Douglass: humans may not be able to adapt to cities but suburbs could work

Church researcher Harlan Paul Douglass concludes his 1925 work The Suburban Trend with his ideas about human nature and cities:

Human nature, all agree, is capable of a certain measure of adaptive elasticity. Village life, which was its typical form of civilization up to the beginning of the era of steam-driven machinery, little more than a century ago, was not, so far as determined, an undue strain upon it. The city does overstrain human nature, and relief must be looked for in the direction of the village. JUst how far back, then, is it necessary to go? Perhaps no further than the suburbs, and to a different balance between the urban and rural elements in civilization. One cannot prove just where the broken ranks of civilization will hold even if it is possible to rally them again. But it is worth trying along this line. (p.311)

Four quick thoughts:

  1. Here in the second decade of the twenty-first century in the United States, it is hard to remember how big of a social change the move to large cities is. It changes everything for social relationships. It is still happening in numerous parts of the world as rural life is disrupted by huge flows of people to large cities. And even in the United States and the Western world, in the limited time of recorded human history, this urbanization happened not long ago.
  2. Given #1, it serves as a reminder of how quickly we have adapted to big city and surrounding suburbs life. This is all relatively new yet we take it for granted.
  3. Douglass hints at the work of others like Simmel who were also concerned about whether humans could survive in big cities. Few urbanists would raise such concerns now; instead, cities are often held up as the solution to numerous social problems. Humans are indeed adaptable.
  4. At the same time, Douglass does presciently hint at the appeal of suburbs for many Americans. It may not be cities themselves that are the problem – many Americans left cities for issues such as race, social class, and immigration – but in the decades after this book was published, the suburbs became the home for a plurality of Americans.


Studies confirm human tendency to follow the crowd

Some recent studies again show that humans are influenced by crowds:

In fact, recent studies suggest that our sensitivity to crowds is built into our perceptual system and operates in a remarkably swift and automatic way. In a 2012 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, A.C. Gallup, then at Princeton University, and colleagues looked at the crowds that gather in shopping centers and train stations.

In one study, a few ringers simply joined the crowd and stared up at a spot in the sky for 60 seconds. Then the researchers recorded and analyzed the movements of the people around them. The scientists found that within seconds hundreds of people coordinated their attention in a highly systematic way. People consistently stopped to look toward exactly the same spot as the ringers.

The number of ringers ranged from one to 15. People turn out to be very sensitive to how many other people are looking at something, as well as to where they look. Individuals were much more likely to follow the gaze of several people than just a few, so there was a cascade of looking as more people joined in.

In a new study in Psychological Science, Timothy Sweeny at the University of Denver and David Whitney at the University of California, Berkeley, looked at the mechanisms that let us follow a crowd in this way. They showed people a set of four faces, each looking in a slightly different direction. Then the researchers asked people to indicate where the whole group was looking (the observers had to swivel the eyes on a face on a computer screen to match the direction of the group)…

If you try the experiment, you can barely be sure of what you saw at all. But in fact, people were amazingly accurate. Somehow, in that split-second, they put all the faces together and worked out the average direction where the whole group was looking.

In other studies, Dr. Whitney has shown that people can swiftly calculate how happy or sad a crowd is in much the same way.

Humans are social creatures. This can be hard to remember within societies and time periods when individualism is stressed and people think of themselves as above group behavior. Of course, group behavior varies quite a bit given the context but we often go along with the crowd.

From bobos to social animals: the upcoming book from David Brooks

Commentator David Brooks will soon be releasing a new book titled The Social Animal. This Newsweek story provides some clues about the new book:

The book’s subtitle—The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement—conveys its ambition. Brooks’s first two books, Bobos in Paradise and On Paradise Drive, were acutely witty satires of a social group whose name he coined: bobos, or “bourgeois bohemians,” the “affluent educated class” that frequents “gourmet coffeehouses” and issues corporate reports “with quotations from Émile Zola.” The books are smart—Brooks is a shrewd anthropologist of this fanciful type—and hugely entertaining. But they lack gravitas. The Social Animal is of a whole other order: authoritative, impressively learned, and vast in scope.

Its thesis can be stated simply: who we are is largely determined by the hidden workings of our unconscious minds. Everything we do in life—the careers we choose; even, on a deeper level, the way we experience and perceive the sensation of being alive—emerges from an infinitely complex neuronal network sending out signals (Brooks calls them “scouts”) that, largely unknown to us, assess and determine our behavior. Insights, information, responses to stimuli are governed by our emotions, a rich repository of thoughts and feelings that courses just beneath the surface of our conscious minds. They are “mental sensations that happen to us.”

Brooks has absorbed and synthesized a tremendous amount of scholarship. He has mastered the literature on childhood development, sociology, and neuro-science; the classics of modern sociology; the major philosophers from the Greeks to the French philosophes; the economists from Adam Smith to Robert Schiller. He quotes artfully from Coleridge and Stendhal. And there’s nothing showy about it. He’s been busy, working on the book over the past three years during the stray hours when he isn’t writing his column, appearing on TV, or lecturing around the country. “I used to play golf,” he says. “I gave up every second that I wasn’t hanging around with my wife and kids.” (He has three, and lives, bobolike, in the Washington suburb of Bethesda, Md.)

To create a readable narrative from this daunting store of information, Brooks has written the book in the form of a novel, following an imaginary couple named Harold and Erica from womb to tomb.

Based on the summary here, it sounds like I will pick up this book somewhere down the road.

It is interesting that this reviewer suggests that Brooks was an “anthropologist” in writing his first two books. Brooks himself suggests in Bobos in Paradise that he was practicing “comic sociology.” This new book sounds more like anthropology as Brooks sets out to explore why humans are the way they are. Or more broadly, Brooks is approaching a question that many humans throughout history have asked(see a recent example here): what exactly makes us human?

Also, I am not sure about the idea that his first two books suffered from a lack of gravitas. Sure, the books were somewhat snarky. But there was also some truth in them about recent changes in American suburbs. Did they lack gravitas because they pointed out some of the foibles of bourgeois bohemians?

(Read other posts about David Brooks: making a pitch for sociology; a system that might discourage good candidates from running for political office; and defending the liberal arts.)

The miners are rescued – now the true stories can come out

It appears the Chilean miners agreed to a pact that they would not tell the worst things that happened between them while trapped underground. But a few members of the group have suggested that they may break the pact in order to cash in.

Much of the media coverage up to this point has been positive: this is a remarkable story of how these men were able to stay alive, stay sane, and wait to be rescued. And yet, it couldn’t have been easy and there must have been some difficult moments. Which narrative will win out in the end: the composed miners who maintained a sense of civility and dignity while trapped in a terrible situation or the miners who barely were able to keep it together as they lost hope? Apparently there is a lot of money to be had if some of the miners tell of the darker side of their ordeal. How long until we get the first TV movie on the subject?

Overall, we should expect that there are both good and bad sides to this story. We are not served well by an overall story that only focuses on the heroic. This is human nature: being cooped up with anyone for that long, let alone at the bottom of a mine shaft, is bound to lead to some antagonism and strife. What might make the story even more remarkable is knowing that they were able to overcome difficulties and issues and still be rescued. How exactly did they band together? What kept their hope alive?

(This reminds me of Lost and the agreement made by the Oceanic Six to tell a certain story after they had been rescued. Who will be the first to crack and provide the “true” story?)