Category Archives: Evolution

Even I can’t resist playing with a bit of Evo-psych once in a while.

The Bait

Cross-posted to Red SAID FRED!

When I saw Sara’s note on Facebook announcing Project ME! I was at first shocked! It was very bold of her to take such a huge leap. There are others in my life who have lived in the stiffing silence of mental health issues, so I have some small idea of how difficult it must have been. Kudos to you who are true friends and stand by her. Don’t get too comfortable though. Sometimes the time when we are most needed is when it looks like things are “better now”. We’re sticking with you Sara!

So, what to say. I’ve struggled with what I might have to give to this project. These are not my struggles, after all. It’s not my place. I’ve learned through my own self-discovery that as a young, white, able-bodied, mostly neurotypical male, that most of the ideas and beliefs I’d been handed about other people’s reality are totally self-serving and full of crap. Having come to these realizations I now see a lot of people (including many like me), speaking for others about what their reality is, and even what it should be. I don’t want to be that guy. I will try not to be.

What I immediately noticed in Sara’s post was a lot of self-blame, but this isn’t to put Sara on the spot. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. This is for the rest of us. Please allow me to explain.

You see, I don’t see this as a failing of Sara’s. Not even slightly. In some sense, it’s everyone’s. She, like most of us, have been bombarded by messages our whole lives. These messages may not have originated with us, but we are passively complicit with them.

We live in a world dominated by advertising.

Oh please, I’ve heard this before. I’m not so easily affected. I can think for myself!

If that’s the case you might want to take a DNA test, as it’s debatable that you’re human. The science is against you on this one. It says you are! In fact, some suggest that the more you think you aren’t, the more you are. These aren’t the simplistic ads of yesteryear.

Buy brand X, it’s just better!

No, they have gotten many times more sophisticated since then. They have found a more potent message.

You’re not good enough, and it’s all your own fault!

But the message isn’t there in so many words. We are more (though not completely) aware of the direct assertion of words. In fact some of the strongest messages have no words at all. Instead of the simple and obvious “buy brand X”, they have found a tool developed over thousands of years of human evolution. They have found a “magic” tool. It’s a loop-hole, and it leaves us prime for suggestion.

Stories and narratives!

Storytelling: Not just a practice of times past, now quaint and mostly irrelevant. No. Stories and narratives are the back door to our minds; a trait as important to our propagation as a species as was our opposable digits (thumbs) and the brain itself. Stories are the adaptation we use to pass information from one generation to the next. Information about who we are as people, how we should treat others, how to be happy, how to think, and every aspect of our philosophy, ideology and emotional life. To a large degree, we have stopped the practice and passively handed it over. Corporate media has graciously taken over the task for us, presumably to spare us the trouble.

It takes the form of TV, magazines, newspapers, movies, books and even (or especially?) advertisements. It’s no wonder that the latest marketing tactic is no longer merely the promotion of product or brand image, but now Brand Personality. This is the “person” who tells us the stories, and who we are to aspire to be like. They are key that attempts the fit our lock.

But these stories aren’t geared to our benefit or collective happiness. These narratives show us an unattainable ideal that no one can hope to achieve (without being dehumanized or dying in the process), then convey it us as normal and expected, and leave us to make the implication upon ourselves that we don’t belong to it. The genius of it is that when we do so we also take ownership of it, forgetting that it came from outside ourselves. We don’t see calculating corporate interests vying for their piece of the market of our minds. We see compelling narratives with fantastical images, and the primary desire that we universally crave: happiness and comfort. Everything else is secondary and the idea that their product is the conduit simply goes without saying!

Of course, that primary desire always ends up being elusive. Yet, whether or not we buy their product, they have co-opted our idea of normalcy. We’ve taken the bait, and it doesn’t dissipate.

Advertising is cumulative.

We continue to replay that narrative in our minds and incorporate it into our perspective on ourselves and those around us. It begins to colour our interactions with each other. We might make a comment about our weight and how we dislike ourselves for not being able to fit the nice clothing at that brand name store, or about that other person who just “should not be wearing that dress!”

Like a cockroach scoring an unknowingly poisoned piece of bait, we take it and share it with all our friends (this isn’t just my own analogy, but an actual marketing term). This is subliminal advertising at work.

So what kinds of stories are we being told? I’d like to leave it to the wonderful Jean Kilbourne and her presentation called Killing us Softly 4.

Killing us Softly 4 Part 1/2
Killing us Softly 4 Part 2/2

On top of this (and perhaps because of it), there seems to be an explosion in social judgment, roughly correlating with the surge in popularity of “reality” TV shows.  I don’t naively assume that there’s a purely causal relationship, but if there is causation it is likely also symptomatic . Either way, we have become vicious in our policing and criticism of each other in every way imaginable, not the least of which is body policing. So even if you’ve limited your media intake (which is impossible to do completely), you will still be not only awash in these messages, but also judged by them. You can’t entirely escape it! Often, and even with the best of intentions, we are repeating the mantra to each other: “You’re not good enough, and it’s all your own fault!

There is a enormous difference between realizing the harsh reality that the only way for some people to get better is to pull themselves up with brutal, agonizing effort, and the boorish attitude that turns this into a kind of idealistic dogma. I see most people going through life beating others over the head with this self-serving fallacy, telling themselves, “I would NEVER be like that.” We tell ourselves that we’re somehow better and forget all the privileges, all the encouragements, all the opportunities, and all the experiences that help to shape us and enabled us to make a few good choices for ourselves. We forget the bad choices as long as they didn’t have life changing consequences.

If you were to live someone else’s life from start to finish, you would not just become you with their life. You would become them. The failure to empathize is a failure of understanding, and it applies to everything. Many people in many ways are suffering at the brunt end of hurtful messages, not just with body image but also to race, class, sexual orientation, you name it!

This is not Sara’s failing!

This is a natural response to toxic ideas. Recognizing this does not make someone a victim. This is about how we think and why.

Meta-cognition.

It means “thinking about thinking”. It’s the defining mechanism of self-awareness: the practice of being aware of one’s own thoughts. This is where our hope lies for betterment and healing. We can have the greatest of intentions and do more harm than good if we are not aware of ourselves.

Apart from just being there and listening (which is sometimes the greatest help), this self-awareness can enable us to manage what kind of messages we share both actively and passively. It can also give us greater capacity for compassion. When we learn to think about thinking, we can “step out” of ourselves and examine what might be desperate, dogmatic or destructive views and try to see things from someone else’s perspective. Nothing is more fundamental in the art of empathy.

In fact, one of the best things you could do for Sara right now is to start being kinder to yourself. Love your own body. Learn to speak nicely about it, and of others. Lead by example! You can’t tell someone else to love their body if you don’t love your own. It has no potency or meaning. If you struggle with doing so then just be candid about it. Share in the struggle and stand beside her.

Otherwise, if we are still carrying the bait ourselves, we are almost certain to pass it along.

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Corporate Evilution

Seeing a link on Gem Newman‘s wall today I was inspired to comment. He did a critique on a piece of sensational media. I hope that my own sensationalized title isn’t too much of a turn-off for the skeptics out there, but I just like having fun with them 😀

I have to say that I pretty much agree with this article’s basic assertion, which to me seems to be that the article upon which they are making commentary is sensational, misleading and playing logical hop-scotch to the distraction of the reader.

Where I divert is where it calls out the three points which I actually agree are being falsely conflated.

1. The business ethics of Monsanto
2. The safety of Agent Orange
3. The safety of GMO crops

Firstly, both 1. and 2. should absolutely be conflated. How can they not be? However, to leave it there without further reflection is also problematic, which I will try to get to.

Now with regards to the third point, there needs to be some clarification. What do we mean by “safety of GMO crops”? Are we talking about the concept of GMO technology striped of it’s economic and political context? If so, then surely their assertion is correct. This has nothing to do with the other two. The technology should stand or fail on it’s own merits.

Now, what about the relative safety of “GMO” fully contextualized as a technological concept who’s development and application are governed as a product of industry (using scientific methods) which is in turn governed the collective realities of current day North American capitalism?

As a side-note, notice how much text is contained in the previous paragraph simply describing a single concept. That’s how packed our language can be. It is how much we often either take-for-granted or utterly ignore, and often without being aware of it.

I still maintain that the original article is broad-brushing and sensationalistic. I also think that this kind of critical response to it is not only acceptable, but necessary. However, I also think this editorial response to it may be overcompensating in it’s criticism. Moreover, I think this kind of polarized reaction is somewhat prevalent with those who come to the defense of “science”. That’s another word who’s breadth of definition is often ambiguous, but that’s another discussion in itself.

In my opinion the most relevant discussion about GMO as an overall concept must include the full context in which it resides, because that fully realized context will by definition affect it’s fully quantifiable results. This is whether or not we have the tools to fully measure it or even a broad enough understanding of what to measure. For example, what effect will changes in food production have on political power balance in the global economy.

Part of the fully qualified context is the particular brand of capitalism in effect in the U.S. and the global economy and political power balance in the world. This is the “natural world” within which Monsanto and other corporations live.

It is a terrible failure of understanding in my view to think that corporations who do very bad things are simply unethical entities that randomly spring out of an otherwise functioning system that does good things for us as a species. This is magical thinking at it’s finest IMHO. My understanding is that corporations act the way they do necessarily according to the nature of the system they exist within.

Just as with evolution, individual entities in nature succeed or fail according to the physical rules of the natural world within which they exist. It is absurd to speculate that when a particular entity has survived or failed, that it has done so DESPITE the nature of that system rather than BECAUSE of it. The rules of that system have operated against the characteristics of that entity and it has either failed or succeeded. Thus, if a corporation has survived in the system within which it exists, it has done so according to the nature of that system. If the nature of those entities is considered not ideal, then necessarily that system or at least some part of it must also be considered not ideal.

Now before I run off on a tangent about capitalism, the take away for this discussion is that surviving and thriving corporations that exist within their legal and economic context, have a certain amount of predictability. The nature of today’s corporation is not merely strict competition, but the LEGAL MANDATE of its controlling body to produce profits. Profits in the greatest possible magnitude and at pretty much at all costs. Their context also includes governmental, legal restrictions.

But like human beings, one of the traits it has acquired is the ability to change the environment within which it exists. For the corporation this includes abilities like lobbying against these restrictions, and to a greater degree in more recent years, infiltration of the regulatory government agencies who manage these restrictions.

So, it’s perfectly valid to call “logical fallacy” when we hear someone say that this thing is necessarily evil because that other thing they did was evil. *BUT* calling out this logical fallacy doesn’t negate the deduction that Monsanto or any other powerfully situated corporation for that matter, are very likely to engage in unethical behaviour. Not simply because we FEEL that they are evil, but because there are specific characteristics which they are likely to have given the context in which they exist and are successful in.

We are at the very least, justified in being suspicious assuming we are using the right reasoning for being so.

Artificial Dissemination

At a social event with the Winnipeg Skeptics this week we ended up talking about religious people and the religious right among other things. We were marveling at how some of the Republicans in the U.S. can be so far off the deep-end with their beliefs. It reminded me of an article I’d read a couple months ago, for which the connection may not be immediately obvious. Hopefully I can explain.

In my personal obsession with psychology and sociology I’ve tried to understand how people think and why they do what they do. This article describes how we tend to operate by personality archetypes (specifically those relating to gender) and how they affect the way we think about ourselves; and by extension, how we think about others. The focus of this article is arguing against the idea of gender based essentialism, and that most of how we behave is according to how we think about ourselves and is passed on socially. I don’t at all want to undermine the profound revelations to be made on just this issue, but I think that these findings also have vast implications for every arena of our lives.

During that discussion with the Skeptics I was reminded a family member, which I related to the group. I explained how she identifies as a conservative and repeats many of the standard truisms that go with that, yet when I asked to explain her views she actually breaks to the left. How could this be? Most of the extended family is conservative, her local community is very conservative, and lives with a staunchly conservative partner. She even votes conservative! Why is there such a mismatch in her views versus her identity?

Like the subjects in the article above, I believe that most people adopt cookie-cutter identities in an attempt to fit in with their social circles. This is something we do in many aspects of our lives, and not just with gender or sexual identity. We do it with our politics, our jobs,  in our romantic relationships, with our families and friends, and with our children. In essence, we wear many different hats. It’s a basic mechanic of social grouping and we apply it to almost everything. With it we sometimes even adopt beliefs that are not our own, though we may wear them loosely.

Now, moving further towards the point embedded in the title: we don’t just do this to ourselves. We do it to others. Often, we do it oppressively. We repeat little truisms about other groups. We make presumptions about who other people are without actually knowing, based on nothing more than a projected and/or perceived group identity. We reinforce our position within some groups by advertising how we treat other groups. Other times it’s simply and subtly implied in our choice of words or the tone of our voice. In all these ways we project on others our subliminal (or overt) message about who they are (especially in comparison to us), and what we think their value and purpose are.

Side-note:
Whenever harsh words like oppression or privilege are used, I think there is something embedded in our neuro-linguistic vocabulary that implies ill-intent. Let me say it explicitly: bad intentions are not required to create oppression. For us it may just be learned patterns and we may not even know the message that we are conveying! As such, sometimes all that is required is ignorance (lack of specific knowledge, not to be confused with stupidity). Language is full of traps like this.

When we operate within the world-view and norms of our social group without bad intentions, and someone comes up to us and tells us that we’re oppressing them with our words and actions, it’s easy to think of them as being deluded. After all, what they’re saying is completely outside of what we know to be normal, natural and obviously true. We know our intentions are good (or at least not intentionally malicious), so obviously they are full of it, right? I mean, it’s not hard to believe. We have so many daily examples of people complaining about things that don’t make any sense to us and some who are indeed obviously deluded.

Here is the birthplace of the concept of “Political Correctness”, where the hidden motif of that other person is to stifle our very being, and sanitize all of existence into rainbows and kittens and everything nice. The belief that their group thinks that way in comparison to ours fits well with our understanding of how things are and they just confirmed it for us. More importantly, they’re in our face telling us we’re bad, and we feel threatened! We need to make it stop, and stop now! Our emotions appeal to our little problem solver upstairs, and it gives us an answer that makes the bad feeling go away.

But why?

Millions of years of evolution have given us this handy fight-or-flight mechanism to protect us from threats, both to our body and to our carefully nurtured, albeit tenuous sense of self. But as we ought to know, evolution is not perfect. Especially when in just a few short years (historically speaking) our world has gone from small communities and tribes with similar values and identities to a global society of remarkable complexity and conflicting values. It’s no surprise that our instincts could misfire. What’s really going on is usually more complex than whatever scenario our brain comes up with in half a second and with almost no meaningful information.

We feel more than we think.

The problem is that many of our socially absorbed views and behaviours are demonstrably false and counter-productive to our proclaimed goals. On the whole, we don’t think to find the truth. We rationalize to preserve our identity. Without deliberate investigation into ourselves and our world, and decoupling from these pre-canned identities (or at least being aware of and working around them), we will continue flying blindly on autopilot, and our greater issues will never be solved.

Won’t evolution fix everything eventually?

Evolution is just the explanation of how we got here. It doesn’t magically give us what we want. It doesn’t deal with our wishes for happiness or camaraderie. It doesn’t deal with things working optimally at all. It is merely “survival of the good enough.”

However, we have a brain that is capable not only of rational thought, but also of deep introspection. We have it because it was the advantage we needed to survive. We can leave our future to the magic of death and suffering to select some better genes, or we can use the tools we have proactively and figure out how to get what we want through greater awareness. Our evolution has not yet brought us to fully rational thinking or conscious social function and as the social world continues expanding through advances in social technology, the pressure to get there will also increase.

So I ask you now, who are you? And more importantly:

Who do you want to be?

Cross-posted to The Winnipeg Skeptics Blog

The Secret Lives of the Possibilians

Yesterday, I saw the familiar face of one of my favorite atheist icons on Facebook and did what any bored atheist, I.T. guy at work would do. OK besides making him my avatar and flaming all the christians in my friend list with his blog articles and telling them they’re minds are warped by religion. That’s the stereotype isn’t it? Sometimes they fit, but sometimes stereotype do. But that doesn’t mean they’re all true, mostly true, or even true at all. Even if they are, it doesn’t mean they’re useful or appropriate. Really, I just clicked ‘like’…honest!

So the first feed to come from Mr. Harris was a link to a post on his blog. It features neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain” sharing his thoughts on what I would have to call hard atheism versus devout religiosity. I happened to get busy again so instead of reading the actual post, I just fired up the video and listened to it in the background.

I found that what he was saying resonated with me, especially the following:

“…these are very smart people on both sides that are spending all of their energies polarizing each other, and arguing against each other’s details. I feel like there should be another voice in there somewhere…”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the past year, and not heard many others in the skeptic community express this sentiment, and I feel it’s an important one. Without too much thought, I threw the link back onto my wall, recommending it to others.

Today I went back and read Sam’s thoughts which suggested to me that I should listen to it again. It would appear to me that despite making some really excellent points (and he does) he is also using a pretty broad brush in referring to all of neo-atheism as being strict atheism that claims certainty of no god existing. In my experience, most atheists are not in that category. More than that, I’ve always seen it as being like a kind of right-of-passage in a way to understand the fact that we can’t claim that as certain. To claim that is to fail at science after all, but have I missed something? I haven’t actually read the books of the “four horsemen” yet, but this just doesn’t seem very accurate to me.

Then he seems to kind of re-invent the wheel of soft atheism and claim it as his own idea:

“In every generation, scientist have always felt, that we sort of have all the pieces of the puzzle…we should be able to get it all from here. It has never ever been true in the history of human-kind, yet…that we have all the puzzle pieces.”

Aren’t most of us in this community already pretty comfortable with the idea of the vastness of things that we don’t know? Both the things that we know we’re ignorant of, and the probability of things we don’t even realize that we’re ignorant of and can’t even conceive of yet?

I think that most atheists, scientist and skeptics are not in that category. I seem to recall hearing funny stories of centuries past when “scientists” used to believe some pretty silly things. Our understanding of the subjects that science tackles, the advancement in our technologies, and our understanding of how to do science (tool-box as David puts it) have all improved, dare I say exponentially? Yet from every scientific talking head I’ve heard, I get the impression that they have only grown more humble in terms of understanding the minute scope of our collective knowledge of the universe.

I have to heartily agree that there is something being missed in the intense polarization of our atheism vs religion culture war. Yet in the way he chooses to call it out, he’s making it even more black and white than it really is. He seems to be pushing the neo-atheist straw-person to the left to make room for himself.

Where I think David is right is what is implied (by who his audience is) more than what’s stated. I think it is going to have to be the Atheists who eventually take the high road. Not because we’re the bad ones. Not because it’s our fault or definably our responsibility. And I don’t mean that we should stop fighting our legal and political battles to keep religion out of our schools or to be afraid to call out religious logical fallacies or social distortion for what they are.

Instead, like so many things in history that had to be done by someone… we’re the ones who are more capable. Or at any rate, we should be if we can just bring our rationality and humanity together. I think that beyond the rationality embedded in the subject matter of our arguments, we need to have openness to possibilities within our personal philosophy. How we think of and value each other, how we think of and value ourselves, the possibility of our own cognitive biases and emotional ego-blindness…these are some of the things where we need to remain open to other possibilities of understanding. Even beyond this, there are radical notions worth exploring. For example: Spiritual Atheism

Considering the assertions of religion in the name of keeping scientific possibilities open is a fine idea as a premise, but one that has failed over and over again to produce anything to justify itself. However, what’s important is the idea of affirming the value of the human beings who hold them and keeping it with us when we debate. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” was something they touted a lot when I used to be church-goer. This is the principle that needs to be flipped over. Love the religious, hate the religion. Or at least, hate the harmful falsehoods and misguided ideas that they promote. I think that this is maybe what Mr. Eagleman really had in the back of his mind, but was probably just too busy “geeking out” 😉

It’s OK David, just be like science:

Get up and try again.

*cross-posted to The Winnipeg Skeptics blog*