Our Species’ Perilous Infancy

“I’ll meet you further on up the road.” 

socotra-dragon-tree-yemen-660x440

Dragon’s blood tree on the island of Socotra, Yemen. Source.

 

I sometimes wish we could fast-forward through this messy period of human history. I imagine that our descendants will be embarrassed by how sectarian and insular we were. It will probably take generations, but it seems almost inevitable that the world will keep shrinking until it becomes the prevailing wisdom that all people share a common ancestry and that our commonalities outweigh our differences.  

Yet, here we are. Ethno-nationalism is on the rise in Europe, with many people increasingly angered by the influx of Muslim refugees. In the United States, I.C.E. is rounding up and deporting people who have lived here for decades and who pose a threat to no one, including military veterans, a doctor, a mother of four children, and a college professor. President Trump infamously referred to several countries — including El Salvador, Haiti, and all of Africa —  as “shitholes, and implied that people from those places should not be allowed to immigrate to the U.S. Left unspoken, this presumes that a country’s political or economic struggles are a reflection of the character of all of the people who live there.

A common refrain in these stories is the perception that outsiders are a threat, either in the form of direct violence or indirectly to “our way of life.” Again, in 2016 when Trump was still a candidate, he visited my home state of Rhode Island for a fund raiser and suggested that thousands of Syrian refugees were being resettled there without any screening and that they were akin to a Trojan horse:

“We can’t let this happen. But you have a lot of them resettling in Rhode Island. Just enjoy your — lock your doors, folks.”

At the time, there was one resettled family from Syria — a young couple and their three beautiful young children. The calculated wielding of fear as a weapon against five harmless human beings struck many people, including me, as cynical and reprehensible.

As for the threat to “our way of life,” a state senator from New Jersey named Mike Doherty epitomized this sentiment when he said that the U.S. should limit immigration from “non-European” nations that are not part of a “Judeo-Christian culture” because: 

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Year in Review: Top Posts of 2017

Looking through the 5 most frequently read essays of 2017, I see few themes. They are mostly attempts to find reasons to be hopeful (even though that has been hard at times). Humans are adaptable and flexible, and we aren’t fated to any single behavioral way of being. That means we can always make a better world. Light up the darkness.

 

1. The Conditions of the Game: It’s Not a “World of Eternal Struggle” (Sept 2)

This was by far the most read post on this site, which I wrote after the violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia. This was upon seeing a photo of a man with a t-shirt that quoted Hitler in which he wrote that ours is “a world of eternal struggle.” I found it disturbing, but also just wrong. In evolution, adaptations are context specific, and they depend on the conditions of the game. This is also true for cooperation and conflict.

“How we view the world matters. If we see it as zero-sum, as an eternal struggle against other people where only one party can win, then we will act accordingly. Norton and Sommers (2011) found that many white people see racial relations as a zero-sum game: that if other groups are making progress toward equality, that this progress comes at their expense. But remember that non-zero-sum relationships are widespread. With cooperation so prolific in nature (genes, cells, organisms, groups, human societies), it just seems odd to declare that life is solely a contest of struggle. Nor does it make sense to say that cooperation is impossible between groups. Or we can see it as a chance for coalitions, that the success and well-being of others around us does not require us to lose. We make a niche for the others around us, as they do for us, and we all decide whether the costs that come with building up our armor are worth it. They may be, depending on how we perceive the conditions of the game.

I don’t know about you, but I think my life would be better if I was surrounded by healthy, fulfilled, cooperative people over those who feel distrustful, held back, and resentful. Of course, some people may feel differently. There are many strategies one can use. But don’t argue that nature gave us only one hand to play.”

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Roy Moore on the Evils of Evolution

I just saw this video (below) yesterday. It shows Roy Moore, who is currently running for Senator for Alabama, commenting on evolution. Apparently, it dates to 1997, and in it Moore criticized evolutionary biology for the things it allegedly could not explain, such as why mammals, reptiles, and bird all had males and females (it can, in fact, explain this), and that there was no evidence that our ancestors evolved from animals that once lived in the water (there is). 

Moore is not an evolutionary biologist, so I suppose he could be forgiven for having gaps in his understanding of the subject (though we are probably obligated to make an effort to shore up our knowledge before commenting publicly).  However, even though this was twenty years ago, there was another part of his comments that doesn’t sit well with me. Moore also said:

“That’s the kind of logic (biologists have) used in our society today when we have kids driving by shooting each other that they don’t even know each other. They’re acting like animals because we’ve taught them they come from animals.”

The idea that learning about evolution is responsible for society’s ills has a history. As I’ve written before, I think this view is profoundly misguided for a couple of reasons. For one, it is obvious that the human capacity for violence and callousness existed long before evolutionary thinking. The world before Darwin was not a paradise that was ruined by the idea that our species has changed over time or that we are connected to the rest of the natural world.

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No More Trouble

Killing the brother

Destroying the country

For nothing

For nothing

If God’s on our side

This is an atypically short post. I don’t have anything to add. Please just listen.

So now as I’m leavin’
I’m weary as Hell.
The confusion I’m feelin’
Ain’t no tongue can tell.
The words fill my head
And they fall to the floor.
That if God’s on our side
He’ll stop the next war.”

 

The Conditions of the Game: It’s Not a “World of Eternal Struggle”

“As you enter this life, I pray you depart/ With a wrinkled face and a brand new heart.”  Paul Hewson

 

I saw this photo of a man wearing a shirt quoting Hitler during the violent protests in Charlottesville. I thought about ignoring it, but I’m not merely concerned about this one man’s shirt. Aside from the repulsion from seeing someone walking down a public street supporting Hitler, the thought that people see life as eternal struggle is disturbing. I also think it’s very poor science. If you read the passage where this quote originated (and I’m not recommending you do that), Hitler was appealing to biology, claiming his argument was based in “the most patent principles of Nature’s rule” and “the iron logic of Nature.” Although at one point he also wrote that racial separation was “the will of the eternal creator,” so this seems to be a throwback to a confused, 18th century deistic view of Nature with a big “N” meant to reinforce his own biases.

So here it is in 2017, and some people are still leaning on what a genocidal dictator wrote in the 1920s. Somewhere, we’ve gotten off track. As we’ll see, conflict is not inevitable. In fact, in many ways, “iron logic” suggests that cooperation makes far more sense. First, I’m going to try to tie this together by starting off with a quick story. Please bear with me.

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Agreeing on Existential Threats

Update (Sept 6, 2017). I’m adding this CBS video about cooperation and finding commonality during Hurricane Harvey. “No one cares about the color or creed of their rescuer.”

 

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One of humanity’s greatest assets as a species is our flexibility. We can live in a range of environments, and adjust to new social realities, diets, technologies, ideas, languages, etc. Our kids live in a world where communication across the globe is instantaneous, something that our ancestors would never have thought imaginable. Yet it’s completely normal for this generation. We adjust.

Still, nothing is cost-free. One drawback of our incredible plasticity and ability to hold a multitude of beliefs is an inherent risk for conflict. I say “avocado.” You say “mango.” People disagree on just about everything. What should we have for dinner? Are other people fully human? How should taxes be spent? Should baby boys wear pink? Are Nazis bad? Are there hats?

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