On this weeks episode, Chris and Cara talk to Dr. Jada Benn Torres and Dr. Gabriel A Torres Colón about their new book Genetic Ancestry: Our Stories, Our Pasts
The columnist, Elizabeth Bruenig, suggested to colleagues: “What we’re having is really a philosophical conversation and it concerns the unfinished business of liberalism. I think all human beings are born philosophers, that is, that we all have an innate desire to understand what our world means and what we owe to one another and how to live good lives.” One respondent wrote back witheringly: “Philosophy schmosiphy. We’re at a barricades moment in our history. You decide: which side are you on?”
In an age of polarisation, the exchange encapsulated a central question for the liberal left in America and beyond. Jagged faultlines have disfigured the public square during a period in which issues of race, gender, class and nationhood have divided societies. So was Bruenig right? To rebuild trust and a sense of common purpose, can we learn something by revisiting the most influential postwar philosopher in the English-speaking world?
The Virus, the Bats and Us: They probably spread the virus that’s killing humans. We almost certainly spread the fungus that’s killing them.
They play a huge role in the perpetuation of tropical hardwood forests. They eat a vast tonnage of insects each year. In Thailand, wrinkle-lipped bats provide protection against a major rice pest. In Indonesia, other bats reduce the insect burden on shade-grown cacao. A single colony of big brown bats in the American Midwest, by consuming 600,000 cucumber beetles in a year, prevents 33 million cucumber beetle larvae from feeding on the next year’s crop. Mexican free-tailed bats eat cotton bollworm moths in Texas. By one estimate, from 2011, bat predation on insects was saving $23 billion annually for agriculture in the United States. The global total is incalculable. “Bats are too important to lose,” Dr. Epstein said.
Yet they are being lost in many parts of the world, because of habitat destruction and direct killing — and, at a cataclysmic rate in North America over the past 14 years, because of a new problem: a contagious disease. It’s called white-nose syndrome, and it’s caused by a pathogenic fungus that seems to have arrived from Europe. In this case, humans are the vector, and bats are the victims.
In recent years, Heidi Wayment and her colleagues have been developing a “quiet ego” research program grounded in Buddhist philosophy and humanistic psychology ideals, and backed by empirical research in the field of positive psychology. Paradoxically, it turns out that quieting the ego is so much more effective in cultivating well-being, growth, health, productivity, and a healthy, productive self-esteem, than focusing so loudly on self-enhancement.
To be clear, a quiet ego is not the same thing as a silent ego. Squashing the ego so much that it loses its identity entirely does not do yourself or the world any favors. Instead, the quiet ego perspective emphasizes balance and integration. As Wayment and colleagues put it, “The volume of the ego is turned down so that it might listen to others as well as the self in an effort to approach life more humanely and compassionately.” The quiet ego approach focuses on balancing the interests of the self and others, and cultivating growth of the self and others over time based on self-awareness, interdependent identity, and compassionate experience.
Flack describes her work as an investigation into three interlocking questions. She wants to understand how phenomenological rules in biology, which seem to work in aggregate, emerge from microscopic ground truths. She wants to understand how groups solve problems and come to decisions. And she wants to know how complex systems stay robust in the face of shocks, like the macaques with their own police force that acts as social glue.
At its root, though, Flack’s focus is on information: specifically, on how groups of different, error-prone actors variously succeed and fail at processing information together. “When I look at biological systems, what I see is that they are collective,” she said. “They are all made up of interacting components with only partly overlapping interests, who are noisy information processors dealing with noisy signals.”
It’s a strange thing about the human mind that, despite its capacity and its abundant freedom, its default is to function in a repeating pattern. It watches the moon and the planets, the days and seasons, the cycle of life and death all going around in an endless loop, and unconsciously, believing itself to be nature, the mind echoes these cycles. Its thoughts go in loops, repeating patterns established so long ago we often can’t remember their origin, or why they ever made sense to us. And even when these loops fail over and over again to bring us to a desirable place, even while they entrap us, and make us feel anciently tired of ourselves, and we sense that sticking to their well-worn path means we’ll miss contact with the truth every single time, we still find it nearly impossible to resist them. We call these patterns of thought our “nature” and resign ourselves to being governed by them as if they are the result of a force outside of us, the way that the seas are governed — rather absurdly, when one thinks about it — by a distant and otherwise irrelevant moon.