Leonard Radinsky

leonard radinsky    Leonard Radinsky

It was a fossil skull and some latex that provided my first exposure to experiential learning in school, in which information and experience merge into creative ideas, values are probed and transformed, character molded, and motivation to contribute to a better world inspired.

The skull was a 50 million year-old fossil from Wyoming and its discoverer was Leonard Radinsky, a paleontology professor at the University of Chicago where I spent two years as an undergraduate student beginning in 1968. Embodied within that time in Chicago is much of what is wrong, and could be right, about how we teach.

It was a curious choice to spend most of my freshman year carefully scraping the sand and dirt from a fossil skull rather than attend classes. The University of Chicago was and still is considered one of the world’s most distinguished universities, renowned for its “Life of the Mind” curriculum, exposing students to the entire history of human thought in science, arts, literature, history, and politics.

While the university attempted to immerse we students in the great minds, the city outside was close to a state of war, convulsed with protests against the war in Vietnam, recent police brutality at the Democratic National Convention, and the horrific poverty and crime spilling over from the adjacent black ghetto on the south side of Chicago.

The curriculum suffered from being “the best of,” a survey of what a team of distinguished academics considered necessary to become educated. We grazed at history, literature, science, and art, reading The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, plays by Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams, and Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle.

We saw innumerable slides of classic sculpture and painting from cave days through the Greeks and on to Picasso, and recited poems to each other by Walt Whitman and Robert Frost. We learned to write obtuse academic essays, and to nod sagely at each other’s witty insights without admitting that most of what we were writing and our discussions were lifeless.

It wasn’t the fault of the great books or art, which of course have much to offer. Rather, we were bouncing too quickly through the best of human thought, intellects trying to fire but without passion or life experience to provide context.

The flip side of my University of Chicago education was happening outside the classroom, at protests against the war in Vietnam and the university’s ownership of a three-block zone of abandoned buildings that buffered the campus from the surrounding ghetto. I sat in at the administration building, marched to end poverty and racism, and chanted clever slogans to show my solidarity with the oppressed.

These social and political experiences were engaging, considerably more so than the classroom. They provided the passion we students craved, but lacked the structured reflection that should be the bread and butter of a university education. We were enthused in the streets to change the world, a good thing in young and restless minds, but had no tools or skills to apply towards our good intentions.

Our professors missed the potential teachable moments, had little inkling that community and university could interact, and overlooked opportunities to connect academia with contemporary real-world events.

Lingering outside these two disconnected worlds of town and gown was a compelling personal reality: I needed to earn some money if I was to stay in school and maintain my student exemption from the U.S. military draft, which loomed as a heavy consequence of dropping out.

My salvation came in the form of an advertisement for a research assistant in the Department of Anatomy. Professor Leonard Radinsky was seeking an undergraduate student to assist in a project studying brain evolution in carnivores. I had no interest in brains, or carnivores, but it was a job, and since I was the only applicant, my lack of experience or any interest in the field were not barriers.

His project involved a narrow, highly academic topic of interest to but a few specialists, and no apparent relevance to the street protests that were engaging most of my enthusiasm. Radinsky studied the Tertiary era, especially 45-56 million year-old fossils from Wyoming, a time and place when the ancestors of current carnivores thrived while other then-populous lines of carnivores declined and disappeared.

His window into the information retained in fossils was to pour liquid latex into ancient skulls to create casts. He then examined the impressions on the solidified latex to deduce the size and fold structures of the long-ago brains. His work tested a theory rampaging at the time through the tiny community of brain paleontologists, that successful carnivores evolved larger brains and essentially out-thought the evolutionary losers.

Radinsky was deeply engaged in this esoteric line of work, yet also was politically and socially committed to social justice in the world beyond his laboratory. He moved effortlessly between expounding with great enthusiasm on an enlarged fold in the neocortex of an ancient mammal’s brain to why the university should provide free tuition to residents of the south-side Chicago ghetto that surrounded us.

My first fossil to clean and cast was from a line of carnivores that didn’t make it out of the Tertiary. Radinsky handed it to me casually, with no apparent concern that I would fumble and destroy this irreplaceable relic from an extraordinarily distant past. He put a higher priority on my learning than he did on the history that I might destroy in the process.

It didn’t look like much, covered by a concretion of sand and pebbles. I gingerly began to chip away and emerge the fossil within, feeling a responsibility for preserving the information embedded in the skull, focus and interest enhanced by the real consequences if my hand slipped or my attention wandered, infused with that sense of wonder and engagement that had eluded me in the classroom.

Slowly the fossil was revealed, after many weeks of meticulously slow and painstaking work, until I could pour in the latex and pop out the cast holding impressions made by the brain on its surrounding skull. It was a poignant moment, seeing the folds and valleys of an animal that not only was long dead itself, but whose descendants had gone extinct through the crucible of natural selection.

Radinsky brought the same qualities to politics that he lived in the laboratory. We went back and forth from brain evolution to what was happening in the streets outside, subjects not connected by topic but through a style of thinking based at the balance point between wonder and fact, emotion and information, passion and analysis.

Fossils and the Vietnam War held little in common, but the attitudes learned at the fossil trays through the tedium of slow, careful work on the specimens spilled over into dialogue about the tumult outside the laboratory walls.

Radinsky drilled down hard on developing ideas about the effective tools for political transformation, much as he probed the mechanisms of evolutionary change. Would taking over the administration building really advance the end of the war? Did we protesting students actually know anyone from the surrounding ghetto, or were we just as isolated as the official university from the community around us?

For Radinsky, revealing the secrets of ancient, now-extinct organisms was consistent with his political activism. He connected how science could and should serve humanity through systematic, rigorous probing and the wondrous information science reveals about how we evolved and our position in the contemporary world around us.

We need to find the equivalent of fossil skulls and latex for every student, connecting the rarefied intellectual discourse of the classroom and the emotional, issue-challenged world outside.

Our challenge is to expand learning beyond narrow disciplinary boundaries to inspire students to improve the world around them and provide the expertise and motivation to do just that.

A Scientific Disjoint

I’ve been fortunate to work in a double bubble. As a university scientist, I’ve been immersed in a culture that promotes open discussion of issues and results, and as Director of SFU’s Centre for Dialogue I work in an environment whose sole reason for existence is the free exchange of ideas.

Scientists in other habitats don’t have that same luxury to be approachable and accessible. Take Canada’s federal scientists, for example: their attendance at conferences is highly restricted, even mildly controversial opinions are muzzled, and those few researchers allowed a rare media interview are accompanied by a handler who shuts down queries that make the current political party in power uncomfortable.

Research libraries are being unceremoniously dumped of their contents, and field stations shuttered if they conduct research that might yield results out of synch with government policies.

And then there are industry scientists, who rarely publish information contrary to their company’s best interests. Even outsourced industry research in collaboration with university scientists often is tightly controlled by contract, with publication allowed only with industry permission. With diminishing government support for science, these arrangements with industry have become increasingly pervasive, further driving the scientific community into the most anti-science of attitudes: silence.

The increasing control of science by political agendas and industry funding is particularly tragic given the myriad issues that would benefit from a more public discussion of results and ideas. Climate change, pharmaceutical side effects, health of fishery stocks, pesticide impacts and the environmental consequences of oil spills are only a small sample of the many issues that citizens need to hear about from scientists representing a wide spectrum of perspectives in order to make informed decisions.

Part of the answer to this conundrum is for scientists themselves to advocate for more open exchange of results from government and industry research, and for limitations on the silencing impact of corporate funding. In recent months we’ve seen scientists rally in protests across the country, write commentary opinion for newspapers and even practice civil disobedience to bring the currently dismal state of scientific discourse to public attention.

But more is needed, particularly from opposition political parties, to promote policies that open scientific inquiry to public attention. A few pro-science ideas in an election platform would be intriguing, policies that would improve the capacity of scientists to contribute to important civic issues:

  • Allow media unfettered access to government scientists, and allow their now-suppressed opinions to emerge without censure or consequences
  • Cease relying on research from industry about the health and environmental consequences of their products, replacing this currently self-serving system with independent research funded at arms length by industry, without corporate control
  • Link all research grants with a requirement to communicate results clearly to the public, and provide students at undergraduate and graduate levels with the skills to communicate effectively with public audiences
  • Ask media to do a one-for one: every time they are denied access to a government scientist, they will list the incidents on the front page of their paper or within a television broadcast, pointing out what we, the public, won’t know because of muzzling
  • Revive a federal science office, dedicated to enforce the open communication of science

Naïve? Absolutely. But I’ll campaign for any political party that adopts one or more of these or similar pro-candidness election platforms.


Jonathan Swift, Socrates, Bees and Dialogue

I’ve never been overly impressed with the Socratic method as dialogue, although it was described as such in the 399 BCE book Dialogues, in which Plato recorded conversations between Socrates and his disciples.

These are sharp exchanges with pointed and critical probing designed to entrap participants in contradictions. The underlying objective is to win the argument rather than understand the various positions.

The resulting exchanges can be rhetorically brilliant, but they defined the culture of dialogue as oppositional rather than collaborative, with little to differentiate dialogue from debate.

But then my good friend Richard Menkis, a professor at the University of British Columbia, called my attention to a 1704 book by Jonathan Swift, The Battle of the Books. It’s a satire in which library books come alive and joust verbally about whether the modern age of science was superior to the wisdom of the ancients.

At the core is an argument about whether discourse from a spider or from a bee is superior. The spider is represented as self-aggrandizing, “spins, spits wholly from himself and scorns to own any obligation or assistance from without.” The bee, in contrast, works collaboratively to “fill hives with honey and wax, thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest things, which are sweetness and light.”

The implication is that the work of the ancients is filled with delights of conversation and conclusions arrived at collectively, with each discussant contributing a part of what becomes a greater story by combining the individual perspectives. In contrast, the work of the moderns is self-promoting and self-centered, yielding outcomes technically correct but without the richness and respectful undertones of the ancients.

Swift notes that bees search widely for honey, choosing the best nectars and combining flavors from many flowers that are then mixed and processed together to make honey. And Swift’s view of the Socratic method is very much like that: each participant adding a small bit of wisdom to the conversation, so that in the end the outcome is considerably more profound than any individual contribution.

What a beautiful image of dialogue: participants, like bees, drawing out the nectar of ideas from each other, until the room fills with a well-balanced cornucopia of wisdom, where sweetness and light reside.

Perhaps Socrates was more of a dialoguer than I thought.

Toxic Soup

The honeybee crisis continues; one-third of all colonies die each year around the globe, and we know why. It’s not one factor, and our deepening understanding of the multiple stressors that are killing bees has clarified the extent of our human responsibility in this tragedy.

A considerable body of research has shown that pesticides are one set of factors that interact to harm adult bees, either through simple additive toxic effects or synergistically with each other so that their effects are considerably worse than what would be expected from just adding them together. Further, pesticides often interfere with bees’ immune systems, amplifying the effects of bee diseases.

And, there are well over 100 pesticides found in a typical beehive, some applied directly by beekeepers but most brought back to the hive by foraging bees. Together, this array of poisons to which bees are exposed has created a toxic colony environment.

Now a new study from Pennsylvania State University has shown that interactions between chemicals affect larval bees as well as the previously studied adults. This project examined impacts of four commonly used pesticides on honeybee larvae, as well as testing an inert ingredient used to formulate pesticides that previously was untested but thought to be innocuous to bees.

Two of the pesticides tested, fluvalinate and coumpahos, are regularly applied by beekeepers to kill the serious mite pest varroa. The other two are farmer-applied pesticides, the fungicide chlorothalonil and the insecticide chlorpyrifos, both with widespread use in agriculture. They tested each compound alone and in combination with the others, at doses reflecting typical pesticide residues larval bees would be exposed to when fed protein-rich pollen that has been processed into larval food by adult bees.

The results indicated that larval stages are considerably more susceptible than adults, and that generally the pesticides were worse together than alone. Sometimes two or more pesticides simply showed additive impact, but for some the impacts were synergistic, indicating an interaction that amplified their toxicity.

They also examined an inert ingredient commonly used as a carrier for pesticides, nicknamed NMP, that showed high toxicity to larvae.

The simplest conclusion of the study was that we are not testing pesticides widely enough for regulators to make informed decisions about approving compounds. The authors concluded that mixtures of pesticides and inert ingredients must be tested as well as the single compounds, and that both adults and larvae need to be studied to garner realistic data about impacts.

They also affirmed what most of us in the bee world believe: Bees are not dying because of one thing, but a combination of causes including pesticides, diseases, poor nutrition due to reduced diversity of nectar and pollen-producing flowers and other factors.

Their study has profound implications for what we need to do to protect bees, as well as for our own human health.

Bees will continue to die until we restructure agriculture. The necessary reforms are significant, but would have numerous environmental benefits as well as providing better health for bees: polycultural farming rather than extensive single cropping, increased plant diversity in and around farmland and reduced pesticide use by farmers and beekeepers. It’s a big bit task, but we best begin soon, before the crisis deepens.

The demise of bees also calls to our attention similar challenges for human health. We, like bees, are exposed to hundreds of pesticides and industrial chemicals. These potential toxins have been approved by regulators based on exposure to single compounds rather than to the mixtures to which we actually are exposed. And, tolerance levels are based on predicted effects for adult exposure rather than for children, who are considerably more vulnerable.

Also, our own poor nutrition due to high sugar and fat diets and over processed, nutritionally incomplete foods is reminiscent of the limited forage that bees must now depend on to meet their dietary needs.

In other words: we’re not so different from the bees, and their fate may well be the harbinger of ours.


For more detail see:

Wanyi Zhu, Daniel R. Schmehl, Christopher A. Mullin, James L. Frazier 2014. Four Common Pesticides, Their Mixtures and a Formulation Solvent in the Hive Environment Have High Oral Toxicity to Honey Bee Larvae. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0077547