Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Contingent World, Part 3 of 3

John Muir

John Muir

I didn’t plan on writing another post on contingency, but I was reading Donald Worster’s new biography of John Muir, A Passion For Nature: The Life of John Muir, and found this:

A human life, like any mountain trail, winds and twists through a very complicated, ever-changing landscape, taking unexpected turns and ending up in unexpected places. The lay of the land, the physical or natural environment, has some influence over the path one chooses to take — going around rather than over boulders, say, or along the banks of a stream rather than through a tangled wood. Likewise in the course of an individual life, nature helps give shape to the direction a man or woman takes and determines how his or her life unfolds. So also does one’s inner self, the drives and emotions that one inherits from ancestors far back in evolutionary time, determine the route. But the trail of any one’s life is also shaped by the ideas floating around in the cultural air one breathes. All those influences make it impossible explain easily why a person’s life follows this path rather than another. [Worster, Passion for Nature, 11]

Ok, the metaphor of the “life path” is a bit overused as a literary metaphor. Indeed, it was already overused in the nineteenth century before Robert Frost lofted it into cliché orbit with “The Road Not Taken” in 1916.

Robert Frost

Robert Frost

Nevertheless, I think Worster pulls it off in talking about Muir. After all, how else should an environmental historian speak about someone who is the ultimate lover of all things path and mountain? But more to the point, I think the passage nicely encapsulates the many contingent forces that shape the life of an individual.

mountain_trail


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1 Comment»

  Karen James wrote @

I can’t help making a connection here to the epigenetic landscape proposed by Conrad Hall Waddington, which applies the ‘life path/landscape’ metaphor to developmental contingencies.

p.s. Muir is as much a hero to me as Darwin, so thanks for this post!


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