A (R)evolution of Tenderness

“Compassion is more important than intellect, in calling forth the love that the work of peace needs, and intuition can often be a far more powerful searchlight than cold reason. We have to think, and think hard, but if we do not have compassion before we even start thinking, then we are quite likely to start fighting over theories. The whole world is divided ideologically, and theologically, right and left, and men are prepared to fight over their ideological differences. Yet the whole human family can be united by compassion. And, as Ciaran (McKeown, co-founder of the Movement of the Peace People in Northern Ireland) said recently in Israel, “compassion recognises human rights automatically; it does not need a charter.”

Betty Williams’ Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Dec 1977



As a college professor, I have some “radical” opinions. For one, I would like to see war and suffering decrease in my lifetime, if not my kids’ lifetimes. I am confident that while war may sometimes be necessary, it does more harm than good, and I am also confident that those negative effects can last for generations. At the same time, I also value truth very much, and I try to avoid naïve interpretations of human biology and behavior. Instead, I try to take a nuanced view when it comes to things like the roots of war, nature/ nurture, and even human sexuality. With all of that said, I’m going to try to splice together a few recent threads to find some reasons for optimism, despite the way current events seem to be going around the world. 

Things are certainly not great. By the end of 2016, an estimated 65.6 million people had been forcibly displaced by conflict, the highest number ever recorded. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi lamented that “the world seems to have become unable to make peace.” Partly as a result of conflict, 20 million people are at risk for starvation in four countries: Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and northeast Nigeria.

The Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO) issued a brief report this month, summarizing the state of global conflicts from 1946 to 2016. In all, the number of conflicts declined from 52 in 2015 to 49 last year, while the total number of battle casualties also fell 14%. This is a tiny bit of good news, although one can see in the figure below that there has been an uptick in all conflicts since 2011, and a long-term increase since the early 1960s. [It is debatable why we should start the clock at 1946, just after the deadliest period of human history, but c’est la vie.] 


By comparison, battle casualties per capita have generally decreased since 1946. While the number of conflicts have gone up, they have been primarily intrastate ones, and smaller in scale. A word of caution, however: “battle casualties” is a metric that looks at violent deaths only. It does not include indirect deaths due to things like broken infrastructure, such as lack of electricity, food/water, and health care that accompany war. If those numbers were included, the number of deaths surely would be higher. And, while the number of conflicts is a tally, battle deaths per capita is a rate, so the two aren’t directly comparable. The total number of deaths might present a different perspective, as might the rate per capita of people who were forcibly displaced.

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Nature Wants to Play With You

[I’m writing this on a snow day, stuck indoors, in between episodes of work and playing with my kids].

A few years ago, Ed Yong started a tongue-in-cheek blog titled Nature Wants to Eat YouPlaying off that idea, I wrote a blogpost citing several examples of altruistic behavior in various animal species, adding that “sometimes, nature may even want to hug you.” The point was that nature isn’t all bad. Nature isn’t nasty or nice; it’s indifferent. Out of that indifference, life has even evolved to allow some species to engage in play. Maybe, nature wants to play with you.

I quoted the primatologist Frans deWaal, who explained why it is problematic to focus solely on the colder, cruel side of evolution:

“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).      

An evolutionary perspective properly emphasizes the importance of survival and reproduction. However,  not every moment is filled with life-and-death-and-mating situations. For long-living species like ourselves, there is a lot of time to spend responding to life’s challenges, before, during, and after making it to the age of reproduction. All of those moments surely count for something, and they’re probably better spent when they are pleasurable, when we can find meaning and happiness, and when our relationships with those around us are cooperative rather than antagonistic. Somewhere in that calculus, nature has allowed several species to engage in play.

Example A. Goats playing on a metal sheet (source).


University of Colorado Professor emeritus Marc Beckoff wrote that one of the reasons that play might exists among other species is that it’s exploratory, to help them prepare for future environmental challenges:  

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Why Mice Don’t Get Ulcers

In his 1994 book “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” Robert Sapolsky described the difference between the types of stress that people often experience and the ones that other animal species do. In his titular example, if you were a zebra, you’d most likely face acute physical stress – the lion about to eat you – which requires immediate physiological adaptations (the fight-or-flight response). A second type of stress might be chronic and physical (drought, famine, parasites, etc.).

However, the third type of stress on Sapolsky’s list – the type most prominent in an industrialized human’s life – was social and psychological. While our species certainly benefited from expanding brain size over the last few million years, it too came with trade-offs, including the ability to overthink and worry about things to come down the road. This type of stress would not have featured too prominently into the mental lives of other species. As Sapolsky wrote:

“How many hippos worry about whether Social Security is going to last as long as they will, or what they are going to say on a first date? 

For the vast majority of beasts on this planet, stress is about a short-term crisis, after which it’s either over with or you’re over with. When we sit around and worry about stressful things, we turn on the same physiological responses – but they are potentially a disaster when provoked chronically. A large body of evidence suggests that stress-related disease emerges, predominantly, out of the fact that we so often activate a physiological system that has evolved for responding to acute physical emergencies, but we turn it on for months on end, worrying about mortgages, relationships and promotions” (p. 5 – 6).

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“I’ve never seen a Chinese monkey” (Essentialism & Human Variation)

I taught my first undergraduate anthropology class seventeen years ago, which is sometimes hard for me to believe. In that time, I’ve had over two thousand students enrolled in my courses, many of whom have left an impression on me. I hope I make a good impression on them too, though sometimes I have my doubts. A few years ago, a student asked me what my name was as they started to fill out the line after “Instructor” on the front page of their exam blue book. That was about halfway into the semester. You can’t reach them all, I suppose.

During my fourth year of teaching “Introduction to Biological Anthropology,” we got about two-thirds into the semester, and I paused to take the class’ pulse on how things were going. I asked them if they had any general thoughts about the class, such as what ideas they found interesting (or not), things they wished we could discussed more in depth, etc. I have since forgotten most of the students’ comments, except for one.

I remember that he wasn’t exactly the best student, and that he had struggled with most of the graded assignments. Nonetheless, I still learned something from him that day. He told the class that he thought evolution was an interesting idea, but he was skeptical about it applying to humans because, as he said, “Well, I’ve never seen a Chinese monkey.” This all occurred a long time ago, but I remember that at first I was puzzled by what he meant. And then it clicked.

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We Are an Obligatorily Social Species

In an essay published on Aeon earlier this year, Kimberley Brownlee, an associate professor of legal and moral philosophy at the University of Warwick, made the case that our well-being depends in part upon our social connections.

“(There is) a growing body ofpsychological evidencethat indicates that supportive social contact, interaction and inclusion are fundamentally important to a minimally decent human life and, more deeply, to human wellbeing. For the most part, we need one another; we cannot flourish or even survive without each other. These fundamental needs are the ground for a range of rights that we neglect, but should not, including the rights to be part of a network of social connections.

In our individualistic, western culture, where the romantic image of the great loner prevails, it will take some argumentative muscle to show that we should adopt a different model of the ‘strongest man’. We could start with the thought that true strength lies in exposing ourselves to others’ pain and suffering, in being open to intimacy, and in being touched by others’ needs, loves, hates and hopes. The strongest person might well be the one who makes herself vulnerable to others while being determined to survive it and become a better person for it. The strongest person in the world is she who is most connected.”

I’ve tried to make the same case before (see below), that we are all connected and that this stems from our evolutionary roots as social primates. I won’t rehash those arguments here. Rather, it’s just another reminder that we are an obligatorily social species.




Chimpanzees grooming

20 Ways We Are Not So Bright

According to one estimate, about 108 billion humans have ever lived. The exact number is probably unknowable. However, one thing we can know with certainty is that all of them have been fallible. So far they have also all been mortal. And with billions of years of life behind us, we have enough data to indicate that pattern is likely to continue, unless there is an exception alive out there today (I doubt it). 

In any case, the fallible humans have a number of consistent flaws and frailties in our biology — senescence, bad backs, myopia, etc. We should expect evolved beings to have built-in limitations in their biology. My favorite quote explaining why this should be comes from Matt Cartmill, who once said: “Evolution doesn’t act to yield perfection. It acts to yield function.”

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Bacteria and Nuclear Weapons: The Boundaries of Our Existence

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”

-W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming (1919)


In his 1997 book “Full House,” the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould discussed the idea of progress in evolution. He noted that Darwin went back and forth over the idea, at times arguing that natural selection had the power to refine organisms and “tend to progress toward perfection” and at other times writing that “after long reflection, I cannot avoid the conviction that no innate tendency to progressive development exists” (p. 137 and 141).

Gould himself acknowledged that it certainly seems like life has progressed over the billions of years it has existed on earth:

“And yet, undeniably (even for such curmudgeons as me), a basic fact of the history of life – the basic fact, one might well say – seems to cry out for progress as the central trend and defining feature of life’s history. The first fossil evidence of life, from rocks some 3.5 billion years in age, consists only of bacteria, the simplest forms that could be preserved in the geological record. Now we have oak trees, praying mantises, hippopotamuses, and people. How could anyone deny that such a history displays progress above anything else?” (p. 145)

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