Syria, After the War

Conscience cannot stand much violence. Once thoroughly broken down, who is he that can repair the damage?” – Frederick Douglas, 1855


The war in Syria has to end, eventually. However, the tragic reality is that the damage is likely to last for decades.


Woman and child in Douma, Syria in Dec 2014. (AFP Photo/ Abd Doumany)


Yesterday, The New York Times reported that in the past few days “tens of thousands of civilians” have fled the city of Aleppo as the Syrian military, aided by Russian jets, have tried to reclaim the area. This is only the latest wave of civilians being forcibly displaced by the war. Altogether, the UN estimates that more than half of Syrians have been displaced from their homes at least once. Some of these have crossed into other countries, while the rest remain internally displaced.

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Trump-ed Up Genes

“Wherever you go, there you are.”


I try to keep my ears open to how public figures speak about science and anthropology. It’s always interesting to learn how different people, particularly influential people, perceive these subjects. For example, in his 2009 acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize Barack Obama said that “War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man.” That’s an empirical claim, but I don’t think the archaeological evidence is on his side.  

However, Obama’s statement offered a tantalizing window into the way he might see war – that it is simply an unavoidable outcome of human nature, implying that we may be stuck with it indefinitely. I don’t know for a fact that he actually thought that way; that’s me trying to read between the lines. And I’m not saying that such a view is wrong; I don’t think war will be eradicated anytime soon either. But I don’t think we should reduce something as complex as the large-scale arming and mobilization of military forces simply to some fuzzy notion of an aggressive human nature.     

This brings me to Donald Trump. More than once, I’ve noticed that he likes to say that he’s a “big believer” in the “gene thing” as an explanation for whatever success he has had in life (see here and here). A quick Google search shows that he’s done this for years, and that he has credited several of his ‘superior’ traits to his genes or some generic notion of heredity, a pattern I find interesting. Some examples:

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Your Life is a Logical Absurdity

“Think of it: zillions and zillions of organisms running around, each under the hypnotic spell of a single truth, all these truths identical, and all logically incompatible with one another: ‘My hereditary material is the most important material on earth; its survival justifies your frustration, pain, even death.’ And you are one of these organisms, living your life in the thrall of a logical absurdity.”  

Robert Wright, The Moral Animal

Biological Anthropology: Getting Our Bearings

During the first week of the semester, I used this scene from the movie ‘Gravity’ in my Introduction to Biological Anthropology class. Gravity

This came after I asked the class: why should we even care about biological anthropology? What’s the point? I used the image as a metaphor to say that what we’re trying to do is to get our bearings as to where we fit in nature. It can be difficult — things are moving fast, we’re disoriented, there’s a lot of debris (or data) flying around us. 

Despite that, we can look to what’s around us to orient ourselves. There’s the earth, the sun, ’empty’ space, etc. I think the same applies to biological anthropology. We look to the fossil record, genetics, anatomy, the living primates (and to a lesser extent other living species), human variation, etc. to figure out our approximate position.  

I’m not sure if the metaphor worked, but I had some fun with it.

“It’s never too late” to do the right thing: UXO in Laos

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Laos on Sunday, foreshadowing a visit by President Obama sometime this autumn. It will be the first ever visit by a U.S. President to Laos. There are probably several reasons for the visit, including strengthening ties, checking Chinese power in the region, etc. Most relevant to me is the hope that more will be done to alleviate some of the damage done during the war years, especially by removing leftover unexploded ordnance (UXO).

CNN article mentions two emotions that Americans might feel toward President Obama’s position towards Laos: guilt and optimism. It quotes Channapha Khamvongsa, who founded he NGO Legacies of War, which works to raise awareness of UXO in Laos.  Continue reading

Sex and Love in the Long Run


[I hope you like graphs … and words.]

♪ Now everyone dreams of a love lasting and true, / But you and I know what this world can do. / So let’s make our steps clear, so the other may see./ I’ll wait for you, and should I fall behind, will you wait for me? 

— Bruce Springsteen & Patti Scialfa (“If I Should Fall Behind”)


“Contrary to what has been widely believed, long-term romantic love (with intensity, sexual interest, and engagement, but without the obsessive element common in new relationships), appears to be a real phenomenon that may be enhancing to individuals’ lives—positively associated with marital satisfaction, mental health, and overall well-being.”

— Bianca Acevedo and Arthur Aron (2009: 64)


In the 2013 film “Before Midnight,” we caught up with Celine and Jesse (played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) who had fallen in love during a chance, whirlwind evening in Vienna eighteen years earlier. After nine years apart between the first and second parts of the trilogy, they have been together for the last nine and are now in their early forties, and have twin girls together as well as a son from Jesse’s first marriage.

The first part of the trilogy, “Before Sunrise,” focused on Celine and Jesse’s incipient romantic connection as they explored the city, talking all night about a variety of topics before ultimately having to separate. In part two they reconnected. By the third film we see that there is still love, but with more complexity within their long-term relationship. We see themes of restlessness, resentments over suspected past infidelities, and the struggles that come with balancing parenting, career, sexual desire, domestic life, and having family spread out over long distances. They lament that passion (for all things) came easier to them when they were younger, and Jesse suggests that maybe “this is the natural human state – always a little dissatisfied, perpetually discontented.” We are left wondering if their relationship will survive.

The New York Times critic A.O. Scott reviewed “Before Midnight” jointly with the European film “Amour,” released the previous year. In that movie, we saw an elderly couple struggling with failing health. Scott pondered why such films, with their focus on a couple already-in-progress, were less common than ones centered around early romance. In his view, the reason is that unlike romantic comedies, marriage “has no story arc.”

“A marriage plot, which is to say a comedy, is a story with a wedding at the end. The exchange of vows provides a satisfying and efficient exit from an intricate story. After the chaos of misbehavior, misunderstanding and missed connection, order is restored, the curtain falls, and love’s essential labor is done. But if the story starts in the middle, sometime after the honeymoon, at the breakfast table or the parent-teacher conference, where then does it conclude? There are only two logical possibilities, both of them sad.”

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One Example of Agent Orange’s Legacy

This film — Chau, Beyond the Lines  has been nominated for an Academy award in the category of short documentary.  I’m not particularly interested in such awards, but in this case I’m grateful to learn of this film and that it raises awareness of how the effects of the Vietnam War continue to linger.