Imagining a Worthy Goal

“All communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/ genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.”

– Benedict Anderson, “Imagined Communities” (1983: 6)

 

“The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We long for a Parent to care for us, to forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable. If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.”

– Carl Sagan, “Pale Blue Dot” (1994)

 

Yesterday’s events in Charlottesville were heart-breaking. They didn’t come out of nowhere, but they felt like an exclamation point on a period marked by increasing social division. Like most Americans, I find the views expressed by the so-called alt right to be abhorrent. As a child, I thought that progress was inexorable, that my generation was more inclusive than those before, and that my kids’ generation would be even more inclusive than mine. That’s not how things go, I suppose, at least not without lots of bumps in the road.

Taking a very long-term view of the future, I’m still optimistic. I can’t help but feel that future generations will mock our ignorance, and that the communities they imagine will be based on accumulated wisdom. What’s the alternative? To be perpetually bogged down in counter-productive, short-sighted conflicts and social divisions? Maybe. Maybe the immediate incentives to gain an advantage by oppressing or stepping on top of others is too tempting. Maybe not. Maybe people can recognize that non-zero-sum relationships based that are mutually beneficial (win-win) are more enduring than ones that rely on a win-lose model (zero-sum) which only create long-term resentments.

What is a long-term worthy goal for humanity? I can imagine a few goals, and yours may differ from mine. But nowhere on my list is a narrow-minded, parochial desire to prop up one group of people above all others. Such a goal is a failure of imagination.

“A People Orientation” (A View from Anthropology and Astronomy)

“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’ ”

— astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell

earth rise

“Earthrise,” 1968 (Source: NASA)

 

Sometimes, a simple shift of perspective can make all the difference in the world. Whenever I have to drive somewhere new, I always look at a map. Sometimes, it’s an old hard-copy version, though the majority of time I’ll use an online one. That view from above is very helpful, but sometimes at ground level there are nuances which I may have overlooked (an unexpected left-lane exit), or road changes or construction that may have altered since the map was created. Both perspectives – on the ground, and from the sky – are correct; they just give us different views of the same thing. 

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Shifting perspectives. Source.

In the Edgar Mitchell quote above, a dramatic change in perspective – in this case a view of earth from the moon – created a sense of the unity of humanity, as well as a frustration that people back home frequently fail to rise above their parochial squabbles on the ground. That notion seems to recur among astronomers, astronauts, and astrophysicists. Perhaps it is an inherent benefit of their big-picture view. Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” is the standard bearer for this sentiment:

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AAA Meetings in D.C. & San Jose

I’m planning for the American Anthropological Association annual meeting in Washington, D.C. later this year, and it struck me as unusual to hold it in that city again since the meeting was last there only three years ago. Next year, it will be held in San Jose, which was the host in 2006. I then got curious when the last time the meeting was held in Boston or New York, since I can’t remember the meeting ever being held in the northeast. Just for fun, I wondered if the AAA has preferred particular cities over its long history, since its first meeting in Pittsburgh in 1902. So, I made a heat map.

According to the AAA website, the city to host the meeting most frequently has been Washington D.C. (22 times, including this year), followed by Philadelphia (13 times), Chicago (11 times), New York City (10 times), then San Francisco/ San Jose/ Berkeley (9 times). 

However, things have shifted recently, with some cities not hosting for decades. The original host, Pittsburgh, has not been home to the meeting since 1966, while New York last held the meeting in 1971. Boston lasted hosted in 1955, and Los Angeles in 1981 (coinciding with Fernandomania). Several cities hosted only once, including my hometown of Providence, R.I. in 1910.

By comparison, since 1990 New Orleans has hosted three times and San Francisco/ San Jose six times.

The midwest, aside from Chicago, and the southeast have been largely overlooked. Saint Louis is due to host in 2020. I’m curious why Florida has never been the host. I thought they grew convention centers there, not to mention the warm weather, since the meeting is usually in late November.

The meeting has also been held outside of the U.S. five times — Mexico City and Toronto twice each, and Montreal once. Vancouver, B.C. will host in 2019 for the first time.  

Anyway, this was all just out of curiosity.

Heat Map of AAA Meetings (the map is zoomed in too close to see Mexico City, which has hosted twice).

A (R)evolution of Tenderness

“Compassion is more important than intellect, in calling forth the love that the work of peace needs, and intuition can often be a far more powerful searchlight than cold reason. We have to think, and think hard, but if we do not have compassion before we even start thinking, then we are quite likely to start fighting over theories. The whole world is divided ideologically, and theologically, right and left, and men are prepared to fight over their ideological differences. Yet the whole human family can be united by compassion. And, as Ciaran (McKeown, co-founder of the Movement of the Peace People in Northern Ireland) said recently in Israel, “compassion recognises human rights automatically; it does not need a charter.”

Betty Williams’ Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Dec 1977

 

 

As a college professor, I have some “radical” opinions. For one, I would like to see war and suffering decrease in my lifetime, if not my kids’ lifetimes. I am confident that while war may sometimes be necessary, it does more harm than good, and I am also confident that those negative effects can last for generations. At the same time, I also value truth very much, and I try to avoid naïve interpretations of human biology and behavior. Instead, I try to take a nuanced view when it comes to things like the roots of war, nature/ nurture, and even human sexuality. With all of that said, I’m going to try to splice together a few recent threads to find some reasons for optimism, despite the way current events seem to be going around the world. 

Things are certainly not great. By the end of 2016, an estimated 65.6 million people had been forcibly displaced by conflict, the highest number ever recorded. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi lamented that “the world seems to have become unable to make peace.” Partly as a result of conflict, 20 million people are at risk for starvation in four countries: Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and northeast Nigeria.

The Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO) issued a brief report this month, summarizing the state of global conflicts from 1946 to 2016. In all, the number of conflicts declined from 52 in 2015 to 49 last year, while the total number of battle casualties also fell 14%. This is a tiny bit of good news, although one can see in the figure below that there has been an uptick in all conflicts since 2011, and a long-term increase since the early 1960s. [It is debatable why we should start the clock at 1946, just after the deadliest period of human history, but c’est la vie.] 

From PRIO

By comparison, battle casualties per capita have generally decreased since 1946. While the number of conflicts have gone up, they have been primarily intrastate ones, and smaller in scale. A word of caution, however: “battle casualties” is a metric that looks at violent deaths only. It does not include indirect deaths due to things like broken infrastructure, such as lack of electricity, food/water, and health care that accompany war. If those numbers were included, the number of deaths surely would be higher. And, while the number of conflicts is a tally, battle deaths per capita is a rate, so the two aren’t directly comparable. The total number of deaths might present a different perspective, as might the rate per capita of people who were forcibly displaced.

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On Multiraciality: Perceptions of Homogeneity and Difference

“I note the obvious differences between each sort and type./ But we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”  (Maya Angelou, Human Family)

 

It’s been said that young primates engage in social learning in three main ways (van Schaik 2016). They can obtain information horizontally (from peers), vertically (from parents), and obliquely (from other adults). For the most part, the vertical transmission of information tends to flow in one direction; juveniles learn from the experiences of their parents rather than vice versa.

Yet parents can also learn from their kids. The street is not entirely one-way. My own children (who are also primates, just like you and I) have taught me a lot: from what they learn in school, see online, or their slang (derp). As “biracial” children, they’ve also taught me a few things simply by existing. There are general lessons that most parents learn – that having children can reorient priorities, and that parenting is a mix of vicarious pain, joy, and fear. For me, one specific lesson as a specific parent of these specific children, has to do with the ways that people perceive similarities and differences. I’ve been hesitant to write about my kids here (we all deserve some privacy). Still, I think there are some lessons I’ve learned that might be useful.

First, a step back. Most of my recent ancestors, as far as I know, come from Ireland and Britain, with some Scandinavians thrown in there, as well as ancestors from other regions of Europe. Oh, and Neanderthals too; they aren’t exactly recent, but we can’t forget them. Before that, my ancestors eventually trace back to Africa, as is true of everyone. If someone were to ask me about my ethnicity, I’d probably say that I am Irish-American, though I know that any label must necessarily discard some complexity. After all, a single name cannot possible encompass the nearly infinite number of  ancestors standing behind me. Identity, ancestry, and genes certainly correlate with each other, but never perfectly so. My wife is the daughter of Korean immigrants and would refer to herself as Korean-American. And her recent family tree, as far as she knows, contains ancestors who lived not only in Korea, but also in northern China.

With the kids at the beach.

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Irish Refuse & The Golden Rule

“It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”Irish Proverb

 

The Irish Taoiseach (prime minister), Enda Kenny gave some remarks at the White House for Saint Patrick’s Day. Among his comments was a nod to the difficult history of Irish immigration abroad to countries including (but not exclusive to) the United States. You can find video of his speech here.

Enda Kenny (skip to 6 mins, 34 seconds):

“Ireland came to America, because deprived of liberty, opportunity, safety and even food itself, we believed. Four decades before Lady Liberty lifted her lamp we were the wretched refuse on the teeming shore. We believed in the shelter of America, in the compassion of America, in the opportunity of America. We came and became Americans.”

To some observers, this is a reminder of global current events, where refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere are seeking sanctuary. In addition, an estimated 20 million people are on the verge of famine in four countries:  Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and northeastern Nigeria. Some of this is due to drought, but the primary reason stems from conflict, which blocks access to food, water, and other essential supplies and medicine, as well as a lack of action from other nations.

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Extraordinary Cases of Compassion and Forgiveness: The Secular and Divine

As a kid, I went to Catholic school for several years. In addition to our lessons in traditional educational subjects of reading, science, math, history, and social studies, we also got regular lessons in Church teachings. Although I consider myself atheist or agnostic today, I distinctly remember that some of the religious lessons – particularly some of the parables of the New Testament – simply “felt” good.

In particular, I remember that the parable of the good Samaritan said something to me – try to help others in need, even if there is risk, and even if they are somehow different from you. Likewise, the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (at least to me) emphasized the importance of being humble. The parable of the prodigal son contained themes of contrition, mercy, and reconciliation.

When we read those lessons – in class or in Church – they often came with a pleasant physical sensation. At the time, I interpreted that feeling as evidence that the parables were divinely inspired. After all, other stories didn’t give me the same emotional response (though at that age, I didn’t have many examples to compare). Of course, now I interpret things differently. The biological anthropologist in me would say that the pleasurable sensation is part of a human neurobiology that promotes pro-social behavior. This, in turn, reinforces the rewards that we gain from being connected to others.

Does that sound too cold? “Oh, you materialist!”  I hope it doesn’t. Whether the sentiments are divinely inspired or a part of an evolved emotional response, the effect is the same – they help maintain our connections, which we absolutely need. No human being is an island. Instead, we are obligatorily social primates. And, regardless of whether we take a religious or secular perspective, the effect is the same. We are still left with the angel and devil on either shoulder, whether we interpret that literally or figuratively. We all make our choices that are based on a combination of character, the information at our disposal, and our surrounding circumstances.  

I have to admit that I still get that inspirational feeling whenever I read about extraordinary acts of compassion, forgiveness, or simply someone who’s made an effort to seek out another’s humanity. I’ve collected them for a while. After a few accumulate, I feel the need to share them. Below are a few fairly recent examples, followed by a more comprehensive list. Collectively, they all give me hope, as they span the range of humanity – secular and religious – from many societies.

The mother of Abdolah Hosseinzadeh removes the noose from around the neck of her son’s killer, sparing his life, April 15, 2014. Image via Arash Khamooshi.

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