A Dialectical Future for Behavioral (and Evolutionary) Ecology: transcript

(this is an approximate transcript for a talk published in a separate post; my formatting was being weird, hence the separate post!)

Thank you all for being here. My talk today is titled “A dialectical future for behavioral ecology,” though I think much of what I’m saying applies to evolutionary ecology as well, I’m going to focus on the study of animal behavior in natural contexts.

I think this talk is likely different than a lot of talks you’ve seen in your departments or even at the Miller, but it’s motivated by two things that we all agree on: first is that we all agree that interdisciplinary work is valuable. The whole reason we come together here at the Miller at these lunches is to find connections across disciplines, and my goal today is to stretch how you think of interdisciplinarity a little bit. And second is this idea that I believe all of us in this room will find intriguing, which is: how can we think in new and different ways in science?

In this talk, I’m going to consider that one way in which we can shift into new modes of thinking in science is by asking fundamentally different questions, which of course then prompts the question: “how do we ask different questions?” And that is the subject of my talk today.

Specifically, I am starting from something called “standpoint theory”, which is rooted in feminist and Marxist ways of thought and makes explicit the role of politics in how we construct knowledge. What I mean here by politics is “the total complex of relations between people living in society”, which includes but is not limited to what you likely think of when you hear the word ‘politics.’

 So what is a standpoint? A standpoint is a way of looking at the world that emerges from involvement in collective political struggle against a dominant perspective. Engaging in political struggle against a dominant narrative allows one to really see aspects of human social relations or the natural world that are not easily accessible from dominant perspectives. Standpoints reveal new ways of looking at the existing questions, and thus generate different questions.

Part of the reason I study animal behavior is because it a particularly interesting place in which to look at the impact of scientific narratives that align with and push back against dominant political narratives. We ask questions about animals, and the answers directly impact what we think of as ‘natural’, and we use that sense of what is ‘natural’ to shape how we think about ourselves, our relationships, and how our societies work. BUT if the questions we ask are themselves shaped by dominant cultural and political narratives and closed off to other possible ways of describing nature, then what we’ve ended up doing through our science is simply legitimizing dominant narratives.

In this talk today, I’m going to tell you first tell you about the dominant narrative in my field of behavioral ecology, which is that of adaptationism. I’m then going to give you an example of what it looks like to push back against that dominant narrative from a collaboration I was part of that was published in 2019, and finally, I’m going to explore where this dominant narrative may have come from politically, and what an alternative to it might be. 

So in the field of behavioral ecology, the dominant framework within which we ask questions is the framework of adaptation by natural selection. Just so we’re all on the same page, here’s a definition that I’ve pulled from the national geographic website, which is that adaptation is any heritable trait that helps an organism survive and reproduce in its environment. And just a bit of jargon that’s helpful to know, which is that we biologists refer to the aggregate of survival and reproduction as “fitness”, and when we talk of costs and benefits of traits in this context we mean, does this trait impact fitness negatively or positively.

Adaptation, of course, is a hugely important force that shapes our natural world, and is the subject of a tremendous amount of research. And I want to emphatically say, I’m not pushing back against adaptation in this talk. What I’m pushing back against is the notion of adaptationism, by which I mean a way of studying nature that centers the role of adaptation in shaping natural variation, a way of looking at the world through a lens where adaptation matters more than any other process.  

When we do work in behavioral ecology from an adaptationist perspective, we start by finding an interesting trait out in nature, say this throat fan on a lizard, and then asking “In what way might this trait be an adaptation? In what way might it be maximizing individual fitness? What are its costs and benefits in the currency of fitness” And then you collect data and ask, okay, do the data match our expectations of what we think should be happening if this trait is an adaptation. And if we find that they match, we are satisfied that we have understood how the trait evolved because we have found an adaptive explanation for it. And if we find a gap here, that’s a puzzle, that’s a paradox—we ask, well how did this trait evolve if it is not adaptive? And then in response to this paradox,  we either say, well we must be misunderstanding the costs and benefits here, so let’s elucidate them a bit better and revise our understanding of what should be happening, or else, there must be other forces of nature—things like random genetic drift, or stochasticity, or phylogenetic constraint, or physiological constraint, or simply heterogeneity that is too complex to wrap our heads around—and these forces are preventing the expression out there in nature of this fitness maximizing adaptive optimum that we think should be happening.  

And so the point here is not that we never consider things other than adaptation in the adaptationist programme. We do. The point is where and how do these other things show up in our narratives, in relation to adaptation?

When we view nature through this adaptationist lens, our image of nature is defined by a notion of what should be happening that is derived largely from the logics of fitness maximization coupled with just enough natural context to make a prediction that seems sensible. And when we juxtapose this image of what should be onto what is, it looks like our image of what should be happening is obscured by all these other things. And then when our image of what is doesn’t match what we expect to see, it’s almost like we try to polish the lens further, and move it closer or further away to better get the two images to match, but we forget that we are looking through a lens, and that lenses can not only magnify and clarify what we see but also distort it.

And the way in which this distortion produced by the adaptationist lens becomes clear is by focusing on the gap between what should be and what is. This is because we are motivated by the gap between what should be and what is. We see these gaps between our rational expectations of how an animal should behave according to the theory of natural selection, and a seemingly irrational reality of how it’s actually behaving, and we then try to find rational explanations for that gap. But whether or not something appears rational or irrational depends extremely strongly on our assumptions!

The impact of our assumptions on the nature of inquiry in evolutionary biology is quite clear in a question we tackled in a collaborative paper coauthored by Julia Monk, Erin Giglio, me, Max Lambert and Caitlin McDonough. What we take on in this paper is the way we currently study same sex sexual behavior which we call SSB and its evolutionary relationship with different sex sexual behavior, which we call DSB. Specifically, we ask, what are the assumptions that lead SSB to be considered a paradox?

I’m going to start by describing how SSB is currently considered a paradox. In sexually reproducing animals, by and large, mating with individuals of the same sex is not going to produce offspring, and thus does not immediately contribute to fitness. And so it seems paradoxical for animals to expend time and energy in mating with individuals of the same sex, because that’s time and energy that they are not spending on producing offspring by engaging in DSB, and so we expect natural selection would act against SSB if it were to arise in a population because natural selection maximizes fitness. However, SSB persists, so there must be either an explanation for why it persists that relies either on some other benefits that haven’t yet been considered, or on some constraints that prevent fitness maximization from being realized.

And what we do in our paper is to upturn this narrative by asking a couple of simple questions about the assumptions underlying it. First is the assumption that engaging in SSB is costly to fitness, that individuals that engage in SSB have lower fitness—but what if it’s not? What if, in general, SSB is one of many, many, many reasons that a mating may not lead to the production of offspring? Second, there is an assumption that SSB has evolved from an ancestral state of DSB, but what if that’s not true, and the ancestral state is, instead, mating behavior that is indiscriminate with regard to sex? It’s worth noting that both of the assumptions we question here are aligned with a social and political status quo of heteronormativity at best and homophobia at worst, on the heteronormative notions of queer sex as aberrational and somehow excessive.

 In our paper, we conjecture that in fact across animals, SSB is not all that costly in terms of time, energy, and fitness, and this would imply that when we look carefully and unbiasedly, we will see tons of variation across individuals and populations in the degree of SSB, in a manner that is influenced by context dependent costs and benefits, historical contingencies, and more. And further we expect this variation to manifest across the animal phylogeny, tracing back to an ancestor that mates indiscriminately.

Our paper was one in which we posed alternative hypotheses and new questions to consider empirically, and it was really exciting to see that our paper has already motivated further research that builds on our ideas, formalizes them mathematically, and shows that they are quite plausible. 

Okay, so now we’re going to move to asking about the political underpinnings of a narrative of adaptationism. This link becomes really clear when we ask, where does the normativity of adaptationism come from? Why are we focused on these notions of what “should be” happening?

The clearest explanation comes from philosopher Samir Okasha’s work on agents and goals in evolution, where he clearly traces this normativity to the notion of the rational agent. Okasha draws the parallels between adaptationism and rationality when he says, “In both cases we begin with a conception of how things should be in order that a particular end be achieved, and try to show that how they actually are is a close match.” And the part I want to highlight here is the “in order that a particular end be achieved”—that end is not “is this the best explanation for the data?”, the end is “how can we think of these data as being consistent with the framework centered on fitness maximization?”

Moreover, this rational agent underlies both how we think about adaptation and how we think about human interactions in a capitalist economy. And this is reflected not just in the way we talk about maximization, of fitness or of utility, but also in the mathematical tools of game theory that we employ in both domains as a further formalization of the actions of the rational agent.

So what are some other ways of looking at the world, that don’t privilege adaptation above all else? If we come back to the notion of standpoint theory, we can ask—who has engaged in political struggle against capitalism, and how do they look at the world?

One compelling option is the dialectical materialist lens where instead of a construction based on what should be and what is, we ask “what is, what could have led to it, and what happens now that we are here?” And we lose that outsized focus on normativity, and adaptation becomes one of many processes that are interconnected and contingent on one another.  And while it’s difficult for me to say exactly what distortions the dialectical materialist lens is going to produce, I can say that the focus here is not so much on any one process, but on the mechanistic and historically contingent connections between them.

And so I want to end by telling you about an organism that, more than any other animal I’ve encountered, insists upon this different way of thinking, and that is the tent caterpillar. At the start of my time in the Miller, I was in search of a new study system where I could study social interactions in the context of group living animals that build nests, and tent caterpillars seemed like an awesome group in which to work because we know a ton about their basic biology and natural history. But we’ve known about their natural history for quite a while, and yet they don’t seem to show up as an organism that are used to understand broader conceptual things about the evolution of behavior, collective behavior, social behavior and so on. And James Costa, a phenomenal scholar of the “other insect societies”, which is to say not bees or wasps or ants or termites, has made this same lament, that it is weird that we don’t better understand tent caterpillar sociality in the broader conceptual context of behavioral ecology. And so my initial thought was that I would be able to read about them and watch them and come up with the right adaptive questions to start asking.  

But my contention now is that the adaptationist lens is the wrong lens for tent caterpillars—it distorts or renders opaque more than it clarifies. Basically, I think that tent caterpillars are conceptually inaccessible, not uniquely but more so than many other organisms that we study, from an adaptationist perspective. And this became apparent to me when I read the Dialectical Biologist by Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin. This book not only helped me understand why tent caterpillars are a thorn in the side of adaptationism but also offers a way forward.

And so the starting point here is different, it’s this contention that in any system, what constitutes the parts is defined by the whole of the system, that you simply can’t break things down. And so this means, specifically, that when you are dealing with organisms that interact with one another and with their environment, which is every organism, you have to think about two things. First, you have to think about how various levels of organization, so from gene to individual to populations to communities and species, are only partly autonomous and reciprocally interacting and so in the context of selection you need a multilevel selection approach that group selection. And this is extremely clear in the case of tent caterpillars where, first of all, there are a ton of them and they forage together and shelter together and clearly impact one another’s life, but second, these groups are in fact very fluid and not necessarily made up of relatives later in the season and they become more solitary as they age, suggesting that you can’t simply treat groups as fixed units (as you can with bees and ants and termites, often), but also you can’t ignore the groups—they are partly autonomous and reciprocally interacting.

And second, our dialectical materialist approach that contends that parts and wholes cannot be separated implies that you have to think about organisms and environments actively codetermining each other, in the way that is suggested by niche construction discourse. And here again, tent caterpillars are a great exemplar. Not only do they literally construct this tent-like structure in which they shelter and on which they interact and communicate with one another, but also their main activity in this time of their life is eating leaves, and by eating the leaves that surround them, they are directly changing the environmental conditions of their surroundings, and these conditions in turn determine their growth, their hunger, and their further capacity to shape their environments—the organism and the environment are codetermining one another.

So tent caterpillars are, to me, making the case for a different way of looking at nature than currently offered by the adaptationist lens that shapes my field of behavioral ecology, and I think we will learn something new about them from a dialectical materialist approach that is grounded in multilevel selection and niche construction. But I don’t think it’s just tent caterpillars. I think we’ll learn more about every organism from this dialectical materialist perspective, because every organism interacts with other organisms and with its environment. And I think this is where the dialectical future of behavioral ecology lies.

So it is possible to think differently that we currently do, and more importantly, is it possible to actually do things differently? And the answer is clearly yes. Because we need to, we need to imagine different questions, with more nuance, consistently interrogating assumptions if we want to do a better job of understanding and engaging with nature. And to do this effectively, we have to embrace our politics explicitly, not only because we can never escape our politics but because our politics are epistemologically informative.

I want to end by emphasizing that almost none of the overarching critique of adaptationism I’ve described to you here is new, these have been well constructed within biology in the work of evolutionary biologists such as Stephen J. Gould, Richard Lewontin, Richard Levins, David Sloan Wilson, Kevin Laland, Eva Jablonka, Marion Lamb, and more. These critiques are also well developed in fields of scholarship outside of biology, in fields such as science and technology studies, philosophy, and the history of science. What we need now isn’t just more critique, what we need is actionable change from scientists in the ways in which we construct our questions and how we are explicit about their political underpinnings.

I’ve been trying to do this in my own work, such as in a recent paper on character displacement, in an ecosystem of these two interacting lizards found on these small islands of the east coast of Florida that we first sampled in 2010 and then went back to in 2019. Our goal was initially to show that the very adaptive process of character displacement is important despite variation across space and time, and we presented our findings that way. But I read the dialectical biologist between our initial submission of this paper and the revised submission, and I realized the underlying adaptationism in our paper, and in the revisions we were able to re-approach these data with much less of a focus on the adaptive process and much more from the perspective that the messy realities of both inexplicable variation across space and time and doing opportunistically longterm fieldwork were not in opposition to the story of character displacement but in fact makes it way more interesting. And here’s a really tangible example of a change we made. In our initial submission, we had these data from 2019 in the main paper—the details don’t matter, but you can see how nice and parallel all these lines are. The much messier 2010 data were initially in the supplementary material—we weren’t ignoring them, but they didn’t fit the adaptive narrative we had fit our results into. But in the final paper, we included them both in the main paper, along with hypothesized non-adaptive reasons for the differences we saw between 2010 and 2019.

And stepping back, a broader effort I’m especially excited about is a recent call for papers to be published in a scientific journal, read by scientists, for which we’ve assembled a team of editors who work in disciplines across the natural and social sciences and humanities, and our goal is specifically to bring  interdisciplinary critique of the scientific process in front of the eyes of scientists but also for authors to make concrete suggestions for how scientific practice can change when we consider diverse standpoints. And so while I know that all of you here deeply believe in the value of interdisciplinarity within the natural and physical sciences, I’d urge you to consider extending this umbrella to the social sciences and humanities as well, because you may be surprised by the impact this will have on your own scientific research.

With that, I just want to acknowledge all the people who’ve influenced this talk, including my coaches, thanks to everyone in the Miller community and thanks to you all for listening.

On Minimalism (and so much more).

I have always wanted to live somewhere cute. I’m moving to Boulder in the fall, and I will be living in a cute attic. It is cute, but it is not large, and I’m realizing I have to get rid of quite a bit of my stuff to achieve the cuteness (plus, you know, livability) that I long for. This letting-go of material possessions (these clothes, those many books I’ll never read, that weird collection of twigs from some long-forgotten forest trail) has been both practical and spiritual, and I do feel lighter.

Concurrently, my digestive tract is on strike, protesting the labor conditions I have been subjecting it to. It appears that this worker, essential to my system, does not want me to eat most things. Its gentle requests have long gone unheeded (unnoticed, even) and so now it’s expressing its opinions through the mediums of nausea and bloating. This is somewhat challenging to me (the management), but I’m trying to do well by my digestive tract by listening to its demands. And so yesterday for lunch I drank cabbage juice and ate some deli ham. Later, I threw away a large volume of soup.

Standing in the grocery checkout line, or after a thrift store drop-off, I viscerally feel something my brain has known for a while: my new minimalisms are facilitated by being wealthier now than I used to be. It feels okay to let stuff go because I can afford to buy that stuff again if it turns out I made a mistake. I can afford to buy new and often expensive foods if it feels right in the moment, even though I don’t yet know if my digestive system will approve. Money can buy you the space to be wrong; it can buy you self-forgiveness.

The only place where, before now, letting go has felt safe is writing. Or more specifically, editing. If I can let go of stuff now, or shift and shrink the foods I eat, it’s because, thanks to over a decade of writing and editing, I can trust that when I bring intention to how I wield a cutting knife, when I first bring compassion and appreciation for all of something, then beauty can emerge from removal. Writing is an easy space in which to get comfortable with letting go, because words are cheap, the supply of words from my brain is seemingly inexhaustible, and good words can be found again. Plus, there is poetry, where concision can be everything and we know how to appreciate a certain sparseness. My cute attic will be poetic.

[I’m very into this idea, at the moment, of the ways in which our practices translate across and through our lives. Who knew that years of editing would help to fulfill my home fantasies?! What a delight.]

[This is also as good a place as any to note my long-brewing disdain for what I think is a trend towards writing that is too long for no good reason, both online and in print. I HATE IT! I also know that I write long shit, and saying this out loud will come back to haunt me, but I just…cannot.]

In this sprawling context, I found it interesting to read an article this morning about how the human brain (in its contemporary sociopolitical contexts) appears to gravitate towards adding rather than subtracting to solve problems (it’s a summary of some research; I didn’t read the original paper). Which is to say, we tend to add more structural support to a piece that’s falling over rather than removing and reconfiguring the pieces into something more stable, form a new committee instead of reckoning with how the old committee didn’t meet its objectives, say more and more instead of sitting in silence to listen. So many positive, potent words–creative, generative, growing–are about adding. While reading this article, I wondered about where our brains get to practice removal, and immediately thought of editing. “Editing is so much about subtraction!” I thought, “our brains can do this!” And the article concurs–indeed we can remove, when we are reminded that removal is an option.

Ultimately, I suppose that’s what it’s all about: options. We have choices about whether to add or remove, about how precisely to both accept and let go.

But the choices that we feel are available to us depend on our feelings of safety. Given my recent realization about the privilege of feeling financially secure that, for me, has been the precursor to letting go, I balked at this part of the article:

For instance, when people feel dissatisfied with the decor of their home, they might address the situation by going on a spending spree and acquiring more furniture — even if it would be equally effective to get rid of a cluttering coffee table. Such a tendency might be particularly pronounced for resource-deprived consumers, who tend to be particularly focused on acquiring material goods [Tully et al. 2015]. This not only harms those consumers’ financial situations, but also increases the strain on our environment.

I balked at the authors’ tone of smug condescension towards those of us that buy and keep things. Clicking through to the citation, I found that the original article does not employ a similar tone. In fact, the study is nothing like how it is represented in the above quote: the study focuses on people who feel financially constrained (which is different from “resource-deprived”) and specifically contrasts purchasing goods with purchasing experiences, a pretty different situation than the above paragraph extrapolates to. I am angered by how these authors misrepresented a research finding to make an uncompassionate and classist point, and I am letting go of this anger by writing about it.

Last fall, my partner and I made a planter box for my apartment window. We filled it with soil that we knew had seeds in it, we haphazardly transplanted in a vine or two, and later I planted seeds and cuttings from time to time but mostly let the forces-that-be populate this little plot of suspended earth. All kinds of things grew. At one point, the box was taken over by Oxalis. I expected this, because of where the soil had come from. I let their bright yellow blooms be for a month or two before deciding it was time to make room for the others. The timing was serendipitously perfect, and the others grew well. But the dried stems of morning glory, the dried marigold–they remain, and I will not remove them because they are not in anybody’s way and I will not accept that they are ugly. They can go when we all feel ready.

Academic Kindness

Over on Dynamic Ecology, Jeremy Fox wrote a quick post about reading out from a script while delivering an academic presentation, after he saw my recent talk in which I did so, at the University of Calgary Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Departmental Seminar (thanks for the invitation!).

I’ve only recently started reading my talks from scripts. As I grow older, develop better work habits and work-life balance, and heal my brain away from old coping mechanisms, I find that my mental capacities and tolerances have changed quite a bit. And one thing I have little ability or desire to do any more is practice a talk enough that my delivery is impeccable. But I still have high standards for myself! So I now read from a script—all of the aspirations towards impeccable delivery, none of the memorization! I spend a lot of time writing the script, but I love writing so it’s more fun, and easier, than practicing a talk endlessly. Even before my brain and priorities changed, I HATED practicing talks (but I did it anyway). I had mostly made my peace with this new practice of reading, which is very uncommon in the sciences, when Jeremy and I chatted about it.

And then, this delightful thing happened! All because I wrote a script for my talk! I gave the same talk again a week later, and a senior academic, who I’d been emailing a bit before the talk and had a chance to meet during my virtual visit, said that they regretted not having written down some of the things I had said. Aha! I said, I can just send you my script! So I did. A presumptuous move, to be sure, for who has the time to read the twelve-page script of the talk they just heard? But I figured they could skim it to find the bits they liked, just for fun.

But what happened next is quite possible the kindest thing I’ve experienced in academia, or at least is in my top five kind academic moments. This senior academic went through my whole script, found all the lines they liked, excerpted them, AND wrote a sentence or two about each excerpt describing why they liked it! What a generosity.

So I’m glad I did the thing that works for me—reading my talk from a script—and grateful for the kindness that grew from it.

generosity in action

I think a lot about the opportunities we have, and those we seize, for being kind. I aspire to live a kind life, and in my work, one place I try to be consistently kind is when offering edits on others’ writing. I do my best to note the sentences I’m enthusiastic about, and I love when people are touched by my enthusiasm. I love when people do the same for me. Good feeling propagates itself when shared, if you will.

Outside of work, I’m building myself a life in which most of the relationships and communities I commit to are kind. I’ve commented, for example, on the deeply humane culture built by the folks I work alongside in our union, UAW5810. So it’s become jarring to remember that academia, in contrast, isn’t built to be kind, that many opportunities to be kind are not seized as they could be, and that making these moments of kindness within our workplace is a practice that isn’t always easy. Thankfully, we can learn.

What We Say When We Speak of Puzzles: Part I

In high school, I remember sitting on my bed in our four-person dorm room, lifting my head from a notebook filled with math problems and realizing that it had been six hours since I had last looked up. It was a four-hundred-page notebook, the biggest and most expensive we could buy in our small boarding school shop. My handwriting in it was cramped, clear only to me. I wrote no topic or subject headings or page numbers, and yet I knew exactly where in the book I had solved particular problems—this book was an extension of my mind.

It was dark outside the window now, where the last time I looked it had been bright. I felt a distinct combination of both pride and fear, not understanding how I could lose myself in this way but also believing that it was this capacity to focus that made me exceptional. I took this kind of falling into focus to mean that I loved mathematics. The mathematical world had long been both more challenging and less complicated than the human world I was escaping from. It was ordered and soluble, and all I had to do was understand the logic, solve the problem. And I was good at that. In math, I could predict what would happen if I did everything right.

About a decade earlier, I had to prepare for the entrance exam that would get me into boarding school. And so my usual after-school routine of sitting quietly, out of sight and mind in the office of my parents’ architectural design firm, was now punctuated with running up to my father’s desk to receive from him a new instalment of math problems, written out in one of his notepads. Even just the medium thrilled me—these were notepads reserved for serious stuff! I’d rush off to solve the sums, quietly in another room, and then rush back to show him my work. I remember feeling proud of myself, not just for getting the math right but for figuring out a safe way to be visible in this grown-up space where I, a child, spent so much of my day.  

At around that time, the people that worked for my parents talked to me. They took me with them when they went on little excursions to the printers, maybe get me a treat when they went to the shops, as though I were a little, loved dog. Looking back, I’d guess that they felt a little bit sorry for this quiet girl who skulked around their adult workplace, who never played. If so, they did me the kindness of hiding their pity. 

On my birthday, they brought me presents, and I remember feeling special.

A few days later, my mother was angry at these people who were kind to me. Such anger wasn’t unusual. They were being blamed for an error that may or may not have been their fault, and as we drove back home late that night, my mother was not yet calm. And so, as usual, she talked and talked through her anger as my father silently listened, interjecting noncommittal affirmations with a well-practiced cadence. In the backseat of the car, as usual, I listened while pretending to myself that I wasn’t there. My mother went on and on, trying to divine a reason for the error—why had her staff been so incompetent? Part of her list of reasons, of course, was that they’d been distracted from their jobs by my birthday. And so it was simple. From that moment onwards, I loved mathematics and hated my birthday.

Mathematics functioned in my life as a kind of armor. As long as I was doing well in math class, I was, by some objective measure, okay. I conjectured that being okay was enough for my parents to leave me alone because, in our world, it felt like the opposite of alone was ire. Math was both a country in which I could be alone and the passport that let me stay there.

So it felt like a crisis when the principal at my boarding school, himself a mathematician, wrote with some concern on my tenth-grade report card about my “unaccountable diffidence.” If I was so very good at doing the work that my math class expected of me, why didn’t I push myself to go further, beyond the text book? Could I, perhaps, set my sights on becoming a mathematician? My mother asked me over and over about my unaccountable diffidence, and in her insistence I knew, with a sinking feeling, that I’d have to do more, if only to assuage her worry. My path towards a life of the mind began here, in resignation.

I asked the principal for more math, advanced math that would prove I was the opposite of diffident, and he was only too happy to give me his own copy of A First Course in Abstract Algebra by John B. Fraleigh. I wonder now how much thought he put into that choice. Why abstract algebra, why Fraleigh?  Whatever his reasons, he made a good choice. To this day, pulling his-and-then-my copy of Fraleigh off my bookshelf feels like a bracing pat on the back from a kindly uncle. Through the thin paper of its pages, I can see the text that has passed and the text that is yet to come casting shadows on the text I am reading, and so I know I’m on a journey, a quest even. Fraleigh’s voice on the page is friendly, welcoming, making me feel like math is somewhere I am meant to be. He writes:

Suppose that you are a visitor to a strange civilization in a strange world and you are observing one of the creatures of this world drilling a class of fellow creatures in the addition of numbers. Suppose also that you have not been told that the class is learning to add, but that you were just placed as an observer in the room where this was going on. You are asked to give a report on exactly what happens. The teacher makes noises that sound to you approximately like gloop, poyt. The class responds with bimt. The teacher then gives ompt, gaft, and the class responds with poyt. What are they doing? You cannot report that they are adding numbers, for you do not even know that the sounds are representing numbers. Of course, you do realize that there is communication going on. All you can say with certainty is that these creatures know some rule, so that when certain pairs of things are designated in their language, one after another, like gloop, poyt, they are able to agree on a response, bimt.

Which is to say, I learnt from Fraleigh that algebra is actually about communication. Algebra made the reality of communication—messy at the best of times, and in my family, usually fraught—into a safe abstraction, where rules could be followed and outcomes predicted by logic. By burying myself in algebra, I could prove I wasn’t diffident, thus avoiding adult scrutiny. But by taking algebra seriously, I could use my logical skills—skills forged in trying to make sense of my parents’ silence, fear, and anger—to grasp at what it means to communicate.

There is a tension that can animate a life of the mind, the tension between abstraction and material reality. And in my life, this tension grew intertwined with another tension, between fear of the world and a deep need to communicate with it. In school, what pulled me out of my heady terrifying mathematical reveries was often the sound of the dining hall bell, indicating that it was time to eat. At dinner in school, I had to sit in the real world, outside of my head, with people that didn’t care very much about abstract algebra. Conversely, Fraleigh didn’t seem like he cared much about the agonizingly silly thing I may have said at dinner. Straddling two worlds, each could provide temporary refuge from the hardships of the other.

But at home, I lived in fear of the question What are you doing? and abstract algebra wasn’t a good enough answer. What are you doing? was the question that replaced all others. My answer was expected to hold, and yet somehow also mask, my feelings, hopes, and struggles. The consequences wouldn’t be good if my answer to that question triggered my mother’s anxiety, or ire, or judgement, all of which could stem from her incomprehension. My mother was brilliant, and so she expected to understand what I was up to. It was through her understanding of my intellectual endeavors that we connected, and abstract algebra risked severing this connection even as it allayed fears that I was diffident.

These tensions—between fear and connection, abstraction and the material—poured themselves into a puzzle that became a central captivation of my teenage mind: The Soma Cube. A puzzle designed by a Danish polymath-of-sorts, Piet Hein, the Soma Cube is a cube that is broken into seven pieces, each of which is a configuration of three or four cubes whose sides are one third the length of the original cube. Each of the seven pieces is ‘irregular,’ which in this rather specific context means that you can draw a line connecting two vertices of the piece such that this line lies entirely outside of the piece. These seven pieces are the only irregular configurations that can be made up of three or four cubes, and, remarkably, these seven pieces fit together in two hundred and forty unique arrangements to make up the larger cube we started with.

There is a constricted sense of beauty to the Soma Cube, to the notion that all possible irregularity fits together to create something regular. Two of these cubes lived in my childhood home, and on idle afternoons, my parents occasionally took them apart and solved them by a sort of trial and error. My father had one favored solution, my mother another, and neither had the necessary combination of patience and motivation required to search for any of the remaining two hundred and thirty-eight. But armed with a growing dexterity in wielding abstraction from my forays into algebra, I realized I could do more. Not only could I find other solutions to the Soma Cube, I could use mathematics to search for a way to find all the solutions. This was a safe answer to What are you doing?

The exercise of solving the Soma Cube systematically transmuted all of my other animating tensions into a single, singular one—between possibility and constraint. A cube has eight corners and six faces, always and eternally. Each piece had the potential to occupy only certain combinations of corners and face centers, and there are only so many ways in which these combinations can add to eight and six. But beyond these constraints, there is possibility, the kind that allows for long, lonely afternoons spent with my hands busy, positioning and repositioning pieces until they fit together just so.

And yet I understood that this puzzle solving was not true discovery. I knew that I was not the first to solve this puzzle entirely, and with dial-up internet at my disposal in my parents’ office, I could even look the solutions up. But to do so would have been to relinquish my armor, and so I didn’t.

But again, that tension between fear and reaching out. I never looked up all the solutions, but I did search the internet for information on the Soma Cube, learning as much about it as I could without cheating on my quest to solve it completely. I found the website of someone named Thorleif Bundgaard. Bundgaard seemed as captivated by this puzzle as I was. And through his website—blocky and unsophisticated to this day—I learnt more about Piet Hein, the mind that made the puzzle that served, years later and miles away, as a frightened teenager’s shield.

Reading the first email I sent to Thorleif, it seems that I was looking for nothing more than reassurance that my endeavor was worthwhile, this fundamental question—am I enough?—couched in the language of simple curiosities about the puzzle itself. His answer—immediate, clear, and kind—did reassure me. He signed his email “Friendliest Thorleif,” and maybe that’s why I found it in me to ask, “just as a matter of interest, which country are you from?”. The exchange that followed was true human communication—delightful, tentative, and a bit confused. I liked hearing about Denmark, I was peeved when Thorleif corrected my misconceptions about Piet Hein, and I was grateful when he explained, syllable by syllable, how to pronounce his name and Hein’s correctly. I shared information with him—about my school, my upcoming exams—that he did not ask for. And most lastingly, Thorleif introduced me to another of Piet Hein’s creations, short aphoristic poems called ‘grooks.’  Here’s one:

The Road to Wisdom

The road to wisdom? Well, it’s plain

And simple to express:


and err

and err again,

but less

and less

and less.

I spent weeks, months, with the Soma Cube, in a space of trial and error. I hadn’t paid much mind—thank goodness—to the foreword to my Indian edition of A First Course in Abstract Algebra, where D.N. Verma wrote that seeking to solve such mathematical puzzles was but an infantile fascination. But in time, I abandoned the Soma Cube and my search for all its solutions. With a little distance I could see quite clearly that my fascination with Soma Cube had been infantile. But the thing about infants is that they know somehow, inexplicably and unconsciously, exactly what they need and, often against all odds, they ask and ask and ask until their needs are met. I held onto the Soma Cube until it delivered me deeper human connection, and then I moved on.

(This is Part I of the memoir writing I’ve been working on. There will be a Part II and a Part III, that will make their way into the world in various shapes and forms in the near-ish future. Keep an eye out for them; I’ll be linking to them here for sure, and thank you for reading.)

Serendipity, Saying, Doing.

I am in a 12-Step program, and so I find ways to notice and appreciate how forces greater than me shape my life. One of the most excellent ways I have experienced these forces recently is in which books I choose to read, and when. The forces that shape my reading decisions are large and largely unpredictable: the popularity of the book among the patrons of the Berkeley Public Library, its price on Bookshop or (sigh, I know) Kindle, an errant citation, a mention by a friend or friend of a friend, what books get left on the street, whether I resonate with the blurb I happen to find. And the factor that ultimately determines whether and when I read a book is “do I feel like it?”. I do believe that my higher power resides in the Berkeley Public Library, and also guides me to what I need to read based simply on what I feel. This year, I’ve had the luxury of letting my gut and soul lead me to books, instead of my brain, and it’s been utterly life-giving.

For example…I bought “Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents” and “Drama of the Gifted Child” on the exact same day in 2018, after some googling and review-reading to find books that could help me understand my family, as my kind grandmotherly therapist was urging I do. I read the first–instantly, and from cover to cover–on the day I got it, staying up until 4 am to do so. It was exactly what I needed to comprehend my life until that point and going forward. The second stayed on my shelf unread–not unspoken about, not unheard of, not unthought, but just unread–until two days after my mother died. I was waiting on zoom for a doctor’s appointment that started late, and in that waiting, the book caught my eye and somehow I knew it was time. It was, and the book, like almost everything else I’ve read this year, was revelatory .

I’m in the process of writing a memoir–about science, trauma, healing, and solidarity–and from time to time I get so overwhelmed when I think about how to connect them all in a way that says what I want to say, conjures the feelings I hope to conjure, spurs the action I hope it will spur. But then I read a book that does exactly some crucial part of the work I want to do in my book, and so I know I’m not alone in this fight. I can write in conversation with others, thank god. I’d been stuck in my writing for weeks, but then suddenly I picked up Thupten Jinpa’s A Fearless Heart (on my shelf since July) and Sarah Schulman’s Conflict is Not Abuse (on hold at the library for literally forever, until it was my turn on Monday!) and the two have coalesced beautifully into showing me what I need to write now and how.

In our jobs as academics, I suppose ostensibly we are meant to write in conversation with others, but as a scientist, I find that actual opportunities to do so explicitly, and actual examples of such work, aren’t necessarily commonplace. Scientific journals tend to get annoyed, or at least surprised, when I quote other papers in my papers. My current hot take is that present day science may not do enough of this (and on a further limb, present day humanities and social sciences do too much, or in too codified a way? spur of the moment thought, take what you like and leave the rest). This strong urge to be in conversation may explain my slight obsession with academic back-and-forths. Part of what I’m loving about memoir writing, at least at this early stage before the prose is to be wrangled and tamed, is that I can be in conversation with whoever I want, in whatever way I want.

All of this is to disjointedly say that we live our lives in conversation, of which saying something is only a small part. The other parts include listening. Which means receiving with an open heart, when one is ready. Which means feeling one’s feelings so that one is ready. And this gets at the seed of an answer I’ve been searching for, to the question of the difference between words as saying and words as doing. I’ll write more when this seed germinates, grows, blooms.

Until then <3.

Why Study Animal Behavior?

Some months ago, I wrote a little essay called “What’s Next,” in which I talk about my evolving views on why studying animal behavior is worthwhile. This post continues that musing, by considering animal behavior’s position in a larger political project of human liberation (which I get at a bit in this recent piece on trauma and standpoint theory).

I’ve been imagining what it would feel like to have a research program determined by the community. I would love to go out to ask people who live near me, “What’s something you’ve noticed in nature that you would like to know more about?” and then use their answers to define my work. Participatory Action Research for organismal biology, if you will. In a 2017 interview in with David Steen for this piece, we talked about what it would look like to formalize such community-based science into our funding institutions. Steen is a herpetologist and science communicator across various media, and we began by talking about his experiencing fielding many strangers’ questions about reptiles and other creatures. Here’s some of our conversation (my questions in bold, Steen’s replies in italics, edited for length and clarity):

So what are some of the themes or topics that seem to come up repeatedly, that you think people are interested in but maybe don’t get quite as emphasized by scientific research or funding?

They want to know how big something gets, and where do they spend the winter and how their populations are doing in their area, and that’s not really stuff that’s easy to parse from a scientific paper, even if they had access to it.

And do you think that just comes from people just being curious about what’s around them?

I think so. I think that people are fascinated by animals around them. Sometimes that manifests in a real appreciation and interest, sometimes that manifests in fear and loathing, but they’re all interested and fascinated by these creatures.

…[other questions were asked and answered]

And so given all of the experience that you have with talking to what people are actually interested in, people who are indirectly funding most of our research, what would you say to scientists or to funding agencies about what you think our priorities should be, or could be, and ways to get more buy-in from people who are not scientists?

Yeah. So I should…I haven’t studied this, I don’t know the intricacies of the policy, I don’t know the people making this decision, so it’s just kind of one person’s opinion, brainstorming. Okay. I think it would be neat if, in addition to these really rigorous committees of elite scientists that currently decide who gets funded and who doesn’t, with public funds, what if the public was involved in at least a subset of that? Because we do know that scientists are best equipped to figure out what’s cutting edge research, what is best to fund to advance human knowledge, but it doesn’t always relate directly to what the public is interested in. Maybe if we involved them to a greater extent in the process, it might also alleviate some of the controversies about, you know, some of the political upheaval that we hear about regarding the NSF and NIH and all that. What if there was some process that the public got to vote on, you know, some proposals, or worked with scientists to talk about what they’re interested in, or what they would want to fund. That might be an interesting way to get them involved in the process. Again, this shouldn’t be the only way to fund research, but it might be neat.

That’s a really great idea, and it makes a lot of sense because then it could be locally or geographically based, so there’s automatically [more] buy-in from the local communities, in whose lands or in whose surroundings we’re conducting this work. That would be really cool.

It would be cool, especially with outreach components to the study.

Yeah it’s sort of flipping on its head the idea that you do research first and then do outreach. This is almost sort of going from “outreach” to defining the research problem and conducting the research. And now this is just me agreeing with you, but that sort of research is so much cheaper than a lot of the research that gets funded, that’s more molecular based, or more sort of genomics-heavy, and so it seems like it wouldn’t be that much of an investment to try and do this sort of thing.

Oh I agree. I mean, if people want to know how many turtles are in a pond, you just need some nets and some cans of sardines. You don’t need hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment, so yeah, that could be a much more affordable option. Things like—and again, I’m just one person, this is just my opinion. You know, full disclosure, I haven’t had any success about getting NSF funding, so I’m a little jaded and bitter and all that, so all that said—I think that they’re not really funding the stuff that they should be…I think we’re really divorcing ourselves from the ecology of wild systems, and just figuring out what’s out there and how they’re interacting with each other in those natural systems. All of the work is important, but I think that we should be paying more attention to that stuff.

I love this, I love everything about it. But a part of me also thinks that if I were to go out into the communities that surround where I live, telling folks about my job understanding animals, asking them what they think I should study, I am quite likely to be told in response that maybe I should worry first about their access to food, housing, and health insurance. In part, my ability to do curiosity-driven research in the face of pressing political concerns comes from not being accountable to the people around me, and the less insulated I become, the more I wonder about the purpose of the work of animal behavior. Maybe I should just go ask, and see what happens. I suspect I’d have to build real relationships with the people around me before it would even make sense to ask these questions, before I can hope for genuine answers.

I know, firsthand, that doing the work of studying animal behavior has allowed my understanding of myself to blossom and transform, and so of course I want this opportunity to exist for others. In fact, it should exist for anyone who wants it, which is why the goal of making science equitably accessible is worthwhile.

But going further, I have told myself for a long time that this transformative potential of studying the natural world scales and generalizes, through the scientific stories we tell about ourselves and other earthlings. As I wrote about in What’s Next, I believe that studying animal behavior is worthwhile because it informs our understanding of what is ‘natural’, and thus shapes how we understand ourselves as natural beings. And the causal arrow flows the other way too–how we understand ourselves shapes how we study nature, and by thus naturalizing our values and social mores, we reinforce them. So interventions into this process of inquiry from explicitly liberatory standpoints, such as those of feminism or socialism, can have far-reaching consequences for our self-conception. At present, it is the politics of the status quo that largely shapes scientific inquiry, including how we understand the lives of animals, and the status quo demands pushback. I believe this, but also I wonder if this is enough of a project? To what extent have I concocted this justification that allows me to continue my life in the social position of knowledge-creator-and-legitimizer?

In other words, I don’t trust my own reasons at the moment in my search for meaningful work. And so I’ve been turning elsewhere. Often to spirituality, and this morning I began reading Thupten Jinpa’s A Fearless Heart: How the courage to be compassionate can transform our lives. I was surprised to see in his words a persuasive case for engaging in exactly this liberatory intervention into the stories we tell about ourselves and our true nature. Early in the book, he says

“Despite our widely shared experience and beliefs about compassion [a shared eagerness to claim compassion as a virtue], we fail to give it a central role in our lives and in our society. In our contemporary culture, we tend to have a rather confused relationship with values like kindness and compassion. In the secular West [and, I’ll add, the culture of the home I grew up in], we lack a coherent cultural framework for articulating what compassion is and how it works. To some people, it’s a matter of religion and morality, a private concern of the individual with little or no societal relevance. Others question the very possibility of selflessness for human beings, and are suspicious of sentiments like compassion that have other people’s welfare as the primary concern. A well-known scientist [evolutionary biologist and philosopher Michael Ghiselin] once remarked, “Scratch an altruist and watch a hypocrite bleed.””

Jinpa goes on to say,

“As a society, we have long ignored the fundamental role our compassion instinct plays in defining our nature and behavior. We have bought into a popular narrative that seeks to explain all our behavior through the prism of competition and self-interest. This is the story we have been telling about ourselves.

The thing about a story like this is that it tends to be self-fulfilling. When our story says that we are at heart selfish and aggressive creatures, we assume that every man is for himself. In this “dog-eat-dog world” it is only logical, then, to see others as a source of rivalry and antagonism. And so we relate to others with apprehension, fear, and suspicion, instead of fellow feeling and a sense of connection. By contrast, if our story says that we are social creatures endowed with instincts for compassion and kindness, and that as deeply interdependent beings our welfare is intertwined, this totally changes the way we view–and behave in–the world. So the stories we tell about ourselves do matter, quite profoundly so.”

There is a question here for every evolutionary biologist, behavioral and evolutionary ecologist, ecologist–how are we complicit in telling and legitimizing through science a single story about the nature of what’s natural? To what extent is that story aligned with the hegemonies of our sociopolitical status quo?

Since my work on anole territoriality followed by interdisciplinary work on the nature of territoriality writ large, since our collaborative work on the evolution of same-sex sexual behavior, since reading The Dialectical Biologist and delving this year into the links between the logics of neoliberal economics and adaptationism, I can’t escape this answer: our fields are very complicit, and this complicity is baked into the very core of our theoretical constructs. This isn’t an especially cheery answer, and I don’t know what to do about it.

I can imagine a different science, one with a primary goal of understanding interconnectedness, one with a sense of purpose that truly serves democratic interests as opposed to a nebulous and colonial sense of discovery that seems often to be a veneer for preserving hegemonies. I can imagine it, and it looks pretty excellent. I can imagine a biology department, a university, where we work on problems of interest and concern to those living around us. Where it’s my job to study the behavioral dimensions of these problems and when my behavioral answers lead me to development or cell biology or genetics or ecosystem science or political ecology or philosophy, I pop over next door and pass the problem on to another scholar, and receive other problems in exchange. Where we regularly give our answers back to the people who asked for them, and every few years we step back to fit our work into some broader theoretical picture. Where generalizability is a happy happenstance, and not a goal. This means a different sense of purpose and responsibility.

And I think when we do science this way, we’ll have the room to understand and experience real interconnectedness, both in what we study and how we study it. That is our part to play in changing the stories we humans tell about ourselves and our world, which is the work of liberation.

Doing the Work, part four: a trauma-informed politics for academia

I am no longer on twitter a lot, but sometimes things I want to say emerge as though I am. Here’s something that began as a tweet-essay and bears its hallmarks. Pretend this is on twitter, if you like.

I find this essay by @OlufemiOTaiwo really interesting and important (h/t @dynamicecology).

I’ve only recently begun understanding standpoints in relation to myself and my work. The key thing to hold, I gather, is that standpoints derive not from oppression itself but from the political resistance to oppression. Táíwò’s essay discusses how this difference has been elided in practice, and how this elision is damaging.

Especially in light of trauma, the damage caused by conflating oppression and resistance to it rings very true to me. In traumatic conditions, we do what we need to do in order to stay safe. Of course this will often imply aligning with hegemonies. The power I have accrued has come from aligning with hegemonies—of caste, class, the ivory tower. It was the security that came from accruing this power that eventually positioned me to heal from the trauma of my childhood in a verbally abusive and emotionally neglectful home. When I consider why my parents were the way they were, and their parents before them, it is deeply entangled with alliance to hegemonies within systems of oppression.

Experiencing trauma was not inherently freeing for me–it was the opposite. For me, freedom has lain in my healing from trauma and in the resistance to hegemonies that derive from and perpetuate conditions of trauma.

The truly transformative standpoints I have access to now have come from healing from my trauma and starting to resist the specifc hegemonic alliances in which I sought shelter from trauma—through feminist thought and action, community building, organizing and collective action, spirituality, and the work of healing.

Yet, I’m in the position of deriving continued power from my hegemonic alliances, and I don’t actually think it should be this way. The question then is, what do I (we) do about this? Anything I (we) do needs to involve giving up power. How, and how best, do I (we) build?

What Táíwò’s essay gets at, accurately I believe, is that in places of power such as academia now, we want people who symbolize to us a history of oppression and trauma (which may or may not align with actual experience), and maybe we even want even academic work emerging from standpoints that resist that oppression. But do we want actual change in the conditions that bring about trauma and oppression, given that such change will mean giving up power?

I don’t really know if we do. I’m not the arbiter of that. What I do know is that during one of my job interviews for a position ostensibly focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion, I was told quite explicitly that what mattered to them was not different thought or different work, but a name with differently arranged syllables and, just maybe, a face of a different color. It is not hard for me to guess that I was interviewed for this position because of my alliances with hegemonies combined with the veneer of my name, gender, and skin color, and not the work of change that I have done and am learning to do, not the work that derives from my standpoints resisting the very hegemonic alliances that make me palatable.

But if we recognize that the work ahead of us is dismantling the very systems that bring some of us power and yet keep all of us trapped in trauma, if we recognize that collective liberation lies in the redistribution of power, if we decide that we want to work to build an academia that is accountable in some true way, the question then becomes—individually, for each of us, and collectively—what are the right loci of action? That’s something I’m wrestling with these days, and I don’t yet know my answer.

What I do know is this. I’m here, my path here was both straightforward and complicated depending on the lens you look through, and my goal now is human liberation.

(This is part four of a series on what it means to do the work of culture change. Here are parts one, two, and three).

A Little Love Letter to Ross Gay’s “Book of Delights”

May 29th 2020, from a post I made on Instagram:


What does it mean to be a well-loved object?

I’ve been using this sliver of wood as a bookmark. But I had oiled the wood lightly, and so it’s been leaching little oil stains into successive pages. The first sign of a stain stabbed me a bit, I felt shame at having damaged this book. But if there’s any book that can hold these marks of use, it’s Ross Gay’s Book of Delights. A book I’ve wanted to race through, read in one sitting, but which instead I’m reading only one essayette a day. That I need a bookmark at all is a sign of my commitment to the book, and to learning a healthy discipline.

The wood–cedar, I think–smells lovely. So each morning, I hold and sniff my bookmark as I read. Weird, I know. Today, the bookmark has begun to smell of pages, that glorious new book smell. Smell in exchange for oil, a commingling born from healing ritual. This book, this bookmark, are loved. 

A few weeks ago, my mother died, and I stopped my daily readings of The Book of Delights for a few days. When I returned to them, I found a glorious delight waiting for me, one that, miraculously, captured the confusing transcendent feelings of my grief. I tried to excerpt it for you, reader, but it just works so beautifully in full…here it is:

60. “Joy is Such a Human Madness”: The Duff Between Us

Or, like this: in healthy forests, which we might imagine to exist mostly above ground, and be wrong in our imagining, given as the bulk of the tree, the roots, are reaching through the earth below, there exists a constant communication between those roots and mycelium, where often the ill or weak or stressed are supported by the strong and surplused.

By which I mean a tree over there needs nitrogen, and a nearby tree has extra, so the hyphae (so close to hyphen, the handshake of the punctuation world), the fungal ambulances, ferry it over. Constantly. This tree to that. That to this. And that in a tablespoon of rich fungal duff (a delight: the phrase fungal duff, meaning a healthy forest soil, swirling with the living the dead make) are miles and miles of hyphae, handshakes, who get a little sugar for their work. The pronoun who turned the mushrooms into people, yes it did. Evolved the people into mushrooms.

Because in trying to articulate what, perhaps, joy is, it has occurred to me that among other things–the trees and the mushrooms have shown me this–joy is the mostly invisible, the underground union between us, you and me, which is, among other things, the great fact of our life and the lives of everyone and thing we love going away. If we sink a spoon into that fact, into the duff between us, we will find it teeming. It will look like all the books ever written. It will look like all the nerves in a body. We might call it sorrow, but we might call it a union, one that, once we notice it, once we bring it into the light, might become flower and food. Might be joy.

Somehow, returning to The Book of Delights in a world that no longer held my mother, seeing her death ring out in the words on the page I returned to, I felt released from the discipline I had cultivated over the last two months. I started reading with abandon. In some minutes, I made it to the sixty-fourth entry. When you read the little excerpt below and think back to the words I wrote about this book at the end of May, a little less than two months before my mother died, I think you’ll experience  some of that same transcendence that I did, the just-so-ness of being connected with the world, oneself and one another across space and time. 

From 64. Fishing an Eyelash: Two or Three Cents on the Virtues of the Poetry Reading.

Books are lovely. I love books…

…As I write this it’s occurring to me that the books I most adore are the ones that archive the people who have handled them–dogears, or old receipts used as bookmarks (always a lovely digression). Underlines and exclamation points, and this in an old library book! The tender vandalisms by which, sometimes, we express our love. Or a fingerprint, made of some kind of oil, maybe from peanut butter, which it would be if it was mine. Or a tea stain, and a note to oneself only oneself could decipher…

…[But] There are multiplicities within a human body reading poems that a poem on a page will never reproduce. In other words, books don’t die. And preferring them to people won’t prevent our doing so.

Find Yourself a Trauma Informed Politics

So many times in this past year, I’ve wanted to speak to the complexities and nuances of how we approach difficult things in our difficult world–injustice, forgiveness, inequity, mental health. And each time, it just comes back to this: find yourself a trauma-informed politics. It’s a journey, it’s systemic, it’s human-oriented, it’s radical, it’s messy, and, above all, it’s hopeful. I’m going to write more on this, once I’ve read and absorbed more by Kai Cheng Thom, by Clementine Morrigan, by Mariame Kaba. For now, here’s a poster.

Words: Ambika Kamath, Image: Karen Arnold, on public domain, Design: Ambika Kamath & Ned Burnell 


Doing the Work, part three.

You may have seen this recent profile of my Ph.D. advisor, Jonathan Losos. If you scan the quotes, most from his former grad students and postdocs, you can tell that many of us like and admire him quite a bit. There’s a line from me in there, but I wrote a lot more for the interview that didn’t make it into the piece, and there are parts I want to share (edited from original quite a bit; thanks Elizabeth Pennisi for asking thought-provoking questions!).

Specifically, I’m writing this post as part of my Doing the Work series (see parts one and two here) because what Jonathan and I learnt in our interactions was how to disagree well about difficult things, which is a key component of shifting academic culture towards equity and justice. None of what I write here is to suggest that Jonathan is perfect in this realm. Far from it. Indeed, the most revealing moments were moments of imperfection, and by talking about them I hope to illustrate that “getting things perfect” is mostly irrelevant for making culture change in academia. I hope that white professors who lead diverse labs and research groups (and all the rest of us too, of course) will use this piece as a way to reflect a bit—honestly, and with a mind and heart oriented towards growth and not self-congratulation—on how you show up for your people.

(What made you decide to join the Losos lab?)

My decision to join the Losos lab was made easy because I had a great feeling about it. Part of this great feeling came from the fact that the lab was racially diverse and included many women scientists. During my visit, I had a pretty frank conversation about racial dynamics in the department with the lab’s grad students, and I was encouraged that there were folks willing to speak openly and honestly.

One thing I remember from when I visited the lab after being offered a place in it gives a nice insight into the kind of person Jonathan is. I visited along with another future grad student, and Jonathan had planned to give us each a copy of his 2009 book on anoles. But I had already bought and read his book, and it would have been silly for him to give me another one. So the next day, just before I left, he coordinated with the grad student we were staying with to come over with a different gift—a stuffed toy anole (you should ask him why he had a box of 50 of these in his office, it’s a great and ridiculous story). He didn’t want me to go home empty handed or feel less valued than the other prospective grad student, and I noticed and really appreciated this gesture of care and consideration (and the other student got their stuffed toy anole when they joined the lab in the fall, I’m pretty sure). I was 95% sure I wanted to join the lab before that, but that sealed the deal.

(What challenges did you, he or the lab face while you were there?)

In the second year of my Ph.D., I started to feel like I wasn’t getting enough guidance. Jonathan was traveling a lot that semester, which probably contributed to it, and I had my qualifying exams coming up, and so was nervous. I remember building up the nerve to have a phone conversation with him in which I told him I needed more advising from him, more concrete advice. He was slightly taken aback, I think. But from our very next meeting, he changed how he showed up to our meetings. He was more present, more proactive. I learned that I could ask him for things I needed, and he would do his best. I think I learnt how to have difficult conversations in a healthy and respectful way from my interactions with Jonathan, which has turned out to be an invaluable life skill.

Another place in which we struggled in the lab was with the culture of our lab meetings. I’m not sure everyone in the lab felt this way, but there was a period in which I found lab meetings to be sort of hostile, and difficult to ask questions in. Not too many of us talked. And there were definitely times when Jonathan was part of the problem, contributing to the creation of hostility. But a bit later, after some turnover in personnel and when Jonathan was on sabbatical, a couple of us who remained made a proactive effort to turn things around, to be friendlier and more relaxed. To Jonathan’s credit, he was completely accepting of this changed culture that he encountered on his return.

I also think the lab faced challenges surrounding creating a welcoming environment for people from different backgrounds. The lab was remarkably diverse for our field, especially for herpetology, especially for a lab headed by a white man at a place like Harvard, which institutionally has, at best, only a surface level commitment to diversity. And we certainly had challenging moments in the lab around this—comments were made that would have been par for the course if the lab were an “old boys’ club” but that weren’t acceptable to many of us. And again, there were certainly moments in which Jonathan was part of the problem.

lab photo 2016
Losos Lab Meeting (Losos + Revell labs) in 2016.

Would it have been better if these sorts of comments had never been made, if the culture had been different right from the start? Of course, but that wasn’t the reality. Change can only happen if we first accept the place that we are in. Jonathan and I began having explicit conversations about diversity in the lab in my third year in grad school, and I was so surprised at how he was always open to listening to my views, always open to learning. I came to understand that no matter how much our opinions diverged, no matter how uncomfortable I made him feel, he wouldn’t lose respect for me. To be able to learn how to speak truth to power in this relatively safe, relatively sheltered context was tremendously important to me. And equally, Jonathan was supportive of my activism outside of lab, my public outreach in the form of writing. He never told me, as so many advisors tell their students, to just focus on the science, even when I challenged other powerful people in the department and in the field. He’d sometimes advise me against speaking up in particular contexts, but always also reminded me that, ultimately, I could make my own decisions about how to use my voice. I was confident I wouldn’t face repercussions from him for being true to myself. Being able to reassure students who have come after me of this has, I hope, made a difference to their relationships with Jonathan too, and of course they know they have an ally in me always—in this way, the work is made communal. Jonathan made it a point to mention my activism as an achievement when introducing me publicly at my Ph.D defence, which, I think, speaks volumes.

(How do you feel about your time in that lab?)

 I loved my time in the Losos lab. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t struggle, or even that I was happy in grad school. I faced mental health challenges that were exacerbated by departmental and institutional culture, and by the capitalist culture of academia itself. I have since learnt  that an environment in which people feel safety, connection, and agency is an environment in which they can bring forth their most creative selves (I learnt this from Joyce Dorado at UCSF; I’m in the process of building a mentoring framework that is trauma-informed for my own lab, stay tuned for more!). I am tremendously lucky that I felt safety, connection, and agency in the Losos lab, and it makes me so sad to recognize that the combination of safety, connection, and agency is rare in academic workplaces. I don’t think individual people have the power to change the course of science except insofar as they nurture a scientific community, and it really helps when that community is founded on kindness and generosity, on unconditional respect for one another’s humanity across lines of power, identity, and privilege. There’s quite a bit that I intend to do differently from Jonathan as a PI, but in this way, I hope to emulate him always.

Jonathan and me at my Ph.D. graduation. You can read about how he made me go to this event here.