Le pouvoir de la vie

Graceful Simplicity I find it really choice that the cover of Graceful Simplicity by Jerome M. Segal is a shell. Shells, or more specifically, brachiopods, were my first introduction to the problems of simplicity.

When I reentered college years ago, I needed to select a science to fulfil the requirement for my BA. I had lots of background (from high school) in biology and chemistry. I did ecological field study on microclimates and served as a lab assistant preparing everything for the other students labs in chemistry. Like most kids, I dabbled in explosives and such to keep high school interesting. Then, I was a science nerd.

But that had been a long time, at least twenty years. So, in order to try something different I took geology. I pretty much aced physical geology and I need a “lab” component so I took historical geology as a follow-up. I love the class, but hated the the associated lab. It was mostly sketching fossils and trying to draw conclusions from them.

I remember getting really frustrated with the idea that you could date fossils (in the case of the specific lab, brachiopods, by the level of complexity. The simpler the shell, the older the fossil. The general rule, dictated by the teacher, was that things always proceed from simple structures to complex structures over time. I wasn’t sure why he insisted that was true. I think I either missed, or didn’t fully grasp, the importance of Lamarck.

Le pouvoir de la vie, or “the complexifying force” was a construct Lamarck proposed in the early 19th century as a driver for evolution. This, along with L’influence des circonstances (the adaptive force) were imported from alchemy to explain why fossils seemed to progress in this manner. Of course, the adaptive force has been discarded (the idea, for example, that giraffe’s necks get longer because of their eating habits) but even though this “complexifying” doesn’t hold up under scrutiny either, it persists in our popular grasp of paleontology.

To be fair, the teacher only presented it as a “rule of thumb,” but it still it bugged me. Little did I know that I was actually pressing on one of the difficult bits of paleontology that is still being bantered back and forth. Why is more complex commensurate with “newer” and “more fully developed.” In other words, why does complexity always get read as “better” than simplicity? It still bothers me.

Segal’s book tickled this old, old, memory. I bought the book for a penny (plus $3.99 shipping) used from a Goodwill store. The subtitle, “The Philosophy and Politics of the Alternative American Dream” was intriguing and the copy when it arrived was highly underlined as if it had been used as a textbook. I wonder what class it was for? The reason why I was interested in the book was mostly that it claimed to have a philosophical (rather than a how-to) perspective on the simple living movement.

It’s been a good buy that has also jogged me to read some other texts I skipped over in past years (like Aristotle’s Politics) and made me revisit some political history (like Jimmy Carter’s presidency). I realize that I’ve not really provided any sort of introduction to the book itself, but I’ll get to that later. For now, I’ll just chuckle about the fact that the book is worth next to nothing, but the transportation of it can happen for a modest fee. It’s the complexifying force at work, I suppose.