As summer ends, British Columbia's shores are awash with sockeye salmon.  The most bountiful run in over a hundred years.  Last year's run was so dismal a federal judicial inquiry was created.  The collapse of the wild salmon fishery was predicted.  The delicious taste of wild salmon was soon to be a forgotten pleasure. Or so claimed the experts.

Twelve months later sockeye have reminded us of the mysteries of the universe.  No one seems to know why the run is so abundant.  The newspapers refer to a 'scientific mystery' – an oxymoron for sure.  Every day scientists seem to revise their estimates upward by another million or two.  Last year's total run was 1.5 million! Now the daily incremental estimates are off by that much.

There is an accompanying oxymoron – deafening silence. 

Silence about the limitations of science; silence about the limitations of measurement; silence about the limitations of humans managing nature and each other.  Sockeye salmon are simply and elegantly reminding us about how much we don't know. They remind us of the unquantifiable.  They remind us that wonder, unpredictability and mystery should accompany our decision making as surely as data and scientific research.  They remind us to be humble, that we are imperfect.  Humans can only handle a finite number of variables.  Nature handles the infinite – all the variables, no matter the complexity.

The limitations of human intervention is not limited to the management of natural wonders.  People with disabilities have been and still are on the receiving end of the social scientific, 'human management' approach.  While we can detect and isolate, for example, an extra twenty-first chromosome, we can't determine the contribution of a person diagnosed with down syndrome. And it doesn't give us insight into the meaning of their life. 

While we can develop assessment tools that purport to measure the 'functional ability' of a person with a developmental disability, we can't predict who will be an artist, an environmentalist, or an expert on spiders.  While we pretend we can measure intelligence, even though we can't define it, we can't measure the worth of a smile.

Predictions and diagnosis should come with a warning:
Conclusions and recommendations reached by imperfect humans working in a complex,
mysterious environment.
Come to think of it 'imperfect humans' might also be an oxymoron. Let's replace our hubris with some humility.

I am reminded of Gabriel  Marcel, the French philosopher who made an important distinction between mysteries and problems.  Mysteries are problems everyone is involved with. Problems are mysteries reduced to something objective.  Once that happens we leave it to others (researchers, scientists, experts) to solve, absenting ourselves from the process becoming dependent on their solutions. And therein lies the danger.  Marcel was worried scientific egoism would replace the 'mystery' of being with the false scenario that life is merely composed of technical 'problems' and 'solutions'  

So, here's a nod to sockeye for reminding us of the delicious mysteries that accompany all human interactions.  For reminding us that 'natural wonder' is another phrase for mystery.  For reminding us that mysteries are something we should not leave to others.

Ring the bell that still can ring;                                                                                                

Forget your perfect offering;                                                                                                   

There's a crack in everything;                                                                                                           

That's how the salmon got in.

          Apologies to L. Cohen                                                                                                           

3 Comments

  1. David Roche

    Beautiful! Beautiful!

  2. Christy Lee-Engel

    Wonderful! Thank you, Al, for pointing to this/the mystery, and for the link to Gabriel Marcel (and for the sweet connection between the salmon and Cohen’s great song!) A happy mystery, this one – though I suppose from nature’s point of view it could just as easily go the other way, of mysterious disappearance. As you say, humility seems like the most appropriate stance.

  3. John

    Great one Al…..again.

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