The Enlightened Caveman

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.

You Gotta Have Faith
May 1, 2005, 5:11 pm
Filed under: Enlightened Living, Philosophy

Original Post (with many many comments)
In response to yesterday’s post, Freedomslave came back with an interesting comment, and I think it warrants a post of its own.

Now I hate bible thumpers as much as the next guy, and I don’t go to church (except on Christmas). But the one thing I know for sure is that you have to have faith. Your faith might be that when a species hits a point in its evolution that the DNA mutates and evolves into a higher form of life. Just like the bible thumper you need a certain amount of faith to believe that, epically with all the inconclusive DNA evidence that now exists and the lack of fossil evidence to verify it.

You have to have faith. With this, I wholeheartedly agree. This wasn’t always the case. I used to believe that faith is a crutch, kind of a get out of jail free card for when reality doesn’t go your way. In a lot of ways, I still believe this. I don’t subscribe to the notion that just because many big questions are still unanswered we have to use faith to believe in something. It’s like we’re saying we can’t get by without embracing some worldview, and our only options are all debatable as to their merit. This is simply false. We can do very well in life without buying into big-picture concepts that don’t add up logically. But it requires us to put aside our inherent need to explain our surroundings.

I’ve talked before about the evolution of hope and despair. The gist of the concept is that our minds have a built-in ability to assess our environment in terms of whether or not it bodes well for our plans, which in caveman days were simple – survive long enough to reproduce. Situations that bode well generate hope, which keeps us clocked in and active. Situations that look bad generate despair, which prompts us to explore our options and do something different. But before hope and despair can do their jobs, our minds have to make that assessment. Thinking about the hostile environment of ancient times, it’s clear that decisions had to be made – if you stood too long weighing every little option, bad things could (and often did) happen. Statistically speaking, then as now, it is almost always better to do something than nothing when your life is on the line. Thus emerges our need to explain our world.

But our modern world, as this blog routinely espouses, is nothing like that of our cave-dwelling ancestors. Indecision isn’t the perilous circumstance it once was. We have the benefit of nearly assured safety, and we have easy access to food and shelter. Nevertheless, the genes that make our minds are still cranking out models that insist upon satisfied curiosity. This, I am convinced, is why people buy into all manner of odd ideas. Anything to feel certain. And the concept of faith has been so sancitified that it offers the perfect excuse to settle on whatever floats your boat. I would argue, however, that faith isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, at least not most of the time.

For the most part, faith is exactly as I have always seen it – an excuse to believe whatever makes you feel best. In that case, it’s a fast path to intellectual laziness. If something requires faith to believe in it, isn’t it worth asking why having faith suddenly makes it believable? What’s the old Churchill saying: “If you say a dog’s tail is a leg, how many legs does he have? Most people answer five, but it’s four. Just saying a tail is a leg doesn’t make it so.” Or something like that. Anyhow, reality is what it is. In my book, there’s never anything to be gained by denying it. But…but…but.

As I said, I am actually now on board with the whole faith thing. I have been for two or three years now, but the only thing I have faith in is reason. As it happens, there’s really no other way. You see, reason will only get you so far. You can be the master of all masters at logical deduction and still reason will fail you. It will fail you when you get to the land of quarks and leptons. At the subatomic level, there’s no way to really measure what’s going on, and this makes all the difference when you’re trying to use reason to prove the world is as we think it is.

Think about how many physics equations use time as a variable. But what is time? Or, better yet, what is a second? We just assume that our standard units of measurement make sense, but do they? By definition, a second is the time needed for a cesium-133 atom to perform 9,192,631,770 complete oscillations. Fair enough. But how can we tell a cesium-133 atom from a cesium-132 atom? We certainly can’t pick the former out of a subatomic lineup. We use statistics and probabilities to tell them apart. Aye, there’s the rub. We’re guessing. Our guesses are good, mind you, but we’re guessing nonetheless. So here we are faithless, relying upon reason to guide us in our estimation of everything, and we can’t even get the most basic things right. This is where faith earns its stripes.

If I must have faith, and it appears that I must, it has to be solely in the notion that reason will not fail me, in the notion that even though logic holds up under the most dire of circumstances, I can’t expect too much of it. In the end, it was Karl Popper who helped me with this (me and David Hume, although Hume was long dead when Popper came along.)

David Hume worried so much about his problem of induction that he ended up rejecting rationalism altogether. His hang-up was founded in the idea that even though something (like the sun rising) has happened for 1000 days, it is illogical to suppose that it will happen on the 1001st. Since we’re only privy to part of truth of this world, we could have been wrong lo those 1000 days. Tomorrow, things could change, so it doesn’t make sense to make predictions. Ergo, rationalism doesn’t work. (Given Hume’s popularity in the old days, it’s no surprise that there was a decidedly anti-rational movement that succeeded his death and the Enlightenment. I believe they call it Romanticism. Yes, critics, the French Revolution might have also had something to do with it.) Popper, however, having seen the mental cancer that was irrationalism, took a different approach.

Popper conceded from the outset that making predictions based upon some supposed certainty that was obtained by way of reason was illogical. He acknowledged that certainty, in itself, is unattainable, but he also acknowledged that we have to do something in life. So we use reason to evaluate our alternatives and we choose the best one. In that way, we don’t ask too much of it, and we keep ourselves as tuned into reality as possible. The only thing required is a healthy faith in reason. That’s where I am these days.

I rejoice in the mystery of our world. I’m thrilled to know that there will always be things to be curious about. I’m thrilled to know that there’s always a chance that something big and heretofore established will come crumbling down in the face of new evidence. I also watch car chases – maybe it’s me. In any case, my explanation for this world is simple – it’s all explainable (not explained, but explainable). It’s up to us to chip away at it so that we can keep handing what we learn down through the generations. I really don’t need anything more than that, and I firmly believe that most people, if they’d take a deep breath and give it a try, wouldn’t either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Have It So Good – Perspective Part 2
March 14, 2005, 5:01 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Living, Foreign Affairs

Original Post (with comments)
This country is still very much divided, unnecessarily so. Yes, there are issues about which many people disagree, and there are worthwhile opinions to be found on both sides of the divide, but the fact is that most of the fuss is manufactured by politicians who have everything to gain by pitting one side against another. Given that the political philosophies that once underpinned the Democratic and Republican parties have long since been extinct, it seems that the team mentality is driving the bus nowadays. So with roughly half the masses in Democrat jerseys and the other half in Republican jerseys, the stage is set. The politicians appeal to each team’s desire to win, to their desire to vanquish their evil competitor, and they do so by creating the appearance that, if they lose, America goes down the drain. I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard someone say, “Bush is ruining America!” or “The liberals are out to destroy everything this country stands for!” People, it’s time for a reality check. What follows is an email report from a guy serving in the Peace Corps in Togo (West Africa), which has been in the midst of some serious political upheaval.

Subject: A Brief Hello & Update From Togo
Hello Everybody,
Hope all is well back home in The Good (According to many these days, The Big Bad) Old US of A.. While briefly in Lome I wanted to take the time to let you all know how’s it going here.

Good news is things are relatively calm in Lome and especially throughout the country and other than a couple opposition rallies which took place past resulting in some people killed (In Lome) by the government supported military things are honestly quite safe. I’ve been back in village these past weeks continuing my work which is going very well and it’s not too surprisingly one of the safest places to be as politics don’t reach so far out as the rural bush (Not many politicians could stand a dusty and bumpy ride out to a place with no electricity and without the modern comforts). Most of the villagers can’t read Ewe or French and haven’t even got an elementary level education so the inter workings of politics are somewhat out of thought for them on many levels. What’s on our minds today? What’s going on in the Capital or what my family will eat and whether the crop is growing well to sustain us throughout the rest of the year. Answer # 2 would be more correct. This is not to say that many, especially the men, in village aren’t having a wonderful time discussing their hopes for the future with what’s recently happened.
The death of Eyadema and his 38 years of justiceless rule can make for change and a chance at democracy for these people. It is for sure a very interesting time to be in Togo and I’m learning quite a bit about African politics. Much I’m seeing and learning of these politics is very very sad and very well hidden from the outside world. One shocking thing is that Eyadema was a good friend of the French President Chirac and he has also contributed large amounts of money (Togolese money and wealth) to support Chirac’s election campaigns in France. A developed nation President taking money from a poor small country such as Togo! The last thing money should be doing is leaving this country. I am truly convinced that France continues to help destroy this country rather than help rebuild it and this is quite a sad reality. Our World Needs Way Better Leaders! I’ll have more to say on this whole thing in my next official update to you all, so stay tuned.

One thing I can propose to you in the meantime is to take the time to open your eyes and seek out to inform yourselves about what goes on around you in this world especially outside the USA (With the wide existence of the internet today this is so much easier to do). Make an effort to know what’s happening to people. The injustices and inhumanities are mindblowing and most often the world hardly ever notices! It’s quite sickening.

Take good care of yourselves and again thanks to all sending me their well wishes, love, and support. It’s great to have. Hope you enjoy the photos.

Peace Be With You,

Folks, I have a truly hard time mounting anything close to outrage about anything domestic when I read things like this. We have come so far in the US that we have completely lost perspective on what life can be like, and is for many, many people on this planet. If we could just take a step back and reflect upon how good we have it, I think we could find a way to let go of some of the team mentality. Like Chirac in the email above, our politicians are doing dispicable things in the name of leadership, and we, instead of calling them on it, brush their actions aside because the alternative is unthinkable – our team might take a beating in the next election.

After 9-11, we came together as a nation. We remembered what it really means to be an American – to live in a land where people are free to live as they choose, to live in a land where prosperity is the norm, not the exception, to live in a land where the rule of law is a given, where there is equality of opportunity the likes of which this planet has never seen. This happened because an event transpired that forced us to turn our attention away from domestic in-fighting and toward an enemy whose greatest goal is the demise of our republic. Granted, the unity was only a tad longer than the blink of an eye, but it happened, and I hope I am not being too idealistic in hoping it could happen again, but under less devastating circumstances.

As I have said before – there are two teams in this country, but they are not the Republicans and the Democrats. They are the weasels serving, nay plundering, as politicians and us, the people who are being stirred into a frenzy to take the focus off their nefarious activities. The time has come to put aside the differences that are so largely cosmetic and come to realization that Joe Lunchbucket and Jan Q. Public really aren’t that different from one another. Both want the best for their children, both hate the thought of people who are down and out, and both would rather leave politics to people with the time and inclination to do their homework. Of course, there are issues about which they will differ greatly, but those, in my view, are beside the point. Until those who represent us locally and in DC deserve the title of “civil servant,” our efforts should be aimed at replacing them.

Now I’ve been around long enough to know that what I wish for is about as likely as free elections in Iraq. Okay, bad example. As likely as a Red Sox world series. Damn. Missed again. Anyway, I can’t help but believe that it is possible to overcome the team mentality if enough opinion-makers take up the fight. It all comes down to perspective – whether gays can marry or not, there will still be enough to eat. As Thomas says, we need to open our eyes to see what’s going on around us. We need only be mindful of how good we have it to put aside the pettiness and get started on a project to take America back to the days when political disputes were in the hands of the informed, to when, liberal or conservative, being American was the most important thing . You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.

In Dire Need of Perspective
March 10, 2005, 4:59 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Living

Original Post (with comments)
I’ve spent the past five days snowboarding in Whistler, British Columbia. What a staggeringly idyllic place, even if this year’s snowfall has been only a fraction of what they usually get. As cancellation policies prevented me from choosing another destination, I resigned myself to short days on the mountains accompanied by aesthetically-inspired writing sessions. I was wrong on both accounts. It turns out that even when Whistler only has 50% of the snow it usually has, it still beats the shit out of most resorts – it’s huge. So I spent as much time as possible on the slopes. And the writing, well, they didn’t have high-speed internet in my condo. Really.

I actually had to walk 10 minutes to an Internet Cafe to get connected. That oppressive burden was enough to prevent me from spending anything but the bare minimum amount of time in front of my laptop. Instead, I investigated the temporal limits of what is known as the apres-ski, but not without a bit of underlying indignation at being forced upon such a task. It wasn’t my fault. Really. And now that I’m home and jacked in wirelessly (ahh, that’s more like it), I can take a step back.

It’s amazing how quickly we Americans get used to things, and it’s even more amazing how irritated we often get when proceedings deviate from the new norm. How could such an obviously planned and well laid-out village such as Whistler not be blanketed in Hot Spots? The nerve of some people. But as trivial (and absurd) as my whining is, I think it points to a larger trend in this country. It seems that American culture promotes a tendency to regularly recalibrate expectations about how life should unfold. As they say in the world of finance – past performance is no guarantee of future returns. In fact, the past is becoming more and more irrelevant every day.

Think of all of the ads that gently bombard us throughout the day. They’re all about the future, the better future, the one that is only a truckload of products and services away. Want something now, but can’t afford it? No problem. No interest till 2006. Want to be thin? In just a few short weeks, with the right book, diet, meal-plan, and/or pill, no problem. Still paying for your past mistakes? It’s not your fault. Don’t beat yourself up. The future is about second chances. It’s about third, fourth, and fifth chances. Chin up. Tomorrow is a new day…provided you drink enough coffee. The rat race moves forward, always forward, and faster, always faster. In its path, it leaves the tattered remains of perspective.

It’s not that we need aspire to be active historians, holding candlelight vigils for the “best of 1997.” We need only widen the lens through which we view our lives, and this is hard at high speeds. Moving at a fast pace necessarily requires focus. Going a mile at a walk, we can take in the scenery. We can see the details of our surroundings, and if we look close enough, we can often see what’s come before. We can get a feel for how far things have progressed. Going the same mile at 60 mph offers us no such opportunity. We have to keep our attention mostly forward – to navigate, make necessary course corrections, and to avoid obstacles. There’s simply no time for taking it all in. Our lens is too narrow. The same is true in life, but here lies a dilemma – what do we do?

The obvious, but, in my view, incorrect answer, is to simply drop out, to get off the wheel, to quit the rat race. This is certainly the cure for the perspective problem, but it often brings with it the kind of scenery that doesn’t make much use of a wide-angle lens. Yes, you can despise the rampant consumerism that, perhaps more than anything else, regrettably defines this country today, but I don’t know how you can reject it without hopping from the frying pan into the fire. The fact is that life in this country can be as blissful as it can be anywhere on the planet. You can shape your environment in any way you like, and you can surround yourself with wonderful, like-minded people, even if you’re a total wackjob. But – there’s always a but – there is a direct correlation between the degree to which you can manipulate your environment and the amount of money you have.

These are the kinds of statements that prompt outrage in some people. Hands will wave and dust will fly at the injustice of it all. But as David Hume warned, it is a mistake to confuse what we want with what is. So, while others will reject the rat race out of hand, I think we should accept it and endeavor to get what we want out of it…without getting sucked in too far. Our harbor in the storm is perspective, and it works in two ways.
First of all, perspective is what allows us to realize that we have it good. I try to step outside myself and view my world with a wide lens. I try to remember that, in pure prosperity terms, I have it better than 99.99% of the humans that have ever lived. You do, too. We have come an amazingly long way, baby. Items that were once only available to the tippy top of the upper crust are now household items for most everyone. Not so long ago, a trip to Whistler, BC from Atlanta would have taken weeks, not hours, and I’d have had to either plan my trip months and months in advance or hope for the best when I got out there. Nevertheless, we curse the gods when we have to take our shoes off to go through security and we fly into fits of rage when our cell phones drop calls. It’s pathetic, really. Life has never been so comfortable for humans, and while the information age makes me keenly aware of what the other guy has, I try to remember that there is always more. You can always be richer, more powerful, better looking, smarter, and so on, which brings me to the second thing we get from perspective.

When we take a step back, it becomes easier to see that there is a very real point of diminishing returns with respect to the rat race. Not only do we recognize that we have it seriously good; we recognize that it may not be much better if we get what the rat race directors are pushing on us. Books like Gregg Easterbrook’s, The Progress Paradox, and Barry Schwartz’s, The Paradox of Choice, make it clear that increasing prosperity is not bringing a corresponding rise in individual happiness. (FYI – I generally disagree with both authors’ conclusions. However, their statement of the problem makes sense to me.) That means that, at some point, good is good enough. Though our caveman minds will urge us to keep chugging along the wheel (anything to keep up with the Joneses), perspective is what allows us to determine when every extra turn is a waste of time and a distraction from what really matters in life. The only folks I would exempt from this are the folks who should be covering the world with wireless high-speed internet. Just a couple more turns, fellas.

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.

Robitussin and the Gauche Theory of Mind
February 22, 2005, 4:51 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Living, Hijinks

Original Post (with comments)
Sorry for the absence – the guy who never gets a flu shot cause he never gets sick got the freaking flu, and I do not handle sickness well. On a scale of 1 to 10, I operate between a 9 and a 10 pretty much every day. So, on the ultra-rare occasion that I fall ill, I bitch and moan and wail as if I’m on my third week of chemo. I act like, as the Scots would say, a big Jessie. Fortunately for all involved, thanks to my superior immune system, I kicked that avian-borne nuisance as fast as it hit me. I’m back. Not full speed yet, but getting there.

Anyhow, as I was lying in bed yesterday (trying to match the pitch of my moan to the droning humidifier), my wife came rambling through the room and we spoke for a moment. This and that, nothing in particular, but she didn’t ask me how I was feeling. She didn’t ask how I was feeling!

That bitch!

Instantly, resentment washed over me. Sure, go on about your business and ignore the infirm. Wait’ll it’s your turn, honey. Ahh, the vindictive hue of the Robitussin-induced delirium. How could it slip her mind that she should be inquiring as to my status? Didn’t she know what was on my mind? Didn’t she know that the central theme on my giant movie screen was my own decrepit condition, complete with moan track in Sony Digital Audio? Acknowledge, please. Anyone? Anyone? Bitch. Bitch. Biiiiiii….

I moaned myself to sleep and forgot about it until today. But now, hovering at around a 6 (an 8, if I sit perfectly still), I am able to take a mental and emotional step back, and something has dawned on me. It seems like some of my smoothest moves have come by acting upon mistaken impressions of what either was or was not on the mind of whomever I was interacting with. Though this falls under the general heading of misunderstanding, it isn’t the miscommunication kind; it’s what I’d call a gauche theory of mind problem.

Theory of mind, in this case, is understanding that other people have their own plans, thoughts, and points of view. So, if you have a gauche theory of mind, you have a tendency toward, shall we say, less than polished social behavior. You get that people have their own picture of the world, your perception of exactly (or even remotely) what that picture is just comes in a little fuzzy. In my recent time of need, I clumsily assumed that the all-consuming role of my symptoms extended well beyond the confines of my body. Get within the zone, and your mind, like mine, should be instantly preoccupied with my condition. And if you don’t act accordingly, well screw you.

Now, I’ll admit, this is pretty childish. That’s why it’s a good thing I don’t get sick often. I was pushing the envelope snagging my wife to begin with. But this notion of a gauche theory of mind, when it persists over an extended period of time, explains quite a bit of what we see all around us. Just watch the preliminaries of American Idol or just about any reality show and it’s on parade. We marvel at people who so misconstrue their reflection in the minds of others. They perceive themselves manifestly beautiful or talented or popular when in fact they are no such thing. In fact, this brings up an interesting by-product of the phenomenon – other people notice it, cringe, but can’t take their eyes away. And the news is?

This realization, obvious as it may seem, brings me back to the idea that we are well served if we familiarize ourselves with the somewhat universal baselines for acceptance in social situations. But, perhaps of equal importance, is being familiar with the notion that the bar is different in different places. These poor American Idol hopefuls, we may assume, enjoy insulated spheres of acceptance where they live, acceptance that they mistakenly ascribe to the wider swath of the general public. How many alligator tears would be saved if these youngsters were served a heaping helping of, “You may be great in Pascagoula, but that says nothing about how you’ll do in the City of Angels”? It doesn’t mean you quit, it just means you come to grips with how much work you have to do. Then you decide if you want to chip away at it. Believe it or not, our days here are numbered. But the American Idol syndrome is but one example of a gauche theory of mind.

How about the self-important among us? Are they not ascribing their own commanding presence upon our big screens? Are they not disturbed when we don’t respond accordingly? This must be the hardest thing to handle for celebrities. In their case, the bar is exactly where they think it is; it’s just higher than they think it is, at least when they find themselves in the midst of folks who don’t extrapolate what they’re famous for to other areas of measurability. So you celebs out there, I feel ya. Here’s a tip: You may be great in the City of Angels, but that says nothing about how you’ll do in Pascagoula.

Now why should I go to so much trouble to state the obvious? An evening of Robitussin and Coke. Salut.