Monday, September 29, 2014

A Fatherhood Manifesto

Maybe an overblown title for this post, but here is a favorite quote of mine that has shaped how I view fatherhood and life. From The Emperor’s Embrace: Reflections on Animal Families and Fatherhood, by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Pocket Books, 1999, pp. 203-209

We evolved (this means that historically we come from an ancestral environment where it was adaptive to do certain things that have had an impact both on our biology and on our psyche) to share a bed with our infants. . . .
We evolved to feed our infants whenever they are hungry. . . .
We evolved to respond quickly to the cries of a baby. . . .
Fathers evolved to stay with their children throughout their entire childhoods, eighteen years or longer. . . .
We evolved (especially fathers!) to play with our children on a daily basis. Prolonged play (many hours of it every day) is good for the baby, good for the father, good for the mother (it gives her a break), and provides essential stimulation. Even more important, play provides memories of touch and sensation that give the infant feelings of happiness and playfulness that, if missed, can never be made up for by any amount of later physical pleasures.
We evolved to travel with our children. No other animal species posts signs warning that an establishment is for adults only; no other species holds parties for which the invitation states that children are not welcome. . . . We did not evolve to have the family broken up for anything but a fraction of the day. . . .
We evolved to be in the natural environment. . . . No wonder children get bored when they are confined indoors. . . . Research has shown that babies are happiest when they are carried while the parents are walking at a speed of three to four miles per hour. . .
. . . we appear to be the only species that can consciously choose how involved we want to be as fathers.
We can learn to be less like bears, lions, male elephants, and Hanuman langurs, and more like penguins and mallee fowl, wolves and foxes, beavers and sea horses, marmosets and tamarins, prairie dogs and tropical frogs.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

No Higher Authority

Graduate Student Expertise

Sometime during graduate school, I became the expert. No, I did not understand everything. I still felt small, inexperienced, and sometimes quite dense around brilliant and experienced thermodynamicists, structural biologists, molecular biologists, crystallographers, and various other specialists. But at some point, after studying, experimenting, analyzing data, writing, and doing them all again and again, I knew a handful of things better than anyone else in the world. When something went wrong, I could go to my adviser, or to one of my associates, and ask for advice, encouragement, or even help, but I couldn't ask for answers. They didn't have them. No one did. I was the expert. I knew more and had better answers than anyone else on this very narrow, arcane subject. I had to trust myself.

I'm sure graduate school isn't the only place where a person can become an expert, but it's important to note the kind of expertise I'm talking about. It may not be a very important expertise--who cares about the preferential interactions of trimethylamine-N-oxide with potassium glutamate? Besides me, that is. Yet original research can result in a different kind of expertise than is typically acquired in professional programs where there is a relatively well-defined body of knowledge that everyone is expected to acquire to be called expert. It's like getting part way through law school and being asked to make a ruling for the Supreme Court. Way less important, but you are it. There is no higher authority to turn to for a decision. This is why graduate school is only the beginning for research scientists. Yeah, it's cool that you got through and got your PhD, but that's just permission to venture out on your own, not proof that you are a competent scientist. A PhD means you just might have picked up that skill of becoming your own ultimate authority on subjects where no one knows the answers.

So I have a PhD, and maybe I'm a scientist. Mostly, I'm a teacher, but I do occasionally help other scientists with their research, and I help a few undergraduates with some little projects when I can. But I did at least once have this amazing (and sometimes traumatic) experience of asking questions and digging at them until I became the expert.

Questioning Mormonism

I have lived my life with a brand of Mormonism that loves questions. Questions have been there since the very beginning. Asking has been the command since before I cared about knowing for myself and not relying on parents or teachers. Since I was a teenager I've bridled at implications that there are questions that shouldn't be asked, or things that should just be accepted without trying to understand the reasons, or that there are unimportant questions (just because someone else thinks they are trivial). I felt like people with those attitudes didn't really understand Mormonism, and I willingly joined the quote wars to show that my viewpoint was supported by scripture and General Authorities. Now I tend to fight on my turf and worry less about differences, but there are times and places where the tension still causes me distress.

I'll mention a fact that almost doesn't need mentioning--in the LDS church, only the president of the church can speak with conclusive authority on any matter of policy, doctrine, or theology. Until you are the prophet, there is always a higher ecclesiastical authority who can overrule your answers. And even then, God can overrule the prophet. So until you are God, there is always a higher authority. So what's the purpose of learning to find answers for yourself? Why take the risk of being wrong and being corrected or even abused? Yes, it feels good to find answers, but I think there is eternal purpose to learning to be the expert.

God is in the business of making independent creators. It seems likely to me that the cosmos is so vast and varied that even God, with his life and knowledge reaching toward eternity, can never know everything that is or will be. If this is the case, then God is bent on making us the experts. He will raise us up until we are learning things that not even the Gods know, yet. We can turn to each other for advice, encouragement, or even help, but there will be no higher authority.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Shame in the sight of the all-seeing eye

I grew up with the idea of God seeing everything we did. It got even worse thinking about dead ancestors and future children in the spirit world viewing our successes and failures--hoping we would marry the right person or seeing if we would keep the commandments and end up in heaven with them. That's what you get with my Mormon belief that the spirit world is right here, around us. It was a particularly shaming thought when I would be masturbating as a young man. It was bad enough thinking about some relatively abstract, but generally benevolent, God knowing I was "sinning", but to think about my sometimes judgmental Grandpa (I'm pointing out a flaw, but he was on the whole an amazing friend and mentor for me) watching my mistakes was really disturbing, and it appears that I couldn't even imagine a female relation seeing what I was up to. I guess I figured my guardian angels would all be men. A few different scenarios went through my head. One was that the good spirits left when they saw where I was headed so that they wouldn't have to see me sin. I would leave if I came across someone watching porn or about to masturbate. But later I decided that they would just have to be more charitable than many people in the world around me. If they are going to be exposed to my mistakes all the time, and still care about me, they will have to love me for some reason besides my perfection. This is what I think is real, now. The good spirits that haunt my life--if they are really haunting me--view me with a completeness that is much more than my mistakes, my weaknesses, or even my sins. They see my weakness without shame, without harsh judgment, and without trying to take advantage of it. Maybe they can't take advantage of it, but this is what I want to talk about.

More and more in our world, everything we do is being recorded. Every click of a mouse leads to targeted advertising guaranteed to make money for somebody playing on our desires. It's not about providing us with needed services, or even services that substantially enrich our lives, for the most part. There are the exceptions, and I'm completely in favor of those, but they are exceptional. We are also aware of the abuses of governmental security agencies collecting data on everyone. Our employers' IT departments, and our internet service providers can know all the websites we visit, and could probably learn more if they cared to. The effectiveness of search algorithms is going to make learning our online life histories (and eventually offline for any activities that get caught on camera and linked to the web) more and more trivial. The amount of truly private information is going to continue to shrink. Research into how the mind works will give advertisers even more power to control our lives. We will only be safe from government scrutiny by being uninteresting to governments, but even that safety will shrink as the ability to respond to various people and situations becomes automated and can be delegated to computers. It really isn't much of a stretch to imagine a future where we real human beings are a lot like the spirit relatives of my youthful imaginings. We will be able to see and know the sins of our neighbors, if we really want to. We will have evidence on which to judge one another just a spoken search query away, and only innocent children will be free of reproach.

I think there are two types of choices we can make to be happy and safe in a world where nothing we do outside our heads is private. Reality is we probably have to make both, but I think only the second will lead to the ultimate flourishing of humanity. The first is regulating the information that can and may be accessed by people or organizations in positions of power. But let's face it, most of us like it that Google and Facebook tailor our searches and feeds to our particular interests, and we don't mind losing some hypothetical privacy, as long as there isn't obvious abuse of our trust. Regulation isn't going to get us to our perfect world--at least not regulations designed to limit and control. I think Pandora has opened the box, and we might as well let Hope out, too.

I believe Hope is a fundamental change in ourselves and our societies, but not simply a utopian ideal. The ultimate goal is a Zion society, where there are no rich or poor, and everyone is of one heart and one mind. In the past this has happened after great upheaval, and it's very likely that no rich or poor meant everyone was poor by modern standards. It meant the cities and states were isolated, and without large, central governments, which meant in turn that life was essentially subsistence living, with limited trade, commerce, and specialization, and that farming practices only had the ability to support relatively small populations. The happiness and peace experienced were good, but life spans were short, all the perils of nature still remained, and knowledge of the world extended at most a few hundred miles. For good or ill, medicine, modern transport, modern agriculture, and Wikipedia came out of that same Pandora's box that has given us NSA wiretaps and surveillance drones. We don't really want to go back, even if we might be sent there the next time Yellowstone decides to explode. So the question is, can we mimic the key aspects of Zion in our wealthy, modern world? Or do we have to return to the ages of early death and living at the immediate mercy of nature? I hope that we can become Zion, and I believe science can help bring out our better natures. It won't save us, but there is no reason not to use it to speed God's work of salvation.

To begin, we have to focus on the key aspects of Zion that we might measure. I can see three pretty clearly:
  • Wealth and power are not centralized. Concentrate one and you concentrate the other, and there is no way to have the economic equality that can be described as no rich and no poor. Thus the ultimate fall of Communism--lots of power to a few to force equality among the rest. This will be the downfall of any economic system which promotes and maintains unhealthy differentiation among God's children--haves and have nots, contributors and dead weight, rulers and governed, instead of fellow citizens (Eph. 2:19), brothers and sisters (Rom. 8:14-17), and friends (D&C 84:63).
  • Knowledge and learning are provided to all, as much as each is able to claim. Otherwise, we again have the creation of unnecessary class distinctions.
  • Abuses of vulnerability are eliminated. Without a deep sense of safety one with another, can we imagine becoming of one heart and one mind? Nature may rage against us, but it is our hearts and minds that prevent Zion, not the natural ills of this world.
I'll admit Capitalism and Democracy are huge leaps forward over Tribalism, Feudalism, Monarchy, and other governmental and economic systems the world has seen thus far. And I'm sure other people could write lists of ways that technology is diffusing wealth and power--micro-loans, more effectively targeted charitable donations, crowd-sourced capital, and empowered and globalized grassroots activism. The free resources for democratizing knowledge and learning are astounding, to the point of threatening my livelihood as a teacher if I'm unwilling or unable to change with the times. It is the third area where many of us are surprised to learn that science can help us advance, yet these are the advances that must be the foundation of sustained success in the realms of wealth, power, and knowledge.

You may ask, what science is going to help us feel safe with all the strangers that can shape our lives in this global, technologically empowered world? My partial answer is: science that will help us restructure our organizations, our communities, our friendships, our families, and ourselves--our very ways of thinking and reacting. This brings us back to where I began. Am I afraid of others knowing everything I do? Is an all-seeing God an object of fear? How about when we find that the all-seeing god is a whole bunch of people like ourselves? Will I be ashamed? Will I be afraid of how others will abuse their knowledge of me? I now believe any spirits watching over me either don't care, or view me with more love than I even view myself, and it doesn't matter if they are watching or not. I'm not that confident as regards the judgments of other mortals. One of the best known researchers in the field of shame and vulnerability is Brene' Brown. I started out thinking I would review some sections of her book, Daring Greatly, but one long blog post later, I'm going to give you just a taste. Here is her Leadership Manifesto, since it relates most closely to this post:

The Daring Greatly Leadership Manifesto

To the CEOs and teachers.  To the principals and the managers.  To the politicians, community leaders, and decision-makers:
We want to show up, we want to learn, and we want to inspire.
We are hardwired for connection, curiosity, and engagement.
We crave purpose, and we have a deep desire to create and contribute.
We want to take risks, embrace our vulnerabilities, and be courageous.
When learning and working are dehumanized–when you no longer see us and no longer encourage our daring, or when you only see what we produce or how we perform–we disengage and turn away from the very things that the world needs from us: our talent, our ideas, and our passion.
What we ask is that you engage with us, show up beside us, and learn from us.
Feedback is a function of respect, when you don’t have honest conversations with us about our strengths and our opportunitites for growth, we question our contributions and your commitment.
Above all else, we ask that you show up, be yourself, be seen, and be courageous.  Dare Greatly with us.
You can download some other summary quotes here. One message I take away from Dr. Brown's shame and vulnerability research is that we can become people, and create organizations, where vulnerability flourishes and shame doesn't last. There are actionable choices we can make and policies we can develop or support that favor interconnection and take away the power of shame and abuse. At this link you can find her rightly famous TED talks, and some other interviews. I hope you find time to enjoy them.

Some people might say that conflict is hardwired into us as humans, and we will never overcome it, since it is part of our biology. That may be true, but the work of Brene' Brown and others suggests that we might yet become less violent and competitive and more wholehearted through our "social technologies" (not her phrase). By restructuring our relationships--within government, community, church, and the workplace, as well as our personal relationships--we can change how the world works. Our biology actually thrives in safely vulnerable environments. That doesn't mean vulnerability is easy or comfortable, just that it is healthy and productive. As we overcome the culture of scarcity (and perhaps even move into a future of plenty, but we don't have to wait until then), we can become more fulfilled, more creative, more loving, more innovative, and more resilient in the face of hardship. We don't have to become superhuman first, we just need to help each other become more fully and richly human. Then, as our powers increase, they will not threaten the well being, or even existence, of humanity, but will aid us in building Zion. And we will know it because we will be of one heart and one mind.