Looking through the 5 most frequently read essays of 2017, I see few themes. They are mostly attempts to find reasons to be hopeful (even though that has been hard at times). Humans are adaptable and flexible, and we aren’t fated to any single behavioral way of being. That means we can always make a better world. Light up the darkness.
1. The Conditions of the Game: It’s Not a “World of Eternal Struggle” (Sept 2)
This was by far the most read post on this site, which I wrote after the violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia. This was upon seeing a photo of a man with a t-shirt that quoted Hitler in which he wrote that ours is “a world of eternal struggle.” I found it disturbing, but also just wrong. In evolution, adaptations are context specific, and they depend on the conditions of the game. This is also true for cooperation and conflict.
“How we view the world matters. If we see it as zero-sum, as an eternal struggle against other people where only one party can win, then we will act accordingly. Norton and Sommers (2011) found that many white people see racial relations as a zero-sum game: that if other groups are making progress toward equality, that this progress comes at their expense. But remember that non-zero-sum relationships are widespread. With cooperation so prolific in nature (genes, cells, organisms, groups, human societies), it just seems odd to declare that life is solely a contest of struggle. Nor does it make sense to say that cooperation is impossible between groups. Or we can see it as a chance for coalitions, that the success and well-being of others around us does not require us to lose. We make a niche for the others around us, as they do for us, and we all decide whether the costs that come with building up our armor are worth it. They may be, depending on how we perceive the conditions of the game.
I don’t know about you, but I think my life would be better if I was surrounded by healthy, fulfilled, cooperative people over those who feel distrustful, held back, and resentful. Of course, some people may feel differently. There are many strategies one can use. But don’t argue that nature gave us only one hand to play.”
2. Pursuing the God of Truth in a Post-Truth Era (Jan 11)
I wrote this one in response to what seems to be an erosion of people’s respect for truth. It builds on Isaiah Berlin’s claim that out of all of humanity’s values, knowledge and the pursuit of truth are “the noblest of aims” as well as Gandhi’s statement that “Truth is God.” But beware of Hannah Arrendt’s warning that “the modern (sophists) want a more lasting victory at the expense of reality” and want to crush truth for their own selfish aims. The good news is that:
“while lies can sprint and spread rapidly, truth has endurance and the distinct advantage that it has a linear relationship with reality. Therefore, you can suppress truth, manipulate it, bury it, torture it. But you cannot kill it. Or, as Seneca the Younger stated almost two thousand years ago, “Veritas numquam perit.” (“Truth never expires”).
3. On Multiraciality: Perceptions of Homogeneity and Difference (Jun 12)
Do people see similarities or differences first? It depends on whether one is a “lumper or a splitter.” Multiracial people are almost a Rorschach test for this. Seeing similarities has tangible benefits.
“There is a group to which everyone who can read this essay belongs (and many who can’t). We are all mammals, of course, and primates, and humans. We are all one single, globally dispersed species. Each individual is unique, a variant of a human theme. Within any species, no population is completely distinct or similar to another. Similarity and difference are a matter of degree, not kind. Yet, people tend to think categorically, that the differences are absolute. Even worse, we sometimes even fall into a trap by thinking that other people are not fully human.
Reminding people of similarities can have tangible, beneficial effects. When Sasha Kimel and colleagues gave ethnic Jews and Arabs news stories that emphasized shared ancestry and genetic similarities between their groups, people reported feeling less bias and hostility, were more optimistic about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and were more open to political compromise (Kimel et al 2016). Giving people versions that emphasized genetic differences and distinct lineages had the opposite effect. This indicate that we can be nudged to see others into a positive or negative light based on perceptions of similarity or difference.”
4. Is the Human Species Sexually Omnivorous? (July 2)
This is an extension of the Humans are Blank-ogamous series. Whereas the other posts on this list largely pertain to behavioral flexibility in the context of cooperation and conflict, this one deals with flexibility in human sexual behavior.
“As true omnivores (in the dietary sense), humans can eat organisms from nearly every branch of life – plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, algae, etc. We have species-wide nutritional requirements that are built into our biology (amino acids, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, etc.), but the ways that we construct our diets will vary by time, ecology, and culture.
A strength of this diet-versus-mating analogy is that we do not always have our nutritional requirements or our sexual desires at a fully conscious level. Nor did we ever need to be professional dietitians to consume a healthy diet. Instead, we learned what to eat from the generations who came before us. Those diets did not have to be perfect; they just had to be good enough to get the job done. Upon moving to a new area, our ancestors would have made due with whatever foods were available, and by trial and error put together a functional diet that provided a range of nutrients. Again, flexibility is one of our best assets. Likewise, we may have requirements or desires related to our social and sexual relationships – love, companionship, sex, pleasure, self-esteem , etc. – and here too, we may not always have an explanation for our desires at our fingertips.”
5. A (R)evolution of Tenderness (Jun 29)
This was inspired by Pope Francis’ surprise Ted talk in April, where he called for a “revolution of tenderness.” I found some reasons in evolutionary biology to support this. Evolution/ revolution. Get it? OK.
“If we remember that change really is possible, that one of the hallmarks of being human is our adaptability and our capacity for change, then perhaps we can get out of the fallacy that we are fated to live in a violent world. The Pope’s call for a revolution of tenderness is not out of the question. Evolution has already given us some important building blocks to make that happen.”
Honorable Mentions (posts that didn’t get much traction as I’d hoped)
Prenatal “Shocks” and Birth Outcomes (Sept 15)
Several studies have found that women who are pregnant during abrupt, difficult circumstances (which some might call “stressors,” “insults,” or “shocks”) have an increased likelihood of having low birth weight infants. Examples I found included (1) an earthquake in Chile, (2) World War 1 in Austria, (3) World War 2 in the Netherlands, (4) nearby landmine explosions in Colombia, (5) terrorist attacks in Spain, (6) nearby lethal violence in Palestinian territory during the Second Intifada, (7) neighborhood homicides in Brazil, (8) discrimination against Arab-American women in the six months after Sept 11, and (9) a raid against Latino American workers in Iowa who were suspected of being undocumented immigrants.
The Future Health of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria (Dec 13)
Epidemiological evidence from past hurricanes in Puerto Rico suggests that the damage they caused led to long-term costs to health (via the developmental origins of disease hypothesis). It’s possible that hurricane Maria could have a similar effect. This points to the need to respond rapidly and effectively with humanitarian aid when natural (and anthropogenic) disasters occur.
Here’s to optimism, and a better 2018.