Upper School President Corey Predella delivered the following speech to his class at Commencement. You can watch the full speech here.
A clever crab once said, “Holism is the most natural thing in the world to grasp. It’s simply the belief that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’ No one in his right mind could reject holism.”
To that, an anteater responded. The anteater said, “I reject holism. I challenge you to tell me, for instance, how a holistic description of an ant colony sheds any more light on it than is shed by a description of the ants inside it, and their roles, and their, interrelationships. Any holistic explanation of an ant colony will inevitably fall far short of explaining where the consciousness experienced by an ant colony arises from.”
This dialogue between the anteater and the crab comes from chapter 11 of the Pulitzer prize-winning book, Godel Escher Bach. Of all the books I’ve read throughout my life, I’ve never been more intrigued by a character conversation.
Because later in this discussion, the crab asks the anteater to consider the definition of a neuron, which is an information messenger in the brain that receives signals attached to its input lines. In a neuron, if the sum of the total of its inputs exceeds a “critical threshold,” that neuron will fire its own signal to a different neuron in the network. The crab was ultimately arguing that an ant colony is a brain.
Reading this chapter made me wonder, is an ant colony a brain? I happen to agree with the crab. An ant colony is built from these tiny units, the ants themselves. In isolation, a single ant isn’t able to achieve much, but all of a sudden, when you put multiple ants together, something happens. They sync into a larger entity and create systems for survival. Ant colonies build tunnel systems in just days, and they can hunt massive creatures. The ant colony is brilliant and, without a doubt, greater than the sum of its parts—the ants themselves.
And I think inductively that humans are the same way. When you group two people together, they can allocate brainpower to specific tasks in an effort to create a more powerful brain.
Beaver is the same way; Beaver is a brain.
You see, the Beaver brain has lots of parts, similar to the brains of our own. We have individual rooms in the building dedicated to specific tasks. The left part of the Beaver brain is what we call the R+&D center, the place where we as students go to problem-solve and come up with new ideas. The right part of the Beaver brain is what we call the art and music studios, the place where we as students go to unleash creativity. The Beaver brain also has neurons that actively respond to stimuli. These are the teachers and faculty members. If you had an inquiry about integrals, any neuron would transmit you to Mr. Robinson’s classroom; if you needed help laser cutting, any neuron would direct you to the workshop; and, if you really needed to, if you lost your AirPods for the fifth time during the week, you could stimulate every neuron at once by sending an all-school email. Whenever you had a question, you were directed to the part of Beaver that would give you an answer, just like a brain. During the day, there is so much activity going on in the Beaver brain, and in the night, the Beaver brain dreams. The neurons go elsewhere to family and friends getting ready for another day in the network.
As students, we were neurons in training.
At some point, we all walked into this institution for the first time as our school. We were untuned neurons; we didn’t know what was stimulating to us yet. We didn’t yet know our place in the Beaver brain. We were just present.
We all remember this “new-neuron” feeling; the feeling we got when we saw the giant seniors roaming the halls. We all remember witnessing screaming in the halls, and when we turned around, two friends were reunited from summer. We may also remember the teachers asking us, “do you need help finding your next class?” as they peered down at you.
On a certain level, I do agree with the anteater as well, I believe that every neuron can be traced to its origins, that moment when a student would find their place in the grand Beaver brain.
For some of us, it took days. For others, it took weeks or months. But at some point, we all had that click moment when all of a sudden, everything just seemed right. For me, that was in 9th grade when Liam Coughlin asked me if I wanted to work on Mr. Zachry’s physics chilly problem-set together. I said yes and then something special happened. We, being two neurons in training, became friends. And just like the ants in an ant colony, we fused together through a synapse connection. We started a subnetwork in the Beaver brain. And holistically speaking, the quality of my work was immediately substantiated by having this synapse. Just by this one connection, I learned something about myself; I learned that I sincerely enjoyed working on problems together with other people; it was stimulating. Just like that, I found my way into the Beaver Brain.
We all had that first synapse moment when we perhaps met someone or took a class and sat in fascination. Over the years, we as a senior class developed more and more synapses with one another through playing music, solving problems, and writing essays. And now look at us: we are one grand neural network! And not to brag to the other senior classes, but this neural network has to be the most interesting. We play guitars, fly RC planes, we sing and dance, we are spiritual, we are astrologists, and activists, we are basketball, lacrosse, tennis baseball players, we are beekeepers, cheerleaders, board and videogamers, we are investors and politicians, we are mathematicians, fashion designers, and rock-climbers, movie-watchers, readers, poets, actors, and actresses, we are neurons of practice, and are therefore collectively, a polymath
So here we are, at the end of senior year, now a robust neural network. We are a family of friends, a household of innovators (even if innovating means sticking pencils to the ceiling in the C-level), and we are a brain of brains. And while this time right now may seem melancholic, something incredible is about to happen. This network of seniors, just like every previous senior class, is about to be cast into the world. We are going to continue the annual opening of the Beaver brain. We are going to distribute ourselves across the surface area of the globe, connected.
And, we are going to bring new souls into the Beaver brain. Because we will propagate our next stop with eternal Beaver virtues. We will be contagious with creativity, packed with passion, and loaded with love.
So here’s my review of being a part of this Beaver brain. Four years ago, my G-blocks consisted of me talking on the phone with my mom in the R-level pods wondering if this was really the place for me. And now, I stand before you all giving a Commencement speech. This scenario would have been unimaginable to 9th grade me. Something happened, and it was you all. You all changed my life, there’s just no other way to put it. I am the result of you all. The synapses I’ve built with you all have influenced my interests and pursuits to this moment. We are leaving the classrooms as little vectors of each other. We are departing as 1% more of a Harry Styles fan, 1% more of a chess-player, 1% more of marvel enthusiast, 1% more of a lego builder. We are 88-fold of who we were in 9th grade—and this is thanks to us spending the past four years together.
So to the class of 2022, now is the time to celebrate, express gratitude, and reflect. At some point in the next week, I want you all to think about your interests, your vocabulary words, your personality, and the media you consume. Try the best you can to trace these back to their origins, and it now may not be too surprising that someone from the Beaver brain introduced you to the person you are now. With that, I want to end off on one last note from the crab.
The crab reflected, “Ant colonies survive because their distribution has meaning, and that meaning is a holistic aspect, invisible on lower levels. You lose explanatory power unless you take that higher level into account. I can see that the signals are constantly affecting the distribution throughout the colony, and are doing so in response to the internal needs of the colony-which, in turn, reflect the external situation that the colony is faced with. Therefore the distribution as you said, Dr. Anteater, gets continually updated in a way which ultimately reflects the outer world.”
I love you all, This is me signing off.