It’s been a while since Radiolab treated us to multiple stories on a single topic. We had “Elements” in August, but, as I kvetched in my review, the collection of stories didn’t have much to say about the episode’s theme. Beyond “Elements” we have to go all the way back to February to find “La Mancha Screwjob.” There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Some single-story episodes like “23 Weeks 6 Days” and “The Rhino Hunter” are among my favorites. Still, it’s always rewarding to hear Jad and Robert consider complicated ideas from multiple angles.
All that is to say, I loved this episode like Macklemore loves a moped. 1
This week, Radiolab revisited an episode that aired in 2009, providing updates on main characters and important research. In general, I wish more shows did this; I often find myself wondering what has become of the protagonists of character-driven stories. 2I often think about Stu of Silverton, so I was especially glad to hear that he is doing well.
The broad title, “New Normal,” belies the episode’s focus. It’s really a serious meditation on one question: will humans ever become peaceful? The three stories, taken together, leave me hopeful. It may not happen in our time, or our children’s time, but I can imagine a day when humans peaceably enjoy the scorched remains of planet earth.
Humans evolved from primates, 3 so it makes sense to look to the animal kingdom to see if we’re predisposed towards violence. At a glance, it seems that we’re doomed to bash each others’ brains until the end of days. Radiolab talks to a baboon researcher who describes the violence baboons inflict on one another and rival groups of baboons.
But then, hope! After a group of baboons stumbles upon an endless food supply (in the form of a dumpster) and a freak disease kills off the majority of the males, the baboons pacify and begin to do things baboons don’t usually do; the males start grooming each other and the lady baboons start grooming low status dude baboons. 4The troop goes from Ron Artest to Metta World Peace.
More shockingly, the changes stick. Even after the original John Lennon baboons died off, the new baboons kept on with that all-you-need-is-love attitude. Of course, this isn’t the first time someone has said cultural changes can stick. Richard Dawkins invented the word meme to refer to exactly that—sticky cultural ideas. Still, it kinda gives you hope, doesn’t it?
Of course, even if we are capable of peace, there’s a lot going against us. Sociologists and psychologists will point to the in-group-out-group biases. Basically, we like people in our clan and don’t like people who aren’t. Some will argue this was a particularly useful trait when humans lived in small tribes and went around bashing brains. 5Nowadays, the inclination still exists but it’s downright ugly. Looking at you, Kim Davis.
But again, hope! In its second segment, Radiolab tells the heartwarming story of a small town’s acceptance of its new mayor. Warning: this story will affect close-minded, city-slickers who think of all places that aren’t Manhattan as provincial wastelands more than others.
“New Normal” closes out with a story about domesticating foxes. Some salient takeaways from this story: 1) fox domestication is pretty easy, 2) we finally learn what the fox says, 3) Jad and Robert had waaaay too much fun voicing this segment. Listen to Robert’s gleeful telling of Dmitri Belyaev’s fox breeding project and the dying fox sounds. I loved the energy and exuberance in this segment, and 4) domestication actually alters the physiology of animals. Those droopy puppy ears? It turns out that’s a part of being man’s best friend and not gnawing on your leg while you sleep. Humans are showing some physiological signs of domestication too, so maybe there’s hope for us yet.
Violence is multi-dimensional. Human-on-human violence is rooted in politics, culture, psychology, sociology, evolution, and genetics. The fact that our teeth are getting smaller or that a small town in Oregon elected a transgender mayor doesn’t mean that we won’t have a World War III or IV or V. But it gives me some hope.
- This week in conspiracy theories: I believe Macklemore has been bought by the powerful, albeit invisible, moped lobby to boost sales in the face of the hoverboard’s imminent and Back To The Future-ordained rise. ^
- Anna Sale of Death, Sex, and Money does a good job with this. ^
- But if we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?!?! This is why. ^
- Intestingly, Kathleen B. Jones argues in Citizenship in a Woman-Friendly Polity that if women had been included in defining the western conceptions of citizenship, society would be, among other things, more intimate and relationship-driven. ^
- Again, with the bashing brains. ^
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