Homo Puppy

I sat in the dentist’s chair, surrounded by all sorts of anti-COVID devices—it felt like the high-security Ebola ward in some dystopian movie.

Dentists are at high risk of contracting coronavirus, or any contagious respiratory disease, for that matter; any operation involves multiple water droplets, just the kind of environment these little viral fuckers enjoy—the invisible enemy, as the orang-u-tan calls them—obviously never heard of the electron microscope.

By the way, if you want to take the Montreal Cognitive Test and see if you’re as smart as the US president (you may even qualify as a stable genius, otherwise known as a clever horse), go ahead—the test was developed to flag early dementia, and is abbreviated to MOCA.

In Portuguese, moca is a slang word for penis—actually for a rather large protuberance, which in English would probably qualify as a whanger—as opposed to a wiener, which does suggest a baby sausage. You can take a dick test in Portuguese also—and, to my delight, they also call it MOCA on the sheet—but it may not mean the same in Brazilian Portuguese.

But I digress—I was telling you I never thought cleaning your teeth could be hazardous to your health. When you sit with your mouth open in jaw-numbing pain while an army of steel and plastic rampages inside it, you’re an easy target for one-way chitchat (so should that just be chit?)—it must be like having a Finnish husband—not a lot of conversation.

A Finn picks up an English colleague at Helsinki airport, loads the bags into the Volvo, and drives three hours in pitch black to a remote log cabin—all in total silence, not a word exchanged. On the table is a bottle of vodka, which the Finn uncorks, and two tall glasses, which he fills to the brim. The cork goes into the roaring fire in the corner—the Englishman sighs—it’s going to be a long night.

With true British forbearance, he takes a deep breath and raises his glass. “Cheers!”

The Finn raises an eyebrow. “Are we here to talk or are we here to drink?”

Despite this, Finns are apparently the happiest people in the world—maybe they just don’t tell you they’re miserable, because they never talk—apparently you can now rent a Finn to cheer you up—you’ll find this particularly enjoyable if you like a bit of peace and quiet.

My dentist recommended a book on solidarity, and since kindness is a word we seldom hear these days, I uttered a choking sound of agreement. The general argument is that humans are successful because of their social skills, interactions, and friendliness, rather than the usual narrative of aggression and competitive advantage.

The truth is, it’s both. There are anectodal accounts of soldiers refusing to fire their weapons, ranging from the American Civil War to World War II, and many other examples of social actions, including the Danish push to save their Jews from the Nazis.

There’s also a lot of cruelty—we see this everyday, from the Syrian deserts to the reported ethnic massacres in China.

The huge wealth disparity in society has prompted many studies on poverty, its causes, its consequences, and its remedies.

The author of Humankind presents an interesting take on the subject, at a time of ever increasing gaps.

To put this into historical perspective, consider the following: prior to the renaissance, Western Europe was divided into rich (nobles and high clergy) and poor (laborers and low clergy)—it’s true that there were three estates, but in financial terms they reduced to two.

Political pressure gave an emerging middle class a seat at the table, and through the centuries the seats multiplied, until that class (the commons) played an increasingly important role in governing nations—’professional’ classes such as lawyers, accountants, and doctors garnered increasing respect, and that translated into power.

Now we’re going back to medieval times—through a combination of financial asymmetry, artificial intelligence, and globalization, that middle class is rapidly disappearing—the hourglass effect.

But instead of re-balancing society, we’re providing compensation at the extremes. That makes an analysis of human kindness and friendliness, as a weapon to improve society, a very pleasant prospect.

One of the neatest experiments on the selection of a social gene deals with domestication—in the 1950s, Soviet scientists performed trials to turn the silver fox into a household pet.

The animals are bred for pelts in Siberia, and must be approached with extreme care—like other species of fox, they are cunning and aggressive.

Selecting for social traits—in essence friendliness—was all it took to turn a highly aggressive species into a gentle, tail-wagging creature.

The transition from Neandarthal to Homo puppy follows a similar path—our social nature has brought us to all the good places we know today.

Humans have never been healthier, wealthier, or safer, despite all the challenges discussed—yet every time we turn on the news or flick through Twitter, the emphasis is on all the awful things—as a consequence, most of us are brainwashed to believe we are going through the worst times yet.

The solution? Easy. Provided by populists everywhere. Instant happiness!

The Chinese have a proverb for that one too.

Be careful what you wish for, it may come true.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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