Blog

Why Y?

Male Biology is Most Dangerous at the Top

At the risk of oversimplifying, there may not be much wrong with this world that can’t be cured by a massive increase in the number of X chromosomes at the top–a doubling in fact, but without increasing the number of leaders. Fortunately this can easily be done, by replacing men with women.

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Big Love

Polygamy Always Evil? The Answer Can Be Complex.

Polygamist RetreatY chromosomes are in the news again this week, but for a much less amusing reason than Eliot Spitzer’s adventures. A raid on a Texas polygamous compound rescued hundreds of children, especially girls, not just from a detested minority lifestyle, but from persistent abuse.

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Brain-Reading

What if a stranger could see into your mind?

“A penny for your thoughts,” my mother used to say when I was brooding. As I got on into my teen years, she was less and less likely to get her money’s worth, and–even corrected for inflation and then some–I would probably have gotten even less out of my own kids. 

But suppose parents didn’t have to offer even a penny’s worth of bribes? Suppose they could switch on some new technological marvel and know their kids’ thoughts?

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Men in (Terrorist) Groups

When men get together, dangerous things can happen

A recent talk about terrorism sent me back to 1969, when a classic in sociobiology was published. It was called Men in Groups, and it had a straightforward thesis: “The behavior of men in groups in part reflects an underlying biologically transmitted ‘propensity’ with roots in human evolutionary history.”

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Back to the Future

Can a looming diabetes epidemic be averted by a hunter-gatherer lifestyle?

I just got back from a conference at Harvard where I gave an after-dinner talk (at the Harvard Faculty Club, no less) on a subject guaranteed to give everyone indigestion: why our ancestors ate healthier than we do.

I described in words and photos the lives of the !Kung hunter-gatherers depicted at the top of this page, as I and others saw it during two years of field work between 1969 and 1975. I briefly discussed hunter-gatherer studies generally, and I talked about the implications of hunter-gatherer life for us today.

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Jim’s Genome, and Yours

Welcome to the Age of Personal Genomics

I had a celebrity sighting in mid-town Manhattan a few weeks ago. It was unmistakable: the unkempt sparse white hair, the glasses slipping a bit on the nose, the eyes intense in conversation, the head leaning into the world—this was James Watson, who 55 years ago, with the late Francis Crick, played around with some cardboard cutouts representing nucleic acids and (with some help from Rosie Franklin’s X-rays) built the strange spiral that changed the world.

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Duck-Billed Treasure Trove

Whose genome matters more–the weirdest mammal or the decoder of DNA? 

This month my mailbox has been filled with genomic goodies. Last month we had Jim Watson’s very own genome–the discoverer of DNA is out there now with all his base pairs.

May 1stNature reported on variation in eight human genomes, not counting Jim’s. The idea was to spot “one-armed bandits,”

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Big Love 2: Biology Trumps Culture

Maternal yearning has its day in court

In early April Texas state authorities entered the compound of a polygamous sect and took as many as 468 children into custody for their own protection, following an anonymous phone call accusing the sect of promoting sex between grown men and girls as young as thirteen.

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Genes, Memes, and the Mess of Cultural Evolution

Next to the Genome, Culture is a Mess, and Its Evolution a Much Harder Puzzle

Okay, so what are memes? This is a term invented 30 years ago by Richard Dawkins, to try to find an equivalent for genes in cultural evolution. The term is now in general usage among those who study cultural evolution, and it has a certain usefulness.

However, it’s a mess compared to the concept of gene. A gene is Read more

The Long View

Prejudices change slowly, but they change.

Anthropologists take the long view. Fads come and go–hula hoops, Heavy Metal–but where it counts, culture change–cultural evolution, really–is slow.

Take racial equality for instance. I am always amazed by people who say that affirmative action has gone on long enough.
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The Dogs of War

Obama and McCain have different ideas about war. Neither may be able to prevent it.

Is war a permanent part of the human condition?

I’ve been interested in this question since high school, when an inspiring teacher named Dora Venit spent two years confronting me with the grotesque facts of history. It was not very long after the Holocaust, and the height of the Cold War.

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In Sickness and In Wealth

"Maladaptive" habits help the poor cope with their stressful lives, and the best healers don't blame them.

I recently had the privilege of "shadowing" one of the best docs I know as she made hospital rounds at Grady. Grady is one of those places-like Los Angeles County Hospital, Cook County Hospital in Chicago, and Kings County in Brooklyn where I volunteered as a high school kid-
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Gene-Mining

Genes in chocolate trees, cancers, and sea water are confirming Darwin and changing the world.

I knew genomics had come of age when I heard they were sequencing the chocolate genome-or the tree chocolate comes from, anyway. That’s Theobroma (“food of the gods”) cacao, which is so beset by diseases that the world’s chocolate addicts, me included, could lose our fix.

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NPG

Low fertility helps the species but threatens cultures and some dreams. 

Weddings get me thinking about reproductive success. I went to two this week, both outstanding professional couples, and I couldn't help wondering if and when they might make a contribution to the next generation's genetic and cultural mix.

And I do mean "if."
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Cancer Wars

Scientists should lose the hype and just get on with the work

This week I went to the funeral of an unsung great man of math education, Steve Sigur, who taught at a local school for thirty-five years. He was always described as a gentle bear of a man, and that he was.

With his great height, huge belly, and big red scraggly beard, he looked like a mountain man, Read more

What Do Bioethicists Do?

Want to make your life better with the help of medical technology? It might be between you, your doctor, and the President’s Council on Bioethics.

Bioethics has become a booming industry, and it goes way beyond conventional medical ethics. But what exactly do bioethicists do? Are they just a bunch of self-appointed moralists who want to tell everybody what to do? Are they representatives of particular churches or religions?

A year or so ago Read more

Eat Like a Hunter-Gatherer

An excellent new study once again takes us back to the future.

Last week’s issue of The New England Journal of Medicine carried another powerful vindication of The Paleolithic Prescription, a book co-authored by Boyd Eaton, Marjorie Shostak and me just twenty years ago. Boyd and I fired the first salvo in the same journal in 1985, with an article called “Paleolithic Nutrition.”
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More War

War is always a shock to the heart, but it should not be a shock to the mind.

In the past few days, war has broken out between Russia and the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, a shocking yet somehow predictable outcome. Right after the collapse of the USSR,
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Who’s Delusional?

These fundamentalists crusade against religion, and they call others delusional

I briefly saw Richard Dawkins on BBC News this morning, talking about his favorite subject these days: The God Delusion, his book on why we must abolish religion. I didn’t listen long-I’ll explain why in a moment-
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Who’s Delusional? 2

Thank "goodness," for sure, but stop and ask yourself how the goodness might have come about.

I have to say that at the Salk Institute "Beyond Belief 2006" conference, I was most moved and impressed by the philosopher Dan Dennett's contribution. It was phoned-or I guess emailed-in, because the poor guy was flat on his back in a hospital bed recovering from a dissecting aortic aneurysm.
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Sarah Palin: Evolutionary Psychology and Cultural Anthropology

McCain’s VP Pick Makes Darwinian and Boasian Sense

Sarah Palin takes aimShock and awe. That had to be one thought in McCain’s mind when he picked a little-known governor of Alaska–the state one pundit called an overgrown igloo–to stand a heartbeat away from his seat in the Oval Office, his age and cancer history be damned.
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Republican Socialism

"Conservatives" nationalize Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, mocking their own market mantra

Anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists are fascinated by two poles of human behavior: cooperation and competition. You've got to get your own in terms of reproductive success, but you're in a relentlessly social species, so you often have to do well by doing good.
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Neuronews

Brain science's astounding pace of discovery is bringing new hope to many.

I want to take a rest from the political and religious wars and instead do a little of what I do with my students at the start of each semester. I'm teaching my course on the human brain this fall, and as usual my first lecture was called "While You Were Catching Rays-Discoveries Since the End of Last Semester."
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Republican Socialism, Part Deux: Dressed-up Greed, Naked Fear

animal-farm-graphic-big-pig-close-mouth-713368They manipulate fear, reward greed, and give new meaning to the term “Orwellian.”

They’re not bailing out the single mom who works checkout at Wal-Mart, has a diabetic son, and no health insurance.

They’re not bailing out the guy in Michigan whose job on the factory line got shipped to Mexico with the blessing and subsidies of their administration, and who now kicks cans in the afternoons and wonders how to face his wife.
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Political Brains, Red-Hot and Bluish

Why aren’t the Democrats winning hands down? A brilliant young psychologist thinks it's all in the brain–ours.

Some of my Democratic friends reading my blogs or listening to my occasional rants are starting to wonder which side I’m on. The fact is I have always voted Democratic and will do so in this election, but I am increasingly frustrated with my party.
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Altruistic Punishment–or Just Plain Spite?

Why did Main Street hate the bailout plan so much? Evolutionary psychobiology has an answer.

Last Monday, in the worst financial crisis in a century, the House voted "no." The representatives of the people, after prolonged deliberation and sometimes rancorous debate, said no, we will not appropriate $750 billion to bail out Wall Street and pick up the tab for years of reckless greed.
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Kangaroo Care, Infancy, and Survival

Can skin-to-skin contact save premature babies?

A few days ago I found myself at the podium of a large lecture hall in Uppsala, Sweden, a three-century-old, grand space with a great chandelier and the look of an opera house, but then the scene of a symposium at the academic medical center of Uppsala University.
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Biophilia in Michigan

The love of the living world is built into human nature, and it's good to be reminded again and again.

My daughter Sarah, 21, who cares for nature as much as anyone I know, took me under her wing today-as usual, to my benefit. I said at every choice point, "I am placing myself in your very capable hands," and she led me into the Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor, known to the citizens of that marvelous town as "the Arb."
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Evolution Revolution

Georgia: a fundamentalist backwater or a hotbed of evolutionary rebellion? Both.

In the past three days I somehow managed to give a lecture to medical students on medicine and anthropology, moderate a panel on evolutionary medicine, and conduct a seminar at a retreat for Emory Scholars–some of our most outstanding undergraduates–called "Religion, Science, Literature and Life."
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President Obama

Barack Obama, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the rebirth of the dream.

At this writing, Barack Obama seems set to win the most important position in the nation and the world. In June, when he won the nomination, I wrote “The Long View,” about how, in anthropological perspective, history had been made.
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Their March on Washington

Now I get it: This is their generation's March on Washington.

My son Adam Konner is a senior at the University of Michigan who, like so many other young people, has been working to elect Barack Obama.
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Political Genes?

New evidence forces us to consider the role of genes in all behavior

Just over a quarter century ago, I wrote my first book, The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit. In it I addressed the objections that many liberal scientists and others of that day had against behavioral genetics, some of which I shared.
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Driving Mr. Bubble

Champagne bubbles, dot-com bubbles, credit bubbles, and bursting dreams.

After a lecture in Poughkeepsie in mid-November I had take a car down to the White Plains airport at 3 AM in order to meet my class in Atlanta. The driver—let’s call him Don—was a big, burly, solid man around fifty with a New York accent that made me feel right at home.

He turned out to be a retired police officer, pro-Obama, a classic New York Democrat like his father and grandfather before him. Don could care less about Obama’s name or race, but as a struggling entrepreneur with two daughters in college he was very, very worried about the economy.
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Terror in India

Is terrorism really “unnatural”?

I watched in sadness but, alas, not in shock, as India suffered its own 9/11. Casualties were far fewer but the impact was similar because the action was brilliantly as well as savagely executed.
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In Memory

The loss of a gracious man who taught us about the loss of memory.

Last Tuesday evening marked the death of a very strange, very impaired, and very important man. Despite his worldwide fame, almost no one knew his name until now, yet the world owes him a debt it can never repay.
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A Philosophy of Violence and Sacrifice

A wise man with a provocative theory of violence may help us understand and save ourselves.

I just returned from a meeting in Paris (alright, a meeting followed by a marvelous three-day vacation) at which, along with some very pleasant wining and dining, I spent several days talking about imitation and violence. What do these two seemingly separate things have in common? According to René Girard, everything.
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Some Questions About Violence

Why we need a science of war and terror

Today I will try to address some of the comments about biology and violence that were provoked by my recent postings, and perhaps clarify how I think about these things. It is right to ask whether we gain anything from saying that humans are innately violent,
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Morning Joe, Evening Jack

From java to Jack Daniels, we've long accepted our daily cognitive enhancement along with our daily bread

On December 7 the distinguished journal Nature published a thoughtful but surprising essay, "Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy."
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A Cardiologist With a Great Heart

The life of a doctor-poet who changed countless lives

When I first arrived in Atlanta a quarter century ago I was befriended by John Stone, cardiologist, teacher, and poet, who from 1969 until his death on November 6 was one of the most beloved doctors and teachers in the world of Atlanta medicine. He died of cancer at the too-young age of 72,
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A Hero, a Villain, and a Leader

Three stunning current examples of human character reflect our evolutionary history

Yesterday’s New York Times had three remarkable specimens of humanity on the front page, and together they say much about the human species and our long evolution. They say a lot too about human nature, and perhaps even more about human culture.
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Democracy

A government in the nature of things, with intelligent (human) design

I could not make the inaugural, but I had to be in Washington on Friday, and I decided to make a pilgrimage. After walking halfway across the city (dragging a rolling bag all the way) I stood in a happy, multiracial crowd before the White House fence,
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Lincoln and Darwin at 200

At the end of their second century, two strange, brilliant men shape our lives

February 12, 1809 was a great day in the history of the human species, since two of its best specimens took their first breaths that day on two sides of the Atlantic. Both those infants grew into odd boys.
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Future Evolution

Can we say anything about human beings to come? In a word, yes.

Recently after lecturing about human evolution, I had a student come up to me and ask—she apologized first, as some do, despite my mantra that there are no bad questions—if I had any thoughts about future evolution. I did, although I hesitated to offer them; the political correctness monitors are everywhere in universities today. But, casting caution to the winds,
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Educate Girls!

If you want to go forward send girls to school; to regress, try sending them home again.

For many years now, a growing number of authorities on aid to the developing world have come to the conclusion that there is no better way to spend an aid dollar than in underwriting schools for girls.
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Life Elsewhere

Other planets surely harbor life. It’s only a question of time before we find it.

Kepler launchLast week the Kepler Mission blasted off into space—or as NASA nicely put it, “vaulted into the heavens on a column of thunder”—and within a few days passed the orbit of the moon. On March 12 its photometer was powered on, and as soon as it can be calibrated it will begin fulfilling the mission’s purpose: the search for other worlds. Read more

Sex Lives, Male and Female

Sex is something that women have and men want. Or is it?

I caused a bit of comment in a blog on another website when I wrote, “Your mother told you men only want one thing, and you may have rolled your eyes, but she had a piece of the truth. Biology and common sense both tell us sex is something women have and men want. We can try as hard as we want to talk our way around this, but we can’t make it any less true…”

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Insatiable Widows: More Gender & Sex

In response to my last posting, “Sex Lives, Male and Female,” reader Clare wrote this thoughtful comment:

“I’m curious what you make of the ethnographic accounts from cultures where widows are considered to be insatiable sex fiends? Is this how fear of women expresses itself, that they become more interested in sex than is considered usual? Or is there some truth to the folklore? Is there any evidence that sexual interest waxes and wanes (so to speak) over the life course of men and women?”

I thought it well worth answering at length: Read more

Obesity

Is obesity an epidemic? Is it even a disease? Semantics aside, it’s huge and growing burden.

boys eatingI’m writing this in an airport, and a couple of hours ago as a line of passengers filed past me in the airplane aisle, I noticed, as I often do, that some of them were not just overweight—many are that—but obese. I remembered from yesterday’s news that some airlines are considering charging such people for two seats. It seems unfair, and yet… Read more

Swine, Flu and Us

It’s always wrong to panic, but it’s never wrong to be prepared.

There is an ancient relationship between humanity on the one side, and parasites, microbes, and viruses on the other. It has been rightly called an evolutionary arms race—or more exactly, a series of them—and I will return to that idea in a moment.

But the writer in me prefers another metaphor, used by the virologist Richard Krause as the title of a book: The Restless Tide. As the subtitle explains, Read more

Swine, Flu and Us: 2

How can we be sure how serious the threat is? We can’t.

According to the World Health Organization, which is carefully tracking the new H1N1 virus and reporting daily, as of 4 PM today (Wednesday, May 6), 23 countries have reported 1,893 official cases (822 in Mexico) and a total of 30 deaths (29 in Mexico). Since I wrote on this last week,  Read more

Swine, Flu and Us: 3

Could it be in the end we will thank this virus for bringing us together?

The H1N1 epidemic is not much in the news anymore, but of course it’s percolating along. WHO now calls it “sneaky” because human-to-human spread is rapid and because the virus has the potential to mutate into a more virulent form. As of May 25 the number of countries affected (46) has doubled Read more

Obesity 2

Obesity is an evolutionary legacy, which is why it’s so hard to control.

I said a few weeks ago (before I was rudely interrupted by the swine flu epidemic) that I would try to explain why the battle against overweight is such a hard and so far losing one, for the species if not for the individual. Read more

Darwinian News, Hot Off the Press

In the Darwin bicentennial, new insights into fossils, genes, birdsong, and cancer.

google-logo-fossil1The latest issue of Nature to land in my mailbox-the May 28th one-was not a tribute to Darwin in honor of his 200th birthday and the 150th of The Origin of Species; Nature has been there, done that. But it might as well have been another celebration for him, Read more

“… and By the Way, Led By Women”

iran10616091This was the remark of a TV journalist about the movement to defeat Ahmadinejad at the ballot box-and that was before the protests began. As the weeks wore on, women became even more prominent. They were in the forefront of many demonstrations, exercising leadership, twittering and facebooking tips about police positions and protest meeting places. Read more

Men, Women, and Iran: An Exchange

My friend and colleague Prof. David Blumenthal wrote this comment on my last posting, and I try to answer it below.

Dear Mel,

I’m not sure I agree that educating women is the way to go. As long as Islamic
men have the following cluster of problems, no amount of women’s education
will work:

(1) Islamic men have no empowerment – not economic, not religious, not
political, etc. This is also why Arabs can’t negotiate a peace; they have to
be empowered, to win. (2) Islamic men believe that submission is the
ultimate value – for themselves and especially for those who defy them. Read more

Race War

Our innate fear and contempt of strangers often turns ugly. Now it’s China’s turn.

A charismatic president who blends two major races has had a healing effect on the wounds of a secular racial conflict in the United States. At the moment he is in Ghana visiting and speaking—eloquently as always— Read more

One World?

Prof. Mari Fitzduff, who I’m honored to call a friend, set me thinking the other day when she commented on a proposed speech I wrote for President Obama to substitute for the one he gave in Cairo. But before I share our exchange, you need to know that Mari is the director of the Conflict and Coexistence Program at Brandeis University, where she moved after many years as director of INCORE, the International Conflict Research Institute in (as she always says it to avoid taking sides) “Derry/Londonderry,” Northern Ireland. In that role she played an important part in the years and years of mediation that finally brought a blessed end to that terrible conflict. Read more

Who Lies About Health Care?

Because I was involved in health care reform in the ’90s–two books, four or five New York Times op-ed pieces, a couple of essays in Newsweek , and two testimonies before U.S. Senate committee—a lot of people ask me to help them separate fact from fiction in the current debate.

Tensions are high. When a congressman from South Carolina, long and widely known as a fool and a boor, yelled, “You lie!” Read more

Senator Rockefeller Fights for Health Reform

A fighter for real health reform loses with grace, grit, and compassion for all who languish outside the health care system.

Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia) has long been one of my heroes. In 1994 I testified before a full hearing of the Senate Finance Committee, the same committee now marking up the bill to introduce health reform. Sen. Rockefeller is one of the few members who were on the committee in ’94 and are still on it now.
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And the Nobel Peace Prize Goes to…

Whatever we think of the choice for this years prize, the runners-up deserve some attention.

Since even Obama reacted with disbelief to the news, saying in effect what everyone else said—that it was based on expectations, not accomplishments—I thought I would look into other nominees who were in effect runners-up.

One was Hu Jia, a Chinese dissident and AIDS activist Read more

Darwin’s Digs

Portrait of the scientist as a college boy

Visiting Cambridge University this week, to speak in one of the countless conferences honoring Darwin’s anniversary year, I had a chance to see the rooms he lived in as a student there. He was at Christ’s College, Read more

The Crab in the Breast

In breast cancer, promising approaches of twenty years ago are still…promising.

Today I talked about breast cancer to an audience already energized about Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Among other things, I told them that diseases need lobbies, and that breast cancer has one, having learned from the AIDS awareness movement, which in a momentous few years in the 1980s turned our country toward committed prevention.

But in breast cancer, science has made limited progress Read more

What is “the Self”?

And assuming we can answer that, how is science changing it?

Big philosophical concepts bother me, but I am expected later this week at Tufts University, where I’ll be on a panel discussing “The New Biology and the Self.” So I need to get over my reluctance to talk about the self. And it’s not the only big idea that gives me trouble.

Consciousness and free will are two other notions Read more

She’s a Hero

kimberly-munley-hero-fort-hoodThank goodness for a brave woman with character to spare

Five feet and four inches of pure skill and courage, Kimberly Denise Munley, at lunchtime Thursday, saved an unknown but large number of people from injury and death. She did it by running straight toward a terrorist armed with two guns blazing at her and she kept walking into that deadly barrage until both of them fell with serious wounds. Around them were the bodies of the twelve people the terrorist had murdered and at least thirty he had injured—one, it turned out, also fatally. Read more

The “New Biology” and “The Self”

A couple of weeks ago I posted some musings about “the self” in anticipation of being on a panel with Steven Pinker (author of The Blank Slate and The Stuff of Thought) and Noga Arikha (author of Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours) at Tufts University. The panel, convened by Jonathan Wilson, was titled “The New Biology and the Self,” and what follows was my contribution. The graduate student referred to is Monica Chau of Emory University.

I told a very smart neurobiology graduate student named Monica yesterday that I’d been asked to speak on “The New Biology and the Self.” She said, “What’s the new biology?” I said, “I don’t know, but that’s the least of my problems. What’s the self?” Read more

Alice Rossi

rossialiceMy friend and colleague Alice Schaerr Rossi, a co-founder of the National Organization for Women and one of the leading sociologists of her generation, died on November 3 at age 87.

For a few years in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I worked with her and Jane Lancaster, a distinguished anthropologist now at the University of New Mexico and editor of the journal Human Nature, on a committee of the Social Science Research Council, and both of them affected my thinking about gender. Read more

We Can’t All Be Mozart

Genius may be 90 percent perspiration, but it helps to have the right starting point.

A comment by Jack Davis on my last blog entry leads me to write something about talent, genes, environment, and how we succeed. Jack asks about a new book by David Shenk, The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong. Read more

“We Can’t All Be Mozart”? Why Not?

Some thoughtful comments, and some attempted answers.

The comments on my last posting, “We Can’t All Be Mozart,” were so thoughtful and interesting that I decided to post another blog on this. To my general claim that innate talent matters, I opposed a fact close to home that seems to contradict it: I have two grown daughters, Read more

Craig Venter’s “Creation”

It’s not creation, but it’s a technical achievement full of promise.

To say that Craig Venter’s latest contribution is garnering hype would be one of the understatements of the year.  The paper, whose title begins “Creation of a Bacterial Cell…” was published in the print version of Science on July 2—Daniel Gibson was the first of many authors, Venter the last—but it had already appeared online on May 20 and generated a lot of comment, not least of all by Venter himself. Read more

Sex Differences in…Sex

634963_49660373-copyNote: By invitation, I’ve started a blog on the Psychology Today website, and my latest post can be read there or here, although different (and likely more numerous) comments will be  posted there. This entry resembles and updates one I posted here in March 2009, which was followed by an interesting exchange on “insatiable widows” and other cross-cultural myths.

We hear a lot about sex differences, and arguments rage over which are real. Evolutionary theorists weigh in about why this or that difference should be expected, while some anthropologists say cultures vary so much that generalizations are folly. But of all Darwinian predictions about la différence, few are as logical as the one about sex differences in sexuality. Here’s why. Read more

Human Nature in High Places

Statesmen understand human nature. Why not psychologists and social scientists?

apg_obama_nobel_091009_mn1Most psychologists don’t like human nature, or at least not the idea of it. Clinicians, life coaches, and corporate motivators dislike it because it implies unchangeability. Anyone who took college psychology knows how to modify behavior, from direct instruction to manipulative advertising.

And then, what fool surveying the huge variety of human personalities, needs, and tastes would dream of trying to characterize all that as one thing? Well, some fool might, but not the philosophers, evolutionists, historians and political leaders who have long used the phrase. They’ve always meant something complex, varied, and big-but not limitless.

 Barack Obama, for instance. Read more

Epidemic Obesity: Adaptation Gone Wild

Obesity is unnatural, but it’s natural to try for it.

titian_venus_mirrorThis morning I sat on a panel for medical students; the subject was obesity. Nationally, as anyone who hasn’t been hiding under a rock knows, the picture is not pretty-in fact it’s pretty ugly. By the standard definition, obesity means a Body Mass Index (BMI; weight in kilos over height in meters squared) above 30, and in about 15 years starting in 1990 we went from 22 percent to 33 percent obese.

Now, I don’t care what you call it or Read more

Wife-Wooing*

It’s easier when you remember that it’s about love.

contemplator-couple-1b1A posting by Psychology Today blogger Anita Kelly produced a lively discussion (including some prudish comments on masturbation). The basic idea was that your wife is tired and resents you because she does much more of the chores and child care than you. But there also seemed to be an honest recognition of a fact that’s been proven as well as any fact about sex differences: average women desire sex less than average men. (See “Sex Differences in…Sex “). But Dr. Kelly seems to want all the compromises from him: Read more

Is ADHD a Disease of Civilization?

Many kids we diagnose would be fine hunter-gatherers.

childgroup-c02reducedDuring my two years of research on children among the Kalahari San, or Bushmen, I watched kids scramble over huge termite hills, chase each other around the scrub brush in the savanna, practice dance steps, stop to dig up a tasty tuber, pick some berries, or throw a rock at a hapless bird or turtle which they could then cook and eat. I often wondered how many of them Read more

The Social Network, 10,000 BP

Do 21st-century networks hark back to the distant past?

Picture a fire in an otherwise pitch-dark cave, or outside on a still plain on a moonless, starry night. Drop the temperature a bit, perhaps, and add the distant wail of a coyote or some wild dogs. Now add the most important ingredient: four or seven or ten people sitting around the fire talking, with babies or young children sleeping on some of their backs or laps. Extend the scene long into the night.

Thus the nub of the social network, circa 10,000 years ago, and for a couple of hundred thousand years before that. Hunter-gatherer bands consisted of a small number of people, 30 or so on average, mostly related through direct or indirect blood or marital ties. The number could fluctuate upward when a resource was limited-say, water in the dry season-or downward when prey animals were dispersing. The group could also split for social reasons-one way of resolving conflict-and reaggregate as before, or expand again with somewhat changed membership. The band might also move as a whole. But for a few weeks or months at least, these would be the people you saw and talked with every day.

Beyond these fluctuating, mobile bands would be a wider social world of perhaps 500 people you would likely know by name and sight. You would be related to some of them, more distantly on average than to those in your band, and you would think of some of them as people who could help you in bad times, perhaps connect you up with a mate or be there for your children, and even perhaps one day find yourself around the fire with in the same band, talking.

What does this pattern have in common with twenty-first century social networks based on media like Facebook and Twitter? A lot, in my view.

I first heard about Facebook when only college kid had access; I thought, great, they deserve their own social world. But when it opened up to all kinds of people of all ages, although I certainly saw the dangers, I also saw the opportunity. I saw it again in the film, The Social Network , the other evening. The film doesn’t strike me as the masterwork it’s been touted as, but it’s very entertaining. I have no idea whether Zuckerberg, Facebook’s creator, is the autism-spectrum solipcist he’s portrayed as in the movie. I doubt it. But that’s not the idea that matters.

It’s the idea of a private social network of your own choosing, connected to endless other similar networks, and it’s no wonder it spread like wildfire. There was and is a human hunger for contact, and this seemed to be a new kind of contact. The pictures, the personal news, the sharing of griefs and celebrations, the expression of feelings have of course been done for generations, but not instantaneously at a distance.

You now got to choose your own hunter-gatherer band, and your own network of "friends" beyond it. With the advent of multiple levels of privacy, intimacy can be nested in concentric circles just as it was for scores of thousands of years on the African plains. It’s just that it no longer depends on geography, and you have a lot more choice. Whether you are gay, vegan, a kick-boxer, a Baptist-turned-Buddhist, or all those things, you can find and build a network of people like yourself.

But of course, the "friends" of choice often include family, and that part of the network resembles the one from 10,000 years ago. So, for example, I’m friended by all my kids, my stepdaughter, a number of their friends, my wife, our neices and nephews, present and former students, and many of our contemporaries. I don’t spend much time on Facebook myself, but that’s partly because my wife-a smart psychologist and a very loving person-uses her insomnia to follow all those people.

The upshot is she has known immediately when some of them needed help, when some of them started new relationships or saw old ones foundering, when this one had a cold or that one was drinking too much, and it didn’t matter whether they were under our roof or thousands of miles away. Carefully, to be sure, she and I have sometimes responded to what we have learned in this way, sometimes we have only watched and waited.

But the point is we have known so much more than we could have known a decade ago, and we’ve known it in real time. We’re not snooping, because we’ve been admitted or even invited, and we can participate in new ways. With Twitter and its melding with Facebook, the day-to-day becomes moment-to-moment. The exchange becomes more and more a conversation, and the pictures make it almost seem face-to-face.

Are there dangers? To be sure. Impostors are everywhere, and some are dangerous. Another (in my view better) film, Catfish , depicts the emotional consequences of one very sad hoax, and it can get much worse than that. Pimps and other predators are out there finding children. Some people delude themselves that they are "friends" with thousands.

But all advances have a cost. We have entered a new age of social networks that in some ways takes us back to our original adaptation, the day by day and night by night interactions with those we care about, and who care about us, and the opportunity to share their lives.


Note: By invitation, I’ve started a blog on the
Psychology Today website, and my latest post can be read there or here, although different comments may be  posted there.

The Social Network, 10,000 BP

Do 21st-century networks hark back to the distant past?

Picture a fire in an otherwise pitch-dark cave, or outside on a still plain on a moonless, starry night. Drop the temperature a bit, perhaps, and add the distant wail of a coyote or some wild dogs. Now add the most important ingredient: four or seven or ten people sitting around the fire talking, Read more

The Happiness Summit: Four Religious Leaders Talk

Religious summit finds happiness in relationships and even in suffering.

dalai-lama-emoryLast month at Emory (my university), the Dalai Lama was the center of a conversation-a “summit,” according to the press-on happiness. Also included were a Presiding Episcopal Bishop, the Chief Rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth, and a famed Islamic scholar. None of them said anything about mood, and several denied that happiness has much to do with pleasure. Read more

Psychological States As Ancient Adaptations

Depressed? Anxious? Happy? Resilient? Thank a hunter-gatherer in your past.

women-at-mongongo-groves-copy3I’ve considered here the high probability that obesity and diabetes are diseases of civilization and the possibility that ADHD may in part be as well. But what about other psychological symptoms and disorders? Randolph Nesse , a distinguished psychiatrist at the University of Michigan, has long been thinking about depression and anxiety in evolutionary perspective, and so have I and others.
Depression is a kind of withdrawal. Although it can be severe or long enough to hurt your reproductive options and even endanger your life, it is sometimes a symptom that gets you out of harm’s way. Read more

The Pendulum Swings Back

Americans love the center, and are also fond of gridlock.

/images1I recently ended a decade on the Board of Trustees of the Russell Sage Foundation, which funds research in various branches of social science and psychology that bear on issues like race, immigration, poverty, and inequality in all its forms. It was endowed in 1907 by Margaret Olivia Sage in memory of her husband Russell Sage, and she specified that she wanted her legacy to be used toward “the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States.” My farewell remarks were made at an annual dinner two days after the election, and it being a foundation with traditionally liberal concerns, many present were worried about the direction of the country. I said this:

A couple of years ago at this event I was seated next to Barbara Solow, a respected economic historian and at eighty-something a charming and lively dinner companion. We were in the depths of the economic crisis, two wars were not going well, and some people were saying they had never seen worse times. I asked Bobbi, a child of the Depression and a Radcliffe student during the war, how worried she was. Read more

Triumph of the (Teenage) Human Spirit

Resilience is sometimes astounding, and we need to acknowledge it.

school-group-wearing-red-c-uA boy, in flames, is running, screaming, across the parking lot of his school on an otherwise ordinary morning. The image evokes Vietnam or Bosnia, but it is Charleston, South Carolina, Wednesday, December 8. The school happens to be the number-one ranked Academic Magnet High School in the United States, and it shares a campus with a highly regarded School of the Arts. The burning boy is running toward the magnet school’s front doors. Read more

Teen Suicide: Can It Always Be Stopped?

An American between 15 and 24 commits suicide every two hours.

teen1My last posting about the tragic and very public suicide of a sixteen-year-old boy on the grounds of my niece’s Charleston school, produced two anonymous comments (on the Psychology Today website):

CALL ME A PESSIMIST BUT—
I see first all those who failed Aaron, and a group being sad and responding after a tragedy, yes, but also acts that are self preserving of the remaining group, and few answers. Read more

Crybaby Boomers

We need to help our kids avoid a Boomer Bust.

boomers1On the last night of 2010, after the ball fell in Times Square, toasting the New Year, a couple I’ve known for decades looked pretty glum. “Why are these people celebrating?” my friend—let’s call him Jim—wondered as he looked over at the bright, smiling, cheering, mostly young faces on TV. “We’re all just another year closer to being dead.”

“Come on,” I said, the anthropologist in me stirring. “This is one of the great rituals of the modern world. We dance, we make noise, we even sing Auld Lang Syne even though nobody knows what it means. Read more

Is Genocide Now Maladaptive?

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David Blumenthal, a good and wise friend who is a Jewish studies professor and a rabbi wrote me recently asking about the former adaptiveness and present maladaptiveness of xenophobia. The operative passage in his letter was, “In the global world, however, survival requires the cooperation of varying and different groups. Humanity, in its groups, cannot survive without the quintessential other. Xenophobia has ceased to be adaptive. So has antisemitism, racism, orientalism, and misogyny.”

I have little trouble agreeing that at some times in the past these behaviors were adaptive for the perpetrators. Read more

Is Misogyny Maladaptive?

islamic_womenPart of my friend’s question that I didn’t answer last time was about misogyny, which he hopefully speculated is now maladaptive. I deferred this because from an evolutionary viewpoint it is in a different category from xenophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism. Let me state clearly at the outset, as I did about the other categories of prejudice: I think we are gradually creating conditions in which misogyny is maladaptive, and we must continue to do that.

However, it has to be recognized that for the long span of human evolution Read more

Psychologist Ann Kruger Boosts Girls’ Self-esteem to Prevent Sexual Exploitation

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Dr. Ann Cale Kruger

Most of us are concerned now about the sexualization of childhood—toddler beauty queens, Rihanna outfits in preschool. But three just-published articles still shock.

They come from the laboratory of developmental psychologist Ann Cale Kruger at Georgia State University—I’m happy to disclose I’m married to her—and concern Project PREVENT, a program she launched to explore the vulnerabilities of girls and to try to strengthen their resilience. Read more