Through the lens of E.O. Wison

E. O. Wilson (Image: http://natureandculture.org/
E. O. Wilson

E.O. Wilson reigns in my mind as our most important scientist-author of our time. He is University Research Professor Emeritus at Harvard. Wilson has two Putlizer’s under his belt, for On Human Nature (1979) and The Ants with Bert Holldobler (1991).

The adjacent photo is from Nature and Culture International: Board of Directors, one of many organizations E.O. Wilson serves with his visionary gifts.

He has penned dozens more books that have stayed on the New York Times Bestseller lists over decades of his career. He writes for the public as well as scientific community. If you have never read anything by Wilson, I recommend The Diversity of Life as a starting point. While published first in 1992, it is still relevant to understand the diversity of life across the planet, and – most important – the conservation areas that Wilson recommends must be preserved for the healthy functioning of the biosphere.

But, my reason for this post is to review his recent book, The Meaning of Human Existence (2014). Why is it important to read? He is most likely the most erudite scientist writing for the public today. His understanding of who we are as a species and society is informed by his comprehensive grasp of our genetic inheritance, the dynamics of sociobiology – how we function as a group – and the challenges to our existence in the near and distant future. Yes, it IS that significant.

The book calls for the reunification of the humanities with science. Wilson argues that the current separation of these two great ways of knowing our human nature, is at the crux of our possible self-destruction by lack of understanding our roots in nature. He explains the most basic evolutionary path leading to our essential human nature: our dualistic nature, usually ascribed to the humanities to explain.

Wilson shows us how our “selfish” genes and “altruistic” genes evolved, and how they work in a multilevel natural selection. This is relevant in understanding why we do what we do, predicting the kinds of decisions we will probably make, and – once understanding this – how we could use this knowledge to make critical decisions about new technologies that may doom human existence or secure our continued success into the future.

The Threat of Gene Engineering of Human Beings

He is writing about the new potential to design our own genetic endowment – design humans like we want them. This can also be applied to new threats from artificial intelligence (AI), a topic he does not address in this book, but which occurred to me as I read the book during a time when the nation is discussing the challenges inherent in AI development.

If we do not understand, who we are, and know how to understand our behavior, how can we possibly make these new, complex ethical decisions? Wilson writes that religion, which introduces a supernatural being who is in control of humans and the universe, is an outdated way of knowing that currently blocks human society’s ability to understand how the world works and based on that, to make the collective decisions we need to determine to secure that human life on earth will go forward as we know it.

What do you think about that? Does religion prevent us from knowing who we are biologically? How can we bridge the gap between these two powerful ways of knowing our story on Earth? Please comment so that we can discuss this online.

Ways of Knowing

SUNSETI’ve lived in the coastal South since July 2008. That is exactly 7 years to the month—the periodicity that apparently rules over my whereabouts.

Seven is a number associated with the personal journey, the desire to refresh perspective, endeavor, and relationships. The mystery is figuring out what that means in the latest warp of one’s universe.

Over my lifetime, I have devoted time to reset my internal compass, appreciating that life is a fleeting experience and one to be taken seriously but also with alacrity.

Between 1985-89, living in Southern California, I studied shield-making with a Native American teacher. She was patient and methodical in helping me understand this ancient spiritual practice. I continued to make personal shields through 1999. I saved only two of many. Each time I find them, stored in my belongings, they usher back the time and emotions when I created them as a way of knowing.

Basic Idea: A circular shield contains four quadrants which are directional, representing distinct aspects of an individual’s or a group’s spiritual journey. Each quadrant is given a specific color. North: white for wisdom and peace; white buffalo. South: red or green for innocence and receptivity; mouse. West: black for sunset, introspection and exit at death; bear.  East: yellow for sunrise, inspiration and the divine; eagle.

The circular shield itself is symbolic of the Earth, the Universe, the tribe, the family, or the whole individual. The first shield I made used an embroidery hoop as the frame. I stretched canvas over it and painted the shield. But that was just to start learning the meaning of the elements.

A willow branch is traditional for making the hoop. But that varies by region. In true shield making the artist collects the materials from nature with prayers given and tobacco offered as the willow branch, animal skin, and objects are collected. My first teacher allowed me to intuitively choose objects which she provided: feathers, shells, ribbons, etc.

If you wish to study shields, a good place to start is the collection at the National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington, D.C. If you have not been there, you should plan to go. It is a magnificent place. Online travelers will also find great educational articles and webcasts. You can explore the collections online as well. The current exhibit on the Inka Civilization is an amazing opportunity to understand the great wisdom of indigenous people and how their knowledge and experience can inform modern society.

Links to Explore:

Live Web Casts from the Naitonal Museum of the American Indian

Shield Making Materials

Seven Arrows by Hyemeyohsts Storm

Small Victories: Sea Turtles Released

GSML_Kemp's Ridleys Release 025People arrive haphazardly in twos and threes and ones. By the gazebo, under its shade with six folding chairs lined up empty, and a standing mike on the other side, people gather. The sea grasses along the wet sand beach move with a gentle current, soft breeze, and welcome cool.

“Today you get to see an endangered animal, a sea turtle, that is one of the rarest in the world, Jimmy,” his mother whispered near me. Jimmy appears to be about four years old. His eyes are wide dark orbs taking in the great round world.

We wade into the water up to the yellow tape that creates a watery avenue the turtles will navigate to open bay. The Gulf Specimen Marine Lab releases sea turtles after they are rehabilitated from injuries, most at human hands. Today six Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles will be released into Dickerson Bay at Shell Point Beach, Florida.

At Shell Point Beach, FL
At Shell Point Beach, FL

A short, tan man with a shock of white thick hair wades out into the water in clogs, and a light blue suit, white shirt, and tie. He is the charismatic founder of the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab, Jack Rudloe. This blue suit is the signal that another turtle release is about to happen.

Charlotte comes first, held by a university biology student, her flaxen pony tail swinging with energy. I can tell she is as thrilled as each of us watching. After telling the audience about the turtle’s rescue and recovery, she places Charlotte in the water to navigate the red carpet to the Gulf.

The turtles released today were helped by the Pier Initiative managed by the Loggerhead Marine Center in Jupiter Beach. GSML is a partner. Signs with information for fishermen and boaters, and a special net, help turtle recovery without further injury.

Five more Kemp’s Ridley’s turtles make their farewell, one after the other. People applaud. Six biological treasures go their way, hopefully to multiply and enjoy life on Earth. Everyone chats, feeling good about a wrong righted.

The sun is soft behind the clouds over the Gulf of Mexico. We depart in twos, threes, and ones. The work goes on.

Go Set A Watchman: Firecracker that Fizzed?

Just completed listening to Reese Witherspoon read Harper Lee’s book, Go Set A Watchman--a superb rendering of grown-up and 6-yr-old Scout.

Several years ago I read a wonderful biography of Harper Lee, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields. In the biography I learned that the first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird was one in which the publisher (Lippincott) recognized a unique literary voice. The subsequent work with editors resulted in rewriting the story to include more about Scout’s 6-year old self and her beloved Atticus.

Yet, Go Set A Watchman is an entirely different story. The setting and the flashbacks of grown-up Scout to her childhood are familiar and the wonderful writing we treasure. But the latter chapters of the book are an ABSOLUTE SHOCKER.

Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird, is our national model of how we want to be, or how we want an educated Southerner to reason and act. In the pages of Go Tell A Watchman we confront the raw truth: the South bred, and in some places, still breeds, its own brand of racial denigration and violence. In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus sounds like a fine member of the Klan: What would happen if all those black folks got into politics? 

Uncle Jack tries to explain it all away through his twisted logic about why southerners still feel slighted by the nation and still distrust Liberals, Yankees, and Blacks. Then he pulls another illogical stunt: Scout should not leave town and shake the dust off her feet, but stay — because when people close to her are wrong, that is reason to stay — purportedly to change their minds. Huh? That just feels like Harper Lee did not quite know how to end the book. Well, it was her first.

But the whole experience left me wondering: just how much was the original edited? Also, think about this: did the editors believe that the nation, especially the South, wasn’t ready to view racism so unabashedly on stage? Did editors radically reshape the novel that we all came to love and cherish? Or, did they simply make it a better book?

Have you read it? What do you think?

The Heart of Our Democracy

FreedomEducation is the focus of my professional life. My ideas about education – what it is and what is should be – have evolved.  Formal education, as in public schools, colleges, and graduate schools, is under constant revision in our democracy. Ideas change as the society-wide discussion continues.

Our country knows that an education is at the heart of a democracy.  Without informed citizens, a democracy cannot out last tyrannical and opportunistic forces. Education develops our best nature while ignorance breeds the opposite.

In its simplest form, education is a framework for learning. Children learn to attend. From the self-directed learning of childhood, the classroom and teacher focus their attention to particular facts and phenomena.  Children are taught to use tools for discovery, primarily mathematics and reading.

In the early days of education we were satisfied that kids would grow into adults who could read well enough to understand voting instructions and could sign their name in cursive. Later, we became more ambitious. Courses of study made it possible for average citizens to attain higher levels of performance for career tracks that moved them from blue collar to white collar work, or to scholarly levels of study.

Education became a means of social and economic equality in America.

Education in our public schools today is still very goal oriented but may have lost track of the original idea: that educated adults help preserve a democratic society. With the advent of the Internet, increasingly finer discernment is required of students in complex learning environments, and a complex, interconnected global community.

Social media offers students sophisticated tools for communication – perhaps beyond their intellectual and emotional development. Technology is driving society—proven to be an upside down relationship.

The role of the teacher has returned to guide and the classroom to a framework for learning. Students explore their own interests using online tools that transform learning. Teachers and curriculum need transforming, too, to meet students in the new learning reality. How will technology aid or hamper our democracy?

What do you think?

Resources for Exploring This Topic

Alive Enough? Reflecting on Our Technology – an interview with Dr. Sherry Turkle, Professor of Social Science of Science and Technology at M.I.T.

How Technology Is Changing the Way Children Think and Focus – Psychology Today Online, article by Dr. Jim Taylor, December, 2012.

The Science of Attention – interview with Dr. Adele Diamond, Professor of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia.

NEA Policy Statement on Digital Learningdiscusses the recognition of the new learning environment and changing role of teachers but cautions that education leaders need direct the uses of the technology as opposed to private owners of new technologies.