This past month, the swans have taken up residence in our local cove, for the first time in the six summers we’ve lived here.
What could be a more beautiful way to celebrate the birth minute of my husband’s milestone birthday than a sunrise with swans?
What smiles the swans have brought to all who pass by. Plus, they’ve provided a great opportunity for conversations with admiring strangers. (“We just counted 81! How many did you count?”)
They’ve also motivated me to do some quick online research.
Turns out those oddly-shaped black blobs that sometimes rest on their backs are a leg. One leg. What’s going on with that? Does one webbed foot suddenly get tired and need a rest? Does resting a leg on a back stretch out taut muscles tired from too much paddling? Does a wet foot on some overheated feathers add a cooling touch under the hot sun? And how do they manage to navigate, anyway, without going awry from having only one limb for paddling? (Yes, I’ve seen them locomoting with a webbed foot lying on their rump.)
The anthropologist in me is frustrated no end that I can’t ask them for a direct response to these growing questions. I’ll have to keep testing out my theories using that other classic ethnographic method (which I honed while studying babies in West Africa): observing behavior and ruling out unlikely hypotheses. I wonder how likely this experiment in inter-species ethnography is to succeed.
Meanwhile, never mind their human fan club. Oblivious of us, and despite their reputation for nastiness, the swans that have taken up residence in our local harbor have co-existed happily all month with geese, ducks, egrets, seagulls, and terns.
Dare I hope the waterfowl offer a model for us bickering humans to re-gain a sense of community spirit?
Like the ducks and brants my husband and I see congregating regularly by the dozens along the shore’s edge of Narraganssett Bay near our coastal home, we humans are a social species. (Audobon’s description of the Brant: “Feeds in flocks at most times of year”),
Whether indoors or out, whether in small numbers or large, whether in person, online, or at a distance, we crave others. And not only for emotional needs. Also, for economic and survival reasons. With precious few exceptions, we modern humans haven’t survived the past ~100,000 years as hermits.
So, it’s no surprise that, when the bizarre daily habitus of “social distancing” becomes the “new normal,” we suffer. We were meant to.
Like the Leonardo da Vincis or Zora Neale Hurstons we read about in chronicles of our most creative ancestors, we humans are a clever species.
Okay, so, we’re not all Albert Einstein or Sappho. But, whether working at an easel or a computer, whether laboring alone or in a team, whether doing work of the mind, heart, or body, we specialize in problem solving. We haven’t survived the past 100,000 years as modern humans by walking over cliffs en masse as lemmings do when they run out of choices.
Yes, life and society have apportioned privileges unequally, contributing to unequal doses of resiliency at the individual level. That is a heavy burden that psychologists specialize thoughtfully in addressing, even as our politicians ignore their responsibility in producing the structural inequalities that create such unequal apportioning. Once we emerge from this global crisis, even our most heartless politicians should have greater awareness of what it takes at the structural level to sustain a compassionate community.
For now, it’s important for all of us to remember that, collectively, we are a resilient lot. Unlike every other species, we’ve figured out brilliantly how to safely move through, and even inhabit, every environment on earth, from sky to water, from arctics to tropics.
Now is not a time for despair. The tiny creatures underlying today’s global crisis will not defeat us.
The bad news:
Coping with COVID-19 won’t be fun. Some among us will suffer more than most—financially, emotionally, logistically.
Those who survive on daily coffee and lunch dates, and weekly dinner parties or movie outings, may become especially frustrated and depressed.
A very small number of those among the most vulnerable of us–especially the elderly, those with compromised immune systems, and those in both categories–will not survive a viral attack.
That is a potential source of collective tragedy we must all work hard to mitigate.
The good news:
We are learning to thoughtfully prioritize scarce resources, with the greater good in mind.
The community spirit being promoted by this pandemic has other positive effects. For those with Internet access at home, social media offer us amazing alternatives for remaining in touch with those near and dear to us. They also help us find our way to many new communities that can offer solace.
And those are only the headline heroes. We will have far more heroes who will never make the headlines.
On my neighborhood list-serv, someone who loves to cook has offered to bake a loaf of bread, and personally deliver it on foot, to any elderly or quarantined neighbor who requests one. To be realistic, she clarified the approximate radius of how far she might walk to deliver samples of her kitchen’s output. Another neighbor soon magnified the offer: he’ll drive to pick up the loaves and deliver them by car to anyone farther than the generous baker’s walkable zone.
And that was only Day Two since my state’s governor declared first steps of “social distancing.”
Not convinced of our species’ capacity for creative and even limitless commitment to one another, no matter how far the physical distance required? Check in soon for more encouraging ethnography, large and small.
Meanwhile, remember: As a species, we’ve got this.
The doors of our metro car opened and closed, opened and closed with increasingly alarming dysfunction. On any other day, the many more dozens of people jammed into our subway car than (for safety reasons) should have occupied our tight, air-deprived space would have panicked–jostled, elbowed, and accused one another. Instead, taking the occasion as an opportunity to befriend new neighbors, we asked from where and how far our companions had traveled, asked where they were staying, asked if the growing-short-of-breath needed water. In other words, we bonded.
Anthropologists have a name for that feeling of spontaneous community that developed in an unlikely place: we call it, “communitas.” Coined by the great Victor Turner (one of my long-ago mentors), the term originally referred to feelings of solidarity forged in African initiation rituals. But anthropologists now apply the word to all sorts of places beyond rain forest groves. Two days ago, an urban subway offered my first sighting of communitas in Washington, D.C.–but certainly not my last. On Jan. 21, 2017, feminism and anthropology converged, as women around the country–and around the world–forged a sense of communitas that, unlike many temporary feelings of communitas, may well have lasting effects beyond the day’s euphoria.
I’m old enough to have intense teenage memories of participating in the huge marches on Washington of the 1960s, supporting civil rights and protesting the Vietnam War. But my anthropologist friend, Linda Seligmann, and I were accompanied to yesterday’s march by three young women (aged 17 to 21 years old) who had never participated in such a momentous event.
(photo by Linda Seligmann)
I watched their wide-eyed wonder with delight as some 500,000+ strangers, mostly women, found a new pink-knit-capped sisterhood.
(photo by Alma Gottlieb)
My day’s companions had their own somatic challenges. One became dizzy and nearly fainted in the overcrowded, under-oxygenated metro car we occupied for nearly two hours; another exercised all her willpower to control her bladder, when toilet facilities proved elusive during six hours of enforced standing. And yet, they never complained, never begged for an exit strategy. Instead, they felt that strong pull of communitas.
I, myself, felt the tug of an old back injury asserting itself as those six hours of standing activated muscular fatigue. And yet, communitas asserted a stronger pull.
After three hours of listening to inspirational speeches, many in the crowd became restless. “Start the march! Start the march!” some began chanting. And, indeed, some began marching (or, truth to tell, shuffling, amidst the thousands of protesters barely able to move), while others remained at the rally, to listen to yet more speakers. Yet even that splintering of attention didn’t fracture our sense of common purpose. Among those who stayed behind and those who forged on, communitas asserted a stronger pull.
Some protest signs and speeches signaled disturbing acts of police abuse across our troubled land. And yet, even when faced with police officers and security guards trying to direct our unruly numbers, communitas won out, as protesters and cops responded with noticeable civility to one another.
The people who flocked to the nation’s capital looked more diverse than those at any march in my memory. Judging by what I saw and heard, the event attracted white, brown and black folks; Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus; straight people, gay people, drag queens, and everything-in-between; breastfeeding babies and grandmothers in wheelchairs; sighted walkers and white-caned walkers; people sporting designer clothes and others wearing hand-me-downs; groups of teachers and groups of students; executives and labor union members; English-speaking and Spanish-speaking youth.
(photo by Alma Gottlieb)
And yet, despite this extraordinarily diverse concatenation of humanity, we forged communitas.
(photo by Linda Seligmann)
Or perhaps I should say, because of that extraordinarily diverse concatenation of humanity, we forged communitas.
(photo by Linda Seligmann)
I don’t mean to paint an overly Pollyana-ish portrait of an admittedly extraordinary day. The challenges to maintaining momentum and organizing such a diverse constituency into a viable political movement are far from trivial.
But in the right circumstances, communitas can also cast a long shadow that can even produce some staying power. Maybe, just maybe, it may prove powerful enough to help the organizers of these diverse groups–both those with impressive experience, and those just cutting their eye teeth on their first demonstration–mobilize the global energy, incorporating both love and anger, that asserted itself yesterday on all seven continents.
At four years old and ten months old, you are both too young to understand why the grown-ups around you keep talking about confusing words like “deeply flawed candidates” and “misguided pollsters.” But sooner than I’d like, the realities of yesterday’s vote will begin affecting you.
If you see more boys bullying girls on the playground, and they say, “Our president says it’s okay to grab any part of girls we want,” remember what Mommy and Daddy have taught you: It’s NOT okay to hurt other people on purpose. Even if you didn’t realize at first that you were hurting them, if they tell you to stop, you must stop. As Molly of “The Big Comfy Couch” used to sing, “No means no.” Even if our president says otherwise. It’s important for you to learn this now: presidents are just people, and they can be wrong.
If you see some kids bullying other kids on the playground because they say that our president says those kids shouldn’t even be in this country, you can set those bullies straight. Tell them that any kid in your school has a right to be in your school. Even if our president says otherwise. It’s important for you to learn this now: presidents are just people, and they can be wrong.
If you see some kids bullying the disabled kids in your classroom because they say that our president just did that to a kid in a wheelchair, tell them that they shouldn’t be copying the behavior of a mean person. Even if that mean person is our president.
If the bullies are bigger than you and threaten to hurt you if you keep defending your classmates, tell your teacher. She’ll set those bullies straight.
If the teacher doesn’t set those bullies straight, tell the principal. She’ll set those bullies straight.
If the principal doesn’t set those bullies straight, ask Mommy or Daddy to help you write a letter to the chair of the school board. She’ll set those bullies straight.
If the chair of the school board doesn’t set those bullies straight, ask Mommy or Daddy to help you write an open letter to your local newspaper. Maybe your neighbors or your local congressperson will set those bullies straight.
If no one sets those bullies straight, keep studying hard at school. Study your hearts out, go to the best college you can find, and maybe one of you will become a better president than the guy we’ve just sic’ed on the world.
If we haven’t yet had a woman as a president by the time you’re figuring out your life path, Mona, don’t let that discourage you. We came really close this year, and someone’s time will come soon. Maybe it’ll be yours.
We have bequeathed you a world that has too many problems, too much fear, and too much hate.
Dad and I tried to raise you to see the good in people, to understand others’ perspectives, to argue for fairness in the face of injustice, to respect the earth, to treat others with respect no matter the god(s) they worship or the size of their bank account or the shape of their bodies or the origin of their passport, and to feel hopeful about the future. Our nation has just elected a man who embodies the opposite of all these principles. He will set the tone from above–but in the end, he’s just one person.
As Bertolt Brecht once wrote, “Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.”
Our nation is, like all others, a work in progress. Right now, it feels like we haven’t made any progress at all. With Trump’s election, we’ve set back the clock on women’s rights, minorities’ rights, environmental protection, civility, predictability, respect for science, and the acknowledgment that (like it or not) we all inhabit a globalized world.
But it’s not the end of the story. There’s always a next chapter to be written, and your generation will write a very different chapter.
Your generation understands the urgency of combating climate change. Your generation embraces difference of all sorts–sexual, religious, racial, you name it–because your online engagements show you every hour how diverse, and how interconnected, the world is. Your generation absorbs knowledge because you know how easy it is to find your way to facts, and, with a little research, to separate facts from fiction.
Dad and I so wished that today could have been a day to celebrate. Instead, it’s a day to reflect on the work to be done. It’s a day to dig deep and strategize about how to create the world we want to inhabit. With a president who revels in abusing his power, mocking his opponents, and ridiculing the disabled, the disenfranchised, and the poor, the rest of us will have to work harder than ever to protect the vulnerable and oppose the bullies.
If Dad and I raised you to be optimistic, we also raised you to be resilient in the face of setbacks. I apologize that those skills in resilience will be called for more than ever in the next four years. But we are confident that you have what it takes.
Cell phones . . . couches . . . gyms and community centers . . . archaeologists of the future will unearth countless artifacts and buildings that will testify to the nature of our lives as social creatures.
Recently, anthropologists have argued for evidence of a different sort that tells a far earlier story of our social nature: to wit, some ancient chins.
Yes, our evolving chin shape apparently demonstrates some major alternations in our species’ profile.
Nowadays, women’s fashion magazines might dispense advice about how to choose sunglasses depending on one’s chin shape.
But these small differences pale compared to that between our current, species-wide, facial shape and that of our much older ancestors.
For, before 80,000 years ago, our ancestors pretty much lacked chins altogether.
Left: Note the chin on this modern human; Right: No chin on this Neanderthal!
[Image: Tim Schoon]
Many changes happened in a short time. Among other notable alterations, our early ancestors’ head sizes shrank overall, while their brains grew out of all proportion. In turn, the enlarging brains of these pre-modern humans shrank the space available for their faces. (Today, most people boast faces some 15 percent shorter than the faces of Neanderthals.) In turn, those smaller faces pushed out our ancestors’ chins.
For this bony shift in facial shape occurred while males’ testosterone levels lowered, social cooperation between groups heightened, and our early ancestors produced the first art.
So it’s not that our chins actually made us more sociable. Rather, their sudden appearance on the facial scene signals the development of our social nature.
Biological anthropologist Robert Franciscus explains: “modern humans had an advantage at some point to have a well-connected social network, they can exchange information, and mates, more readily, there’s innovation . . . and for that to happen, males have to tolerate each other. There had to be more curiosity and inquisitiveness than aggression, and the evidence of that lies in facial architecture.”
Nowadays, in the midst of daily headlines that scream examples of violence on scales both massive (war) and intimate (rape), we easily forget that the impulse to violence that captures our collective attention is, somewhere deep inside our genetic makeup, counterbalanced by an impulse to cooperation.
What will it take for us to reclaim that pointy-chin part of our species’ capacities?
P.S. A recent lecture at Harvard by my Illinois colleague, archaeologist Stan Ambrose, argues that our lineage of modern humans beat out Neanderthals some 74,000 years ago because of our close ancestors’ capacity for cooperation; he builds his argument by looking at the changing relationship between testosterone levels, face shape, deep voice, and trust (skip to 47’47 to get to the heart of the argument).