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August 15, 2020

Temporal Ones

One of the things I've struggled with a lot in recent years is our tendency to focus on our differences before and above all else. My struggle is not with the recognition and discussion of our differences. Because they clearly exist, and I am very much a proponent of having thoughtful and challenging discussions that both acknowledge those differences and work to minimize their resulting injustices. What I struggle with is the way we too often start and stop our conversations there, from the most superficial of our differences, from our positions as an us or a them, even in scenarios where we've ostensibly gathered to work together, and we in turn lose all the fine and beautiful details of being individual, of being human, to the group.

In a way, we even begin to take on the characteristics of the group. We become little more than representatives of ideas, identities, doctrines. Oversimplified. Dumbed down. Tunneled visions of right or wrong. Good or bad. Black or white. Man or woman. Etc. and et al. Meanwhile, whoever you are, and whoever I am, and whatever our established groups, here we still sit, in a world as broken as it is beautiful, likely feeling many of the same things: a little disillusioned, a little motivated and inspired, a little tinged with doubt, a little full of shit (but only the essential kind, and a little less of it today than yesterday, we hope); trying again each day, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing wonderfully, but always doing the best we can with what we have available, which is itself fluid, within both the group and the individual.

[As part of my efforts to try and try again, here is the place where I wrote and deleted thousands of words multiple times this week. Both were done in an attempt to move us closer together rather than farther apart. Ultimately, the deletions scored higher, because I could not figure out how to say what I wanted to say without making myself an "us" and others a "them." I write this here now only to express that I know how hard it is to stop doing this. It's taken me more than a decade of writing somewhat regularly and living somewhat irregularly to even begin to separate my thoughts and emotions and see where I should perhaps zoom out to see the bigger picture, eliminate my ego to the best of my ability, measure the effectiveness (and consequences) of my words and actions, and exercise some restraint. I have a long, long way to go still. But the point is I'm trying. And really, that's just the smaller point. The bigger point, the one that matters, is that it can be done. I'm no better than you. And in fact I'm probably less. And that is not modesty speaking. It's just 40 years of living. But I will ask you here just the same, humbly and with all due respect: Are you trying? Can you try a little harder? Even just for five minutes each day? I know I can.]

Groups are complex because individuals are complex. It would do us all a great service to stop looking at each other in terms of the groups we belong to. Likewise, individuals do themselves a great disservice by basing their identity and worth on these same groups and their opponents. An individual is not one thing, but many. That thing includes many people, many hours and days, many moods, many lives and deaths and cultures and changes and complexities. We are all ever-changing, often different, but never disconnected.

We can be specks of stardust or piles of sand. But we can't be both. Not without losing who or what we are when we close our eyes at night. And by that I mean who we are when we're alone in our own minds, when no one's looking, when there's no side to stand on or with, no distinguishing marks separating us and the rest of the world; when we're just people finding our way through this vast darkness with other people, each of them roughly as clueless as we are. We can, however, be piles of specks of stardust. That is to say, we can keep our groups. Because what choice do we really have? We just need to get much better at being members of them, being individuals within them. We need to remember that we are not our groups. And our groups are not us. And other groups are not other individuals. Each one of us is capable of so much more than that. We carry in us the capacity for more love, more genuine inclusiveness, more nuance and discernment, more kindness and mercy, and far fewer of the overly simplistic divisions we can't seem to stop building our identities on.

There was a time when I thought this pandemic might be the thing to make our fundamental oneness plain and clear and inescapable. I thought it might be the thing to bring us together, or at least start to in this century, and prove once and for all that we can be (we are?) both different and undivided. I still think that. But thoughts are not enough. Thoughts are just thoughts. We do not even make them. We make only our actions. What will your next one be? What will it not be? Both considerations are huge, as time marches on and so do we.

Brian Leli, August 2020

What Is an Individual?

The task of distinguishing individuals can be difficult—and not just for scientists aiming to make sense of a fragmented fossil record. Researchers searching for life on other planets or moons are bound to face the same problem. Even on Earth today, it’s clear that nature has a sloppy disregard for boundaries: Viruses rely on host cells to make copies of themselves. Bacteria share and swap genes, while higher-order species hybridize. Thousands of slime mold amoebas cooperatively assemble into towers to spread their spores. Worker ants and bees can be nonreproductive members of social-colony “superorganisms.” Lichens are symbiotic composites of fungi and algae or cyanobacteria. Even humans contain at least as many bacterial cells as “self” cells, the microbes in our gut inextricably linked with our development, physiology and survival.
And yet, the notion of what it means to be an individual often gets glossed over. “So far we have a concept of ‘individual’ that’s very much like the concept of ‘pile,’” said Maxwell Ramstead, a postdoctoral researcher at McGill University. “If there’s a pile of sand, you intuitively know this is a pile of sand. But a pile is not a precisely defined thing. It’s not like after 13 grains, it moves from a collection to a pile.”
Jessica Flack, an expert in the study of collective phenomena also based at the Santa Fe Institute, was similarly frustrated by the arbitrary ways that concepts of individuality were applied in the study of natural selection and other biological processes. So the pair teamed up, and over the better part of a decade ... they developed what they hoped was “a much more open-ended, fundamental working definition that doesn’t assume we know the answer, or know too much of the answer, a priori,” Flack said.
At the core of that working definition was the idea that an individual should not be considered in spatial terms but in temporal ones: as something that persists stably but dynamically through time. “It’s a different way of thinking about individuals,” said Mitchell, who was not involved in the work. “As kind of a verb, instead of a noun.”
It’s not an entirely novel approach. In the early 1800s, the French zoologist Georges Cuvier described life as a vortex, “more or less rapid, more or less complicated, the direction of which is invariable, and which always carries along molecules of similar kinds, but into which individual molecules are continually entering, and from which they are continually departing; so that the form of a living body is more essential to it than its matter.” Many philosophers and biologists have taken up this “process view,” in which organisms and other biological systems exist not as fixed objects or materials but as flowing patterns and relationships in a river of flux.

By Jordana Cepelewicz, Quanta Magazine, July 2020

What Is Mercy?

Mercy is a value that should be at the heart of any functioning and tolerant society. Mercy ultimately acknowledges that we are all imperfect and in doing so allows us the oxygen to breathe—to feel protected within a society, through our mutual fallibility. Without mercy a society loses its soul, and devours itself.
Mercy allows us the ability to engage openly in free-ranging conversation—an expansion of collective discovery toward a common good. If mercy is our guide we have a safety net of mutual consideration, and we can, to quote Oscar Wilde, “play gracefully with ideas.”
Yet mercy is not a given. It is a value we must nurture and aspire to. Tolerance allows the spirit of enquiry the confidence to roam freely, to make mistakes, to self-correct, to be bold, to dare to doubt and in the process to chance upon new and more advanced ideas. Without mercy society grows inflexible, fearful, vindictive and humourless.

Nick Cave, The Red Hand Files Issue #109, August 2020