Nature Wants to Play With You

[I’m writing this on a snow day, stuck indoors, in between episodes of work and playing with my kids].

A few years ago, Ed Yong started a tongue-in-cheek blog titled Nature Wants to Eat YouPlaying off that idea, I wrote a blogpost citing several examples of altruistic behavior in various animal species, adding that “sometimes, nature may even want to hug you.” The point was that nature isn’t all bad. Nature isn’t nasty or nice; it’s indifferent. Out of that indifference, life has even evolved to allow some species to engage in play. Maybe, nature wants to play with you.

I quoted the primatologist Frans deWaal, who explained why it is problematic to focus solely on the colder, cruel side of evolution:

“The error is to think that, since natural selection is a cruel, pitiless process of elimination, it can only have produced cruel and pitiless creatures. But nature’s pressure cooker does not work that way. It favors organisms that survive and reproduce, pure and simple. How they accomplish this is left open”  (2009: 58).      

An evolutionary perspective properly emphasizes the importance of survival and reproduction. However,  not every moment is filled with life-and-death-and-mating situations. 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 of 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. Somewhere in that calculus, nature has allowed several species to engage in play.

Example A. Goats playing on a metal sheet (source).


University of Colorado Professor emeritus Marc Beckoff wrote that one of the reasons that play might exists among other species is that it’s exploratory, to help them prepare for future environmental challenges:  

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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)


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.


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

Human Family (We Are More Alike, My Friends, Than We Are Unalike)

Human Family, by Maya Angelou

I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.

Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.
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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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Choose Love

Sometimes I tell my students that David Ortiz is the man who has brought me the most moments of happiness in life. That’s only half in jest; he really has compiled an amazing collection of hitting highlights that is hard to match. 

Even if you If you don’t follow baseball or have even heard of Ortiz, perhaps you can appreciate that he has tried to use his iconic status for something good. Yesterday, he gave a (very) brief speech before the Red Sox’ game, simply saying: “Let’s be kind to each other, and choose love.”

There are so many reasons to be cynical about a scene like this, but I prefer to focus on the good. Tensions and divisions are high in many places, and we could use periodic reminders — even a brief one from a sports celebrity — that we are all connected.  


07/19/16: Boston, MA: Before the game, the teams lined up along the baselines for a ceremony promoting racial harmony. Members of the Boston Police Department as well as civic leaders and clergy, and local youngsters lined up behind Red Sox DH David Ortiz, who spoke briefly. The Boston Red Sox hosted the San Francisco Giants in an interleague MLB baseball game at Fenway Park. (Globe Staff Photo/Jim Davis) (Source)

Thresholds of Inclusion

“Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” (Abraham Lincoln)

 “Blood just looks the same, when you open the veins.” (Karl WallingerIs it like today?)


If you wish to find someone just like you, who looks and thinks exactly the way you do, then perhaps the only place you can look is in a mirror.

However, here’s a thought. Imagine that as you’re looking at the mirror it begins to move progressively farther away from you. The further away it is, the more time that transpires before the light bearing your image reaches the mirror and returns. If, in this scenario, the mirror should reach, say, the distance of the sun (for the sake of argument, it’s a really big mirror), then the image that you would see is still yourself, only it’s you roughly sixteen minutes ago.

Broad Museum

Mirrors, at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles (source)

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Cleaning the Mess Left Behind in Laos

Good news. Two days ago, Voice of America reported that President Obama would announce more funding to remove bombs that the U.S. dropped on Laos. Some messes are so large that they can seem nearly impossible to clean up. The damage in Laos is so extensive that it will last for several more generations, but this is an improvement over the status quo.

The VOA video accompanying the story (below) looked instantly familiar to me, as it shows some of that damage in Xieng Khouang province. It looked very much like the area I saw the time I visited with one of the removal teams a few years ago. In fact, I saw some familiar faces. They do good work and deserve more support. 

Channapha Khamvongsa, the founder and executive director of Legacies of War, an organization that advocates for removing the bombs said this: “What was once thought to be an insurmountable task now seems achievable in 10 to 20 years rather than a century… The next decade is critical, however, and it is necessary for the U.S. to commit to a long-term and sustained level of funding for UXO clearance and victim assistance in Laos.”