Get ready for the next episode of The University of Iowa’s virtual event of Uncovering Hawkeye History this evening from 4:30-6:00 PM. The title for this one is “Endless Innovation: An R1 Research Institution (1948–1997).” According to the official announcement, “This event series is designed to highlight notable elements of UI’s 175-year history and includes readings you can do in advance, notable guest speakers during each class, and the opportunity to ask questions each week.” You can register here.
Today’s zoom class again features university archivist David McCarty and 3 of the UI’s most talented innovators:
Bruce Gantz: 68BS, 74MD, 80MS, 80R), otolaryngology professor, the world’s first doctor to perform a robot-assisted cochlear implant surgery
Kevin Washburn: N. William Hines dean, College of Law
Ed Wasserman: experiential psychology professor
Sena and I plan to join the event this evening. I’m looking forward to hearing from Ed Wasserman, who has been studying the origins of innovation for decades. He studies pigeons to find out what really goes on in the ability of humans to come up with new ideas. Wasserman thinks it may have more to do with simple processes like trial and error then eureka type flashes of genius. In other words, we’re a lot like pigeons.
For some reason, this reminds me of an essay by James Thurber, “There’s an Owl in My Room.” It’s published in a book entitled The Thurber Carnival. The essay is all about Thurber’s impatience with a poem about pigeons written by Gertrude Stein. He thought it made pigeons way too complicated. I realized that I had never read the poem, so I went hunting for it on the web. I found a lot of comments about how ridiculous many people think “pigeons on the grass” is:
“Pigeons on the grass, alas. Pigeons on the grass, alas. Short longer grass short longer, longer shorter yellow grass. Pigeons, large pigeons on the shorter longer yellow grass, alas, pigeons on the grass.”—Gertrude Stein.
I had no trouble finding a short excerpt of Thurber’s scathing essay about it on the web.
Thurber’s closing sentence is “No other thing in the world falls so far short being able to do what it cannot do as a pigeon does. Of being unable to do what it can do, too, as far as that goes.”
You can see why some people might be offended by being compared to pigeons. On the other hand, he has written a book about the origin of the notion of creative genius, As If by Design: How Creative Behaviors Really Evolve (2021, Cambridge University Press).
I read an article on the web claiming that, scientifically speaking, there’s no difference between doves and pigeons. Sena and I have observed pigeons/doves with missing toes. That might indicate the trial and error of attempts to make nests with string, which gets wound around their feet, leading to auto-amputation. Some call it stringfoot, although it might just be bad judgment (see my YouTube description).
I can imagine what he might think about Ancient Aliens theories about how humans might come up with innovative inventions. Aliens seem to be particularly prone to crashing their space ships on our planet, making it easier for us to reverse engineer the working parts left strewn all over the ground. There’s something ironical about that. How can they be smart enough to manipulate our DNA and leave us clues about how to create inventions that advance our civilization when they can’t even stop falling out of the sky? On the other hand, maybe we just stole their technology right out from under their very small noses and slapped patents on them. So much for genius.
I’m sure Wasserman thought of all that.