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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Human Nature, Humility, & Homosexuality

And, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” -Lennon/McCartney

Is that true?” – Chris Farley

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Steve Silberman pointed his Twitter followers to a piece in Salon about the biography of Maggie Gallagher, the point person for fighting against same-sex marriage in the United States. Toward the end of the article, it quotes Gallagher on her views on homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and human nature, where she makes an analogy to Communism:

“One of the lessons I learned as a young woman from the collapse of Communism is this: Trying to build a society around a fundamental lie about human nature can be done, for a while, with intense energy (and often at great cost); but it cannot hold.”

The author of the article, Mark Oppenheimer, then writes this about Gallagher:

Same-sex marriage is just a big lie, she believes, like Communism.  It is weak at its foundations, like the Iron Curtain. It may get built, she seems to concede — in 10 years, or 20, there may be more states that recognize same-sex marriage, more shiny, happy couples raising rosy-cheeked, well-adjusted children, children who play with dogs and go to school and fall from jungle gyms and break their arms, children often adopted after being abandoned by the heterosexuals who did not want them or could not care for them — but in time (big time, geological time, God time) the curtain will be pulled back, or it will fall. Because it has to. It cannot be otherwise.” 

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Biology: The Science of Exceptions

[Edit: July, 2018. Every year, I get a large number of visitors from Nepal and Bhutan on this post. Welcome, everyone. I’m just curious why this seems to happen every year at the same time. Could someone please let me know? It would help me understand how this site is being used, particularly if it’s for educational purposes. Thank you.]

Biology is sometimes referred to as “the science of exceptions.” A few recently reported examples from the study of animal behavior (i.e., ethology) help to bolster that reputation.

The first instance has probably received the most attention simply because it’s just so cool. It’s a video from Russia of some type of wild corvid (others have said it is most likely a hooded crow) that appears to snowboard down a roof. It does this multiple times by sliding on a small unidentified object under its feet, picking it up with its beak when it gets to the bottom of the roof, then flying back to the top to do it again. See for yourself.

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Part 4. Humans are (Blank) -ogamous: Promiscuity & Physiology

This is the fourth part on the evolution of human mating behavior, comparing evidence for promiscuity and pair-bonding in our species. Please see the introduction here.

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We left off with a list of eight traits in humans suggesting promiscuity in humans. Admittedly, the previous post was a little thick, as it dealt with imprinted genes and population genetics. The current one concerns human reproductive physiological and anatomical traits consistent with a multiple-partner mating structure, building on a couple of points addressed by Ryan and Jethá in their book. If you’re paying attention, that’s three posts concerning promiscuity and one (yet-to-be-written) on pair-bonding. Perhaps it seems I’m stacking the deck, but please reserve judgment. One reason more space is needed to make the case for the evolution of promiscuity is that the biology is less well known, and more effort is needed to bring it into the light. That single post on pair-bonding will be an important one, and quality matters just as much as quantity.

Continuing on with our list of traits hinting at promiscuity…

9. Sexual dimorphism in body size. This point remains somewhat contentious. In the majority of anthropoid species (monkeys, apes, and humans), males are the larger sex, with the degree of dimorphism ranging from slight to extreme (Plavcan 2001). This pattern correlates strongly with mating structure and male-male competition (Plavcan and van Schaik 1997). For monogamous species like gibbons, males and females tend to be roughly the same size. In species where females prefer larger males or where males compete for access to females, bigger males will leave behind more descendants. This is true for polygynous gorillas and dispersed, territorial orangutans, where males are physically about twice as large as females. A good non-primate example is elephant seals. On the other hand are horseshoe crabs, where smaller males cling to the backs of larger females and wait for the release of her eggs. This ‘reverse dimorphism’ is found in a few primates, but is slight and only in some prosimians such as lorises and lemurs.

Former sumo wrestler Konishiki and his wife Chie Iijima, an obviously cherry-picked example of extreme dimorphism. (From smh.com.au).

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The God of Growth (James M. Tanner, 1920-2010)

The journal Economics and Human Biology has an obituary (in press) describing the life of James M. Tanner, and his singular contributions to the development of the study of human growth.  In his memorial, Roderick Floud quotes David Barker as saying “Jim was the God” of growth studies.

I had missed news of Tanner’s passing, which occurred in August, and was sad to learn of it. His work has been invaluable to many people, including my own teaching and research, from formulating growth charts to a comparative look at how people grow in different parts of the world. But it’s important to reflect not just on his contributions to science, but also the person behind them. One gets a sense of his compassion from the way he referred to childhood growth as a mirror for “the material and moral condition” of a society (1986: 3). Floud quotes an oft-cited passage by Tanner:


A child’s growth rate reflects, better than any other single index, his state of health and nutrition, and often indeed his psychological situation also. Similarly, the average value of children’s heights and weights reflect accurately the state of a nation’s public health and the average nutritional status of its citizens. . . . Thus a well- designed growth study is a powerful tool with which to monitor the health of a population, or to pinpoint subgroups of a population whose share in economic or social benefits is less than it might be.”

Select Works

Eveleth, Phyllis B. and Tanner, James M. 1990. Worldwide Variation in Human Growth (second edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tanner, James M. 1986. Growth as a mirror for the conditions of society: secular trends and class distinctions. In Human Growth: A Multidisciplinary Review. Arto Demirjian and Micheline Brault Dubuc, eds. Pp. 3-34. London: Taylor and Francis.

Tanner, James M. 1990. Fetus into Man: Physical Growth from Conception to Maturity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

JFK on Nature and Nurture

My university, UMass Boston,  sits on a beautiful spot.  Fortunately for us, we get to share a peninsula in Dorchester with the Massachusetts Archives and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. Taking advantage of our school’s location, I’ve made a few trips over to the JFK Library, a very attractive building designed by I.M. Pei.


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