Caveman Radio – From the “Born To Run” Episode

Last night’s show was fun.  There were a few live listeners, so things are picking up!  Still no callers on the program (at least none who were calling about the topic), but that’s ok.  It’s a short show, so I’m fine with doing it all myself.  (Though it would be fun to have some back and forth to mix things up.  Hint.)

Anyway, here’s the stream of the show.  Hope you enjoy.

You can also download the MP3 here, if you’d rather pull it into your mobile world.

Please leave comments here if you have any thoughts or suggestions.  I went ahead and sprung for the premium membership, so I can do a 2-hr show if I want.  But that would require some audience participation, or I’d end up playing 5-10 songs during the course of the program.

And finally – here are a few links to some things mentioned during the show, and a couple of extras that you might find entertaining.

  1. Eric Orton, Christopher McDougall’s coach in Born To Run, has a social network at  Check it out for videos on proper running form, strength-building exercises, and circuit training.  He also has Training Programs for purchase – ranging from strength-building to training for half-marathon, marathon, and ultra-marathon distances.
  2. Dr. Daniel Lieberman is a Harvard professor of Biomechanics.  He is featured in Born To Run, and he has recently put up a website that communicates some of the latest research that has been published by his group.  It’s got tons of information on human evolution and how it relates to running.  It also covers running shoes and the difference in force associated with heel-striking versus midfoot striking. Go to to get the details.  Very interesting.
  3. If you want to read some interesting stuff from barefoot extremists, check out Barefoot Ken Bob’s site.  Yeah, that’s really his name, and he looks EXACTLY like you’d expect.  Interesting reading, but not my bag.
  4. Here’s Scott Jurek’s site.  He’s just flat-out amazing.
  5. And for those who have read the book and would like to see some pics of the Tarahumara and of some of the scenes from the book, check out Luis Escobar’s site.
  6. And here’s Caballo Blanco’s site.  It’s exactly what you’d expect.
  7. Lastly, if you’re really interested in the Ultramarathon deal, check out Tony Krupicka’s blog.  Not only is he a badass runner, he’s also a gifted writer – his recollections of races are terrific.

Caveman Radio – Born To Run – Wed, Feb 17th, 11pm EST

Here we go.  Round two.  It’s on the schedule.  If you haven’t read Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, tune in to hear why you should.  If you have read this book, tune in and participate in the discussion.  I’ll provide a brief overview of what’s there – for the uninitiated – and then we’ll get into the good stuff – from how I personally have changed as a result of reading the book to the notion that our society is slowly disintegrating the best of our humanity.  The latter idea ties very well into the Enlightened Caveman concept, so I’m excited to get into that.  And I’m excited to have some people call in with their own stories and points of view on these topics.

Same deal as last time – go to my Blog Talk Radio page at showtime and click the “Click to Listen” link.  I hear that sometimes the page seems to have nothing on it.  If that happens, just keep refreshing.  The service is free, and I suspect they periodically make it suck to lure hosts like myself into paying for the premium service.  Such is the strategy in a world of freemium.  Anyway, when you get to my page, you’ll see a number to call in if you want to be part of the show.  Be sure to send an email to me at the email address you see in the masthead above.  In the subject line, put your phone number – the one you’re calling in on.  Then in the body, tell me what you want to talk about.  This is poor man’s phone screening, but I think it’s workable.

Okay – hope you can make it.  If not, stop by after to grab the podcast.

Enlightened Caveman Radio – Episode 1

Well, last night was the first installment.  The attendance was, shall we say, pretty much non-existent.  That’s ok.  11pm EST is a bit late, I know, and since it was my first attempt, it’s probably best that I was basically speaking into space.  Here’s the audio if you want to listen to what went down.  (It’s a big file, so don’t be surprised if it takes a while to get started playing.  Patience, Jedi.)

(Here’s a link to download the mp3.)

It’s somewhat structured at the beginning because I had a clear idea of what I wanted to say to establish the ground work.  But the last 45 minutes are literally off the top of my head, no notes or anything.  And it shows.  I don’t think it’s bad, per se, but I could definitely deliver that material better if I did it again.

Frankly, and I knew this going in, it’s hard to really appreciate how difficult it is to be good at talk radio until you try it.  As I’ve listened back, all I hear is stammering and speeds varying from painfully slow to rapid fire fast.  But I think in long spans of time, so I chalk this up as a learning experience.  I have a few things to work on for next time, but I think I like this.

Let me know what you think…and let me know if there are any specific books that you think would be good to cover in the future.  The next book I’ll be discussing goes off in a completely different direction – Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, by Christopher McDougall.  Easily one of the best, most inspirational books I’ve read in a long time.  Think “Enlightened Caveman meets long distance running” because that’s the tie in.  Date and time to be announced.  I’m virtually guaranteed to at least double my audience, so that’s exciting!  Hope you can make it.

(P.S. – the bumper music in the audio above is a song called “Oyster” written and performed by me and my friend, Park Ellis.  You can hear the entire song over at his blog.)

Enlightened Caveman Radio – Maiden Voyage

Okay.  This site has languished for far too long. It’s time to get back to it.  But since I’m way short on time these days, I’ve decided to try my hand at something new.  Thanks to Al Gore and other inventors of the Internet, I can now host my own call-in radio show online.  So this Wednesday, Feb 3rd, I’ll be hosting the first one – the Maiden Voyage – at 11pm EST.  (That’s to accommodate as many time zones as possible, so forget about the Leno/Conan crap and come on.)

I’ve been noodling on exactly what to do with this concept.  I could just ramble for an hour on various topics, taking calls and having public discussions, but that seems a little narcissistic.  If possible, I’d like to add value for a listener/participant beyond just hearing my point of view on a variety of topics.  So, the plan is to cover a book in every show.  In some cases, they’ll be current books that have come out recently.  Other times, I’ll pull in some of what I consider to be classics.  In all cases, I’ll be connecting the book to the Enlightened Caveman concept where applicable.

The upcoming show will be about Thomas Sowell’s latest book – Intellectuals and Society.  I’ve read a lot of his work, and this one seems like a culmination of some of his best ideas.  In short, this book rocks, and I think it’s really important that as many people as possible absorb what it’s saying.  If you’ve read it, great.  Show up and we’ll discuss it.  If you haven’t, no worries.  I’ll give you enough of a flavor for the book that you can either decide you know enough, that you could care less, or that you have to pick it up right away.  Regardless, the discussion will center around the ideas in that book, and you’ll have the chance to call in and voice your thoughts on the matter.  (And don’t let the title spook you – this isn’t meant to be a high-brow, brainiac kind of discussion.  Quite the contrary, as you can see, if you check out the Amazon page.)

To be honest, I have no idea what to expect here.  I have no problem holding forth (i.e. bullshitting) at length on a wide range of topics, and I love a spirited discussion.  But it’s the logistics of managing calls coming in and all of that at the same time that has me a little nervous.  Nevertheless, I want to do this, so nerves be damned.

Here’s how it’ll work…

I have a show page on – (  When it’s showtime, just head to that page and click the “Click to Listen” link.  That’s it.  The audio will come on and you’re rolling.  There will be call-in number there, which you can use to get on the air with me.  (Of course, I’ll have to figure out how to screen callers, etc., so no promises I can get more than a few people on.)  There’s also a phone number you can call if you want to listen on your phone.  That’s pretty cool.  But wait!  There’s more.  If you miss the live show, you can download an MP3 of the show from my BTR page, or you can actually subscribe to the podcast of it in iTunes.  In a word – BADASS!

So come on Wednesday night.  Let’s tawk.

Book Review – No Two Alike

I finished Judith Rich Harris’ latest book, No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality, about a week ago, but it’s taken all this time to come to grips with how I feel about it.  That’s a good thing.  It means the book has had a significant impact on how I view human nature. But it’s also a bad thing because I’m still toiling with what to do about it.  First a little background.

It has been taken for granted pretty much forever that human personality is shaped primarily by the home environment – specifically by the actions or inactions of parents with regard to raising their children. Judith Rich Harris launched an all-out attack on that idea several years ago with her book, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. In it, she argues quite convincingly that the research simply does not lead to the generally accepted conclusion.  But, despite the subtitle of the book, she left it at that; she didn’t offer a substitute theory.  She has now remedied that problem, which is extremely impressive given her lack of formal credentials.

Judith Rich Harris is not a PhD psychologist.  Prior to The Nurture Assumption, she was a psychology textbook writer.  Over the years of assimilating all of the research on human personality, she began to suspect that the accepted wisdom in the psych community with respect to what shapes personality was wrong.  Home bound due to chronic illness, she began the tedious process of researching and putting together what would become The Nurture Assumption.  Along the way, she got friendly with Steven Pinker, which helped quite a bit, and she got crossways with a pile of other academics who had an interest in discrediting her, which probably helped even more.  So, to say she’s an outsider is an understatement.  To those who dislike her, she’s a hack wanna-be.  To me, she’s a hero.  The details of her out-thinking the ivory tower thinkers is nothing short of delicious.  Now to her latest offering.

No Two Alike is written as a mystery.  It starts by laying out the details of the case, by asking a big question.  How can identical twins reared in the same home turn out with completely different personalities?  They have the same genes, and they grow up in the same environment.  Same nature, same nurture, but still they’re different.  What could explain this?  She picks up where she left off in The Nurture Assumption – it can’t be the home environment, so what is it?

Her next task is to eliminate what she calls the red herrings in the case – the explanations that many believe are correct but aren’t.  I won’t go into all of them because, frankly, I had to work to get through them.  It’s not that they weren’t interesting; it’s just that I was dying to get to her theory. Had I written the book, I would have started with that.  But I understand why she did what she did.

Writing books that get read by academics is tough.  You’re dealing with a skeptical lot, to say the least.  That means you have to preemptively, if possible, eliminate all of their objections before you can make any headway.  Otherwise, they’ll abandon you right away.  They’ll say, “Oh, this philistine has missed the papers by such and such and the findings of so and so.  She’s clearly a hack.”  Like I said, I understand why she organized the content as she did – like it or not.  She left her critics with no choice but to at least consider her thesis, which is as follows.

Evolutionary psychology tells us that the mind is made up of modules that were designed by natural selection to enable humans to survive in their ancestral environment – you know, in caves and such. (Check out Steven Pinker’s, How The Mind Works, for a good foundation in this line of thinking.)  Far from a blank slate, the mind begins life with a set of genetically determined programs (or modules) that interact with the external environment to form what eventually becomes the mature human mind.  This mind will have full use of the senses – for interpreting and negotiating the physical world.  It will have language skills for communicating with other humans.  Harris contends that we also have three modules, in particular, that shape our personalities – the relationship system, the socialization system, and the status system, as she calls them.  The last, the status system, according to Harris, is the culprit in her mystery.  I’ll get to that in time.  I should first outline the three systems a bit.

The relationship system was natural selection’s way of making ours into a social species, which is widely believed to be the predominant reason why Homo sapiens survived while all other hominids became extinct.  Its goal, to use the term loosely, is to establish and maintain favorable relationships.  It works by providing us with the tools and motivation to acquire knowledge about other people and to share that knowledge with others.  In terms of tools, we have something akin to a mental Rolodex, where we store everything we know about everyone we either know or know of. We also have face-recognition module, a mind-reading mechanism (for inferring what others are thinking), and a relationship sociometer (for determining if we’re getting along well or not).  In terms of motivation, we have our old friends, our emotions – particularly, love, hatred, dependency, trust, aggressiveness, lust, and jealousy.  The manifestations of this system are infant attachment behaviors, making friends, dominance contests, courtship, trading favors, and gossiping.  The relationship system is online from minute one of our lives, and it stays online till we die or go nuts.  Also, its actions are largely available to our consciousness (that is, we know that we’re gathering and communicating information about people).

Next we have the socialization system.  This system is designed to get us to become members of one or many groups.   In terms of tools, this system works with a categorization module, which helps us sort people into categories based upon whatever attributes we discover using our relationship system.  Basketball players versus football players, for example.  Then we have a calculator of central tendencies.  This tool allows us to define our categories with what we can think of as stereotypes.  Basketball players are tall, for example.  Lastly, we have a social-acceptance sociometer, which is helps us to know if we’re fitting in or not.  In terms of emotions, we have hostility toward groups of which we are not a part, group pride or patriotism, and unhappiness at being rejected.  This system manifests itself in our tendencies to adopt the behaviors, language, accent, dress, and attitudes of our group mates, and in our tendencies to defend our group(s).  The socialization system comes online around age three, and it has done most of its work by the end of adolescence (although it stays with us to some degree probably forever).  Interestingly, this system operates largely below the level of consciousness, which means that we really aren’t aware of the influence that our interactions with and within groups have on our minds.

The last system, the big kahuna, is the status system.  This system is all about our being better than our rivals.  For tools, it also uses the mind reading mechanism that is used by the relationship system, but it also draws on an eye-gaze detector (to determine who is getting the most attention) and a sociometer that gives detailed, multi-dimensional information about status.  For motivation, this system gives us emotions such as ambition, envy, triumph, and conceit, as well as embarrassment, anger, or unhappiness at losing status.  We see the status system in action in our tendencies to match or measure ourselves against our peers, to compete in contests we might win, and to avoid contests we might lose.  According to Harris, this system is evident in three-year-olds, but other components of it develop slowly.  Changes in strategy, says she, are common during adolescence and are still possible in adulthood.  And though the eye-gaze system operates below the radar, the rest of the status system is pretty much available to our conscious minds.

So there you have it, the three systems.  Now before anyone concludes that I am expert at distilling hundreds of pages of material into three paragraphs, I should admit that I pulled all of this from a table Harris graciously provided toward the end of the book.  That said, this information alone was worth the price of admission.  I have long discussed the artifacts of the caveman mind, so it was a joy to have them placed into a more useful context.  But the point of the book is to say that the status system is responsible, more than anything else, for why two people who have the same genes and grow up in the same environment end up with completely different personalities.  It takes a while to unpack that thesis, so I’ll only hit the high points.  Read the book for the gory details.

It begins with such a thing as developmental noise.  This refers to the little changes that happen as the fertilized egg develops into a full human being.  Though two may have the same DNA, there are still little differences in how that DNA expresses itself in each individual.  That’s why parents and friends can almost always tell identical twins apart – and not just by sight.  Harris’ argument is that those little differences cause people to treat each individual a little differently.  Maybe not so much in the home, but definitely out in the world, where the socialization and status systems are on overdrive.

The key to all this is the notion that natural selection would not have bothered to build these complex systems for mediating our thoughts and actions in the home.  The home of our parents is not where we’ll form our mature bonds of friendship and love (the kind that leads to offspring), unless we’re weird.   That’s where Harris is coming from in The Nurture Assumption. Our home life while we’re growing up is simply a stepping stone to the real world where humans do what matters evolutionarily speaking.  So the modules that form our personalities do their thing away from home, when we’re with our peers.  That’s where it gets dicey.

You see, the socialization system drives us to be like the other members of whatever group we’re in or want to be in.  The status system does the reverse – it drives us to set ourselves apart.  The systems are essentially competing.  Now take hypothetical identical twins Jimmy and Johnny.  They’re already alike, which means fitting in is less an issue than standing out, so they end up adopting different strategies in their social environment.  Maybe little Jimmy comes off to kids in the playgroup as the rowdy, outgoing one.  So Johnny’s status system tells him to do something different.  He becomes the quiet, shy one.  Voila, over the years, you have two completely different personalities.  Mystery solved.  (I can oversimplify anything.)

But as I said, I am still toiling with what to make of all this.  I have no issues whatsoever with any of the aforementioned information.  It all makes very good sense to me, and like a good scholar, Harris backs it up with footnotes aplenty.  However, I think information for information’s sake is a waste.  I want to be able to put it to good use, and, in this case, as a parent, I have a vested interest in doing so.

I can accept that I play less of a role than I might like in shaping my son’s personality.  (I should note that Harris never makes the statement that parents don’t matter, though her critics will undoubtedly say she does.)  Furthermore, I can accept that what happens in peer-to-peer social situations is very powerful in establishing the various hues of long-term temperament and confidence.  But where do I leave off, and where do the outside-the-home social influences pick up?  To me, that is the question.

Harris explains that children learn their initial strategies for dealing with people at home, but they either keep them or abandon them based upon how well they work outside the home.  If the parents are immigrants, the children will quickly learn that fitting in entails learning to speak like American kids, and not like their parents.  Similarly, if kids are the stand-outs in their homes because they sing best, they may abandon singing all together when they find that their “talent” gets them nothing in terms of status within their peer groups.  Fair enough.

From that, one could conclude that the parents do play a very important role, which is understanding (and, to some extent, controlling) the outside-the-home social environment of their children.  This is perhaps an aspect of the situation that is particularly unappealing to immigrants who desperately want their children to maintain the culture of the home land.  If they insist on having Sanjay wear a turban to school, they should expect that his personality may be negatively impacted (that is, he’ll be less happy) by how much he’ll stand out in the group.  He won’t fit in, and isn’t likely that his headgear will earn him any status in the vicious contest for playground superiority.  So he may end up feeling inferior or feeling left out, which may persist into an introverted and not-so-confident personality.  But then again…

How much should we cater to the goals of our ancient genes?  Have I not said forever that many of our genetic drives do more harm than good?  Maybe the desperate need to fit in is one of those.  It certainly accounts for all manner of foolishness among young people in this country – pop music, mainstream fashion, and the interminably irritating use of the word ‘like’ come to mind right away. And status?  Well, we all know what a bitch that one is. It drives people to value the shallowest of activities and accomplishments and to unnecessarily beat the crap out of themselves when they don’t measure up.  So should we forget all about Harris’ interesting theory and go about our business as usual?

No, that won’t do either.  In the end, I think it comes down to happiness.  Fitting in makes us happy.  Being acknowledged as having high status makes us happy.  So, as is the case in so much of this enlightening the caveman endeavor, the key, I think, is to co-opt the ancient design for a modern aim.  Yes, I think parents should come to grips with how their actions toward their children will prepare them to interact with their childhood playmates.  That doesn’t mean they teach them to be lemmings, but it does mean that they carefully evaluate who their kids spend time with, paying special attention to their values and dispositions.  (Maybe this makes a case for private schools.)

On the flipside, in terms of status, I think it still makes sense to teach children to try to outpace their peers.  Competition and accountability do wonders for our species.  But, again, the parent’s role is to help guide the child’s choices in what he or she attempts to excel at.  The kids can (and should) pursue status, which brings happiness, but in endeavors that will serve them as adults.  Striving to be the kid who can shotgun the most beers before class is not one of those endeavors, though it somehow worked for me.  Aaanyway, there’s a lot to chew on here.

As you can see, I have only a vague feel for how Harris’ book should be applied to life as a parent today.  I’m sure as time goes on that my sense of it all will crystallize.  I’ll keep you posted.  For now, let’s just say that things aren’t as we always thought they were, and we should be thankful that a non-academic had the courage and wherewithal to bring it to our attention.  That’s a good start.

Economic Freedom Versus Political Freedom

Original Post (with comments)
Milton Friedman wrote in, Capitalism and Freedom, that it is possible to have economic freedom without political freedom, but that the opposite is impossible. That makes pretty good sense, but what he didn’t talk about was what might happen in a place where economic freedom exists and political freedom does not. It appears that we may soon find out.

Reuters is reporting that some Chinese villages have recently resorted to violence to deal with factories that are polluting rural farmlands. (Click here for the article.)

After chemical plants set up shop in a nearby industrial park, residents of this farming town in China’s wealthy coastal province of Zhejiang pressed authorities to shut them down, complaining that waste was polluting their crops and river. Using China’s centuries-old method of petitioning, they took complaints first to local authorities, then to city officials, and finally all the way to the central government, more than 600 miles away in Beijing.

“None of it achieved any results,” said one resident, who asked not to be named. For five years, frustration built. Then, as the villagers in Huashui, near the Zhejiang city of Dongyang, moved to block the road leading to the plant, their frustration exploded. “Ordinary people don’t have any other way. It was only by not letting the workers in that we could stop the factory from producing,” said the resident. She gestures at the landscape where plants making everything from chemicals to zippers are encroaching on what was once some of China’s most fertile farmland. The blockade escalated into a full-scale riot involving as many as 30,000 people. Thousands of police had to be called in from neighboring towns to put it down. Yet, after years of fruitless petitioning, the riot worked.

Interesting, huh? It looks as if China’s supersonic expansion has extended out of the industrial areas and into the countryside, where many of the new facilities are causing serious problems for the local inhabitants. This, in itself, is not particularly surprising.

Commercial growth is often at odds with people who are resistant to change. Sometimes these people are justified in their resistance. In that case, in politically free places, those people have recourse. They can appeal to their leaders to address their grievances. For example, here in Atlanta, the City Council is considering (and will likely pass) a moratorium on building new residences in much of the city. Click here for the article.

The impetus for this is complaints by many long-time residents that their property taxes are skyrocketing due to the continuous building of “McMansions.” You see, Atlanta is somewhat unique in the sense that there are quite a few nice greenspace neighborhoods scattered in and around the commercial areas of the city. Most of the homes in many of those neighborhoods are fairly small. They’re well maintained, but they’re small. So builders are coming in, knocking them down, and replacing them with larger, more elaborate homes. Some folks don’t like it, so they’ve appealed to their political leaders for help. Putting aside the arguments for or against prohibiting this practice, one thing is clear – our politically free society is working as it is supposed to.

But not in China. In China, the political leaders are all about stability – they’ll do anything to keep from rocking the boat. In this case, that means ignoring complaints and hoping they’ll just go away. This is because the Chinese government is in a very precarious situation. As more and more Chinese people get a taste of the prosperity that comes with economic growth, the ability of the Chinese government to maintain a docile population is deteriorating rapidly. Now they’re seeing what happens when political freedom does not accompany economic freedom.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. On one hand, I like the idea that the people are starting to take matters into their own hands. However, for now, the need for political expediency on the part of China’s leaders is winning the day, which is why these riots were successful. As this trend continues, things will have to come to a head. The Chinese government will have to decide what they’re willing to do to keep things as they are. The result may be another Tiananman Square, or the result may be capitulation. My money is on the former.

Are we witnessing the beginning of a Chinese revolution? If so, then I hope the people win. Politically freedom is an absolute prerequisite for an enlightened society. Alas, history is not on their side. In any case, keep your eyes on China, folks. It’s gonna get dicey.

Book Review: Something for Nothing

Whilst poking around the blogosphere in my jammies (I’m between work gigs at the moment.), I came across this review of a new book by Brian Tracy called, Something for Nothing: The All-Consuming Desire That Turns The American Dream Into A Social Nightmare.  While the author, Rebecca Hagelin, provides a nice overview, I think there’s more to be said.

For those who don’t know, I believe the first priority in any review is to provide readers with a read or don’t read recommendation.  Hagelin’s recommendation was a very enthusiastic read!, and mine is no different.  This is an excellent book.  In fact, as I was reading the first hundred pages of the book, I kept thinking that Tracy had somehow surreptitiously gained access to a dozen or more ideas that have been floating in my head for some time and corralled them into an excellent treatise on human nature, one fit for the masses.  There’s nothing like some good confirmation bias to get you into a book.  Anyhow, by the end of the book, I concluded that there are good things and bad things to say about this work.  First the good.

Tracy’s underlying premise is that all humans are hardwired to be lazy, greedy, ambitious, selfish, vain, ignorant, and impatient.  I agree completely.  In fact, were I in a more theoretical mindset, I would probably take on the task of connecting the dots between these attributes and our caveman heritage.  (It’d be pretty easy.)  But I’m about practicality these days, so I’ll stick to clarifying what this means.

To say that we’re all naturally lazy is not a criticism of our species; it’s a value-neutral statement of fact. Indeed, Tracy’s larger point is that what matters is how we translate these natural proclivities into the way we think and act in the world.  I, for example, am one seriously lazy bastard.  I absolutely abhor wasting time on fruitless activities, but this is a good thing.  My disdain for waste drives me to innovate, to get every ounce of productivity out of the time I spend doing what’s necessary in life.  I am, therefore, using my laziness in a positive way.  But not everyone does, and this is where the concept of something for nothing comes in.

Tracy argues that an environment that allows people to get what they want/need without actually doing anything for it breeds the worst of all possible responses to inherent human laziness – the drive to get something for nothing.  And, just to keep the human generalizations ball rolling, Tracy provides a list of the basic wants/needs of all humans.

All of us are motivated by an intense desire to achieve safety, security, comfort, leisure, love, respect, and fulfillment – in that order.  The key is that these needs are arranged in a hierarchy – we pursue the first ones until they are satisfied, and then we pursue the next ones until they are satisfied.  This is why humans for most of history have had little time for contemplation – the activities associated with finding survival and security consumed all moments.  But we are now living in a time when survival and security are pretty much a given for most people in the US.  And given may just be the operative word there.

With the constant expansion of social entitlement programs, the possibility of getting something for nothing is less and less difficult.  If your choices are a painful minimum wage job or a free check at the beginning of every month, the human tendency for laziness says that you’ll choose the latter.  This is because of what Tracy calls the Expediency Factor (or E Factor) –

“People continually strive to get the things they want the fastest and easiest way possible, with little or no concern for the secondary consequences of their behaviors.”

Humans are expedient in their use of their natural tendencies to acquire the things they need and want.  But wait, wait, wait, you may be shouting.  This is all nonsense, you might say.  I’m not like that, you’ll bristle.  Okay, fine, you’re different, but not because you’re not wired this way.  You’re different because the tendency to ignore secondary consequences has been trained out of you at some point in your journey through life.   Maybe you had good parents who taught you that thinking short term is a recipe for disaster.  Or maybe you learned the hard way from making bad decisions.  Whatever the case, the fact is that had you not been taught otherwise, you would be a short-term thinker.  That’s the human animal.

And you might also take issue with Tracy’s list of human characteristics.  You might say, “I’m not lazy!!”  Bullshit, I’d say.  If I give you a choice between a handsaw and chainsaw to cut down abig tree, you’ll choose the chainsaw (unless you’re a luddite puss).  Same thing with greed.  As Tracy points out, when people are offered $100,000 or $95,000 to do the same job, all people choose $100,000.  The point is that our genes have been carefully crafted over the eons to make us into a species with these basic drives.  This does not mean that our behavior is always malevolent.

It is possible to channel these human tendencies into positive behaviors that are beneficial to ourselves and others.  Indeed, this appears to be Tracy’s mission – to help us recalibrate the way we approach life so as to take full advantage of our nature while simultaneously helping ourselves and the world around us.  This is why I really like this book.  He’s singing my tune, and I’m loving his rendition.  But all is not roses and sunshine in Something for Nothing.

Brian Tracy is a guru in the personal and business self-improvement world.  He’s been around for a long time doing seminars and writing books.  He’s traveled the world, and his insights are evidence of a very centered and humanitarian kind of guy.  Alas, even though he gets the big picture completely right, his solutions for the masses are a bit too idealistic for my taste.

The first four chapters of the book lay down the basics that I’ve described above.  He explains his claims as to human tendencies and human needs, and he goes into how character is the key to meeting our needs in positive ways.  All good stuff.  But then Tracy turns to the current situation in America.  He talks about the role of useless politicians in ushering in the era of something for nothing and the damage that mentality does to people who hold it and to society at large.  Again, all good stuff.  But then, our esteemed author strays into fantasy land.

First Tracy offers advice on how to avoid falling victim to the something for nothing disease.  He provides a pledge that you can take that entails promising to never take something for nothing and to never abide people or organizations that do.  I’m on board with committing to do never taking something for nothing, but the idea that we can simply turn our noses up to those who do is a mistake.

Yes, I get just as disgusted as the next guy when I see some welfare queen in line with food stamps buying prime rib as she chats on her cell phone.  I’m not looking to buddy up to her anyway.  But what about the workplace?  Tracy devotes a whole chapter to how to fix the workplace.  Were I to buy into the whole pledge, I’d have very few options in terms of employment.  (Assuming I were employed, of course.)   The fact is that most companies have plenty of folks who do almost nothing and collect paychecks.  This fact seems to elude Mr. Tracy.

Well, actually, he mentions it, but his solution is just to get rid of these people.  Oh yeah.  Sure.  And his solutions for government are much the same.  How do we stop the entitlement mentality?  Do away with programs that give something for nothing.  Genius.  How do we get rid of politicians who foment resentment of the rich to garner cash for their consituents?  You got it – replace them with statesmen who have a longer term and less selfish view of public policy.  Yes, that’s it!!  We’ll just get rid of the assholes, and when we do, all the people who are currently afflicted with the something for nothing disease will slowly begin to be productive.  Wow.  I found myself wondering how a guy who clearly has such a good feel for human nature could come up with so asinine a solution.

Let me just say that I wholeheartedly agree with the spirit of Tracy’s arguments.  There’s no question that eliminating the possibility of getting something for nothing will spur the vast majority of humans to start taking steps to meet their needs productively.  But I’m afraid we’re at a point where we simply can’t get there from here.  Ironically, Tracy explains why this is so.

The author says that studies have been done showing that fear of losing met needs is 2.5 times more powerful than the desire to meet them.  (I should point out that the book has no footnotes, so we believe at our peril.  However, my experience shows this to be basically true.)   If this is true, then we should expect it to be nearly impossible to do what Tracy wants done, especially in our sound-bite driven, biased-media world.

So what are we to make of this book?  It’s good because it explains in very clear terms what we’re about as human beings.  It’s also good because it reminds us that we are responsible for our lives, and that our success depends upon the decisions we make and the actions we take.  And it’s even good that it provides a lot of basic historical and economic information that lends credence to the overall thesis.  That’s enough to justify the cost of admission – by a long shot.  But I think we have to be wary of pie-in-the-sky solutions to problems like this.

If we’re really going to make progress – for ourselves and the world around us – we have to take the situation as it is and find ways to navigate through it.  Sure, there are changes we can make that can be very beneficial.  For example, if we all get serious about making the Fair Tax a reality, many of the problems in our society will dissolve before our eyes.  (He doesn’t mention it.)  But the larger point is that we have cards in our hand, cards that we have to play.  Tracy would have us discard until the cards come up all aces.  Unfortunately, the deck’s not that big.  In the end, there’s useful information in this book, but it’s up to us to figure out how to use it to get what we want out of life.  Tracy has given us a clear picture of the stage upon which we act.  We now have the task of writing the script.

Books That Will Make You Think Differently About Yourself

The concept behind this site is fairly simple. Our genes are controlling us a lot more than we think they are, but this is not a bad news story. We can, if we understand what our genes are up to, take control and live according to our rationally conceived objectives in life. This is not an idea that I have come up with on my own (though I may be one of its most ardent proponents). I’ve just grabbed onto it because I think it is the key to getting the most out of our time here. If we know that emotions are the brain’s rapid response system, and we know that they evolved to react in certain ways to certain situations (social situations, in particular), then we have a leg up in the quest to think when circumstances require thought more than emotion. That, alone, I am convinced, would elevate the general happiness to levels that have never before been seen in mankind’s history. To that end, I’d like to propose the creation of a book list, an enlightened caveman curriculum, if you will.

Let me first draw some lines in the sand. There are countless books that can be said to enlighten humanity – the dictionary comes to mind – so we need some criteria for books that will fit properly into this. The first is this: a book on this list must deal directly with human nature. It may be based in science, such as genetics, or any other field of study that is represented on accredited college campuses. Anthropologists and archaeologists have learned a great deal about who we are as a species, so it makes sense to include their efforts in our pursuit of enlightenment.

Second, the book must invoke concepts about human nature in a prescriptive way. That is to say, it isn’t good enough to say that genes are selfish, which means our elaborate lives are the happenstance result of replicators replicating. (So The Selfish Gene , great as it is, is out.) The book has to say what the science and/or anthropology and/or archaeology prescribes for those of us looking for direction in life. We need to be able to practically apply what the academics have discovered.

I’ll start by adding three books that have been particularly meaningful to me, and I’d ask that suggestions to the list adhere to the same general format – tell what the background information is, and then tell what is prescribed, and how it benefits mankind. Over time, hopefully, we’ll have a nice list of books that all add credence and weight to the theme of this site. Of course, in the spirit of intellectual rigor, I’d welcome any recommendations of books that contradict the enlightened caveman concept.
These books are listed in no particular order.

  1. Mean Genes : From Sex to Money to Food: Taming Our Primal Instincts
    by Terry Burnham, Jay Phelan
    From the introduction:
    Our brains have been designed by genetic evolution. Once we understand that design, it is no longer surprising that we experience tensions in our marriages, that our waistlines are bigger than we’d like, and that Big Macs are tastier than brown rice. To understand ourselves and our world, we need to look not to Sigmund Freud but rather to Charles Darwin. The authors then go on to address the following list of topics: debt, getting fat, drugs, taking risks, greed, gender differences, beauty, infidelity, family, friends, and foes. In each case, they detail the ancient genetic strategies that are manifesting themselves in behavior and social phenomena today, and then they explain what shifts in thought are implied by the information if we are to improve our lives.I must admit that I was in a pretty solid state of panic when I read the introduction to this book. I was thinking that these guys had basically beat me to the punch. Fortunately, as I read on, I realized that there really isn’t very much overlap between my book and theirs. Yes, we’re both working off the same general premise. However, my book is far less tactical. I’m focused on changing the way we think from the inside out – by starting with how we think of ourselves and what matters in life and then moving on to how we think about our fellow man – all for the sole purpose of bringing happiness to our lives.

    Burnham and Phelan, however, call their book a manual for the mind, and I have to agree with them.For example, they explain that in ancestral times, it made sense to eat when food was available. Therefore, we are now a species that eats far more than it needs when food is plentiful (as it is in first-world countries). That means we have to consciously endeavor to control our intake of food. If we do not, we’ll routinely find ourselves letting our belts out. Think of how many people in this country don’t know this. The mass awareness of little tidbits like this could prolong and improve the lives of countless people. There are many, many others in this book.

  2. Consilience : The Unity of Knowledge
    by Edward O. Wilson.
    From Chapter 6: The Mind
    All that has been learned empirically about evolution in general and mental processes in particular suggests that the brain is a machine assembled not to understand itself, but to survive. Because these two ends are basically different, the mind unaided by factual knowledge from science sees the world only in little pieces. It throws a spotlight on those portions of the world it must know in order to live to the next day, and surrenders the rest to darkness.Wilson’s book is about reconsidering the way we teach and pursue knowledge. He argues that our schools break subjects apart (math, english, biology, etc.) for somewhat arbitrary reasons and that this works against the design of the mind, which is more comfortable with holistic approaches to learning. Consilience, he says, is, “…literally a ‘jumping together’ of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation.” The idea is that we shouldn’t restrict ourselves to applying what we learn in computer-based neural networks to implementing better computer systems. We should ask what other phenomenon could be better understood by what we know about these inanimate, but elegant systems. It’s about synthesis, and this, to me, begs a mental paradigm shift.

    Wilson asserts that that the value of consilience is not something that can be proven with first principles or logical deduction. Its value is self-evident, as it has been chiefly responsible for most of the progress of our species. I can vouch for that in my own life. Any time I learn something new, I automatically ponder what this new information could bring to other things I’ve wondered about. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, for example, has so many other applications that counting them would be tough, and I thank Wilson for helping me think differently, about myself and the world around me.

  3. The Science of Good and Evil : Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule
    by Michael Shermer
    From the Prologue:
    Ultimate questions about social and moral behavior, while considerably more challenging [than questions about hunger and sex], must nevertheless be subjected to an evolutionary analysis. There is a science dedicated specifically to this subject called evolutionary ethics, founded by Charles Darwin a century and a half ago and continuing as a vigorous field of study and debate today. Evolutionary ethics is a subdivision of a larger science called evolutionary psychology, which attempts a scientific study of all social and psychological human behavior. The fundamental premise of these sciences is that human behavior evolved over the course of hundreds of thousands of years during our stint as hominid hunter gatherers, as well as over the course of millions of years as primates, and tens of millions of years as mammals.In this book, Shermer takes aim at morality and ethics by arguing that humans came by the two long before religion or any codified social rules existed. In Chapter 5, called, “Can We Be Good Without God?”, he addresses head on how we can rationally arrive at morality and be anchored to it as tightly (and rightly) as any religious person is to his or her morality. Throughout the book, the author calls upon all sorts of academic information, from evolutionary psychology to anthropology to sociology to make his points. And aside from the obvious benefits of seeing our tendency toward piety for what it is, he also brings out a really useful concept, using fuzzy logic to think differently about issues.

    Shermer makes the point that the human tendency to dichotomize, to think something is either this way or that, must be guarded against, because life is simply not black and white. Better to think in terms of fractions. For example, at any given moment, I may be 20% altruistic and 80% non-altruistic (selfish). Though, in the balance, I come off selfish at that time, it is incorrect to say that I am a selfish person. The situation may have called for selfishness. The bottom line is that circumstances have a lot to do with our morality. Being able to see people and ideas as shades of grey helps us to avoid moral absolutes that generally lead to division between people. This is a worthwhile message, to say the least.

So there you have it – three books that I think contribute to the enlightened caveman movement. There are more, but not too many, not to my knowledge. That’s why I’m doing this. I’ll finish my contributions in later posts. For now, I hope to learn about all the great books I’ve never heard of, books that will bolster my belief that here lies something big, something important.

Thin-Slicing and Attraction Triggers

Original Post (with comments)
Even though I finished it a while ago, I continue to dwell on the notion of thin-slicing that Malcolm Gladwell writes about it his latest, Blink. ” ‘Thin-slicing’ refers to the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based upon very narrow slices of experience.” Gladwell covers a variety of situations that exemplify how thin-slicing works, and more importantly, how it often works better than making decisions based upon a great deal of information. Indeed, this is really the point of Blink. But, upon further consideration, one example, the one I referred to in my appearance delta theory, has prompted me to extend the concept to include what I’ll call attraction triggers.

Gladwell, in illuminating the “dark side” of thin-slicing, spends some time on how we often form our opinions of individuals based upon the slightest of information. Our visual first impression often has the effect of coloring our assessments dramatically. He refers us to a test some psychologists have developed called the Implicit Association Test (IAT). Subjects are given a list of words and are asked to choose which of two categories the words belong to. For example, the list may be a list of names and the category choices may be male or female. Subject responses are timed. Since most people have considerable experiences that say the name Mary is a female name, responses in this easy test are very fast (between 400 and 600 milliseconds). The association between name and gender is well established within our culture. But when the categories and words are changed, interesting things start to happen.

Suppose, there are two possible words for each category – say male or family on one side and female or career on the other. Then, the subject still has to put the words into one of two categories, but they have to figure out which is best by considering four alternatives, not two. Confused yet? Here’s an example.
Male………………………………….. Female
or……………………………………….. or
Family ………………………………..Career

So the subject simply has to place an X either to the left or the right of the word (Babies, for example) to indicate which category the word falls into. Interestingly, because we naturally associate maleness with careers and femaleness with families, this test is pretty tough. Our natural tendency is to want to put entrepreneur on the male side, but it is clearly related to career. That little mental wavering manifests itself in additional time to taken to make the choice – on the order of 200 to 300 milliseconds more than what is seen for a naturally strong association. The point is that, by pairing certain words together, the psychologists administering the IAT have found evidence of all sorts of inherent bias in how we assess things and other people.

One bias that we might not expect or want to accept is a racial bias. You can go here to take the Race IAT for yourself. (Be warned – you’re likely to be dismayed by the results.) When the categories are European American or Bad and African American or Good, all hell breaks loose. When we should be able to breeze through a series of pictures and take no more than 400-600 milliseconds to make our choices, we take much longer. When we should be able to take words like Evil, Hurt, and Wonderful and easily place them into their proper categories in short order, we simply do not. It appears that our thin-slicing proclivities are very much a function of our personal experiences and of our assessments of cultural norms. Though tests like the Race IAT should give us some serious pause, I wonder if we could take the same idea and apply it to how we assess appearance deltas.

Though the IAT asks subjects to assign words to categories, it isn’t very much different than the “hot or not” craze that has taken up residence in many corners of the Internet. In this case, subjects are asked if a person in a picture is hot or not. Now, they are not timed, so this isn’t particularly rigorous experimentation. But what if they were? What if the point were to determine one’s hotness or not hotness as quickly as possible, and the responses were measured in milliseconds? Would be there be ways that we could manipulate the pictures to get faster or slower responses? I say there would, and they would revolve around attraction triggers.

Suppose we put up a picture of a girl with a dead-pan look on her face and then gave the test to 100 people. Then, we put up the same girl, but with a big smile on her face. Would she get more “hots” than she did in the first test? Who knows? If she was on the fence – say 50 out of 100 said she was hot in the first test – we should expect that number to go up on the second test (unless she had major dental issues). This is because, all things being equal, someone who smiles is more attractive than someone who does not, and we know it in a fraction of a second. Is there more?

Ever seen someone from a distance and thought they were attractive, only to learn as they got closer that you were wrong? Of course, it’s happened to all of us. But can you put your finger on what it was that contributed most to the assessment early on? Maybe the person had an attractive walk, or maybe he or she was wearing a flashy outfit. Whatever it was, I think we can think of it as an attraction trigger, something that, when it is thin-sliced, leads people to think “hot.” Of course, a distant attraction trigger often dissipates as the distance closes. But, is it possible that there are attraction triggers that are seen up close and contribute disproportionally to one’s delta (or lack thereof)?

Teeth might be a good example. If someone has a brilliant smile, it may be so captivating that it offsets other features that might raise one’s delta. And this is not insignificant. As Gladwell’s book points out, the biases that are invoked when we’re thin-slicing are not just fleeting impressions. They color how we behave going forward. So if we could do something to alter those first impressions in our favor, we may find interpersonal acceptance easier to come by.

Again, we find ourselves up against the sell-out conundrum – which is to say, is it worth it to modify our appearances to get what we want from other people? In some cases, whether we want to admit or not, the answer for all of us is yes. So the real question is when. And now, with the notion of attraction triggers, we can consider large-scale changes (such as dieting, exercising, and cosmetic surgery) and more subtle changes.
One friend of mine loves girls in pony tails. On a scale of 1-10, she can be a 6 but he’ll go for her like she’s a 9. It’s weird really, but I’m convinced that most people have these quirks. So if an average girl happened to be interested in my friend, she would be well served to know his attraction trigger and wear her hair accordingly. This is a simplistic example, I know, but I’m just trying to throw another twist into the appearance delta concept. I think it’s useful, even if as only a more descriptive way to observe and contemplate the human drama as it unfolds. Would a working familiarity with attraction triggers constitute enlightenment? Why not? Maybe it makes things just a little bit brighter.