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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, March 23, 2007

the tree of ideas

This morning, as we lay in bed in the dark in post-alarm recovery, we heard this weather forecast: "Heavy rain today, tomorrow, all through the weekend, and for the rest of our lives." That put a smile on my face and energized me to get up and meet my day.

I want to say more about ideas--my favorite subject. I've been toying with the notion of what it would be like to develop a cladogram of the history of ideas. If you're not familiar with the word cladogram, I'm sure you're not alone. You can click the preceding link, or accept my quick definition: an organizational chart of living organisms arranged by their order of appearance in evolutionary history. When all organisms are included in such a chart, it is sometimes called a "tree of life"--a powerful mythological image. The word itself comes from the Greek klados, "branch". The discipline called cladistics is the taxonomic philosophy of classifying organisms in this way, by genetic propinquity, rather than by the more traditional method of grouping them by morphological similarity.

I first heard the term, and had it explained to me, in about 1985 at La Bodega, the West End tapas bar where I used to meet my friends once a week. At that time it was a new idea, dating back only to 1979. My biologist friend Brad and an associate of his, Andrew, sketched out a basic cladogram on a paper napkin. (Brad was headed for a career in tropical ecology; Andrew was branching into herpetology.) I didn't really grasp what was supposed to be special about a cladogram, since to me it just seemed to be a basic org chart. The key point, as I now understand it, is that two dissimilar-looking organisms might might be more closely related genetically than two similar-looking organisms, and would therefore appear closer together in a cladogram than they would in the old-time Linnaean classification system. A detailed knowledge of genetics, and of the genomes of organisms, makes a full, precise cladogram possible.

No such scientific precision could ever be achieved with a cladogram of ideas, but nonetheless I find the concept exciting. What are the most basic ideas we have, and how have they branched out, differentiated, combined, in human history?

Last year I couldn't resist buying the book Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud by Peter Watson. This 822-page tome (very good too--I'm 262 pages though it so far) is a step in the direction I'm thinking of. Watson recognizes technological innovations as the manifestation of new ideas--although these are not the only manifestations of new ideas. But all new ideas are inventions: they are intended to solve a problem. ("Necessity is the mother of invention"--this phrase, I've just learned, is from Plato's Republic.) An innovation is a response to a perceived problem.

Sometimes I've seen puzzlement expressed that so many tens or hundreds of thousands of years went by in human prehistory with no significant changes to our primitive stone toolkit of flaked hand-choppers. I have to believe that no necessity for a change was perceived. There was no culture of innovation. It did not occur to people to respond to problems by inventing new tools. This itself is an idea: that problems can be met with a deliberate effort to try something new. (By the way, in astrological terms, I would say this is one of the core ideas of the sign Aquarius.) That idea had to be discovered, and also added to the culture--the heritage of ideas that is passed down to succeeding generations. (My thought is that ideas are what a culture is made of. Our culture is exactly the collection or set of ideas that we collectively hold.)

These are just a few semi-random thoughts. I wanted to give a glimpse into the world of my thinking: what kinds of things I've been thinking about. If I were an academic, I think this might be the area of study I would be drawn to.

Now: on with my day of heavy rain (the weatherman is right so far).

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