Wednesday, December 24, 2014

John Edward Terrell's "A Talent for Friendship"

John Edward Terrell has long been recognized as one of the world's leading experts on the peopling of the Oceania and the remarkable biological, cultural, and linguistic diversity of modern Pacific Islanders. He is also a pioneer in the study of global human biogeography, baseline probability analysis, and the application of social network analysis in archaeology and anthropology. Since 1971 he has been the curator of Oceanic archaeology and ethnology at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago where he now holds the endowed Regenstein Curatorship of Pacific Anthropology established there in 2005.

Terrell applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A Talent for Friendship: Rediscovery of a Remarkable Trait, and reported the following:
The “Page 99” test takes us almost to the end of Chapter 13 titled “You can’t get there from here.” Each of the 30 chapters is by design short. Each is in a way a separate essay—again by design—on one facet of the many sides of the jewel that evolution fashioned when it created us as a species.

Chapter 13 explores the vexing stubbornness with which we often cling to commonsense beliefs about what it means to be human despite scientific evidence to the contrary. One likely reason for this pigheadedness is that while science and common sense are alike grounded in human experience, the simplicity of most commonsense explanations can make it hard to win people over to the complexity and uncertainties of most scientific arguments.

This chapter explores the famous case of the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543). For much of history, one of the great mysteries of life was why certain stars do not stay put like all the others in the sky. For centuries, making accurate predictions about where these wandering stars would be on any given night was anything but a piece of cake. The irony is that the calculations involved were so challenging because everyone was accepting as the gospel truth the mistaken but utterly commonsense idea that the earth sits motionless at the center of the universe while the sun, moon, and planets move around us. And as I further observe on page 99:
I think it is sobering to know that both common sense and good practical (and scientific) reasoning in the 16th century spoke unequivocally against Copernicus and strongly in favor of the old Ptolemaic view of the universe—a point of view that we now know was not just a little wrong, but was completely, utterly wrong. A lesser known fact is that for years after Copernicus’s death in 1543, some of the world’s leading astronomers did their very best to salvage the older world view—efforts that went to the extreme of offering elaborate blends of the old and the new that kept the earth right there in the center of things where it clearly belonged while allowing some of the planets to go around the sun the way Copernicus wanted them to.

The point of my telling this story is a basic one. Regardless of how sensible and widely believed something seems to be does not make it true. This moral definitely applies also to what philosophers and scientists have all too often said about human nature. However logical and persuasive the claims made by men such as Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Pufendorf, Spencer, Boas, and others may still sound to many of us today, what they wrote shows us that when it comes to human nature, like Ptolemy, we can easily start off on the wrong foot.
Mentioning here Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and others is my way of alluding to what I had earlier written about in the book. These Enlightenment thinkers in the 17th and 18th century and others more recently, as well, argued in ways that have led many of us to believe that the individual is the basic measure of human value, and each of us is naturally entitled to act in our own best interests free of interference by others. Science is now showing us, however, that the basic unit of human social life is not and never has been the self-serving individual. Evolution has made us a powerfully social species, so much so that the essential precondition of human survival is and always has been the individual plus his or her relationships with others. Or, to say it as I had said it back on page 17 in Chapter 3:
Our evolved ability, our psychological and biological capacity, to make friends even with strangers is a defining characteristic of our species, an evolved human trait marking us apart from most other species on earth just as surely as the other diagnostic traits that have been singled out as being characteristic of our kind, such as walking upright on two legs, having opposable thumbs and a prominent chin, and possessing the powers of both speech and complex abstract reasoning.
Learn more about A Talent for Friendship: Rediscovery of a Remarkable Trait at the Oxford University Press website.

Cover story: A Talent for Friendship.

--Marshal Zeringue