Because I would rather write, and think, about anything other than politics these days, Aeon is my new favorite site for thoughtful (and non-political) essays: https://aeon.co/ Here are some excerpts from three of its recent offerings.
First, evolutionary biologist David Barash disputes the claim that human beings have an instinct for war: conflict, yes, says Barash, and even violence—but not war.
Barash begins by acknowledging that “There is something peculiarly — even paradoxically — appealing about taking a dim view of human nature, a view that has become unquestioned dogma among many evolutionary biologists. It is a tendency that began some time ago. When the Australian-born anthropologist Raymond Dart discovered the first australopithecine fossil in 1924, he went on to describe these early hominids as:
‘Confirmed killers: carnivorous creatures that seized living quarries by violence, battered them to death, tore apart their broken bodies, dismembered them limb from limb, slaking their ravenous thirst with the hot blood of the victims and greedily devouring living writhing flesh.’
As Barash notes, Christian theology has mined this anthropological vein as well:
This lurid perspective has deep antecedents, notably in certain branches of Christian doctrine. According to the zealous 16th century French theologian John Calvin:
“The mind of man has been so completely estranged from God’s righteousness that it conceives, desires, and undertakes, only that which is impious, perverted, foul, impure and infamous. The human heart is so steeped in the poison of sin, that it can breathe out nothing but a loathsome stench.”
Seeing only the worst in our species may have unintended consequences:
It’s bad enough for the religious believer to be convinced of humanity’s irrevocable sinfulness, punishable in the afterlife. But I’m even more concerned when those who speak for science and reason promote a theory of human nature that threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“When it comes to human aggression, violence and war, there simply is no unitary direction impelled by evolution. On the one hand, we are capable of despicable acts of horrific violence; on the other, we evince remarkable compassion and self-abnegation. Our selfish genes can generate a wide array of nasty, destructive and unpleasant actions; and yet, these same selfish genes can incline us toward altruistic acts of extraordinary selflessness. It is at least possible that our remarkably rapid brain evolution has been driven by the pay-off derived by successful warlike competition with other primitive human and humanoid groups. But it is equally possible that it was driven by the pay-off associated with co-operation, co‑ordination and mutual care-taking.”
Moreover, Barash points out, there is a world of difference between instinctual violence and the art of war:
“Plain, old interpersonal violence is a real, albeit regrettable, part of human nature. War is even more regrettable, but is no more ‘natural’ than a bridal shower or the assembly line used to construct a stealth bomber.”
If interpersonal violence is as natural in its own way as mating:
“War, on the other hand, is like arranging a wedding with a bridal shower or bachelor party, and laying on a hotel ballroom, an orchestra, a four-course meal and dancing. It is safe to assume that neither employing a photographer, serving a multi-tiered wedding cake, enlisting bridesmaids nor tying baby shoes to the bumper of the newly-weds’ car spring from the human genome, although people are capable of doing all these things.”
In other words, war, like marriage, is a cultural construct: which means it is not an inevitability. And that, in the grand scheme of things, is good news.
Next: I honestly don’t know if Marvin Frankel and Howard Rachlin are emulating Jonathan Swift with their modest proposal that newborn infants be randomly switched and re-assigned at birth, or if they’re simply conducting a thought experiment guaranteed to provoke if not to outrage. Whatever their intent, their essay “If babies were randomly allocated to families would racism end?” reads as if the authors are entirely serious about the idea. They’ve taken John Rawls’ famous (and theoretical) “veil of ignorance” one step further by suggesting that, if parents have no idea in whose care their children will wind up, then they will naturally want to ensure equal opportunities for all. It never occurs to Frankel and Rachlin, apparently, that in such a dystopia people might either (a) stop having children or (b) stop giving a damn about what happens to anyone’s kids, since their own biological progeny may be suffering some horrible fate over which the parents have no control.
I have a proposal of my own: let's take essays and randomly assign authorial credit for them when they're published. I'm sure that would motivate Marvin Frankel and Howard Rachlin to come up with the very best work possible and to promote more and more publication opportunities for everyone.
Finally: Jesse Prinz writes about wonder, and he does so wonderfully well:
“Wonder is sometimes said to be a childish emotion, one that we grow out of. But that is surely wrong. As adults, we might experience it when gaping at grand vistas. I was dumbstruck when I first saw a sunset over the Serengeti. We also experience wonder when we discover extraordinary facts. I was enthralled to learn that, when arranged in a line, the neurons in a human brain would stretch the 700 miles from London to Berlin. But why? What purpose could this wide-eyed, slack-jawed feeling serve? It’s difficult to determine the biological function of any affect, but whatever it evolved for (and I’ll come to that), wonder might be humanity’s most important emotion.”
If you’re not quite sure what Prinze means by “wonder,” he describes it like this:
[Certain] bodily symptoms point to three dimensions that might in fact be essential components of wonder. The first is sensory: wondrous things engage our senses — we stare and widen our eyes. The second is cognitive: such things are perplexing because we cannot rely on past experience to comprehend them. This leads to a suspension of breath, akin to the freezing response that kicks in when we are startled: we gasp and say ‘Wow!’ Finally, wonder has a dimension that can be described as spiritual: we look upwards in veneration…
Prinze links our sense of wonder to religion, science, and the creative arts:
Science, religion and art are unified in wonder. Each engages our senses, elicits curiosity and instils reverence. Without wonder, it is hard to believe that we would engage in these distinctively human pursuits. Robert Fuller, professor of religious studies at Bradley University in Illinois, contends that it is ‘one of the principal human experiences that lead to belief in an unseen order’. In science, that invisible order might include microorganisms and the invisible laws of nature. In religion, we find supernatural powers and divine agents. Artists invent new ways of seeing that give us a fresh perspective on the world we inhabit.
Admitting that our capacity for wonder seems, in evolutionary terms, inexplicable if not unnecessary, Prinze concludes:
Wonder did not evolve for any purpose. It is, rather, a by-product of natural inclinations, and its great human derivatives are not inevitable. But wonder is the accidental impetus behind our greatest achievements. Art, science and religion are inventions for feeding the appetite that wonder excites in us. They also become sources of wonder in their own right, generating epicycles of boundless creativity and enduring inquiry. Each of these institutions allows us to transcend our animality by transporting us to hidden worlds. In harvesting the fruits of wonder, we came into our own as a species.1
1 In case Prinze’s essay doesn’t convince you, try either of these:
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “I Am Waiting” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171598
Van Morrison, “A Sense of Wonder”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5vkZPOdKOI