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.

https://kevishere.com/2014/02/26/our-essential-fragile-bonds/

https://kevishere.com/2012/03/08/cosmically-connected-primates/

Grooming

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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Wrapping up the (Blank)-ogamous Series

“We have both a moral and ethical responsibility to protect all children and adolescents in our community. We cannot withhold information from children, adolescents, or adults, live in silence about this taboo subject and expect everything to turn out all right. We have tried ignorance and it does not work.”

– Joycelyn Elders, former Surgeon General, writing about human sexuality (2010: 249)

A few years ago, I began the “Humans are (Blank)-ogamous” series. I originally intended it to be only a few posts that would explore the roles that evolution and culture play in human sexual behavior. The inspiration for it was that several theorists over time had proposed that humans had evolved to be a number of things – monogamous, polygynous, serially monogamous, promiscuous, etc. I wondered how people could look at the same species and reach such different conclusions. Perhaps if I could read enough I might be able to find “the answer.”

From there, the series grew, blossoming into 20+ posts, citing over 200+ references (yes, I counted). I probably could have gotten at least a Master’s Thesis out of this. Anyway, those posts easily have been among the most read things on this site. That’s not because they are particularly brilliant. Rather, I think it’s because people are hungry for credible information and – despite how important the topic of human sexuality is – that can be hard to come by. Having those three magic letters “Ph.D.” after one’s name can help with internet search engine results, but a Ph.D. is no guarantee of being right. Far from it. All that means is that I went to school for a long time. I’m still in school, actually, so there’s always more to learn…

The series has been pretty well received by a number of people I admire, which feels pretty good I have to admit. They’ve been shared on social media, and some posts were even included on different university syllabi. In fact, I taught my own class on the subject last semester, and I think it went very well. When I re-read some of the earlier posts, there isn’t too much that I regret, (which is a good sign – sometimes when I reading my old stuff I sound like Sideshow Bob stepping on a rake).  

With all that said, I think I think I’d like to wrap this up by taking the utilitarian approach. If I’m confident about anything that I wrote, and willing to put my money where my mouth is, then what would I emphasize to my students, friends, or (most importantly) to my own children?  I’ll keep some of the lessons I’ve learned private, but here are a few:

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Your Life is a Logical Absurdity

“Think of it: zillions and zillions of organisms running around, each under the hypnotic spell of a single truth, all these truths identical, and all logically incompatible with one another: ‘My hereditary material is the most important material on earth; its survival justifies your frustration, pain, even death.’ And you are one of these organisms, living your life in the thrall of a logical absurdity.”  

Robert Wright, The Moral Animal

Sex and Love in the Long Run

[Note: Nov 10, 2019] I’m seeing an uptick of views on this older post. Can anyone kindly tell me how/ why? As this site is a labor of love, I’m curious how it is used. My university is too.

[I hope you like graphs … ]

♪ Now everyone dreams of a love lasting and true, / But you and I know what this world can do. / So let’s make our steps clear, so the other may see./ I’ll wait for you, and should I fall behind, will you wait for me? 

— Bruce Springsteen & Patti Scialfa (“If I Should Fall Behind”)

 

“Contrary to what has been widely believed, long-term romantic love (with intensity, sexual interest, and engagement, but without the obsessive element common in new relationships), appears to be a real phenomenon that may be enhancing to individuals’ lives—positively associated with marital satisfaction, mental health, and overall well-being.”

— Bianca Acevedo and Arthur Aron (2009: 64)

 

In the 2013 film “Before Midnight,” we caught up with Celine and Jesse (played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) who had fallen in love during a chance, whirlwind evening in Vienna eighteen years earlier. After nine years apart between the first and second parts of the trilogy, they have been together for the last nine and are now in their early forties, and have twin girls together as well as a son from Jesse’s first marriage.

The first part of the trilogy, “Before Sunrise,” focused on Celine and Jesse’s incipient romantic connection as they explored the city, talking all night about a variety of topics before ultimately having to separate. In part two they reconnected. By the third film we see that there is still love, but with more complexity within their long-term relationship. We see themes of restlessness, resentments over suspected past infidelities, and the struggles that come with balancing parenting, career, sexual desire, domestic life, and having family spread out over long distances. They lament that passion (for all things) came easier to them when they were younger, and Jesse suggests that maybe “this is the natural human state – always a little dissatisfied, perpetually discontented.” We are left wondering if their relationship will survive.

The New York Times critic A.O. Scott reviewed “Before Midnight” jointly with the European film “Amour,” released the previous year. In that movie, we saw an elderly couple struggling with failing health. Scott pondered why such films, with their focus on a couple already-in-progress, were less common than ones centered around early romance. In his view, the reason is that unlike romantic comedies, marriage “has no story arc.”

“A marriage plot, which is to say a comedy, is a story with a wedding at the end. The exchange of vows provides a satisfying and efficient exit from an intricate story. After the chaos of misbehavior, misunderstanding and missed connection, order is restored, the curtain falls, and love’s essential labor is done. But if the story starts in the middle, sometime after the honeymoon, at the breakfast table or the parent-teacher conference, where then does it conclude? There are only two logical possibilities, both of them sad.”

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The Branches of Humanity

I think it helps to remember that all humans share common ancestry. While there are certainly cultural and biological differences around the globe today, these are the tip of the iceberg, the distant branches of the tree. Under the surface, at the roots, the distribution of people across the globe owes itself to a long, gradual process of migration — or several migrations — during which time some differences arose (along with the interbreeding with neighboring groups that maintained similarities). 

The animation below illustrates some of the major migrations of people across the world over the past 200,000 years, reminding us of our roots and shared connections. Some of this is already out of date. For example, a recent study suggested that modern humans may have reached China by 100,000 years ago, much earlier than suggested in the video. But the point still stands — no matter where they live today, all humans can trace their lineage back to the same place.