Vassar College

Chasing Our Tale: Remembrance of (Evolutionary) Things Past

John H. Long, Jr., Professor of Biology and Cognitive Science

Vassar College Fall Convocation
September 12, 2012

Greetings! Welcome, students, staff, administrators, and faculty. I offer a special “Hello!” to the Class of 2016 and an early “Farewell!” to the class of 2013: We miss you already. My thanks to President Hill and Dean Chenette for the invitation to speak with you today.

This probably won’t come as a surprise, but when someone asks me who I am, I think: biologist. That’s the first word that pops to mind, like when the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man is the first image that pops into the mind of Ghostbuster Ray Stantz, thus unintentionally conjuring the giant physical form of the Sumerian god Gozer. So, like Ray, I don’t mean to think, “biologist.” It just pops in there.

The second thing that comes to mind in response to the who-are-you question is a list of identifiers that I’ve been taught here at Vassar, thanks to the patient tutelage of my colleagues in the social sciences and the humanities who help me try to understand the construction of identity: I’m white, male, heterosexual, middle-class, father, married with children, and atheist (or, more accurately, “lapsed Roman Catholic,” say my Catholic friends and family).

I’m a registered but unaffiliated voter. Debates on Social Security and Medicare remind me daily that generationally I’m identified by others as either a late baby boomer or an early Gen Xer. Because Gen Xer sounds like a member of team of super heroes, it’s that latter group with which I choose to self-identify. Generationally, I’m an X man. Did I say that right? Or is “X person” the proper construction? I’m still learning.

Here’s one last identity surprise that won’t surprise you: I’m a nerd. I’m a book-reading, rational-minded, puzzle-solving, science-doing, Star-Trek-and-Dr.-Who-loving nerd. But, first and foremost, I’m a biologist.

Being a biologist has the side effect that I see myself fundamentally, daily, inherently (madly, truly, deeply) as an animal. I am an animal.

Now by identifying myself, a human, as an animal, what I’m intending to do is point us towards an insight that I’ve learned about the biology of humans from a professor of French and Franophone Studies, Dr. Kathleen Hart. Kathleen is also a member of the Programs in Womens Studies and Environmental Studies. Several years ago Kathleen asked me to collaborate with her to teach a course that she had created called “Animal

Metaphors.” We taught it in 2009 for the Environmental Studies Program as the required majors’ course, Environmental Studies 260, “Issues in Environmental Studies.”

Here’s an excerpt of our course description:

Animal Metaphors... The purpose of this course is to discover how and why humans so often define themselves in opposition to the animal world, and to use both art and science in order to explore alternative identities that would help us come to terms with our own "animal" being. As we consider stories about animals in various works of literature and film, we study humans themselves as a species to which evolution has bequeathed a host of traits and capacities, including the capacity for story-telling. Readings in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology help us to reframe questions of human identity in relation to animals. ... we examine ways in which various cultural narratives ... have been transformed by a more scientifically informed appreciation of animals as metaphors, and of humans as "metaphorizing animals."

As you can see, one of the things that Kathleen taught me is that most humans don’t identify themselves as animals. Instead, humans construct identities, as I did for myself a few minutes ago, that reference ourselves relative to our culture. One way to think of culture — and keep in mind when I say this that I am not a scholar in this area, so apologies to my colleagues who are — is that culture is the on-going collective story that we tell and paint of our uniqueness. The story of human uniqueness serves as a fortress against our deepest, darkest fear, that fear that we are, after all, just animals.

Why fear being just-an-animal? Because animals are mortal. Animals, we say, lack a soul and, hence, an afterlife. Their existence is finite, transitory, secular. When they die they die.

In other words, we deny that we are animals in order to deny that we are mortal. Our denial of death undergirds the actions that we take; so argued anthropologist Ernest Becker. This idea forms the basis in social psychology of Terror Management Theory. Experiments by Jamie Goldenberg, Jeff Greenberg and others have shown that when humans are reminded of their mortality, they show more disgust towards body products and animals. Mortality salience leads humans to prefer stories in which our differences from animals are emphasized.

What to do? How to manage our terror? As Kathleen emphasized in Animal Metaphors and in her writings, we are all the time creating fictions — metaphors on the scale of words and fantasies on the scale of stories — just to get through the day. Just to manage the terror. And one of the most powerful, helpful, and harmful fictions is that we are not animals.

And this story telling works! Even though I’m an atheist, I still get a thrill from the following scene in Peter Jackson’s movie, “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.”

Here’s the scene: Sauron’s forces have overtaken the outer battlements of Minas Tirith and are laying siege to the inner city, which is still held tenuously by the humans of Gondor.

Inside a city gate, Pippin, the hobbit, sits, exhausted and afraid, with the white wizard, Gandalf, at his side:

Pippin says, “I didn't think it would end this way.”

“End?” replies Gandalf. “No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.”

“What? Gandalf? See what?”
“White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise,” answers Gandalf.

“Well,” says Pippin, “That isn't so bad.” “No,” offers Gandalf, “No, it isn't.”

This lovely story-telling illustrates the psychological power of creating fictions, of deceiving ourselves, just to get through the day. Or to get through the battle. Or life.

So let me sum up what I’ve learned about the biology of humans from KathleenThe human capacity for self-deception is enormous, and it is made possible by our evolved ability to tell stories, to create the fiction of our immortality in order, ironically, to deny the fact that we are evolved animals.

Remember this the next time that someone tells you that humans aren’t evolving or that we are beyond evolution.

When we chase our evolutionary tale, it’s worth remembering that we humans share our recent genealogy with chimps, gorillas, gibbons, orangutans, monkeys, marmosets, tamarins, lemurs, galagos, aye-ayes, lorises, and tarsiers. Together, we are part of the rebel alliance, the common-ancestor-sharing group known collectively as primates. As primates we share an ancestor with mammals; as mammals we share an ancestor with vertebrates; as vertebrates we are animals; as animals we are life-forms.

Biologists reconstruct this Cat-in-the-Hat view of the nested hierarchy of our genealogical relationships from the evolutionary crime scene investigation of our bodies. Clues are everywhere: our DNA, cells, tissues, organs, and behaviors are packed with the physical evidence that tells the deep-time truth that we labor to rewrite: we are animals. We share ancestry with all other life. As a species we have evolved and we are evolving. As individuals we are born, we may or may not reproduce, we might live long and prosper, and we will certainly die.

That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ with it.

But enough about death. To life!

What is life and what is living? I’m supposed to know, right, since I’m a biologist. But I don’t know. In fact, those two questions — what is life and what is living — are open, productive areas of scientific research. Part of the challenge and fun of this research is finding new ways of studying life and the act of living. A few biologists, myself included, are doing something very counter-intuitive: we study life by building and studying machines, a special kind of machine called a biorobot. That’s pretty whacked, right?

I argue about this approach all the time with other biologists and computer scientists. The crux of my argument boils down to this: if you think that you can learn something about a biological system by building a computer model of it, then it follows that you can learn something about a biological system by building a physical model – like a robot. To put on my Star Trek hat, Mr. Spock would say that it is illogical to accept, on the one hand, the validity of computer models and reject, on the other, the validity of physical models like robots. You either think that modeling – in general – is a fruitful scientific approach or you don’t. You can’t cherry-pick what you consider to be a valid model just because you have a preference for a particular medium.

So, for the purpose of creating scientific models and testing biological ideas, we humans-as- animals design biorobots to have many of the features that we animals possess: a physical body, the capacity to sense the world, the ability to move in the world, and the skill to act independently. These shared features create a super-category of physical entities called “autonomous agents.” By virtue of their continuous physical interaction with the world, and the world with them, autonomous agents — animals and biorobots — perform an on- going dynamical systems dance that we call “behavior.”

Behavior, then, is what we measure and compare in our models and in the animals that we are trying to understand. The ability for both robots and animals to behave means that when you study the behavior of one kind of autonomous agent you learn something about the behavior of the others.

In other words: You can learn about life when you let biorobots play the game of life.

This is the idea that changed my perspective on the study of biology. For this I thank my colleagues in Vassar’s Cognitive Science Program: Gwen Broude, Jan Andrews, Carol Christenson, Carolyn Palmer, and Ken Livingston. Through lively conversations, book recommendations, and team-teaching they tutor me in the intricacies of Cognitive Science’s vast, ever-changing and multidisciplinary pursuit of studying minds and intelligence, where ever and however those entities and/or processes occur.

They’ve taught me to keep an open mind about minds.

On the heels of these insights, the practical challenge for me — and for the students working in my lab — was figuring out how to build biorobots. That’s part of the puzzle- work of science: you may be able to think about a new way to do things, but most often you can’t just order what you need from Amazon. In our case, we needed a bunch of

autonomous fish-like biorobots with biomimetic backbones. But they don’t exist. We had to build them ourselves.

Here was my problem: I had no idea how to build a biorobot possessing what seemed to me to be the awesome cosmic power of autonomy. I’d been focusing on just the propulsion side of how fish swim. I wanted to understand how fish use their muscles to generate a special kind of force called a bending moment, how those bending moments are transmitted to the rest of the body, and how the body itself plays this amazing physical game of locomotion by transferring its internally generated momentum to the water.

This application of physics to biology is the chewy carmel nougat of a field called biomechanics. At one point, early on during my time here at Vassar, my dad was trying his darnedest to understand what this biomechanics stuff was all about. We were on the phone. He said, “So tell me again what you are trying to understand.” Appreciating his effort, I thought I’d start from the beginning. So I said, “Dad, I want to figure out how fish swim.” Pause. Long pause. And then he said, almost apologetically, “Well that’s easy: they wiggle their tails.”

You know what: He was right! Fish do just wiggle their tails. But he was wrong in another sense: it isn’t easy. Fish just make it look easy. They, like all organisms, are masters of biomechanical understatement. Consider this: while fish wiggle their tails to swim they also wiggle their tails to turn, and to stop, and to back up. If you think of the wiggle, what is technically called an “undulation,” as a mechanical vibration, then that undulation is like the humming of a plucked violin string.

Fish vibrate their bodies and then change the tone, retuning their bodies as they swim in order to change their behavior. Swimming is singing a song, making one long sustained note that rises and falls, glissando. That note varies in loudness, with a timbre that changes from instrument to instrument, fish to fish.

So you see Dad, you can tune-a-fish.

We tested our ideas about singing, self-tuning, stiffness-changing fish by building physical models. Working with Chuck Pell, an artist and inventor from North Carolina, we made rubber casts of pumpkinseed sunfish. To change the stiffness of the body, we used different formulations of a rubber-like material. With help from my Vassar colleague Bob Suter, a biomechanist and behaviorist specializing in spiders, we built a special motor that powered these physical fish models, creating bending moments that caused the body to generate mechanical waves of vibration. Using these undulations, the fish-like physical models propelled themselves. In other words, they swam.

Ken Livingston observed all of this with supportive collegial interest. He watched as we focused on what a cognitive scientist calls “action” — the motor output, muscle-driven, biomechanical side of behavior. But our self-propelled physical models were not autonomous agents, they didn’t have sensor input and they didn’t make decisions about

how they were going to behave. In fact, they weren’t behaving at all. They were just wiggling propellers.

Now don’t get me wrong: wiggling, fish-like propellers are very cool. But if we want to study how real fish behave, how it is that they are autonomous agents, how they live and evolve, then we needed help. And that’s where Ken was a life saver. He suggested that we team-teach Perception and Action, one of the core courses in the Cog Sci major. It features the use of autonomous robots to explore the origins of behavior and intelligence.

What Ken taught the students and me was a central insight that was literally and figuratively mind-blowing: your robot doesn’t need the awesome cosmic power of a big brain to be able to behave, and to behave intelligently. The proof of this concept comes from biology, where we have lots of glorious creatures — like the sea anemones, worms, and flies studied by my colleagues Jodi Schwarz, Kate Susman, and Nancy Pokrywka — that have very little in the way of what we neurocentric humans would call “brain.” But these critters have nervous systems, networks of neurons connecting sensors and muscles. Their behavior is intelligent in the sense that it gets the job of living done. They eat, survive, and reproduce. They play the game of life and they play it well.

With animals of little brain in mind, Ken had us program little brainless wheeled robots called Rug Warriors, connecting sensors and motors not with neurons but with wires and computer code. I remember watching the Rug Warriors move around the floor of the darkened lab. They seemed to move randomly at first, turning when they bumped into a wall. But when they found the very edge of the light from a single lamp, they took off, making a bee-line with moth-like vigor and determination towards that light. They behaved, and they did so without remote control, independently, on their own as autonomous agents.

At this point, I was doing my own dance of autonomous-agent joy. I thought: hey, we can do this with fish-like biorobots! And we did, with lots of help from Vassar undergraduates, majors in Biology, Cognitive Science, Biochemistry, Computer Science, Neuroscience & Behavior, Environmental Studies, and Science, Technology, and Society. As the breadth of these majors indicate, this has been and continues to be a true multidisciplinary enterprise.

To my continual joy, many of the undergraduates who work on our projects become graduate-level collaborators while they are still undergraduates. These full intellectual partners often present our work at scientific meetings and earn co-authorship while they are here; some carry on with our projects after they graduate. Sonia Roberts, Josh de Leeuw, Adam Lammert, and Hannah Rosenblum, did or are doing this, working as first authors on our manuscripts while they earn medical or graduate degrees. Matt McHenry, a double major in Studio Art and Biology, senior-authored one of our papers while he was a post-doctoral researcher at Harvard. He is now an associate professor of Biology at the University of California, Irvine. Rob Root, a double major in Math and Science, Technology, and Society, graduated before I even got here. But when he, as a professor of mathematics at Lafayette College, had a student interested in how fish swim, he found me, and we started a multi-institution collaboration that has lasted two decades.

With these great Vassar teams of students, staff, and faculty that we been able to build and rebuild, we’ve even gone so far now as to use our biorobots to model not just behavior, but the life-generating process of evolution itself. We evolve robots to test ideas about the evolution of the very first vertebrates, the fish-like creatures that swam in the sea some 500 million years ago. These first fish evolved vertebrae, the bones in our back after which our evolutionary lineage — vertebrates — is named.

So get this: Because we humans are vertebrates, by building and evolving autonomous fish-like biorobots, believe it or not we are really learning about our own evolutionary story as animals playing the game of life.

And, if you recall thinking about humans as metaphorizing, story-telling animals, then the scientific behavior that we call “modeling life with autonomous robots,” is really its own kind of story-telling. In that regard I’m inspired by the writer Marcel Proust. I’m trying to uncover and savor those involuntary memories buried in our geological and genealogical history, the stories that tell us the truth about being ourselves, about being animals. In homage to Proust’s masterpiece, then, let me say that I am a biologist in search of lost time, chasing our tale, remembering evolutionary things past.

Back to all Convocation Remarks

124 Raymond Ave., Poughkeepsie, NY 12604