irene_pepperberg's picture
Research Associate & Lecturer, Harvard; Adjunct Associate Professor, Brandeis; Author, Alex & Me

“No man is an island
Entire of itself…”

John Donne wrote these words almost 400 years ago and, aside from the sexism of the male pronoun, his words are as true now as they were then. I believe they will be just as true in the future, and apply to scientific discovery as well as to philosophy: the interconnectedness of humans, and of humans and their environment that science is demonstrating today is just the beginning of what we will discover and is the news very likely to be discussed in the future. A few examples will suffice to explain my reasoning.

From the science of economics to that of biology, we are learning how the actions and decisions of each and every one of us affect the lives of all others. Maybe it is no surprise that the coal-fired energy plants of India, China, and elsewhere affect the climate of us all, as does the ongoing deforestation of the Amazon. Or that a nuclear disaster in Japan shaped how we view one alternative energy source. But we now know that our health (particularly our microbiome) is affected not only by what we put into our mouths but, somewhat surprisingly, also by the company we keep. Recent studies show that decisions about the removal of an invasive species affects its entire surrounding ecological web as much as decisions concerning the protection of an endangered one.

One need not necessarily buy into Donne’s somewhat dark worldview to appreciate the importance of his words. Interconnectedness means that the scientists of the world work to find a cure for a disease such as Ebola that has, so far, primarily been limited to a few countries. It also means that governments recognize how reacting to the plight of refugees from war-torn areas halfway around the globe could be a means of enriching rather than impoverishing one’s country.

Whether we look at social media, global travel, or any other form of interconnectedness, news of its importance is here to stay.