When I began reading this book I was reminded of Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. It’s the same genre — travel with a lot of philosophical musing thrown in.
Most of the book is a description of a voyage to the Gulf of California. John Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts was a marine biologist, and they chartered a fishing boat to collect specimens of marine invertebrates. There is an appendix, Steinbeck’s memoir of his friend Ed Rickett’s.
I found it interesting because it’s a part of the world I knew nothing about, and after reading the book I know a little more, at least about what it was like 70-odd years ago. And in the process I learnt something about marine biology; most of what I knew about that was from bed-time stories my father read me when I was 3 or 4 years old from his biology text books. Who needs extra-terrestrial monsters when you can have a sea urchin? That caused me problems in my later reading when I came across descriptions of children as urchins — were they all spiny?
As for the philosophy, I’m not sure if I understood it all. I think Steinbeck was coming from a completely different place, with different assumptions. He seemed to be anti-teleology, and to think that there is too much teleology in the world, but he seemed to see it in a quite different context. Here’s a sample, for anyone interested:
It is amazing how the strictures of the old teleologies affect our observation, causal thinking warped by hope. It was said earlier that hope is a diagnostic human trait, and this simple cortex symptom seems to be a prime factor in our inspection of our universe. For hope implies a change from a present bad condition to a future better one. The slave hopes for freedom, the weary man for rest, the hungry for food. And the feeders of hope, economic and religious, have from these simple strivings of dissatisfaction managed to create a world picture which is very hard to escape. Man grown toward perfection, animals grow toward man, bad grows toward good, and down toward up, until our little mechanism, hope, achieved in ourselves probably to cushion the shock of thought, manages to warp our whole world. Probably when our species developed the trick of memory, and with it the counterbalancing projection called “the future,” this shock-absorber, hope, had to be included in the series, else the species would have destroyed itself in despair. For if ever any man were deeply and unconsciously sure that his future would be no better than his past, he might deeply wish to cease to life. And out of this therapeutic poultice we build out iron teleologies and twist the tide pools and the stars into the pattern. To most men the most hateful statement possible is, “A thing is because it is:” Even those who have managed to drop the leading strings of a Sunday school deity are still led by the unconscious teleology of their developed trick. And in saying that hope cushions the shock of experience, that one trait balances the directionalism of another, a teleology is implied, unless one know or fell or think that we are here, and that without this balance, hope, our species in its blind mutation might have joined many, many others in extinction.
Source: Steinbeck 2000:72f
What puzzles me is that I don’t find “It is because it is” hateful at all, but I find Steinbeck’s aversion to teleology in this context (biological evolution) puzzling, because elsewhere he appears to cite with approval his friend Ed Ricketts’s theory that rattlesnakes and kangaroo rats are symbiotic. Though rattlesnakes eat kangaroo rats, they are actually doing them a favour by removing the weaker elements of the population, thus increasing the chances of the species as a whole to survive. But if it is because it is, why should it matter, and why should we see such ecological connections.
So some of his comments were interesting, but others seemed to make little sense, to to be contradicted by something else he wrote a few pages later.