Friday, April 26, 2013

Mark Twain, Scientist?

Don’t forget the Oklahoma Evolution Road Trip! If you are interested, please try to register by May 3 (click here). See blog entries below for more information. One of the things we will do during evenings when we finish our day trips is to discuss what we have seen, and maybe to discuss science in general. Here are some thoughts I would like to share about science. Feel free to post comments about your insights into this topic.

Novels and short stories are experiments. At least the good ones are. The author creates a character and circumstances, then sets the experiment in motion to see what happens. In the best stories, these experiments test hypotheses. Therefore the writer is not in complete control of the outcome: the plot must follow internal rules of cause and effect, even if these rules are not the same as those on our Earth.

One of my favorite examples is Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens). He believed strongly that upper class and lower class people were not different in their basic abilities and character. In particular, he despised slavery because the slaves were as fully human as the slave-owners—an idea controversial at the time even in the North. This is particularly true because a single drop of black blood made you a potential slave: an octaroon (one-eighth black) could justifiably be held in bondage, according to the scholars of the South.

Twain did not simply rail against the unfairness of slavery and class, but ran fictional experiments to test the relevant hypotheses. Most people have heard of The Prince and the Pauper, where a prince and a pauper switched places. Fewer people have heard of Pudd’nhead Wilson.

In Pudd’nhead Wilson, a quadroon slave mother was taking care of the master’s baby and her own octaroon baby. The boys were visually indistinguishable. So she switched them. Experiment begun. Her baby grew up to act like a typical slave-owner, and the master’s fully-white son like a typical slave.

Enter the local amateur scholar, Mr. Wilson, whose unusual ways prompted the locals to call him Pudd’nhead. He was trying out a new scientific technology—fingerprints. He fingerprinted the two babies before the mammy switched them. Later, his fingerprint records were the convincing evidence that proved what had happened. Experiment ended. The erstwhile slave became the new master, and for the former master was sold “down the river.” These last three words of the book, said one reviewer, would have made a better title. “Down the river” was toward plantations where work and life were harder, though not as hard as in the Caribbean where slaves seldom lived long enough to reproduce.

In addition to using fiction to test hypotheses, Twain was interested in science. Fingerprints, of course. But he also wrote an essay, “Was the world made for man?” which was a direct criticism of Alfred Russel Wallace’s spiritualistic interpretation of evolution.

Twain also performed a literary experiment in The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg. (I read this novel in an original edition with uncut pages that was sold for a few pennies at a garage sale.) In this novel, Twain tested the honesty of local businessmen, and found them all to be corrupt. One wonders whether this literary experiment was entirely realistic, whether a typical set of small town businessmen would act this way. It was from Twain’s later, cynical years. But maybe it was realistic; there are days on which I share Twain’s cynicism.

Both the scientific questions (“What is?”) and the fictional questions (“What if?”) can be approached through hypothesis-testing.

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