I’m at a loss as to how to properly address yesterday’s tragedy here in Boston, on Patriots’ Day. Following the attacks at the marathon and a nearby scare for our neighbors at the JFK Library, our university was closed yesterday afternoon and for most of the day today as a precaution. I’ve been wondering how, as teachers, we’ll get back to normal so soon after the event. Do we ignore it, and go on as if nothing happened, or address it head on? I don’t know, and will probably make some gut decision during tomorrow’s morning commute.
In “River Out of Eden,” Richard Dawkins wrote this passage on the cruelties of nature:
“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” (Dawkins 2008: 131-2)
I think this view of nature is one of the primary reasons that many people run away from the idea of evolution. For some, the notion of an indifferent nature, where organisms can be reduced merely to genetic ‘copy me’ programs with the goals of survival and reproduction, is too bleak. Eugenie Scott, Director of the National Center for Science Education, has written that for many non-biologists the notion that evolution is an unguided, mechanistic process implies that “life has no meaning.” Microbiologist Kenneth Miller, a staunch defender of evolution, has relayed that in his experience one of the main concerns of many anti-evolutionists is not with the science, but with the implications of evolution, which is perceived as threatening to moral order. For example, Miller referred to this statement from Rick Santorum, the former Presidential candidate and Senator from Pennsylvania:
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.
“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” – Dalai Lama
I wrote this post, titled Reconciliation, Biology, & the 2nd Indochina War, about a year ago, and I consider it one of the more meaningful things on this site. It addresses:
(1) Examples of profound case studies in reconciliation and making peace with the past (Kim Phuc and John Plummer; the My Lai massacre, Pham Thanh Cong, and William Calley; various national-level apologies for past injustices).
(2) The significance, evolution, and neurobiology of guilt and forgiveness.
(3) Lingering injustices and problems caused by the war, as well as a few reasons for optimism.
Admittedly, it is a bit long, and if you don’t make it to the end, it concludes on a hopeful note:
I wrote this piece on the Christmas Truce during WWI about a year ago now, and it is far and away the most visited post on this site. Some of that comes from people looking for information on trench warfare, but the post is really about some basic tools we have as a species that facilitate cooperation, even in times that are enormously challenging and emphasize aggression.
The latest example of this comes from the Bronx and the uplifting NPR story of Julio Diaz, who confronted his mugger with compassion, and had inspirational results. Highly recommended.
Something similar to the story of Mr. Diaz actually happened to me when I was a teenager. Each summer from the ages of 16 to 21, I worked six days a week on a ferry boat in order to save enough money for college. It was a great job at that age, but the 12-hour days were long and monotonous, and left little time for much else.
With classes and exams completed at UMass Boston, I finally feel like I have a little bit of breathing room.
Today, I visited KIPP Lynn for the second time, giving a presentation on evolution and cooperation for three 8th grade classes. It was necessarily condensed talk, but the students in all three classes were really engaged with terrific comments and questions. It’s been a while since I was in the 8th grade, and it’s hard to remember what that age was like, intellectually. Nonetheless, I thought they were really impressive kids, with bright futures ahead of them.
Now to finish up some grading…
Related post: Public Outreach: Sharing Anthropology Outside the University (Apr 17, 2011)
Living in New England, we have older cemeteries than most other areas of the country (though Eastern hemisphere readers might scoff at what Americans consider ‘old’). I frequently walk with my sons and nephew through a cemetery near my home, as it is a tranquil place away from traffic, where we can go through the woods and throw rocks in the pond. We do this so often that the headstones sometimes become little more than a forgotten backdrop.
However, I do make an effort to remind myself that these headstones are markers of actual human lives. One recently caught my attention, the story of Henry and Susan Battey. I have no knowledge who these individuals were — what they looked like, where they lived — other than their names, vital statistics, and the names of their children. It is their children on the backside of the headstone that struck me. The Batteys had three children, losing all of them as infants. That occurs to me as nature (or poverty, or whatever the cause) at its most cruel and indifferent.
In the last few days, I came across a couple of unrelated quotations on human nature and our internal tug-of-war between cooperation and conflict.
A 20 year-old Charles Darwin in an 1830 letter to his cousin, W.D. Fox:
It is quite curious, when thrown into contact with any set of men, how much they continue improving in ones good opinion, as one gets ackquainted (sic) with them. This was an argument used, in a religious point of view, by a very clever Clergyman in Shrews. to encourage sociability (he himself being very fond of society), for he said that the good always preponderates over the bad in every persons character, & he thought, the most social men were generally the most benevolent, & had the best opinion of human nature. I have heard my father mention this as a remarkably good observation, & I quite agree with him.”
In “East of Eden,” John Steinbeck wrote:
Of all the things I’ve written on this site, this remains one of the most meaningful to me. (May 29, 2017)
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” …………………………………………………………………………– Mohandas K. Gandhi
On my desk sits a spoon I bought in a restaurant in northern Laos. It’s lightweight, bigger than a tablespoon, and full of tiny dents that some unknown metalsmith hammered into it. The owner was bemused that in addition to the bowl of pho noodle soup, I also wanted to buy one of her utensils. But I had my reasons.
Earlier on my trip, my guide1 informed me that people in the town of Phonsavanh half-jokingly called these ‘B-52 spoons,’ as they were made of metal recovered from bombs dropped decades ago by U.S. planes during ‘the Secret War.’ To me, the spoon was more than a quirky souvenir. Instead, it represented an attempt by Laotians to take the physical remnants of a tragic period in history and forge them into something more positive, in effect turning swords into plowshares (or bombs into spoons). Continue reading
As Christmas approaches, it seems like the perfect time to reflect on an unlikely event from military history. During the First World War, a spontaneous, temporary truce was brokered between German, French, and Scottish officers on Christmas Eve, 1914. On that night and on Christmas Day along the trenches in Flanders, soldiers who recently had been shooting at each other used the ceasefire to bury their dead, then shared food and drink with their ‘enemies,’ played soccer, and even exchanged gifts and addresses in order to write each other after the war ended.
The details leading up to the ceasefire are a bit murky, but eyewitnesses reported that German and Scottish troops took turns festively singing carols in their own trenches. A few brave officers then seized the spirit of the moment to risk their safety, leave their trenches, and negotiate a respite from the brutality. The remaining soldiers then followed, leading to the amazing scene.