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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Tradeoffs, Happiness, & the Biology of Our Cacophonous Selves

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)

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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)

life

you could be a winner at the game of life

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Part 9. Humans are (Blank)-ogamous: Love Is an Evolutionary Compromise

This is part 9 of a series 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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I want love to roll me over slowly,
Stick a knife inside me, and twist it all around.
I want love to grab my fingers gently,
Slam them in a doorway, put my face into the ground. – Jack White (Love Interruption[1]  

“Everything is a double-edged sword… Even single-edged swords are a double-edged sword. Because you can cut something with it, but the other edge is kind of flat and it doesn’t cut very well.” – Louis CK (comedian)

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Yesterday’s post looked at the neurobiology of romantic love, asking whether evolutionary perspectives are sufficient to explain this highly significant part of what it means to be human. It also raised the question as to why love seems to be a painful experience for so many people.

Before going further, it’s important to remember that while humans are undoubtedly evolved, biological organisms, we are also animals with complex behavior, language, and culture. Others have said this better than I can. To Jon Marks (2010), we are “biocultural ex-apes,” while Agustin Fuentes wrote that “human behavior is almost always ‘naturenurtural’ ” (2012:16). Just as human modification of the environment can affect natural selection (Hawks et al 2007; Laland et al. 2010), so can culture profoundly influence the way we interpret powerful emotional impulses, including those related to desire and love.

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Part 8. Humans are (Blank)-ogamous: Evolution, Love, & Suffering

This is part 8 of a series 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 are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love, never so helplessly unhappy as when we have lost our loved object or our love.” – Sigmund Freud (Civilization and Its Discontents)

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One of my more vivid memories from early childhood is of Tammy and her two friends. I was about 6 years old, and in the first grade. They were third graders, a couple of years older. By coincidence, our two classes had arrived simultaneously at the hallway outside the girls’ lavatory. In those days, teachers took their entire class to ‘the lav’ for efficiency’s sake, and every day the boys finished our business promptly then lined up in front of the teacher as we waited for the girls to finish theirs. On that day, our schedule happened to align with grade three.

1st grade

1st grade

I can still remember Tammy looking at the note I had written her, passed along by a friend earlier in the day, with her friends on either side. Exactly what I wrote is lost to time, but I recall the romantic sentiment behind it and drawing a picture of a boy and a girl kissing. Today, such behavior (or going even further) could actually get a young child suspended from school.

What compelled me to write the note, I don’t know. I do remember that Tammy seemed kind and pleasant to look at, and that it felt right – even at that age – to try to express it. However, that feeling quickly turned to embarrassment, when she and her friends waved, laughed in unison, and –in sing-song fashion – said “Hi, Patrick.” We were all just kids and no harm was intended, but at that point, I wanted to hide. And, though I can’t remember this part very well, I probably wondered why the third grade teacher was so slow in taking her students back to class.

It wasn’t clear where I went wrong, but my interpretation of Tammy’s behavior was that my private feelings of attraction, which came pretty easily, somehow violated the rules. Early experiences carry a lot of weight, and that incident taught me that revealing private emotions was a risky endeavor. It’s tempting to want to hide them away[1]

With Valentine’s Day just behind us, I wanted to develop on some of the elements in this innocent story in a couple of posts (update: part 9 here), such as where attraction and its hypertrophic cousin, romantic love, originate, and even why they might show up in early childhood.

The other element is the more negative aspects of romantic pursuits, which extend well beyond the embarrassment of childhood puppy love and into profound despair and suffering. Perhaps the cynics have good reasons to feel that it is somewhat myopic to give love its own day to be celebrated while glossing over the countless people it has wounded over the millennia. Homer Simpson, in his toast to inebriation, once referred to alcohol as “the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.” I don’t think too many people would object if we replaced the word ‘alcohol’ with love.

So, what is this thing that nature has given us?

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The Christmas Truce (Yet Again)

A couple of years ago around this time, I wrote a post titled Lessons from the Christmas Truce of 1914,” which is by far the most read thing on on this site.  Last year I had a lesser viewed follow-up about a man named Julio Diaz, a New Yorker who responded to a teenage mugger with compassion, which led to a conversation at a diner and the teen voluntarily handing over his weapon. 

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Together, the two posts address some attributes we have as a species that facilitate cooperation,  even in times that are enormously challenging. These include, but are not limited to: empathy, the benefits of mutualism, and trust. We can find certainly find many counterexamples lately, with people inflicting great pain and suffering on each other. In recent memory, these include the horrific shooting deaths in Newtown, Connecticut  or the use of cluster bombs against civilians in Syria. This makes examples of cooperation all the more necessary.

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To continue with this late December tradition, here is the story of a German fighter pilot from World War II named Franz Stigler and an American bomber pilot named Charles Brown:

On Dec. 20, 1943, a young American fighter pilot named Charlie Brown was on his first World War II mission. Flying in the German skies, Brown’s B-17 bomber was shot and badly damaged. As Brown and his men desperately tried to escape enemy territory back to England, a German fighter plane pulled up to their tail. It seemed certain death. Instead of shooting the plane down, however, the German pilot, Franz Stigler, escorted the Americans to safety.  (source)

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Egalitarianism & Arrogance

When men are most sure and arrogant, they are commonly the most mistaken, and have then given views to passion, without that proper deliberation and suspense which can alone secure them from the grossest absurdities.”                            – David Hume

 

Person 1: “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team.’ ”

Person 2: “True, but there is an ‘M’ and an ‘E.’ ” 

On occasion, I have been arrogant at times in my life. To be fair to myself, I believe such episodes have been rare, and most people who know me would probably describe me as introverted, possibly even timid. More than once, I have been told that I am “too nice” and overly conciliatory. During my pre-tenure review, one committee member told me that my autobiographical narrative was too modest, and that “in academia you need to toot your own horn because nobody else is going to do it for you.” That’s probably true in most fields, but it often makes me uneasy. And if you spent some time in the cacophony in my head, you’d see there is plenty of self-doubt and insecurity in here (you’re better off not doing that). Still, like everyone else, I am complex, and have had enough instances of arrogance that they irritate me and force me to consider from where they originate.

I bring this up now because I’ve been reading about hunter-gatherer societies, and was reminded of this famous passage from the anthropologist Richard Lee (1979) on egalitarianism in the !Kung of Namibia and Botswana.

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Cosmically Connected Primates

“For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.”                 

– Carl Sagan, Contact

Three different people have shared the inspirational video below with me in the past two days, and I thought it deserved to be disseminated as widely as possible. It’s the response of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to the question: “what is the most astounding fact you know about the universe?” In his answer, Tyson elaborates on the majestic idea that the heavier elements crucial for organic life owe their origins to the incredible pressures created within aging stars. Those stars then exploded and released their newly forged contents into surrounding space, some of which eventually coalesced into us (to make a long story short).

By itself, that concept is sublime, and it should be enough to sustain one’s sense of awe for a long while. But Tyson also goes a bit farther, speculating on why this idea elicits such an emotional response within us. 

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