[Humanist] 29.188 novelty and kinships?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Jul 23 22:55:08 CEST 2015

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 188.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Fri, 24 Jul 2015 06:44:39 +1000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: how new?

Two passages from Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams (2014/1986) lead me to 
wonder just how new our basic insights are and to open our eyes a bit 
more to our intellectual kinships.

> The most remarkable thing... is that [polar bears and brown bears]
> have become so different in such a short time. We call them both
> "bears", but when you see a polar bear surface quietly in a lead,
> focus its small brown eyes on a sleeping bearded seal, draw breath
> soundlessly, and submerge without a ripple, you wonder at the
> insouciance with which we name things. (p. 86)

> The desire to verify conjecture, to witness spontaneous, unstructured
> events in the wild, is of course very sharp among field biologists.
> Nothing -- no laboratory result or field-camp speculation -- can
> replace the rich, complex texture, the credibility, of something that
> takes place "out there". And scientists working in the field know
> that what they see in the field always has the potential to
> contradict what they have read or been told.... [Some events they
> witness] may be of no *statistical* importance. It may not be
> possible, in other words, to generalize about all bears from these
> incidents. But such events emphasize the resourcefulness of the
> individual bear and the range of capability in the species; or they
> may reveal and unusual technique widespread only in a certain
> population. These events underscore something critical in the biology
> of large predators: the range of capability in the species. No matter
> how long you watch, you will not see all it can do. (p. 96)

The first provokes me to reflect on the insouciance, as he says, of our 
classificatory activities, such as markup, and how easily awareness of 
that insouciance is lost in the pride of engineering, the second on the 
ever-present peril of being lead by the genuine successes of big-data 
analysis away from the "range of capability", which is to say, the 
exceptions to statistical rule in the populations we study.

Field biologists and digital humanists have a fair bit in common, I 



Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Digital Humanities Research
Group, University of Western Sydney

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