March 1997


    Histoire Naturelle des Indes

    You Are a Mathematician

    Charles Darwin's Letters: A Selection

    Book Review

    The Science of Fiction


    The mind makes sense of the world by telling itself
    little stories, says one critic--and he's listening in.

    of the hugely publicized hoax article planted last year by physicist Alan Sokal in the hapless cultural studies journal 'Social Text,' you might be forgiven for thinking scientists and humanities scholars had nothing to exchange but brickbats. The Literary Mind (Oxford University Press, 1996, $25.00) triumphantly proves otherwise. Mark Turner, its author, is a professor of English at the University of Maryland who has also served a careful apprenticeship in cognitive and neural science, and his double competence empowers him to step confidently in both fields. "The everyday mind," Turner argues, "is essentially literary." Literary modes, he believes--specifically story and parable--are the basic structures of all human knowledge. They may even be physically detectable, in the neural wiring of our brains.

    As Turner tells it, we interpret our world by piecing together tiny yet vital narratives, in which we perceive events sequentially in space: "The wind blows clouds through the sky, a child throws a rock, a mother pours milk into a glass, a whale swims through the water." Trivial though such mini-narratives may seem, they and their like allow us to see objects and events as connected and continuous. To say that a duck dives in a pond, for example, is to claim that the duck surfacing is the very bird that went under a few minutes before, and that it performed an action--diving. Sequences like these transform a series of otherwise meaningless visual and auditory impressions into something that tells us what's going on in the world around us--a world we have to navigate if we're to survive.

    In Turner's scheme the real workhorse of human knowledge is not story but parable. We use parable to combine smaller narratives, making sense of the unfamiliar by projecting a story we already know onto an unknown situation. Suppose, for example, your son is having trouble with fourth-grade math, and to encourage him, you tell him Aesop's parable about the tortoise and the hare. You project a source story (about a slow yet steady reptile sooner or later overtaking the mercurial but scatterbrained lagomorph) onto a target narrative (your son's slow progress at school). Throwing one story onto another is, of course, the very stuff of literature. But Turner argues it's much more than a strategy for fiction; rather, it recurs incessantly in real life as the basic process by which we make order and sense out of a confusing universe.

    'The Literary Mind' is profuse with illustrations, both real-life and literary (ranging from 'The Thousand and One Nights' to Greek tragedy to Marcel Proust), of how this process works. But perhaps the most interesting sections are those in which Turner examines what he calls blended spaces. The term refers not necessarily to a physical location but to a conceptual meeting point between a parable's two component stories. In blended spaces, we mix elements from source and target stories as a way of empowering our parables to explain things. The blended space of the tortoise-and-hare tale is where the two animals are endowed with a human motivation: the desire to win a cross-species race. Simultaneously, you pull steadiness from the tortoise and capriciousness from the hare, and connect these qualities helpfully to your son's problem.

    Knowledge, in other words, comes from the sparks stories display as they strike up against each other. And since that's an inherently dynamic process, knowledge is also consequently unstable. "Meaning," Turner says, "is a complex operation of projecting, blending, and integrating over multiple spaces. Meaning never settles down into a single residence. Meaning is parabolic and literary."

    If you've followed recent developments in cognitive neuroscience, particularly the work of Gerald Edelman of the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, you'll already have guessed where Turner's heading. Edelman believes that our subjective experiences of thought and sensation arise from the simultaneous activation of many different systems of neurons, called maps, which influence and reinforce one another. So though we think we're experiencing a single, unified thought or impression, that's really an illusion disguising a synergistic blend of many different maps, all firing interactively. They work, in short, much like Turner's parables--especially like the blended spaces in which the disparate elements of those parables come together to form meaning.

    Much of Turner's discussion, as he may admit, is highly speculative (he argues, for instance, that parable is the basis not only of human thought but of language, an assertion that's bound to enrage many linguists). But it's also a lucid and engaging introduction to a complex field nobody can afford to ignore. And its grounding in literary criticism may have more than explanatory value, if cognitive scientists learn from him as he has from them: his ideas about parable could well prove useful in the lab as concepts to guide research.

    Histoire Naturelle des Indes:
    The Drake Manuscript in the Pierpont Morgan Library. W. W. Norton & Company, 1996, $75.00.

    When Sir Francis Drake made his famous voyages to the West Indies in the second half of the sixteenth century, he found a complex society uneasily knit from three groups: the conquering Spanish, the African slaves they had brought to mine gold and silver and work the land, and the natives who had been living there all along. He also found a natural world as unlikely as a traveler's tale--where cotton grew on trees, where fish pecked the eyes of people, and where one bird had a spiny beak bigger than its body.

    Though Drake painted some of the wonders he saw, none of his art survived. The sixteenth-century illustrated manuscript that bears his name is the work of a Frenchman, or perhaps two, who may have sailed with him on one or more journeys. The 'Histoire Naturelle des Indes'--published for the first time, in facsimile--depicts plants, animals, and local customs from Drake's New World ports of call with naive, tragic, and charming images. The artists clearly didn't have firsthand experience of everything they drew--llamas don't boast curly horns, and seahorses don't own mammalian muzzles. Still, this visual and verbal chronicle gives a unique picture of daily life in an extinct culture. --Polly Shulman

    You Are a Mathematician.
    David Wells. John Wiley & Sons, 1997, $24.95.

    If you read the title and say, "Who, me? Gee!" not "God forbid," you may find 'You Are a Mathematician' an excellent way to make its assertion come true. Although Wells covers topics from arithmetic to fractals and relishes anecdotes featuring mathematicians as heroes, he organizes his book not by subjects or history but by the ways mathematicians approach problems. They play around with shapes and numbers; they notice patterns and anomalies; they guess at rules and try to prove them. Results are one thing (we can't all be Euler), but Wells makes a case that a mathematical cast of mind is yours for the asking. You just have to learn how to ask. A former editor of 'Games and Puzzles' magazine, he offers plenty of problems to get you started (answers follow each chapter), as well as advice and examples to help you pose your own. 'You Are a Mathematician' is interactive in the old-fashioned way. --Polly Shulman

    Charles Darwin's Letters: A Selection.
    Edited by Frederick Burkhardt. Cambridge University Press, 1996, $21.95.

    My. Dear. Emma.,
    I have just finished my sketch of my species theory. If, as I believe that my theory is true and if it be accepted even by one competent judge, it will be a considerable step in science.
    It's a rare pleasure to follow a great thinker on the trail of a great idea, not in the form of a cozy autobiography or some socio-politico-psychosexual analysis but as the events actually unfolded. Fortunately, while Charles Darwin was struggling with the concept of natural selection, he wrote a number of uncommonly enlightening letters, some of which Frederick Burkhardt has culled from Darwin's vast correspondence. In a little over 200 pages we get a real sense of how hard it was for Darwin to spend 20 years on 'Origin of Species' only to find that fellow zoologist Alfred Russel Wallace was on the verge of publishing some of the same ideas. Burkhardt also gives us a feel for the less biological side of Darwin, as he writes to his sister, Susan, whom he addresses as "granny," about the dancing rhinoceroses at the London Zoo, or as he bad-mouths his enemies. (Fretting over what the great anatomist Sir Richard Owen would say about his book, he wrote, "Owen, I do not doubt, will bitterly oppose us; but I regard this very little; as he is a poor reasoner and deeply considers the good opinion of the world, especially the aristocratic world.") Call it the history of science in real time. --Carl Zimmer

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