Old Clams, Transparent Frogs, and Wordsworth

Or, Why can't Romanticism and the Enlightenment just get along?


in Archive


Scientists from Bangor University’s School of Ocean Studies in Wales recently killed the longest-lived creature ever discovered. It was a clam. A quahog clam, to be precise and it had been living off the coast of Iceland for a little bit more than 400 years until this autumn, when it was dredged up by the team of scientists and opened, thereby killing it, in order to study the rings inside its shell for information about changes in the environment. ABC News noted that as an infant clam it would have been alive at the same time that Shakespeare was staging Hamlet.

This brings to mind a few famous lines from Wordsworth’s poem “The Tables Turned.” He writes:

Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—
We murder to dissect.

These lines tend to get bandied about every time something like the clam incident occurs, which is often. We’re always killing things to find out about them or killing things for the greater benefit or for the Good or simply for pleasure. There is a way, as Wordsworth says, that our meddling intellect is simply murderous.

But it cuts the other way sometimes too. In another recent story we learn that certain frogs have been bred for translucency. A research team in Hiroshima, Japan — I’m not making this up — has crossbred the recessive genes in the Japanese brown frog in order to create frogs with transparent skin. No more dissection. No more classrooms littered with the corpses of our amphibian sacrifices to the Gods of knowledge.

Of course, the frogs, in being bred this way, also produce grandchildren that die almost immediately. The breeding does kill, it just does so with a generational delay. And the transparent frogs aren’t exactly free from the rigors and probings of the experimental mind in other ways either. The head of the research team, Professor Sumida, says: “Transparent frogs will prove useful as laboratory animals because they make it easier and cheaper to observe the development and progress of cancer, the growth and aging of internal organs, and the effects of chemicals on organs.” Alas, Poor Froggy, your transparency is but a thin defense. “The effects of chemicals on organs” alone bodes an ill future. The gnawing feeling that we are doing something wrong even as we try to fix things will not go away. We’re still murdering to dissect.

And it gets worse. On a deeper level, the Wordsworth quote is not about murder in the literal sense. It is about the failures and self-contradictions inherent in human reason itself. It is about the way in which the progress of knowledge is not progress at all, but something horrible, something disastrous to the very values and ideals that we proclaim in that search. Indeed, since the beginning of the Enlightenment there has been a nagging suspicion that knowing how living things work is not necessarily the same as knowing about life. Wordsworth’s quote goes even further, suggesting that knowing how things work actually prevents us from knowing about life, that there is a fundamental opposition between the two kinds of knowledge. Isaiah Berlin put it this way in discussing Wordsworth’s meaning:

…to attempt to see things as submissive to some kind of intellectualization, some sort of plan, to attempt to draw up a set of rules, or a set of laws, or a formula, is a form of self-indulgence, and in the end suicidal stupidity… Whenever you try to understand anything, by whatever powers you have, you will discover… that what you are pursuing is inexhaustible, that you are trying to catch the uncatchable, that you are trying to apply a formula to something which evades your formula, because wherever you try to nail it down, new abysses open, and these abysses open to yet other abysses.

This applies to frogs as much as anything. More than a hundred species of harlequin frogs in Central and South America are disappearing. The death of the frogs is probably a result of global warming. What effect these extinctions will have on us or the rest of the creatures out there is hard to say. The abysses open into other abysses with yet other abysses.

What to do about all these abysses? The reaction against the Enlightenment that started in the late 18th century and came to be called Romanticism tended to position life and rational knowledge as in absolute conflict, to take it as an either/or. I don’t think it is possible to do that anymore. We are heirs both of the Enlightenment and of Romanticism and we don’t really want either one to obliterate the other. The costs are too great. A Romanticism unchecked runs forward into an irrationalism that can be terrifying. The Romantic celebration of life in its frothy inexhaustible bursting forth is also the willingness to accept and even encourage the mindless violence of nature itself. Romanticism, too, flirts with murder. That is one of the things the Enlightenment was rightly scared of and knowing how things work was supposed to give us tools with which to put some distance between us and the brutal indifference of nature and the brutish impulses that are our own. It has. But we also continue to find out that those tools have their own costs, that the randomness and stupidity of the world is reproduced by the very mechanisms that we’ve created to solve the problem.

In short, the problem of life is surprisingly persistent. Perhaps one day it won’t be. But until then it is best to hedge one’s bets. See-through frogs are neither the sign of the Apocalypse, nor the proof of the great and continuous progress in all things. Instead, they are exactly the troubling duality that they seem to be. We are smack dab in the middle of a thousand abysses. The interesting question is whether there is a third method of thinking, neither exactly Enlightenment nor Romanticism but at the same time both. Such an attitude would recognize the dilemma we’re in without pretending we have anything more than the resources simply to navigate amongst the shoals like a ship at night. The philosopher Otto Neurath once said, “We are like sailors who must rebuild the ship on the open sea, never able to dismantle it in dry-dock and to reconstruct it there out of the best materials.” The new attitude would be something like that, something humble yet still ambitious. We would murder our frogs and clams and cry for them, too. We wouldn’t pretend, because we would always be looking straight into the infinity of abysses even as we toiled away on the ship, adrift in a sea we know not where. • 15 November 2007