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Exceeding What We Have Inherited

Professor Al Wachtel on the Evolution of an Interdisciplinary Idea

Professor Al WachtelHow would you define interdisciplinary studies? How about a two-hour encounter with Aristotle, Carl Linnaeus, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, James Hutton, Charles Lyle, Robert Malthus, Adam Smith, Erasmus Darwin and Charles Darwin, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Friedrich Nietzsche, among others?

“This is a more essential area in which to try to enlighten our students than our own disciplines,” Pitzer Professor of English Al Wachtel said. “In many ways, if I can get a literature person to see the vital importance of mathematics in one significant work by an author, then that may be more meaningful than having that person read three additional works by that author. Students of literature need to know the crucial importance of psychology, geology and biology. That’s where the breakthroughs are going to happen, where disciplines intersect. What we’re now awaiting is the next breakout period. Who are the next geniuses who will produce the next great leap? My conception, based on past breakouts, is that the next big movement is going to be brought about by people who are interdisciplinary.”

If Wachtel’s all-star roster doesn’t impress you, then consider that Wachtel used those giants in philosophy, botany, taxonomy, geology, economics, biology and literature to answer an age-old question: Which came first: the chicken or the egg?

“In asking the question, I am attempting to change your mind about two major issues that have informed or troubled the world for the last 2,000 or 3,000 years. It’s not a conundrum,” he said to a few giggles at a February 7 lecture on transdisciplinary studies. “It’s a real question and there are two excellent answers to it. The first great answer was Aristotle’s.”

Wachtel’s talk, “Sciences Behind Modern Literature: A Macrocosmic Microcosm,” was part of a series of guest lectures for the course, "Transdisciplinary Studies: Theory and Practice" at neighboring Claremont Graduate University.

Before leaping too far ahead let’s consider what happened as world travel and refinements within disciplines collided. Let’s also pause to think about the confluence of several disciplines, which pecked away at the shell of Aristotle’s egg. More to the point, settle in for Wachtel’s truly interdisciplinary and merry trip through time and (laboratory) space during his lecture at CGU. There is no better way to understand interdisciplinary studies than to begin with Aristotelian notions of forms and end with thoughts on Joyce and Nietzsche.

“Aristotle believed in a logical approach to human experience and he believed in the fixed nature of forms,” Wachtel continued. “Since he had that belief structure he reasoned that for an egg to become what it was potentially, what it was potentially had to exist first. Therefore, the chicken preceded the egg both conceptually and in his mind factually.”

The first great project of biology, based on Aristotle’s approach, set about recording the physical characteristics and differences among creatures, and that quest lasted until the nineteenth century, according to Wachtel. “The field of biology continued to go down his street, the street which said ‘the chicken preceded the egg,’ and that all species are exactly what they were in the past for literally thousands of years.”

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), who holds wide regard for fathering the field of taxonomy, refined the Aristotelian approach by classing species based on attributes such as spinal cords and other characteristics. As the categories grew more complex, world travel further complicated the system by revealing creatures that were more or less developed than their cousins. Some scientists began to think, “Perhaps there were less complex creatures that became more complex through history and indeed animals were not always exactly the same,” Wachtel explained.

Enter Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), the grandfather of Charles Darwin. Through poetic verse and scientific writings, Erasmus Darwin divined the differentiation within subsets of creatures based on his observations of the many breeds of dogs. The process was more than just replication of a single dog; in fact there were many specialized breeds.

“The thought that the chicken preceded the egg began to be challenged,” Wachtel explained. “You can see here that an approach to that question as a conundrum will lose entirely its meaning. It’s a significant question for which there are two significant answers. One of which is thought to be right and one of which is going to be wrong.”

The chorus grows louder with the voices of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), who began to piece together conclusions based on the effect of environment on biological development; James Hutton (1726-1797), who made his mark through the extrapolation that as with the environmental forces that slowly change the face of the Earth, so, too, can creatures be changed over time; and Charles Lyle (1797-1875), “who published his ‘Principles of Geology’ in which he argued that there was an evolution,” Wachtel said. “And he was the first to use the word in a textbook sense, asserting that evolution had taken place in the development of the world and had developed in creatures of the world. It was a lovely idea but it fell upon fairly deaf ears because Lamarck’s claim that changes in a parent in response to its environment would be passed on to its young seemed silly and in general the ideas of evolution of creatures had not taken root.”

But stand on the deck of the Beagle and look out across the Galapagos Islands, teeming with specialized forms of finches adapted to food sources found on their narrow strips of habitat. Draw carefully on your background in medicine, biology and geology as you consider Lyle’s notion of change over time.

Charles Darwin did just that. What’s more, a few years after returning from his global trek, he discovered the key to his observations in writings on economy by Robert Malthus (1766-1834) and Adam Smith (1723-1790).

“Instead of just thinking about a division of labor, let’s think about an adaptation to the environmental situation in which a creature finds itself,” Wachtel explained. “Instead of thinking about enlightened self- interest, let’s think about a sort of laissez faire situation in the world in which creatures are in competition with each other for survival, and those best able to adapt to the environment in which they find themselves and survive it, will survive it.”

Thus was born Darwin’s Origin of the Species, out of interdisciplinary encounters.

“And writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce began to try to craft their works in such a manner as to capture the terrific changes in the sensibility of human beings as they move through the world,” Wachtel said. “They did it in such a manner as to suggest that it is possible for human beings to become that which they were not. In the late nineteenth century Friedrich Nietzsche had asked ‘Can you be a god? Then don’t talk to me about God.’ Try to be an over-person. Try to be something better than what you are. Try to exceed what you’ve inherited.”

For Leopold Bloom, a character in Joyce’s Ulysses, and Zarathustra in Nietzsche’s examination of the human condition, the Darwinian revolution, the chicken, and the egg take on a new significance.

“There’s a transformative capacity there that I hope you see, related to the Darwinian notion of creatures being produced by chance mutations, after which causality enters, survival being determined by the fit between those chance mutations and the environments in which they are spawned,” Wachtel said. “And what Bloom ultimately comes to is the idea of transforming his angst and his pain and his suffering and his loss into decencies for other people in the world. It’s an astonishment. And for me it stands as one of the great moments in the history of Western literature, in which it was recognized that heroism is more than the endurance of violence or the process of conquering others. It is in fact a conquering of the horrors to which we as a world are exposed. And the capacity to see that web of change as a reality to which we can aspire comes microcosmically into literature from a macrocosm of biological investigation.”

So, what came first? The chicken or the egg? The egg!

— Jay Collier,
Associate Director of Public Relations

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"Students of literature need to know the crucial importance of psychology, geology and biology. That’s where the breakthroughs are going to happen, where disciplines intersect."