Stones of Erasmus — Just plain good writing, teaching, thinking, doing, making, being, dreaming, seeing, feeling, building, creating, reading
Video Repost: The Dark Forest Theory Says We Should Leave the Aliens Alone! (Hint: They Don't Want Us to Contact Them)
How Diligence Paid Off Cataloging Indigenous Plant Species of Louisiana (And How I Came Upon the Secret of Motivation)
In this post, I wax nostalgic about a class I took in high school and how it taught me something about human motivation.
"You'll need to collect one-hundred specimens of native flora from Louisiana to gain a perfect score for this project," intoned our Biology teacher — I was in Eleventh grade. I had opted to take a class called Biology II rather than Environmental Science. It was unlike me. Having gravitated more to the arts and humanities, even in high school, taking an advanced science class went against the grain. But it was one of the most immersive courses I took in high school. I liked the botany unit. We had an entire semester devoted to exploring indigenous plant species of Louisiana. I had even gone as far as to purchase a used copy of a field guide to plants of the state; "Don't collect invasive species," our teacher had said. So I wanted to make sure I knew the difference between Kudzu and an indigenous Wood Sorrel.
|Look around you. There is a |
world to catalog and discover.
What drives motivation? What made me so motivated to pursue a task that before I had taken it, I would never have followed on my own? Most likely, it was the challenge of the project. Something about discovery: and the idea that I had to explore areas outside the boundaries of my neighborhood or looked closely at the familiar. I don't remember what my classmates did for the project; I don't recall working with a partner.
I had my parents purchase for me a ginormous three-pronged binder and a bunch of styrene protective covers. To successfully save a plant specimen, it is necessary to place the plant parts into a book or under a newspaper fastened with something heavy — like a book or a rock. It can take days for the specimen to set properly — our teacher had specifically said that if you don't let the plant sufficiently dry out — it will rot and produce mold once you seal it in the binder covering. The first few plants I had picked out delivered such a fate — I didn't press them long enough — so afraid of having points deducted from my project, I did them over again.
I was diligent and methodical with this project — I managed to collect about ninety-eight specimens — everything from Sweet Bay Magnolia to a Pitcher Plant. I noticed how invasive species could completely take over an area, their massive and quick growth, quickly suffocating plant diversity in the area. This specific invasive plant called Chinese Privet — I found lots of those everywhere around my backyard. Seeing the ubiquity of certain herbaceous plants made me realize the destructive force of nature when human intervention is too rapid, and Mother Nature cannot keep up.
Motivation is tied to relevance. If you can tap into the significance of a task, then you have your student's attention. Make a task too easy, and it loses its relevance; make a task unattainable, and it becomes a chore. I like how my teacher implied that the project had a perennial aspect to it; I still have that binder from high school. And I still have the plant species; they are labeled correctly and nicely preserved.
It wasn't an easy task, but it promised discovery. So finding a rare plant species proved to me a gleeful moment — filled with joy, as on a particular jaunt into the woods behind my mother's house in Madisonville, Louisiana — I found a Devil's Walking Stick — properly named because if you pluck it you will automatically be stung by its many sharp prongs that line its length. Walking deep into the woods, I came across a bayou that flooded its waters often when rain fell heavily, which gradually seeped back into the ground or wended its way back to a tributary and then into the Tchefuncte River and then finally into Lake Pontchartrain, which is an estuary that opens out into the Gulf of Mexico. Everything is connected. I knew then and know now.
As a teacher myself, I now give students projects and written assignments, as one is wont to do as a teacher. I have never given out a botany project like the one my science teacher did for us — but I marvel at what motivated me to complete such a project so painstakingly. I sometimes joke with colleagues that if someone were to crack the code of what truly motivates people to be industrious, creative, or simply do work — especially work that at first glance does not seem necessary — they ought to win some kind of Nobel Prize for Ingenuity. I never went into Botany — heck, in college, I only took a handful of Science classes. The bulk of my undergraduate course load was filled to the brim with Dante and Kazuo Ishiguro — with ample servings of Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and Shakespeare — can you tell I went to a heavily Western-centric liberal arts college? But I never forgot my foray into botany. That project stayed with me over the years. I still remember the scientific names of certain plant species — for example, Live Oaks and White Oaks — and all oaks — belong to the Quercus genus. And figs are in the ficus family. And if you take a walk with me in the woods, I will revel in the joy of discovering a field of Crimson Clover — it's still a beautiful flower.
Photograph: The Constellation Orion Hangs in the Late Autumn Nighttime Sky
Report: Earthquake in the Northeast
I was in a library near 14th street (320 miles away from the epicenter) when the quake occurred. I noticed the building sway but I thought it was due to the activity of a construction site next door.
It Was Barely Perceptible
It was not until the alarms went off in the building (twenty minutes after the initial seismic nudge) and when I heard some say "earthquake" that I knew what had happened.
I hope you did not shake too much!
Photograph: The Squid and the Whale
Philosophy of Science: Are We Lamarckians?
I recently read a blog post from some random poster who claimed we're getting stupider because more and more people read online. While this may sound true, it seems like more people are plagued with a bad case of how traits are acquired that smacks of bad evolutionary science.
Darwin did not claim giraffes have long necks because they strained their bodies to reach vegetation high up in the tree. No. Giraffes have long necks because all the "shorter" necked creatures died and the "longer" neck variety survived. The longer neck variety reproduced and made it more probable that another longer neck creature was born. This is basically his theory of natural selection (or survival of the fittest).
Consider the Giraffe
The location of the giraffe's food source (whether high or low) necessitated biological change over time. The short-necked giraffes died of starvation and hence did not live long enough to produce.
In the same way, human beings do not change the structure of their brains because information is processed differently on the web then it's processed via print sources.
For some reason, I don't think a kid who grows up learning by books is going to have a different brain structure from the kid who is raised on Wikipedia.
That's so Lamarckian. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck is to blame for this faulty logic prevalent in the talk about how biological change manifests. He was basically a 19th-century French scientist who conjured up the first theory of evolution. He had some amazing insights that helped shape the future of evolutionary science, but he also had the idea that certain traits can be willed and acquired. The giraffe-has-long-neck-because-it-willed-it theory is tantalizing but does not hold much water. It's like the father who thinks his 5'5 scrawny son can just will himself to be a great football player.
How We Learn - Is it Lamarckian?
With the super-fast advent of web technology, and amazing ways to collect information we seem to fall on Lamarck's faulty, but tempting, logic. Out brains must acquire whatever traits the technology dictates. It may be true there's some physical change related to perusing the web ( strain on the eyes, etc.) but one's genetic makeup is not being altered.
Our brains are hardwired to collect data and store it in memory. It's the result of thousands of years of evolutionary development. Humans had to remember because we were the first hunters and gatherers. The humans who remembered where the good food sources were located survived because they could feed their families. The others with bad memories died. They didn't make babies. So the prefrontal cortex grew because of nature's preference for a large capacity for long term memory.
The human ability to do the memory thing well lies on a continuum of 1-10.
Folks who mine the web well do so because they have a genetic aptitude for it. They get a 10. And then there is a mix of others. But no one is dying off. The evolution thing does not work anymore. Humans survive the cold not because their body temperature gets warmer but because we can devise a way to create a heater. The Eskimo does not produce kids who are durable to the cold but rather he produces kids who learn how to fish and build an igloo.
If our survival depended on our ability to learn through the web, then over time those who suck at information literacy would die and those who fared well would survive. While this could happen - it would be something like the "Final Solution" in Germany. We don't live in a genetic dystopia. Yet. It would be like a worldwide web version of who can make it to the oasis first in the desert. Kinda like a survival of the fittest. The brains with information literacy would produce offspring with other information literate people (because remember, those who can't google are dead).
We're Not Becoming Stupider. Or Are We?
But, of course, this is not how it works. We don't grant life or take it away based on your ability to surf the web.
You can't say the structure of our brain changes in a Lamarckian way. It's bad science. You have to say something like this: the way the world wide web is not designed for deep thinkers. It's not, "Deep thinkers are becoming stupider because they're reading tweets instead of novels."
Sounds semantic? Well, it is. It's wrong at a semantic level and a biological level.
Semantics is how language functions. Technology forces our language to change, not our brains. By language, I mean the broadest sense of what language means: language and culture.
If the world lost it's electric plug and all information systems go kablooey it may be up for grabs what makes who fitter.
It's like that old maxim: "The one-eyed man is king in the kingdom of the blind."
Keeping Up With the Joneses
The boy who will get ahead in the information age is the boy who can grasp and keep up with how language and culture fluctuate. It's not a quantum change of his brain but rather ONE brain can keep up. It all falls on what must be kept up. Really survival is relative.
None of us are getting stupider because we read books versus Twitter feeds. No. These systems are designed for shallow knowledge so that's what we get.
Our brains won't show much change except in a few more generations when we can see who's alive and who ain't. Will the web 2.0 be holding a torch?
It just might be the book lover is the fittest. Of it may be the twitter lover.
The only thing that's changing is information. That's true.
Our brains are as prehistoric as they'll ever be. Any real change won't be available for another few years. But that's a question for another blogger. I'm going to go strain my neck to get that coconut. I'll let you know when it's grown.