Stanford students explore oceanography and Steinbeck in Monterey

Students living at and visiting Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey examine the cross-disciplinary friendship and collaboration between author John Steinbeck and scientist Ed Ricketts.

During their visit to Ed “Doc” Ricketts’ Cannery Row laboratory, a small group of Stanford University students settled in the front room to hear a recording of John Steinbeck reading his short story “The Snake.” Sitting in the very building where Ricketts and Steinbeck often sat, they listened as the author shared a tale of one evening when a mysterious woman entered the lab and purchased a rattlesnake from a young biologist.

Members of the course Science Meets Literature on the Monterey Peninsula discuss John Steinbeck’s short story “The Snake” at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station. (Image credit: Taylor Kubota)

These undergraduates are members of the course Science Meets Literature on the Monterey Peninsula, which is open to students residing at Hopkins Marine Station. Backed by the sounds of sea lions barking and waves crashing on the beach below their classroom, they spent the quarter discussing Steinbeck, Ricketts and their circle – which included author Joseph Campbell and Steinbeck’s first wife, Carol, an artist and sculptor – and poet Robinson Jeffers, whose writing heavily influenced the others.

“Being able to live in the same place as the people we’re studying allows us to really get to know their muse,” said Caity McGinley, ’21, a human biology major who took the course in the spring.

Ricketts was Steinbeck’s friend and collaborator – Ricketts was a University of Chicago dropout, while Steinbeck dropped out of Stanford. Ricketts’ marine biology lab served as a hangout for their crew of intellectuals, philosophers and artists. In addition to visiting the lab, the students toured Jeffers’ house in Carmel and went tide pooling and whale watching over the span of the quarter.

“We want students to see things that are complex from a more holistic viewpoint that incorporates both science and literature in understanding and explaining,” said William Gilly, professor of biology at Hopkins and co-instructor of the course. “Reductionism can be useful but there’s more to the world than what reductionist science can teach us.”

Gilly also teaches a related introductory freshman seminar that focuses heavily on The Log from the Sea of Cortez by Steinbeck and Ricketts. The seminar prompts students to examine changes in the ocean brought by aquiculture, land-sea interactions and climate change through the lenses of literature and scientific publications. That course is located at Stanford’s main campus but the class joins the Hopkins group on their whale watching trip.

Holistic biology

Both of these courses stem from a trip Gilly and colleagues took in 2004 to retrace the 1940 research expedition that Steinbeck and Ricketts documented in Sea of Cortez. Since then, Gilly has taught several courses inspired by the Cannery Row intelligentsia, all focused around holistic biology, which approaches biology from a perspective that includes the arts and humanities.

The class on the back porch of Ed “Doc” Ricketts’ Lab on Cannery Row in Monterey. William Gilly, professor of biology and co-instructor of the course, is pointing to a drain that originates from the lab room below. (Image credit: Taylor Kubota)

“Steinbeck and Ricketts are an ideal model for talking about the intersection of science and humanities because that was their partnership,” said Susan Shillinglaw, co-instructor of the Hopkins course and Steinbeck scholar. “Their minds just meshed and coalesced. For them, thinking scientifically was also thinking artistically.”

For example, Ricketts and Steinbeck shared an interest in communities, their interconnectedness and how disturbances within them can lead to unpredictable results. Products of this can be seen in Ricketts’ studies about the effect of wave shock on intertidal animals and in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

Sea of Cortez exhibits the duo’s philosophical side with the introduction of non-teleological thinking. Also called “is” thinking, non-teleological thinking focuses only on what “is” rather than on the purpose or end result of a thing or event. While looking for purpose pushes people to define cause and effect relationships and patterns – and is common in science – Ricketts and Steinbeck thought non-teleological thinking led to a more complete and honest understanding of the world. In both courses, Gilly encourages his students to consider what this different way of thinking could do for them and their studies.

“In science, you often talk about cause and effect, but it never really works out the way we think it will,” said Maitri Paul, ’22, who took the introductory seminar and is interested in marine biology and conservation. “It’s important to have that sense of nuance in how we think about scientific research and understanding.”

Beyond disciplines and Stanford

The lessons Gilly and Shillinglaw teach can be applied to scientific research, creative expression – the Hopkins course is cross-listed as an English course – and activities where those subjects overlap, such as communicating science to the public.

“I would hope students could see how humanities and science inform each other. How can you be a thinking scientist if you know nothing of humanistic traditions or literary traditions or history?” said Gilly. “And people who are into art and humanities should be aware of science in today’s world too.”

Every other summer, Gilly and Shillinglaw share Monterey Bay’s interdisciplinary history and culture with 25 high school teachers from around the country who come to Hopkins to attend a Steinbeck Institute. Gilly and Shillinglaw co-direct the institute, which is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. They were recently awarded a new grant for another institute in 2020.

“Seeing scientists and humanities scholars work together and inspire the teachers has been really rewarding,” said Shillinglaw. “There’s a different way of looking at the world when you learn the language of another discipline.”

Aiming to encourage even more people to embrace interdisciplinary interests, Gilly and Shillinglaw also recently helped found the Western Flyer Foundation. This nonprofit aims to restore the Western Flyer – the ship that Steinbeck and Ricketts took to the Sea of Cortez in 1940 – and relaunch it as a floating classroom for educational outreach in the United States, Mexico and Canada.

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