How Men Talk at Else’s

Else's“He died yesterday, just after noon. Right here.”

That’s what the crying woman at Sherbrooke metro station said, through the plexiglass, about her beloved coworker, the grey-haired ticket-taker who’d come in to work a half-hour early every day, for over 40 years. Just so he could write sweet little handwritten notes to all the people he’d sell tickets to during his shift.

Martin still had yesterday’s ticket in his pocket. It read: “Bonne Journée!”

“He was a good man,” she said, choking back tears.

She was still in the booth at the end of the day, looking at something on her phone, when Martin passed by on his way home from work.

DJ Manifest, his favorite busker, was launching rhymes down the tunnel. “With so much drama in the Q-B-C, it’s kinda hard bein’ anythin’ but A-D-D; but, somehow, some way, we keep comin’ up with funky ass shit like every single day.”

Martin dropped a ten-spot in his case without stopping. It was already 4:45 p.m. and he was supposed to meet DesPierres at Else’s by five. There was urgency in his old friend’s message, panic suggesting lateness wasn’t an option.

The Montreal confronting him outside the Sherbrooke metro was grey and dismal. It’s November now, he thought. The month that makes psalmists of us all. Saint-Louis Square was peaceful, eerily so, like Times Square in a disaster movie, just before the comet hits. Strangely absent, though, were the park’s perennial pigeons who’d huddle like gangs in a schoolyard, gossiping and boasting, catching up and hooking up.

Then Martin saw the peregrine falcon, perched on a low-hanging tree branch, methodically tearing a pigeon to shreds. She was plucking out its feathers the way a Westmount matron might weed her garden; clipping off its pink feet the way a prudent pruner might take shears to rosebushes. The blood, feathers, and feet were strewn all over the ground below. It was beautiful, even sublime, the way mushroom clouds are beautiful and sublime.

But then Schopenhauer killed the mood, as dour philosophers often will, questioning the ethics of his aesthetics. Here’s what the grumpy German guy said, what he whispered into Martin’s ear: There are those who say pleasure outweighs pain or, at any rate, that there’s an even balance between them in this broken, burning world of ours. But we both know that’s bullshit. And anyone who doubts it should compare the daily pleasure of the feeding falcon to the searing pain of the pigeon being eaten raw and alive.

But then he remembered his friend DesPierres, probably waiting for him, right now, at the bar. His mind strode quickly away from the park, until he could feel himself turning away — far away — from the horror.

DesPierres wasn’t there when Martin got to Else’s. But everybody else was: Avrom, King David, Benoît, Hunter, Aaron, Louis — the usual suspects. King David nodded hello before returning to his book. Benoît looked up from his laptop: “Salut, Martin.” And, as expected, Avrom made fun of Martin’s Movember stache. “More virtue-signaling, Señor Smartypants? Social justice warrior shit!”

“No, not really. I’m not even sure what the fuck this is for. Cancer of the balls or something. I’m only doing it because one of my students asked me to. He’s really into it. Youthful idealism. It’s catchy. But this is a one-off, that’s for sure. I’m not doing it next year. Never again. Strangers stare when you’re sporting a stache. Half of them think you’re an undercover cop. The rest that you’re a retired porn-star with bad credit and genital warts.”

“Why’d you go along with this politically-correct bullshit in the first place? Movember. Seriously? Seriously! You’re going soft in middle age, Señor Smartypants, just like that Jonathan Kay guy.”

“Look, Avrom, I know you’d like to believe Kay’s a traitor who sold out to the CBC-mafia for a seat at the grown-up table, but that ain’t so. I’ve been reading him for years, and his politics haven’t changed much. But yours have. Kay hasn’t drifted left; you’ve drifted right, far right, into a wacky world, a batty Breitbart world, swarmed by radicals and reactionaries who aren’t particularly conservative. Kay didn’t abandon you. You abandoned him.”

Avrom rolled his eyes: “Ever notice how drunks, druggies, and gamblers always have a friend they always compare themselves to who’s a total fuck-up? You know, the kind of guy who pukes in your flowerpot, knocks over the Christmas tree, passes out during dinner, and pisses himself on the couch. At first you can scarcely imagine why he hangs with that guy at all, right? But sooner or later, you realize that your buddy keeps him around because he makes him feel better about his own life. ‘Sure, I party pretty hard on the weekends, but that guy’s doing lines on Tuesdays, and getting wasted at work! I’ve got this shit under control. But that guy’s gotta slow down!’”

“What’s your point, Avrom?”

“You’re that guy, Señor Smartypants. You’re like a flying fish, who leaves the water from time to time (albeit briefly). You know the water’s water, and that there’s something else above. But you’re still a fucking fish.”

Benoît laughed without looking up from his laptop. “Don’t feed the troll, Martin, don’t feed the troll.”

Martin smiled and turned to King David: “What are you reading?”

“René Grousset’s Empire of the Steppes. Aaron’s been trying to get me to read it for years.”

“Any good?”

“Shows promise, I guess. Excellent actually. And funny in places, too. Get this: after his brother confronts him about his drinking problem in 1241, Ögedei Khan, the second Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, agrees to limit himself to a glass a day. But he’s careful not to specify the size of the glass, so from then on he slurps from a freakishly large, custom-made glass, that can easily hold two bottles of wine.”

They all laughed. Then Louis said: “I need a glass like that, King David. Seriously, if I’m gonna get through another Trump speech, I need a fucking glass like that.”

Hunter, who’d been flirting with the waitress since Martin arrived, returned to the table: “You don’t need a special glass, Louis. You need a special strategy. If you wanna get through a Trump speech, you gotta get your mind right. First you’ve gotta imagine that he’s got hot Dothraki backup singers who sing ‘It is known, it is known’ after everything he says. Then you’ve gotta imagine that Trump isn’t man, but a gigantic throbbing, talking penis. And when the camera pans across the crowd, imagine that you’re looking at a sea of cheering minions from Despicable Me.”

“Can I get you boys anything?” It was Chantal, the redhead waitress, so they ordered another round of drinks. When she was out of earshot, King David solemnly proclaimed “Remember, guys, blessèd are those who tip well at Else’s, for great is their reward in the heavenly kingdom of The Plateau.”

DesPierres arrived, just after six, apologizing profusely for being so late.

“It’s all good. Been chillin’ with the Else’s crew. And I’m in no rush. Wife and kids are in the States for the weekend.”

After introducing him to the guys, Martin led DesPierres to a corner table in the back where they could catch up in peace.

“My God, Martin! How long’s it been? Five years? Ten years?”

“At least ten.”

They talked about the vicissitudes of married life for the better part of an hour. Swapped parental war stories. As had always been the case, Martin’s stories were funny, but DesPierres’s stories were funnier: “So I’m the park with my blonde, blue-eyed, Aryan-looking son, and he loudly proclaims, in the middle of the playground: ‘I want the Jews! I want your Jews! Give me the Jews!’ He meant, of course, that he wanted his sippy-cup filled with apple juice. But, um, well, that wasn’t clear to the other parents. Especially the Hasidic ones. Don’t think I’ll ever forget that sea of stares. Those looks of shock and horror.”

“Can I get you guys anything?” It was Chantal again.

“Yeah, can I get a pint of rousse, a shot of Jameson, and the pulled-pork sandwich.”

“Bien sûr.”

Martin turned to DesPierres: “How about you?”

“I’ll take another McAuslan.”

“Pas de problème.”

“Look, DesPierres, I’m not complaining or anything. It’s great to see you but why’m I here? Why the emergency? Everything okay? You okay?”

DesPierres laughed that deep belly laugh that made him the life of every party when they were young. “I’m not dying of cancer, Martin. It’s nothing like that. Marilou and I are fine. Work’s fine. The kids are great. It’s nothing like that.”

He cleared his throat, sipped his beer, and took a deep breath. “Okay, here’s the deal: I think I may have serendipitously stumbled upon the solution to one of history’s greatest riddles. And yes, Martin, I know that sounds crazy. Like, Dan Brown, Da Vinci Code crazy. But hear me out, okay?”

“There are many versions of the riddle, but this is the one I heard when I was a kid: A blind war veteran goes into a seafood restaurant, orders shark, eats one bite, and kills himself. Took us hours to figure that one out, and hundreds of questions. But I’ll spare you all that, skip to the solution, and tell you what happened: Four decades ago, in the Second World War, the soldier in question — the one who just killed himself — was shot down in the Pacific Theater. The airplane crash-landed on a remote desert island. He was blinded by the explosion, but the other two survivors, friends of his, weren’t.”

“There’s plenty of fresh water on the island but hardly any food. So the three soldiers are soon on the brink of starvation. The two soldiers who weren’t blinded do the unthinkable: they begin cooking and eating the corpses of the five men in their unit who’d died in the plane crash. Out of love for their blind friend, they decide to lie to him. They tell him he’s eating shark. After all, they figure, there’s no reason for all three of us to live with this horrific knowledge. Besides, if we survive this war, he’s going to be handicapped by blindness for the rest of his life. No reason to be handicapped by nightmares too.”

“The three men are rescued a month later. But the memory of what they did to survive proves too much for the two men, who know the truth. One becomes a smelly recluse who drinks himself to death before his 30th birthday, whilst the other — who seemed fine to everyone, including his wife — blows his brains out after a New Year’s Eve party in 1950. The blind vet’s post-war life isn’t nearly so tragic. He marries his high school sweetheart, settles down in the suburbs, gets a job with the city, and fathers five children. But alas, on that fateful day, four decades after the war, our blind vet is forced to face up to the truth. And it crushes him.”

“I realize now, and only in retrospect, that the riddle’s dramatic conclusion attests to the strength of the cannibalism taboo in our culture. It’s clearly much stronger, for instance, than the incest taboo. Very few of us fantasize about eating a sibling, but—studies prove this—a fair number of us have, at some point, fantasized about sleeping with one. But whatever. The riddle’s main problem—logistically speaking—is that human flesh doesn’t taste anything like shark. It does, however, taste just like pork. Smells like it too.”

“How the fuck do you know what burning human flesh smells like, DesPierres?”

DesPierres thought long and hard.

“You remember we were stationed in Nigeria for four years, right?”

“Um, yeah. I saw something about that on Facebook. Marilou posted pictures from time to time, right?”

“Yup. I wasn’t allowed to. But she did, from time to time. Anyhow, as you can imagine, I saw some seriously fucked up shit over there. But nothing weirder than what I’m gonna tell you. An open-air cremation.”

“I don’t know why — maybe it was a bucket-list thing — but this balding white guy from Toronto in his late fifties decides he wants to bicycle from Cape Town to Casablanca, all by himself. Crazy, right? Anyhow, he’s doing it. And blogging about it. And it’s going well, remarkably well actually, all things considered.”\

“Until he gets hit by a truck on some stretch of road in Nigeria. The local authorities notified us. And notified the man’s family. Offered my condolences and asked what they wanted to do. They said they wanted me to arrange to have the body flown back to Canada. This place really was in the middle of nowhere. Took us forever to get there. Everything that could go wrong, went wrong. The roads were terrible, we were robbed at machine-gun-point, the van broke down twice, and one of my bodyguards got so sick we had to send him back to Lagos in an ambulance.”

“The corpse stank bad by the time we got there, though the local authorities had done their best. It’s just that electric power is spotty everywhere, even the cities, and generators are always running out of fuel until someone steals some more. After inspecting the body for foul play, we concluded that it was indeed just an accident. The cyclist was still carrying his money, cards, and belongings. Nothing was missing. And four witnesses attested to the fact that he was at fault. Somehow he’d cycled all across Africa like it was Rosedale on Easter Sunday.

“I contacted the family. Told them that shipping the body home wasn’t going to be possible, and even if it were they’d want to keep the casket closed and the church doors open. They caught on fast and agreed cremation would be fine. Told me where to send the ashes. Of course this is Africa, right! And we were in the middle of a fucking desert. So getting enough wood for the open-air cremation took us another day and much out-of-pocket. The cremation itself took half a day. And the body smelled, well, like pork. In fact, it didn’t smell like pork; it smelled exactly like pork.”

Martin thought about the pulled pork sandwich he’d ordered and felt a wave of nausea wash over him.

“In her anthropological classic, Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas trashed our anachronistic understanding of the prohibition of pork found in the Book of Leviticus. ‘Even if some of Moses’ dietary rules were hygienically beneficial, it’s a pity to treat him as an enlightened public health administrator, rather than a spiritual leader.’ Douglas details an alternate explanation for the prohibition’s origin in Leviticus as Literature. It’s a provocative and profoundly learned argument, the product of a lifetime devoted to serious study. But it’s also rather far-fetched. Imagine what a really smart version of The Da Vinci Code might look like. Regardless, my guess is that the prohibition of pork emerged for rather pragmatic reasons along with the prohibition of ritualistic cannibalism and the ban on human sacrifice.”

“The clues have always been right there, hiding in plain sight, in an altogether familiar story: a Middle Eastern Sky God — with a jealous streak as long as the Jordan — tells an Iron Age patriarch to sacrifice his only legitimate son. Dying without a rightful heir was a terrifying possibility for a patriarch like Abraham. It meant a fate worse than death, namely, the death of his line, his name and therefore his memory. That being the case, nothing demonstrated faith and trust in your god more than the sacrifice of your firstborn son.”

“And the ‘Father of Faith’ was prepared to do it. Abraham takes his son Isaac to the top of the Mountain and ties him up. Out comes the ceremonial blade. The knife is at his son’s throat. And he’s just about to slit it open when an angel of the LORD calls out to him from heaven: ‘Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.’”

“If Hyam Maccoby is right — and I firmly believe he is — the Abraham and Isaac story is a mythological representation of a massive cultural shift: from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice. In The Sacred Executioner: Human Sacrifice and the Legacy of Guilt, Maccoby maintains that although ‘the institution of human sacrifice was widely practiced throughout the ancient world,’ it gradually gave way to animal sacrifice ‘because growing civilization and humanitarianism, combined with a higher valuation of human status and a lessened awe of animals, caused a horror of human sacrifice to develop.’”

“The instructive purpose of the Abraham and Isaac story is ‘to show that God Himself ordained that animal sacrifice should be substituted for human sacrifice. At the same time, the story contains no moral revulsion from the very idea of human sacrifice. On the contrary, it is imputed to Abraham as extraordinary merit that he was willing to sacrifice his favorite son, Isaac, at the behest of God.’”

“But alas, there were then — as there’ve always been — conservatives who cling to the old ways, resist change, and hate innovations—as well as the faddish reformers who champion them. Politically-incorrect patriarchs of this stamp would have stubbornly kept on practicing human sacrifice, albeit under cover of darkness. Probably took centuries to force these guys — and the pockets of resistance they represented — to get with the program and fall into line. My guess is that the prohibition of pork emerged during this period as part of an ongoing attempt to enforce the ban on human sacrifice.”

“When Marilou was a kid, her home state of New Jersey banned the keeping of crows as pets. They did this despite the fact that crows were not, as a species, endangered in any way. Their rationale was based on two irrefutable facts: (1) ravens make really great pets, especially if you get them when they’re young; and, (2) it’s really hard for most people to tell the difference between an immature raven and an immature crow. Ravens were (and still are) seriously endangered, and nest poaching for the pet trade was putting further pressure on their dwindling numbers. As such, New Jersey officials wanted to end the practice. But a prohibition on the keeping of ravens as pets was proving exceedingly difficult, because pet store owners who were caught red-handed could always plausibly plead ignorance: ‘I swear, officer, I thought it was a baby crow.’ So they decided to close the loophole by banning crows and ravens. I suspect that pork was banned for similar reasons.”

“So, um, what do you think, Martin?”

Martin waved until he got Chantal’s attention. She came over to their table. “So sorry the order’s taking so long. Kitchen’s short-staffed and really busy.”

“That’s fine. I’m in no rush. Just wanted to know if it was too late to change my order.”

“No, it’s not. What do you want?”

“Think I’m gonna go with the vegetarian chili.”

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

Ethical Followership

flock-of-sheepA well-functioning society cannot consist merely of leaders. We can’t all be leaders at the same time. Most of us have to be followers most of the time. Yet you won’t see any wealthy suburban kids going to Followership Camp this summer. Nope, they’ll be going to Leadership Camp. Nor will you see any of the same kids enrolling in Followership Programs next semester. Nope, they’ll be enrolling in Leadership Programs. It’s laughable, when you really think about, and dangerous: because the biggest ethical challenges these young people are likely to face in their lives will be about ethical followership, not ethical leadership.

As sophisticated moral dramas like NCIS make clear, ethical followership is all about balancing the competing claims of equally noble virtues. It’s about knowing when to acknowledge the claims of loyalty and when to listen to the cries of justice; when to follow orders and when to disobey them; when to trust your boss’s judgement and when to question it; when to play by the rules and when to break them; when to cover for your colleagues and when to blow the whistle on them.

Moral dilemmas such as these are resolved easily by none but the single-minded. After all, die-hard supporters and die-hard detractors have at least one thing in common: they’re never forced to make difficult choices. Because it’s easy to say YES all the time or NO all the time. What’s hard is to know when it’s time to say YES and when it’s time to say NO.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2017)

The Princess and the Pea

“In the morning she was asked how she had slept. ‘Oh, very badly!’ said she. ‘I have scarcely closed my eyes all night. Heaven only knows what was in the bed, but I was lying on something hard, so that I am black and blue all over my body. It’s horrible!’ Now they knew that she was a real princess because she had felt the pea right through the twenty mattresses and the twenty eider-down beds. Nobody but a real princess could be as sensitive as that. So the prince took her for his wife, for now he knew that he had a real princess.”—Hans Christian Andersen, “The Princess and the Pea” (1835)

Rich BitchLike most of you, I read Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea” (1835) when I was a kid. Haven’t given it much thought since. But a recent essay by Nassim Nicholas Taleb has led me to revisit it. When I was a kid, I’m pretty sure I came away from the story thinking that the princess was a spoiled brat. But today, at 42, I find myself sympathizing with the princess. She’s a victim of her wealthy upbringing. The girl needs perfect conditions just to get a good night’s sleep!

In our day and age, the princess in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea” would grow up to be the kind of woman whose morning is ruined if the new guy at Starbucks messes up her soy-latte; the kind of delicate flower whose entire day is ruined if her favorite yoga instructor calls in sick; the kind of therapy-junkie whose entire week is ruined if her therapist cancels her weekly appointment; the kind of absentee-parent who has a panic attack when the nanny quits because she really doesn’t know how to take care of her own kids. Privilege isn’t always a privilege. And she’s a case in point. Wealth and power have transformed her into an inflexible wimp. Look at her: she’s pathetic. Why do you envy her? You really ought to pity her.

When our sons were babies, many marveled at how easily they could sleep through ambient noise. When asked, Anna-Liisa was happy to share the secret: “If you give your baby a perfectly quiet environment at bedtime, your baby will come to need a perfectly quiet environment to go to sleep; if you give your baby a perfectly quiet environment all through the night, your baby will come to need a perfectly quiet environment to sleep through the night.” As we now know, this principle of desensitization applies to much else (e.g., allergies, stress, losing at games, etc.). It is, in fact, central to Taleb’s concept of antifragility.

In Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (2012), Taleb argues that living things (biological systems) don’t just tolerate stress; they actually need it just to maintain the status quo. For instance, as N.A.S.A. discovered a few years ago, much to their chagrin, the bones of astronauts in a space station quickly degenerate when they’re deprived of the regular stress provided by the Earth’s gravitational field. Likewise, my friend’s muscles atrophied rather severely whilst she was recovering from surgery. Three months on a hospital bed, with very little movement, caused the muscles in her legs to degenerate so much that this former marathon runner could barely walk when she was discharged from the hospital. I remember it vividly: we had to practically carry her to the car.

If it’s true that we need a certain amount of stress merely to maintain the strength that we presently possess, it’s equally true that we need to increase the amount of stress on a biological system if we want it to get stronger (e.g., by lifting weights). The rich and powerful are often, as Taleb puts it, “punished by privilege and comfort.” Muscles that are unused atrophy, bones that are unused become brittle, underutilized immune systems grow weak, and pampered princesses become pathetic pansies who can’t sleep on peas.

—John Faithful Hamer, Parenting in the Age of Studies Have Shown (2017)

Dear Prince

You were alive again last night
on The Tavis Smiley Show,
but chemtrails? Chemtrails?
Da fuck, bro?

You say I’ve gotta wake up,
see past the conspiracy.
Say I’ve gotta smarten up,
see the truth behind the mystery.

Oh Prince, Prince,
you know I love you so,
but chemtrails? Chemtrails?
Da fuck, bro?

Look, man, I get it, the mind can wander, hike a few trails:
from rusty nails and gory details to book sales and epic fails;
from blue whales and alpha males to tall tales about females;
from salamander tails to Salamander Shoes.

We trekked all across town
to get our high-tops half-price,
from that guy at Salamander Shoes
who was always so nice.

I’m talking about the store,
just past rue Marie-Anne,
owned and operated,
by that delightful old man.

The people of The Plateau cried
when that sweet old man died.
And they cried still more
when his son closed the store.

They say his son, and rightful heir,
hated the store, and was rarely there.
They say he stopped by, once or twice,
to pick up a check, and make nice-nice.

But even then, he was heard to say,
in a rude and loud, obnoxious way:
“Enough’s enough, can’t take it anymore,
dad’s stupid store is such a fucking bore!”

They say his mother cried,
and just about died,
when she got the news
about Salamander Shoes.

They say this and more about the store.
It’s all a part of the local lore.
But is it true? Is it false?
Hard to be sure.

So I’ll freely admit
that all these tales,
could be as demonstrably false
as chemtrails.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

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Emotional Intelligence and Hissy Fits: The Cultural Ecology of Antifragility

turkey prozac

We all have experienced this at times: other people can drive us crazy! We love our families and friends, so why this old saying: fish and house-guests stink after three days?   Why can’t we live together peacefully, like elephants? Why aren’t we rational enough to avoid doing things that annoy each other?

Look at the list of things about, um, other people that can grind our gears… and even drive friends and family wild with frustration, or even apart with resentful anger: recklessness, cruelty, meanness, inconsistency, pranking, deceit, maudlin sentimentality, duplicity, illogical beliefs, gullibility, hubris, sanctimoniousness, jealousy, manipulative wheedling, conniving, and sheer over-the-top emotionality (making “a scene”, being a “drama queen”)

What if I suggested that such things about human behavior are not bugs but features? What if they are all part of the overall adaptation of human nature, that somehow helped turn our adjustments to living in social groups into the building blocks of a whole second replicator?

I suggest that “rationality” and analytical intelligence are evolved traits, with a starring role in shifting our species into a new level of networking and communicating, bumping up the flow of information, and personnel, within much larger communities and much wider geographical ranges than are characteristic of any other primate.   Inter-links between people at several or more degrees of separation meant that  individual networking actually disarticulated the individual from restriction to any local group. I suggest that even territoriality, linked to defensive aggression, and such a normal feature of the behavior of many primates, fell under negative selection in hominids at some point in our evolutionary history.

I, furthermore, suggest that dominance hierarchies and ranking systems, based on aggression, were actively curtailed. They had to be, to permit the evolution of the degree of infant helplessness, and the longer childhoods that accompanied brain enlargement during human evolution.   Sure, humans are capable of violence, especially in groups.   But I am suggesting that this was because violently aggressive individuals have always had to be contained and countered by coalitions of the brave and compassionate.   Without such opposition from the “good guys” who rally behind heroes, there would never have been sufficient blow-back to keep bullies and killers in line.

We individual humans are, for the most part, the products of a long evolutionary history that has favored compassion and cooperation, but that does not mean we are uniformly so kind and rational that we never lose our tempers, never yearn to get our own way, never wish for the personal luxury of solitude, having a beautiful object (a bauble or a blanket…!)

Now we might ask ourselves, what exactly was the evolutionary environment that gave a thumbs up to hyper-sociability, and a thumbs down to inter-group and intra-group competition and aggression? What possible environment generated higher fitness for individuals whose activity tended to flatten gradients of stress and life expectancy?

My initial insights in trying to answer this question arose from a field study among a patient and kindly bunch of hunter-gatherers. The Kua were my teachers for three years, and yet, as I left the Kalahari, my dominant sensation was not that I was leaving a group of peaceful and “noble savages”, but rather that this foraging economy produced individuals as ordinary, as flawed, as insightful, wistful, funny, and sometimes as intensely annoying, as any other humans I have ever known. It was merely a different economy, not another way of being human.

I have thought about this over the intervening years. What if our obvious capacity, for small deceptions, fractiousness,  and occasional surliness,  actually balances our kindness and sociability not by accident but, rather, as it were, by design? We can hardly ignore these aspects of human interpersonal antics today… well, what if it was precisely some kind of continuing see-saw between naughty and nice, convivial and argumentative, politeness interspersed with occasional huffy misunderstandings and temperamental behaviour, that was precisely the behavioural mechanism that kept these bipedal apes ecologically solvent?

2cab2e339136fb565536e7576f611f5cWhat if, in the long game of playing off individual genetic destinies against benefits to the collective cognitive niche, the occasionally explosive mix of emotional and irrational behavior was the key to generating “antifragile” cultural ecologies that were less likely to over-exploit any given local resource?

Thus, as humans evolved, reflection literally was an after-thought. As irritations and small conflicts increased, even as individuals found themselves holding back from escalating an argument, even as everyone’s impulse control was tested, there was always “the last straw”: an emotional scene that might set everyone packing to leave.   And, just as we still often find ourselves doing today, reflection after the event will then supply “good reasons” to justify it.

The fact that this pattern is at least partly learned, and not just an innate drive, made it more flexible still. It permitted more condensed and sedentary organization in richer ecosystems, more dispersed and mobile organization in poorer ones. Further, as learned system, it could incorporate the tighter social control during the more condensed phases within a cultural repertoire or an annual round of economic activity, without sacrificing the overall scope of individual networking.

People, today, when living in more crowded and sedentary communities, still tend to establish networks, through marriage and friendship, and those of each individual are still variable and rarely identical even among siblings. Furthermore, these tend not to be limited to a single community or neighbourhood. indeed, many individuals have maintained networks spanning the globe.

Despite the idea of “tribal” tendencies that cause links between people in groups to converge, individual life histories among human beings still tend to create ties (even “weak” ties) to more physically distant relatives, acquaintances, “pen pals”, and “old childhood friends”. Such links tend to be kept up more actively by some individuals. Sociological research into networks has suggested that such people are hubs in terms of information flows between communities. The idea that people across continents are hardly ever more than six links away from everyone else – the “six degrees of separation” model, has been experimentally confirmed many times. It began with the appearance, n 1961, of a seminal piece of work, in the form of a doctoral thesis by Michael Gurevitch, entitled “The social structure of acquaintanceship networks”.  This was presented and accepted by the  Department of Economics and Social Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This research, and the many studies that followed, suggest that extensive networking is a human adaptation to culture, an aspect of the “social brain”: so perhaps it is not a contingency of any one kind of economic system. It is species specific, not culture specific. And we come by it through our evolutionary history as social mammals, and particularly, as social apes.

People appear to activate networks to achieve some consensus about who should undertake leadership roles.   In small scale subsistence economies, such leadership roles – in rituals, in setting up task forces, in dispute resolution, and in disciplinary courts, and in safeguarding community assets – often go to quiet and modest people that can be trusted not to abuse their positions. Often such responsibilities fall upon older people, especially those who are already hubs within local networks.

A reputation-based system of rank, thus, imposes a burden of responsibility on the most trusted elders, so they have authority over communal working groups, as well as for the convening of assemblies to undertake dispute resolution.

Even mobile hunter-gatherers can stick it out despite arguments with neighbors and even intimate betrayal, especially at times of greater aggregation, given that such ephemeral institutions for conflict resolution emerge at such times.  The rest of the year,  impulse control and reflective philosophizing over human foibles comes into its own.  And this is incorporated into even the most mobile forager culture. Networks of family and friends, therefore, can effectively restrain people: no one wants to lose a hard-won reputation for strength of character.

That the historical and ethnographic record from hunter-gatherer societies suggests that such roles can disappear and reappear with the seasonal cycles of aggregation and dispersal is critical. Mobile hunter-gatherers are not nomadic in the sense of wandering ceaselessly in search of food: on the contrary, they circulate through a variety of locations with known resources.

Arrangements between families to meet at particular localities to camp together are often made during seasonal aggregations, and are always negotiated via networks among friends and relatives. So the times of aggregation could be characterized as a kind of network convergence, pulled toward those particular gregarious and trusted persons who serve a hubs linking many individual networks together. And this temporary integration of networks in a larger gathering, under leadership of the most trusted and respected persons, affords people the necessary time to negotiate camping parties and permissions with those who hold primary rights to each small local part of the overall territory within the aggregate.

It is conceivable that this flexibility – what Julian Steward called various “levels of integration” above simple “bands” – represents a capacity for organizational complexity not often attributed to foragers. And yes, it does indicate that even mobile foragers have the capacity for political and social organizational arrangements well beyond the scale and scope of the simple camping party.

Recently, David Graeber and David Wengrow suggested that the emergence of such leadership and more complex organization, during hunter-gatherer aggregations, indicates that humans have an innate tendency to develop political hierarchy. Is the term hierarchy the correct one in this case?   The term is synonymous with “pecking order” and has often been used to describe the way dominance of one animal over another in a ranked system is related to access to food and solace.   It conjures up a flow of authority and even coercion from the individual at the “top” which controls the movement and opportunities of individuals further down.

Brian Hayden has even suggested that “aggrandizer” personalities make use of these emerging hierarchies during periods of aggregation to seize power over others, partly by persuasion and partly by Machiavellian manipulation of others.

Hayden suggests that these self-promoting persons may have some overlap with the sociopathic traits seen on Hare’s checklist. In other words, when people live in more settled aggregations, they become vulnerable to the self-serving aspirations of a narcissistic and psychopathic minority, who make themselves “big Men” and assume power over others. In other words, the emergence of the bully gang explains the way hierarchical political power evolved in humans. (1)

One of the difficulties with this interpretation is that it does not always correspond with observed behaviour in people who are diagnosed as psychopaths today (2).  Another is that it does not situate the cultural behavior (or the ruthless individual) in terms of the consequences within that particular environment (3).  The most striking aspect is, of course, the way both the New Guinea and the NW coastal systems of leadership tend to exhort their communities to produce surpluses.   There is an obligation to contribute to a communal store of fish or other food and even material goods, a store managed by a trusted – and haranguing – senior leader. This results in higher overall productivity than is called for by the simple calculus of dependency ratios.

This communal store is risk insurance. Food and other assistance can be secured for families who meet with illness or injury. I would suggest that is why leadership in a band or tribal system is a function of trust and respect; if leaders merely hoarded or extorted tribute for personal gain, they would not last long.

Such surpluses also fuel a certain level of recurrent ceremonial socializing. Feasts can be planned which assemble people from many more surrounding communities. Thus, while a display of generosity towards those in hardship within a community can demonstrate the character of the leader, any display of generosity where a village hosts many of its neighbors during a festival goes well beyond this. It demonstrates the quality of the people of the hosting community. The net effect is that the people in each community are given additional motivation to work harder.

Why is this important? I suggest that such regional festivals also redistribute food across regions where not all harvests of are likely to be equal. Each local community is thus less exposed to risks of famine. The community, with the most surplus food in any given year, trades this food for higher prestige and simultaneously reduces the chances that hungry neighbors will come to raid.

What happens if the concentrated settlement becomes more permanent: a village? Organizational improvisations can become entrenched institutions, with people developing hereditary rights to leadership roles – especially in adjudicating disputes.   Vested interests that resist change can entail internal conflict, which can be resolved by proof of generosity and earned reputation for diligence. In this case, the famous “potlatch” can also offset conflicts between neighboring communities over access to fixed resources.   Political and judicial roles maintain cooperation, restore peace, and offset risks in a sedentary community.

Lineages and “big man” systems, therefore, appear to be risk aversion strategies – aspects of cultural adaptation, not evidence of selection pressures on human genomes causing novel shifts in innate behaviours during the Holocene.  Hierarchies of coercion and the self-affirming narcissists are not, as Hayden suggests, products of evolutionary genetic change, but rather, I think,  illustrations of the behavioral plasticity of human beings, and the way people have learned to collectively cope with higher environmental risk.

Meanwhile, we see further cultural reification of emotional sensitivities to behavior causing physical or reputational damage to other persons. This takes the form of legal codes, ethics, human rights, and codes of polite behavior. This always involves symbolic evaluation; labeling behaviors as negative, positive and even sacred and profane.


However the danger under such circumstances comes not from people who are born psychopaths but from brain changes caused by power.  What the foragers seem to all have understood only too well was that the human “behavioural plasticity” can take a wicked turn: people have a great emotional weakness- the “sin” of pride, more specifically the kind of hubris that comes of being placed somehow above one’s fellows (4). That was the point that Richard Lee was trying to drive home when he wrote “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari”. One  old guy’s comment was: “If a man is praised for sharing the meat of his kill, he may come to think he is better (more important) than other people. Someday he might kill someone.” 

It has taken years of research to uncover this aspect of our human nature. To uncover the fact that the assumption of authority or wealth, even the the conformity that prompts a person to suspend their own judgement to a higher authority, can give rise to evil actions that hurt other people.  Even in an experimental setting putting people into roles that permit harm to others somehow turns off empathy and compassion. It seems that even just being richer than others, or higher up in the chain of a corporate or civil service ladder, can set in motion the “banality of evil.”.  This is a human characteristic that is far beyond normal fractiousness  and occasional hissy fits, and it gives rise to far more serious trauma and human tragedy than mere incidents of rage and tears.

The only good thing this research discovered is that it does not happen to everyone – there are people who see what is happening and fight it. People who say “this is wrong”. Often they are the folks who either stop the experiment, or in real life will resist tyranny and injustice.  They risk their lives – or die on the barricades. Human beings do have the capacity to act with heroism. The fact that we have a word for this in every known culture should tell us something.

By the way, the word for “hero” among foragers is often translated incorrectly as “warrior” since it means one who fights on behalf of others. I have a feeling that the first battles among human beings were fought, in fact, by heroes of this kind.  In his book, Hierarchy in the Forest, Christopher Boehm suggested that one of the very early developments on the path that led to the evolution of our species, was an overthrow of aggression-based dominance hierarchy.  This led to an egalitarian revolution led by coalitions of people who resisted bullies and protected the vulnerable.  If so, this converted the desirable ideal of adulthood from a self-serving “alpha” into a heroic “first among equals”.. the epitome of the trusted leader.

A human being who lives as a hunter-gatherer could thus refuse injustice; could fight for equal treatment – or walk away. Personal faults and foibles, jealousies and temper tantrums were possibly part of  human nature evolved to create a relatively antifragile economy where high mobility makes it possible to vote with one’s feet. A hunter-gatherer inhabits an economic system that preserved and even enhanced the stability and diversity of the ecosystem that supported that way of life.   A hunter-gatherer cannot be thrown out of their job or lodgings.

But most humans on this planet can, and frequently are. Entire peoples have had their whole landscape taken taken out from under them. Look at the Scottish highland clearances. And that was done by their own clan leaders. And the pain of people under such circumstances, and the guts it takes for them to try to remake their lives elsewhere, is heart-breaking. Makes me weep. And we wonder why the world is full of people in a rage, crying out for justice and radicalized; while those who are relatively well-off tend to develop elaborate explanations that affirm their own superiority. 

Footnotes

1) Brian Hayden Big Man, Big Heart? The Political Role of Aggrandizers in Egalitarian and Transegalitarian Societies

http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-0-230-11626-9_7#page-1

Abstract

Anthropological theories of elites (leaders) in traditional societies tend to focus on how elites can be viewed as helping the community at large. The origin of elites is cast in functionalist or communitarian terms (viewing societies as adaptive systems). A minority opinion argues that elites were not established by communities for the community benefit, but emerged as a result of manipulative strategies used by ambitious, exploitative individuals (aggrandizers). While the communitarian perspective may be appropriate for understanding simple hunter/gatherer communities, I argue that elites in complex hunter/gatherer communities and horticultural communities operate much more in accordance with aggrandizer principles, and that it is their pursuit of aggrandizer self-interests that really explains the initial emergence of elites. This occurs preferentially under conditions of resource abundance and involves a variety of strategies used to manipulate community opinions, values, surplus production, and surplus use. http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-0-230-11626-9_7

2) Although Hare does suggest that psychopaths might be more successful within aggressively competitive systems, their comparative rarity even after some five thousand years of hierarchical civilization tends to weaken arguments that such systems are functionally dependent upon the success of a type of personality. It seems more likely to me that the development of stratified societies may have occasionally increased the chances of highborn psychopaths not being spotted and eliminated.

3) See: “Pathways to power: Principles for creating socioeconomic inequalities” in Foundation of Social Inequality edited by T. D. Price and G. Feinman. 1995.     https://books.google.ca/books?id=ZGth6qbXg6oC&dq=“Pathways+to+power:+Principles+for+creating+socioeconomic+inequalities”+in+Foundation+of+Social+Inequality+edited+by+T.+D.+Price+and+G.+Feinman.&source=gbs_navlinks_s

(4) see  Monbiot on “the Self-affirmation Fallacy” where he summarizes recent research showing that socio-economic inequality generates precisely the kinds of narcissism that Hayden wishes us to believe is psychopathology  expressed in hierarchical leaders. “The findings of the psychologist Daniel  Kahneman, winner of a Nobel economics prize, are devastating to the beliefs that financial high-fliers entertain about themselves . He discovered that their apparent success is a cognitive illusion. For example, he studied the results achieved by 25 wealth advisers, across eight years. He found that the consistency of their performance was zero. “The results resembled what you would expect from a dice-rolling contest, not a game of skill.” Those who received the biggest bonuses had simply got lucky.

Such results have been widely replicated. They show that traders and fund managers across Wall Street receive their massive remuneration for doing no better than would a chimpanzee flipping a coin. When Kahneman tried to point this out they blanked him. “The illusion of skill … is deeply ingrained in their culture.”

So much for the financial sector and its super-educated analysts. As for other kinds of business, you tell me. Is your boss possessed of judgment, vision and management skills superior to those of anyone else in the firm, or did he or she get there through bluff, bullshit and bullying?” http://www.monbiot.com/2011/11/07/the-self-attribution-fallacy/

In contrast, of course, the operation of networks – which can be sensitive communicators of reputations based on observed ethical and kind behavior, continue to do, in these other forms of economic system, exactly what they do in hunting and gathering economies:
http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-11-social-networks-cooperation-discourage-selfishness.html

Fans, Non-Fans, & Football Hooligans

FDGB-Pokal, 1. FC Lok Leipzig - Dynamo Schwerin, AusschreitungenIn a secular democracy such as ours, politics and religion are sort of like sports: you can ignore them for the most part and be a non-fan, like my friend Aaron Haspel, or you can be a fan, like me, who roots for the home team and never misses a game. Do I wanna see my team win? Yes! Big time. Am I willing to do anything to see to it that they win? No. Can I live with the fact that my team isn’t going to win all the time? Yes. Can I listen to criticism of my team without freaking out? Yes. Am I, at times, disappointed with my team’s performance? Yes. Do I think that the people rooting for the other side are evil monsters? No. Do I think they’re deluded idiots? No.

If you’re an ideologue, your answers to questions of this stamp are not like mine. And therein lies the difference between an ideologue and a fan. Like football hooligans, ideologues view anyone who’s not rooting for their team with suspicion. If you’re not with them, you’re against them. And anyone who’s against them is evil (or stupid). This includes, I hasten to add, not only those fans who are actively cheering for another team, but also non-fans, like my friend Aaron, who really don’t have a dog in the race. So far as the ideologue is concerned, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

I was raised to believe that apathetic citizens like Aaron were a clear and present danger to the Open Society. We had to find a way to engage these people, these non-fans, and turn them into fans, or all would soon be lost. I no longer subscribe to this silly view. Fans and non-fans aren’t the problem. It’s the football hooligans. They’re the problem. An Open Society such as ours which consisted of, say, 40% fans, 40% non-fans, and 10% football hooligans, could probably function, and function well, more or less indefinitely. But what if something traumatic happens, something polarizing, something which radicalizes a lot of the fans? What if half the fans morph into football hooligans? Is that a sustainable situation? Can it work? I seriously doubt it. My guess is that an Open Society with that many football hooligans in it won’t be open for long.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2017)

Seductive Schadenfreude

What Have I DoneI’ve just learned that the nastiest bullies I’ve yet to meet in Social Media Land, the first two people I was forced to block on Facebook, are being publicly shamed for screwing their employees out of thousands of dollars. The irony of this is nothing short of astounding, because these self-righteous social justice warriors have been branding themselves as paragons of left-wing virtue for the last decade. If you live in progressive Montreal, this is every bit as riveting as that moment in 2006 when the anti-gay pastor of a megachurch was caught smoking crystal meth with a gay prostitute. I must confess that I’m finding it a little bit hard to resist the schadenfreude, because these bullies have delighted in publicly humiliating people for years. A woman I know from our reading group had a full-on breakdown after a particularly nasty Social Media Land pile-on which was orchestrated from start to finish by these two individuals. She was hospitalized a day later. Spent a few weeks in the Douglas. The damage that these two trolls have done is remarkable. But it looks like they’re getting a taste of their own medicine.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2017)

Are Humans Innately Warlike?

this_is_sparta_300_king_leonidas_warrior_sword_shout_rage_4043_1280x960A book by Steven LeBlanc, anthropologist, has me in a kind of outraged shock. It seems that he has fallen for the view that humans are naturally violent, aggressive, deceitful, manipulative. Machiavellian, in fact. Here is his article, the text of which I have included below, along with my response:

“Not only are human societies never alone, but regardless of how well they control their own population or act ecologically, they cannot control their neighbors’ behavior. Each society must confront the real possibility that its neighbors will not live in ecological balance but will grow its numbers and attempt to take the resources from nearby groups. Not only have societies always lived in a changing environment, but they always have neighbors. The best way to survive in such a milieu is not to live in ecological balance with slow growth, but to grow rapidly and be able to fend off competitors as well as take resources from others.

“To see how this most human dynamic works, imagine an extremely simple world with only two societies and no unoccupied land. Under normal conditions, neither group would have much motivation to take resources from the other. People may be somewhat hungry, but not hungry enough to risk getting killed in order to eat a little better. A few members of either group may die indirectly from food shortages—via disease or infant mortality, for example—but from an individual’s perspective, he or she is much more likely to be killed trying to take food from the neighbors than from the usual provisioning shortfalls. Such a constant world would never last for long. Populations would grow and human activity would degrade the land or resources, reducing their abundance.

“Even if, by sheer luck, all things remained equal, it must be remembered that the climate would never be constant: Times of food stress occur because of changes in the weather, especially over the course of several generations. When a very bad year or series of years occurs, the willingness to risk a fight increases because the likelihood of starving goes up.

“If one group is much bigger, better organized, or has better fighters among its members and the group faces starvation, the motivation to take over the territory of its neighbor is high, because it is very likely to succeed. Since human groups are never identical, there will always be some groups for whom warfare as a solution is a rational choice in any food crisis, because they are likely to succeed in getting more resources by warring on their neighbors.

“Now comes the most important part of this overly simplified story: The group with the larger population always has an advantage in any competition over resources, whatever those resources may be. Over the course of human history, one side rarely has better weapons or tactics for any length of time, and most such warfare between smaller societies is attritional. With equal skills and weapons, each side would be expected to kill an equal number of its opponents. Over time, the larger group will finally overwhelm the smaller one. This advantage of size is well recognized by humans all over the world, and they go to great lengths to keep their numbers comparable to their potential enemies.

“This is observed anthropologically by the universal desire to have many allies, and the common tactic of smaller groups inviting other societies to join them, even in times of food stress.

“Assume for a moment that by some miracle one of our two groups is full of farsighted, ecological geniuses. They are able to keep their population in check and, moreover, keep it far enough below the carrying capacity that minor changes in the weather, or even longer-term changes in the climate, do not result in food stress. If they need to consume only half of what is available each year, even if there is a terrible year, this group will probably come through the hardship just fine. More important, when a few good years come along, these masterfully ecological people will /not/ grow rapidly, because to do so would mean that they would have trouble when the good times end. Think of them as the ecological equivalent of the industrious ants.

“The second group, on the other hand, is just the opposite—it consists of ecological dimwits. They have no wonderful processes available to control their population. They are forever on the edge of the carrying capacity, they reproduce with abandon, and they frequently suffer food shortages and the inevitable consequences. Think of this bunch as the ecological equivalent of the carefree grasshoppers. When the good years come, they have more children and grow their population rapidly. Twenty years later, they have doubled their numbers and quickly run out of food at the first minor change in the weather. Of course, had this been a group of “noble savages” who eschewed warfare, they would have starved to death and only a much smaller and more sustainable group survived.

“This is not a bunch of noble savages; these are ecological dimwits and they attack their good neighbors in order to save their own skins. Since they now outnumber their good neighbors two to one, the dimwits prevail after heavy attrition on both sides. The “good” ants turn out to be dead ants, and the “bad” grasshoppers inherit the earth.

“The moral of this tale is that if any group can get itself into ecological balance and stabilize its population even in the face of environmental change, it will be tremendously disadvantaged against societies that do not behave that way. The long-term successful society, in a world with many different societies, will be the one that grows when it can and fights when it runs out of resources. It is useless to live an ecologically sustainable existence in the “Garden of Eden” unless the neighbors do so as well. Only one non-conservationist society in an entire region can begin a process of conflict and expansion by the “grasshoppers” at the expense of the Eden-dwelling “ants.”

“This smacks of a Darwinian competition—survival of the fittest—between societies. Note that the “fittest” of our two groups was not the more ecological, it was the one that grew faster. The idea of such Darwinian competition is unpalatable to many, especially when the “bad” folks appear to be the winners.”

Helga’s response:

My first objection to LeBlanc’s scenario is twofold: one, that human populations do not always grow; secondly, that their birthrates (let alone their whole cultural systems) are not necessarily under conscious control.

Think about it.

INTENTIONAL ecological balance? What, now humans are in some kind of intentional control over their cultural systems? Surely no one could be that naive? One might try to create such control with careful permaculture systems under strictly controlled laboratory conditions — but there always seem to be element of chaos that intervene, some of which are social, some microbial, and some just oversights of reality.

No, truly, such things could hardly have evolved. Why would they? For most of our evolutionary history, humans were foragers. Among mobile foragers on a diet of wild plants and animals, the mechanisms of birth spacing, of infant mortality, of accidental death, of periodic diseases and natural accidents and predation would have balanced the population without any thought being required. And this would have been the case during 99 % of human evolution.

The only time thought was required was when too many kids started being born too closely spaced, and enough of them survived to accelerate the doubling time to the point where local game and wild plant foods became scarce. This might have happened, once in a while, to sedentary foraging peoples based on fixed resources like annual fish spawning  runs or huge stands of wild grain, but it would hardly have been typical of most mobile forager groups.

However, when, throughout a culture area, reciprocal access to resources was no longer a viable strategy for long-term survival, then the scenario so skillful imagined by Steve DOES obtain. THEN the whole game has to change to the nastier one where you simply went over to your neighbors and took their food away (if they had any, and killed them all so that next year they would not do the same to you.)

This is of course a pretty awful but effective survival strategy.  There are plenty of indications that it became increasingly common during the Mesolithic period just before food production systems got underway (another adaptation to resource scarcity and local plant depletion).  In fact, the evidence for this pattern is so overwhelming for this period, and so common among contemporary horticultural, pastoral, and agricultural cultures that it was the subject of a well-researched book by Laurence Keeley.  Reading this, it is fairly easy to forget that there is also a case to be made that it was an adaptation first seen for the small fraction of humanity who got stuck in a demographic trap.

Which means it is within the human range of possible responses to high population.  It is a behaviour algorithm that requires a trigger. That trigger, it appears, was usually an upward shift in population: resource ratios over a large culture area, a shift that precluded options based on reciprocal access (redistributive feasting, trade, and migration) and made raiding and warfare into an adaptive strategy for long term control to keep that ratio from getting much higher.

Just because the resort to inter-group violence is within the range of human behavior does not, however, make it a likely part of our evolutionary environment of adaptation. The scientific evidence, both archaeological and ethnographic, does not support such a conclusion. The Mesolithic was only, at most, 12-15,000 years ago, and it did not begin then for all humanity, but only for a TINY proportion of the world’s human population. Most humans were still foragers until well into the last three thousand year period, indeed, in Australian, much of North America and Sub-equatorial Africa, they were most foragers until 150 years ago.

Steve LeBlanc seems to assume that population growth rates are under conscious control. There is no real evidence that this is really true of most human cultures. There is some evidence that individuals and family groups might make decisions to kill or abort the occasional child due for various reasons, but no evidence that anyone has fully understood the relationship between breastfeeding, prolonged weaning, hormonal cascades affecting ovulation, and the profound effects on this system of high calorie weaning foods.

Among many mobile hunter-gatherers, the birth spacing is much longer than among farming or pastoral people because of breast-feeding that continued well into the third year of a child’s life. Regular stimulation of the mother’s nipples, by suckling, causes a cascade of hormonal responses that tends to prevent ovulation – as long as regular breast-feeding frequency is sustained throughout the 24 hours cycle (every 2-3 hours). As long as the infant sleeps with its mother, breastfeeding can continue throughout the night without much disturbing the sleep of the parent. Among hunter-gatherers, where high calorie weaning foods such as cereals and animal milk or not available, this continuing lactation gives the child’s gut time to grow large enough to handle enough fruit, vegetables and meat to complete the weaning process during the fourth year of life.

Steve LaBlanc does not go into any of this. He ASSUMES a rate of population growth, similar to that of a modern farming community, was true of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers. Many archaeologists do. However, we have lots of evidence that mobile foragers did NOT have this level of population growth. And, while it is known that foragers have a variable birth spacing depending upon diet and activity levels, no past forager culture had viable alternatives to maternal lactation.

I would suggest that there was an fairly rapid shortening of the birth-spacing interval – from an average of 48 months to about 24 months- with the onset of sedentary villages around stores of food cached for long periods (like dried fish, cereal grains, potatoes etc. Generally, these stored foods provided high-calorie weaning foods of a kind that mobile hunter-gatherers did not have on hand very often. So then, since their infants did not continue to suckle as frequently, mothers got pregnant sooner than they would have under the old forager system.

This means that LeBlanc’s book is not about humans during the first 99% of their history; not about how evolutionary forces shaped human nature.  No, it is about the demographic trap that happened during the Mesolithic, that led to war, starvation, rich and poor, domestication of animals and plants, and eventually, civilization.” It does not describes in detail just how the process of settling into more permanent villages around food storage facilities holding millions of calories (of cereals, dried vegetation, meat and fish) led to a demographic trap that no one could have foreseen, and resulted in a population explosion.  But that is what would have had to happen leading BEFORE unfolding into the sort of scenario that Steve LeBlanc discusses.

HOWEVER,  you have to remember:  this scenario is rarely true of human inter-group relations during the earlier period – in a world of foragers, things would be a bit different.

SO, no, we are not the dazed survivors of millions of years of little territorial groups who survived because we frequently went out and beat the shit our of each other and stole each other’s lands and females. Please. We evolved to be smarter and considerably more nuanced in our inter-group behavior than such a chimp-based model would suggest.

We would hardly need all those inhibitory brain connections leading out of the prefrontal cortex into the old brain. Now there is an algorithm-generating module with an interesting agenda: it is the CEO of the final actions taken by the system, unless overridden by high emotion, fear, or “orders” from some political hierarchy… and it also permits humans to “stand back” mentally and evaluate impulses initiated by both rational and intuitive parts of the brain.

I suspect that the rapid expansion of the prefrontal cortex in our species was to permit the full integration of information and careful evaluation of options for responding to culturally complex situations both within and between cultures. I think we evolved to be strategic thinkers, not only in the Machiavellian sense, but also in the Humanist sense – we tend consider the long-term benefits of alliances and trading partnerships (both in terms of expanding our own groups options in times of scarcity and also in terms of expanding our access to a wider gene pool).

Finessing inter-cultural relations that permitted trading networks to span entire continents took subtlety and self-control far superior to that involved in resorting to violence every time someone had resources you wanted or needed. There is a reason we humans evolved a brain that can easily handle not just one but many languages, and not just one but many cultural inter-faces.

Sorry to be a bit short-tempered about all this, but, just because it is the “man as nasty beast” model, that is currently popular (it has been since the days of Plato and Aristotle), does not mean it is based on the science. It is based on the wishful thinking that some kind of state control system must control human badness (which is assumed to be inevitable) and is therefore justifiable. That part of the philosophers toolkit of ideas was always propaganda justifying a ruling class and a mythology to rationalize the expansion taking land away from hunter-gatherers all over Eurasia.

Newsflash: Man is not a nasty beast. He is smart and funny and, given half a chance, would rather talk things over than get into a fight that might hurt him or sour relationships with potential trading partners and allies – or even potential mates and in-laws. Give humanity credit for having evolved to be a bit smarter than other chimps. Please.

The competitiveness of the cultures in Steve LeBlanc’s example only obtains if there is an ecological constraint – an eventual limitation of resources such that if one culture keeps expanding its population, it must also keep expanding its territory, and that it must do so at the expense of neighbouring cultures.

My second objection is a bit more complex. You see, if you consider the kind of cultural pattern that LeBlanc suggests would be successful under conditions of competition between cultures for access to resources, it is the aggressive, pro-nalist, warrior-culture. Even if humans are born innocent of any genetically mediated tendencies for aggression and violence, what LeBlanc proposes is that most humans on the planet today are descended from the winners of a fairly deadly competition between rival cultural systems.

Yet the archaeological and ethnographic record does not support this. For 99% of our evolutionary history (which spans about 5 million years) we were foragers, and we were pretty thin on the ground.

Cultures would not have needed to compete over resources. In fact, points of contact with various neighboring cultures would have been conduits through which a forager society might gain access through trading and gifting relationships to resources from a much wider range of ecosystems than lay within their own annual round of movement. We have evidence of such exchange within hunter-gatherer societies during the last 200,000 years which spanned entire continents.

We have evidence, from hunter-gatherer cultures living 12,000 years ago, 2000 years before the domestication of plants and animals, of cooperative efforts which appear to have created purely ritual and ceremonial sites bringing hundreds and possibly thousands of people together -possibly several times a year- from over vast inhabited wilderness teeming with wildlife and rich plant life. These were not competing cultures, they were cooperating, The sites were places of healing and ritual. In one article, one of the sites is even even fancifully referred to as a possible source of the myth of a garden of Eden. These cultures were not associated with any evidence of warfare or violent death.

We evolved without much need to be “warding off the neighbouring tribe” since there WERE no “tribes” until fairly recently. Tribal organization is due to the development of a combination of corporate groups based on lineal descent (patrilineal or matrilineal) involved in allocating primary rights to a fixed natural resource (a salmon run, an area of land producing wild cereals reliably, a herd of animals like reindeer or cattle etc). It also usually involves sedentism for a part of the year at least, a higher rate of population growth than among mobile hunter-gatherers, and some sort of status ranking, both among individuals and also among various lineages. Higher population growth rates would inevitably lead to competition over fixed resources, and this, inevitably to some fighting between groups with opposing claims. Hence, warfare. but we do not see any real evidence of warfare much before 10,000 BP, although of course we do see evidence of murder and cannibalism.

Proposition: It is unlikely that anatomically modern humans evolved in a context of frequent violent group conflict among themselves. Most contemporary studies of mobile foragers have revealed a consistent economic pattern involving reciprocal access to resources. This means that when the rain did not come, or the antelope failed to migrate near your own home range, you did not have to go take away your more fortunate neighbour’s food or territory, you simply went and lived with them for the duration. Since your neighbours were usually relatives of one kind or another -even fictive kin will do- they could and did do the same when the position was reversed.

In fact, you might just want to go visit your neighbours anyway, in the course of a yearly round, and they might just want to come visit you. Picture this not in terms of any permanent houses and villages, but as a set of inter-related people, say 2000 strong, spread out over thousands of square miles, all of them living in small camping groups.

Mobile foragers live in camping groups of 3-5 families, and these are fluid rather than fixed in their membership. Every few weeks or months when camps break up and move, chances are that at least some families will go camp with other friends or relatives than the ones they were living with before. Camps are loosely organized around kinship lines, but residential patterns are neither nor necessarily matrilocal nor patrilocal.

We know a good deal about the way modern and recent mobile hunter-gatherers live in the region of sub-Saharan Africa where all humanity originated. We also have recently confirmed that the “San” (formerly often known as “Bushmen”) hunter-gatherers of this region are the most genetically diverse of all human groups and are the modern day representatives of the source population from which all the rest of humanity came.

I lived with a group call the Kua San, who were primarily mobile foragers. They had fairly typical bilateral kinship reckoning (meaning both the father’s and the mother’s relations were considered equally important and the child was not a “member” of one kin-group to the exclusion of others). They were ruthlessly egalitarian. I say ruthless because even children could not be ordered about by adults or be made to do work for them, or be sent to bed.

There was no rape. No child “abuse”, no wife-beating, no chief or headman, no permanent public roles of leadership. Social control was a matter of strict sharing protocols, public put-downs, by , mocking and gossip, of any and all even potentially pretentious behaviour. The most respected and sought after people were the most generous, diligent, witty, and “open-hearted”.

If there was competition for dominance or socially acknowledged rank, it was played out in this arena of behaviour. Also greatly valued was intelligent foresight, in terms of organizing camp movements and anticipating timing and locations of resource windfalls (like local peaks in berry production seven months after a fire, or the movements of migratory herds). So “dominance” was achieved neither by aggression or wealth, and certainly not by any kind of swaggering and never by being acknowledged as a dangerous person.

There was, however, murder, or at least murderous attack. Most of this was due to some explosion of passion due to adultery or injustice, and endlessly discussed in shaming gossip.

Most of the incidents I recorded were of fights or attacks that stopped short of being lethal (just for their subsistence activities, the men are all lethally armed with poisoned arrows and sharp knives; women always carry knives).

Apparently, murder was rare enough in any one generation that people had vivid memories of such events. The most recent murders happened only forty years earlier, and was especially remembered because it involved a man who showed no remorse, who had frequently “bothered” others because he seemed to have a “distant heart” (no empathy) and was inclined be selfish and even deliberately to eat alone.  He did this especially when he found those kind of treats that any self-respecting person would normally have shared with as many people as possible (like the tails of a a particularly tasty lizard, or recently laid water-bird eggs). He was charming enough to survive in this society well into his twenties, but then there was some dispute with a young lady he was courting and the girl was killed, or was severely injured and may have later died (my informants varied in their accounts of this).

In any event, since all these people are excellent trackers, the evidence in the sand clearly indicated that this fellow had been responsible. He denied, and then he admitted, but claimed it was not his fault that others drove him into a temper. Yet the killing did not seem to have been done in temper, but by stealth and surprise.

After some time, everyone was very uneasy about the murderer. They did not like to have him in their camping group, so he became a bit of a wanderer, for even his parents and siblings did not like to have him close. He did make some friends among more distant cousins and spent time with them.

Then, apparently, it nearly happened again. This time the victim lived. It was enough. To make a long story short, his closest relatives took the responsibility and set a trap for him – he was ambushed, and killed. They showed me where he was staked out for the scavengers… because, sadly, he was not a human.

I have no proof, but this person sounds to me like a psychopath… and, if so, this was how they dealt with a psychopath.

I did further interviews to find out more about the “low hearted” people. It seems that those who simply failed to show the expected kind of active empathy for others – especially if this was seen from childhood on – were gradually marginalized.  They could not be trusted, and generally kept under control by gossip, mocking, and -when anything occurred that showed their selfish tendencies or any evidence of unconcern for another person- with incredulous laughter. These people were the only ones in the society that generally wound up camped out alone on the margins of each camp group. Everyone felt sorry for them, and they were not of course, excluded from sharing networks. There was one women of this kind among the Kua when I lived among them, and this adult had failed to attract any permanent mates, although she had one child.

If anything, I suspect that this kind of neurological defect (if that is what it is) has become more common (due to the lessening of negative selection of the kind I implied in the example above) since tribal societies developed during the Mesolithic and after the Neolithic.  Especially since highly stratified societies began to occur, where a psychopath could be born into a highly placed lineage and be protected by his rank from ordinary social controls. Today, given the exponential rise in human numbers, we undoubtedly have millions of them around, just due to the sheer volume of humans.

I doubt that, aside possibly from such psychopathology,  that any human being is “born bad”. Steve LeBlanc is suggesting that there is a certain inevitable tendency for aggressive and selfish cultures to eventually out-compete peaceful human groups who controlled their population and lived sustainably. In other words, his model suggests that modern humans are predominantly descendants of a long evolutionary history favouring those who did not control their population growth and therefore aggressively expanded their territories at the expense of their neighbours.

LeBlanc’s model, then,  could be taken as support for the idea that most of humanity is doomed to be irrational and aggressive because we are mostly the descendants of what he calls “ecological dimwits” Who are these people? Read on: “They have no wonderful processes available to control their population. They are forever on the edge of the carrying capacity, they reproduce with abandon, and they frequently suffer food shortages and the inevitable consequences”.

Take a look at a later line from his article:

This is not a bunch of noble savages; these are ecological dimwits and they attack their good neighbors in order to save their own skins. Since they now outnumber their good neighbors two to one, the dimwits prevail after heavy attrition on both sides. The “good” ants turn out to be dead ants, and the “bad” grasshoppers inherit the earth.”

Note that Steve does not make it explicit whether the state of ecological dimwittedness is occasioned by “human nature” (it is in our genes), or whether it is due to cultural conditioning.

This is quite clever of him, for to have stated outright that it was biological would put him squarely in the camp of Robert Audrey (the “Territorial Imperative”, Laurence Keeley “War before Civilization”, Malcolm Potts (“Sex and War”) and even John Grey (Straw Dogs) and Steven Pinker among many others, starting with Plato and Aristotle, whose works of political philosophy take greed and violence of humans in a “state of nature” for granted, thus declaring that humans did much better if “governed” by elites consisting of wise and learned men, within a city state. Later philosophers like Hobbes and even John Locke essentially took the same position – and of course, Hobbes is famous for describing human life in a “state of Nature” as “brutish, nasty and short”.

I do not particularly like the idea of humans being “born bad” – this is not what the science shows.

Whether we look at the evidence from the study of young children’s behaviour, cognitive functioning, or neural imagery, or the evidence from the ethnographic record of foragers, or archaeological evidence from the pre-Neolithic period, we find evidence of widespread trade and intermarriage among neighboring cultures, and even evidence of cooperative ventures such as building massive ritual sites.

Few ethnographers have lived with hunter-gatherers. But, of those who have, many have questioned this judgment.  Some have gone further, like Richard Lee, whose work among the foragers of the Kalahari turned Hobbes on its head.

Proposition 2: There is every indication that humans evolved to be adapted to learning a cultural system and a language. So if LeBlanc’s evolutionary winners were the “dimwits” they must, in my view, have been made irrational and ecologically dimwitted by their upbringing – in other words, they were taught those ways of thinking and behaving by their parents and by the rest of the culture they were born into.

WHY is this important?  Well, consider the implications – what is the half-life of a species doomed by its very “nature” to be “ecological dimwits”.  Either we are “born bad” or we learn to be stupid (ecologically) in some cultural systems.  It makes a big difference – in the first model, the whole human species is doomed, in the alternative view, only certain cultural systems are.

We are a relatively young species. Compared to various species of sharks, which have been around for millions of years, we are newly minted, barely 200,000 years old. Perhaps I speak partly out of personal hope, that we might be here for a while longer, but I also contest the very evidence used in support of the idea that humans are hard-wired for a level of aggression and competitiveness that will ultimately be self-destructive.  I think we can marshal plenty of evidence that indicates that these “bad” behaviors are even more subject to the parameters and exigencies of culture than are “good” behaviors like altruism and compassion.

Has Homo sapiens not spent more time becoming genetically and cognitively fine-tuned to be cooperative and pragmatic in our dealings with con-specific neighbors than we have to been fine-tuned to be competitive and hostile?

Let’s look at the evidence.  First of all, there is even evidence that cooperation and compassion is found in our nearest living relations: the Bonobo (Pan paniscus, or pygmy chimpanzee).

Frans de Waal’s recent work, summarized by the following quote in Wikipedia: “His research into the innate capacity for empathy among primates has led De Waal to the conclusion that non-human great apes and humans are simply different types of apes, and that empathic and cooperative tendencies are continuous between these species. His belief is illustrated in the following quote from The Age of Empathy:

“We start out postulating sharp boundaries, such as between humans and apes, or between apes and monkeys, but are in fact dealing with sand castles that lose much of their structure when the sea of knowledge washes over them. They turn into hills, leveled ever more, until we are back to where evolutionary theory always leads us: a gently sloping beach.”

What always amazes me is the power of our dominant cultural paradigms. The idea of original sin, for instance, was most likely a notion seized on during the late Mesolithic/Early Neolithic period. It arose in those cultures where an organized priesthood was developing to prop up the rights of a ruling class in an increasingly crowded and stratified society. It is a made up story, no matter how it is phrased (whether in terms of some inherent wickedness or in terms of a soul’s long progression towards perfection through numerous lifetimes).  And it is made up – in fact, designed as the perfect tool for social control. Clearly, if all of our present reality (including the conditions we are born into) is divinely ordained and purposeful, then we only need to be shown the rule book to get through it and on to something better. God forbid we should rebel, kill our rulers, end injustice, and live better, if it is our “lot” in life to be born poor. Hence, the widespread appeal of Christianity, which makes a kind of back-assed virtue out of poverty and suffering.

It is amazing to see people succumb to this idea of human nature being inherently “bad”, violent, flawed, “rapacious” (as in John Gray’s Straw Dogs). The popularity of Malcolm Potts book Sex and War is another example. John Gray, whose work has been compared to Richard Dawkins in influencing modern scholarship concerning the human condition within an evolutionary paradigm, is an author I respect and admire, but even he makes a classic error (or should I say falls victim to his cultural paradigm) when he says things like the following:

The destruction of the natural world is not the result of global capitalism, industrialization, ‘Western civilization’ or any flaw in human institutions. It is a consequence of the evolutionary success of an exceptionally rapacious primate. Throughout all of history and prehistory, human advance has coincided with ecological devastation. ” ~ John Gray, Straw Dogs

Well no. I lived with one of hunter-gatherers in the Central Kalahari, a people who have been foragers since the dawn of our species, and that region is home to one of the highest known biomasses of wildlife on the planet today. As mobile foragers, within the environment where we evolved, we are hardly “rapacious primates”.

The key term here is perhaps “human advance” – but surely this is highly ambiguous? Does he mean “progress” in some absolute sense of greater numbers, knowledge, or other parameter? Or does he mean physical spread out of Africa? If the latter, then he is treading on precarious logical ground. He is confusing the results of adding a new species to an ecosystem (often a disruptive thing, just look at how rabbits practically ate Australia) with -dare I say it? – some kind of flaw in human nature (sounds like “original sin” to me).

So why war?

“The first time this issue was brought up in the mainstream scientific community was in 1986 when scientists from around the world got together to discuss the psychological and biological evidence proving that human nature is no excuse for violent behavior. The findings that were released came to be known as “The Seville Statement”.

This statement made 5 propositions, which are:
1. “It is scientifically incorrect to say that we have inherited a tendency to make war from our animal ancestors.”
2. “It is scientifically incorrect to say that war or any other violent behavior is genetically programmed into our human nature.”
3. “It is scientifically incorrect to say that in the course of human evolution there has been a selection for aggressive behavior more than for other kinds of behavior.”
4. “It is scientifically incorrect to say that humans have a ‘violent brain’.”
5. “It is scientifically incorrect to say that war is caused by ‘instinct’ or any single motivation.”
Since the Seville statement there have been many more studies reconfirming the propositions put forward. Just this past February a new study by a biologist named Frans de Waal showed that animals are naturally prone to cooperation when in the right circumstances.”

(Source of quote: http://www.expressionoftruth.com/2013/06/new-study-suggests-humans-are-not.html )

Some anthropologists have suggested that warfare and the subjugation of women (and things like female infanticide) are cultural adaptations to overpopulation dangers inherent in the sedentary lifestyle and high cereal-based diet in sedentary Post-Neolithic societies.  Remember that I previously mentioned that birth spacing in foragers tends to be about 48 months, compared to 24 months or less in farming economies.  This leads to overpopulation and attendant danger of starvation and extinction.  Most larger intensive agricultural civilizations have failed.  In smaller societies reliant upon shifting cultivation and usufruct tenure (where land is held in common and use rights are temporary) the ratio of forest and secondary growth in “long fallow” to cultivated area in any given year is very high – often only about 20% is cultivated.

If the population rises beyond the point that can be supported by the food grown on that 20%, then the length of the fallow period must drop, and forest barely has time to grow back before it is again cut down.  Fertility suffers, so even more land must be put under cultivation in any given year… and it rapidly reaches a crisis where soil degradation reaches the point where the whole system collapses. (Or, as in a few places, historically, an even more intensive system featuring use of irrigation, ploughing, and animal -or human- manure was instigated. Deforestation and soil losses mark the birth of “civilization”. All of these changes generally leading to such an increase in need for labour, and in competition for land, that the result has been expansive and predatory warfare to procure both and counter the greater risk of total collapse.  Elites managed common welfare and kept internal peace; all the while supervising external expansion by violent means, or annexation by threat of such violence.  These eventually became the phenomenon we know today as the “state-level” society, and these kinds of systems have now enveloped the whole human world and are in the process of adding the resources and/or labour of the last surviving hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, and pastoral economies to their futile Ponzi scheme.

The horticultural economies still found in the world at present are generally those that have found a way to avoid this demographically induced disaster.  The way that most of them have done it is through the combination of persistent endemic warfare, feuding a raiding between villages, the development of a warrior cult, and the simultaneous abasement of the status of women.  Women often become the subject of raids, and their levels of emotional stress, abuse, malnutrition, and even genital mutilation, tend to rather high.  This is often coupled with dietary restrictions during pregnancy and higher rates of death in childbirth, and of course, a much higher rate of female infanticide.

That certainly keeps the rate of population growth down.  Meanwhile, because of on-going hostilities and fear of raiding, villages tends to be spaced widely,  This means that there are larger zones of forested wild lands between villages, which supply wild plant food, medicines, and animal protein.   Predictably, for example, the most warlike and violent villages in the Yanomami studied by Napoleon Chagnon were also the ones with the most territory and the healthiest people.

Cultural adaptations that “work” and result in sustainability within an ecosystem are not always the most pleasant for the individuals within those systems, although that is why each such culture contains vehement rationalizations for misery. Explaining away women’s subjugation as a necessary condition following from some kind of natural inferiority of the female mind or temperament is common. The Victorians actually believed that higher education or participation in a profession withered women reproductive organs or resulted in hysteria behaviour!

It is all very frustrating, but it is much easier to counter if it is not seen as an ideological issue, but rather as an outcome of systemic problems with the nature of agricultural (and, recently, industrial) economies. If horticultural systems had effective birth control, I imagine, none of this war and infanticide would have developed: it was only RELATIVELY more successful than peaceful alternatives. And all this hopeful rhetoric about the way birthrates have fallen in as child mortality has gone down in industrial societies only goes to show is that, given a choice, most couples would rather have fewer children and invest much more in each one, as was the case throughout most of human evolution. In fact, large industrial states did and still do have an over population problem since they have only managed agricultural surpluses by relying on fossil fuel-based chemicals and machines… and this is unsustainable without extreme damage to the ecosystem now that we have past Peak Oil.

—Helga Ingeborg Vierich

Libertarians, a libertarian world won’t be perfect. But it doesn’t need to be.

John Faithful Hamer recently posted a great aphorism:

Having an answer for everything is the infallible sign of not having an answer for everything.

And followed it up with these candid remarks:
As is no doubt obvious, Chris, this aphorism is the product of recent dealings with people (three in one day!) with airtight ideological armor. One was an old-school communist I work with (who you know), another was an otherwise sweet Muslim friend who thinks the answers to everything are to be found in the Qur’an, and the last was a brilliant but intransigent libertarian.
As a libertarian, that last part resonated with me.

I’ve always tried to convince my libertarian compatriots away from trying to do what John just talked about: that is, arguing that libertarianism solves everything. Many libertarians—especially market-fundamentalist types—believe that their libertarian world will also maximize utility. (And here, you can fill in whatever you like for “utility”.) On virtually any issue, they will have a ready response detailing why and how a libertarian world—fitted, of course, with laissez-faire capitalism—will be the best at solving it.

It won’t. At some point, you just have to bite the bullet.

I remember being praised for my honesty by a gracious non-libertarian professor a while back for having admitting this. I said: “Look, sometimes a libertarian world won’t have as much x, or be able to address problem y as well as we would like. Indeed, there will always be problems that might be better solved through a central state apparatus (government intervention). But that’s the cost of respecting individual rights.”

What libertarians need to focus on is that last part. Sure, libertarians, it might feel like you’re “losing the debate” when you can’t convince the other side that a libertarian world will completely solve the issues with which they are concerned. But remind them: “What, then, is your solution that doesn’t violate people’s rights? Isn’t that a consideration too? What solution do you have for achieving your goals that doesn’t involve coercing or conscripting people into projects against their will or consent?”

If they can give you an answer that apparently solves every social problem without any apparent trade-offs, then you should be suspicious, for it looks like we’re back at square one. Having an answer for everything is the infallible sign of not having an answer for everything.

—Chris Nguyen

Morgan Arboretum

I was attacked on a warm summer day,
whilst walking around a frog pond,
in the Morgan Arboretum. I was attacked
by a cloud, a vicious, voracious cloud:
of bloodthirsty mosquitoes and homicidal deer flies.
But I’m happy to report that I was rescued,
just a moment later, by a bunch of benevolent bad-asses,
full-patch members of that notorious Latin gang,
Sympetrum costiferum.

Although the police and the press persist
in referring to them as The Flying Dragons,
this is, I’m told, based upon a ridiculously bad translation
of the gang’s Latin name. They prefer to be known,
in English, as The Saffron-Winged Meadowhawks.
But I knew them that day, that lazy summer day,
as my security detail. They allowed me to hunt
for frogs, for hours, in peace.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2017)