March 30, 2012
The originality of the species: Any breakthrough depends on the efforts of countless predecessors- reflections on originality and collaboration
March 30, 2012
In June 1858 a slender package from Ternate, an island off the Dutch East Indies, arrived for Charles Darwin at his country home in Down, Kent. He may well have recognised the handwriting as that of Alfred Wallace, with whom he had been in correspondence and from whom he was hoping to receive some specimens. But what Darwin found in the package along with a covering letter was a short essay. And this essay was to transform Darwin’s life.
Wallace’s 20 pages, so it seemed to their reader on that momentous morning, covered all the principle ideas of evolution by natural selection that Darwin had been working on for more than two decades and which he thought were his exclusive possession – and which he had yet to publish. Wallace, working alone, with very little in the way of encouragement or money, drew from his extensive experience of natural history, gathered while sending back specimens for collectors. He articulated concisely the elements as well as the sources familiar to Darwin: artificial selection, the struggle for survival, competition and extinction, the way species changed into different forms by an impersonal, describable process, by a logic that did not need the intervention of a deity. Wallace, like Darwin, had been influenced by the geological speculations of Charles Lyell, and the population theories ofThomas Malthus.
In a covering letter Wallace politely asked Darwin to forward the essay to Lyell. Now, Darwin could have quietly destroyed Wallace’s package and no one would have known a thing – it had taken months to arrive, and the mail between the Dutch East Indies could hardly have been reliable in the mid-19th century. But Darwin was an honourable man, and knew that he could never live with himself if he behaved scurrilously. And yet he was in anguish. In his own letter to Lyell, that accompanied Wallace’s essay, which Darwin forwarded that same day, he lamented: “So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed.” He was surprised at the depth of his own feelings about priority, about being first. As Janet Browne notes in her biography of Darwin, the excitement of discovery in his work had been replaced by profound anxieties about possession and ownership. He was ambushed by low emotions – mortification, irritation, rancour. In a much-quoted phrase, he was “full of trumpery feelings”.
He had held off publishing his own work in a desire to perfect it, to amass instances, to make it as immune to disproof as he could. And, of course, he was aware of his work’s theological implications – and that had made him cautious too. But he had been “forestalled”. That day he decided he must yield priority to Wallace. He must, he wrote, “resign myself to my fate”.
Within a day, he had even more pressing concerns. His 15-year-old daughter, Henrietta, fell ill and there was fear that she had diphtheria. The next day the baby, Charles, his and Emma’s 10th and last child, developed a fever. Meanwhile, Lyell was urging Darwin to concede nothing and to publish a “sketch”, which would conclusively prove Darwin’s priority over Wallace.
Taking his turn to nurse the sick baby, Darwin could decide nothing, and left the matter to his close friend Joseph Hooker, and to Lyell. They discussed the matter and proposed that Darwin’s “sketch” should be read along with Wallace’s essay at a meeting of the Linnean Society, and the two pieces would be published in the society’s journal. Speed was important. Wallace might have sent his essay to a magazine, in which case, Darwin’s priority would be sunk, or at least compromised. There was no time to ask Wallace’s permission to have his essay read.
But before Darwin could consider the proposal, the baby died. In his grief, Darwin hastily made a compilation for Hooker to edit. An 1844 set of notes, though out of date, seemed to make a conclusive case for priority, for they bore Hooker’s pencilled marks. A more recent 1857 letter to Asa Grey, the professor of botany at Harvard, set out concisely Darwin’s thoughts on evolution by natural selection.
Lyell, Hooker and Darwin were eminent insiders in the closed world of Victorian metropolitan science. Wallace was the outsider. He came from a far humbler background, and if he was known at all, it was as a provider of material for gentlemen experts. It was customary at the Linnean Society for double contributions to be read in alphabetical order. And so, in Darwin’s absence – he and Emma buried their baby that day – his 1844 notes were followed by his detailed 1857 letter, and then, almost as a footnote, came Wallace’s 1858 essay.
Darwin had delved far deeper over many years and certainly deserved priority. Wallace found it difficult to think through the implications of natural selection, and was reluctant in later years to allow that humans too were subject to evolutionary change. The point, however, is Darwin’s mortification about losing possession. As he wrote later to Hooker, “I always thought it very possible that I might be forestalled, but I fancied that I had a grand enough soul not to care.”
Hooker began to press his friend to write a proper scientific paper on natural selection. Darwin protested. He needed to set out all the facts, and they could not be accommodated within a single paper. Hooker persisted, and so Darwin began his essay, which in time grew to becomeOn the Origin of Species. In Browne’s description, what was suddenly released were “years of pent-up caution”. Back at Down House, Darwin did not use a desk, but sat in an armchair with a board across his knees and wrote like a fiend. “All the years of thought,” writes Browne, “climaxed in these months of final insight … the fire within came from Wallace.”
The Origin, written in 13 months, represents an extraordinary intellectual feat: mature insight, deep knowledge and observational powers, the marshalling of facts, the elucidation of near-irrefutable arguments in the service of a profound insight into natural processes. The reluctance to upset his wife Emma’s religious devotion, or to contradict the theological certainties of his scientific colleagues, or to find himself in the unlikely role of iconoclast, a radical dissenter in Victorian society, all were swept aside for fear of another man taking possession of and getting credit for the ideas he believed to be his…
A new report from the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, has declared “The End of the Segregated Century.” Unfortunately, this is an overstatement: segregation has declined, but it is not at an end. And the significance of the decline is up for debate.
The report, by economists Edward Glaeser and Jacob Vigdor, has garnered substantial media attention, including a write-up in The New York Times. It rightly claims—as is widely known, in a large part thanks to Glaeser’s and Vigdor’s work—that the segregation of African Americans in the United States is down from its all-time peak in 1970.
But segregation remains remarkably present. Calling the decline a “success story,” as Glaeser has elsewhere, implies a tragically low standard for success. As Jonathan Rothwell of the Brookings Institution has reported, a majority of African Americans still live in “hypersegregated” metropolitan areas (such as Detroit), where at least 60 percent of the African American population would have to move in order to be evenly spread in the metropolitan area. Ninety-five percent of African Americans live in at least a moderately segregated metropolitan area (such as Kansas City), where 40 percent of blacks would have to move to achieve integration.
So we are not at the “end of the segregated century,” even though segregation has substantially declined.
What is more, the changes that have occurred likely seem of little consequence to blacks living in ghettos that, while smaller than 40 years ago, are still massive.
In evaluating the level of segregation, we need to think about why we sought to end segregation in the first place—that is, we have to consider whether the reduction is having an impact on the negative outcomes of segregation. And it turns out segregation has declined in a manner that is unlikely to reduce its pernicious effects.
There are at least three reasons why the United States, as a matter of public policy, was and should continue to be committed to ending segregation.
First, segregation was built by denying a group of people the fundamental freedom to choose where to live. In this respect, the decline in segregation is at least a partial success story. The state-sanctioned discrimination that helped construct the American ghetto has largely been eliminated. Restrictive covenants are long dead and strict government oversight of the real-estate industry has curtailed practices reinforcing segregation. Moreover, as Glaeser and Vigdor argue, it appears that the economic forces that contributed to segregation, such as unequal access to credit, have diminished as well.
While the isolation of African Americans has declined since its peak, very little of the decline has been caused by integration with whites.
Second, diversity builds a better society and rears better individuals. There is a good deal of evidence that people raised in diverse, tolerant communities are more likely to be tolerant when they grow up. And, importantly, organizations such as schools and businesses are more efficient, innovative, and profitable when comprising a diverse body of individuals. Neighborhoods and cities, too, benefit from a diverse population, as Glaeser has persuasively argued elsewhere. Segregation denies cities the advantages of diversity. In this respect, the decline in segregation is far from a success. As I noted last fall, the exposure of whites to African Americans in their own neighborhoods still lags far behind the population share of African Americans in the nation as whole. The same is true for the exposure of African Americans to whites—especially for the large portion of African Americans living in hypersegregated cities…
The Turkish Airlines flight to Tashkent, Uzbekistan was scheduled to leave at 9:25 on an October night, and dozens of people, nearly all of whom were holding Uzbek passports, stood at the gate. Gripping the handles of bulging plastic bags filled with candy and gifts, they stared at an electronic board announcing a Moscow-bound flight that had been unexpectedly assigned the same gate.
“LAST CALL” for Moscow, the board flashed in Turkish and English at 30-second intervals. As time passed, the announcement began to seem less urgent. Finally, the last passenger got on the Moscow airplane, and officials began ushering the Uzbek travelers through.
For weeks leading up to the trip, I’d had restless nights full of frightening dreams. For Uzbeks, however, real life can be as haunting as any nightmare.
President Islam Karimov runs the country, a sprawling parcel of the former Soviet empire, like a fiefdom. In 2002, two religious dissidents were boiled to death, according to a State Department report. In May 2005, Uzbek troops shot and killed hundreds of protestors in the eastern city of Andijan. A witness named Juravoi Abdulaev showed a Radio Free Europe reporter, Gafurjan Yuldashev, one of the resulting mass graves. After Yuldashev filed a story about the mass graves, Abdulaev was stabbed to death. A human rights investigator told me that sources he interviewed following the Andijan massacre were later tracked down by authorities, imprisoned, and tortured.
Some Uzbeks, such as Abdulaev and those interviewed by the human rights investigator, have been brave enough to speak openly about their experiences, and they paid a price. Others prefer to speak with journalists discretely. As I stood at the gate, I held my passport and a notebook filled with the names of both kinds: dissidents who had been outspoken about human rights abuses, along with others who were willing to talk as long as they could remain anonymous. The list included activists, economists, a former government official who had resigned in protest after the Andijan massacre, one woman whose relative, a political leader, had been assassinated, and four journalists.
The Turkish official at the gate held up my passport. He had dirty blond hair and glasses, and a yellow cord dangling around his neck. He put the passport down and looked at me. “I hope you have another visa,” he said. “This one isn’t any good.” He pointed to a smudged date in my passport and asked me to stand to the side. Businessmen and mothers clutching small children filed past me, showing him their passports as I waited.
What would happen if officials in Uzbekistan knew I was a journalist—what would happen to my sources?
Abruptly he turned toward me. “Do you have a letter of invitation?” he asked.
I thought about what would happen if he and his colleagues in Uzbekistan knew I was a journalist entering their country on a tourist visa, about what would happen to the people on my list. “No,” I lied.
He stepped over to me. “If you get on that plane and go to Tashkent,” he said, waving his hand toward the jet, “they will deport you. They will send you back on this plane.”
I might have argued, but I lost my nerve that night. I would have been fine, but what about the names in my notebook?
Things were supposed to be getting better in Central Asia, and Americans, in part, were supposed to be responsible.
Since late 2008 the United States has been developing the Northern Distribution Network, a transportation grid running through Uzbekistan, neighboring Kyrgyzstan, and other nations. The military uses the route to transport food and supplies to troops in Afghanistan. In the process the U.S. military has been buying bottled water, plastic forks, and other items made in factories along the way, spending more than $62 million in fiscal year 2010.
The northern supply route is vital to the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan because the southern one, which runs through Pakistan, is frequently bombed and closed down. Central Asia offers a more stable alternative. Roughly 60 percent of goods transported to the troops in Afghanistan come via the northern route, and military officials say that share will increase over the next two years.
U.S. officials have argued that investments in the transportation grid will improve the lives of people in Central Asia. Officials have even suggested that the new partnerships with Central Asian leaders could help improve their records on human rights. “Closer cooperation” might force “progress on human rights” and allow “the regime to loosen its vise on civil society,” Richard B. Norland, the ambassador to Uzbekistan, wrote in a January 2010 diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks.
But Americans have long struggled with competing impulses when dealing with autocratic leaders in strategically important regions, trying to balance the desire to promote democracy and human rights with the need to maintain security and access to bases.
In Central Asia, at least, the military imperatives seem to have won out. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave an International Women of Courage award to an Uzbek human rights activist in 2009, the Uzbek foreign minister made what Norland called an “implicit threat” to suspend deliveries along the supply route if Americans continued to raise the issue of human rights. Afterward Norland told his colleagues in Washington to curb their complaints.
Since then Americans have had much less to say about human rights in Central Asia, while investing even more heavily in the region. U.S. investment in Central Asian business, as part of the commitment to the supply route, jumped from $2.7 million in fiscal year 2009 to $90.6 million in fiscal year 2011, according to Navy Rear Admiral Ron MacLaren, who directs the Defense Logistics Agency’s Joint Contingency Acquisition Support Office, which helps to secure supplies for troops in Afghanistan.
Despite the promise of “heretofore unimagined economic advances” for the people of Central Asia, as scholars at the Center for Strategic and International Studies put it in a December 2009 report, little of the investment has gone to local business people.
“Who benefits? Of course, it’s corrupted elites,” says Baktybek Beshimov, a former member of parliament in Kyrgyzstan. He acknowledges that some of the capital has gone to local businesses but argues that “a huge amount of this money goes to corrupt leaders” and that the funding “leads to the escalation of corruption in Central Asian countries.”
These countries’ leaders have been cracking down harder on human rights and democracy advocates, while Americans have done little to stop them. “In a time of crisis, the American administration can be blind to human rights abuses,” Beshimov says, “and instead they are thinking more about the military or security priorities.”
When it comes to official abuses, Beshimov speaks from experience. As a parliamentarian in the late 2000s, he investigated human rights violations, including the torture of dissidents. Eventually he was placed under state surveillance, and then, he says, “They decided just to kill me.” On March 3, 2009, Beshimov was driving in a chauffeured official vehicle on his way to the capital city of Bishkek. Traffic police stopped the car, claimed the chauffeur was speeding, and asked him to sign papers acknowledging that he had. The police then stopped the car two more times on the same road. Beshimov was annoyed—and suspicious.
Since building a supply route through Central Asia, Americans have had much less to say about human rights there.
As they approached a tunnel on a mountain road, Beshimov saw one of his assistants flagging them down from the side of the road. They pulled over, and the assistant told him that two trucks were idling on the other side of the tunnel. One of the drivers planned to block off the road, his assistant explained, while the other would force Beshimov’s car into a ravine. The chauffeur’s admission that he had been speeding would ensure that blame for the incident fell to him—just another out-of-control driver. Beshimov took another route.
The setup was familiar. “Staged car accidents,” Ambassador Tatiana Gfoeller called them in a March 2009 diplomatic cable. In the cable, she described speculation about the “political assassination” of Presidential Chief of Staff Medet Sadyrkulov, an opposition leader who had been killed in a car crash under mysterious circumstances less than two weeks after the police stopped Beshimov…