Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

An Introduction

Posted 18 Mar 2009 / 0

Why blog? That’s a question that I haven’t been able to answer for a long time. A first belief: for me, “belief” in something implies action. I can have an “understanding” of something – I can understand that there is a problem because people are suffering in Darfur – but for me to really “believe” that suffering in Darfur is a problem, I need to be doing something in relation to that problem. What follows from this admittedly weird definition of “belief” is that you can’t believe in animal rights if you don’t abstain from cruelly-raised animal products, you can’t believe in environmentalism and rely on a car for primary transportation, and you can’t believe in capitalism and accept bailout money from the government when your company fails. More importantly, you can’t claim to believe in anything unless you are actively doing something in relation to that belief.

All this introduction serves to admit that I have not really believed in blogging up until this point. The clear proof that I don’t believe in it is the fact that I had abstained from contributing to the “blogosphere” until this very moment. It’s a weird thing for me to come around to so late. When I was in my early- to mid-twenties, I was part of a movement that was a clear progenitor to the modern-day blogosphere: the ‘zine-writing scene. My ‘zine was called Mountain Monthly and it chronicled my involvement in the Long Island hardcorepunk music scene. Like most ‘zines, mine portrayed a very personal take on public happenings, which as far as I can tell is what blogs are all about. So why allow thirteen years to pass before rejoining the fray?

The truth is this isn’t my first foray into blogging. I have in the fairly recent past played around with the idea of an online ‘zine, distinguishable from a blog mostly in its rigid insistence on relying on my own clunky homemade interface and archives. However, that project was not a failure because it refused to acquiesce to the mainstream bloghost mafia, but because it tried to hard to do what ‘zines used to do for me. Yeah, personal adventures and chronicles of my life are cool, but I no longer need to chronicle my personal life; there’s precious little time available just to live it. What makes entrance into the blog world different is that it is my first attempt to focus my writings on my scientific curiosity.

For a long time, my scientific curiosity has been cloistered away in separate world. When I was an undergraduate student at Pomona College in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, my fellow biology majors knew I was passionate about science, but I kept these interests from my skateboard and hardcore music scene friends. When I was a middle school teacher throughout the 1990’s, my students were acutely aware of the wonder that I found in the sciences, but I never took these interests home with me. Even as a graduate student in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook University, I was pretty guarded about my interests outside of the narrow avenues of academic activity. Even as I was completing my dissertation, I wasn’t truly expressing my real scientific interests.

Something changed when I got my first teaching job as an Assistant Professor at Pratt Institute, where you find me today. Maybe it was the acknowledgment that comes with earning a tenure-track position, that sense of being a “real scientist”. Perhaps it was the atmosphere of Pratt itself, where I am the only full-time biologist on the entire campus and pretty much free to teach anything I want within the realm of the living world. Certainly these factors helped, but I think the overwhelming change was in my attitude. After years of working on the projects and providing the answers required by the undergraduate classroom, the Board of Education curriculum, and the graduate dissertation committee, I was finally ready to pursue my own agenda. Finally, I have the freedom to pursue my interests.

“And what, pray tell, are those interests?” you ask. Well, first of all, they are broad. Many will take me far from the narrow area of expertise for which I was awarded my Ph.D., and some will pull me right out of the very disciplines in which I was trained. That makes sense, doesn’t it? Science is about curiosity, and about finding the methods by which to indulge that curiosity; having specific expertise is only good insofar as it helps answer curious questions. So expect me to go in many directions, quite a few of which I won’t be able to defend my qualifications to think about. Apologies ahead of time to all the experts that I may pretentiously try to supersede.

To be fair, let’s at least throw around some of my interests, with the hope that I will later make a mockery of the narrowness of this initial list. First, I am interested in ecology and evolution. I would call myself, professionally, an ecologist and an evolutionist. That’s not to say that I am interested in everything in these fields. I am a pretty atrocious natural historian, although I quickly become interested in the natural history of an organism as soon as I see its relevance to answering some broader question. My “biggest interest” is in the stability of systems. Obviously this is a very vague interest, but for me the most intriguing question about biological systems is “why do certain things stick around?”. In a way, the evolutionary process and the ecological systems it shapes are nothing but the study of stability on a special subset of physical phenomena capable of self-replicating.

As you will see if you choose to read this blog for the coming months and years, I often wonder how the field of evolutionary biology might have been interpreted differently (both scientifically and socially) had Darwin and Wallace portrayed their theory of adaptation by natural selection in terms of “biological stability”. This is where my dissertation is more than just a piece of paper with a stamp saying “Approved, grant this dude a Ph.D.” on it, as I used mathematical modeling to look at the stability of predator-prey interactions. And this is also where my training in simulation and modeling — in particular agent-based or individual-based algorithms — opens up as many worlds as I can imagine.

My ecological interests are broad, although I tend towards ecological questions that address the interaction between humans and the ecosystems they depend on. My entire course in Ecology is built around the concept of ecosystem services, and I increasingly believe that no ecosystem will be saved from humanity’s ills unless we manage to appreciate the service value provided by that ecosystem. Like most ecologists I have a few favorite organisms: bats and corvids, although I have a lot more background study to do if I am actually going to do research involving these organisms.

Although you wouldn’t know it from my CV, my real passion lies with evolutionary processes. To me evolution is not just a pattern of history, it is the process underlying history. I was an atrocious student of recent human history in college, because I never seemed to be able to string together the random historical events we were learning about. I no longer feel shame at this shortcoming, as I generally think that we think of human history in a rather backwards manner. As a student in history classes I was taught to look at the pattern and to come up with themes which connected these patterns. In this approach there was very little understanding of cause and effect. What I am much more interested in is the process that explains these historical patterns. I think that evolutionary theory has been grossly under-utilized as a tool for understanding modern human history, and so it is that my interests in human evolution begin with biological patterns but in the end lie solidly with the question of how culture evolves. My plan is to tackle this question in my near-future research, explaining how biological and cultural evolution interact as a way of maintaining at least some illusion of being an evolutionary biologist.

I believe in (non-naive) group selection, I just don’t know completely how and when it actually works. This is a somewhat blasphemous position to take in recent evolutionary history, although the great work of some very intrepid evolutionists is beginning to chip away at the dogmatic wing of the evolutionary party. I have the profound sense that either: a) group selection is a prominent force in human evolution; or b) I fundamentally don’t understand how evolution works. Stay tuned to find out which is the case.

I want to learn about a lot more. I want to know how urban ecosystems function, from squirrels to subway systems. I want to better understand how organisms are evolving around the urban, suburban, and exurban landscapes that humans have created. I want to know why religion is such a prominent feature of all cultures. I want to understand why organisms form groups, and how those groups remain stable in the face of individual selfishness. There are too many things that I want to know, too many to list here, and too many for my lifetime to tackle. But here we go, here’s the place to see what I am thinking about and what I have learned. Please join me.

A Major Post, Belief, Ecology, Evolution

Leave a Reply