Andreas Weber’s “Biology of Wonder”: Aliveness as a Force of Evolution and the Commons

When I met biologist and ecophilosopher Andreas Weber several years ago, I was amazed at his audacity in challenging the orthodoxies of Darwinism. He proposes that science study a very radical yet unexplained phenomenon -- aliveness!  He rejects the neoDarwinian account of life as a collection of sophisticated, evolving machines, each relentlessly competing with maximum efficiency for supremacy in the laissez-faire market of nature.  (See Weber's fantastic essay on “Enlivenment” for more on this theme.) 

Drawing upon a rich body of scientific research, Weber outlines a different story of evolution, one in which living organisms are inherently expressive and creative in a struggle to both compete and cooperate. The heart of the evolutionary drama, Weber insists, is the quest of all living systems to express what they feel and experience, and adapt to the world -- and change it! -- as they develop their identities.

Except for a few essays and public talks, most of Weber’s writings are available only in his native German.  So it is a thrill that some of his core ideas have now been published in English. Check out his lyrical yet scientifically rigorous book, Biology of Wonder:  Aliveness, Consciousness and the Metamorophosis of Science, just published by New Society Publishers.  (Full disclosure requires me to mention my modest role in helping Andreas improve the “natural English” of his translation of his original German writings.)

Future historians will look back on this book as a landmark that consolidates and explains paradigm-shifting theories and research in the biological sciences. Biology of Wonder explains how political thinkers like Locke, Hobbes and Adam Smith have provided a cultural framework that has affected biological inquiry, and how the standard Darwinian biological narrative, for its part, has projected its ideas about natural selection and organisms-as-machines on to our understanding of human societies.  Darwinism and "free markets" have grown up together.

This is now changing, as Weber explains:

Biology, which has made so many efforts to chase emotions from nature since the 19th century, is rediscovering feeling as the foundation of life. Until now researchers, eager to discover the structure and behavior of organisms, had glossed over the problem of an organism’s interior reality. Today, however, biologists are learning innumerable new details about how an organism brings forth itself and its experiences, and are trying not only to dissect but to reimagine developmental pathways. They realize that the more technology allows us to study life on a micro-level, the stronger the evidence of life’s complexity and intelligence becomes.  Organisms are not clocks assembled from discrete, mechanical pieces; rather, they are unities held together by a mighty force: feeling what is good or bad for them.

In the grand narrative of evolution, the idea that feeling, emotions, morality and even spirituality might be consequential has long been dismissed.  Such experiences are generally regarded as trivial sideshows to the main act of the cosmos:  nasty, brutish competition as the inexorable vehicle of evolutionary progress.  Indeed, modern times have virtually combined the idea of "survival of the fittest" with our cultural ideas about the "free market economy." 

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humanities work related to incarceration

All are welcome to 2016’s second Tisch Talk in the Humanities, “Stages of Detention,” on March 4 at 2:00 pm in the Rabb Room, Lincoln Filene Hall, Tufts University’s Medford campus.

Increasingly, scholars in the arts and humanities are working in and around prisons. On March 2, we will hear from two distinguished practitioners and will have the opportunity to discuss their work.

Noe Montez is Assistant Professor of Drama and Dance at Tufts. Professor Montez’s project explores guided tours of Southern Cone detention sites that have recently been converted into spaces of memory in order to explore how trauma and commemoration are performed as part of an ongoing process of transitional justice. His work includes research on sites in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. He has also completed a monograph that explores a Buenos Aires theatre’s collaboration with human rights activists in Argentina’s post-dictatorship.

Amy Remensnyder is Professor of History and a Public Humanities Fellow at Brown. Since 2010, Professor Remensnyder has been teaching history to men incarcerated in Rhode Island’s medium security prison. She is the founder and director of the Brown History Education Prison Project. Her increasing interest in issues of incarceration spurred her to design a course on the global history of prison and captivity, which she has taught both at Brown and at the prison. She is beginning work on a book about the global history of captivity.

The moderator and organizer is the Tisch Senior Fellow for the Humanities, Diane O’Donoghue.

The Two Endings of Brison’s Aftermath

Susan Brison’s Aftermath ends twice: the final chapter discusses her various efforts to retell the story of her brutal rape and attempted murder (she calls it “attempted sexual murder.”) And ends with her final, planned retelling to her son when he is older:

“Tragedy,” Wittgenstein wrote, “is when the tree, instead of bending, breaks.” What I wish most for my son is not the superhuman ability to avoid life-threatening disasters, but, rather, resilience, the capacity to carry on, alive in the present, unbound by dread or regret. Not the hard, flinty brittleness of rock, but the supple tenacity of the wind-rocked bough that bends, the bursting desire of a new-mown field that can’t wait to grow back, the will to say, whatever comes, Let’s see what happens next.

The second ending comes in an afterword where she discusses four murders. The first set of murders is the murder of her friends Susanne and Half Zantop which occurs soon after she submitted the manuscript. The second set is the murder of Trhas Berhe and Selamawit Tsehaye, two of five black women candidates for PhD in physics at Dartmouth a decade before. Because they were black international students from Ethiopia–killed by a third black Ethiopian–the campus treated these murders as non-events, and failed to mourn or respond with what we sometimes think of as the characteristic security theater.

In both cases she struggles with survivor’s guilt, the sense that their deaths and her survival were random, and undeserved. So she finishes the story again:

None of us is supposed to be alive. We’re all here by chance and only for a little while. The wonder is that we’ve managed, once again, to winter through and that our hearts, in spite of everything, survive.

Video: “Poverty, Culture, and Justice,” @ Purdue U

This is a screen capture from my talk at Purdue University in February of 2016.

I’ve posted a number of recordings of interviews and talks I’ve given on Uniting Mississippi. This talk is on my next project, which is still in progress. The book is titled A Culture of Justice. One of the chapters that is in progress is the subject of the talk I gave at Purdue University. Here’s the video, about 1hr 28 mins:

If you can’t see this video in your RSS reader or email, then click here.

If you’re looking for a speaker, visit my Speaking and Contact pages.

Dynamics of Online Social Interactions

I had the opportunity today to hear from Chenhao Tan, a Ph.D. Candidate in Computer Science at Cornell University who is looking at the dynamics of online social interactions.

In particular, Tan has done a great deal of work around predicting retweet rates for Twitter messages. That is, given two tweets by the same author on the same topic, can you predict which one will be retweeted more?

Interestingly, such pairs of tweets naturally occur frequently on Twitter. For one 2014 study, Tan was able to identify 11,000 pairs of author and topic controlled tweets with different retweet rates.

Through a computational model comparing words used as well as a number of custom features, such as the “informativeness” of a given tweet, Tan was able to build model which could correctly identify which tweet was more popular.

He even created a fun tool that allows you to input your own tweet text to compare which is more likely to be retweeted more.

From all this Twitter data, Tan was also able to compare the language of “successful” tweets to the tweets drawn from Twitter as a whole; as well as compare how these tweets fit into a given poster’s tone.

Interestingly, Tan found that the best strategy is to “be like the community, be like yourself.” That is – the most successful tweets were not notably divergent from Twitter norms and tended to be in line with the personal style of the original poster.

Tan interpreted this as a positive finding, indicating that a user doesn’t need to do something special in order to “stand out.” But, such a result to also point to Twitter as an insular community – unable to amplify messages which don’t fit the dominant norm.

And this leads to one of Tan’s broader research questions. Studies like his work around Twitter look at micro-level data; examining words and exploring how individual’s minds are changed. But, as Tan pointed out, the work of studying online communities can also be explored from a broader, macro level: what do healthy, online environments look like and how are they maintained?

There is more work to be done on both of these questions, but Tan’s work an intriguing start.


the 10 places where youth voters will have the most impact

The current homepage of NPR news is a feature article by Asma Khalid about CIRCLE’s Youth Electoral Significance Index (YESI). My CIRCLE colleagues have identified the top 10 states and 10 congressional districts where the youth vote will matter most in Nov. 2016.

Politicians, campaigns, educators, and civic leaders should reach out to young people everywhere. But we recognize that political actors with limited resources will want to invest where they can have the biggest impact, and reporters may want to cover the youth vote where it counts for the most in electoral terms. Hence the YESI.


10 Ways to Make Your Materials More Inclusive

The article, 10 Ways to Make Your Materials More Inclusive, from Everyday Democracy provide tips to make your materials (and events) more inclusive when engaging the community. These guidelines recommend ways to take into consideration diverse human experiences and expressions, in order to have better designed dialogue and deliberation processes. You can find the article below and in full on Everyday Democracy’s site here.

From Everyday Democracy…

As diverse as we are racially, ethnically and culturally, we are also very diverse in how we learn. When we train, facilitate or write guides, we should pay attention to different learning styles. For example, some people need graphs and charts to understand information, and others need a written explanation. Still others need to hear a presentation. Some people thrive in a group setting, while others need time for self-reflection. There may also be various levels of literacy or English-language skills within groups.

To develop discussion materials that will make your dialogues more inclusive of varying learning styles and literacy levels:

1. Add color and graphics to highlight important information.

Your materials are probably filled with a lot of text, so using color and graphics can help highlight the important points. Also, plenty of white space can help people digest the information more quickly.

2. Use simple language.

It’s always good practice to avoid run-on sentences, but you should also watch out for difficult terms and jargon. Think to yourself, “How would I explain this to my 10-year-old neighbor?” Using simple language will help everyone better understand the process, especially people with lower literacy levels or for whom English is not their first language.

3. Define vocabulary.

If you can’t avoid using certain terms, create a glossary or define difficult words in the sidebars. For concepts that may be hard to define or that may have multiple definitions, you can invite dialogue participants to have a discussion about the terms if there is disagreement among the group.

4. Include an audio option as a guide supplement.

Since some people absorb information more quickly through hearing the information instead of reading it, you might want to consider including an audio CD or links to podcasts with your guide. The entire guide doesn’t need to have an audio component, but having an audio component for the introduction and key concepts for each session would be a useful addition to your guide.

5. Use an animated visual, like a comic strip, to explain the process.

This helps visual learners to quickly understand key concepts and helps cut down the time needed for explanations.

6. Provide alternatives for visual information.

Whenever you present a graph or chart, also include a verbal explanation for the information you are presenting. This allows people to absorb the information in a way that’s easiest for them.

7. Translate materials.

In your dialogue groups you may have people who don’t speak any English. If you have the resources, consider translating materials into the most widely used language(s) in your community. If you can’t translate the entire discussion guide, another option is to create handouts for each session that could be translated into other languages.

8. Include activities that allow for physical movement.

This increases interactivity, but also helps take into consideration learning styles that call for more physical interaction.

9. Include activities in which participants can role play/switch roles.

These activities not only help make the discussions more interactive, but they also help participants experience an issue from a different perspective.

10. Allow time for reflection.

Set aside a few minutes at the end of a session for journaling or self-reflection for those people who need a few moments to process information.

About Everyday Democracy
Everyday Democracy
Everyday Democracy (formerly called the Study Circles Resource Center) is a project of The Paul J. Aicher Foundation, a private operating foundation dedicated to strengthening deliberative democracy and improving the quality of public life in the United States. Since our founding in 1989, we’ve worked with hundreds of communities across the United States on issues such as: racial equity, poverty reduction and economic development, education reform, early childhood development and building strong neighborhoods. We work with national, regional and state organizations in order to leverage our resources and to expand the reach and impact of civic engagement processes and tools.

Follow on Twitter: @EvDem

Resource Link:

New Teaching Primaries and Caucuses Lesson Plan

In this height of the election season, we are all looking for ways in which we can approach instruction concerning the sometimes confusing primary and caucus process. Recognizing this, our own Dr. Terri Fine has crafted a 4 day lesson plan that provides students an opportunity to engage students in an exploration of those elements of an election. And if any election begged for help in understanding it, it is this one for sure! The lesson plan is aligned with the Florida high school civics benchmarks: SS.912.C.2.14 Evaluate the processes and results of an election at the state or federal level, and SS.912.C.2.2 Evaluate the importance of political participation and civic participation. That does not mean, however, that you couldn’t use this to teach it in other grade levels or states! You can find the lesson plan on our website, and we are, as always very interested in feedback!