Seeking Wonder

October 19, 2009 | Leave a Comment

Category: Biology, Play

There are several ways that children play.  They imitate adults, using costume or pantomime to reproduce a different time and place.  They engage in games that seek to achieve competition or cooperation goals.  Children will initiate or participate in an activity that engages the senses in a fashion that feels good and seems interesting, such as dancing, looking through a telescope and making music.  Children also like to play with scale.

Shifting scale is often engaged in while exploring the other three forms of play:  mimicking, games and pattern exploration.  A child might imagine that he or she is in a spaceship while cruising through a room.  Flashing by light fixtures, the child imagines passing galaxies.  Marching soldier figures through forests of grass blades, the child might also see himself or herself as a giant above the battlefield.  A child might invent a game with specific scenarios that game pieces represent.  Playing dress up, a child might imagine that he or she is grown.

Much play presupposes an ability to be two places at one or two times at once.  Not all play.  Early play simply involves an exploration of the senses, the mechanics of the body and the mirroring of expression.  Later play conventions that show little exercise of two times/two places are conventions involved with pattern reproduction.  Dancing, lining up plastic characters in rows, drawing patterns and beating rhythms can be play with no inference of time or scale.  Down’s children, autistic kids and the very young often do not embrace an awareness of multiple times or place.

There are many ways that scientists are just big kids.  One way is their reveling in scale.  In many specialties, practitioners are spending enormous amounts of time at one of the many different scales that make up existence.  Some scientists travel among several scales.  Occasionally, a scientist specializes in the traveling, devising instruments through which to travel.  Like the child traveling past light fixtures in the living room, a scientist might be designing devices to perceive what’s far away.

Physicists can do a lot of this kind of traveling, exploring both the miniscule and the macroscule.  Traveling through both space and time, jumping from super strings to congregations of galaxies, physicists seem to know how to play.

So, what is it with the biological sciences?  Why is there hesitation with shifting scales?  With physicists reveling in finding patterns that cross multiple levels or scales, why are biologists so inclined to stick with as few as possible?  Why are they so hesitant to play?

Evolutionary developmental biologists are loosening up a bit.  They seek to find reflection of ontological processes in the soma and behavior of individuals and species.  Why stop there?  How might ontogeny be related to cosmology?

Evolution theorists tend to focus on derivations of natural selection as an explanation for what happens at specific scales.  Stephen J. Gould led forays into multiscale biological interpretations of evolution.  That man knew how to play.  Who are the great players today?  Which evolution theorist toys with theory in ways that make us want to ask a lot of questions?  What men and women are good at evoking wonder?

Isn’t that what it’s all about?  Isn’t wonder at the root of play?  When children are exploring their world, isn’t play a child’s tool for uncovering wonder?  Or, are play and experiencing wonder the same thing?

Consider this.  If a theory does not evoke wonder, maybe it is not a useful theory.  Darwin’s theory of natural selection has had all the wonder beat out of it by scientists that insist it shouldn’t integrate with other theory.  Darwin was obsessed with finding a way to integrate several theories.  Natural selection was only his first idea, the one that worried him the most.  Where today are the theorists playfully obsessed with this kind of integration?

Where is the wonder?


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