Posted by: davidboone | April 22, 2008

Monkeys with car keys

A very clever person once said “we’re all just monkeys with car keys”. Some people may find it amusing, to think of themselves, or other people, as monkeys with car keys, but there are also those individuals who would reject the idea, even as a joke, because they hold a view of man (and themselves) as “created in the image and likeness of God”. I’m going to suggest something else, something a little more troubling, that we are not monkeys with car keys, but more accurately, Homo sapiens with nuclear weapons.

Mankind is a line in the development of a genus that is a relatively recent phenomena in the history of life on earth, but is now one that threatens to destroy both himself and many other higher forms in a split second of geologic time. How did we come to this?

First, it’s prerequisite to understand that in evolution (and yes I have to insist on actual science, not religious justified fake-science), nature likes to experiment. Within the tremendous variety of genetic variation that nature brings forth, some species succeed very well. It’s been estimated that winged insects have been around for at least 320 million years (though not exactly the same ones). It’s also been estimated that 99.9% of all the species of plants and animals, that have ever lived, are now extinct. That means that, in one sense, 99.9% of all the species that have lived were failed experiments in the lineage of something that came after. Mankind is just one more in this illustrious list of evolutionary works in progress, but he is one that has a notable difference, not only may he not survive, but, if he doesn’t, he may take a whole bunch of other plants and animals with him. From this point of view, mankind may become the most spectacular failure in all of natural history.

Such an outcome would be ironic in that, up until now, man has been a roaring success (especially in his own mind). There are six billion humans on the planet and counting, and mankind has established a firm dominion over most other forms of life, but only those who are in a relatively similar place on the evolutionary ladder. If you include bacteria and insects, man is an upstart, yes, but not yet a world beater. And maybe it’s worthwhile to define what success is in a species. If success is only found in a count of pure numbers, then the insects and bacteria are the still clearly the winners. Or is success to be thought of in terms of our ability to dominate the evolutionary path, and the success, of other species? If that were the case bacteria might still carry the prize, with man a distant second. But in the experiment that is man, there is one aspect of him that will not easily carry forward if he, and all other higher vertebrates, do not. That is his (self-proclaimed) intelligence. If intelligence is nature’s experiment, within mankind, then perhaps higher intelligence is not a successful evolutionary strategy after all, but a terrible failure in the making.

For intelligence isn’t as smart as it “thinks” it is. If it were, then it would realize its limitations. Limitation number one. In very emotionally charged circumstances, higher intelligence, the frontal lobes of our brain, acts like a poor traffic cop to the stronger impulses that are happening in the more primitive areas, the ones we share with other higher mammals, the fight or flight parts. In such circumstances, it is only a very rational assessment by an observant mind that can override these strong emotional responses. If a person believes they are under a threat, it often takes time for them to step back and reassess the situation, and only then if they have sufficient information to contradict their initial, emotional, reaction, can they change their course of action. This is because a fight or flight response bypasses the executive areas of our frontal brain and goes straight from observation, to stored memory, to conditioned (and genetic) defensive reactions – all in a split second. The thinking parts our brain are just along for the ride, until some time later when, and if, we choose to apply them, and so regain the possibility of altering our trajectory.

Limitation number two. This pattern of thinking with our emotions isn’t just about people in high stress situations, or those people with a highly “emotional” mind (the old sexist view of women), but is a vital part of how we experience everything around us. There are emotional weights attached to everything we think and observe. For a thought to have any meaning at all, it has an emotional weight, good, bad, fear, love, desire, etc. For our thoughts to make any sense, we have to assign them meanings in this way. Think about something that you know nothing about, something obscure (like behavioral psychology). If it has any meaning to you, it is because there is something in it that is either fearful (implies that you’re not as smart as you think you are), or comes with some other emotional weight (maybe you find it fascinating). In any case, that is how our thoughts are linked with the way (or ways) that we feel about things. What this does is it creates emotional biases that we don’t see. The best (or worst) example I can think of is how people of one religion may believe that they are God’s chosen people, because to believe otherwise would feel bad, and possibly frightening in the face of a super-parent notion of God.

Another way to look at this is to think that your thoughts are superimposed over an emotional field of meaning(s) and the object of your thinking, especially your random, spurious thoughts, is not to work out the end result of some grand, logical problem, but to resolve the emotions that are attached to whatever comes into your immediate experience or recollection. In short, thoughts follow emotions as much or more than the other way around.

What this does is color the ways we see and interpret our world and our experiences of it. So, for example, if we believe that we are correct in our understanding of God, and what God wants from us, then we are liable to imagine that God want’s all people to conform to the same beliefs and requirements, or some unfortunate outcome may occur. This is the emotional side of our thinking, and there are many layers to such a thought, from our deepest emotional meanings (avoidance of punishment / fear of God’s disapproval), to our beliefs (“where we will go in the hereafter”), to our self-image and our sense of security when others disagree with us. All of these have strong feelings attached to them, and how we go about resolving those feeling is what generally drives our thinking.

What this also represents, in a more subtle understanding of ourselves, is that, the more emotionally charged a subject is, the more we will probably be inclined to make it black and white in our thought processes. There’s a saying by F. Scott Fitzgerald “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still maintain the ability to function”. When we feel uncertainty, we move away from that and toward ideas that seem, to us, to be naturally exclusive, so that we can choose one and discard the other. So, this emotion driven property of our thinking, so necessary for us to have meaning and a sense of our own ability to act in the world, has a tendency (in some people more than others), to reduce ideas and understandings to opposing notions, where one can be discarded and the other held to as the only right thing. In this way it is possible, indeed likely, that people will often over-generalize a threat into something larger than it is, or imagine something they don’t understand into a threat. Human history is overflowing with examples of this, as it is rampant the current media environment, where proving a point is far more important than listening to opposing views (or getting the facts right).

At this point in scientific understanding, psychologists and neruo-researchers have identified hundreds of “cognitive biases” that are part of the general scheme of how mankind thinks. Some of the more significant of these biases are listed in the book, “Why We believe What We Believe”, by Neuro-Biology researcher, Dr. Andrew Newberg, and are as follows:

Newberg’s twenty-seven ways our brain distorts reality:
1. Family Bias. We have a propensity to automatically believe information given to us by family and friends.
2. Authoritarian Bias. We tend to believe people who hold positions of power and status. We give them more credence without checking their facts or sources.
3. Attractiveness Bias. We give more credence to taller, more attractive people because the brain seeks what is aesthetically pleasing, and people who make eye contact are more likely to be believed.
4. Confirmation Bias. We have a tendency to emphasis information that supports our beliefs, while unconsciously ignoring information that contradicts them. Since beliefs become imbedded in our neural circuitry, contradictory evidence often cannot break through the existing connections in our brain.
5. Self-Serving Bias. In conjunction with the confirmation bias, we also tend to maintain beliefs that benefit our own interests and goals.
6. In-Group Bias. We unconsciously give preferential treatment to other members of our group and rarely question their beliefs, because our brains are wired to seek conformity with others.
7. Out-Group Bias. We generally reject or disparage the beliefs of people who are outside our group, especially when their beliefs differ markedly from our own. In addition, we have a biological propensity to feel anxious when encountering people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, even if they are members of our group.
8. Group Consensus Bias. The more other people agree with us, the more likely we will be to assume that our beliefs are true. Conversely, the more people disagree with us, the more likely we will be to suppress our doubt our own beliefs, even if they are correct.
9. Bandwagon Bias. This reflects our tendency to go along with the belief systems of whatever group we are involved with. The more people we are surrounded by, the more likely we’ll be to modify our beliefs to fit theirs.
10. Projection Bias. We often assume, without checking, that other people in our group have similar beliefs, have similar morals, and see the world in similar ways. The Central Intelligence Agency refers to this bias as the “everybody thinks like us mind-set” and considers one of the most dangerous biases a person can have – because different cultures, personality types (such as terrorists) don’t think like us.
11. Expectancy Bias. When looking for information, or conducting research, we have a propensity to “discover” what we are looking for. In medicine, double-blind studies try to eliminate this pervasive bias.
12. “Magic Number” Bias. Numbers influence our beliefs because of the strong quantitative functions of the brain. The larger and more dramatic a number is, the greater emotional impact it will have, and this, in turn, strengthens our trust in the information being quantified.
13. Probability Bias. We like to believe that we are luckier than we are, and that we can beat the odds (depressed individuals, by contrast, tend to believe the opposite). This optimism is also known as gambler’s bias. If you flip a coin that comes up heads nine times in a row, most people will bet a lot of money that the next flip will be tails. Of course, the probability remains the same for every flip; and so there is a fifty-fifty chance of it being tails.
14. Cause-and-Effect Bias. Our brain is predisposed toward making a causal connection between two events, even when no such connection exists. If you take an herbal remedy and your cold disappears, you’ll attribute the cure to the remedy, even though dozens of other unrelated factors may be involved.
15. Pleasure Bias. We tend that pleasing experiences reflect greater truths than unpleasant ones, in part because the pleasure centers in our brain help control the strength of our perceptions, memories, and thoughts.
16. Personification Bias. We prefer to give inanimate objects lifelike qualities. We also tend ambiguous stimuli (shadows, indistinct sounds, etc.) human and animal like forms. This perceptual and cognitive function gives rise to various superstitious beliefs.
17. Perceptual Bias. Our brain automatically assumes that our perceptions and beliefs reflect accurate and objective truths about ourselves and the world. This is the basis of the old saying, “Seeing is believing”.
18. Perseverance Bias. Once we believe in something, we will continue to insist that that belief is true, even when strong contradictory evidence is offered. And, the longer we maintain specific beliefs, the more ingrained they become in our neural circuitry.
19. False-Memory Bias. Our brain tends to retain false memories longer than accurate memories. It is also easy to implant false memories in others, if the circumstances are right and the information is plausible.
20. Positive memory Bias. When reflecting on the past, we tend to recall events in a more positive and favorable light than we felt when they occurred.
21. Logic Bias. We tend to believe arguments that strike us as more logical. We also tend to ignore information that doesn’t make sense to us. As William James said, “As a rule, we disbelieve all the facts and theories for which we have no use.”
22. Persuasion Bias. We are more likely to believe someone who is more dramatic and emotional when arguing a particular point of view. Our brain tends to resonate with great speakers, and we can get caught up in their emotions, and so their beliefs.
23. Primacy Bias. We give more weight to and remember more easily, names and information at the top of a list.
24. Uncertainty Bias. Our brain does not like uncertainty and ambiguity, thus we prefer to either believe or disbelieve, rather than remain uncertain.
25. Emotional Bias. Strong emotions usually interfere with logic and reason. Anger tends to evoke the belief that we are justified and right, anxiety undermines such a belief; and depression obscures optimistic beliefs.
26. Publication Bias. Editors of books, journals, and magazines prefer to publish work that shows positive outcomes, and to exclude work with negative findings. Thus a research project that shows no effect is less likely to be published than one finding positive effects. Another dimension of this bias is the propensity of readers to assume automatically that anything published is true, even when it appears in the tabloids.
27. Blind-Spot Bias. Last, but not least, researchers have identified a blind-spot bias. Most people fail to recognize how many cognitive biases they actually have, or how often they fall prey to these biases. Advertisers and politicians are very much aware of these blind spots, and they deliberately appeal to our biases to sell us their products and ideas. To a certain extent, we all manipulate others to persuade them to embrace our own beliefs. Parents do this with their children, teachers with their students, researchers with their colleagues, and lovers with their beloved. Unfortunately, we often do this without consciously considering the other person’s interests or needs.

Given the fact that man has the “intelligence” to examine and identify these and other cognitive weaknesses, ones that are inherent in the way our brain and species has developed, it would seem hopeful that we have at least the possibility of learning, and so compensating for, some of our more harmful and pernicious tendencies. But will we?

A third of the world lives on less than two dollars a day, and another third is actively engaged in an overly competitive race for economic development, modeled after the west, that, ecologically, is simply not sustainable for the planet at large. Even without that ecological warning that now threatens a good part of the higher life forms of our world (including us), there simply aren’t enough material resources (with current technologies) to enable the larger world to develop itself into even a poor cousin of the developed world. The end result of such a path will be more displacements of indigenous (agrarian or nomadic) peoples into a system that simply cannot provide all participants with the stuff of the promises that enticed them. The end result of that will be more scarcity, conflict, and probably, increased war, disease, and a man made escalation (eventually including use of weapons of mass destruction) of the natural forces that would otherwise painfully limit world population to the edge of what is naturally sustainable.

If we understand enough of the motivations that lead us to behave in such disaster inviting ways, is it still possible that we can change the course of such trends? I believe the answer is yes, but it’s a yes to enlightening the leadership of this world, in enough corners, so that they are able examine where we are headed and make conscious choices to change, changing their views, changing their motivations, and so changing theirs, and other, courses of action. This kind of change will only come as a result of their (and our) self-examination. Normally, these deeper levels of questioning, of rethinking, occur only after things go wrong. We are in a position now to see what is coming and rethink, reexamine, both ourselves and where we are headed. Mankind is in a race for its survival, and the race is with ourselves, and the growth of our self-understanding in the face of the natural forces, including our own tendencies, that may overtake us. It is a race that can still be won.


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