QUESTION: Why are primitive people so peaceful and "civilized" people so warlike?
ANSWER: For the past 10 years we were worried about things like colorized movies, censorship, junk bonds, the Dow, those stupid potato chips that come in a tube, and . . . a personal observation . . . the fact that adult pajamas don't cover your feet the way little kids' jammies do.Now we're worried about germ warfare. We want to know: When will humankind evolve beyond war? How long will this folly last? And when Bob Dylan said the answer was blowin' in the wind, wasn't that kind of, you know, evasive?
Let's talk human nature. The very phrase is controversial: Until just recently, the orthodoxy among academics was that we are products of our culture, not our genes. Supposedly our bad war habits are not a function of innate belligerence and aggression but rather a learned disorder, a bad habit, like using the tablecloth for a bib at fancy restaurants. Bad habits can be broken. Perhaps our psychopathology was caused by patriarchy, or monopoly capitalism, or religious repression, or some other structure that in the future would be wiped out. (Tenure-for-life presumably would be retained.)
Underlying this orthodoxy is a kind of utopianism that sees human beings as inherently wonderful, merely corrupted by an evil civilization. This ideology has given us the concept of the Noble Savage and has been promoted by such great thinkers as Rousseau . . . you know how intellectual the French are . . . and, more credibly, by anthropologists working in the field. (Admit it: You just envisioned some people in safari suits standing in an open space with tall weeds.)
Margaret Mead's classic work "Coming of Age in Samoa," published in 1928, argued that the Samoans were not aggressive or competitive, that sexual freedom was widespread and adolescence a joyous time rather than a painful one. The anthropologist Ashley Montagu . . . along with Mead one of the giants in the biz . . . said that the !Kung people of southern Africa didn't punish their children. "No human being has ever been born with aggressive or hostile impulses," he said.
This is baloney. As Melvin Konner reports in his book "Why the Reckless Survive" (we'll say it again: "Why" is the hot word of the '90s), subsequent studies of the Samoans and the !Kung people reveal that they are not much different from people everywhere. Rape is a closely guarded secret and is typically committed by adolescent males, just as in other societies. Homicide also occurs, and in fact the murder rate among the !Kung was higher than that in the United States. The reason the earlier researchers didn't realize this is that these are small populations: Among 1,500 !Kung there had been 22 killings over five decades, about one every two years, but this still translates into a higher homicide rate than New York City. "Innumeracy," the inability to understand numbers, strikes again.
Konner concludes that anthropology is a kind of "philosophy with data" and can't escape being biased toward an idyllic view of how people ought to live. "So it is not surprising that it has also not escaped one of the major Western philosophic errors . . . the myth of Eden and the fall from grace," he writes.
So the good news is this: We're not degenerating into savagery. We've always been that way.
QUESTION: Why are no two snowflakes alike?
ANSWER: Presumptuous, presumptuous. Adages should not be created until they've been checked out thoroughly. This one fails that test. Indeed, the magazine Discover reported in its Feb. 1989 issue that a cloud physicist, Nancy Knight, found two identical ice crystals on a plate glass attached to an airplane that was doing some kind of meteorological work.
We've seen the photos. (The previous sentence should be read in the same tone that investigative columnist Jack Anderson uses on TV when he says, "I've seen the documents.") The two crystals look identical to us: They're rectangular, with ribbed conical structures inside. But perhaps a closer look would reveal differences. Some might argue that this is a case where the exception proves the rule. We would answer that "the exception proves the rule" is an adage that has never, not even for a fleeting moment made sense.
As for why snowflakes vary so much, it's because they are created on the go. What we have here is a little bit of water vapor that freezes and falls toward the earth. Every little fluctuation in humidity and temperature causes the snowflake to grow in a different way . . . one moment it has little branching structures, then it forms needle-like appendages, then some flat surface, and so on. For two snowflakes to be alike, they would have to form in precisely the same spot and fall to the earth side-by-side, never colliding with each other or anything else. Which brings up the point that the identical snowflakes were found on an airplane . . . a premature grab. That's cheating.
QUESTION: Why do women wear high heels?
ANSWER: Because the sidewalk is so gross. At least that used to be the reason that both men and women wore clogs. In the Dark Ages people didn't curb their dogs, and in fact they dumped their own waste right there in the street. And it was so dark that no one could see where they were stepping! So high heels had a practical and psychological advantage.
Then you come to Louis XIV, the Sun King, who was the master of all he surveyed, but unfortunately he was rather squat, which limited his surveying powers. So he wore high heels. Then everyone else in the royal circle adopted the fashion. So Louis had to jack himself up another notch. Soon he was like the stilt man at the carnival.
Eventually the men came down to Earth but the women retained the fashion, possibly because, once they were permitted to wear shorter dresses, it made their legs look longer and caused their calf muscles to tense up, attributes that men find attractive for reasons that suddenly beg for a future Why column explication.