Archive for July, 2011
It was the movement in my peripheral vision that that drew my attention to the troop of approaching primates to my right, followed by the sound of their feet heavy upon the hard soil as they ran at full speed toward me. I expected them to be juveniles (I often see them cutting across this field in ones and twos) but these were adults, all of them males. One of them stumbled, and the group enveloped him — that’s when I realized that the individual was being chased by the others. He rose to his feet and tried to run away, but he was already injured, and could only stumble another twenty feet before the gang was upon him, four beating one, two of them using weapons (two of the six pursuers hanging back). I stood in surprise that they appeared so acclimated to my presence that only one of the troupe (that had hung back from participating in the beating) even took any notice of me as I stood, cell phone to my ear, calling 911.
Of course these primates were humans, and the soil they traversed was the dirt parking lot behind my apartment. The consensus from other witnesses and police was that one gang was chasing another, six chasing four (the other three of which managed to escape, leaving their unlucky compatriot behind).
Modern monkeys would have to travel a great evolutionary distance yet to match us humans in our cognitive (and physical) development, it’s true. But it’s also true that our ancient animal natures are always just a heartbeat away. I expect that I have as much interest in concealing this truth from myself as any other human alive, even as I choose to acknowledge it here. I would say that despite my rational approach to my beliefs about myself and the world around me, I find it best to bend my attention to the positive aspects of my inherited human nature (even as I remain ready to recognize the other aspects). Considering the innate propensity toward fear that is part of our cognitive birthright, it’s probably not a bad thing for us humans to focus on the benefits of our social natures and the great accomplishments we have achieved by learning to trust each other through acts of cooperation both large and small.
Yet here at my feet was the splattered blood of a fellow human, beaten by others of his kind similar to him in every way imaginable except for some detail of territorial affiliation. We would think nothing of this violent scene were we watching a television program about a troop of baboons in Africa. We might flatly state that this is what they do: they protect territory, young males ganging together as bide their time until they can challenge the more dominant males for a recognized role in their society.
I like to believe that the more humans who carry an understanding of our place in the animal kingdom (as well as our evolutionary history), the better off we’ll be. I think this offers us the best chance of making the best possible decisions regarding the ways in which we deal with social and resource problems. This is an area, however, where I cannot claim to have solid evidence backing up my beliefs.
Witnessing a gang beating may have made me more sensitive to the stories on this week’s news: famine in Somalia made worse by warring gangs of armed militias, their battle lines no doubt dictated by tribal loyalties: a blond, blue-eyed man in Norway turns delusion into a shockingly effective rampage of murder: a small group of almost religiously certain ideologues somehow manage to bring the democratic legislative process to a halt, threatening potential national (and international) economic disasters that they are able to blithely dismiss. I feel as if the “powers” of dark-ages ignorance that I grew up thinking we were steadily leaving behind us are turning out to be a legacy that we can never fully cleanse from our DNA.
But if I step back and view this from the knowledge we’ve gained from science, I have to first admit that there is no determining force in evolution that has any capacity to adjust life based on moral or virtuous factors. Such are the domain of us social animals, alone. Next I have to realize that our development as a species has only very recently taken the turn to living in larger non-blood related groups, and our technology and agriculture have transformed our global presence in unprecedented ways in only a few hundreds of years. In evolutionary terms, I’m not much more than a rodeo monkey in a little hat and vest riding a saddled dog — holding on for dear life on a ride I can barely comprehend!
Evolution doesn’t care if we humans progress toward an ever more civilized state. We do. I do. (That’s why I write these sermons, and badger my fellow citizens in op/ed columns and cartoons in the local paper).
As I stood watching the gang attack unfold, I was also snatching glimpses of how my mammalian brain’s machinery was working under stressful circumstances. Once my vision triggered my attention, my “predictive” brain first told me that I was seeing kids running across my lot, because that was the closest past analogue to what I was seeing now. Then I slowly recognized that the kids were actually adults, and that they were running with an unusual intensity. Then I saw the group stop, and one fall. I saw the glint of silver of a swinging pipe. By the time they were ten feet in front of me (another moment later) I fully comprehended what was happening, and when the victim said “Help me!” twice, my “civic” outrage (at a crime against the COMMUNITY) was instantly mixed with a twist in my gut at the victim’s plea. But he was not my kin, or anyone I knew, so my brain could not generate a more primal response to physically intervene in the fray (there must have been some self-preservation at work in there, but I was not aware of any thoughts along that line). My adrenaline spiked, my heartbeat elevated, I pulled out my cell phone with speed, stood my ground, and attempted to bring down the power of the state on this mob. Having read so much about the unreliability of the human mind, I looked at the faces I could see, searching for signal details, wondering if I would be able to identify them again in another context (I doubted that I would). The fact that 911, on this particular call, took so long to answer that both the attackers and the bloodied and disoriented victim had walked away before official help was on the way only complicated my feelings (should I have taken a different course that might have interrupted the beating? Could I have done anything that would not have inserted my own person into a potentially violent and/or lethal encounter over a battle that was not my own?)
Only later — after comparing notes with two neighbors — did I realize that my focused attention on the fight had blinded me to the 3 other men who “got away”, and who had, it appears, run right past me. I also realized that had I known 911 wouldn’t answer in time, my mind might have been free to use my phone to photograph the attackers (for use by the police). But knowing what I know about our brains, mine was working at its full capacity, and because of that that I can have no basis for complaint (especially after having just finished a book on human neuroscience).
I responded like a rational, social, community-minded animal. Had I or a loved one been threatened, a whole different range of instincts would have been triggered. I suspect that I didn’t think to run or hide because of the man’s plea for help: the effect it had on me was to make me plant myself there and visibly call the cops in a way that I must have hoped would intimidate the attackers (I couldn’t abandon him after that direct plea, even if I would not put my life on the line for him). In retrospect it’s possible that my presence may have made two of the six attackers hang back, but the rest were probably so focused on their target that they never even saw me standing there, and continued their aggression to their own satisfaction.
In saying that I think it would be better for us if more of us accepted that we are animals at heart, I suppose it could be argued that what I am proposing is like saying that if monkeys could become aware that they were acting like monkeys, they might be a bit embarrassed and think of better ways to behave. Yet that is surely the case with humans. Our history of social and technological progress has only been possible because of an ongoing civilizing process that began ages ago. I still think that our continued progress will always be limited by the degree to which we keep acting more like monkeys and less like humans. But that is a lot to ask of an entire species. It always has been. But what, really, are our other options?
REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about our Everyday Deceptions” by Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde with Sandra Blakeslee.Sunday, July 24th, 2011
My artist friend Leesa loaned me this book and, sure enough, it was right up my alley.
Two neuroscientists have the inspiration to use magic as a means of discovering the intricacies of human perception. Not that they employ magic as actual, well, magic. They meet with professional magicians, who are, in essence, experts at getting past our critical faculties, and pump them for all that they know from their experience and, in turn, share with them the science of the human brain that correlates with particular magic tricks. It’s a potent combination, and makes for a thoroughly engaging and informative read.
I had to forgive a few indulgences in the text, such as the multi-page description of the authors audition as magicians themselves at The Magic Castle and a rather mixed-bag of summed-up life lessons at the end. But that is only a few pages in an otherwise excellent book that will tell you any number of secrets about how your very own brain works.
Besides the quality insight into the human mind, the book naturally shines light on larger existential issues of human belief and its many permutations. On top of all of that, it’s a great chance to hear from top magicians as they discuss both the technical and philosophic aspects of their trade. And, yes, the book reveals secrets. But each such revelation is preceded by a boldly-printed warning, both to satisfy the ethical demands of the professional magic trade and to be fair to readers who don’t want to know where the rabbit came from.
“Will all this science make the magic go away? We believe that the wonder and awe of perceiving magic will no more disappear that did the beauty of the sunrise after Copernicus discovered that the earth is a sphere rotating around the sun. Both revelations — that we are hurtling around the sun and that magic works because our brains are inherently limited — are simultaneously deeply humbling and awe-inspiring. Increased humility deepens the mystery rather than dispels it.” – p. 253
Their is a companion website to the book where many videos are featured.
I recommend this book.
A friend shared a link to an article that contained the following passage:
“According to a recent survey, the percentage of Americans who claim to be Christian is somewhere north of 75 percent.
Really? Three out of four people are followers of Christ?
Let’s see, if the population of the United States is about 311 million and 75 percent are Christians that brings the number of Christians to somewhere in the neighborhood of 233 million. That’s a lot of Christians. I don’t see nearly that many Jesus fish on car bumpers. I don’t know, maybe all the Darwin fish ate them. I’m just saying something about that percentage is off. Because if there really are that many Christians, then why will some 35 million people in America go to bed hungry tonight, including 13 million children? If 75 percent of Americans are Christians, then how is it possible that 40 percent of the homeless are under the age of 18? Why are there more than 120,000 children waiting to be adopted? I could keep going, and that’s just in the States. The numbers don’t add up. Jesus said the evidence that someone is one of his followers is love. So 233 million? The evidence just isn’t there.” (Quote taken from “Why I’m Not a ‘Fan” of Jesus” by Pastor Kyle Idleman, The Huffington Post)
Where are they, indeed? Our most famous atheist Christopher Hitchens has made a related observation regarding the number of Americans that self-identify as Christians. He flatly states that the numbers are wrong (making the wry observation that there aren’t enough houses of worship to accommodate anything close to the numbers the surveys claim).
Christianity pervades the very fiber of our culture. It always has. Without diving off into the tired battle of whether or not America is a “Christian nation”, there is no denying that that religion has been the dominant one in our history and culture. (This is why there are groups that must dedicate their time and energy to protect our public spheres from the attempts of the religious to insinuate their beliefs into our ostensibly religion-neutral government).
It is a belief in their sheer numerical superiority that lends Christians (in this country, other religious majorities in others) their sense of historical entitlement: they demand to be honored as members of the true religion of this nation. But it is those precisely those huge numbers that trouble Pastor Idleman: where are they, and why don’t they exert more of a moral influence in society? Hitchen’s answer is that the numbers are wrong. The Pastor’s answer is that there are more “fans” of Jesus than “true followers”. I think they’re both right, as far as our general consensus of what constitutes a “true” Christian goes. But I want to take a step back, and look at this in a different light.
To me, arguing about who is a “good” Christian is to look for fruit in a barren orchard. The reality that underlies religion is not really the issue of whether or not God exists (though I don’t think he does), it is an issue of human consciousness: it is a question of the ways in which the human mind has clearly been hard-wired by millions of year of evolution for an innate susceptibility to belief. I repeat: it is not a religious question at all. Religion is a manifestation of consciousness (to borrow author Hannah Holme’s example: even dogs can have religious views — just watch how they attribute intention to that vacuum cleaner they’re barking at!). In more simple terms: religion seems to be a product of consciousness, and consciousness is a function of the physical brain. There is nothing else going on in there, or out there. If the brain dies, consciousness ends (as does everything we associate with consciousness: perception, feeling, memory, a sense of self). Therefore, if all of the conscious brains on earth were to stop functioning tomorrow, religion (and with it, God) would vanish without a trace.
Humans are magical thinkers, not unlike the dog imagining that a household appliance has a mind of its own. We are different from other animals only by degrees and the harder we try to define what separates us from our animal identity, the more we discover that one animal or another shares this or that trait (albeit in a less-advanced way). Modern neuroscience is showing us more and more about the ways in which our brains are always being fooled by what we see and hear. We are quick and clever animals with fully-developed survival mechanisms that allow us to make instant determinations about potential threats. But when we put two and two together, we are much more likely to err on the side of whatever conclusion gets us the hell away from danger — whether or not our math was accurate has never been the most important thing.
And so the reason so many people identify themselves as believers in the Christian god is a function of this basic tendency toward belief and magical thinking in humans, combined with the accident of being born in a country where Christianity has been the dominant religious worldview. This is probably an equal frustration to the atheist and the committed Christian believer. To the former, there is this annoying and pervasive sappy support for a man-made fantasy that has real-world impact in politics and society; to the latter there is this horde of humans giving mere lip-service to a life of “true” Christian service to others.
Of course our addiction to magic is not limited to Christianity. Start talking up a materialist view of human consciousness being purely a product of the brain, and all sorts of folk get uncomfortable. We have psychics, astrologers, card readers and healers of all kinds whose stock and trade is the magic-believing human. Almost every single one of us is susceptible to the simplest coincidence of bumping into someone we were just thinking about, and drawing a causal connection between the two un-related events. Why? Because that is how our animal brain’s work. “No!” you protest, asking “But how, then, do you explain the two things happening at the same time: my thought and the “chance” meeting?” Random events, coincidence. Each of us lives is a fairly small world, really, where the odds of running into the people we are thinking about is always going to be high. Plus, we know that humans are rich in “confirmation bias”, where we tend to see outcomes that we are already primed to look for (that’s why we will believe that prayers are sometimes answered). We also have a bias toward NOT remembering the other dozen times this week that we thought of someone we know who DIDN’T show up suddenly.
These brains we have are a mixed bag, and they have very real limits that we should probably know about. We are lucky in that we live in a time where there is enough information out there to compile a sort of “Consciousness Owners Manual”. For this we can be grateful that our brains are advanced enough that we can actually develop experiments that allow us to see our own flaws and absorb that awareness into the way we engage our critical faculties. It’s becoming clear that our conscious mind is only one part of this thing we call our “self”. And it turns out that it’s not the part of us that is always the first to know what’s going on in our world. In fact, neuroscience experiments have shown that it’s always anywhere from one to a few seconds behind the parts of our organism that is really reacting to things and making decisions about how we feel or react. Our conscious mind may turn out to be more like the play-by-play commentator than the athlete making the play on the field.
So I don’t see a nation packed with Christians: I see a word populated by magic-believing, conscious animals, some of whom choose to identify with the more popular manifestations of that magic. If we were to observe this phenomenon as aliens who had never been troubled with the limitations of the human brain, that’s how it would look. We might puzzle over the fact that humans can dedicate so much energy to arguing the differences between their beliefs (the old “how many angels can fit on the head of a pin” thing). This would look pretty silly to this imaginary alien. That is, until he tried to talk a human out of his or her magic. Then things would get real serious real fast!
Why? Because humans love their magical minds. To be more precise, they love the feeling that there is magic out there, and are willing to defend that magical realm against all comers, even to the point of defending other religious believers (that they would otherwise consider heretics) against the greatest heretics of all: the scientists that reveal to us who and what we really are, and who pull back the curtain and show us the magician’s hidden secrets.
What a neat book from a woman who was working in government in Minnesota, and wanted to know where her electricity was coming from. The result is a concise and illuminating history of how coal came to be the fuel that powered our industrial revolution.
The short moral of this story is that we would not be where we are today without coal. Burning wood and charcoal got us only so far, and was running out. Coal was a vast storehouse of ancient solar energy buried beneath the ground that we humans, once we got it figured out, learned to exploit in pretty amazing ways.
Of course, as Bill McKibben points out, a properly functioning coal-fired electricity-generating coal-fired plant is an operation that is killing us and our environment even as it operates exactly as it was designed to do.
But this book is not a polemic. It’s a clear-eyed appreciation of the realities of burning that much coal and releasing that much stored carbon. The power coal has given us is astounding, but so were the impacts on the lives of those who lived in the smoky cities of London or Pittsburgh at the turn of the century. The problem is, we are still dependent on this fuel source. And the more interesting revelation of this book is how our use of coal is actually increasing, even as the reality of this increase becomes ever more hidden from our view. Because we don’t live in smoke-choked cities, it can be easy to think that the sulfur dioxide being churned out by the ton isn’t really out there. Thanks to this book, I now know that it is.
I highly recommend this book. It is a charming — yet sober — blend of historical anecdote, geologic history, human inventiveness and popular science. You’ll be a better human for having read it!
I am ever restless for comfort, yet when I find it, I am restless in my comfort.
I am not like the bear that can hibernate in a cave for dark months on end. My limit is about 30 minutes (if you don’ t count sleeping at night).
Yet my mind easily imagines winning the lottery, or getting a big contract or having one of my projects draw national attention. I play out scenarios of what I’d do with such imagined affluence and the comforts it could buy me. But being a highly social animal, I also imagine the anxieties of such a windfall, including the potential shake up of my relationships with the rest of my primate troop of friends, family and community. The conclusion I come to is that it would be a real needle to thread to enjoy wealth and the comfort it could buy in a way that would not sacrifice the web of warm relationships that have grown around me in my current life.
I don’t know how many other people think about the downsides of comfort. Perhaps they consider them trivial compared to the desire for the power to make every waking moment an exercise in ease and pleasure. But the truth is that too much of anything — even a seemingly clear-cut good such as comfort — is not really “good” for an animal. Any animal. And that includes us. For in the case of a living organism, the most complete state of rest is, well, death.
It seems to be a paradox — that the very things we desire most are often the things that will, in the end, hasten that death.
The obvious examples around us are food, tobacco and stimulants. Of course we now know from evolutionary science why we crave sweets, fats and salts: we evolved in environments where these could often be very rare life-giving commodities, so we could get away with gobbing up all that we could when the opportunity arose. Their scarcity provided a natural check on our appetites, so we didn’t need to evolve any self-limiting mechanism of our own, with the end result being that many of us have little capacity to battle the addictive tendencies of sugar, alcohol and the rest.
From the day our species first put hoe to earth, our ever-advancing technology has enabled us to develop ways to feed ourselves and our neighbors that has — too a large degree — liberated us from the population-limiting forces of nature. Modern medicine has ameliorated the scourge of disease. And our tools and machines convey us, cool and warm us, and entertain us according to our desires and schedule. In short, we have it really good.
Normally this would be the point where the writer would launch off into a moralistic critique of ease, reflecting more than a touch of virtuous superiority as he or she describes their simple, rustic habits and how they make him/her a better, more noble human being.
Nah. I enjoy the many comforts of modern life, even as I ponder their darker aspect. I can reflect that it’s a small miracle that I can cook a meal at home on an electric stove (with energy provided mostly by burning primeval buried forests), in a metal pan coated with a high-tech non-stick surface. That meal might contain fresh vegetables from a local market, beef from a Nebraska cow, olive oil from another country, salt from the sea and clean water from a tap. I can cook it up in a big pot, and sit down in front of a television, in a comfortable chair, and eat my fill. I can eat a piece of fruit from another state (or country, if I’m willing to pay the shipping). I sit in a moderately comfortable room, in my factory-made clothes (themselves the product of generations of invention and innovation to make them durable, easy to wear and fasten and clean). I don’t worry about a bomb falling on my house, or bandits or saber-toothed cats invading my cave to steal my dinner. I can hold my fork with my left hand that, if not for modern antibiotics, would likely have been taken away by a serious infection years ago (assuming that infection — or the many others I may have avoided thanks to inoculations or surgeries — hadn’t also taken my life).
Yep, by any human or historical standard, I live like a king.
Besides, I don’t think we can roll back technology any more than we can roll back time. I think the die has been cast, and we are on this ride to the end.
From an evolutionary point of view, our current obesity epidemic is clearly understood as occurring at an intersection of technology, food supply and culture all being consumed by an ice-age mammal with few tools for resisting the allure, taste and comfort of modern life. There is nothing moral to be judged about it.
As a culture, however, there is still a strong tendency to see such things as questions of character — an almost religious demand of resisting sinful temptation. But a cursory familiarity with lab mice will tell you that most of them, given the chance, will sugar (or cocaine!) themselves to death given the chance. We’re no different on that score.
So I don’ t pass moral judgement. Or, at least, I have no moral grounds to. I know all too well that I have one of those addictive personalities. That’s why I had to cut some things out of my diet. That’s why I exercise as much as I do (I started going to a gym years ago to have something to do in the mornings so I could more easily not drink alcohol at night).
And I’ve also had to adjust my diet because of food allergies and sensitivities. In that I consider myself lucky, as it cut out many of the things that put on the most pounds.
But there is another consideration besides weight and vanity. We are animals. Everything about us evolved in an environment of movement as we hunted and gathered. The biological reality is that our bodies don’t do well when they stop moving. Add to that the enormous boost in calories we got when we learned to cook our food (which enabled us to evolve smaller guts and much larger brains compared to our primate cousins), and many things about our current easy lives are actually nearly perfectly designed to kill us off early.
It seems an almost cosmic joke on us: that our ability to fashion into reality our primal fantasy of plenty has built a heaven for us on earth that is also part hell.
So what do we do? Hell, who am I to say? Go back to picking berries and eating tender shoots? Some people do that, but it’s a often rooted in a fantasy that ignores that our bodies long-ago adapted to cooked, soft foods (we aren’t apes anymore). Reject technology and become Luddites? Like I said, we can’t put that genie back in the bottle.
Besides, many of us are alive today only because of the very technology, or medicine, or surgery that our kind has developed (which is another paradox, in that our very desire to save as many lives as possible has allowed many of us to sidestep natural selection — for a time, at least — which will have ramifications for our species as we travel further down the road).
I’m not a utopian in the sense of believing that there ever was a time when we humans were in perfect harmony with nature. I don’t believe there ever was harmony (except in temporal passages, as in music). There is always only balance, and even that is never static as populations rise and fall, resources are plenty or thin, weather patterns change, ice sheets advance, plagues appear then recede, and on and on.
It is what it is (whoa! That’s deep). The best I can do for myself is to respect the restless animal that I am, and keep moving enough to keep my body operating at a reasonable level of efficiency. Isn’t it telling that this kind of behavior optimizes my capacity to handle stress, and keeps the “happy chemicals” flowing in my brain (which provide a much more even and enduring buzz than any chemical I could ingest)? I do enjoy my comforts, even as I recognize the anxious animal in me that fears getting too soft, too slow, too depressed. (On that note I’m convinced that a large percentage of our physical and mental health issues would resolve themselves in a matter of months if every human animal on the planet started moving and eating more like the animals we really are (imagine the implications for national health-care costs!). Of course that’s not going to happen, because we are also comfort-seeking animals, and some of us would clearly be quite content with bear-like hibernation).
Once again, an evolutionary view helps us make sense of issues that mystify the moralist. History is not a script that we are acting out: it is a book that we are writing as we live it. We giddily embrace our shiny new innovations and leave the scientists to analyze the aftermath. We are animals that have found a way to forget that we are animals. In a recent e-mail exchange, my anthropologist friend Gaea McGahee said it beautifully:
“The human animal is most unsettled, especially about being an animal – which makes every soul less human until they get comfortable in the natural world, in the garden of life and death.”
Part of that “comfort in the natural world” is the recognition that we don’t always thrive in captivity, even in a most comfortable enclosure.
Reading this book by Brian Fagan was another exercise in replacing my general familiarity with an historical event with a more in-depth exploration. In this case the “Little Ice Age” that I’d run across in any number of other historical works.
This is a neat little book that tells its story well. I enjoy history books that are comprehensive in their approach, linking familiar periods of human “progress” with the natural forces that have had a very dramatic effect on that progress. In this case it’s the climate of the planet, and the wild roller-coaster like course that took a swelling human population for quite a ride in the five centuries between 1300 and 1850.
As the planet experienced a long warming trend after the last ice age, new lands opened up for cultivation and settlement. Crops became more plentiful, and populations rapidly increased. But sudden changes in weather patterns very quickly put millions of human lives at risk from starvation, challenging the governments and distribution networks of the time to effectively feed their citizens.
The implications for our own time are obvious, but this is not a book about the current “debate” over global climate change. Though reference is made to our current climate situation in the opening and closing pages, this is really a book about what happens to us humans when climates change and crops fail. It is a testament to our vital connection between weather, land and agriculture that nothing can sever. No matter how “modern” we are, we remain dependent on the rain, sun and soil for our very lives.
I appreciate the tone of this book, in that it clearly states the complexity of the global phenomena it attempts to describe. Based on the best available resources (which are not insignificant) it describes the natural history of this global “mini” ice age and it’s impact on (primarily) Northern Europe (stretching to the Viking settlements further west as well). It begins at the end of the long warming period (that allowed successful Viking settlement in Greenland) and ends with the potato blight (that led to the starvation of millions and the migration of millions more). In between we discover the first moment in history where the land-clearing activities of humans began to affect climate.
This book offers a unique perspective on the way that we humans live off the land in an age of huge, interdependent populations, and the ways in which the weather can change the tune we all dance to in a very short time. Worth a read.