“Uprooting the Tree of Life” by Ford Doolittle (From the February 2000 issue of Scientific American.)
Science itself, however precise and objective, is a human activity. It’s a way of wondering as well as a way of knowing. It’s a process, not a body of facts or laws. Like music, like poetry, like baseball, like grandmaster chess, it’s something gloriously imperfect that people do. The smudgy fingerprints of our humanness are all over it.
The smudgy fingerprints of scientists burrowing into the microbial domain of human evolution is the subject of David Quamman‘s most recent book, The Tangled Tree. The title speaks to how muddled and complicated our species’ “creation story” actually is, particularly given all the genetic matter that we didn’t inherit but acquired from other organisms and species through horizontal gene transfer. (Nearly 8 percent of the human genome was acquired through HGT. We are, says Quamman, a mosaic.) His book does not offer an overarching narrative or explanation. It chronicles discoveries by extraordinary people who operate from curiosity, passion and, on occasion, confluence.
The reliance on grand, overarching narratives assembled to explain a series of events is a less reliable way to witness. This is particularly true in determining a “codified” human history. In his new book, How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories, Alex Rosenberg posits that narrative history is always wrong even though we are evolutionarily inclined to go that way over and over again. Attempts to “explain” historical events as a story are not just wrong says Rosenberg, but they are harmful. It creates a false sense of understanding and feeds into distortion. (Look no farther than current irreconcilable interpretations of The America Dream or the Israel/Palestine conflict for how that distortion gets ossified.) William Faulkners words, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”—made even more famous when quoted by Obama—speak to these ongoing legacies of belief.
Dani Shapiro‘s latest memoir, Inheritance, concerns the discovery in midlife that the father who raised her is not her birth father. In sharing an intimate reordering of her sense of herself, Shapiro asks profound questions: biological vs cultural identity, inherited vs adopted traditions, ways of being related, the very concept of belonging. Thoughtful and beautifully written, Shapiro’s book goes beyond the “small story” format of a personal history to consider larger, shared, human concerns.
Our sense of ourselves—broadened out beyond the hegemony of white, Western and male—makes these stories part of the meaningful mosaic that is our collective experience of living. I am increasingly moved by personal, authentic, quirky, one-off witnessings. These accounts, laced with wisdom, live outside a standardized, canonical history. They come by way of “extraordinary people who operate from curiosity, passion and, on occasion, confluence.”
This kind of fresh witnessing is in full force in Sara Porkalob‘s performance in Dragon Lady, part of a trilogy she created to explore her Filipino family and personal lineage. In this first of three theatrical memoirs, Porkalob singlehandedly plays all the characters (36) that constellate around her larger than life grandmother. As in Shapiro’s book, Porkalob embraces a full range of big themes: race, gender, family, lineage, immigration, poverty, survival, connectedness. She has the theatrical chops needed to sing and speak her entire family into form. Porkalob is as adept at her craft as Shapiro is with the written word.
From Porkalob’s program notes:
Our nation is experiencing a social paradigm shift that some people call “identity politics” and others call “justice.” Semantics aside, where we are today as a nation is the result of our history and our choices: if we choose to, we can look backwards in time, pinpoint why something happened the way it did, then identify what happened after as a result of the thing that came before. If we wanted to, we could also create systems to either perpetuate the thing that came before, or keep it in check, or destroy it and make something new.
I spend time every day thinking about my choices, my history, my privilege born into this world as an able-bodied, cis woman of color, and how everything I do/say/think has an effect on everyone around me because I know I don’t exist in a vacuum. Neither do you.
I get to choose every day how I’m going to live my life, thanks to the people who made me who I am. What a gift, this inheritance. My work is about sharing that gift with others and maybe, if wielded correctly, I can create new choices and changes for the people around me.
Porkalob’s statement reads like a manifesto for the value of individual witnessing, theatrical or otherwise. When a personal story is authentic, intentional and conscious, it makes itself available to everyone willing to give it audience.
That humblingly human description of science that Quamman offered can also, with a few small word changes, serve to describe other efforts as well, like the chroniclings by Shapiro and Porkalob: Personal history, however precise and objective, is a human activity, It’s a way of wondering as well as a way of knowing. It’s a process, not a body of facts or laws. Like music, like poetry, like baseball, like grandmaster chess, it’s something gloriously imperfect that people do. The smudgy fingerprints of our humanness are all over it.
Sara Porkalob in Dragon Lady (Photo: Robert Wade/Courtesy of Intiman Theatre)