Rice Night at Pride of Persia -scientists in support of the humanities

Last night one of the little tribes to which I belong met at Pride of Persia to celebrate environmental literature in a beautiful rug-tapestry setting. It was a kind of gathering I love, small, but not too small, and a mix of people I knew well, knew slightly or a long time ago, or did not know at all. I try to spend a little time with one set of people I don’t know, and this time it was a friendly couple from Finland (her) and Sweden, though they’d been in Houston since the 1960s. They were especially glad to see the tender raspberries among the goodies, fruit from home. I was glad to see them too. Houston has dewberries, and blueberries, but I expect I’ll have more luck growing berries up in St. Louis.

One of the interesting things about this happy couple was their way of life. In a home in the Heights they have a land telephone line and an answering machine. They receive paper mail, and a newspaper. And that’s it. Cell phones are for emergencies. No TV, no computer, so they won’t be reading this. He insisted they live a rich life, though I had never suggested otherwise. They also insist they are easily reached because they actually listen to their phone messages (do you still do this?). But you won’t find me waxing nostalgic about the days before social networking. I like keeping up with everyone instantly! But it’s nice to have some that don’t.

The environmental literature that we read in our Wednesday noon reading group is often written by people out in the desert, off in the Michigan cabin, off the grid in one way or another for one reason or another. I suppose a strong benefit of those times is a centeredness, a focus on what is around you, and what you think about it, with no one to check in with, no one to validate your opinion. The writings of those people are important to me, and enrich my life. John Graves, Craig Childs, Terry Tempest Williams, Allison Deming, and many more. Ron Perry, Andrea Galindo, and Lisa Slappey bring the best to our attention.

Lisa, probably known to her students as Dr. Slappey, does more, for she teaches the environmental literature class to Rice University undergrads. This course has changed lives, and is much talked about among the environmentally active students. We are lucky to have Lisa teaching it, but you would never know that from the support Rice gives it. In fact the purpose of this benefit, for it was a benefit, is the teaching of environmental literature at Rice. It is in honor and memory of professor Walter Isle, who brought environmental literature to Rice, and who was the major advisor of LIsa Slappey on her Ph.D. We are in the business of research and education, and yet this important component needs outside funding. Sad.

In the last issue of the premier journal Nature in 2010, Gregory Petsko writes a plea for support for the humanities, and in particular begs his fellow scientists to support arts and humanities departments. Such pleas go back at least to the 1960s in the US. In Bioscience from April 1965 I found an editorial asking for biologists to support foundations for the arts and for the humanities. Back then, in the more generous and civic-minded era, they were supported. Now the fight is tougher, maybe because everyone needs the gadgets the lovely Swedish-Finnish couple eschews.

I could argue for the humanities in general, and environmental literature in particular, just because I love it and love the interpretation of life on the planet that it brings. But there is more to it than that. In biology we tell stories. We tell a particular kind of story supported by experiments and observations. There are rules to our story telling. We must keep observation and inference separate, and always know which currency we are using. We cannot offer an interpretation that is not supported by data unless we make it very clear that it is speculation. Right along with the facts of biology, long ago worked out by earlier scientists, we teach the nature of evidence, and how we know what we know. If we do not teach that we run a dangerous business, for our students could simply take facts based on authority, and the next authority to come along could have their own interests. A well-educated biologist is immunized against dangerous facts because she will demand to see how the facts were obtained, and what theoretical framework they fill.

But the way we remember is through stories, and facts that tell stories get remembered to influence future scientists. If our students have already learned to be good story tellers, it is easier to teach them our side of the equation. I will not now delve into the evidence for the importance of stories for remembering, but stories have a long human history, from the songlines the original Australians used to survive in their landscape to fables designed to extract good behavior out of children.

We love stories. They are the parters for the dance of our imagination. They precede adventure. One of the first things we want our students to do is to read stories, and to tell stories. It is the elements of a story that make for good writing, writing that will hold the attention of the reader. The power of stories is why our scientific papers do not take the form of lists of postulates, with figures and tables for support. We want the author to weave the facts together into a story. In science the story will partly be about the results, and partly about the evidence that supports the results. It will also have a historical component that ties this story to the stories that went before.

I’m afraid we scientists have gotten so bad at telling stories, that someone else often tells the best ones for us. This is perhaps why Nature and Science now have News and Views, or Perspectives written by good writers to tell the story of exciting results. The word constraints on actual papers may be another reason even good story tellers cannot tell their story in the actual paper.

Maybe at this point you have no idea what I’m talking about, so I’ll give an example from that same issue of Nature from 23/30 December 2010 that I quoted earlier. On page 1044, there is a News and Views called Shadows of early migrations, by Carlos Bustamante and Brenna Henn. It contributes to one of the most interesting stories of all, where we come from. We all know we humans are an African species, but we don’t know all the details of how or when we left our motherland, whether we interbred with other species, and what kinds of paths were taken. This piece tells the story that begins with a tooth and finger bone from a cave in Siberia. It apparently belonged to a Denisovian, as Pääbo and his group call it. The Denisovians are related to the Neandertals of Europe, but are distinct, and appear to have contributed to present-day Melanesians. Bustamante and Henn, even refer to this as a story, and they tell it well, mentioning both the plot, the elements, the history, the kinds of evidence, and future directions. For the casual reader reading outside her field, this is enough. The deep reader, or scientist in the same field, will take the trouble to read the full article, and maybe even also pore over the supplement, available only on-line.

Pääbo and his team are also excellent writers, but they must support their story with facts. Phrases like “the phalanx was found in layer 11,” or “using the machine-learning algorithm Ibis,” or “incomplete lineage sorting” are not part of everyone’s knowledge set. Still, theirs is an excellently written and gripping story, so this may not be the best example of the challenges of scientific writing.

My point is simply that we all tell stories, and students that are good story writers are easier to teach scientific writing. We get in trouble when scientists also have to teach story writing from first principles. So, let’s support the humanities for their own sake, but also for what they do for scientific teaching. How much easier it is to teach scientific environmental issues when Lisa Slappey has led the students to literature that help them recognize their love of the environment.


Ron Parry, and Letitia Clark, Environmental Reading Group regulars, with a beautiful rug behind.


From Sweden and Finland, Tommy Hallgren and Marita Burns have stayed in Houston. I wonder if she was one of the fifth or so of Finns with Swedish as a first language.


Andrea Galindo, organizer of E-Read, and lovely Camila in a tapestry setting.


Our hosts, Mehdi Abedi and Lisa Slappey, with Andrea and Camila.


Camila showing her budding lower teeth, and trying to get away from me!


Pam Walker, author of Growing Good Things to Eat in Texas, in a pensive moment.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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One Response to Rice Night at Pride of Persia -scientists in support of the humanities

  1. Lisa Slappey says:

    This installment of your blog is very special to me. Thank you!

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