What a Fine Day For Science

November 4, 2012

Today, I read Through the Language Glass, about five or six years after Guy Deutscher’s work was first recommended to me by gaspode. Yes, what remarkable timing, I know. Turns out that being a 2010 book, it wasn’t even what gaspode had recommended in the first place. Yes, what remarkable attention to detail, I know. Anyway, it had this rather poignant passage:

In 1887, Weismann embarked on his most notorious–and most often ridiculed–research project, the one that George Bernard Shaw lampooned as the “three blind mice” experiment. “Wismann began to investigate the point by behaving like the butcher’s wife in the old catch,” Shaw explained. “He got a colony of mice, and cut off their tails. Then he waited to see whether their children would be born without tails. They were not. He then cut off the children’s tails, and waited to see whether the grandchildren would be born with at least rather short tails. They were not, as I could have told him beforehand. So with the patience and industry on which men of science pride themselves, he cut off the grandchildren’s tails, too, and waited, full of hope, for the birth of curtailed great-grandchildren. But their tails were quite up to the mark, as any fool could have told him beforehand. Weismann then gravely drew the inference that acquired habits cannot be transmitted.”

As it happens, Shaw greatly underestimated Weismann’s parience and industry. For Weismann went on far beyond the third generation: five years later, in 1892, he reported on the still ongoing experiment, now at the eighteenth of mice, and explained that not a single one of the eight hundred bred so far had been born with an even slightly shorter tail. And yet, pace Shaw, it wasn’t Weismann who was the foot but the world around him. Weismann, perhaps the greatest evolutionary scientist after Darwin, never for a moment believed the mice’s tails would get shorter. The whole point of his perverse experiment was to prove this obvious point to an incredulous scientific community, which persisted in its conviction that acquired characteristics and even injuries are inherited.

It reminded me of this bit from Neal Stephenson’s Anathem:

“I’d like you to punch me in the face,” he said. As if he was asking me to scratch his back.

“Not that I haven’t always dreamt of it,” I said, “but why would you want it?”

“Hand to hand combat has been a common element of military training down through the ages,” he proclaimed, as if I were a fid. “Long ago it was learned that recruits–no matter how much training they had received–tended to forget everything they knew the first time they got punched in the face.”

“The first time in their lives, you mean?”

“Yeah. In peaceful, affluent societies, where brawling is frowned on, this is a common problem.”

“Not being punched in the face a lot is a problem?”

“It is,” Lio said, “if you join the military and find yourself in hand-to-hand combat with someone who is actually trying to kill you.”

“But Lio,” I said, “you have been punched in the face. It happened at Apert. Remember?”

“Yes,” he said, “and I have been trying to learn from that experience.”

“So why do you want me to punch you in the face again?”

“As a way to find out whether I have learned.”

After some further conversation, Erasmas the narrator obliges the insistent Lio, and tries again and again to knock him out.  About a page later, we get this:

I think we did it about ten more times. Since I was suffering a lot more abuse than he was, I sort of lost track. On my best go, I was able to throw him off stride for a moment–but he still took me down.

“How much longer are we going to do this?” I asked, lying in the mud, in the bottom of an Erasmas-shaped crater. If I refused to get up, he couldn’t take me down.

He scooped up a double handful of river water and splashed it on his face, rinsing away blood from nostrils and eyebrows. “That should do,” he said. “I’ve learned what I wanted.”

“Which is?” I asked, daring to sit up.

“That I’ve adjusted, since what happened at Apert.”

“We did all that to obtain a negative result?” I exclaimed, getting to my knees.

“If you want to think of it that way,” he said, and scooped up more water.

Science. It works, bitches, but the scientific method does call for a lot of slogging just for negative results.