Nicholas Christakis has a new book

You’ll surely remember Nicholas Christakis of Yale University, a good man who, along with his wife, got ensnared in a net thrown by The Woke.  If you don’t remember that tale, read the New York Times article below or my post on Christakisgate (the NYT piece is largely about his new book; more on that in a second. The NYT:

. . .  to many Americans, he is best known not for what he has accomplished but for what he absorbed: taunts and insults from furious Yale students who swarmed him in a campus courtyard one day. “You should not sleep at night!” one of them screeched, as he miraculously kept his cool, a mute punching bag. “You are disgusting!”

Perhaps you saw the video. It became a viral sensation in the fall of 2015, Exhibit A in the tension, on so many campuses, between free expression and many minority students’ pleas for an atmosphere in which they feel fully respected and safe. Christakis’s wife, Erika, who also taught at Yale back then, had circulated a memo in which she questioned a university edict against culturally insensitive Halloween costumes, suggesting that students could police themselves and should have both the freedom to err and the strength to cope with offense. She wrote that her husband concurred.

And all hell broke loose. Hundreds of students signed an open letter denouncing her and hundreds demanded that the couple be punished. There were protests. And when, in that courtyard, Christakis apologized for any pain that the memo had caused but refused to disavow its content, he was pilloried.

Eventually, both Nicholas and Erika resigned their positions as resident heads of Silliman College at Yale, and Erika Christakis gave up teaching at Yale entirely. The crybully students at that school drove away two accomplished and caring professors.  I summarized the situation as follows, which includes a link to Erika’s memo:

So we have a campus where people are publicly afraid to speak their minds, terrified of student reaction. Yale has indeed allowed a climate of intolerance to grow: a culture of hatred and public shaming.

And so, two great resources for Yale students, and two dedicated teachers, give up a lot of their duties in light of the bullying they faced by students. Shame on the Yale students for their immaturity and Authoritarian Leftist ideology, and shame on the Yale administration for not supporting the Christakises. I urge you to go back and read Erika’s letter to the “Sillimanders”, and see if you find anything in it that would justify such a student response, or anything that would brand the couple as racists. As author [Conor] Friedersdorf says at the end of his [Atlantic] piece, “. . . the couple’s ultimate resignation does nothing to improve campus climate. What a waste.”

And so Christakis has just published a new book (already underway when the Yale fracas occurred) about evolution and society: Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society (click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon site).

The table of contents:

From the summaries given on Amazon and by Frank Bruni in his piece above, the book appears almost Pinkerian in its optimistic view that humans are inherently virtuous, and that this morality was largely vouchsafed by our evolutionary heritage. As Bruni notes:

The book is a hefty, dazzlingly erudite synthesis of history, philosophy, anthropology, genetics, sociology, economics, epidemiology, statistics and more. It uses everything from shipwrecks to the primatologist Jane Goodall to make its pro-kindness case, and it inadvertently shames you into realizing that while most of us, standing at the buffet of knowledge, content ourselves with a pork chop and rice pudding, Christakis pillages the carving station and the omelet station and the soup array and the make-your-own-sundae bar.

. . .His reasoning, oversimplified, is this: Complex societies are possible and durable only when people are emotionally invested in, and help, one another; we’d be living in smaller units and more solitary fashions if we weren’t equipped for such collaboration; and human thriving within these societies guarantees future generations suited to them.

Yes, there are hideous wars and horrid leaders. But if that were the sum of us, how to explain all the peace and progress? Christakis urges a wide angle and the long view.

“To accept this belief that human beings are evil or violent or selfish or overly tribal is a kind of moral and intellectual laziness,” he told me. It also excuses that destructiveness. “The way to repair our torn social fabric is to say: Wait a minute, that’s not quite right.”

The Amazon summary includes this:

For too long, scientists have focused on the dark side of our biological heritage: our capacity for aggression, cruelty, prejudice, and self-interest. But natural selection has given us a suite of beneficial social features, including our capacity for love, friendship, cooperation, and learning. Beneath all our inventions — our tools, farms, machines, cities, nations — we carry with us innate proclivities to make a good society.
In Blueprint, Nicholas A. Christakis introduces the compelling idea that our genes affect not only our bodies and behaviors, but also the ways in which we make societies, ones that are surprisingly similar worldwide. With many vivid examples — including diverse historical and contemporary cultures, communities formed in the wake of shipwrecks, commune dwellers seeking utopia, online groups thrown together by design or involving artificially intelligent bots, and even the tender and complex social arrangements of elephants and dolphins that so resemble our own — Christakis shows that, despite a human history replete with violence, we cannot escape our social blueprint for goodness.

It’s no surprise that genes affect our social behavior, as we evolved in small social groups and it would be odd if our millions of years of social evolution didn’t affect our behavior. Reciprocal altruism and prosocial behavior would have been part of that mix, but of course so would xenophobia and aggression. I haven’t yet  gotten my copy of the book (the good professor offered to send me one), so I’ll be curious to see how the darker side of human nature is treated.

I was pleased to see that Christakis’s book, out in six days, has already reached the #25 spot on Amazon, and equally pleased (I can’t deny it) that Michael Behe’s book on ID creationism languishes at position 2,648, which must really anger the Discovery Institute. Blame it on my evolved nature.

23 Comments

  1. yazikus
    Posted March 20, 2019 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    And all hell broke loose. Hundreds of students signed an open letter denouncing her and hundreds demanded that the couple be punished. There were protests. And when, in that courtyard, Christakis apologized for any pain that the memo had caused but refused to disavow its content, he was pilloried.

    Whether I agree with their original sentiment or no, I feel like this sort of sensationalized language helps no one. A student-signed open letter or criticism is hardly ‘hell breaking loose’. A campus protest of a few hundred is not terribly unusual. When people presenting themselves as defenders of free speech and ideological diversity react like this to criticism it does not reflect well on them. I don’t know if this is an academia thing, where people find criticism so outrageous they have to quit and leave rather than weather the storm, or just a people thing.
    When their advice includes things like this:

    suggesting that students could police themselves and should have both the freedom to err and the strength to cope with offense.

    I’m tempted to suggest they take it themselves.

    That said, it sounds like a good book and I imagine a lot of folks will read it and enjoy it.

    • Posted March 20, 2019 at 11:56 am | Permalink

      He and his wife had to resign.

      • yazikus
        Posted March 20, 2019 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

        I just peeked back at our host’s previous article on the resignation, and perhaps missed it, but don’t see anywhere that they were forced to resign.

        • Posted March 20, 2019 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

          I don’t know the exact circumstances, but it was reported that the protests, probably the hostile environment, were the reason for this decision.

          https://www.businessinsider.com/nicholas-christakis-resigned-yale-2016-5?r=US&IR=T

          • yazikus
            Posted March 20, 2019 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

            Right, which is why their own advice, of having strength to cope with the offense, could have been better served by their staying on.

            • Posted March 20, 2019 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

              You could be shell-shocked by the sight of somebody in a squaw costume, but that torment is over after a day. Dealing with dozens of screaming, excessively hostile woke people for weeks might be ever so slightly worse, I suggest.

              • Rita Prangle
                Posted March 20, 2019 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

                +1

              • Jenny Haniver
                Posted March 20, 2019 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

                Eons ago I gave a talk at a college in Los Angeles and I was heckled and menaced by some of the students in the audience. They didn’t stop me from speaking, but it sure felt like they wanted to throttle me and I feared for my safety. They were the precursors of today’s woke folk. Were I to give a similar talk today, they would surely tar and feather me. After that experience, I did not do any public speaking until about twenty years later. I still get an unpleasant feeling when the memory rises.

              • Posted March 21, 2019 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

                + 2

            • Filippo
              Posted March 20, 2019 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

              Members of this juvenilized (infantilized?) screaming woke gang should get a dose of their own medicine and have to individually bear up under such a philistine gang sonic assault. Considering how bent out of shape the were merely by reading an opinion with which they disagreed, I can hardly imagine how much more agitated and triggered they could be by such a sonic assault without injuring themselves. Give them opportunities to develop their own skills, and meeting the higher standards of forbearance and patience and self-discipline they presume to impose on others.

              How much and how long would you expect the Christakises to bear up until they demonstrated they could so bear up? As Bob Dylan put it, “How many seas must the white dove sail?”

      • merilee
        Posted March 20, 2019 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

        So disturbing, this mob mentality. What’s with the snapping fingers when he’s trying to speak?

  2. Alex Kleine
    Posted March 20, 2019 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Then again, there are so many ‘positive’ reviews on “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Climate Change” so I’d take a majority of Amazon ratings and reviews with a grain of salt.

  3. Posted March 20, 2019 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Given the Pinkerian nature of the book, I would not be surprised if it was disputed by Those to the Left of Us.

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted March 20, 2019 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

      I’ve not yet read Christakis’s book, but I’m one of those cynics who disagrees with C and Pinker on this. So I guess that puts me into the corner of “Those to the Left of Us.”

      I don’t think that people are ‘inherently’ good or bad. And though I fervently would like to believe it, I don’t think that “he arc of the moral universe…[necessarily] bends toward justice.”

      We have both good and bad inclinations in us, just like other primates (think of chimps) and we exhibit a range of behaviors, which isn’t to deny that we’ve come a long, long way toward taming our violent tendencies; but taming isn’t extirpating, and that progress can be lost in a flash, all it takes is one person in the right place at the right time to destroy the civilization we’ve built and turn people into nihilistic warring mobs, and statistics don’t convince me to think otherwise.

      • Jenny Haniver
        Posted March 20, 2019 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

        Re chimps, after listening to Frans De Waal (haven’t yet read his latest book), I think that Chimps have a kind of moral code that can be strictly enforced unto the death penalty (and mutilation and cannibalism). This https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/09/human-violence-evolution-animals-nature-science/ is a thought-provoking article on intra-species violence among mammals.

        True, there’s more peace than war, and the biological anthropologist,a specialist in human warfare Richard Wrangham quoted in the article says that “While humans may be expected to have some level of lethal violence based on their family tree, it would be wrong to conclude that there’s nothing surprising about human violence…[w]hen it comes to murderous tendencies…’humans really are exceptional.'” That still doesn’t change my mind.

  4. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted March 20, 2019 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    I rarely find syntheses convincing, as they remind me of the procedure of overfitting models against evidence.

    • Posted March 21, 2019 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      Nevertheless we have to do them from time to time – think Newton’s _Principia_. 🙂


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