“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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The Ecosphere of Kindness

From Andrew Solomon:

“And there are people who think that the existence of my family somehow undermines or weakens or damages their family. And there are people who think that families like mine shouldn’t be allowed to exist. And I don’t accept subtractive models of love, only additive ones. And I believe that in the same way that we need species diversity to ensure that the planet can go on, so we need this diversity of affection and diversity of family in order to strengthen the ecosphere of kindness.”

“The Fundamental Connection That We All Share”

On his visit to Ethiopia, U.S. President Barack Obama viewed the fossil remains of three famous human ancestors. These included two belonging to the 3 to 3.8 million-year old hominin species Australopithecus afarensis, “Lucy” and “Selam”), as well as “Ardi” from an older species Ardipithecus ramidus. (Click here for a nice overview of our hominin family tree). Later, he said this

“When you see our ancestor, 3.5 million years old, we are reminded that Ethiopians, Americans, all the people of the world are part of the same human family, the same chain… And as one of the professors (Zeresenay Alemseged) who was describing the artifacts correctly pointed out, so much of the hardship and conflict and sadness and violence that occurs around the world is because we forget that fact.  We look at superficial differences as opposed to seeing the fundamental connection that we all share.

I think Obama got it right, which isn’t surprising, since his mother was an anthropologist. Humans everywhere belong to the same species and share common ancestry. We have our differences — some trivial, some significant to us — but our bedrock should be that shared connection. That may be an ideological approach, but the nice thing is that it’s also scientifically accurate. 

Pesident Obama touches the fossilized vertebra of Lucy, an early human ancestor in Ethiopia on Monday. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

President Obama touches the fossilized vertebra of Lucy, an early human ancestor in Ethiopia on Monday. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Nicholas Winton & “The Only Way Out”

“And you think it’s easier
To know your own tricks
Well, it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do.”

 

On my drive into work this morning, I caught the latter half of an interview with Nicholas Winton, the “British Oskar Schindler,” who helped rescue over six hundred Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia just before World War 2. Recognizing the impending danger, Winton helped coordinate a number of trains to get the children to Britain, where families had volunteered to take them in. He was later reunited with some of those children – since grown – in 1988, recorded by the BBC. It is a very moving scene, particularly considering that the last train carrying children did not make it, and all of its evacuees were believed to have died in concentration camps. 

 

Winton is now 105 years old, and the interviewer asked him a range of questions about his role in the evacuations, his view of himself as a hero (he wanted no part of this), and his thoughts on the changes in the world that he had seen over his very long life. Overall, he said, he was pessimistic about the way the world has changed. We’ve grown more efficient at killing each other, and seem mired in conflict and unable to get out of our own way. 

The key, or “the only way out,” as he put it, is finding commonality with each other through ‘ethics.’ As a child, he embraced his own Jewish heritage, but then converted to Christianity. Later, he grew disillusioned with religion altogether when he learned that religious figures on both sides of World War 2 were praying for their own countries to win. I wanted to quote his exact words, so I found this print version of the interview. 

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Developmental Plasticity and the “Hard-Wired” Problem

“Development is the missing link between genotype and phenotype, a place too often occupied by metaphors in the past … But a strong emphasis on the genome means that environmental influence is systematically ignored. If you begin with DNA and view development as “hard-wired,” you overlook the flexible phenotype and the causes of its variation that are the mainsprings of adaptive evolution.” (Mary Jane West-Eberhard, 2003: 89-90)

“Genes, unlike gods, are conditional. They are exquisitely good at simple if-then logic: if in a certain environment, then develop in a certain way… So here is the first moral of the tale: Don’t be frightened of genes. They are not gods; they are cogs. (Matt Ridley, 2003: 250)

 

Plasticity: actor Christian Bale at two points in time. Same genes, different phenotypes.

Plasticity: actor Christian Bale at two points in time. Same genes, different phenotypes.

In his book The Triple Helix, Richard Lewontin told the story of the molecular biologist and Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner, who – while speaking at a conference – predicted that one day we would be able to “compute” an organism (2002). All we would need are two things: the organism’s full genome and powerful enough computers that were up to the task.

The idea is seductive. Genes are sometimes seen as self-sufficient molecules, almost existing in a vacuum, that contain all the information necessary to code for proteins. From there, it’s not a very big logical leap to think that if you had the genome, you could enter the code in some database, hit “run,” and then watch some digitized version of the organism unfold.

In fact, scientists are doing something much like this for the tiny roundworm C. elegans with the project OpenWorm. Yet even for a relatively simple organism such as this, with only about a thousand cells in total, there are reasons to be cautious. As The Economist warned in its write-up of OpenWorm: “Attempting to simulate everything faithfully would bring even a supercomputer to its knees.” However, this isn’t due solely to the limits of computing power (what if we had a super-duper computer!?). Rather, it’s a matter of how the question is framed.

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Kindness and Regrets

Be excellent to each other.” – Bill and Ted (20th century philosophers)

 

From a commencement speech by George Saunders: 

“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindnessThose moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly.  Reservedly.  Mildly.”

Saunders then describes a memory from the seventh grade, when he did not defend the new girl in school who was teased for being different. Forty-two years later, he still thinks of her occasionally, and even though he was not personally cruel toward her, he regrets not going out of his way to extend her kindness. He then questions why kindness is often lacking, and he looks for prescriptions to make it more common.

The speech is a good one, and it stirred up some personal memories of instances when I could have used some kindness from someone. Sometimes it came; others it didn’t. There were also situations that called for me to be the one to extend kindness to someone else who needed it. Sometimes I stepped up, although probably not as consistently as I should have. Fear can be a powerful deterrent. Like Saunders, I regret those missed opportunities.

Of course, the opposite of kindness is cruelty, and I’m often distressed by the latest story of human callousness, where someone is belittled for not conforming to another’s standards. For those of us who are not Rhodes Scholar Olympians (which is to say, nearly everyone), we all fall short of socially constructed ideals in some way. Either we’re not attractive enough, or not stylish, athletic, or smart enough (or too smart). Too red. Too blue. Too promiscuous or too chaste. Too tall. Too short. Too neurally atypical. Or, we’re the ‘wrong’ weight, gender, race, sexuality, ethnicity, social class, or speak the wrong dialect. We can be incredibly creative at finding the holes in the armor to bring someone down.

For such an intensely social species, we often seem to go out of our way to make each other want to leave the group.

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Empathy in Flux, Part 2

Jason De Caro recently shared this video from the Cleveland Clinic. For those who can’t watch it, the video shows various individuals in a hospital setting , with captions describing the most recent, pertinent events in that person’s life (a woman visiting her terminally ill husband, someone learns they’re about to become a parent, etc.)

 

I thought it was a nice reminder that external appearances are often superficial. All people have a complex history behind them, beyond just the snippets and cross-sections that we observe, particularly when meeting someone for the first time. In another post, titled “Empathy in Flux,” I wrote that single slices of a person’s life are never enough to fully understand the complexity of a person:

as Forrest Gump famously put it: “stupid is as stupid does.” I think this is an often misunderstood piece of folk wisdom. My interpretation of this is that one can evaluate actions without leaping to evaluations of states of being. Certainly one can do stupid things without “being” stupid. To believe another person “is” stupid (or any personality trait you can imagine) is to claim one has found the signal among the noise, while ignoring a LOT of complexity, the deviation around the mean. In short, we have just a cross-section in the totality of that person’s life. Even Hitler laughed. Even Gandhi had periods of depression. Certainly, we have more than a snapshot of these particular individuals’ lives, but we don’t have that for everyone we meet. How different would our impression of others be if we had that longitudinal data in front of us? Of course, for most people the amplitude of one’s personality does not fluctuate that widely. Most people are consistent in either being kind, or funny, or complete assholes. But context and variation are essential. 

Like all reminders to be mindful, the video is welcome (and necessary).

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