The Enlightened Caveman

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.


Status and Self-Hatred
September 4, 2004, 3:06 pm
Filed under: Enlightened Caveman Concept, Enlightened Living, My Theories

Original Post
OK, maybe it’s time for something a little more serious. A little more personal.

Do you love yourself? You should. You’re the only with your exact pattern of DNA that has interacted with your environment in exactly the way that you have. Sure, being unique isn’t necessarily a reason to love yourself. But having unique DNA with limitless possibilities…now that’s a good reason to be bullish on your personal stock. Of course, if you’re going to make anything of your life, you’ll have to overcome whatever unnecessary hurdles your genes are throwing into your path.

One area where our genes are seriously working against us is in how we view ourselves. In caveman days, the status hierarchy in the tribe was everything. Those at the top had food, shelter, and mates. Those who were not suffered and died a childless death. That was the harsh reality of our ancestors’ environment. Natural selection navigated that environmental pitfall by installing in humans the tendency to pay attention to status and to do what it took to get it. If you’re here to read this today, we can be sure of one thing – your ancestors were good at this. But now, this same mechanism that kept our ancestors alive is crippling us when it comes to feeling good about ourselves.

The fact is that there are far too many people in this world who hate themselves, and I would venture to say that the percentages in the US dwarf the percentages anywhere else on the planet. This is very simply because of the quest for status. Humans, in looking for a way to the top of the totem pole, continuously assess their environment (and in America, there are more ways to the top and more definitions of being at the top than anywhere). We determine who has status by seeing who gets the most attention, who has the most of whatever happens to be valuable, and, of course, by which guys have the best girls, and which girls have the best guys. We then naturally compare whatever attributes we think contribute most to the success of these high-status inividuals to whatever we have going on. If we don’t measure up, we feel bad about ourselves. This was a good thing in caveman days. It’s anything but good today.

Back when our ancestors were angling for position in a tribe with limited slots, being attuned to status made all the difference. Today, however, status means nothing. Those who are the top of the ranks in our society are there for reasons that do not matter at all to us personally. For example, though so many focus on the super-rich, being wealthy in itself is no indication of anything but money. There are as many jerks among the rich as there are among any other demographic. And they are no more happy than any other group – trust me, they are consuming more Prozac than anyone. So, why should we care if we don’t stack up with them? The same is true for the beautiful people.

The current trend these days is toward being beautiful at all costs. The question I always want to ask these folks on the make-over shows is this: why do you want to be beautiful? Of course, I know the answer – to get people to notice me/like me/love me, and so on. This is silly. Even if it works, you’ll have people who care about you for your looks. That’s a pretty flimsy foundation for a relationship. Sure, some people believe that being attractive will give them to chance to show off that wonderful personality to people who have previously not been willing to give them a look. But again, why cater to these kinds of people? They’re obviously shallow and lacking in the kind of character we should be in search of. Alas, however, this is the caveman mind at work.

We clamor for status – unconsciously, in most cases. But there’s a fix. The first thing to do is to reject what society deems important. Society at large is one big market. We can’t forget that that which sells isn’t necessarily valuable. So while society is raving about fake boobs, the ladies with flat chests and low self-esteem are hating themselves as they figure out how to finance the operation that they believe will solve all of their problems. Suppose being flat-chested comes into style, then the situation will reverse. Can you imaging the silicon queens rushing to get their boobs removed? How could one’s self-esteem be tied to something as fickle as the social acceptability? No, self-esteem has to be tied to something deeper.

We need a common denominator here, one that will stay intact regardless of what society prefers. And we have one – it’s called character. That’s step two – work on who you really are as a person. Learn to be kind, honest, fair, trustworthy, knowledgeable, disciplined, forward-thinking, and open-minded. These are attributes that can endure anything. More importantly, these are the kinds of things to love about yourself.
The sad and ironic fact is that I know scores of people who have most or all of these characteristics (even if they’re sometimes hard to spot), yet they hate themselves. Their caveman genes have such a grip on them that they focus entirely on the yardstick (or sticks, as it were) of social acceptability and ignore the things that really matter. You know how I know? Because they are the ones who are constantly putting other people down. They are constantly trying to shatter anyone’s good news. They are constantly looking for evidence of weakness or inferiority in their acquaintances and friends. Anything to take the focus off of themselves and how much they loathe what they see when they look in the mirror. It’s sad but I see it all the time.

The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or beautiful or have sought-after talents. Sure, these attributes can be helpful in living a fun life, and there’s nothing wrong with pursuing them. You just have to make sure that they are, in no way, tied to your self-esteem. In this respect, they simply do not matter. What matters is relationships. And you only get good relationships by loving yourself for being a good person and then demanding that others love you for the same reason. If you’re not the good person you want to be, get to work, and love yourself for being a work in progress, and for having the commitment to become who you want to be. And don’t be afraid to be yourself. It doesn’t matter what you’re into. You can be a cross-dressing, ping-pong champion and I guarantee that there are folks with whom you’ll click and form deep meaningful relationships. You just have to let go of what your genes tell you and decide to love yourself, no matter who you are.

Education and the Time Horizon of Maturity
August 20, 2004, 3:11 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Education, Enlightened Living, My Theories, Politics

Original Post (and comments)
Over time, I have become increasingly convinced that maturity is a function of how much considerations of the future play into one’s decision-making process. Now that I am a father and am able to witness the development of a little human from birth, my belief is stronger than ever. My nine month old son is light years from mature, and it shows by the fact that his actions are dictated entirely by whatever happens to be occupying his attention at any given moment. As he grows, I expect that he’ll start to develop the ability to see into the future to predict the consequences of his actions. This will happen as he learns the physics of this world – action and reaction. Right now, he presses keys on the piano to make a sound. Before long, he’ll press specific keys to make specific sounds. Then he’ll transition into being aware of time. This, in my view, will be the real start of his maturity, and it will continue to progress as the time horizon of his considerations gets longer and longer.

My job as a parent, beyond seeing to it that my son knows he is number one to me and my wife, is primarily to ensure that he grasps the concept of consequences, but not just immediate consequences. If he is to reach maturity, he will have to develop the ability to consider both the long-term and short-term consequences of his actions, which implies that he’ll be concerned about the future. The short-term consequence of doing something dangerous may be having a good time. However, the longer-term consequence is likely to be a severe beating. Just kidding. He’ll actually be facing some sort of undesirable punishment, and the nature of that punishment will have to be consistent with his concept of time if it is to be effective. I can’t expect a three-year old to be swayed by the threat of missing a birthday party that is a week away. Five minutes of time-out (man, do I hate that phrase) will do nicely. The point of all this is that our society is chocked full of immature individuals, individuals who have a very short time horizon.

It is a commonly held view in many circles that poverty is a mental problem. I am inclined to agree. The vast majority of individuals who are poor are that way because of the choices they have made in life. But the point that I never hear about this is that the root cause of their poor decisions is their inability to see far enough into the future. For whatever reason, these people do not respond to arguments such as, “If you don’t study for the test you have tomorrow, you won’t be able to get a job that is years away.” This, to them, is no different than threatening a toddler with punishment that will not take place for a week. So, it isn’t helpful to just point out that these people chose to goof off when they should have been studying. And since the problem is deeper than that, so must the solution be.

I believe our educations systems need a time-horizon component to them. At the beginning of every school year, children need to be reminded that each advance in grade brings with it a requirement for more consideration of the future. Again, they should be held responsible for considering time horizons that are realistic for their ages. But the key is to make sure that the concept of time horizons is one that is pounded into their heads on a continuous basis. When children engage in actions that demonstrate their failure to sufficiently consider the future, they need to be counseled immediately. But this has some implications that our current educators seem unprepared to accept.

The current trend in education is focused on the self-esteem of all students, and it is virtually guaranteeing that the children emerging from US schools will be the most immature that this country has ever seen. If failing makes kids feel bad about themselves, and feeling bad about one’s self is unacceptable, the only option is to see to it that no one fails. That is exactly what is happening. Unfortunately, the real world doesn’t care about self-esteem. It cares about results. That means we have to abandon this touchy-feely approach to education, and we have to do it right away.
The consequences for failure as a child are minimal. So what if you fail a spelling test in third grade. In fact, failure, in the presence of skilled educators, is a good thing. It makes for the best possible object lessons. Kids should be allowed to fail so that they can be instructed as to what they did wrong and how to avoid failing the next time. It is a mistake to assume that failure automatically means feeling bad about one’s self. That’s where skilled educators come in. When a child fails, he or she must be made to understand that failure is explicable. Rarely does it boil down to inherent inferiority. It is almost always a function of effort, education, or mindset. The educator’s job is to figure out which is the culprit and then to guide the student to the solution, all the while reinforcing the time horizon component of the equation. If this simple little change happens, we’ll see our test scores relative to the rest of the world come up dramatically in almost no time. More importantly, we’ll graduate students with the ability to understand the long-term consequences of their actions. Given the aging population and the fact that when these kids are adults, there will be more retired people than working people, this is something that we simply cannot live without.