Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Neighborhood Project, Evolution, and Anarchotheism

Wilson, David Sloan.  The Neighborhood Project:  Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time.  Boston:  Little, Brown, and Company, 2011.

Superior subtitles for this work:  
Better Living through Evolution
Diversity in Life Cycles of Evolutionary Biologists
What David Sloan Wilson (hereafter DSW) has been thinking about recently

Number of books from the bibliography that I will probably read: at least 4

Gifts and talents of DSW:
Radiant and contagious enthusiasm for evolutionary biology
Wide network of acquaintances among evolutionary biologists

Gifts that DSW did not bring to this book:
Appreciation of the wide diversity of non-evolutionary biologist human life
Coherent political philosophy

Grade I would award this book based on the criteria of "Prove your thesis" (here defined as the subtitle): C-

Grade I would award this book based on the criteria of "Take something you care about a whole lot and make it interesting to other people": A

The above snark aside, I really enjoyed this book, all scattered, disorganized 21 chapters of it.  The author comes across as warm, witty, and nerdy in the best way--caring deeply about his subject material, and wanting the reader to care also.  His book left me wanting to know more about several of his subjects, especially the recently deceased Elinor Ostrom (only woman ever awarded the Nobel in Economics, and a scholar of the management of the commons) and Pierre Teilhard (a Jesuit priest whose work in evolutionary biology and ecstatic Christianity was subject to Vatican censorship).   But those two will have their own entries after I read their books.

Anyway, throughout reading this I thought a lot about my relationship to evolutionary biology, as a theist, an anarchist, and just as a confused pastor's daughter from rural Iowa.  As many of you know, I attended a Christian high school where evolution was part of the Evil World trying to destroy our Christian worldview.  Fortunately, our science teachers explained this to us carefully for about three weeks, discussed the great diversity of creationist scientists, long-day creationism (theistic evolution by another name) vs. short-day creationism vs. intelligent design, etc., then spent the rest of the year teaching the scientific method and real information about the natural world.  So they did the very best they could in an environment of censorship and lies.  (No, I loved my high school! Really!)  But I didn't know much about evolution, and didn't take science classes in college.  So I continued in my ignorance until graduate school.

There during a class on evolution and the novel we actually had to read Darwin's Origin of Species. To my surprise, it was eminently readable and reasonable and focused on nature; it was hardly the straightforward attack on divine origins I had been led to believe.  In the course of that class, I began to understand the immense explanatory power of evolution and how it transformed scientific thought.  Now I appreciate Darwin's work, and the tasks of many scientists who came after him.

So, evolutionary theory explains an awful lot about life on this planet: check.  It's cool and interesting: check. I don't particularly see a disjoint between accepting evolution's role in the development of life and practicing a religion that posits an ultimately divine beginning to that life.  Existence is still miraculous and beautiful and puzzling, regardless of how thumbs developed or the immune system responds to natural selection.  However, as a theist, sometimes I have felt the evil atheist biologists strike back with an unnecessary force against what they perceive as the lies of religion.  We heard Richard Dawkins speak a couple of years ago, and even though I sort of agree with him on a lot of things (the idiocy of religious war, for example), I found his assertion that raising a child in a faith tradition is child abuse a bit much. And David Sloan Wilson, even though he is himself an atheist, agreed. He chronicles how several evolutionary psychologists have attempted to develop an understanding of religion as cultural parasite (a view he says has little to no scientific basis--and i'm happy to accept him at his word), while he advocates for understanding religion as a group-level cultural adaptation (Chapter 18). I guess some purists might still find this offensive, but I much prefer to interpret my life practices as a reasonable adaptation than as involvement with a parasitic system.   You might say that this is a faith-friendly book about evolution.

Indeed, the explanation of evolutionary psychology in this book seems downright Christian and anarchist at the same time. I have always thought of evolutionary psychology as that stupid field of study which attempts to justify gender stereotypes in the name of science (cf. a study that claimed rape as a biological adaptation--that men really are programmed to rape). But DSW explains it as the practice of treating unusual behavior not as pathology but as an adaptation.  Treatment, then, involves figuring out what is triggering this adaptation and how to make the environment friendlier for the person afflicted.  This has the potential to really treat each human being with dignity, avoiding the crippling labels of sinner/saint or sane/insane.  (I read this as anarchist in its potential to alleviate the illegitimate hierarchy of the "normal" over the "abnormal.)

Sadly, DSW does not mention the great anarchist response to evolution, "Mutual Aid," by Peter Kropotkin.  Even more sadly, I have not read this tract from the turn of the last century; more cheerfully, its ideas have wrangled their way into contemporary evolutionary theory, according to The Neighborhood Project.  Kropotkin wrote against the social darwinists of his day who insisted that the most fit individual would and should survive, the rest of the world be hanged.  He argued, instead, that groups of people could increase their own survival by cooperation and helping each other; indeed, Darwin discusses this concept in some of his later writing--evolution sometimes rewards competitive individuals who seek only their own gain, but there is at least as much competitive advantage for individuals to cooperate in groups and act for the good of all.  Individual adaptation vs. group-level adaptation.  And it is from this perspective that DSW writes with great hope, that humans are capable of great cooperation--that perhaps this is the greatness of humanity, that we can work together to achieve great things--and we can harness this for self-government.

DSW doesn't focus quite as much as the self-government angle here.  That is my spin. But it is heartening to learn of research (especially like that of Elinor Ostrom, may her memory be honored) contributes both good models of alternate societies founded on cooperation and mutual aid, and hope that those societies could lead to a better future for humanity. 

On a final note, DSW recounts the life stories of several colleagues of his.  These interested me, but I felt like woven throughout the book was his presupposition that our society makes good use of individuals and their natural abilities, as is the case for so many of those colleagues.  Out here in the non-academic world, that is decidedly a false statement.  Outside of academia, I know many acquaintances who know their gifts and skills to be under-utilized, whether because of unemployment, student debt, or ubiquitious slashing of jobs in human-serving professions for the favor of mammon-serving ones. And I wonder about the evolutionary adaptability for survival of a society that wastes its human resources as abundantly as ours does.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Review: The New Jim Crow

Alexander, Michelle.  "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness."  New York: The New Press, 2010.  Revised edition 2012.

You have probably heard about this book, if you listen to NPR or PBS, or read the New York Times, or interact with sundry other vaguely lefty sources.  Michelle Alexander has been on the lecture circuit for a couple of years after the publication of this book.  Its thesis, quite baldly, is that the major social justice and civil rights issue of our time is the mass incarceration of American citizens of color, the system of control that has replaced legalized racial discrimination of the Jim Crow era. This situation exists as the end of the desire for politicians and police to look "tough on crime," and carrying out that desire on the bodies of (especially but not exclusively) black men.  Whether or not intended to deprive impossibly large percentages of the male population of color of their voting rights, housing rights, working rights, etc., this is the effect of the incarceration. 
Alexander's research is thorough, and the statistics she amasses to back up her thesis astounding.  Up to half of black men in many cites are in prison or involved in the criminal justice system; one of her major themes is that it is not enough to look at the currently imprisoned population, but we must also examine the lot of those released--who immediately lose their rights to vote, to live in public housing, to not be discriminated against for private housing, to hold many kinds of jobs...rights that, she notes, parallel the rights explicitly denied black people under the regime of Jim Crow post-reconstruction.
The Supreme Court comes out as quite the villains, abandoning their purported role of the last protectors of justice in our fair land. What most surprised me in this book was how impossible SCOTUS makes it to prove racial bias in the law-enforcement system.  You may recently have read of the immense problems with the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk policies, where the percentage of white people stopped was negligible, but over 100% of black males in the city were stopped during a year (that is, every black male in the city, on average, was randomly searched more than once a year); this, even though the times they did search whites were MORE likely (not less) to yield illegal firearms or drugs.  Well, according to SCOTUS, no amount of statistical evidence of racial bias can be used to demonstrate discrimination unless the judge or police-person involved in a case explicitly says s/he is using racist criteria to sentence or try the person accused.  For example, and I quote, "Georgia prosecutors...sought the death penalty in 70% of cases involving black defendants and white victims, but only 19% of cases involving white defendants and black victims" (pg. 110). But in 1987, SCOTUS ruled that this type of evidence showing systemic racist bias could be not be admitted.  Only direct admission of racism qualified. 
The war on drugs then created a profit motive for police to find and prosecute people with drugs (via federal grants for "effective" departments, etc.). Alexander argues that, to yield massive racial disparity in rates of arrest and incarceration, this did not so much require actual racism of the "white people are just better than black people" variety, but simply that our population didn't pay much attention as huge and unprecedented percentages of our citizens of color went behind bars.  Now, did most of those people behind bars break the law?  Sure, most but not all. Legal defense is expensive, and many cannot afford it; the lengthy mandatory sentences that many victimless crimes (i.e., drug possession) involve often scare the innocent into taking plea bargains. And actual rates of crime commission are startlingly similar across racial lines.  But, if you stop 50% of black people in a town and check them for drugs--and only 3% of them have drugs on them--well, now 1.5% of that population is in jail.  If you only stop 10% of the white population, and the same 3% of people (not people stopped, but white people in general) are carrying drugs at any given time, well, you've only got .3% of the white population in jail.  
Alexander explains all this much more eloquently than I can.  Her writing is direct and fluid, and I finished the book in just a couple of days of casual reading.  If you work anywhere in the social justice system, the religious support system, in social work, or in the educational system, you should definitely read this book. I think she demonstrates her thesis with mind boggling (and enormously depressing) amounts of evidence.
Now, this book has gotten panned a lot of places, mostly for what she doesn't do.  She doesn't connect her call for prison reform to the prison abolition movement or radical politics.  This is frustrating to me, as someone involved in radical politics, that she is basically taking ideas from very radical sources and trying to make them palatable to a large audience--in the process, discounting their radical nature and continuing the problem of moderate writers claiming good ideas for moderation, allowing the right to keep saying we are crazies.  I mean, prison reform/abolition is something that anarchists and socialists and civil-rights groups of all stripes and churches and even a lot of fiscal conservatives (keeping people locked up is expensive) and, well, everyone except those directly profiting off the prison-industrial complex (a disturbing array of characters) should get behind.   And Alexander is positing that it is so important that we should all overcome our differences and coordinate efforts to make it happen, forgetting other causes for the moment until this is sorted out. 
Which I actually kind of agree with.  I work with kids who suffer the effects of mass incarceration and racially biased sentencing, and those effects are significant, and I want them liberated from these oppressions.  But then, I'm a big-tent anarchist and happy to work with any people or group of people who want a more just world where people can flourish.  And I think a lot of other people are unwilling to participate in this kind of movement because their other causes wouldn't get credit for dealing with it.  But I am annoyed that she doesn't ground some of the analysis in the devastating COINTELPRO FBI assassinations of Black Panthers and other leaders in the black community in the 60s, a system of violent oppression that set up the current situation.  Also, she doesn't address the questions of violent crime, focusing mostly on drug use violations. I am with her in believing that an awful lot of violent crime can be tied to the violence of mass incarceration and to drug prohibition, but this is a case that needs to be made explicitly.  Many people have done this; including a couple of those arguments in the book would have strengthened an already strong analysis.
The most cogent (and accurate) critique of the book is its near-exclusion of class-based analysis. Alexander does comment on the fact that nearly all people in jail are people in situations of poverty, but that is not the focus of her book.  She "brackets" the question of poverty except as it relates to race, since that is not the focus of this book.  I think she is right to limit her focus, though--this would not have been as digestible if she had done a thorough race/class/gender/sexuality based analysis of the prison system of control.  She is seeking as broad a base of support as possible for the movement, by limiting her analysis to the race-based discrimination that nearly all the above-mentioned groups find unacceptable.  
Unfortunately, I think this broad focus will actually detract from building the movement.  Of all the social justice oriented groups at work in the US, many are willing to make prison reform/abolition a secondary plank in their platform, but few, I expect, will make it their primary focus.  Anarchists (and Occupy groups, etc), at least theoretically might get behind it--but we are few and do not herd well.  And right now everyone is so concerned with the dreadful horror of economic problems that it is hard to return to a problem (systemic racism) that most right-leaning people are happy to ignore, and most left-leaning white people think was solved a long time ago.  
On the upside, though, I think we have found that a new American revolution will not require a guillotine.  No, we already have a system that will do quite nicely to bring justice to the exploiters of labor, the politicians who got rich by violating the rights of others, the torturers and the lawyers who justify their actions.  Prison, followed by the social isolation and economic oblivion that awaits so many young black men now, would be quite sufficient for them.  I look forward to the day when those who have wreaked so much injustice will suffer the same fate as they have wreaked on so many human beings.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Review: A Wedding in Haiti

Alvarez, Julia. A Wedding in Haiti: The Story of a Friendship Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2012.

I enjoy Julia Alvarez' work, occasionally, and I respect her as an author, but I hadn't really sat down with any of her work since college. So when her most recent book, a very short memoir, showed up at the library, I thought she was overdue for some of my attention. A Wedding in Haiti is probably one of the few books on my list for the summer that everyone who reads this blog would enjoy, and as such I highly recommend it for a light-hearted but socially conscious reading experience.

The book narrates Alvarez' two trips to Haiti from her native Dominican Republic. She and her husband (and their trusty pickup truck) attend the wedding of their Haitian friend and employee, Pito, in the first half of the book. She ruminates on human relationships and the relationship between the two countries on the island of Hispanola, with their dual legacies of colonialism.

Her experiences reminded me of my time in Argentina--the minor culture shocks, the unfamiliar gender roles, seeing yourself in a culture that is close to a familiar culture but at the same time totally different. I found her subtle discussion of cross-class friendships especially worthwhile. She captures many of the difficulties of genuine connection with people from a much different economic position than hers. She also captures many of the joys of traveling with her husband. Her wry observations will ring true to anyone who has ever had the privilege of traveling to uncomfortable cultural situations with one's spouse!

One of the book's refrains is "There is a bottom line between which you cannot go and remain a human being." I appreciate Alvarez' acknowledgment of the responsibility of witness. Whether one witnesses a wedding, and implicitly promises to help a new couple adjust to married life, or one witnesses the remains of a devastating earthquake, and implicitly promises to help in all possible ways, one cannot "merely" be a witness. Acknowledging another's reality and another's needs changes the observer and obligates the observer to get involved in situations. This becomes very concrete for Alvarez when she visits Haiti again, after the earthquake.

I am embarassed to admit that when I picked up the book all memory of Haiti's devastating natural disaster had faded for me. The situation of poverty in Haiti remains one of the great shames of the western hemisphere, and the international response to the earthquake was--well--I think individual people were moved, but most governments (and Pat Robertson) will never forget that the nation began from a successful slave revolt. Anyway, Alvarez brings the situation to life with a vision inaccessible to journalists, as she explores the earthquake's effects on Pito and his family.

The book bears witness without sanctimony, and displays good humor without frivolity. If you have any interest in Hispaniola, the earthquake, or cross cultural experiences in general, A Wedding in Haiti
is well worth the couple of hours it'll take to read.