Cooperation and Conflict: Lessons from Cetaceans

False killer whales, interacting with bottlenose dolphins off the New Zealand coast

A few years ago, I wrote an essay against the idea that nature was always nasty (see: “Nature, Not Always “Red in Tooth and Claw”). I think the whole essay pivoted on one important quote from the primatologist Frans deWaal, who explained why it is misguided to focus solely on the colder, cruel side of evolution. He wrote:

“The error is to think that, since natural selection is a cruel, pitiless process of elimination, it can only have produced cruel and pitiless creatures. But nature’s pressure cooker does not work that way. It favors organisms that survive and reproduce, pure and simple. How they accomplish this is left open” (2009: 58).

From there I pointed out several of examples of cooperation and altruism in nature, mostly among primates, but also in other mammal species. I would like to add another one that I learned from the BBC’s Blue Planet II: the relationship between false killer whales  (Pseudorca crassidens) and bottlenose dolphins (genus Tursiops). As the inimitable David Attenborough narrates in the clip below, pods from the two species were seen meeting near the New Zealand coast, and the audience is led to expect hostilities or predation… “But then, something truly extraordinary happens.”

Continue reading

Sixteen Anti-War Songs

“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.” — UNESCO

 

I made a list of sixteen anti-war songs that have meant something to me for a while, including a few lyrics from each and then a brief description. It would be too cumbersome to include all of the lyrics, or to make a comprehensive list, though you can find one here. Most are in English, so this will be limited in scope. I guess the songs are sort of “ranked,” but it’s not meant to be scientific; it’s just a list from which I find some meaning. Originally I sought to create a top ten list; however, it just kept growing.

Perhaps you have your own list, and it’s likely different than mine. We probably have different tastes, and that’s OK. I’m not going to fight anyone over anti-war songs. Maybe this list will do some a tiny bit of good, at a time when divisions appear to be growing.

 

 

16. Radiohead – “Harry Patch: In memory of” (2009)

Give your leaders each a gun and then let them
Fight it out themselves

 

This is Radiohead’s tribute to Harry Patch, the World War 1 veteran who died at age 111 in 2009. Patch once said that “War is organised murder and nothing else….politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organizing nothing better than legalized mass murder.”

Continue reading

We’re all earthlings

“Looking at the Earth (from space) for the first time, … you realize that hey, we live on a planet. We’re all earthlings. The only border that matters is that thin blue line of atmosphere that blankets us all.”

– astronaut Nicole Stott

 

At a period when polarization and nationalism seem to be increasing around the world, I feel the need to keep pushing for a more inclusive view of humanity. I heard Nicole Stott on the radio this morning, and thought I’d pass along her quote. Also, see:

“There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” – Carl Sagan

 

Red States versus Blue States: Who Would Win a Civil War in the U.S?

Summary: Nobody will win. It would be catastrophic, as is true of nearly all wars.

 

“Nearly every government that goes to war underestimates its duration, neglects to tally all the costs, and overestimates the political objectives that can be accomplished by the use of brute force.”   

– The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs (source)

 

Last week congressman Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, created yet another controversy by posting an image on social media that asked whether red states or blue states would win in a second U.S. civil war (the clear implication is that the red states would). Understandably, King received a lot of criticism for this, for contributing to a political ecosphere that is already steeped in heated rhetoric, in which real political violence has been on the increase. King has since deleted the image, but he is not alone. With anxieties and polarization growing, talk of a possible second civil war in the U.S. is still relatively rare, but I can’t recall another period in my lifetime where I’ve heard it with such regularity. Even Stanford’s Niall Ferguson has written about this.

Others have opined on King’s glibly pondering civil war as a sitting member of Congress, the fact that he overlooked the fact that his own state is “blue” in the image, his transphobia, or his timing (the post came just a day after a white supremacist killed 50 people in New Zealand mosques). I’d like to focus on the idea of “winning” a civil war.

First, a step back. The way that we initially frame a question has a big impact on our thinking. As the linguist George Lakoff wrote around the time of the First Gulf War, “metaphors can kill.” To frame war solely in terms of winning and losing (ex. an image of two boxers) does a great disservice to what actually happens during wars. Lakoff continued: “It is important to distinguish what is metaphorical from what is not. Pain, dismemberment, death, starvation, and the death and injury of loved ones are not metaphorical. They are real and in a war, they could afflict tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of real human beings, whether Iraqi, Kuwaiti, or American.” Certainly, the same suffering would apply to a civil war in the U.S.

In a similar vein, the former war correspondent Chris Hedges wrote in his book “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” that we should distinguish between “mythic war” and “sensory war.” Mythic war is deceptively seductive, offering people the chance to participate in some great noble cause, though people’s justifications may vary (to defeat evil, for freedom, for party, for God, for country, for one’s ethnic group, to avenge past wrongs, etc.). Mythic war’s perennial appeal resides in its apparent opportunity to help people find meaning by contributing to something potentially historic and bigger than themselves, particularly for the marginalized and for those who have struggle to find meaning in their lives. For these reasons, Hedges wrote, war can be an “addictive narcotic.”  

By contrast, sensory war refers to the on-the-ground experiences, the fear, the atrocities, the “blunders and senseless slaughter by our generals, the execution of prisoners and innocents,” ultimately revealing that – quoting Harry Patch – war is “organized murder and nothing else.”

 

Historical Lessons: How Destructive Would a Civil War Be?

Continue reading

Thinking of Nebraska in a Blue State

Like always, I’ve been following all of the good and bad stuff in the news. Under the latter category, I’ve been thinking of the people in Nebraska who were affected by the “bomb cyclone” that hit there a few days ago. There’s a lot of bad in many places around the world, but I’m focusing on Nebraska right now because it’s been called a “historic” and “monster” storm, creating both devastating floods and a blizzard that have displaced an unknown number of people.

I do have another motive for highlighting Nebraska, and that is because it is known as one of the reddest of the “red” states in the U.S. By comparison, I live and teach in one of the most consistently “blue” areas of the country (and I guess I am personally more blue than red). But note that in reality, most states are purple. Anyway, this is a bit personal, but today I donated to one organization with the specific intent to help people in Nebraska.

I’ve never been to Nebraska, and off the top of my head I can only think of one person I’ve ever met from there. I’m not wealthy, and it wasn’t a lot of money. Nor am I looking for praise. Rather, I was just hoping that if I made this public, someone somewhere, maybe Nebraska, might see this as a tiny symbol of good will from a blue area of the country at a time when this country is so polarized.

Continue reading

The Mindless Menace of Violence

Robert F Kennedy made this speech “The Mindless Menace of Violence” on April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King’s assassination. I pasted some of his words below, which are, sadly, as relevant as ever. We still have a long way to go. I know that this blog is tiny, and that it won’t make a dent in the massive, coordinated campaign of anger that exists online. These sentiments won’t reach the right people, and will persuade few minds. I’ve been online long enough to know that most minds are already made up, and some will find RFK’s words naïve at best, and at worst worthy of contempt. But I think they are necessary.

Continue reading

Hate Seeps In

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” – Nelson Mandela

.

In 2014, Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann conducted a cross-cultural study of people with schizophrenia who experienced auditory hallucinations, such as hearing “voices.” Not all people reported having the same experiences, however. People in Ghana and India said that their voices tended to be positive and benign, even playful and entertaining, and that these voices often came from God, spirits, or family members. By contrast, Americans said that their voices tended to be more violent and hateful, and they were more likely to perceive the condition as a disease. Luhrmann proposed that Americans’ emphasis on individual autonomy could predispose them to seeing voices as an “intrusion” on their self, whereas Ghanaians and Indians were more likely to interpret their voices as relationships. 

The point is that culture can have profound effects, even for a condition like schizophrenia. There is a tendency in a biomedical model to perceive health and diseases solely as physiological conditions, but it is important to remember that we are situated in a grander context beyond just the individual body. Something similar may happen with inebriation. As Craig MacAndrew and Robert Edgerton wrote: the way that people in any society “comport themselves when they are drunk is determined not by alcohol’s toxic assault upon the seat of moral judgment, conscience, or the like, but by what their society has taught them” (1969: 165). Just as patterns around alcohol consumption itself may be socially molded (how much to drink, and where and when), so is behavior while intoxicated. There is no single way for a brain to respond to schizophrenia or intoxication; rather, they are influenced by the ecology of ideas in which they find themselves. Ideas seep in.

Continue reading