Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Dallas Cowboys and Humanity

I am no fan of those guys with stars on their hats but all the stories this week about the demolition of Texas stadium got me thinking about what makes us human.

Of course there is no simple answer to that question and sensible but drastically dissimilar conclusions are drawn from the fields of history, biology, psychology, and philosophy. Here's my contribution to the discussion.

One of the things that makes us human is our remarkable ability to store and process memories. We perform sophisticated social accounting to distinguish friends who deserve our cooperation from leeches who should be kept at arm's length. We remember places where we found comfort, joy, or other valuable resources as well as those where we felt threatened or harmed in some way. We recall times when various emotions peaked or important events unfolded. And remarkably, we tie all those memories together through an elaborate system of cues and references, index them against the emotions they produced, and use them to drive much of our behavior.

As far as we know, other organisms don't do this to the extent that humans do it. Yes, mates in many species form long-term bonds and clearly devote themselves to a partnership, various social norms in packs, herds, and hives suggest that social accounting is not uniquely human, and salmon return to their place of birth to die. All of those examples suggests memory and processing. But humans engage in memory processing almost constantly.

We make decisions by conjuring alternative scenarios and drawing on all of our memories to predict which decision will yield the best emotional payoff. Aside from extreme and automatic reactions in times of stress and surprise, such thinking completely governs our behavior. This is one facet of being human.

When I read the stories about the emotional reactions among the crowd that gathered to watch the implosion of Texas stadium, it struck me that a great many people have made significant emotional investments in the Dallas Cowboys. For some reason, the coalescence of that stadium, the team, and their celebrity during the 70's, underpinned some important markers of space and time for lots of people. As a consequence, those memories are informing the daily decisions of the Cowboy faithful and contributing to their humanity.

Long live Roger Staubach.

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