Evolution Versus Creationism – Part 1

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There are far too many people who approach evolution as a theory which opposes most religious creation myths. So I have no choice but to spend some time on the evolution versus creationism debate. There are large books dedicated to making a case for creation science – as if it could ever be considered scientific. Rather than make this a treatise on the evolution versus creationism debate, I’ll stick to the best (yet startlingly inadequate) of the creationists’ arguments against evolution. The first is regarding the so-called “design problem”.

The question is how could evolution by way of natural selection have created such staggering living complexity. How could it create something as complex as a human eye, for example? After all, if evolution brings about changes gradually by acting on the occasional mutation, how could something as sophisticated as a binocular eye have emerged? To answer this, consider the time when the Earth was populated with simple animals – some of them with no eyes. Of course, natural selection was around back then – always finding the fittest animals to create subsequent generations. So the issue with binocular vision is the intermediate steps. What possible value could half an eye confer upon its host? It turns out that natural selection is quite handy at using seemingly innocuous talents to an animal’s advantage.

For example, imagine a population of little slug-like animals. These animals slide along the ground eating bacteria and such. They also happen to be the favorite food of another, more sophisticated crab-like animal. These crabs hunt during the day, gobbling up slugs whenever they find them. Now imagine that one day a slug emerges with a thin patch of cells on its dorsal side. It just so happens that this set of cells is light sensitive. Before your BS detector goes off, remember that evolution has millions of years to work with. Nature randomly explores the range of mutations quite well over that kind of time.

So the imaginary slug has light sensitive cells. When the slug is exposed to sunlight, these cells contract causing the slug to move away from the light. Now selection goes to work. Since the slug’s mortal enemy is the crab and the crab only hunts during the day, the mutated slug will enjoy a reproductive advantage over its contemporaries. During the day, while they’re randomly sliding around looking for bacteria, the mutant stays put in a shady hiding spot. The crabs pick off the others while the mutant is safe. It is easy to see how the mutant would live to make baby slugs. Over time, the population of slugs would be filled with light-sensitive individuals. Now imagine that a new predator comes on the scene.

This lizard-like animal hunts both day and night by using scent detection. The lizard doesn’t see very well so it uses its tongue to detect scent changes in the air. Now suppose that, when a slug feeds, the chemical reactions taking place give off a specific odor. The lizard has the ability to detect this odor. When it detects the scent, it follows it to its origin and eats the slug. So what happens if a new slug mutation causes the light-sensitive patch to be able to detect motion? Those with this new mutation would be able to detect the presence of the lizard and stop feeding. Those without it would continue to feed, oblivious to the threats around them. The continued emission of the odor would attract the lizard to them and that would be that. Again, thanks to selection, this mutation would flourish in the population.

These two just-so explanations are more than plausible given the long periods of time evolution has to work with. We can invent one after another until we arrive at an animal with a very sophisticated visual system. The point is that intermediate stages of design do exist and natural selection makes handy use of them. Moreover, given the choice between an argument that defies all natural explanation and an argument that is plausible, the clear thinker will choose the latter. There really is no design problem.

With the design problem worked out, I’ll turn to the question of transition fossils. Creationists typically do not accept the above explanation of the design problem because they argue that even if the intermediate stages were useful, the fossil record does not show the transitional forms that led to the current designs. They would say that there are no fossils of early light-sensitive slugs so they must not have existed. But this is not exactly true. In fact, the fossil record shows many intermediate designs. The transitional fossils between amphibians and reptiles are so various that it is extremely difficult to tell where one begins and the other leaves off. It doesn’t help matters that the prevailing system of classification of animals is somewhat arbitrary in its assignment of type.

For example, the dinosaur Archaeopteryx is clearly an intermediate between reptiles and birds – even though reptiles and birds don’t seem that closely related when you look at today’s zoological classifications. This is simply because early taxonomists didn’t have access to the information we have today. If we were to now reconstruct animal taxonomy based upon genetic similarity, we’d end up with a whole new classification system. This would be a big change so I doubt it will ever be done. But it doesn’t really matter. Even though this situation is a bit of a thorn in our side, the facts are still the same – there are plenty of transition fossils to lend credence to selection’s role in shaping life on Earth.

Creationists also like to highlight their misunderstanding of thermodynamics in their quest to overthrow evolution. Their argument is that evolution disobeys the second law of thermodynamics. They are referring to entropy, the idea that systems tend toward disorder from order. The order and complexity of living systems, in their view, is something that could not have emerged because systems should be moving toward disorder and simplicity. But this is simply incorrect.

For one thing, the second law of thermodynamics doesn’t really deal with order and disorder.  It deals with energy and how it flows in and out of systems. The second law of thermodynamics actually tells us that something complex can spontaneously emerge from something simple if the energy of the complex entity is lower than the energy of the constituents. Ice is a good example. But even if we put that aside, the second law also only deals with closed systems. An open system (meaning energy and/or matter can flow in and out of it) has no such restrictions. The creationist’s argument is like saying that a bicycle is impossible because entropy would force the components apart. But this is absurd. In this case, a bicycle is an open system. The energy applied by the mechanic to put it together is all it takes to make a bicycle from its parts. As long as living systems are open systems, the second law of thermodynamics can have no real bearing on their complexity. The inflow of energy and resources from the environment can account for any and all levels of complexity seen in living organisms.

The last major argument creationists tend to make against evolution is the silliest, in my opinion. The Bible lays out a timeline for man that is about 10,000 years long. Adam and Eve were supposedly created 10,000 or so years ago. But archaeologists have found multitudes of humanoid fossils that date back 2 million years. So creationists dispute our current dating techniques. They cite the decay of the Earth’s magnetism and the fallibility of Carbon 14 dating as evidence that the Earth is really only 10,000 years old. The reality is that the Earth’s magnetism is known to have reversed many times in its history. So it may be true that extrapolating the decay into the past indicates that the magnetism changed 10,000 years ago. But that certainly doesn’t lead to the conclusion that the world is 10,000 years old! Furthermore, Carbon 14 dating has been proven accurate countless times. This is just the kind of denial of reality that comes with trying to make facts fit theories instead of the other way around. It doesn’t work.

I’ve read several books on creationism and I have yet to run across one that puts forth an even remotely reasonable argument. As always, I’m willing to change my mind, but not based upon what’s currently out there. Anyone got anything better?

Hope, Despair, and the Need to Believe – An Argument for Reason

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I want to follow up on a comment about the post from two days ago. Michael Gersh (of Zero Base Thinking fame), has this to say about the opinions of many of secularists who come off more as anti-religious than agnostic:

Maybe I have missed something here, but isn’t religion, or at least the need to believe in that which we have no logical answer for, hard wired into the human brain, by the same forces of evolution that shaped the rest of our ouvre? Smug secularists posting here might believe themselves to be above this basic human need, but I think that this is a distinction without a difference. While many so-called rationalists might disbelieve the Bible’s miracles, they merely believe in something else. Maybe global warming, or other environmental belief, that Michael Crichton has so presciently perceived as akin to religious belief. Maybe it is some sort of overreliance of other human constructs, such as the social contract, or even the supremacy of rationality itself.

None of us are immune to this human tendency to believe in some specific explanation for an essentially unknown, and perhaps unknowable condition.

I don’t think we necessarily have an inherent need to believe in the inexplicable so much as we have a hard-wired need to explain our environment, if for no other reason than to connect cause with effect. Before we can associate a certain set of conditions with a certain outcome, we have to be able to identify and categorize what we perceive. If a caveman witnesses the mauling of a fellow tribesman by a lion, his mind notes the existence of a furry and ferocious entity. It then categorizes it as an entity that can kill humans. The next time he sees one, even if it looks a little different (perhaps it’s female and the first was a male), he will generalize that he is in danger. This is key mental adaptation for survival, one that is well distributed throughout the animal kingdom. But with humans, there is a layer of cognition that does not come installed in the brains of our animal brethren. This is where the belief problem comes from.

In my view, non-human animals, though driven by emotion, are supremely rational in their perception of their environment – water is wet, always. They cannot be otherwise. Humans, however, have the free will to choose to interpret their world irrationally. A human can decide that a cobra is not dangerous, even when his animal emotions drive him to act as if is. Though this free will undoubtedly serves us well, it has a downside. We can fall victim to false hope.

In a paper called, “The Evolution of Hope and Despair,” University of Michigan professor of psychiatry and psychology, Randolph Nesse, lays out the idea that hope and despair are simply emotions driven by our appraisals of whether or not our environment will favor or disfavor the realization of our goals. Like other emotions, they serve to drive us to do things that will keep us alive long enough to reproduce. They are sort of the uber-assessors of our surroundings. If we find ourselves in circumstances that bode well for us, we have hope, so we stick around. Alternatively, if our circumstances look grim, we feel despair, which pushes us to change our situation. But what happens when we cannot explain our environment? What happens when we have no categories for the phenomena we witness?

As an absurd example, suppose a caveman stumbles upon a spaceship. Neither he nor any of his tribesmen have ever seen anything even remotely like it, so they are perplexed, to say the least. But uncertainty does not make for decisive action, which, in harsh times, is an utter necessity. Indeed, in a heated competition for survival, prolonged contemplation of the unknown is often a grave mistake. Conclusions must be drawn so that decisions can be made. The human mind, given the choice between choosing an explanation for the unknown, even if it’s a bad one, and choosing to leave the matter unsettled, will, therefore, choose an explanation. But how?

Our rational animal perceptions will provide us with competing explanations for what we observe. Then, we will decide which one to believe – by choosing the one that offers the most hope. Just as we’re emotionally drawn to situations that give us the warm, fuzzy feeling in our stomachs, so are we drawn to hopeful situations. So, while I’m not prepared to say that we have inherent need to believe in irrational things, I will say that our need to explain our world coupled with our attraction to hopeful situations sets us up to fall victim to irrationalism, and not just with respect to religion.

The lottery is one of the ultimate examples of false hope. We’ve all seen poor people in line at convenience stores spending money that would more intelligently be spent elsewhere on scores of quick picks and scratch-off games. In fact, on more than one occasion, I’ve heard people say, “When I win the lottery, I’m going to…..” Now, it’s one thing to say this in jest; it’s quite another to believe it. Many people really do, and this is a shame because I am convinced that this false hope removes much of the necessity to recognize reality for what it is and to act accordingly.
It is a fact of life that many people are born into terrible circumstances. Those who rise above them are the ones who see and accept their plight for what it is. This acceptance is the first step in determining how to overcome whatever impedes their achievement of their aims. False hope blurs reality and fosters inaction, or worse yet, useless action. The same is true of irrationality.

I think there are two types of secularists – the ones who apply rationality to all things, including religion, and the ones who happen to be rational about religion, but have no particular allegiance to it in other matters. I am one of the former. Michael, I think the smug secularists you refer to would find themselves among the latter. In any case, there is one staggeringly straight forward fix for the problems that come from the need to explain and the attraction to hope. It is called critical rationalism.

We start by admitting that we can be certain about nothing. Nothing. Then, we decide to put everything into one of three categories – things we believe, things we do not believe, and things we choose to leave unsettled. To determine what we believe and what we do not believe, we demand evidence, and we favor evidence that disproves assertions over evidence that proves assertions (since we can never really prove anything). We weigh the evidence for possible explanations and decide what to believe and disbelieve, and when the evidence is not compelling one way or another, we abstain. We are not cavemen, which means ambiguity is not dangerous for us. We do not have to act or die. This means that we can (and must) become comfortable with uncertainty. If we are successful at being critically rational, we are immuned from the perils of false hope and irrationality. But rationalism for the hope-addicted mind does not always come easy.

At the end of the day, each of us must decide how we will think. If we do not, we will vacillate opportunistically between rationality and irrationality – invoking either one based upon personal convenience. But deciding to be rational at all times is like deciding to be nice all the time. It’s an aim, an intention. We will, from time to time, falter. However, as long as we recognize the value of rationality, we will get back up and keep moving forward. That’s life. It’s best if we focus on our own journey and leave the arrogance to the certain, who always learn sooner or later that nothing is certain.

Your Genes Want You To Drive A BMW

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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.

Random Thought on the Variation in Animal Behavior

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I love nature shows, but I’m always alarmed at the confidence with which folks like Steve Irwin and Jeff Corwin approach dangerous animals. They consistently refer to the exhaustive body of research on these animals as evidence of what these critters will do from moment to moment. This seems odd to me, even though the fact Corwin and Irwin are still alive reasonably substantiates their credibility. What gets me is this: how is that human tendencies have so much variation but animals are fairly well predictable?

I mean, there are good people who adhere to social norms, but there are also bad people, even evil people, who have no regard for others. The behavior of these kinds of people cannot be even remotely predicted. Are there not equivalents in the animal kingdom? Are there not “bad seeds” who, far from doing what researchers expect, will jump at the opportunity to maul a supremely arrogant human? This thought grips me most when I see marine biologists swim with sharks. Wasn’t the shark in Jaws one of these bad seeds? I know, it’s just Hollywood, but still. I saw a show a couple of nights ago where a guy was swimming with no weapons and in no cage with a slew of bull sharks. He was obviously very comfortable – the crazy bastard. Why is it that the behavior of such dangerous animals can be predicted so consistently, yet humans are all over the map?

Maybe it’s human culture that builds in so much variation in behavior. I don’t know, but you can count on one thing – if I ever encounter a bunch of bull sharks, I’m exiting the water immediately.

Is Man Inherently Selfless?

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Scientific American is putting out a new quarterly magazine called Scientific American MIND. I picked up what they’re calling the premier issue (although there are letters to the editor regarding the previous one – go figure) and found an interesting article on a topic I’ve written about before. That topic is altruism. My thesis, the one I’ve gotten from evolutionary psychologists, has been that altruism doesn’t really exist, that seemingly benevolent actions are really just selfish acts with less obvious payoffs than usual. The article, entitled “The Samaritan Paradox,” argues that this thesis may be flawed. The authors, Ernst Fehr (an economist from the University of Zurich) and Suzann-Viola Renninger (a journalist educated in biology and philosophy, also in Zurich) put forth the notion that humans may indeed be endowed with genes for selflessness and truly altruistic behavior. Hmm. As much fun as it might be to be debunk the prevailing scientific wisdom, I don’t think these two are up to it.

Their argument is full of holes, which is understandable – them being Swiss and all. (Get it?  Swiss cheese…) It rests on what they deem to be the perennially intractable problem with the selfish gene theory – the presence of people who give and give with no hope of ever getting – people like Mother Theresa and volunteers who rush to the aid of perfect strangers after natural disasters. They write,

Such sacrifice does not follow the rules of evolutionary biology. If the immediate family does not profit and if neither reciprocal aid nor aid aimed at improving reputation promise future advantage, then selflessness gains nothing. Worse, it is costly in terms of resources, health, or money. By this logic, there really should not be any good Samaritans. Yet they clearly exist.

Well, I guess that settles it. Sarcasm aside, I think this is a good example of how evolutionary theory gets contentious. These two authors have pitted themselves against the master himself, Richard Dawkins, in suggesting that his elegantly simple theory may be overblown. The problem is that they cannot see the forest for the trees. Instead of considering the simple (and obvious, at least to me) solution, they run off on a long tangent about “punishment” games. Fehr and Renninger attempt to prove the exception to the selfishness disguised as altruism concept by citing games which show that “many people – even when facing high monetary stakes – are willing to penalize others at a cost to themselves to prevent unfair outcomes or to sanction bad behavior.”  This proves nothing.

In my mind, it is obvious why we see selfless acts that clearly have no payoff. It’s the caveman mind in a modern world problem. We can’t forget that our emotions evolved to motivate us to do things that would see to our survival. As I’ve mentioned before, sympathy has been referred to as nature’s bargain hunter. It works like this: a caveman walking along stumbles on a guy who’s down on his luck and hungry. This caveman, all of sudden, starts to feel this twinge of emotion that is discomforting. Looking for some way to assuage his tortured mind, he offers some meat to the hard-luck character. Voila – he feels better. The consequence? He gets back more meat than he gave at some point down the road, or he has a new ally in the dangerous game of making it to the next day. All other things being equal, the caveman with this emotional proclivity has a better chance of surviving than the caveman who ignores the guy in trouble – he gets a large return on a small, insignificant investment. But, though we have the same genes, we are not cavemen.

The crumbling of the false hope that mankind is at his core benevolent hinges on the idea that our minds, and therefore our emotions, were designed for an environment that no longer exists. This explains why they should be going haywire, so to speak, in modern times. In caveman days, life was not as anonymous as it is today. In a tight knit social environment, bargain-hunting emotions flourished because they led to actions that benefited the individuals that had them. In this world, however, it isn’t inconceivable that those emotions (since they are today what they were back then) could lead to acts that would result in no benefit whatsoever. Emotions are powerful, and sometimes we humans do whatever they command – like running into a burning building to save someone we don’t know, dying in the process. In my view, it’s more likely that selfless acts are indicators of miscalculating anachronistic selfish motives than they are of some inherent selflessness in mankind. Given the countless other ways our ancient emotions steer us wrong, this just makes the most sense. The good news is, however, that these ill-fated emotional tendencies need not be attenuated.

Just as love is not achieving its original aim – getting us to pump out as many offspring as possible – neither is sympathy. But far from being cause for alarm, this is cause for celebration, for it means that we are not doomed to operate as robots blindly following our emotions, as our cave-dwelling ancestors were. We can, instead, harness them for our own enjoyment of life, clinging to the ones that make us happy and discarding the ones that weigh us down – we need only understand them. Furthermore, considering that the prevailing theme throughout the history of mankind has been the struggle for power between the haves and the have-nots, is it not reasonable to conclude that we are naturally selfish, but that a few, the enlightened, have consistently raised the bar of compassion in human society? So to Fehr and Renninger I say, nice try, but you’re fired.

Another from the Mailbag – What Emotions Do We Keep?

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.

A Tribute to Solution Space

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There’s concept in science known as solution space, and it colors my entire perspective. Solution space refers to the sum total of all possible solutions to a problem or question. For example, if you’re asked in which month Arbor Day falls, your solution space is a list of the twelve months of the year. The thing about solution space is that most problems have a massive number of possible solutions. One, or even a few, may be right, but most are absolutely wrong.

There’s more. Solutions that are wrong but not very wrong are often located closer in space to the right solution than solutions that are very wrong. So, since Arbor Day is usually the last Friday in April (I had to look it up, believe me), March is closer, in solution space, than February, which is closer than December. The idea is to kind of visualize an expanse of space and to think of the solution as being located in some tiny locale therein. In this case, our solution space is two-dimensional. But in most cases, when you factor in thousands of variables at work at any given time, the space expands in all directions.

I have found the use of the solution space concept very valuable over the years. For one thing, it keeps me very far from ever proclaiming certainty. Regardless of what we’re trying to explain, there’s a solution space for it and, very importantly, our imaginations play a large role in what areas of solution space we explore. We generally start where we’ve been before and extrapolate from there. Herein lies the wisdom of solution space. The moment we think we’ve thought of everything, we need only remind ourselves that solution space is gigantic and that the odds are very good that we’re missing A LOT. It’s humbling and produces a tendency to keep digging, which bring me to the next benefit of solution space.

Solution space is a creativity enhancer. By understanding that our current way of explaining things is limited to the insights gained from our previous experiences, each located in its own area of solution space, eventually we know where not to look. We’re forced to reject the familiar if our question remains unresolved. We have to find environments that stimulate our brains in new ways. As soon as we experience new things and new ideas, we begin to consider the permutations that surround them in solution space. It’s as if we’re instantly transported to a new area of space with all new possibilities. This is why people go to movies, and it’s also why a lot of people do drugs. Isn’t a big screen experience the ultimate cure for boredom with the familiar? And didn’t John Lennon and pals frequently refer to the mind expanding powers of whatever it was they were on? What the moviegoer and Lennon had in common was the desire to access some previously unaccessed areas of solution space. In looking for explanations for everything from meaning of life to the perfect melody line, the solution space jockey finds the thrill in the chase.

At some point in the internalization of solution space, we come to know that finding what we want may take a while. We develop tenacity to continue searching for solutions. Eventually, when we’ve run down one too many rat holes, it dawns that the most important solution space is the one related to what makes for a worthwhile question. It becomes instantly apparent that the good ones are daunting, where many have tried and all have failed, where the space of possibilities is enormous. But you have to pay your dues and the big questions aren’t big for nothing.

Getting a crack at the biggest expanses of solution space requires years of training. One must learn to tell the difference between a correct and incorrect solution – between truth and fiction, at the end of the day. The base of this skill is the commitment to the notion that possibilities may only be proven wrong, never right. The only thing to do is disprove as many as possible and then evaluate the field that remains. Based upon a certain set of rules, a solution may or may not be chosen as the preferred solution. And preferred solutions are only allowed if they are accompanied by an admission of uncertainty (solution space is big, even for simple things).

The rules that determine if we can even prefer a solution are the same rules that we use to determine if a solution is true or false. These are the rules of logic. Once they are mastered, we must use them to acquire as much knowledge as we can – about a wide array of subjects. The more we learn, the more difficult the questions we can pursue effectively. This is pretty much where I am these days.

I’m on a mission to learn as much as I can about this world. This blog, I hope, will help me do that. I am constantly pondering the role of our genes in our ability to understand our experiences. So I’ll throw out what I’ve encountered in my jaunts through solution space in the hopes that readers might help in the search. And if I stray into politics too much, well I can’t help it – the drama’s irresistible.

Sympathy – Mother Nature’s Bargain Hunter

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?

The Low-Down on Global Warming

Original Post (with comments)
Every few weeks, we see some crackpot story about how mankind is working feverishly to destroy the earth. Last week, Tony Blair, who has heretofore come off as a fairly sensible guy, made an “urgent” appeal to the international community to tackle the problem of global warming. Blair’s rationale, it seems, is based upon the same so-called science that is behind the Kyoto Treaty. The problem is that the research is worthless. It is based upon long-term projections of the weather. Somehow, a very large population of intelligent people have fallen prey to a con of gigantic proportions, a con that, like the 60 Minutes con of late, is obvious with even the most cursory of examinations.

Meteorologists can’t accurately predict the weather from week to week, so it is truly astonishing that so many buy the climate projections that supposedly demonstrate the effects of human industrialization on the weather 100 years into the future. This is absurd, to say the least.

The fact is that this preoccupation with global warming is a symptom of man’s natural inability to grasp time on the scales that really matter. If we look at the average temperatures of the earth over the last 20 years, we might conclude that the our planet is indeed warming. However, 20 years is nothing. If we back out to 100 years, we see that the average temperatures have been fluctuating considerably. There was a time in the 70’s where the concern was global cooling. The sky is falling crowd was predicting that the earth would freeze over by the year 2000. Oops.

I’m not going to say that the activities of our species haven’t had an impact on the weather. I will, however, say that our impact is negligible when it is placed against nature’s own predilections. As George Carlin says, “The earth’s not going anywhere…WE ARE! Pack your shit, folks.” This is his conclusion after rattling off an exhaustive list of predicaments that have faced planet earth over the eons. The idea is that it is supremely self-important to suppose that humans will do the earth in before the earth does the humans in. I would think that the recent spate of hurricanes would drive this point home. Alas, there is another explanation for the insistence upon human-driven global warming.

This is, quite simply, guilt. Far too many of the haves on this planet feel very bad about the disparity between their lives and the lives of the have nots. They have found a very handy tool to assuage their guilty consciences. This tool is anti-capitalism. Capitalism, in their minds, gives rise to the chasm in prosperity, and it also happens to give rise to the industrialism that they believe is the direct cause of the destruction of the earth’s environment. By battling capitalism, they kill two birds with one stone. To be an environmental extremist is to be an anti-capitalist, plain and simple. Unfortunately, the racked with guilt fail to recognize that it is capitalism that has led to the spread of prosperity for common people on this planet. Were it not for capitalism, there would be no such thing as a middle class. There would be no life-saving medicines, at least not medicines available to regular folks like us. Agriculture would still be dependent upon beasts of burden. However, despite these realities, the environmentalists proceed undaunted. Theirs is a cause that has no use for facts.

I have done a good bit of research on global warming and the conclusion I have come to is that no reputable meteorologists seriously believe that humans are responsible for any significant changes in temperature. Furthermore, they do not believe that the earth is any imminent danger from global warming. In fact, the global warming crowd has been around long enough to have made predictions that can now be evaluated. The results are in – they’ve been wrong…every time. But don’t take my word for it.

Here’s a link to a great article written in 92′ (amidst Gore’s environmental “genius” days) that pretty much makes it clear that global warming is “the mother of all environmental scares”. The author is Dr. Richard Lindzen, a distinguished climatologist from MIT.

Here are a few factoids from it (italics are my comments):

  1. The amount of carbon dioxide in the air (the main reported cause of global warming) has been increasing since 1800. Hmm, and I thought it was all of our industrialized pollution that was causing the increase.
  2. The total source of carbon dioxide reportedly increased exponentially until 1973. Since 1800, it has increased 50%. But…from 1973 to 1990, the rate of increase has been much slower. Considering the fact that our industrialized byproducts certainly did not slow down in the 70’s and 80’s, this would seem to refute the idea that industrialization is causing the increase and thus global warming.
  3. If we removed all carbon dioxide and methane from the atmosphere, we’d still have 98% of the greenhouse gasses. This means that the relative impact of carbon dioxide is far too small to correlate it with any major change in climate.
  4. The global average temperature record shows an average increase in temperature of about .45 degree centigrade plus or minus .15 degree centigrade since 1800, with most of the increase occurring before 1940, followed by some cooling through the 50’s, 60’s, and early 1970s and a rapid (but modest) temperature increase in the late 1970s.This is the nail in the coffin for the global warming wackos. They have predicted a 4 degree temperature change with a 100% increase in carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide has increased 50% but the temperature has only increased by less than half a percent. More importantly – the temperature has been fluctuating (regardless of carbon dioxide levels) – as a thinking person might expect of a freaking PLANET!!! This clearly indicates that it is impossible to correlate carbon dioxide increases with temperature change. That is the common opinion among objective climatologists – one that Gore, Hollywood, and the media managed to suppress. See the part about how Gore intentionally misquoted this guy and published lies in his book – infuriating!
  5. The global cooling trend of the 1950s and 1960s led to a minor global cooling hysteria in the 1970s!  Check out books like, The Genesis Strategy by Stephen Schneider, Climate Change and World Affairs by Crispin Tickell, and The Cooling by Lowell Ponte. These all call for immediate action to avoid the catastrophe of global cooling. Ironically – or maybe not so ironically – these so-called experts are now global warming advocates. You never hear anything about that, do you?

All in all, this whole thing is nothing but a politically driven sham. Note a quote from a guy named Aaron Wildavsky, professor of political science at Berkeley: “Warming (and warming alone), through its primary antidote of withdrawing carbon from production and consumption, is capable of realizing the environmentalist’s dream of an egalitarian society based on rejection of economic growth in favor of a smaller population’s eating lower on the food chain, consuming a lot less, and sharing a much lower level of resources much more equally.” That thought must be delicious to the guilt-ridden anti-capitalists that are really behind the global warming scare.

To Blair and pals, I say, get a therapist and leave the rest of us alone.

Who Am I?

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.