Feeding the Voices Within Us

From a David Barash piece in the New York Times (Are We Hard-Wired for War?):

“There is a story, believed to be of Cherokee origin, in which a girl is troubled by a recurring dream in which two wolves fight viciously. Seeking an explanation, she goes to her grandfather, highly regarded for his wisdom, who explains that there are two forces within each of us, struggling for supremacy, one embodying peace and the other, war. At this, the girl is even more distressed, and asks her grandfather who wins. His answer: “The one you feed.”

I like the story and the premise, that we may have multiple internal forces or ‘voices,’ but that there is also some executive decision maker within us that can choose which ones to nurture and cultivate. However, circumstances also play a large role — socialization, perceptions of injustice, fear of insecurity, relationships with our neighbors — in which voices we listen to. The rational executive is not always in complete control; instead, it’s a complex dialogue. As Jaak Panskepp once wrote:

Despite the appeal of (the) rational fallacy, our higher brain areas are not immune to the subcortical influences we share with other creatures. Of course, the interchange between cognitive and emotional processes is one of reciprocal control, but the flow of traffic remains balanced only in nonstressful circumstances. In emotional turmoil, the upward influences of subcortical emotional circuits on the higher reaches of the brain are stronger than top-down controls. Although humans can strengthen and empower the downward controls through emotional education and self-mastery, few can ride the whirlwind of unbridled emotions with great skill.” (Panksepp, 2004: 301)


Who’s in charge here?







Panksepp J. 2004. Affective Neuroscience: the Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. Oxford Univ Press.


Related: Tradeoffs, Happiness, & the Biology of Our Cacophonous Selves

Ehrlich on Plural Human Natures

I’ve been thinking about human behavioral complexity a bit more lately, and the persistent use of the term ‘human nature.’ That brought me to this passage from the biologist Paul R. Ehrlich in his book Human Natures (2000: 330).


“In my view, it is highly unlikely that human beings will ever create a utopia, but I think it a counsel of despair to assume that we can’t collectively do a lot better than we’re doing today. Cultural evolution led many past civilizations to extinction. Our global civilization had better move rapidly to modify its cultural evolution and deal with its deteriorating environmental circumstances before it runs out of time. Whether the natures of most of us can be changed to establish better connections among diverse groups and to take more systematic control of our cultural evolution remains to be seen. One good starting point would be to drop the term human nature in the singular form from most of our discourse and learn to think automatically of the built-in genetic and cultural plurality of human beings. Our challenge is to learn to deal sensibly with both nature and our natures — for all of us to learn to be both environmentalists and “people people.” Utopian? Perhaps. I tend to be optimistic in thinking that we can do it but pessimistic that we will do it.” 


Anthropologists might cringe at the use of ‘cultural evolution,’ which has its baggage, but Ehrlich was not promoting the idea of linear progression. As is apparent in the quote, his concern was with people taking charge of some of our larger challenges, particularly overpopulation, war, and environmental degradation. As for the matter of being optimistic or pessimistic, I suppose that’s an open question.


(Related) I’d also recommend this essay by Jason Antrosio on human nature.    


My Mind


“This logjam blocked the St. Croix River at Taylors Falls in 1886. It took 200 men six weeks using dynamite and hard work to break the logs loose.” Source

Part 15: Humans Are (Blank)-ogamous: Lessons from Models of Sex and Love

Part 15: Humans Are (Blank)-ogamous: Lessons from Models of Sex and Love

Patrick Clarkin:

I’ve not had the time to write much here lately. Instead, I’m taking a shortcut by re-blogging an older post that I thought had at least some decent ideas/ lessons (and pretty graphs). I still need to wrap up this series, but am not sure exactly how.

Originally posted on Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D.:

The introduction to this series can be found here.

Summary: There are many ways to put a human life together, including for sex and love. Each path has tradeoffs.


Happiness is love. Full stop.  – George Vaillant

I thought I knew what love was. What did I know?Don Henley, “Boys of Summer”

There are all kinds of love in this world, but never the same love twice. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Nothing in life is to be feared; it is only to be understood. – Marie Curie


“Mom, love is love, whatever you are.” These words of wisdom came from Jackson, the 12 year-old son of actress Maria Bello, after she revealed to him that she had fallen in love with a woman. Bello’s essay, Coming Out as a Modern Family, appeared in last November’s New York Times, where she bravely…

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The Biology of Forced Displacement

“Seeking asylum is not illegal under international law and people have a right to be treated humanely and with dignity.”  – UNHCR

We crossed the Mekong to get to Thailand at night, so no one would see us. We had always lived in the mountains (of northern Laos), so we did not know how to swim. When we came to the river, we used anything to help us float – bamboo, bicycle tubes. But at night, it is easy to get lost. Someone in our group said: ‘Remember, if you get lost when you’re going down the river (with the current), don’t panic. Thailand is on your right.’ ”



Every refugee has a story. The one above was told to me by a Hmong man I met in French Guiana in 2001. I went to learn about the experiences of the people there and how they had adjusted to being resettled half a world away, from Southeast Asia to a French ‘overseas department’ in Amazonia. They were actually doing quite well at the time, living as independent farmers who had been given land by the government years earlier.

Hmong men in French Guiana going hunting by bike.

Hmong men in French Guiana going hunting by bike.

They also retained a good degree of cultural continuity. While most are fluent in French, the majority of the 2,000+ Hmong in the country lived in rural, semi-isolated, ethnically homogenous villages. This gave them a buffer of sorts, allowing them to acculturate on their own terms. As they often put it, they were “free to be their own boss,” free to be Hmong, and most said they were happy with life in French Guiana. This combination of traits – economically self-sufficient, culturally distinct, mostly content, living in a rural overseas department – is not the typical refugee story. In fact, because of that relative uniqueness, the French Guiana Hmong have drawn attention from media outlets such as the BBC and the NY Times.

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War Fever


I don’t have a lot to add here. Source.

Civilian Casualties Are a Feature, Not a Bug, of War

“The first pattern is that forbearance toward the helpless has always been instrumental rather than absolute.” Historians Mark Grimsley and Clifford J Rogers (2002: xii), on treatment of civilians in war over time. 


Much of the world’s attention has been focused on two recent tragedies: the Malaysia Airlines flight shot down over Ukraine and the civilian casualties in Gaza. In his Foreign Policy essay “The Slaughter of Innocents”, David Rothkopf couched these events within the concepts of ‘limited war’ and ‘collateral damage,’ writing:

From a purely political perspective, such tragedies, isolated though they may be, instantly dominate the narrative of a conflict because they speak to the heart of observers — whereas government speeches, Twitter feeds, and press releases seem too coldly rational and calculated, too soulless and self-interested. There are no arguments a political leader or a press officer can make that trump horror or anguish. There is no moral equation that offers a satisfactory calculus to enable us to accept the death of innocents as warranted.

I agree with much of this, except for one non-trivial point: tragedies involving civilian casualties are not that isolated, unfortunately. Not all incidents will be nearly as visible as the deaths of four young children playing football on a beach near a hotel filled with journalists, or a commercial airplane shot out of the sky. But they are all tragedies nonetheless. Civilian casualties are a feature of modern war, not a bug.

War deaths 2

Civilian casualties. See references below for sources.


And this is not exactly a new pattern or feature of ‘limited war.’ Instead, nearly a century of data suggests that civilians, not soldiers, have suffered the brunt of war, experiencing 67% to 90% of casualties across various conflicts since WW2. And many more civilians suffer through forced displacement, along with its short- and long-term effects on health (Bradley 2014). Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at these patterns, for the very simple reason that war is a sledgehammer, not a scalpel. It cannot easily excise some unwanted faction from a society without also cutting out several times more innocent lives. The real tragedy are not those ‘rare mistakes’ (which are not rare, really) that injure or kill civilians. It is the decision to go to war at all.    Continue reading