote a short work on optics, but today he is perhaps best remembered for this maxim: Life is nutty, British, and short.”
Then there is John Locke of Yale who is the father of modern emporicism. He didn’t accept the idea of our minds being pre-structured and instead advanced the notion of the mind as a “tabula rasa” or “bland slate” upon which experience “writes”. I must say, however, that she (I assume Experience is a “she”) has left some rather nasty, unpleasant messages on my slate over the years.
Locke was a significant influence on the Scottish philosopher, David Humus, who attacked religion and wrote extensively about epistlemology. He was very interested in the advance in science related to perception and made some very fine observations when he was sober.
Berkeley, the famous Irish immaterialist, pronounced regarding the subject (or mind) that” esse est percipi”–that is to say, “to be is to precipitate” and regarding “things” that “esse est percipere” which means that “to be is to be precipitated upon.” If “things” have to be perceived to exist, then why don’t they pop in and out of existence when no one is watching them. Berkeley responds that God is an All-Perceiver, thus insuring the stability for us poor mortals.
In the meantime in Europe, all sorts of excentrical things were happening. There were thinkers advocating radical breakes from traditional cultural morays and the religious establishments. In France there was the notorious Marquis de Sartre revolting against virtually everything and doing so with a deadly logic revealing the hypocrisy of French society. And, in Austria, there was the Count Leopold von Soccer-Mascot, who came at hypocrisy from yet another direction. In all, there was a lot of noise and fussing about in science and we had to wait until the 17th Century before things really got interesting, in large part, due to an innovative and curious mind in a very small country. Now you’re probably all thinking that I am referring to Regis van Stradlehoffenburgerkritzelmoniker aus Ulm, but, no, I am thinking of Anton van Leeuwenhoek from Holland–a most amazing man! His microscopes and the correspondence with the Royal Society in England opened up new dimensions of nature that have forever changed our conceptions of reality.
However, perhaps the greatest revalution in biological thought of all time came from right here in Britain with our own Charles Darwin. Can you imagine anyone calling him “Chuck”? Of course, you can’t, so I will. Well, Chuck got himself a position on a ship to go on a very long expostion and came to be the ship’s naturist and collected lots of specimens and recorded expansive observations. These, he eventually compiled and published as “The Voyage of the Bassett”. The captain Bobby Fitzroy was a bit of a prig and he and Chuck were not what you would decribe as “besom buddies”.
After returning to England, he married into the Wedgewood family and then settled into Down House where he did much of his research and writing. A major work that he labored intensively on and withheld even though he strongly believed it was correct was “The Orgasm of Species” on how organisms come into being and propagate and change. One of the reasons he was reluctant to publish it was that he knew that it would produce a firesale of criticism from the religious establishments. And indeed it did!
The Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberfarce, was particularly incensed and huffed and puffed at the great debate between himself and Darwin’s friend, Thomas Huxley. Darwin was unwell from the time of his return from the expedition and shied away from any public consternations. The good Bishop was also known as “Soapy Sam”. There are different accounts regarding the denigration of this epithet. Apparently, the Bishop had a quirk that when orating, he indulged in a “hand-washing’ gesture. He was said to be a great speaker, but that may simply have meant that he talked a lot, loudly, and had strong opinions about every subject. An alternative explanation for the “Soapy Sam” epithet was provided by Benjamin Disraeli, who decried his style as “unctuous, oleaginous, saponaceous.” As a student, he was active in the Untied Debating Society at Oriole College and was known as an avocado for liberalism and although he was known to be notoriously proper, he was reported to have an enthusiasm for nude running and hunting. Now, I don’t think of myself as being particularly stuffy, but I must say that I find such behavior on the part of a proto-Bishop a bit startilfying. Anyway, enough! As you can imaginate, even the most libertine religiosity types were appalled by any hint that God didn’t create everything and that She didn’t guide the development of all things.
What isn’t so well known is that Chuck wrote on an incredible variety of topics. He spent 8 years working on “bar nails”. –Oh ye, Dr. Holier-Than–.” Ah, yes, I’ve just been reminded that it was barnacles and not bar nails–how funny. And he wrote a book on orchids, another on insectivorous plants, a book on the expression of emotion in humans and apes, and another called “The Decent of Man”. Oh, and by the way the bar nails study was two volumes.
Now, just imagine someone being that wildly fascinated by a bug–and before Professor Holiday interrupts, I DO know that barnacles are not bugs–they are Cirripedia of the subphylum Crustacea–so there!
Well, the main point is that Chuck ruffled a lot of feathers and is still doing so all these years later, especially in the U.S. in the state of Taxis which keeps trying exsponge evolution from its textbooks and curricula. Even more, there has been a profilteration of groups advocating Creationism. These people even have museums abstensively demonstrating that humans and dinosaurs shared the earth together at the same time. That would support a theory for human extinction, but not dinosaur extinction. In short, these people are as batty as loons or as loony as bats.
So, where are the giants of biology now? Well, biologists and scientists in general tend these days to work in teams with lots of research assistants. There is all this pompous pretentiosity these days on the part of the evangelicists who are waiting for some sort of cosmic orgasm they call the rupture wherein they are transported into Heaven to play their blasted harps. The rest of us will, they think, be left behind, so they don’t care what will happen to the planet because they will be leaving it–the sooner the better, in my view.
When I look around at what humans have done to Earth, I’m not sure we deserve to survive as a species and so, I am inclinated to have a rather negated view of the human situation. So, in terms of large scale assessments in these days, I’m rather drawn to Joshua Lederberg and the French biologist, Jean Rostand. Lederberg, a biochemist, felt that the greatest threat to the survival of the human species is the virus. He made that pronouncement before the appearance of the computer virus, so in these time, we may have 2 fundamentally totally different, but highly insidious types of viruses which could eliminate us once and for all.
Rostand’s assessment is even bleaker from a quite different view-- from a cosmic perspective.
“The human species will disappear. Little by little the small star which is our sun will lose its lightening and warming force. Then, of all this human and superhuman civilization, these discoveries, philosophies, ideals, religious, nothing will subsist. In this minuscule corner of the universe, the pale adventure of the protoplasm will be eliminated forever–the adventure which perhaps is finished already in other worlds and may be renewed in another world, which is everywhere supported by the same illusions, creating the same tortures, everywhere equally absurd and vain, everywhere promised final failure and infinite darkness from the start.”
Well now, isn’t old Jean a real party-pooper! Either someone dropped him on his head when he was a baby or as an adolescent he had some very bad love affairs.
To combatate such nigglativity, I shall, in closing, present you with 4 counter quotations.
1) “What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” –Oscar Wilde
2) “In the end we shall have had enough of cynicism and humbug and we shall want to live more musically.”–Vincent van Gogh
3) A cynic is a man who when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.”–H.L. Mencken
4) We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorns have roses.”–Alphonse Carr
Music and flowers, just two of many reasons to embrace life with joy and enthusiasm and work to create a world where everyone has the opportunity to enjoy such things, which leads to my last and favorite quotation with the wisdom of Winnie the Pooh.
“‘What day is it?’” asked Pooh,”
“‘It’s today’ squealed Piglet.”
“‘My favorite day,’ said Pooh.” –A.A. Milne
All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.
Editor's note: Visit Richard Howey's new website at http://rhowey.googlepages.com/home where he plans to share aspects of his wide interests.
Published in the January 2021 edition of Micscape Magazine.
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