Impact of an 8 year old

Saturday, yesterday, at noon, here in my peaceful little village in the middle of Ohio, a little boy was killed by a car.  We don’t know the details, yet, but they don’t matter.

We do know is his family was crossing the street.  A car driven by a sixty-something hit the entire family; all of them went to hospital.  As of this writing his is the only death.

The 12th of July should have been a memorable day for him because he probably got ice cream, saw the water falls, and probably enjoyed seeing many of the dogs and people walking about.  The village was different from his home in Virginia, and perhaps he would remember us as he grew into a young man, a man with a family, a career, and the possibility of helping humanity into the future.

The title of this essay is deliberately harsh, because the impact of that car has caused this little boy to impact my life, and through me, perhaps, some of you.  It’s my fervent hope that his life does not end with a short obituary and a few tears.  It’s my dream that events like this create a greater impact within ourselves, and our society.

I dream of a day when every tragedy causes us to pause, appreciate each other, and be thankful for the simple things in life.  I dream of a day when every tragedy becomes a new incentive to learn, and improve ourselves and our society.  And I dream of a day when tragedies like this are only known through ancient history.

We must be careful not to over-react.  Was the family paying attention and following the rules of the road?  Was the driver competent and was the car in proper working order.  If something did fail, what was it and how can we prevent such events like these in the future?

This little boy’s memories of our village have been erased.  But his memory becomes part of ours.  Even as I write this, I’m also reading about children whose memory is being erased in Syria, Gaza, Irag, Afghanistan, and other places.  Will our society ever grow to the point where those lives are also mourned?

Or will their impact be lost?



Watching the Putin follies

Last month the big geopolitical news was that Ukraine was imploding.  Russia, led by their intrepid Czar, Vladimir “bare chested” Putin, swooped in to save the Crimea.  What were they saving the Crimea from?  From the Crimeans, apparently.  Over the last decade or so, Russia has been moving in many Russians for business and military reasons.  Those Russians felt in danger, so luckily the Russian military has arrived to liberate and protect those poor people.  The fact that the Crimean legislature has decided to secede from Ukraine and join Russia is mere coincidence.

Let’s look at the BIG picture for a moment.  Please, step back from your computer.  There you go.  The big picture is this – Russia has always wanted Crimea.  They also wanted Afghanistan, but that didn’t go over as well.  The last time Russia made a play for Crimea was around 1850.  They had to give it back a few years later.  The reason?  They want it for the beaches.  Really.  The Crimea has access to warm water all year round.  Good for your tan, Vladimir.  Also good for your Navy.

Back in 1850, rising political pressure forced Russia to go home.  Today’s takeover is only a few months old, but the political pressure is already starting to rise.  You can tell how excited Putin is about the takeover by how hard his nipples are in those pictures.  Right after the takeover, very excited.  Today’s pictures, not so much.  Why?

Well, the Russian stock market is taking a hit.  Who has their money in Russian stocks?  Rich Russians, that’s who!  How much money are Putin’s pals going to lose before they start calling Vlad up in the middle of the night?  The conversation probably sounds like this:  “Hey, Vladdy, what’s the deal?  My dacha and my devushka are ditching me because I had to sell the two yachts!  Even my wife is getting upset!  Do something!”

Stocks aren’t the only pressure our modern society brings to bear on the Bear of Russia.  We are starting to freeze the bank accounts of Rich Russians and Russian companies.  Very inconvenient, don’t you know.  How would you like to jet off to London or New York and find that you can’t withdraw a million from your bank account?  Now you have to carry all that in cash – and you KNOW how bulky that stuff is!

So, if you’re crying for Crimea, hang on to your babushka.  This is only the beginning.  For the rest of us, sit back and enjoy the Putin Show.  I’m not “Putin” you on!  (Sorry.)


Women, War, and Sex

There aren’t many plays that can entertain us for more than a year or two.  And there are even fewer that last more than a generation.  Then there is Shakespeare, whose plays have lasted 500 years (almost) and are still going strong.  But even the Great Bard comes in after the winners when compared to the Greeks of the Golden Age.

411 years before the Christian Era, and Aristophanes writes a comedy that involves a group of women who are sick and tired of war.  The Big War for them was between Athens and Sparta, and it simply went on too long.  A brazen woman named Lysistrata decided that the best way to force men back to the bargaining table and secure peace was to hold back on the only “piece” under their control.  No peace, no sex.

Oh yes, there are antics and some sub-plots along the way.  Some moralizing about the frailty of women and the duties of men to keep them under control.  But look at the play more closely and there is much more than that.

For the moralizing, though dated in our eyes, is actually a sarcastic statement commenting on the absurd expectations of men and women, over two thousand years ago.  Aristophanes was effectively the voice of our own modern women.  And there’s more.  The play centers around the masculine need for war, and the feminine desire to forge peace at any cost.  These are sentiments that still ring true today, perhaps even more than then.

And it is here that the play has its greatest value for me.  It shows us that there are fundamental behaviors, regarding men and women, war and peace, that humanity understands no better than it did 2400 years ago.  Lysistrata’s complaints and Aristophanes observations are just as relevant.  And until we, as students of behavior, commit to truly understanding what these behaviors are about, we are doomed to relive the past.  War and Peace, peace and war.  Perhaps it’s time for another Lysistrata to rise!



Are you good?

— Are you a good person? —

An article in Science [1] claims that warlike behavior among modern hunter-gathering tribes is non-existant. Almost all the violence is of a personal nature: he stole my food, he raped my wife. Assuming today’s hunter-gatherers are our best example of ancient human tribes, we can conclude that ancient bands of humans were peaceful. War was vintually non-existant, and therefore war has had no significant impact upon the development of our civilization, our culture, our species.

— Are you an evil person? —

The authors of this article, Fry and Söderberg, are attempting to support a belief held by many anthropologists that man is fundamentally good. Furthermore, it may be that they believe that early man – in small, close-knit groups living simply and close to nature – is the most utopian state our civilization has achieved.

— If you do evil, only once in your entire life, does this make you evil? —

The question of whether man is good or evil is something many have addressed, usually in literature class. Whether reading a great classic like Huckleberry Finn, an enthralling thought experiment like Lord of the Flies, or something as poor as Separate Peace, we wrestle with the most intriguing question; Are we good, or evil?

— Were you born good? —

The reason the question of good versus evil is so good for the classroom, and also for academic careers, is because there is no answer. At least, there’s no answer in the form in which the question is phrased. There is no answer because we are both good and evil. All of us, as individuals, as part of our group, and even today as compared to tomorrow, vary in our propensity to behave in good or evil ways.

— If you are born good, and do evil, when and how did this transformation occur? —

It’s important to address this issue early, and to deal with it directly. It’s such a fundamental assumption, both in research and in political or economic decision-making, that it seriously hinders the pace of learning about behavior.

— Is mankind good? —

Major decisions, like how to transfer power to Afghanis, or how best to preserve the political and economic health of Egypt, are being made by the US government, right now. Without understanding this most basic assumption, such decisions are likely to be far from the mark, and probably have costly unforeseen consequences.

— Is mankind evil if only one member is evil? —

Our job as students and researchers of behavior is to only measure behavior that can be expressed and observed. The problem with peace andn goodness is that, in most cases, these are defined as the absence of violence. No right-minded scientist should have hypotheses that rely upon the absence of observations. We must count only those events that we can see, and record in such a way that others can see or replicate. Ideally, these observations should also have implications, acting as indirect evidence of their existance.

— Does doing good today always mean the long-term impact will also be good? —

Let’s get back to Fry and Söderberg. They counted observable acts of violence and concluded war was virtually non-existent. Beyond the fact that their study was fundamentally anecdotal and methodologically meaningless, all they concluded was that war is a rare event. And that’s true.

— How is it possible for me to perform an act I perceive as good, yet you perceive as evil? —

Violence only occurs when one person behaves in such a way that insults or injures anether person from that person’s perspective. It’s possible for one person to be doing good while another person perceives it as evil. Not only is this statement true for a person, but for a family, a tribe, and a even a nation. It’s that special class of behavior, where one nation behaves violently toward another, that we can truly observe and call war.

— If I have evil thoughts, but always behave in ways that are good, am I still a good person? —

Declaring humanity as good or evil is unscientific and reveals fundamentally flawed assumptions. We are beings capable of both violent and good behavior. We are beings who can choose non-violent methods of reconciling conflict. For the most part, our customs, laws, and societies are built upon our ability to suppress violent impulses. If you’re a good person, but inadvertently do evil, then you simply had a ‘leak.’ And leaks occur all the time. As a society we should use leaks as an opportunity to learn, improving our theories of behavior, and adjusting the tools at our disposal so that those leaks are less likely to happen again.

Until Fry and Söderberg, Anthropology, and all the other behavioral disciplines are ready to accept the fundamental fact that we are both good and evil, no significant progress can be made in undrestanding behavior. None. For the essence of war is not only between nations, it is always within each of us. It is but a single point on a vast continuum of violence. For us to become better behavioral scientists, we must accept that all of us are complex entities with continuously changing and competing impulses. If we are to fully understand the behavior of ourselves, our nation, and build a better future for our children, we must abandon the assumption that people are either good or evil, and accept the assumption that we, all of us, are both.

— Will you be good, today? —




[1] Science, 19 July 2013, Volume 341, page 224. Anthropology: Latest skirmish over ancestral violence strikes blow for peace, a summary by Elizabeth Culotta. The research article is on page 270 of the same issue, entitled “Lethal aggression in mobile forager bands and implications for the origins of war.” by Douglas P Fry and Patrick Söderberg.