Rethinking Our Vision of Success

Rethinking Our Vision of Success

Robert Pollack [10.10.19]

How do we understand that our 100,000-fold excess of numbers on this planet, plus what we do to feed ourselves, makes us a tumor on the body of the planet? I don't want the future that involves some end to us, which is a kind of surgery of the planet. That's not anybody's wish. How do we revert ourselves to normal while we can? How do we re-enter the world of natural selection, not by punishing each other, but by volunteering to take success as meaning success and survival of the future, not success in stuff now? How do we do that? We don't have a language for that.

ROBERT POLLACK is a professor of biological sciences, and also serves as director of the University Seminars at Columbia University (on sabbatical for academic year 2019-2020). He is the author of The Course of Nature, a book of drawings by the artist Amy Pollack, accompanied by his short explanatory essays. Robert Pollack's Edge Bio Page


I'm asking myself what's most important to do in the time I have. I'm very grateful for the time I have. I'm astounded at the difference between where I am and where I was in my memory, and astounded at the absence of a future stability to meet the stability that I had when I was growing up.

I was born in 1940. I've lived through the period of the greatest hegemony of American power and democracy and military might, with you and everybody else my age. We've lived seventy years without a nuclear war, after the use of nuclear weapons once. I look at my students who have remained the same age for the forty years I've been teaching them as I've gotten forty years older, and I wonder what their lives will be when they're my age, what their grandchildren's lives will be. That's what's on my mind. I don't think it's a political question at all. It's an existential question. It may be a religious question. It is certainly an emotionally driven question. I'm a scientist, so I guess I have to say as well that it's a scientific question. When I think about it as a scientific question, I think about it in terms of my work.

I'm a biologist, and I am aware of the gift of insight of the very fancy Englishman 150 years ago, Charles Darwin, who made the unexpected observation, which I think disturbed him as much as anyone else, that when you look at the individual members of any species—worms, plants, or people, or anything in between—no two individuals in the species are the same, even though they are fertile and can have offspring. He said these differences arise and then they're stable and inherited. Inherited novelty may be a sufficient source of novelty over time, so that in enough time, new species emerge from old, and maybe we are all descended from the same living thing initially. And that's true. We know with DNA that we have a chemical that can undergo novelty via change in base pairs, and then stability because the new base pair will be as stable as the old one.

Darwin gave 150 years ago a clear explanation for how the living world in nature is. His wonderful book On the Origin of Species has the metaphor of a tangled bank. When you look at the tangled bank of a river, you see plants and animals and bugs and worms, and they're all in dynamic tension with each other. That is the source of our notion of ecology.

I've lived as a biologist in the world of Darwin, trying to understand Darwinian pre-adaptive mutation in terms of cancer as distinct from normal cells. I fully think I understand it. Then, as I'm teaching my undergraduates, I discover that we as a single species are wholly out of that tangled bank. We are 100,000-fold in excess of our natural numbers, and we threaten the planet by our success. What I'm thinking about is, what is the language that says our problem is our success, not our failure? I am not one of the people who say, "Woe is us. We failed." My concern is how do I redefine success so that success is at equilibrium with the rest of the living world, and that we do not destroy the planet? I teach this question, I wonder about this question, I write about this question, and what stops me is my fear that the reality is known to me by metaphor, but the metaphor is too scary to easily write about.

I started out in physics and switched to biology. In my postgraduate postdoctoral fellowship at NYU medical school, I took Darwin to the problem of cancer. If Darwin is right that variation arises before it's needed, perhaps there are normal behaving cells inside a tumor. We would never know that; the tumor would outgrow them. But when we apply chemotherapy to a tumor, the normal cells might be the only survivors, and if they're not really normal, they might be the source of future problems. But whoever heard of normal cells arising in the descendants of a tumor? I did the work and I found, yes, about one in 100,000 cells of a tumor is a normal cell in its behavior. It touches another cell, it stops dividing. It's social, interdependent with other cells. It hasn't become autonomous and free to divide as much as it wants the way a tumor does. You see my metaphor?

How do we understand that our 100,000-fold excess of numbers on this planet, plus what we do to feed ourselves, makes us a tumor on the body of the planet? I don't want the future that involves some end to us, which is a kind of surgery of the planet. That's not anybody's wish. How do we revert ourselves to normal while we can? How do we re-enter the world of natural selection, not by punishing each other, but by volunteering to take success as meaning success and survival of the future, not success in stuff now? How do we do that? We don't have a language for that.

We do have structures that value the future over current success. I'm at an institution that has one of those structures. Columbia University is one of the most well-endowed universities in the world. That endowment, which is permanent, according to the economic structure of the country, is stable, it produces wealth without taxation, and that wealth is, by government regulation, required to be spent in the public interest. My job is in the public interest, my teaching is in the public interest, my salary comes that way, my sabbatical, which allows me to find the time to talk to you now. The idea of an endowment is perhaps an expandable idea. If I were talking this way, not to you, John, but to the people I hope are watching this, it's the most wealthy and powerful of them that I wish I was talking to. The more you have, the more you can set aside in a de facto endowment to stabilize the present so that the future doesn't collapse on us.

That's not a taxation. That's not a redistribution. It's a withholding. It's an agreement to do with less now for the sake of the future. I don't see economic structures that do that. I don't see politics that does that. But I see kids, like those in the street this week, knowing if we don't do something like that, they don't have a world.

As a scientist, I say that the world is not guaranteed. The fact that we're here talking is a product of natural selection. We're here because we're mortal. All life plays out Darwin's insight—novelty arises in DNA—but you don't know whether it's going to be better or worse until it's tested in the next generation. And you can't have a next generation if you have immortal individuals. The ticket of admission to being alive is mortality. That's the second thing I think about—how far that is from our vision of medicine, how far that is from our vision of success.

A successful medical treatment keeps you alive. Well, what is the medicine of a real whole life? What is the medicine of accepting mortality but still being alive? What is the social responsibility we have to each other as we help each other through that transition? Show me the taxation that's spent on that. Show me the infrastructure that goes to that. It's unspeakable, like we can't talk about it. But if we don't talk about it, either at the scale of individual mortality, or the scale of species mortality, or the scale of planetary mortality, we will have participated in the cooperation with nature to end ourselves.

How do we use our intelligence to be smarter than that? Since our intelligence frees us from natural selection, can we not use our intelligence to replace our ambition to have as big and as powerful and as much as we can with definitions of success that are stable in nature and keep us alive?

Maybe it's necessary to go back and talk about what we mean by natural selection. Darwin's observations as written in his book—which I understand was not a real book, it was the preprint of what he would have done as a book, but then found that somebody else was going to scoop him, so he had the Royal Society publish it because he did have the idea first—were simple. His idea is the absence of intention, the absence of purpose, the absence of direction, the absence of perfectibility are the result of inherited random variation being sufficient novelty to provide some offspring who will survive whatever happens.

We are the product of 4 billion years of ancestral survival despite whatever happened. The greatest catastrophe of the planet, as I understand it, was the emergence in the oceans of a chemical pathway that reversed the regular chemical pathway to that date of how you get energy out of molecules so that you can build your own self by capturing the energy of light and reversing the whole pathway so energy of light would allow you to capture CO2, break off the oxygen, throw it away, and make carbon-based molecules with light as the energy. That poisoned the atmosphere with oxygen and killed almost everything that wasn't photosynthetic. We are the descendants of the very rare survivors of photosynthesis, and we are in equilibrium with photosynthesis ever since, as we know when we eat our vegan lunches.

Perhaps there's a very good example of how there is no plan to natural selection. In fact, the word evolution, I believe, was coined by one of Darwin's followers, not him. It implies the unrolling of something as if there is some place, the plan, and it unrolls in the form of what we see. Darwin's deep insight is there is no plan.

I don't know another scientific idea that has survived all attempts to disprove it over 150 years and yet is so socially unacceptable as Darwin's exclusion of purpose, his exclusion of direction, his exclusion of perfectibility. Darwin's observations held up by as much scientific attempts to disprove as I can imagine. Say to us, for instance, there is no science behind any ranking of differences among people as some people being closer and others further from perfection. There is not. There cannot be. In Darwinian terms, our species' future probably resides not in any one of us, but in the maximum diversity of different DNA versions of human DNA, so that, among them, some will survive. Where do you think the most variations of DNA of human species are? They are in central Africa, because all of us are Africans.

When I teach a room of students, I say that some of us are African Americans, but we are all American Africans. Every human being has an African ancestry only 50, 60,000 years ago. The people who populate the rest of the planet and their descendants, like me, come from small subpopulations of that African human ancestral population. Most of the DNA variations are in people living in central Africa, whom some of us disdain and disregard. But if we understood nature's value of variation, of difference, we'd celebrate our diversity.

You might think that I'm making a very depressing argument, but I don't think so. What I'm saying is, we are fundamentally in each other's hands. Among the temptations we have to overcome, the first one I said was the temptation of winning, where we measure success by stuff instead of by conservation for the future. The second way we risk the future is by cleverly thinking some of us can escape it. Whether we think we can escape it by living in a satellite or false planet someplace outside Earth, or whether we think we can escape it by using our treasure to go to Mars or the moon, it's the same problem. That "we" is a very small number of people, and I'm interested in the species.

The fundamental reality of life is that we cannot be more important than one another, insofar as each of us has a direct descent from anaerobic bacteria 4 billion years ago. There is nothing in nature that values one of us over another. I'm not interested in any argument that says, "I'll make it. To hell with you." In my world of molecular biology, the people making that argument are people who say, "I have enough money. I will take the sperm and egg before I have a kid, and I'll make sure that sperm and egg have a bright kid with a bright future." That's alphas, betas, gammas, and deltas. I'm not interested in a research plan that presupposes a better and says, "I'm going to have a better kid."

In fact, given how much of our DNA is uniquely human because it associates with changes in embryology that give us a big, slow developing brain so that our consciousness is social from birth, any idea that says "I want my kid to have a greater utility, so I will play with his or her DNA" destroys the possibility of being accepted for whoever you are. It is as eugenically dangerous as any judgment by race, religion, color, or any other thing you see at distance of ten feet. No, I'm not interested in transhuman models. I'm not interested in saving us. I'm not interested in freezing brains. I'm interested in the same old boring thing inside a mortal universe of mortal people—how best to care for each other and to care for each other's futures. And I do not think the purpose of science and technology is to give one in a billion of us a chance to get away from that.

I have to clarify the essence of what I'm trying to say. I am not making a political statement. I do not have a mechanism to value the future over the present in time to give us a future. The current redistribution plans for fairness, for taxation, for whatever political opinion you may have are all for the present or the immediate future. They will not save the planet from this species. To save the planet from the species requires a species-wide response.

Our entire history since the emergence of our species, with its ability to have language and conversation, has been in the direction of limiting our ability to hear and understand each other. Our species has hundreds, maybe thousands, of languages. If you don't speak someone else's language, you do not know them as a person; they're not quite human. We have in a sense functional subspecies by the thousands of people who cannot talk to each other, who cannot help each other, and who cannot plan together for the future. The same digital world that allows me to give this interview is the digital world that in principle opens up this problem. Google has an automatic translator, but it's only for about a half a dozen languages.

How do we recover or perhaps invent species self-awareness? How do we invent the recognition of each of us as one of 7 billion people, not as one of 300 million Americans, not as one of ten people in our immediate family, not as you name how many different categories we are part of? Who thinks they're one of 7 billion? Thinking makes us different. Thinking is our species' marker, and yet we cannot find the language to think about that fact. That is the paradox.

I just said that humans lack a human language. Language is part of the process of human self-isolation into subpopulation so that we can care only for the ones that we care about. No human has an obligation to care for the species. We became 100,000 times in excess of natural numbers by caring only about the ones closest to us. We have a technology that is global, so I don't know who to talk to about this. Maybe the people watching this will know. It seems to me that that is a project worth the worldwide web, worth Google translate.

How do we make a statement which is immediately understood, disagreed with is fine, but heard by everybody? Who are we talking to? I'm not interested in talking to people who agree with me. I'm not interested in being right here. I'm interested in raising a question for which I do not have the answer. The first rule of getting out of a hole is to stop digging, and we dig that hole deeper when we continue to talk to each other about how we can succeed.

I look around me and I see two current pathways, three if I think about it. But I don't know where they go, and I welcome further thoughts from anybody. The one pathway is what I just mentioned. The web is available; it doesn't speak one language. The second pathway is what I do—teaching is a global phenomenon, and it allows me to suspend my age because as I get older, my students don't. If I take this gift as a responsibility, I should be spending my time working with my students to find the language that works for them, not for me, and having them teach me. Reciprocal teaching is conversation. From that I take the third path. How may we begin to experiment with what it looks like, what it sounds like, when two people who never met each other can converse over their common interest in their grandchildren's survival?

I realize I've contradicted myself. On the one hand, I'm talking about everybody. On the other hand, I'm talking about that very pre-selected population who makes it to a class of mine at Columbia University. My question is, can my students and I working together find the language which is available to everybody? Can we use the safety, continuity, and stability of a university? Can I use the stability of tenure not to build more people like me, but to get us to act in service of this problem? It means not leaving where we are, but leaving how we think. We have to think in a new way. We cannot think in terms of only those people who look, sound, and are like us.

I can imagine people hearing me say this will make the mistake that people make all the time and say, "I know this guy. He's white and he's old. This is a white old man's opinion. What's it to me?" Therefore, they will break from their side the possibility of a conversation. My whole point is that those conversations are intrinsically fragile. They can be broken before they start. That's what racism and prejudice are. "I see you from ten feet away. I know you. You're not worth anything. I've nothing to say to you." I beg whoever watches this to think of the language we can share in spite of our differences. If we cannot find that language, our grandchildren and their grandchildren will be very angry at us for good reason because we didn't try.

The emergence on this planet of rituals that bring people together despite their differences—whether those rituals are wrapped in dogma, which make them religions; whether those rituals are wrapped in laws, which make them political processes; whether those rituals are wrapped in upbringing, which make them educational; whether those rituals are wrapped in physical activity, which make them sports—doesn't matter. They represent that language in parts. None of those languages is now being brought to the problem, which is existential for us all. The closest perhaps would be the current Pope's encyclical on global warming, but I don't see that as having generated in one billion of the 7 billion of us a change in behavior.

The tool is available to reach a billion people if you're the Pope. The language hasn't worked. It doesn't mean it can't or won't. How do we understand that we're mortal humans and that we're really not more important than each other in that sense?

I had a teacher who became my friend, a man named Robert Belknap, who was a professor of Slavics at Columbia. Belknap is a Mayflower name and I, being anxious about my place at Columbia, was very happy to have him befriend me. He said two things to me, which I think are worth saying in this context because they apply. We worked together at a university program, and I asked him a question about a difficult colleague. He said, "Well, Bob, another person is not a full-length mirror." How often do we behave as if the person we're talking to is a full-length mirror, where we're talking about ourselves?

The second story goes to his being a Belknap. Once before he passed away, I said, "So Bob, how many generations has your family celebrated Thanksgiving?" thinking I know a Mayflower guy. And he says, "Oh, five thousand, ten thousand years. But you don't want me to remember my Mayflower ancestors and forget my Native American ancestors, do you?" This, I thought, was brilliant, and also an invitation to me to get over it. Who cares that I have ancestors from Eastern Europe? It's not the point. We are each unique.

So let me say something about our uniqueness, which is embedded in our DNA. Simple probabilities. Every base pair in DNA has four possible base pairs. Three billion letters long. Each position in the text could have one of four choices. So how many DNAs are there? There are four times four two-letter words in DNA, four for the first letter, four for the second—sixteen possible two-letter words. Sixty-four possible three-letter words. That is to say, how many possible human genomes are there? Four to the power 3 billion, which is to say a ridiculous, infinite number. There are only 1080 elementary particles in the universe.

Each of us is precisely, absolutely unique while we are alive. And in our uniqueness, we are absolutely different from each other, not by more or less, but absolutely different. How do we overcome our mental world's misinterpretation of this that says, "Here's a collection of us who are really important and the rest of them can go to hell"? The biology says that we're all equally valuable and equally mortal.

It may be that a global language does it in music. It may be a global language does in an art. My wife and I have a book on evolution. She's an artist and she would come to my classes and make drawings. Then I decided the drawings were better than the slides I showed, so I would show the drawings as slides. And that would be how I taught.

My wife and I have this book, The Course of Nature. It's her drawings and my explanations of her drawings. We got a Chinese publication of it. I opened it up, and I couldn't understand a thing about the text. That makes me wonder whether the language I'm talking about might be drawings rather than current languages. What would a graphic novel of what I'm saying look like? I'd really be interested in that. It might be a global graphic novel on how not to miss the boat and disappear because of self-serving short-sightedness.

That brings me what I'm doing now as a professor on this matter. I have had the arc of a career, which makes me among the minority of professors I know who use the title professor and profess. I came to Columbia in 1978 and ran a laboratory until 1994. Having been the dean of Columbia College responsible for admitting women after 240 years, I found a whole world of people who are not scientists that I wanted to be with. I suspended my laboratory and became a professor professing. I taught and I wrote books. That's the source of my books, starting with Signs of Life.

I have given big lectures to 500 people, but I much prefer a seminar of twenty because that's a conversation. That's a nonbiological family experience. That is a model for breaking away from the biology of family to the mental gift of family. The people who choose to take my class and I share the problem of understanding something, and we talk about it.

Some years ago, I decided to create an activity for students based on this. With a gift from a friend of an endowment of my own, I run a program called the Research Cluster on Science and Subjectivity. The premise of it is this, I will pay an undergraduate a stipend if he or she will propose a project that involves science, subjective self-awareness, and service to others. They will own the project, and I will help them. I have colleagues who share with me the task of helping, but they must never think they're working for us. It's theirs. Two out of three students who find me, love this idea and disappear because they wait for me to tell them what to do. But the ones who stay overwhelm me with their creativity and intelligence, because they have now been liberated to be who I was when I was seventeen at Columbia College—a smart kid with somebody who is asking what they think.

The earliest program was a volunteer program to work with dying people at the Terence Cardinal Cooke hospital on Fifth Avenue. My friend, who was the medical director, and I had undergraduates volunteer to be with people at the end of life. A couple of years later, one of the students said to me, "Why can't we get academic credit for this?" I went to the administrator and the administrator said, "Oh Bob, don't you know that sitting with dying people is not an academic subject?" So I went back to the student and said we couldn't do it. And she said, "Oh Bob, don't you know, you've got to have a syllabus?" She made up a syllabus—fourteen weeks, fourteen different readings, fourteen different ways of addressing end-of-life issues. And she made the recitation section four hours a week of volunteer service, so that whatever the reading, it pertained to their experience. The head of palliative care medicine at Columbia now teaches this course. It's highly desirable, over-subscribed even. It's four points toward 120 plus to get a degree. Tell me another place in the world where a seventeen or eighteen-year-old kid can create a program that lives on for years afterwards? It's in its fourth year.

That's what I do. I use the leverage of my authority and title to give students the experience of ownership. Everybody I know of any age carries some element of impostor anxiety (am I really good enough to be here?). I remember it well. I don't know anybody who's free of it entirely. This is a great gift to students because this defines them as owning something that makes them a part of the place. And it's just a wonderful gift to see. After five years, people graduate, they go off, have families, they have professions, they stay in touch.

I have experienced the power of a non-biological family structure. I would like to scale that up to make the species a non-biological family. And that is a technology question that I would love to work on with others.