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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In Defense of Refugees

A recent news story suggested that the Trump administration has considered another drastic reduction next year in the maximum number of refugees allowed into the United States (the annual ceiling), perhaps to fewer than 10,000 people. One estimate suggested the administration could set the ceiling at zero refugees.

This is a continuation of a trend. In each of its first three years, the Trump administration has cut the number of refugees allowed into the country, with refugee resettlement numbers at the lowest levels they’ve been in decades. This is all consistent with some of the rhetoric that has come out of the administration, which has demonized not just undocumented immigrants, but also refugees and asylum seekers.

Source: The Migration Policy Institute (Link)

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Wisdom and Suffering

“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair, against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

 Robert F. Kennedy citing Aeschylus on the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination

 

A few days ago the town manager of Billerica Massachusetts, John Curran, wrote a courageous essay about the online abuse he has received. Curran has a self-described “very rare and significant facial abnormality” known as hemifacial macrosomia, but he added that he had not been mocked for it for a very long time. That is, until the last few years.

Norms seem to have changed, he observed, where cruelty – particularly online, anonymous cruelty – has become more frequent. Curran also wrote that his childhood was not easy, and that he encountered a lot of adversity due to other children mocking him. However, he concluded on a positive note:    

It saddens me that I still have to deal with this from adults at 53 years old, but I would like to say to any young people that are different and happen to read this not to despair.

Your challenge will make you stronger, too, and you are better and wiser than anyone too ignorant to understand how to be civil and kind. Hang in there. It gets better.

Like Curran, I too think that kindness goes a long way. As a species, humans would not have gotten very far without it. And the notion that we are strengthened, not weakened, by our challenges in life is an interesting, though controversial, one.  

Borrowing a term from Nassim Taleb, the psychologist Jonathan Haidt likes to say that people are not just resilient, but “anti-fragile.” This is the idea that we don’t merely weather storms and adversities; rather, we grow from them, in terms of character and learning, as well as physiologically such as building aerobic capacity or muscle from repeated exercise. Haidt cites people like Friedrich Nietzsche (“that which does not kill me makes me stronger”) and Mencius about gaining strength through suffering, noting that:

“it’s not always true; there is PTSD. There are some things that can damage you, but for the most part it’s true… You cannot be a great man or woman unless you have suffered, faced adversity, been banged around, failed and come back, gotten back up fifty, a hundred, five hundred times. That’s the only way to greatness.”

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Sixteen Anti-War Songs

“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.” — UNESCO

 

I made a list of sixteen anti-war songs that have meant something to me for a while, including a few lyrics from each and then a brief description. It would be too cumbersome to include all of the lyrics, or to make a comprehensive list, though you can find one here. Most are in English, so this will be limited in scope. I guess the songs are sort of “ranked,” but it’s not meant to be scientific; it’s just a list from which I find some meaning. Originally I sought to create a top ten list; however, it just kept growing.

Perhaps you have your own list, and it’s likely different than mine. We probably have different tastes, and that’s OK. I’m not going to fight anyone over anti-war songs. Maybe this list will do some a tiny bit of good, at a time when divisions appear to be growing.

 

 

16. Radiohead – “Harry Patch: In memory of” (2009)

Give your leaders each a gun and then let them
Fight it out themselves

 

This is Radiohead’s tribute to Harry Patch, the World War 1 veteran who died at age 111 in 2009. Patch once said that “War is organised murder and nothing else….politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organizing nothing better than legalized mass murder.”

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The Afterlife of the War in Laos

The HALO Trust organization posted this video showing how much effort it took to destroy a 750 pound bomb found in the village of Ban Nonsômboun, Laos. The bomb was dropped by US planes over forty years ago, but was still active. Altogether, the organization says it took “53 days, 250 people and 200,000 sandbags to safely dispose of the gigantic bomb in Laos which could have killed thousands if it was not found by our team.”

 

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War and Civilian Deaths in Iraq/ Iran

“To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true.” ― Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

 

As tensions between the U.S. and Iran seem to be growing, I think it’s important to remember how destructive the war with neighboring Iraq was.

Estimating civilian casualties is a notoriously difficult task (Roberts 2010), though several studies have attempted to elucidate how many civilians died as a result of the war (below). These were done at different points in time and primarily entailed through surveys that inquired about deaths in a sampling of households. Some of these studies included violent deaths only, while others looked at “excess deaths” that included deaths directly due to violent causes and indirect ones due to a breakdown in infrastructure. Estimates ranged from 8,000 to as high as 940,000+.

Iraq Deaths

Figure above: Five surveys on Iraqi civilian deaths, with inclusive years in parentheses. Three of these looked at “excess deaths,” which include both deaths due to violence and indirect deaths stemming from the breakdown in infrastructure due to the war. The two studies with asterisks included only deaths due to violent causes.

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