The Enlightened Caveman


Books That Will Make You Think Differently About Yourself
April 13, 2005, 5:10 pm
Filed under: Books, Enlightened Living, Philosophy, Science

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
April 5, 2005, 5:07 pm
Filed under: Books, My Theories, Relationships

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
…………………….Babies……………………………
…………………….Sarah…………………………….
…………………….Derek…………………………….
…………………….Domestic……………………….
…………………….Entrepreneur………………..

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.