Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Evolutionary Parenting: An Introduction - Jon Host

by Jon Cleland Host

One of the most important parts of an evolutionary worldview is a commitment to future generations. Why? Because an evolutionary worldview includes the realization that we are all a part of the grand saga of life, the Great Story of the Universe, the diary of that irrepressible pulse of life, surging in us all.

This realization shows us the immensity of the story behind us, and therefore, the immensity of the story ahead of us. But what will that story be? We see from the past that it could contain a lot of horror, and a lot of good, and everything in between. To know that our great grandchildren (or those of our relatives) for seven generations and more will live in the world we give them makes this much more than idle speculation, transforming it into a drive to give back to the Universe and to life itself by doing what we can to help.

For those of us who are parents, this means working to raise our children as well as possible, giving them the tools that will help the future of all, and doing so with joy. Our children are humans, and understanding the needs of (and threats to) human children requires an understanding of the evolutionary history that made them. This is why Evolutionary Parenting includes both the connection to our evolutionary past, as well as the sense of purpose supplied by our awareness of future generations.

Talking about all those evolutionary needs and threats would take many books, so for this blog post, I’ll start with one small part of a family culture, and that is our human need for a meaningful, trusted story of how we got here. For dozens of millennia, humans in cultures around the globe grew with stories of how we got here that gave their lives meaning, richness and a sense of roots, so it’s no surprise that we humans have evolved to need such stories when we are children. To fulfill this need, a story must be meaningful – in that we must attach meaning to it, and not see it as irrelevant or “just dry facts”. It must also be believable – in that it needs to be supported by the facts as well as we know them. In other words, it has to be real. If the story fails either of these requirements, then children (and adults) cannot get all of the benefits we need from it as humans.

We are living in a time when nearly all of us are denying our children (and ourselves!) this basic human requirement. Scientific discoveries have demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that the old creation myths, like the Native American story of Nanabozho or the Genesis story, aren’t literally true (they might still be meaningful, but are no longer believable), while the story that is believable, the evidence-based Universe Story, is rarely taught in a meaningful, inspiring way. Only a story that is both meaningful AND believable can fulfill this basic human need.

Others are recognizing this cultural loss as well. As Nancy Ellen Abrams states:

Without a meaningful, believable story that explains the world we actually live in, people have no idea how to think about the big picture. And without a big picture, we are very small people.

And over a half century ago, Maria Montessori told us that:

…by offering the child the story of the universe, we give him something a thousand times more infinite and mysterious to reconstruct with his imagination, a drama no fable can reveal."

I’ve lost count of the times when, in teaching creation myths to children, they seem uncaring, especially after asking, repeatedly “but is that what really happened?”. They are already too smart to care much for stories that are known to be false. Yet, it still took me a while to realize how much children want the honest truth. Seeing myself and other adults take a long time enthusiastically embrace the Universe Story drives home the fact that we have learned our culture all too well. This is why it takes time and commitment to raise our children with the meaningful and believable history that they desperately need. Even after only a few years of doing so, I’ve already started to see the wonder and joy in my children at having a meaningful and believable origin story – a coherent, empowering cosmology.

We can give them the meaningful and believable story that they need. To do so, we only need to realize how deeply meaningful and enriching the factual Story of the Universe, as discovered by science, truly is. We only need to allow its meaning to shine through – and a moment’s reflection shows how wonderful it really is. That wonder and joy of finally reconnecting to the Universe, the same feeling our Ancestors for millennia felt, is within our grasp again. It changed my life, and others as well. Some of our stories can be read here.

Luckily, none of us have to reinvent the wheel and try to do this from scratch. There are resources available online here. For most of us, we’ll be learning at the same time, with the whole family traveling much of the path together. I hope to discuss some of the ways we’ve found to work well in our family in future blog posts.

Evolutionary Parenting, today, is uncommon at best. But I suspect that in the future it will be as commonplace as teaching children to read and write. From seeing its effect on my life and the lives of others, I think it is just as important as even those basic skills, especially for living in the chaotic world our children will face.

~ Jon Cleland Host


Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Death of the Fringe Suburb: Why we boomers are to blame and what the youngers can do about it

by Connie Barlow

A superb Op-Ed piece by Christopher Leinberger appeared in The New York Times on November 25, 2011:

The Death of the Fringe Suburb

That essay offers profound insights and trends for twenty- and thirty-somethings to keep in mind when buying a home in this new and volatile era. I view the signs of change as truly hope-filled. Nonetheless, as we peel away the layers of causality, we boomers are forced to see ourselves as the reason for much of the economic decline. Now it is our job to ensure that the lessons of this sixty-year history that we have lived through are not lost on the generations that follow.

Note: Please take a few minutes to read Leinberger's Op-Ed piece. Then return to this blog to consider two additional points I wish to make.

*  *  *

First, a little background: My husband, Michael Dowd, and I have lived entirely on the road for ten years, occupying for a few days to a few weeks the guest rooms (or sometimes, vacation homes) of Americans affiliated with the churches and nonprofit groups that delight in the message we deliver as “America’s evolutionary evangelists”. Accordingly, we have, in a sense, been sampling and eavesdropping on the lifestyle of Americans our age and older — that is, couples whose kids are grown and out of the house, and who are wealthy enough to live in a home that has a spare room (sometimes an entire wing) for guests. We have carved out an odd career and lifestyle that utterly depends on the generosity of others: we live almost entirely in homes that we ourselves could never afford.

Thanks to this amazing opportunity to sample middle-class American homes and standards of living, I now offer two insights that perhaps will help Gen X, Gen Y, and the Millennials avoid the mistakes that we boomers have made — mistakes we have made mostly as a group, not because we are especially foolish or self-centered as individuals.


Time and again, surveys have shown that people who choose a home for the wonderful nature-filled yard (but a long distance from anything), find themselves oppressed by a long commute or isolated because it takes too long to drive anywhere to extra-curricular events (for themselves or their lonely kids), especially in inclement weather.

Even though I am a nature fanatic (and feel like the luckiest person alive when my husband and I are offered a month or more hospitality at someone’s vacation home in one of the unbelievably large number of astonishingly beautiful nooks in North America), I have also delighted in getting a chance to live a few days at a time in high quality urban and established suburban settings. Michael and I have often been hosted by folks who have been living in the same neighborhood for 30 or 40 years — the traditional suburbs of the 50s and 60s. Though the homes we have been invited into would have been regarded as the wealthier neighborhoods decades back, today those homes don’t have enough square-footage, bathrooms, and garage space to be attractive to the “wealthy” anymore. The reasons for my fondness of these older “inner suburbs” are four-fold:
  1. It is just a walk or short drive to the store and post office and other venues.
  2. There are actual sidewalks in the neighborhood; one doesn’t have to walk in the street (nor drive kids a long distance to play with other kids).
  3. The trees (whether or not they were large to begin with) are now extravagant and represent a far greater diversity of species, even slow-growing oaks, than one finds in new developments that are turning into ghost towns in farmlands-turned-exurbs.
  4. The homes tend to be smaller and hence fully used; untouched dining rooms and living rooms are rare, as are energy-extravagant cathedral ceilings.

My point is this: older neighborhoods are not only still thriving; for many reasons (as presented in Leinberger’s Op-Ed piece) these are the locales that youngers should think about moving into themselves.


My second point is not one that was covered in the recommended Op-Ed piece. Indeed, I haven’t encountered anybody else writing on the housing collapse or Wall Street madness from quite this angle. Here is my take:

Boomers invested in extra homes (especially, homes larger than most of us would want to retire into), as we expected to resell those homes for a large profit. Boomers also invested in the stock market because of a new phenomenon initiated by our parents’ generation: old folks no longer expected (nor wanted) to move in with their adult offspring.  When we boomers were kids, we ourselves (or at least some of our friends) had grandparents living with us in our home. That was normal in the 50s and 60s. The grandparents did not save a huge sum for retirement, and few got pensions. Back then, grandma got a bedroom to herself and was expected to help out with the kids and cooking some meals. Her social security check was fully adequate for covering her share of the mortgage (for that extra room) and she certainly earned her food costs by the help she gave in the kitchen and with the kids.

In my case, my father’s parents lived with us in, what would have been, the master bedroom. They had a private attached bath and their bed folded into a sofa during the day. They had a little cookstove and refrigerator and tiny “kitchen” table in their room too, and their TV set was on top of the clothes dresser.
That is not the future we boomers intend for ourselves. Also, we expect to live a lot longer after retirement than our grandparents did — and to spend those years taking excursions, golfing, shuttling between our regular home and our vacation home — indeed, intending to live rather extravagantly because many of us have been working just too darned hard. At least, that was our plan before our stocks, real estate, and 401k accounts tanked.

In contrast, our grandparents never even considered those activities. They were happy (at least as happy as anyone expected to be in those days) staying close to home, feeling useful for the next generations, perhaps tending a small vegetable garden.

Of course, changing demographics and the fact that few boomers can expect their adult children to be living anywhere near where they were raised (nor to remain in that locale for long) will make it nearly impossible for grandma or grandpa boomer to happily move in with our adult children. Long-time friends and community groups would have to be left behind — and maybe repeatedly as the kids keep following jobs, mates, and dreams around the country.

All this means that, unlike my grandparents’ generation, most of my peers have assumed that they have to save a quarter million dollars or more before they can safely retire. That is a quarter million dollars per couple that must be “invested” somewhere over the course of decades that it is stashed away. Once upon a time, one simply put money into a savings account. But boomers viewed savings accounts as a loss — no profit there, and with interest rates lagging behind the rate of inflation.  The only two places to invest, really, were the stock market and real estate — hence the crash of both of those institutions.

The result of this extraordinary drive to “invest” for retirement was this: huge sums of money were taken out of the real economy and stashed in the casino called Wall Street and in vacant lands and overbuilt housing called real estate.  That money was not available for spending on the next generations. Instead, we let the infrastructure that we share communally (roads, bridges, parks, sewers) decline. We pulled state and federal taxes out of the subsidies that we formerly invested in colleges. Instead, we forced the younger generations to pay enormous sums for higher education and thus to be saddled with debt. Consciously or not, we allowed the marvelous infrastructure that we inherited from the Eisenhower era to rust away. Not to worry: “Be, here, now!” Remember?

CONCLUSION: The point of this essay is to let the younger generations know that it is not just Wall Street that screwed them over, but a massive shift in how ordinary Americans came to use and invest their earnings. It is my generation and the one older that made it possible for Wall Street financiers to become garishly wealthy doing nothing of use (and in the case of derivatives, doing much harm). It is my generation that invested in land and new homes that we knew we would not want to retire into, and that would be flagrant energy guzzlers (both in home heating and in gasoline for commutes and errands). I think we had an inkling that our kids could not afford, nor would they want, to live in such wastefulness. But all we needed to do was to resell that McMansion in five or eight years to someone else of our generation who was looking not for a home but for an investment — an investment for retirement.

MY DREAM: My dream is not that Grandma Boomer and Grandpa Boomer turn the pages of history back and go move in with the kids and grandkids. Those days are over for the reason I mentioned earlier: the kids keep moving from city to city and state to state. Rather, I’d like to see two new forms of high-density, low square-footage housing that 20-somethings just starting out and retiring boomers would occupy. (Noise from stereos would not be a problem, as earbuds would be required and no loud parties by anyone choosing those special, low-rent digs.) We olders would choose to occupy such housing not only because our investments failed, but because paring down to simple living would bring a joy to life that we haven’t known since the 60s and the 70s.

Such lost-cost housing developments, of course, must be located near a greenway or park in walking distance, and a grocery a short walk or taxi or bus ride away. There must be sidewalks; there must be trees. Neither we olders nor the youngers just starting out would have to own a car. We wouldn’t mourn a lost opportunity to golf or to cruise. We would be happily engaged in our patch of community garden, volunteering in local schools, joining birdwatching groups in the parks, mentoring the twenty-somethings, and finding real community with peers just around the corner or across the street.

Imagine this: we would be able to pretty much live on our Social Security checks, just like our grandparents did. And no generation, ever again, would be tricked into “saving for retirement” in ways that impoverish and threaten the health and wellbeing of those who follow.

R.I.P Lynn Margulis 1938-2011

Famed biologist Lynn Margulis died on November 22 at the age of 73. Lynn was one of the most creative scientists of our time. She was always pushing the edge of orthodoxy and sometimes she was right in a big way (i.e., the evolution of eukaryotes via endosymbiosis).

It would be difficult to overstate the positive impact of Lynn's work on our understanding of life, but also on my life personally, and Connie's too.

In 1989 I became the first (and only) student to be allowed to audit Lynn's "Environmental Evolution" course at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. This proved to be a significant turning point in my life.

For the final exam, I was asked to publicly present the essence of my mentor Thomas Berry's work in just five minutes. This was one of the most empowering assignments I was ever given, and it ultimately led me to devote my life to teaching and preaching "The Great Story."

My wife Connie, too, was blessed by Lynn's generosity of spirit and mentoring support. Lynn played an instrumental role in helping Connie get her first scientific paper published in 1990, in Biosystems: "Open systems living in a closed biosphere: a new paradox for the Gaia debate". She also helped Connie get her first two books published by MIT Press, From Gaia to Selfish Genes: Selected Readings in the Life Sciences, and Evolution Extended: Biological Debates on the Meaning of Life.

Thank you, Lynn. We love you. Transiting from life to death, you have now become a cherished memetic ancestor.

Here are a few reflections on Lynn's life and legacy worth reading...

• John Brockman, Edge: "Lynn Margulis 1938-2011 'Gaia is a Tough Bitch'"

• John Hogan, Scientific American: "R.I.P. Lynn Margulis, Biological Rebel"  

• National Center for Science Education: "Lynn Margulis dies"  

• MassLive: "University of Massachusetts community reacts to death of renowned scientist and professor Lynn Marguis"

Friday, November 4, 2011

Crazy Juice!

by Jon Cleland Host
A few days ago, I watched a couple bucks fighting, heads down, dust flying, their rage clear even from the safety of my tree stand 80 yards away.  It was exciting to see, and it reminded me that the peak of the crazy time is just a few weeks away.  “Crazy time”?  Yep.  Soon, here in Michigan, the bucks (yes, those peaceful, docile deer) will go crazy for the rut season.  They’ll make a lot of noise, take dangerous risks, and fight each other, sometimes to the death – just for the chance to mate.  There are plenty of good videos on out there, here’s one.  What could bring this on?  Crazy juice (testosterone).  Testosterone will flood their bloodstream, warp their minds, and they’ll each be lucky if they survive to see December.

But we sophisticated, civilized humans are far superior to these dumb animals, right?  We’d never be chemically induced to risk so much, right?  Wrong.  Crazy juice gets us too, especially us guys – because we all carry the same lizard legacy that the bucks carry, buried deep in our brains.  It can strike at any time (especially after success, as described here).

There are many important ideas to discuss about crazy juice, but one that jumps out for me is that this crazy juice is the source of one of the biggest evolutionary mismatches brought on by our modern world.  An evolutionary mismatch is when evolution has properly prepared us for life in the world of our Ancestors, and that preparation backfires in our modern world.   Classic examples include our tastes for fats and sweets, where our Ancestors needed a taste for these just to survive, yet in our modern world filled with junk food, we end up obese as a result of them.  In the Pleistocene, there was a big payoff in mates and status to teenage boys who took risks, fought for dominance, and threw caution to the wind.  In today’s world, with cars, guns, and jails, (none of which our Pleistocene Ancestors had) teenage boys are often pushed toward life-destroying trouble by their own brains.  It’s no surprise that the majority of crime is committed by unmarried males ages 15-30, and that car insurance companies know very well that teenage boys are serious risks.

With four young sons, my family has a tsunami of crazy juice on the horizon.  I only have a few years to teach them about crazy juice - why we have it, why to appreciate it, when to look for it, and especially, how to act responsibly in spite of it.  Doing so without an evolutionary perspective would not just be difficult, it would be almost impossible.  Knowing how much the safety of my sons means to me, I shudder to think what it would be like if I, like 95% or more of the mothers and fathers out there, let them become teenaged boys without equipping them with a strong understanding of our evolved brains.  They’ll need that to help control the results of the inevitable surge of crazy juice that is just around the corner for them — a huge evolutionary mismatch.  My heart goes out to everyone hurt by the mismanagement of crazy juice.  These may be some of the most preventable harms we are faced with today.