When we first came to Brown, we were told to follow our hearts, and for the first two years of my Brown education, that’s exactly what I did. I studied literature, history, and sociology. Through the humanities I felt I could most truthfully address the enormous questions that we face as human beings: How is it that war can turn brothers against each other; How is it that poverty can persist in a land of abundance; How is it that democratic legislation could have ever defended inequality based on skin color. My professors taught me how to read critically, how to write, and how to think. They helped me transform my inward-turning indignation into sharp, productive analyses.
Then in the winter of our junior year, something inside me broke, and I lost my footing, my endurance. I felt like I had no solutions to offer the world, no technical skills, as though all I had was a conscience. Caught in this identity crisis, I asked myself, “What is the point of having a conscience? How could I have dedicated my entire education thus far simply to developing a conscience?” I am here today in a humble and grateful attempt to answer that question, to suggest that the development of conscience is precisely the point of an education. No matter what we study, Brown’s most distinguishing and important strength is that here we are challenged, even required, to connect our critical thinking with empathy.
I’d like to borrow a lesson from my work as a student of biology, a major I abruptly switched to in the panic of my junior year. In 1977, biologist Paul Sherman published a groundbreaking paper carefully documenting the behavior of ground squirrels in California’s Sierra Mountains. Yes, you heard me right — I said squirrels. You see, upon sensing a predator, these squirrels would often cry out to warn their peers, bringing attention to the caller herself and resulting in her own death. Dr. Sherman wanted to know how this example of altruism could exist in nature. It seemed to directly contradict Darwin’s long established evolutionary theory of the “survival of the fittest.” Surely an organism born with the innate willingness to die would not survive, and thus its genetic material, including the capacity for self-sacrificial acts, would not be passed on.
The study showed that squirrels were significantly more likely to cry out when surrounded by their kin — siblings, cousins. These results were profound. They suggested that it is the gene or the genome that is “trying” to survive, not the individual, nor the species. Thus if a squirrel perishes but in doing so saves his brothers (those who share much of his genome), his genes still survive and are still the fittest. The study offered to the scientific world the evolutionary basis of altruism.
This altruistic impulse is, of course, even more complex in human beings. We have a unique capacity to see the self in the other, to issue an alarm call on behalf of even those who are not our kin. It’s the most beautiful mystery about our nature: when others feel pain, we feel pain. It’s why, for example, we feel grief for the thousands affected by the recent tsunami in Japan and why people are moved to become activists or to donate to relief efforts. Even for those of us who don't know the victims personally, those total strangers out there could be our brothers, our mothers, our babies. Somewhere along the evolutionary history of humankind, the collection of genes encoding the tendency to love, even at the cost of individual pain, was selected for because loving makes us more fit for our environment than not loving.
I remember how, when discontented during my junior year, I changed not only my major but also my personality. I became a Very Serious Person who studied Very Serious Things. Struggling angrily through statistics and physics, I began to forget what it was all for. I gained some new skills, no longer even knowing why.
Halfway through the semester, I finally stumbled upon a clarifying epiphany, inspired by our classmates. One friend was persevering through the trials of organic chemistry so she could someday be a doctor and to help rebuild Haiti, her motherland. Another balanced economics and biology to understand new ways of increasing fresh food access in her city’s poorest neighborhoods and schools. I realized then that although their particular passions and skill sets were based in science, their motivations were deeply rooted in their understandings of history, of justice, of human rights and human need. Their main tool was data, but it was narrative and story that inspired them — whether the story of their own families’ struggles or the story of a child they didn’t even know going to bed hungry. There I was, trying to be some sort of hardcore biologist who was above empathy, not realizing that science divorced of a social context is meaningless, even dangerous; it is service that gives science its meaning. We have witnessed enough examples of the horrors that technology can engineer to see how desperately we need our artists, our writers, our guardians of history. The power of their work is its ability to reconnect us with the most humane parts of us. It is when these seemingly irreconcilable worlds of art and science come together that we are able to create the solutions that our world so urgently needs.
Albert Einstein, who was as much a humanitarian as a scientist, said, “Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything one learned in school.” As it’s been about a week, I hope we haven’t forgotten too much yet. But once we do, Brown’s true education to us will have been this lesson above all: that it is never foolish to feel love; that compassion is the enduring and most important connection among of all fields of study. Professor Rand in the biology department and a couple hundred squirrels taught me that our empathy exists for a deep, biological reason. We must listen to our altruistic impulses if we wish to collectively survive and thrive. Whether our tool is the pipette or the paintbrush, the laboratory or the classroom, may all our pursuits be grounded in this fundamental lesson that we have learned here on this cherished campus, thanks to our professors, administrators, staff members, and of course our friends. They have taught us how to think and, incredibly, how to feel. They have indeed blessed us with an education. Thank you all, and congratulations to the Class of 2011.