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Monkey Business - Charles Darwin & the UNIVAC

Monkey Business
Charles Darwin & the UNIVAC

When Charles Darwin sojourned in the Galapagos Islands in the mid-nineteenth century, mused over the unique species of flora and fauna there and conceived of organic evolution through natural selection, he apparently had no idea that he was concerned with only one part of a continuum.

He was concerned with how organisms had changed to adapt to the environment.

As far as is known he little appreciated that evolution turned a corner when the human brains specialized as a body part which institutionalized adaptation, so that evolution thereafter involved adapting the environment to fit man's needs rather than vice versa.

Thus, organic evolution and technology can be seen as a continuum, but one with a definite dichotomy.

The final great leap in human organic evolution was the development of language which came about through diverse adaptations man made to his ecology and to his fellow man, which by then had become a major element in his environment -- through language one human brain developed the ability to shape thinking within another.

When language moved to include a written moddity as well as being spoken, thoughts could be shared over time and distance with human beings which were out of ear-shot and even in diverse days and generations this adaptation became more than organic evolution -- it became technology.

So there we have both the continuum and the dichotomy -- organic evolution and technology, the first coming in response to the environment and the later in response to human thought evolving through communication.

Darwin's ideas -- for which he shared credit with Alfred Russell Wallace, another British naturalist who came to similar conclusions from his studies in Malaysia -- reshaped thinking holistically, not only in biology but also in the other sciences.

Tool-making, which emerged as man emerged, was undoubtedly the first-step toward technology, but the invention of written language was a giant step and set the accumulation of human knowledge on a durable and progressive path.

We call today's times the "Age of Communication" because men have developed ways of promulgating knowledge, not only over time and distance, but also more instantaneously.

However, there remains the grandeur of the written word, wherein one human sits down with a writing tool of antique ancestry and records his thoughts.

Wallace went so far as to say that this next step in evolution was man's excursion into the spiritual for which other naturalists -- particularly disciples of Darwin chided him.  However, Wallace's extensions bare consideration, for indeed all races, diversely over the globe and over many millennia have made the metaphysical a large part of their lore.

Certainly Christ, Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed, Gandhi and others have brought about great changes in thought and even politics; and among Christians, St. Augustine, various of the Popes, Martin Luther, Calvin, Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, among others, have shaped their times through their religion.

But underlying all this has been the written word, and the Judeo-Christian Bible terms it the logos -- "in the beginning was the word and the word was God and the word was with God."

To me the next step in zoological mutation became human knowledge, which with the written word developed substance.

So speech evolved and writing was invented which it seems remains the primal innovation that man volitionally brought to the world and today, as electronics have entered the picture, communications characterizes our era.

The computer has not only facilitated broadcasting throughout time and space, but has so sped up transmission as to bring it all but to the speed of light.

As education has become a prerogative for success in modern society and culture and made the individual part of the substance of knowledge, now the computer is rapidly becoming a necessary part of language skill for acquiring an education.

Fortunately for me the basics of my education were in place before the computer came along.

I was practicing and teaching at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia in the late 1950's.  Dr. Joseph Stokes, my personal mentor as well as director of the hospital, sent me across the Delaware River to Camden, New Jersey to check out the possible use of General Electric's UNIVAC, the first computer, and to see if it had a place in clinical medicine.

Filling an entire room with its batteries of vacuum tubes, it was a daunting device.

It sported a coterie of technologists who spoke a new language and, though they were hospitable in presenting the UNIVAC to me, it looked as though mastering the device was a study within itself that matched the discipline of medicine in complexity and training demands.

I reported this back to Dr. Stokes, noting that the computer would probably have some role in medicine, but I was convinced it wasn't my cup of tea.

Thus -- as during WWII when I turned down a dinner invitation from "Queen Mary" Reid, the owner and publisher of The New York Herald Tribune while I was still contemplating a possible career in journalism -- did I for a second time leave epoch opportunity knocking upon an unopened door.

I probably was one of the first physicians given an invitation to become literate in the use of the computer and, though in part I saw its possibilities, I was looking through the wrong end of the binoculars

Little did I realize that modern medicine as well as most other learned professionals would become almost totally dependent on this new device and little did I appreciate that the UNIVAC would be the technological "caravel" from which a new world would be discovered.

Am I sorry for such a missed opportunity -- perhaps, but I'm not morose.

In fact, the computer has changed my life just as it has that of everyone else who participates in affairs of the day, though I personally remain computer illiterate.

Am I sorry about that?  Not really.

The artistry of penmanship appeals to me in a way I doubt computer use ever would have, though the device is now being used in all sorts of creative ways -- for audio-visual creation as well as cognitive adjunctives.

I always envied my father's mastery of Spencerian penmanship which he learned in business school when most business correspondence and book-keeping was done in "long-hand" -- the typewriter just then coming into vogue. 

T. Carl Hamrick, Edie's father, had followed the same path and had similar talents.

Likewise, the calligraphy of Asia, from which today's Arabic, Hebrew and Sino-Japanese scripts arose, are now displayed as art forms per se not just communication and are pleasing to the eye even though most of us have no sense as to the ideas they portray.

It is wondrous indeed that this all evolved some 5000 years ago from the cuneiform characters that the Mesopotamians inscribed by pressing into damp clay tablets with wedge-tipped sticks.

Even English, with its phonetic alphabet, has been transmuted into a calligraphic form that strives for the grace of Persian or Arabic scripts.

Would, too, that I had learned that art (as has one of my daughters-in-law, a graphic arts graduate) but again, just as in tackling the Spencerian script of my father and my father-in-law I stumbled over the discipline of practice, which such mastery required.

Had these several attributes transpired I would have been deprived of more than filling my waning days with the preparation of a manuscript of recollections in my own handwriting -- not new calligraphy, but at least unique.

So for any interested enough to read these ramblings I leave my thoughts in the same form had they been hand-written missives to those I cherish -- kith and kin.

Perhaps I kid myself, but somehow this seems more like truly leaving something of yourself behind.

Somewhere among these vignettes is an account of how I developed my penmanship from having started printing in college when I realized my attempts at cursive note-taking were near illegible to me after a few hours.

Interestingly enough, several of our children have handwriting much like mine, and Barbara has translated it into a form of calligraphy.

Carl is an exception -- he uses the manuscript printing which is typical for architects.

So at least in our group there is family resemblance even in handwriting, and for those who came along several generations later it will be interesting to see if it has evolved as a family trait.

That would be something with which Darwin would be intrigued. 

Getting back to Darwin's day, his ideas were distorted, as are most human perceptions.   

His contention that man and the lower primates descended from a common ancestor was warped into the popular notion that man descended from the monkey.

This sat uneasily on most in Victorian society.

Goodwill Manning, a British prelate and contemporary of Darwin's, said that the naturalists idea of choice mutation meant, "There is no God and the ape is our Adam."

Others were more concerned with the social aspects of the theory rather than it's theological and scientific consequences.

A matron from the upper classes is said to have put it best, "Let's hope it's not so that we have descended from monkeys, but if it is true, let us hope it doesn't become well known."

Just so, we could wonder if some hominoid -- newly down out of the trees several million years ago -- used a stick to scratch symbols in the dirt.

There's absolutely no evidence for this, but it sort of fits with the notions of Darwin and Wallace.


A little monkey business can go a long way.


Edited June 2002


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