Canine cognition pioneer Alexandra Horowitz studies the inner lives of humanity’s best nonhuman friends
During the Barnard Year of Science, we’re contemplating some big questions that get to the heart of our own survival, progress, and destiny as individuals, as a society, and as a global community. We asked Barnard faculty members from a range of disciplines, from economics to psychology, to weigh in on the question “How can human beings thrive?” This is what they said.
Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences
The largest life-form on Earth deceptively doesn’t look like an individual entity. In the Fishlake National Forest in central Utah is a grove of quaking aspen over a hundred acres in size. If you walk above ground, you will see what appear to be multiple independent trees. Each aspen is strong and appears to thrive with space to stretch. But underneath the soil, all the trees within sight are physically connected to each other. These individuals share the same roots. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that this life originated from a single seed during the last ice age. Tens of thousands of trees, millions of pounds. Every fall, the foliage of each tree changes color at the same time. Every spring, the leaves of each tree regrow at the same time. Such is the nature of their interconnectedness. New saplings grow, old trees die, but the whole remains. The grove shares the same genes, nutrients, and future.
In a time when so much emphasis is placed on individuals, it’s important to remember that all humans also share the same roots — and future. Whether the question is a global pandemic, or climate change, or immigration, or civil rights, humans should remember that even when apparently standing alone, we are connected. Perhaps we have something to learn from this one example of biology: Somewhere in the forests of Utah, life thrives, not as individuals but as an immense whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Assistant Professor of Economics
There’s a quote I like from the philosopher Brian Barry’s book Why Social Justice Matters that I keep on my office wall to remind me about why I study inequality within economics: “Social institutions perpetuate cumulative inequality. If there is any determinism involved, it is political.” To improve human well-being, we first and foremost need to be committed to improving our institutions so that they establish equal access to those things necessary to live a good life — things like health, education, or quality environment, which we refer to in economics as human capital and public goods.
My research and my work is driven by my personal and professional experiences growing up in Nigeria and the United States and trying to understand, like many thinkers before me, why seemingly identical individuals, groups, and regions in terms of resources and talents have such disparate economic outcomes. Specifically, I study the ways in which historical institutions and environment contribute to persistent inequality. I research topics from the economics of epidemics and vaccinations and the effects of epidemics on gender inequality to the importance of information and communication technology for mental health and the consequences of prison labor for societal well-being.
What all this research reveals is the importance of our social and political institutions in shaping, reinforcing, or alleviating deep inequalities that can be exacerbated by negative events like the current pandemic. As individuals, we have enormous power and responsibility to shape our institutions; the way we use this power determines what kind of society we create, one that hopefully ensures distributive justice, equity, and freedom for all.
Assistant Professor in Environmental Science
I had the unique experience of being raised by two psychoanalysts. Psychoanalysts believe that understanding one’s past can liberate an individual from the bonds of conflicts and fears and enable them to live more fully in the present.
While I didn’t follow exactly in my parents’ footsteps when I pursued environmental science, perhaps I didn’t stray too far. I am a paleoclimatologist, someone who reconstructs ancient climates, and I have come to realize that I am a “psychoanalyst of the planet.” Although my coral samples don’t lie on a couch to tell me about their childhoods, I do analyze their geochemical composition, which responds to the climate of the world when they lived. Studying coral gives me context and a baseline understanding for the changes in the ocean that we are seeing today.
For example, I can reconstruct the temperature of the Great Barrier Reef over the past 25,000 years by measuring different metals in fossil corals. This record’s real value comes from our ability to assess when the reef was and wasn’t able to adapt to temperature shifts, which can inform policies aimed at its preservation and the support of the communities that rely on it.
Paleoclimate demonstrates that every yesterday has a lesson and teaches us how to protect and support those most vulnerable. In order to thrive, humans must dig into the past so that we can make sense of the present and, most importantly, use our knowledge to safeguard the future of our planet and all its inhabitants.
Director of the Vagelos Computational Science Center and Druckenmiller Professor of Computer Science
Computing technology can help humans thrive in today’s world and in the future — and it can also be harmful. For example, robotics and automation can improve efficiency in business, lead to safer roads and factories, and help people with physical or cognitive disabilities. At the same time, their adoption also has the potential to lead to widespread job loss and intensify economic inequality. Artificial intelligence (AI) can allow us to extract knowledge from data to improve our understanding of climate change, quickly design vaccines in response to new virus mutations, and contribute to efficient and robust distribution and delivery of renewable energy. But the use of AI can also further entrench historical and present racial and gender disparities. Social media has the power to connect people, enable them to find community online, and help maintain friendships across physical distance. Yet social media platforms also have the power to sow divisiveness, spread misinformation and disinformation, exacerbate mental health issues, especially in teenage girls, and lead to feelings of isolation.
By ensuring that technologists learn — and develop a culture — to think about the ways in which their technologies will be used, build multidisciplinary collaboration into the design process, and ensure that all stakeholders have a seat at the table, we can work toward a world where computing technology is a force for good and the benefits of technology are shared equitably by all people. This will enable us to make progress on today’s most pressing problems, to advance society, and to help humans continue to thrive.
Term Assistant Professor, Urban Studies
People live in cities. This built environment, where we live, work, play, and learn, affects our ability to thrive. Too many neighborhoods actively imperil residents. Decades of segregation, redlining, discrimination, and wealth extraction at the hands of public and private actors continue to inhibit residents in those places from decent work, clean water and air, affordable housing, and quality education. The ongoing pandemic, effects of climate change, and racialized capitalism conspire to create even more hostile environments to thrivance. While city planners and other urban strategists promote the “livable city” in the form of sustainable mobility, affordable housing, and vibrant and safe public spaces, these benefits remain elusive in distressed places while accruing in those that are already doubly or triply advantaged.
The fate of all must not be tied up in the accumulated advantage of some. Luckily, people-powered innovation transcends the boundaries of wealth and advantage. Local residents in neighborhoods around the globe respond to health and climate threats. Following the onset of a global pandemic and shortages in everything from personal protective equipment (PPE) to food, neighbors formed hyperlocal mutual aid efforts to support vulnerable residents and one another.
In the face of ongoing dangers from climate events and environmental racism, people living in frontline neighborhoods mobilize to fight for amelioration of the toxicity. People have always been our greatest sources of innovation and leadership in addressing threats to their own abilities.
Associate Professor of Psychology
People thrive when they feel that they have a sense of control over their environment. A good deal of research in psychology shows that a sense of control is a key ingredient to success. For instance, psychology professor Carol Dweck ’67 introduced the idea of the growth mindset. When we approach new tasks and challenges as opportunities to learn and grow from those experiences, we feel a sense of efficacy and confidence, providing a foundation to stretch ourselves further. On the other hand, when we view setbacks as evidence of our shortcomings, we can get stuck in self-criticism and self-blame that’s unproductive and makes it more difficult to continue to take risks that would help us grow.
Another psychological perspective that can help us thrive is to be mindful of the questions you ask to make sense of events. For example, when something unexpected happens, we seek to make sense of it. Many of us tend to ask, “Why did this happen?” or “Why me?” In asking why, we seek to understand adverse events to prevent them from happening again. But we often end up arguing for our limitations and ruminating about setbacks.
Instead of asking “why,” try asking “what,” like “What’s next?” or “What’s the best way to respond to this?” Life is inherently uncertain, so trying to control external events to protect yourself against setbacks is often less effective than seeing obstacles as challenges and growth opportunities.
Thea Abu El-Haj
Professor, Education Program Director/Chair
In order to thrive, people need to learn, across their life span, in contexts that treat them with dignity and that make space for creativity, risk-taking, meaningful work, and collective, justice-oriented action. As an anthropologist of education, I have explored education across a myriad of family, community, and school contexts. Through my research travels across time and space, I’ve learned three key lessons.
First, all education entails learning forms of personhood, and as such, it is consequential to how we come to understand ourselves. People cannot thrive unless their ways of being, knowing, and doing are recognized, honored, and nurtured.
Second, all education is both social and political — fundamentally bound to collectivities but also to the structural conditions of our societies. Humans cannot thrive when the institutions within which they live and learn are founded on knowledge, norms, and values that uphold structural oppressions.
Third, and most importantly, I have seen the powerful ways that humans thrive when they can collectively take transformative, justice-oriented action, writ small and large. Most often, I have seen the possibilities for this kind of action in familial and community spaces where nondominant knowledge, forms of creative expression, and values are kept alive and created anew. These transformative spaces can also be created in classrooms, schools, and universities if we learn to center students, de-center dominant stories, and foster risk-taking and creativity over content requirements and right answers.