Welcome to 2023
Let this be the year of connection1.
Let us connect with people whom we have not yet known, or seen, and with ideas that are new to us. Let us be good to one another, while recognizing that everyone is on their own individual path. You cannot know what is in another person’s head. What motivates another human being, and what they are basing their conclusions on, may be beyond the reach even of their own consciousness, much less of yours.
Sometimes we have glimpses into another person’s worldview. I had such an opportunity this week on DarkHorse, when Bret shared a post by the inimitable Dr. Jessica Rose. Even though I had not read this particular piece of hers, the fact that she begins with clear and concise definitions of the technical terms that she then uses in the piece reveals that her interest is in educating, not obfuscating. Despite being really very smart, it is clear that she is primarily interested in adding clarity to the world, such that people can come to their own conclusions, rather than primarily being interested in having the rest of us be impressed with how really very smart she is.
Among other things, I said of Rose and her work:
She’s inviting everyone in to read, and to assess, and frankly, this is part of what those who would erect the barriers to entry really don’t want us doing. They don’t like what we’re doing, they presumably don’t like what she’s doing, they don’t like a lot of what these doctors and researchers are doing, [which is] saying: “You know what: I actually did train in something like this, or related to this, and I can assess these things and so I am going to communicate to all y’alls who don’t necessarily want to read Science Immunology, but we can assess it and say something about what it actually says.”
And for many that is basically a breach - a breach of a contract between ‘elite’ and ‘not elite,’ between ‘educated’ and ‘not educated.’ It brings power and agency back to people where it belongs.
These observations reflect my longstanding concerns with the incoherence and unreadability of so much of what passes for scientific and technical communication. Dr. Rose, as it turns out, was touched by my comments, writing (of what I said about her work) the following day:
The reason this struck me so hard is because she excellently communicated my process. Kind of freaky. We’ve never spoken; but she can see my insides. How cool is that? She knows and understands why I am spending so much more time writing this stuff up in the way that I do and she was able to tell everyone else this in a clear and concise way.
How awesome. This is connection, and while we still haven’t met or spoken, Jessica Rose and myself, I hope and suspect that we will, and that new and good and surprising things will emerge from that.
Let us also connect ourselves, by which I mean, let us integrate all of our parts. Cognitive dissonance reveals a decoherence, a withholding of one part of your beliefs or understanding from another. Ultimately, all true things must reconcile, for the universe does. Cognitive dissonance can be an easy fix, but it’s inherently temporary, a way of having your cake and eating it too. One form of hyper-modern cognitive dissonance is to believe these two things simultaneously:
I am a freethinker! I stand up for those who speak uncomfortable truths! -and-
Those who disagree with me are bad people! They need to be silenced!
You can tie yourself in knots trying to explain how both things are reasonable and logically consistent with one another, but why? Instead, try integrating all of your profoundly held beliefs, and seeing where they hiccup. Connect the dots. What does that tell you? Where is the error? What in your worldview has to change?
A Resolution of sorts
One way to connect is through friendship.
One of my earliest posts here on Natural Selections, from the Summer of 2021, was Making Meaning (part I): Friendship. Here is an excerpt:
But even as many ancient concerns feel ever more remote, friendship, for now and forever, remains central to what it means to be human. For far longer than we have been human, we have been social and long-lived. And for far longer than we have been human, we have had friends.
Friendship looks different under different circumstances, and specifically, varies by sex in most species. Friendship is more than just an alliance; it is an alliance that doesn’t require constant reassessment. Friends have long-term emotional attachments, and show an ability to behave selflessly towards one another in a manner not observed between mere allies….monkeys of many species, of both sexes, have friends.
Monkeys have friends, as do elephants, and dolphins, and many humans are friends with dogs. For many years, I have wanted to befriend a crow. I don’t have a particular crow in mind in advance, although the particular crow would matter very much had I been successful in making one my friend.
I had a student many years ago who had a crow as a pet. I met her crow once, and I remember the interaction being a bit like two slightly socially awkward human strangers being introduced by a mutual friend. We didn’t hit it off, but we didn’t not hit it off, either. I was teaching animal behavior then, as was often the case, and while it is easy to romanticize the study of animal behavior, and to imagine that it is both simpler and more exciting than it mostly is, if you have befriended a crow, you definitely know something about the mind of that animal. You have demonstrated theory of mind that reaches across species. My hope is that everyone could have this ability, although increasingly it seems obvious that many of us have great difficulty even reaching across the much narrower (but still immense) gap between other human beings. Would that we all had, in the words of Nobel award winning geneticist Barbara McClintock, “a feeling for the organism.” McClintock certainly did. (And she worked on corn.)
I believe that I have a feeling for crows. Occasionally I have gotten one to stand close to me and cock his head and appear to consider my existence, even though I am not bribing him with treats. And yet I do not have any crow friends.
I will end, then, with one of my hopes for 2023. Perhaps it is a resolution, but that feels a bit too formal. It is definitely not universal. I trust that there are very few people who would share it with me, but since it is specific to me, that fact need not impinge on them, or concern me.
I want to befriend a seal. Or seals. There are many whom I see regularly, and who float, heads above water, looking at me—or at least towards me—when I show up on the land near where they reliably come in the Winter. There must be a warm current there, for they really do show up every day. This is the Salish Sea, which is contiguous with the north Pacific, the waters of which are very cold all year round. But I would like to make a connection with the seals, a connection that has value to both them and me. I don’t yet know what that will look like, or how it might happen2.
This is then a resolution that I have for 2023: for my theory of mind, as it applies to friendship, to reach even further across the Primate – Carnivoran gap than it has already reached—beyond domestic dogs, who have been coevolving with us for 30,000 years or more; and beyond domestic cats, who have been with us for considerably less time, and as such are considerably more wild. I want a connection with a wild mammal whose ancestors returned to the sea long, long ago.
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“Only connect,” wrote E.M. Forster, in the concluding line of his 1910 novel, Howard’s End.