Wired for Goodness

The notion that genes play a strong role in our fates is not a popular one. Such a worldview risks seeming fatalistic, and has been an inspiration for any number of racist or otherwise unsavory views. Perhaps, however, it is none of those things, and Nicholas Christakis’s Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society makes just this case. Over the course of 400 pages, Christakis takes his readers on a thoroughly entertaining tour through a wide range of data sets, from the natural experiments that emerge from utopian communes and survivors of shipwrecks on deserted islands to the interactions of elephants and monkeys and any number of other species that exhibit social behavior. His book is an accessible yet scholarly tour de force, clearly a labor of love built over many years. It is also a deliberate effort to rescue an understanding of who humans are from a view that everything about us is a socially construct.

Christakis works hard to show that not only are we a complicated mix of nature and nurture, but that this is no cause for concern. Humans have a defined social suite, a blueprint, that establishes our parameters of social interaction, and the handful of cultures around the world that escape it are shaped by extreme conditions, the exceptions that prove the rule. Moreover, the most defining trait of this human social suite is its flexibility. While there is some human adaptation to different environments, humans instead are genetically equipped to work collectively and innovate to find the resources they need to thrive everywhere from dense rainforests to the Arctic, from a nomadic lifestyle to apartment living in a metropolis. We have evolved to be social, evolved to be flexible, and evolved in ways that allow us to build cultures that reward cooperation in spite of the self-interested impulses that could tear it all apart. Something like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the theory that humans first need to find basic necessities like food and shelter before they worry about something like self-actualization, gets it all backwards. The need for self-actualization is wired into human DNA, more a reason for our ability to meet those basic needs than it is an outgrowth of them.

Christakis’s work leads to an endorsement of the dual-inheritance theory: culture can affect genes, and only species with the genes for culture (those whose generations overlap and who live in groups) can develop this feedback loop. Cultures evolve, drift, and go through processes not unlike natural selection as they rise and fall. This is why human societies have drifted toward monogamy (which draws down male testosterone and makes us dudes more content to settle instead of endlessly rutting about) as they become more sedentary and grow. It explains why people develop friendships and cultivate them over time. It may even be why the gods of large urban societies tend to hand down rules for a social order while the gods of hunter-gatherers are much more capricious and participate directly in the natural world. Blueprint doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but it offers tools to move toward them.

Christakis knows his optimism about evolutionary sociology is a controversial take. He leaves no doubt that people can and have abused certain notions of scientific understanding of human nature for racist or eugenicist ends. He argues, however, that their crimes are no less heinous, and on the balance perhaps less damaging, than the ravages of the Stalins and Maos and any number of other less catastrophic but still toxic individuals who believed humans were strictly the product of cultural circumstances and thought they could wipe away the cultures they didn’t like. Perhaps more ambitiously, he has some faith that the social suite is so tightly interconnected with our understanding of what life should be that we’ll be able to check the worst excesses and impulses to use AI or genetic modification in what most humans would consider natural ways. He makes a case for clear-eyed understanding of what genes can and cannot do as a saner path forward than blanket fears of acknowledging advances in understanding may bring about. On this, we can probably agree; the open question is whether the natural human instinct to resist more extreme forms of genetic engineering can act quickly enough to stop a few people with the power to do great damage.

We have evolved to be good, and slowly, surely, continue to do so. Christakis’s work has parallels to the question of theodicy, of how an all-powerful God can let bad things happen in the world; he introduces the parallel concept of sociodicy, which turns this conundrum on its head asks how we manage to more or less live together well despite having such supposedly self-interested, base desires. A whirlwind tour of political philosophy in the final chapter jives well with my own Answer to Everything, as it points to the shortcomings of beliefs that humans are irredeemably broken and also rejects easy cultural fixes to all our problems. It gives new ammunition to those of us who’d like to believe we can build a society we like; our sense that, for all the claim of ruin, we still have right around us the foundational tools for something resembling goodness.

This worldview fits well with an Aristotelian notion that we can slowly, haltingly, observe the world around us and understand it better, and come to a sense of who we are and what we can become if we align lives toward a broader goal, some sense of what it means to live a life of human flourishing. It fits the John Wesley Powell mindset of a science that discovers hope in its ability to offer ways forward through its slow experimentation and refinement of past theories. It also makes me think of Hannah Arendt, who rejected the title of “philosopher” in favor of “social theorist” because she recognized that an understanding of what humans are is useless without considering how they interact with one another. Science, Arendt argues in The Human Condition, has alienated humans from the world, but perhaps, in the end, it can help to show the way back.

A Climb Up from Mud

On a weekend in late May, my pent-up wanderlust finally gets an outlet. My plan: a twenty-plus mile jaunt over two days on the Superior Hiking Trail on Lake Superior’s North Shore, a bit tame by my standards, but a trek that will give the muscles some healthy soreness nonetheless. I’ll begin at Bally Creek Road and work my way southwest to the Caribou Trail, with four miles along the Cascade River as the central attraction. This stretch will take me 1,000 feet down from a ridge to near the mouth of the river into Lake Superior and then 1,000 feet back up again to White Sky Rock’s perch over Caribou Lake. After a long and tedious spring, northern Minnesota is my playground once again.

The opening miles of the hike follow a ridgetop that gazes down on a valley containing Sundling Creek. Large stands of red pines dot the route, and in the distance, I enjoy occasional vistas of Eagle Mountain, Minnesota’s highest point, and its shorter but more imposing neighbor, the creatively named Unnamed Hill. Spring is still in its infancy here in Cook County, the tentative green sprouts probing upward several weeks behind their appearance in Duluth. Trees are budding here and there, but only in warm hollows and on southern exposures can we say they have anything resembling leaves. I can hear the Cascade River long before I can see it, and a convenient cut in the trees lets me see across its full valley. The trail descends but remains on a ridgetop high above the river for the first mile of its shared journey down toward Lake Superior.

The trail crosses the river on a bridge shared with Cook County 45, a reminder that some seek out the wilderness for darker reasons. Keep going west a short distance and I’ll find the plot of land now owned by Seth Jeffs, a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), a breakaway polygamist sect long excommunicated by the official LDS church. Sparsely populated Cook County, normally known for strict building standards (at least in Grand Marais), recently granted Mr. Jeffs a permit to build a 6,000 square foot “pole building/apartment” on his property. Still, he probably could have chosen a quieter patch of northern Minnesota for his new compound: as a resort haven and home to many well-off retirees, Cook County is about as educated and unfriendly to a religious sect as a rural American county can be, and its denizens are already rabble-rousing in response. Whether a polygamist on the run from the law or just a kid looking to push his body and find some peace, these wilds accommodate our lonely pursuits.

I stop for lunch a few paces down on to the trail on a needle-covered cliff with a view of a powerful waterfall down on the river below. On the east side of the river, a few hikers down at the bottom of the falls seem to be gazing up at me, and it takes a moment to register that their focus is not on a hiker snarfing dried apple slices but instead the large chunk of ice wedged in a gully to my right. It looms like some natural rock arch out west, a gateway for a small stream that plunges a few hundred feet down to the Cascade. The next stretch of trail keeps the river gorge at some distance, its muddy stretches made more pleasant by the starflower meadows carpeting the hillsides. I scurry around a number of small tributaries on their way down to the Cascade, some mere trickles, some powerful streams that leave deep, steep gashes to burn up hikers’ glutes as they traverse them. In time the trail turns down into a tunnel of pines and dives down to the side of the river, which rips along at its spring peak. The Cascade may carry the most water of any river on Minnesota’s North Shore, and the rapids that furnish the river with its name keep the scenery lively. This is vintage SHT.

Foot traffic picks up as I approach the 96 Steps, a wooden staircase that takes me back up away from the river and releases me on to a few state park trails. After a stop for water at Cascade Creek, I begin my push up Lookout Mountain, which provides Cascade River State Park’s finest vista. Recent blowdowns render the hillside relatively sparse, but this cloudy day makes for easy climbing, unless I’m stuck behind a plodding family of four that shows no interest in letting a fast-moving hiker past. There’s a crowd at the top, so I snap my obligatory picture and carry on, and don’t see another soul until another party arrives in my campsite at Indian Camp Creek.

This first company won’t be the last. No fewer than 12 of my new best friends will populate the Indian Camp Creek site tonight, a crowd made mercifully more bearable by the site’s many tent pads and two separate fire rings. The SHT is nothing like the little-known ribbon of trail that my dad and I explored in my childhood, when we’d always have sites to ourselves. Tonight, I couldn’t have solitude even if I wanted it. I label the creekside fire ring Bachelor Flats, as I share it with two other solo male travelers: Matt from Plymouth, and a younger guy in camo who disappears into his tent after setting it up around 4:00 without so much as a bite to eat. He’s still in there when I leave the next morning.

Matt, thankfully, proves amiable company, and the two of us chat through our freeze-dried dinners. He’s roughly my age and a frequent adventurer, albeit a bit spacey, as he tells of how he hiked a mile in the wrong direction from his starting point at Lutsen this morning before realizing his error. We share our stories, and out here, mine suddenly seems fresh again, reassuring words for someone prone to doubt. Later, once the sun sinks beneath the ridge opposite the creek, we wander up and meet our other neighbors, whose number includes a father-son combo of volunteers here to clear downed trees from the trail, three mid-twenties couples from Rochester, and two baby-faced college-aged guys who sleep in hammocks. The father volunteer, a trail veteran who is probably double the age of anyone else in camp, says he’s never seen a site this full before.

Life on a hiking trail is a reminder of the community-minded introvert’s dilemma, as my instinct for solitude jostles with pleasure at serendipitous company. The latter now comes a little less naturally than it used to, perhaps because late 20s seems beyond the phase where people expect to find solitary male wanderers on trails. (I was probably the third- or fourth-oldest person out of the 13 at Indian Camp Creek that Saturday night.) We should be out of that self-discovery phase now and settling into lives, it seems. In many ways I am on a less muddy path now—though I’m a good enough navigator that I could still bushwhack a creative new route if I wanted—but some mud remains.

Leeriness of committing to a path is fairly common in my circles, which are hardly a representative cross-section of society. Having a path complicates things, a turn-off for those who came to believe, rightly or wrongly, they can do anything they put their mind to. With commitment comes the realization that not everyone is drawn to a high-speed push down the same wilderness trails. I have fairly firm ideas on what a good life entails, and these commitments can seem rigid, so overwrought that they can undermine themselves. Us somewhat neurotic chasers have conditioned ourselves to keep on hustling, don’t always know when to stop to admire the view, to acquiesce or submit, to say this is who I am and what I shall be, and this is what I need to concede to make that reality. This is the trail’s gift to me.

I’ve been reading about evolutionary biology lately. It gives me a new dose of respect for these woods around me as it grows and dies and flows through all stages of life around me. But even more than that, it’s given me a new appreciation of human history, our ability to adapt and live in these little communities of other people, work out where we set up all our separate tents and sit around the same fire, not in a re-creation of some early hunter-gatherer simplicity that we’ve lost but instead an instinct that our species has preserved and still draws on to cultivate some sense within us, even as the world around us changes at breakneck pace. It manifests itself differently now, and comes along with the wonders of bear vaults and freeze-dried food. But no matter how much we rebel against biology, it pushes back in powerful ways, and sometimes, when we let it do that, we’re so much the happier.

The night is chilly and sleep comes slowly, and at dawn I look up and am greeted by the sight of a tick on the outside of my tent. Yes, spring is here. The volunteers are the only other ones up as I set about making tea and eating a bagel, though everyone save the mystery man in the tent next to mine has roused to life by the time I’m ready to move again. I go to bid Matt a farewell, and he laments that his phone is dead, that he won’t be able to listen to music as he hikes today. No loss, I think: we do this to hear a different soundtrack, to let the thoughts come freely, as they do when I put pen to paper several times on this trip. After a little warm-up commentary on the quotidian, my thoughts pour out, pen barely able to keep up as everything else fades away save the immediacy of the world around me.

I cross Indian Camp Creek and start my second day with a vigorous push up a ridge. I catch the volunteers at an overlook and revel in a view back across the Cascade Valley and as far as Artists’ Point in Grand Marais, the visibility excellent on this sun-splashed, beautiful spring morning. I push on, and see the trail-clearers will have their work cut out for them. Last fall’s blowdown has left a trail littered with fallen trees, leading to a number of brief detours, backpack-hampered limbos, and climbs over logs, often assisted by natural stiles formed by branches or other fallen trees. This next stretch follows another ridge, though to my mild surprise most of the views are inland instead of down toward Lake Superior. The SHT joins a snowmobile trail for a few steep hills, and eventually takes another plunge down to Spruce Creek, a delightful stream surging through a ravine. There are no signs that anyone camped at this site last night. The creek’s bridge has been dislodged by spring storms and carried a few feet downstream on one side, though it remains useable, and I find a small patch of snow tucked beneath the pilings on the far end.

I push back up the ridge again, slope gently downward through another starflower meadow, and encounter the first party of the day going in the other direction around the halfway point of the day’s hike. Soon, puddles of mud replace downed trees as my primary obstacle, a hazard at its worst in the lowlands around Jonvick Creek, which forces the trail on to a long series of raised planks as it circumnavigates a beaver pond. One of the dam’s intrepid architects swims about, and a turtle plunks off a log into the water as I approach; the pond’s resident frogs kick off a concerto as I pass. Despite the wildlife I’d have no desire to use the swampy campsite beyond the pond, though it is occupied, and beyond it I encounter a steady stream of day-trippers both as I summit a steep ridge overlooking Caribou Lake and as I labor on toward Lake Agnes. One of my first ever backpacking excursions included a night on Agnes, which, predictably, looks smaller now, though still serene in its repose, a scene more out of the Boundary Waters than the SHT.

I enter the home stretch with a turn up a choppy spur trail, and at one point, in a cool forest of cedars, spend half a minute deciding which adventurous route I’ll take down a rocky slope before I realize the log next to me has a staircase carved into it. I power up one last steep slope to White Sky Rock, an overlook with an excellent view of Caribou Lake, arriving for lunch just as one party leaves and wrapping up some notes just as another arrives. I descend to the parking lot, drive south to my customary reward beer at Castle Danger, and head home, tired and refreshed at once. Mission accomplished, the clear road becoming somewhat clearer by the day.