The value of engagement

I get angry. Stuff makes me mad. I wish it didn’t, but it does. It’s not that I’m an inherently angry person, just that I still let stuff get to me. One particular time always stands out, as much for the fact I did nothing, and wished I had.

A woman had taken her daughter to an event I was doing at a museum, handling bones of various extinct animals. The daughter was especially interested, so I pointed out I was also giving a talk later that day that she’d probably really enjoy. Her mother said “You’re not going, as I’m just not interested in that stuff”. As she dragged her off, she added “I told you before, boys aren’t interested in smart girls”.

Now, I’m not going to get into the latter point. It’s self-evidently nonsensical (I’m not denying there are men like that, just that if you are a smart woman, why would you want a man who doesn’t like smart, funny women?). But the former makes me mad. Because it gets to the root of what this blog is about in many ways, why it matters to be engaged and interested. Why you should encourage it in others, and why you should foster that sense in yourself.

I’ve often thought about that moment. What I wish I’d said is this:

“Do you know where the first humans came from? We were a small tribe, living in a valley in east Africa, around 250,000 years ago. In the context of a universe nearly 14 billion years old, that is absolutely nothing; less than the blink of an eye. Yet in that time, look at what we’ve done.

We invented tools, and used those tools to create better tools. We developed complex language, spoke, and ultimately wrote our thoughts, stories, wishes, hopes and dreams. We developed the first art in the history of the world, and from there developed comprehensive cultures and belief systems that united us into communities.

We worked out how to make and use fire. We worked out how to extract metal and other minerals from rocks. We made even better tools. We moved out of that valley, and spread across Africa.

We learnt how to make basic boats, using our tools. We moved out into Europe and Asia. We crossed not only seas, but whole oceans, until around 40,000 years ago we were standing on every major landmass bar Antarctica. We didn’t stop there.

We learnt how to adapt our environment to our needs, built the first homes. We learnt to cultivate plants and animals, and became farmers, allowing us to feed an ever-growing population.

Every leap we made, lead to still greater discovery.

We built towns, then cities. We developed new forms of transport. We worked out what made us sick, and we learnt how to cure those sicknesses.

We developed telescopes. We looked up at the moon and stars that had fascinated us back in Africa a quarter of a million years previously, and wanted to go there too.

We eventually took to the air, and even that wasn’t enough. We went into space, and landed humans on the moon. We have sent probes out into our Solar System and beyond.

Still we look further, using ever more complex telescopes to look to the edge of the universe and, because of the way light travels, back to the beginning of time itself.

This has all been driven by our sense of curiosity and wonder, possibly the only thing that makes us unique as a species.

Given all that how can you possibly ‘not be interested’?”

Okay, it’d be a long answer, and she’d probably leave before I finished. And I’ve over-romanticised it (I’ve left out war, and greed, and all the bits where we treat each other badly). But I still think the point stands.

We should always be interested, always be engaged, because that’s all we really have that makes us human, that defines our species. Without that, you really may as well be back in a cave, frightened of the sun.


I had wanted to call this “The Importance of being interested”, but the excellent Robin Ince has already nabbed that one. Damn him.

If you want a view on this that goes a little farther back in time, and sets humanity in a universal context, this is a great read: What makes you special? by Rosa Rubicondior

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6 Responses to The value of engagement

  1. Pingback: The value of engagement | You can lead a body to motherhood…

  2. David says:

    I didn’t go into the “boys don’t like smart girls” thing, because it wasn’t the central point of the post. But it is worth mentioning.

    I overheard a horrible conversation on the train a few weeks back. Two young women were discussing one setting the other up with a new boyfriend. She asked what type of ‘boys’ she liked, and offered her two choices: ‘nice boys’ or ‘funny boys, who maybe don’t treat you so well’. I nearly interrupted.

    I honestly cannot understand why anyone would think ‘someone who doesn’t treat you well’ is a legitimate choice. I fully understand that people get into bad relationships, but you shouldn’t aspire to a bad relationship.

    There are men who, through insecurity and fear, don’t like women who are smart, funny, engaged. But that’s not a universal rule. I love smart women. My other half is, in many ways, far smarter than me. I love that. I love that she tells me stuff I don’t know, and that we can have intellectually fulfilling arguments.

    I don’t know if this is a school thing still, where smart still isn’t cool, and so people, girls especially, feel some stuff isn’t for them? Or is it a cultural product? We seem to increasingly elevate really stupid people, but they’re pretty, so that’s okay.

    If anyone has any thoughts, or links to good info on this, I’d appreciate it.

  3. Pingback: The future of young naturalists | Why watch wildlife?

  4. James Corner says:

    It’s not just “smart girls aren’t liked by boys”. Unfortunately in our schools, it’s also “smart girls get bullied by less smart girls”. Very sad.

  5. Thanks for giving my blog a shout. Glad you enjoyed it.

I welcome thoughts, comments and questions, so please feel free to share anything at all. Thanks, David

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