“Is the Earth an organism?” – By W. Ford Doolittle [Aeon]

“Is the Earth an organism?

The Gaia hypothesis states that our biosphere is evolving. Once sceptical, some prominent biologists are beginning to agree

W Ford Doolittle
is professor in biochemistry and molecular biology at Dalhousie University in Canada.

https://aeon.co/essays/the-gaia-hypothesis-reimagined-by-one-of-its-key-sceptics

Many of us, scientists included, harbour contradictory intuitions about Mother Nature. We can see that ecosystems often have an inherent ability to self-stabilise, and know that we wouldn’t be here if the planet hadn’t maintained conditions suitable for life for the 4 billion years since its first appearance. One reaction is to claim that some Earth-wide equilibrium, though fragile, does exist, and reflects the fact that species have evolved to cooperate with one another. Another is to say that the first response is nonsense: organisms are ‘selfish’, and evolution isn’t cooperative but rather a brutish Darwinian competition that selects individual organisms based on their ability to survive and reproduce. The primordial balancing act performed by our biosphere, if it exists at all, is more or less a lucky accident.

The idea that the Earth itself is like a single evolving ‘organism’ was developed in the mid-1970s by the independent English scientist and inventor James Lovelock and the American biologist Lynn Margulis. They dubbed it the ‘Gaia hypothesis’, asserting that the biosphere is an ‘active adaptive control system able to maintain the Earth in homeostasis’. Sometimes they went pretty far with this line of reasoning: Lovelock even ventured that algal mats have evolved so as to control global temperature, while Australia’s Great Barrier Reef might be a ‘partly finished project for an evaporation lagoon’, whose purpose was to control oceanic salinity.

The notion that the Earth itself is a living system captured the imagination of New Age enthusiasts, who deified Gaia as the Earth Goddess. But it has received rough treatment at the hands of evolutionary biologists like me, and is generally scorned by most scientific Darwinists. Most of them are still negative about Gaia: viewing many Earthly features as biological products might well have been extraordinarily fruitful, generating much good science, but Earth is nothing like an evolved organism. Algal mats and coral reefs are just not ‘adaptations’ that enhance Earth’s ‘fitness’ in the same way that eyes and wings contribute to the fitness of birds. Darwinian natural selection doesn’t work that way.

I’ve got a confession though: I’ve warmed to Gaia over the years. I was an early and vociferous objector to Lovelock and Margulis’s theory, but these days I’ve begun to suspect that they might have had a point. So I’ve spent the past five years trying to ‘Darwinise Gaia’ – to see widespread cooperation as a result of competition occurring at some higher (even planetary) level. I can see a few paths by which a Darwinian might accept the idea that the planet as a whole could boast evolved, biosphere-level adaptations, selected by nature for their stability-promoting functions.

This is not exactly a recanting of views, but it’s certainly a marked departure from how I thought 40 years ago. Darwinising Gaia seems important not just to me personally, but because it would offer a satisfyingly deep theoretical basis for efforts to maintain a habitable planet – and a way to reflect on contemporary environmental crises beyond applying a simple label such as ‘Gaia’s revenge’, with its anthropocentric and theistic implications.

(…)

Back in 1979, when Lovelock’s first popular book, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, came out, the wider field of evolutionary biology was becoming a very reductionist discipline. Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene had been published three years earlier, and it promoted a hardcore gene-centrism insisting that we look at genes as the fundamental units of selection – that is, the thing upon which natural selection operates. His claim was that genes were the reproducing entities par excellence, because they are the only things that always replicate and produce enduring lineages. Replication here means making fairly exact one-to-one copies, as genes (and asexual organisms such as bacteria) do. Reproduction, though, is a more inclusive and forgiving term – it’s what we humans and other sexual species do, when we make offspring that resemble both parents, but each only imperfectly. Still, this sloppy process exhibits heritable variation in fitness, and so supports evolution by natural selection.

In recent decades, many theorists have come to understand that there can be reproducing or even replicating entities evolving by natural selection at several levels of the biological hierarchy – not just in the domains of replicating genes and bacteria, or even sexual creatures such as ourselves. They have come to embrace something called multilevel selection theory: the idea that life can be represented as a hierarchy of entities nested together in larger entities, like Russian dolls. As the philosopher of science Peter Godfrey-Smith puts it, ‘genes, cells, social groups and species can all, in principle, enter into change of this kind’.

(…)

But I want something more than this – a mechanism by which selection at the level of the biosphere would be likely to produce stability. Such a mechanism – a Darwinian way of making beneficial ‘accidents’ into the equivalent of heritable variations that could evolve via natural selection – will be possible, I think. The work is far from complete, and much needs to be aligned or contrasted with emerging work in evolutionary theory. But I’d hope that Darwin, were he alive today, wouldn’t balk at the non-traditional steps I’m about to take.

First, we’d need to accept differential persistence – mere survival – as a legitimate form or mechanism of natural selection.

(…)

Put another way, what selection really accomplishes is an increase in the ratio of selected entities to total entities in a population. And, actually, this can be achieved in two ways. First is differential reproduction discussed above, generally taken to be the be-all-and-end-all of evolution. Selected entities, by out-reproducing their competitors, ultimately become the only entities in a population (what biologists call achieving fixation). In effect, the top number in the ratio increases. But the phenomenon of differential persistence, in which selected entities achieve fixation through the death, extinction or disappearance of their competitors, could also work, and has been unfairly neglected.

(…)

Let’s transpose this argument to Gaia. Gaia (the biological part of it, at least) is nothing more than the single clade of all living things descended from life’s last universal common ancestor (LUCA)…

(…)

Beyond differential persistence, there’s a second way that we might Darwinise Gaia. One element in this approach is multilevel selection theory sketched above, now illustrated in the figure below. This figure shows the four levels at which natural selection is effective, plus two more. It embraces the idea that natural selection can operate at different levels, sometimes even several at once, as long as there is reproduction among entities at that level. Dawkins’s own thought-experiment in The Selfish Gene offers an appropriate anchoring example, in which he shows how genes can be individually selfish but still get along to add up to a unified, competitive organism, also ‘selfish’.

(…)

 So to Darwinise Gaia we also need what’s called the replicator/interactor framework, developed by the philosopher David Hull. Hull characterised the actors in natural selection as follows:

replicator: an entity that passes on its structure directly in replication.

interactor: an entity that directly interacts as a cohesive whole with its environment in such a way that replication is differential …

selection: a process in which the differential extinction and proliferation of interactors cause the differential perpetuation of the replicators that produced them.

Taking this back to Gaia, what we’d need to do is sometimes substitute ‘reproducer’ for ‘replicator’, and also ‘persistence’ for ‘reproduction’ on occasion.

(…)

The replicator/interactor idea can in fact be used to explain a range of fascinating biological phenomena. Humans and their gut microbiota are now often said to be holobionts, multispecies entities that interact as ‘cohesive wholes’ with their environment. This interaction is now claimed to have nutritional, developmental, immunological and even psychiatric dimensions. So, to the extent that well-nourished, fully developed and healthy individual humans are likely to survive longer and leave more progeny, these human-bacteria holobionts will ‘go extinct’ less often and ‘proliferate’ (if only by recurrence) more prolifically. In so doing, they will serve to ‘perpetuate’ the lower-level reproducers and replicators (individual Homo sapiens and many millions of bacterial individuals of the thousands of species in a healthy gut) that make up a holobiont. Beneficial strains or species of bacteria are thus differentially perpetuated through the success of a human-microbial holobiont, interacting with its environment.

(…)

There’s a third and final step that I’d hope Charles Darwin might be willing to take, when assessing whether or not the Earth is an evolving entity: a theory known as ‘It’s the song, not the singers’ (ITSNTS), as recently elaborated with the philosopher Andrew Inkpen. Songs such as ‘Happy Birthday’ recur (are re-produced, with a hyphen) because people sing them. The singers aren’t the same, but the song arguably is (or at least it exhibits only incremental, ‘evolutionary’ change). It’s perpetuated (‘persists’) only through periodic performances. Meme theory encourages us to believe that songs that are more singable, and ‘mutations’ of existing songs that make them so, could evolve by natural selection.

(…)

For some dispersed metabolic processes, such as the global nitrogen cycle, these species need not be in the same place or function at the same time, or even be related to each other. The existence of these processes encourages the evolution of (‘recruits’) species that are capable of making a living by performing individual steps: because there’s a song, there are singers.

(…)

Songs don’t themselves reproduce, but they are re-produced and do evolve. The current nitrogen cycle is not that of the Archaean Earth, but it can be seen as its continuation, insofar as earlier cycles stimulated the evolution of species that then evolved to perform later versions.

(…)

A problem here might lie in the implication that processes or patterns of interaction, which are arguably not material things, can cause the evolution of species, which are.
(…)

Beyond the benefit to science, ‘Darwinising Gaia’ would also have some political benefits. It might encourage us to look at nature as a coherent whole, with an evolutionary trajectory that we can foster or deflect as we choose. After all, we are already doing that, whether we realise it or not. Certainly, it would be a relief to heal the rift between traditional Darwinian thinking and believers in the possibility of Gaia, though there’s still much work to do to cement and validate the theory. And we’ll never really know what Darwin might have accepted as ‘Darwinian’, had he lived another 138 years. I’m just hoping that he’d applaud these efforts to render Gaia acceptable within a selectionist framework, and that he wouldn’t think we’d stretched his grand theory past the breaking point.”

“Is free will an illusion?” By Uri Maoz [Big Think; John Templeton Foundation]

“Is free will an illusion?

Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.

DR. URI MAOZ
Dr. Uri Maoz is an assistant professor of computational neuroscience at Crean College of Health and Behavioral Sciences at Chapman University. His research lies at the intersection of volition, decision-making, and moral choice. Dr. Maoz also directs Neurophilosophy of Free Will, an international project comprising 17 neuroscientists and philosophers, who aim to understand how the brain enables conscious control of human decisions and actions.

02 December, 2020

The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
“If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious,” says Maoz, “it might help us realize what we can control and what we can’t.”

“Survival of the Friendliest (Self-Domestication Hypothesis) | The Violence Paradox”

https://www.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/nvtvp-sci-survival/survival-of-the-friendliest-self-domestication-hypothesis-the-violence-paradox/

“Changes in the human face over time, driven by shifts in levels of testosterone, may provide evidence of an evolutionary shift away from aggressive behavior. Use this video from NOVA: The Violence Paradox to examine arguments for the self-domestication hypothesis—which may support explanations for a surprising trend in interpersonal violence in human societies.”

“Does Darwinism Conflict with Religion?” By Jamie Milton Freestone [Areo Magazine]

“Does Darwinism Conflict with Religion?

14/10/202017

Jamie Milton Freestone

Jamie Milton Freestone is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland. He studies contemporary Darwinism as well as narrative, and is writing a book about non-supernatural meaning.

https://areomagazine.com/2020/10/14/does-darwinism-conflict-with-religion/

(…)

To some extent, a conflict is based on perception. If disputants think they’re in conflict, they are. And perhaps religious visions of the world are metaphysically incompatible with a worldview built out of basic science. But if this is true, most people haven’t heard the bad news and happily believe in whatever combination of ideas they hold, without marching in the streets or attacking one another for their views. Religious authorities aren’t actively trying to crucify biologists or ban evolution. Admittedly, in certain school districts in America they are trying to ban the teaching of evolution, but that’s something of an anomaly. Overall, people’s views are insulated from the content of scientific theories—as we can see with attitudes towards climate change.

This disconnect between the rhetoric of spokespeople for Darwinism or intelligent design and mainstream attitudes raises a bigger question. Rhetoric generally has less impact than we often suppose. The Darwinism versus intelligent design debates are just one example of the way in which commentators often mistake what is written by experts—who are, by definition, more interested in and motivated by a topic than the general populace—for a reflection of public opinion. Either that or they assume that any reader who encounters these books will be helplessly swayed by their framing of the argument. It’s the same impulse that makes people worry about the influence of video games, pornography, fake news, conspiracy theories, school syllabuses, advertising, politicians’ gaffes, etc. Those things may have some effect, but a growing body of research is sceptical of the basic model whereby people simply imbibe what they’re exposed to.

This boils down to an is versus ought question. Is there a conflict today between Darwinism and religion? The answer seems to be no. Ought there to be one? The answer is evidently yes for most of the people who spend a lot of time thinking and writing about it. This is fitting because the whole debate hinges on an is–ought dilemma of another kind. Science is said to provide answers to the is-questions, the ones that concern neutral facts about how the world is. Religion is said to be in the business of oughts: how should we live? what are our values? how do we want the world to be?

Stephen Jay Gould, a more irenic Darwinian, tried to separate science and religion into “non-overlapping magisteria,” arguing that they simply answer different questions, so they needn’t be in conflict. This is wildly wrong for multiple reasons. First of all, religions clearly pronounce on factual questions all the time. Second, science often pronounces on ought questions. Third, what about all the other domains, like the arts, humanities and social sciences, where do they fit in? Fourth, is it even possible to separate is and ought?

These are tricky questions, but they get to the heart of what science is and whether it is a worldview or religion in its own right. Let’s take Dawkins’ view. He thinks that the worldview offered by modern science is a constraint on what other kinds of knowledge we can have. Darwinism, for him, says that the blind mechanism of natural selection accounts for everything complex in the universe. Does that extend to human designs and purposes? Not exactly. He certainly thinks it rules out religious and folk ideas about the world. But he also thinks that humans, and only humans, have reached some kind of escape velocity and can now rebel against the otherwise binding orders of our genes. People can decide on their own goals, purposes or values beyond those of mere survival and replication. So, for Dawkins, the facts of science tell us what is and isn’t possible in the world of human concerns. Or, as some critics have argued, Dawkins starts with a liberal ideology of individualism and projects that onto the nature he studies, conveniently finding that the actions of self-interested genes control everything, except human freedom.

There is a long and proud history of this kind of projection. Consider Gould. His politics—a soft Marxism—seem to have informed his view of evolution, as he sparred with Dawkins over the primacy of adaptation in life’s history. Gould always emphasised the environment side, the historical contingency of evolution. This seemed to align with his dialectical materialism, which says that real world economic conditions determine social reality, more than the drives or consciousness of individuals.

Evolution is a particularly spiky issue. Not only is it a field in which you can find support for many different ideologies, but it arguably determines what ideology, morality, politics and the entire normative realm can be. Dawkins says it’s natural selection all the way up, until you hit human purposes. But other Darwinians say that the acid burns through everything. In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett argues that the Darwinian algorithm (replication plus variation) accounts not only for the origin of species but for the origins of anything interesting: cultures, languages, technologies, reasons, norms, meanings. Alex Rosenberg takes an even starker view. He says Darwin’s algorithm explains all the seeming design in nature—including that which is expressed in our thoughts and actions—in a purely physical way, thereby precluding all the human stuff we care about. In a Darwinian world, even human purposes are illusory.

(…)

Most science communicators would defend a version of 1 or 2. A lot of science communication is underwritten by a democratic ethos. The public ought to be informed about science so that they can have more agency in their lives and participate in a scientifically advanced democracy. Admirable. But this is exactly the kind of ought statement that science is supposed to be silent about and also the kind that Darwinism—if the hard cases are right—eliminates. That democratic ethos works well for something like vaccinations, where the public clearly benefit from knowing that they’re safe and from being equipped to debunk conspiracy theories. There is a clear policy application. Amazingly, in the case of Darwinism, it’s not considered to be in the public’s interest to know whether or not most of what they believe in is a mirage.

The Future

For more mundane reasons, I think the traditional science outreach position is misguided because it’s very difficult to get the public engaged in anything—rhetoric generally doesn’t work. So why bother writing this article? Frankly, because I assume that my readers are self-selected, already interested in the topic and probably have an opinion on it. That makes science outreach something of an elite discourse, communicating only with a group who already have access to roughly the same information as the communicators.

(…)

If this stark reading is the best way of thinking about evolution, does it conflict with religious views and is it incompatible with secular life philosophies? I believe it is.

“Evolutionary Psychology: Predictively Powerful or Riddled with Just-So Stories?” By Laith Al-Shawaf [Areo Magazine]

“Evolutionary Psychology: Predictively Powerful or Riddled with Just-So Stories?

20/10/2020

Laith Al-Shawaf
Laith Al-Shawaf, Ph.D. is a researcher and Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Colorado. He has taught and conducted research internationally, been a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin, and is an academic adviser at Ideas Beyond Borders. His research (with collaborators) has been featured in outlets such as the BBC, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, Slate, World Economic Forum, and Time, and his essays for general audiences have appeared in Areo and PopMatters.  In 2019, the Association for Psychological Science (APS) named him a Rising Star.

https://areomagazine.com/2020/10/20/evolutionary-psychology-predictively-powerful-or-riddled-with-just-so-stories/

This essay is part of a series on the value of evolutionary approaches to psychology.

Part 1 clears away seven key misconceptions.

Part 2 shows why evolution is necessary for a complete science of the mind.

Part 3 (this essay) illustrates how evolutionary thinking leads to new discoveries.

They do not need to be read in order.

Acommon refrain in the social sciences is that evolutionary psychological hypotheses are “just-so stories.” Amazingly, no evidence is typically adduced for the claim—the assertion is usually just made tout court. The crux of the just-so charge is that evolutionary hypotheses are convenient narratives that researchers spin after the fact to accord with existing observations. Is this true?

Do Evolutionary Approaches Lead to New Predictions? What About New Discoveries?

In reality, the evidence suggests that evolutionary approaches generate large numbers of new predictions and new discoveries about the human mind. To substantiate this claim, the findings in this essay were predicted a priori by evolutionary reasoning—in other words, the predictions were made before the studies took place. They therefore cannot be post-hoc stories concocted to fit already-existing data.

(…)

Consider the following evolutionary predictions about disgust, all of which were made a priori: 1) people’s disgust will be more strongly triggered by objects that pose a greater risk of infection, 2) women will be more disgusted during the first trimester of pregnancy compared to the second and third trimesters, 3) people who grow up in regions of the world with higher levels of infectious disease will be less extraverted, less open to new experiences, and less interested in short-term mating than their counterparts who grow up relatively pathogen-free, 4) cross-cultural differences in pathogen prevalence will predict cross-cultural differences in individualism-collectivism, 5) those with a stronger proclivity for short-term mating will be less easily disgusted, 6) experimentally triggering disgust will reduce interest in short-term mating, 7) people will feel less disgust toward their own offspring and their offspring’s bodily waste compared to the offspring of others, and 8) presenting people with the threat of disease will cause a host of psychological and physiological changes that reduce the likelihood of infection, including a) releasing pro-inflammatory cytokines, b) behaviorally withdrawing, c) temporarily becoming less open to new experiences, and d) reducing one’s desire to affiliate with people. All of these predictions were generated before the fact on the basis of evolutionary reasoning, and all were subsequently supported by the data.

Note that some of these findings could probably have been predicted without evolutionary reasoning. For others, it would have been harder. And for others still, it would have been nearly impossible.

(…)

A final example of the predictive power of evolutionary thinking comes from Error Management Theory, a theory about the evolution of cognitive biases. Error Management Theory suggests that in decision-making scenarios, you can make two possible kinds of error: a Type I error (a false positive) or a Type II error (a false negative). If one error is more costly than the other, and this cost asymmetry recurs over evolutionary time, then the species in question will evolve neurocognitive mechanisms that are adaptively biased toward the safer error. In other words, animal brains operate according to a similar logic as humanly engineered smoke alarms: they are built to be biased toward the less costly error because this minimizes the likelihood of the more catastrophic error.

This simple evolutionary theory leads to new discoveries in areas such as social cognition, visual and auditory perception, and immune function. For example, the theory predicts that when people look down at the ground from a high vantage point such as a steep hill, they will systematically overperceive their distance to the ground, because this is safer than underperceiving the distance to the ground, which could lead to a lack of caution and a lethal fall. This prediction is verified by the data—as is the supplementary prediction that this height estimation bias will be attenuated when people are looking up to a precipice from below (because it is not as dangerous when you are at the bottom), as well as the remarkably precise a priori prediction that the height overestimation bias will apply to environmental verticality, but not retinal verticality (because only environmental verticality is related to falling risk). We owe our knowledge of these fascinating discoveries to the evolutionary reasoning that led to these predictions—predictions that didn’t exist before researchers thought to approach the problem from an explicitly evolutionary perspective.

The logic of Error Management Theory also predicts that heterosexual women will exhibit an on-average “commitment skepticism bias.” The idea is that, on average, overestimating a suitor’s commitment intent was more costly for our hominin female ancestors than underestimating it—so the theory predicts that modern women will exhibit an on-average bias toward erring on the side of underestimating potential mates’ commitment intent. This a priori prediction is confirmed by the data—as is the supplementary prediction that postmenopausal women will not exhibit the bias. More data are needed to test this prediction in different cultures and to figure out which contexts upregulate and downregulate the bias (or annul or reverse it), but initial findings seem promising so far.

Next, Error Management logic predicts that we will exhibit an auditory looming bias. Specifically, the theory suggests that we will perceive approaching sounds to be closer than they actually are, and to be arriving more quickly than they actually are. This is because the safer error is to be prepared for an oncoming danger too early rather than too late. Indeed, studies show that humans do exhibit this auditory looming bias—as do monkeys.

Studies also confirm that, as predicted, we perceive approaching sounds as both starting and stopping closer than equidistant receding sounds.

(…)

Finally, less physically fit individuals need longer to escape an oncoming threat, so they have a more pronounced auditory looming bias than fitter individuals—exactly as predicted by the theory.

By now the reader has doubtless noticed that many of these findings are counterintuitive, and not the kind of result you could predict using common sense. Some, maybe even most, would have remained undiscovered were it not for the evolutionary reasoning that generated the hypotheses in the first place. And even if somehow that statement is incorrect, what is completely unambiguous is this: these hypotheses were generated a priori and then led to new discoveries about how the mind works. They decidedly did not involve working backward from existing data to convenient stories.

(…)

For example, we could have discussed how evolutionary thinking leads to new predictions about pride, shame, hunger, gratitude, jealousy, political preferences in leaders, universality in mate preferences, cultural differences in mating strategies, reputation, punitive sentiment toward criminals, volunteering for charity, support for economic redistribution, moralizing people who opt out of public goods, the “erasure” of race, our ability to solve mathematical problems that are framed in terms of frequency versus probability, what kinds of conditions improve our statistical inferences, our ability to detect violators of social contracts, whom newborn babies are said to resemble, what psychological features might accompany illness, and theoretically predicted cultural variation in the extent to which people value physical attractiveness—to name a few.

(…)

We might reasonably want to ask why evolutionary approaches to psychology are so successful with respect to predictive power. A brief and incomplete accounting suggests that it is partly because evolutionary thinking reduces the search space by insisting on consilience with biology, thereby ruling out hypotheses that violate the basic principles of evolutionary theory; partly because evolutionary theory has been worked out in sufficient detail that deriving predictions from the theory is easier than it is from less well-specified theories; and partly because evolutionary approaches offer researchers useful conceptual-methodological tools such as “task analysis”, which is well suited for generating novel predictions about human psychology and behavior.

“Political Extremism in the US: A New Study” By Jordan Moss [Areo Magazine]

“Political Extremism in the US: A New Study

Jordan Moss
Jordan Moss has a research focus on personality and political attitudes. He is interested in individual differences, with particular interest in moral psychology.

https://areomagazine.com/2020/10/26/political-extremism-in-the-us-a-new-study/

***

Political correctness and the alt-right: The development of extreme political attitudes

Jordan T. Moss ,
Peter J. O’Connor

PLOS ONE 15(10): e0239259

Published: October 7, 2020
https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0239259

***

This study utilised a nationally representative sample to investigate the cultural divide on the political left and right. We found evidence of an ideological divide on both sides, with generational changes in social media and parenting styles contributing to an increase in authoritarian social attitudes. Traditional liberal attitudes were shown to be distinct from authoritarian political correctness, and traditional conservatism was shown to be distinct from the white identitarian attitudes of the alt-right. Adherents to classical political attitudes were distinguished from their authoritarian counterparts by differences in personality traits, upbringing, social media use and moral perspectives. This study provides evidence of a cultural divide, and reports that extreme political attitudes represent a significant minority of attitudes in the United States.

In recent years, US politics has been defined by polarization. Voters are more politically divided and partisan antipathy is deeper now than at any time in the last twenty years. As the major parties in the US separate, ideological fragmentation can be seen on both sides of the aisle, with political correctness (PC) on the regressive left and white identitarian attitudes on the alt-right. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have hypothesized that these movements reflect generational changes in parenting styles, resilience and social media use. However, no academic research has directly assessed these claims. To fill this gap, Peter O’Connor and I investigated the psychological predictors of these extreme political attitudes.

(…)

What We Found: The Prevalence of the Extremes

Unsurprisingly, the largest portion (30.9%) of Americans identified as politically moderate, and were either indifferent to, disagreed or strongly disagreed with the extreme left and right. However, a significant minority identified with the extremes. On the left, 8.2% of participants held extreme PCL attitudes, whereas 6.1% held extreme PCA attitudes. On the right, 14.1% of white participants agreed or strongly agreed with the attitudes typical of the alt-right.

The Predictors of Extremism: The Effect of Social Media

The typical narrative explaining the increase in political polarization centers on the rise of social media. When online, people are more likely to engage with people who hold similar views to them and disengage from those who hold different opinions. This creates echo chambers that serve to reinforce one’s certainty in one’s attitudes, while allowing one to disregard the moral claims of others. We found that the effect of social media was different for the extreme left and right. While social media predicted both liberal and authoritarian political correctness, it did not predict white identitarian attitudes. This makes sense, as previous research has found a disproportionate amount of leftist content and number of liberal users on sites such as Facebook (most participants reported Facebook as their primary social media site).

(…)

Over-Protective Parenting and Low Resilience

As Lukianoff and Haidt have argued, the increase in political correctness could be, in part, attributed to generational changes in child rearing. More parents are acting on behalf of their children in difficult situations and are demanding an emotionally safe environment in school (e.g. one that includes the awarding of participation trophies). This means that younger generations are growing up in a more emotionally accommodating world than their parents did. Children are being taught that an external body is watching out for their welfare and is able to remove any obstacle that is too overwhelming. Without the opportunity to explore the world independently, children do not develop the resilience necessary to deal with problems on their own. According to Lukianoff and Haidt, these children grow into young adults who are less capable of dealing with adversity and are more likely to rely on an external authority to resolve their problems.

This study utilised a nationally representative sample to investigate the cultural divide on the political left and right. We found evidence of an ideological divide on both sides, with generational changes in social media and parenting styles contributing to an increase in authoritarian social attitudes. Traditional liberal attitudes were shown to be distinct from authoritarian political correctness, and traditional conservatism was shown to be distinct from the white identitarian attitudes of the alt-right. Adherents to classical political attitudes were distinguished from their authoritarian counterparts by differences in personality traits, upbringing, social media use and moral perspectives. This study provides evidence of a cultural divide, and reports that extreme political attitudes represent a significant minority of attitudes in the United States.

In recent years, US politics has been defined by polarization. Voters are more politically divided and partisan antipathy is deeper now than at any time in the last twenty years. As the major parties in the US separate, ideological fragmentation can be seen on both sides of the aisle, with political correctness (PC) on the regressive left and white identitarian attitudes on the alt-right. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have hypothesized that these movements reflect generational changes in parenting styles, resilience and social media use. However, no academic research has directly assessed these claims. To fill this gap, Peter O’Connor and I investigated the psychological predictors of these extreme political attitudes.

A quota-based sample of 512 American participants was studied. The subjects were representative of the demography of the United States in terms of age, ethnicity, gender, employment status and education level. Participants responded to questionnaires that measure personality traits, black-and-white moral thinking, resilience, perceptions of the parenting they received as children and social media use. Three sets of political attitudes were also assessed: political correctness-liberalism, political correctness-authoritarianism and white identitarianism.

Liberal and authoritarian political correctness are the two main variants of political correctness. Liberal proponents of political correctness are primarily concerned with individual welfare and represent the classically liberal effort to promote socially disadvantaged groups. To identify this group, we asked participants to assess statements like “Retail stores should avoid using the word ‘Christmas’ in their November and December advertising campaigns.”

Authoritarian proponents of political correctness focus on purity and safety and endorse the efforts of cancel culture to censor emotionally upsetting content. To assess authoritarian political correctness, we asked participants to rate their levels of agreement with statements such as “when a charge of sexual assault is brought forth, the alleged perpetrator should have to prove his or her innocence.” While both liberal and authoritarian proponents of political correctness protest the use of non-inclusive speech, authoritarians show a greater tendency toward violent, immediate and autocratic methods.

White identitarianism represent the racialist attitudes typical of the apparently (see below) far-right subculture known as the alt-right. To assess these attitudes, participants were asked to respond to statements like “race is the foundation of identity” and “whites are being forgotten and replaced by minorities in this country.”

What We Found: The Prevalence of the Extremes

Unsurprisingly, the largest portion (30.9%) of Americans identified as politically moderate, and were either indifferent to, disagreed or strongly disagreed with the extreme left and right. However, a significant minority identified with the extremes. On the left, 8.2% of participants held extreme PCL attitudes, whereas 6.1% held extreme PCA attitudes. On the right, 14.1% of white participants agreed or strongly agreed with the attitudes typical of the alt-right.

The Predictors of Extremism: The Effect of Social Media

The typical narrative explaining the increase in political polarization centers on the rise of social media. When online, people are more likely to engage with people who hold similar views to them and disengage from those who hold different opinions. This creates echo chambers that serve to reinforce one’s certainty in one’s attitudes, while allowing one to disregard the moral claims of others. We found that the effect of social media was different for the extreme left and right. While social media predicted both liberal and authoritarian political correctness, it did not predict white identitarian attitudes. This makes sense, as previous research has found a disproportionate amount of leftist content and number of liberal users on sites such as Facebook (most participants reported Facebook as their primary social media site). However, as this study did not look into the ways in which different social media sites affect the development of extreme political attitudes, we cannot speak to the effect of individual online platforms (Facebook vs. Twitter vs. Reddit, etc).

Over-Protective Parenting and Low Resilience

As Lukianoff and Haidt have argued, the increase in political correctness could be, in part, attributed to generational changes in child rearing. More parents are acting on behalf of their children in difficult situations and are demanding an emotionally safe environment in school (e.g. one that includes the awarding of participation trophies). This means that younger generations are growing up in a more emotionally accommodating world than their parents did. Children are being taught that an external body is watching out for their welfare and is able to remove any obstacle that is too overwhelming. Without the opportunity to explore the world independently, children do not develop the resilience necessary to deal with problems on their own. According to Lukianoff and Haidt, these children grow into young adults who are less capable of dealing with adversity and are more likely to rely on an external authority to resolve their problems.

In accordance with this hypothesis, the study found evidence that generational changes in parenting styles have contributed to extreme left attitudes. Younger participants reported having more overprotective parents and lower levels of resilience, and both these factors were shown to contribute to authoritarian political correctness. That is, the people who are calling for the shutdown of events that host speakers with whom they disagree are more likely to have been coddled and over-protected as children and are now less able to bounce back after facing hardship. It is important to note that these factors did not predict liberal political correctness, which shows a clear distinction in the emotionality of people from these two subgroups.

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Why Does This Matter?

The first thing that we should take away from this study is that these movements are real. While previous political commentary has largely relied on anecdotes, this study provides scientific basis for the argument that movements promoting cancel culture and white identitarianism have taken hold of political discourse. This means that—despite leftist claims that the PC police are a product of the conservative imagination—cancel culture is a real influence on today’s politics. Also, despite the right’s claim that alarm at growing racialism in the US is the result of paranoia, white identitarians (although seemingly quiet) do represent a small part of the American political scene.

Second, this study supports the hypothesis of Lukianoff and Haidt that generational changes have contributed to the movement towards the far-left. According to their book The Coddling of the American Mind, increased adult intervention protects children in the short-term but has long-term developmental consequences. Overprotective parenting creates individuals who have not developed the resilience to deal with the problems that we all face in life. As these children grow into young adults of voting age, they seek the same emotionally accommodating interventions that they received from their parents, in the form of the government. In contemporary politics, we can see this in adherence to cancel culture.”

“The pandemic exposes human nature: 10 evolutionary insights” By David M. Buss, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, David Sloan Wilson et al. [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences]

“The pandemic exposes human nature: 10 evolutionary insights

Benjamin M. Seitz, Athena Aktipis, David M. Buss, Joe Alcock, Paul Bloom, Michele Gelfand, Sam Harris, Debra Lieberman, Barbara N. Horowitz, Steven Pinker, David Sloan Wilson, Martie G. Haselton

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Oct 2020

PNAS first published October 22, 2020

Edited by Michael S. Gazzaniga, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA, and approved September 16, 2020 (received for review June 9, 2020)

https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2009787117

Abstract

Humans and viruses have been coevolving for millennia. Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19) has been particularly successful in evading our evolved defenses. The outcome has been tragic—across the globe, millions have been sickened and hundreds of thousands have died. Moreover, the quarantine has radically changed the structure of our lives, with devastating social and economic consequences that are likely to unfold for years. An evolutionary perspective can help us understand the progression and consequences of the pandemic. Here, a diverse group of scientists, with expertise from evolutionary medicine to cultural evolution, provide insights about the pandemic and its aftermath. At the most granular level, we consider how viruses might affect social behavior, and how quarantine, ironically, could make us susceptible to other maladies, due to a lack of microbial exposure. At the psychological level, we describe the ways in which the pandemic can affect mating behavior, cooperation (or the lack thereof), and gender norms, and how we can use disgust to better activate native “behavioral immunity” to combat disease spread. At the cultural level, we describe shifting cultural norms and how we might harness them to better combat disease and the negative social consequences of the pandemic. These insights can be used to craft solutions to problems produced by the pandemic and to lay the groundwork for a scientific agenda to capture and understand what has become, in effect, a worldwide social experiment.

***

“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” (1), and nothing about the human response to COVID-19 will either.

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Insight 1: The Virus Might Alter Host Sociability

There are two possibilities for how SARS-CoV-2 might be altering human behavior. First, it may be suppressing feelings of sickness during times of peak transmissibility. SARS-CoV-2 is characterized by a high rate of viral shedding, and the peak of viral shedding—and therefore transmissibility—occurs 1 d to 2 d before the onset of symptoms (5). It is possible that SARS-CoV-2 has been particularly successful because it is highly infectious before symptoms appear. Suppressing sickness-related behavior of hosts is one way that viruses can increase their fitness. Hosts that are infected but do not feel sick are more likely to go about their usual activities, which allows them to come in contact with others whom they might infect. If they do not display symptoms of infection, the human behavioral immune system fails to activate in others (see Insight 3: Activating Disgust Can Help Combat Disease Spread), silently spreading to new hosts.

The second possibility of how SARS-CoV-2 could affect host behavior is by contributing to mood disorders, such as mania, that could increase activity levels and decrease feelings of sickness, at least temporarily, during times of peak transmissibility. This could potentially lead to a “tug-of-war” over host behavior, with the virus “pulling for” greater host activity and sociability and the host fighting against this to reduce activity and instead prioritize healing. If sometimes the virus is winning and other times the host immune system is able to regain control, this could manifest as a mood disorder with periods of high activity/sociability and depression/fatigue, respectively.

Similarly, if SARS-CoV-2 is affecting host social behavior, this would also affect epidemiological models, because contact rates change over the course of disease progression (10).

(…)

Insight 2: “Generation Quarantine” May Lack Critical Microbial Exposures

The pandemic has focused the world’s attention on microbial influences on human life. Whereas the emphasis has been on the SARS-CoV-2 virus, quarantine has temporarily halted the regular exposure to novel pathogens that is characteristic of human social interaction. An evolutionary perspective reminds us we must consider the potential trade-offs of this intervention. Children and adolescents whose immune systems and brains are actively shaped by microbial exposures may be most impacted by this change.

Although reduced exposure to neuropathic viruses during quarantine may protect some, normal brain development requires adequate and diverse microbial exposure. During development, communication between the gut microbiota of a young animal and the microglial brain cells that shape networks through myelinization and selective synaptic pruning influence its future cognitive, motor, and affective characteristics (17).

But the risk-taking, neophilia, and drive to be sexual and socialize that characterize adolescence and promote dispersal are influenced by microbiota now fundamentally altered for many millions of adolescents around the world. COVID-19 has temporarily ended practice dispersals, physical peer-to-peer play, sexual activity, and other activities which would otherwise bring millions of adolescents into contact with novel microbes.

(…)

Insight 3: Activating Disgust Can Help Combat Disease Spread

Disgust is a physical and social protective system that is a product of, and sheds light on, our evolutionary past. Disgust protects across three domains, all of which relate to pathogen exposure (25, 26). First, disgust is part of our food psychology and motivates avoidance of foods harboring, for instance, signs of toxins and microorganisms. Second, disgust is part of our sexual psychology and motivates avoidance of sexual partners (e.g., family members) judged to potentially risk the immunocompetence and, hence, health and viability of offspring. Last, and most pertinent, disgust is part of our physical contact psychology and motivates avoidance of individuals displaying signs of infection, surfaces revealing microbial infestation, and the skin, mouth, anus, and bodily fluids of unknown others. Together, consumption, coitus, and contact are all behaviors regulated by disgust and—because of the link to disease—all associated with one or more historical foodborne, sexually transmitted, or contact-facilitated pandemics.

Disgust might therefore be important, although sometimes less potent than other emotions, such as empathy, to persuade people to distance.

(…)

Insight 4: The Mating Landscape Is Changing, and There Will Be Economic Consequences from a Decrease in Birth Rates

Differential reproduction is the key to change over time. Humans have an evolved menu of mating strategies as products of successful reproduction, including long-term pair bonds, short-term casual sex, and everything in between (29). The COVID-19 pandemic is influencing these mating strategies and will have a profound impact on the global mating and economic landscape.

Short-term mating is the most obvious strategy to be affected. Novel sex partners are potential virus vectors, rendering the costs of casual sex steeper. In-person sex is being replaced, perhaps temporarily, with online versions—sexting, video cams, and virtual sex.

An evolutionary perspective predicts that those who pursue a fast life history strategy—marked by short-term mating pursuit, frequent partner switching, deceptive mating tactics, and steep future discounting (30)—are most likely to risk in-person sex during the pandemic and become potential superspreaders.

Touch and scent are central to mating compatibility (31), but distance deprives individuals of this vital information. Mating at a distance exacerbates the tendency of people to interpolate positive values for qualities for which they lack reliable information, such as honesty, emotional stability, and sexual history. This overidealization creates unrealistic expectations that risk being shattered when an eventual meeting takes place in real life.

An evolutionary perspective predicts that women will be reluctant to commit to men lacking financial stability, given the priority they place on this quality in long-term mating (32). It also predicts that men, in turn, will postpone marriage until they feel they have adequate resources to attract women of adequate or commensurate mate value (33). As marriage rates plummet and people postpone reproduction, at least for a period of time (34), some nations already on the cusp of population replacement level will fall dangerously below it as people opt to avoid bringing a baby into a virus-plagued world. Birth-rate drops, in turn, have cascading consequences for economic outcomes—job opportunities, the ability of countries to provide safety nets to an aging demographic, and a global economic contraction.

(…)

Insight 5: Gender Norms Are Backsliding, and Gender Inequality Is Increasing

With schools shut down, families have unanticipated needs for childcare. Who is picking up this slack? In April of 2020, women lost more jobs than men, in part because more women than men are employed in hospitality and service industries that lost customers. However, at that same time, women more than men felt more pressured to quit their jobs in order to manage added household responsibilities of childcare and education, and worried more that declines in their productivity during the pandemic would negatively impact their careers (35). Before the pandemic, women already felt more stressed than men by competing family and job roles (36). With children at home, that stress seems to lead women to become homemakers and makeshift teachers.

The default explanation in social science is to blame outdated gender stereotypes and lack of empowerment for women (39). However, women’s and men’s evolved preferences play an important role. One of the insights from evolutionary approaches to understanding sex differences is that women are far more limited in the number of offspring they can produce in their lifetimes than are men (40), and women, like females across primate species, have evolved to contribute a higher level of obligatory investment in each offspring through pregnancy and lactation (41). Therefore, throughout evolutionary history, a woman’s reproductive fitness hinged on the success of each individual offspring to a greater extent than a man’s. As a result (or in concert), women evolved stronger motivations to attend to the details of childcare and may feel pressured to accept more childcare and homemaking responsibility when others, such as teachers and childcare workers—or extended kin, who might otherwise help out—cannot.

For instance, in cities and nations with greater economic inequality, women self-sexualize more in social media posts (45). For men, economic inequality at both the cross-cultural level and neighborhood level is associated with increased rates of male-on-male homicide, which seems to be driven by men’s concerns with social status rather than a purely instrumental need to survive (46).

(…)

Insight 6: An Increase in Empathy and Compassion Is Not Guaranteed

There is anecdotal evidence that, in previous crises, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and terrorist attacks, the common reaction—contrary to popular belief—is not a descent into savagery. Rather, in cases such as Hurricane Katrina and the London Blitz, there is an outpouring of solidarity and mutual aid (48). Barriers of class and race are temporarily suspended, and the benefit of the collective becomes priority (49).

This is all consistent with a Rousseauian perspective: Human nature is fundamentally kind, and, stripped of the constraints of civilization, we are more equal, more generous, and mentally healthier. But there are also reasons to favor a less rosy view. Research on the behavioral immune system suggests that disease threat makes people intolerant and punitive toward outgroups (54). Nations with a history of high levels of infectious disease have lower rates of extraversion (55), and experimentally inducing disease threat spurs social withdrawal (56).

Furthermore, at least in the United States—although less so in countries such as Canada—this pandemic is not bringing people together; rather, responses reflect the partisan divide that so characterizes recent times, with conservatives and liberals having different views about wearing masks, the wisdom of a continuing lockdown, and much else.

(…)

Insight 7: We Have Not Evolved to Seek the Truth

Humans evolved in small groups under threat of starvation, predation, and exploitation by outsiders—and generally lived brief lives, favoring short-term strategies for consuming resources that could support successful reproduction (59). We have not evolved to think clearly about long-term threats like pandemics—which are statistically abstract and global. And yet, for at least a century, we’ve understood that the threat of a deadly pandemic is real and ever present (60). How should we have responded to this knowledge?

Unfortunately, most of us are terrible at weighing risks presented as abstract probabilities (61). We also heavily discount the well-being of our future selves (62), along with that of distant strangers (63) and future generations (64), and in ways that are both psychologically strange and, in a modern environment, ethically indefensible. We’re highly susceptible to conspiracy thinking (65), and display an impressive capacity to deceive ourselves, before doing the hard work of deceiving others (66). These predispositions likely endowed our ancestors with advantages (67, 68), but they also suggest that our species is not wired for seeking a precise understanding of the world as it actually is.

When we encounter friends or family in thrall to some fresh piece of misinformation, we often lack the courage to correct them. Meanwhile, behind a screen of anonymity, we eagerly confront the views of complete strangers online. Paradoxically, the former circumstance presents an opportunity to actually change opinion, while the latter is more likely to further entrench people in their misinformed views (70).

(…)

Insight 8: Combating the Pandemic Requires Its Own Evolutionary Process

Some of the insights above point to flaws in our human nature that contributed to the pandemic and may make navigating it more difficult. But humans are paradoxical creatures. On one hand, we are products of genetic evolution in ancestral environments that bear little resemblance to modern environments. These “evolutionary mismatches” are likely responsible for our frequent lack of alarm in response to the pandemic. On the other hand, we constructed those modern environments, so our capacity for rapid cultural evolution—via behaviors, values, and technologies—must be acknowledged along with our genetic human natures.

This duality is captured by the label dual inheritance theory, which posits both a genetic stream and a cultural stream of inheritance that have been coevolving with each other for as long as we have been a species (71). The slower process of genetic evolution often follows where the faster process of cultural evolution leads, as we know from classic examples such as lactose tolerance in adults (a genetic adaptation) in cultures that keep livestock (a cultural adaptation) (72).

(…)

Insight 9: Cultural Evolutionary Forces Impact COVID-19 Severity

Evolutionary principles can be applied to understand cultural adaptations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Human groups under collective threat experience evolutionary pressures to tighten social norms and punish people who deviate from norms. Accordingly, we can predict that societies worldwide will tighten in response to the pandemic. From an evolutionary perspective, strict norms and punishments that deter free riders are essential to helping groups coordinate their social action to survive, and thus would be adaptive in times of threat. Consistent with this reasoning, nations with histories of ecological and human-made threats (e.g., natural disasters, disease prevalence, resource scarcity, and invasions) tend to be tight (i.e., have stricter norms and little tolerance for deviance), whereas groups with less threat tend to be loose (i.e., have weaker norms and more permissiveness) (76). Variation in tightness in nonindustrial societies is also related to collective threats such as pathogen prevalence, population pressure, scarcity, and warfare (77).

Accordingly, groups require stronger norms and punishment of deviance to survive under high threat (78). Indeed, experimentally priming humans with collective threat leads to an increase in desired tightness—either from God or government (79, 80).

The varying reactions of nations around the world to early stages of the pandemic reveal potential evolutionary mismatches, wherein some loose societies have had a delayed and often conflicted reaction to tightening norms. Countries that are tight (e.g., South Korea, Japan, China) have been highly effective at limiting COVID-19 cases and deaths (81). By contrast, loose cultures (e.g., Spain, Brazil, and the United States) have had an explosion of cases and deaths in early stages. EGT models also illustrate that loose cultures take far longer to cooperate when under threat than tight cultures (82). Because people in loose cultures have generally experienced fewer ecological threats, they may be more likely to underestimate the risk of COVID-19 than those in tight cultures.

(…)

Insight 10: Human Progress Continues

Evolutionary reasoning makes several predictions about the future humans will face in the wake of the pandemic––from shifts away from economic independence for women to birth rates dipping below thresholds needed to maintain some human populations. These are some depressing possibilities that invite a conclusion that humanity is spiraling downward to a new low point. Those who deny the possibility of social progress might feel vindicated by the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, because it shows that life has gotten worse rather than better. But has it?

Many people have trouble reconciling the demonstrable fact of human progress—that, over time, we have become healthier, better fed, richer, safer, and better educated—with the constraints of human biology. Some fear that, if the mind has evolved as a complex structure, then progress would be impossible, because “you can’t change human nature.” Therefore, either there cannot be such a thing as progress or there cannot be such a thing as human nature.

(…)

Conclusion

COVID-19 has brought radical change, through deaths, stress of extended quarantine, confusion that slowed adequate responding, social unrest at a massive scale, and a long and uncertain social and economic aftermath. This radical change is global—no human, anywhere, is unaffected by COVID-19.

To understand the virus and our response to it, we need to understand how viruses and humans evolve. We know that there is a long history of the coevolution of viruses and humans. Viruses evolve to exploit their hosts to encourage their own replication, but they also depend on hosts to survive. Humans can tolerate some manipulation by viruses, but we have also evolved to combat them. This delicate coevolutionary dance is why we often seem to be running as fast as we can, just to stay in the same place (90).

However, humans also possess the tool of scientific insight that gives us a broader view than what the virus can see. Perhaps this can help us stay one step ahead. By understanding the nature of viral strategies, we can better anticipate the spread of COVID-19 and try to block it. Likewise, by understanding human nature, we can try to activate evolved motivational systems that will help fight the virus, such as providing cues that trigger our behavioral immune system. Understanding human nature will also enhance our ability to address the aftermath of COVID-19, as it has disrupted so many of our fundamental human activities, such as mating, parenting, and simply maintaining social contact.

Herein, we have described 10 insights offered by a broad range of evolutionary thinkers, with expertise ranging from evolutionary medicine to broadscale cultural evolution. These insights offer possibilities for guiding science to address the spread of COVID-19 and its inevitable aftermath. However, these insights represent only a limited snapshot of this historic moment, and a selection of topics, although important, that an evolutionary perspective on the pandemic can provide.

The objective in providing these insights is to help make sense of the vast confusion that mars this pandemic and to illuminate paths for research. In addition to insights that can produce immediate action, the pandemic has provided us with unique opportunities to witness human nature as it unfolds, from changes in patterns of reproduction, shifting social norms, and curiosities of cognition that can warp our recognition of threat. This paper is a call to action in science—both in the application of existing knowledge about viral and human nature and also as an opportunity to make discoveries that would not be possible except when a global social experiment is underway.”

“Biology’s next great horizon is to understand cells, tissues and organisms as agents with agendas” By Michael Levin & Daniel Dennett [Aeon]

“Cognition all the way down

Biology’s next great horizon is to understand cells, tissues and organisms as agents with agendas (even if unthinking ones)

Michael Levin

is the Vannevar Bush chair and Distinguished Professor of biology at Tufts University in Massachusetts, where he directs the Allen Discovery Center and the Tufts Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology.

Daniel C Dennett

is the Austin B Fletcher professor of philosophy and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He is the author of more than a dozen books, the latest of which is From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (2017). He lives in Massachusetts.

https://aeon.co/essays/how-to-understand-cells-tissues-and-organisms-as-agents-with-agendas

(…)

We think that this commendable scientific caution has gone too far, putting biologists into a straitjacket that prevents them from exploring the most promising hypotheses, just as behaviourism prevented psychologists from seeing how their subjects’ measurable behaviour could be interpreted as effects of hopes, beliefs, plans, fears, intentions, distractions and so forth. The witty philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser once asked B F Skinner: ‘You think we shouldn’t anthropomorphise people?’– and we’re saying that biologists should chill out and see the virtues of anthropomorphising all sorts of living things. After all, isn’t biology really a kind of reverse engineering of all the parts and processes of living things? Ever since the cybernetics advances of the 1940s and ’50s, engineers have had a robust, practical science of mechanisms with purpose and goal-directedness – without mysticism. We suggest that biologists catch up.

(…)

Recent advances in basal cognition and related sciences are showing us how to move past this kind of all-or-nothing thinking about the human animal – naturalising human capacities and swapping a naive binary distinction for a continuum of how much agency any system has.

(…)

 Treating cells like dumb bricks to be micromanaged is playing the game with our hands tied behind our backs and will lead to a ‘genomics winter’ if we stay exclusively at this molecular level. The lack of progress in rational morphogenetic control shows us this.

(…)

It has become standard practice to describe such phenomena with the help of anthropomorphic, intentional idioms: when we click the mouse, we tell the cursor to grab the thing on the screen, and as we move the mouse we move the thing on the screen until we signal to the cursor to drop the thing by clicking the mouse again. This talk of signalling and information-processing is now clearly demystified thanks to computers – no mysterious psychic powers here! – and this has been correctly seen to license use of such information talk everywhere in biology. Detectors and signals and feedback loops and decision-making processes are uncontroversial physical building blocks in biology today, just as they are in computers. But there is a difference that needs to be appreciated, since failure to recognise it is blocking the imagination of theorists. In a phrase that will need careful unpacking, individual cells are not just building blocks, like the basic parts of a ratchet or pump; they have extra competences that turn them into (unthinking) agents that, thanks to information they have on board, can assist in their own assembly into larger structures, and in other large-scale projects that they needn’t understand.

We members of Homo sapiens tend to take the gifts of engineering for granted. For thousands of years, our ancestors prospected for physical regularities that they could exploit by designing structures that could perform specific functions reliably. What makes a good rope, good glue, a good fire-igniter? The humble nut-and-bolt fastener is an elegantly designed exploitation of leverage, flexibility, tensile strength and friction, evolving over 2,000 years, and significantly refined in the past two centuries. Evolution by natural selection has been engaged in the same prospecting at the molecular level for billions of years, and among its discoveries are thousands of molecular tools for cells to use for specific jobs. Among those tools are antennas or hooks with which to exploit the laws of physics and computation.

(…)

Notice how ‘you’ can be a single cell or a multicellular organism – or an organ or tissue in a multicellular organism – and still be gifted with informational competences composed out of the basic ‘nuts and bolts’ of information-processing structures. Agents, in this carefully limited perspective, need not be conscious, need not understand, need not have minds, but they do need to be structured to exploit physical regularities that enable them to use information (following the laws of computation) to perform tasks, beginning with the fundamental task of self-preservation, which involves not just providing themselves with the energy needed to wield their tools, but the ability to adjust to their local environments in ways that advance their prospects.

(…)

The cooperation problem and the problem of the origin of unified minds embodied in a swarm (of cells, of ants, etc) are highly related. The key dynamic that evolution discovered is a special kind of communication allowing privileged access of agents to the same information pool, which in turn made it possible to scale selves. This kickstarted the continuum of increasing agency. This even has medical implications: preventing this physiological communication within the body – by shutting down gap junctions or simply inserting pieces of plastic between tissues – initiates cancer, a localised reversion to an ancient, unicellular state in which the boundary of the self is just the surface of a single cell and the rest of the body is just ‘environment’ from its perspective, to be exploited selfishly. And we now know that artificially forcing cells back into bioelectrical connection with their neighbours can normalise such cancer cells, pushing them back into the collective goal of tissue upkeep and maintenance.

(…)

This is a reasonable mechanistic story, but then isn’t all the talk of memory, decision-making, preferences and goal-driven behaviour just anthropomorphism? Many will want to maintain that real cognition is what brains do, and what happens in biochemistry only seems like it’s doing similar things. We propose an inversion of this familiar idea; the point is not to anthropomorphise morphogenesis – the point is to naturalise cognition. There is nothing magic that humans (or other smart animals) do that doesn’t have a phylogenetic history. Taking evolution seriously means asking what cognition looked like all the way back. Modern data in the field of basal cognition makes it impossible to maintain an artificial dichotomy of ‘real’ and ‘as-if’ cognition. There is one continuum along which all living systems (and many nonliving ones) can be placed, with respect to how much thinking they can do.

You have to remember that, while the most popular stories about how cells cooperate toward huge goals are about neural cells, there is little fundamental difference between neurons and other cell types. It is now known that synaptic proteins, ion channels and gap junctions, for instance, were already present in our unicellular ancestors, and were being used by electrically active cells to coordinate actions in anatomical morphospace (remodelling and development) long before they were co-opted to manage faster activity in 3D space. If you agree that there is some mechanism by which electrically active cells can represent past memories, future counterfactuals and large-scale goals, there is no reason why non-neural electric networks wouldn’t be doing a simplified version of the same thing to accomplish anatomical homeostasis. Phylogenetics has made it very clear that neurons evolved from far simpler cell types, and that some of the brain’s speed-optimised tricks were discovered around the time of bacterial biofilms (the biggest trick being scaling up into networks that can represent progressively bigger goal states and coordinating the Test-Operate-Test-Exit loop across tissues). Cognition has been a slow climb, not a magical leap, along this path.

(…)

From this perspective, we can visualise the tiny cognitive contribution of a single cell to the cognitive projects and talents of a lone human scout exploring new territory, but also to the scout’s tribe, which provided much education and support, thanks to language, and eventually to a team of scientists and other thinkers who pool their knowhow to explore, thanks to new tools, the whole cosmos and even the abstract spaces of mathematics, poetry and music. Instead of treating human ‘genius’ as a sort of black box made of magical smartstuff, we can reinterpret it as an explosive expansion of the bag of mechanical-but-cognitive tricks discovered by natural selection over billions of years. By distributing the intelligence over time – aeons of evolution, and years of learning and development, and milliseconds of computation – and space – not just smart brains and smart neurons but smart tissues and cells and proofreading enzymes and ribosomes – the mysteries of life can be unified in a single breathtaking vision.”

“Mad behaviour: the psychologist Joseph Henrich on what makes us weird” By Sophie McBain [New Statesman]

“Mad behaviour: the psychologist Joseph Henrich on what makes us weird

The Harvard professor on how most claims about human nature are based on people from “Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic societies”.

Sophie McBain

New Statesman

https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/observations/2020/10/mad-behaviour-psychologist-joseph-henrich-what-makes-us-weird

(…)

In 2010 Henrich co-authored a landmark paper titled, “The weirdest people in the world?” It observed that almost every claim made about human psychology or behaviour is based on studying people who are “Weird”; that is, from Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic societies. These people are also weird – statistical outliers.  

Henrich’s research suggests our cultural environment, the norms and institutions we inherit, alters our psychology – and even our biology – in profound ways. Take learning to read. Becoming literate thickens your corpus callosum, which connects the brain’s right and left hemispheres and alters the parts of the brain responsible for processing speech and thinking about other minds. Literate people tend to be worse than others at recognising faces and are more likely to think analytically – breaking problems or scenes into component parts – rather than holistically.

Henrich contends that, compared with much of the world’s populations, “Weird” people are more individualistic and self-obsessed, and more likely to defer gratification, to stick to impartial rules and to trust strangers. They are less likely to extend special favours to friends or family. They’re more likely to feel guilt (a sense of having failed to meet one’s own self-imposed standards) than shame (a sense of having let down one’s community).

(…)

Henrich’s book poses a challenge to psychology, a field grappling with the so-called “replication crisis” – the realisation that when psychologists repeat an experiment, they often get different results. Henrich believes the discipline suffers from a “theoretical crisis”. “There’s no overarching theory that tells you what kind of effects you should expect. And that causes psychologists to try a bunch of stuff, which breeds a lot of false positives.”

The Weirdest People in the World is a provocative book. Human rights activists, for example, might bristle at its suggestion that in certain countries, individual rights aren’t a good psychological “fit”. But Henrich wants to avoid normative conclusions. “Like any science, [the book] can be useful to achieve your goals, but people might have different goals. I can see it being used by people who want to figure out how to spread human rights. I could see it being used by those who don’t.”

“In “Livewired,” neuroscientist David Eagleman shows how the brain shapes itself by interacting with the outside world” By Elizabeth Svoboda [Undark]

Book Review: The Remarkable Adaptability of the Human Brain

In “Livewired,” neuroscientist David Eagleman shows how the brain shapes itself by interacting with the outside world

BY ELIZABETH SVOBODA
10.09.2020

https://undark.org/2020/10/09/book-review-livewired/

(…)

Stanford neuroscientist David Eagleman is obsessed with probing the outer limits of this kind of neural transformation — and harnessing it to useful ends. We’ve all heard that our brains are more plastic than we think, that they can adapt ingeniously to changed conditions, but in “Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain,” Eagleman tackles this topic with fresh élan and rigor. He shows not just how we can direct our own neural remodeling on a cellular level, but how such remodeling — a process he calls “livewiring” — alters the core of who we are.

(…)

In a refreshing counterpoint to the biology-is-destiny drumbeat, Eagleman embarks on a lively tour of how we can transform our brains by exercising our own agency. The neurons we exercise thrive and make new connections, he says, while the unused ones wither away. It’s essentially Darwin’s survival of the fittest playing out inside the human skull. “Just like neighboring nations, neurons stake out their territories and chronically defend them,” Eagleman writes. “Each neuron and each connection between neurons fights for resources.”

(…)

Importantly, Eagleman also addresses the limits of neural remodeling — a discussion that lends surprising insight into our polarized political landscape. We experience a pronounced drop in brain plasticity as we age, which is one reason some older people seem mired in world views that may not align with today’s global realities. “Through years of border disputes, neural maps become increasingly solidified,” Eagleman writes, later adding, “Someday, your brain will be that time-ossified snapshot that frustrates the next generation.”

“The Science of America’s Dueling Political Narratives” By Laura Akers [Scientific American]

“The Science of America’s Dueling Political Narratives

Elections aren’t won on the basis of policies; they’re won on the basis of the stories each side tells about itself and its values

By Laura Akers
Laura Akers, Ph.D. is a research psychologist at the Oregon Research Institute. Follow her work at http://meta-narrator.com or on Twitter @meta_narrator.

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-science-of-americas-dueling-political-narratives/

(…)

The science of metanarratives and how we respond to them is still in its infancy. Our research team, headed by psychologist Gerard Saucier, has uncovered the metanarratives typical of terrorists and genocidal leaders worldwide. More broadly, my own work seeks to understand how the structure and features of metanarratives can elicit emotional responses, and how social factors influence public reactions.

Emotions arise when we make comparisons relevant to our own needs and desires. We contrast our present circumstances with the future, the past and alternative versions of today. Improvements make us happy and inspire us; losses sadden or frustrate us. If we can blame someone else for our loss, we may become angry with them. And if we’re faced with threats, our fear can motivate action. As with fiction, we can categorize metanarratives by their emotional “genres,” such as progress (pride, optimism) or looming catastrophe (fear).

(…)

As cognitive scientists George Lakoff and Drew Westen remind us, it’s emotion that wins elections.

(…)

The public doesn’t accept every metanarrative it’s offered. We tend to be loyal to the cultural beliefs favored by our social circles and encouraged by our leaders. Even then, some voters stay open to alternatives, if there’s enough dissonance between the party line and their own experiences.”

“What is Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES) Doing About the WEIRD Problem?” By Chris von Rueden & Coren Apicella

What is HBES Doing About the WEIRD Problem?

October 3, 2020/in Newsletter

By HBES Executive Council Members, Chris von Rueden & Coren Apicella

What is HBES Doing About the WEIRD Problem?

Evolution and Human Behavior (EHB) just released its September issue, which is devoted to highlighting ongoing research in the evolutionary social sciences that expands beyond WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) populations. This special issue, titled “Beyond WEIRD, a decade later: Population diversity in the evolutionary study of human behavior,” was edited by Coren Apicella, Ara Norenzayan, and Joseph Henrich and features articles on topics including evolutionary medicine, cooperation, leadership, morality, and developmental psychology.

(…)

Now, authors who submit to the journal are required to fully describe their samples. For instance, authors are now asked to specify the geographic location from which their sample was drawn, how their data was collected (online or in-person), and any theoretically-relevant characteristics pertinent to the research study, such as religion affiliation, race/ethnicity, and gender identity (inclusive of non-binary options). And importantly, authors must also specify the source of the sample in their Abstract. Manuscripts that do not adequately describe samples will be returned to authors for revision prior to consideration.

(…)

The September EHB issue, “Beyond WEIRD, A Decade Later: Population Diversity in the Evolutionary Study of Human Behavior,” offers some criticisms, but its contributors are also optimistic about the future of evolutionary social science. We agree that the methods and theory will only get better, and that is in part because of the disciplinary diversity of our community. In particular, the dialogue between anthropologists and psychologists has been, and we hope will continue to be, an engine at the heart of the creativity and productivity of HBES.

“Neuropolítica: los secretos detrás del debate político entre Donald Trump y Joe Biden” By Andrés Fredericksen

“Neuropolítica: los secretos detrás del debate político entre Donald Trump y Joe Biden

Los candidatos utilizaron diversas estrategias para llamar la atención del espectador y votante saliendo de los esquemas y patrones de lo que el cerebro espera encontrar en un evento de estas características. Muchas de estos factores de persuasión emocional funcionan de forma inconsciente como el storytelling o el miedo.

Por: Andrés Fredericksen
Twitter: @fredericksen_a
DEA del programa de doctorado en Ciencias Políticas y Sociología por la U. Pontificia de Salamanca, España
Máster en neurociencias cognitivas aplicadas a la empresa por la U. Rey Juan Carlos de Madrid, España.

https://www.icndiario.com/2020/10/neuropolitica-los-secretos-detras-del-debate-politico-entre-donald-trump-y-joe-biden/

Las investigaciones en neurociencias cognitivas y su aplicación a la política, neuropolítica argumentan que la mayor parte de nuestras decisiones son más emocionales que racionales. Estos descubrimientos hacen que las estrategias comunicativas se replanteen entre los líderes políticos, ya que develan la importancia de las emociones en el proceso de toma de decisiones electorales, al tiempo de comprender que estructuras mentales y emocionales están involucradas en la persuasión para lograr el voto.

El neurocientifico Antonio Damasio argumenta que las emociones son responsables de nuestra toma de decisiones, ya que son capaces de alterar nuestro estado de atención y afectan nuestra conducta, condicionan los recuerdos y las experiencias generando una serie de influencias innatas – muchas veces inconsciente- en los individuos que afectan a la forma de expresarse y de tomar decisiones.

(…)

“Los americanos votan en relación a sus marcos mentales y que los republicanos han tenido éxito electoral ya que han enlazado su discurso al sistema de conceptos y valores de la sociedad Americana, y han logrado utilizar un lenguaje eficaz que penetre en las emociones del electorado y que se alinee a sus marcos mentales”, expresa George Lakoff profesor de ciencia cognitiva y lingüística de la Universidad de California, Berkeley, en su libro “The Political Mind”.

(…)

Joe Biden llegó a llamar al actual presidente de Estados Unidos de “payaso” para llamar la atención del espectador, al tiempo de decirle “racista”, concepto recurrente entre los detractores de Trump, especialmente después del asesinato de un hombre negro George Floyd a manos de la policía y por los ataques contra la inmigración mexicana y centroamericana para atraer votos en la frontera.

A su vez Donald Trump sacó a relucir el consumo de cocaína de del hijo de Joe Biden agudizando la tensión en el debate.

(…)

Una palabra negativa o insultante activa la amígdala, estructura del cerebro vinculada a las alertas. En el debate muchas veces predominó el caos, expresiones ofensivas y los golpes bajos, se centró en contarnos pequeñas historias, como lo haría de igual forma una serie, “culebrón” o una película.

Desde la neuropolítica se argumenta que al cerebro le gusta escuchar historias, ya que hacen emocionar, al tiempo de provocar cambios químicos en el cerebro. El storytelling es el arte de contar historias que impacten a la audiencia y al elector, se busca generar emociones que revivan momentos del pasado, ya sea propio o de una nación o pueblo, impulsando una conexión e identificación con el elector.

Fondazione Prada presenta “Human Brains”

“Fondazione Prada presenta “Human Brains”

https://www.tecnomedicina.it/fondazione-prada-presenta-human-brains/

Fondazione Prada ha intrapreso dal 2018 un percorso multidisciplinare di approfondimento e studio di tematiche scientifiche. Da queste riflessioni nasce “Human Brains”, un programma di mostre, convegni, incontri pubblici e attività editoriali previsto tra novembre 2020 e novembre 2022. Il progetto è il risultato di una complessa ricerca sviluppata in collaborazione con un comitato scientifico, presieduto da Giancarlo Comi e costituito da ricercatori, medici, psicologi, linguisti, filosofi, divulgatori e curatori come Jubin Abutalebi, Massimo Cacciari, Alessandro Del Maschio, Viviana Kasam, Udo Kittelmann, Andrea Moro e Daniela Perani.

***

Human Brains

http://www.fondazioneprada.org/project/human-brains/?lang=en

(…)

The first two discussions will see neuroscientist Mavi Sanchez-Vives and neurobiologist Jean-Pierre Changeux, moderated by neurologist Giancarlo Comi, and neurobiologist Eve Marder with neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, moderated by neurologist and neuroscientist Daniela Perani. They will explore the biological fundaments of conscience, from the neurofunctional mechanisms to neurochemical and molecular basis, and they will carry on in-depth analysis of connectivity as a cerebral substrate of conscience state and the revolutionary techniques that allow investigating the brain in vivo.

Two discussions between neurolinguist Andrea Moro and cognitive psychologist Stanislas Dehaene will be moderated by cognitive neurologist Jubin Abutalebi, while the anthropologist Ian Tattersall and neuroscientist Idan Segev will be moderated by neuroscientist Katrin Amunts. They will examine the concept of consciousness in relation to anthropology, the key role of language and its connection to the emotional and affective sphere to then reflect on the future evolution of research and on the attempts to create thinking machines.

Psychiatrist and neuroscientist Giulio Tonoli and philosopher Michele Di Francesco will hold the final discussion, moderated by scientific journalist Vivian Kasam; it will be a crucial moment to confront different perspectives and approaches to the complex question of conscience. Moreover, Giancarlo Comi and Massimo Cacciari will reflect on the contributions of all the previous discussions.”

“You’re most likely WEIRD … and don’t even know it” By Douglas Todd

“You’re most likely WEIRD … and don’t even know it

Opinion: WEIRD is a high-impact acronym invented by psychology professors at UBC, referring to people who are ‘Western,’ ‘Educated,’ ‘Industrialized,’ ‘Rich’ and ‘Democratic’

Douglas Todd

https://www.wallaceburgcourierpress.com/opinion/columnists/douglas-todd-youre-most-likely-weird-and-you-dont-even-know-it/wcm/1780da03-603d-4841-9196-5bf82a92c85c

(…)

Everybody talks about diversity now. But when these profs examined contemporary social-science research they uncovered a huge blind spot to cultural differences, which has led to misleading conclusions about human psychology and, for that matter, human nature.

The colleagues published a ground-breaking paper in 2010 that showed more than 96 per cent of experiments in social psychology were based on subjects who are WEIRD. Compared to the vast majority of people on the planet, WEIRD people tend to be highly individualistic, control-oriented, nonconformist, analytical and trusting of strangers.

We are not the global norm. As Henrich says, “Textbooks that purport to be about ‘Psychology’ or “Social Psychology’ need to be retitled something like ‘The Cultural Psychology of Late 20th-Century Americans.’ ”

(…)

Henrich explains all this and much more in his new magnum opus, titled The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. Despite its 680 pages, it’s quite readable.

Henrich’s book takes the UBC crew’s understanding of WEIRD traits to new levels of significance. Gleaning from history, philosophy, religion and anthropology it attempts to explain why there are differences between cultures, including why some are more prosperous. It’s reminiscent of the trans-disciplinary project Jared Diamond took on with Guns, Germs and Steel, which maintained geography shaped Eurasian power.

(…)

“WEIRD people are bad friends,” Henrich writes in one catchy subtitle.

WEIRD people aren’t really willing to lie for a friend, he explains. In a cross-cultural experiment in disparate nations, participants were asked to imagine what they would do if they were a passenger in a car with a close friend who, while driving above the speed limit, hit a pedestrian.

More than 90 per cent of people in WEIRD countries such as Canada, Switzerland the U.S. would not testify their friend was driving slower than he was. “By contrast, in Nepal, Venezuela, and South Korea most people said they’d willingly lie under oath to help a close friend.” Communal bonds matter more in places that are not WEIRD.

(…)

While clearly disposed to “celebrate diversity” he avoids the cliché that, because of our common humanity, “deep down everyone’s the same.” It’s only true to a small extent: If we’re cut with a sharp object, for instance, we all bleed.

But because of our collective histories and cultures humans can actually turn out starkly different. So much so that Henrich makes it clear that ethnic and religious conventions can rewire the structure of our brains, even our genes.

It’s a real-world position: Humans become the peculiar and often amazingly different people they are due to myriad unrecognized cultural forces.”

“The Dark Side of Smart” By Diana Fleischman [Nautilus]

“The Dark Side of Smart

Diana Fleischman
Diana Fleischman is an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Portsmouth, writing and living while on sabbatical in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Follow her on Twitter @sentientist.

http://nautil.us//blog/the-dark-side-of-smart

Manipulative communication surrounds us. With misinformation and disinformation about the pandemic, “cheap” and “deep” fakes of elected officials, and targeted ads and emotionally exploitative social media algorithms, it can begin to feel like all communication is manipulation.

Well, as it turns out, this is the thesis of an influential paper by evolutionary biologists Richard Dawkins and John Krebs. The cynicism behind this statement can make many people uncomfortable. When we think about communicating, we tend to think about our own thoughts and feelings rather than how we might be influencing others. One major reason an evolutionary perspective on our own behavior can be so confronting is that it doesn’t take our word for why we do things. It looks at how what we do influences the two core currencies of life on earth, survival and reproduction.

(…)

When minds start to figure out other minds, a lot of cognitive power gets built up that can be used for other things. Consider one of the groundbreaking insights in evolution in the last few decades, the idea of the “extended phenotype.” Evolution isn’t just acting on an individual’s characteristics but the way it interacts with the environment—including other minds. Evolution is selecting not just on the teeth and tail and claws of a beaver, but also on how well its dam keeps out water. Not just the bees’ wings and bodies but also the structure of their hive.

(…)

Hold on a minute you might be saying to yourself—you evolutionary people are so cynical—didn’t we also get smart to cooperate? Perhaps, to some degree. But research suggests intelligence has been a lot more important, especially for theory of mind for competition, than for cooperation. Evolutionary models, for example, have shown that competition promotes the ability to think about other minds more strongly than cooperation. And studies have shown that areas of the brain related to thinking about other minds are activated more by competition than cooperation.

(…)

Human intelligence is incredibly useful but it doesn’t safeguard you against having false beliefs, because that’s not what intelligence is for. Intelligence is associated with coming up with more convincing bullshit and with being a better liar, but not associated with a better ability to recognize one’s own bias. Unfortunately, intelligence has very little influence on your ability to rationally evaluate your own beliefs, or undermine what’s called “myside bias.”

The dark side of smart is that whenever we do good works, and cooperate, we draw from our manipulative past. The even darker side of smart is that competition doesn’t just select an ability to manipulate but also an adaptive ability to be unpredictable. And one of the best ways to be unpredictable is to not know yourself. So we have evolution to thank for shielding us from complete self-knowledge. As a result, most of our own minds are shrouded in darkness. Perhaps that’s for the best. We might not like what we’d see.”

“Politics is visceral” By Manos Tsakiris [Aeon]

“Politics is visceral

In an age thick with anger and fear, we might dream of a purely rational politics but it would be a denial of our humanity

Manos Tsakiris

is professor of psychology at Royal Holloway University of London. His research investigates the neural and cognitive mechanisms of self-awareness and social cognition. He is the co-editor with Helena De Preester of The Interoceptive Mind: From Homeostasis to Awareness (2018).

https://aeon.co/essays/politics-is-in-peril-if-it-ignores-how-humans-regulate-the-body

We live in bodies that feel increasingly unsafe. Pandemics, climate change, sexual assault, systemic racism, the pressures of gig-economy jobs, the crisis of liberal democracy – these phenomena create feelings of vulnerability that are, quite literally, visceral. They’re visceral in the sense that emotional experience arises from how our physiological organs – from our guts and lungs to our hearts and hormonal systems – respond to an everchanging world. They’re also political, in that our feelings affect and are affected by political decisions and behaviour.

(…)

The answer from what I call ‘visceral politics’ emerges out of a historically novel scientific understanding of the human being, not so much as a rational creature, but as a primarily embodied and affective one. Visceral politics lies at the intersection of the body’s physiology and political behaviour. It’s informed by aligning the life sciences, social sciences and humanities to provide insights into how human emotions are created and experienced. It takes on board the visceral underpinnings of human nature, their importance for our physical and mental wellbeing, and the interdependence between the individual and society. It also captures the ways in which our emotions shape our needs and decisions and, in turn, how sociopolitical forces recruit or exploit physiology to influence behaviour.

(…)

But while feelings are key drivers of human behaviour, democratic political theory has focused on reason and rationality as means of taming emotions. The present conditions therefore offer new possibilities for understanding the sociopolitical significance of visceral states, and showing how emotions and their physiological origins are as essential to decision-making as logical reasoning. Looking at the specific ways in which human physiology interacts with contemporary politics might help to account for why the world now feels the way it does.

We live in bodies that feel increasingly unsafe. Pandemics, climate change, sexual assault, systemic racism, the pressures of gig-economy jobs, the crisis of liberal democracy – these phenomena create feelings of vulnerability that are, quite literally, visceral. They’re visceral in the sense that emotional experience arises from how our physiological organs – from our guts and lungs to our hearts and hormonal systems – respond to an everchanging world. They’re also political, in that our feelings affect and are affected by political decisions and behaviour.

It’s not surprising, then, that political language has become saturated with emotion. Whether one calls the present era a time of anxiety, fear or anger, visceral states and feelings appear at the forefront of the political conversation. This is hard to square with Aristotle’s claim that human beings are ‘naturally rational’ creatures – ‘political animals’ who could flourish only within a political community or ‘polis’. The polis, as Aristotle wrote in Politics, ‘comes to be for the sake of life, and exists for the sake of the good life’. The different ways of organising the polis to promote the good life, and disagreements about the best way to do so, create the concept of politics as we know it. So, in the 21st century of ‘emo-cratic’ politics, what does it mean to be a ‘political animal’, and what counts as a ‘good life’?

The answer from what I call ‘visceral politics’ emerges out of a historically novel scientific understanding of the human being, not so much as a rational creature, but as a primarily embodied and affective one. Visceral politics lies at the intersection of the body’s physiology and political behaviour. It’s informed by aligning the life sciences, social sciences and humanities to provide insights into how human emotions are created and experienced. It takes on board the visceral underpinnings of human nature, their importance for our physical and mental wellbeing, and the interdependence between the individual and society. It also captures the ways in which our emotions shape our needs and decisions and, in turn, how sociopolitical forces recruit or exploit physiology to influence behaviour.

None of this means that visceral politics is new; in some sense, politics has always been visceral. Our bodily states and the way we regulate them explain much about why political and social structures look the way they do. The Hobbesian idea that government exists in order to keep citizens safe from their own worst impulses, for example, can be read as a response to the extremes of how humans express their emotions. But while feelings are key drivers of human behaviour, democratic political theory has focused on reason and rationality as means of taming emotions. The present conditions therefore offer new possibilities for understanding the sociopolitical significance of visceral states, and showing how emotions and their physiological origins are as essential to decision-making as logical reasoning. Looking at the specific ways in which human physiology interacts with contemporary politics might help to account for why the world now feels the way it does.

Humans are biological organisms that first and foremost have to deal with the problem of survival. The key way that organisms stay alive is by homeostasis – the maintenance of stability by keeping the body’s processes within a ‘margin of safety’ that sustains life and wellbeing. For example, homeostasis involves the regulation of temperature, heart rate and blood pressure, as well as hunger and satiety. But it’s inefficient and dangerous for the brain to simply wait around passively for these physical cycles to drop into the danger zone. Rather, it tries to predict the future states of the body, with the aim of achieving dynamic regulation. For example, in anticipation of a stressful situation, the body will change its blood pressure, metabolism and hormonal levels to meet those needs before they arise. In other words, the brain strives to predictively adjust bodily states in response to actual and expected demands. This constant calibration is known as allostasis, the process of achieving stability (homeostasis) through physiological or behavioural change.

(…)

Where do emotions fit into this picture? As the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio suggested, they serve as mental representations of bodily states, which allow us to perform feats of self-regulation. Emotions are a kind of inference, prediction or ‘best guess’ about how and why the world makes us feel the way it does. They are often much quicker and more effective at helping us achieve allostasis than laborious, consciously ‘rational’ calculations. For example, an event such as a shouting voice will elicit physiological arousal, which we might interpret mentally as a feeling of fear or a feeling of anger. The experience of fear or anger is what then pushes us to act, perhaps by running away or attacking, which should restore a sense of safety.

(…)

The social world is a key part of an organism’s environment and has a significant effect on its cognitive function and wellbeing. Human newborns are incapable of maintaining homeostasis by themselves, and must rely on carers to do so on their behalf. Even as we grow into independence, allostatic regulation remains dependent on social relations throughout our lives. On an even more radical view, the brain evolved not just to keep our body safely ‘within budget’, but primarily in order to regulate it within a social context. By becoming aware of our feelings, we are able to communicate them to one another – and through shared experience, to regulate ourselves as a society.

One way of looking at 20th-century politics, then, is to see it as a way of creating conditions in which people’s bodies and minds could remain within a ‘margin of safety’. From the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the welfare state and the judicial system, institutions and norms socially regulate human behaviour. They allow people to infer how the social world will make them and others feel, and so predict how to act themselves. Strikingly, the notion that human health involves a constant challenge to preserve the body’s equilibrium and integrity re-emerged after the tumult of the First World War, when Western policymakers revived the ancient ‘body politic’ metaphor, as the historian Stefanos Geroulanos and the anthropologist Todd Meyers have explained.

The view that state or polity is a kind of organic entity, whose members themselves have bodily needs, had a marked influence on social sciences and the development of welfare states. The Beveridge Report (1942), which set the foundations for the social welfare system in the United Kingdom, described ‘a new alliance of the state and the individual where each cared for the other’s body’, as Geroulanos and Meyers write. Western societies, as they recovered from two world wars, made the maintenance of bodily health an object of state action via the vehicle of the welfare state. The German physician and anthropologist Rudolf Virchow, one of the fathers of social medicine, had anticipated this when he observed in 1848 that ‘medicine is a social science, and politics nothing but medicine at a larger scale’.

Modern life is at risk of rolling back these advances to human wellbeing, which were already unevenly distributed. Since the financial crisis of 2007-08, the United States and the UK have shown stagnating or declining life expectancy, partly attributed to premature deaths caused by ‘diseases of despair’ such as suicidal depression and substance addiction. In parallel, the worldwide burden of mental disorders has increased by 31.6 per cent between 1990 and 2007, and by a further 13.5 per cent between 2007 and 2017. Depression remains one of the three leading causes of the global burden of disease. In 2017, eight in 10 Americans said that they often encounter stress in their daily lives. Six in 10 find the current political climate to be a source of stress, and seven in 10 identify the cost of healthcare as a significant source of stress. Decreases in social trust and cohesion, increases in political polarisation, as well as uncertainty about financial stability and health, have all contributed to rising levels of chronic stress and ill health.

What matters here is not just the fact that we inhabit a world in crisis. It’s that we ‘live in a world where the language of crisis has become the most common way of representing a series of situations we face’, as the French anthropologist Didier Fassin has observed. The ubiquity of this language, he says, ‘tells us something about the actuality and the imaginary of contemporary societies’. The way we subjectively experience these feelings of uncertainty and crisis has a tangible effect on political animals of the 21st century. It places us in a state of ‘allostatic load’ – a constant state of accumulated high stress that comes from desperately trying to keep the body within its homeostatic safe zone. This exposure to chronic or repeated challenges, which the individual experiences as stressful, eventually wears out the body and brain. If one of the key functions of the brain is to serve the body by maintaining a healthy body budget, then chronic stress burns through cash. Without a healthy balance sheet, our options narrow as our organism can no longer rely on its increasingly depleted reserves. As a consequence, we lose our ability to flexibly regulate our bodies, and this loss contributes to poor health, emotional dysregulation and cognitive decline – a vicious cycle that exacerbates the conditions that promoted allostatic load in the first place. The strikingly increased prevalence of hypertension among African Americans compared with other Americans can’t be accounted for by genetic differences; instead, they reflect the sociopolitical tensions that such groups experience.

The fact that the human body and the body politic are intertwined means that systematically depleting our body budget has far-reaching consequences. For example, insufficient sleep isn’t just a private matter, but also affects political engagement such as citizens’ willingness to vote, to sign petitions and to donate to charities. Relatedly, a major study spanning 170 countries between 1980 and 2016 showed that the presence of democratic governance explains more than does GDP the variations in mortality for cardiovascular diseases, transport injuries, cancers, cirrhosis and other non-communicable diseases. Several empirical studies also show that population-level epidemiological profiles of infectious diseases can structure individual-level psychological preferences for authoritarianism as well as authoritarian governance.

The political animals of 21st-century Western democracies seem ever more homeostatically and affectively dysregulated. Concerns about healthcare and financial stability consistently rank among the highest causes of stress. Our world is also one of increased informational uncertainty, driven by an ecosystem of 24/7 informational overdose and pervasive social media platforms that often breed fake news and belief polarisation. Under such conditions, our visceral states come to the forefront, and manifest themselves as powerful but dysregulated emotions. It’s against this background that we must understand how our affective needs and visceral expressions have come to dominate sociopolitical life.

Crucially, we can now account for the dynamics of visceral politics because of three important parallel developments in the study of history, political science and neuroscience. Historians in recent years have placed a fresh emphasis on the study of the emotions, where these are not cast as mere consequences or byproducts of historical events, but as active drivers or causes in their own right. Similarly, after a long period of inattention towards emotions, there has been an increased interest within the political sciences in how emotions influence political behaviour. Finally, advances in social and affective neuroscience now allow us to study emotion from the ‘inside-out’, in that we can attend directly to the physiological and neural processes that are correlated with particular feelings.

(…)

It’s vital to understand how physiological states, coupled with individual differences in political attitudes, might predispose some people to experience anger in a given sociopolitical context, while others might experience fear or anxiety. Moreover, the very question of what precise emotions people are actually experiencing remains empirically underinvestigated or, at best, naively researched. There is an unwritten assumption in political life that people know what they want, or at least that politicians can persuade people about what they want. How would a political life play out that includes the idea that people might not know what they want, because they might not know what they feel? What would politics look like if it encompassed this emotional, affective domain?”

(…)

 Thus, the emotion we use to interpret a physiological state of anxiety, and so to make inferences, can have distinct effects on political behaviour. Fear might lead people to seek a less dominant and more trustworthy leader, while anger might result in the opposite pattern. Therefore, social processes of affect-labelling, which catalyse the social construction of emotion, can influence the meaning we ascribe to our physiological states – and possibly explain the emotional microclimates of different social groups.

(…)

Politics is visceral in at least two ways. It is visceral in the sense that our unsafe bodies drive our politics. The rise of visceral politics of this kind might reflect the failure of our socioeconomic system to take care of our brittle bodies, and its failure to enable us to accurately infer our physiological states and how the world makes us feel. But there is also another way in which we can think of visceral politics. They are visceral in the sense that our politics should make our bodies feel safe, and empower us to tolerate and explore the inherent uncertainty of the human condition. We witness the dominance of the former, but we should strive for the rise of the latter.”

Why Are We in the West So Weird? A Theory By Daniel C. Dennett [On The WEIRDest People in the World By Joseph Henrich (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020)]

“Why Are We in the West So Weird? A Theory

According to Joseph Henrich’s book, it was the advent of Protestantism, aided by the invention of the printing press, that brought along the spread of literacy and altered the workings of our brains.

By Daniel C. Dennett

Sept. 12, 2020

THE WEIRDEST PEOPLE IN THE WORLD
How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous
By Joseph Henrich

(…)

The world today has billions of inhabitants who have minds strikingly different from ours. Roughly, we weirdos are individualistic, think analytically, believe in free will, take personal responsibility, feel guilt when we misbehave and think nepotism is to be vigorously discouraged, if not outlawed. Right? They (the non-WEIRD majority) identify more strongly with family, tribe, clan and ethnic group, think more “holistically,” take responsibility for what their group does (and publicly punish those who besmirch the group’s honor), feel shame — not guilt — when they misbehave and think nepotism is a natural duty.

(…)

WEIRD folk are the more recent development, growing out of the innovation of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, the birth of states and organized religions about 3,000 years ago, then becoming “proto-WEIRD” over the last 1,500 years (thanks to the prohibition on marrying one’s cousin), culminating in the biologically sudden arrival of science, industry and the “modern” world during the last 500 years or so. WEIRD minds evolved by natural selection, but not by genetic selection; they evolved by the natural selection of cultural practices and other culturally transmitted items.

Henrich is an anthropologist at Harvard. He and his colleagues first described the WEIRD mind in a critique of all the work in human psychology (and the social sciences more generally) built on experimental subjects almost exclusively composed of undergraduates — or the children of academics and others who live near universities. The results obtained drawing on this conveniently available set of “normal” people were assumed by almost all researchers to be universal features of human nature, the human brain, the human emotional system. But when attempts were made to replicate the experiments with people in other countries, not just illiterate hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers but the elites in Asian countries, for instance, it was shown in many cases that the subject pool of the original work had been hugely biased from the outset.

One of the first lessons that must be learned from this important book is that the WEIRD mind is real; all future investigation of “human nature” must be complicated by casting a wider net for subjects, and we must stop assuming that our ways are “universal.” Offhand, I cannot think of many researchers who haven’t tacitly adopted some dubious universalist assumptions. I certainly have. We will all have to change our perspective.

(…)

This is an extraordinarily ambitious book, along the lines of Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel,” which gets a brief and respectful mention, but going much farther, and bolstering the argument at every point with evidence gathered by Henrich’s “lab,” with dozens of collaborators, and wielding data points from world history, anthropology, economics, game theory, psychology and biology, all knit together with “statistical razzle-dazzle” when everyday statistics is unable to distinguish signal from noise. The endnotes and bibliography take up over 150 pages and include a fascinating range of discussions.

(…)

This book calls out for respectful but ruthless vetting on all counts, and what it doesn’t need, and shouldn’t provoke, is ideological condemnations or quotations of brilliant passages by revered authorities. Are historians, economists and anthropologists up to the task? It will be fascinating to see.”

“What’s Behind Humanity’s Love-Hate Relationship With Exercise?” – By Marina Krakovsky [Sapiens]

What’s Behind Humanity’s Love-Hate Relationship With Exercise?

Evolutionary history can help resolve the question of why so many people desire a physical break even when their bodies need movement.

By Marina Krakovsky

https://www.sapiens.org/biology/evolutionary-history-exercise

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“What is it about human nature that pulls people to the chair or the couch when they’d be better off moving on their feet? The resolution to this paradox lies in evolutionary history, says David Raichlen, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Southern California.

Raichlen is one of several anthropologists studying how the evolutionary history of the human body shapes health today. In 2012, for example, he and his colleagues published findings from an experimental examination of the runner’s high, the experience of euphoria that some people report during aerobic exercise.

The experiments compared levels of particular feel-good chemicals—called endocannabinoids—in the brains of humans and two other species before and after treadmill exercise. Raichlen and his colleagues found significantly higher endocannabinoid levels in humans and dogs—but not ferrets—following this high-intensity activity. This finding is revealing because humans and dogs evolved to need endurance for hunting food and ferrets did not. The runner’s high could therefore be evolutionarily advantageous to some species, helping creatures run for longer distances to hunt for food despite the high energy costs of running.

In his quest to understand human health, Raichlen also does fieldwork with Tanzania’s Hadza people, a contemporary hunter-gatherer tribe. This community attracts scholars in part because the Hadza way of life resembles that of hunter-gatherers who lived prior to the development of agriculture in many societies some 10,000 years ago. The Hadza, Raichlen notes with affection, are “super-wonderful people,” and studying them could offer clues to what life was like for hunter-gatherers in the past.

(…)

Research on the Hadza certainly supports the idea that physical activity benefits health. For example, Hadza are more susceptible to deadly infections than people in industrialized societies because of differences in hygiene and medical care. Yet those Hadza who survive these dangers tend to live long and healthy lives because they are far less prone than people in industrialized societies to what public health experts call “lifestyle diseases,” such as obesity, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. In fact, research shows that increasing one’s physical activity reduces the risk of developing these chronic diseases.

(…)

Like the sweet tooth at a time when calories are abundant, the need for much more physical activity than many people get is an evolutionary mismatch between human physiology and the present environment.

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“The whole point of life is turning energy into kids—that’s evolution,” says Herman Pontzer, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University who frequently collaborates with Raichlen, including on the study of rest.

“Natural selection favors any strategy that makes you better at turning energy in your environment into offspring,” Pontzer says. Resting is part of such a strategy: In an energy-scarce environment, a strong drive to burn calories when you didn’t have to would have died out through natural selection.

(…)

Though not through conscious choice, sedentary Americans and physically active Hadza both follow this rule. “Our desire to rest is as strong as it’s ever been,” Raichlen says. This desire, he adds, often overcomes the choice to exercise. When you take away the need to move and make exercise a choice, as our current environment has done, he adds, “it takes a lot of motivation to do it.”

(…)

Unfortunately, people who live more sedentary lives can’t expect their bodies to adapt to that new mode any time soon. For one thing, in the time scale of human evolutionary history, “even a thousand years is the blink of an eye,” Pontzer says. “The other thing to understand,” he adds, “is that a lot of [lifestyle] diseases don’t kick in until after you’ve had your kids.”