Equal Time For the Better Angels of Our Nature

My readers probably know that I’m not much of a podcast listener, but that if I AM listening to a podcast, it’s probably On Being with Krista Tippett. I started this habit after the 2016 election and, three and a half years later, I need her show more than ever.

Today I want to provide a peek into an especially uplifting interview about…ready? The evolutionary aspects of human goodness. Evolutionary? Human Goodness? Yes please!

(What follows are shameless excerpts from the transcript of Krista Tippett’s show, which I’m assuming she won’t mind because I’m encouraging everyone to listen to her.)

Human goodness? Does that mean sunflower seeds?

Nicholas Christakis is Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale. More specifically, he works at something called the Human Nature Lab—which sounds spooky until you hear what they’re studying. They’re studying goodness. (Oh my goodness. Literally.)

Says Dr. Christakis,

I’m interested in the qualities that make a collective good. How is it that a group of humans come together to form a good society? And in what way, and to what extent, has evolution equipped us with these capacities?

Please, oh please, tell me more about our good capacities. Do you really mean to say we have them built in, evolutionarily, and if so, why do never hear about this? Dr. C?

…scientists and citizens on the street have focused on the dark side of human nature, on our propensity for selfishness and tribalism and mendacity and cruelty and violence, as if this were a natural or normal or primary state of affairs. And yet, I think the bright side has been denied the attention it deserves, because, equally, we are capable of love and friendship and teaching and cooperation and all these other wonderful things. And, in fact, I would argue…those qualities are more powerful than the bad qualities; and therefore, in some ways, much more important.

More important? Really? Tell me why!

I think, if every time I came near you, you were mean to me, or you filled me with fake news — you told me falsehoods about the environment in a way that was detrimental to my capacity to survive in the environment, or you killed me, I would be better off living apart from you.

But we don’t do that. We live together. And so, therefore, the benefits of a connected life must have outweighed the costs. And they did outweigh the costs. And the question is, how did that state of affairs come to be?

Whoa. He’s right. We DO, for the most part, live in societies. Have done for millennia. And yes. Dr. Christakis is talking about EVOLUTIONARY time here, not human history.

…In fact, every argument that I make…I could make about human beings who were alive 10,000 years ago, before the action of a lot of the technological and historical forces that we take as so relevant and ascendant today. So we were capable of love and friendship and living together 10,000 years ago. And we were also capable of violence, of course, then, too. But all of these things were a part of our nature well before we then had this overlay of cultural and technological and historical forces acting. And in some ways I would argue that those forces are a thin veneer overlaid on a much more fundamental edifice.

A not particularly relevant but definitely uplifting photo I took the other day.

In other words, the prof is arguing that certain basic positive traits are the driving force of ALL human societies EVERYWHERE. These traits include our ability to…

love the people we’re having sex with; we form sentimental attachments to them. We are, technically, monogamous. We befriend each other; we form long-term, non-reproductive unions with other members of our species. This is exceedingly rare in the animal kingdom.We do it; certain other primates do it; elephants do it; certain cetacean species do it — we form friendships with unrelated people. It’s universal in human groups.

 

cooperate with each other, altruistically.We’re kind to strangers — again, to unrelated individuals;

 

...teach each other things. People take this for granted, but it’s actually unbelievable.

Yeah, the purple highlights are mine. They represent my DELIGHT in hearing an eminent, sober scientist tell the world that we humans are as good as we KNOW we can be–not simply as bad as our TV and movies tell us, over and over, that we must be.

THIS is relevant: Seattleites being altruistic by staying home, off the freeway. (OK, yeah, also being a little scared.)

If you, like me, need some inspiration right now, I encourage you to read this last paragraph aloud, as if it were a sermon, or a speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

Deeper, more powerful, more ancient forces are at work, propelling a good society, endowing us with these wonderful capacities, which were always there, are still there, are unavoidable; and that, if anything, these moves that we’ve made as a species in the last few hundred years are…the thin veneer over this more fundamental reality of the better angels of our nature.

Preach on!

Which do you want to focus on: the dark, tangled foreground, or the shining tree?

Please know: like Dr. Christakis, I’m no Pollyanna about human nature. All I’m asking for is equal time for our better angels.

‘Tis the Season of What, Exactly? On Spring, Food, Coronavirus and Quakers

My local Friends Meeting has an expression for when we want to think about something before making a group decision: “Let’s season this for a month and come back to it.” I think it’s a modern term (don’t remember running into it during my Quaker upbringing), and right now it’s feeling extra appropriate.

Season: to sit with something and allow it to show itself more fully.

But also: Flu season. Which has since become pandemic season. How long will pandemic season be? As I write this, it feels like our country is beginning to split even on THAT question: whether or not we should all hunker down for a few more weeks to protect each other.

And literal seasoning? While I’m hunkering, I’ll be on furlough from my bakery job. I already miss the thought of mixing ginger into fruit for pies, or adding garlic to sautéed greens for strata.

On the other hand, while hunkering, I’m also cooking up a storm, like millions of people right now lucky enough to have food—and seasoning the heck out of things.

Like adding sriracha to fresh-picked, steamed nettles to blend with hummus!

Finally, since hunkering can also be done outdoors (at a safe distance), we have signs of the season—wildflowers, songbirds, lambs, daylight. That sense of “season” brings me comfort, as if the Earth is saying, “We got ya. It’s okay. Everything comes around.”

Right now the satin flowers are blooming. They bloom only for a week, only in this one tiny spot on our whole island. Satin flowers ALWAYS hunker in place.

I think I could handle that.

Can we stand to think of ourselves as satin flowers for a little while? Do we need to season that thought?

Stay With Me: A Novel That’s Doing Just That

Ever had one of those post-partum lulls in your reading life, where you’re kind of in mourning for the last book you just read? Absolutely sure you’ll never find another one anywhere near as engaging?

I’ve been in such a slump for the last month (aided by my tendency to go straight back to Harry Potter in Spanish whenever the book fairy starts nagging). But I found the solution: stomp into your local library, pick up a book almost at random—ooh, bright cover!—and start reading RIGHT THERE.

Luckily for me, I chose Ayobami Adebayo’s new novel Stay With Me. Set in modern Nigeria, it tosses the reader directly into this scene: a young, urban wife finds her in-laws on her doorstep…bringing with them her husband’s brand-new, beautiful second wife. Which he has said nothing about.

But this is not A Thousand Splendid Suns. Yejide’s husband Akin loves her desperately. He doesn’t want another wife. What he wants…needs, requires…is a baby. Preferably a son. Or two. Which Yejide, in four years of marriage, has not produced.

That is ALL I’m going to reveal about the plot. What makes this book so poignant and gripping is that, despite its setting half a world away, and despite the cultural disjunct of plural marriage and in-laws who are in charge of the wife, Yejide is such a completely modern woman that THIS very American woman instantly related to her.

I’m so glad I happened to grab this book when I finally got stern with myself and said, “Grab something.” Here’s hoping, if you are looking for a good book or just trying to make yourself look, that you end up doing the same.