THE "SICK" PROFESSOR AND OUR BETTER ANGELS

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In the fall of 2015, a Yale professor sent an e-mail.  Sociologist Nicholas Christakis, backing an earlier e-mail by a fellow professor — his wife — challenged Yale’s position on Halloween costumes.  “Cultural appropriation,” such as dressing in blackface, should not be banned, he said.  If a costume is offensive, students should “talk to each other.  Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”

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A week later, Christakis stood in a Yale courtyard surrounded by students.  He stood there as they called him “sick,” “disgusting,” and worse.  He tried to explain.  He apologized for hurting people.  But mostly he listened.  For two hours.  The video, which went viral, is painful to watch, but along with enraged students, you see a man in the middle, quietly absorbing verbal abuse.  Why?  Because Nicholas Christakis believes that evolution has hard-wired us to get along.

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Christakis has rarely spoken of the ugly confrontation.  “Open, extended conversations among students themselves are essential not only to the pursuit of truth but also to deep moral learning," he wrote in the New York Times.  Then he went back to work.

Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society is an antidote to the brutish behavior of our times.  Published last spring, the book jumped onto bestseller lists and earned rave reviews.  “Brilliant.”  “Beautiful.”  “A magnificent achievement — if you think you understand human nature, think again.”

In Blueprint, this “disgusting” professor argues that humanity is not just decent, social, and caring, but has evolved to be so.  “For too long,” Christakis writes, “the scientific community has been overly focused on the dark side of our biological heritage: our capacity for tribalism, violence, selfishness, and cruelty.  The bright side has been denied the attention it deserves.”

Christakis, 57, learned tolerance at an early age.  The son of Greek immigrants, he returned to Greece as a boy and learned to play with the enemy — Turkish boys — in his neighborhood.  While in Athens, he watched joyous crowds celebrate the downfall of Greek dictators. Returning to America, his parents soon adopted a black girl and a Chinese boy.  From these experiences, Christakis saw how child’s play involves universal human values, good and bad.  Yes, distinct groups favor their own members.  Yes, they compete, sometimes savagely.  But they also learn to agree on rules, to trade, and above all, to reward kindness and reject aggression.

“We each carry within us an evolutionary blueprint for making a good society,” he writes.

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Becoming first a doctor, and then a sociologist, Christakis practiced what he preached.  While teaching at the University of Chicago, he worked in hospice care, holding the hands of the dying.  Later, at Harvard, he defended students’ satire mocking racial policies.  And by the time he came to Yale in 2013, he had begun to study how social networks are formed with goodness in mind.

Blueprint bursts with examples.  Christakis examines behaviors he calls “the social suite” in utopian communities, groups of shipwrecked sailors, tribal societies, religious groups, and in vast online communities created by his Yale students.  In each, he finds the evolutionary benefits of cooperation.  Bullies and brutes plunder and pillage, but where they dominate, the society soon fails.  Communities that survive to pass on their genes are those where cooperation and kindness prevail.    

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Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson agrees.  Having studied social networks in animals and insects, Wilson writes, “Within groups, selfish individuals win against altruists, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals.”

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The Yale students who berated Christakis have moved on now, but not without a parting shot.  Some refused to accept their diplomas from him.  But Yale rewarded Christakis in 2018 by making him a Sterling Professor, the university’s highest honor.  Christakis took the honor in stride, saying nothing about the earlier incident.  He prefers to focus on his work, and what it says for these troubled times.

  “As I write, the United States seems riven by polarities—right and left, urban and rural, religious and a-religious, insiders and outsiders, haves and have-nots. . .  Lines appear sharply drawn.  It may therefore seem an odd time for me to advance the view that there is more that unites us than divides us and that society is basically good.  Still, to me, these are timeless truths.”

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