The Enlightened Caveman

Abstract to Happy Fantasy – A Leap to the Abyss?
November 9, 2005, 3:45 am
Filed under: Enlightened Caveman Concept, My Theories, Science

My thinking right now begins with the idea my brain (and yours, too) has an approximation of reality digitally represented within its physical existence. It all hinges on two things. The first is the notion that there is such a thing as absolute truth, if you take it to mean that there is a consistency to things, an immutable quality (or multitude of qualities) that permeates the perceivable universe. The second is the idea that our neurons are malleable enough to gather information about the world and code it into some sort of usable storage. Both are utterly defensible. In simple terms, our little neurons work together to construct a complex model of the perceivable universe, which is knowable and constant. What got me down this path is thinking that there was no fortune, evolutionarily-speaking, for the flawed mental model, but only to a point. After that, the flawed model may be the key to happiness. (And the little annoying tap on the shoulder.)

I suppose the evolutionary background for this is the idea that starting back in ancestral time and moving forward, those individuals who had the most “realistic” neural models of reality stood a better chance of surviving than those whose models were, shall we say, deficient. Perhaps the bad models were overly general, classifying all berries as edible, thus resulting in the demise of their purveyors. Or maybe they were overly specific in their grouping of entities; they could not generalize that a large, agile cat, though it might not have stripes, might be dangerous. The genes that made these inferior mental models were, so it would seem, stopped dead in their tracks. Literally.

But it goes further than that. Evolution is about escalation. It’s safe to assume that the totally inferior models would have fallen away early in the mental evolutionary process. But there would still have been the matter of scarce resources, which lead directly to competition. That is to say, once the simple things killed off the stupid people, there was still a competition for limited resources. And, once again, the accuracy of the neural model would have been the chief arbiter of survival.

The basic details of reality would, at that point (some theoretical space in time), have been fairly consistent among the existing humans. Most everyone would share a similar mental model for the difference between poisionous berries and edible berries (or at least the notion that there are different types), or the similarity between tigers and lions. But more complex aspects of reality, such as the tendency of humans to deceive one another, especially in certain situations, might not be shared. And those types of differences would have to have been heavily influential on the genetic makeup of the populations that followed. Basically, the suckers didn’t make it.

And here we are. It seems clear that our mental models are now the result of genetic predispositions in the hands of significant cultural influences. Who knows when the shift from primarily genetically-influenced minds to minds built by genetics mixed with culture happened. All we know is that, now, nature and nurture are heavy-duty bedfellows. The notion of a human mental model of reality is greatly affected by this.

I’d venture to say that most humans, at least western humans, share a very complex mental model of reality, some of which is genetic, and some of which is cultural. However, there are also vast differences, and many of them are completely fabricated, and most (if not all) of those are cultural. In fact, the point of this wandering is to say that we are now, and probably have been for quite a while, living in a time when the direction of our shared mental model is straying markedly away from reality. Our culture is driving, and it cares not where absolute truth wants to go.

It’s not that we’re straying purposefully. It’s just that some aspects of reality have actually been changed. For example, for most of man’s existence, it has been an axiom that if you didn’t take steps to provide for your own food, you were going to starve to death. Nowadays, in some places (most western cities), you can do just about nothing, and you’ll never starve. That’s a big change to the basic mental model of reality that has existed in the minds of humans for millennia. And when an axiom of reality shifts, it isn’t nuts to suppose that lots of them have shifted. This is how we get to fantasy land.

It’s been a looong time since little differences in our mental models have had any significant impact on our survivability. The creation of institutions (both government and economic) pretty much gutted that risk factor – by shifting reality in some areas and promising to shift reality in other areas. As long as we don’t die, there are really no consequences for believing erroneous things, such as that the minimum wage helps poor people, or that Allah demands the annihilation of the west. We’re able to disconnect from reality more and more as our institutions grow in their influence upon our everyday lives. And we would have it no other way. Indeed, this could very well be part of the force behind our tendency to cling to institutions. (The other being the need for concurrence, but I don’t want to digress.)

Our minds, being good at building models, which ultimately are nothing more than categories (and all of the characteristics that describe them) filled with definitions of specific entities, are masters of abstraction. They assimilate disparate ideas into concepts that define their relationship, and then use the new concepts as disparate ideas to be included in still broader terms. When you get high enough on the abstraction ladder, you are creating reality. You’re imagining ideas that may or may not be true, and you have no practical means to tell the difference. And so long as these ideas don’t fail you (i.e. nothing contrary to the concepts happens to you), you have no reason to suspect their inaccuracy. So your mind constructs a fantasy. The question is whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.

Whenever I travel to third-world countries, I’m always reminded of how far my fantastic version of reality can venture from the real thing. Actually, maybe it’s better to say that my flimsy version of reality – the one that holds up most of the time but could fall at any moment – is a far cry from the more sturdy version of reality that I see when I travel. But no matter how much “perspective” I may gain from my forays into the land of bare necessities, I’m always glad to pull into my driveway, the perfectly smooth concrete driveway in my fantasy land where food, health, shelter, and lifelong companionship are a given. And not the basics – the high end stuff. It’s a given, all of it. I’m happy to excuse thoughts of mortality and deprivation as mere glimpses into a reality that I don’t experience. Indeed, I have to. We all do.

I met an old American Indian guy this past weekend who has a little village set up as a tourist attraction. While my two-year old son was running wild from tee-pee to tee-pee, this old guy was telling my wife and I how his ancestors lived off the land. He showed us all the things they made from the animals they hunted. Story after story of ingenuity and independence. I finally commented that the Indians must have been really tough folks to have lived like they did. He came back with a fitting closing to this post. He said, “To be us now and look back to their life, yeah it looks tough. But to them, not knowing what we know now, life was easy. Easier than it is now. The earth provided everything they needed, and they spent their time on the good things – enjoying the life they were gi

I’m not advocating some dumbass “get back to nature” lifestyle. That’s nothing more than placing bets on the cards you wish you had instead of the cards in your hand. I’m just saying that it’s useful to recognize that our version of reality, though it may be durable, is likely to be something entirely different from what reality is (and always has been) for most humans. Considering the possibility that something like a Hurricane Katrina or a 9-11 could come along and re-introduce us to man’s most experienced reality, it’s not a bad idea to spend a little time pondering what to do if the fantasy fails. This is not sky is falling kind of stuff; just a little light contingency planning.

Riding The Horse
June 17, 2005, 5:17 pm
Filed under: Enlightened Caveman Concept, Enlightened Living, My Theories

Original Post (with comments)
I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty nervous around horses. They’re very big, and they are (as far as I’m concerned) very unpredictable. I’ve heard horror stories of people who got kicked by horses, and I’m pretty much soured on them. But it occurred to me this evening that managing the caveman within each of us is very much like riding a horse. First you have to tame him, then you can take him wherever you please.

Think of our primal tendencies as the horse. When unsaddled and unbroken, the horse does pretty much what he wants, according to his natural proclivities – he seeks safety, food, and sex, and not necessarily in that order. And he’s big, which means he’s due a wide berth when he’s got a head of steam for something. Our goal as enlightened cavemen (and women) is to contain the horse, to control it. This is not unlike the process of breaking a wild mustang.

I have long believed that the human populations (in Africa or the Middle East, for example) that fare the worst in life are dominated by people who are driven exclusively by unbroken horses. Ancient emotions run wild – the quest for status, the indignation and enmity that come from reciprocal altruism unfulfilled, the in-group versus out-group mentality, the male urge to spread his seed far and wide, the willingness to believe falsehood if it supports any of the aforementioned, all of it. The horse lacks the benefit of a harness that is held by a rational, big-picture thinker. But, lest we miss a critical component of this concept, the thinker is not enough.

Were we jockeys without horses, we would be largely unfit for purpose. The thinker would be deprived of the chief instrument of his plans. Indeed, the thinker is never as good at finding shelter, food, and sex as the horse is. No, the horse is essential. He brings with him the courage, the strength, and the resolve to execute the visions of the thinker, even the most primitive of visions. So the first task is to harness the horse, to control him, and a daunting task it is.

The choice of the horse as the embodiment of the caveman mentality is not arbitrary. It is precisely the juxtaposition of power and unpredictability that make the horse the obvious choice. We cannot simply lasso him and expect him to submit. We have to convince him that he cannot win. Fortunately, the rich history of our species is replete with examples from which we can draw our confidence as horse breakers. So long as the horse believes that we are in control, he is ours to do with what we will. And still, it is not easy.

The unpredictability of our horse, even when broken, limits our options. If he gets spooked by dogs, we cannot expect his submission to override this. We must extend our thinking to include accounting for his quirks, for at least he is predictably unpredictable – he won’t spook for nothing, but when he does, there’s no telling what he’ll do. So the thinker gets to know his horse. He gets to know what spooks him and what soothes him so he can guide him gingerly around the obstacles that promote unpredictability. This is our task, and as with any worthwhile task, the rewards are manifest.

When we tame the horse, when we control the horse, we can ride him. We can find a delicate (but durable) balance between our big-picture designs and his power to achieve them. We can steer him around interpersonal conflicts that back him into a corner, but, when options evaporate, a few heels to the hindquarters are all it takes to spur him into action. This is what I’m after. This is what we should all be after – a tame horse that can be unleashed at will. Luckily, this is all figurative. No matter how much I may like this analogy, don’t look for me on a horse any time soon.

The Pair Bond and the Chiiiildren.
March 22, 2005, 5:04 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Caveman Concept, Parenting, Politics

Original Post (with comments)
I went for a run today, a baby-jogger run (i.e. harder than your average hilly run, and sometimes complete with whining soundtrack). Coming off of the flu, a vacation, and a lot of travel for business, I found that the work part of the phrase work-out kept passing across my giant movie screen – it started hurting less than two miles in. Nevertheless, at one point, another runner turned onto the road I was running. Suddenly, my focus was no longer on the discomfort I was feeling with every stride.

Me to Thomas: “Ahh, aren’t we lucky? It looks like we now have a mark (drawn out to indicate the presence of a new word for his lexicon). Now we have someone we can try to chase down and pass. And if we’re successful, it will feel so good that we’ll forget how our fitness has deteriorated.”

Thomas: “Muh.”

Me: “Very good. Let’s get him.”

Alas, my running foe turned off again before I could pass him. (I was gaining, though.) This scenario reminded me of the usefulness of competitive instincts in physical conditioning. Though being competitive is a direct result of the quest for status, and it is often the cause of serious interpersonal problems in life, it isn’t always bad – it pushes me to work harder than I might otherwise. And, to expand the concept a bit, I think many of the caveman proclivities that I usually denigrate and recommend harnessing are actually useful in the right contexts. The pair bond, particularly where kids are concerned, may be another example.

Yesterday on Michael Medved’s radio show, the discussion was centered around an article in the Northwestern periodical, The Oregonian, entitled: “Single mom a sign Rose court grows with times.” Apparently, each year for the last 75 years, during the Rose Festival, a Portland senior has been chosen as the Queen of Rosaria. This year the Queen is Rosa Montoya, a single-mom with a 7-week old daughter. Not surprisingly, Medved was appalled that a girl in such a situation would be honored in such a way. I’m inclined to agree with him, but not for the reasons he gives.

Make no mistake, there’s some substantial liberal diversity/tolerance/devictimization sentiment behind this Rose Queen selection.

Chet Orloff, director emeritus at the Oregon Historical Society and a member of the festival’s centennial committee, thinks Montoya’s election is good for Portland.

“It’s a recognition of something that’s quite realistic,” he said. “Girls are having children in high school. Getting that out into the realm of something as traditional as the Rose Festival is healthy.”

Medved disagreed. He stated that getting pregnant as a single teen is sign of poor character, and that it should not be praised or promoted as anything other than that. In my view, that’s a bit overboard. Kids are kids, which means they often to do stupid things. They have time horizon problems, so it’s hard to think of them as bad people (Isn’t that what people who accuse others of having character problems are really saying?) when they get themselves into predicaments involving pregnancy. To me, the real test of character is what they do after they learn they are pregnant. Every situation is different, so I can’t say which course of action will be the right one. However, I think it’s safe to say that most all situations will offer a hard right and an easy wrong. Which is chosen says much more about the character of the teen than the fact that he or she is dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. But the character issue is not my main concern here. Given the liberal penchant for upending tradition, should we not entertain the notion that the pair bond is archaic and on its way out (or that it should be)?

Is the notion that a standard step along the path through life is getting hitched up to one person nothing more than our caveman machinery driving the bus? It’s hard to say. Evolutionary psychology would seem to suggest that the monogamous pair bond is unnatural. Though the best female strategy in ancestral times entailed selecting males who had good genes and who would make good fathers, there’s really nothing to suggest that females should have stayed with their childrens’ fathers forever. But…this is not the ancestral world.

We have tens of thousands of years of culture that has shaped the way these caveman (or cavewoman, in this case) tendencies translate into behavior. Our genes push us toward love because it promotes reproduction and caring for our offspring, but our culture pushes love towards long-term, monogamous (at least on paper) relationships. Like I said, it’s hard to say. Maybe it’s better to just ask if it makes sense.

Those who are distressed that single parents are not honored nearly enough would seem to be suggesting that two-parent families are no better. Here we see shades of the theme behind multiculturalism – things (cultures, lifestyles, etc.) should not be thought of as better or worse, just different. Are they right? I think not, but not for moral reasons. I think this is a practical matter.

An Urban Institute article entitled, “Poverty among Children Born Outside of Marriage,” says:

Children born outside of marriage are more likely to have a mother who did not graduate from high school than are children born to married parents. They are also less likely to live with a mother who works full-time year-round. While 44 percent of children born to married parents have a mother who is fully employed, this is true for only 26 percent of children born outside of marriage. Similarly, a third of the mothers of non-marital children do not work at all, compared with only a fifth of children born to married parents.

What we can take from this is that being a single parent is a huge financial risk. A shocking revelation, to be sure. Having been raised by a single-mom, I can personally attest to this – my mother worked two jobs well into my college years. In the end, it seems like the usefulness of the pair bond in modern society revolves around the issue of children. If two individuals have no intention of having children, it seems hard to say that long-term monogamy is anything more than a persistent cultural relic. But, the moment kids come into the picture, it becomes a pragmatic extension of the natural propensity to provide for offspring. In that context, genetic love in the hands of monogamous cultural norms is a good thing, a better thing.

Notice I’ve never said the couple should be heterosexual. As the primary component of this equation, at least in my mind, is financial, I don’t think the sex of the parents is relevant here. What is relevant is the probable consequence of having a child out of wedlock. On that, there are mountains of statistics that make it quite clear that kids do better in life when they have married parents. It’s one thing to honor someone for overcoming hardship – one hopes this is what’s really behind Rosa’s selection as Rose Queen – but it’s something different altogether to honor someone just because she’s a single mom. If anything, the difficulties of being a single mom should be in the spotlight. Rosa should not be congratulated for raising a child on her own. If she must be foisted upon her peers, it should be as an object lesson in what not to do.

We can’t (and shouldn’t even consider) ridding ourselves of the caveman need for love, especially where children are concerned. Therefore, given that our culture has discovered that long-term, monogamous pair bonds are the best arrangements for harnessing love where children are concerned, we find ourselves in another situation where the caveman mind in the modern world isn’t a problem at all. Sometimes, I guess, enlightenment means nothing more than knowing that the old way is still the right way.

An Open Letter to Dr. Leda Cosmides – University of California, Santa Barbara
February 28, 2005, 4:58 pm
Filed under: Enlightened Caveman Concept, Science

Original Post (with comments)
I hope you remember our visit in July of 2002 when you told me that Robert Wright called you before he published The Moral Animal. You told me that you were disappointed that he had not taken your revisions into consideration, that the public, in many ways, had been misled as to the particulars of evolutionary psychology. I think you were right. It seems, as some of the posters to this blog have pointed out, that evolutionary psychology is taking on a “pop” feel. It may even be approaching a tipping point. (A Libertarian think tank is now using it as an explanation for the merits of capitalism – click here.) If that is so, it’s a big deal.

There are basic questions that need solid answers, for the ranks of critics swell proportionally to the ranks of fans. The most pressing of these is that eternal bitch known as falsifiability. I have, for many years, felt that evolutionary psychology simply makes sense. Moreover, by viewing my fellow man through an EP sort of lens, I have seen my bias confirmed time and again. Thus, I have been enamored with the work of you and your fellows for many years. Indeed, the fundamental underlying premise of this entire site is the assumption that the basics of ES are correct. However, recently the question was posed to me: Can you give an example of how a particular theory of EP is falsifiable? I’m stumped, embarrasingly so. While I have read you, Calvin, Wilson, Gazzaniga, LeDoux, Damasio, and Pinker, and I am convinced that there is a preponderance of evidence that could be reasonably assembled to legitimize EP, I can’t see how anything asserted therein could really be falsified.

You can’t prove you’re wrong. Can you?

Though I fear it may seem so, my intentions here are not malicious. It’s just that this is not a trivial matter. There are many who hold falsifiability as the very basis of science. They will say that that which cannot be proven wrong cannot be considered scientifically convincing. They will say that EP is not a science, that is it merely well-dressed conjecture. Personally, I don’t have that requirement for science, not all science – I believe the big picture sometimes is the whole picture, even if we can’t quite grasp it. However, I am not the issue. The masses, who seem poised to embrace evolutionary psychology as the panacea to explain all manner of human phenomena, may not be so sophisticated in their assessment of the facts. So, if you’ll pardon my impertinence, it’s down to you, the pioneer of the field that is taking hold in mainstream America, to set the record straight.
Beyond falsifiability, there is the issue of confounding factors. It seems that the perennial problem in sociology is the fact that the subjects are exclusively human, which means they’re all individuals. While variables may be isolated meticulously, there’s always the possibility that some common denominator has not been accounted for. Therefore, the best conclusions are testaments to the trends that are suggested by the data. There may not be any better hypotheses, but that could be more a function of lack of imagination than a sign of convincing proof. EP may very well face the same challenges. Once again, I must point out that my aim is not to debunk or discredit EP. I think an understanding of it is immensely useful in life. But if these objections cannot be surmounted, it seems that we’ll have to think of EP in a different way.

The ideas of quantum physics were originally thought of as theoretical physics. This was the moniker attached to ideas that fit well into existing data but still eluded meaningful observation. It may be that EP has to fit into a category that we may call theoretical psychology. Hell, maybe this already exists. I’m no scientist. In any case, this, in my view, would not be such a bad thing. It would simply be an above-board statement as to the current state of the science, one that the sound-bite masses would be well-served to know. And yes, even if turns out to be theoretical, it should still be considered a science.

This is because we can, I believe, conceive of how EP will one day be falsifiable. I think we can expect illumination in the intersection of genetic networks and developmental biology, for one thing. As the data mounts and our methods get more rigorous (not that they aren’t already), the transition to applied psychology will take place. In the end, I still hold out hope that the naysayers are simply ill-informed, as am I. It is my sincere wish that you and your colleagues would weigh in on this before it’s too late. I remember you told me that if the masses understood EP, wars could be averted. On this, I also think you were right. Though it would be misleading to suggest that this forum can accomplish the mass mental advancement you (and I) envision, I will say that your field will be the better for it, and you never know…strange things happen in the blogosphere – just ask Dan Rather.

Chris Wilson

Consumerism – Status Gone Haywire

Original Post (with comments)
The last post prompted some back and forth discussion regarding the legitimacy of the Enlightened Caveman concept. I hold that there is a duality between what our genes were designed for and want and what we as conscious, sentient beings want. I also believe that the best approach to life entails having the latter control the former. But some seem to think that the more the latter controls the former, the more the world looks like a Vegas version of Pottery Barn. It’s as if the enlightenment is getting us nowhere. Well, folks I’m here to tell you that this is not enlightenment. This is caveman 101, and, if anything, it proves my point beyond dispute.

I’ve been talking lately about appearances. Why? Not because I’m obsessed with the topic, but because it has everything to do with how our world is unfolding. The idea that one should be aware of his or her appearance delta is what is known in the software development world as a work-around – it’s the best you can do with the situation. Ideally, as the world becomes more rational, and less caveman, the need to be aware of an appearance delta diminishes. Just like it is no longer socially acceptable to utter the “N” word in any city with more than 250,000 people, so should it be no longer acceptable to judge a book by its cover, to automatically cut slack to someone because they are physically, or better yet, viscerally appealing to you, or to do the opposite when someone does not make it over your bar. But to operate as if things were already this way would be foolish. It would be failing to recognize reality.

Like it or not, our genes are in command in the public at large, and this explains the Wal-Martification of America. Appearances also, particularly what we want others to think of us, play a crucial role in shaping our goals in life. It’s all about buying big stuff, expensive stuff, but it’s not our fault. Today’s mass-media world provides the general public with the most insidious of insights – what the other guy has. Everyone watches TV, and TV is a barrage of what the other guy has, the life the other guy leads, the car the other guy drives, and on and on. Conservative parrots will cry about how the growth of government has created the crisis that is the two-career home – the tax burden is so high that the wife, the one who used to be able to stay home with the kids, now has to work full time to make ends meet. The truth is that today’s families have an expectation of two $30,000 cars, private school for the kids, expensive yearly vacations, second homes, and all manner of gadgetry and conveniences, and all that costs a heck of lot more than the necessities of the 70’s. And why would they want so much? Cause that’s what the other guy has, and now they know it. The caveman is but a moth to the flame when it comes to what the other guy has.

Status, status, status. In caveman days, you had to be in the upper echelon if you expected to snag a mate…or lunch. That meant you paid close attention to what the folks with food and mates had and were doing, and you followed suit. And here we are, tens of thousands of years later, and nothing has changed. Well, something has changed – the smarts we used to master our environment eventually bit us in the ass. When we were tribal people, all we knew was our immediate environment. We knew where we stood. We paid attention to the folks with status, and we worked at moving up, but we knew where the top was and we knew, fairly well, how close we could get to it. But when we became more explosed to the outside world, when we started to find out that the guy at the top of our particular hierarchy was nothing, that the pinnacle was much higher, all hell broke loose. Things went from a local contest to a national contest quick, and the caveman is still reeling.

The quest for status, more than anything else, is driving consumerism. We want the big things, the expensive things, but we only have so much money. That means we economize wherever we can on the little things – we go to Wal-Mart. Capitalism, the best but not perfect economic system, is always replete with suppliers for demand such as this, even if the profit motive pushes them to exploitation. What we save at Wal-Mart, we spend on what the other guy has. But every time we make another purchase, we watch another show on TV. We see another guy. Suddenly, the DVD isn’t enough. Now, it’s gotta be the plasma TV. And if we can’t afford it, fucking finance it! There are all these nice people mailing us cards that tell us how we can borrow more than the value of our home because we have good jobs. Jobs that we never leave, cause if we do, it’s time to pay up. And what would people think? But why do we have to have all this garbage? Why do we have to worry about what people think? Status.
It feels good. Every time we get what the other guy has, and he notices, this calm comes over our tormented by TV caveman psyche. Our genes are saying, ahh, we’re that much closer to the top, that much more assured of our persistence for another generation. So, I cannot side with the idea that it is our culture that has created this plastic world. It is the very essence of our nature that is pushing us in the wrong direction. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that life is not about what the other guy has. But it takes an enlightened caveman to recognize that a big part of him will never accept it.

And lest anyone think me an anti-corporate type – we need not rail against Wal-Mart for satisfying our caveman desires. Just as the drug war makes no sense because it is focused on demand, so is our indignation misplaced if we insist that companies that cater to our archaic side are the problem. We must simply endeavor to understand our “shallow” side so that we may harness it and retool consumer demand to complement what makes sense in life. It happens one person at a time. One conversation at a time.

You Animal You
February 2, 2005, 4:34 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Caveman Concept, Science

Original Post (with comments)
A couple of recent posts have generated some lively discussions, and some of them have led to the nature versus nurture debate. I have been arguing that we come with many of our basic emotions pre-wired, and that it is only the relatively new emergence of malleable cognitive faculties that gives us the chance to change the outcome of situations that would otherwise go down as instinctive responses to external stimuli. Basically, the complexities of cognition and consciousness provide us with free will. Some, however, do not agree. They believe that the hard-wired parts of our minds are limited to the autonomic stuff and the basic survival skills (fight or flight, etc.). They think that the only way I can be right is if humans are robots, robots that were designed. I’ve made my case in comments and will probably attempt to summarize once the dust settles, but I think there’s some value in introducing some basic cognitive science into the picture. What follows is taken almost directly from Chapter 3 of my book.

Contrary to what many people like to believe, no need to believe, humans are not cosmically special. We are animals, not uber-rulers of a vast universe. Yes, we are sophisticated and capable of staggering feats of intelligence, but we are also consistently guilty of acts of passion that mirror the instinctive exploits of our animal cousins. What can we say? It’s in our genes. We all have the same basic genetic framework. The same four letter DNA alphabet (A, T, G, and C) serves as the underlying scaffold for all life on earth. Strands of DNA form genes. Throughout the history of life on this planet, genes have given rise to new organisms that were incrementally different from the ones that came before. However, new organisms were not created from scratch every time. Their designs were built upon designs that have worked well all along. This is why it makes sense that we share 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees, but only 90% with mice. This notion of conservation of design is starkly evident when it comes to the design of the human mind.

The vertebrate brain is divided into three major divisions: the hindbrain, midbrain, and forebrain. It turns out that the structure and function of the hindbrain and midbrain in humans are very similar to what is seen in reptiles, birds, and other mammals. All vertebrates have basically the same organization in the spinal cord, brain stem, thalamus, and cerebellum. That goes for rats, lizards, chimps, and humans. To go even further, we know that the same neurochemicals found in the human brain are also found in the nervous systems of leeches and worms, as well as reptiles, birds, and other mammals. Of course, this is not to say that we have the same minds as other animals. Humans are certainly endowed with mental structures and capabilities that far exceed those of any other animals on our planet. The point, however, is that the aspects we share with other animals are playing a leading role in our everyday lives, whether we know it or not. A light exploration of the architecture of the human mind will give us a feel for this.

The fact that we share our emotional infrastructure with other animals has a profound implication on how we experience life and on our search for truth. Consider the following diagram.
Brain Diagram

It depicts the pathway from an emotional stimulus to a bodily response in the brain. The first thing that happens is the emotional stimulus (say spotting a bear when you’re walking in the woods) sends a signal to the thalamus. The thalamus sends the signal to both the amygdala and the cerebral cortex. The amygdala (a brain structure known to be critical in the execution of basic emotional behavior) is responsible for issuing the response as quickly as possible to prepare you for action. The thalamus to amygdala loop constitutes what we’ll call the emotional pathway. The response it issues manifests itself not only in the immediate body response (such as elevating your heart, causing you to freeze, and preparing your muscles to act), but also in a signal to the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex has the luxury of taking its time to receive the signals both from the thalamus and from the amygdala. It also sends signals back down to the amygdala to be processed along with incoming information from the thalamus. So, the conscious emotional experience is separate and comes after the emotional response. The emotional response is what we share with all vertebrates. The emotional experience is reserved for those of us with consciousness. The jury is out as to exactly where that line is drawn, and I won’t dare hazard a guess. But I’d like to believe my dog is conscious. In any case, there are some points to be made about this arrangement between emotions and cognition.

In terms of the brain, there is a “low road” and “high road” when it comes to mentally processing an external stimulus. The low road is the evolutionarily old route. It corresponds to the pathway from the stimulus to the thalamus to the amygdala to the bodily response. This is the basic flow of what we can think of as emotional programs that take place in what is known as the emotional unconscious. It was designed by evolution to produce survival-enhancing responses to stimuli in the real world. This is really the point of the emotions we share with other animals – they are our rapid-response system. The high road, on the other hand, is the evolutionary new kid on the block. It corresponds to the pathway from the emotional stimulus to the thalamus to the cerebral cortex to the amygdala (and back to the cerebral cortex in a loop) to the bodily response. The cerebral cortex is, in a sense, where the cognitive processing happens. While the stimulus is eliciting a response on the “low road,” the cerebral cortex is assimilating both the stimulus and the emotional response into something that can be considered in a larger context. There are two aspects of this arrangement that have implications on our everyday lives.

The first is the notion that emotional processing inhibits cognition. Look back at the diagram and notice how the brain’s cognitive and emotional equipment are connected to each other. As crude as it is (I hear publishers have editors for this kind of thing), the arrangement is deliberate. The emotional low road is connected more closely to the nervous system, and therefore to the environment, than the cognitive high road. This is because, in evolutionary terms, it is much older. It is the part of the brain that we share with other mammals. In a way, our emotions are our brain’s first line of defense. The cognitive loop is “above” the emotional loop in the sense that all stimuli pass through the emotions en route to the cerebral cortex. The thalamus to amygdala loop, therefore, gets first right of refusal in terms of mounting a response to any given stimulus. It gets to decide whether and how to react to a stimulus before the high road is ever involved. This is important because, when the emotions take charge, there seems to be little room for cognition. It’s that simple. And there are plenty of examples in everyday life to prove it.

Ask almost any first time mother of an infant this question. When your baby cries, how easy it for you to think clearly? My straw poll of some well-educated young mothers yielded a pretty much unanimous response, “When my baby cries, I become completely stupid.” They went on to explain that the sound of their babies’ crying brought out feelings of anguish to fix the situation. Of course, as the children get older, this effect diminishes. However, the anguish is perfectly understandable. Some of the most basic emotional functions exist to ensure the wellbeing of offspring. They most directly serve the most gigantic of biological imperatives – the perpetuation of genes. It is, therefore, no surprise that the sound of one’s own baby’s crying elicits a very strong emotional response. (This was originally written before my child was born. I can now personally attest to this.) What is surprising, however, is how much our emotions are involved in our thought processes.

The second implication of the brain’s organization has to do with the cognition versus emotion question. The fact that all cognitive processing happens after emotional processing means that we can’t really be sure about the state of our processing system for any given stimulus (or situation). We can’t be sure how much of the processing that is going on is emotional versus cognitive. In other words, how much of how we are evaluating the world and responding to it is because of what we’re thinking versus what we’re feeling? As much as we would all like to say that we can usually answer that question accurately, the fact is that we really can’t. The odds are against us – for two reasons.

For one thing, emotional processing happens much faster than cognitive processing. Consider the fact that emotions evolved to deal with life and death situations. They facilitate split-second responses when necessary. Cognitive processes, however, are in no hurry. If something is important enough for you to need to respond almost automatically, you can bet there is a basic emotion mediating it. So, emotions are involved first, and they work fast. In the real world, this means that by the time we get around to thinking about something, there’s no telling how much emotional processing has occurred. We can all recall situations where we have reacted emotionally, but denied it vehemently, only to come to our senses and apologize later.

The odds are also against us because of the sheer magnitude of tasks handled by emotions versus those handled by cognition. The brain’s cognitive faculties are evolutionarily new, and they have been built on top of the ancestral emotional infrastructure we share with other animals. We are capable of handling tasks, such as finding food and shelter and responding to threats, with our emotions entirely. Whether we like it or not, the fact is that our animalistic emotions are involved in our daily lives a lot more than we think they are. They’re always on duty; that’s how the brain is wired.

So what does all this have to do with the nature versus nurture argument? It establishes the scientific basis for the idea that what we observe in nature (the phenotype) is the result of a combination of both forces – genes and the environment. More importantly, put this together with the ideas that we share much of our emotional infrastructure with animals and that other animals (primates, big cats, elephants, etc.) have basic emotions that lead to seeking status, anger, jealousy, and so on, but do not have our cognitive faculties, and you can reasonably conclude that a big part of our emotional repertoire is hard-wired. This is not to say that we are doomed to a predetermined existence. The diagram depicted shows quite clearly how the cognitive loop feeds back into the emotional loop, which means that even the most genetically controlled systems can be cognitively manipulated. That really is the scientific basis for the notion of enlightening the caveman in all of us. Am I getting through to you dualists out there?

Footnotes –
1. Some of the info on the wiring of the brain comes from Joseph LeDoux’s The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life (Touchstone, 1996).
2. Aspects of the discussion on the evolutionary origins of emotion come from Descartes’ Error : Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain by Antonio Damasio (Avon Books, 1994).

I’m Feeling Your Pain – An Intro to Concurrence
January 26, 2005, 4:31 pm
Filed under: Enlightened Caveman Concept, Philosophy | Tags: ,

Original Post (with comments)
Perhaps the most regularly recurring theme in this blog is the interplay between the quest for status and the human tendency to cooperate (both genetically driven) and our modern environment in leading to the behaviors we engage in and witness every day. That humans learned to cooperate is taken as a bit of an axiom in the study of hominid history, but something has been nagging at me for a while, and I’m just now getting to the point where I can articulate what I’ve come up with.

What if there is a genetically driven motivation that is larger than reciprocal altruism? I think there is. What if reciprocal altruism is just one manifestation (albeit a very critical one) of a heretofore elusive, but grand aspect of human nature? I think it is. This aspect of human nature is what I’ll call the need for concurrence.

Concurrence, in its most grand form, is perfect empathy. It is being able to mentally and emotionally relate to another person in a very deep way. It’s feeling someone else’s pain. It’s a profound connection between two people. Suppose the adaptation that Mother Nature found was an inherent desire to concur with other humans, and a consequence to getting to this deep emotional connection was the emergence of informal rules regarding favors done and favors owed. And lots more…but let’s back up for a moment.

In evolution, it’s always interesting to ponder the intermediates. In this case, we can imagine hominids like Australopithecus, who were not known for being big cooperators, and Homo sapiens, and we can wonder how natural selection bridged the gap. Did this human species of hominid just suddenly start cooperating, or did something happen before that? If I’m right about concurrence, then something did.
If we know that hominids who banded together to share resources and divide up duties fared better than hominids who did not, is it not reasonable to wonder what kind of primary emotion would produce that tendency for groups to come together? (When I talk about primary emotions, I’m talking about the ones you read about in books by Michael Gazzaniga and Joseph LeDoux, the basic emotional programs, like fear and the quest for status, that underlie our more complex emotions, like anger and jealousy.)

From what I’ve read, the answer would be the emotional tendency to cooperate. But I have a hard time imagining how that would work. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – there’s a lot I can’t imagine. However, I do not have a hard time imagining the emergence of a genetically-driven emotional drive to connect with another human. The cooperation part would simply be the fortuitous result, the one that natural selection seized upon, resulting in the reign of the human animal on earth.

So let’s suppose, just for fun, that I’m right, that there is an inherent human need for concurrence. Just think of how much it explains. Reciprocal altruism is only the tip of the iceberg. Concurrence could explain all sorts of social phenomena like, for example, that elated feeling at a rock concert when the whole place is glued to the same moment.

If the need for concurrence is a primary emotion, then it, like the others, is executed in different ways in different situations. In one-on-one situations, it can be seen as the pursuit of the direct emotional connection. In crowds, it can be seen as swimming in the same direction as the school, so to speak. Who can deny the visceral good feeling that comes from being in a crowd where everyone is focused on the same wonderful thing? If concurrence is real, then it explains that feeling – we’re pulled toward situations like that and we feel immense gratification when we encounter one. I know many people, and I am one of them, who appreciate big events (concerts, sporting events, etc.) for this reason every bit as much as for the name on the ticket. To be part of a happening, where everyone, for a short period of time, is concurring. To be part of a shared experience where a mass of individuals has been transformed into a collective entity, one that shows no signs of dissension in the ranks. This is human stuff. We are but moths to the flame.

But, as this blog vigilantly asserts, our primary emotions were not designed for this modern world. This means that, like status, concurrence has its downsides. Consider two teenage girls who are best friends. The desire, no, the need, for concurrence overrides the truth in many situations. If both girls are a bit heavy and are insecure about it, they can achieve deep concurrence by propping each other up with compliments to the contrary. Even though they know that the answer to, “Do these jeans make me look fat?” is, “No, your large ass makes you look fat,” they respond with, “No! They’re like totally cute.” The point is that, just as the quest for status often causes us to cut high-status people slack while we criticize low-status people, concurrence can distort truth when it is ill-advised in social situations. And on a larger scale, on the crowd scale, it can cause us to buy into fanatical causes.

For those for whom one-on-one interpersonal concurrence is hard to find, causes can act as a good surrogate. The feeling of swimming in the same direction of the school is like a hundred small-scale concurrences adding up to the effect of a deep one-on-one concurrence. (See Eric Hoffer’s, The True Believer.) The need for this distributed emotional connection, which, in this case, is the need to belong, trumps all else, logic and rationality included.

I’m just getting my arms around this idea and where I can take it, so I’ll stop here and come back with more as it develops. But I can’t help think that this will be the topic of my next book. The applications of this concept are mind boggling. And even if it isn’t true, even if the whole thing is nonsense, it’ll be a great exercise to find that out. Thoughts?