This is from Sasha Sagan, daughter of Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan, remembering a time from her childhood when she began to understand mortality. Her parents told her:
“You are alive right this second. That is an amazing thing,” they told me. When you consider the nearly infinite number of forks in the road that lead to any single person being born, they said, you must be grateful that you’re you at this very second. Think of the enormous number of potential alternate universes where, for example, your great-great-grandparents never meet and you never come to be. Moreover, you have the pleasure of living on a planet where you have evolved to breathe the air, drink the water, and love the warmth of the closest star. You’re connected to the generations through DNA — and, even farther back, to the universe, because every cell in your body was cooked in the hearts of stars. We are star stuff, my dad famously said, and he made me feel that way.
My parents taught me that even though it’s not forever — because it’s not forever — being alive is a profoundly beautiful thing for which each of us should feel deeply grateful. If we lived forever it would not be so amazing.”
Today would have been my brother’s birthday, and I’ve been saving this passage from Boris Pasternik’s Doctor Zhivago to mark it. Here the title character, Yura Zhivago, is speaking to Anna Ivanovna who feared she was terminally ill. He offers what he thinks happens to us when we die, and the primacy of our social connections:
“So what will happen to your consciousness? Your consciousness, yours, not anyone else’s. Well, what are you? There’s the point. Let’s try to find out. What is it about you that you have always known as yourself? What are you conscious of in yourself? Your kidneys? Your liver? Your blood vessels? No. However far back you go in your memory, it is always in some external, active manifestation of yourself that you come across your identity–in the work of your hands, in your family, in other people. And now listen carefully. You in others–this is your soul. This is what you are. This is what your consciousness has breathed and lived on and enjoyed throughout your life–your soul, your immortality, your life in others. And what now? You have always been in others and you will remain in others. And what does it matter to you if later on that is called your memory? This will be you–the you that enters the future and becomes part of it.” (Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago, p. 68)
I still haven’t mastered the ability to completely separate the academic and the personal, and I’m not sure I completely want to. Instead of an impenetrable wall between them, perhaps, for me, there is a wrought-iron fence with an open gate. What I mean is that I often go between the two, allowing them to inform each other. The passage from Zhivago is from literature, and is not a scientific statement. But it runs parallel to some aspects of science, which seems poetic to me, particularly on a day I’m thinking of my brother.
Every so often, some occurrence comes along that throws life into a new orbit. My trajectory was recently shifted by such an event – I fell in love with a girl. She’s much younger than me: not even a week old, in fact. And she happens to have half of my chromosomes, as daughters tend to do. She is healthy, and both she and her mother are doing well. I find myself carrying her around the house, just staring at her face. When she’s awake and looks back at me, which is mostly late at night unfortunately, it’s magical.
Obviously, we knew this day was coming. We’re not ready to plan her entire life out for her just yet (not until she’s at least a month old). But for a while now I’ve been thinking about what it will be like to be a father to a baby girl, and all the possibilities and challenges life has before her. She has two older brothers, who are crazy about her, but there are things that I worry about for their sister that I didn’t have to think about for them, at least not as much. Forgive me for how naïve this is about to sound because I know I’m behind the curve, but I’m trying…
Earth’s night sky in 3.8 billion years (NASA images).
“He was bitter at the universe for all the things it didn’t give him, for how it shortchanged him, for how it sometimes made him feel lesser. “Why couldn’t he just be normal?” he thought. He felt like this too often.
But he always, without fail, waded through the dark clouds and returned to the same thoughts that helped dissipate the bitterness – that we all have our baggage and insecurities that weigh on us. Some carry heavier weights than others, some that look to be almost unbearable, some that seemed to be (from the outside) trivial. But no one was without burden. His burdens were not as great as some, but they were still his.
I’m at a loss as to how to properly address yesterday’s tragedy here in Boston, on Patriots’ Day. Following the attacks at the marathon and a nearby scare for our neighbors at the JFK Library, our university was closed yesterday afternoon and for most of the day today as a precaution. I’ve been wondering how, as teachers, we’ll get back to normal so soon after the event. Do we ignore it, and go on as if nothing happened, or address it head on? I don’t know, and will probably make some gut decision during tomorrow’s morning commute.
“You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” – Steven Wright (comedian)
“It seemed like a good idea at the time.” – S.A. (neuroscientist, friend)
Lately, I keep seeing a recurrent theme in a number of widely different sources. It’s a concept taught in Economics 101, that of tradeoff and opportunity costs – money or time invested in one object or activity cannot be spent on another. A related concept, foundational to biology, is life history theory (LHT). In his book “Patterns of Human Growth,” the biological anthropologist Barry Bogin defined LHT as:
“the study of the strategy an organism uses to allocate its energy toward growth, maintenance, reproduction, raising offspring to independence, and avoiding death. For a mammal, it is the strategy of when to be born, when to be weaned, how many and what types of pre-reproductive stages to pass through, when to reproduce, and when to die.” (1999: 154)
you could be a winner at the game of life
This is a stirring video of a young gorilla in an Atlanta zoo, having a blast in a pile of leaves. After all, evolution is about survival and reproduction. And play.
Chris Lynn and Daniel Lende left me some comments on post a while back (Nature, Not Always Red in Tooth and Claw) that made me think about something similar — the ‘living’ part of life. So much of biology focuses (rightly) on survival, adaptation, and passing along genes to offspring.
But 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 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.
It seems that evolution has gotten us to the point where we can, as Daniel put it, “grow and prosper” in whatever ways are significant or pleasurable to us, so that we can enjoy the living part of life.
These are the class rules and motivations I gave my students this semester, borrowed from the good people at KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) and Neil deGrasse Tyson. I thought it would be better to keep things simple and positive, and these sounded a lot better than a list of “don’ts.” Continue reading
In “River Out of Eden,” Richard Dawkins wrote this passage on the cruelties of nature:
“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” (Dawkins 2008: 131-2)
I think this view of nature is one of the primary reasons that many people run away from the idea of evolution. For some, the notion of an indifferent nature, where organisms can be reduced merely to genetic ‘copy me’ programs with the goals of survival and reproduction, is too bleak. Eugenie Scott, Director of the National Center for Science Education, has written that for many non-biologists the notion that evolution is an unguided, mechanistic process implies that “life has no meaning.” Microbiologist Kenneth Miller, a staunch defender of evolution, has relayed that in his experience one of the main concerns of many anti-evolutionists is not with the science, but with the implications of evolution, which is perceived as threatening to moral order. For example, Miller referred to this statement from Rick Santorum, the former Presidential candidate and Senator from Pennsylvania:
Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and an unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. – Bertrand Russell
This man beside us also has a hard fight with an unfavouring world, with strong temptations, with doubts and fears, with wounds of the past which have skinned over, but which smart when they are touched… And when this occurs to us we are moved to deal kindly with him, to bid him be of good cheer, to let him understand that we are also fighting a battle. – Ian MacLaren
This is the 100th post for this blog, which is hard to believe. I began this site for personal reasons and to share biological anthropology with a wider audience, and didn’t know what to expect. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to watch it grow slowly in readership. I’m grateful for those of you who’ve visited, found some of the things written here worth sharing, and who have made me think with your comments. Thank you.
I’ve not posted here in a while for a couple of reasons: (1) I am on sabbatical and have been focused on other things; (2) I have been thinking for a while that the 100th post should be meaningful and have been waiting for some burst of wisdom to fall from the sky. Wisdom seems to be rather elusive these days, but I’d like to reflect on a few things, including the sabbatical and crossing the tenured threshold, why I’m still in love with anthropology, and why I’m still hopeful about humanity despite all of its faults, and all of the pain out there (in the world in general and among people I know). I’ll try to avoid excessive navel gazing.
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