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, 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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Sex Really Is Dangerous (and Other Adjectives)

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I maintain that sex is regarded as dangerous by the savage, that it is tabooed and ritualized, surrounded by moral and legal norms – not because of any superstition of primitive man, or emotional view of or instinct about strangeness, but for the simple reason that sex really is dangerous.” – Bronislaw Malinowski, anthropologist (1928)

Young or old, don’t delude yourself. You don’t have sex. Sex has you. Buckle up.” – Dan Savage, author, giver of advice, Twitter friend (2013: 52)

“According to Irish folk belief, there are two ways of achieving certain salvation. The first is through a red martyrdom, or dying for one’s faith in the tradition of the early Christians and the great missionary saints. The second path to sainthood, and the one chosen by most ordinary people, is the white martyrdom (ban-martra), a slow ‘death to self’ through acts of self-denial – fasting, penance – and, above all, a life characterized by sexual purity.” – Nancy Scheper-Hughes, anthropologist (2001: 206)

 “You can’t just let nature run wild.” – Walter Hickel, former Governor of Alaska (1992)

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Quote #1 suggests that sex is potentially dangerous for all people, regardless of cultural background. Note that Malinowski’s use of the word ‘savage’ was acceptable at the time. Today, it obviously isn’t. (#2) However, despite that danger, sex is powerful and has a hold over people. (#3) They can assert control over sexual impulses, but to suppress them entirely is difficult enough to be considered equivalent to martyrdom. (#4) All societies need regulation, including for sexuality. (I took some license with this last quote, one of my favorites. The actual context was that Hickel was defending the state’s controversial aerial wolf control program, apparently said without irony). 

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The young wife, Isakapu, put on her best jewelry and climbed to the top of a coconut tree near her village. From there she shouted down to her husband, Kabwaynaka, and to any other witnesses below that his accusations of adultery against her were false, and that she resented that he had beaten and insulted her out of jealousy a few days earlier. Kabwaynaka climbed up after her to bring her down, but before he could reach the top she jumped, throwing herself to her own death (Malinowski 1929: 120).

In Bronislaw Malinowski’s classic ethnography The Sexual Lives of Savages, suicide in the Trobriand Islands was an acceptable means of escape from the shame of breaking various sexual taboos (even if the accusations were false). This was the case not only for adultery, but also for bestiality, or for having sex within the clan. Consuming the poisonous gallbladder of a pufferfish was one method for taking one’s own life, but the option chosen by Isakapu, jumping from a tree (known as lo’u), was also common at the time. Malinowski wrote that while the sexual lives of Trobrianders might seem “easy and carnal” to an outsider, in reality they were often marked by “strong passions and complex sentiments” and sometimes filled with strife (p. 119-21). 

A Harvest Scene (Malinowski 1929, plate 57).

A Harvest Scene in the Trobriands (Malinowski 1929, plate 57).

A look at the ethnographic record reveals that strong and complex emotions surrounding sex are not unique to the Trobianders, or to any single culture. Some historical narratives of human sexuality have wondered whether non-Western cultures, or perhaps our distant ancestors, have had a less stressful time with this part of life, placing the blame for any modern sexual malaise at the feet of various culprits. These include (1) religion, particularly the monotheistic Abrahamic faiths (Ray 2012); or (2) capitalism and ‘the Protestant ethic,’ with its emphasis on guilt, self-control, and the frustration of delayed marriage before sufficient resources could be accumulated (Albee 1977); or (3) agriculture, with its emphasis on fixed settlements, the accumulation of private property, and a more intense guarding of paternity and property rights (Ryan and Jethá 2010). Continue reading

Developmental Plasticity and the “Hard-Wired” Problem

“Development is the missing link between genotype and phenotype, a place too often occupied by metaphors in the past … But a strong emphasis on the genome means that environmental influence is systematically ignored. If you begin with DNA and view development as “hard-wired,” you overlook the flexible phenotype and the causes of its variation that are the mainsprings of adaptive evolution.” (Mary Jane West-Eberhard, 2003: 89-90)

“Genes, unlike gods, are conditional. They are exquisitely good at simple if-then logic: if in a certain environment, then develop in a certain way… So here is the first moral of the tale: Don’t be frightened of genes. They are not gods; they are cogs. (Matt Ridley, 2003: 250)

 

Plasticity: actor Christian Bale at two points in time. Same genes, different phenotypes.

Plasticity: actor Christian Bale at two points in time. Same genes, different phenotypes.

In his book The Triple Helix, Richard Lewontin told the story of the molecular biologist and Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner, who – while speaking at a conference – predicted that one day we would be able to “compute” an organism (2002). All we would need are two things: the organism’s full genome and powerful enough computers that were up to the task.

The idea is seductive. Genes are sometimes seen as self-sufficient molecules, almost existing in a vacuum, that contain all the information necessary to code for proteins. From there, it’s not a very big logical leap to think that if you had the genome, you could enter the code in some database, hit “run,” and then watch some digitized version of the organism unfold.

In fact, scientists are doing something much like this for the tiny roundworm C. elegans with the project OpenWorm. Yet even for a relatively simple organism such as this, with only about a thousand cells in total, there are reasons to be cautious. As The Economist warned in its write-up of OpenWorm: “Attempting to simulate everything faithfully would bring even a supercomputer to its knees.” However, this isn’t due solely to the limits of computing power (what if we had a super-duper computer!?). Rather, it’s a matter of how the question is framed.

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Part 15: Humans Are (Blank)-ogamous: Lessons from Models of Sex and Love

Part 15: Humans Are (Blank)-ogamous: Lessons from Models of Sex and Love

The introduction to this series can be found here.

Summary: There are many ways to put a human life together, including for sex and love. Each path has tradeoffs.

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I thought I knew what love was. What did I know?Don Henley, “Boys of Summer”

There are all kinds of love in this world, but never the same love twice. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Nothing in life is to be feared; it is only to be understood. – Marie Curie

 

“Mom, love is love, whatever you are.” These words of wisdom came from Jackson, the 12 year-old son of actress Maria Bello, after she revealed to him that she had fallen in love with a woman. Bello’s essay, Coming Out as a Modern Family, appeared in last November’s New York Times, where she bravely reflected on her handful of past romantic relationships (mostly with men), her trepidation in revealing her evolving feelings on love, and the variety of meaningful relationships – platonic, familial, romantic – she had in her life.

In the most important sense, which is of course the sense that Jackson meant, love is love, irrespective of one’s sexuality, gender, or ethnicity. Studies from neurobiology reveal that people in the early stages of romantic love show consistent activation in specific brain regions (the ventral tegmental area and caudate) when viewing a photo of one’s partner. This was true for (1) men and women, (2) hetero- and homo-sexuals, and (3) American, British, and Chinese adults (Zeki and Romaya 2010; Xu et al. 2011). Not that Jackson needed it, because a person’s choices in love should be respected regardless of what neurobiology tells us, but he has science on his side.

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Part 13: Humans are (Blank)-ogamous: Is Monogamy ‘Natural?’

This is part of a series on the evolution of human mating behavior, comparing evidence for promiscuity and pair-bonding in our species. Please see the Introduction here.

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(Left) My paternal grandparents with my father as a toddler. (Right) Their 50th anniversary.

Left: My paternal grandparents with my father as a toddler. Right: their 50th wedding anniversary (it’s the best picture I could find).

Are humans naturally monogamous? Oprah Winfrey says ‘no.’That settles it, then. Maybe.

Oprah (she needs no last name) was a guest on a morning talk show, and the topic of discussion was two recent articles on the origins of monogamy in mammals (Lukas & Clutton-Brock, 2013) and another specifically on primates (Opie et al, 2013). Both articles are impressive for their large databases and attention to detail. The first looked at 2545 species of mammals while the Opie article examined 230 primate species.[1]

Both studies focused specifically on social, rather than sexual, monogamy. This distinction is important because sexual exclusivity was not what was being measured here. Rather, social monogamy was defined by both studies as simply living in breeding pairs. The Lukas & Clutton-Brock paper added that in social monogamy the pair shared a common territory, and “associate with each other for more than one breeding season” (p. 526).

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“The Single Most Important Function of Marriage”

It might not be what you think. From Stephanie Coontz’ book Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage (p. 31): 

“Probably the single most important function of marriage through most of history, although it is almost completely eclipsed today, was its role in establishing cooperative relationships between families and communities.” 

A few pages later, she adds that marriage has historically fulfilled a variety of functions in different societies, so much so that it’s hard to pin down exactly what marriage is. These functions also occur in different combinations, which could alternatively be performed by other institutions. The exception, according to Coontz, is not reproduction or even love, but the extended ties created through in-laws. Here is the whole quote:

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Part 11. Humans Are Blank-ogamous. Sexaptation: The Many Functions of Sex

This is part 11 of a series on the evolution of human mating behavior. Please see the introduction here. P.s. Does anybody actually read of all this?

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“When the gods gave people sex, say the !Kung, they gave us a wonderful thing. Sex is often referred to as food: just as people cannot survive without eating… hunger for sex can cause people to die.” (Shostak 2000: 237) 

“sex can be many things to many people, including but not limited to a blend of personalities, social rules, desire, intimacy and performance, moral order and national image that speak to processes of sexual embodiment, varieties of sexual practice and the dynamics of culture.” (Donnan and Magowan, 2010: 175)

E unum, pluribus. (Out of one, many).

 

Penis Festival

Genital-themed ashtrays from the Komaki Penis Festival in Japan. For humans, sex is more complex than just getting genitals together. (globalpost.com).

Last month, representatives in Montana debated whether to repeal an old law that made homosexual sex illegal in that state (the law was in fact overturned). Apart from the fact that private, consensual sexual behavior is still considered a matter to be legislated, there were other interesting developments from the discussion. A representative named Dave Hagstrom raised a deep question when he asked: “What is the purpose of sex?” I appreciate Hagstrom’s line of inquiry, as we could probably use more reflection on human sexuality. Unfortunately his own answer did not live up to the profundity of the question: 

“To me, sex is primarily purposed to produce people. That’s why we’re all here. Sex that doesn’t produce people is deviate. That doesn’t mean it’s a problem, it just means it’s not doing its primary purpose.”

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