Pursuing the God of Truth in a Post-Truth Era

[Summary: This essay has three parts. First, truth is really important. Second, you are a damn fool. Well, not a fool. I’m trying to get your attention. But you are fallible, and so am I. We all are. This makes discovering truth very difficult. Third, our fallibilities can be exploited by others who do not particularly care for truth. Be humble, embrace your fallibilities, and try to overcome them as we strive towards accessing truth.]

“Being good, she observed, meant being good to others, including strangers. And that was pretty much enough to live by. But how can you know the right thing to do? Human reasoning, she said – referring now explicitly to Socrates and Plato – human reasoning is imperfect. Human bias keeps us from perfect vision of what is happening around us. But the quest for truth – the quest to understand the world around us – must ultimately be how you enact the good.”

– Alice Dreger’s mother (Galileo’s Middle Finger, p. 256)

“Veritas super omnia.”

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Last year, I shared some thoughts on Isaiah Berlin’s 1994 essay, “A Message to the 21st Century.” Everyone should read it, in my opinion. I often come back to his words, as I see them as a synopsis of the human condition. Berlin emphasized that the values we hold most dear frequently clash with other ones (justice can clash with mercy, spontaneity with rational planning, liberty with equality, knowledge with happiness, etc.).

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Why Mice Don’t Get Ulcers

In his 1994 book “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” Robert Sapolsky described the difference between the types of stress that people often experience and the ones that other animal species do. In his titular example, if you were a zebra, you’d most likely face acute physical stress – the lion about to eat you – which requires immediate physiological adaptations (the fight-or-flight response). A second type of stress might be chronic and physical (drought, famine, parasites, etc.).

However, the third type of stress on Sapolsky’s list – the type most prominent in an industrialized human’s life – was social and psychological. While our species certainly benefited from expanding brain size over the last few million years, it too came with trade-offs, including the ability to overthink and worry about things to come down the road. This type of stress would not have featured too prominently into the mental lives of other species. As Sapolsky wrote:

“How many hippos worry about whether Social Security is going to last as long as they will, or what they are going to say on a first date? 

For the vast majority of beasts on this planet, stress is about a short-term crisis, after which it’s either over with or you’re over with. When we sit around and worry about stressful things, we turn on the same physiological responses – but they are potentially a disaster when provoked chronically. A large body of evidence suggests that stress-related disease emerges, predominantly, out of the fact that we so often activate a physiological system that has evolved for responding to acute physical emergencies, but we turn it on for months on end, worrying about mortgages, relationships and promotions” (p. 5 – 6).

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Chasing Away the Demons

I’ve been thinking of how people are quick to demonize one another, at a time when social divisions are rising in the United States and elsewhere around the world (or what I imperfectly perceive as rising divisions). The phenomenon of Us and Them is ever-present. For a long time people have recognized the pattern that we tend to demonize others who are different from us.

In his work, “A Treatise on Human Nature” (1740), Scottish philosopher David Hume noted that we tend to have a double standard in how we think about “Them” when our country (or whatever group) is engaged in conflict:

“When our own nation is at war with any other, we detest them under the character of cruel, perfidious, unjust and violent: But always esteem ourselves and allies equitable, moderate, and merciful. If the general of our enemies be successful, it is with difficulty we allow him the figure and character of a man. He is a sorcerer: He has a communication with daemons; as is reported of Oliver Cromwell, and the Duke of Luxembourg: He is bloody-minded, and takes a pleasure in death and destruction. But if the success be on our side, our commander has all the opposite good qualities, and is a pattern of virtue, as well as of courage and conduct. His treachery we call policy: His cruelty is an evil inseparable from war. In short, every one of his faults we either endeavour to extenuate, or dignify it with the name of that virtue, which approaches it.”

This blog has been an exercise in sharing some knowledge — and I do try to get things right — but it’s also been an attempt to try to seek out overlooked pieces of optimism. My biases creep in, and I know they are there, but they are mine and I own them. I can see the nastier side of human beings clearly, but I know there is more to us than that. We can’t ignore those things either. 

I see humans as evolved, fallible creatures (just like every other species). At least for me, it helps to remember that we are all a single species, that we are all related, that we are obligatorily social and require some degree of connection, that we can overcome difficult circumstances, that people can break cyclical violence, that the universe favors non-zero sum relationships to some degree, that nature is not always red in tooth and claw, that we are flexible and just as predisposed for cooperation as we are for conflict, that we can find ways to reconcile and mend broken relationships, that life is beautiful, and, finally, that we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.

“I’ve never seen a Chinese monkey” (Essentialism & Human Variation)

I taught my first undergraduate anthropology class seventeen years ago, which is sometimes hard for me to believe. In that time, I’ve had over two thousand students enrolled in my courses, many of whom have left an impression on me. I hope I make a good impression on them too, though sometimes I have my doubts. A few years ago, a student asked me what my name was as they started to fill out the line after “Instructor” on the front page of their exam blue book. That was about halfway into the semester. You can’t reach them all, I suppose.

During my fourth year of teaching “Introduction to Biological Anthropology,” we got about two-thirds into the semester, and I paused to take the class’ pulse on how things were going. I asked them if they had any general thoughts about the class, such as what ideas they found interesting (or not), things they wished we could discussed more in depth, etc. I have since forgotten most of the students’ comments, except for one.

I remember that he wasn’t exactly the best student, and that he had struggled with most of the graded assignments. Nonetheless, I still learned something from him that day. He told the class that he thought evolution was an interesting idea, but he was skeptical about it applying to humans because, as he said, “Well, I’ve never seen a Chinese monkey.” This all occurred a long time ago, but I remember that at first I was puzzled by what he meant. And then it clicked.

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One Hundred Percent American (for the time being)

“All is flux.” – Heraclitus

“Todo cambia.” Mercedes Sosa

 

Below is a classic 1937 essay by the cultural anthropologist Ralph Linton. I think it is as relevant today – as divisions seem to be growing – as it was when it was first written. Linton was reminding us of some of the ways that our world is interconnected, and that it has been that way for a very, very long time. Eric Wolf summarized things this way: “the world of humankind constitutes a manifold, a totality of interconnected processes, and inquiries that disassemble this totality into bits and then fail to reassemble it falsify reality (1982:3).” (Note: Jason Antrosio wrote an excellent post on Wolf’s take on this interconnected world, and how seats of power have shifted over the centuries. What we see now is merely a snapshot in time).

Despite all of the different places of origin of our inventions, foods, traditions, languages, genes, and people, they don’t remain fixed or separate indefinitely. Some come and go, or are adopted in new places, forming new combinations and identities. “All things flow,” said Alfred North Whitehead. 

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An interconnected globe. From: “The history of our world in 18 minutes,” by David Christian

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“One Hundred Percent American”

by Ralph Linton, 1937

There can be no question about the average American’s Americanism or his desire to preserve this precious heritage at all costs. Nevertheless, some insidious foreign ideas have already wormed their way into his civilization without his realizing what was going on. Thus dawn finds the unsuspecting patriot garbed in pajamas, a garment of East Indian origin; and lying in a bed built on a pattern which originated in either Persia or Asia Minor. He is muffled to the ears in un-American materials: cotton, first domesticated in India; linen, domesticated in the Near East; wool from an animal native to Asia Minor; or silk whose uses were first discovered by the Chinese. All these substances have been transformed into cloth by methods invented in Southwestern Asia. If the weather is cold enough he may even be sleeping under an eiderdown quilt invented in Scandinavia.

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Colin Kaepernick and the Clash of Values

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”    – Dalai Lama

Los Angeles Rams v San Francisco 49ers

Colin Kaepernick (right) and teammate Eric Reid kneeling during the national anthem (Source)

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A lot has been written about the San Francisco 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick and his decision to kneel during the national anthem before his team plays its games. For those who haven’t heard, in August of this year, Kaepernick opted not to stand during the anthem to protest police violence against minorities in the US. In his words:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color…To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

The practice has since been taken up by dozens of other players in the league, and spread to the NBA and WNBA, US women’s soccer, high school athletes across the country, a high school football referee, cheerleaders, even a few singers of the anthem itself.

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The spread of national anthem protests (source)

Reactions to the protests have been mixed, with some people supporting Kaepernick’s right to peaceful protest, others being outraged, and still others being sympathetic to his cause but disagreeing with his methods. One mid-September poll found that Kaepernick had become the most disliked player in the NFL, “disliked a lot” by 29% of 1,100 Americans asked. That number was up from 6% in August, before his protestations began. He has received death threats, and a handful of NFL executives from teams around the league have expressed disdain for him, referring to Kaepernick as a “traitor” who “has no respect for our country.” Continue reading

Three Bases to Go

(This one is for me, but you might enjoy the link to the song.)

This storm it came up strong
It shook the trees
And blew away our fear
I couldn’t even hear

Jackie, rounding the bases. Three more bases to go.