What We Say When We Speak of Puzzles: Part II

On one of my last long walks in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I had spent six long years getting a Ph.D., I found a jigsaw puzzle on the street. It was in a sealed box, never opened, never made whole. The image was of a Van Gogh painting, not one of my favorites but a good one nonetheless. Grinning, I quickly picked up the box and found myself hugging it close—I couldn’t believe my luck. I had been so worried about missing Cambridge—physically, viscerally—when I moved, in a few days, all the way across the U.S. to Santa Barbara, California. I could immediately see how this puzzle would give my hands a way to work out the fear and loneliness that I had always known, now heightened by the impending change in circumstances. I didn’t know what to expect from my new job as a postdoctoral scholar in behavioral and evolutionary ecology, from a new city in a new state. And so I packed the puzzle into my suitcase, ensuring that I’d have it as soon as I reached, just in case I needed it. This gift from the streets of Cambridge, the city I’d reluctantly grown to love, would travel with me. It would be the bridge I needed, from the familiar to the less known.

Sometime later, after my move and after about a month of heartbreak, he and I entered our first of many movings apart and comings together. We’re in each other’s lives now, and our break was not an ending but an essential segment of apartness in our unusual growth together. And it was in this first apartness from my first love, so unmoored and slipping into yet another of the spirals that had dogged me since adolescence, that I opened the Van Gogh puzzle. Instead of trying endlessly to reposition the pieces of my life after the excision from it someone I had grown to love, I laid out the individual pieces carefully onto the kitchen table and worked on smaller challenges, like fitting together these rolling fields of yellowed straw or finding the perfect match to that particular piece of blue sky. Spending time with the puzzle between calls to therapists, I began to appreciate how it let me be silent, how it helped me be alone when I wouldn’t otherwise have chosen to keep myself company.

The puzzle lived in our kitchen for about a month, I think—had I guessed how long it would take to finish, I’d have balked at the inconvenience to my housemate, and may never have laid it out. But after just a few days, she too fell into little holes of puzzle-solving, mostly while I was asleep or out. She tackled the parts I’d dragged my feet on, and so this effort was no longer just a reflection of my sadness. Seeing our work grow through unplanned collaboration surprised and delighted me. We had found a way to share space in the slowly-solved puzzle.

When my housemate and I finished the Van Gogh puzzle, I wasn’t quite ready to break it apart, and so I framed it. I was amused at the idea of the “breakup puzzle” hanging up unbroken, in part because he and I were back in contact by then and in part because the puzzle was now more than just a symbol of a bad time. It was the start of a meditation, of finally seeking some kind of peace.

In a model of understanding the human condition called internal family systems, we think of ourselves as a family of parts. Some of these parts are protectors and other parts are exiles. The exiles have suffered some sort of trauma, and remain stuck in those moments of suffering. When faced with reminders of this trauma, the protectors try to save the exiles from getting hurt again. But in doing so, they also stop the exiles from healing, and from expressing themselves fully. In internal family systems therapy, you understand the limits, boundaries, and contours of your parts, helping them move out of their roles as protectors or exiles and into their more fully realized selves. In some ways, we are all our own puzzles, and what matters is finding ways for our pieces to fit together with ease.

Through this process of working with my parts in therapy—delving deeper into my fears and pains to uncover more and more of who my parts are, how they had been held back and how they can fit together once they are free—I have always come home to a jigsaw puzzle. I’ve distracted myself from the hardest parts of healing with the calm attention that is demanded by the tasks of pattern recognition and color matching, by becoming present in the reality of what and where these pieces are, and an irrefutable sense of where they need to be.

When you fit together two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, there is no interesting explanation for why it is the right fit—it simply is. There is no way to arrive at a solution through understanding; one simply searches, notices, fits pieces together, and moves onward. I have come to realize that one does not solve jigsaw puzzles, one builds them. 

In time I moved from Santa Barbara to Berkeley, and my new housemate was a quick convert to puzzling. She and I sometimes spent full days, in our sunshiny plant-filled home, working together on a puzzle in silence, growing consideration and trust between us. I bought a puzzle to do with him—an imagined drawing of oranges and metallic starlings, his favorite birds. He and I started the puzzle together, but my housemate and I carried it on. Some of her friends finished it when they came over to celebrate her birthday. It hangs in our living room now, unbroken. There are all kinds of community to be found in building a puzzle.

Two Christmases ago, he gave me an impossibly complex puzzle of the Earth—edgeless, unintuitive, and unending, it insists that I constantly find new ways to attend to it. More than any other, this puzzle feels like life. My life, too, is coming together with time.

Last Christmas, he gave me a puzzle that I found impossible to build, but it had the colors of a sunrise; this Christmas, a simple puzzle of a leafy fern that nearly fits in the palm of my hand.

Form and Feeling

When I planned this essay in my head some hours ago, I was happy. Then, a few little things happened, and I’m no longer there. This ebb and flow of feeling is something the poet Mary Oliver knew well. What her poetry reminds me to do, always, is to reach outward from the specifics of what I’m feeling into a more enduring connection with the world around me, with something divine.

In the latest installment of his weekly poetry essays, Devin Kelly writes beautifully about Mary Oliver’s sentimentality. He celebrates her depth of feeling, and the big revelations she comes to from what she sees in the world. But these lessons are never hers alone—they can be ours too, and she offers them to us. As Kelly puts it,

There’s something about Oliver’s work that lets you know, almost intuitively, that she is living in the house she has built for you out of her poems. And that she is inviting you in — not to stay forever, but to stay for a little while, just to see what you make of it. And that’s why I love Mary Oliver… Because Mary Oliver is Mary Oliver, and you know, when you crack a book of hers open, that you’re apt to find the complicated world and the complicated heart rendered in generous and beautiful terms.

When I was in college, I wrote an essay about poems that reckon with transitions and transience in nature. Somewhere in the essay was a little idea that I still think about often: that nature poems work because we too can experience the same thing that the poet was experiencing when they wrote their poem. And for this reason, my favourite poems about nature stay with me. I think of Wilbur’s Crow’s Nests every time I see a crow’s nest, or of Robert Frost when I see a spring pool or new bud. I think of Ada Limon’s Instructions on Not Giving Up too, every spring, and it carries me.

In a long essay I wrote last year about nature, loneliness and the science of behavioral ecology, I thought of Mary Oliver, in a way that I hope will give you a sense of the kind of kinship we can forge with one another, through nature and through poems. Part of that essay is going to be published soon (!!), but this section didn’t make it into the soon-to-be-published version.

The poet Mary Oliver described herself once as “one of many thousands who’ve had insufficient childhoods.” She spent a lot of her time as a child walking around the woods in Ohio, which she says saved her life, that she was saved by the beauty of the world. Like Mary Oliver, so many of us who come from difficult homes find our healing in nature, in its reliability and abundance.

When she writes about nature, Mary Oliver invites us to engage with the world, in all its difficult complexity and wondrous beauty. She insists, gently and yet unrelentingly, that we can see ourselves in nature, that we can see our lives reflected back to us and so we can connect. That we too are worthy of connection.

It is 2009. Somewhere else, at a different time, Mary Oliver is writing of the world that “offers itself to your imagination,” a world that “calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-/over and over announcing your place/ in the family of things.” I am barefoot, standing in the grass of a baseball field in Amherst, Massachusetts, looking up. Rain drizzles onto my upturned face, a breeze nudges me gently into acknowledging it, and overhead, flying geese call to one another, heading somewhere home-like, together. I am more myself than I have ever been.

In 2009, I am not yet a fully trained behavioral ecologist, but I’ve begun to learn the questions that a behavioral ecologist must ask of these geese. Why don’t they just fly alone? What might each individual gain from this coordination? Why does one goose fly at the tip of their V-shaped formation, even though to lead the way is to face the worst of the buffeting wind?

It is 2017. At some other time, in a different place, Mary Oliver is writing of loss and loon-song, the leaden feeling of the world and of a bird dead upon the shore. The feelings that break your heart open, irreparably and for the better. I am on a foggy grey beach in Santa Barbara, California, feet sinking into sand. The wind chilly, despite the summer. I am standing above the corpse of a loon. Scavengers and decomposers have left little behind but feathers, beak, and bone. Once, far away and a while ago, I had seen and heard a loon in its full living magnificence, its black and white patterning stark against greenish Vermont water, its long call, resonant with eerie sadness, carrying clearly across the lake’s expanse. And now, one of its kin is here, dead.

In 2017, I am a fully trained behavioral ecologist, and I am told by my profession that the task before me, as I stand in front of this dead bird, is a reckoning. Did it live a successful life before it died? Did it bear chicks of its own, ensuring the persistence of its lineage? Did it die before the other loons, from some fault that its peers did not suffer? These questions circle my mind as I walk home from the beach; I am sad, but I do not notice how the questions stoke my sadness.

Wild Geese by Kinsey Brock

I’m glad I planned this essay when I was happy; I’m glad I wrote it sad. I don’t feel happier having written it, but I do not feel alone.

Coming to terms with ice in Colorado

I’ve lived in Boulder, Colorado a few months now and I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m not sure how I feel about it. There’s much to love here, and equally much I am challenged by, though the two much-es barely overlap. Which leaves a strange, fractured existence, half of me joyous at the sunrise lighting up the hills and the other half angry at every car, for each of them seems hellbent on endangering my life as a pedestrian.

I am not built for this town. I don’t want to own a car. I love being outdoors but pursue no activities that take me there. I am not white, or straight. I’ve stopped pretending to fit in anywhere, let alone in a place that seems to treasure conformity. I dress weird. I once thrived in that intangible indescribable thing I snobbishly (and with more than a hint of rose-tinted nostalgia) call real community; I now wilt in the faint approximations of community I seem to find here, unsure if all I’m seeing is the view from the outside or if there really is no there there. I love my job, though, and there’s a way in which I am grateful for the person that Colorado is forcing me to become—a person who has surrendered more than ever before to something like fate. But everything and everyone else feels…distant.

People ask me often if I’m going to learn to ski now that I live here. “No, hell no!” I reply quickly. There are many reasons I don’t want to ski, even some reasonable ones, most of which I can’t explain. I’ve only recently learnt that explaining myself—my likes, dislikes, hopes and wants—isn’t really necessary most of the time. Maybe the distance I feel here is changing me after all, into someone unapologetic. But by failing to muster any enthusiasm for skiing, I know I’m being stubborn and missing out, electing to avoid an experience that will make me more of this place, an experience that might even be fun.

So be it, I say today, because I now know how to shovel ice off a fucking sidewalk, and that’s the specific Ambika-meets-Colorado experience I needed instead. Not shoveling the day after snowfall when it’s easy. No, seven days later rather, when the first ten inches of snow has packed down into ice and then another ten inches have fallen atop it and then the next day is somehow more than twenty degrees warmer and every shovelful of what was cotton yesterday is now lead. The ice should yield to that perfect mixture of salt and sunshine, muscle and care, persistence. I ask my quiet neighbor’s advice on strategy, and while he approves of my plan he seems bewildered too, at the whole exercise. Surely it’ll melt in today’s balmy weather? I’m certain it won’t—I have never done this before, so your guess is as good as mine where this certainty is coming from. Some vague recollection of the physics of water in its solid forms, I suppose. But the quiet neighbor says, expose the pavement, that’ll help, and he’s right, so I get to work.

I admire the shovel’s metal edge, perfect for the job. I watch and feel underfoot the snow crush and melt and freeze and harden, shapeshifting within moments as I work. It all begins to feel like a dance where you need to know just how your partner moves in response to the slightest shifts in pressure. Something like respect grows within me for the ice and for the task at hand; as my back bends, I know this ache to be worthwhile.

A sidewalk, shoveled.

I’m learning to be an individual in Colorado, sometimes individualistic even. Most of the time I hate this transformation, but as I chip away at the ice, doggedly and alone in strange warm weather, I sort of see the appeal of some kind of individualism. My distance from everyone here, and the distance I trust they’ll keep from me, means that I owe no one an explanation for my actions. I could, like my other neighbor, have chosen to do nothing about the ice. In all likelihood, it would have melted fully sometime this next warm week. No one is going to thank me for shoveling. But this only proves that I’m not shoveling to be thanked, I’m shoveling because its the right thing to do.

I had worried that living here would leach from me all of my commitment to the collective—I mean, I’m not even sure I like public transit here, which is a sentence I never believed myself capable of uttering. And so I’m grateful for the goddamned snow that collapsed under the weight of booted feet and, in it, the chance to remind myself that even here, I am who I am, still mostly me. I recognize myself in Colorado, finally, reflected in some sidewalk ice.

On Other Shoulders

I’m working on a strange longform writing project, and I hover between two states of being about it:

  1. HOW on earth am I going to weave together all the ideas I’m interested in??
  2. 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 🙂

Lessons for DEI from Union Organizing

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Academic Kindness

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

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

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

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

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

generosity in action

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

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

Serendipity, Saying, Doing.

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

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

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

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

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

Until then <3.