Category Archives: Humans as a social species

What Anthropology Teaches Us about COVID-19, Part 2: An Optimist’s Scenario

Here’s what I imagine could–and should–emerge from this viral nightmare.

Locally, stranger-neighbors will (re)discover each other. Re-appreciate the bonds of co-residence.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Elevator-Friends-300x200.jpg
  • Translate that appreciation into forging new relationships, even new neighborhood groups. Friendly elevator chats, book groups, block parties, children’s after-school clubs.
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Homework-Club-300x235.png
  • Remember that our common humanity unites us more than our cultural differences divide us.

Online, new connections and groups will form.

  • In this often scary and lonely world, like-minded folks will find their way online to one another, whether as individuals or in groups.
  • The non-tech-savvy will discover their Inner Geek and figure out how to connect virtually.
https://www.aphasia.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Virtual-Chat-2.png

Politicians who specialize in policies of the heartless–generously supporting their own kind, and pretending their ilk have a monopoly on being human–will recover their souls.

  • Re-learn empathy for anyone other than their immediate families and business associates.
  • Translate that empathy for other humans into public policy supporting those other humans.

Globally, political leaders will recognize that it is actually possible to band together with parallel, even coordinated, strategies for the common good.

  • Translate that realization into new, viable policies to counteract climate change.
  • Dismantle the fossil fuel industry.
  • Enact international legislation promoting sustainable energy.
  • Invest in civic-minded engineers and their research.
  • Save the planet.

It’s true that I have a reputation for being a bit of a Pollyana in my family.

Still, even I don’t dare hope that any or all the above will happen overnight. Once the microscopic creatures causing COVID-19 chaos have (mostly) died off, we will need time to remember who we were.

But, also, time to think about who we want to be.

This horrible moment provides an important opportunity for us—as individuals, as communities, as nations, and as a globalized species—to rethink, well, everything.

What Anthropology Teaches Us about COVID-19, Part 1-Early Thoughts

Lesson 1:

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.

Lesson 2:

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.

Lesson 3:

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.

Face masks are for front-line health workers, and for those with disease symptoms, to prevent them from spreading disease when they must go out and about.

Some stores are limiting the amount of COVID-related items they’ll allow shoppers to buy. Hoarders of masks and toilet paper are being shamed in cartoons, and warned everywhere to change their behavior.

Individuals aren’t the only ones being monitored. Stores are, too.

New York City has already issued $275,000 in fines to stores that have charged more than 10% higher-than-usual prices on hand sanitizers, disinfectant wipes, and face masks. The fines will apply for at least two months.

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.

In the U.S., for those with limited Internet and data access, new options are emerging daily to provide access. Companies are actually offering expanded smartphone data at no charge, creating new Wi-fi hot spots, and offering free international phone calls.

No doubt, these profit-oriented corporations will return to greedy practices once the pandemic subsides.

But for now, at least some of them are actually being part of the solution. Their unusual pivot reminds us that, as a species, we will survive this challenge, as we survived all known pandemics—the Black Death, HIV-AIDS, Ebola and others.

Not only that, but if we live up to our vaunted cleverness, we may actually emerge stronger.

The moment will produce many heroes.  

Front-line health staff will bravely reduce the suffering of patients. 

Humane politicians will offer financial supports.  Germany has “promised companies ‘unlimited’ credit to keep them afloat” in an economic package . . . worth at least 550 billion euros ($614 billion) initially — the biggest in Germany’s post-war history.” Politics will even make strange bedfellows. Mitt Romney has just endorsed Andrew Yang’s proposal (at last for now) for a universal basic income.

Brilliant infectious disease specialists will analyze all available data and translate statistical and arcane knowledge into readable syntheses for ordinary readers.

Medical researchers will eventually create a vaccine.  The EU has already invested an emergency $89.4 million into the project.

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.

When Women’s Laughter Keeps Men in Line; or, What Gathering-Hunting Women of Central Africa Have in Common with Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, et al.

Among the Mbendjele gathering-hunting people who live in the Republic of Congo,

women’s laughter manages to keep men in line.”

Drawing from ethnographic research by Jerome Lewis, anthropologist Chris Knight relates that among the Mbendjele, “senior women exercise a special privilege, seeing it as their enjoyable role to bring down anyone who seems to be getting above themselves.”

To explain what “getting above themselves” might include, Knight enumerates an impressive list:

  • greediness
  • selfishness
  • dishonesty
  • cheating
  • laziness
  • arrogance
  • boastfulness
  • carelessness
  • cowardice
  • intolerance
  • moodiness
  • impulsiveness
  • aggression
  • possessiveness
  • not providing enough to eat
  • threats of, or attempts at, violence
  • chasing another woman
  • not having sex often enough.

Why should we care about Mbendjele women’s complaints about their men’s bad behavior?

Given that all humans began (evolutionarily speaking) as gatherer-hunters in sub-Saharan Africa, anthropologists have long pointed out the special insights that contemporary hunter-gatherers of Central Africa hold for our species history. Expanding on writings by anthropologist Chris Boehm, Knight uses the example of laughing Mbendjele older women to develop a broad-ranging theory of how laughter may have evolved as a unique human pleasure.

Here, my aim is far less ambitious.

Let’s call this a Memo to the [Increasingly Empowered] White-Clad Women of the U.S. Congress: 

Why not learn from your Mbendjele sisters and take up coordinated public laughter at out-of-control men as your next power move?

In fact, our newly-elected women Members of Congress have already gotten a brief but great head start.

I’m guessing that Mbendjele women would recognize their strategy.

Maybe the next group press conference held by our women MoCs critiquing unjust laws and unethical practices (patriarchal and otherwise) will be accompanied by a full-scale, Mbendjele-style laugh-in. Our species’ long evolutionary history might well support it.

 

Environmental Anthropology: An Ethnographer’s View of a Cove Cleanup

The curse of the anthropologist: finding culture everywhere in nature.

Publicly posted signs reinvent the medieval European town crier, or the West African village drummer

 

Today, the coastal neighborhood in which my husband and I now live hosted a cleanup in a nearby cove.

 

Of course, this effort was billed as an environmental event. But whenever I bent down to pick up a piece of blue plastic poking up from the sand, or a shard of brown glass glinting under the noonday sun, I couldn’t help thinking of the organization of labor required by clever humans to lug this alarming collection of detritus to a landfill.

 

 

Or perhaps a container ship will transport the bags of sea trash halfway around the world. Someplace in China, rural-to-urban migrant laborers might pick through heaps of American scrap and send the sorted pieces to factories in Shenzhen or Dongguan. There, other rural-to-urban migrant workers (of the sort profiled by the fascinating book by Leslie Chang that I am currently reading, Factory Girls) will make new products from recycled glass and bits of plastic. Maybe next year, those products will make their way on new container ships headed back to the Port of Providence, right up the road from us. And then, I might buy a set of drinking glasses or a plastic spatula at the local mall that boasts, “Made in China.” Was it really? Our work today suggests that such a label might tell only a very partial story.

Or so I fantasized, as I picked out crushed straws and dirtied pencil stubs from the wet sand and stuffed them in my rapidly filling trash bag.

Enjoying a beautiful day for a clean-up; photo by Philip Graham

 

As I joined in today’s collective effort, my mind wandered back to an annual community cleanup that occurred in the small villages of the Beng people in which my husband and I have lived for long periods in the rain forest of Ivory Coast. There, the male chief of every village organizes the event. The goal: to sweep the paths clean that connect village and forest. Farmers walk these paths daily to reach their fields, which are located deep in the heart of the West African rain forest. It’s important to keep the paths clear–otherwise, inattentive farmers worried about this year’s rainfall might forget to look where they’re stepping and tread on a poisonous millipede, a scorpion, or a snake.

Beng villages are designed as discrete clearings in the surrounding rain forest; photo by Philip Graham

 

Once those paths into the forest are cleared, the residents tackle the village itself. The goal: to clear every blade of grass, so no child inadvertently steps unsuspectingly on a green mamba hiding among tall plants while walking to Grandma’s house.

A Beng chief’s word is next to that of god. Beng chiefs are said to use witchcraft to protect their villages, and no sane person would dare deny their annual order to sweep the paths.

A young Beng man sweeps in front of the assistant chief (seated, with a white shirt), while behind him, his older brother, the village chief (seated, with a long, light blue robe) looks on, approvingly; the space is being cleared before a village meeting is convened

 

Moreover, these chiefs occupy a hereditary position. Sure, villagers might dispute the suitability of this or that genealogically qualified candidate, after a particular chief dies. But the basic system offers an official and more or less predictable structure into which individual successors can be slotted.

The neighborhood in which my husband and I now live in Rhode Island lacks such an inherited leader. So how does our annual neighborhood cove cleanup get organized?

As it happens, one woman named Barbara Rubine occupies something of a chief-like position.

Barbara Rubine (left) oversees today’s cove cleanup, along with Andy Gell and Mark Garrison, two Board members of the Edgewood Waterfront Preservation Association 

 

Living across from the cove motivated her to start thinking clean-up thoughts some thirty years ago, when the discouraging view out her window featured more rubbish than river. To maximize her efforts, she founded the Edgewood Waterfront Preservation Association, of which she remains president. As the city of Cranston noted when it voted to commend her for work in 2013, Rubine has “coordinated park maintenance, and shoreline and marsh restoration work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Save The Bay, EWPA and the City of Cranston.”  Which is to say, she’s helped secure major grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well as local organizations.

Yet, from what I can tell, many volunteers at today’s cleanup don’t know this energetic and visionary woman–even though she is, herself, a veritable force of nature. No, it’s not Barbara Rubine’s moral authority that draws groups of neighbors to add their e-mail address to a list of volunteers, study a long list of labor-intensive tasks, then grab trash pickers and leaf bags and get to work.

 

 

Environmental activist groups sponsoring the clean-up requested e-mail addresses to recruit volunteers for future tasks, then provided supplies for all volunteers to use

 

It must be some collective sense of purpose that, despite its amorphous shape, draws individuals here.

Dean’s grandfather

 

Moreover, many parents clearly aim to model civic engagement for their children.  After all, it takes a village to maintain our neighborhood cove–which, as my five-year-old grandson Dean proclaimed last year (following a tour of Rhode Island’s magnificent coastline), is, after all, “the original, the best, and the most beautiful cove.”

       

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And so, behind all this laudable effort to preserve the habitat of shellfish beds in their vulnerable corner of the natural world, the structure and motivation of the human labor on behalf of the mussels somehow claim most of my attention.

Fragile mussel beds benefited from the housekeeping efforts of their human friends

 

The curse* of the anthropologist, indeed.

 

* or blessing

 

. . .

 

[All photos by Alma Gottlieb except where noted.]

 

We Are All Africans

An impressively interdisciplinary team of geneticists, biological anthropologists, archaeologists, and geologists has just published an article detailing the genetic makeup of a man who lived in Ethiopia some 4,500 years ago. Why is this relevant today? The analysis shows close genetic ties between some contemporary Sardinian farmers, German farmers from 7,000 years ago, and contemporary people living in Ethiopia and elsewhere in the Horn of Africa. That’s big news in these days of far too many complaints about “too many immigrants,” and far too much discussion about “race” as if it were a simple category with immutable boundaries.

But the larger story embedded in this research packs an even bigger punch. We humans have been on the move for a good 70,000 years, and our connections across Africa, the Middle East, and Europe have been actively maintained, with criss-crossed migrations and gene sharing ever since. Leaders of today’s far-right parties claim that ethnic and racial mixing is unnatural, and that migration goes against our nature. Donald Trump, Scott Walker, and Marine Le Pen need to study their history.

Racist Anti-Immigration Poster Racist, anti-immigration poster of the English Defence League, a far-right street protest group dedicated to opposing Muslims living in the UK

A Tale of Two Chins

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.
Screenshot 2015-04-18 19.03.20
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.
2 Chins

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.

According to biological anthropologist Nathan Holton, the development of a chin—a facial feature unique to our über-social species—correlates temporally with other transformations.

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?

Read more: “Feminization, Social Tolerance, and the Origins of Behavioral Modernity,” by Robert L. Cieri, et al.

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).