Optimism & Adaptability (“life starts anew for us with each sunrise”)

“The future is inside of us. It’s not somewhere else.”Thom Yorke


My advisor from graduate school, Mike Little, retired this year and donated many of his books to his colleagues and former students, including me. I owe Mike a lot in terms of my education. Now I also owe him a box of books.

I was flipping through some of the items he sent and one of them was “How Humans Adapt: A Biocultural Odyssey,” edited by Donald Ortner (1983). The prolog was written by the late microbiologist René Dubos , who struck an optimistic tone about human plasticity, and how we adapt to – and also shape – our environments.

He wrote that all organisms…

Continue reading

How War Gets “Under the Skin”

Unbending rigor is the mate of death,
And wielding softness the company of life
Unbending soldiers get no victories;
The stiffest tree is readiest for the axe.
(Tao Te Ching: 76)


Early in life, our bodies are like unmolded clay, ready to be shaped by our experiences. For some of us, that matching process can create problems. If circumstances change, we could end up poorly adapted to our adult environment. A child born into harsh conditions, though, may have to take that risk in order to make it to adulthood at all.

The Hmong in French Guiana may be an example of this process. They are a fascinating population for many reasons, the most obvious being that they are there at all. A few dozen refugees from Laos first resettled in French Guiana in 1977, a few years after the Vietnam War, after they and the French government agreed that life in small, ethnically homogenous villages in a tropical environment was a better option than acculturating to the cities of Métropole France. The experiment paid off. Today, more than two thousand Hmong are farmers in the Amazonian jungle, producing most of the fruits and vegetables in the country. The result is a level of economic autonomy and cultural retention that is likely unique in the Southeast Asian refugee diaspora.

scenes in fg

Scenes from Hmong villages in French Guiana. (Clockwise from top left: fields of Cacao, young men going on a hunting trip in Javouhey, swidden agriculture of Cacao, a street lined with farmers’ trucks in Javouhey.

Continue reading

Year in Review: Top Posts of 2017

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.”

  Continue reading

Is the Human Species Sexually Omnivorous?

The Monolith, Vigeland Sculpture Park

The Vigeland monolith in Oslo (source). 

previously borrowed a phrase from the biologist Robert Sapolsky, who once referred to humans as “tragically confused” in terms of the way we mate. As he put it, we’re not quite a classically monogamous species, but neither are we a winner-take-all polygamous species. Instead, we seem to be a little from column A and a little from column B (and maybe something from columns C and D too). I’ve been trying to think of a way to explain why I think “tragically confused” is an apt description, where some of that confusion originates, and what are some of the potential pitfalls when thinking of human mating patterns. Analogies are imperfect, as some information is always lost in the transfer between concepts, so forgive me if this falls short. And it’s a sports analogy too, but bear with me; I’ll keep it brief.

During the first year I played Little League baseball as a kid, one of the coaches told us that when we played defense we should be ready to field the ball at all times (or at least, be ready to get out of the way or knock the ball down to defend yourself). A hard-hit baseball can really hurt, especially for a young kid who has stopped paying attention because they became distracted by the flock of geese flying overhead (true story). Anyway, he taught us that the best defensive position was to have your glove ready and stand crouched while facing the batter, with our toes pointed slightly inward, or “pigeon-toed.” That may not be textbook coaching, but he explained that by having both feet pointed inward we could quickly pivot and “push off” to our left or right, reacting to where the ball was hit. For whatever reason, I’ve remembered that for more than thirty years. The lesson stuck.

I think “pigeon-toed” is a decent metaphor for much of human behavior, including our sexuality. We are a highly adaptable species, capable of moving in a range of directions by reacting to, and in turn modifying, the world around us. That flexibility is one of our species’ greatest assets – along with other genetic and physiological adaptations – in that it allows us to live on every continent and adjust to a range of social and ecological conditions.

Of course, behavioral flexibility is not unique to humans. The very essence of behavior is that it allows organisms to respond to circumstances, whether it be plants growing towards sunlight or water, anemones swimming away from predators, enormous herds of wildebeest migrating in search of land to graze, or chimpanzees sizing up the complex political situation within their troop.

An anemone escaping a starfish. Flexibility – the ability to respond to circumstances – is the hallmark of behavior, even for anemones. 

This is pretty basic stuff. However, when thinking about sexual behavior, it may help to stop and remind ourselves that evolution did not design organisms to be static things, or genetically determined automatons. One of the potential pitfalls when describing a species’ behavior, particularly for a general audience, is the temptation to use single-word descriptions. For example, among our hominoid relatives, gorillas are said to be polygynous, gibbons are monogamous, and chimpanzees are polygynandrous (or multimale/multifemale). Certainly, behavioral patterns exist, and these are very reasonable assessments of these species’ mating patterns, but one word cannot be all-encompassing.

This matters because, although we like to think categorically, behaviors are complex, variable, and dynamic. Rigid definitions usually mean that some complexity must be shaved off in order to fit into a discrete category more cleanly. The problem is not that the above labels have no merit; it’s that they have a tendency to overshadow the variation that exists within a species. It’s also true that our vocabulary helps shape the way we think about a given species, especially for ourselves.

Continue reading