Note: this is just a theory, developed in reaction to recent conversations.
From Twitter user FinchesofDarwin comes an interesting tale, about a polygynously-married woman in Guiana:
Manwaiko had two wives, and each of these had a family of young children. … Between the two wives and their respective children little kindness seemed to exist. One evening, while the party were squatting on the ground, eating their supper… one of the wives, who with her children had been employed in cutting firewood, discovered, on her return, that the supper for herself and her family was not to be found, having been carried off by some animal through neglect or connivance of her rival. It could hardly be expected that she would sit down quietly without the evening meal for herself and her children… and she accordingly applied to Manwaiko for a share of his allowance, which was ample. He treated her request with contempt… She then commenced a furious torrent of abuse, during which he finished his meal with great composure, until, being irritated at his indifference, she at last told him that he was no “capitan,” no father, and no man. …
Such stormy ebullitions of temper are rare in the Indian families, though, where polygamy is practiced, continual variance and ill-feeling are found.
From The Indian Tribes of Guiana, their Condition and Habits, by Reverend Brett, 1868
As we were discussing Friday, one form of female sociopathy (at least relevant to this conversation) likely involves manipulating or coercing others into providing resources for her children. On Monday we discussed mental illness and its effects on fertility (generally it lowers fertility in men, but depression has little to no effect on women, neuroticism may enhance fertility, and sometimes the sisters of people with mental illnesses have slightly increased fertility, suggesting that low levels of certain traits may be beneficial.)
Here is where I get 100% speculative, and to be frank, I don’t like saying negative things about women (since I am one,) but if men can be sociopaths, then women can, too–and conversely, the majority of men are not sociopaths, and neither are the majority of women.
In the quoted passage, we see two common tropes: First, the evil stepmother, in the form of the wife who let wild animals make off with half of the family’s food. Second, the crazy bitch, who goes on a tirade questioning her husband’s manliness because he has failed to provide food for her children.
In this case, only the first woman is truly sociopathic (she has harmed the other woman and her children,) but we can see how the second’s behavior could easily spill over into unreasonable demands.
Female sociopathy–manipulating men out of their money–only works as an evolutionary strategy in an environment where men themselves vary in their trustworthiness and cannot be easily predicted. If the men in a society can be counted upon to always provide for their offspring, women have no need to try to manipulate them into doing so; if men in a society flat out refuse to do so, then there is no point to trying. Only in a situation where you can affect the amount of resources you get out of a man will there be any point to doing so.
Given the environmental constraints, sociopathic female behavior is likely to increase in reaction to an increase in sociopathic male behavior–that is, when women fear abandonment or an inability to care for their children.
This manipulation has two targets–first, the father of the child, whom the woman wishes to prevent from wandering off and having children with other women, or baring that, from giving them any resources. Second, should this fail, or the male be too violent for women and children to be near, the woman targets a new male to convince him to care for her, her children, and possibly beat the resources out of the old male.
Since children actually do need to eat, and getting enough resources can be tough, society is generally fine with women doing what they need to provide for their families (unlike men doing whatever they need to maximize reproduction, which usually ends with the police informing you that no, you cannot go “Genghis Khan” on Manhattan.)
But at times women really do go overboard, earning the title of “crazy ex.” Here’s part of one woman’s helpful list of why she went crazy:
1. He told me he loved me, then he left me. … I wasn’t going to make it easy for him to leave me. I promised myself I’d fight for my relationship because I loved him and he said he loved me. … 3. If you didn’t know, one of the quickest ways to drive a woman insane is to ignore her. … This was the most severe phase of crazy for me. I was infuriated that not only was I losing my relationship and wasn’t given a reason why, but I was being blatantly ignored by him too! … 4. He told me not to worry about his “friend,” and now he’s dating her.
Back before the invention of birth control, a woman who got dumped like this was most likely pregnant, if not already caring for several children. Abandonment was a big deal, and she had every reason not to just let her partner wander off and start impregnating new chicks.
In our modern world, he made it clear that he didn’t want to be in a relationship anymore and left.
After my ex boyfriend broke up with me I went crazy… After he dumped me for the third time I felt used and devastated. I wanted an explanation and answers. He was a jerk to me. A cruel son of a bitch. I kept begging, calling, and begging. I never got a reply back. This went on for over 3 months. …
This isn’t the only kind of “crazy” I’ve seen around, though.
An acquaintance recently recounted a story about an ex who actually ended up in the mental hospital for suicidal ideation. She listed him as her contact, something he was not exactly keen on, having already told her the relationship was over.
Then there is the phenomenon of people actually claiming to be crazy, often with rather serious disorders that you would not normally think they would want to revealing to others. For example, I have seen several young women claim recently to have Multiple Personality Disorder–a condition that is not in the DSM and so you can no longer get diagnosed with it. Though you can get diagnosed with Disassociative Identity Disorder, this disorder is rare and quite controversial, and I would expect anyone with a real diagnosis to use the real name, just as few schizophrenics claim to have been diagnosed with dementia praecox.
MPD is less of a real disorder and more of a fad spread by movies, TV, and unscrupulous shrinks, though many people who claim to have it are quite genuinely suffering.
(I should emphasize that in most of these cases, the person in question is genuinely suffering.)
Most of these cases–MPD, PTSD, etc–are supposedly triggered by traumatic experiences, such as childhood abuse or spousal abuse. (Oddly, being starved half to death in a POW camp doesn’t seem to trigger MPD.) And yet, despite the severity of these conditions, people I encounter seem to respond positively to these claims of mental illness–if anything, a claim of mental illness seems to get people more support.
So I suggest a potential mechanism:
First, everyone of course has a pre-set range of responses/behaviors they can reasonably call up, but these ranges vary from person to person. For example, I will run faster if my kids are in danger than if I’m late for an appointment, but you may be faster than me even when you’re just jogging.
Second, an unstable, violent, or neglectful environmental triggers neuroticism, which in turn triggers mental instability.
Third, mental instability attracts helpers, who try to “rescue” the woman from bad circumstances.
Fourth, sometimes this goes completely overboard into trying to destroy an ex, convincing a new partner to harm the ex, spreading untrue rumors about the ex, etc. Alternatively, it goes overboard in the woman become unable to cope with life and needing psychiatric treatment/medication.
Since unstable environments trigger mental instability in the first place, sociopathic men are probably most likely to encounter sociopathic women, which makes the descriptions of female sociopathy automatically sound very questionable:
“My crazy ex told all of our friends I gave her gonorrhea!”
“Yeah, but that was after you stole $5,000 from her and broke two of her ribs.”
This makes it difficult to collect objective information on the matter, and is why this post is very, very speculative.
Note: this is just a theory, developed in reaction to recent conversations.
Let us assume, first of all, that men and women have different optimal reproductive strategies, based on their different anatomy. In case you have not experienced birth yourself, it’s a difference of calories, time, and potential death.
In the ancestral environment (before child support laws, abortion, birth control, or infant formula):
For men, the absolute minimal paternal investment in a child–immediate abandonment–involves a few minutes of effort and spoonful of semen. There are few dangers involved, except for the possibility of other males competing for the same female. A hypothetical man could, with very little strain or extra physical effort, father thousands of children–gay men regularly go through the physical motions of doing just that, and hardly seem exhausted by the effort.
For women, the absolute minimal parental investment is nine months of gestation followed by childbirth. This is calorically expensive, interferes with the mother’s ability to take care of her other children, and could kill her. A woman who tried to maximize her pregnancies from menarchy to menopause might produce 25 children.
If a man abandons his children, there is a decent chance they will still survive, because they can be nursed by their mother; if a woman abandons her child, it is likely to die, because its father cannot lactate and so cannot feed it.
In sum, for men, random procreative acts (ie, sex) are extremely low-cost and still have the potential to produce offspring. For women, random procreative acts are extremely costly. So men have an incentive to spread their sperm around and women have an incentive to be picky about when and with whom they reproduce.
This is well known to, well, everyone.
Now, obviously most men do not abandon their children (nor do most women.) It isn’t in their interest to do so. A man’s children are more likely to survive and do well in life if he invests in them. (In a few societies where paternity is really uncertain, men invest resources in their sisters’ children, who are at least related to them, rather than opting out altogether.) As far as I know, some amount of male input into their children or their sisters’ children is a human universal–the only variation is in how much.
Men want to invest in their children because this helps their children succeed, but a few un-tended bastards here and there are not a major problem. Some of them might even survive.
By contrast, women really don’t want to get saddled with bastards.
We may define sociopathy, informally, as attempting to achieve evolutionary ends by means that harm others in society, eg, stealing. In this case, rape and child abandonment are sociopathic ways of increasing men’s reproductive success at the expense of other people. (Note that sociopathy doesn’t have a formal definition and I am using it here as a tool, not a real diagnosis. If someone has a better term, I’m happy to use it.)
This is, again, quite obvious–everyone knows that men are much more likely than women to be imprisoned for violent acts, rape included. Men are also more likely than women to try to skip out on their child support payments.
Note that this “sociopathy” is not necessarily a mental illness, (a true illness ought to make a dent on one’s evolutionary success.) Genghis Khan raped a lot of women, and it turned out great for his genes. It is simply a reproductive strategy that harms other people.
So what does female sociopathy look like?
It can’t look like male sociopathy, because child abandonment decreases a woman’s fertility. For a woman, violence and abandonment would be signs of true mental defects. Rather, we want to look at ways women improve their chances of reproductive success at the expense of others.
In other words, female sociopathy involves manipulating or coercing others into providing resources for her children.
But it’s getting late; let’s continue with part 2 on Monday. (Wednesday is book club.)
I ran across an interesting study today, on openness, creativity, and cortical thickness.
The psychological trait of “openness”–that is, willingness to try new things or experiences–correlates with other traits like creativity and political liberalism. (This might be changing as cultural shifts are changing what people mean by “liberalism,” but it was true a decade ago and is still statistically true today.)
a brain morphometric measure used to describe the combined thickness of the layers of the cerebral cortex in mammalianbrains, either in local terms or as a global average for the entire brain. Given that cortical thickness roughly correlates with the number of neurons within an ontogenetic column, it is often taken as indicative of the cognitive abilities of an individual, albeit the latter are known to have multiple determinants.
“The key finding from our study was that there was a negative correlation between Openness and cortical thickness in regions of the brain that underlie memory and cognitive control. This is an interesting finding because typically reduced cortical thickness is associated with decreased cognitive function, including lower psychometric measures of intelligence,” Vartanian told PsyPost.”
Citizendium explains some of the issues associated with too thin or thick cortexs:
Typical values in adult humans are between 1.5 and 3 mm, and during aging, a decrease (also known as cortical thinning) on the order of about 10 μm per year can be observed . Deviations from these patterns can be used as diagnostic indicators for brain disorders: While Alzheimer’s disease, even very early on, is characterized by pronounced cortical thinning, Williams syndrome patients exhibit an increase in cortical thickness of about 5-10% in some regions , and lissencephalic patients show drastic thickening, up to several centimetres in occipital regions.
Obviously people with Alzheimer’s have difficulty remembering things, but people with Williams Syndrome also tend to be low-IQ and have difficulty with memory.
Of course, the cortex is a big region, and it may matter specifically where yours is thin or thick. In this study, the thinness was found in the left middle frontal gyrus, left middle temporal gyrus, left superior temporal gyrus, left inferior parietal lobule, right inferior parietal lobule, and right middle temporal gyrus.
These are areas that, according to the study’s authors, have previously been shown to be activated during neuroimaging studies of creativity, and so the specific places you would expect to see some kind of anatomical difference in particularly creative people.
Hypothetically, maybe reduced cortical thickness, in some people, makes them worse at remembering specific kinds of experiences–and thus more likely to try new ones. For example, if I remember very strongly that I like Tomato Sauce A, and that I hate Tomato Sauce B, I’m likely to just keep buying A. But if every time I go to the store I only have a vague memory that there was a tomato sauce I really liked, I might just pick sauces at random–eventually trying all of them.
The authors have a different interpretation:
“We believe that the reason why Openness is associated with reduced cortical thickness is that this condition reduces the person’s ability to filter the contents of thought, thereby facilitating greater immersion in the sensory, cognitive, and emotional information that might otherwise have been filtered out of consciousness.”
So, less meta-brain, more direct experience? Less worrying, more experiencing?
The authors note a few problems with the study (for starters, it is hardly a representative sample of either “creative” people nor exceptional geniuses, being limited to people in STEM,) but it is still an interesting piece of data and I hope to see more like it.
If you want to read more about brains, I recommend Kurzweil’s How to Create a Mind, which I am reading now. It goes into some detail on relevant brain structures, and how they work to create memories, recognize patterns, and let us create thought. (Incidentally, the link goes to Amazon Smile, which raises money for charity; I selected St. Jude’s.)
The terms “Conservative” and “Liberal” are much abused, and, I fear, nearly obsolete, but this thread makes use of them anyway due to a lack of good replacements. I utilize them in hope that you will understand my meaning.
Conservatism and Liberalism basically see human nature quite differently:
Conservatives see people as possessing an ultimate inner essence, some inborn quality, be it your soul, nature, or DNA. This you can mold, but cannot fundamentally change. To put it in Christian terms (since most American Conservatives are Christian), through Free Will you can make good, moral, decisions, but you cannot change the fact that you are Fallen; only through an external Salvation-through-Christ can that be changed.
In more mundane terms, through Free Will, or Virtuous Living, you can make the most of your inner essence. For example, even someone who was born dull–an unchangeable state–may be honest, hard working, and follow the advise of smarter people. A person with a tendency toward addiction may work hard to fight that addiction, avoid drugs entirely, and still live virtuously.
In this view, your nature is like clay. You can’t trade it in for wood or steel or sand, but what you do with that clay, whether you turn it into a plate or a vase or sculpture, (or a splat on the ground) is up to you.
By contrast, Liberalism (in its theoretical form) rejects the notion of an “inner self.” You have no inner essence. There is no “you;” only a set of interactions between your body and the rest of society. The identities people use to describe themselves, man or woman, gay or straight, black or white, Christian or not, are all “social constructs” created via your interactions with the rest of society.
Like the Bohr model of the atom, your “inner essence” only exists when observed by others.
For example: suppose a person of 100% sub-Saharan ancestry had a rare skin condition that made him look white. In his daily life, as he went about his business, he would be treated like a “white” person. Suppose, in addition, he had not been raised by a black family (adopted as an infant by a non-black family) and no one ever told him he was genetically black. Would he have any consciousness of himself as a “black” person?
Or note, for example, the liberal reluctance to attribute to people even traits like “smart” or “dumb” (“Oh, those kids just went to really good schools where they had really good teachers, that’s why they did well on that test, and besides, I don’t really believe in IQ.”)
Dig a bit, and you can find people who believe things like “women do worse in sports and weightlifting than men because society has conditioned them to” and “women are shorter than men because society has consistently underfed them for centuries.”
In Liberalism, your self is not like clay, but a point of environmental intersection where all of the things that have ever happened to you or you have perceived happen to meet.
Conservatism contains a kind of optimistic belief that no matter how bad things are, “you” can, by dint of will, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and overcome hardships. You can exist separate from the bad things that happened and can create a good life.
Conservatism therefore tends to approach life’s difficulties as a matter of “right living.” How to lead a good life? By doing it right. Clean your room. Be polite. Honor your mother and your father. Don’t covet.
Conservatism’s approach to dealing with problems is to “get over them.” Pretend they don’t exist. In its optimistic form, it believes that this is possible and that you can overcome your problems. (In its less optimistic form, it comes across as an excuse for abandoning people to insurmountable problems.)
Liberalism contains a kind of pessimism that “you” do not exist separate from the bad events of your life, but rather are created by them. “Racism” is an essential part of what creates “black identity” and thus “black people.” While you can “redefine” and “reclaim” identities, you cannot simply “get over” a core part of your own identity. To do so would render yourself blank.
Since Liberalism defines suffering as a core part of who people are, doesn’t tell them to reject it.
Liberalism tends to approach life’s difficulties as a result of the confluence of societal forces that have all impinged upon a single body to produce that difficulty. For example, a rock does not fall off a cliff and hit a passing car simply because the rock contained some internal desire to launch itself off a cliff, but because a confluence of forces (mostly gravity) compelled it downward. Likewise, when people misbehave, it is because of external circumstances that have created that behavior, like historical racism, sexism, malnutrition, bad schools, etc.
The solution is not to encourage “right behavior” (which is impossible) but to change thought patterns so that oppressive thought categories like “black” or “gay” will stop existing.
In other words, if whites can be convinced to stop thinking that race exists, then they will stop being racist against black people, and black people in the future can exist with identities that don’t include racial suffering.
In a slightly less abstract vein, when we ask “Why did psychology heartily endorse so many experiments that have failed to replicate?” many of those experiments conformed to the liberal, environmentalist view of human identity and behavior.
To give a bit of background: Pre-WWII, psychology was quite taken with Freudian notions that people have unconscious or subconscious thoughts and desires. Freudian ideas are hard to quantify and even harder to falsify, and thus test in any kind of rigorous, scientific way (though there are anthropological studies that have attempted this.) Post-war, mainstream psychology went in a different direction–skinnerian behavioralism–but behavioralism is boring because it treats people like black boxes and just looks at outcomes.
Also post-war, psychologists wanted to figure out why people would do things like stuff other humans into ovens and then claim later, “I was just following orders.” Hence the famous Milgram and Stanford Prison Experiments:
The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures was a series of social psychologyexperiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram. They measured the willingness of study participants, men from a diverse range of occupations with varying levels of education, to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience. Participants were led to believe that they were assisting an unrelated experiment, in which they had to administer electric shocks to a “learner.” These fake electric shocks gradually increased to levels that would have been fatal had they been real.
As far as I know, the Milgram experiments have replicated relatively well, and so will not be further discussed. The much ballyhooed Stanford Prison experiment, however, has turned out to be much more questionable.
The Stanford Prison Experiment became popular because it purportedly demonstrated that people’s behavior could be radically altered by even minor environmental expectations–in this case, being paid to pretend to be a prison guard for a few days turned people into raging psychopaths who tortured and abused their fellow students (“prisoners”) into mental breakdowns.
In reality, as has now come out, the “guards” were instructed to act violent and mean, and the prisoners were happily playing along, because after all, it was a fake prison:
Some of the experiment’s findings have been called into question, and the experiment has been criticized for unethical and unscientific practices. Critics have noted that Zimbardo instructed the “guards” to exert psychological control over the “prisoners”, and that some of the participants behaved in a way that would help the study, so that, as one “guard” later put it, “the researchers would have something to work with.” The experiment has also been criticized for its small and unrepresentative sample population. Variants of the experiment have been performed by other researchers, but none of these attempts have replicated the results of the SPE.
Psychology is littered with other experiments purporting to prove that the environment has a large effect on how people act and feel in daily life. Take “priming,” the idea that you can change people’s beliefs or behavior via very simple stimuli, eg, people will walk more slowly and shuffle their feet after reading words related to old people; or “power posing,” the idea that you will be more assertive and effective at work and negotiations after adopting a Superman or Wonder Woman type pose in front of the bathroom mirror for a few minutes.
Phrased optimistically, if “you” can be shaped by negative experiences, then “you” can be re-shaped by positive ones.
None of this is replicating.
It’s not that “priming” can’t exist (I’m actually certain that in some form it does, otherwise advertising wouldn’t work, and studies show that advertising probably works,) but that the extreme view assuming that people possess no true inner essence is flawed. A moderately shy person might be able, with the right ritual, to “pump themselves up” and do something they were too shy to do before, like give a presentation or ask for a raise, but a very shy person might find this completely ineffective.
Both people and their circumstances are complicated.
Sometimes people DO react to environmental stimuli, and sometimes people DO overcome tremendous odds. Sometimes people who were abused abuse others, and sometimes they don’t.
The other day I was walking through the garden when I looked down, saw one of these, leapt back, screamed loudly enough to notify the entire neighborhood:
(The one in my yard was insect free, however.)
After catching my breath, I wondered, “Is that a wasp nest or a beehive?” and crept back for a closer look. Wasp nest. I mentally paged through my knowledge of wasp nests: wasps abandon nests when they fall on the ground. This one was probably empty and safe to step past. I later tossed it onto the compost pile.
The interesting part of this incident wasn’t the nest, but my reaction. I jumped away from the thing before I had even consciously figured out what the nest was. Only once I was safe did I consciously think about the nest.
Gazzaniga discusses a problem faced by brains trying to evolve to be bigger and smarter: how do you get more neurons working without taking up an absurd amount of space connecting each and every neuron to every other neuron?
Imagine a brain with 5 connected neurons: each neuron requires 4 connections to talk to every other neuron. A 5 neuron brain would thus need space for 10 total connections.
The addition of a 6th neuron would require 5 new connections; a 7th neuron requires 6 new connections, etc. A fully connected brain of 100 neurons would require 99 connections per neuron, for a total of 4,950 connections.
Connecting all of your neurons might work fine if if you’re a sea squirt, with only 230 or so neurons, but it is going to fail hard if you’re trying to hook up 86 billion. The space required to hook up all of these neurons would be massively larger than the space you can actually maintain by eating.
So how does an organism evolving to be smarter deal with the connectivity demands of increasing brain size?
Human social lives suggest an answer: Up on the human scale, one person can, Dunbar estimates, have functional social relationships with about 150 other people, including an understanding of those people’s relationships with each other. 150 people (the “Dunbar number”) is therefore the amount of people who can reliably cooperate or form groups without requiring any top-down organization.
So how do humans survive in groups of a thousand, a million, or a billion (eg, China)? How do we build large-scale infrastructure projects requiring the work of thousands of people and used by millions, like interstate highways? By organization–that is, specialization.
In a small tribe of 150 people, almost everyone in the tribe can do most of the jobs necessary for the tribe’s survival, within the obvious limits of biology. Men and women are both primarily occupied with collecting food. Both prepare clothing and shelter; both can cook. There is some specialization of labor–obviously men can carry heavier loads; women can nurse children–but most people are generally competent at most jobs.
In a modern industrial economy, most people are completely incompetent at most jobs. I have a nice garden, but I don’t even know how to turn on a tractor, much less how to care for a cow. The average person does not know how to knit or sew, much less build a house, wire up the electricity and lay the plumbing. We attend school from 5 to 18 or 22 or 30 and end up less competent at surviving in our own societies than a cave man with no school was in his, not because school is terrible but because modern industrial society requires so much specialized knowledge to keep everything running that no one person can truly master even a tenth of it.
Specialization, not just of people but of organizations and institutions, like hospitals devoted to treating the sick, Walmarts devoted to selling goods, and Microsoft devoted to writing and selling computer software and hardware, lets society function without requiring that everyone learn to be a doctor, merchant, and computer expert.
Similarly, brains expand their competence via specialization, not denser neural connections.
The smartest people may boast more neurons than those of average intelligence, but their brains have fewer neural connections…
Neuroscientists in Germany recruited 259 participants, both men and women, to take IQ tests and have their brains imaged…
The research revealed a strong correlation between the number of dendrites in a person’s cerebral cortex and their intelligence. The smartest participants had fewer neural connections in their cerebral cortex.
Fewer neural connections overall allows different parts of the brain to specialize, increasing local competence.
All things are produced more plentifully and easily and of a better quality when one man does one thing that is natural to him and does it at the right time, and leaves other things. –Plato, The Republic
The brains of mice, as Gazzinga discusses, do not need to be highly specialized, because mice are not very smart and do not do many specialized activities. Human brains, by contrast, are highly specialized, as anyone who has ever had a stroke has discovered. (Henry Harpending of West Hunter, for example, once had a stroke while visiting Germany that knocked out the area of his brain responsible for reading, but since he couldn’t read German in the first place, he didn’t realize anything was wrong until several hours later.)
I read, about a decade ago, that male and female brains have different levels, and patterns, of internal connectivity. (Here and here are articles on the subject.) These differences in connectivity may allow men and women to excel at different skills, and since we humans are a social species that can communicate by talking, this allows us to take cognitive modality beyond the level of a single brain.
So modularity lets us learn (and do) more things, with the downside that sometimes knowledge is highly localized–that is, we have a lot of knowledge that we seem able to access only under specific circumstances, rather than use generally.
For example, I have long wondered at the phenomenon of people who can definitely do complicated math when asked to, but show no practical number sense in everyday life, like the folks from the Yale Philosophy department who are confused about why African Americans are under-represented in their major, even though Yale has an African American Studies department which attracts a disproportionate % of Yale’s African American students. The mathematical certainty that if any major in the whole school that attracts more African American students, then other majors will end up with fewer, has been lost on these otherwise bright minds.
Yalies are not the only folks who struggle to use the things they know. When asked to name a book–any book–ordinary people failed. Surely these people have heard of a book at some point in their lives–the Bible is pretty famous, as is Harry Potter. Even if you don’t like books, they were assigned in school, and your parents probably read The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham to you when you were a kid. It is not that they do not have the knowledge as they cannot access it.
Teachers complain all the time that students–even very good ones–can memorize all of the information they need for a test, regurgitate it all perfectly, and then turn around and show no practical understanding of the information at all.
Richard Feynman wrote eloquently of his time teaching future science teachers in Brazil:
In regard to education in Brazil, I had a very interesting experience. I was teaching a group of students who would ultimately become teachers, since at that time there were not many opportunities in Brazil for a highly trained person in science. These students had already had many courses, and this was to be their most advanced course in electricity and magnetism – Maxwell’s equations, and so on. …
I discovered a very strange phenomenon: I could ask a question, which the students would answer immediately. But the next time I would ask the question – the same subject, and the same question, as far as I could tell – they couldn’t answer it at all! For instance, one time I was talking about polarized light, and I gave them all some strips of polaroid.
Polaroid passes only light whose electric vector is in a certain direction, so I explained how you could tell which way the light is polarized from whether the polaroid is dark or light.
We first took two strips of polaroid and rotated them until they let the most light through. From doing that we could tell that the two strips were now admitting light polarized in the same direction – what passed through one piece of polaroid could also pass through the other. But then I asked them how one could tell the absolute direction of polarization, for a single piece of polaroid.
They hadn’t any idea.
I knew this took a certain amount of ingenuity, so I gave them a hint: “Look at the light reflected from the bay outside.”
Nobody said anything.
Then I said, “Have you ever heard of Brewster’s Angle?”
“Yes, sir! Brewster’s Angle is the angle at which light reflected from a medium with an index of refraction is completely polarized.”
“And which way is the light polarized when it’s reflected?”
“The light is polarized perpendicular to the plane of reflection, sir.” Even now, I have to think about it; they knew it cold! They even knew the tangent of the angle equals the index!
I said, “Well?”
Still nothing. They had just told me that light reflected from a medium with an index, such as the bay outside, was polarized; they had even told me which way it was polarized.
I said, “Look at the bay outside, through the polaroid. Now turn the polaroid.”
“Ooh, it’s polarized!” they said.
After a lot of investigation, I finally figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant. When they heard “light that is reflected from a medium with an index,” they didn’t know that it meant a material such as water. They didn’t know that the “direction of the light” is the direction in which you see something when you’re looking at it, and so on. Everything was entirely memorized, yet nothing had been translated into meaningful words. So if I asked, “What is Brewster’s Angle?” I’m going into the computer with the right keywords. But if I say, “Look at the water,” nothing happens – they don’t have anything under “Look at the water”!
The students here are not dumb, and memorizing things is not bad–memorizing your times tables is very useful–but they have everything lodged in their “memorization module” and nothing in their “practical experience module.” (Note: I am not necessarily suggesting that thee exists a literal, physical spot in the brain where memorized and experienced knowledge reside, but that certain brain structures and networks lodge information in ways that make it easier or harder to access.)
People frequently make arguments that don’t make logical sense when you think them all the way through from start to finish, but do make sense if we assume that people are using specific brain modules for quick reasoning and don’t necessarily cross-check their results with each other. For example, when we are angry because someone has done something bad to us, we tend to snap at people who had nothing to do with it. Our brains are in “fight and punish mode” and latch on to the nearest person as the person who most likely committed the offense, even if we consciously know they weren’t involved.
Political discussions are often marred by folks running what ought to be logical arguments through status signaling, emotional, or tribal modules. The desire to see Bad People punished (a reasonable desire if we all lived in the same physical community with each other) interferes with a discussion of whether said punishment is actually useful, effective, or just. For example, a man who has been incorrectly convicted of the rape of a child will have a difficult time getting anyone to listen sympathetically to his case.
In the case of white South African victims of racially-motivated murder, the notion that their ancestors did wrong and therefore they deserve to be punished often overrides sympathy. As BBC notes, these killings tend to be particularly brutal (they often involve torture) and targeted, but the South African government doesn’t care:
According to one leading political activist, Mandla Nyaqela, this is the after-effect of the huge degree of selfishness and brutality which was shown towards the black population under apartheid. …
Virtually every week the press here report the murders of white farmers, though you will not hear much about it in the media outside South Africa.In South Africa you are twice as likely to be murdered if you are a white farmer than if you are a police officer – and the police here have a particularly dangerous life. The killings of farmers are often particularly brutal. …
Ernst Roets’s organisation has published the names of more than 2,000 people who have died over the last two decades. The government has so far been unwilling to make solving and preventing these murders a priority. …
There used to be 60,000 white farmers in South Africa. In 20 years that number has halved.
The Christian Science Monitor reports on the measures ordinary South Africans have to take in what was once a safe country to not become human shishkabobs, which you should pause and read, but is a bit of a tangent from our present discussion. The article ends with a mind-bending statement about a borrowed dog (dogs are also important for security):
My friends tell me the dog is fine around children, but is skittish around men, especially black men. The people at the dog pound told them it had probably been abused. As we walk past house after house, with barking dog after barking dog, I notice Lampo pays no attention. Instead, he’s watching the stream of housekeepers and gardeners heading home from work. They eye the dog nervously back.
Great, I think, I’m walking a racist dog.
Module one: Boy South Africa has a lot of crime. Better get a dog, cover my house with steel bars, and an extensive security system.
Module two: Associating black people with crime is racist, therefore my dog is racist for being wary of people who look like the person who abused it.
And while some people are obviously sympathetic to the plight of murdered people, “Cry me a river White South African Colonizers” is a very common reaction. (Never mind that the people committing crimes in South Africa today never lived under apartheid; they’ve lived in a black-run country for their entire lives.) Logically, white South Africans did not do anything to deserve being killed, and like the golden goose, killing the people who produce food will just trigger a repeat of Zimbabwe, but the modes of tribalism–“I do not care about these people because they are not mine and I want their stuff”–and punishment–“I read about a horrible thing someone did, so I want to punish everyone who looks like them”–trump logic.
Who dies–and how they die–significantly shapes our engagement with the news. Gun deaths via mass shootings get much more coverage and worry than ordinary homicides, even though ordinary homicides are far more common. homicides get more coverage and worry than suicides, even though suicides are far more common. The majority of gun deaths are actually suicides, but you’d never know that from listening to our national conversation about guns, simply because we are biased to worry far more about other people killng us than about ourselves.
Similarly, the death of one person via volcano receives about the same news coverage as 650 in a flood, 2,000 in a drought, or 40,000 in a famine. As the article notes:
Instead of considering the objective damage caused by natural disasters, networks tend to look for disasters that are “rife with drama”, as one New York Times article put it4—hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, earthquakes all make for splashy headlines and captivating visuals. Thanks to this selectivity, less “spectacular” but often times more deadly natural disasters tend to get passed over. Food shortages, for example, result in the most casualties and affect the most people per incident5 but their onset is more gradual than that of a volcanic explosion or sudden earthquake. … This bias for the spectacular is not only unfair and misleading, but also has the potential to misallocate attention and aid.
There are similar biases by continent, with disasters in Africa receiving less attention than disasters in Europe (this correlates with African disasters being more likely to be the slow-motion famines, epidemics and droughts that kill lots of people, and European disasters being splashier, though perhaps we’d consider famines “splashier” if they happened in Paris instead of Ethiopia.)
From a neuropolitical perspective, I suspect that patterns such as the Big Five personality traits correlating with particular political positions (“openness” with “liberalism,” for example, or “conscientiousness” with “conservativeness,”) is caused by patterns of brain activity that cause some people to depend more or less on particular brain modules for processing.
For example, conservatives process more of the world through the areas of their brain that are also used for processing disgust, (not one of “the five” but still an important psychological trait) which increases their fear of pathogens, disease vectors, and generally anything new or from the outside. Disgust can go so far as to process other people’s faces or body language as “disgusting” (eg, trans people) even when there is objectively nothing that presents an actual contamination or pathogenic risk involved.
Similarly, people who feel more guilt in one area of their life often feel guilt in others–eg, “White guilt was significantly associated with bulimia nervosa symptomatology.” The arrow of causation is unclear–guilt about eating might spill over into guilt about existing, or guilt about existing might cause guilt about eating, or people who generally feel guilty about everything could have both. Either way, these people are generally not logically reasoning, “Whites have done bad things, therefore I should starve myself.” (Should veganism be classified as a politically motivated eating disorder?)
I could continue forever–
Restrictions on medical research are biased toward preventing mentally salient incidents like thalidomide babies, but against the invisible cost of children who die from diseases that could have been cured had research not been prevented by regulations.
America has a large Somali community but not Congolese, (85,000 Somalis vs. 13,000 Congolese, of whom 10,000 hail from the DRC. Somalia has about 14 million people, the DRC has about 78.7 million people, so it’s not due to there being more Somalis in the world,) for no particular reason I’ve been able to discover, other than President Clinton once disastrously sent a few helicopters to intervene in the eternal Somali civil war and so the government decided that we now have a special obligation to take in Somalis.
–but that’s probably enough.
I have tried here to present a balanced account of different political biases, but I would like to end by noting that modular thinking, while it can lead to stupid decisions, exists for good reasons. If purely logical thinking were superior to modular, we’d probably be better at it. Still, cognitive biases exist and lead to a lot of stupid or sub-optimal results.
Forget the Piraha. It appears that most Americans are only vaguely aware of these things called “past” and “future”:
A majority of people now report that George W. Bush, whom they once thought was a colossal failure of a president, whose approval ratings bottomed out at 33% when he left office, was actually good. By what measure? He broke the economy, destabilized the Middle East, spent trillions of dollars, and got thousands of Americans and Iraqis killed.
Apparently the logic here is “Sure, Bush might have murdered Iraqi children and tortured prisoners, but at least he didn’t call Haiti a shithole.” We Americans have standards, you know.
I’d be more forgiving if Bush’s good numbers all came from 18 year olds who were 10 when he left office and so weren’t actually paying attention at the time. I’d also be more forgiving if Bush had some really stupid scandals, like Bill Clinton–I can understand why someone might have given Clinton a bad rating in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but looking back a decade later, might reflect that Monica didn’t matter that much and as far as president goes, Clinton was fine.
But if you thought invading Iraq was a bad idea back in 2008 then you ought to STILL think it is a bad idea right now.
Note: If you thought it was a good idea at the time, then it’s sensible to think it is still a good idea.
This post isn’t really about Bush. It’s about our human inability to perceive the flow of time and accurately remember the past and prepare for the future.
I recently texted a fellow mom: Would your kid like to come play with my kid? She texted back: My kid is down for a nap.
What about when the nap is over? I didn’t specify a time in the original text; tomorrow or next week would have been fine.
I don’t think these folks are trying to avoid me. They’re just really bad at scheduling.
People are especially bad at projecting current trends into the future. In a conversation with a liberal friend, he dismissed the idea that there could be any problems with demographic trends or immigration with, “That won’t happen for a hundred years. I’ll be dead then. I don’t care.”
An anthropologist working with the Bushmen noticed that they had to walk a long way each day between the watering hole, where the only water was, and the nut trees, where the food was. “Why don’t you just plant a nut tree near the watering hole?” asked the anthropologist.
“Why bother?” replied a Bushman. “By the time the tree was grown, I’d be dead.”
Of course, the tree would probably only take a decade to start producing, which is within even a Bushman’s lifetime, but even if it didn’t, plenty of people build up wealth, businesses, or otherwise make provisions to provide for their children–or grandchildren–after their deaths.
Likewise, current demographic trends in the West will have major effects within our lifetimes. Between the 1990 and 2010 censuses (twenty years), the number of Hispanics in the US doubled, from 22.4 million to 50.5 million. As a percent of the overall population, they went from 9% to 16%–making them America’s largest minority group, as blacks constitute only 12.6%.
If you’re a Boomer, then Hispanics were only 2-3% of the country during your childhood.
The idea that demographic changes will take a hundred years and therefore don’t matter makes as much sense as saying a tree that takes ten years to grow won’t produce within your lifetime and therefore isn’t worth planting.
Society can implement long term plans–dams are built with hundred year storms and floods in mind; building codes are written with hundred year earthquake risks in mind–but most people seem to exist in a strange time warp in which neither the past nor future really exist. What they do know about the past is oddly compressed–anything from a decade to a century ago is mushed into a vague sense of “before now.” Take this article from the Atlantic on how Micheal Brown (born in 1996,) was shot in 2014 because of the FHA’s redlining policies back in 1943.
I feel like I’m beating a dead horse at this point, but one of the world’s most successful ethnic groups was getting herded into gas chambers in 1943. Somehow the Jews managed to go from being worked to death in the mines below Buchenwald (slave labor dug the tunnels where von Braun’s rockets were developed) to not getting shot by the police on the streets of Ferguson in 2014, 71 years later. It’s a mystery.
I’m focusing here on political matters because they make the news, but I suspect this is a true psychological trait for most people–the past blurs fuzzily together, and the future is only vaguely knowable.
Politically, there is a tendency to simultaneously assume the past–which continued until last Tuesday–was a long, dark, morass of bigotry and unpleasantness, and that the current state of enlightened beauty will of course continue into the indefinite future without any unpleasant expenditures of effort.
In reality, our species is, more or less, 300,000 years old. Agriculture is only 10,000 years old.
100 years ago, the last great bubonic plague epidemic (yersinia pestis) was still going on. 10 million people died, including 119 Californians. 75 years ago, millions of people were dying in WWII. Sixty years ago, polio was still crippling children (my father caught it, suffering permanent nerve damage.)
100 years ago, only one city in the US–Jersey City–routinely disinfected its drinking water. (Before disinfection and sewers, drinking water was routinely contaminated with deadly bacteria like cholera.) I’m still looking for data on the spread of running water, but chances are good your grandparents did not have an indoor toilet when they were children. (I have folks in my extended family who still have trouble when the water table drops and their well dries up.)
Hunger, famines, disease, death… I could continue enumerating, but my point is simple: the prosperity we enjoy is not only unprecedented in the course of human history, but it hasn’t even existed for one full human lifetime.
Rome was once an empire. In the year one hundred, the eternal city had over 1,500,000 citizens. By 500, it had fewer than 50,000. It would not recover for over a thousand years.
Everything we have can be wiped away in another human lifetime if we refuse to admit that the future exists.
Most of the activities our ancestors spent the majority of their time on have been automated or largely replaced by technology. Chances are good that the majority of your great-great grandparents were farmers, but few of us today hunt, gather, plant, harvest, or otherwise spend our days physically producing food; few of us will ever build our own houses or even sew our own clothes.
Evolution has (probably) equipped us with neurofeedback loops that reward us for doing the sorts of things we need to do to survive, like hunt down prey or build shelters (even chimps build nests to sleep in,) but these are precisely the activities that we have largely automated and replaced. The closest analogues to these activities are now shopping, cooking, exercising, working on cars, and arts and crafts. (Even warfare has been largely replaced with professional sports fandom.)
Society has invented vicarious thrills: Books, movies, video games, even roller coasters. Our ability to administer vicarious emotions appears to be getting better and better.
And yet, it’s all kind of fake.
Exercising, for example, is in many ways a pointless activity–people literally buy machines so they can run in place. But if you have a job that requires you to be sedentary for most of the day and don’t fancy jogging around your neighborhood after dark, running in place inside your own home may be the best option you have for getting the post-running-down prey endorphin hit that evolution designed you to crave.
A sedentary lifestyle with supermarkets and restaurants deprives us of that successful-hunting endorphin hit and offers us no logical reason to go out and get it. But without that exercise, not only our physical health, but our mental health appears to suffer. According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise effectively decreases depression and anxiety–in other words, depression and anxiety may be caused in part by lack of exercise.
So what do we do? We have to make up some excuse and substitute faux exercise for the active farming/gardening/hunting/gathering lifestyles our ancestors lived.
Overall, the number of Americans on medications used to treat psychological and behavioral disorders has substantially increased since 2001; more than one‐in‐five adults was on at least one
of these medications in 2010, up 22 percent from ten years earlier. Women are far more likely to take a drug to treat a mental health condition than men, with more than a quarter of the adult female population on these drugs in 2010 as compared to 15 percent of men.
Women ages 45 and older showed the highest use of these drugs overall. …
The trends among children are opposite those of adults: boys are the higher utilizers of these medications overall but girls’ use has been increasing at a faster rate.
This is mind-boggling. 1 in 5 of us is mentally ill, (supposedly,) and the percent for young women in the “prime of their life” years is even higher. (The rates for Native Americans are astronomical.)
Lack of exercise isn’t the only problem, but I wager a decent chunk of it is that our lives have changed so radically over the past 100 years that we are critically lacking various activities that used to make us happy and provide meaning.
Take the rise of atheism. Irrespective of whether God exists or not, many functions–community events, socializing, charity, morality lessons, etc–have historically been done by religious groups. Atheists are working on replacements, but developing a full system that works without the compulsion of religious belief may take a long while.
Sports and video games replace war and personal competition. TV sitcoms replace friendship. Twitter replaces real life conversation. Politics replace friendship, conversation, and religion.
There’s something silly about most of these activities, and yet they seem to make us happy. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying knitting, even if you’re making toy octopuses instead of sweaters. Nor does there seem to be anything wrong with enjoying a movie or a game. The problem comes when people get addicted to these activities, which may be increasingly likely as our ability to make fake activities–like hyper-realistic special effects in movies–increases.
Given modernity, should we indulge? Or can we develop something better?
From the evolutionist point of view, the point of marriage is the production of children.
Let’s quickly analogize to food. Humans have a tremendous variety of customs, habits, traditions, and taboos surrounding foods. Foods enjoyed in one culture, like pork, crickets, and dog, are regarded as disgusting, immoral, or forbidden in another. Cheese is, at heart, rotten vomit–the enzyme used to make cheese coagulate is actually extracted from a calf’s stomach lining–and yet the average American eats it eagerly.
Food can remind you of your childhood, the best day of your life, the worst day of your life. It can comfort the sick and the mourning, and it accompanies our biggest celebrations of life.
We eat comfort food, holiday food, even sacrificial food. We have decadent luxuries and everyday staples. Some people, like vegans and ascetics, avoid large classes of food generally eaten by their own society for moral reasons.
People enjoy soda because it has water and calories, but some of us purposefully trick our taste buds by drinking Diet Coke, which delivers the sensation of drinking calories without the calories themselves. We enjoy the taste of calories even when we don’t need any more.
But the evolutionary purpose of eating is to get enough calories and nutrients to survive. If tomorrow we all stopped needing to eat–say, we were all hooked into a Matrix-style click-farm in which all nutrients were delivered automatically via IV–all of the symbolic and emotional content attached to food would wither away.
The extended helplessness of human infants is unique in the animal kingdom. Even elephants, who gestate for an incredible two years and become mature at 18, can stand and begin walking around shortly after birth. Baby elephants are not raised solely by their mothers, as baby rats are, but by an entire herd of related female elephants.
Elephants are remarkable animals, clever, communicative, and caring, who mourn their dead and create art:
But from the evolutionist point of view, the point of elephants’ family systems is still the production of elephant children.
Love is a wonderful, sweet, many-splendored thing, but the purpose of marriage, in all its myriad forms–polygamy, monogamy, polyandry, serial monogamy–is still the production of children.
In the Southwest United States, the Apache tribe practices a form of this, where the uncle is responsible for teaching the children social values and proper behavior while inheritance and ancestry is reckoned through the mother’s family alone. (Modern day influences have somewhat but not completely erased this tradition.)
Despite the long public argument over the validity of gay marriage, very few gay people actually want to get married. Gallop reports that after the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, the percent of married gay people jumped quickly from 7.9% to 9.5%, but then leveled off, rising to only 9.6% by June 2016.
Between 1990 and 2010, the percentage of 50-year-old people who had never married roughly quadrupled for men to 20.1% and doubled for women to 10.6%. The Welfare Ministry predicts these numbers to rise to 29% of men and 19.2% of women by 2035. The government’s population institute estimated in 2014 that women in their early 20s had a one-in-four chance of never marrying, and a two-in-five chance of remaining childless.
Recent media coverage has sensationalized surveys from the Japan Family Planning Association and the Cabinet Office that show a declining interest in dating and sexual relationships among young people, especially among men. However, changes in sexuality and fertility are more likely an outcome of the decline in family formation than its cause. Since the usual purpose of dating in Japan is marriage, the reluctance to marry often translates to a reluctance to engage in more casual relationships.
In other words, marriage is functionally about providing a supportive way of raising children. In a society where birth control does not exist, children born out of wedlock tend not to survive, and people can easily get jobs to support their families, people tended to get married and have children. In a society where people do not want children, cannot afford them, are purposefully delaying childbearing as long as possible, or have found ways to provide for them without getting married, people simply see no need for marriage.
“Marriage” ceases to mean what it once did, reserved for old-fashioned romantics and the few lucky enough to afford it.
Mass acceptance of gay marriage did change how people think of marriage, but it’s downstream from what the massive, societal-wide decrease in child-bearing and increase in illegitimacy have done to our ideas about marriage.
There are three categories of supersars who seem to attract excessive female interest. The first is actors, who of course are selected for being abnormally attractive and put into romantic and exciting narratives that our brains subconsciously interpret as real. The second are sports stars and other athletes, whose ritualized combat and displays of strength obviously indicate their genetic “fitness” for siring and providing for children.
The third and strangest category is professional musicians, especially rock stars.
I understand why people want to pass athletic abilities on to their children, but what is the evolutionary importance of musical talent? Does music tap into some deep, fundamental instinct like a bird’s attraction to the courtship song of its mate? And if so, why?
There’s no denying the importance of music to American courtship rituals–not only do people visit bars, clubs, and concerts where music is being played in order to meet potential partners, but they also display musical tastes on dating profiles in order to meet musically-like-minded people.
Of all the traits to look for in a mate, why rate musical taste so highly? And why do some people describe their taste as, “Anything but rap,” or “Anything but country”?
At least when I was a teen, musical taste was an important part of one’s “identity.” There were goths and punks, indie scene kids and the aforementioned rap and country fans.
Is there actually any correlation between musical taste and personality? Do people who like slow jazz get along with other slow jazz fans better than fans of classical Indian? Or is this all compounded by different ethnic groups identifying with specific musical styles?
Obviously country correlates with Amerikaner ancestry; rap with African American. I’m not sure what ancestry is biggest fans of Die Antwoord. Heavy Metal is popular in Finno-Scandia. Rock ‘n Roll got its start in the African American community as “Race Music” and became popular with white audiences after Elvis Presley took up the guitar.
While Europe has a long and lovely musical heritage, it’s indisputable that African Americans have contributed tremendously to American musical innovation.
Here are two excerpts on the subject of music and dance in African societies:
Both of these h/t HBD Chick and my apologies in advance if I got the sources reversed.
One of the major HBD theories holds that the three races vary–on average–in the distribution of certain traits, such as age of first tooth eruption or intensity of an infant’s response to a tissue placed over its face. Sub-Saharan Africans and Asians are considered two extremes in this distribution, with whites somewhere in between.
If traditional African dancing involves more variety in rhythmic expression than traditional European, does traditional Asian dance involve less? I really know very little about traditional Asian music or dance of any kind, but I would not be surprised to see some kind of continuum affected by whether a society traditionally practiced arranged marriages. Where people chose their own mates, it seems like they display a preference for athletic or musically talented mates (“sexy” mates;) when parents chose mates, they seem to prefer hard-working, devout, “good providers.”
Even in traditional European and American society, where parents played more of a role in courtship than they do today, music still played a major part. Young women, if their families could afford it, learned to play the piano or other instruments in order to be “accomplished” and thus more attractive to higher-status men; young men and women often met and courted at musical events or dances organized by the adults.
It is undoubtedly true that music stirs the soul and speaks to the heart, but why?
If everyone in the world exhibits a particular behavior, chances are it’s innate. But I have been informed–by Harvard-educated people, no less–that humans do not have instincts. We are so smart, you see, that we don’t need instincts anymore.
This is nonsense, of course.
One amusing and well-documented human instinct is the nesting instinct, experienced by pregnant women shortly before going into labor. (As my father put it, “When shes starts rearranging the furniture, get the ready to head to the hospital.”) Having personally experienced this sudden, overwhelming urge to CLEAN ALL THE THINGS multiple times, I can testify that it is a real phenomenon.
Humans have other instincts–babies will not only pick up and try to eat pretty much anything they run across, to every parent’s consternation, but they will also crawl right up to puddles and attempt to drink out of them.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves: What, exactly, is an instinct? According to Wikipedia:
Instinct or innate behavior is the inherent inclination of a livingorganism towards a particular complex behavior. The simplest example of an instinctive behavior is a fixed action pattern (FAP), in which a very short to medium length sequence of actions, without variation, are carried out in response to a clearly defined stimulus.
Any behavior is instinctive if it is performed without being based upon prior experience (that is, in the absence of learning), and is therefore an expression of innate biological factors. …
Instincts are inborn complex patterns of behavior that exist in most members of the species, and should be distinguished from reflexes, which are simple responses of an organism to a specific stimulus, such as the contraction of the pupil in response to bright light or the spasmodic movement of the lower leg when the knee is tapped.
The go-to example of an instinct is the gosling’s imprinting instinct. Typically, goslings imprint on their mothers, but a baby gosling doesn’t actually know what its mother is supposed to look like, and can accidentally imprint on other random objects, provided they are moving slowly around the nest around the time the gosling hatches.
Here we come to something I think may be useful for distinguishing an instinct from other behaviors: an instinct, once triggered, tends to keep going even if it has been accidentally or incorrectly triggered. Goslings look like they have an instinct to follow their mothers, but they actually have an instinct to imprint on the first large, slowly moving object near their nest when they hatch.
So if you find people strangely compelled to do something that makes no sense but which everyone else seems to think makes perfect sense, you may be dealing with an instinct. For example, women enjoy celebrity gossip because humans have an instinct to keep track of social ranks and dynamics within their own tribe; men enjoy watching other men play sports because it conveys the vicarious feeling of defeating a neighboring tribe at war.
So what about racism? Is it an instinct?
Strictly speaking–and I know I have to define racism, just a moment–I don’t see how we could have evolved such an instinct. Races exist because major human groups were geographically separated for thousands of years–prior to 1492, the average person never even met a person of another race in their entire life. So how could we evolve an instinct in response to something our ancestors never encountered?
Unfortunately, “racism” is a chimera, always changing whenever we attempt to pin it down, but the Urban Dictionary gives a reasonable definition:
An irrational bias towards members of a racial background. The bias can be positive (e.g. one race can prefer the company of its own race or even another) or it can be negative (e.g. one race can hate another). To qualify as racism, the bias must be irrational. That is, it cannot have a factual basis for preference.
Of course, instincts exist because they ensured our ancestors’ survival, so if racism is an instinct, it can’t exactly be “irrational.” We might call a gosling who follows a scientist instead of its mother “irrational,” but this is a misunderstanding of the gosling’s motivation. Since “racist” is a term of moral judgment, people are prone to defending their actions/beliefs towards others on the grounds that it can’t possibly be immoral to believe something that is actually true.
The claim that people are “racist” against members of other races implies, in converse, that they exhibit no similar behaviors toward members of their own race. But even the most perfunctory overview of history reveals people acting in extremely “racist” ways toward members of their own race. During the Anglo-Boer wars, the English committed genocide against the Dutch South Africans (Afrikaners.) During WWII, Germans allied with the the Japanese and slaughtered their neighbors, Poles and Jews. (Ashkenazim are genetically Caucasian and half Italian.) If Hitler were really racist, he’d have teamed up with Stalin and Einstein–his fellow whites–and dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima. (And for their part, the Japanese would have allied with the Chinese against the Germans.)
The murder victim, a West African chimpanzee called Foudouko, had been beaten with rocks and sticks, stomped on and then cannibalised by his own community. …
“When you reverse that and have almost two males per every female — that really intensifies the competition for reproduction. That seems to be a key factor here,” says Wilson.
Jill Pruetz at Iowa State University, who has been studying this group of chimpanzees in south-eastern Senegal since 2001, agrees. She suggests that human influence may have caused this skewed gender ratio that is likely to have been behind this attack. In Senegal, female chimpanzees are poached to provide infants for the pet trade. …
Early one morning, Pruetz and her team heard loud screams and hoots from the chimps’ nearby sleep nest. At dawn, they found Foudouko dead, bleeding profusely from a bite to his right foot. He also had a large gash in his back and a ripped anus. Later he was found to have cracked ribs. Pruetz says Foudouko probably died of internal injuries or bled out from his foot wound.
Foudouko also had wounds on his fingers. These were likely to have been caused by chimps clamping them in their teeth to stretch his arms out and hold him down during the attack, says Pruetz.
After his death, the gang continued to abuse Foudouko’s body, throwing rocks and poking it with sticks, breaking its limbs, biting it and eventually eating some of the flesh.
“It was striking. The female that cannibalised the body the most, she’s the mother of the top two high-ranking males. Her sons were the only ones that really didn’t attack the body aggressively,” Pruetz says …
Historically, the vast majority of wars and genocides were waged by one group of people against their neighbors–people they were likely to be closely related to in the grand scheme of things–not against distant peoples they’d never met. If you’re a chimp, the chimp most likely to steal your banana is the one standing right in front of you, not some strange chimp you’ve never met before who lives in another forest.
Indeed, in Jane Goodall’s account of the Gombe Chimpanzee War, the combatants were not members of two unrelated communities that had recently encountered each other, but members of a single community that had split in two. Chimps who had formerly lived peacefully together, groomed each other, shared bananas, etc., now bashed each other’s brains out and cannibalized their young. Poor Jane was traumatized.
I think there is an instinct to form in-groups and out-groups. People often have multiple defined in-groups (“I am a progressive, a Christian, a baker, and a Swede,”) but one of these identities generally trumps the others in importance. Ethnicity and gender are major groups most people seem to have, but I don’t see a lot of evidence suggesting that the grouping of “race” is uniquely special, globally, in people’s ideas of in- and out-.
For example, as I am writing today, people are concerned that Donald Trump is enacting racist policies toward Muslims, even though “Muslim” is not a race and most of the countries targeted by Trump’s travel/immigration ban are filled with fellow Caucasians, not Sub-Saharan Africans or Asians.
Race is a largely American obsession, because our nation (like the other North and South American nations,) has always had whites, blacks, and Asians (Native Americans). But many countries don’t have this arrangement. Certainly Ireland didn’t have an historical black community, nor Japan a white one. Irish identity was formed in contrast to English identity; Japanese in contrast to Chinese and Korean.
Only in the context where different races live in close proximity to each other does it seem that people develop strong racial identities; otherwise people don’t think much about race.
Napoleon Chagnon, a white man, has spent years living among the Yanomamo, one of the world’s most murderous tribes, folks who go and slaughter their neighbors and neighbors’ children all the time, and they still haven’t murdered him.
Why do people insist on claiming that Trump’s “Muslim ban” is racist when Muslims aren’t a race? Because Islam is an identity group that appears to function similarly to race, even though Muslims come in white, black, and Asian.
If you’ve read any of the comments on my old post about Turkic DNA, Turkey: Not very Turkic, you’ll have noted that Turks are quite passionate about their Turkic identity, even though “Turkic” clearly doesn’t correspond to any particular ethnic groups. (It’s even more mixed up than Jewish, and that’s a pretty mixed up one after thousands of years of inter-breeding with non-Jews.)
Group identities are fluid. When threatened, groups merged. When resources are abundant and times are good, groups split.
What about evidence that infants identify–stare longer at–faces of people of different races than their parents? This may be true, but all it really tells us is that babies are attuned to novelty. It certainly doesn’t tell us that babies are racist just because they find people interesting who look different from the people they’re used to.
What happens when people encounter others of a different race for the first time?
We have many accounts of “first contacts” between different races during the Age of Exploration. For example, when escaped English convict William Buckley wandered into an uncontacted Aborigine tribe, they assumed he was a ghost, adopted him, taught him to survive, and protected him for 30 years. By contrast, the last guy who landed on North Sentinel Island and tried to chat with the natives there got a spear to the chest and a shallow grave for his efforts. (But I am not certain the North Sentinelese haven’t encountered outsiders at some point.)
But what about the lunchroom seating habits of the wild American teenager?
If people have an instinct to form in-groups and out-groups, then races (or religions?) may represent the furthest bounds of this, at least until we encounter aliens. All else held equal, perhaps we are most inclined to like the people most like ourselves, and least inclined to like the people least like ourselves–racism would thus be the strongest manifestation of this broader instinct. But what about people who have a great dislike for one race, but seem just fine with another, eg, a white person who likes Asians but not blacks, or a black who like Asians but not whites? And can we say–per our definition above–that these preferences are irrational, or are they born of some lived experience of positive or negative interactions?
Again, we are only likely to have strong opinions about members of other races if we are in direct conflict or competition with them. Most of the time, people are in competition with their neighbors, not people on the other side of the world. I certainly don’t sit here thinking negative thoughts about Pygmies or Aborigines, even though we are very genetically distant from each other, and I doubt they spend their free time thinking negatively about me.
Just because flamingos prefer to flock with other flamingos doesn’t mean they dislike horses; for the most part, I think people are largely indifferent to folks outside their own lives.