Category Archives: Evolution

Fear is the Crisis

For many years now, my conviction has been that the great undeveloped area of human education is a suitable understanding and appreciation of human nature, especially commonalities of the mind—the ways in which we habitually think, and what each of these patterns is suited to do, or ill-suited to do.

One consistent challenge is the persistent underestimation of our primate inheritance.

This was assuredly promoted by indoctrinated human exceptionalism. I presume it was exacerbated by entrenched culture that rates the verbal, and the conscious, far above nonverbal and unconscious aspects which come to us from other animals. Consider our silly expectations to rule over more direct sources of habit by mere assertions of intent to change them.

In a nutshell, humans became far too convinced of special status apart from nature—even a power above their own human nature—by virtue of talking. Now, this means more than an appreciation of our having language, which sets us apart. Our talking about things gives us the power to talk at some distance from concrete matters (abstraction), and to talk around things, for we human beings often talk with detachment from phenomena apparent to the senses or the psyche. This has left us—and our ancestors—able to pontificate or freely wish, instead of remaining tethered to phenomenal realities. We “talk our way into” flattering, unlikely, even impossible notions. This is also how our inquisitive ancestors could have missed the obvious about themselves and their origins for so long. It left them able to spin their own rather preposterous stories, talking their way into a divine origin in which we are separate from the mammals and primates we ostensibly resemble in so many respects. Today, talking willfully above the anthropological facts, which are by now carefully-described, allows many people to ignore them, still.

Essentially, all our “human” emotions are shared with primates, as are many other behavioral routines, like political cliques, reading faces and cue-taking within social groups. To start looking for ethological parallels in earnest is to find thousands, and soon realize that the differences comprise exceptions (albeit important ones). Yet the majority of human beings alive on Earth in the 21st century either flout what evolutionary science says about the descent of Man and dispute their relation to the primate mind and brain, or scarcely think of it.

In my view, denial or neglect of our evolutionary mind—the common failure to reckon with the available knowledge, and better explore it—is the incomparable and potentially fatal error of the modern age, which endlessly gets in the way of much else that needs doing. Misunderstanding oneself will wreck every attempt at social change, every time.

Recent hysteria over this year’s coronavirus reminds me of the same lesson that hysteria over “terrorism” did, not so long ago. A strong case can be made for a more specific contention than the above, that the biggest problem of all is not connecting our primate aversion, fear, and panic to our Homo sapiens information-gathering.

In order for those three feelings and deep mental grooves to become useful assets, we must practice feeling them when deserved, and work to maintain perspective. Otherwise they are not only woefully inadequate to navigating in a world more complicated than the environments in which the hominids or hominins evolved, or the Paleolithic in which the genus Homo evolved; they represent active disadvantages instead of adaptive tools of survival.

Ill-placed fears misdirect resources on a grand scale, and make people easy prey for fearmongers. People fear “terrorists” they will never encounter, while they ignore the politicians and bureaucrats who regularly take their property, or the warmongers who endanger their lives in conflicts fueled by unnecessary hostility. It’s worth remembering, in the context of a pandemic, first that “experts” are human and aren’t immune to feeling fear, and second that appealing to fear can pay off for scientists seeking the lifeblood of their labs and careers: grant money. There are professional incentives for accuracy in science, but there are also incentives for alarmism, particularly in politicized fields that depend on public funding (such as ecology, climate, energy, or pandemic vaccines).

Aversion prohibits seeking advantages because they smell different in some sense, seeming alien or foreign. I would file under this the mistrust of infectious people wearing masks to protect others from coughs and sneezes, a typical, considerate east-Asian practice, widely unaccepted in countries like the United States. But exclusion of people based on aversion towards difference is pervasive and peculiar. During my adult lifetime, I’ve frequently encountered people who were suspicious or hostile towards my wearing black clothing, either because their cultural subgroup wouldn’t, or because of incompetent threat identification based on a hysterical media overreaction to a single incident (the Columbine massacre).

Panic manufactures crises where none exist, or deals with a manageable crisis desperately. Both become more and more dangerous with the accretion of technologies that enable people to do things like communicate hysterical exchanges instantly around the world, or cause accidental nuclear winter if war breaks out between powerful rulers.

A good argument can be made that an ongoing failure to modify our instincts for fear using our capacity for knowledge is the salient cultural immaturity squarely in the way of human potential. I would certainly argue that it’s at least the greatest remaining threat to human beings, who show undeniable ability to navigate and manipulate their external environments, societies, and cultures, except when change requires improved navigation of their inner, psychological environments, also.

Because of the powerful gravity those mental grooves exert, and the general boredom with a modern life characterized by anomie (alienation by mismatched values or lack of values) instead of by participation in life and points of connection, we are drawn to dramatic and apocalyptic conclusions, even if they are illogical or untested.

But if anything kills off the human race, it will almost certainly stem from fear or panic reactions that are uninformed, or do not care about gathering useful information. It won’t come from outside; it will come from inside. The older aspects of mind are more powerful than the newer, and in a perceived crisis, the mind defaults to vertebrate or mammalian routines that predate us by a great many millions of years.

Back to this year’s coronavirus pandemic. I’ve recently observed otherwise-reasonable people who conspicuously lack any knowledge of respiratory disease express shock that the coronavirus is “airborne“, as though every cold or influenza virus does not spread through tiny coughed or sneezed droplets of mucous or saliva in the air. They have no doubt heard this as children, but forget it now. (We have already answered why they forget it.)

No more than casual reading about cold and flu season will also tell them that it’s typical for far more people to die from complications of respiratory infections during a typical season than have so-far succumbed to the recent coronavirus.

Or that the usual pattern of respiratory infections is that elderly people (and those with pre-existing cardiac, lung, and immune risk factors) are the most at-risk of fatality. Yet I have seen expressions of shock and suspicion upon discovering that this coronavirus is doing precisely what one ought to expect, at least one aware of a basic fact of human mortality: old and sick people have frequently been killed by respiratory diseases in history, and continue to be killed disproportionately.

Unfortunately this is normal and natural, not evidence of the end of the world, or a conspiracy theory about the virus, or of mismanagement. If anything, we ought really to be grateful for the unnatural progress made in reducing millions of viral and bacterial pneumonia deaths to thousands, thanks to sanitation, vaccinations, and especially, antibiotics.

I have even seen alarm at hearing that this virus may be “mutating.” Well, yes; viruses normally mutate.

None of this potential application of sense to fear I’ve mentioned so far requires sophisticated understanding of epidemiology, virology, or immunology, but of course that could be beneficial. For example, it’s helpful to know that counting severe cases of respiratory disease tends to inflate estimated fatality ratio, because asymptomatic carriers and those with mild symptoms have no reason to seek medical attention (and be counted).

Another example of specific knowledge: knowing about the much more dangerous phenomenon of a disease causing cytokine storm puts the recent coronavirus into perspective. Cytokine storm turns a healthy immune system against the host, and that means that the young are much more likely to die than from a typical respiratory disease that primarily kills the elderly. This is probably one reason the so-called Spanish flu of 1918, caused by H1N1 influenza, was unusually dangerous to young populations, not just the old or sick (another being soldiers and refugees having been packed together in unsanitary, insalubrious conditions). Greater frequency* of this hyper-inflammatory reaction in cases is also thought to be the reason why the SARS outbreak of 2003 (caused by a different bat coronavirus) was a more dangerous infection to acquire than the coronavirus causing the pandemic of 2020. It would be more reasonable for the healthy people under 50 who are currently afraid of the coronavirus to be afraid of catching a flu more likely* to cause cytokine storm, like the H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic that already happened in 2009, or H5N1 (“avian flu”).

The most ludicrous conspiracy theories and accusations out there—those self-contradictory tales of an engineered bioweapon (inexplicably far less deadly than WWII-era bioweapons), of plots to cull humanity so devious they are publicly discussed, of genetic modification to cross coronavirus with HIV fueled by a withdrawn preliminary paper and attempts at antiviral treatment, and the like—are certainly the work of paranoiac mental illnesses. They attract believers already experiencing paranoia and seeking the delusions to fit—the means to rationalize their existing neurogenic experiences—including believers who suffer from bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Like superstitions that perform a similar role, paranoid delusions are confirmed by frenzied apophenia and never to be questioned, much less disproven.

But it would miss the larger point to separate the crazy reaction to a perceived threat from the fearful reactions of sane people, as though one were irrational and the other rational. The former is simply the delusional reaction instead of the suggestible. Both routines may resist being challenged by facts or contrary information, and stubbornly resort to hostility in defense of an assertion. Although this is all the more likely in support of a paranoid delusion, it is a defensive reaction, ego- and turf-driven, that we are all familiar with. One kind of reaction represents the deep end of fear instead of the shallow, but both sorts represent fear being rationalized after the fact, instead of being driven by facts. The exaggerated pathology of the mind blurs into a much more common misdirection of mental labors. These belong on a continuum, and are not opposites, due to the universal primate propensity for anxiety with or without cause.

Fear is human, not anomalous. Its origin is internal—psychological—not external to our person, in some “fearful threat” outside ourselves. We cannot rid ourselves of reflexive fear by projecting it onto a culprit. We must own it, or we shall be possessed.

 

* Edited 3-21 to clarify this may be a relative distinction, not an absolute distinction. I have now seen some mention in ongoing research suggesting that cytokine storm syndrome might develop in some of the severe COVID-19 cases; previously and at the time of writing, it had seemed there were no cases. If this new picture turns out to be accurate, cytokine storm remains an unusual complication in a subgroup among severe cases, and not a typical immune response. Reactions to virus depend on individual immune systems and are not generic.

 

A meaningful loss to my research bookmarks: The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive

My attempted email to the Stephen Jay Gould Archive bounced, so I reproduce it here.

Hello, I noticed that the website is down. In case there are no plans to continue on with the site I wanted to say that I have found it to be a valuable resource and a wonderful gateway to a very important thinker. A lot of my thinking/writing has drawn on evolution and I’ve increasingly relied on Gould’s clarity on the subject, and I’ve been thankful to have the archive handy on the internet. Thanks for providing it as long as you have. I hope it will return. I note in the meantime that some pages are archived on web.archive.org, fortunately.

thank you,
Colin P. Barth

PS. The Wayback Machine/Internet Archive link I mentioned above: https://web.archive.org/web/20120915010723/http://www.stephenjaygould.org/

Steven Pinker Talks Down to the Humanities

[via Open Culture on Facebook] Was amused by responses to an essay by Steven Pinker (“precious and facile as always,” as one put it) called “Science Is Not Your Enemy,” that misses its opportunity for the descriptive subtitle: “Steven Pinker Talks Down to the Humanities” (among which he seems to include “soft,” humanized, or subjective social sciences and psychologies).

“Pinker is a a bildungsphilister and this is one of the most vulgar and foolish essays ever published in a leading magazine. A masterpiece of middlebrow kitsch, nearly all of it is wrong, and in a risible, contemptible way.”

So upon reading it, I must say I too am impressed. Pinker doesn’t just set up a straw man. He has an entire straw debate going on there. It’s remarkable because most of what is correct in it has nothing to do with any real argument that intelligent people would present. But Pinker still has a lecture! Err, that’s nice Pinker—tell us some of the neat things “science” has done (not scientists – monolithic “science”) and *do tell* how it banished superstition (yes, you’ve heard this one before). Why not put on a whole performance of “Inherit the Wind”? We’ll wait.

But then, maybe go look into some things you don’t already know, like what the term “scientism” properly means when intelligent people use it, instead of pretending it has no meaning, a move worthy of Daniel Dennett’s argumentative tactics. My favorite ignorance is found in the paragraph accusing others of being “historically illiterate” while demonstrating his own in the very next sentence.

He makes evident that his grasp of a great many diverse subjects (including those grouped under political science, arts, history, anthropology and economics) is sometimes no more sophisticated than the preliminary biases, cliches, naivete, and prejudices of the average college-level intellect obtained from an undergraduate class or (more likely) casual reading.

Such an unprepared debater has all the moral authority of a man with no pants. Those well-versed in “the humanities” will simply wonder why he blundered in, so to speak, seemingly determined to pick a daftly-collective argument.

Pinker couldn’t have supported Gould’s assertion of two spheres appropriate to humanities and science (reflecting the classic distinction between “is” and “ought”) any better if he’d argued for it, instead of against it. I don’t incidentally draw lines between subjects like academic specialists too often do, but one has to be clear about the differences between describing the way things work, and prescribing what to do about it—as well as differences in preparation, methods and mentalities each properly require.

The fact that public intellectuals no better than this have taken charge of current philosophy of mind (via cognitive science in most cases, although not exclusively—some from traditional philosophy) does inspire me to correct their many deficiencies, though. There are still tremendous opportunities to write great books about human nature, evolution, psychology, the brain and the mind that are not mostly farfetched, beside the point, silly, or parochial in outlook. And it’s the last point that may be the most important strike against these academics’ stabs at writing definitive books to unravel the enigma of Man. Whether it’s Steven Pinker or John Searle or whoever, the most important thing about human beings will always be: “the field I’ve studied” or “the focus of my background.”

Addendum:
I want to note, on the positive side, that Pinker’s stated desire for collaboration and synthesis towards the end of the piece points to a laudable project (one which I wrote about at great length in my essay Rising in Walls), though the way he has written this piece, and comports himself, makes a productive “truce” impossible. And, to parallel Dennett’s distinction between good and bad reductionism, there is good synthesis and there is bad. The examples of cross-fertilization Pinker gives are pretty bad, having for example not enough of the humility before the unknown and uncertain, or  appreciation for qualitative subtlety, that the best humanists in science or the humanities will call for. It would be wonderful for scientific techniques and rigorous epistemology to inform more of the subjective theory written about life on Earth, and vice versa. Pinker just doesn’t have a handle on what that would look like, because he is not enough of a generalist, either.

Addendum Two:
With an essay this bad, it would take more time than I have to unpack everything. Here’s a brief, eviscerating praeteritio that covers  points that I did not go through—including, that Pinker obviously ignores and doesn’t consider worthy of mention a number of aspects one would normally consider quite essential to “the humanities.” Some criticisms may be less obvious though, and perhaps it’s worth the exercise of going through them. In the above post, I took for granted that, meeting Pinker halfway, we were going to talk about the humanities as functional—focusing on purposes and purposeful thinking, which is certainly not the only way to look at things. But this is the teleology you have to expect from scientism; it doesn’t have time for a lot of meandering around and reading poetry so to speak but rather wants to talk about what poetry does for the human race. In short, I took some deficiencies for granted, and arrogance—this is Pinker, after all, the man who went up against Stephen Jay Gould on evolution, though to this day, he casually misunderstands (or misrepresents?) the basic Darwinian argument.

Reformations are needed; admitting we don’t understand ourselves is the beginning

Adapted from a comment I made in a discussion about reforming politics, philosophy, and psychology:

Our various and numerous failures constructed on the premises of understanding ourselves sufficiently will repeat until we admit the basic failure of presuming we understand ourselves (and others; humans) better than we do. This covers philosophy, politics, psychology, neuroscience, and much, much more.

Thus, reformations are needed to incorporate optimized knowledge of “human nature” (universals), and important human variations, from any quarter. So, not only complacency within fields of study is an issue, although it certainly is in many of the blasé treatments of fundamental assumptions, but isolated specialization of fields of study, as I argued in the essay Rising in Walls. For instance, even those involved in some of the best of politics, economics, or history retain the most simplistic knowledge and appreciation of what some of the best of psychology, mythology, evolutionary theory or cultural anthropology can tell them about people—and really see no particular relevance in exploring them.

Both problems come together, for example, in the sorts of neo-evolutionary fields Stephen Jay Gould used to criticize, in which it’s just assumed that complex systems like culture and mind are thoroughly analogous to computers or algorithms or Darwinian inheritance (or whatever the model may be) without nearly enough justification. When 1) nobody’s interested in what different approaches and perspectives can correct, and 2) they affirm their own theoretical models too readily, you get reductionism instead of elegance in your descriptions of humanity.

My focus has shifted considerably to projects explicitly re-examining and re-constructing fundamental assumptions about human beings through a cross-pollinated synthesis, because I can’t see that attempts to work around and with Man (as we must) can have any hope of success if serious errors in conceptualizing humanity are preserved.

In terms of those of us trying to change things, we’re all doing everything the hard way without a more robust synthesis to utilize and to promote, to replace lopsided ones with a wad of selective detail supplemented by a lot of hand-waving and folk notions (probably a more than fair description of what people or a person will typically “look like,” through our own eyes).

R.A. Wilson was one example of a thinker who made an attempt at a cross-pollinated model to slice through some of the nonsense clinging to our ideas about ourselves, but I didn’t consider it adequately informed or theoretically sound—particularly when it deviated from the overall spirit of naturalism inspired by his knowledge of ethology to become too speculative and teleological. There were many problems with it, as well as several advantages (which can be said of all the more interesting personality theories and typologies, and models of the mind I have studied for the past 17 years). He himself expected his models to be obsoleted, so… I think perhaps he would be pleased with what I’ve been working on.

In short, at whatever level of sophistication and complexity, we need a better set of stories to tell ourselves about ourselves—not only less selective, but less superficial, more refined and more intensely questioned, and better informed by descriptions, analogies and metaphors from across promising frontiers of knowledge.

Writing Great Philosophy for the Sake of the Future

Some of the most important written works neither profit a thinker, nor advance an academic or public career. At first, they offer only themselves. (Or, perhaps, some extraordinary adventures and experiences necessary to write them—yet the total labor required to see them through often dims this value for the author.)

Yet the expectation that compositions should soon yield profits, status, fame or advancement keeps many thinkers and writers away from achieving greater work.

This is one reason why academia is very nearly the death of philosophy, and the market for writing, little better. Most who somehow emerge from modern “education systems” and have philosophy to offer—ideas cultivated through study and appreciation of the sciences (the fields of human knowledge) and expressed as a creation of art—are obliged to bury their ideas in entertainment in order to sell their work and support themselves. This is valuable, but second-hand.

While philosophical works should not quite follow “art for art’s sake,” they must be undertaken without promise of rewards save important work of great meaning. Though it is no guarantee, great philosophy first requires appropriate ambition, and dedication of oneself.

And we all require more great philosophy. Without great works to develop new ideas for the future, there will be no future different from the consequences of the ideas inherited from the past.

There are too many old and misplaced ideas we are living with. If they were ever right, they are no longer right, for us, now. We are still counting on Plato, Aristotle, St. Paul, and so many others to write our future—implicitly. Even Darwin has yet to sink in. We are still building upon ancient notions like foundations we almost never notice. Many of the newest sources are centuries old; many of those we call “modern” thinkers are unoriginal recyclers, copycats, and poor synthesists of the grab bag. Yet people who repeat echoes of Rousseau, Paine, and poor readings of Jesus wonder why they cannot change things. Utopian faiths, demanding abstractions, and political revolutions come up empty because they have been tried before without understanding, only to be repeated now as though new.

We wonder why we’re stuck in a present that still looks like the past—degraded, plus technology that—we like to hope—has something to say, because we don’t. No, we’ll only have a different future when enough of us commit to thinking and writing for one.

Learn from cats.

When I see an unwell, undernourished 20-plus year old cat display more moxie than most humans I know, it’s a powerful reminder of how far away people have withdrawn from their better instincts.

Cats struggle to survive when life gets hard—stray cats, even more than pets. People think from time to time that it might be easier if they weren’t alive, when they’re depressed or feel sorry for themselves. People learn to feel anxious or guilty about being here, and even pick up that humans ought to apologize for being alive on Earth. Cats consume. People do too, but they have learned to question that, feel uneasy, or detest it.

Cats go after what they want. People are reluctant to go after what they want, and they’re afraid to get it. Cats focus on what they’re doing at the moment. People distract themselves from being present. Cats revel in pleasurable sensations and devote serious time to them. People feel guilty about feeling pleasure, and deny themselves, or feel like they need permission or an excuse. Cats love affection when they want it. People reject affection when they want it.

It seems that cats have feline nature on their side implicitly, but people won’t accept their own human nature.

Other animals besides Man aren’t uncertain about whether it’s good to be vigorous or direct. You have to wonder about an animal that wastes its years before getting sick or old doubting or diffusing its vital energies instead of accepting them before they’re gone.