The Beaches of Labadee

Royal Caribbean International is continuing to dock its luxury cruise ships on the beaches near Labadee in Haiti, near the epicenter of the earthquake. Some passengers are queasy about this. As one put it: "I just can't see myself sunning on the beach, playing in the water, eating a barbecue, and enjoying a cocktail while there are tens of thousands of dead people being piled up on the streets" only 60 miles away in Port-au-Prince. But these feelings raise an important question about the human mind: At what distance from misery can you see yourself having a good time? Is it 100 miles? Or 250, or 1,000?

The company has good and rational reasons for keeping the luxury beaches open: It's donating all the proceeds from the Labadee stops to earthquake relief, keeping 230 Haitians employed, and transporting aid as well as vacationers. (The Independence of the Seas delivered 40 pallets of food supplies on January 15, for example.) Royal Caribbean is working within the moral and political system that we've built. But the psychological question--why is it built this way?--is important.

If you're reading this, you're connected to the Internet in a world where (as Noam Chomsky likes to say) the majority of people have never made a phone call. You and I and the world's other billion richest people have a stateroom on a metaphorical luxury liner. So the management of our empathy is a psychological question with great practical and political consequences: If we felt less moved by this emotion, some 2.3 million earthquake victims wouldn't be getting food aid this week. But if we felt more, the sums we've spent on Avatar and Bugattis and competitive eating contests would have gone instead to help strangers who, instead, died of poverty.

Bugattis are famous in debates about this, because of this thought experiment proposed by the philosopher Peter Unger. Unger imagines a man who has to choose between saving a child's life and saving his favorite possession (and de facto retirement fund), a classic Bugatti. Most people think the guy's a creep if he saves the car, but, Unger suggests, if you spent $200 on fun last year instead of sending it to Unicef, you're in the same moral position. Hence, argues Peter Singer, people with surplus income should be giving it all to the poor.

That's not the world we live in. Where Singer would have people use ethical principles and reason, their actual behavior is governed by feelings of empathy. And empathy comes and goes. It's not consistent, reliable or well understood.

One thing we do know: Human beings didn't invent empathy, as the primatologist Frans de Waal pointed out in his most recent book. Even mice feel distress when they see another mouse in pain, and many animals spontaneously help others. (De Waal and I recently had a conversation about all this, which is here.) But empathy in animals is limited to friends and family (de Waal says those mice don't feel distressed when they don't know the mouse in pain; then too elephants only react to warning calls from elephants they've met). Among non-human creatures, fellow-feeling and helpful acts are universally reserved for "us'' and withheld from strangers.

Human beings, though, can feel akin to any other person (for that matter, with animals and even with machines). Conversely, we can decide that even a sister or daughter is unworthy of fellow-feeling, and make ourselves indifferent to their pain.

Then too, we belong to many different kinds of groups, which only partly overlap, so our motives to help, or not help, are varied. This is why some people explain they want to help earthquake victims because "we're parents too'' while others are moved more by a feeling of religious identity (or a feeling of explicitly non-religious identity). While for others it's about knowing the place and its people.

All this suggests that human beings are constantly managing their own feelings of empathy for others. That means, on the one hand, that we can decide to do more next week than last week. It also means, of course, that we can decide to do less. For the moment, anyway, as the psychology isn't completely explained, it's impossible to say, scientifically, just how far the jetskis need to stay from the corpses.

Related Articles

How does alcohol affect your brain?

Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.

(Photo by Angie Garrett/Wikimedia Commons)
Mind & Brain
  • Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
  • Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
  • Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists sequence the genome of this threatened species

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.

Surprising Science
  • A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
  • It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
  • Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.

Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.

elephant by Guillaume le Clerc

Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons

13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.

It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.

But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.

John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."

What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.

Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.

Why cauliflower is perfect for the keto diet

The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.

Purple cauliflower. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Surprising Science
  • The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
  • The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
  • It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
Keep reading Show less