Tall poppies, tall corn and creating the right environment

All opinions my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

The first time I heard the saying, “Cutting down the tall poppies,” I was in Australia, over 20 years ago, talking to an Professor who was a US expatriate and working at the University of Queensland.  I’ve heard it since in conversations with people from the UK, Denmark and other countries.  The specific connotation in each culture differs somewhat, but the general underlying meaning is that those who rise above the crowd should in some way be brought back down to the level of everyone else. This might be in a physical and material sense, or in an attitudinal way, as in, “don’t think you are better than us just because of your (choose one) wealth, success, position, knowledge, etc.” An egalitarian sentiment, to be sure, but one that sounds odd to someone raised in the US, where individual attainment and excellence are among the key values.

I often contrast that idea to the following story about tall corn.  I first heard it from Professor Michael Freeling when I was a graduate teaching assistant at UC Berkeley, and assigned to TA for his class on Genetics and Society. This was an undergraduate survey class and on the first day, a freshman stood up (aren’t freshmen cute?  Always so earnest and ready to play “stump the Professor.”) and asked Michael where he stood on the question of Nature versus Nurture.

Michael’s answer was to describe his own work in maize genetics. Take a handful of genetically diverse maize kernels, he said, and sow them in a field and see what happens.  You get plants growing to a variety of heights, and each plant will give you different yields. Take another handful of kernels from the same batch and plant them in a greenhouse.  Give them fertilizer, gro-lights, plenty of water, keep out bugs and other pathogens. Then you’ll see the plants growing to more or less the same height, and yielding similarly, every ear on every one.

His point, which has grown in significance to me over the years, is that the Nature versus Nurture debate is a false and misleading argument.  Yes, genes code for proteins which influence traits, but the influence of those genes varies widely depending upon the environment in which an organism finds itself. In one environment, in one context, given one growth history, a set of genes may have a dramatic effect on development, health or disease. In another environment, not so much. Not to mention the stochastic factors that, even in what is measurably the same environment, can lead to different phenotypes, different expressions of our genes.  You need only look at twins raised in the same household to see this.

The two parables above–tall poppies and tall corn–illustrate in a way the concept of environmental effects on performance, behavior, phenotype, and equality.  The underlying message, however, is quite different.  In the poppy story, the environment works to bring outliers back in.  In the corn story, the environment works to bring every plant up to the same high level.

Personally I subscribe a lot more to the latter idea than the former.  I’m a fan of the books Nudge and Switch, both of which talk about how changing environments can help modify behavior, whether through nudging people in certain, desired directions, or making the environment more conducive to change.  I see them as part of the growing, fascinating field of Behavioral Economics, which seeks to understand how people actually think and behave, rather than how we’d like people to be.

A couple of things I saw on twitter recently reminded me of this concept.  The first was a trivial point being made by Daniel MacArthur about internet signals on the Boston subway:

It’s a throwaway tweet, but I think it highlights a real question and maybe concern for society.  Information is so pervasive and access is so easy, that often one has to work pretty hard to avoid it.   Especially when you carry the means of access,  your smartphone, with you all the time.  Sherry Turkle has written and spoken about this, asking whether we’re losing something key in our relationships and interactions, even as we gain in connectedness and learning.  While NPR’s April Fool’s story about the  “slow internet movement” may not ever come true, I wonder how many people like Daniel MacArthur actually work to arrange their day to allow enforced internet-free spaces.  Realizing the pull of the internet on our day to day lives, how many people consciously change their environment to nudge themselves away from something they may feel  should be kept under control?

The other thing that happened on twitter was a much more serious and public series of stories, revelations and interactions in the science communications community surrounding journalistic ethics, harassment and power differentials.  I won’t recap the events, but anyone interested could start by reading these links (here, here and here).  What I do find interesting and encouraging is that a dialog has opened up around the way in which science writers become established and how they interact with peers and mentors.

One of the threads I’ve seen has concerned that standby of most professional organizations: the society conference.  Most professional organizations I know of put on yearly conferences that feature, among other things, parties, socializing, and networking.  These activities are in place for a variety of reasons, including education, building professional contacts, finding mentors to give advice, and building a sense of camaraderie.  These are great things, these are important things, and yet the same elements that smooth the way for these interactions also make it easier for people in power to take advantage of those who are younger and less experienced.

And so, there’s a discussion going on:  are there ways to separate the good from the bad?  Can the environment, the arrangement of conferences, the setup be changed in a way to protect people more from bad behavior, while not cutting them off from the connections and interactions that are so important in any profession?  Are there other ways to help recognize new, talented people without relying so heavily on a “who knows whom” kind of network?

Maybe.  I don’t know.  I have friends in the science writing community and I’ll be curious to see what they report on the discussions and thinking that I’m sure will dominate their conversations in the months ahead.  Because it’s clear the environment has failed some people badly, and doing things the way they were done before isn’t good enough.

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