Tradeoffs, Happiness, & the Biology of Our Cacophonous Selves

You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” – Steven Wright  (comedian)

 It seemed like a good idea at the time.” – S.A. (neuroscientist, friend)

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Lately, I keep seeing a recurrent theme in a number of widely different sources. It’s a concept taught in Economics 101, that of tradeoff and opportunity costs – money or time invested in one object or activity cannot be spent on another. A related concept, foundational to biology, is life history theory (LHT). In his book “Patterns of Human Growth,” the biological anthropologist Barry Bogin defined LHT as:

the study of the strategy an organism uses to allocate its energy toward growth, maintenance, reproduction, raising offspring to independence, and avoiding death. For a mammal, it is the strategy of when to be born, when to be weaned, how many and what types of pre-reproductive stages to pass through, when to reproduce, and when to die.” (1999: 154)

life

you could be a winner at the game of life

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Adversity, Resilience, & Adaptation

Note: this post was inspired by the recent conversation I had with Soo Na Pak about grief and resilience.

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Now the music’s gone, but they carry on
For their spirit’s been bruised, never broken.
They will not forget, but their hearts are set
on tomorrow and peace once again.

Phil Coulter, The Town I Loved So Well1

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When I was a boy and got hurt – falling off my bike, getting hit by a baseball in the ribs, a bruised ego – my father would say to me “you’ll have a lot more of those in your life, kid.” It really wasn’t the response I was looking for at the time, which I suppose was for sympathy. My guess is that he thought a bit of cold, hard reality would do me some good. I don’t know which parental approach is the correct one, but he was undoubtedly right that adversity and getting hurt never really stop, no matter how old we are. But after being knocked down, we do our best to get up again.

My dad and I, during the great scissors shortage of 1977.

Unfortunately, we sometimes face challenging circumstances which greatly exceed falling off a bicycle – the death or loss of our loved ones, poverty, discrimination, debilitating disease or psychological trauma, famine, slavery, war, etc. Sometimes these things are chronic or even fatal, and should we be lucky enough to make it through to the other side of the tunnel, the pain can feel almost unbearable in the interim.

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A Conversation with Soo Na Pak

Earlier this week, the writer/ documentary filmmaker Soo Na Pak and I had a conversation about anthropology, which she transcribed and posted on her blog. She emailed me after finding the post I wrote on the loss of my brother titled “Life is Beautiful,” and asked if we could talk about some of these things more in depth on the phone. The discussion was a lengthy one that spanned a variety of topics, but I think the main themes were about how we can find some anchors in science which provide optimism, resilience, and hope under difficult circumstances. We also talked about the evolution of humans as a biocultural species, plasticity, and whether some of our more powerful emotions – like grief and love – can be considered adaptive. There’s also some personal stuff in there too. It was a fun experience. Thank you, Soo Na.

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Link: http://soonapak.wordpress.com/2012/06/23/were-all-cousins/

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Part 6. Humans are (Blank) -ogamous: Many Intimate Relationships

This is the sixth part 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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So be sure when you step, Step with care and great tact. And remember that life’s A Great Balancing Act.” Dr. Seuss

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. Varieties of Intimate Relationships. Click for larger image. (from Informationisbeautiful.net)

David McCandless at “Information Is Beautiful” gave me permission to reproduce the above image. I though it fit well with the series I started months ago titled Humans are (blank)-ogamous, which looked at the evidence for pair-bonding and promiscuity in human evolution. In the first post of the series, I wrote:

To begin, let me say that I side with Sapolsky. Individuals may figure out what works best for themselves in terms of balancing sex, love, intimacy, and commitment, but collectively we are a tragically confused species. …

Across the spectrum of human cultures, we can find examples of heterogamy, endogamy, polyandry, polygyny, monogamy, non-monogamy, polyamory, and so on. However, these do not all occur in equal frequencies, so I don’t think we are truly “blank-ogamous.” There is also lots of room for variation within each culture. Being good Popperians committed to the principle of falsifiability, it is probably easier to say what we are not than what we are. One thing is clear: we are not simple.”

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Anthropology: Reflections on the Field

Several great pieces on the nature of anthropology appeared this weekend on the  Anthropologies Project website, reflecting on the purpose of anthropology, its strengths and weaknesses, and its future. I recommend the whole series of essays, but two in particular caught my eye early, in part because they are written by biological/biocultural anthropologists with whom I’ve had at least some interaction in the past.

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Part 3. Humans are (Blank) -ogamous: More on Promiscuity, & Genetics

This is the third part 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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Part 2 pertained to human behaviors that suggested a human propensity for promiscuity (primate sexuality, the excessive sexual capacity of humans, infidelity rates, cultural variation in marriage practices, number of lifetime sex partners, etc.). This post and the next are concerned more with clues from our genes, anatomy, and physiology suggesting promiscuity. I realize these things are not clearly demarcated. My advisor at Binghamton, Mike Little, liked to say that “biology is behavior, and behavior is biology.” But I think in general most people would agree that while behavior has a genetic component, it is more plastic than are anatomical structures.

We left off with a list of six traits hinting at promiscuity. I don’t want to simply rehash what Ryan and Jethá address, so this post addresses some additional points on genetics before returning to their book in the next submission. Continuing with that list…

Fetal ultrasound at 4.5 months, profile view

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Part 1. Humans are (Blank) -ogamous

(A)s our forebears adopted life on the dangerous ground, pair-bonding became imperative for females and practical for males. And monogamy – the human habit of forming a pair-bond with one individual at a time – evolved.” (Helen Fisher 2004: 131)

Several types of evidence suggest our pre-agricultural (prehistoric) ancestors lived in groups where most mature individuals would have had several ongoing sexual relationships at any given time. Though often casual, these relationships were not random or meaningless. Quite the opposite: they reinforced crucial social ties holding these highly interdependent communities together.” (Chris Ryan & Cacilda Jethá 2010: 9-10)

 “We are not a classic pair-bonded species. We are not a polygamous, tournament species either…. What we are, officially, … is a tragically confused species.” (Robert Sapolsky)

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The above three quotations were selected to illustrate the range of views that exist on the evolution of human sexual and mating behavior. This is not a trivial matter. To primatologist Bernard Chapais: “The central puzzle of human social evolution… is to explain how promiscuity was replaced by the pair bond” (that is, assuming the pair-bond has gained complete ascendancy). But it’s about more than our ancestors’ mating behaviors. Lurking in the background is the notion that our ancestral behavioral patterns impact current ones, via phylogenetic inertia. Additionally, how we view the past is important because, rightly or wrongly, we have a tendency to associate what is natural with what is good (but note well the naturalistic fallacy). For both of these reasons, the past matters.

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