Three Logical Fallacies Around “Power”

“Power” is one of those words that is both so polysemous (having multiple meanings) and so emotionally loaded, that I would be just as happy if it was never used in public discourse. However, I am going to be using it a lot in this essay.

1. Misattributing Power to People Who Don’t Have It

It might seem strange to dive right into the first fallacy without stopping to define “power,” but rest assured, all will become clear.

Consider this quote from Ibram Kendi:

One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist.

page 9

OK, let’s skip over the shocking naivete of this statement. (It overlooks the #1 source of “problems”: the sinful heart within every individual human being.) Do you see what he did there? Let us not blame groups of people. Instead, let us blame “power.” But this is obviously a dodge. Power (he is talking about social power) does not float around naked through our cities, towns, and countrysides. It is exercised by people. Hence, locating the roots of problems in “power” is nothing but a sneaky way to locate the roots problems in certain groups of people … those deemed to have power. I say “groups,” not individuals, because Kendi apparently is incapable of considering individuals. Also, historically, when people have sought scapegoats, they are seldom satisfied with individuals. When getting rid of one individual (or his power) does not cause problems to vanish as anticipated, people who locate problems in power tend to seek to root out an entire villain class, and like concentric circles in a pond, this class tends to widen.

Here are a few historical examples. Witches, in Salem, Massachusetts, were deemed to be a class of people with a lot of power. They were thought to be able to cause sickness, crop failure, bad dreams, sudden sensations of being pinched, and I don’t know what all. This power was misattributed. The girls’ sufferings were caused by their own mental illness (possibly their own involvement with the occult), not by their neighbors. But questioning their misattribution of power meant challenging the accusers’ lived experience, and was likely to get you included in the enemy class.

The Kulak farmers, in Soviet-controlled Ukraine, were prosperous, and so they were deemed to have a lot of power. It was, supposedly, their prosperity that was causing the poverty of the other farmers. They were wiped out, their farms taken, and it transpired that the only “power” the Kulaks had was expertise at farming. They were not powerful enough to stop their own slaughter.

The Jews in Europe, due to being smart and hardworking, were often prosperous. They were wrongly attributed with having a lot of power, even to controlling whole industries and being responsible for nearly everything that went wrong in society. We all know where this led. But despite the horror, this misattribution of power has a ridiculous side too. A recent hilarious example was speculation about a Jewish space laser that was used to set the California wildfires.

What should be clear from these examples is that if we follow misattribution of power all the way to the end of the path, it leads to killing people, sometimes a lot of people.

Unfortunately, it is really easy to misattribute power when we locate it in groups. Even if some particular group has many powerful individuals that arise from within it, it is almost never the case that all members of the group, distributively, have social power.

So let’s take a break from groups for a moment and talk about individuals.

2. Mischaracterizing Power as Always Arbitrary and Unnecessary

Another way to read Kendi’s statement, above, would be that nobody should have any power at all. No social or legal power, no authority. I don’t think that’s what he means, based on his policy recommendations (whispers: he wants power), but let’s set that aside and go with it, because this is actually a position that is very appealing to human beings. When we talk about power as a bad thing, which is easy to do because nobody likes being under it, it is very easy to begin talking as if all power is unearned and arbitrarily given. In short, that every instance of power residing in a human being is synonymous with injustice.

This is the basic attitude of a kindergartener who sees that his parents are controlling his life in a very totalitarian way. They control his wardrobe, his diet, his bedtime, his screen time, and whether he gets to jump on the couch. He figures that this is very oppressive. If all these arbitrary rules were to vanish, his life would be nothing but fun. It never crosses his mind to wonder, Do we actually need somebody to be in charge?

To be fair, we adults can also fail to ask ourselves that question. That’s because we want to be in charge (most of the time). And most of the time, this is appropriate. In an ordinary, non-emergency, non-war type of situation, each adult should be able to govern him- or her-self, well enough to get through his or her day, with little to no supervision. And then it will actually appear as if no one is in charge.

However, as soon as a drastic situation arises, it becomes obvious that someone has to have power, both in the sense of the power to get things done, and in the sense of authority over others. If there are children around, there must be a parent with power. A platoon needs a leader, especially on the battlefield. As soon as an emergency arises, most people freeze, looking about and wishing for someone to tell them what to do. They are usually relieved when someone takes charge.

As these examples show, power is not always arbitrary. Sometimes it is earned. In the best cases, it is earned by competence. (You hope that the person in charge in the operating room has a lot of medical training and experience.) But there are also cases where someone is in power and it is not arbitrary, despite that they are not an expert in the field. It could be that they were put in charge by someone else, or that they were simply the person who was willing to step up and start giving orders, which is in emergency situations is usually a job that no one wants, because once you are in charge, you are also responsible if things go wrong.

Returning to the ordinary situation where an adult can get through their day just fine with no one telling them what to do, we now see that this can happen only in very stable conditions. These conditions are good and we like them. What we may not notice is that one of their prerequisites is somebody still has to be in charge. If you are not living in the Wild West where you have to fight for your life on the way to work, that is because there is some kind of law enforcement out there somewhere, even if you don’t see them. If you are living in a region that is not torn by war, thank your president or prime minister or the local warlord who is keeping things peaceful in your county. He may not be a nice person (quite the opposite), but he managed to get things under control so that, for the time being, you can live a normal life. If not for him, then just to survive and defend your family, you would be forced to exercise a lot more personal power.

And this raises the question of what exactly power even is.

3. Failing to Recognize Complexity

Now let’s finally define our terms.

Power obviously has a cluster of senses in physics that don’t concern us here: velocity, force, pressure, energy, and the like. But even just restricting our discussion about power to human beings, there are several different meanings.

Power can mean social status. A powerful person can shame or ruin another person but not be susceptible to the same treatment.

It can mean authority, the ability to make people do things without having to physically force them. Of course, authority has to be backed up, ultimately, with physical force when it is not recognized.

This brings up physical strength as another type of power. This one is highly relevant because, as we saw in the last section, if you remove all other types of power (legitimate authority, rule of law, etc.), then conflicts between human beings will ultimately come down to who is bigger.

Finally, there is power in the sense of ability to get things done. This is an interesting one, and hugely important to all of us in our daily lives. Being able-bodied is a kind of power in this sense. It enables you to do all sorts of things for yourself in the way that you would like. Money is a kind of power in that it enables us to get things done that we otherwise couldn’t. Competence in various areas is also a kind of power. When I cook a meal for my family, I am able to do so because of the power given to me by the technology of my electric stove, the money with which I buy food and pay my electric bill, my strong legs that allow me to stand in front of the stove, and my competence at food prep. All of these are different kinds of powers.

The ability to get things done, or mastery, is the kind of power that babies lack. When we become toddlers, our whole life is about gaining this power to make things happen. We figure out how to walk and talk, how to flip the light switch, how to get various reactions from adults and other people around us. The more competent we become, the more our sphere of personal power expands.

Seen from this perspective, it is obvious that every person has a sphere of power in their daily life. In Bible terms, these are our “kingdoms.” (I owe this point to writer Dallas Willard.) Our kingdoms vary in their extent and in the shape of their borders. But everyone needs some sort of power in order to live. In the typical case, we have to have a job at which we are competent. We need to be making money, so as to convert our competence in that one area into a form that can get things done for us in other areas. We need to have authority over our own bodies (personal hygiene and the like), our schedules, our property, and (getting more complex now) various kinds of power in our relationships with family, friends, bosses, coworkers, etc. There is nothing wrong with this kind of power. It is a basic part of human dignity. In fact, one of our favorite kinds of stories, that of the underdog, features a main character who has no social status or legal authority, but has a great deal of personal presence and forcefulness, and who may be physically very strong (think Jean Valjean).

But this is a complexity that simplistic power-bashing rhetoric does not take into account. People will often speak as though, if someone has a lot of social status, they also necessarily have a lot of ability-to-get-things-done in every area of their life.

When I lived as an American expat in Asia, I was in this position. As an American, I was very visible and was assumed to have a lot of social status. I was also assumed to have great wealth. (I had plenty, especially compared to the average person in that country, but not as much as people assumed.) Yet, despite all this, my ability to get things done was close to zero. As a foreigner, I couldn’t move house or even take an overnight trip without getting letters of permission from at least two government offices. My visibility and assumed wealth made me a target. My assumed status made people interpret everything I said and did in the most (pardon me) bitchy way possible. And because of government regulations, when it came to the work that I actually went there to do, I was prevented from doing virtually any of it. I never did get most of it done.

I’m not even complaining about all this. When you go to another country, you have to follow their rules. My point is that status (even wealth) and actual on-the-ground power don’t always go together.

Of course, it can work the other way too. People can have lots of advantages in their personal life (like a prosperous farm or business, as in our first section) but not have much social status or legal power. Sometimes when people are prosperous, the kind of power that got them that prosperity was personal energy, industry, and competence, not status arbitrarily leveraged to rob others.

The bottom line is that everyone has power of different sorts and in various degrees at different times in their life, and even in different spheres of their life at the same time. Thus, people who want to draw a line down the middle of the world and declare that people on one side of it “have power” and people on the other side “don’t have power,” are guilty of an oversimplification so gross that it is indistinguishable from a lie.

Seriously, Please Stop Telling Me I Have “Power”

I have some, sure. The kinds I would like everyone to have. I have health, housing, an income, the ability to raise my own children. And let’s not forget the vast intellectual powers, before which you must all tremble.

But I have been reliably informed that because of certain personal characteristics, people like me have an arbitrarily ascribed status that is so lofty that we should be able to get literally anything done that we want to. This is a dicier claim, but I have tested it.

We should be able to walk into any room and get exactly what we want; for example, publishers will beat down the door to publish our books. We will not get pulled over for possible drunk driving because we were driving down the middle of a country road and not down the right side because we wanted to avoid the ditch (not that this has happened recently). And when pulled over by the cops, we are not nervous. Our group status protects us from a variety of diseases such as migraines and “female problems.” Oh yes, and we never experience the normal insecurities that every woman experiences about her appearance, because we embody our culture’s standard of female beauty.

Experience has proven all these things to be false.

That is why I am not very patient when told by a writer or celebrity whose status is so high that they could ruin me with a single tweet that I need to acknowledge and give up my power. Sorry, friends. I don’t have a lot, but what I do have is legitimate and I’m going to try and hang on to it.

Book Review: Black Elk in Paris

This is not the cover of the book. It’s just a photograph of a young Black Elk.

This review was recently posted in shorter and sloppier form on Goodreads.

I give Black Elk in Paris (2006) by Kate Horsley five stars for its amazing historical research, French-doctor voice, and dynamic characters.

A few years ago, I stumbled across a children’s book about Lakota medicine man Black Elk. My response to him was pretty much the same as that of this book’s fictional heroine, Madeline: I was fascinated. (I mean, look at him!) At the age of nine, Black Elk had a troubling vision that encouraged his tribe to choose life rather than bitterness. (They were going to need this later.) At age 15, he was present at the battle of Little Bighorn. Later, he went to England with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show.

None of that is in this book.

Apparently, Buffalo Bill accidentally stranded Black Elk and one other Lakota guy in England. They took up with a character called Mexican Joe, who was running a knockoff Wild West show, and toured Europe with him. Black Elk ended up in Paris, where he stayed with a Parisian woman and her family until eventually he was able to get back to his homeland.

This book imagines the effect that Black Elk had on the Parisian woman, her family, and her doctor friend, Philippe Normand. It so happens that the period the Lakota warrior was in Paris coincided with the building of the Eiffel Tower in preparation for the Universal Exhibition (the Paris world’s fair). The tower is mentioned frequently in the book as the characters watch it grow menacingly over their usual haunts. They never call it the Eiffel Tower. It’s usually “the metal tower, looking like a dead tree” or something like that. An ongoing theme in the book is the tension between the apparent triumph of colonialism, including modern science and medicine, with the appeal of Black Elk’s way of life.

My hope had been that we would get to see Paris from Black Elk’s point of view, but alas, he is not the point-of-view character in this story. Perhaps it was wise of the author to create a little distance from Black Elk, not to presume to speak in his voice, which has been well documented. Instead, she writes in the voice of Normand. The 19th-century French tone is spot on, right down to the navel-gazing, romanticism, and cynical asides about human nature. The writing honestly comes off as if it were translated from French, and in fact, each chapter opens with its first sentence in French, then in English.

Normand is on the cutting edge of medical developments. He is friends with many famous historical doctors and goes to their weekly meetings where they argue theory, banter, tease each other, and engage in petty backbiting and politics. Normand honestly wants to relieve human suffering with medicine, but is frustrated by the limitations on what he can accomplish. And over the few years that the book covers, he begins to see some problems with the arrogant and intellectualized attitude taken by French doctors and psychologists of the day. At one point, he complains that he has witnessed doctors not trust the patient to report on his or her own symptoms!

Consequently, though Black Elk does change Normand and Madeline, this book is more about Paris of that time than about the Lakota. My first impression, as a reader who was eager to get to the part with Black Elk, was what awful people these 19th-century Parisians are. (They are snobs! They do recreational drugs! They sleep around! They say the most horrible things to their friends and family!) I definitely did not like Normand at first. I think I was going through culture shock. Normand changes, however, and as he grew and I got used to him, he became as much a hero of this story as Black Elk.

Horsley has, in this book, pulled off the accomplishment that I aim for in my books. She has examined a cross-cultural relationship sensitively, without romanticizing or demonizing either culture. She has also written in an authentic voice from one culture, but told the story in such a way that we can gather some of Black Elk’s perspective as well. The story does not tie things up in a neat little bows, but it is more about connections (however tenuous) that the characters make, rather than about an inability to connect. Also, kudos to her for noticing these two very different worlds touching each other at an actual point in history and making us notice it. To the extent that the book ultimately comes down on the universal human condition rather than on cynicism, it validates both Black Elk’s spiritual values and Normand’s ideals. Not every book set in Paris does this. Nor does every book about colonialism.

Read this if you are interested in the French or, to a lesser extent, the Lakota.

Netflix Wants Me to Doubt My Own Mind

So, within about the past month, I’ve watched two different psychological thrillers on Netflix. And they are both the same damn movie. (And I use damn advisedly.) In both, the viewer knows only what the point of view character knows. And he (it’s a he in both movies) is uncovering a conspiracy. Until, at the very end, it turns out that he’s delusional. Many of the major events in the movie, which were shown to the viewer as if in good faith, were actually happening only in his mind. Actual events were quite different. The interpretation he was putting on everything was completely wrong. In one of the movies, the point of view character is brought to realize this, at least briefly. In the other, it is made plain to the viewer only.

I am pretty ticked at both of these movies. Especially at them both being on Netflix at the same time.

On the one hand, they are well-written, well-plotted, well-filmed and well-acted. Tense as heck. They are an immersive experience that helps the viewer understand what it feels like to be delusional. (In both cases, the break with reality was brought on by trauma. In both cases, actually, involving the death of a child.) So, they are very good.

But this strength comes at a pretty steep cost. Namely, they can make you doubt yourself something fierce. I think that the reveal at the end of each movie was that the person was delusional. But who really knows? Maybe I am misinterpreting what the director was trying to say. Maybe I did not even watch the danged movies. Maybe there is no such thing as reality.

This has to be intentional, right? Two movies, running concurrently, aimed at people who like psychological thrillers, both of them trying to tell you that you can’t really know what is real. I mean, God help you if you’ve got dissociative disorder. (And I use God help you advisedly.)

I’m with G.K. Chesterton on this. Or rather, he is there, throwing me a lifeline. GKC believed strongly that we have a moral obligation to believe in reality and to trust our own perceptions of it. I don’t have any of the quotes in front of me, but I do remember that he said something like, “Every day you can hear an educated man utter the heretical statement that he may be wrong.” He also tells a long story, elsewhere, about how he spent an evening at a friend’s house where they had a brisk philosophical debate. GKC was maintaining that reality exists and can be known. His friend was maintaining the opposite. Having vigorously defended reality, GKC got into a taxi and, when he arrived at his destination, had one of those confusing conversations with the cab driver that make you feel as if you’ve fallen through a portal. The cab driver remembered picking up GKC at some other location, and remembered GKC having said something to him that he didn’t say. GKC argued with the man for several minutes, and after just a few minutes was starting to doubt himself and, thus, reality. Then, just when GKC was beginning to waver, the cabman got on his face a look of sudden revelation as he realized that he was remembering a different customer.

You might think that someone like GKC, who believes that “I might be wrong” is a heresy, would be arrogant and impossible to convince of anything. But that’s not necessarily true. If you believe in reality and trust your perceptions of it, then you can be presented with evidence. And if the evidence is good, you can change your mind. If you don’t have the baseline trust in your own mind, then no amount of evidence is going to convince you.

One more, equally sinister, aspect of all this. Traditionally, Hollywood likes to give us messages that we should not trust authority. The cops are on the take. The conspiracy goes all the way to the top. The experts don’t know everything. We are “sleeping with the enemy.” The two movies I watched recently give the opposite message. They play on our expectations that experts and authority figures in movies will turn out to be villains. In both of these particular cases, it is doctors (medical doctors in one; psychologists in another) who appear to be concealing the truth. They appear to want to treat the protagonist like he’s crazy, or else frame him for being crazy. There is bureaucracy and gaslighting and all the stuff we find in dystopias. But in this case, they turn out to be right. What to do you know? He actually is crazy. If only he had listened to them. Lives could have been saved.

I think both of these movies were made before you-know-what, so it’s probably a coincidence. Still, I’m not super comfortable when two pieces of well-done art say to me in stereo, “Trust us. We know what reality is and you don’t. We know best.”

A Gaggle of Nouns

Photo by Maria Orlova on

English Animal Plurals

Plurals are cute, don’t you agree? There is something charming about a plural, because of what it implies. It implies that these things, whatever they are, belong to a category of things, that in some important sense they are all the same kind of thing. Plurals tell us a lot about the human mind.

English has a charming feature where certain animals, when referred to as a group, have a specific term for the group that has to be used. I guess you could call these animal-specific noun classifiers, but they mostly show up, in English, in animal plurals. (You also get them for vehicles.) Some are well-known:

a school of fish

a flock of sheep/birds

a herd of cattle/elephants

a pride of lions

a pack of dogs

But they get more obscure, and hence more fun:

a pod of whales

a smuck of jellyfish

a gaggle of geese

a gang of turkeys

an exaltation of larks

a murder of crows

a troop of monkeys

a mischief of raccoons

a colony of ants

a gluttony of bears

a brood of vipers

One of these is made up.

Add your own below, in the comments.

These group classes can be used of people if you want to imply that the group of people resembles the group of animals in some way: “A gaggle of middle-schoolers.” And I love it when Sting, in one of his songs, refers to two priests “fussing and flapping in priestly black like a murder of crows.” The two of them (already plural, but barely) somehow resemble a large plural of crows.

Indonesian Noun Classes

Indonesian (bahasa Indonesia) is an Austronesian language closely related to Malaysian. Indonesian does not have lot of grammatical morphology. For verbs, it handles past and future tense mostly by context, and by the use of words such as “already” (sudah) and “not-yet” (belum). It doesn’t have grammatical genders, and in fact the pronoun for he, she, or it, dia, doesn’t indicate sex. (Tellingly, although you cannot indicate the person’s sex with a third person pronoun, there is an alternate third person singular pronoun which you can use if you wish to be more respectful: beliau. There are also more and less respectful ways to say I and you.)

But despite not having grammatical gender, Indonesian has noun classes. These show up when you want to say how many of something there are (our old friend plurals again!), or when you want to use the indefinite article (a/an).

  • Sebuah is the classifier for most inanimate things. For example, “sebuah meja” means “a table.” (Literally, “one-thing table”).
  • You can also say semacam, which means “some kind of.” “Semacam proyek” = “some kind of project.”
  • For people, the classifier is “orang,” which means person. “Seorang perempuan” means “a woman.” (Literally, “one-person woman”).
  • For animals, the classifier is “ekor,” which means “tail.” “Seekor kucing” = “a cat.”
  • For fruit, it’s “biji,” which means “seed.”
  • Sehelai rambut” = “one [strand of] hair.”

There are plenty of others, but these are the main ones that I remember. I think batang (“trunk”) is used for trees, and there are probably specialized terms for boats and other vehicles. Not all of them are used all the time. Learning them all is sort of like learning specialized terms in English. As someone once said, “Never call a rifle a gun, a line a rope, or a ship a boat.”

For plurals and to ask how many, the classifier word is separated from the number.

  • Dia mempunyai dua orang anak” = “He has two children” (“two person child“).
  • Mau brokoli? Berapa batang?” = “You want broccoli? How-many stems?”
  • Kami lihat tiga ekor tikus” = “We saw three rats
  • Dia beli empat biji mangga” = “She bought four mangoes

I hope you find this interesting. Please post your own lesser-known examples of noun classes, or your tongue-in-cheek proposals for new ones.

Misanthropic Quote about Old Age

Miss Mary had been able to draw a map of the United States from memory, known the entire periodic table by heart, taught school in a one-room schoolhouse, brewed healing teas, and sold what she called fitness powders her entire life. Dime by dime, dollar by dollar, she’d put her sons through college, then put Carter through medical school. Now she wore diapers and couldn’t follow a story about gardening in the Post and Courier.

Grady Hendrix, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, p. 60

“Things Happened with Horrible Timing”

Hello everyone! To my American readers, I hope your holiday weekend was restful. I hope it went fantastic. (Mine did.)

But perhaps your holiday weekend didn’t “go fantastic.” Perhaps it went horrible.

Thanksgiving has betrayed me just enough times that I get nervous around it. I can think of three or four past Thanksgivings where there emerged, on that very weekend, a crisis of life-and-death proportions. I’m not sure why, but holidays and other non-ordinary times seem to attract these things.

In my upcoming book, The Strange Land, the tribal chief notes ruefully that moving days are subject to the same phenomenon:

Enmer had seen this time and again. If anyone was going to get sick, if anyone was going to get pregnant, if anyone was going to miscarry or commit a petty crime or simply snap under the pressure of survival, they were more likely to do it at the exact moment of transition. These in-between times [when the tribe was getting ready to move] were dangerous.

Enmer had given this a lot of thought and had concluded that though he could — and did — blame his people for their actual actions, he could not blame them for their bad timing. Things happened with horrible timing. That was the way of the world.

The Strange Land, chapter 10

I hope this Thanksgiving was kind to each of you, though. See you next time!

Neanderthals, Again

Here is an article sent to me by a helpful blog reader and friend.

To summarize, there is apparently some kind of genetic link between cuter facial features and domesticity in animals. When foxes, for example, are bred for friendly and compliant personalities, over generations their snouts get shorter, their ears floppier, their tails shorter and curlier.

The linked article suggests there might be a similar kind of genetic linkage in humans. It relies partly on a genetic study of human beings with Williams-Beuren syndrome, “a disorder linked to cognitive impairments, smaller skulls, elfinlike facial features, and extreme friendliness.”

Extrapolating from this, and using studies of Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA, the suggestion is that humans “domesticated ourselves” by preferring mates who were friendlier and less aggressive. As sexual selection decreased the aggressive tendencies in our species, so too the related genes determining facial features gradually made our features smaller and less coarse.

So, I have some thoughts. Bear with me, because I’m tapping this post out the night before it goes up, so it might not be the best organized or best-written.

  • I’m not going to question that even in humans, there might be some genetic linkage between elfin facial features and lack of natural aggressiveness. W-B syndrome, and Down Syndrome, both seem to suggest this. It may be that this linkage is so subtle and complex that it only becomes obvious in extreme cases, like with these syndromes. It’s similar to how there is evidence that people with fair or red hair are more likely to be “Highly Sensitive People,” highly sensitive to stimuli of all kinds including social stimuli, sound, and pain.
  • Both of these suggestions (I’m not going to call them findings because they are too complex) also dovetail with traditional stereotypes. The quick-tempered redhead, the fine-featured child who cries easily, and the “low-browed” criminal are all types that go way back. Stereotypes do not apply across the board, but they often tell us something about people’s observations of the world.
  • But that is also a danger. People, it turns out, have a strong tendency to judge others by their physical appearance. Ugly or unattractive people are interpreted through a grid that assumes they are stupid, aggressive, or unstable compared to more attractive people. I just finished reading an interview, here, with a person who explains from personal experience how we tend to interpret someone without sex appeal as a menace.
  • So if people did selectively marry in a way that weeded out Neanderthal facial features, it’s just as likely they were selecting for looks as for lack of aggression.
  • And obviously, making judgments about someone’s abilities and character based on their facial features and body shape is not only unjust, it’s usually likely to be mistaken. It would be great if we could tell everything we needed to know about someone just by looking at them, but we can’t. If we try to do so — and resist changing our opinion — we are going to be walking around with a lot of bad information. This strategy will not work well for us.
  • This should tell us that there is something missing from the thesis about smaller facial features being associated with less aggressive behavior.
  • What’s missing is the fact that human beings are human beings, not just two-legged animals. Our behavior is not just determined by whether we have genetic tendencies to aggression.
  • Rather, we are made in the image of God. Thus, we have language, an innate moral sense, and an innate need to be in a family and culture with other human beings. This, not our genetics, is what makes us “domestic.”
  • That’s why, as I have pointed out before, you will often meet people in modern times with features reminiscent of Neanderthals, and these people are neither stupid, nor aggressive, nor even particularly ugly. (I mean, just look at the Neanderthal reconstruction at the top of the linked article. Is he not adorable?)
  • Also, friendliness is not the only desirable trait in a human being. “Extreme friendliness,” particularly when coupled with cognitive impairments, will not equip a person to survive on their own in the world. What we need is natural aggressiveness, appropriately controlled and directed by our mind, moral sense, and culture. So, completely breeding aggressive tendencies out of our population would not be desirable, even if it were possible.
  • Ergo, if the Neanderthals and Denisovans were actually human beings (which I believe they were), we can assume that they were much like us in that they had aggressive tendencies, but they also had all the other standard human equipment that allowed them to control and direct these tendencies. We already know that they enjoyed seafood, intermarried with so-called “modern humans,” and made art.

OK, that’s it from me. I continue my campaign for Neanderthal Human Rights!

Now, go out there, club something, and eat it!

Oh, Absalom

Today I am posting a video of a song by the incomparable Jamie Soles.

A couple of warnings: I recommend you just listen to the audio. Don’t look at the screen, because the words pulse in a way that is likely to give you a seizure. I apologize; this was the only YouTube version of the song I could find.

Secondly: This song will make you bawl, particularly if you are a parent.

The back story goes as follows. The relationship between King David and his adult son Absalom had deteriorated badly. The story of that is also tragic, but too long to tell here. It’s in 2 Samuel 13 – 14. Eventually Absalom, having lost all respect for David, stages a coup (2 Sam. 15). David actually has to flee Jerusalem. Eventually, his men fight Absalom’s in a bloody battle in the forest. 20,000 men die (2 Sam. 18). Absalom, as he rides his mule through the woods, gets his head (possibly his long, luxuriant hair?) caught in the branches of an oak tree. His mule runs off and Absalom is left dangling there. David’s bloodthirsty general, Joab, finds him, stabs him in the heart with three javelins, and buries him unceremoniously in a pit. (2 Sam. 18:6 – 17) This even though David, who at first had wanted to go out himself into the battle, had instructed his generals, “Deal gently with the young man Absalom for my sake.”

Word comes to David that Absalom is dead before his victorious army returns to the city. When they come back, they can hear David in the small room over the city gate (the “judgment seat”), weeply loudly and saying over and over again, “Oh, Absalom, my son, my son, if only I had died instead of you!” The army sneaks into the city in shame, like defeated men.

Joab goes up into the room and berates David for not honoring his soldiers. “You love those who hate you and hate those who love you. You have made it clear today that … you would be pleased if Absalom were alive today and all of us were dead.” (2 Sam. 19:6)

This is not true, of course. No way this situation could have gone would have made David happy. But Joab just doesn’t get it.

I kind of hate that this story is in the Bible, because I wish the whole thing had never happened. It’s one of those slo-mo tragedies where, just when you think that every single thing has already gone wrong, the situation unspools some dismaying new tentacle of horror.

On the other hand, given that it did happen, I am glad this story is in the Bible. Clearly, this is not some slappy-happy, naive, “everything-will-be-great-if-we-all-just-believe-in-our-hearts” kind of document. This document was written by and for people who live in the actual world, where each of us, by the time we are adults, has witnessed or experienced this very kind of thing: complicated, tragic, stupid, seems like it could have been prevented at any point along the way. God is aware of these situations and of how stupid and futile and tragic they are. He is a God for people who find themselves in those situations.

Ahem. OK, sermon over. I guess I got carried away. Here’s the song.

GKC Quote on Cave People

To-day all our novels and newspapers will be found swarming with allusions to a popular character called a Cave-Man. So far as I can understand, his chief occupation in life was knocking his wife about …

In fact, people have been interested in everything about the cave-man except what he did in the cave. Now there does happen to be some real evidence of what he did in the cave. What was found in the cave was not the horrible, gory club notched with the number of women it had knocked on the head. [It was] drawings or paintings of animals; and they were drawn or painted not only by a man but by an artist. They showed the experimental and adventurous spirit of the artist, the spirit that does not avoid but attempts difficult things; as where the draughtsman had represented the action of the stag when he swings his head clean round and noses towards his tail. In this and twenty other details it is clear that the artist had watched animals with a certain interest and presumably a certain pleasure. [I]t would seem that he was not only an artist but a naturalist.

When novelists and educationists and psychologists of all sorts talk about the cave-man, they never conceive him in connection with anything that is really in the cave. When the realist of the sex novel writes, ‘Red sparks danced in Dagmar Doubledick’s brain; he felt the spirit of the cave-man rising within him,’ the novelist’s readers would be very much disappointed if Dagmar only went off and drew large pictures of cows on the drawing-room wall.

G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (orig. ed. published 1925), pp. 27 – 30