Memorial Day Lessons From Darwin, Virginia Woolf, and Altruistic Squirrels

This weekend, I learned of squirrels whose behavior offers scientific proof of the evolutionary basis of altruism. It was a lesson especially worth remembering on a weekend devoted to recalling the sacrifice of those who have given their lives in defense of ours.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Like the millions of Americans who hit the road this Memorial Day weekend, I also got away for a bit. My travels took me to Providence, Rhode Island. It wasn't a vacation, but it did recharge me in a deeper way than most vacations do.

I was in Providence to receive an honorary doctorate from Brown University during its commencement ceremony. It was indeed quite an honor, one I was humbled to receive along with nine others: Olympian Katie King Crowley, the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof, mathematician David B. Mumford, playwright Lynn Ida Nottage, physicist Lisa Randall, human rights activist Kenneth Roth, astronaut David R. Scott, Chinese poet and dissident Zhenkai Zhao, and Jack Nicholson, who brought the house down with his assertion that "particle research is one of my special hobbies."

An honorary doctorate is, of course, only ceremonial, but I actually do feel like I received an education -- a compressed one to be sure, but a profound one. The Brown tradition is that those getting an honorary degree are each given a university professor as their guide for the proceedings. The guide's final duty is to put the doctoral hood on the recipient while Brown's president Ruth Simmons reads in Latin the reasons for the honorary degree (Nicholas Kristof's reasons included gaining over a million Twitter followers in the course of his work for Darfur and the Sudan -- for which there was no direct Latin translation!)

As luck would have it, my guide was someone I've had an intellectual crush on for many years: Dr. Kenneth Miller, biologist and author of the brilliant faith-based defense of Darwinism, Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God & Evolution. (More on this in a bit.)

The interplay between my time with Dr. Miller and the themes presented by the inspired students chosen to speak at the ceremony is what left me feeling so invigorated.

First up was Elyse VyVy Trinh, a child of Vietnamese refugees. Her speech was entitled "An Education in Altruism." She began by describing her early years at Brown, which were steeped in the humanities, in search of answers to timeless questions such as: "How is it that war can turn brothers against each other? How is it that poverty can persist in a land of abundance? How is it that democratic legislation could have ever defended inequality based on skin color?"

She then switched to biology and had an epiphany of sorts involving squirrels. Yes, squirrels. Her sudden insight didn't come from an actual squirrel, but from a 1977 paper she read by biologist Paul Sherman. He sought to explain why, when faced with a predator in the vicinity, some squirrels would cry out to attract the predator's attention, thus sacrificing themselves so that other squirrels would be spared. This behavior would seem to contradict evolution, because such altruism would not be genetically passed on and would thus be selected out. But, as Trinh explained: is the gene or the genome that is 'trying' to survive, not the individual, nor the species. Thus if a squirrel perishes but in doing so saves his brothers (those who share much of his genome), his genes still survive and are still the fittest. The study offered to the scientific world the evolutionary basis of altruism.

This understanding put Trinh on the path to concluding that "development of conscience is precisely the point of an connect our critical thinking with empathy." She realized that "somewhere along the evolutionary history of humankind, the collection of genes encoding the tendency to love, even at the cost of individual pain, was selected for because loving makes us more fit for our environment than not loving."

It also caused her to see science differently. What she saw in her diligent science classmates was that "their main tool was data, but it was narrative and story that inspired them -- whether the story of their own families' struggles or the story of a child they didn't even know going to bed hungry."

So her study of the humanities and of the sciences all came together. It is "when these seemingly irreconcilable worlds of art and science come together," she said, "that we are able to create the solutions that our world so urgently needs."

She concluded by saying that "compassion is the enduring and most important connection among of all fields of study," and that "we must listen to our altruistic impulses if we wish to collectively survive and thrive." By that point I was ready to give her my honorary doctorate.

Next up at the podium was Jacob Combs, who plans to pursue a career as a theatrical composer and lyricist. Jacob picked up on Elyse's theme of the importance of narrative. He told the audience that he had only learned to read the year before graduation, thanks to a woman named Ginny. Of course, he meant that he'd learned a different way of reading, courtesy of Virginia Woolf, who he had nicknamed "Ginny" to make her more approachable and real to him. What she taught him was that "the reader is not a bystander, but rather an active participant in creating the story." In other words, we are rewriting a text based on our own narrative. "When this happens, the reader experiences what Woolf called a 'moment of being,'" Combs said, "moments in which we become ourselves by making something of the words, and the world, around us."

His time in college has taught Jacob to apply his new way of reading to his entire life. "Learning should not be a process in which truths are handed down to us, neatly prepared and packaged for our use," he said. "Through this lesson, Brown has challenged us to write ourselves in our own words."

Empathy and narrative are two of my great obsessions. And here they were being most movingly and unexpectedly illustrated. The images we often have of college are about the acquisition of knowledge -- hitting the books, studying all night, taking test after test. But as Elyse and Jacob demonstrated, the goal -- not just for college but for life -- should be wisdom, at the heart of which is empathy. The world is not suffering right now for lack of data. But it is definitely crying out for wisdom.

Back in 1994, not long after Trinh and Combs were born, I wrote a book called The Fourth Instinct, about that part of the human character that compels us to go beyond our impulses for survival, sex, and power, and drives us to expand the boundaries of our caring to include our communities and the world around us.

And using narrative to tap into that instinct for empathy has always been one of our goals at HuffPost (just read Arthur Delaney, our model for such writing). So it was very moving and heartening to hear these graduates talk about their determination to carry these ideas -- and ideals -- forward in their lives.

The third part of my one-day recharge came courtesy of my time with Dr. Miller. Having long admired the way he has integrated his Christian beliefs and his scientist's understanding of evolution, I loved our conversation about science and spirituality.

The mistake, he argues, of those who try to reconcile science and faith in such theories as intelligent design is that they "seek God in what science has not yet explained. By denying the self-sufficiency of nature, they look for God (or at least a 'designer') in the deficiencies of science... The trouble is that science, given enough time, generally explains even the most baffling things."

In fact, to Miller, creationism is more of a threat to religion than science because "if we accept a lack of scientific explanation as proof for God's existence, simple logic would dictate that we would have to regard a successful scientific explanation as an argument against God."

For him, Darwin is not an obstacle to faith, but "the key to understanding our relationship with God." He illustrates how he deals with the question with this anecdote:

There are always a few who find me after class and want to pin me down. They ask me point-blank: "Do you believe in God?" And I tell each of them, "Yes." Puzzled, they ask: "What kind of God?" Over the years I have struggled to come up with a simple but precise answer to that question. And, eventually I found it. I believe in Darwin's God.

Of course, I invited him to write on HuffPost about this false choice we are too often given between science and spirituality. In truth, if we, as Jacob said in his speech, think for ourselves, write our own narrative and, choose our own "moments of being," it's actually quite easy to live a life connected to both science and spirituality. Especially since, as Ken Miller put it, "each of the great western monotheistic traditions sees God as truth, love, and knowledge." As Elyse Trihn reminded us: "loving makes us more fit for our environment than not loving."

Out of the mouths of astute graduating seniors and wise college professors come valuable life lessons -- lessons especially worth remembering on a weekend devoted to recalling the sacrifice of those who have given their lives in defense of ours and to honoring those who continue to do so.

Before You Go

Popular in the Community