Monday, August 31, 2009

Violence at last

Okay, where was I?
Violence. Why do we have such a large tolerance for it, some people ask? Well, those people would at very least seem to be trapped in the present, with no sense of history. For most of human history, violence has been the norm rather than an exception. Parents beat children bloody, men were not allowed to beat their wives with a stick wider than their thumbs, police beat anybody they could find, wars were fought close enough to home that people could and did drive out to watch.
But the root causes. Ah. The why.
Well, let's go back to our origins and speculate widely.
Let's say that you're a pre-human primate. What does violence mean to you? Well, if you see a neighbor torn apart by a pack of baboons, it means that you are still alive. If you see your friends tear apart a small deer, it means that you are going to eat. If you and your friends kill the neighboring tribe, it means you will survive.
If seeing violence makes you sick, you probably won't survive. If you won't club another animal to death to protect your babies, your line will probably die out. In a world without lawsuits, disputes are settled in one of two ways: one side bluffs the other out or one side beats the other side physically.
Those who tolerated or even liked violence survived. And passed their genes down to their descendants. Us.

Friday, August 28, 2009

A digression

This is going to take a lot longer than I thought. I need to address a number of issues that have been raised by people who are nice, thoughtful, very bright, and not perhaps inclined to see things the same way I do. So --
1. There isn't any best way of having kids. I mentioned in a response to a comment that we primates have a variety of ways of getting and caring for babies. People tend to look at some primates whose ways they admire and pine softly, "Why couldn't we be like them?" Well, because if we were like them, we wouldn't be us. The criterion for a "good" way of having and caring for babies is that the species survives.
2. We are the way we are because those of our ancestors who lived had the traits we do and passed them on down the line.
3. And here I shift gears considerably, I don't trust anthropologists. It seems to me that (especially the cultural guys) go into research with two handicaps. First, they know already what they are looking for. Two, they assume that the peoples they are studying are somehow dumb as rocks. They assume that the people they are studying won't notice they are there, or won't mind if they poke and prod. But let's face it folks, the non-technical people you are studying are just like us.
Shocking as it may seem, people don't seem to want to be studied. They resent being specimens.
Put yourself in their shoes (or lack thereof). Some geezer with a notebook and strange clothes comes into town and starts asking you intimate questions about yourself, such as "Do you eat your neighbors?" or "What's your sex life like?" All with an air of detached superiority. So, what do you do? Why, you do what the Samoans did to poor old Margaret Mead. You pull her leg. You lie outrageously. You have a good time at the stranger's expense. "War? We don't have that concept at all. Don't even have a word for it?" "Sex? Yes, sex is free and open?" "Food? We share what we have with all." As soon as the people leave, everybody has a good laugh and the anthropologist gets tenure. Gary Larson has a wonderful cartoon that shows a native running in calling, "Anthropologists," and everybody is rushing to hide the TVs and microwaves.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sex and violence II

Okay, where was I? Oh, yes, sex. A couple of things first. One: If everybody does it, it's natural, no matter what everyone might say or think. Let's take a certain sexual behavior (any one, it doesn't matter). Now, if we go to societies all over the world, from the jungles of Manhattan to the jungles of Borneo, and we find people engaging in that practice, it's a natural, human, genetically determined behavior. Remember, though, that "genetically determined" means only that the tendency to the behavior is in our genes. Two: We need to differentiate between sex as evil and sex as secret behavior. The "sex is evil" concept probably comes from the late middle ages when pandemics of virulent syphilis swept Europe (the great pox, to differentiate it from the small pox).
Are we finally there? Okay, to speculate wildly on why we keep sex secret and out of the streets, other than that it frightens the horses, let's start with our closest kin, the chimps. Now, chimps are promiscuous, mating wherever, whenever, and with whomever they can. But the female chimps only ovulate when they are mating with someone they consider a suitable partner. Remember that the drives are generally the same but specifically different in males and females (in primates anyway). Both desire to leave copies of themselves. The male tends to do it by impregnating as many females as he can, while the females, who are limited to one or two at a time and hampered with the kid to boot, are more subtle. The need not only to have the child, but to have assistance during the crucial period when they are forced to care for it.
So, how does this apply to humans? Well, we aren't chimps, so our behavior patterns won't be the same. But the goals are the same. Women need A) the highest quality sperm available and B) help raising the result of the mating. Now, it doesn't matter if the person who helps raise the baby is the same one who donated the sperm. What matters is that the male thinks he is the papa. If the male knows that the female is mating with other guys, he's less likely to stick around to change the diapers. Hence the secrecy.
Sounds kinda calculating, doesn't it? Of course it is. But the stakes are the highest there are. There is no success in life greater than reproducing yourself.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sex, violence, and evolution

This is going to take quite a while, so I may have to do it in more than one blog. That's cause a blog should be fairly short, in order to suit one's electronic attention span, which is short.
Anyway, I remember a question asked in the sixties that has followed me for a long time: Why is it that sex, which is lovely, should be kept secret, and violence, which is ugly, should be out in the open?
Remember that this is a sixties question, loaded with sixties assumptions about sex, love, openness, flowers, war, and police.
Nonetheless, it's an interesting question. Why are we so secretive about sex? I remember a mock editorial by comedian Pat Paulson, who said, about sex, "It's time to come out in the open and speak forthrightly and openly about . . . you know what."
At the same time, how is it that we can tolerate extreme violence?
As always, when faced with a problem like this, I always ask, "WWDD?" That's, "What would Darwin do?" That is, can we look at this problem in an evolutionary perspective, to see if these two traits had any survival value for our ancestors.
The first thing is, of course, to determine if these two traits are in fact human, or are simply Western, American, Puritan, or somehow or another culturally determined.
And, for purposes of this blog spree, I'm going to assume that they are in fact human rather than cultural. That is, they are part of our genetic makeup. I'm going to assume this based on information gathered from, in part, Pinker's book on the way the mind works. Note, mind you, that he never said this, but it's kind of extrapolable from what he did say.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Object Glances

It's book review time. I'd like to recommend a book by James Elkins entitled The Object Stares Back. It's a treatise on perception and such like stuff. If you're thinking "Aha! A scientific analysis of vision," I can only say, "Think again buddy." Elkins is an art historian, and his viewpoint is part artist, part mystical wise man, and (possibly) part nut case (but very persuasive nut case).
The reason I am recommending it is that much of what he says has a strangely compelling quality to it. I feel as if I'm at a party and being hypnotized against my will. Some of what he says is spot on (this is mostly when he is speaking against the received wisdom of the artistic community), some is tenuous, and some is out near Pluto.
He notes for instance, that there some things we just can't look at. The sun and death are two of them. And to prove it, he has pictures of a woman being put to death. He also has some other fairly grotesque photos he uses as he makes his points, so if you're easily grossed out, you might want to pass by those.
Since this is one of those books whose viewpoint is both magnetic and strange, it tends to shake up our perception of perception, and for that reason alone you ought to read it.

Monday, August 17, 2009


The last verse of an old Ernie Ford song, "Sixteen Tons," goes as follows:

Now, man came from monkey, some folks say,
But the Good Book, brother, don't tell it that way.
If you believe that monkey tale like some folks do,
I'd rather be that monkey than you.

Sigh. There are those among us who believe that people reject all or part of the theory of evolution because they don't understand it. I used to think that. But on reconsidering, I think that people don't accept evolution because
1. It scares them
2. It offends them
3. It doesn't square with some holy document

It's true that the entire concept of evolution is somewhat difficult to get one's mind around. Why are humans so good at reading faces? Because that's the way we evolved. This is getting it backwards. We need to think of what challenges our ancestors faced such that evolving such and such a characteristic or organ helped them survive. I can read faces because those of my ancestors who could read faces survived to reproduce.

One of the best of the new books which helps people understand how evolution works is Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale. It's good because it works backwards. It starts with us, then goes back to the first known split, where we and another species diverged from a root stock. So, let's say that we split from chimps about, what, 4 million years ago? Okay, so Dawkins looks at what the root stock was like, what we were like, what chimps were like, differences, similarities, drawing inferences, making hypotheses, sometimes guessing. Then he moves on to the next split, where apes split from root stock, and then to the next, working ever and ever farther back until he comes to the beginnings of life.

Doing it this way allows Dawkins to tease out the reasons we are the way we are. It's fascinating and very enlightening. Also, it's long. It may have the same problem that Darwin's Origin of Species has -- easy to read but very complete.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Finishing up

You know those little jam packets at the restaurant? I've found that one of them is too much for a half-slice of toast, too small for a full slice. So, I have three options: 1) use one packet for a whole slice and not get enough, 2) use two packets for a slice of toast and get too much, or 3) use just enough and waste some jam. I never choose 3). And, if I'm eating, say, a chicken dish of some kind and am full to bursting, I will continue, and if I simply cannot eat any more, I'll hunt through the dish for chicken chunks and eat them. I have even caught myself muttering, "If the chicken died for me, I can bloody well eat it all."
I'm wondering at the source of this. It could well be the left-over influence of my mother's "Children starving in Asia" ploy that she used as part of her "clean the plate." syndrome. Or, and I like this because it's the nobler, it could be that I am very aware of the dynamics of life and death. In order for me to live, something has to die -- fruit, chicken, lettuce, whatever. Our whole existence is built on the destruction of other things, from landforms to linguine.
This is not something to despair over, or to try to prevent. Every other species in the world does the same thing. Not only that, but the wind does it, the waves do it, the clouds do it.
There is no such thing as the "balance of nature." All there is is a flux of forces, building, tearing down, moving around, shifting, always shifting. Best to move with it.
And yet, I still can't waste half a packet of jam.

Sunday, August 9, 2009


I am puzzled by a willingness that strangers show to assume that my political, religious, or social beliefs are exactly the same as mine. Total strangers will assume that I hold any one of a variety of stances. Yesterday, I was siting next to a complete stranger, who began to tell me how President Obama was trying to destroy the second amendment and take all our guns. Then he went on to property rights, health care, and all the things that you hear on the nut-case radio shows.
But I want to be even handed in this. Whenever I attend a gathering of liberals, one of them sooner or later will begin to lament the deficiencies of the "local culture" and the backwardness of the Utah legislature.
What is the point of discussion here is not that liberals think the Utah legislature consists of a bunch of Neanderthals, or that conservatives think Obama wants our guns. I mean, Duh! What is the issue is sort of twofold. First, it's that people are willing to air their opinions without asking if I am willing to hear them. In a way, this is a good move for them, because if they asked, I'd say no. Second, it's that people feel free to not only give me their opinions and to state them as facts, but they manage to get in nasty personal cracks at whomever they are unhappy with. President Obama is not only wrong, he as (put in your own slur here). The legislature is not only wrong it's (ditto the slur).
I don't like it. 'm trying to formulate a policy that doesn't involve me being as rude as they are, but I'm having trouble.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Great Books

A friend of mine challenged me to write down 15 book titles as quickly as I could, focusing on books that influenced the way I look at the world. When I was finished, I had maybe two of the "great books," the "classics" that I read in college (I was an English major). A classic, as Mark Twain is supposed to have said, is a book that everybody praises and nobody reads. The classics have two things in common for me: 1) they are boring, and 2) they are melodrama. Take The Scarlet Letter, for instance. Aside from a completely bogus first chapter, the prose is torture to wade through, and when you do, you get a mysterious stranger, a deep secret, startling revelations -- something that belongs in Nancy Drew or Scooby Doo, the sort of thing that Jane Austen made fun of in Northanger Abbey.
The great books are great because we've been told they are. Here's my Shakespeare hypothesis again: Take The Beverly Hillbillies, examine every nuance, every gesture, every episode for 400 years, being sure to find deep meaning in them all, and Voila! Shakespeare all over.