The Parable of the Musicians

Once there were three musicians who suddenly found themselves amidst a huge orchestra, mid-concert. They couldn’t quite recall how they had come to be there. They couldn’t remember asking to participate. Their music stands were empty and the piece unfamiliar. Indeed, there was no conductor and everyone seemed to be improvising. And yet, the three bewildered musicians were extremely talented, they had been presented with instruments of the highest quality, and the symphony playing around them was exquisite. They knew they must immediately join in. Somehow.

The first musician held a trombone. She recalled a lovely, heartbreaking melody that her grandmother had taught her years ago. It was in minor key, allegro tempo, and ¾ time. Unfortunately, the song currently playing was none of those things. In addition, the part that she now pictured so fervently in her mind’s eye had been written for trumpet. Nevertheless, she pursed her lips tightly and out squawked a distorted version of her grandmother’s tune, completely at odds with the surrounding notes. She was promptly thrown out of the hall into the back alley.

The second musician cradled a guitar. He would not make his colleague’s mistake. He carefully listened to the repeating chord progression, rich with G, C, and D7, at 100 beats per minute. He looked down and realized that two of his strings were already tuned to G and D! He couldn’t make a C without using the frets, but no matter. He would alternately strum a single G once, and then the D string two measures later. A flawless strategy, perfectly suggested by the nature of the guitar itself and the performance in which he was enmeshed. After a few minutes of this, he was dismissed from his chair for playing like a tedious tween novice.

The third musician sat before a piano. The pianist would not dwell in fantasy like the brass player had, oblivious to empirical reality. At the same time, there was no reason for a timid and overly simplistic take on what was possible with the instrument, the guitarist’s error. The first step was to deliberately take it all in: the pedals and soundboard, the other artists and their skills, the pitch and rhythm, how it all fit together. Now to launch a unique accompaniment. The pianist tested the keyboard with a small flourish, in tune with the other players but with a few accidentals thrown in. Next the bass notes, andante with a syncopated backbeat, the firm left hand authorizing the airy exuberance of the right. Hints of discord, just enough to evoke emotions beyond the reach of words. A few sheets of paper slid between the hammer and strings brought allusion to the funk of ragtime. The thump of a fist on the external wood itself, and the whole instrument resonated like a drum. The other performers turned their heads and stared admiringly at the new artist who would become not only a welcome addition, but a muse and beacon for the rest.


What to take from this story?

Like the musicians, you once awoke to find yourself in a condition you hadn’t requested: as a mammalian organism immersed in Earth’s biosphere. You have an instrument, your body, that’s been fine-tuned by evolution. There are other instruments in the ensemble. Some are a lot like yours, while others pollinate our crops, assemble our oxygen, decompose our waste, or challenge our immune systems. How will you use yours? How will you contribute to the ongoing concert?

One strategy is to rely on intuition and tradition, paying little attention to the way the world actually works. Like the first musician, you might turn to charismatic leaders, sacred texts, beloved folktales, or your own gut. You might dismiss the realities of evolution, the carbon cycle, or even infectious disease. However, when people refuse to live in harmony with scientific facts, it doesn’t end well. The continuous spread of a deadly coronavirus, which could have been curtailed by listening to scientific consensus, is only the most recent and glaring example. The same thing is happening with climate change. It’s likely to happen with other disasters yet unforeseen. Our lives are intimately connected with the rest of nature, and we can’t just pretend otherwise. We are bespoke collections of cells, living among moles of other cells, all of us virtuosos after billions of years honing our roles. Ignore that at your peril.

The opposite tactic is to treat a little basic information as a rigid constraint. The second musician found a plunking style consistent with his cursory data. It happened to be rather boring, but he concluded it was the only possible choice. Similarly, you could assume that our lifestyle options are restricted by what you happen to know about biology: “Humans are animals, and animals fight each other, so why should we behave any differently? What if we assign everyone a role in society based on the most obvious physical differences, like genital shape? We were produced by a ruthless, process, natural selection, so we should value competition and exploitation. Our ancestors were top predators on the savanna, so it’s best eat and act like they presumably did. A few measurements like IQ, BMI, or genotype indicate what each of us is capable of. Don’t overreach.” This viewpoint is tempting, because it appears to be scientific. The problem is that humans, like guitars, are more than the sums of our parts. Simple tests and generalizations don’t provide an accurate picture of biological reality, because biology isn’t simple. So get out of here with that crude monotony. We can do so much more.

What’s left is the pianist’s gambit: observation and creativity. The third musician paid close attention, and then used that knowledge in ways never before imagined.

Go now and do likewise.

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