On Optimism and ‘Human Nature’

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:

Continue reading

Reconciliation, Biology, and the Second Indochina War

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

One Planet. One Species. Homo sapiens.

“One planet, one experiment.”
………………..— Edward O. Wilson. 1992. The Diversity of Life.

Hadzabe men (wikimedia commons)

The BBC has compiled what looks to be an absolutely visually stunning television series, titled ‘Human Planet.’  The footage is said to contain video from 80 different locations, highlighting the relationship of humans to various ecological conditions.1 The description from the website:

Uniquely in the animal kingdom, humans have managed to adapt and thrive in every environment on Earth. Each episode takes you to the extremes of our planet: the arctic, mountains, oceans, jungles, grasslands, deserts, rivers and even the urban jungle. Here you will meet people who survive by building complex, exciting and often mutually beneficial relationships with their animal neighbours and the hostile elements of the natural world.”

Have a look for yourself at the preview:

Continue reading

The God of Growth (James M. Tanner, 1920-2010)

The journal Economics and Human Biology has an obituary (in press) describing the life of James M. Tanner, and his singular contributions to the development of the study of human growth.  In his memorial, Roderick Floud quotes David Barker as saying “Jim was the God” of growth studies.

I had missed news of Tanner’s passing, which occurred in August, and was sad to learn of it. His work has been invaluable to many people, including my own teaching and research, from formulating growth charts to a comparative look at how people grow in different parts of the world. But it’s important to reflect not just on his contributions to science, but also the person behind them. One gets a sense of his compassion from the way he referred to childhood growth as a mirror for “the material and moral condition” of a society (1986: 3). Floud quotes an oft-cited passage by Tanner:


A child’s growth rate reflects, better than any other single index, his state of health and nutrition, and often indeed his psychological situation also. Similarly, the average value of children’s heights and weights reflect accurately the state of a nation’s public health and the average nutritional status of its citizens. . . . Thus a well- designed growth study is a powerful tool with which to monitor the health of a population, or to pinpoint subgroups of a population whose share in economic or social benefits is less than it might be.”

Select Works

Eveleth, Phyllis B. and Tanner, James M. 1990. Worldwide Variation in Human Growth (second edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tanner, James M. 1986. Growth as a mirror for the conditions of society: secular trends and class distinctions. In Human Growth: A Multidisciplinary Review. Arto Demirjian and Micheline Brault Dubuc, eds. Pp. 3-34. London: Taylor and Francis.

Tanner, James M. 1990. Fetus into Man: Physical Growth from Conception to Maturity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Choice, Obesity & the Irrational Ape (Homo insensatus)

What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility.

……………………………………………………………………………………. – Albert Einstein

Another irrational ape (imitating Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’)

Jonah Lehrer has written another great piece about our irrationality in decision making, and our emotional responses to avoiding loss. He writes:

From the perspective of economics, there is no good reason to weight gains and losses so differently. Opportunity costs (foregone gains) should be treated just like “out-of-pocket costs” (losses). But they aren’t – losses carry a particular emotional sting.”

Others have noted the importance of emotion involved in decision making, and how it affects our ability to intuit how our choices will make us feel. When someone suffers damage to the prefrontal cortex of their brain, both their emotions and decision-making abilities are impaired (Bechara et al 1997). What this suggests is that emotions and reason are linked, rather than oppositional. They inform each other. This all fits in with Dan Ariely’s view of humans as “predictably irrational.”

Continue reading

Killer Ghosts & Broken Hearts: The Mystery of Sudden Unexplained Death in Sleep in Asian Men

One of the strengths of a biocultural perspective in anthropology is its broad approach to understanding human biology and health (Wiley and Allen 2008). Such a framework seems particularly appropriate when looking at the fascinating phenomenon of SUDS (Sudden Unexplained Death During Sleep). Though SUDS first appeared in the medical literature 1917 in the Philippines, where it is referred to as ‘bangungut’ (Guazon 1917), it was largely forgotten until the late 1970s when it regained notoriety as an important cause of mortality among Southeast Asian refugees in the United States, particularly among young men (Baron et al 1983).

Continue reading

The Evolution of Childcare (& Washington, D.C.)

Our family took a road-trip to Washington D.C. this summer. After looking at the photos, I realized the subtitle of our stay could have been: how I carried my toddler son everywhere… in humid, 95 degree weather.

Continue reading