Pursuing the God of Truth in a Post-Truth Era

[Summary: This essay has three parts. First, truth is really important. Second, you are a damn fool. Well, not a fool. I’m trying to get your attention. But you are fallible, and so am I. We all are. This makes discovering truth very difficult. Third, our fallibilities can be exploited by others who do not particularly care for truth. Be humble, embrace your fallibilities, and try to overcome them as we strive towards accessing truth.]

“Being good, she observed, meant being good to others, including strangers. And that was pretty much enough to live by. But how can you know the right thing to do? Human reasoning, she said – referring now explicitly to Socrates and Plato – human reasoning is imperfect. Human bias keeps us from perfect vision of what is happening around us. But the quest for truth – the quest to understand the world around us – must ultimately be how you enact the good.”

– Alice Dreger’s mother (Galileo’s Middle Finger, p. 256)

“Veritas super omnia.”

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Last year, I shared some thoughts on Isaiah Berlin’s 1994 essay, “A Message to the 21st Century.” Everyone should read it, in my opinion. I often come back to his words, as I see them as a synopsis of the human condition. Berlin emphasized that the values we hold most dear frequently clash with other ones (justice can clash with mercy, spontaneity with rational planning, liberty with equality, knowledge with happiness, etc.).

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“I’ve never seen a Chinese monkey” (Essentialism & Human Variation)

I taught my first undergraduate anthropology class seventeen years ago, which is sometimes hard for me to believe. In that time, I’ve had over two thousand students enrolled in my courses, many of whom have left an impression on me. I hope I make a good impression on them too, though sometimes I have my doubts. A few years ago, a student asked me what my name was as they started to fill out the line after “Instructor” on the front page of their exam blue book. That was about halfway into the semester. You can’t reach them all, I suppose.

During my fourth year of teaching “Introduction to Biological Anthropology,” we got about two-thirds into the semester, and I paused to take the class’ pulse on how things were going. I asked them if they had any general thoughts about the class, such as what ideas they found interesting (or not), things they wished we could discussed more in depth, etc. I have since forgotten most of the students’ comments, except for one.

I remember that he wasn’t exactly the best student, and that he had struggled with most of the graded assignments. Nonetheless, I still learned something from him that day. He told the class that he thought evolution was an interesting idea, but he was skeptical about it applying to humans because, as he said, “Well, I’ve never seen a Chinese monkey.” This all occurred a long time ago, but I remember that at first I was puzzled by what he meant. And then it clicked.

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One Hundred Percent American (for the time being)

“All is flux.” – Heraclitus

“Todo cambia.” Mercedes Sosa

 

Below is a classic 1937 essay by the cultural anthropologist Ralph Linton. I think it is as relevant today – as divisions seem to be growing – as it was when it was first written. Linton was reminding us of some of the ways that our world is interconnected, and that it has been that way for a very, very long time. Eric Wolf summarized things this way: “the world of humankind constitutes a manifold, a totality of interconnected processes, and inquiries that disassemble this totality into bits and then fail to reassemble it falsify reality (1982:3).” (Note: Jason Antrosio wrote an excellent post on Wolf’s take on this interconnected world, and how seats of power have shifted over the centuries. What we see now is merely a snapshot in time).

Despite all of the different places of origin of our inventions, foods, traditions, languages, genes, and people, they don’t remain fixed or separate indefinitely. Some come and go, or are adopted in new places, forming new combinations and identities. “All things flow,” said Alfred North Whitehead. 

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An interconnected globe. From: “The history of our world in 18 minutes,” by David Christian

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“One Hundred Percent American”

by Ralph Linton, 1937

There can be no question about the average American’s Americanism or his desire to preserve this precious heritage at all costs. Nevertheless, some insidious foreign ideas have already wormed their way into his civilization without his realizing what was going on. Thus dawn finds the unsuspecting patriot garbed in pajamas, a garment of East Indian origin; and lying in a bed built on a pattern which originated in either Persia or Asia Minor. He is muffled to the ears in un-American materials: cotton, first domesticated in India; linen, domesticated in the Near East; wool from an animal native to Asia Minor; or silk whose uses were first discovered by the Chinese. All these substances have been transformed into cloth by methods invented in Southwestern Asia. If the weather is cold enough he may even be sleeping under an eiderdown quilt invented in Scandinavia.

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Colin Kaepernick and the Clash of Values

“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

Los Angeles Rams v San Francisco 49ers

Colin Kaepernick (right) and teammate Eric Reid kneeling during the national anthem (Source)

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A lot has been written about the San Francisco 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick and his decision to kneel during the national anthem before his team plays its games. For those who haven’t heard, in August of this year, Kaepernick opted not to stand during the anthem to protest police violence against minorities in the US. In his words:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color…To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

The practice has since been taken up by dozens of other players in the league, and spread to the NBA and WNBA, US women’s soccer, high school athletes across the country, a high school football referee, cheerleaders, even a few singers of the anthem itself.

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The spread of national anthem protests (source)

Reactions to the protests have been mixed, with some people supporting Kaepernick’s right to peaceful protest, others being outraged, and still others being sympathetic to his cause but disagreeing with his methods. One mid-September poll found that Kaepernick had become the most disliked player in the NFL, “disliked a lot” by 29% of 1,100 Americans asked. That number was up from 6% in August, before his protestations began. He has received death threats, and a handful of NFL executives from teams around the league have expressed disdain for him, referring to Kaepernick as a “traitor” who “has no respect for our country.” Continue reading

The “Deep Roots” of War

The debate continues as to whether war extends deep into human pre-history. This tends to break down into two camps: (1) the “deep roots” advocates, who argue that inter-group aggression extends to the origins of our species (or perhaps even earlier), and (2) those who propose that hunter-gatherers were essentially peaceful until the advent of agriculture. 

On his website “Why Evolution is True,” Jerry Coyne has been summarizing the various critiques that deep-rooters like Steven Pinker and Michael Shermer have been piling on against the science writer John Horgan, who has argued that war is a recent innovation.

I think the reason for all the confusion is that the best way to resolve the debate is to have a systematic review of the archaeological record. Of course, that is very hard to do, since there are gaps in what we know about the past, and not all humans leave traces of their existence. But the public debates often encourage cherry-picking of the data, sometimes highlighting prehistoric groups that show signs of intergroup violence (and they did exist), or at other times highlighting peaceful groups (so did they!). Rarely is there a systematic, big-picture approach. 

In an essay I wrote last year, “Genocidal Altruists,” I took a different approach, arguing that our ancestors were complex. I cited the archaeologists Jonathan Haas and Matthew Piscitelli, who actually did attempt a systematic review. To quote myself… 

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Wrapping up the (Blank)-ogamous Series

 

“We have both a moral and ethical responsibility to protect all children and adolescents in our community. We cannot withhold information from children, adolescents, or adults, live in silence about this taboo subject and expect everything to turn out all right. We have tried ignorance and it does not work.”

– Jocelyn Elders, former Surgeon General, writing about human sexuality (2010: 249)

 

A few years ago, I began the “Humans are (Blank)-ogamous” series. I originally intended it to be only a few posts that would explore the roles that evolution and culture play in human sexual behavior. The inspiration for it was that several theorists over time had proposed that humans had evolved to be a number of things – monogamous, polygynous, serially monogamous, promiscuous, etc. I wondered how people could look at the same species and reach such different conclusions. Perhaps if I could read enough I might be able to find “the answer.”

From there, the series grew, blossoming into 20+ posts, citing over 200+ references (yes, I counted). I probably could have gotten at least a Master’s Thesis out of this. Anyway, those posts easily have been among the most read things on this site. That’s not because they are particularly brilliant. Rather, I think it’s because people are hungry for credible information and – despite how important the topic of human sexuality is – that can be hard to come by. Having those three magic letters “Ph.D.” after one’s name can help with internet search engine results, but a Ph.D. is no guarantee of being right. Far from it. All that means is that I went to school for a long time. I’m still in school, actually, so there’s always more to learn…

The series has been pretty well received by a number of people I admire, which feels pretty good I have to admit (I’m tempted to name drop here, but I’ll resist the urge). They’ve been shared on social media, and some posts were even included on different university syllabi. In fact, I taught my own class on the subject last semester, and I think it went very well. When I re-read some of the earlier posts, there isn’t too much that I regret, (which is a good sign – sometimes when I reading my old stuff I sound like Sideshow Bob stepping on a rake).  

With all that said, I think I think I’d like to wrap this up by taking the utilitarian approach. If I’m confident about anything that I wrote, and willing to put my money where my mouth is, then what would I emphasize to my students, friends, or (most importantly) to my own children?  I’ll keep some of the lessons I’ve learned private, but here are a few:

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Biological Anthropology: Getting Our Bearings

During the first week of the semester, I used this scene from the movie ‘Gravity’ in my Introduction to Biological Anthropology class. Gravity

This came after I asked the class: why should we even care about biological anthropology? What’s the point? I used the image as a metaphor to say that what we’re trying to do is to get our bearings as to where we fit in nature. It can be difficult — things are moving fast, we’re disoriented, there’s a lot of debris (or data) flying around us. 

Despite that, we can look to what’s around us to orient ourselves. There’s the earth, the sun, ’empty’ space, etc. I think the same applies to biological anthropology. We look to the fossil record, genetics, anatomy, the living primates (and to a lesser extent other living species), human variation, etc. to figure out our approximate position.  

I’m not sure if the metaphor worked, but I had some fun with it.