Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and an unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. – Bertrand Russell
This man beside us also has a hard fight with an unfavouring world, with strong temptations, with doubts and fears, with wounds of the past which have skinned over, but which smart when they are touched… And when this occurs to us we are moved to deal kindly with him, to bid him be of good cheer, to let him understand that we are also fighting a battle. – Ian MacLaren
This is the 100th post for this blog, which is hard to believe. I began this site for personal reasons and to share biological anthropology with a wider audience, and didn’t know what to expect. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to watch it grow slowly in readership. I’m grateful for those of you who’ve visited, found some of the things written here worth sharing, and who have made me think with your comments. Thank you.
I’ve not posted here in a while for a couple of reasons: (1) I am on sabbatical and have been focused on other things; (2) I have been thinking for a while that the 100th post should be meaningful and have been waiting for some burst of wisdom to fall from the sky. Wisdom seems to be rather elusive these days, but I’d like to reflect on a few things, including the sabbatical and crossing the tenured threshold, why I’m still in love with anthropology, and why I’m still hopeful about humanity despite all of its faults, and all of the pain out there (in the world in general and among people I know). I’ll try to avoid excessive navel gazing.
First, being tenured is a good place to be. I think back to my sophomore year as an undergraduate (1993!), and telling my parents that I wanted to major in anthropology. My parents’ response, probably typical for most anthropology majors: “What are you going to do with that?” Me: “I’m not sure, but I really like it.” I still do. I think Jason Antrosio nailed it when he wrote that “Anthropology is the worst college major for immediate career, but the major most likely to change your life.” The road from sophomore year to tenure was long, fraught with worry about the future, and usually financially insecure (one friend referred to grad school in Binghamton as the “subterranean lifestyle”). When I was 25, the late Bob Herbert asked me to teach biological anthropology to a lecture hall of 220 undergrads. I was nervous, but felt I had to do it for the experience. And the money. That was also not too long after my brother had died, and every day I entered that huge room thinking of him and shaking like a leaf, then got comfortable and kicked the crap out of those lectures. <Drops microphone>
Tenure comes with a sense of security that is new to me, not just financially, but also intellectually, knowing that I have the freedom to explore some topics I might not have had otherwise. But it also comes with a sense of impostor syndrome. I’m a good teacher. Actually, I’m a very good teacher. But there are areas I know I need to strengthen as an academic, and even as a person (I’m not going to lay those things out publicly. This isn’t Oprah. Those of you who know me well know that I’m a work in progress). There is also a sense of survivor’s guilt. There are many amazing people who deserve that security but won’t get it, as our public support of education erodes and universities shift further away from tenure-track faculty to underpaid adjuncts who find it hard to make ends meet. They deserve better. I’m also aware of how hard it is to “have it all” in academia, or at least to “have all the choices, within reason and means,” particularly for women. I know I’m lucky to be where I am, and know how fickle the universe can be. There are too many examples of people who were on top yesterday who then became ill, lost their way somewhere, or just got tired of the uphill battle. Academics are people too, and life gets in the way, as it does for everyone. Sometimes we get in our own way, which is to be expected from evolved, fallible creatures such as ourselves.
But I also know that there are many, many worse places to be. I’ve seen poverty, misery, and pain, and have to say that – all else being equal – happiness is superior to misery. Laughter is superior to pain. (Yes, it’s true. That’s what an education will get you). Aren’t money, life experiences, and accomplishments ultimately a means to an end – to find meaning and happiness in the short time we are here? But I think it’s more than just chasing a mental state or “the pursuit of happiness.” Otherwise we’d be little more than puppets of our neurotransmitters (perhaps the selfish gene concept needs a selfish dopamine amendment). If we’re lucky, we get to be here for a given number of decades. It seems to me that a good way to use those years is, as Bertrand Russell put it, to find love, knowledge, and to minimize suffering. Now I have this platform that comes with being a tenured college professor, and I will try to use it prudently. (I’ve got freedom and responsibility. It’s a very groovy time)..
Hope and Optimism
There is a forgotten, quirky movie from 1991 called “Defending Your Life” in which the main character, Daniel, played by Albert Brooks, dies and in the afterlife has to justify his actions during his time on earth. I don’t believe in an afterlife, or eternal punishment or reward, but I like the premise. There are two main criteria that the judges look for in each case: whether the defendant showed personal growth, and whether they were able to overcome fear. One could argue that there are other valid criteria by which a life might be judged, if it has to be judged at all, but these two are not bad (and certainly better than ‘success’ being measured by how big one’s bank account is). Much of life is overcoming fear – fear of being hurt, of being wrong, of rejection, of having our flaws exposed, of not having enough. Maybe even fear of the truth. Ideally, a scholarly life should be about the pursuit of the truth and overcoming the fear to share it when it conflicts with commonly held beliefs. Martin Luther King once wrote:1
Many people fear nothing more terribly than to take a position which stands out sharply and clearly from the prevailing opinion. The tendency of most is to adopt a view that is so ambiguous that it will include everything and so popular that it will include everybody. Not a few men who cherish lofty and noble ideals hide them under a bushel for fear of being called different.”
If you’ve been paying attention, much of this blog has been dedicated to looking at reasons to be hopeful about our species, while also acknowledging our flaws. I’ve actually been somewhat afraid to do that, for fear of being perceived as biased or naïve. Objectivity is sacrosanct in science and academia, even though we know it is an ideal always just beyond the reach of us mere mortals. Undoubtedly, there are many examples of people being absolutely horrible to each other. The latest example might include events in Syria. Though I’ve not blogged about it much, my own research has focused on the ways that poverty and war affect human biology and health. But I think some of the things I’ve written about here were not meant to be the entire story or to ignore harsh reality, but to highlight a few building blocks for optimism, despite reasons to feel otherwise. A partial list of those posts include:..
- On Optimism and Human Nature
- Life is Beautiful
- A Reverence for Life
- The Power of Love
- Reconciliation, Biology, and the Second Indochina War
- Lessons from the Christmas Truce of 1914
- Making Peace with the Past
- Cosmically Connected Primates
- Egalitarianism and Arrogance
- Empathy in Flux
- Us, Them, and Non-zero Sumness
- Adversity, Resilience, and Adaptation
Anthropology gives me reasons to be hopeful. It doesn’t always give me answers right away, but it gives me an anchor when I don’t know the answer to something about people. It’s a library and a framework that I can turn to. One of the many things that I take from anthropology is that we are molded by the baggage of our traditions and our evolutionary pasts, but at the same time we are not completely shackled by them. Evolution never stands still, nor does knowledge. Jon Marks wrote that while our ancestors were certainly apes, we have since evolved into “biocultural ex-apes.” He also acknowledges, in a measured way, that whether we have the ability to differ substantively from our ancestors, and what we might become, are political questions.
At this point, if I was afraid of being called unobjective, I would say that time will tell what we will become. Instead, let me say that I’m very hopeful that our species will get a handle on some of its darker tendencies one day, and that there are real reasons to be optimistic, as seen in some of those posts above. It’s OK. I can say that now. I have tenure.
(1) Thanks to Kate Clancy for this quote.