Reason Podcast

The Yale Professor Attacked by Angry Students Over Halloween Costumes Believes Evolution Wants Us To Get Along

In Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, Nicholas Christakis says our common humanity outweighs divisive tribalism.

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In 2015, an angry confrontation at Yale over how to dress up on Halloween caused a national sensation. Protesting students called for the university to fire Nicholas Christakis, a sociologist and physician, because they felt he and his wife, also teaching at Yale at the time, did not protect them from possible psychic injury.

The conflict started a week earlier, when the school's Intercultural Affairs Council sent an email encouraging members of the community to be careful not to offend their fellow students with culturally and racially insensitive costumes. Christakis' wife, Erika—an expert in early childhood education—responded with her own thoughts. "Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious…a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive," she wrote. From her perspective, American universities had "become places of censure and prohibition."

Students said that by sending her email, Erica Christakis had failed to create a safe space at Yale's Sillman College, where she served as associate master. Nicholas Christakis jumped into the fray, defending his wife's email, and he tried to engage in a dialogue with protestors in a courtyard. Scenes of students shouting at Nicholas and calling for his firing went viral.

Christakis not only held on to his tenured professorship, but three years later he was awarded the Sterling Professorship, Yale's highest faculty honor. And his confrontation with students kicked off an ongoing national debate about freedom of speech, political correctness, and sensitivity on college campuses.

As a sociologist, the 56-year-old Christakis is no stranger to highly charged group interactions. His new book is Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, which argues that our genetic makeup predisposes us to favor peaceful interaction and respectful co-existence over angry and violent mob rules.

Nick Gillespie sat down with Christakis to talk about his theory that what unites as humans is stronger than what divides us, the power of evolution as an explanatory system for society, and whether Enlightenment values such as civil discourse and intellectual freedom are still respected in our nation's colleges and universities.

Edited by Ian Keyser. Intro by Todd Krainin. Cameras by Jim Epstein and Kevin Alexander.

Music credit: 'Voyeur' by Jingle Punks

Photos by Ragesoss and Sibjeet, under a creative commons license.

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  1. It’s certainly a relief that “our common humanity outweighs divisive tribalism”. Otherwise, humans would probably have been warring with each other for thousands of years.

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  2. “Students said that by sending her email, Erica Christakis had failed to create a safe space at Yale’s Sillman College, where she served as associate master.”

    I’m sure whatever snowflake made that comment thought her failure to ‘create a safe space’ was problematic. IMO, it is worthy of applause.

    1. Living within a protective bubble is no way to go through life for a healthy person.

      1. But enough about FOX News junkies.

        1. “But enough about FOX News junkies.”

          This shitbag is forever whining about FOX News, but seems to be the only one who watches it. TDS has strange symptoms.

          1. Rightwingers, like you, objectively live in more of an information bubble than normal people. It’s why you believe all the stupid shit you believe, such as that Donald fucking Trump is a good president.

            1. Tony|4.5.19 @ 7:38PM|#
              “Rightwingers, like you, objectively live in more of an information bubble than normal people…”

              Shitbag here, tries to claim those who are smothered under a daily flood of lefty lies (‘she didn’t sell political access!’, ‘the Russkis stole the election!’ etc) are the ones ‘living in a bubble’ since we tend to look for alternative.
              I really do hope TDS is fatal in this case; the world will be instantly more intelligent and better.

            2. Rightwingers, like you, objectively live in more of an information bubble than normal people.

              The fact that you refer to crazed conspiracy theorists reveling in their mass psychosis as “normal people” proves this idiotic.

        2. More projection than an AMC multiplex.

        3. Tony we all know goddamn well that you dutifully watch Tucker Carlson every day and bitterly masturbate to him.

          1. ^more likely to be true than false

        4. Tony, in all seriousness, no.

          Your very presence should indicate to you that it’s nearly impossible for someone on the right to construct a bubble solid enough to delude themselves.

          The left is everywhere.

  3. Gender Studies Professor (sic) says “White People Own Time.”

    Racist Far Leftist Claims “Time” Is “Owned By White People”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g49oHt2ayrI

    1. Speaking of Chabad …

    2. If you listen to the TED talk it’s somewhat less stupid than the title and this youtube video indicate, but only somewhat. The speaker is really just using time as another way to talk about how white people supposedly control the world and oppress others races.

    3. Reminds me of when “having a future time orientation”, i.e planning ahead, was racist. It will always be racist to expect Dem target populations to function as adults.

    4. Is she upset because every one of the Doctor’s incarnations has been white?

    5. And here I thought that Pink Floyd, the Alan Parsons Project, and Blind Melon owned Time.

  4. “…argues that our genetic makeup predisposes us to favor peaceful interaction and respectful co-existence over angry and violent mob rules.”

    Sometimes, within your own group, mostly. However I would argue that most of human history suggests that there is little instinctual basis for respecting common humanity outside of your own tribe.

    1. Well, he’s a sociologist. A biologist might explain our genetic make-up and our binocular vision, our ears and our teeth, our opposable thumbs and upright stance in terms of being an apex predator. We’re killing machines, not emotional support animals.

    2. Humans are tribal. That’s deeply ingrained in our evolution. It’s why we associate with a city sports team, even though we’ve only lived in the city for a few months. We value family and tribal ties. Ask any anthropologist.

      As to the subtitle of this article, evolution doesn’t “want” anything. It is a physical process, devoid of will. We anthropomorphize it to understand it better, but that ends up confusing some people. It’s fascinating that leftists who admire evolution at the same time denounce social Darwinism.

    3. I hope Nick called him out on that bull shit. As social psychologist Johnathan Haidt has shown us “libertarians score really low on group loyalty”.

      The Science is Settled.

      1. As social psychologist Johnathan Haidt has shown us “libertarians score really low on group loyalty.”

        Individuals don’t have to become part of a group to interact peacefully, and respectfully co-exist, with that group, or its individual members. I’m not part of the family who lives across the street, and we aren’t “loyal” to any of the same groups, but we’re still good neighbors.

      2. libertarians… group…”

        lol

    4. “Sometimes, within your own group, mostly. However I would argue that most of human history suggests that there is little instinctual basis for respecting common humanity outside of your own tribe.”

      Yes, evolution has developed BOTH violent and peaceful tendencies in humans, to be available as circumstances warrant. His point is that most public discussion focuses on the violent, but improving circumstances are favoring the peaceful. Steve Pinker says much the same.

    5. “..there is little instinctual basis for respecting common humanity outside of your own tribe.”

      Except for the common theme within humanity of peoples adopting outsiders into their own tribe, often after forcefully eliminating large numbers of that other tribe.

      If we didn’t recognize a great deal of commonality this sort of behavior would not occur, and certainly would not prove as successful as it has.

      We are pretty smart, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the problem of tribes is tribal differences, not member differences.

  5. His new book is Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, which argues that our genetic makeup predisposes us to favor peaceful interaction and respectful co-existence over angry and violent mob rules.

    Fascinating. Sounds like it scientifically proves that open borders is the only sensible immigration policy. So now we know opponents of the Koch / Reason immigration agenda are not only bigots, they’re also science deniers.

    #OpenBorders
    #NoBanNoWall
    #AbolishICE
    #ILoveScience

    1. Now that’s how you do it. Bellissimo!

    2. Like you know anything about science.

  6. which argues that our genetic makeup predisposes us to favor peaceful interaction and respectful co-existence over angry and violent mob rules.

    I think it’s nice that he’s branching off into writing fiction.

    1. My problem with these sorts of hypotheses is semantic. Describing some sort of telos and then calling it evolution just rubs me the wrong way.

      Not to say that evolution means he’s wrong, he very well could be right. More that if he is right then evolution isn’t what most people tend to think it is.

      He’s in Thomas Nagel territory IMO.

  7. If there’s space for young people to be a little obnoxious, maybe that goes for screeching safe-space warriors too. The biggest problem stemming from this ridiculous incident is its being used as fodder in the Right’s ongoing campaign to discredit the notion of being educated.

    1. “…the Right’s ongoing campaign to discredit the notion of being educated.”

      Notice how this shitbag tries to stretch laughter at a demand for ‘safe spaces’ to something having to do with education.
      Man, that TDS is virulent, here. I hope it’s fatal.

      1. You’re the only one who mentioned Trump. I agree, you should get that checked out.

        1. “You’re the only one who mentioned Trump. I agree, you should get that checked out.”

          Shitbag, here, tries to deflect attention from his raging case of TDS. He fails.

    2. Tony, I sometimes have to wonder if you’re a troll account like LC and the Rev or just parodying OBL.

      A “campaign to discredit the notion of being educated”? If you don’t know the difference between having your head stuffed with nonsense and an actual education, well, you’d fit right in at a modern American university. When kids come out of college more ignorant than when they went in, and tens of thousands of dollars in debt to boot, there’s a problem in higher ed.

      And I’d say the problem is the push for “diversity” and “inclusion” and “equality” where all voices must be given equal time and equal weight and you wind up going to college for 6 or 8 or 10 years and you can name 6 different left-handed lesbian Chicana poets but you have no idea who Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky or Hemingway are. When all you’re taught is the “marginalized voices” and the “alternative truths” you have no idea what it is they’re marginalized from and alternatives to. I dare say you walk around some of these colleges and ask the kids to name 3 facts about Thomas Jefferson and “He was a slave owner” will be the #1 answer and I’m not sure “He wrote the Declaration of Independence” would even make the top 3. It’s one thing to be taught the “warts and all” version of history, but these kids are only being taught the warts.

      1. Tony is among our most venerable of troll accounts.

      2. “It’s one thing to be taught the “warts and all” version of history, but these kids are only being taught the warts.”

        Very much this.
        Except when it comes to Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and LBJ.
        In those cases, there is a peculiar reversal

      3. If you don’t know the difference between having your head stuffed with nonsense and an actual education, well, you’d fit right in at a modern American university.

        So you just confirm what I said in your second sentence?

        I’ve been out of college for a while, but I did read Shakespeare. But then I took humanities courses, unlike many an engineering or computer geek who learns nothing but how numbers work and come out with no social or cultural awareness whatsoever. They tend to become libertarians.

        1. There are two types of people inn the world: the productive and the leaches. Those who learn to become productive tend to become libertarians. Those who mistake learning to justify leaching for education tend to become Tony.

          1. All psychopathic fascists think there are two types of people in the world, one good and one evil. Just because your muse is Ayn Rand doesn’t make it any less totalitarian.

            1. Just because your muse is Ayn Rand doesn’t make it any less totalitarian.

              Yep, everyone who disagrees with the far left is a Rand Acolyte. Next leftists will lecture us on strawmen while not spending a second considering their own assertions.

      4. Its always hilarious when My comments so upset socks like Jerrykids, moneyshot, *hihn, R Bailey, etc., that they think calling me a troll is believed by the few Libertarians left on Reason.

        Its liked when the Lefties try and deny TDS. Every time you write something, the TDS is in print. You are not fooling anyone.

        Reason does need those web traffic bumps though.

    3. Tony,

      The level of freedom of speech we expect is proportional to the right of exit that other people have. A costume is a visual signal, and it is easy for someone who does not like a costume to look away. Screaming is annoying, and we do not expect people to wear ear plugs or run away to avoid screaming in a public place if the disturbance reaches a certain point. “Disturbance” is a subjective word. That’s why different universities can have different policies regarding acceptable debate procedures.

      1. My point is that a there is a political agenda behind singling out these particular obnoxious teenagers as emblematic of an entire political worldview, when in reality they’re just a couple of obnoxious teenagers. Everyone gets all in a tizzy whenever Republicans are equated with Nazis, even though Mr. “both sides have good people” is their leader.

        1. My point is that a there is a political agenda behind singling out these particular obnoxious teenagers as emblematic of an entire political worldview, when in reality they’re just a couple of obnoxious teenagers.

          Some leftists push the agenda directly. Others protect them by arguing they shouldn’t be attacked.

          Meanwhile Keven Williamson is no longer at the Atlantic apparently because these couple of obnoxious teenagers have no broader influence. James Damore is no longer at Google for the same reason. So even as we’re watching the left export this insanity from campus to the broader culture Tony is supporting their effort.

          1. I’ll forever be amazed by how old, fat, white men in the highest positions of power manage to convince people that 18 year-olds on college campuses are the real threat.

            1. They’re a harbinger Tony, and we don’t like what they portend.

              1. It isn’t that they are a threat.

                It is that everyone around them is pretending like their idiotic temper-tantrums are important and must be respected and even obeyed.

                That is the problem. 20 year old kids say dumb stuff all the time. They always have. What has changed is that the adults no longer tell them they are being stupid and petulant when they are being stupid and petulant. Instead the people in charge jump right in with the idiocy and use the levers of power to enforce the petulant demands.

                Like the crazy kangaroo courts of “rape culture” campuses spreading to the California legislature. It isn’t the kids that are the problem. It is the adults who forgot that they were supposed to be educating them.

            2. I’ll forever be amazed by how old, fat, white men in the highest positions of power manage to convince people that 18 year-olds on college campuses are the real threat.

              No doubt. Meanwhile we’re amazed those who adhere to institutional fundamentalism believe they have ever had an original thought.

    4. Yes all those gender and homo studies degrees are real top notch education.

  8. Protesting students called for the university to fire Nicholas Christakis, a sociologist and physician, because they felt he and his wife, also teaching at Yale at the time, did not protect them from possible psychic injury.

    Emphasis added. Oh, FFS! These students were severely psychically injured before they ever heard of Christakis.

    1. I wish I had Professor X’s telepathic powers so I could psychically kick the shit out of these little progtards.

  9. I’m not sure what he expected trying to seek an intelligent discussion with people not capable of it. They’ve made it pretty clear that they’re only interested in silencing anyone who disagrees with them. They’re encouraged and enabled by the universities to behave like little bossy brats. Eventually they’ll be no intelligent professors left to teach students marketable skills.

    1. The proper response to s snowflake is a swift brutal beating with a nightstick. Then they will learn their place. Which is cowering in silemce.

  10. I don’t buy evolutionary morality any more than I buy religious morality or natural law. You feed your desired conclusions into your premises and then play the logic game to get back to that same conclusion and pretend it’s science. That’s not how it works.

    1. somebody doesn’t f’ing love science

      1. If science is scarcely 400 years old, doesn’t loving science constitute statutory rape?

  11. Is there anyone left who believes in the universal natural rights of all humanity, regardless of tribe or skin color or any other artificial division?

    1. You mean like gestational age?

    2. Such would be the product of reason, not of instinct, which is what Christakis seems to be claiming.

      1. No, there is an element of reason.

        But we also have built-in instincts with regards to certain things. For most humans, murder is wrong. We instinctively empathize with other people to the point where suffering bothers us.

        As with many things psychological, we can see this most easily in people who have brains that deviate from the norm. Some people are not wired to be able to feel empathy for other humans in the same way that others do. For them, murder might not be instinctively wrong.

        It is the sum of these instinctive understandings of human interactions that form the basis of our reasoned construct of “rights” They are the “a priori” knowledge that inform first principles.

    3. You mean like the right of a small child not to be violently raped by an illegal alien while Pedo Jeffy watches?

  12. I’m pretty sure evolution actually tells us to kill all the other males and have as many children as possible by as many women as possible.

    Nature is pretty harsh.

    1. That’s why I ignore evolution and listen to the voices in my head.

      /kidding

      1. This piqued my curiosity, Eddy. What is it like when you read? Does the voice in your head sound out the words for you, or is it more like the experience of the average American looking at hieroglyphics in a museum?

        / 8============> ( )*( )

      2. Been meaning to tell you this – those voices are mine.

        But it’s ok, you can keep them.

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  14. All behavior is a combination of nurture and nature. Some will be universal due to near universal alleles for behaviors, some vary greatly such as preference for ice cream, and some vary but appear universal from the perspective of someone who does not leave his own social circle.

  15. I’ve read that there was a time when people made fun of the lactose tolerant kid, because drinking milk for that long was abnormal.

  16. Protesting students called for the university to fire Nicholas Christakis, a sociologist and physician, because they felt he and his wife, also teaching at Yale at the time, did not protect them from possible psychic injury.

    Oye, back in the day, psychic injury from a professor looked more like this.

  17. “(he) argues that our genetic makeup predisposes us to favor peaceful interaction and respectful co-existence over angry and violent mob rules.”

    nice to see a sociologist finally ignoring the entire historical record and reality itself to pump nonsense. god knows we don’t get enough sociology professors pumping pseudoscientific claptrap in our lives.

    1. Peaceful interaction within the group.

      War and violence with those not in the group.

      This explains how a group of religious refugees from Europe could move to the wilds of North America and violently displace the people living there. They peacefully coexisted among themselves – even acting against personal self-interest for the benefit of the group, as in cases of military service. But they acted with extreme violence against “other” groups.

      First it was family groups. Then tribes. Then city-states. Then kingdoms and empires.

      We just keep redefining the group outward. But it is still in-group vs out-group. E.G. the Islamic State vs the Infidel.

  18. While there are an infinite number of ways to lie and be in conflict, there is only one reality, truth that we all share in peace.

    It is enough. Being rational requires the acceptance of truth.

    No? What makes you believe that to be true?

    1. It’s the jooze, right? It’s always the jooze. Or the gays.
      Or did I miss another of your fantasies?

      1. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I never respond to your posts except when you try to foul one of mine. You are a foul smell.

        Fuck off troll.

        How do I scrape dog shit like you off my shoe?

  19. Sorry professor, you got it all wrong. Please return your degrees to the place stupid enough to give them to you, and memorize these two key phrases; “You want fries with that?” and “Hi, welcome to Wal-Mart”.

    Just for the record, evolution want the strong to crush the weak, and make them go extinct.

    1. Yes, but the strong what? Not simply the individual.

      You can be strong by yourself all you want…. You might be stronger than me by yourself, but I bring my friend STEVE SMITH and our neighbors over to your place and your singular strength becomes quite unimpressive. And your stuff becomes our stuff.

      This is the driver of all things human. Language, social interactions, loyalty, altruism, teamwork…. we are down an evolutionary path that favors group dynamics over the individual.

      But this also probably explains the natural splintering into groups that we display in studies like the “hand out two different colored T-shirts” experiments. Because initial groups would be extended family – which carry your genes. Then groups of related families in your tribe. Also more genetically similar to you.

      So both war and peace are built in to our genetic heritage. And so is cheating… stealing from your neighbor is advantageous if you don’t get caught. So is hooking up with his wife. Hence the need for the 10 commandments.

    2. Evolution isn’t supposed to want anything. Evolution is supposed to be a natural process driven by random change followed subsequent selection forces determining if the change will persist or be eliminated. Since all diversity arises out of this random change then the selection forces must therefore be random as well.

      If either the changes or the selection forces are not random, but are driven by some sort of ‘want’ then either one or both are being imposed by some sort of created rule set. Begging the question of how such a rule set occurred, and why it every chose to do anything randomly.

      I’m not saying that’s impossible, I’m just saying we’d be better served not calling such a system evolution.

  20. “I don’t have any special purchase on what ails our society, what the cause of this is….”

    I do. And it isn’t going away terribly quickly if my diagnosis is correct.

    It is because of something seemingly unrelated – the near total defeat of violence in our society.

    Even in the mid-70’s there was a veneer of formality and politeness over society. You would never call an adult acquaintance or stranger by their first name, you would say “Mr. Gillespie”, not “Nick”. You would say “Sir” or “Ma’am”.

    Why? Because there was always the possibility that causing someone serious offence might result in getting punched in the nose, or worse. For all of history prior to that moment, people carried weapons in public. Not just guns, but knives, clubs, cudgels, etc. So you signaled your intention to avoid violence by acting with respect in public.

    1. We successfully conquered most violent interactions over the last 50 years, even among school kids. So now nobody learns that running your mouth too much will get you a punch in the nose.

      It started with women, as the societal prohibition on violence against women pivoted from “the taming of the shrew” to “never lay hands on a woman, no matter what”. So women were emboldened to indulge their rhetorical weaponry. Hence the violent rhetoric of the “-studies” fields.

      And as Adam Carolla pointed out in “In 50 years we’ll all be chicks”, this inevitably spread to all layers of society.

      So you want to know why we are so uncivil to one another? It is because incivility no longer comes with the consequences of a punch in the nose.

      1. Another succesful tactic against mouthy women is to leave.

        They need an audience for their stupidity. Deprive them of that audience and watch they freak out more than if you pop them in the face.

    2. “It is because of something seemingly unrelated – the near total defeat of violence in our society.”

      Well, that’s a sort of an extreme example of the issue:
      We, currently, do not require moral agents in our society to take responsibility for their actions; snowflakes are to be provided ‘safe places’, bums in SF are to be provided with waterfront views from their free housing.
      Not sure it takes violence, but you certainly should not be rewarded for your imbecilic choices or actions.

  21. Christakis is right, evolution allows human beings to organize into large peaceful and highly coordinated groups who are able to get along without violence.

    Then that large, highly coordinated group cooperates together to kick the asses of people and groups who have pissed it off.

    It takes a certain level of peaceful coordination in order to commit large scale atrocities and perpetrate large-scale oppression.

  22. There was a time in the not-too-distant past when each and every one of these students would’ve been expelled for ganging up on a professor like that.

  23. “…failed to create a safe space”

    Can we just call bullshit on this already, and be done with it? “Safe space” is nothing but code for “I don’t like what you say or think and I just want to make you STFU.”

  24. Since when is freedom allowed in our re-education camps?

    1. Freedom is not ‘allowed’ in re-education camps.

      Freedom is mandatory in re-education camps.

      1. I can only presume you haven’t been paying attention to the PC culture that has infected the campuses of higher re-education lately.

        1. Sorry Jay, I guess the ‘freedom is mandatory’ just wasn’t as over the top as it should have been.

          Which is kind of frightening , when you think about it. When it’s hard to make the totalitarians sound absurd we are in serious trouble.

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  26. Put a white collar on Christ-a-kiss and be soothed by his priestly words of secular religion: All is well with academia. We are evolving and, deep within, love each other. However comforting, his words are just common sense and denial — a very expensive research and educational enterprise that is not being held responsible for the idiocy being unleashed on society as a whole.

    Faith in “evolution” and a song. I don’t mind encouraging faith in a common shared humanity but only if we first have the courage to look at the real problems and issues. That used to be called original sin. Now Nations and strong leaders are seen as the be-all and end-all of evil. “Humanity” is good and lovely…lalalalala.

  27. I enjoyed this “friendly discussion,” but I think it is serving the community of the those who “have something to protect” — ie, a very spoiled and wealthy academia, Give me a real debate over ideas — in this case, challenges to the philosophical assumptions underlying his so-called research and “thought.” The posts under this interview are much more intellectual because they are not compromised, and therefore open the discuss up to REASON.

    I’m guessing that no matter what idea this guy came up with, he would get published. Was anything he said in any way more than feel-good common sense? Please DO find it, and let me know.

    I very much like the guy, but he gets an F none the less. Life-style and Niceness and the Secular Academic Community trumps the search for truth/wisdom. He is doubling down on the creed he is a part of. Faith is a sweet and lovely thing, but it is not intellectual rigor. I think he is denying the challenges of the day.

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