Three decades in America, a personal journey

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Yours truly in 1994, driving my WV Beetle from Knoxville, TN to Stony Brook, NY

I’m going to open this essay with an apology for its self-indulgence. Today marks the 30th anniversary of my move to the United States from Italy, and as arbitrary as such dates surely are, it seems to me that the occasion calls from some self-reflection. Which I hope might be useful to others as well.

It was 17 August 1990, and I was 26 years old when I landed at JFK airport in New York, to be picked up by my future PhD advisor, Carl Schlichting — a man who has had a profound impact on my life, and who I am still lucky enough to call my friend. Carl drove me to the campus of the University of Connecticut in Storrs, where I spent the following four years working on a dissertation under his guidance. In terms of career choices, my decision to leave Italy and work with Carl was one of the best of my life (eventually, we managed to co-author a whopping 13 technical papers and a book).

Yet, that decision turned out to be costly from a personal perspective. I had to leave my family, which means that I saw my mother, father, brothers, and sister only at best once or twice a year ever since. And I couldn’t be present when my father died, though I managed to be there for my mother. Moreover, I was married at the time, and my wife remained behind for a while, which led her to be increasingly unhappy about the move, and eventually to leave me.

But I was (relatively) young, and my dream of pursuing an academic career as a scientist was all-consuming. It was only significantly later in life (about age 42, to be precise) that my priorities switched, with my career — still important — taking a back seat first to quality of life (I moved to New York City, which I consider one of the most fascinating places on the planet), and eventually to my relationships (when I finally married the right person, in my 50s…).

Initially, I made a point of noticing the most glaring differences between American and European culture. Americans truly are a highly optimistic population, something that has been shown also by quantitative research in social psychology. When asked, they aren’t necessarily too happy about their current predicament, but they are very hopeful that things will soon change for the better. Europeans are the other way around: not optimistic about future improvement, but pretty happy with the current state of affairs.

Two things struck me as downright bizarre then, and still do now, three decades later. First, the inordinate amount of national flags you see around. I was in New England, and almost every house had one. I’d never seen anything like that. Americans display the flag and sing their national anthem at every turn, including high school sports games. Italians rarely sing their anthem, and flags are highly visible only on selected national holidays (June 2nd, our equivalent of Independence Day) and, of course, national (and only national!) team soccer games.

The second really odd thing was the very concept of “retail therapy,” the notion that if you feel down or unhappy about how things are going, you should go out (or, these days, online) and “shop until you drop!” This does nothing to make people happier, though it does provide a temporary hedonic rush, and of course works very well for the multinational corporations whose products people buy.

Anyway, it has most certainly been a ride! It has included a full career as an evolutionary biologist, beginning at UConn, and continuing at Brown University, the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and Stony Brook on Long Island (NY). At some point I went back to graduate school to study philosophy, an experience that was followed by a major career switch and a move to what I think (but you never know!) is my final academic home, the City University of New York.

But going back to Tennessee for a moment. I spent five very formative years of my life there. You see, I was a freshly appointed professor of evolutionary biology in the middle of the Bible Belt, surrounded by neighbors who were creationists, and addressing some students who were afraid of going to Hell just for listening to what I was saying about Darwin’s finches.

Since I’ve always been interested in public outreach, it was inevitable that I’d get involved in talking to broad audiences about the nature of science and its relationship with religion. I started one of the very first Darwin Days, something that has since become a regular international event. Heck, I even debated a number of creationists in public, thereby learning a lot about a culture that was unfamiliar to me and that I initially dismissed as mere country bumpkins.

But then I discovered that a lot of people who believe in what I consider pseudoscientific notions are actually intelligent and often educated. Yet for some reason they can’t get past their ideological commitments to a particular version of their religion. Then again, research in social psychology clearly demonstrates that we all have ideological commitments, and that it is almost always a challenge to accept different points of view, when they appear to undermine a belief we hold dear.

In Knoxville I also made lifelong friends, and got involved in the international skeptical movement. This, among other things, led to the publication of two of my favorite books amongst those I authored: Denying Evolution — Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science (Oxford University Press, 2002) and Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (University of Chicago Press, 2018).

It was there that I met another pivotal mentor: Jonathan Kaplan, a brilliant philosopher of science who had just defended his PhD thesis at Stanford on the ethical implications for medical research of the nature-nurture debates. When he came to campus he looked me up, because he was familiar with my work in that area (biologists call it “gene-environment interactions”).

Jonathan and I immediately hit it off and became friends and collaborators. That was my introduction to the fascinating world of philosophy of science. Since I was undergoing a bit of an early midlife crisis (I was about to hit 40), the thought occurred to me that it would be fun to go back to school and get a graduate degree in philosophy. (The alternative would have been to buy an orange Lamborghini, but I couldn’t afford it.)

When I suggested to Jonathan (who was an untenured assistant professor, while I was a full professor with tenure) to be my mentor in the program he looked at me skeptically and asked me how many glasses of wine I had had. I replied that, as he well knew, I don’t drink at lunch. He came around to the idea, we went to ask permission to the Dean, and for the next three years I was running my lab (with wonderful graduate students and postdocs) during the day, crossing campus in the late afternoon to take evening classes in philosophy, and working on my dissertation during weekends. In other words, I basically had no life outside of the academy during that period. Which cost me another marriage, as anyone but me could have predicted.

Be that as it may, it was time for me to move back to the northeast, not just in terms of my career, but especially because my daughter Caley was growing up in Connecticut, and I was managing to see her only a few times a year. I was lucky enough to land a job at Stony Brook University, still as a biologist, even though I had by then successfully defended my philosophy thesis.

(I’m happing to report that Caley has done very well since, eventually graduated with top honors in philosophy, and is now doing a Master’s in journalism, one of the jobs most crucial to the future of open societies on the planet.)

You have to understand that Stony Book had one of the best evolutionary biology departments in the country, and I was awed that they offered me a job. I still remember that on my first day there I simply walked around the Department, looking at the names of my new colleagues on various doors. Half of those names were of people whose textbooks I had studied on when I was in graduate school.

Even so, after only a couple of years at Stony Brook I finally grew tired of suburban life. The pull from New York City was getting stronger and stronger, and for the first time I decided that my quality of life was more important than my career. I moved to the city and commuted back to Long Island every day of the week (two hours by train each way). This was not seen as a positive step by my colleagues, though I managed to keep the lab going for another three years.

At some point, though, the choice became necessary: either go back to Long Island, or find a job in the city. It was a no brainer: the city, of course. But it’s not easy to get a senior academic position, with tenure, anywhere in the country, let along in one of the most sought out places! So I decided that I was going to look at the job market and apply to the first positions I saw, whether they be in biology or in philosophy. The first one that came up was at CUNY. I applied, and to my stunned surprised not only they offered me the job, but they wanted me to be the Chair of the Department.

I never really wanted to be an administrator. I am not diplomatic enough (okay, I’m not diplomatic, period), and I love scholarship and writing too much. But that was the devil’s bargain, and I served honorably as Chair for five years, navigating an initially very tense internal environment (don’t ask), and managing to hire three new faculty before I left.

And that’s another interesting story, one for which I will be eternally grateful to one of my former graduate students, Leonard Finkelman. Leonard was then on the job market and one day walked into my office mentioning an open position at City College (I was then at another CUNY college, Lehman). I said, sure I’ll write a letter on your behalf. And he replied no, that’s not for me, it’s for you. Puzzled, I pointed out that I was perfectly happy and was not on the market. “Take a look,” insisted Leonard. I did. The ad was for a senior position. Indeed, an endowed chair, with all the prestige, flexibility, and financial support that those positions usually carry.

“Are you out of your mind? Why would City College hire me? Surely there are plenty of top notch philosophers all over the country who would want that kind of job.” Leonard looked at me patiently and said: “Yeah, but read more carefully.” I did. It was a position in philosophy of science, explicitly asking for people with a strong background in the sciences, comfortable in teaching science students and interacting with science colleagues. I applied. Stunned again, I got the position as K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York, which I have now happily held for six years.

I know, this is getting long. So I’ll comment on just two more amazing events that happened in the last few years. As part of the above mentioned midlife crisis, I felt that I needed some kind of framework that was not being offered either by my former Catholic religion or by my adopted Secular Humanism. While I was in the midst of looking into a number of possibilities (including Buddhism), my Twitter feed, of all things, presented me with something that said: “Help us celebrate Stoic Week.” What the hell is Stoic Week, and why would anyone want to celebrate the Stoics? But I looked into it, and as soon as I read my first few lines of Epictetus’ Discourses I was hooked. I still remember them:

I thought: who the hell is this blunt guy with a wicked sense of humor and a no-nonsense philosophy? And why have I not heard of him before? That tweet changed my life. I have now been practicing Stoicism for six years, and have written three books about it (this one, this one, and this one). It has been an incredible journey not just because it has helped me immensely, but because my writing and talks seem to be helpful to other people, which is a wonderful feeling.

And it was Stoicism that brought about the last amazing event: meeting my future wife, Jennifer. A few years ago I gave a talk on Stoicism at the Brooklyn Public Library, during their annual Night of Philosophy (which is what it sounds: an entire night of philosophy events, from 7pm to 7am!). Jennifer, unbeknownst to me, was in the audience. She did not approach me afterwards, but she signed up for one of the annual Stoic Camps that I facilitate in the Hudson Valley with my friend and co-author Greg Lopez.

I was smitten, and I worked up the courage to ask her out upon our return to New York. Lucky for me, she said yes, and we got married ten months later. And the pandemic, I’m happy to report, has done nothing but strengthen our bond.

So what next? I honestly have no idea. We live in strange times, and the Stoics teach us to be prepared for everything and to be open minded about outcomes. Setting aside a pandemic that will probably not ease for at least a year or two, the United States is now undergoing a profound crisis, with a President who openly flaunts not just the norms of civility, but those of democracy. For the first time in three decades I am seriously entertaining the possibility of leaving, though both Jennifer and I would have to look for a job in Europe (then again, thanks to the EU I’m a citizen of 27 countries, something both very practical and that appeals to my strong sense of cosmopolitanism).

More likely than not we will simply weather the storm. Whatever will happen, I am lucky to have the love of my wife and my daughter, the support of many friends I’ve made in different parts of the world, and my Stoic practice as a moral compass. I’m still working toward that degree of wisdom that Epictetus summarized in this fashion:

Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at https://figsinwinter.blog/essays/

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