I finished my dissertation on how the war in Laos was correlated to the physical growth of Hmong refugees in 2004. The general idea was that early stressors, particularly prenatally and in infancy, can have long-term impacts on growth and health. The model I was working with came largely from David Barker’s (and others’) ‘fetal origins hypothesis,’ based on evidence that low birth-weight infants tended to grow up to have higher rates of things like type 2 diabates, coronary heart disease, hypertension, etc. A classmate in graduate school, Stephanie Rutledge, introduced me to Barker’s work and told me that I’d find it really enlightening. I did. Sadly, Barker passed away earlier this year, but his work helped spawn a new direction in research.
Here is a handy graphic on several recent civil wars, their duration, and the number of lives cost (source: The Economist). To explain the relative decline in number of deaths in more recent years…
“So far, nothing has done more to end the world’s hot little wars than winding up its big cold one. From 1945 to 1989 the number of civil wars rose by leaps and bounds, as America and the Soviet Union fueled internecine fighting in weak young states, either to gain advantage or to stop the other doing so.”
Every so often, some occurrence comes along that throws life into a new orbit. My trajectory was recently shifted by such an event – I fell in love with a girl. She’s much younger than me: not even a week old, in fact. And she happens to have half of my chromosomes, as daughters tend to do. She is healthy, and both she and her mother are doing well. I find myself carrying her around the house, just staring at her face. When she’s awake and looks back at me, which is mostly late at night unfortunately, it’s magical.
Obviously, we knew this day was coming. We’re not ready to plan her entire life out for her just yet (not until she’s at least a month old). But for a while now I’ve been thinking about what it will be like to be a father to a baby girl, and all the possibilities and challenges life has before her. She has two older brothers, who are crazy about her, but there are things that I worry about for their sister that I didn’t have to think about for them, at least not as much. Forgive me for how naïve this is about to sound because I know I’m behind the curve, but I’m trying…
Kant (wiki commons)
Today is birthday 39. Odd. I’m finding inspiration from Immanuel Kant:
He was of the rather curious conviction that a person did not have a firm direction in life until their thirty-ninth year; when this came and passed and he was just a minor metaphysician in a Prussian University a brief mid-life crisis ensued; perhaps it can be credited with some of his later direction.
We all take different paths and bloom at different times.
Sometimes students need a boost, as they can get pulled down into the routine of trying to balance school and life, studying and making ends meet. Sometimes I’m right there with them. I’m keenly aware that they have different motives for being in school. To some, university is just what’s been expected of them since they were children. It’s just the next step. For others it was a more deliberate decision. And of course for nearly all of them, a diploma is seen as a ticket to a better future. However, that doesn’t automatically translate into curiosity or enthusiasm.
On those days when I need to remind myself to look up and remember what it’s all about, I’ll turn to a few key ideas to get me back down to bedrock. What’s the point? It’s got to be more than trying to memorize keywords and jumping through all the right hoops in order to graduate. I think it’s pretty simple: trying to use our very short time here to better understand the world while we have the opportunity. Knowledge for its own sake.
To get that across to one of my classes, I recently shared this passage from Frank McCourt’s autobiography Angela’s Ashes. In this part of the book, McCourt is a young boy in school in gritty, western Ireland in the 1930s. Most of the boys in his class face some level of hardship, with many struggling for necessities, including food and shoes. The teacher tries to inspire them:
“Mr. O’Halloran (the teacher) says, You have to study and learn so that you can make up your own mind about history and everything else but you can’t make up an empty mind. Stock your mind, stock your mind. It is your house of treasure and no one in the world can interfere with it… You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace.” (p. 208)
Our students are pretty diverse, with many first-generation college students (as was I). Depending on the conditions in which someone grew up, this passage might come across as sappy or inspirational. I prefer the latter.
An idea for a new type of modular cell phone called ‘Phonebloks’ has been making the rounds on the internet (video here). The premise is that anyone can customize their phone to suit their own preferences. You can choose a phone that emphasizes memory, or a better camera, wifi connection, speaker, etc. It’s also nice that you can upgrade or replace one specific feature when it becomes outdated or dysfunctional, rather than discarding the entire phone. There is some skepticism about whether such a device could actually work, but there is clearly a lot of interest in the idea, given how much attention this has gotten in only a few days.
I like the concept because it accommodates personal choice, because it seems environmentally friendly by minimizing waste, and probably because it reminds me of my Lego-filled childhood. Whatever. I’m not trying to sell this. Instead, I’m mentioning it because it seems like an analogy for life. (Ergo, Life Bloks™, coming soon).
The New York Times runs a series of short videos titled “Modern Love” (does David Bowie know about this?). The latest installation is narrated by a 71 year-old woman who describes the experience of falling in love at her age, comparing it to her younger days. She talks about differences in preparing for dates, perceptions of the concept of ‘soulmates,’ the sense of urgency, jealousy, ephemerality of life and relationships, and the pain of loss. Pretty thorough for a 2 minute video.
To me, the most interesting part is that love really can strike at any age, illustrating the gap between proximate and evolutionary levels. Evolutionary hypotheses for the origin of pair-bonding (and love) often highlight some function related to reproduction. Robin Dunbar summarized four possibilities:
This is part of a series on the evolution of human mating behavior, comparing evidence for promiscuity and pair-bonding in our species. Please see the Introduction here.
Left: My paternal grandparents with my father as a toddler. Right: their 50th wedding anniversary (it’s the best picture I could find).
Are humans naturally monogamous? Oprah Winfrey says ‘no.’That settles it, then. Maybe.
Oprah (she needs no last name) was a guest on a morning talk show, and the topic of discussion was two recent articles on the origins of monogamy in mammals (Lukas & Clutton-Brock, 2013) and another specifically on primates (Opie et al, 2013). Both articles are impressive for their large databases and attention to detail. The first looked at 2545 species of mammals while the Opie article examined 230 primate species.
Both studies focused specifically on social, rather than sexual, monogamy. This distinction is important because sexual exclusivity was not what was being measured here. Rather, social monogamy was defined by both studies as simply living in breeding pairs. The Lukas & Clutton-Brock paper added that in social monogamy the pair shared a common territory, and “associate with each other for more than one breeding season” (p. 526).
Are humans naturally monogamous? Oprah Winfrey says ‘no.’ That settles it, then. Maybe.
Update: more thoughts on this.