A teleological tale

As the new millennium began, I, bravely or naïvely, committed myself to this discredited branch of philosophy, officially submitting “teleological narratives” as my dissertation topic. Although I was working on a doctorate in English at City University New York  (CUNY) Graduate School, I needed a scientific advisor on my dissertation committee because teleology and biological self-organization are so entwined. By chance one of my literature advisors, Angus Fletcher, had just retired to Santa Fe, New Mexico with his wife Michelle.  I would travel great distances to meet with them under any circumstances, but what made me even more willing to visit Santa Fe was the fact that the Santa Fe Institute, perched upon the high desert hills just outside of that city, is the premier center for the complexity sciences, a field in which teleology might be seen anew. Angus’ move helped me decide to propose my ideas to theoretical physicist James P. Crutchfield, one of the original investigators of deterministic chaos, who, I had learned from James Gleick’s popular book Chaos, was interested in the intersections between science and art.

It was a late summer day as I got into my taxicab to go up the hill to the Institute to meet with Professor Crutchfield. As I did so, I noticed something light brown on the red-earth driveway of my adobe hotel: a very large moth with enormous “eye spots,” on its wings, which Darwinists claim evolved because they mimic owl’s eyes and frighten off predators.  Deciding to take it along with me on my interview, I gently nudged it and it crawled onto my hand and calmly perched upon my palm. It was a providential find, as I wanted to talk to Crutchfield about my dissertation research on a non-Darwinian theory of evolution posed by Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov in the 1940s.  I had become interested in the way Nabokov’s theory of the evolution of butterflies and moths corresponded with his theory of creativity generally and of the poetic structure of his own novels specifically.

When I arrived at the Institute, I was greeted by Crutchfield. The image of a late 20th century scientist, fit and suntanned, he sported a ponytail and wore shorts, looking very much like the former surfer he is.  We sat on a terrace overlooking the juniper covered hills and began to talk about art and the complexity sciences.  Finally, he asked about the moth, which for some time had been sitting on my lap, very slowly beating its huge velvet wings. I told him about Nabokov’s work. He was stunned. That summer he was leading a conference on non-Darwinian evolutionary theory, which was thought to be a radically new way of thinking.  And here was a student of literature with similar interests. I had had no idea that Crutchfield was working on evolution, and I was just as surprised as he was.  We started collaborating right away, and within months I had published my first paper advancing a testable scientific theory, albeit a rather modest one, on the teleological mechanisms behind insect mimicry.

Jim came to be my mentor for several years, and I profited much from observing his tough, empirically-minded approach to the complexity sciences.  Although at first his work was simply beyond my ability to understand it, I noted that at conferences and workshops when a difficult question was thrown on the table, the entire group would spontaneously turn to him, sitting silent and watchful. His answers were usually greeted with approving noises and pleasant surprise. So I trusted him; when you’re just starting to learn you have to put your trust somewhere, and the signs were good. I was not disappointed. Eventually, I came to understand his work better. I used to proofread his papers for him and when I didn’t understand the meaning of a sentence, he would try to rewrite it to my level.  Consequently I know more about his work than that of any other complexity worker, and my readings of others’ work are undoubtedly biased by my enthusiasm for his. He understands the sort of things scientists are not supposed to understand, namely creativity and chance.

I relate the details of our first meeting because the story itself flirts with teleology. My finding the moth by chance helped me to achieve my purpose, and it launched me on a wonderful and exciting journey in science. It was as if Nature had intended it.

–from my forthcoming book, The Biologist’s Mistress

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