February 2006

Barbara J. King

features

Curious Minds: The Science of Gilliganís Island

Thanks to my new best friend, US District Judge John Jones, public school science teachers in Dover, Pennsylvania may have some space to fill in their lesson plans. In December, in a triumph for sanity over “inanity” (his word), Jones decreed that intelligent design (ID) is not science. Advocates of ID claim that certain biological structures (the eye and the blood-clotting system of humans, for example) are too complex to have arisen via evolution and must have been designed by an intelligent force at work in the universe. ID’ists are unmoved by scientists’ explanations for the step-by-step evolution of these complex structures; for their part, scientists wish that ID’ists would ditch the wishy-washy appeal to an unspecified force and “out” their God.

Judge Jones sided with science. He saw ID for precisely what it is, gussied-up religious creationism, and protected young Doverites’ right to learn science in science class.

But what about those gaping holes in the lesson plans? Once science teachers trot out the voyage of the Beagle, and all those Galapagos Islands’ tortoises and finches, how else to turn curious young minds toward science?

By showing reruns of Gilligan’s Island, that’s how. The brilliance of this curricular innovation came to me while reading Robert Sapolsky’s essay in the John Brockman collection, Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist. Readers of a certain age will join Sapolsky (born in 1957) and me (born in 1956) in remembering the Professor character from this show. Marooned on an island with Gilligan, Skipper, and assorted others, the Professor was a scientific know-it-all for the shipwrecked set.

Here’s how the prepubertal TV-watching Sapolsky saw the Professor: “He has every book ever written somewhere in the trunk he was marooned with; he can answer any challenging question you can think of; he is forever saving everyone by rigging up some sort of scientific device…. While all this was impressive, what really got to me was his presumed connection to Mary Ann, the pretty farm girl in flannel shirt and pigtails… Because their names were linked [in the show’s theme song], I assumed that the two of them must have had something going….So it was only natural that I wanted to grow up and be the Professor and spend my time out in some remote field site.”

Sapolsky did the Professor proud. He grew up to be an internationally-renowned primatologist and neurobiologist, and winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant. He spends half of each year at a lab in the States and half in the African bush, studying baboons. (Twenty years ago, I researched these same baboons, but for only 14 months; maybe I underdosed on Gilligan.) When Sapolsky discovered primates, “Something resonated, in a way that I still feel but can’t explain.” Of course, factors beyond those related to television comedy also influenced Sapolsky, including his father’s experience in archaeology; immersion in museum and zoo exhibits and Time-Life books; and encounters with vital minds when he got to Harvard.

The influence of family, the pull of the natural world, and the role of mentors, both formal and informal, echo throughout the 27 chapters in Curious Minds. All the budding scientists experienced a mix of these factors as they grew up, but the mix was spiced a little differently for each. The fun of reading the book is finding both the patterned mix and the unique spicing in each chapter.

In the realm of unique spicing, cow brains rank right up there with Gilligan’s Island. As a boy, Joseph LeDoux earned the job of cleaning cows’ brains for his father’s butchery business. With patience, the tough protective membranes of the brain “can be peeled from the surface and from all the nooks and crannies, exposing the blob of Jell-O. Then you have to run your fingers into the blob to track down and extract the bullet.” Because “customers were not fond of chomping down on lead while enjoying their sweetbreads,” this task was critical. As he worked, LeDoux mused not just about the cow brain but also about the cow mind: “I couldn’t help trying to imagine what the cow experienced the moment the bullet penetrated its brain. Did its life flash before its eyes? Did it contemplate the bovine afterlife?” Can it be coincidence that as a neuroscientist, LeDoux studies the workings of the human brain?

My own curious mind engaged more and more as I read. I wanted to ask physicist Lee Smolin to explain more about the role played by a family friend, a mathematician, who seems to have intervened continuously to offer, at just the right moment, the ideal mind-stimulating challenge for a smart child. I wanted to hear more about human-ancestor expert Tim White’s boyhood love of the California forest and the Mojave Desert, and how it may have contributed to his adult fossil-hunting successes.

And I wanted to argue with Steven Pinker (don’t I always?). Confident as ever that he’s left everyone else behind on the garden path, Pinker writes, “Everything I know about the recollection of childhood influences makes me approach this assignment with misgivings.” Human memory is highly unreliable. Chance plays a big role in our lives. Even worse, people can’t help but create “self-serving theories,” and get duped into thinking that their parents affected the life choices they have made. Behavioral genetics shows us the truth, that “everything a pair of children in a family share when growing up -- parents who are engaged or distant, warm or cold, tidy or disorganized, refined or coarse -- has little or no long-term influence on making us who we are.”

What, I wonder, might a poor family make of such a conclusion? To find out, we could talk with a young girl, entranced by the stars outside her bedroom window, whose mom is tired from working two jobs and has no energy to learn to read, and who fears (with good reason) it is too dangerous to venture outside their apartment to gaze at the night sky. If this child were told that Pinker grew up surrounded by books, magazines, and encyclopedias, and attended religious classes and summer camps, would she think it probable that Steven’s parents had “little or no long-term influence” on making him who he is?

An answer to Pinker can be found a page after his essay ends, in the writing of Mary Catherine Bateson. The daughter of Anthropology Power Couple Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, she remembers her father’s lessons on ecology, absorbed when the two set up a home aquarium together. And her mother “made a sustained effort to expose me to cultural differences: different races, different religious services, visitors from all over the world where she or her colleagues had done research -- like meeting the first troop of Balinese dancers to come to New York City or Native American performers in Madison Square Garden’s annual rodeo… Our conversations trained me in the habit of reflecting on experience. In effect, she taught me to be a participant observer of my own life.” Mary Catherine became a cultural anthropologist.

And then there are the Gopniks. (I’m cheating when I pluralize, because only Alison writes a chapter in Curious Minds, but she mentions her four younger brothers, including Adam. Based on Adam’s Paris to the Moon and his New Yorker pieces, I’d love to bring Adam into the conversation.) Here’s Alison on early family life: “Other families took their kids to the theater to see Sound of Music or Carousel; we saw Racine’s Phaedra and Samuel Beckett’s Endgame… The artistic and literary sides of our lives were most flamboyant; we were a theatrical family in more ways than one. But it was a mark of my parents’ brand of modernism that science played an integral role in their vision of high culture.” Alison became a cognitive scientist.

True, psychologist Judith Rich Harris allies with the Pinkerian view (and helped to shape it, Pinker says). But she’s in the minority by far. Psychologist Marc Hauser’s childhood was “a Renaissance feast of opera, film, philosophy, literature, travel, food, and science.” Applied mathematician Steven Strognatz writes movingly of a moment during his college years, when his mother asked a key question. The answer led to a “moment of truth” that altered his future life as a scientist. Even physicist Paul C.W. Davies, at first claiming that no signal event or mentor marked his career choice, goes on to describe the night his father pointed out to him the wondrous Sirius star and assorted constellations: “I remember vividly the sharp points of light in the blackness of the sky…Then we saw a shooting star… My father explained that they were meterorites plunging into Earth’s atmosphere. Now this was pure magic! Merely by looking up, I could escape into a wonderland of literally otherworldly objects… From then on I was hooked on science.”

Collectively, the essays in Curious Minds speak to the power of shared passion and shared love in a family and in any relationship between a caring adult and a knowledge-thirsty child. Sometimes it’s the big things that matter -- the whole sweep of a parental career -- and sometimes the little ones -- pointing out a shooting star. Sometimes the passion even emerges in the science classroom. Especially when it’s science that’s taught there.

And in the end, in that classroom, I’d have to go with more Galpagos Island and less Gilligan’s Island.

-- Barbara J. King thanks her mother and father for filling a house in Shrewsbury, NJ, with books and music, even back in the days when they couldn’t really afford it.