Friday Harbor Labs
San Juan Island, Washington USA

Dear John,

Hello from Paradise.  I've been working in my study in the Whiteley Center here at the UW's Friday Harbor Labs.  It's a get-away-to-finish-the-book sort of place.  Unlike the Rockefeller Foundation's similar place in Bellagio, Italy, this retreat is attached to a working marine lab that lives to the rhythms of the tides.  Katherine has been teaching a research course for undergraduates up here.  It gives them ten intensive weeks of a research project on small neural circuits.  When I want a break, I spend a day out on the lab's trawler, as the students collect crabs.

The Whiteley Center is also unlike Bellagio in that it is on a large nature preserve, not a manicured Alpine hillside.  Upon hearing of Steve Gould's demise, Katherine and I were reminiscing about the dinner we had with Steve a few years ago at Bellagio, balancing plates on our laps at the lake shore as the sun set, talking about our mutual interests in evolution and our writerly habits.  Oddly enough, Katherine and I had had lunch earlier that day with Susan Sontag.  We'd talked about her surviving the constant shelling in Sarajevo, not about the years of chemotherapy she wrote about in Illness as Metaphor.

And so after dinner, on the long hike back up the hill to the Villa Serbelloni, Katherine and I marveled that here we had not one but two long-term cancer survivors, each of whom had already gotten 15-20 years of extra life after a grim prognosis.  Not only survival, but just look at all the extra books that each had been able to write, thanks to catching cancer in time and having an effective treatment.  

Reading Steve's early essays and his first big research book, Ontogeny and Phylogeny, was what got me to reading more broadly about evolution.  One of his important contributions as a paleontologist was to convince us that there are long periods in evolution where a species really doesn't change very much. Darwinian gradualism doesn't necessarily guarantee a steady course of improvements. Then there are periods when, no longer stuck in a rut, things progress considerably faster.

Both of my main interests in evolution—the evolution of the big brain in only several million years, and the use of the Darwinian process in the brain to improve the quality of the next sentence you spea—involve the search for speedy ways of evolving things. I tuned right into what Steve was saying.

I tried to distill a set of essential ingredients for a universal Darwinian process, one that could operate in brain circuitry in mere seconds, as you figured out what to say next. I got Steve to take a look at my five essentials: a pattern that is copied with variations, where populations of the variants compete for a workspace, much like crabgrass and bluegrass compete for our backyard in Seattle. Then (and this is what Darwin called "natural selection") there was a multifaceted environment that allowed one variant to do better than the other. (How often you cut the grass, water it, fertilize it, freeze it, and walk on it. In our environmental mixture, crabgrass is winning.)

Steve put on his glasses and looked at my list. "You probably need an inheritance principle," he said shortly. "It's something Darwin missed at first and added later." Darwin's inheritance principle means that those juveniles who best survive childhood and find mates are the ones who generate the next round of little variations. Most will prove no better than their parents, but some will "fit" the challenges of the local environment even better than their parents.

If the random variations are big, their starting point isn't remembered. But they're usually small, and that's what makes for local "progress," what makes evolution's creativity so impressive to us. Subtract any one of the six essentials, and things just wander without any direction.

Steve's demise reminds me of that fourfold hierarchy of data, information, knowledge, and wisdom. In science, getting raw data is hard enough. Then you have to refine it: information is "data that makes a difference." Some of it yields knowledge of how things really work. But turning knowledge into wisdom is the most difficult step, not often accomplished. You need a lot of knowledge stored in your head that can simmer for awhile. In some fields of intellectual endeavor, especially history and the historical sciences, creative people get better as they get older. The near-doubling of the average human lifespan in some countries has meant a lot in terms of being able to successfully turn knowledge into wisdom.

Steve was only 60, with lots of knowledge cooking. And here we all hoped that Steve would turn out to be like that grand old man of evolution, Ernst Mayr, who is still busy writing important books at age 97.  Sigh.

My Whiteley Center fireplace was handy for the cool mornings of April, when I was mostly preparing talks about A Brain for All Seasons—some about the human evolution bits, others about the implications of all those abrupt climate changes for evolution and ecology more generally.  Now with the summer breezes, I am settling into trying to reconstruct the stages in cognitive evolution for the next book, A Brief History of Mind.  Unlike the four previous summers, no one has organized a compelling meeting somewhere that I must attend during the really nice months in the Pacific Northwest.  So I'm sensibly sticking close to Seattle.

Hello to all,


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