Understanding Our Organic Selves*

"A fleck of gray or a receding forehead, a sprouting of pimples or smelly underarm odors, these begin to take on meaning beyond the immediate condition of changing age; they connect us with ancestors who used these organs with the pride of newly-gained identity. Someone with a long nose or short height is wearing a badge of ancestral social strategy—like an organic coat-of-arms from a distant family tree tatooed into one’s soul and skin. Such a badge gives us a deeper tradition of kinship than any of us can trace by oral or written genealogies. For somewhere in our background were our ancestors who possessed a bald pate or were diminutive and had other peculiarities like ourselves; they shared the evolutionary cream of their time and participated more fully in life’s processes—or else you wouldn’t look the way you do today.

The explanation of why you have those particular social organs, which so immensely affect your life, is somewhat unsatisfying if you only know the immediate genetic answer—’your parents carried these genes here, and…’ It’s like someone who is black asking Why? It isn’t good enough to know that you are black because your kinfolk were black. The explanation of the evolutionary why is more satisfying—because you belonged to a distant noble group who once used black skin, as the Scots used their red beards, as status symbols. And that ancient tradition is genetically fixed into your soul.”

—Guthrie, “Body Hotspots”

*Not merely “Aesthetics” but “Organics,” or how organs mean and why. A social anatomy or biosemiotics. Note how “comparative ethology” is just a secular way of saying “totemism.”

The Real World of Fantastic Diversity

"Most of us involuntarily abstract the world of people about us into some ad agency’s ideal of humanness, but that is a long way from the real world of runts and skinny stilts, pockmarks and pimples, of buckteeth and bald spots. We are a people divided—divided into squat achondroplastic pygmies and proud Masai warriors, peeled-banana Englishwomen, no-ass Athabascans and hairy Ainus. There is ugliness and beauty, repugnance and grace—not somewhere in a magazine or a book, but right there in our neighbor’s yard and down at the corner drugstore….

What a fantastic species we are, the violent, hard eyes and the forlorn, sad ones, the beaks and button noses, the stale, crusty aged and cooing babies. We can’t be abstract, it’s us—you and me. Many of the reasons for our being here, looking the way we do, and feeling the way we feel are sometimes difficult to deal with, because they are dynamically organic. It isn’t like talking about a painting or a new model of automobile—we had no creator or assembly line, we got to be ourselves
by an erratic organic route steamy with smells, vibrant with colors, and ground with dirt. There were no pre-market consumer surveys, we came as we were and the only compass to give direction was an organic score card for the race from bleeding, pithy afterbirth to when the young were let go on their own.”

—Guthrie, “Body Hotspots”

The excellent “Blue Ruin” (2013), a case study in wild justice and the nature of payback. Consider that for at least a million years, men have been armed, acting as de-facto bodyguards mainly from carnivores but sometimes from other males. And for just as long, we as small-scale societies have demanded swift resolution to conflict. Our moral origins are deep, writes Christopher Boehm. In fact, as Gigerenzer shows in “Simple Heuristics that Make Us Smart,” tit-for-tat is the best social strategy, where we reward those who reciprocate and punish those who mistreat us. The ancestral penalties for bad behavior, in ascending seriousness, have been ridicule, ostracism, exile, or execution. Look to the little publicized ritual spearings shown in Cromagnon art, as well as the Australian aborigines’ institutionalized spearing of until recently. The risk has always been a down-spiral of violence, usually a family feud, as “Blue Ruin” shows. But I bet before the State began interfering in hunter-gatherer community justice, this happened less.

Online Dating: The Toxic Mimic of the Matchmaker

"The extent to which Lonely Hearts columns and dating agencies have boomed in the past two decades is indicative of the fact that people no longer have the kinds of social networks available that would normally provide them with access to prospective mates. The village match-maker has vanished with the village. As increasing numbers of people are thrown into a social vacuum through moving to a new city or town in pursuit of a job, more of us find ourselves in situations where we lack the social contacts needed to provide us with access to companions and partners. Where do you go to meet people without the risk of undesirable predators?"

—Dunbar, “Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language”

Television: The Toxic Mimic of the Fire Circle

"Separated from relatives and with limited opportunities to create circles of friends, the modern city dweller is forced increasingly to draw on the ready-made imaginative family of the soap opera for a social life and a sense of community. It is conspicuous that the largest audience for these programmes is found among housebound women, trapped at home by young children. Those with active social lives, by contrast, rarely have an interest in these kinds of programmes."

—Dunbar, “Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language”