The Ruricolist is now available in print.

Scientific Chewing

I am not going to tell you to read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Once you know that Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard is people, you grasp the idea. But at the end of the book, after surviving innumerable horrors and humiliations (the only mercy Sinclair allows him is a stint as a migrant worker), the main character falls in with a group of talkative Socialists. Sinclair is artist enough not to make them saints. He makes them almost silly. He wants us not to agree with their solutions, but to respond to the fact of their caring, to respond to their trying to do anything at all. He wants us not to admire them, but to imagine ourselves as one of them. I forget the rest of the projects, but one, mentioned in passing, stuck in my mind. One man proposes “to double the nutritive value of food through the practice of scientific chewing.”

My mind has an alarm for absurdity in reforms and projects; scientific chewing is the noise it makes. Sometimes I read about a project, and despite its well-designed site, its clever name and cleverer slogan, and the intent, conscientious faces of its young founders – all I hear is scientific chewing.

All useful ideas have three life stages: an infancy when they seem ridiculous; an adolescence when they seem all-important; and a maturity when they are present and useful, but limited, and possibly invisible. Scientific chewing belongs to the adolescence of the idea of the scientific. Those who have only recently learned the benefits of scientific handwashing are susceptible to the idea that chewing might also advance.

The projects that make me think of scientific chewing belong to the same stage, the analogous adolescence, of other ideas. Recent examples are many. Online has finally achieved its maturity. There are no more projects tantamount to online chewing, though their weight once sank the economy. Social is in the throes of adolescence; most days some variant of social chewing shows up in the news, flush with seed funding. Crowdsourced is just settling down; mobile is just hitting puberty.

These examples are worth enumerating because we are very fortunate in them. The worst their excesses have done is make fools of us. We have been spared the upheavals and atrocities that accompanied the adolescence of ideas like the people or the nation, like society or central planning. The motion of ideas is circular, but not static; a cycloid, not an orbit; but though it moves forward, it moves with wheels that are heavy and iron, and able to run you down.

My interest is not critical but analytic. I want to know where I stand; I want to know when to get out of the way. If ideas really move in a circle, born boosters and born skeptics will both be right sometimes, like stopped clocks. Scientific chewing is my cue to stand with the skeptics. I have no equally vivid cue to switch the other way; though I have found that my initial sense that something is pointless and weird reliably predicts its popularity – witness the Internet.

I know this essay is a little miscellaneous; so are the rest of the essays where I try to think about ideas as such. I feel something enormous and terrainous loom in the darkness; when something lights that bulk I observe it as an explorer, and not knowing which features are most important, I cannot omit any.