Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Randomness, the Cambrian Explosion and a Eulogy to Donald Thorpe (not necessarily in that order)

One of the things I love about maintaining this particular blog is that it gives me free rein to write on any topic that comes to mind. As the title states, it is ostensibly a venue for my students and me to meet outside of class (and where I can centralize their blog addresses on a list). At the same time, I admit that I use it to satisfy my need to think and write things through. Thanks to those broad parameters, the topics you can find listed here include everything from my thoughts on a university-sponsored visit to Vietnam, reflections on my 2008 trip back to Ohio, and a list of "green topics" for my students in Semester II 2008-2009. The apparent randomness in themes available to me is something that I relish.

Today, as it happened, I learned of the passing of one of my first coaches, Donald Thorpe. Sadly, he passed away at age 76 in an Ohio hospital of an undisclosed illness. Reading his name in the obituary, then that of his surviving wife and six sons -- Ronnie, Dale, Dino, Craig, Bart, and Kevin, all guys I went to school with -- brought back a flood of memories. The first memory was the most recent: in my hometown of Thornville, Ohio, last month, I had said to my sister Betsy that I felt like contacting Dino and visiting his father Don. Unfortunately, I missed my chance.

The broader set of memories puts me way back in the late 60s when my brothers and I were encouraged by our dad to "try out" for Little League baseball. Try outs, if my memory serves me correctly, consisted of 40 or 50 boys between the ages of 7 and 13 --roughly the age of elementary school -- all going up to the baseball diamond on a Saturday morning and showing our stuff: fielding grounders and pop flies, taking a turn or two at bat, running the bases, hanging out. Then the coaches, mainly dads themselves, divided us up into four groups of roughly similar talent and gave each group a name. My brothers and I ended up on the Braves, a team that, at least in my first year, had Don Thorpe as an assistant coach. He was one of the fathers conducting the try out. On the team along with us Blackstones were five of the six athletic Thorpe boys and, I seem to recall, a Hunt boy and maybe another kid or two.

Don Thorpe was a tobacco-chewing, stubble-faced transplant to our area, with the beginnings of a pot belly even then, and I vividly remember how he'd be playing ball right there with us kids, encouraging us to throw straight or keep our eye on the ball, all in his slow-paced West Virginia drawl, then wiping the sweat from beneath the bill of his black and red Braves cap. After we boys were assigned to the Braves, we were given similar caps. More importantly though, under Don's guidance, being on the Braves became the nexus for some serious camaraderie, and for our developing a strong sense of group identity, giving us that first feeling of "doing it for the team." It remained that way, too, for at least three or four summers after that first try out. Even after a few of us became too old to play Little League, we'd follow Don and the younger Thorpes and Blackstones to Braves games in Thornville and on the road.

Skills-wise, I never was more than a mediocre player (and a second baseman because I had a weak throw), and the team never won the league or any grand tourneys, but we still had a great time and I learned a lot. It's hard to zoom in on all of the details now that 40 years have passed. What stands out is that our games were played mostly on Friday nights, with the ball diamond and outfield bathed by sets of huge flood lights arranged atop tree- trunk poles. I also recall the wafting smell of popcorn and the hot dogs being served by feisty Lion's Club members like ole Burt Cooperider, Jake Shaner and my grandpa Jerry Blackstone, who'd watch from the concession stand conveniently installed in a green wooden building protected by mesh fencing just behind home plate.

Added to that, there was heavy competition in the air, because our opponents, the Yankees, Indians and Dodgers, were all our schoolmates and neighborhood friends. Each of us played our heart out to capture playground bragging rights and to impress our siblings, parents, grandparents and any potential girlfriends watching from the hard-plank bleacher seats.

The more I reflect on that time, the more I realize the trait that made Coach Don seem special was the gentleness of his instruction. He was the type who wouldn't bawl us out when we made an error or fanned out in three pitches. He'd clap and say something like "get 'em next time," then he'd put a juicy wad in the dust.

That style was in contrast to the manner of our first head coach, Jesse Hunt. Jesse was a huge bear of a man, with a big bushy eyebrows and the sort of booming voice that could scare the wits out of you just as your concentration was drifting off across the grass in right field. Whenever we lost a game that first year, Jesse would wear the agony of defeat on his face like an upset ogre. Not Don though. When he took the team over from Jesse, each of us boys rejoiced. Even in the heat of competition, he was cool, calm and collected, allowing our sporting antics to be augmented with barbs, gags and giggles that made it much more fun. Such was the case whether we were on the losing side or not.

Years later, some people could have speculated that it was Don's mild manners that contributed to a few of his boys drifting into so much trouble. Dino was the classic example. He was the one my age, cute as a button, and definitely the smoothest-talking Thorpe boy, and probably the best athlete amongst the whole bunch of us. (He eventually gave up baseball but set long-standing high school records for pole vault and broad jump.) By the time we were all in high school, he was running full throttle with local hoods, looting vending machines and robbing gas stations for a good time, even knocking up a classmate's sister and eventually getting sent up the river for failure to pay child support. The oldest brother, Ronnie, also ended up doing time, on two separate occasions. As with their more law-abiding brothers though, I never saw either of them as bad guys. They just seemed restless and willing to take risks, as young guys often do, and they had the added misfortune of getting caught. In later years when I recalled these stories, I'd guess it was the tough economic situation of the Thorpes that was the leading factor in all that, but I would never once think that Don hadn't tried his best to give his family what they needed.

How might any of this relate to the Cambrian explosion, that time roughly 570 million years ago when life on earth went into hyperdrive and new species multiplied after an era of mass extinctions?

Well, currently I'm reading a controversial book loaned to me by a friend. The work by British author Christopher Hitchens, who Stephen Prothero of the Washington Post called a "fundamentalist atheist," is entitled God is Not Great. In it, in a chapter entitled "Arguments from Design," Hitchens discusses, among other things, the Burgess Shale, a geological site in British Columbia revealing Cambrian-era fossils of bizarre animals such as the marrelle and opabinia, from roughly 500 million years ago. The place has been called the "Rosetta stone for decoding life forms." In that context Hitchens also presents comments made by the late great paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould regarding an appearance in the shale of one particular vertebrate creature called Pikaia, which he speculated led eventually to all vertebrates, including man. According to Hitchens, Gould went so far as to say that if, by chance, Pikaia had not come into being, all life as we know it on earth would have never come into existence.

With that, Hitchens writes of the random chance of evolution, and at one point he states that "we are the offspring of history." Whether one considers such statements controversial or not, they are compelling. And when you add to them the idea (also mentioned by Hitchens) that a large number of renowned scientists will tell you that there are 700 regions of the human genome where genes have been reshaped by natural selection, the argument for the seeming power of randomness, of chance, as some variations become selected for and others not, depending on environmental conditions, swirls higher and higher into heady stuff.

In that context of this reading, my mind went back to what I see as the less disputable idea that there is a degree of "chance" in any social circumstances, and I recalled my Little League baseball try outs, the fact that I was chosen, by who knows what criteria really, to play on one particular team, the Thornville Braves, and in that way, I became a player for this gentleman named Don Thorpe, from whom I learned a great deal about teamwork as my brothers and I bonded with him and his sons. If anyone of us had become a famous ball player, I'm sure we would have pointed to Don as our inspiration. As it turned out, none of us ever went on to play in major league baseball. Still, in retrospect I recognize that there was something miraculous about that chain of occurrences. Some might call this fate, of course. Others may see it as a divine act, part of God's ultimate plan. For me it is not so easy to define, though on a fundamental level, Don was meaningful for my baseball experience and, indirectly, for the way I approach teaching. (Firm but friendly.)

In his "Arguments from Design" chapter, Hitchens also had presented his own anecdote with its roots in West Virginia (as were Don Thorpe's). To make a point about the dangers of declarations of "divine intervention," he mentioned the recent case in which 13 coal miners were trapped underground after an explosion, and how, after news reports had prematurely declared that a "miracle" had happened and all the men had escaped alive, the reality turned tragic as each man was found dead.

That, too, may seem ridiculously random here. (Am I now pushing the envelope and your patience? Surely.) But as should be clear by now, I believe that in every social context, there is indelible, inescapable meaning for the individual(s) and the group itself.

That's what I'm really exploring in each of these blog posts: the meaning that certain people, various events, ideas that I've discovered, the odd artifice, and interactions, past, present and future, hold for me.

Thank you for following the circuitous path of this one.


Annie said...

can't wait for "the rest of the story"

So sorry I missed you when you were in Ohio....I was mostly in Florida....done with that now...
Your cuz...Annie

brent hamilton blackstone said...

wow! i didn't even know don had died. but that was really a great story. really great.

Regina Escobar said...

nice one! i really appreciate this post. makes me think where all coincidence come from and kind of explains why people are eager to attribute 'fate' or 'divine intervention' to a belief or dogma. could it be sentimentality? this post is also an inducement to get the book.

Russell said...

Hello Brad,

I am truly sorry that you missed the opportunity to visit your coach before he passed away. It is indeed a sad fact of life that we tend to take people around us for granted and only notice their absence when they are gone. However by then, it is often too late to do anything anymore.

Your childhood is certainly a very different one from mine, and that makes it all the more intriguing. I read with wonder and amazement, what might account to nothing more than a simple baseball session to you. To me, those stories are made from the stuff of legends. Your vivid descriptions allow me to take this trip down memory lane together with you. I can almost imagine you beside me, pointing to the particular spot where you used to stand as a baseman, with the smell of old popcorn wafting from the bleachers.

Regarding your views about natural selection, I have an alternative view point to add. Since I am a fundamental creationist, you might find my point of view biased, nonetheless, I still feel compelled to give my 2 cents worth. I do not really agree that “there are 700 regions of the human genome where genes have been reshaped by natural selection”. From what I have learnt, natural selection leads to wiping out of genetic data rather than a proliferation of different gene pools. Darwin’s origin of species was based on his observation of finches where he found some with thick beaks, some with short beaks etc on different islands. Assuming that there is a greater variety in species of finches in the beginning, natural selection would only lead to a funneling of the species. For example if the island only has hard seeds, then only the finches with thick beaks would survive. Based on the survival of the fittest, the other species would have died out. Thus, I am of the opinion that natural selection only leads to lost gene data and not the other way round.

Cheers and I’m really glad to be in your class!


Russell said...

Hello, I forgot to add something. I would like to ask whether is a West Virginia "draw" the same as "drawl"?


Brad Blackstone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brad Blackstone said...

Thank you, Russell, for the copy edit. You're right in recognizing my sloppy spelling of the word drawl! Mea culpa.

I'm not so sure though that Darwin can be cast aside so easily as having merely described two different species of finches. (Have you read his book?) His is more so a description of a process than a narrow study on one or even a narrow number of species.

Of course, Russell, you like everyone else are entitled to your beliefs. Certainly, one's faith is an unarguable point.

In the spirit of scientific inquiry, I have done my own search for meaning in the cosmos since being brought up in a Protestant family in a fervently religious community. Having lived in various societies and then read the ancient Greeks, the "great books" of various religions (from the Bible to the Koran to the Bhagavad Gita and the writings of Baha'ullah), the works of authors such as Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and the thoughts of thinkers like Newton, Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Darwin, Einstein, Freud, Carl Sagan, Stephen J. Gould, Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins (and even Christopher Hitchens) plus a host of others, I have nurtured my own belief system, one that has evolved to what it is today. We each have our own path, and such has been mine.

I really do appreciate you taking the time to read and comment on this meandering post.

Russell said...

I must say, that’s a really fast reply. Anyway, I do hope that I have not given you the impression that I’m trying to impose my beliefs on anyone. Mea maxima culpa. (I’m just trying out this new word)

Back to the topic at hand, isn’t faith in essence, quite simply blind, unquestioning trust? That’s what I feel at any rate. It’s defined in the Bible as “the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen”, it would certainly be hard to shake someone with that kind of conviction from their beliefs. Oh well, suum cuique.


MissPookie said...

I am the youngest of three. Two drink, both excessively. I won't list their character defects here. Sometimes nature does trump nurture. I doubt that a sociopath is the product of nurtring. I observed much between my brothers and I, and I think we are a lot alike. It is known that Irish and American Indians are not genetically evolved to drink as much as our European cousins; however, I made the choice not to go there based on what I had observed. It was a wise choice. I always tell my nieces, "think for yourself first, then choose." It worked about 50% of the time!