By Harold Eyster, Terre Satterfield, and Kai M.A. Chan.

Before we sat down to write our recent paper for People and Nature, we didn’t realize how Golden-winged warblers and COVID-19 viruses were connected.

Or how humpback whales, avocados, and morals also fit into the mix.

But writing this paper, with a heaping helping of wisdom from other researchers from many disciplines, helped us see how science about these disparate examples is undergirded by a common way of thinking.

Indeed, this old way of thinking is so widespread and commonplace in science that we often don’t even notice it.

But looking closely helps to reveal how one way of thinking may be endangering warblers, humans, and hampering understanding of much else.

Adopting a different way of thinking—relational thinking—might help. Under relational thinking, facts are less about independent entities (a warbler, say) and instead about relationships. That is, relationships among researchers and subjects, people and other people, people and nature, and nature and nature. Think about this in reference to Covid-19.

Covid-19: It is well-recognised that viruses can quickly evolve—that’s why each year’s flu vaccine is different. Nevertheless, initial public health modeling about COVID-19 treated viral properties as independent of human behavior. Scenarios of mask mandates and vaccination considered human infection, hospital loads and death, assuming that infectiousness would not evolve as a function of prevalence. Experience showed otherwise.  People started and then stopped social distancing and masking, and new and more contagious variants evolved. The COVID-19 pandemic is a dance among people and the virus. This is what we mean by relational thinking – in this case, the relationship between humans and an evolving virus.

What about Golden-winged Warblers? Golden-winged warbler males and females prefer different habitats in Central America during the nonbreeding season, but conservation efforts have targeted male-preferred habitat. This asymmetry may be because scientific knowledge and conservation practices result from relationships among warblers and people who are biased towards showy animals (and males for that matter). 

Female Golden-winged Warblers (center) are often overlooked in conservation planning because of the societal focus on male, showy birds (margins). Recognizing the societal relationships that shape scientists and our relationships with our study systems (seen through binoculars, black ring)  may help to increase the effectiveness of conservation.
Watercolor on paper by Harold N. Eyster.

For example, what color do you think a Scarlet Tanager is? Red? No, half of the population is green, and even the male red ones are only red during the breeding season. Our perception of Golden-winged Warblers is similarly narrow: Google image search ‘Golden-winged Warblers’ and 13 of the top 15 results are showy males—see image below.

Science is a social process. It results from relationships among human societies, scientists, and the subject under study. Conserving warblers requires recognizing these relationships and reflecting about how they shape our conservation priorities. ‘Positionality’ or ‘reflexivity’ statements are intended to foster these reflections about each researcher’s relationship with what they’re studying. This is one reason why it’s so important to add these statements to publications and presentations.

Morals too? Most people agree morals are important. But morals too are often studied as ‘things’ – that is, properties of the person or society and not properties of relationships. Leading social psychology researcher Jonathan Haidt and colleagues have suggested, for example, that five moral foundations undergird human morality. Moreover, they argue that liberals lack two of these (e.g., purity, authority). But this result may be due to the survey questions they asked (see some of them in the figure below). With different questions, things look different. . By appealing to different relationships (e.g., with GMOs, political parties), the same “foundations” might be found to be very strong in liberals—see our modifications in the figure below. Perhaps morals are best attributable to human relationships, not to human beings.

Some of the original moral foundations survey questions (black and red text) used to suggest that US liberals do not rely on the ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect and purity/sanctity moral foundations, but US conservatives do. Our modifications, in blue, change the nature of the relationships invoked by the question. This changed relationship likely removes the observed conservative bias. Indeed, several of the modified statements might result in a liberal bias.
Image from Eyster et al., 2023, People and Nature.

Whales: While conventional thinking treats feeding behavior as a property of animals like humpback whales, relational thinking represents whale feeding behavior as a property of relationships between humpbacks and herring. After human fishing made herring scarce, whales adopted a new “lobtail” feeding strategy, and these feeding strategies are likely to change further. Functional traits are attributable to relationships among species and environments, not species per se.

Avocados: Thinking conventionally,  the massive seeds of avocados are puzzling. The animals that live where they evolved aren’t big enough to swallow the seeds. Fruit without seed-swallowers are a tremendous waste of plant resources. But they start to make sense when thought of as a relational product of coevolution with now-extinct mega-vertebrate seed dispersers such as the giant ground sloths. Present species can be better understood by investigating relationships with extinct species and ecosystems.

 Humans and trout: Similar to morals,  a conventional approach to understanding environmental values is as attributes of different people. But by thinking relationally, researchers showed that motivation to contribute to rainbow trout conservation was better predicted by values that emerged from relationships among people and trout (including genetically distinctiveness from other trout). Environmental values are not attributes of people per se but of relationships among people and particular environments, species, and/or individuals.

These examples suggest that relational thinking offers opportunities for scholars and practitioners to better address today’s sustainability, social, and public health challenges.

Curious to see more details? Read our paper for free here and read the Plain Language Summary here.