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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A Reverence for Life

In re-reading a few books on evolution, it occurred to me that there is a common thread running through many of them, which is the reverence that the authors hold for life itself. Unfortunately, there exists an idea out there that to explain something in nature is equivalent to “explaining it away.” The fear is that this may deflate a person’s sense of wonder. But this is far from the truth. For example, the biological anthropologist Helen Fisher commented that her career studying the biology of love (by definition, one of the most romanticized topics possible) has done nothing to diminish her appreciation of it. The same applies for those who study other aspects of science, including evolution.

Eugenie Scott, Director of the National Center for Science Education, has written that for many laypeople the notion that evolution is an unguided, mechanistic process implies that “life has no meaning.” However, contrast that view with how many scientists write about nature. The sense of awe and reverence that they exude is palpable.

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On Optimism and ‘Human Nature’

In the last few days, I came across a couple of unrelated quotations on human nature and our internal tug-of-war between cooperation and conflict.

A 20 year-old Charles Darwin in an 1830 letter to his cousin, W.D. Fox:

It is quite curious, when thrown into contact with any set of men, how much they continue improving in ones good opinion, as one gets ackquainted (sic) with them. This was an argument used, in a religious point of view, by a very clever Clergyman in Shrews. to encourage sociability (he himself being very fond of society), for he said that the good always preponderates over the bad in every persons character, & he thought, the most social men were generally the most benevolent, & had the best opinion of human nature. I have heard my father mention this as a remarkably good observation, & I quite agree with him.

In “East of Eden,” John Steinbeck wrote:

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Life Is Beautiful

I debated for weeks whether to write about something as personal as the death of my brother Kevin on my (semi)professional blog and to try to explain how this event affected my view of life. Ultimately, I gave myself permission after deciding that it’s a fallacy to think that anyone can seal their personal and professional selves into watertight compartments. The personal side of me draws meaning from what I know of anthropology and evolutionary biology. I agree with the physicist Brian Greene, who once wrote that science isn’t merely about facts and theories; it’s also about the perspective those facts and theories provide. Science widens our horizons. Likewise, my academic side draws inspiration from my personal history, including the people who have been part of my life. I can say unequivocally that I was drawn into anthropology because of the many friends of different ethnicities I’ve had, which made me curious about the biological and cultural diversity of humanity. All of these things are significant events in my life, as is the death of my brother, after whom this website is named.

Kevin (Feb 26, 1977- May 14, 2000) with his son, Daniel

Kevin (Feb 26, 1977- May 14, 2000) with his son, Daniel

Yesterday marked the tenth anniversary of the passing of my younger brother Kevin, who died after his SUV swerved off the side of a small highway and hit a tree. He was only 23 years old, and left behind a young wife and an infant son. I was 25 and in graduate school at the time, three hundred miles away, and didn’t learn what happened until my father called me at 6 AM the following morning. To this day, any time the phone rings in the early morning or late at night, I am automatically filled with a sense of dread. As my father repeatedly asked me if I was sitting down before telling me what had happened, I immediately knew that someone close to me had died. I didn’t care if I was seated, standing, or on my head; I just wanted to know what happened. After what seemed like an eternity, I relented and told my father that I was in fact sitting down. For the rest of my life, his words will be tattooed in my mind: “Your brother Kevin was in a car accident last night, and he’s no longer with us.”

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