The Secret of Our Success:  How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter
I am about half way through this new book by evolutionary anthropologist Joseph Henrich. Heinrich argues that is it gene and culture coevolution that best explains how humans come to dominate their habitats. There is a certain underwhelming “no duh” to the fundamental idea as cultural adaptations like tools and social constructs that facilitate cooperation obviously contribute to our success. However, the level of specificity these cultural adaptations have for their environments and the fact that many are applied without people really knowing why they work makes for an interesting read. So far so good. We’ll see how the rest of the book goes.

Psychiatry’s Last Taboo (subscription/paid)
The New Scientist has a story about Paulan Starcke, a psychiatrist practicing in the Netherlands who advocates for assisted suicide on behalf of the mentally ill. We are not talking about terminally ill patients lacking capacity to make their own life and death decisions. No, Starcke provides assisted suicide to people with debilitating mental illness who see death as the only way to end their suffering. Honestly, I’ve never thought about assisted suicide for the mentally ill. If it can be done with the necessary safeguards and due diligence, I cannot summon a strong case against it.

Starcke argues that the fact someone is not terminally ill means their situation could be seen as even worse than if they had just weeks lo live. ‘The unendingness can be unbearable’ she says.

Students’ Broken Moral Compass
Writing in The Atlantic, Kentucky teacher Paul Barnwell laments the lack of character education in today’s Common Core, test-focused schools. From my experience, he is absolutely right to be concerned. Other than the indirect teaching of empathy and perspective taking done by the best English teachers, math and reading test preparation squeezes out opportunities to discuss morality and ethics. That’s not to say that students and their teachers are not interested in these topics.

Talking with my students about ethics and gauging their response served as a wakeup call for me to consider my own role as an educator and just how low character development, ethics, and helping students develop a moral identity have fallen with regard to debate over what schools should teach.

Barnwell offers a few examples from his days as a student and in the work of colleagues as evidence that it does not have to be this way. However, these examples are limited to issues of environmental stewardship. Frankly, encouraging students to value natural resources is the lowest of low hanging fruit when it comes to moral conversations. The greatest moral challenges facing us now and in years to come are based on social justice, opportunity and resource/wealth distribution. As someone who has these conversations with students, trust me when I tell you they are challenging under the best of circumstances and a source of frustration most other times. In a year when we have to pretend that Donald Trump is worth taking seriously, questions of social justice and income inequality become all the more confounding.

Periodic Table Alphabet Soup
I admit to a soft spot for science that has no practical application but it done as an intellectual exercise. Thanks to a century of deliberate development, we now have an impressive array of synthetic and analytical chemical tools at our disposal. In many ways, chemistry is uniquely situated among the sciences to produce quality, readily verifiable science that aims at targets solely for the target practice. In this work, chemists in England created a molecule connecting four elements from a single column of the periodic table; a feat never done before for elements in this particular region of the periodic table. These molecules could have some interesting electronic properties but honestly, who cares? They just look cool.

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Revisionist History, episodes 4 through 6
Malcolm Gladwell recently started a podcast called Revisionist History. “Elite” colleges and universities are turning into hedge funds with dormitories and high-end dining halls that underserve students in general and, more alarmingly, talented, underprivileged students in particular. If this concerns you, listen to episodes 4 through 6 of Revisionist History.

 

This past week’s thinking tools:  Caran d’Ache 849 ballpoint, Field Notes Shenandoah and a new iPad Pro 9.7.