It’s probably the best thing I’ve written so far, and the money is going to really good places. I hope you’ll consider supporting it!
I’m working on a strange longform writing project, and I hover between two states of being about it:
- HOW on earth am I going to weave together all the ideas I’m interested in??
- WHAT IF my project is boring and derivative??
It isn’t hard to discern that these two fears are a little bit incompatible with one another, for if the project were in fact boring and derivative, then weaving together the ideas together wouldn’t be all that hard, and vice versa. But I’m a dialectical thinker now, so I have no problem holding them both. Ha!
But seriously though, in an effort to inoculate myself against both these fears, I’ve been meaning for a while to gather the books I’m working in conversation with and take a picture of them. To remind myself that it’s pretty unlikely that anyone else is working with this same combination of ideas. And if I can arrange them in some kind of resonance with the baffling flow of thoughts in my head, then maybe I’ll start to see how the idea-weaving needs to happen.
Anyway, here are some of the books, in some kind of order! I’m pretty excited about this project now 🙂
Here is a talk I just gave on what we can learn about how to enact cultural change in academia from the nuts and bolts of labor union organizing. Approximate script below!
Hello, and thank you for being at my talk today, and thank you to the SSB diversity committee for inviting me to speak at this symposium! My name is Ambika and I’m a postdoc at UC Berkeley, soon to be faculty at CU Boulder. I’m also a member of UAW Local 5810 and am excited to soon be a member of United Campus Workers Colorado though I should be absolutely clear that everything I’m saying today comes from my individual perspective, and is not spoken on behalf of these unions.
My talk today is about how our approaches to work in the realm of diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI can perhaps benefit from the principles underlying labor union organizing. This talk is based on an essay I wrote about a year ago, which you can find on my blog, at this link.
I became really serious about DEI in 2014 during grad school, where I ran workshops, wrote blogposts, and volunteered as a liaison with more centralized efforts at the university, all with the intention of beginning as many conversations amongst my peers as I could about the importance of DEI. Which is to say that, for a while now, I have been committed to the work of creating diverse, inclusive, just, and equitable spaces in which we can do academic research. And I’m sure that many of you who are listening as well share in this deep commitment.
And yet, I am coming to understand that many of us have wildly different approaches to this work that we so deeply believe in. This variation in strategy has become apparent to me as DEI work has grown more widespread within academia, and as DEI statements have become commonplace across various levels of hiring.
Simultaneously, through becoming an active labor union organizer, I have come to a new understanding of how we are doing this work of changing our institutions for the better, which I want to share with you today.
Labor unions are a long-established way of bringing about positive change in the workplace. For decades, they have made tremendous strides in diversifying workplaces, by engaging in collective bargaining for better working conditions that include protections for workers from discrimination and harassment, and using collective power to push for legislative advances. I am not going to be talking about those broader political processes today. Rather, I want to talk more about the nuts and bolts of some strategies that underly the process of actually organizing to build collective power, and put those into the context of DEI.
I am going to make four main points, and go into each of them in a little depth. And I think a lot of what I’m saying, many of you may already know or feel to be true, I just hope that putting them all into one place helps to make our shared vision a little more concrete.
First is the basic premise of labor organizing: that workers know best, that the people involved in the day-to-day activities of the workplace are well-positioned to have excellent ideas on how that workplace should function. In the context of research labs, for example, this means that grad students, undergrad research assistants, lab technicians and postdocs may have unique and often better insights into how research takes place than a PI, a dean, or a university president. In the context of DEI, the message of this point is: the people affected by the culture of an institution need to have real power in deciding how that culture needs to change.
So for those of us doing the work of DEI, at some point, it’s going to be important for us to reflect realistically on the extent of our power, the situations in which we are, in labor-union-speak, workers or management. And the message is different for the two.
So if you are a worker, someone with less individual power in an institution, I want to tell you that your voice and your demands matter, and you can make them matter more by coming together. Coming together means articulating what you think needs changing and ALSO talking to your peers about their thoughts, finding common ground, and then making demands with a unified voice. Giving everyone a chance to voice their thoughts does not mean that everyone will get what they want, including you. But the more transparent you are about your decision-making processes, the more you all will feel heard and the more likely you will all commit to working towards the eventual outcome, even if it’s not exactly what you all envisioned. You do have to agree enough, though, that you can put forward real and concrete demands to the people with power.
And if you are closer to being management, someone with more individual power, the message to you is, simply, move out of the way. Work to support demands made by those with less power than you. Listen, ask good questions, and work to understand where these demands are coming from, then ask how you can help.
All of this means that, whether you are a worker or management, the outcome of your DEI efforts will be different than you initially imagined, that you lose tight control over the outcome. But, what you have instead of control is input and investment from stakeholders across the institution in your endeavor, which makes it more likely to succeed.
Second, local context matters tremendously. What works for one lab, department, or university may not work for another. While we can be inspired by what others have done and certainly can and should find ways to work together, we also may need to come to our own solutions or adapt solutions to our local contexts.
This leads me to a very specific critique of how we use DEI statements during hiring in academia. I’m going to take as an example the rubric for assessing DEI statements from my own institution, UC Berkeley, where they say that the highest number of points should be assigned to a candidate who “Identifies existing programs they would get involved with” and “Clearly formulates new ideas for advancing equity and inclusion at Berkeley”. I applaud the intention here of demanding specific actions rather than vague platitudes, but I’d actually suggest that this part of the rubric is counter-productive, because a candidate for a job who is not aware of local context cannot genuinely be expected to know how they can best improve that context. So this rubric actually encourages candidates to make guesses about institutions that they cannot yet know from within, and to make claims that they don’t know if they can back up, simply for the sake of checking off a box.
In contrast, what we learn from organizing is that your effectiveness at bringing about change depends on how you are situated, your specific connections, in a particular setting. This brings us another really important lesson—every single one of us can have a role to play in this work of cultural change, precisely because of our unique positions and connections. And the best way to leverage these connections in the direction of equity and justice is by joining in the work with those who share your vision of the kind of institution you want to build.
My problems with this rubric also lead directly to my third point, which is that the work of change is usually not glamorous or even especially novel.
So when our rubrics focus on new and big ideas, they don’t necessarily select for the those crucial people who can repeatedly identify and then act upon opportunities, often tiny opportunities, to push in the direction of justice. What we learn from organizing is that the work of cultural change involves speaking up, often in small ways, over and over again. It involves participating and successfully persuading others to participate, over and over again, because you have a shared vision for the kind of workplace you want to create and you are willing to put in the work to create it.
So how can we shift hiring to reflect this? One option is to give candidates prompts for their DEI statements that encourage them to describe small and repeated contributions, explaining their intended impact in the context of a broader vision of the kind of culture they are working towards. Another option is to ask candidates to write brief responses that describe how they would act in particular situations that you present them with. These situations could be a real problem that you in your department have encountered. By giving people local context and asking them how they would engage with that situation, you have the opportunity to seek out people that will contribute positively to your collective efforts. And at promotion, instead of or in addition to an individual letter, candidates could submit a letter from members of the department (not just other faculty but also students, staff, and other affiliates) that describes how the candidate has contributed to the collective efforts and goals of the department in improving equity and inclusion.
And finally, this whole endeavor of changing culture within academia is not going to be risk free. For all of us, in some contexts, the incentives we are presented with are not going to align with what we need to do to chip away at systems of oppression. And I think this is often a sticking point when people consider whether or not to join into DEI efforts—we want the incentives to be aligned in ways that allow this work to be easy. And while we can certainly fight for them to be that way, we cannot expect it to be that way already, without hard work. AND, most importantly, this work is easier if we don’t do it alone—the risk is lower when we act together.
So in sum, I think the lessons for DEI that I take away from labor organizing are that workers know best, local context matters and your position in that context matters, YOUR small and repeated actions matter so you don’t need to worry about being a hero, and there is risk to the work of changing our institutions but we can lessen the risk when we work together.
I want to thank Didem, Lydia, and Ned for their feedback, and also point you to a newly launched initiative called Collective Action for Better Science (not yet live), where we discuss the power of all of us working together to improve working conditions across science, and so improve the science that we do—I hope to see you there.
Here is a 20-ish minute video of the talk I’ve been giving in 2020-2021, called A Dialectical Future for Behavioral (and Evolutionary) Ecology. Transcript here. Hope you enjoy it!
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.