— Cultural Sources of Newness

Just So Science

John Hartley’s seminar on Cultural Science that I wrote about last week addressed connections with concepts and methods from theories of evolution. Little did I know that day that a completely different link between evolution and culture  was awaiting my listening pleasure this weekend on BBC Radio 4’s iPlayer: “Just So Science”. Vivienne Parry explores the science behind five of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, which are beautifully read by Samuel West.

The interviews with experts from diverse disciplines (including Richard Dawkins of course) in each of the 15-minute episodes are fun and stimulating; the one on “How the Leopard Got His Spots”  engaged me as a researcher the most.

Vivienne Parry starts her exploration in the laboratory of chemistry professor Andrea Sella, University College London, who shows her how colours oscillate between red and blue in a Petri dish, then suddenly spots appear and create patterns. How does this occur? Sella explains that when this process was first discovered in the 1950s, chemists had no idea how it was happening, but that unbeknown to them, “Alan Türing, who we normally associated with computer science had written a paper in which he suggested a mechanism by which this might occur.”  Türing published “The chemical basis of morphogenesis” in 1951 and called the process “reaction-diffusion”.

The excitement of the journalist and the chemist as they observe the patterns that are spontaneously generated from the chemical system is delightful. “A Türing pattern is emerging before our very eyes” … “quite spectacular, very, very beautiful!”

However, chemistry alone does not suffice to explain how the leopard got (or gets) its spots. Vivienne Parry brought UCL biologist Buzz Baum  into Sella’s lab to continue the exploration, and it turns out that Türing’s paper needed to be rediscovered yet again, this time by biologists, but only after it had been translated, so to speak, into their context. Baum explained that the paper was “ignored for many, many decades, then people rediscovered it and rewrote it in a language that was readable by biologists.” What they then found is that Türing patterns are self-organizing, they emerge by themselves. So animals (like leopards) do not need to inherit a pattern which is perfect, each animal can make its own pattern. “There is something that is similar about them, but each is unique.”

It is “profoundly embarrassing” to the chemists that they cannot explain the mechanism. Biologists have been “animated” by the phenomenon and have proposed many possibilities, none of which worked, until they realized that something may “look like Türing patterns but that does not mean that they are Türing patterns.” Baum admires Türing because “he took this complicated field of biology and offered a simple way of thinking about it with mathematics.” Biologists realized then that interactions between cells can make patterns.

The movement back and forth in this short radio program between Rudyard Kipling’s version of how patterns of spots came to mark the leopard’s skin and the expert interviews illustrates how rich the multidisciplinary process of discovery is—including re-discovery, translation, and arguments. Vivienne Parry cleverly imitates Kipling’s style in her closing lines of this episode: “The chemists and biologists, they just carried on arguing, because, Best Beloved, that’s how you make a scientist.” To which Kipling himself might add “Think of that … and purr!”

Post script: Kipling’s story of how the leopard got his spots can also be read as a parable in intercultural communication, perception and misperception “It ought to be…” “Don’t you know that if you were on the high veldt, I could see you 10 miles off? You haven’t any form!” “Yes, but this is not the high veldt.” Listeners from other disciplines may well discover other connections to their fields while listening to these stories. Try it!