Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections revolves in part around a family’s interconnected–and expanding–circles of influence (of harm, mostly, but also of steps toward healing) as the “patriarch” begins to lose his health and independence. It’s a depressingly familiar scenario for many of us who have aged parents. I often hear anecdotes from friends and colleagues about how an elderly parent’s decline tears apart family connections and lately have been living the problem a bit more close at hand.

So I am mulling about how we are interconnected, and also about how we decide to narrate our connections: the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell others. That’s the poet/observer in me mulling; but I also want to find out more about the psychological side of the equation, so I recently read Christakis’ and Fowler’s book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, which takes a social-science and statistical look at what connects human beings to other human beings. 330px-Broad_chain_closeup

Writers are often our keenest social observers, and as it happens, Hungarian poet and writer Frigyes Karinthy wrote a story (“Chains”) that more or less posited the six degrees of separation theory back in 1929. Franzen’s novels tend to explore how even seemingly-minor disruptive or dysfunctional human relationships create butterfly-effect chaos among those connected to it–even among people not closely connected to the ‘disrupter.’

Christakis and Fowler examine much more than the six-degrees theory, such as how those human connections build themselves into social cascades, cultural norms, support systems, clans, families, political parties, and economic outcomes. On the one hand, these claims seem obvious: of course our relationships are based upon shared connections, and of course those relationships have impacts upon our lives. We know this intuitively, but now scientists want to give us proof.

Stuart Kauffman’s book At Home in the Universe offers “hard science” studies (though based upon theoretical computer- or math-based simulations) in physics and biology that suggest random disturbances, or chaos, can create chain or even lattice-like behavior. He suggests that if molecules or genes behave the way the simulations do, the cosmos may continually undergo a sort of self-organization that leads to forming connections.

Hence: life. Or life as we experience it. In which small differences in initial conditions can be amplified into transformational events that do not affect anyone in exactly the same way.

That’s more or less the butterfly effect, but it could not happen in social situations among human beings if we were not so interconnected or interdependent. Social beings require other social beings as support systems: that’s how humans work (with, naturally, the occasional outlier).

butterflyOur poets, playwrights, and our fiction writers–the narrators of human existence–understand isolation and community in non-scientific but no less valuable and authentic ways. They have been telling us for thousands of years the many ways we are connected.

Maybe what the scientists should do next is read hundreds of years of great literature as evidence of how social networks shape our lives. Science can learn as much from the humanities as the humanities have learned from scientists…

What we, as observant human beings in a chaotic world, intuitively understand.


Enabling & stewardship

The season of seed catalogs is upon us, and I begin to fantasize about all of the vegetables and flowers I want to grow and how I will arrange my small garden area to accommodate them. I imagine having time to keep the rows cultivated and the foliage free of insect pests. Yes, I need to do some work on the fencing. And yes, some terracing might help where the garden’s taking a decidedly southeasterly dip. The asparagus patch finally played itself out, so it will need some restructuring and weeding; I’ll have an opportunity to use that area in a new way.

There’s snow on the garden now. All of this planning is purely speculative on my part. Yet–how clearly I can envision it, in my mind. One of my concerns is whether I’ll feel hale and hearty and energetic enough to get all of this work accomplished!

Ah, my garden-consciousness brings me to the mind-body problem, though perhaps in a more physical way than philosophers encounter it. My conscious mind imagines the garden that does not yet exist. Is that garden real or an illusion? What makes it possible for me to conjure it so vividly? Is it merely memory of past experience? If so, why does my imagination invent a slightly different garden–this year’s ideal? My animal self takes action, physical action (phenomenological action) in order to bring about fruition to feed the physical body that loves the taste of vine-ripe tomatoes and fresh beans and tender lettuces. Do my actions cause the plants to grow? No. I’m more of a steward or a guide. I help them get a better-than-average start.

This sort of thinking brings me around to a (2011?) post by biologist Stuart Kauffman, on the NPR philosophy blog.

Kauffman says:

We think we live in a web of cause and effect. We do. We also live in a web of enabling opportunities that may or may not be seized, and the living world, biosphere up, unfolds in a different way, creating ever new possibilities of becoming.

But these possibilities often can’t be stated ahead of time. No one foresaw Facebook when Alan Turing did his work in the first half of the 20th century. Nor can we foresee all the possibilities of the evolution of life.

Life is not a well-formulated, complex optimization problem to be solved. We do not know all the variables that may become relevant.

Science is my life, and it is wonderful. But science will not ultimately know everything.

In the world of modernity, our values have become badly deformed. Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” has replaced “integrity, generosity, and courage” as our First World cultural ideal. Modernity does not serve our humanity well, although it does offer enhanced standards of living. We are reduced — to price tags, cogs in an economic system making often useless products in the name of forever GDP growth on a finite planet. The bankers corrupt themselves and our government. Our government does not yet realize that its better job is to enable, not command, to “garden,” to coach, to enable the creativity of its peoples, here and around the globe.

Yes, that’s it. I engage with my environment partly by enabling things to grow or flourish. The term enabling has garnered some negative connotation in recent years due to its use in psychology: we are warned not to enable alcoholics, manipulative people, or those who need to learn some grit and self-motivation. The idea of enabling is, however, essentially positive: to help, to nurture. In fact, I think I prefer to think of myself as one who enables the earth rather than as a steward–though both concepts suggest that we human beings must engage willfully with the world.

We have work to do here on earth. And I am well aware that I do not know, with my garden, “all the variables that may become relevant.” (Past complex variables have included drought, hail, flooding, and beetles.) My small part this year includes serving the land I temporarily inhabit as well as serving myself and my family our favorite foods.


My favorite sources for seed include: Seeds of Change, Territorial Seed Co., Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, and–while less on the organic spectrum, the British firm of Thompson & Morgan for its amazing variety of herbs, vegetables, fruits, ornamentals and grasses from heirloom to the latest hybrids. For American gardeners interested in some truly historical strains, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello offers quite a selection.

(Photo: a previous year’s garden in May)

More difficult books

photo by Ann E. Michael

Some weeks back, I posted about reading “difficult books.” It occurs to me that there are different kinds of difficult books, and perhaps different kinds of motivation for reading them.

In my previous post, I addressed why I read philosophy. I also read books on subjects like string theory, fractals, physics, economics, psychology, and other topics that might be considered difficult, especially for a person who is not a scholar in any of those areas. One example is the book I’m reading now, Daniel Kahneman’s best-seller Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman is a psychologist who won a Nobel Prize in Economics, and this book explores how human beings make decisions, are rational or irrational depending on circumstances and how information is presented, make judgments, develop intuition and biases, and learn or fail to learn from mistakes. He’s a fairly good writer for the layperson, staying away from jargon and taking pains to explain his work clearly for the non-psychologist, non-economist, and non-mathematician. Nonetheless, this book–while wonderful!–is not easy material to read. One reason is that the text is about thinking, so (like philosophy) the endeavor is entirely metacognitive. Also, Kahneman’s findings directly challenge many of the things we think we know about ourselves. That sort of book is inherently difficult.

Another book written in lively anecdotes avoiding too much technical language but that I found difficult all the same is Stuart Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe. Kauffman explains Boolean logic in a way that helped me to understand not just the basic premise but how Boolean operates in terms of randomness and the development of algorithms. His book, however, takes for its subject complexity theory. You can tell by the name of the theory that this material’s a little challenging. Furthermore, he begins by writing about chemistry, a science in which I have almost no foundational understanding. I learned much from his work about self-organization of things like molecules and stellar systems, and this book enabled me to read his more theoretical text on “reinventing the sacred” with deeper understanding (and even a bit of skepticism). But easy to understand? No.

Joao Magueijo introduced me to the research and theories of young cosmological physicists through his book Faster than the Speed of Light, a book that is laugh-out-loud funny in places and written with the casual tone of having a conversation with an enthusiastic and possibly jerky scientist while at a university-neighborhood pub (there were more than a few asides in his narrative, most of which dealt with university or science politics). I know more physics than chemistry, but I can’t do the math. I had to re-read some of the pages in Magueijo’s book to figure out where he was going with his potential discoveries. I read the book years ago, yet it stuck with me; recent news about possible faster-than-light particle movement reminded me instantly of the work this team was doing in the late 90s.

Science and philosophy are difficult; and while books that involve the relationship between the disciplines (such as Hofstadter’s now-classic Gödel, Escher, Bach and Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred, to name only two) are not necessarily twice as difficult, they cannot be categorized as easy-to-read, even when the author is a marvelous writer. True “System 2 thinking” (see Kahneman) means constant engagement with the text, and our brains simply get tired. But they also get exercise and plasticity from the enjoyable work of reading what is hard, a workout I find exhilarating.