For My Relatives Under Lockdown

“And for the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank felt free.”

 

This is for my friends and relatives (that is, all of you) around the world who are trapped by a coronavirus lockdown, a siege, a refugee camp, a detention center (the Bay Area, Italy, Wuhan, France, Syria, Lesbos, Yemen, El Paso, Juárez). 

 

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

A few years ago, I wrote a short essay expressing hope that the world could unite around existential threats (supervolcanos, climate change, even hostile extraterrestrials, etc.). Perhaps in the face of such threats, I hoped, the world could be shocked out of the social divisions and behavioral patterns we’d grown so accustomed to and rediscover our shared humanity. Though I listed a few reasons why things are not so simple.

In that light, I’ve been disappointed so far how (some) people are reacting to coronavirus. There have been reports of anti-Asian racist incidents in several countries, including the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and France. As one Chinese-American man, Vincent Pan, put it, we have to “fight two viruses” now: COVID-19 and bigotry. 

Racism isn’t the only social division that coronavirus has driven a wedge into. Yesterday it was reported that one of the attendees at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held in Maryland tested positive for the virus. Two prominent Republicans, Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Paul Gosar, may have been exposed and were “self-quarantining.” Disappointingly, the response to the news on social media fell into the predictable partisan trenches that have been dug into the social fabric of the country over the past few decades.

For example, I saw some people expressing schadenfreude that some Republicans might be affected, perhaps as a form of comeuppance or karma because several of them had dismissed the pandemic as overblown, fear-mongering, or even a “hoax” being exploited to hurt the President politically. And, Donald Trump, Jr. accused Democrats of hoping that the virus would kill millions of Americans solely to hurt his father politically. He later defended those comments, saying he was “entitled to speak with hyperbole.”

There is something seriously wrong here. Unfortunately, some people are not rising to the occasion or listening to “the better angels of their nature.” This is particularly pernicious when those people have big platforms to disseminate irresponsible ideas.

Maybe we could re-frame our approach. We should remember that a virus doesn’t care at all about your ethnicity or your political ideology. Actually, it doesn’t care about anything. It is merely an insentient genetic program that acts to replicate and thrive in a host. And every single person alive fits that description. We shouldn’t wish it on anyone for both basic decency, but also for selfish reasons — the more it spreads, the higher the risk that you or someone you love will contract it, with potentially severe consequences.

Maybe this is a chance to shock ourselves out of the stupid, paralyzing cycle of bigotry and hyper-partisanship that we’ve inherited. Someone once wrote (possibly A.D. Williams, but I cannot find an original source) “Imagine what 7 billion humans could accomplish if we loved and respected one another.” I don’t know if we all have to love and respect each other, but it is indisputable that hatred and division are counter-productive and wasteful. Time, energy, and resources are all finite, and too much of those precious things are being wasted rather than applied toward solving actual human problems. So, here is an opportunity. Coronavirus is an equal-opportunity virus that could affect any of us. There is no vaccine. Whether you are rich or poor, Chinese, American, Italian, or Iranian, you — and everyone you love — are all vulnerable. 

There is at least some good news, I think. I’ve written about this before, but the fact that human beings are obligatorily social primates says something good about us. Our ancestors have been group living for about 50 million years or so. And, if you’re going to live in — and depend on — a group, then it makes sense that evolution would have equipped us to care about the other social primates around us, even non-kin. It’s been said that disasters have a tendency to bring out the best in people. Maybe, maybe not. Doctors and nurses in Iran have shown compassion for their coronavirus patients by dancing for them to lift their spirits. One doctor in China took an elderly patient who had been isolated for a month to get a CT scan in another building. They stayed outside a bit longer to see the sunset.

In the U.S., one newspaper reminded us that “we’re only as safe as our most vulnerable neighbors.” People without enough income to take sick time from work are not only vulnerable themselves, but could potentially transmit the virus to others. In other words, it is in our self-interest to care about others’ well-being, not only for its own sake, but because our lives are all interconnected. We may sometimes feel separate, and that we can live out our lives in seclusion, surviving off stockpiled supplies of canned foods and toilet paper. But coronavirus reminds even the most self-reliant of us how much we need others for our basic necessities. It might be more fruitful if we remembered as if our fates were all intertwined. 

An 87-year-old COVID-19 patient and his doctor, Liu Kai, watch the sunset on their way back from a CT scan at Renmin Hospital in Hubei province. (GAN JUNCHAO / CHINA DAILY) Source

 

 

Book Plug: Hivemind

I’ve been sitting on this post for a while. Sarah Rose Cavanagh published her book “Hivemind: The New Science of Tribalism in Our Divided World” last year. Sarah is a psychologist at Assumption College who studies human emotions and how these connect to well-being and learning. 

Her book is a joy to read, written in a fun and personable — but informative — style. She interviewed several academics and thinkers about their views on human sociality (disclaimer: I’m one of them), and she has some lessons on how to help make modern technology and social media work in our favor. For example: “Use social media for connection…. Dial down the outrage, dial up the empathy.”

Sarah has a good heart and a good head, and I think she’s put together a great book here that can help make the world a little bit better place. 

2020: To Our Braver, Bolder Selves

With the start of the new year, it’s usually a time for reviews and lists — accomplishments, things that went wrong, etc. etc. Last year was a slow one on this blog, and I didn’t publish much for a few reasons. For one, I felt I lost my audience, and my posts seemed not to go anywhere. Perhaps we’re over-saturated with the online world and this blog has lost its novelty. That’s OK. Nothing lasts forever. I still have some ideas, but I’ve written most of what I wanted to say. Well, the big things anyway.

The other reason, I think, is that I’ve become dismayed by the state of the world, and the U.S. in particular — the increasing frequency of climate disasters, the creeping authoritarianism, the growing political polarization, the disregard for truth, the uptick in right-wing extremism, the demonizing of immigrants, the damage done via the child separation policy, and the curtailing of refugees admitted (at a time when there are more displaced people in the world since World War 2). Anyway, this blog started to feel a bit futile in the big picture of a world that seems to be shedding compassion in favor of callousness, favoring insularity over connection.

Maybe that’s the wrong attitude. Last semester, I suggested an analogy to my class about velocity versus acceleration. When we’re traveling in a car at a constant speed, the movement is fairly imperceptible. It’s when there’s a change in speed or direction that motion becomes more noticeable to us. Applying that scenario, the current state of things would feel pretty good if, for example, we were just emerging from a war (at least in the U.S.). However, we seem to be accelerating in the wrong direction now. That shift doesn’t feel very good, but it’s important to hold the line and try to push the momentum back in the other direction. 

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A Return to the Christmas Truce

It’s that time of year, so I’m sharing this old post that I wrote on the Christmas Truce, one of the first essays on this site to take off. Looking it over, there are a few things I might have written differently; some people have told me I got some of the historical details wrong. But it wasn’t meant as a historical piece. Rather, it was about human behavior related to cooperation and conflict, and finding commonality through empathy and through the realization that cooperation, or at least restraint, is preferable to mutual punishment. After all this time, there is still some hope in there. Read more…  

Trench warfare, WWI 

 

New Article: “The Embodiment of War”

Been looking forward to this. I just published an article in the Annual Review of Anthropology titled “The Embodiment of War: Growth, Development, and Armed Conflict.” In essence, the article conceives of war as an extreme “environment” that has many long-term effects on human biology, particularly for civilians in the earliest stages of life (children, infants, and prenatally).

Obviously, most people know that civilians are harmed during war, including through injuries (fatal and non) and psychological distress. I tried to go beyond this, reviewing the effects various wars have had on biological variables, including birth weight, child growth, maturation (ex. menarche), and the development of chronic diseases via the DOHaD hypothesis.

I’m hoping to build on this.

Figure 2. Some of the stressors faced by conflict-affected populations.

Cooperation and Conflict: Lessons from Cetaceans

False killer whales, interacting with bottlenose dolphins off the New Zealand coast

A few years ago, I wrote an essay against the idea that nature was always nasty (see: “Nature, Not Always “Red in Tooth and Claw”). I think the whole essay pivoted on one important quote from the primatologist Frans deWaal, who explained why it is misguided to focus solely on the colder, cruel side of evolution. He wrote:

“The error is to think that, since natural selection is a cruel, pitiless process of elimination, it can only have produced cruel and pitiless creatures. But nature’s pressure cooker does not work that way. It favors organisms that survive and reproduce, pure and simple. How they accomplish this is left open” (2009: 58).

From there I pointed out several of examples of cooperation and altruism in nature, mostly among primates, but also in other mammal species. I would like to add another one that I learned from the BBC’s Blue Planet II: the relationship between false killer whales  (Pseudorca crassidens) and bottlenose dolphins (genus Tursiops). As the inimitable David Attenborough narrates in the clip below, pods from the two species were seen meeting near the New Zealand coast, and the audience is led to expect hostilities or predation… “But then, something truly extraordinary happens.”

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