Paul Grobstein

I was devastated to find out that while I was away, Paul Grobstein, a biologist at Bryn Mawr College whom I’ve come to treasure as a colleague, had died on June 28th. Paul’s online footprint is extensive, particularly at the sprawling, layered website Serendip that he played a crucial role in creating and maintaining. Just exploring the links and materials he’s placed there over the years would be a great way to spend an afternoon or two in the company of a fascinating person.

I thought I’d post an edited version of a letter I wrote on his behalf a short time ago, as it describes my experiences with him as well as I can.


Paul Grobstein embodied what I once thought all professors were like: contemplative, perpetually playfully delighted by ideas, generously engaged by anything crossing their path, unworldly, a touch eccentric, impractical, absent-minded, vaguely grumpy in affect. His physical presence completed the image: perpetually rumpled, glasses up on his forehead, surrounded by piles of information in his office, speaking quietly with a deep and gravelly voice, muttonchop sideburns straight out of a 19th Century Victorian portrait, smelling faintly of tobacco. It made me happy to find that there are such professors in the world after all.

Paul’s modus operandi as a scholar and teacher was deeply, profoundly unfashionable in contemporary academic life. Though he mostly seemed unperturbed by this mismatch, I expect that at times he was a polarizing figure for students in the sciences at Bryn Mawr. Paul was not the person you’d want to lead you efficiently through the canonical core of modern biology in preparation for later professional work, to take you from point A to point B. I feel pretty sure that whatever the class, he was more likely to take you from point A to point 7.5 or point episilon, to points on the map that were blank, to get lost on purpose, and expect his students (and colleagues) to find their own way home.

I’m fond of using the metaphor of an ecosystem to talk about academic institutions and their challenges. Part of the problem we face at the moment in terms of that metaphor is that certain niches in the scholarly ecosystem are massively overcrowded while others are almost entirely barren. Paul was one of the few to take on the role of the generalist, integrative, and speculative thinker who I think was once at the heart of the idea of the liberal arts.

I first encountered Paul when I and a Swarthmore colleague of mine decided on a whim to attend an early morning weekly meeting dedicated to the study of complex adaptive systems and the concept of emergence. This group of Bryn Mawr and Haverford faculty, I soon learned, was supported by Serendip, an initiative that Paul had played the lead role in creating at Bryn Mawr in 1994. The complex systems group was one of a number of ongoing discussions under Serendip’s umbrella, most of them involving an eclectic mix of scientists with a few humanists and social scientists in the mix as well.

I was surprised and happy at how genuinely welcome I felt in the complex systems group, having expected to feel more like an interloper who would continually be closed out of a conversation between scientists. I also learned quickly that Paul was responsible for a good deal of that openness both in the way he reached out to his colleagues and in his own continuous demystification of science.

One of my primary questions as a historian about complexity and emergence concerned how to talk about the individual agency of human actors in relationship to large-scale social transformation. I was happily surprised to discover that Paul, coming from the perspective of a neurobiologist who had worked for many years on consciousness, nervous systems and perception, was equally preoccupied with this question.

Paul’s curiosity and eclecticism could mislead on first encounter, obscure the extent to which he was consistently working on a coherent, connected set of problems. Like any intellectual, he had his well-trodden paths. Most notably, Paul was interested in what he called “story-telling”, a heading which contained for him interwoven questions about consciousness, information theory, the relationship between agents and systems, cosmology and the nature of science itself. It is this interest which I think propelled him to reinvestigate mind, agency and consciousness across a broad front.

Paul argued that story-telling is human agency and that it ultimately affects not just other human beings but the universe as a whole. Entropy is what allows life and other self-organization at a highly local scale, and story-telling is a further extension of that process. Local self-organization, in his view, looped back causally into that larger scale: life reorganizes its inanimate environment, and storytelling reorganizes life and environment.

His conviction that science is also story-telling was the heart of his intellectual and research practice, and was the key gesture that attracted some colleagues and students while frustrating others. Paul’s argument did not take the nihilistic or hostile stance towards science that one might find in certain postmodernist critiques of science, but it did make him somewhat agnostic about the kind of ontological confidence that many scientists regard as a basic condition of their work. He still very much believed in science as a mode of inquiry and as a system of producing knowledge. I pushed back on him from time to time in our conversations about the extent to which he made it difficult to explain that preference, or how he could justify preferring some stories to other stories on the grounds that some are closer to the truth or more accurate. (I think in part this is also what spurred him to want to look again at how philosophers talk about mind and free will.)

That he took these objections seriously and enjoyed considering their implications was another sign for me of his distinctive professorial ethos: no philosophical zealotry, no territory which must be ferociously secured against critics, just ideas and knowledge to be ceaselessly and daringly explored in fellowship with other intellectuals.

Paul was an unusual presence in the highly professionalized, intensely careerist academic world of the 21st Century. My own local world is greatly impoverished by his absence. Barring some larger effort to recognize and validate his kind of approach to scholarly and pedagogical life, I think it likely that he will be one of the last of his kind in the academic ecosystem. As in nature, emptying out such an ecological niche can sometimes damage the entire web of life in unexpected ways.

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