Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1146

The catalog lists, in logical scientific form, the discoveries made during the expedition. It represents a taxonomic report and little more, like numerous other reports derived from observations in nature. It reflects scientific inquiry of a basic and systematic kind that advances knowledge through the steady accumulation of data. In the log, Ricketts and Steinbeck offer philosophical perspectives and scientific speculation to justify and transcend the limitations of this inductive approach.

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The varied log section represents a complex account of the journey, beginning with the preparations, detailing the long voyage to the mouth of the gulf, and proceeding with a discussion of each successive stop where specimens are collected. Interspersed throughout are reflections and discourses on a wide range of topics: nations and societies, human relationships, mistakes of the expedition, humorous mishaps and adventures, and philosophical speculations.

The authors embarked at a time when the world stood on the brink of cataclysm, and they could only assume that the war engulfing Europe would widen to involve the United States. This awareness leads to pessimistic reflections on war, though the expedition avoids newspapers and radios for six weeks. The authors also reflect on poverty and unemployment, still major social problems in the United States late in the Depression, and see no remedy. They take little consolation in the assurance by a Mexican that all Americans own Fords and are therefore affluent.

During preparations for the expedition, they find only incredulity among the practical sardine fishermen of Monterey when they seek to charter a boat for science. With luck they find a receptive newcomer, Anthony Berry, with a seventy-six-foot boat, the Western Flyer. When they discover that its engine room is immaculate, a point of importance to Steinbeck, they hasten to secure it for the expedition. In official circles, they encounter similar skepticism. They receive little encouragement from the State Department; the Mexican government is uncertain and hesitant, yet it finally grants them permission to collect specimens in the gulf and along its shores. Because the Mexicans they meet during their stops are skeptical about the expedition’s scientific purpose, the authors concoct the story that they are selling the collected specimens to wealthy Americans as souvenirs. This reassuring and more plausible explanation leads to such cooperation from the basically friendly Mexicans that they begin bringing valuable specimens to sell to the collectors.

The journey involves humor, good fun, and not a little drinking, reflecting the book’s subtitle, A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research. Although the crew members grow skillful in helping to collect, they never become accustomed to placing scientific interests above personal and practical ones. They are eager to collect fish for eating, not preserving, and Tiny Colletto enjoys harpooning giant rays in an attempt to capture one for a photograph. Numerous frustrations arise because they depend on an unreliable outboard motor to power a small boat to the shore for collecting while the Western Flyer rests at anchor. The engine, dubbed “Hansen’s Sea Cow,” almost invariably fails, with the result that the crew members find themselves having to row; the frustration causes the narrator to attribute a perverse personality to the engine. Other humorous accounts involve interactions with the Mexicans. On one occasion, the authors buy two live chickens, which they must catch; in the process, they discover that chickens are good athletes. Numerous villagers join the chase, which succeeds only through wearing the chickens down. Among other anecdotes that suggest the descriptive power of Miguel de Cervantes, Steinbeck and Ricketts narrate their stop for beer at an isolated cantina, where they buy drinks for a group of forlorn young men who seem to have no other occupation than loitering.

In addition to these adventures and misadventures, the authors freely acknowledge their mistakes in planning and preparation. They packed too few bottles and tubes for storing specimens and were thus unable to preserve as many as they might have. They brought cameras but no photographer and, as a result of being too busy themselves, made little use of the equipment. On the whole, however, the expedition achieved most of its objectives.

As critics have noted, the heart of the book lies in the “Easter Sermon,” chapter 14, the essay on nonteleological thinking. This section is heavily indebted to Ricketts’ journal, a major source for the entire log portion; Steinbeck, untypically, did not keep a journal during the expedition. The chapter develops intellectual support for ideas about biology that Ricketts began to formulate as a student at the University of Chicago under William Allee, an early advocate of ecology. During their collecting, Steinbeck and Ricketts were particularly fascinated by animals that lived in colonies or moved in groups. Repeatedly, they note commensal living and patterns of symbiosis which suggest that life is more complex than is generally thought, indeed that all life is interrelated. From this perspective, they draw frequent analogies between animal groups and human society, emphasizing man’s closeness to other species. From a biological standpoint, then, proper study is not of species but of species living together in a system. Thus, Ricketts believed that study of the littoral’s marine invertebrates would result in larger discoveries about cooperative living.

In keeping with these concepts and values, the authors attack teleological thinking, reasoning which assumes a chain of causes leading to an end and strives to remedy, ameliorate, or solve problems by removing or modifying their causes. To the authors, this mode of thinking, typical of Western civilization, almost invariably oversimplifies by selecting one contributing cause and seeking to remedy it, without taking other possible causes and consequences into account.

As an example of the failure of teleological analysis, they cite as an example a declining willow grouse population in Norway. The Norwegian authorities attributed their decline to predation by hawks and consequently attempted to solve it by killing as many hawks as possible. To their dismay, the rate of the grouse decline increased. They then discovered that the decline was caused not by predation but by disease. The hawks had actually slowed the decline by killing birds weakened by disease, thus removing sources of contagion. While teleological thinking would then seek to cure or prevent the disease, the authors argue that nonteleological thinking would likely view the disease as only one of numerous contributing causes.

Nonteleological thinking, which the authors advocate, views life as part of a complex system; it first tries to understand existing entities and their functions, rejecting shortsighted solutions. This dichotomy in modes of thought, eloquently championed by Steinbeck and Ricketts, has severe limitations, for the examples given by the authors clearly oversimplify the concept of teleological thinking. Yet nonteleological thinking offers a rationale for the kind of exploration that Ricketts preferred, study of animal groups living together in a defined area, and it addresses the charge that his and Steinbeck’s kind of exploration represents only taxonomy.

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Critical Context