Chasing Away the Demons

I’ve been thinking of how people are quick to demonize one another, at a time when social divisions are rising in the United States and elsewhere around the world (or what I imperfectly perceive as rising divisions). The phenomenon of Us and Them is ever-present. For a long time people have recognized the pattern that we tend to demonize others who are different from us.

In his work, “A Treatise on Human Nature” (1740), Scottish philosopher David Hume noted that we tend to have a double standard in how we think about “Them” when our country (or whatever group) is engaged in conflict:

“When our own nation is at war with any other, we detest them under the character of cruel, perfidious, unjust and violent: But always esteem ourselves and allies equitable, moderate, and merciful. If the general of our enemies be successful, it is with difficulty we allow him the figure and character of a man. He is a sorcerer: He has a communication with daemons; as is reported of Oliver Cromwell, and the Duke of Luxembourg: He is bloody-minded, and takes a pleasure in death and destruction. But if the success be on our side, our commander has all the opposite good qualities, and is a pattern of virtue, as well as of courage and conduct. His treachery we call policy: His cruelty is an evil inseparable from war. In short, every one of his faults we either endeavour to extenuate, or dignify it with the name of that virtue, which approaches it.”

This blog has been an exercise in sharing some knowledge — and I do try to get things right — but it’s also been an attempt to try to seek out overlooked pieces of optimism. My biases creep in, and I know they are there, but they are mine and I own them. I can see the nastier side of human beings clearly, but I know there is more to us than that. We can’t ignore those things either. 

I see humans as evolved, fallible creatures (just like every other species). At least for me, it helps to remember that we are all a single species, that we are all related, that we are obligatorily social and require some degree of connection, that we can overcome difficult circumstances, that people can break cyclical violence, that the universe favors non-zero sum relationships to some degree, that nature is not always red in tooth and claw, that we are flexible and just as predisposed for cooperation as we are for conflict, that we can find ways to reconcile and mend broken relationships, that life is beautiful, and, finally, that we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.

Colin Kaepernick and the Clash of Values

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”    – Dalai Lama

Los Angeles Rams v San Francisco 49ers

Colin Kaepernick (right) and teammate Eric Reid kneeling during the national anthem (Source)

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A lot has been written about the San Francisco 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick and his decision to kneel during the national anthem before his team plays its games. For those who haven’t heard, in August of this year, Kaepernick opted not to stand during the anthem to protest police violence against minorities in the US. In his words:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color…To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

The practice has since been taken up by dozens of other players in the league, and spread to the NBA and WNBA, US women’s soccer, high school athletes across the country, a high school football referee, cheerleaders, even a few singers of the anthem itself.

kaepernick-effect

The spread of national anthem protests (source)

Reactions to the protests have been mixed, with some people supporting Kaepernick’s right to peaceful protest, others being outraged, and still others being sympathetic to his cause but disagreeing with his methods. One mid-September poll found that Kaepernick had become the most disliked player in the NFL, “disliked a lot” by 29% of 1,100 Americans asked. That number was up from 6% in August, before his protestations began. He has received death threats, and a handful of NFL executives from teams around the league have expressed disdain for him, referring to Kaepernick as a “traitor” who “has no respect for our country.” Continue reading

Primates and the Day of Atonement

“As far as possible without surrender/  be on good terms with all persons.”

– Max Ehrmann, Desiderata

 

Our kids were home on Wednesday last week, as our school district observed Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in Judaism. I’m not a theologian and can’t claim to have anything beyond a superficial understanding of Yom Kippur, but as we walked past the local synagogue in our neighborhood, surrounded by parked cars, I speculated about how and why such a tradition might have arisen.

From my understanding, Yom Kippur is primarily concerned with seeking forgiveness from God for any transgressions accrued in the last year. However, I was more curious about another related aspect of the holiday, which is that – prior to the day itself – people are also encouraged to seek forgiveness from others they have harmed.

I can see parallels here to my own Roman Catholic childhood and the sacrament of Penance. Of course, as a boy I was just doing what the adults told me to do, going through the motions – perfunctorily confessing to a priest about fighting with my siblings. But I never contemplated why something like Penance might exist, aside from the obvious one of avoiding Hell (that fear seems a lifetime ago).

Most religious traditions and societies probably have concepts like forgiveness, reconciliation, and atonement built into them to some degree. These likely have deep roots, and we can even find some of the basic building blocks of these among other species of primates. Most primate species are highly social, group-living animals, which has a list of pros and cons. The benefits of being social include having more eyes and ears to detect predators, the ‘selfish herd’ idea (less chance for me to be eaten), defense (against conspecifics for territory, against predators), more models of adult behavior (socialization), easier to find mates and food, and (in some species) reaping the benefits of specialized division of labor.  

However, all things in biology have tradeoffs. If you’re going to live in a group, chances are next to nil that there will not be at least some internal conflict. It’s certainly not all-conflict-all-the-time, but the degree of internal conflict depends on circumstances. Two individuals may want similar things most of the time, but they cannot maintain perfectly overlapping interests indefinitely.

Among baboons, social life is rife with conflict as individuals vie for status. In an interview with Robert Sapolsky, he described the impact social stress can have on baboon life, while drawing a comparison to humans:

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We Are an Obligatorily Social Species

In an essay published on Aeon earlier this year, Kimberley Brownlee, an associate professor of legal and moral philosophy at the University of Warwick, made the case that our well-being depends in part upon our social connections.

“(There is) a growing body ofpsychological evidencethat indicates that supportive social contact, interaction and inclusion are fundamentally important to a minimally decent human life and, more deeply, to human wellbeing. For the most part, we need one another; we cannot flourish or even survive without each other. These fundamental needs are the ground for a range of rights that we neglect, but should not, including the rights to be part of a network of social connections.

In our individualistic, western culture, where the romantic image of the great loner prevails, it will take some argumentative muscle to show that we should adopt a different model of the ‘strongest man’. We could start with the thought that true strength lies in exposing ourselves to others’ pain and suffering, in being open to intimacy, and in being touched by others’ needs, loves, hates and hopes. The strongest person might well be the one who makes herself vulnerable to others while being determined to survive it and become a better person for it. The strongest person in the world is she who is most connected.”

I’ve tried to make the same case before (see below), that we are all connected and that this stems from our evolutionary roots as social primates. I won’t rehash those arguments here. Rather, it’s just another reminder that we are an obligatorily social species.

https://kevishere.com/2014/02/26/our-essential-fragile-bonds/

https://kevishere.com/2012/03/08/cosmically-connected-primates/

Grooming

Chimpanzees grooming

20 Ways We Are Not So Bright

According to one estimate, about 108 billion humans have ever lived. The exact number is probably unknowable. However, one thing we can know with certainty is that all of them have been fallible. So far they have also all been mortal. And with billions of years of life behind us, we have enough data to indicate that pattern is likely to continue, unless there is an exception alive out there today (I doubt it). 

In any case, the fallible humans have a number of consistent flaws and frailties in our biology — senescence, bad backs, myopia, etc. We should expect evolved beings to have built-in limitations in their biology. My favorite quote explaining why this should be comes from Matt Cartmill, who once said: “Evolution doesn’t act to yield perfection. It acts to yield function.”

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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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Our Essential, Fragile Bonds

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)

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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. 

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