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Norwich author examines the traits common to good societies

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    Yale professor Nicholas Christakis, of Norwich, is the author of the book "Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society." He was photographed at home in Norwich, Vt., Wednesday, May 29, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

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    Yale professor Nicholas Christakis, of Norwich, is the author of the book "Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society." He was photographed at home in Norwich, Vt., Wednesday, May 29, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

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    Yale professor Nicholas Christakis, of Norwich, is the author of the book "Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society." He was photographed at home in Norwich, Vt., Wednesday, May 29, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/30/2019 10:00:35 PM
Modified: 5/30/2019 10:00:28 PM

Halfway through a telephone interview on Tuesday, Nicholas Christakis interrupted himself to share, via text message, a picture of the hand-drawn labels he makes for his maple syrup.

In seven years of living in Norwich, the Yale professor and eminent social scientist has embraced pastoral Vermont life, right down to his backyard sugaring hobby.

But Christakis stops short of ascribing any special value to small-town culture. Map out the social networks of Norwich residents, and the sketch will look strikingly similar to the social networks of tribal communities in Uganda, college students in Germany or senior citizens in Florida.

“My interest is not on our differences but in our commonalities,” he said.

Christakis’ new book, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, examines those commonalities as keys to peaceful and productive civilizations. Tying together research spanning centuries, cultures and species — much of it from Christakis’ own work in Yale University’s Human Nature Lab — the book asserts that our human genes contain the distinct traits needed to build strong societies.

“For too long, science has neglected the ways in which we’ve adapted to be good. ... There’s so much emphasis on our propensity to violence,” said Christakis, who will talk about his book at the Norwich Bookstore at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, June 12. “But equally, evolution has shaped us for love and cooperation and teaching.”

In the mold of such bestsellers as Guns, Germs and Steel, Christakis’ Blueprint balances data and scientific analysis with tales of adventure, dashes of humor and rich insights on the human condition. It charts the features of shipwrecked societies and communes, demonstrates how animal social networks inform our understanding of human societies and examines the many ways humans form attachments.

At the root of Christakis’ thesis is what he a calls a social suite: a set of distinct, cultural traits such as love for partners and offspring, cooperation, mild hierarchy and social learning and teaching that provide the glue for human societies.

“These features arise from within individuals, but they characterize groups,” Christakis writes in Blueprint. “The capacity to band together to make societies is indeed a biological feature of our species, just like our ability to walk upright.”

Christakis’ claims aren’t without controversy, which he acknowledges in the book. The notion that humans are primarily products of their genes can rankle religious conservatives and evolutionary biologists alike.

But Christakis insists that evidence increasingly points toward defining patterns of behavior across cultures and time periods — and that this evidence should hearten those interested in improving society.

“I think the book shows how we can bridge some of our divides. We can understand the ways in which all people are the same,” he said.

Christakis, 57, is no stranger to the sorts of divisions on which social science tends to fixate.

Born to Greek immigrants, he witnessed the fall of dictatorial rule and subsequent anti-American demonstrations while spending the summer in Greece in 1974, one of many such experiences that shaped his views of humanity.

“People in crowds often act in thoughtless ways. ... They can form a mob, cease to think for themselves, lose their moral compass, and adopt a classic us-versus-them stance that brooks no shared understanding,” Christakis writes in the preface to Blueprint.

In 2015, Christakis became embroiled in a more personal altercation between opposing ideologies, after his wife and fellow Yale professor, Erika Christakis, sent out an email defending students’ rights to wear potentially offensive Halloween costumes. Christakis defended his wife’s views, and a video of him confronting student protesters went viral, putting him at the center of the ongoing debate between defenders of free speech and proponents of racial and cultural sensitivity.

Christakis, who was awarded a prestigious Sterling Professorship by the university last year, believes the incident illustrates the more troubling side of social behavior.

“I think there are ways in which over-identification with one’s group can lead people astray. You lose sight of our common humanity ... if you become so convinced that ‘us versus them’ is the way to see the world,” he said. “I don’t think that’s constructive in universities. I don’t think it’s constructive in small towns, and I don’t this it’s constructive in our society.”

But Christakis’ work has also illuminated a more hopeful side of humanity. His experiences as a hospice physician in Boston and Chicago, while teaching and conducting research at Harvard University and the University of Chicago, planted the first seeds for his new book.

“Death and grief unite us like nothing else,” he writes in his preface. “The desire for social connection and interpersonal understanding is so deep that it is with each of us until the end. ... My vision of us as human beings lies at the center of this book and holds that people are, and should be, united by our common humanity.”

His message comes at a curious time. Christakis began writing Blueprint 10 years ago but had to postpone it for a variety of reasons. That its completion and publication have coincided with some of the most divisive events in recent American history makes it all the more relevant, he said.

A self-confessed optimist, Christakis believes his research supplies the substance to support a worldview often dismissed as naive. “What accounts for our species’ general success in living together in the face of all of our defects and differences?” he writes. “... It’s a recognition of the fundamental good that lies within us.”

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.




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