Tag Archives: human

Men, women, friendship, and sex, in the warped mind of the third chimpanzee

I have generally found it easier to be friends with women rather than men. Some of my best friends are women. There I’ve said it. I mean that in a completely platonic sense.

Perhaps its not too surprising considering how I grew up surrounded by women (2 sisters and mom – dad was mostly absent due to his job), and have now replicated that again as father to two lovely daughters. Even in the intervening years of college and grad school, though, I found it easier to relate to and become friends with girls rather than boys – and again, I mean that in a completely platonic sense!

This was particularly true after moving to America where the male culture seemed so much more testosterone drenched, so driven by particular notions of loner macho masculinity that it takes considerable effort to develop any close connection with most American men. Especially without the props of sports or beer or (of course) crude sexual humor to foster the typical “bonding” that is supposed to pass for male friendship in popular culture. What probably handicapped me further even among the nerd/geek set was that I never really got into the comic books or gaming scenes either! When all that’s left to talk about is… I don’t know… science, literature, art, poetry, philosophy, and everything else in the universe – it can get oddly difficult to engage men in conversations! Except movies, and sci-fi – those I do have in my social toolkit, and they did help break down some of the barriers leading to deeper friendships. Don’t get me wrong, I do have some good strong male friendships with American men, but its taken longer to develop them. In the early years of grad school, my closest male friends were almost all foreigners, followed by a few Yanks who had been abroad! Weird.

How about women, though? I’m sure my female friends can come up with equivalent vacuous lists of topics that dominate female conversations too. It seems likely though that what made it easier for me to make friends with women was that I wasn’t hitting on them! I sense that this was a relief – not to have to engage in nor repel flirtations, and be able to engage in somewhat deeper conversations. (Of course, some of them might have found me odd too!) It was a relief for me too not to have to try to fit into some socially accepted gender role, and I’m sure that worked both ways. So much easier to get to know someone if one can drop all that social artifice. So I’ve enjoyed the friendship of women, including but not limited to my sisters, my wife, and hopefully my daughters too when they grow up. Some of my best friends are, therefore, women. It helps that Kaberi is not the jealous type and has been perfectly happy to leave me entirely on my own for months on end (as she is doing right now!) even at times when I’ve been surrounded by more female than male colleagues.

The occasional downside to rejecting traditional gender roles, of course, is that when the hour does come calling for some “macho” capability — helping Kaberi traverse a tricky trail across a cliff face in the Himalaya, or wade across a raging monsoon-fed stream in the Western Ghats, for example, or just fixing some broken things around the house — she only turns to me with some hesitation, after exhausting other apparently more male options that may be available! Even though she knows that I have been a rock-climber and hiker in some extreme conditions! (but let’s skip lightly over the fixing things bit…)

Yet it seems most people cannot really conceive of purely platonic male-female friendships in most of our cultures! There has to be more, they think, some hidden sexual tension, barely suppressed, that could burst out into the open any minute and consume that relationship or those around it. There has to be something profane underlying those friendships! Sometimes (perhaps too often?) that expectation itself destroys relationships even if there is nothing there – because the very concept of male-female friendship makes us uncomfortable. That article in Slate (linked above, and hat-tip to Jennifer Ouellete) examines the problem, but if you really need an example, look no further than the biggest pop culture phenomenon right now, the new Harry Potter film, which revolves beautifully around the relationships between the teenaged Harry, Hermione, and Ron. People can’t help but picture some sort of love-triangle there, even though the friendship between Harry and Hermione is deeper than any suppressed sexual attraction! The most tender, unexpectedly (because its not in the book) lovely, and touching scene in Deathly Hallows (part 1) is when Harry lifts Hermione up from her despondent chair and gets her to dance with him to a crackly tune on the radio during one of their darkest moments of despair (and boy does this story have an abundance of dark moments of despair!), and they actually smile momentarily as they twirl around their lonely tent. Until the tune fades away and the darkness descends once more. I registered nothing sexual in the scene at all, just a special moment of reaching out between friends who have been through a lot together. To their credit, the young actors play it that way too – and wonderfully. Yet, you have but to search for the phrase “Harry Hermione dance” in Google or on YouTube to be deluged with all kinds of fevered interpretations of sexual tension between the two of them in that scene, and elsewhere in the movie. Honestly? Where?! It seems these people all share the dark fantasies of Ron, whose jealousy is at least stoked and warped by that piece of Voldemort’s soul around his neck. Not sure what excuse everybody else has for their fantasies.

If our attitude towards opposite-sex friendships is odd and limited in imagination, what can one say about our attitude towards same-sex friendships that go beyond friendship? That is where our minds become truly unhinged. Witness this American judge, who is against gays serving in the military, but is ok with lesbians being there because (and I am utterly incapable of making this up) he thinks they can be cured by heterosexual male soldiers raping them!!! Seriously?! Or, to take a perhaps lighter but still bizarre example, we have zookeepers in Germany breaking up an apparently homosexual male pair of Griffon Vultures to force them to mate with females! Seriously!

How is it that this third branch of the chimpanzee family tree ended up in such bizarre territory in terms of our attitude towards sex and friendship? Why didn’t we evolve more like the Bonobos, for example? Can we transcend our narrow culturally constrained mindsets and envision greater dimensions of relationships? I hope so.

Let me leave you on a more uplifting note, with a clip of that tender, chaste, platonic dance between Harry and Hermione:

How a “primitive” tribe de-converted a Christian missionary to atheism!

Fascinating story, isn’t it? So who says religion—belief in the supernatural, or an afterlife, and all the baggage that comes with it— is universal among all human cultures? Or war, for that matter? And how many missionaries are / have ever been open enough to recognize who really needs saving? How many more original cultures could have been saved/left to themselves if only more missionaries were open-minded like this man?

Not only did the Pirahã lead Daniel Everett to question the need for religion, his study of their language also leads him to question Chomsky’s concept of Universal Grammar in the evolution of human language. Taking down god and Chomsky at the same time? How rare a feat is that? And how wonderful the variability of human culture? Not being an anthropologist or a linguist, I can scarcely offer any further insight into, let alone critique of, these controversial notions, but I am definitely intrigued and will have to read up on them, starting perhaps with Everett’s book Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes recounting his experiences living among and learning from the Pirahã. That story should definitely make for a fascinating read, regardless of whether the claims about a language without the universal grammar really hold up.

Read more about the work of Daniel Everett (currently Dean of Arts and Sciences at Bentley University) on his old web page at Illinios State University, and through his wikipedia entry.

[Tip o’ the old hat to Andrew Jones who alerted me to this video.]

Robert Sapolsky on how our brains got metaphorically confused

A wonderful essay from a wonderful writer (and neuroscientist) about how evolution’s tinkering with our brain has shaped (and clouded?) our emotional and moral thinking by co-opting existing brain regions towards new functions, crudely mapping metaphoric/psychic experiences onto analogous physical ones. Fascinating stuff – you’ll want to read it in its entirety, of course, but here’s a taste:

Symbols, metaphors, analogies, parables, synecdoche, figures of speech: we understand them. We understand that a captain wants more than just hands when he orders all of them on deck. We understand that Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” isn’t really about a cockroach. If we are of a certain theological ilk, we see bread and wine intertwined with body and blood. We grasp that the right piece of cloth can represent a nation and its values, and that setting fire to such a flag is a highly charged act. We can learn that a certain combination of sounds put together by Tchaikovsky represents Napoleon getting his butt kicked just outside Moscow. And that the name “Napoleon,” in this case, represents thousands and thousands of soldiers dying cold and hungry, far from home.

And we even understand that June isn’t literally busting out all over. It would seem that doing this would be hard enough to cause a brainstorm. So where did this facility with symbolism come from? It strikes me that the human brain has evolved a necessary shortcut for doing so, and with some major implications.

Consider an animal (including a human) that has started eating some rotten, fetid, disgusting food. As a result, neurons in an area of the brain called the insula will activate. Gustatory disgust. Smell the same awful food, and the insula activates as well. Think about what might count as a disgusting food (say, taking a bite out of a struggling cockroach). Same thing.

Now read in the newspaper about a saintly old widow who had her home foreclosed by a sleazy mortgage company, her medical insurance canceled on flimsy grounds, and got a lousy, exploitative offer at the pawn shop where she tried to hock her kidney dialysis machine. You sit there thinking, those bastards, those people are scum, they’re worse than maggots, they make me want to puke … and your insula activates. Think about something shameful and rotten that you once did … same thing. Not only does the insula “do” sensory disgust; it does moral disgust as well. Because the two are so viscerally similar. When we evolved the capacity to be disgusted by moral failures, we didn’t evolve a new brain region to handle it. Instead, the insula expanded its portfolio.

Read the rest on the NYT’s Opinionator blog. (And don’t ask me what metaphorical confusion led that prestigious paper of record to come up with that lame moniker for the blog!)

[Hat-tip: Carl Zimmer at the Loom]

Killing the children softly, with the very best of intentions…

The road to hell (which may simply be another name for some of the poorer places on this very earth) is often paved with the best intentions, they say. And this is probably more true of first world funded “development” projects in the third world than of most other human endeavors. The western/northern experts arrive in a poor nation of the global south, with cash and technology in hand, and hearts full of sympathy (let’s give some of them the benefit of the doubt, and politely ignore some not-so-hidden corporate/colonialist agendas), wanting to do something, anything, to alleviate the suffering of the poor natives! They apply their expertise to identify at least one tractable problem, and find a technical solution which should improve quality of human life immensely. And indeed it does! The project is successful, people – especially children – start to live longer, the economy picks up, and the third world nation even begins to experience a miracle of development!!

So far so good.

So where does the killing chidren part come in? Deborah Blum has this sad story from one such “living” experiment – here’s an excerpt:

There’s no surprise – and one might think, no news value – in the fact that prenatal arsenic exposure might pose a serious health risk. Except that this finding doesn’t derive from one more neatly controlled laboratory study. It comes from what I’m going to call a living experiment, in which the test subjects turn out to be human beings and those statistics about infant risk are actually based on tallying up dead children.

To explain: during the 1970s, international aid agencies came up with what seemed like a brilliant plan to stem a plague of water-borne illnesses in the Asian country of Bangladesh. Cholera, typhoid, dysentery were killing citizens by the thousand. As the pathogens responsible lived in surface water, public health officials decided the answer lay in cleaner supplies underground. Aid organizations joined together to install wells in disease-troubled villages, reaching down into the germ-free ground water below. They chose simple, relatively inexpensive tube wells, placed thousands of these over-sized drinking straws into the shallow aquifers.

At first, it seemed to work like a blessing. Infant mortality rates dropped by 50 percent as the rate of water-borne diseases dropped. But by the mid-1990s, a strange epidemic of other illnesses began to appear – some symptoms rather like cholera (lethargy, severe stomach pain, nausea and diarrhea), but others wickedly their own: such as a roughening and darkening of skin, a corrosion appearance of lesions on hands and feet:

Arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh

In fact, as a team of researchers from adjacent India concluded in 1995: classic symptoms of arsenic poisoning. As it turned out, no one had done a good geological survey of the bedrock surrounding the aquifers. And with the best of intentions, the live-saving wells had been drilled into area unusually rich in naturally occurring arsenic.


You really have to read the full story on her blog.


An apology for Columbus Day

Christopher Columbus was looking for a new route to India, that mysterious oriental mistress of spices enticing Europe throughout the middle ages, when he ran into a whole new continent 518 years ago today, and became the “discoverer” of America. Rather unfortunate, that “discovery” turned out to be, for the many native people whose ancestors had already “discovered” the continent and had inhabited it for over 15,000 years. Many of European descent in the Americas, and indeed the US federal government, still celebrate Columbus Day (today) with a holiday in his honor. Others recognize the full extent of his genocidal legacy and refuse to celebrate what should perhaps instead be a national/continental day of mourning.

As an Indian of the original variety, come lately to this continent myself, all I can offer to my Amerindian brothers and sisters, who have endured the horrors that came in Columbus’ wake, is an apology: I am sorry, for it was my subcontinent he was trying to find! Your continent just happened to be in the way.

And thank you: for the tomatoes, the eggplants, the potatoes, and especially the chillies – I cannot imagine what our cuisine (mild-medium-or-spicy) was like before those wonderful plants made their way back to India!

Leopards in the Lurch

Well and truly in the lurch, some of these leopards, if the footage in this film is anything to go by – some very disturbing stuff in there, so be warned. (I might warn you about the narration also, which is more annoying than disturbing!)

As for the leopards, I’m not sure what to make of the numbers cited: are leopards really being killed by the tens to hundreds annually across India? All due to their “incursions” into human habitation – or vice versa, really – given dwindling deer and other prey populations and the ease of finding dogs and even humans. On the one hand, one feels optimistic if that many leopards are indeed being killed annually, by professional hunters or frenzied mobs, yet the problem persists. The overall population may yet be healthy if it can absorb such mortality at human hands and continue to thrive amid human enterprise. On the other hand, we might be seeing a real ecological trap (if not sink) in the villages that attract these leopards, and a bigger crisis in their wild habitats in terms of their natural prey – so the number killed by people may be really decimating the population. I’m not sure if there is a reliable estimate of leopard populations across India – but leopards have proven themselves to be highly adaptable to human dominated landscapes, thriving even within the municipal limits of the megalopolis of Mumbai. The real question is whether we can adapt our own actions to make sure we don’t push this lovely cat over the brink and send it spiralling towards extinction even as we try to save human lives.

And what of the traditional Indian culture, steeped in Hindu philosophy, that is supposed to make us much more tolerant of wildlife than in other parts of the world? Some of the footage above certainly runs counter to notions of tolerance – but could it be more an indication of people’s desperation and frustration at losing so many humans (how reliable are those numbers cited here) to these cats? In the context of those casualty numbers, the overall response seems actually rather restrained, especially when compared with the number of mountain lions “taken” in the American west even when they harm far fewer humans.

[Hat-tip: Waghoba Tipkya]

Bicycle worldviews

My friend and colleague Susan Currie Sivek made this little film using her iPhone while riding around Fresno’s Woodward Park on her bicycle last weekend:


If you’re interested in the tech of how she made the film, you’ll find her blog post well worth reading.

If, on the other hand, you are more interested in the world-problem-solving potential of bicycles, try this perspective, on how child-like conversations had while riding together in buggies behind life’s bicycles might save humanity. Or not.

Frans de Waal on the evolution of empathy

World-renowned primatologist FRANS DE WAAL has spent years studying chimpanzees, bonobos, and capuchins. While he has witnessed plenty of selfish and aggressive behavior, he has also watched primates cooperate, resolve conflicts, share food, laugh, and help each other. De Waal argues that these interactions show that empathy, altruism, and morality are hard-wired in the primate brain – including the human primate brain. This hour, Frans de Waal, Director of the Living Links Center at Emory University, talks about the evolution of empathy and what we can learn from primate cousins. His most recent book is The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society.

This interview aired yesterday on Radio Times, from WHYY in Philadelphia. If the above embedded player doesn’t work for you, or you prefer to listen to the interview on the move, download the podcast here. And enjoy a thoughtful hour!

[via Frans de Waal on Facebook]

Wandering the bazaars of western India – with a pet Cheetah in tow!

No, you can’t quite do that, or see that in action – you’ll have to imagine it. For, unfortunately, the following film doesn’t have footage of that walk in the bazaar with said cheetahs, although the narrator does allude to such walks. But it does have some remarkable footage, from 1939, of the cheetahs in action as hunting animals – kinda like hunting dogs or falcons! And its even in colour (yes I did say its from 1939)!

Really fascinating to see how the sleek animals were put to work hunting blackbuck from the backs of bullock carts. And sad to contemplate that within a decade and a half of this footage being captured on film, the last wild cheetah had been shot dead in India!

A handful of these Asiatic Cheetahs remain in Iran, and just last week, the Indian govt approved plans to reintroduce them back to parts of their former range in India. Given the dismal recent history of tiger conservation in India (including their reintroduction to Sariska), or the relocation of lions, or a number of other ambitious projects, it may be a while before we get to really see cheetahs sprinting after blackbucks again through that tall grass across the western plains. In the meantime, here’s this video:

[Hat-tip: Janaki Lenin via Facebook]