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:

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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.

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

 

An accidentally delightful vegan lentil coconut curry

Here’s a recipe that was easy, delicious, and entirely “what do we have lying around and can we throw it together?’ plus “salt+fat+acid+heat”…

  • Cook some red lentils (masoor dal) in water in a pan, not pressure cooker.
  • Once mostly cooked, add in salt, cayenne, turmeric, and Chinese five-spice powder, in sensible proportions (sorry, can’t be more precise!). Let bubble for a bit.
  • Add in a can of coconut milk.
  • Concurrently, saute some broccoli and asparagus in oil, until well cooked, still-crunchy, and lightly browned. Can get creative here, other veggies would probably work well. I’m excited to add potatoes to a future version, and green beans perhaps.
  • Cut a mostly ripe but not overly sweet mango into cubes. Err on the side of a more sour than less sour (mango was the only acid we had available!). Add into the coconut/lentil mixture when the lentils are almost entirely done.
  • Once the lentils are fully cooked, turn off the heat and add in the sauteed vegetables.
  • Serve warm, with pieces of avocado on the top.

The spiced lentil/coconut served as an excellent neutral-delicious base, and each of the added veggies and fruits retained their particular flavour because they were either edible raw or pre-cooked and incorporated late. Quick, nutritious, filling, yum!

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Quick Recipe for an Excellent Tomato Sauce

  1. Prepare tomatoes for roasting by making two incisions about halfway through (like an X), drizzle over some olive oil, sprinkle salt, black pepper, and dried basil.
  2. Roast tomatoes in the oven at 400F for about 30 minutes, until the bottoms are slightly blackened and the tomatoes are squishy.
  3. Cool for a bit and then liquefy.
  4. Simmer on the stove, add in crushed Szechuan pepper corns, chopped fresh basil, and a dash of toasted sesame oil. Add salt, if necessary.
  5. That’s it! I’ve made this twice now, ate it once just with rice and once with roasted little potatoes and turkey meatballs. Worked great in both contexts 🙂 Looking forward to trying it with pasta, as a soup base, and more!

    tomatoes | liz west | Flickr
    tomatoes, by liz west

Animals Grow: How an Idle Tweet led us to uncover a Whimsical Academic Exchange

In July, I was writing a paper that is, in part, about sexual selection on body size in Anolis lizards. I had found, as is common in many animals, that sexual selection favours bigger males, and was arguing that this might be tantamount to selection favouring older males because, well, animals grow.

I was agonizing over writing this section. On the one hand, I didn’t want to leave the reader to connect the dots between size and age. But on the other hand, was I really going to state the obvious? I decided that I was not only going to state the obvious, but also back it up—I found myself searching for a citation to lend the statement that animals grow a bit more gravitas, before I stopped myself and took to twitter instead.

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Needless to say, I wasn’t expecting this idle, procrastinatory tweet to lead me to an actual paper! Ellstrand (1983) tackles the question of the “evolutionary significance of…the fact that juveniles at birth are usually smaller than adults,” and goes on to discuss six (six!) adaptive hypotheses for why juveniles are smaller than adults (there’s even an acronym!—“juveniles’ small size” or JSS). What makes this paper fantastic is just how plausible each of these hypotheses sounds, until you stop to really consider the question at hand. It’s delightfully deadpan, with only the last paragraph cementing a casual or careless reader’s suspicion this paper is not in fact completely serious: “Both selective and historic forces are probably responsible for JSS and why it is so widespread. Adaptive explanations can be sought for other juvenile characters as well. In particular, another juvenile character is even more widespread than JSS and deserves some thoughtful theoretical attention, the fact that juveniles always seem to be younger than their parents.”

But the story of this paper, and of that last sentence, is perhaps as whimsical as the paper itself! It all began with a reply from Ellstrand himself to our conversation on twitter.

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After Ellstrand’s tantalizing response, Yoel Stuart and I decided we needed to pursue this story further. We emailed Norm with a request for the reviews and some commentary on the experience of writing and publishing this paper, and he most kindly obliged:

“The short story:  I was a post-doc with Janis Antonovics in 1978-79. He and his group would often lampoon the ‘Adaptive Paradigm’; the discussion would often end with Janis saying something like ‘somebody should write a parody using a trait that is universal but has nothing to do with adaptation’. That was the inspiration.

I had some time on my hands at UCR and wrote the first draft of ‘juveniles’ in a day.  After a month or so of polishing and getting feedback, I submitted it – without explanation – to American Naturalist to see what the response might be.”

The reviews from American Naturalist are fantastic. I guarantee, had I been reviewing this paper as a serious submission, I would have had the same earnest responses as reviewers 2 and 3, especially because the original submission lacked that telling last paragraph. Reviewer 2 tries valiantly, though perhaps a tad condescendingly, to rescue the paper, saying “since juveniles develop from the reproductive process of a parent, they are smaller at birth for trivial physical reasons. The real question the author is asking is not why are juveniles smaller than their parents, but rather, why is there so much variation among species in the size of the offspring at birth.” Reviewer 3 is more scathing: “While I suspect the subject and the things mentioned seem new and fresh to the author, in fact they are stale and have been worried over a great deal…I know of no papers with this title, and I can understand the author’s desire to get the question explicitly attacked. However, he does not in fact tell us anything that we don’t already carry around in our heads.” And Reviewer 1 comes so very close to figuring out the whole thing that we give you their comments in full:

“It is unclear to me that the author has chosen a significant question to study. Does the fact that juveniles are smaller than adults require an adaptive explanation, as the author indicates? How can an adult produce offspring or propagules that are in fact larger than itself? It is difficult indeed to imagine how organisms with a placental habit, such as mammals or flowering plants, could give birth to offspring with greater mass than their own. At a broader level, it is difficult to see how any organism with a nutritionally dependent juvenile could produce a juvenile with larger mass, unless the adult acts like a nutrient pump over a long time period, slowly inflating the ballooning infant.

The author suggests several adaptationist explanations, i.e. smaller infants are more easily controlled by parents, smaller juveniles eat different resources (unlikely with nutritionally dependent juveniles) that are facile. Perhaps if the question were rephrased “What are the constraints on juvenile size?”, the author’s other suggestions of dispersability, freedom from predation, etc., might provide interesting avenues for exploration. With the question as it stands, however, the author must demonstrate that in the absence of selection, juveniles larger than adults are equally possible as juveniles smaller than adults, before he invokes adaptationist answers. The author has not yet met this test, and unless he does, I am unconvinced that the question he asks is indeed meaningful.

A minor point: the lead quotation from a popular (?) record lyric [“Let’s get small”—S. Martin, 1977, actually a comedy album] does not contribute to the paper, and in fact leads me to wonder if the paper was written as a satire on the adaptationist program in general.”

SO CLOSE!

Norm continued, in his email: “The rejected [manuscript] stayed in my files for some months until it occurred to me to call Doug Futuyma [at the time, the editor of Evolution] for his advice about submitting it.”

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Doug’s response, published with permission:

“Dear Norm:

I’m amused by your tongue-in-cheek manuscript, and even more amused by the fact that reviewers took it seriously. After giving it some thought, I think it would be nice to lighten the tone of the journal by publishing the essence of it. The only problem is that I have trouble justifying using the very limited (and expensive) journal space. So if you wish to go ahead with it, I will, if you are willing to figure out how to cut one or two pages of text and also delete the figure (a nice touch, but you can make your point without it). The only other issue is that there are passages in which I can understand why reviewers took it seriously—these are where you seem to be talking about whether offspring should be large or small, rather than whether they should be absolutely smaller than the parent…You may also wish to include something at the very end that is so outrageous that even the dull-witted can’t miss the point.

So send me back a shorter version, and I’ll publish it.

Best wishes,

Doug”

And then, a hand-written postscript:

“P.S. I think I’d better insist that you pay page charges”

So the paper was published, and in the following years, both Ellstrand and Futuyma received many responses to the paper, the latter getting so many complaints that he composed a marvelous form letter to send out in response:

“Dear Colleague:

I have received several inquiries about the article by Dr. Norman Ellstrand in the September 1983 issue of Evolution, entitled “Why are juveniles smaller than their parents?” Dr. Ellstrand intended the article to be a parody, and it was accepted for publication in the same spirit. The last sentence of the text of the article should make its thrust clear. Some colleagues have expressed dismay at the possibility that the article was meant to be serious. Therein lies, perhaps, both a moral to the story and an explanation for the appearance of Dr. Ellstrand’s article.

Sincerely,

Douglas J. Futuyma

Editor”

And below, a handwritten note: “Norm – I have sent this letter to several people who wrote. I hope you don’t get too much flak about the article”.

Of course, Ellstrand received regular correspondence about the paper as well. “Also, I get a letter or email once every three years or so regarding the paper,” he told us.  “I have sent a scan of the one I treasure the most, from Isadore Nabi.  Surprisingly, it took me about two years to learn who Nabi actually is! (Google searches not available at the time – but that’s no excuse, I guess).”

“Dear Dr. Elstrand [sic]:

Just a note to congratulate you on the brilliant insight in your article in Evolution for September, 1983. I only wish I had seen the point myself and had written so brilliantly on it.

Yours sincerely,

Isidore Nabi”

I’ll do my best to sneak in a citation of Ellstrand (1983) into my next revision of the paper that led us to uncover this exchange, and hope that someday another of my idle tweets leads to something this delightful! Many thanks to Norm Ellstrand and Doug Futuyma for giving us permission to share their words, and for scanning their correspondence.

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Stop Bashing Rupi Kaur

I woke up annoyed at how much the world seems to enjoy hating Rupi Kaur (I discovered both people raving about this piece of scholarly criticism and this genre of parody yesterday). Well, not exactly. I woke up perfectly happy and excited to finish the book that I’m reading, and then went downstairs to brew coffee and also, somehow, annoyance.

It took a second or two to realise that the explanation for my annoyance was simple. One of my roommates has this poem by Kaur up on our fridge:

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I don’t care what you think of this “as poetry.” I’ve done my share of poetry analysis, and those aren’t the tools I want to deploy here. I also recognize that there are lots of interesting lenses—of race, of ethnicity and religion, of globalization—through which Kaur’s work can be viewed, and you may choose to do so. But those lenses do not then impose upon Kaur a standard that she, personally, needs to meet.

This imposition of a “higher” standard is what Giovanni seems to suggest in her piece in Buzzfeed. She writes, “It is only by eschewing complacency and holding such artists to account that mainstream media and culture will become more diverse: the kind of representation that, without compromise, accurately tells the stories of people of color around the world, and not just the stories that are the easiest to sell.” This makes a certain kind of sense, but isn’t the whole point of building diversity in the arts that people, regardless of their identity, feel free to make the art they want to make? Given that Kaur self-published her book (pretty much an antonym for “easy to sell,” I’d imagine), I don’t doubt that she’s making art that she wants to make. With time, maybe what Kaur wants to write will change, become more specific, become more explicitly political (consider Beyoncé’s  trajectory from Destiny’s Child to Lemonade), or maybe it won’t. But holding a particular woman of colour to some different standard that she needs to meet for the sake of someone else’s notion of authentic representation? That seems antithetical to the whole point of fighting for diversity.

What I care about, when I read Kaur’s poem every morning nowadays, or even just notice it peripherally, is what she says, clearly, simply, and powerfully. It reads just as well without the formatting that is the butt of so many jokes:

“I want to apologize to all the women I have called pretty before I’ve called them intelligent or brave. I am sorry I made it sound as though something as simple as what you’re born with is the most you have to be proud of, when your spirit has crushed mountains. From now on I will say things like, you are resilient, or, you are extraordinary. Not because I don’t think you’re pretty. But because you are so much more than that.”

Had I thought these thoughts of empowerment before reading Kaur’s words? Of course I had. But did I expect to see the words of a young South Asian woman in this home I live in temporarily, a home built by two young white women? No, I didn’t. As someone who has struggled with my body image in a uniquely racialized and culturally specific way for the last fifteen years, and who is emerging, because of a lot of hard work, from the fog that such a struggle builds in one’s mind, it matters to me that such a simple expression of everything I’ve struggled with has become so popular. That it can be a silent moment of connection between me and these once-strangers in whose home I now live.

Giovanni also writes,

“Kaur indeed seems to note little difference between her educated, Western, Indian-Canadian self and her ancestors, or even modern South Asian women of a similar age in rural Punjab. She suggests that the way all South Asian women move through life is universal, uniting herself with them by insistently returning focus to the South Asian female body as a locus of “shame and oppression” in her collection.”

Speaking as someone squarely in the middle of those two extremes that Giovanni paints, these words seem counter-productive. Are there differences among the experiences of millions of South Asian women across the last century? Duh. The extreme shame I felt about my body hair, growing up in the 1990s and 2000s in north India was alien to my grandmother and her sisters who grew up in south India more than a half century before, for example. Should there be work that examines all the ways in which country, class, and caste influence women’s body image? Absolutely. Could some of that work be poetry? Sure. But why must Kaur write that poetry and why on earth should we dismiss what she does write? Do those differences across time and place and culture mean that the South Asian female body isn’t a locus of shame and oppression? No. Kaur talks about that locus in a way that seems real to her, and her words matter to a lot of people. Surely that is enough to expect from a 24 year old’s first book of poetry.

Staying in Touch

I’m sitting here amidst boxes and garbage bags, loading up a moving pod and heading diagonally across the US on Thursday. Last week, as I prepared for this, I was gripped with a sudden fear that maybe I wouldn’t make any friends in the place that was meant to be my future home. The idea was patently absurd–I’d deepened three relatively new friendships right here in Cambridge last week, why on earth would this ability suddenly disappear? And as I reflected more, I realised that my fear was being assuaged by a feeling better than logic–the feeling that I could trust myself to retain friendships already made.

I’ve lived away from my important people since the age of nine, at which time I started studying at a boarding school that was a 48 hour train-and-bus journey away from my parents’ home in Delhi. I then came to a whole new country for college, a thousand dollar plane ride away from most of my family and school friends. In the years since college, predictably, my friends from both school and college have moved across the globe. And of course, friends made in grad school–from my program as well as field courses and conferences–have dispersed far and wide too, that being a hallmark of academia. Yet at this point, I count among my closest friends people from all of these life stages. How have we managed to do this?

I’m going to try to list and discuss below some of the lessons I’ve learnt from a lifetime of long distance communication, some pitfalls and some tricks that work. I’m sure that other people have different/better approaches–feel free to share them in the comments, I’d love to expand my repertoire! But as evidenced by the fact that I had people from all of my life stages, from elementary school to grad school, at my Ph.D. defence party, I’m clearly doing an okay job at this, and hopefully you’ll find this helpful 🙂

Basal to all these tips, though (yay phylogeny pun!), is the idea that we can stay in touch at two levels–day-to-day happenings, and thoughts and feelings. These aren’t neatly divisible, of course, and they need each other for context and understanding. But it is worth recognizing them as different, to ensure that you’re having conversations that pertain to both. Moreover, different people balance these two facets of emotional intimacy differently, and discovering what balance you both need is important. Which leads to the first suggestion:

  • Customize everything: no two friendships are alike. Some friends like regular, brief updates, others hate them. Some friends love setting aside three hours to skype with you, others don’t want to, or can’t. Some friends can plunge back into talking about their deepest vulnerabilities minutes after you start talking, others take many minutes of shallower conversation before they can open up. The more aware you are of their friendship needs and yours, the more easily you can know what it means to maintain this friendship. I often get into trouble when I set external standards–“oh we haven’t talked in six months, are we even still friends?”. Yes, yes we might be, if we can retain what’s important to us–for me, it’s the potential for emotional vulnerability–in the context of however much we communicate. And take your own needs seriously–not wanting to talk except maybe once every six months doesn’t necessarily make you a “bad” friend.
  • Work hard: set aside time to nurture friendships in the ways that your mutual needs require. Be intentional about prioritizing friendship in general, or specific friendships at specific times. Maintain a mix, if possible, of near- and far-distance friends, and don’t keep these walled off from one another. I find that it helps newer near-friendships to feel the depth of your older friendships, and it helps older far-friendships to stay up to date with your current emotional landscape.
  • Embrace social media: disabuse yourself of this notion that connection through social media isn’t “real.” Any communication is as real or fake as you make it to be. And as a subset of the first point above, different friendships need different modes of communication, and combinations thereof. One friend and I communicate exclusively through email, but each chain, started maybe once every few months, runs 30 messages long. Another–Facebook posts for updates, and Twitter direct messages for conversation. Another friend–exclusively Gchat. Another–Instagram for updates, and Whatsapp for conversation. One friend sends me postcards and I respond with Whatsapp messages. Another–just phone calls. Another–twitter lurking + phone calls. This array of options can lead to weird asymmetries, which makes it important to be open about the fact that you follow friends on social media. Many people are embarrassed to admit to lurking on social media, but it isn’t bad to want to know what your friends are up to! For example, I rarely post on Instagram, but lurk there. So I may start conversations with friends who update using Instagram with “I saw your post on Instagram! …(insert thought/question)…” At the start of long-distance friendships, it may take some figuring out what works best, before you fall into some communication ritual that feels right to you.
  • Reach out to people when you think of them, even if it’s been ages since you’ve talked. More often than not, people like maintaining connections, so try to trust that they want to hear from you. But on the flip side (and I’m learning this the hard way), the amount of communication different people want/need/can sustain is wildly different, so try to be mindful of those needs–no fixed amount of communication is “correct”. On another flip side, try to be that person whom people feel okay about getting in touch with out of the blue. I try to be effusive in this context, and offer shallow or deep updates of my own, so that folks realise that we can get back in touch if they want to.
  • Be okay with change: when you’re in the game of maintaining years-long friendships from far away, things are going to change, or have already changed and you didn’t know about it because you’re far away. For a long time I found it hard to accept that, after years of someone being a certain kind of friend, they may become an entirely different kind of friend or maybe not stay a friend at all. But remember that this can go in any direction–I’ve had some friendships stay dormant and shallow for years before suddenly becoming deeper, because shit happens and people reach out to you, or you reach out to them, and you both value connection.

That’s all I’ve got from 20 years of staying in touch from far away. I’ll update/make this a series if I end up having more thoughts!

Cicada Emergence

More on Mental Wellness (2/n)

Some months ago, I wrote about the long-overdue steps I’ve been taking, with help from all around me, towards maintaining better mental health. Since then, I’ve been chugging along, and wanted to write an update post with a couple of new practices I’ve been finding very helpful, but writing this post didn’t seem especially urgent, so I let it sit. After all, the responses I received to my initial post were either kind or harmless. No one chided me for talking about mental health, and I was lulled into believing that maybe people were getting used to the idea that mental wellness isn’t something you just “snap” into. But I’m being spurred into action because of a recent twitter exchange in which a senior academic with tens of thousands of followers mocked a graduate student who shared some of her mental health concerns. I realized quickly that this conversation about mental health is very far from over, and you can bet that I’m going to join the ranks of the people voicing support for those of us who struggle with mental wellness, normalizing the idea that we often have no idea what someone’s inner life looks and feels like.

So in that spirit, here are two other practices I’ve adopted recently to help calm me down and center myself. As before,  absolutely NONE of this is prescriptive, and none of this is static. I don’t have any of the answers, just a few things that have helped me. None of this is easy, and I don’t want to pretend it is. But I think it’s worth it, and maybe this will resonate.

Phone-less walks: I’ve discovered that a lot of my inner unrest arises from putting on a “social face” when interacting with the world, and while I recognized some time ago that I put on this face for in-person interactions, I hadn’t figured out how far this extends (duh, in hindsight) to online or phone interactions as well. Once I did, I started going for long walks in which I leave behind my phone and wallet, minimizing the interactions I’m likely to have. I have a 45 minute route and a 1.5 hour route; my sense of direction is too bad to not have a set route, and not having to think about getting lost is nice. I find that I’m often more productive when I come back from these walks, so I don’t feel guilty for taking the time. But some days I come back emotionally exhausted and still, the longer term effects of feeling calm seem more than worth it.

Notebooks: Another major source of unrest for me is this notion that I have to be prepared for difficult situations (logistical, academic, emotional, what have you), and therefore have to replay in my head over and over exactly how I have responded or might respond to such situations so that I don’t forget. But if I write this stuff down as it strikes me, I don’t have to shoulder the mental burden of remembering it all. So I’ve taken to filling little notebooks with these thoughts through the day (especially on the phone-less walks), and have freed up lots of brain-space as a result. It isn’t quite the same as journalling (which I’ve never really taken to), because you don’t have to remember things even until the end of the day. Plus, writing in notebooks has the added advantage of, in academic circles at least, being a perfectly innocuous thing to do, so people don’t ask too many questions.

More on this subject when I have other things to say; hopefully it won’t take someone being an uncompassionate jerk for me to sit down and write again!

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