The Enlightened Caveman

Your Genes Want You To Drive A BMW
December 27, 2004, 4:10 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Caveman Concept, Science

Original Post (with comments)
Given some of the mail I’ve received of late, perhaps its time to go back to basics…

Your genes want you to drive a BMW. They also want you to be thin, tan, and to have a lovely smile. Your genes want you to be the life of the party – perhaps a musician or an artist or a celebrity of some sort. “What?” you say. That’s right. Though you probably don’t realize it, humans are genetically inclined to be aware of who’s at the top of the social totem pole, and more importantly, to emulate whatever it is those people did to get there.

According to evolutionary psychologists, our genes build our minds to pursue status in social groups. This is because, long ago, when humans were still cave-dwellers, status meant the difference between life and death. Being among the best hunters and warriors was a sure way to obtain food when food was scarce. Therefore, Mother Nature, ever the tinkerer, discovered that humans who were genetically driven to pursue status would outlive those who were not. Thus was born the status-seeking gene, and it has been with us ever since. (In truth, it is a gross oversimplification to assert that there are specific genes for this or that attribute. It’s just an easy way to say that a trait is largely genetic.)

In any case, Robert Wright chronicled this and other insights into the evolutionary history of the human mind in his 1994 best-seller, The Moral Animal. As astounding as the book was, a decade has passed and most folks still don’t know anything about why they think and feel the way they do. This is a real problem, unless of course everyone can have a BMW, and assuming that having a BMW is really all it’s cracked up to be.
It breaks down like this. From a genetic perspective, modern humans have the minds of cavemen. As soon as humans could organize sufficiently to protect themselves from nature and other humans, and could consistently procure food in mass quantities, natural selection no longer had an easy task of separating the fit from the unfit. Fitness became more a function of luck or circumstance than strength or skill, at least when it came to living long enough to reproduce (which is the only real goal of our genes). The process that had been shaping the human mind for eons suddenly ground to a halt. This is believed to have happened somewhere between 20,000 and 100,000 years ago. Since then, the genes that code for our minds have not changed significantly. They just get reshuffled again and again, generation after generation. And here we are, dozens of millennia later, mostly unaware of the degree to which the environment of our ancestors affects our day-to-day lives.

Seeking status in ancient times was a survival necessity. In modern times, it is a fool’s errand. This is because what counts for status today has nothing to do with survival. Who’s at the top of the social totem pole these days? Celebrities. Whether we’re talking about sports stars, musicians, actors, business tycoons, and even religious figures, one thing is certain – the masses are paying close attention to what they do, and, in many cases, they are following suit.

Those who get the most attention in our society are the role models, whether they like it or not. They set the cultural agenda. It has always been so. From Elvis’ sideburns to Madonna’s material girl get-up to the current obsession with “bling,” it is instantly apparent how much popularity equals status in our modern world. From shows like Entertainment Tonight and magazines like Us and People, we can see that America’s obsession with stars is a multi-billion dollar industry. But doesn’t anyone ever wonder why so many people across such a diverse land would share such a shallow proclivity?

As we learn more and more, it becomes clearer and clearer that it’s genetic. But that doesn’t mean we have to give in. As they say in the world of addiction, admitting that there’s a problem is half the battle. Like it or not, we currently find ourselves in a battle for sanity, or at least emotional stability. How many among us are dying to drive a BMW, not because it is a superior automobile, but because of how it will be perceived by friends and acquaintances? How many are depressed when they look in the mirror because they don’t resemble the celebrities they so desperately envy? More generally, how much of what we do is for show rather than for substance? It doesn’t have to be this way.

If we’re going to make any more progress as a species, we’re going to have to recognize that our minds are constructed from the genetic blueprints of our cave-dwelling ancestors, blueprints that were designed for a world that no longer exists, blueprints that are at work every day pushing us to obtain status in our social endeavors. That’s our starting point. From there, the fix is within our reach. Indeed, many have overcome their genetic imperatives.

As a species, we have a long history of taming our genes. Birth control, monogamy, the rule of law, capitalism, and gene therapy are all examples of mankind overruling genetic influences in favor the conscious desires of human beings. A cursory look around reveals that there are many who have rationally concluded that society’s value systems are fickle at best, and demented at worst. Some folks have taught their genes not to want a BMW, at least not simply because the possession of a BMW means they’re somebody. They have deliberately concluded that wealth does not necessarily equate with value as a human being, nor does physical appearance or the ability to excel in sports or in the arts. Though any one of these things may (and often should) be admired by society, at the end of the day, none matters in and of itself.

John Kerry jokingly said during the campaign season that he and George Bush had “married up.” That a statement like this is categorically unremarkable is a testament to how much the awareness of and quest for status imbues our collective perspective. If we are to keep our genes from having their way with us, the time has come to start recognizing when our concern for status is getting in the way of our enjoying life. In other words, what do we have to give up so our genes can have a BMW? Asking questions like this is the first step in enlightening the caveman in all of us.


From the Mailbag – Taking Aim At The Caveman
December 25, 2004, 4:08 pm
Filed under: Enlightened Caveman Concept, Philosophy, Politics

Original Post (with comments)
Here’s a comment that was posted to the site recently by a new reader. Without coming right out and saying it, this person pretty much disagrees with my entire Enlightened Caveman concept. So, I’ll mount a modest counter-argument and leave it to you to decide. Keep in mind – my interest here is truth. If someone comes along and reasonably discredits these concepts, I’ll pull the plug right away. But it’ll take more than this offering, I can assure you of that. Here’s his comment:

Just found this blog, so this is a response to your basic thesis and not the above article.
As a species, we are domesticated. The human cranium has decreased in size since “caveman” times. This is typical of any animal that has become domesticated. Dogs have 30% less brain size than wolves. Another trait displayed by domesticated animals is that they retain juvenile characteristics into adulthood. They really never grow up. The instincts disappear. Many of the attributes you are contributing to our “old” brain are actually the result of domestication. We’re not nearly as intelligent as we used to be. Our sensory capacities are pitifully lacking. We are no longer wild…or free. Evolutionarily, we are going down a one way street that’s a dead end. Between the ages of 10 and later adolescence when the brain is done developing, a pruning of the neurons takes place. It’s not our nature for that to happen. We are not receiving the complex stimulation that is necessary for complex neural systems to completely develop. Do some research on the behavior and the proper care of lab rats. The parallels to our society may surprise you. There are still wild undomesticated cultures surviving on this planet, preserving the precious genetics that have taken hundreds of thousands of years to perfect. We have not progressed. What other animal is stupid (or arrogant)enough to completely destroy the environment they depend on for survival? We live in cages, someone else feeds us, and we even have exercise wheels. We are conditioned to peck at the right buttons on the ATM and out comes our reward. Once domesticated, an animal’s survival instincts are gone. It can’t be reversed.

Let me start by saying that cranium size is a major red herring. It’s irrelevant to any discussions of this type, mainly because no one (as far as I can tell) has been able to correlate minor differences with specific differences in mental ability. Here’s what we know. The trend in hominid evolution has been toward larger and larger brains. However, following the last ice age, there has in fact been a decrease (albeit relatively minor) in cranium size, but not just for humans. According to William Cromie of the Harvard University Gazette (read more), “As the severe climate of the ice ages ended, the bodies and faces of most large animals have gotten smaller. In humans, chewing softer, processed food also has contributed to reducing face size by decreasing the largeness of our jaws and jaw muscles. ” But again, even if we call Cromie a hack with an agenda (given his employer – it might be a safe bet), this shrinking human cranium has not taken place since we have been “domesticated.” Ergo, it does not follow that domestication had anything to do with it. (Oh yeah and the softer food and jaw aspect probably explains the dog/wolf thing, too, even though it’s also irrelevant.)

With the amateur stuff out of the way, let’s get to the meat of this discussion. This reader seems to feel that our modern world has dulled our senses and left us less mentally able than our “wilder” ancestors. While I’ll forcefully agree that our cultural evolution has become progressively kinder and gentler, I’m not about to assent to the notion that we are nothing more than genetic terriers when we were once wolves. This sounds absurd to begin with, and then the evidence offered confirms it.

We are not nearly as intelligent as we used to be? Uh. Pardon me? Come again? I realize that our society can come screeching to a halt if Nick and Jessica get into a tiff, but let’s get real – we’re smarter as a species than we have ever been. Not only do we simply know more stuff, but more of us actually know how to think than ever before. That’s probably, and I’m guessing here, the defining trend in modern human cultural evolution – the march toward rationalism. Every year, more and more people choose science over superstition, evidence over revelation, and knowledge over ignorance. So, I’ll vehemently disagree with that point.

A pruning of the neurons? It’s not in our nature? This is where I started thinking maybe someone was playing a joke on me. If, by pruning of neurons, this person means that the number of brain cells decreases after the brain is fully developed, then my response is, “duh.” It’s called aging, and it IS in our nature, since our genes code for this process to happen exactly as it does. It has nothing to do with reproduction so, again, it’s irrelevant to the original point, if there is one.

“We are not recieving the complex stimulation that is necessary for complex neural systems to completely develope. ” (Spelling error that reveals disdain for proofreading – his.) OK, this one we can do something with. The consensus, from my reading, among evolutionary biologists and evolutionary psychologists is that the dominating adaptations of the human mind over other hominids were socially oriented. This is to say that the complex stimulation necessary for our complex neural systems to completely develope (it’s kind of fun to pronounce it like envelope) is interaction with other humans. It was the human ability to figure out how to play well with others that launched mankind to the heights to which he has risen. And it’s true even today.

My son’s pediatrician told me that in his first six months of life, the world alone was enough to wire and myelinate the synapses of his brain properly – he could just hang out in his crib listening, watching, smelling, tasting, and feeling his environment and his brain would put it together perfectly. So we just left him alone in his stroller for hours at a time and you know what, she was right. Just kidding. Seriously, from there, however, she said that it was critical that he get lots of human contact. If he did not, the future would not bode well for him. This is common sense and it’s also anecdotal evidence that supports the idea that our mental focus is, first and foremost, on other humans, which is exactly what’s causing us many of our problems.

“There are still wild undomesticated cultures surviving on this planet, preserving the precious genetics that have taken hundreds of thousands of years to perfect.” Here’s where this intrepid reader betrays his ignorance regarding evolution (and maybe even his allegiance to the sham of multiculturalism). To say that some “undomesticated” cultures are preserving genetics would seem to imply that the domesticated ones are not preserving their genetics. Hogwash. This is no way to think about evolution. It’s simple – is there anything in the genome of any population on earth that is providing either a reproductive advantage or a reproductive disadvantage? If there is, then you can bet Mother Nature is on the scene making her cuts, getting ready for next season, but the answer is pretty much no. Sure, we still have some genetically-based childhood diseases that manage to persist due to their recessive nature. However, for the most part, anyone can reproduce. Or maybe it’s better to say that not being able to reproduce is significantly less likely to be genetic than it is cultural. The bottom line, the most granular idea you’ll find on this site, is that our genes have not changed significantly in tens of thousands of years. This is not my personal thesis. This is widely accepted by folks infinitely smarter than I (though I wonder how we’d compare in terms of cranium size – since that apparently matters now).

At the end of the day, I think I smell a socialist, or at least a multi-culti, anti-capitalist. “What other animal is stupid (or arrogant)enough to completely destroy the environment they depend on for survival?” Before I answer, please tell me the first animal to do this. It certainly isn’t humans, considering the fact that there are more of us now than there have ever been. “Once domesticated, an animal’s survival instincts are gone. It can’t be reversed.” This is operating on the flawed premise that our genetic survival instincts have disappeared. As I’ve said before, they’re there, lurking beneath the surface. If we were to suddenly find ourselves in a post-apocalyptic era, you can be sure that they’d take center stage in short order.

The few survivors would band together and look after each other. Family members would form the tightest circles. Outside the family (even sometimes in the circle), those who betrayed trust would be ostracized. Also, a leader or leaders would emerge possessing the skills necessary to survive in the new harsh environment. All others would pay very close attention to (and defer to) the actions and desires of the leaders, for this would be their life line. Most would die. The ones that lived would be the best at keeping the group strong. This is caveman 101.

This site exists to make the point that even though our lives are comfortable and we are not in a bloody daily struggle for existence, our genetically-driven social tendencies are completely unaware of that fact. They still focus on status and appearances at the expense of practicality and reason. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Sure, “domestication” is a factor, but only in so far as it indicates just how far we’ve come from needing the kinds of solutions our genes have to offer. We can either mount vapid arguments such as this one, insisting that doom and gloom are all the future holds (standard anti-capitalist rhetoric), or we can get to know ourselves and where we come from, and then deliberately decide what we want to be going forward. As I am an eternal optimist, I’ll take the latter, thank you very much.

Thanks for the fodder, lefty.

From the Mailbag – One Reader Objects To His Genes
December 20, 2004, 3:58 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Caveman Concept, Enlightened Living

Original Post (with comments)
I got this email recently in response to the “Is Man Inherently Selfless?” article. It is chocked full of object lessons in how not to think about this stuff, so I figured I’d take it apart piece-by-piece.

One thing I read over and over again from evolutionary biologists is how men are genetically programmed to want to impregnate as many women as possible. Men are genetically predisposed agains monogamy. This is totally false. I am not programmed that way. It’s certainly not because I have rid myself of my bass desires through mental discipline. And the reasoning for it isn’t particularly enlightened. It’s quite simple and tied to other unenlightened caveman values. Status. Your offspring are much more likely to achieve status if they are born into a monogamous relationship than if they aren’t. And whereas I certainly could enjoy having sex with 70 virgins I would be highly unlikely to cheat on a monogamous mate because of feelings of loyalty which can override sexual desire. Especially if you have kids, from what I’ve heard people’s sex drive gets noticeably weaker once they have had offspring.
I knowingly embrace these caveman values of mine.

Let’s start with the biggest red flag of them all – “This is totally false. I am not programmed that way.” I see. So if this person had six fingers on his left hand and I stated that humans have five fingers on each hand, would he say that that also is totally false? It’s false for him. Exceptions to rules do not necessarily negate them. We can’t think of ourselves as archetypical representatives of our species. Some combination of genes and culture could easily produce a person who displays almost no “caveman-like” behavior. That doesn’t mean our ancestors were not cavemen, and it does not mean that the biological facts of reality are not still in play.

The facts I’m referring to have to do with the size of our sex cells. Males have many, many small ones; females have relatively few large ones. The size and quantity of sperm cells in males means that males have plenty to lose – there are millions more where they came from. In females, however, eggs are very precious. This is the reason for the divergent reproductive strategies of males and females. Males have shotguns; females have rifles. It’s that simple.

“Your offspring are much more likely to achieve status if they are born into a monogamous relationship than if they aren’t.” Sorry. Wrong again. The notion of monogamous relationships is very modern – as in, it has only been around for a few millennia. When our genes were being shaped by natural selection, it is doubtful that anything resembling monogamy existed, at least nothing very long-term. You can’t think so digitally about this. There are more than two options. Your genes, which are all that matters here, are best served if you have hundreds of kids by impregnating hundreds of women who already have mates, and then having those mates raise them. In fact, it is widely believed that jealousy emerged to keep males from being cuckolded (where they unknowingly raised another male’s child). If this is true, then we can think of monogamy as a cultural analog to jealousy – both exist to see that any time or resources a male invests in his offspring are not actually being invested in someone else’s offspring.

“And whereas I certainly could enjoy having sex with 70 virgins I would be highly unlikely to cheat on a monogamous mate because of feelings of loyalty which can override sexual desire.” Your feelings of loyalty to your mate have been installed by your environment, I can assure you. This is easy to see because you don’t have to teach kids to tell lies and be selfish. You have to teach them to tell the truth, even when it hurts. You have to teach them to share. And when it comes to sex – look at what goes on in the least educated, most ignorant places in the world. Rampant male promiscuity is the order of the day. Just look at America’s inner cities. Very few mothers are married, yet most males have children. The flip side is to look at affluent and educated people. Fewer kids, more marriages. I suspect that you grew up closer to the affluent educated side of the spectrum than you did the poor ignorant side. That, more than anything else, explains your “loyalty.”

“Especially if you have kids, from what I’ve heard people’s sex drive gets noticeably weaker once they have had offspring.” Sex drive toward the male’s mate may get weaker, but take away any culturally-installed inhibitions and put him in the back room of a strip club with a dozen prostitutes and then tell me about his sex drive.

Let me shout this point from the rooftops – IF YOU ARE MONOGAMOUS AND FAITHFUL, IT IS BECAUSE YOUR LIFE EXPERIENCES HAVE TAUGHT YOU TO OVERCOME YOUR GENES. The job can be done so well that you never even know it happened – just like how kids raised in devout religious environments never even realize (at least not until they get out into the world) that it’s possible to go through life without ever believing in God. Early indoctrination of the human mind is every bit as powerful as genetics, which is why we should be using it to do good, not to promote superstitions and nonsense. Those of us who have risen above our genes have much to be proud of, but as long as people continue to deny the dangers of our natural tendencies, we’ll never realize the vision of a truly compassionate and rational society.

This is a classic case of recognizing the problem being half the battle. Those who insist upon romanticizing humanity will consistently fail at this. Too bad. How do we justify telling a kid after catching him in a lie that he’s programmed to be good, but that somehow he has turned against his nature? And we wonder why so many people have inferiority complexes.

Another from the Mailbag – What Emotions Do We Keep?
December 13, 2004, 3:53 pm
Filed under: Enlightened Caveman Concept, Science

Got an email from Drew that also warrants posting.

i’ve been perusing your archives and i must say that i enjoy reading, and agree with, virtually every point you’ve made. personal responsibility, something which has obviously gone the way of the dodo, if it ever found homes in the minds of the masses in the first place, appears to be both a theme of your work and a complaint i regularly voice to anyone who will listen. that being said, i was reminded of bishop butler, if memory serves correctly, who believed that logical precision should be held above the interpersonal relationship (to be fair, i’m grossly over paraphrasing butler), as i was reading your posts. i read an essay he wrote back in school concerning the fact that he would rather sacrifice his mother, if she had committed some crime, than sacrifice his ethical underpinnings and logical rigor. the interesting thing about being human is the process of taming the oft-volatile mix of reason/emotive impulse. were we cold, calculating robots, though the world’s current problems resulting from the caveman mentalities that we cannot seem to shake from society at large would probably be solved, what minds would be around to care? to get to my point, as you often allude to the more fundamental point that anything done ought to be to secure as much time for meaningful interpersonal relationships as possible, in the form of the offhand remarks concerning your wife and child, my question to you, and the answer to which you might want to consider putting up on the site or in some book you’re working on, is what of the caveman mind ought remain and be encouraged to flourish? thanks for taking the time to post on the site. it’s always nice to know that others share the same passion for the belief that virtually anyone can become the master of one’s own destiny, and that it requires little more than a willingness to take responsibility for one’s actions and the direction of one’s more enlightened mental development.

Despite the fact that Drew went to the TS Eliot School of Writing Style, he poses a great question. Let me rephrase it. If the caveman mind causes so many problems, what, if anything, should we leave intact? I write about this a bit in my book but the basic answer is the love parts. The evidence seems to suggest that love evolved just like all other emotions – to get us to do things that made us more likely to reproduce. However, in my view, it’s the very best thing about life. Who cares why we’re lucky enough to experience it. That’s the point, really.

We, as humans, come to the show with hundreds of thousands of years of genetic baggage. The survival skills of our species have proven so superior that survival is not a concern for most of us, at least on this side of the world. We are now to the point where we have access to heretofore unimagined areas of solution space, and we have the tools to explore them. We are finding that our species is hooked on status like crack. We are finding that our species is obsessed with physical appearance. We are finding that the human mind is a devoted tabulator of favors done and favors owed. Most importantly, we are finding that we have the power to control what goes through our minds and to what extent we act on the emotions that were designed to motivate us.

But love is tricky. Bertrand Russell’s musings on love are well worth reading. His basic idea is that love without mutual respect and admiration is not worth having in most cases (at least in terms of romantic love). That means love itself isn’t enough. So, while I think we should hold on to love, I think we should be deliberate about who we allow ourselves to love and be loved by. But, if we get it right, I think we are well-served if we let our love run wild. This, I believe, will never steer us wrong.

Aside from love, I think it’s important to recognize that our emotions are our primary motivators. I remember a drunken argument I had with a Star Trek fan who tried to tell me that Vulcans use reason entirely to motivate themselves. Always willing to entertain a silly argument, I kept asking why one would build a space ship or educate a child. The answer was always, “to better this or that.” But for what? If you have no emotions, how do you know that it is better for children to live than die? If you have no emotions, why would you ever get off the couch? The point is that I don’t think we should be talking about doing away with our emotions. I’m talking about understanding them so that we can harness them rather than be victimized by them.

For example, it is very clear from history that competition and accountability bring out the very best in mankind. But why? Wanting to win in competition obviously has its roots in the quest for status. Accountability, to a lesser extent, is the same thing – public awareness of deficiency is always to be avoided in the caveman mind. So, we should hope to embrace our competitive side. This is how we improve ourselves. The key is to make sure that we don’t tie our self-opinions to how we do in contests – even if we’re Tiger Woods or Lance Armstong.

I’m an amateur cyclist – so amateur that I can’t finish in the pack of a Cat 5 race (for you cyclists out there). But I love it and I try every year to get better. I put myself in situations where I have to compete – sometimes in races; sometimes just to the top of a hill or to end of a street, but I’m competing. No matter whether I win or lose, however, I always go home feeling the same about myself. I am who I am, and nothing I did on my bike today changes that. It’s what I think of as a healthy disconnect between ancient emotions and modern self-esteem.

At the end of the day, our emotions can help us along or they can do us in. One thing is for certain – they’re with us for the long haul. We’d best get to know them to make the best of the time we have. Thanks Drew. PS – Get yourself a shift key. They’re cheap.

Sympathy – Mother Nature’s Bargain Hunter
December 1, 2004, 3:50 pm
Filed under: Enlightened Caveman Concept, Science

Original Post (with comments)
The concept of status hierarchies gets a lot of play here, but there’s another evolutionary biology concept that is worth a mention. That is the notion of reciprocal altruism. It’s no secret that the attribute that most accounts for the success of Homo sapiens over other hominid species is the ability to cooperate. While some other upright, hairless apes were definitely stronger and more fierce, in the end, it did not matter. What kept humans from extinction was their tendency to band together and do as a group what individuals simply could not. But this begs a question: what does it take to cooperate?

The first thing it takes is trust. When the stakes are life and death, you need to know that your buddy will do his part when the time comes. Maybe you’re springing a trap on a lion, and you get to be the diversion. If your pal doesn’t come through at the right time, there’s a good chance you’ll end up getting your skull crushed by the lion’s massive jaws. So, cooperation requires trust, and the best way to build trust is to build a credit history, so to speak.

In caveman days, humans did favors for one another, and they kept track of who reciprocated. (Thus, we see the emergence of the first accountants. It wasn’t double-entry, to be sure, but hey, they were cavemen.) One who consistently repaid favors built up a good reputation, or credit history, which could be leveraged when needed. It is fascinating to consider that somehow Mother Nature stumbled on the genetics that prompted humans to band together like this, but she did, and it worked…like gangbusters. Things, however, get interesting when you consider that not all favors are equal.

If I have been starving for days and a guy tosses me a scrap of meat, I am profoundly indebted to him. In fact, I’ll gladly give him five times what he give me as soon as I can procure it. (Thus we see the emergence of the character, Whimpy, from Popeye – “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” Isn’t evolution enlightening?) This is the non-zero sum concept – one man’s famine is another man’s feast. The question is this – why would a guy, a caveman living a high stakes game of evolutionary musical chairs, give me a scrap of meat? I mean, I’m already down on my luck. Though I may intend to give him five times what he gave me, who’s to say I can come up with it? Maybe it’s sympathy.
Was the guy who gave me food being benevolent or selfish? Hard to say. It would seem that giving me a small scrap of meat, the equivalent of giving a handful of change to a homeless person, is a losing proposition. There’s little likelihood that there will be any return on the investment. But remember, the scrap of meat means very little to one who has plenty, so giving it away costs next to nothing. If I repay him, however, he’s gained 500% on his pittance of an investment. That’s pretty solid. What if Mother Nature programmed humans to do this kind of calculation automatically? There are many evolutionary psychologists who believe she did. Sympathy, so says one of the originators of the field, Robert Trivers, is nothing more than bargain hunting at the emotional level.

Consider the idea that every favor you do amounts to an investment in your resources. In a cooperative arrangement, you expect to get a fair return on your investment. Usually, you get back what you put in, though it may be in a different form. But sometimes, sometimes you have the chance to get back a lot more than you put in. You get to make a major profit. This is what happens in non-zero sum situations like the one mentioned earlier. So, suppose natural selection stumbled upon some combination of genes that produces a heart-wrenching response to sad situations where the individual feeling those emotions can make a small investment and potentially expect a generous return? Would that individual not enjoy a bit of an advantage in the limited resources world of cavemen? So long as he came out positive in the long-run (that is, he won more than he lost), he certainly would. There are a couple of points to make here.

The first is that we need to understand that our emotions evolved to get us to do things that are in our best interest from a survival perspective. We fall in love so we can reproduce. We get angry to avoid getting screwed over. We get jealous (at least males do) to avoid raising someone else’s child. And we feel sympathy to alert us to opportunities to get back more than we put in. Of course, I know that many folks recoil in horror at the thought of such a despicable heritage for our gentlest touches. But their resistance changes nothing, and it’s more important to know who we are and why we think and feel the way we do than it is to continue to indulge every fantasy we have about our special place in the universe.

That brings me to my second point. Though our emotions may be somewhat hard-wired, understanding them is the first step in mastering them, and that, my friends, is the grail. I’m not about to say that we can (or should) become Spock from Star Trek. However, one thing is for sure, some emotions do more harm than good. Knowing where they come from and when we can expect them to arise and take over is the key to keeping ourselves on an even keel. I can’t go into all the details of this here (It took me two years to write a book about it), but I can say this – a great deal of the unhappiness that is experienced in this world is the result of our caveman emotions grappling with our immensely prosperous world.
So, the next time you feel sorry for the homeless guy in the street, remember that it’s your genes looking to get a dollar for the quarter in your pocket. Ask yourself, by giving this guy a quarter, am I really helping him or am I making myself feel good? Then decide, rationally, whether or not to give it to him. I care less about what you decide than about how you decide. Get it?

People Are Sheep
September 22, 2004, 3:37 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Caveman Concept, Enlightened Living

Original Post (including comments)
Imagine that you’re driving up to a parking garage. It has two entrance lanes, each with an automated ticket machine. There are four cars in the first lane and none in the second. You notice that the first lane has an attendant pulling the tickets from the machine and handing them to the drivers. What do you do? Do you get into line or pull into the second lane?

I experienced this very situation at the airport today. By the time I was up to the lanes, I just pulled into the line. I was, like everyone else, I presume, assuming that the second line was not operational. After all, why would there be an attendant working the first lane? When I got up to her, as she handed me the ticket I could easily have reached myself, I asked if the other lane was broken. She paused for a moment and then said no. I instantly smiled because, all along (for the 30 seconds or so that I sat in line), I suspected that there was absolutely no reason for her to be standing there doing what she was doing, and that I was an idiot for waiting in a line for no reason. The funny thing is that it seemed like she made the same connection at the same time. She laughed as I was pulling away.

Today’s situation reminded me of two things. For one thing, I am always inclined to examine the ways by which a situation can be optimized for time. Sometimes, I come up with ways to save myself all sorts of time. Other times, I see ways to save time, but I conclude that the payoff isn’t worth it. The thing is that the vast majority of instances where I see ways to optimize my time, the procedure required entails going around a bunch of people who are masquerading as sheep, which brings me to the second thing.

I am amazed again and again at how willing people are to simply fall in line. It is almost as if folks subconsciously perceive a line as indicative of something that is to be desired, and rather than consider the matter themselves, they are content to take the word of those who are already there. The only thing left to do is queue up. I’ve actually tested this at festivals.

A few friends and I will look for a stand that has no one in line. We’ll line up single file at the table and wait. It never fails. Within a very short time, people will start lining up behind us. It’s eery. Really. Try it. The interesting thing is that I often wonder if there isn’t a genetic component to this, something related to the herd mentality.

In our caveman days, there was absolutely safety in numbers. Loners didn’t get far in life. So, it isn’t unreasonable to suppose that genes emerged that influenced individuals to pay attention to the group and to go along with the crowd. Status in the group was also of paramount importance, which means that the high-status individuals would set the agenda, so to speak. As it would also be advantageous, reproductively speaking, for individuals to be aware of their status, those without status wouldn’t have much to do but to figure out what the plan is and get on board. Independent thinking, for the lowly, would be pointless. By the way, this is the kind of wild speculation that you do when you’re considering the effects of evolution on the human mind, and it’s really hard to find useful evidence that tilts the scales one way or another. Nevertheless, just for fun, let’s consider what this scenario (assuming for the moment that is correct) has to tell us about modern humanity.

Right away, we’re confronted with the idea that humans who fall into line without weighing the situation for themselves may be, whether they know it or not, pessimistic about their status in the group. In other words, they don’t feel like they have the decision-making responsibility in those situations. If this is true, then it means that these people are following their genes inappropriately. If there is a point to this site, it is that our most pressing task as modern humans is to push aside the genetic influences that no longer make sense in life. If this tendency to not think that comes from the internal perception of low status is real, it is a stark example of an opportunity for enlightenment.

The fact is that status in this world is largely irrelevant. More importantly, now, as opposed to tens of thousands of years ago, there are vastly more ways to obtain status – you can be good at millions of different things, which means you can always obtain status with people who share your avocations. But the things that matter these days are driven by those who have the most visible status. Relatively speaking, nobody knows about the world badminton champion, at least not compared to an NBA player. So, the basketball player’s status is more widely known, which means he has more influence on the social agenda than the badminton champion. Those for whom status is important pay more attention to what the basketball player says and does. This is silly.

Today, how we stack up against our peers is a lot less important than most of us would believe. Our genes have pushed us to place more importance on measuring high on the yardstick of popular public opinion than on simply enjoying life. Thankfully, this is easily undone. We have only to recalibrate our assessments of what matters in life.

Knowing that we will naturally pay attention to status, we must endeavor to be vigilantly aware of our wayward emotions, and to have a plan for keeping them in check. When the wrong thoughts creep in, we simply usher them out. It’s nothing more than a matter of willpower. You just have to believe that the rationale behind your effort is sound and that it will yield benefits. I can vouch for both, but don’t take my word for it. Empirical evidence makes a great foundation for strong belief. So, try it. See if you don’t feel a burden lift from your shoulders. Or maybe you’ve already done this. If so, I’ll see you in the short line.

Who Am I?
September 19, 2004, 3:29 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Caveman Concept, My Theories, Science

Though the nature of consciousness is still very much an open question, it seems clear that the notion of self is a central feature. In other words, our consciousness is at least partly defined by our awareness of ourselves. And if we are aware of ourselves, it’s reasonable to suppose that we can know ourselves. But a question arises. How exactly do we go about getting to know ourselves?

I suppose we do it like we go about getting to know others. In fact, it probably happens in that order. I would bet that infants know their parents before they recognize that they are people, too. So how do we get to know others? We watch what they do and listen to what they say. Over time, we get a feel for their history, for how their mind works, with whether they mean what they say, and with what they care about. It’s pretty much the same with getting to know ourselves. But, in that endeavor, we have access to a fortuitous additional bit of information.

We have the benefit of knowing our thoughts. So, we know what we think, which means we really know what matters to us. Coupled with the knowledge of our actions, we have all that we need to know ourselves very well. Or do we?

Knowing what crosses our minds only gives us a truer glimpse into how our motivations translate into actions. To be sure, that understanding is key to knowing ourselves. But we still don’t know what we really need to know, which is why what crosses our minds crosses our minds. For this, we cannot rely solely upon introspection. We need science, specifically evolutionary psychology.

The science of evolutionary psychology deals with the human mind by exploring its origins from an evolutionary standpoint. At the heart of it is the notion that the human mind was designed by natural selection to facilitate the survival of humans on earth anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 years ago. Understanding what life was like back then, so they say, tells us a great deal about why our minds work the way they do. With the help of evolutionary psychology, we can now understand why we think many of the thoughts we think.

We now know that social status for our cave-dwelling ancestors was of paramount importance. We know that being a part of the in-group was essential to survival. With those kinds of requirements, and the easy separation of those who could get along and those who could not, natural selection easily and permanently installed in the human mind the tendencies to pursue status and interpersonal acceptability. This has serious implications on our quest to know ourselves.

We have to wonder how much of what we think is somehow driven by our genetic need to fit in and be recognized as worthy among our peers. We have to wonder how it is we go about figuring out what groups to fit into. After all, in our modern world, there are lots to choose from. And we also have to wonder how it is we go about picking the people we admire and the people we despise. If the evolutionary psychologists are right, then, from a mental perspective, we are far more at the mercy of genes that any of us would like to believe. But this is not a bad news story.

Quite the opposite. The beautiful thing about being conscious is that we are not only aware of ourselves and our thoughts, we have the power to change what we think about. Given what we know about our caveman origins, it is clear to me that there’s work to be done. We have to rationally consider what matters to us, and, just as importantly, who matters. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is not a trivial matter. It takes a lot of courage to look inward with the intent to accept what we find. But once we do, we have a baseline from which to evaluate our thoughts.

If I rationally conclude that being a nice and genuine person is of the highest ethical value, then, in evaluating my contemporaries, I have no choice but to put a consideration of that above a consideration of something less ethically important, such as what someone does for a living. Then, when status-oriented thoughts, such as, “Ooh, he’s a television star.” cross my mind, I know that I must put them aside and ask, “Yes, but is he a nice person? Does he seem genuine or fake?” Believe it or not, these kinds of personal thought control exercises are actually quite easy, especially when you can count on the legitimacy of the rationale behind them. In fact, everyone is skilled at doing this. The problem is that too many people push out the right thoughts as they simultaneously nurture the wrong ones.

For them, just as for all of us, the solution is simply to learn to tell the difference between the thoughts that matter and the thoughts that are remnants of our ancient heritage, of a time that has long since passed. So, to the question in the title of this, Who Am I?

I am a modern human with the mind of a caveman. I am aware of the needs of my ancestors with regards to the social group, and I am aware that many of those needs no longer exist. I have assessed what it means to live the good life, and I have rationally set a course to obtain it. In doing so, I have committed to extricate my mind of the thoughts that weigh it down. I have committed my mind to truth and all its consequences. I have learned to spot wayward anachronistic emotions and to compensate for them. I cannot say that I have arrived. But I can say that I am not lost.