“Many times, I have kissed & cryed over this”

In an 1839 letter from Emma to Charles Darwin, shortly after they were married, she wrote about her worries that Charles’ pursuit of scientific questions on evolution might lead him further away from religious faith. Emma wrote: 

“May not the habit in scientific pursuits of believing nothing till it is proved, influence your mind too much in other things which cannot be proved in the same way, & which if true are likely to be above our comprehension.”

At the time, Darwin would have been around 30 years old, two decades before On the Origin of Species was published. Their correspondence showed that Emma’s concern that Charles’ need for evidence could not be applied to matters of faith, and that this probably meant — to her distress — that they would probably be separated in the afterlife. At the bottom of her letter, Charles added his own note: 

“When I am dead, know
that many times, I
have kissed & cryed
over this. C. D.”

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Six Million Years of Hominin Evolution in Four Minutes

From the Natural History Museum in Vienna, Austria, this video shows some of the major hominin fossils discovered so far. It’ seems to have been recorded by a tourist, so the quality isn’t the best. However, it’s really well done, and the nice part is that it nicely illustrates these species’ geographic and temporal distributions, which can be hard to find elsewhere. 

Confronting Human Frailty

A man carries within him the germ of his most exceptional action; and if we wise people make eminent fools of ourselves on any particular occasion, we must endure the legitimate conclusion that we carry a few grains of folly to our ounce of wisdom.”                                                                                                               

                                                                                     ― Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), Adam Bede

 

In his book The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker borrowed a concept from the conservative scholar Thomas Sowell, who argued that there were two “visions” of human nature (Pinker, 2002). Pinker referred to these as the Tragic Vision and the Utopian Vision, and he spent several pages placing famous historical thinkers into one of the two camps.  

According to Pinker, the Tragic Vision suggests that “humans are inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom, and virtue, and all social arrangements must acknowledge those limits” (p. 287). On the other hand, in the Utopian Vision “psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements, and we should not allow them to restrict our gaze from what is possible in a better world.”

These groupings are not perfect, but Pinker argues that they work better than trying to categorize people as left/right or conservative/liberal. For some examples, in the Utopian camp, Pinker placed people like Bobby Kennedy, Rousseau, and Thomas Paine. For Tragic Visionaries, he chose – among others – Friedrich Hayek, James Madison, Edmund Burke, and Hobbes.

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Genocidal Altruists: Are We ‘Naturally’ Violent? Altruistic? Both?

“We know that we are apes, but we cannot be classified simplistically as ‘naked apes’ or ‘killer apes’ or ‘moral apes.’…Our past is complicated; so is our present, and so will be our future.” – Paul Ehrlich (2000: 331)

“When we are bad, we are worse than any primate that I know. And when we are good, we are actually better and more altruistic than any primate that I know. ” – Frans de Waal

…..

The Eagles headed back to their cabin feeling dejected after losing a tug-of-war contest to their rivals, the Rattlers. Along the way, one of the boys noticed the Rattlers had forgotten their flag on the baseball field, leaving it unprotected. Craig and Mason soon seized it, but struggled to tear it to pieces. McGraw then presented some matches and suggested they burn it instead. The group then hung the flag’s charred remains from the top of the backstop fence. Mason said, “You can tell those guys I did it. If they say anything I’ll fight ‘em.”

The above scene is from the psychologist Muzafer Sherif’s classic social psychology experiment at Robbers Cave, Oklahoma during the summer of 1954. Sherif divided twenty-two 11-year-old boys with comparable backgrounds into two even groups at nearby cabin sites, with the boys kept unaware of the other group’s existence.

After giving them a week to bond among themselves, Sherif introduced the groups to each other and announced that they would be competing for prizes in team sports and other events. Eventually the rivalry grew heated, and the boys turned to name-calling, flag-burning, and vandalizing each other’s cabins. The competition nearly escalated into serious violence, with sticks and rocks as potential weapons, before adults intervened.   

Sherif’s experiment is sometimes cited as a depressing warning of how easily people can slide into “us versus them” hostilities, even if the groups are formed rather arbitrarily, and even if we’re only talking about preadolescent boys with little at stake except ego and trivial prizes. There is truth to that warning. People can cling tightly to group identities, sometimes resulting in serious animosity toward outsiders.

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Sapiosexuality & Our Behavioral Complexity

You know, animals have sex. It’s biology, it’s natural instinct. We are the only ones who have an erotic life, which means that it’s sexuality transformed by the human imagination.”  — Esther Perel

One of the reasons some cultural elitists – political pundits, novelists, intellectuals – tend to be so unsettled by the Internet is that it has revealed how oceanically broad are the interests of the public in general. Before the Internet, with no way of observing the obsessions of the masses, it was a lot easier to pretend that these obsessions simply didn’t exist; that the nation was “united” around caring about the same small number of movies, weekly magazines, novels, political issues, or personalities. This was probably always a self-flattering illusion for the folks who ran things. The Internet destroyed it. When you gaze …upon the Pacific of strangeness online, you confront the astonishing diversity of human passion.”  — Clive Thompson (2013) Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better

Kissing, by Alex Grey.

Kissing, by Alex Grey. (alexgrey.com)

                                                                                 ~~~~~~~

Please bear with me as I try to connect two not very obviously connected ideas: romantic love and our species’ behavioral flexibility. I don’t have it all worked out. Perhaps I’m going down the wrong path altogether.

I started thinking about these things after several friends on social media shared this Mandy Len Catron essay: “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This”. Catron describes a time that she and a male acquaintance intentionally tried to induce feelings of romantic love. To do this, they followed two steps, borrowed from a study done by the psychologist Arthur Aron. First, they asked each other a series of 36 increasingly intimate questions. Next, they stared into each other’s eyes for four uninterrupted minutes.

My first reaction when I went through the questions was that I can see how they could elicit feelings of intimacy under the right circumstances and with the right person. To work through all 36 of them would take some time, as they are not typical of everyday conversation. Time itself is could be a factor in bonding. To answer each question would require some thought, as they do not have prepared, canned responses. Some examples from Aron’s list:

  • Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
  • Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
  • Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
  • What is your most treasured memory? Continue reading

We Are Complex

A list of claims of what humans are, with ‘human nature’ overtones. It’s meant to be in fun, and the list isn’t complete. 

  • We are moral animals. (1)
  • We are killer apes. (2)
  • We are risen apes, not fallen angels. (3)
  • We are aquatic apes. (4) No we’re not.
  • Man the hunter. (5)
  • Woman the gatherer. (6)
  • Man the firemaker. (7)
  • Homo, the endurance runner. (8)

    runners

    Born to run? (Source: Wikipedia)

  • Homo, the high-velocity thrower. (9)
  • We have an instinct for art. (10)
  • We have an instinct for language. (11)
  • We do not have an instinct for language. (12)
  • We are Homo economicus. (13)
  • Man the tool-maker. (14)
  • Pan the tool-maker. (15) Not us, but it’s clever.
  • We are social animals. (16)
  • We are cooperative breeders. (17)
  • We are hypersexual animals. (18)
  • We are sexy beasts. (19)
  • We are political animals. (20)
  • We are rational animals. (21)
  • We are irrational animals. (22)
  • We are no longer just apes; we are biocultural ex-apes. (23)
  • We are complex.

 

A Chain of Ancestors

One of the better examples I’ve yet found that conveys the concept of evolution comes from the 2002 NOVA documentary “Search for the First Human.” The main focus of the video is the species Orrorin tugenensis and it’s possible place in our family tree six million years ago. However, two particular segments stand out to me, and I think do a pretty good job of conveying the idea of evolution to students.

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