“The Fundamental Connection That We All Share”

On his visit to Ethiopia, U.S. President Barack Obama viewed the fossil remains of three famous human ancestors. These included two belonging to the 3 to 3.8 million-year old hominin species Australopithecus afarensis, “Lucy” and “Selam”), as well as “Ardi” from an older species Ardipithecus ramidus. (Click here for a nice overview of our hominin family tree). Later, he said this

“When you see our ancestor, 3.5 million years old, we are reminded that Ethiopians, Americans, all the people of the world are part of the same human family, the same chain… And as one of the professors (Zeresenay Alemseged) who was describing the artifacts correctly pointed out, so much of the hardship and conflict and sadness and violence that occurs around the world is because we forget that fact.  We look at superficial differences as opposed to seeing the fundamental connection that we all share.

I think Obama got it right, which isn’t surprising, since his mother was an anthropologist. Humans everywhere belong to the same species and share common ancestry. We have our differences — some trivial, some significant to us — but our bedrock should be that shared connection. That may be an ideological approach, but the nice thing is that it’s also scientifically accurate. 

Pesident Obama touches the fossilized vertebra of Lucy, an early human ancestor in Ethiopia on Monday. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

President Obama touches the fossilized vertebra of Lucy, an early human ancestor in Ethiopia on Monday. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

I Am Very Poorly Today

Darwin, circa 1859 or 1860. (Wiki Commons.)

Darwin, circa 1859 or 1860. (Wiki Commons.)

“But I am very poorly today & very stupid & hate everybody & everything. One lives only to make blunders.”

— Charles Darwin, letter to Charles Lyell, Oct 1, 1861


Everyone has their bad days.


Apologies Are in the Air

Hopeful news comes in threes (I think that’s how the saying goes). I just happened to come across three stories today related to apology and forgiveness.

1. In Bolivia, Pope Francis apologized for the role of the Catholic Church in the harm done to Native Americans:

“Some may rightly say, ‘When the pope speaks of colonialism, he overlooks certain actions of the church. I say this to you with regret: Many grave sins were committed against the native people of America in the name of God.”

He added: “I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”

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War, Economics, & Human Development

“Nothing is more useless in developing a nation’s economy than a gun, and nothing blocks the road to social development than the financial burden of war. War is the arch enemy of national progress and the modern scourge of civilized men.”

                                        – King Hussein, Address at Tulane University, April 1976 (Link)

I don’t know much about economics and development. As an undergraduate, I took only two economics courses (both in my freshman year), and to be honest they were forgettable. 

That said, I wouldn’t know where to begin to help improve any country’s economic situation. However, I can think of a surefire way to destroy one — host a war. Earlier this month, the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon said that because of the ongoing war Syria had lost the equivalent of four decades of human development. Even if the war ended tomorrow, it will likely take generations to recover. I won’t belabor this point. It should be enough to say that death and destruction are part of the logic of war, whether it be in Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, or South Sudan. What an enormous waste.


Reconciliation, Biology, and the Second Indochina War

Patrick Clarkin:

CNN had a story on Kim Phuc today, and she had this to say:

“I still have the pain. I still have the scars. I still have the memory, but my heart is healed.”

This reminded me of this post I wrote from 2011, which remains one of the most meaningful things I’ve written here.


Originally posted on Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D.:

Of all the things I’ve written on this site, this remains one of the most meaningful to me. (June 25, 2015)

The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” …………………………………………………………………………– Mohandas K. Gandhi

On my desk sits a spoon I bought in a restaurant in northern Laos. It’s lightweight, bigger than a tablespoon, and full of tiny dents that some unknown metalsmith hammered into it. The owner was bemused that in addition to the bowl of pho noodle soup, I also wanted to buy one of her utensils. But I had my reasons.

Earlier on my trip, my guide1 informed me that people in the town of Phonsavanh half-jokingly called these ‘B-52 spoons,’ as they were made of metal recovered from bombs dropped decades ago by U.S. planes during  ‘the Secret War. To me, the spoon was more than a…

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Thoughts on PTS and “Moral Injuries”  


Over the past five years, a good percentage of this blog has been focused on the effects of war on health. Some of these topics have included:

  • Other effects of war, such as forced displacement, food shortages, and destroyed infrastructure (here, here, here, here, here, & here)


I’ve largely stayed away from one of the most recognized effects of war: psychological impacts such as post-traumatic stress (PTS), perhaps with one notable exception: “Reconciliation, Biology, and the Second Indochina War.” This remains one of my favorite posts on this site. However, it dealt not with PTS per se, but with guilt and the desire for forgiveness and reconciliation, with many examples stemming from war.

I bring this up now because a few months ago I first encountered the idea of the long-term effects of ‘moral injury.’ According to Litz et al. (2009), a moral injury stems from “events, such as perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations may be deleterious in the long-term, emotionally, psychologically, behaviorally, spiritually, and socially.”

In other words, while both have long-term psychological effects, moral injury may be distinct from PTS. As Thomas Gibbons-Neff wrote “unlike post-traumatic stress, which is a result of a fear-conditioned response, moral injury is a feeling of existential disorientation that manifests as intense guilt.” Neither idea is new, though both may have been unintentionally intertwined in psychology (at least in my non-expert understanding of this).

The terminology has been fickle, and PTS has been called many different names over the past several decades including shell shock, soldier’s heart, or combat fatigue. More recently, there have been efforts to drop the word ‘disorder’ from PTSD to simply PTS, in an effort to minimize stigma as well as to shift how those suffering from stress see themselves. Vocabulary really matters, and re-framing the terminology helps everyone see people with PTS simply as fellow human beings undergoing a very difficult period, rather than as permanently damaged.   

According to one study, references to post traumatic stress may extend as far back to the Assyrians in Mesopotamia between 1300BC and 609BC. Some ancient soldiers reportedly described “hearing and seeing ghosts talking to them, who would be the ghosts of people they’d killed in battle.” However, to me, this seems more like moral injury and manifestations of guilt, rather than fear, so perhaps these would be better categorized as moral injuries. Though it is almost impossible to do this retrospectively.

Some, like the primatologist Frans deWaal (2012), have suggested that the frequency of PTS among soldiers indicates that committing acts of violence does not come easily to humans, and that war is not a deep part of human nature:

“If there were truly a genetic basis to our participation in lethal combat, we should willingly engage in it. Yet soldiers report a deep revulsion to killing and shoot at the enemy only under pressure. After these experiences, they often end up with substantial psychological damage. Far from being a recent phenomenon, haunting memories of combat were already known to the ancient Greeks, such as Sophocles, who described Ajax’s “divine madness,” now known as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”

I’m not so sure. There is evidence that some people are drawn to violence and enjoy participating in it. A recent powerful essay by Tage Rai argued that the key to understanding human violence is that people are most apt to engage in it when they believe they are morally justified:

“Across practices, across cultures, and throughout historical periods, when people support and engage in violence, their primary motivations are moral. By ‘moral’, I mean that people are violent because they feel they must be; because they feel that their violence is obligatory. They know that they are harming fully human beings. Nonetheless, they believe they should. Violence does not stem from a psychopathic lack of morality. Quite the reverse: it comes from the exercise of perceived moral rights and obligations.”

If there is any good news, perhaps it’s that individuals who suffer a moral injury must, almost by definition, have some deep reservations about certain acts of violence. After all, one’s sense of morality cannot be injured if it didn’t exist in the first place. Secondly, the concept of ‘injury’ implies that healing is possible. Marek Kopacz (2014) wrote that after trauma, military personnel often seek out “support in an effort to realign their existential beliefs and reaffirm the meaning and purpose of life.” My guess is that — evolutionarily speaking — because humans have such a long history as social primates, it is likely that a person’s moral sense is integral to their meaning of life. Therefore, it is also likely that attempts at moral healing/ re-alignment could go a long way in terms of psychological health and overall well-being.



De Waal F. 2012. The antiquity of empathy. Science 336: 874-6. Link

Litz BT, Stein N, Delaney E, Lebowitz L, Nash WP, Silva C, & Maguen S. 2009. Moral injury and moral repair in war veterans: A preliminary model and intervention strategy. Clinical Psychology Review 29: 695–706. Link

Kopacz MS. 2014. Moral injury – A war trauma affecting current and former military personnel.  International Journal of Social Psychiatry  60: 722-3. Link

You Are My Cousin

There’s so many different worlds
So many different suns
And we have just one world
But we live in different ones

         — Mark Knopfler, Brothers in Arms

I had the above T-shirt custom-made a couple of weeks ago, which reads “you are my cousin” in several languages. I can’t say for certain whether all of the translations are 100% accurate, but I tried to include a diverse range of languages, including the most commonly spoken ones (and Hmong; I just had to include Hmong). I’ve yet to wear it in public, but I am curious whether people will ask me about it. My hope is that it will get people to think a little about human diversity, similarity, difference, and how we are all related.

Of course, I’m playing fast and loose with terminology here, using ‘cousin’ in a very broad evolutionary sense. From an evolutionary perspective, genetic ties (or ‘blood’) are considered important since they indicate degree of shared genetic material. However, not every society sees family relations in the same way, which is a testament to the power of culture.

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