Only the Strong Survive - A flawed way to view the world? - Joe Abittan - Elliot Liebow - Tell Them Who I Am

Only the Strong Survive

In his book Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow included a short conversation about war he had with a homeless woman. The short conversation ended with the following quote from his conversation partner, “Some people believe that only the strong will survive. Can you imagine going through life believing something like that?” This line is almost a throwaway line in the book, and honestly within context the line seems relatively unnecessary and distracts from the larger point Liebow made with the larger conversation. However, I think the question is an excellent one to think about.
Our world has just wrapped up the 2020 Olympic Games, delayed one year by the COVID-19 pandemic. I watched a decent amount of track and field and caught a few commercials that reflect the general idea that most people have about the Olympics and the Athletes competing in the games. That typical notion is not far off from the idea that only the strongest survive, a message that is a little grating at a time where the pandemic is making another surge, right when we all hoped it would begin to fade away. Nevertheless, numerous commercials encouraged us to strive toward greatness, to be our best, to be strong, to persevere, and to overcome – by purchasing a new Toyota, using an American Express card, or doing/buying whatever the commercial was advertising. With this year’s Olympics, the idea was perhaps a little muted but still present – only the strong survive.
To live with this mindset is effectively to see the world as zero-sum. It is to see the world as split between the strong and the weak, the fit and the unfit, the survivors and everyone else. It is also to be constantly weary of not being enough and fearful of no longer being strong and able to survive. This mindset works within athletics and the Olympics, where people are pushing for gold medals and world records, but it doesn’t fit with life in modern, complex, and cooperative societies. As the woman that Liebow quotes seems to suggest, this mindset can be counterproductive and unhealthy in the real world.
A zero sum mindset means that you have to get all that you can, because if anyone else takes more than you, you are directly harmed. The strength of others is constantly a threat to you – potentially a mortal threat – since you can only guarantee your survival by being the strongest. This mindset also seems to dismiss the poor, the weak, and the disabled. It excuses a lack of concern for them, because our concern must be on making ourselves as fit as can be, and those who are weak are hopeless and helpless. Only one can win gold. The medal can’t be split among all, and trying to help those who you compete against means that you sacrifice your own strength and won’t end up winning in the end. An athlete who stops to check on a fallen competitor doesn’t get the gold, doesn’t get the world record, and doesn’t get the glory.
If instead we chose to believe in human rights, community, and the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats, then we have to abandon the idea that only the strong survive. We have to come together as a society and help each other all survive and pursue happiness in our own ways that allow us to work together. We have to create systems and structures that are positive sum, so that we increase the size of the pie, rather than compete for smaller and smaller slices as the strong take the most for themselves. To live in modern society we have to find ways to engage the disabled, to empower those who have been left behind, and to cooperate and coordinate together to make life better for all of us. In the end it is a less stressful and less threatening way to live, even if it means we will miss our individual glory of standing atop the podium, the strongest survivor of them all.
Humans to Rocket Scientists

Humans to Rocket Scientists

Mary Roach opens her book Packing for Mars with the following:
“To the rocket scientists, you are a problem. You are the most irritating piece of machinery he or she will ever have to deal with. You and your fluctuating metabolism, your puny memory, your frame that comes in a million different configurations. You are unpredictable. You’re inconstant. You take weeks to fix.”
Packing for Mars is all about the science of space that doesn’t get talked about. The news covers rocket launches, successful missions, journey’s to asteroids, and space vehicles on other planets or beyond the solar system entirely. Popular culture celebrates astronauts, sometimes asks about the food they eat, but rarely addresses the end products of that food. Roach dives into the particulars, asking the difficult and sometimes gross questions that someone has had to ask in order for human beings to become a spacefaring civilization. As the quote above shows, the most difficult aspect of this journey into space, at least for the engineers, has been figuring out how the challenges of navigating space when you take people along for the journey.
Humans, and living creatures in general, are amazing. We are incredibly adaptable to almost any situation we find ourselves within. Space is no different. We can live in a tiny hunk of metal floating without the effects of gravity thanks to our incredible adaptability skills. However, that adaptation and the effects of our environment on our living bodies has created incredible challenges for engineers who need to keep people (and mice and plants) alive. Throughout the book Roach shows not just how adaptable humans are, but how challenging it is to keep a living being alive in a reasonable way in space, and all the miraculous, and sometimes gross, innovations that have been developed along the way.

Competitive Altruism

In The Elephant in the Brain, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler write about the Arabian babbler, a bird that lives in hierarchical social groups. The small birds are easy prey when isolated on their own, but as a social group they can live in bushes where they are able to take turns on guard duty, protect each other, and forage for food within a given territory. What is interesting about the birds, in the context of Simler and Hanson’s work, is that male birds compete for the opportunity to be altruistic within the group.

 

The dominant male birds will compete to be the top lookout bird, forgoing their own food for the chance to protect the group. They will feed other birds before themselves (sometimes forcefully) and fight to be the toughest group protector. The birds are not just socially altruistic, they are competitively and forcefully altruistic. Hanson and Simler write, “Similar jockeying takes place for the “privilege” of performing other altruistic behaviors,” to highlight the birds competitive nature.

 

The authors place this type of behavior within the context of evolution. The more dominant males show their physical prowess and mental acuity by their altruism rather than just by fighting and pecking lower males to death. Nevertheless, their altruism is equally about setting themselves up to pass on their genes as it is about protecting the group and doing what is best for everyone else. This type of behavior is relatively easy to connect back to humans. We pose everything we do as being good for the whole, but often we take actions to better our chances of impressing a mate or to pad our LinkedIn profile.

 

We even go out of our way to compete to be altruistic at times. In small groups where we want to impress someone to further our career, we will compete to take on the most challenging jobs, to write the best report, or to do the least glamorous job so that we can be praised for doing the dirty but necessary work. Our altruism is not always about altruism, sometimes it is much more selfish than we want to let on. As Hanson and Simler close the anecdote about the birds, “babblers compete to help others in a way that ultimately increases their own chances of survival and reproduction. What looks like altruism is actually, at a deeper level, competitive self-interest.”

Sharing Knowledge

The informational age that we live in today is interesting. We feel (at least I feel) a great urge to share the knowledge we gain from reading, interacting with smart people, and by simply being present in the world. Personally, I have also almost always felt that I was supposed to have some type of an opinion about any given topic. The world, it seemed, always wanted me to say one thing or another and have thoughts about one thing, even if I didn’t know much about it.

 

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca briefly touches on this same point. He often started many of his letters in a build-up to the advice that he was passing along. One of those sections opening one of his letters read, “Nothing will ever please me, no matter how excellent or beneficial, if I must retain the knowledge of it to myself. And if wisdom were given me under the express condition that it must be kept hidden and not uttered, I should refuse it. No good thing is pleasant to possess, without friends to share it.”

 

Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler, in their book The Elephant in the Brain, explain why Seneca felt this way 2,000 years ago and why I feel this way today. They explain that communication is not really about sharing valuable information. If it was, we would only want to share our valuable information if someone else shared their valuable information first. In a sense, our society would be kick-ass at listening, and Ted Talks probably wouldn’t be a thing. What is really happening in our social worlds is that we evolved to show off. We want to show people how much useful information we have, what unique insights our experiences have given us about the world, and what new knowledge we have. Possessing new, unique, and helpful information 50,000 years ago meant that we could help ourselves and others survive. Sharing that information freely showed an abundance of knowledge and resources on our part, and made us a useful ally which helped us thrive in social groups.

 

We probably should not turn against this urge to share useful knowledge. Books, insightful anecdotes, and Ted Talks seem to have worked out pretty good for humans in terms of sharing and passing along useful information. We should recognize, however, that often the desire to share our knowledge is not as altruistic as Seneca might have you think. Our urge is a bit self-serving, so before we post on Facebook about how obviously correct our political views are relative to others, we should recognize the evolutionary forces driving us to have an opinion and encouraging us to blast those ideas out into the world in an attempt to show off. Ultimately, if you are going to share your thoughts, try to spend some time developing them so that they provide real value to the person who may encounter them.

How Close Together Success and Failure Can Be

Ta-Nihisi Coats, author of Between the World and Me, reflects on his childhood and how close he was at many points in his life to stumbling down the wrong path. Coats grew up in a rough part of Baltimore and had to make daily decisions that could push his life in the wrong direction or help him stay afloat. As a young black man Coats remembers the challenge of making these daily decisions and describes how these decisions physically manifested in his life. Making the right decision was not always clear, and making the wrong decision (or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time) often resulted in physical harm. The challenge for Coats was that the right and wrong decisions were never clear. Many times the wrong decision led to physical harm and pain, but oftentimes, so did the right decision.

“What was hiding behind the smoke screen of streets and schools?” Coats asked. “And what did it mean that number 2 pencils, conjugations without context, pythagorean theorems, handshakes, and head nods were the difference between life and death, were the curtains drawing down between the world and me?”

Coats described the importance of being tough and understanding how to navigate the streets where he grew up. Even well intentioned children could unintentionally cross the wrong child or the wrong person on the street corner, and even worse, if their parents had issues with dangerous people in the neighborhood, then so did the children. Not shaking hands the right way with the right people and not being able to give the right head nod to the right guys could place ones life at risk, no matter how well one did in school. With such an imminent threat of danger in the streets, the world of number 2 pencils, abstract education principles, and distant payoffs from education were too hazy to be taken seriously. Survival became the main goal, and survival required a set of skills that did not align with the world of education created by the people outside the ghettos.

All of this created a world where Coats and his friends constantly had to walk a fine line between success and failure. The inability to focus in class and build the mental skill set needed to find a good job later in life put their futures in risk, but at the same time, the inability to understand the streets and protect oneself put ones current life at risk. Few could ever navigate this world by shutting out the negative of the social world around them to excel in school, but all were expected to do so, and many would go on to be criticized for not successfully navigating such treacherous terrain from elementary through high school. A wrong step, a few bad grades, an unintentional insult to the wrong person, and success (or even life) could be taken away from Coats and the children he grew up with.