A (R)evolution of Tenderness

“Compassion is more important than intellect, in calling forth the love that the work of peace needs, and intuition can often be a far more powerful searchlight than cold reason. We have to think, and think hard, but if we do not have compassion before we even start thinking, then we are quite likely to start fighting over theories. The whole world is divided ideologically, and theologically, right and left, and men are prepared to fight over their ideological differences. Yet the whole human family can be united by compassion. And, as Ciaran (McKeown, co-founder of the Movement of the Peace People in Northern Ireland) said recently in Israel, “compassion recognises human rights automatically; it does not need a charter.”

Betty Williams’ Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Dec 1977

 

 

As a college professor, I have some “radical” opinions. For one, I would like to see war and suffering decrease in my lifetime, if not my kids’ lifetimes. I am confident that while war may sometimes be necessary, it does more harm than good, and I am also confident that those negative effects can last for generations. At the same time, I also value truth very much, and I try to avoid naïve interpretations of human biology and behavior. Instead, I try to take a nuanced view when it comes to things like the roots of war, nature/ nurture, and even human sexuality. With all of that said, I’m going to try to splice together a few recent threads to find some reasons for optimism, despite the way current events seem to be going around the world. 

Things are certainly not great. By the end of 2016, an estimated 65.6 million people had been forcibly displaced by conflict, the highest number ever recorded. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi lamented that “the world seems to have become unable to make peace.” Partly as a result of conflict, 20 million people are at risk for starvation in four countries: Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and northeast Nigeria.

The Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO) issued a brief report this month, summarizing the state of global conflicts from 1946 to 2016. In all, the number of conflicts declined from 52 in 2015 to 49 last year, while the total number of battle casualties also fell 14%. This is a tiny bit of good news, although one can see in the figure below that there has been an uptick in all conflicts since 2011, and a long-term increase since the early 1960s. [It is debatable why we should start the clock at 1946, just after the deadliest period of human history, but c’est la vie.] 

From PRIO

By comparison, battle casualties per capita have generally decreased since 1946. While the number of conflicts have gone up, they have been primarily intrastate ones, and smaller in scale. A word of caution, however: “battle casualties” is a metric that looks at violent deaths only. It does not include indirect deaths due to things like broken infrastructure, such as lack of electricity, food/water, and health care that accompany war. If those numbers were included, the number of deaths surely would be higher. And, while the number of conflicts is a tally, battle deaths per capita is a rate, so the two aren’t directly comparable. The total number of deaths might present a different perspective, as might the rate per capita of people who were forcibly displaced.

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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

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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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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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The Zen Master and the Infanticidal Primates

A recent paper has concluded that prevention of infanticide was the most likely precursor to monogamous mating systems in some primate species. Another paper suggested a different possibility in mammals more generally, namely that under certain ecological conditions females are so dispersed that the best strategy for a male is to remain close to a rare female when he finds her. This prevents other males from mating with her, and increases the chances of successfully passing on his genes. 

langur

Langur mother with dead infant. (From http://www.brown.edu/Research/Primate/LPN50-1.html)

I’m still sorting through what all this means, and wonder if the search for broad patterns oversimplifies things too much. As Peter Gray put it: “It’s all so confusing, if lead researchers can’t seem to find similar evolutionary grounds behind social monogamy.” Anyway, if prevention of infanticide really was the key to jump-starting monogamy (at least in some primate species), it makes me think of its downstream consequences. This reminds me of the parable of the Zen Master and the Little Boy.

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Part 11. Humans Are Blank-ogamous. Sexaptation: The Many Functions of Sex

This is part 11 of a series on the evolution of human mating behavior. Please see the introduction here. P.s. Does anybody actually read of all this?

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“When the gods gave people sex, say the !Kung, they gave us a wonderful thing. Sex is often referred to as food: just as people cannot survive without eating… hunger for sex can cause people to die.” (Shostak 2000: 237) 

“sex can be many things to many people, including but not limited to a blend of personalities, social rules, desire, intimacy and performance, moral order and national image that speak to processes of sexual embodiment, varieties of sexual practice and the dynamics of culture.” (Donnan and Magowan, 2010: 175)

E unum, pluribus. (Out of one, many).

 

Penis Festival

Genital-themed ashtrays from the Komaki Penis Festival in Japan. For humans, sex is more complex than just getting genitals together. (globalpost.com).

Last month, representatives in Montana debated whether to repeal an old law that made homosexual sex illegal in that state (the law was in fact overturned). Apart from the fact that private, consensual sexual behavior is still considered a matter to be legislated, there were other interesting developments from the discussion. A representative named Dave Hagstrom raised a deep question when he asked: “What is the purpose of sex?” I appreciate Hagstrom’s line of inquiry, as we could probably use more reflection on human sexuality. Unfortunately his own answer did not live up to the profundity of the question: 

“To me, sex is primarily purposed to produce people. That’s why we’re all here. Sex that doesn’t produce people is deviate. That doesn’t mean it’s a problem, it just means it’s not doing its primary purpose.”

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Survival, Reproduction, and Play

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.

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Nature, Not Always “Red in Tooth and Claw”

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:

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