Robert (gurdonark) wrote,
Robert
gurdonark

Two Lives



This morning I've been surfing the internet through the record of two very different lives. One is the life of David Reznick, while the other is the life of Edward Mote.

I do not believe that there is a "natural" reason to pair these two fellows in the same post, other than the fact that both lived lives which touch on aspects of things that appeal to me.

Edward Mote wrote lyrics to a hymn I grew up singing, called "Solid Rock". It's a very traditional protestant hymn, whose refrain is "on Christ the solid rock I stand/all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand". For some reason, the portion of the verse which goes "When He shall come with trumpet sound, oh may I then in Him be found" reminds me of boyhood, and the sound of a congregation singing in full voice over a church organ, and the resonating bass of the pedals on the organ.

Mr. Mote lived from 1797 to 1874. He was born in poverty in England, and spent most of his life as a cabinet maker. Although he was raised without religion, he converted to Christianity as a young man. One day, he wrote the lyrics to "Solid Rock". He was called upon by a friend to come visit that friend's critically ill wife. Apparently, in his circle, such home visits (and I will mention here briefly and parenthetically that the concept of "visiting"'s fading is to me a sad thing, obliterated by television and the decline in trust and fellowship) involved singing a hymn and giving a prayer. Mote's friend could not find his hymn book, but Mote said that he already had some verses in his pocket.
He sang "Solid Ground" to her, and his friends were deeply moved. Mote published the hymn without crediting himself, at which point it caused a local sensation. He then acknowledged the hymn was his.

Mote worked in cabinetry until he was 55 years old. Then he took a position as pastor of a Baptist chapel in Sussex.
His congregation liked him so well that they once offered him the deed to the chapel. He declined it, saying "I do not want the chapel; I only want the pulpit, and when I cease to preach Christ, then turn me out of that." He remained allied to his view of the world through the time of his death, saying during his last illness: "The truths I have been preaching, I am now living upon, and they do very well to die upon."

I've always liked the rousing, almost military-march sound of the song "Solid Rock", whose music was penned by a fellow named William Bradbury. Mote's words have a nice ring to them, but for me, tend to emphasize a "one path only" approach to life that does not resonate. Still, I find him an interesting fellow--a guy who made a decent living making cabinets, but spent his time writing some 150 hymns, some of which may be heard on Sundays in churches all around. At the age of 55, he turned from cabinet-making to sermon-giving, for the next twenty one years of his life. The thing that stands out about him to me is a kind of assurance that he knew the answers, which he kept throughout his later life.

The other fellow about whom I'm reading is Dr. David Reznick.
Dr. Reznick is still alive, teaching at the University of California at Riverside. He's a life scientist, whose field is evolutionary biology. He's associated with the search to find "rapid evolution", in other words, to perceive evolutionary principles in observable living generations, rather than merely relying upon the fossil record. He came to my attention because his research subject has been the Trinidad guppy.

Readers of this weblog may realize that the guppy is for me a sort of talisman fish. The guppy is easy to raise, gorgeous and abundant. I think sometimes in life that simple beauty and abundance is overlooked, when they are what really matter. I like that guppies are not very demanding, and yet provide so much joy.

Dr. Reznick's interest in guppies is much more scientific and reasoned. Working with others, he did an experiment.
He took Trinidadian guppies from a waterway in which those guppies were being "predated" (which, near as I can tell is a fancy word for "being regularly eaten by") by another fish, the pike-cichlid.

Dr. Reznick's team moved some of these guppies to a different place, where they would not face as many predators. A decade later, he examined whether there were any changes in the guppies' subsequent generations in their new locale. He found that the guppies
in the new place had fewer offspring, but that the offspring grew larger. The implication of this information was that
natural selection had worked in just a decade among the transplanted guppies. In their old home, the best survival strategy was to produce lots of offspring, but not grow so large as to attract the predator fish. In their new home, it made more "sense" to moderate their prolific reproduction, and grow larger male fish. The inference is that in the course of a mere decade, small scale micro-evolution occurred.

In 2003, Dr. Reznick received the E.O. Wilson Naturalist Award. Rather than cabinetry, his background was a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. I do not know of anyone offering him the deed to UC-Riverside's biology lab, but he clearly has made an impact.

In some ways, Dr. Reznick seems more "real" to me, because he lives today. I used to go for walks at the UC-Riverside botanical garden, which has a wonderful Australian plants section and draecena and banyan trees that spread their branches wide and down.

The notion of a "man of faith", writing hymns and building cabinets, and a "man of science", spending a decade to turn up a point to ponder on a few small but critical bits of guppy evolution, makes a pleasing set of contrasts in my mind. But the construct is too easy, I believe.

One of my physics professors in college was Paul Sharrah. Dr. Sharrah was a "grand old man" in the way that professors sometimes become. His research had been in x-rays, but he was the long-standing professor in the physics department.
He also attended the Baptist church each Sunday. I do not know how or if he reconciled the religion/science debate, but his life always seemed to have been lived reasonably well to me.

So much has been written about the contrasts and synchronies of science and religion. When I was a young man, some had the notion that modern physics, with its "not this, not that", appearing-and-disappearing concepts of matter and energy, had a lot in common with eastern religious notions like maya and the Tao. I am intrigued by how many of the "new religions" and "new ideas" which arose in America at the turn of the 20th Century cloaked themselves in a "science of mind" or a new social gospel of "evolutionary principle". I don't have much to add to the whole "they are competitors/they are different/they speak separate languages" debate. That's not to say this debate has not shaped a great deal of current American thinking. The reaction to the theory of evolution by some religious believers gives rise to controversy which has repercussions today.

In 1914, 300 ministers and adherents gathered in Hot Springs, Arkansas, to create the Assemblies of God denomination from disparate groups and threads. These churches eschewed the changes and modernity which evolution had wrought. By 1916, a Statement of Fundamental Truths of the Assemblies of God declared that the Bible was "the infallible, authoritative rule of faith and conduct". By 1925, a man was put on trial in Tennessee for breaking a state law against teaching evolution. The Scopes trial, the subject of much literature and one great play, illustrated the tension that arose in this context between faith and science. Even today, religious groups wage war through state board of education textbook committees, trying to quell texts which suggest that evolution is accepted as the mainstream way of looking at how life developed.

I'm less concerned today about the science/religion debate. I'm intrigued instead by the patience that both Mr. Mote and Dr. Reznick exhibited. Mr. Mote gave up a good life as a cabinet maker to pastor a Baptist Church, and wrote hymn lyrics which suggested that he found his faith with a certitude which I believe many people, including myself, sorely lack. Dr. Reznick spent over a decade seeking to prove one set of points about one species of fish through transplanting one set from one place to another.

I look at my life, and I do not detect either a great deal of religious zeal nor a great deal of scientific method in my choices. In some ways, I see an anonymity which means that my hymn will never be sung on Sunday and my paper will never serve as the foundation for further research. People are pebbles in the pond, but the ripples are not always easy to see. I will make do without pulpit or research paper.

Tomorrow I go visit a banquet room at an Indian restaurant for a potential March chess tournament. Today I go to work to do the things I do each day. It's now been 42 months since my partner and I founded our law firm. We now have four lawyers, whereas we started with two. I have no great discoveries to report. I have no hymns to sing.

But I like that I can read about other lives and other people, and pause for a moment, and just imagine. Perhaps it is Mittyism at its worst, but I prefer to think of it as a kind of mental mosaic in my mind as to what life truly is, which I fill in piece by piece, fact by fact, idea by idea.
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