Brightlines and Fine Lines

We’ve reached that time of the year in the Puget Sound when pale sunlight becomes shrouded by indecisive clouds that oscillate between sheer silver and dark gray, when we wake up to a familiar pitter patter rhythm—a reminder that we only have two seasons: three months of lemon sunshine and nine months of minty rain. On my daily evening walks, dim streetlights struggle to break through the rigid darkness. The past few days, I have been trying to loosen my hold on the illusion of summer. (However, this week is supposed to be sunny and/or partly cloudy. Sixty-degree weather won’t stop me from pretending fall has yet to come.)

On Sunday, I took a walk with my parents to my neighborhood botanical garden and the rain created a pleasant backdrop to our jubilant conversation. Donned in a Costco windbreaker and with a hot latte in hand, I embodied the Pacific Northwest. Outside, I could see autumn’s imprints on nature: mango gradient canopies and fallen leaves, bubbling brooks bursting with newfound water, earthworms and slugs that have come out of hiding.

In addition to the natural transformations, there are seasonal human changes. On October first, skeletons, jack-o-lanterns, and gravestones begin to adorn front lawns. Fall flavors are back in full swing: pumpkin spice, cinnamon, salted caramel, persimmon, and apple cider. Similarly, December first marks the beginning of everything related to Christmas. There is a comfort in knowing that candy canes will never fail to be back on store shelves.

But what if these predictable patterns stop? If one rainy day, the earthworms and the slugs don’t come out, would we notice? We would definitely pay attention—and protest—if Starbucks suddenly stopped selling pumpkin spice lattes. And yet, we have not cared for the gradual disappearance of the original intent of our holidays. Everything has been commercialized. Memorial day is no longer about honoring those who have died serving in the military, but about flash sales. Halloween less about warding off dead spirits, more about filling garbage bags with king-size candy bars.

If we could perceive animal communication like human languages, we would notice and take action about their disappearance, some computer-scientists-turned-entrepreneurs think. In the 1970s and 1980s, biologist Roger Payne used whalesong recordings to help push the end to commercial whaling. Today, Aza Raskin and Britt Selvitelle, the co-founders of the Earth Species Project, aim to use machine learning to “decode animal language, building empathy for the species cohabiting our planet to promote their conservation and our well-being.” A cool, technical solution on the surface—the kind of technological-innovation-meets-empathy idea that turns on Silicon Valley pundits.

But is decoding animal language really an attempt to empathize, or is it just a way to fulfill the human desire to control nature? Though Foucault’s thesis about knowledge and power—that “the goals of power and the goals of knowledge cannot be separated: in knowing we control and in controlling we know”—is about the study of human beings, perhaps it can be extended to animal studies. After all, “language is related to knowledge in diverse ways,” so to grasp animal language is to understand animal knowledge, and thus have power over animals.

Empathy is also difficult. Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax has taught us that even if we had a character who “speaks for the trees,” nothing gets in our way of profit. Even if the Earth Species Project succeeds in its mission, how can we ensure that emotion translates to committed action? Moreover, individualistic actions are often not enough. Many environmental policy analysts and scientists are skeptical of individualistic solutions without systemic change. Ultimately, differing levels of hope for initiatives like the Earth Species Project stem from differing views on the redeemability of human nature.

(One more question: why should we bother mapping out animal languages when we cannot even deal with the extinction of indigenous languages?)


The following paragraphs are a series of loosely-connected ponderings provoked by a few readings and podcasts.

Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller is a part-memoir part-biography that grapples with—and poses—several of the questions that have been circling in my head.

Fear in the unknown or in the known?

Back to the concept of knowledge and power. According to Miller, “fish” fails as an evolutionary category. For instance, lungfish share more biological traits with cows than with salmon. Despite taxonomists’ consensus that “fish” is not a coherent category, we continue to use this label because it’s useful to us humans. As Miller explains:

It’s a term we use, it’s a proxy that we use to parse the chaos. But it is a way that we keep our sense of superiority intact.

Lulu Miller, “Lulu Miller on ‘Why Fish Don’t Exist,'” Living on Earth Podcast

Since fish don’t exist, what else are we wrong about? What else don’t we know?

…we barely know the world around us, even the simplest things under our feet…we have been wrong before and we will be wrong again…the true path to progress is paved not with certainty but doubt, with being “open to revision.

Lulu Miller, Why Fish Don’t Exist

Miller tells us that we should embrace doubt and uncertainty. But isn’t uncertainty and the unknown the origin of our deepest fears? Or perhaps the contrary is true, that knowledge makes us more fearful?

Miller’s answer is both and neither. In her stunning stunning essay about her son’s first night terror, “The Eleventh Word,” she proposes, “[i]t was only with the advent of words, with the illusion that he could name the whole world, every last corner of it labeled and known, that the unknown became an enemy, became a threat.”

I have similar views, albeit far less eloquent. I think fear comes from an odd in-betweenness of knowing and not knowing, where you know enough that it comes to your attention, but not enough so that you’re afraid of uncertainty. A cliché example: you know someone is gossiping about you but you don’t know what they’re saying.

Optimism or delusion?

Miller also tackles the distinction between optimism and delusion. The biography portion of the book is about David Starr Jordan (b. 1851, d. 1931), a taxonomist who named over two thousands species of fish. When the 1906 earthquake destroyed his tank collection in mere seconds, he picked himself right back up. His solution? Sew the species label onto the organism.

Is Jordan’s fish endeavor a sign of fortitude and admirable optimism, or is it utter delusion? It’s unclear. Certainly, Jordan’s persistence propagated him toward success; he was Stanford University’s first president and secured multiple awards from leading universities. However, Jordan’s confidence often crossed into hubris. He was a eugenicist, tried to cover up Jane Stanford’s murder, and later was voted down from his position as Stanford’s president.

Now, back to climate change.

How an optimist views attitudes toward climate solutions:

  • Optimism (read: courage). Humanity can do it—a necessary hope that drives us to persist.
  • Pessimism (read: fatalism). Capitalism makes climate change inevitable and we’re terminally fucked so might as well just live our lives to the fullest.

How a pessimist views attitudes toward climate solutions:

  • Pessimism (read: realism). The world is dying and individual action isn’t enough—an urgent call to wake up.
  • Optimism (read: delusion). Go vegan, use metal straws, and recycle. It’s that easy!

What are the brightlines between optimism and delusion, and between pessimism and fatalism? And what if we didn’t have to choose between one or the other? Both are necessary for the most comprehensive effort toward warming reduction. The question is not about choice, but about balance, which is potentially much more difficult to evaluate. While I don’t have an answer about balance, I do know that individual and systemic change is more effective than pursuing only one option.

Chaos—good or bad? Science v. Faith

The 1906 earthquake that destroyed Jordan’s fish collection epitomizes the grasp that chaos has on our world. But his persistence on continuing to label fish points to humanity’s desire to control the natural world, to surpass the limits of chaos.

His desire for control extended to the human species as well. In his essays in favor of racial segregation, he appealed to Social Darwinist theories, arguing that “[t]he survival of the fittest in the struggle for existence is the primal cause of race-progress and race-changes.”

But as Miller points out in her book, Social Darwinist theories are ironic because Darwinism advocates for the direct opposite of purity. Variation is necessary for natural selection. Chaos governs the world, variation is random, and there is no higher purpose in evolution.

In other words, humanity is a random blip in the universe. To some, that idea is daunting. As a species, we don’t really matter. As individuals, we matter even less. To others, this idea brings solace. If we don’t matter, then neither do our worries and the consequences of our actions. Humanity’s cruel attempts to control the world will inevitably fail.

Brief intermission: back to climate. If we don’t really matter, why bother trying to save ourselves? We must matter then, right?

I have been exploring this dilemma between the secular/scientific chaos and faith vigorously in the past few weeks. For my theology class in college, we read Dynamics of Faith by Paul Tillich. Tillich is a Lutheran theologist who argues that science and faith are not mutually exclusive. For him, we can simultaneously accept Darwinian evolution while also believing in God or something else that gives life meaning.

For a paper, I related Tillich’s arguments back to How Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, a heartfelt memoir of a dying neurosurgeon. Kalanithi was raised a Christian but later rejected his faith for a scientific worldview. Eventually, near the end of his life, he returns to his religion. Here is his justification:

[T]o make science the arbiter of metaphysics is to banish not only God from the world but also love, hate, meaning—to consider a world that is self-evidently not the world we live in.

Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

Miller echoes similar sentiments in her book. When she was seven, she asked her father about the meaning of life. Her father replied that there was none, that the world doesn’t care. In a podcast interview, she dissects the paradoxical relief and angst that comes with this worldview. But gradually, she began to stray away from her father’s existential nihilism.

Here are a few quotes that eloquently express her current views:

I thought of chaos as the force that rules me, and then I started to realize—it’s so simple—that chaos is also the force that makes growth.

Lulu Miller, “Chaos Has a Light Side: A Conversation with Lulu Miller” by Antonia Violante in Behavioral Scientist

There is no clear meaning. There is no one meaning, but there are…many ways to make meaning and that is one of the most joyful and important tasks we have ahead is to figure out how we want to make meaning.

Lulu Miller, “Comfort in Chaos w/ Lulu Miller,” PRIDE Podcast

Chaos is what animates us.

Lulu Miller, “#389: Lulu Miller,” Longform Podcast

In case this wasn’t clear: I’m obsessed with her brain.

In a personal essay in the New Yorker by Sarah Stewart Johnson, a planetary scientist at Georgetown University, she tackles an analogous topic: the tension between chance and her scientific task of establishing causality. She writes,

Causality exists in a constant, essential tension with randomness—that the universe is also driven by the dragon of chance.

Sarah Stewart Johnson, “A Scientist’s Reckoning With the Cruelty of Chance,” The New Yorker

Chance, chaos, randomness—we have all struggled to find its role in our lives. And we don’t have to view it as a solely negative force. Several scientific discoveries are owed to accidents. Think of your best friend. If not for that one time in seventh grade, when your English teacher assigned your seats next to each other, would you have even talked to each other? The same applies for your existence; what if your parents hadn’t met? What if they had used protection? What if, what if, what if…?

In addition to being grateful for chaos, take time to think about what gives your life meaning. What keeps you going? If you had one last day to live, what would you do? Stripped of all your money and possessions, what would you have left?

It’s okay to not have an answer right away, or even five years from now. But as we return to work, school, and other tasks that keep us busy, don’t forget to breathe. Figuratively, and literally too—because one day, the air might not permit us to.

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