The Conditions of the Game: It’s Not a “World of Eternal Struggle”

“As you enter this life, I pray you depart/ With a wrinkled face and a brand new heart.”  Paul Hewson

 

I saw this photo of a man wearing a shirt quoting Hitler during the violent protests in Charlottesville. I thought about ignoring it, but I’m not merely concerned about this one man’s shirt. Aside from the repulsion from seeing someone walking down a public street supporting Hitler, the thought that people see life as eternal struggle is disturbing. I also think it’s very poor science. If you read the passage where this quote originated (and I’m not recommending you do that), Hitler was appealing to biology, claiming his argument was based in “the most patent principles of Nature’s rule” and “the iron logic of Nature.” Although at one point he also wrote that racial separation was “the will of the eternal creator,” so this seems to be a throwback to a confused, 18th century deistic view of Nature with a big “N” meant to reinforce his own biases.

So here it is in 2017, and some people are still leaning on what a genocidal dictator wrote in the 1920s. Somewhere, we’ve gotten off track. As we’ll see, conflict is not inevitable. In fact, in many ways, “iron logic” suggests that cooperation makes far more sense. First, I’m going to try to tie this together by starting off with a quick story. Please bear with me.

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Monuments to Dignity

“War is an absolute failure of imagination, scientific and political. That a war can be represented as helping a people to ‘feel good’ about themselves, or their country, is a measure of that failure.” Adrienne Rich

 

Last month, anthropologist Hugh Gusterson wrote a thought-provoking essay on Sapiens titled “Reconsidering How We Honor Those Lost to War.” In it, he compares the ways that some war monuments in Germany focus largely on the victims of war, rather than glorifying combatants. These include the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, also known as the Holocaust Memorial. Gusterson wrote:

“Whether you like the design or not (and opinion is divided), located in the heart of Berlin, just a block from the Brandenburg Gate, it is a very public proclamation of Germany’s declared responsibility and remorse for the Nazi Holocaust.”

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.  (Source)

 

Statues and monuments are all over the news these days, including the debates over possibly removing Confederate statues across the southern U.S. (and to a lesser extent in other regions). Statues and other public memorials have the power to influence the way we think about what is valued by the state, and perhaps what its citizens should value in turn. The fact that statues and monuments are semi-permanent means that sculptors, and the people who commission them, can impact minds for generations.

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Agreeing on Existential Threats

Update (Sept 6, 2017). I’m adding this CBS video about cooperation and finding commonality during Hurricane Harvey. “No one cares about the color or creed of their rescuer.”

 

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One of humanity’s greatest assets as a species is our flexibility. We can live in a range of environments, and adjust to new social realities, diets, technologies, ideas, languages, etc. Our kids live in a world where communication across the globe is instantaneous, something that our ancestors would never have thought imaginable. Yet it’s completely normal for this generation. We adjust.

Still, nothing is cost-free. One drawback of our incredible plasticity and ability to hold a multitude of beliefs is an inherent risk for conflict. I say “avocado.” You say “mango.” People disagree on just about everything. What should we have for dinner? Are other people fully human? How should taxes be spent? Should baby boys wear pink? Are Nazis bad? Are there hats?

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Imagining a Worthy Goal

“All communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/ genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.”

– Benedict Anderson, “Imagined Communities” (1983: 6)

 

“The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We long for a Parent to care for us, to forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable. If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.”

– Carl Sagan, “Pale Blue Dot” (1994)

 

Yesterday’s events in Charlottesville were heart-breaking. They didn’t come out of nowhere, but they felt like an exclamation point on a period marked by increasing social division. Like most Americans, I find the views expressed by the so-called alt right to be abhorrent. As a child, I thought that progress was inexorable, that my generation was more inclusive than those before, and that my kids’ generation would be even more inclusive than mine. That’s not how things go, I suppose, at least not without lots of bumps in the road.

Taking a very long-term view of the future, I’m still optimistic. I can’t help but feel that future generations will mock our ignorance, and that the communities they imagine will be based on accumulated wisdom. What’s the alternative? To be perpetually bogged down in counter-productive, short-sighted conflicts and social divisions? Maybe. Maybe the immediate incentives to gain an advantage by oppressing or stepping on top of others is too tempting. Maybe not. Maybe people can recognize that non-zero-sum relationships based that are mutually beneficial (win-win) are more enduring than ones that rely on a win-lose model (zero-sum) which only create long-term resentments.

What is a long-term worthy goal for humanity? I can imagine a few goals, and yours may differ from mine. But nowhere on my list is a narrow-minded, parochial desire to prop up one group of people above all others. Such a goal is a failure of imagination.

“A People Orientation” (A View from Anthropology and Astronomy)

“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’ ”

— astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell

earth rise

“Earthrise,” 1968 (Source: NASA)

 

Sometimes, a simple shift of perspective can make all the difference in the world. Whenever I have to drive somewhere new, I always look at a map. Sometimes, it’s an old hard-copy version, though the majority of time I’ll use an online one. That view from above is very helpful, but sometimes at ground level there are nuances which I may have overlooked (an unexpected left-lane exit), or road changes or construction that may have altered since the map was created. Both perspectives – on the ground, and from the sky – are correct; they just give us different views of the same thing. 

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Shifting perspectives. Source.

In the Edgar Mitchell quote above, a dramatic change in perspective – in this case a view of earth from the moon – created a sense of the unity of humanity, as well as a frustration that people back home frequently fail to rise above their parochial squabbles on the ground. That notion seems to recur among astronomers, astronauts, and astrophysicists. Perhaps it is an inherent benefit of their big-picture view. Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” is the standard bearer for this sentiment:

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AAA Meetings in D.C. & San Jose

I’m planning for the American Anthropological Association annual meeting in Washington, D.C. later this year, and it struck me as unusual to hold it in that city again since the meeting was last there only three years ago. Next year, it will be held in San Jose, which was the host in 2006. I then got curious when the last time the meeting was held in Boston or New York, since I can’t remember the meeting ever being held in the northeast. Just for fun, I wondered if the AAA has preferred particular cities over its long history, since its first meeting in Pittsburgh in 1902. So, I made a heat map.

According to the AAA website, the city to host the meeting most frequently has been Washington D.C. (22 times, including this year), followed by Philadelphia (13 times), Chicago (11 times), New York City (10 times), then San Francisco/ San Jose/ Berkeley (9 times). 

However, things have shifted recently, with some cities not hosting for decades. The original host, Pittsburgh, has not been home to the meeting since 1966, while New York last held the meeting in 1971. Boston lasted hosted in 1955, and Los Angeles in 1981 (coinciding with Fernandomania). Several cities hosted only once, including my hometown of Providence, R.I. in 1910.

By comparison, since 1990 New Orleans has hosted three times and San Francisco/ San Jose six times.

The midwest, aside from Chicago, and the southeast have been largely overlooked. Saint Louis is due to host in 2020. I’m curious why Florida has never been the host. I thought they grew convention centers there, not to mention the warm weather, since the meeting is usually in late November.

The meeting has also been held outside of the U.S. five times — Mexico City and Toronto twice each, and Montreal once. Vancouver, B.C. will host in 2019 for the first time.  

Anyway, this was all just out of curiosity.

Heat Map of AAA Meetings (the map is zoomed in too close to see Mexico City, which has hosted twice).

Is the Human Species Sexually Omnivorous?

The Monolith, Vigeland Sculpture Park

The Vigeland monolith in Oslo (source). 

previously borrowed a phrase from the biologist Robert Sapolsky, who once referred to humans as “tragically confused” in terms of the way we mate. As he put it, we’re not quite a classically monogamous species, but neither are we a winner-take-all polygamous species. Instead, we seem to be a little from column A and a little from column B (and maybe something from columns C and D too). I’ve been trying to think of a way to explain why I think “tragically confused” is an apt description, where some of that confusion originates, and what are some of the potential pitfalls when thinking of human mating patterns. Analogies are imperfect, as some information is always lost in the transfer between concepts, so forgive me if this falls short. And it’s a sports analogy too, but bear with me; I’ll keep it brief.

During the first year I played Little League baseball as a kid, one of the coaches told us that when we played defense we should be ready to field the ball at all times (or at least, be ready to get out of the way or knock the ball down to defend yourself). A hard-hit baseball can really hurt, especially for a young kid who has stopped paying attention because they became distracted by the flock of geese flying overhead (true story). Anyway, he taught us that the best defensive position was to have your glove ready and stand crouched while facing the batter, with our toes pointed slightly inward, or “pigeon-toed.” That may not be textbook coaching, but he explained that by having both feet pointed inward we could quickly pivot and “push off” to our left or right, reacting to where the ball was hit. For whatever reason, I’ve remembered that for more than thirty years. The lesson stuck.

I think “pigeon-toed” is a decent metaphor for much of human behavior, including our sexuality. We are a highly adaptable species, capable of moving in a range of directions by reacting to, and in turn modifying, the world around us. That flexibility is one of our species’ greatest assets – along with other genetic and physiological adaptations – in that it allows us to live on every continent and adjust to a range of social and ecological conditions.

Of course, behavioral flexibility is not unique to humans. The very essence of behavior is that it allows organisms to respond to circumstances, whether it be plants growing towards sunlight or water, anemones swimming away from predators, enormous herds of wildebeest migrating in search of land to graze, or chimpanzees sizing up the complex political situation within their troop.

An anemone escaping a starfish. Flexibility – the ability to respond to circumstances – is the hallmark of behavior, even for anemones. 

This is pretty basic stuff. However, when thinking about sexual behavior, it may help to stop and remind ourselves that evolution did not design organisms to be static things, or genetically determined automatons. One of the potential pitfalls when describing a species’ behavior, particularly for a general audience, is the temptation to use single-word descriptions. For example, among our hominoid relatives, gorillas are said to be polygynous, gibbons are monogamous, and chimpanzees are polygynandrous (or multimale/multifemale). Certainly, behavioral patterns exist, and these are very reasonable assessments of these species’ mating patterns, but one word cannot be all-encompassing.

This matters because, although we like to think categorically, behaviors are complex, variable, and dynamic. Rigid definitions usually mean that some complexity must be shaved off in order to fit into a discrete category more cleanly. The problem is not that the above labels have no merit; it’s that they have a tendency to overshadow the variation that exists within a species. It’s also true that our vocabulary helps shape the way we think about a given species, especially for ourselves.

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