Reflections, Science

What a book on wolves taught me about passion

For the next fifteen years, the farthest Rick ever ventured from the park was an occasional trip to the nearest movie theater, seventy-five miles away in Cody. He never missed another day watching wolves.

If he did skip a day, who knew what he might miss? The celebrated primate researcher Jane Goodall didn’t even have a college degree when she was assigned to watch chimpanzees in Tanzania, Rick liked to remind people, yet she was the first to record them using twigs as tools for fishing termites out of the ground, a discovery that upended the conventional understanding of primate intelligence. She had been in the field for months, much longer than any other observer, before she witnessed that startling behavior. And yet if you had approached her the day before she made that discovery and asked her if a chimp was smart enough to use a tool to get what it wanted, she would have said no.

It was all about showing up.

Image result for american wolf nate blakesleeIn many ways, Rick McIntyre is the focus of Nate Blakeslee’s most recent book on Yellowstone wolves, American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West. McIntyre, a National Park Service employee, voluntarily spent tens of thousands of hours following wolf packs in Yellowstone National Park. He witnessed the impact of U.S. Fish and Wildlife policies on wolf conservation. McIntyre’s favorite was O-Six, an alpha female with a knack for leadership. Of all the wolves chronicled in American Wolf, O-Six receives the most attention.

Unlike his colleagues, McIntyre was not a trained biologist. He just had an enormous passion for wolves. Blakeslee does a great job communicating McIntyre’s passion to the reader. Even when he was working in the Visitor’s Center near the Old Faithful geyser and far from wolf territory, McIntyre still made time to check up on his packs. Every morning, before work, he would drive 1.5 hrs. to and from the Lamar Valley. Soon, word went around that McIntyre was the “wolf-man”, even though he was not officially in charge of wolf conservation at the park. Visitors joined him in his daily routine.

Passion is very underrated in business and life. Yet, passionate people are some of the most successful precisely because they go above and beyond expectations in what they do. Passionate people have the internal motivation to push through setbacks and failures. McIntyre and his wolf-watching friends drove through the heaviest of snow storms in order to keep up with their favorite wolves. When the wolves were removed from the Endangered Species list in Wyoming, McIntyre’s passion inspired policy makers to reconsider anti-wolf legislation. Although he was never directly involved in politics, McIntyre inspired park visitors to care about the recently-introduced Yellowstone wolves.

American Wolf re-confirmed my belief in the importance of passion. It is, as McIntyre told a group of visitors, all about “showing up”. This doesn’t mean that a passionate person never works a day in her life. Even if you love what you do, work is still work. McIntyre’s wolf observations were not always “fun”. I’m sure most sightings were pretty mundane. But he knew that the only way to keep up with the packs was to show up regularly.

Finally, passion is contagious. A person who has passion for something will naturally spread that passion to others.

Many businesses and schools focus on competence and talent. They want to know about your educational background and work history. All of these things are certainly important. But nothing trumps passion. Even if you are not in a career that you enjoy, never abandon the activities that you are passionate about. If you have passion, others will care and you will see results.

Nonfiction by Genre, Science

Review of The Human Instinct by Kenneth Miller

Image result for the human instinct kenneth millerIn 2000, biologist Randy Thornhill and anthropologist Craig Palmer offered an evolutionary explanation for the presence of rape in the human population. In their book titled A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, Thornhill and Palmer argued that rape was a direct product of natural selection; men who raped had a higher fitness than men who didn’t, so natural selection favored traits associated with rape.

As you can imagine, A Natural History of Rape received a firestorm of criticism from feminists and moralists alike. By offering an evolutionary explanation for rape, Thornhill and Palmer seemed to excuse rape. Furthermore, they suggested that rapists were the “winners” in the evolutionary arms race, producing more offspring than their non-rapist counterparts.

Despite the overwhelming evidence in favor of evolution by natural selection, millions of Americans remain ardent Creationists. No amount of evidence can convince them otherwise.

In his forthcoming book The Human Instinct: How We Evolved to Have Reason, Consciousness, and Free Will (April 2018), Kenneth Miller tries to unpack the reasons why evolution is rejected by so many people. Evolution deniers are concerned about the ontological and ethical consequences of modern scientific theory. Many are perfectly fine with the evolutionary history of fish, but they insist that humans were uniquely created by a loving God.

Today, evolutionary biology is applied not only to human anthropology but also to human psychology, social behavior, and even art. E.O. Wilson has applied his research on ant colonies to the understanding of human behavior. Others attribute our preference for landscape art to our evolutionary history as hominids living in the jungles of Africa.

But how much of the above is grounded in actual science? Quite a bit, actually. Miller cites numerous studies to show that while popular scientists often exaggerate what we can know about human behavior based on evolutionary biology, humans are just as much a product of evolution as other animals; humans and other animals share similar traits.

But these studies seem to undermine human dignity and to preference aggression and selfishness. Creationists consider evolutionary biology as a threat to human exceptionalism and everything that flows from such a lofty perspective on our species.

Full-blown Creationists are not the only ones concerned. While rejecting young earth Creationism as unscientific, Marilynne Robinson is critical of what she refers to as “Darwinism”. In her essay “The Death of Adam”, which I read last year, Robinson bemoans the apparent nihilism inherent in evolutionary biology. Humans are no longer the center of creation. We are the accidental product of a mindless process that favors aggression and selfishness.

In The Human Instinct, Kenneth Miller offers a more optimistic but equally scientific alternative to the brutal nihilism professed by biologists like E. O. Wilson. After a few chapters dedicated to the defense of human evolution, Miller moves to considering the ontological (related to being) and ethical implications of modern science. He too is concerned about justice, free will, and human exceptionalism. But he doesn’t look for answers in the non-material. We are material organisms, and science may one day be able to explain the entire universe in material terms. Still, there are uncertainties inherent in life.

By assuming the role of Marilynne Robinson’s interlocutor, Miller acknowledges that some criticisms of evolutionary biology are worthy of consideration. Anyone who has studied evolutionary biology (as I have) has struggled with the questions of human dignity and free will. If there isn’t anyhing unique about humans, should we model ourselves after ants? Does human life mean anything outside of the context of reproduction? Is free will compatible with evolution? If not, how can humans be responsible for their actions?

Image result for biology textbook kenneth millerMiller’s treatment of these topics is nuanced and well-grounded in science. He exposes the ongoing controversies in the scientific community surrounding the evolutionary basis of human behavior without once denying that humans are animals. Kenneth Miller is, after all, a cell biologist at Brown University and an outspoken critic of Intelligent Design. He is the co-author of the book on the right, which was my biology textbook in high school.

The Human Instinct is a good follow-up to Finding Darwin’s God (1999) and a much-needed alternative to the overly pessimistic narratives promoted by scientists like E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins. It doesn’t offer any definitive answers to the “big questions”, but it challenges popular assumptions about the consequences of evolution on human exceptionalism.

I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for a free and honest review. “The Human Instinct” is scheduled for publication by Simon & Schuster on April 17, 2018.