The Empathy Trap

People think memetic viruses are just going to ask politely about infecting you, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses: “Hello, can I talk to you today about the importance of WWIII with Russia?”

No. Mind-viruses are not polite. They USE you. They use your empathy and compassion to make you feel like a shit person for rejecting them. They throw dying children in your face and demand that you start a war to save them.

They hijack your sense of yourself as a good person.

I call this the empathy trap.

For example:

Why did this take Stone Cold’s breath away? Why is it shocking?

It’s a basically true statement– the 3/5ths compromise originated in 1783 and was still around in 1789, when the 2nd Amendment was proposed–but soare “California became the 31st American state when I was deemed 3/5ths of a person,” “Napoleon invaded Russia when I was deemed 3/5ths of a person” and “The New York Times was founded, the safety elevator was invented, Massachusetts passed the nation’s first child employment laws, the first telegrams were sent, and Jane Eyre was published when I was deemed 3/5ths of a person.”

A lot happened between 1783 and 1861.

As unpleasant as the 3/5ths compromise is to think back on, we should remember that it was not passed because proponents thought black people only counted as “3/5ths of a person,” but because they didn’t want slave owners using census counts of non-voting slaves to get more votes for their states in the federal government. The 3/5ths compromise actually reduced the power of the slave-owning states relative to the non-slave owning states, in exchange for a break on taxes.

So this isn’t shocking because it’s factually true (I can come up with a whole list of equally true but unshocking statements) nor because the 3/5ths compromise was evil.

Perhaps it is shocking because it points out how old the 2nd Amendment is? But there are many other equally old–or older–things we find completely mundane. Mozart was writing operas in the 1790s; US copyright law began in the 1790s; Edward Jenner developed his smallpox vaccine in 1796; Benjamin Franklin invented the “swim fin” or flippers back in 1717. I don’t think anyone’s throwing out their flippers just because the concept is older than the entire country.

No; it’s shocking because “I was deemed 3/5ths of a person” appeals immediately to your sense of empathy.

Do you respond, “That doesn’t matter”?

“What do you mean, it doesn’t matter that I was considered only 3/5ths of a person? That matters a lot to me.”

“Oh, no, of course, I didn’t mean that it doesn’t matter like that, of course I understand that matters to you–”

Now you’re totally off-topic.

In order to see that this is a non sequitor, you first have to step back from the emotion. Push it aside, if you must. Yes, slavery was evil, but what does it have to do with the 2nd Amendment? Nothing. Reject the frame.

Mitochondrial memes are passed down from your parents and other trusted members of your family and community. You don’t typically have to be convinced of them; children tend to just believe their parents. That’s why you believed all of that business about Santa Claus. Meme viruses, by contrast, come from the wider community, typically strangers. Meme viruses have to convince you to adopt them, which can be quite a bit harder. This is why so many people follow their parents’ religion, and so few people convert to new religions as adults. Most religious transmission is basically mitochondrial–even if the Jehovah’s Witnesses show up at your doorstep fairly often.

To spread faster and more effectively, therefore, meme viruses have to convince you to lower your defenses and let them spread. They convince you that believing and spreading them is part of being a good person. They demand that if you really care about issue X, then you must also care about issue W, Y, and Z. “If you want to fight racism, you also have to go vegan, because all systems of oppression are intersectionally linked,” argues the vegan. “If you love Jesus, you must support capitalism because those godless commies hate Jesus.” Jesus probably also supported socialism and veganism, depending on whom you ask. “This photo of Kim Kardashian balancing a wine glass on her ass is problematic because once someone took a picture of a black woman in the same pose and that was racist.” “Al Qaeda launched an attack on 9-11, therefore we need to topple Saddam Hussein.” “A Serbian anarchist shot some Austro-Hungarian arch duke, therefore we need to have WWI.” “Assad used chemical weapons, therefore the US needs to go to war with Russia.”

Once you are sensitive to this method of framing, you’ll notice it fairly often.

 

 

Pets, part 2

Picture 5

Americans really love dogs.

So much so, that it feels really dickish to point out that dogs aren’t actually humans and we don’t actually treat them like full family members. Maybe this is just the American difficulty with shades of gray, where such an argument is seen as the moral equivalent of eating puppies for breakfast, or maybe extreme dog affection is an instinctual mental trait of healthy people, and so only abnormal weirdos claim that it sounds irrational.

As we discussed yesterday, pet ownership is normal (in that the majority of Americans own pets,) and pet owners themselves are disproportionately married suburbanites with children. However, pet ownership is also somewhat exceptional, in that Americans–particularly American whites–appear globally unique in their high degree of affection for pets.

Incidentally, 76% of dog owners have bought Christmas presents for their dogs. (I’ve even done this.)

Why do people love dogs (and other pets) so much?

The Wikipedia cites a couple of theories, eg:

Wilson’s (1984) biophilia hypothesis is based on the premise that our attachment to and interest in animals stems from the strong possibility that human survival was partly dependent on signals from animals in the environment indicating safety or threat. The biophilia hypothesis suggests that now, if we see animals at rest or in a peaceful state, this may signal to us safety, security and feelings of well-being which in turn may trigger a state where personal change and healing are possible.

Since I tend to feel overwhelmingly happy and joyful while walking in the woods, I understand where this theory comes from, but it doesn’t explain why suburban white parents like pets more than, say, single Chinese men, or why hunter-gatherers (or recently settled hunter-gatherers) aren’t the most avid pet-owners (you would think hunter-gatherers would be particularly in tune with the states of the animals around them!)

So I propose a different theory:

Pets are (mostly) toy versions of domestic animals.

Europeans–and Americans–have traditionally been engaged in small-scale farming and animal husbandry, raising chickens, pigs, cattle, horses, sheep, and occasionally goats, geese, turkeys, and ducks.

Dogs and cats held a special place on the farm. Dogs were an indispensable part of their operations, both to protect the animals and help round them up, and worked closely with the humans in farm management. Much has been written on the relationship between the shepherd and his sheep, but let us not overlook the relationship between the shepherd and his dog.

Cats also did their part, by eliminating the vermin that were attracted to the farmer’s grain.

These dogs and cats are still “working” animals rather than “pets” kept solely for their company, but they clearly enjoy a special status in the farmer’s world, helpers rather than food.

For children, raising “pets” teaches valuable sills necessary for caring for larger animals–better to make your learning mistakes when the only one dependent on you is a hamster than when it’s a whole flock of sheep and your family’s entire livelihood.

Raising pets provides an additional benefit in creating the bond between a child and dog that will eventually transform into the working relationship between farmer and farm-dog.

Empathy has probably played an important role in animal domestication–the ability to understand the animal’s point of view and care about its well being probably helps a lot when trying to raise it from infancy to adulthood. People with higher levels of empathy may have been better at domesticating animals in the first place, and living in an economy dependent on animal husbandry may have also selected for people with high levels of empathy.

In other words, people who treated their dogs well have probably been more evolutionarily successful than people who didn’t, pushing us toward instinctually treating dogs like one of the family. (Though I still think that people who sell cancer treatments for cats and dogs are taking advantage of gullible pet owners and that actually treating an animal just like a human is a bad idea. I also find it distasteful to speak of adopted dogs finding their “forever homes,” a phrase lifted from human adoption.)

However, if you’ve ever interacted with humans, you’ve probably noticed by now that some would give their dog their right kidney, and some would set a dog on fire without blinking.

(I am reminded here of the passage in Phillipe Bourgois’s In Search of Respect in which the anthropologist is shocked to discover that violent Nuyorican crack dealers think torturing animals is funny.)

I have been looking for a map showing the historical distribution of domesticated animals in different parts of the globe, but have so far failed. I’d be most grateful if anyone can find one. To speak very generally, Australia historically had no domesticated animals, South America had llamas, North America had dogs, African hunter-gatherers didn’t have any, African horticulturalists had a chicken-like animal, and then Europe/Asia/The Middle East/India/other Africans had a large variety of animals, like camels and yaks and horses and goats.

Peter Frost has written a lot on empathy (and guilt), and the possibility that it varies between populations:

…a deletion variant of the ADRA2b gene. Carriers remember emotionally arousing images more vividly and for a longer time, and they also show more activation of the amygdala when viewing such images (Todd and Anderson, 2009; Todd et al., 2015). … Among the Shors, a Turkic people of Siberia, the incidence was 73%. Curiously, the incidence was higher in men (79%) than in women (69%). It may be that male non-carriers had a higher death rate, since the incidence increased with age (Mulerova et al., 2015). … The picture is still incomplete but the incidence of the ADRA2b deletion variant seems to range from a low of 10% in some sub-Saharan African groups to a high of 50-65% in some European groups and 55-75% in some East Asian groups. Given the high values for East Asians, I suspect this variant is not a marker for affective empathy per se but rather for empathy in general (cognitive and affective). [source]

The Shors are a small, formerly semi-nomadic group from Siberia. I haven’t found out much about them, but I bet they had dogs, like other Siberian groups.

Frost hypothesizes that extensive empathy developed as part of the suit of mental traits that made life possible in large communities of bronze-age hunter-gatherers along the Baltic:

This weak kinship zone may have arisen in prehistory along the coasts of the North Sea and the Baltic, which were once home to a unique Mesolithic culture (Price, 1991). An abundance of marine resources enabled hunter-fisher-gatherers to achieve high population densities by congregating each year in large coastal agglomerations for fishing, sealing, and shellfish collecting. Population densities were comparable in fact to those of farming societies, but unlike the latter there was much “churning” because these agglomerations formed and reformed on a yearly basis. Kinship obligations would have been insufficient to resolve disputes peaceably, to manage shared resources, and to ensure respect for social rules. Initially, peer pressure was probably used to get people to see things from the other person’s perspective. Over time, however, the pressure of natural selection would have favored individuals who more readily felt this equivalence of perspectives, the result being a progressive hardwiring of compassion and shame and their gradual transformation into empathy and guilt (Frost, 2013a; Frost, 2013b).

Empathy and guilt are brutally effective ways to enforce social rules. If one disobeys these internal overseers, the result is self-punishment that passes through three stages: anguish, depression and, ultimately, suicidal ideation. [source]

Someone has been reading a lot of Dostoyevsky. But I’m wondering if the first ingredient is actually farming/animal husbandry.

To sum:

1. People with high levels of empathy may have had an easier time domesticating animals/raising domesticated animals, creating a feedback loop of increasing empathy in farming populations.

2. This empathetic connection was strongest with dogs and cats, who aren’t meat to be slaughtered but human partners.

3. Children assigned the task of raising dogs and cats bonded with their charges.

4. Modern “pets” are (living) toy versions of the working dogs and cats who once helped manage the farms.

 

Poll time!

1. Do you have a pet?

2. Do you think pets should be treated like family members/humans?

3. Would you shoot your pet for a million dollars?

A. Never!

B. Yes, but I would use the money to raise 100 abandoned animals out of suffering.

C. Yes.

D. That’s a terrible question! What kind of sick fuck makes up a question like that?

Cathedral Round Up #3

stanford cover

From Stanford Magazine’s feature article, A Hard Look at How We See Race:

“Jennifer Eberhardt’s research shows subconscious connections in people’s minds between black faces and crime, and how those links may pervert justice. Law enforcement officers across the country are taking note.

The first time Jennifer Eberhardt presented her research at a law enforcement conference, she braced for a cold shoulder. How much would streetwise cops care what a social psychology professor had to say about the hidden reaches of racial bias?

Instead, she heard gasps, the loudest after she described an experiment that showed how quickly people link black faces with crime or danger at a subconscious level. In the experiment, students looking at a screen were exposed to a subliminal flurry of black or white faces. The subjects were then asked to identify blurry images as they came into focus frame by frame.

The makeup of the facial prompts had little effect on how quickly people recognized mundane items like staplers or books. But with images of weapons, the difference was stark—subjects who had unknowingly seen black faces needed far fewer frames to identify a gun or a knife than those who had been shown white faces. For a profession dealing in split-second decisions, the implications were powerful. … “

This is actually quite interesting research, but it does not investigate why people might have become hyper-vigilant about danger around black people to start with. Given that crime victimization surveys consistently show that blacks actually commit crimes at rates similar to their rates of incarceration, Professor Eberhardt is capturing, at best, a miniscule effect. The effect of black people actually committing real crimes explains the vast, vast majority of black incarceration, and any research on the subject that doesn’t take this into account is ignorant at best.

Keep in mind:

shootinggraph

The police disproportionately shoot whites and Hispanics, not blacks, and even when they do shoot at blacks, they are mysteriously less likely to kill them. Police officers are actually less likely to use force against black suspects because they fear backlash:

Pistol-whipped detective says he didn’t shoot attacker because of headlines (article NOT from a university):

“A Birmingham, Alabama, police detective who was pistol-whipped unconscious said Friday that he hesitated to use force because he didn’t want to be accused of needlessly killing an unarmed man. …

“”We don’t want to be in the media,” he said. “It’s hard times right now for us.” …

“Adding insult to injury: several bystanders, instead of helping, took pictures of the bloodied officer as he was facedown on the concrete and posted the images on social media, where the officer was mocked. …

“”Pistol whipped his ass to sleep,” one user wrote, employing the hashtag #FckDaPolice. Another mockingly offered the officer milk and cookies for his “nap time.””

And it’s not just anecdote–here’s a study: Cops hesitate more, err less when shooting black suspects.

• Officers were less likely to erroneously shoot unarmed black suspects than they were unarmed whites — 25 times less likely, in fact
• And officers hesitated significantly longer before shooting armed suspects who were black, compared to armed subjects who were white or Hispanic

“In sum,” writes Dr. Lois James, a research assistant professor with the university’s Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology who headed the study, “this research found that participants displayed significant bias favoring Black suspects” in their shooting decisions.

Stanford Magazine closes with Ghosts of Mascots Past: Respect should transcend nostalgia:

“… I, too, am a Stanford Indian. I’m a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a proud Stanford alumna. But nothing about the caricature on that shirt represents me, my family, my community, or the hundreds of other Native students and alumni of the university.

Whenever the Stanford Indian resurfaces, I’m reminded that the Native members of the Stanford community still aren’t viewed as equals. …

Adrienne Keene, ’07, is a postdoctoral fellow in Native American studies at Brown University. She writes about Native representations on her blog, Native Appropriations.

If Indians don’t like being used as mascots, politeness dictates not using them as mascots.

However, the idea that you aren’t viewed as an equal at a university that is at least 50% non-white is really quite a stretch; the idea that the mascot has anything to do with it makes about as much sense as saying that the Irish aren’t viewed as equals at Notre Dame.

WOW JUST WOW THIS IS SERIOUSLY NOT OKAY
WOW JUST WOW. THIS IS SERIOUSLY NOT OKAY.

If anything, I’d think that attending a place like Stanford is rather akin to having the world handed to you on a big silver platter, and so maybe it looks bad to complain too much that your platter isn’t shiny enough or it wasn’t handed over with sufficient deference.

Next up, Harvard:

HARVxCV1x0915_1x

The text says, “From the Ground Up: Doing Business at the base of the pyramid

Let’s take a moment to look at these two covers. Stanford recently had a “Protest” cover, showing Stanford students shutting down a highway in support of Black Lives Matter; today’s cover is even starker.

Harvard’s cover also features black people, but more subtly, and these are black people who actually live in Africa, rather than America. The overall feeling I get when reading official (non-student run) Harvard publications is one of internationalism–here are pictures of our Ugandan law students, here’s what up with our European investments, here a story about a professor in China–while Stanford’s publications feels decidedly mired in common American problems.

This is not to say that Harvard students aren’t protesting in favor of Black Lives Matter–they definitely are. But the university’s official publications chose not to highlight this the way Stanford’s do. Harvard’s vision of itself is global; Standford’s is national.

Anyway, back to the article, a discussion of how difficult it is to be economically successful in Africa, because even though food grows perfectly well there, people haven’t figured out how to get it all to market before it rots. A country like Nigeria, therefore, is reduced to importing tomato paste while millions of tomatoes rot in the countryside. So some Harvard guys are trying to teach Nigerians how to efficiently preserve their tomatoes so they can actually get them to market before they rot. (Wouldn’t the most efficient solution be sun-dried tomatoes? I know plenty of African fishermen sun-dry their catches because it’s an easy and free way to preserve food in their environment.)

Unfortunately the whole process is impeded by Fulani tribesmen who like to herd their cattle through the tomato fields.

Open borders rule!

Then we get to the meat of the article:

Imagine a simple triangle diagram of the planet’s population. A fortunate couple of billion upper-income people—in the United States and Canada, much of Europe, Japan, Australia, and prospering urban centers in parts of Asia and Latin America—occupy the apex. The invisible hand of market capitalism supplies this prominent minority with bountiful goods and services. But that leaves a lot of people out. At the very bottom of the pyramid, a billion or more humans live in poverty (on less than $1.25 per person per day), often depending on government programs and charitable aid to subsist.

” … In a conversation, he compared the lives of these people, the base of the pyramid, with those at the top. Because they likely do not own property, and lack rent or tax receipts, they are not bankable, so they turn to exploitative money lenders for credit to stock a shop or start a small business. For medical care, they choose among local healers, vendors of patent nostrums, or queues at public clinics (where it may take a bribe to advance in line). Their labor, often interrupted by those queues or long bus trips to remit cash to a rural family, may be seasonal, itinerant, and legally unprotected. Functioning markets, he noted, imply a level playing field between consumers and producers, but most of these people aren’t getting a remotely fair deal. It is as if the broad base of the pyramid were an alternate universe where familiar rules don’t apply.

“Rangan quickly credited the late corporate strategist C.K. Prahalad, D.B.A. ’75, of the University of Michigan, for saying (most prominently in The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty through Profits, published in 2004) that the same rules ought to apply.”

As I have said over and over, societies are built by the people in them. At this point, invoking the Invisible Hand is tantamount to invoking Voodoo or the influence of Mercury retrograde in Taurus.

Countries where the people have high levels of trust, low levels of aggression, and low time-discounting end up with efficient, complex markets where they can do business with strangers without fear of being cheated or killed. In nice countries, like Japan, Finland, and even the US, the people depending on government aid and charitable programs to subsist do not have to bribe their way into medical care because people in those countries believe that bribery and line-jumping are immoral.

Nice countries are places where everyone agrees to cooperate in the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Shitty ones are places where everyone is looking for a chance to defect–say, by running their cattle through a neighbor’s tomato fields.

“Philanthropic and development agencies tend not to scale or sustain themselves, he found, and public entities often fail to assure efficacy and efficiency. In contrast, “Through the ages, one actor has proven consistently able” to satisfy these criteria: competitive private industries.

“… Rangan applied his scholarly perspective to suggest inverting the telescope through which companies view prospective lower-income markets. “Typical marketing sells the organization to the customer,” he and research associate Arthur McCaffrey wrote a decade ago. (Need a car? We at GM/Mercedes/Toyota make good ones.) Within the base of the pyramid—devoid as it is of cash, roads, and gas stations—there are no such customers. But enormous demand exists for carts to ease the burden of hauling loads along muddy paths or cheap pumps to irrigate fields. Here, the proper paradigm is to “sell the customer to the organization.”

Long-term, I think making the opportunities to become successful available to people is actually a good strategy. The article is too long to continue quoting, but you can read it there if you’re interested in the opportunities/difficulties of investing in developing markets.

In Shedding Light through Social Science, Harvard’s President Faust, rated by Forbes as the 33rd most powerful woman in the world, descendant of Puritans, IVY league grads, Senators, and thoroughbred horse breeders, talks about the opportunities for Harvard to use its computing power to comb through Big Data in pursuit of the Great Informationing (my term, not hers):

“The nature of censorship in China, to give just one example, can be explored by monitoring the types of communication suppressed by the government, a project that relies on sifting through millions of social media posts.

“At the same time, real-world experiments can inform economic, political, and social theory. Are people more likely to save for retirement with the help of targeted brain stimulation? Can gender bias in hiring, promotions, and work assignments be overcome by evaluating candidates jointly rather than individually? How do malnutrition and sleep deprivation among low-income individuals influence economic outcomes? Faculty supported by cross-school research programs such as the Behavioral Insights Group and the Foundations of Human Behavior Initiative are answering these and other questions by undertaking discipline-spanning research that can shape everything from the decisions we make at the grocery store to the votes we cast in the ballot box.”

Personally, I think trying to electrocute people into having lower time preference is really scraping the bottom of the idea barrel; you might as well just throw in the towel and say that some people just aren’t very good at delaying gratification and there’s not much you can do about it. Faust continues:

“This is a time of remarkable promise for the social sciences. Yet short-sighted federal funding cuts are threatening our ability to answer questions that have the potential to inform and shape all of our lives. The last 51 of the United States’ recipients of the Nobel Prize in Economics were supported by the research divisions of the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences, which may soon face a more than 50 percent reduction from current federal funding. If we hope to address complex and consequential issues such as climate change, global pandemics, and inequality and human rights, we cannot ignore unique insights into the human and behavioral that the social sciences alone can provide.”

Harvard has more money than god and could send a mission to Mars if it felt like, but more taxpayer dollars to investigate whether or not we can alter people’s brains to get them to save money is critical.

Harvard then turns to women’s issues, with a spotlight portrait of history Professor Catherine Brekus:

Catherine Brekus ’85 specializes in hearing the voices of America’s early female religious leaders, nearly lost to history …

” “I did not like studying history in high school,” the Warren professor of the history of religion at Harvard Divinity School confesses, smiling. “I was always good at it…but the idea is that you memorize a lot of facts, mostly about political history, and what happened when.” When she taught the subject to high-school students for two years, Brekus noticed that textbooks “have this narrative of political events…and then you have this little human-interest thing in a box. That was where the women would appear. My goal as a historian,” she adds, “is to get women out of those boxes and into the main texts.””

And she’s going to fix this by studying the lives of women whom no one cares about?

If you want more women in the history books, do (or encourage them to do) something worth recording in a history book.

In A Case for Women:

“When Nitin Nohria became Harvard Business School (HBS) dean in mid 2010, he detailed five priorities, ranging from innovation in education and internationalization to inclusion. In setting out the latter goal, he said in a recent conversation, he aimed not at numerical diversity, but at a broader objective: that every HBS student and teacher be enabled to thrive within the community.”

If you can’t “thrive” at HBS without the faculty making special sure to pander to your needs, you do not belong in business. The idea that women are special little wilting flowers who have to be coddled at every turn because they can’t take care of themselves, even at the highest levels of intelligence and achievement, is absolutely repulsive.

““I have launched an initiative that will focus…on the challenges facing women at the school,” Nohria wrote. He created an institutional home for the work—a senior associate deanship for culture and community—and appointed Wilson professor of business administration Robin J. Ely to the post: a logical choice, given her research on race and gender relations in organizations. …

“Just as M.B.A. cases have become increasingly global in the past decade, he aims for at least 20 percent to “feature a female” leader within the next three years. (And because HBS sells cases to schools worldwide, that shift will radiate far beyond Allston.) …

Ely recently recalled the concerns that prompted Nohria’s initial interest, including persistent underrepresentation of women among M.B.A. students earning highest academic honors.”

In other words, Nohria is making pity-jobs for women because they can’t hack it at HBS. Next time you look at the skyrocketing cost of college tuition, remember that college is now a make-work program for unemployable women.

Continuing the theme, “Not Holding out for a Hero” features an interview with the Asian Man now drawing Wonder Woman.

In Empathy and Imagination, author Ceridwen Dovey (now there’ a British name for you!) talks about how guilty she feels over apartheid in her childhood home of South Africa, a place she doesn’t actually bother to live in anymore, now that her political activist parents’ goal of racial harmony and integration have been achieved.

“Motherhood also played a role [in the writing of her new novel]: “It made me more grateful for the time I have to write,” she adds—and ultimately more creative, especially while finishing Only the Animals in 2013. The nature of pregnancy, nursing, and caring for a newborn intensified her kinship with “the whole family of mammals.”

“… Like Coetzee, Sax, an author and academic best known for his writings on animal-human relations, has influenced Dovey, who also admits to feeling “bewildered to the point of inaction in terms of the ethical responsibilities we have toward animals and the obligations we owe them as the dominant species on earth. We treat animals in the most appalling ways right now.” …

““I am very aware that we are all creatures who suffer together, and that existence is hard for us all,” Dovey reflects. “There is something, also, about the bond we have with animals, the care and connection that we don’t appreciate or see the magic in as much as we should.””

As Staffan points out, vegetarianism and Englishness (in this case, perhaps Welshness) are extremely correlated:

Map of self-reported English ancestry
Map of self-reported English ancestry (green)
Map showing the per capita distribution of vegetarian restaurants
Map of per capita distribution of vegetarian restaurants (green)
Graph of the correlation between vegetarianism and English ancestry
Graph of the correlation between vegetarianism and English ancestry

The English and their near kin are probably unique in the world in their ability to consistently extend their circle of concern not only to non-tribally related humans, but even to animals–even other whites do not share this trait:

Graph showing the much lower correlation between
Graph showing the much lower correlation between “whites” and vegetarianism

Since the English are included in whites, removing them from the graph would result in an even lower correlation.

Off-topic, here is a quick excerpt from an interesting letter to the editor:

“In those distant days, every Harvard and Radcliffe first- and second-year student was required to complete one full Gen Ed course in each of three broad areas: only 18 (not 574) two-semester courses qualified for “Humanities,” “Social Science,” or “Natural Science” credit, plus a two-semester Gen Ed A writing course required of virtually all entering freshmen.”

Hopefully I can get back to this in more depth later, but I suspect the massive increase in the sheer amount of media (books, movies, TV shows, etc.,) available to everyone over the past hundred years, while in many ways quite wonderful, has contributed to an intellectual fracturing where we no longer have a common set of ideas and metaphors at our disposal with which to communicate with others.

I was going to do Princeton and Yale, but Harvard gave me so much material that I’m just going to save them for next month.

Animal Morality

I know it shouldn’t surprise me when people post outright, bold-faced lies about, say, the nature of humanity, but somehow I still stare in shock for a split second or two before struggling with whether or not to respond.

It’s generally a bad idea to respond, another thing you would think I’d have learned by now. No one likes the guy who starts every comment with, “Actually…”

Today’s lie was, to paraphrase slightly due to memory being imperfect, “Animals are so loving and compassionate, even to members not of their own species! Humans totally fail at compassion. We should learn from our ape cousins and ancestors!” The sentiments were accompanied by an adorable picture of an orangutan holding a baby tiger.

Okay, the exclamation points are my own additions.

First, the obvious: This shit is a baldfaced lie. If animals were regularly compassionate and loving to members of other species, lions would be vegans and running adoption agencies for baby gazelles whose parents had fallen victim to unfortunate accidents. If animals were regularly loving and compassionate, we wouldn’t make a big deal out of it every time a hippo and turtle hang out together. Does someone write a picture book documenting every set of human kids who become friends? Or every human who feeds a pet? Of course not. We only document these animal stories because they’re unusual.

Reality is boring. Lies entertain.

“But wait,” I hear you saying, “My dog totally loves me.”

Your dog is the result of thousands of years of selective breeding specifically for friendliness to humans. Also, you give it food. Does your dog give you food?

No.

Anyway, how nice are animals?

“Altruism” is defined (by the Wikipedia, anyway,) as, “behaviour by an individual that increases the fitness of another individual while decreasing the fitness of the actor.” Wikipedia defines “compassion” as a, “response to the suffering of others that motivates a desire to help.”

I’m not going to even try to define “love.”

Now, the definition of altruism itself hints that inter-species altruism probably isn’t a thing you’re going to see very often, because if the altruist increases the genes of another species at the expense of their own genes, then whatever genes originally drove the altruist to be altruistic become less common. Over time, the inter-species altruist gets replaced by everyone else, and altruism disappears.

This doesn’t mean that no one can ever be altruistic–altruism works just fine if it’s directed at your near kin. Animals that have a strong instinct to care for their family members and a certain level of intelligence can even apply that caring instinct to non-family. But I wouldn’t expect much friendliness from a crocodile.

It does means that claims about widespread altruism among animals toward other animals that aren’t family are probably nonsense.

The vast majority of observed instances of animal altruism involve close kin, pack members, or behavior that would normally be directed toward one’s kin but happened, by accident, to involve a non-related individual. The Wikipedia list on the subject, while incomplete and imperfect, gives a good impression.

In reality, the vast, vast majority of animals in this world do not give a shit about members not of their own species. Most of them don’t even care about members of their own species who aren’t family, and some will even eat their own children.

What about claim two, that humans suck at compassion?

Certainly some of us do. Humans aren’t as nice as I wish we were. Compassion, trust, kindness, etc., are all traits I would like to see more of in humans. But compared to animals, we look like Mother Theresa. How many animals set out little houses, baths, and seed-filled feeders for other animals? How many animals buy cancer treatments for their pets? For that matter, how many animals feed and care for a pet, period?

These behaviors are almost exclusively human.

Humans adopt orphans, run into burning buildings to rescue each other, fund social welfare nets, and spend a lot of time trying to prove to each other just how much they care about each other. Movies and novels basically wouldn’t exist without our capacity to empathize with strangers.

Humans support this level of altruism because our societies have bred us, like dogs, for it. (And since different societies are different, that means that different societies have bred different types/levels of altruism and compassion.) It is only in modern, first-world societies that we see anything resembling wide-spread altruism. Slavery–generally outlawed throughout the West in the late 17 or 1800s–is still common throughout many parts of Africa and the rest of the third world. If you really want to break your heart, just go read about Cambodian children sold as sex slaves at the age of 5. (Clearly the solution is more orangutans.)

(Seriously, what is the point of having a military if we don’t occasionally swoop into those brothels, behead everyone running the place, and then leave their heads on pikes about the city as warnings to everyone else?)

How about the final claim: Should we learn from the other apes?

Which do you think is friendlier, your dog or a wolf? The dog, obviously.

Human society has been getting steadily less violent for about as long as we’ve managed to account. Everyday life in non-state and pre-state societies is/was about as violent as Russia during WWII, only a bit more spread out. Chimpanzees, like wolves, are well-known for their violence. They wage war, form alliances to overthrow their leaders, and murder chimpanzee babies in order to breed faster with their mothers.

But what about bonobos?

I’ll grant that they have a lot of sex. They’re also known to be less aggressive than chimpanzees. This is not the same as being less aggressive than H sapiens. Until I see some data on bonobo homicide, I’m going to continue suspecting that bonobos are more violent than humans. Remember, some human societies–25 of them, though several of those are teeny–have gotten their murder rates down below 1 in 100,000 people. Since 50,000 is the high end estimate of number of bonobos on earth, if even one bonobo kills another bonobo once every two years, they’d still have 6x the homicide rate of Japan.

Not to mention that, unsurprisingly, empathy and “emotional intelligence” appear to correlate rather well with regular intelligence–and since humans are noticeably smarter (on average) than chimps, gorillas, bonobos, or tigers, this implies that we are probably better at empathizing with others, feeling compassion, and being generally altruistic.

This is pretty obvious to just about anyone who has ever had to deal with a bully, or looked at the average IQs of criminals.

 

All of which leads us back to our initial quandary: Why do people tell (and believe) such obvious lies?

I posit two reasons:

1. The other is but a foil for the self, and most people don’t really process words into their exact meanings, but into internal feeling-states. So when they say, “Animals are so caring and compassionate; we should be more like them,” they actually mean, “I like being caring and compassionate; you should be more like me.”

2. People who are caring and compassionate tend also to be caring and compassionate about animals, so thinking nice things about animals because it makes them happy.

Most of the time, people seem to remember that crime rates are actually lower among humans than among wild animals, and so don’t get too close to bears. (Sometimes they forget, but Gnon has his way with them.) But I do occasionally encounter people who really, truly seem to believe this. They really think that humans are irredeemably evil, and the world would be better off without us. But a world without humans would be a world with even less empathy and compassion than our current world, not more.

 

Conservation of Caring

I hypothesize that humans have only so many shits to give.

Some of us start out with more inherent ability to care than others do, but however much caring you’ve got in you, there’s probably not a lot you can do to increase it beyond that basic amount.

What you can do, however, is shift it around.

If things are going really badly for yourself, you’ll dedicate most of your energy to yourself–dealing with sickness, job loss, divorce, etc., leave very little energy leftover for anyone else. You are simply empty. You have no more shits to give.

If things are going badly for someone close to you–family or friend–you’ll dedicate much of your energy to them. A sick or suffering child, for example, will completely absorb your care.

Beyond your immediate circle of close friends and family, the ability to care about others drops dramatically, as the number of others increases dramatically. You might give a suffering acquaintance $5 or an hour of your time, but it is rare to otherwise go out of one’s way for strangers.

There are just way too many people in this category to care deeply about all of them. You don’t have that much time in your day. You can, however, care vaguely about their well-being. You can read about an earthquake in Nepal and feel really bad for those people.

One of the goals of moralists and philosophers has been (I think) to try to increase peoples’ concern for the well-being of others. If concern for others can actually be *increased*, then we may be able to care about ever-bigger groups of people. This would be especially good for people in modern society, as we now live among millions of people in countries of hundreds of millions on a planet with billions, while possessing nuclear weapons and the ability to destroy our own environment, it is pretty important that we feel at least some vague feelings of responsibility toward people who are not within our immediate friend/family circles.

Even if moralizers and the like can only cause a small increase in the amount of caring we can do, that still could be the difference between nuking a million people or not, so that’s still a valuable thing to try.

(Note that this kind of large-scale concern is probably entirely evolutionarily novel, as the ability to even know that people exist on the other side of the planet is evolutionarily novel. Most people throughout human history lived more or less in tiny hunter-gatherer bands and people not in their bands were basically enemies; it is only in a handful of countries over the past couple thousand years or so that this basic pattern has shifted.)

But to the extent that the number of shits we can give is fixed, we might end up just shuffling around our areas of concern.

And doing that seems likely to be prone to a variety of difficulties, like outrage fatigue (being unable to sustain a high level of caring for very long,) missing vital things that we should have been concerned about while being concerned about other things, and fucking things up via trying to fix problems we don’t actually know the first thing about and then getting distracted by the next concerning thing without ever making sure we actually improved things.

Well-meaning people often try hard to care about lots of things; they feel like they should be, somehow, treating others as they would themselves–that is, extending to everyone in the world the same level of caring and compassion. This is physically impossible, which leads to well-meaning people feeling bad about their inability to measure up to their standards of goodness. As Scot Alexander points out, it’s better to set reasonable goals for yourself and accomplish them than to set unreasonable goals and then fail.

My own recommendation is to beware of “caring” that is really just social posturing (putting someone down for not being hip to the latest political vocabulary, or not knowing very much about an obscure issue,) or any case of suddenly caring about the plight of “others” far away from you whom you didn’t care about five minutes ago. (Natural disasters excepted, as they obviously cause a significant change in people’s conditions overnight.) Understand your limits–realize that trying to solve problems of people you’ve never met and whom you know virtually nothing about is probably not going to work, but you can make life better for your friends, family, and local community. You can concentrate on understanding a few specific issues and devote time and resources to those.

I’m Sick of False Empathy

Empathy: the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

False empathy is claiming empathy with people one has never met/has no connection with, for the purpose of harming/denying empathy to someone right in front of oneself, someone with whom you ought to have some sort of connection.

It is generally expressed as, “yes, I see you are hurting terribly, but I do not care because of your opinion on X”, or even, “No, you cannot actually be hurting, because of your opinion on X.”
This is not empathy. It’s a form of bullying; it drives people apart and decreases trust.

(Another form of false empathy is identifying with the suffering of others, but being completely clueless about their hopes, joys, angers, humor, or basically the vast majority of emotions and motivations they feel.)

Study: Aspies don’t lack empathy; they have too much

Theory claims that individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome don’t lack empathy – in fact if anything they empathize too much

A couple of quotes:

“Children are asked to watch two puppets, Sally and Anne. Sally takes a marble and places it in a basket, then leaves the stage. While she’s gone, Anne takes the marble out and puts it in a box. The children are then asked: Where will Sally look first for her marble when she returns?

Most 4-year-olds know Sally didn’t see Anne move the marble, so they get it right. By 10 or 11, children with developmental disabilities who have verbal IQs equivalent to 3-year-olds also get it right. But 80 per cent of autistic children age 10 to 11 guess that Sally will look in the box, because they know that’s where the marble is and they don’t realize other people don’t share all of their knowledge.”

“When it comes to not understanding the inner state of minds too different from our own, most people also do a lousy job, Schwarz says. “But the non-autistic majority gets a free pass because, if they assume that the other person’s mind works like their own, they have a much better chance of being right.” ”

You know, I’ve been saying that. I’ve been saying.