For Himself

Much was said in class yesterday about the work of Wallace and Alec in the service of science. They sacrificed their lifestyle in the civilized world to travel to the Amazon and collect specimens of undocumented and exotic species. Why did they do this? Is it because they desperately wanted to contribute to the foundation of human knowledge? I propose that Alec, at least, had no such motivation and was driven to collect simply for the monetary incentives. Only later does he become at all interested in formulating theories of mechanisms of evolution and, even then, he does so for selfish motivations.

Although at the beginning of the short story, Alec’s trips to the Academy of Natural Sciences “once every few months” (104) may demonstrate that he had ever-so-slight of an inclination towards science for science’s sake, he quickly loses this wonder once he finds that the specimens he could collect in the Amazon had guaranteed high prices (104). With this introduction into the lucrative world of exotic specimen capture and preparation, Alec soon becomes fixated on just this end.

Barrett describes how Alec is almost ashamed of his consuming preoccupation with money (117) and how he endlessly writes to Mr. Edwards – a sort of agent who sells his specimens – “begging to know the true state of his finances” (117). In fact, much of the story is filled with references to money and “his finances,” as Alec worries endlessly over how much wealth he is accumulating.

Even as Alec becomes more concerned with finding the “method by which species undergo a natural process of gradual extinction and creation” (113), his motivations remain not with the ultimate goal of science in mind, but with his own reputation. In a telling passage when Alec is wondering why he has not devised a theory as Wallace had, his reasoning is explained:

If he were to narrow his gaze, perhaps? Focus on one small group of species, contemplate only them? Then he might make both his reputation and his fortune.

Even collecting the birds of paradise, all he can think about is the price they will fetch and how he will be able to point to them at the Smithsonian and say, “Look. I was the first to bring these back” (119).

Years later, it seems, Alec toys with the possibility that he was never working in the service of science when he thinks that he is “perhaps no scientist at all” (122).

Having worked in a research lab on campus for two years now and having gone through the process of attending scientific conferences, vying for grant money, and getting a paper published, I find it hard to say that any scientist is truly in it just for the science itself. Science today is a hyper-competitive arena where only the fittest – that is, those who publish the most – survive. The result is the kind of competition we saw in the PBS video on the Human Genome Project: government versus Celera; us versus them.

I’m not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing; competition, in the vast majority of cases, leads to better work and faster advancements. But to speak of working in the service of science, I believe, is a naive idealization of the motivation of scientists who are locked in a battle for survival with one another.

-Chris Adkins

~ by slipstream99 on February 19, 2008.

One Response to “For Himself”

  1. I hope you are wrong. Surely the pursuit of an ideal can be part of the motivation for human achievement, alongside of and in some cases, instead of the competitive instinct.

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