“This is your brain on political arguments” By Derek Beres [Big Think]

“This is your brain on political arguments

Debating is cognitively taxing but also important for the health of a democracy—provided it’s face-to-face.

DEREK BERES

18 January, 2021

https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/your-brain-on-arguing

– New research at Yale identifies the brain regions that are affected when you’re in disagreeable conversations.

– Talking with someone you agree with harmonizes brain regions and is less energetically taxing.

– The research involves face-to-face dialogues, not conversations on social media.

You probably know the feeling: a rush of heat that assaults your entire body; your fingertips and forehead suffering fiery consequences of conflict; restrictions around your chest and throat; quickened breath, as if your lungs can no longer draw in the required oxygen; ears on alert, biding time for a break in your opponent’s rhetoric to let loose the torrent of thoughts crowding your brain.

Of course, not everyone is an opponent. You likely know the opposite as well: the cool excitement of agreeableness, when the words in your head are returned to you from another being as in a mirror; unconscious head shaking as your sense of righteousness is validated; the warm exuberance of easy dialogue with a fellow tribe member.

In a digital age in which physical contact seems foreign and long past, we might have forgotten what it’s like to agree—or debate—with someone in person. Pandemics are temporary, while societies are—well, nothing is forever, but we’ve outlived diseases before. According to new research from Yale University, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, disagreeing with someone takes up a lot of brain real estate, while finding a compatriot is a much less cognitively taxing endeavor.

(…)

Senior author Joy Hirsch notes that our brain is essentially a social processing network. The evolutionary success of humans is thanks to our ability to coordinate. Dissonance is exhausting. Overall, she says, “it just takes a lot more brain real estate to disagree than to agree,” comparing arguments to a symphony orchestra playing different music.

As the team notes, language, visual, and social systems are all dynamically intertwined inside of our brain. For most of history, yelling at one another in comment sections was impossible. Arguments had to occur the old-fashioned way: while staring at the source of your discontent.

(…)

Leading us to an interesting question: do the same brain regions fire when you’re screaming with your fingers on your Facebook feed? Given the lack of visual feedback from the person on the other side of the argument, likely not—as it is unlikely that many people would argue in the same manner when face-to-face with a person on the other side of a debate. We are generally more civil in real life than on a screen.”

***

“Frontiers in Human Neuroscience

13 January 2021

https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2020.606397

Interpersonal Agreement and Disagreement During Face-to-Face Dialogue: An fNIRS Investigation

Joy Hirsch 1,2,3,4,5*, Mark Tiede 1,4, Xian Zhang 1, J. Adam Noah 1, Alexandre Salama-Manteau 1 and Maurice Biriotti 6

1 Brain Function Laboratory, Department of Psychiatry, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, CT, United States
2 Department of Neuroscience, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, CT, United States
3 Department of Comparative Medicine, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, CT, United States
4 Haskins Laboratories, New Haven, CT, United States
5 Department of Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering, University College London, London, United Kingdom
6 Faculty of Arts and Humanities, University College London, London, United Kingdom

Although the neural systems that underlie spoken language are well-known, how they adapt to evolving social cues during natural conversations remains an unanswered question. In this work we investigate the neural correlates of face-to-face conversations between two individuals using functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) and acoustical analyses of concurrent audio recordings. Nineteen pairs of healthy adults engaged in live discussions on two controversial topics where their opinions were either in agreement or disagreement. Participants were matched according to their a priori opinions on these topics as assessed by questionnaire. Acoustic measures of the recorded speech including the fundamental frequency range, median fundamental frequency, syllable rate, and acoustic energy were elevated during disagreement relative to agreement. Consistent with both the a priori opinion ratings and the acoustic findings, neural activity associated with long-range functional networks, rather than the canonical language areas, was also differentiated by the two conditions. Specifically, the frontoparietal system including bilateral dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, left supramarginal gyrus, angular gyrus, and superior temporal gyrus showed increased activity while talking during disagreement. In contrast, talking during agreement was characterized by increased activity in a social and attention network including right supramarginal gyrus, bilateral frontal eye-fields, and left frontopolar regions. Further, these social and visual attention networks were more synchronous across brains during agreement than disagreement. Rather than localized modulation of the canonical language system, these findings are most consistent with a model of distributed and adaptive language-related processes including cross-brain neural coupling that serves dynamic verbal exchanges.”

“Como a ‘mente ocidental’ foi moldada pela Igreja Católica medieval” – Joseph Henrich [BBC Future]

“Como a ‘mente ocidental’ foi moldada pela Igreja Católica medieval

Joseph Henrich*

* Joseph Henrich é professor de Biologia Evolutiva Humana na Universidade de Harvard e autor de The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (“As pessoas mais ‘Weird’ do Mundo: Como o Ocidente se Tornou Psicologicamente Pecial e Particularmente Próspera”, em tradução livre).

BBC Future

https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/vert-fut-55566154

(…)

Em primeiro lugar, apesar de entrar nos livros didáticos como as “pessoas” pensam, quase todos os estudos que examinaram esse efeito foram conduzidos entre estudantes americanos. No entanto, os comentaristas sociais, voltando pelo menos a Alexis De Tocqueville, notaram que os americanos são particularmente individualistas e independentes.

(…)

Isso destaca o fato de que chamar alguém de “conformista” é um elogio em muitos lugares, mas não nos Estados Unidos.

Conformidade, entretanto, não é um caso idiossincrático de diferença cultural, mas representa a ponta de um iceberg psicológico.

O banco de dados que domina nossa compreensão da psicologia humana deriva principalmente — 95% dela, na verdade — de populações que são “Ocidentais, Educadas, Industrializadas, Ricas e Democráticas (esse grupo de pessoas é conhecido pela sigla em inglês “Weird”, que significa “esquisito” em português).

Ao contrário de grande parte do mundo hoje — e da maioria das pessoas que já viveram —, essa categoria de pessoas é altamente individualista, obcecada por si mesma, cheia de culpa e analítica em seu estilo de pensamento.

Os chamados “Weird” se concentram em si mesmos — seus atributos, realizações e aspirações. Ao raciocinar, as pessoas tendem a procurar categorias abstratas com as quais organizar o mundo, simplificam fenômenos complexos quebrando-os em elementos discretos e atribuindo propriedades — seja imaginando tipos de partículas, patógenos ou personalidades.

Apesar de sua aparente auto-obsessão, elas tendem a seguir regras imparciais e podem ser bastante confiáveis, justas e cooperativas com estranhos.

Emocionalmente, as pessoas da categoria “Weird” são relativamente desavergonhadas, menos constrangidas quando se deparam com outros, mas frequentemente atormentadas pela culpa por não cumprirem seus próprios padrões autoimpostos.

(…)

Até recentemente, a maioria das sociedades foi sustentada por instituições baseadas intensivamente em parentescos, construídas em torno de grandes famílias estendidas: clãs, casamento de primos, poligamia e muitas outras normas de parentesco que regulam e restringem a vida social. Essas instituições persistem em muitas partes do mundo hoje, especialmente nas áreas rurais.

(…)

Começando no final da Antiguidade, o ramo do cristianismo que evoluiu para a Igreja Católica Romana começou a promulgar gradualmente um conjunto de proibições e prescrições relacionadas ao casamento e à família. A Igreja, por exemplo, proibiu o casamento entre primos, casamento arranjado e casamento polígamo.

Ao contrário de outras denominações cristãs, a Igreja Católica expandiu lentamente o círculo de relacionamentos “incestuosos” para primos no século 11.

Apesar de frequentemente enfrentar forte resistência, esse empreendimento dissolveu lentamente as complexas instituições baseadas em parentesco da Europa tribal, deixando famílias nucleares independentes como um ideal cultural e um padrão comum.

(…)

A maioria de nós pode achar que somos pensadores racionais e independentes. Mas a forma como pensamos, sentimos e raciocinamos — incluindo nossas inclinações para a conformidade e preferências por explicações analíticas — foi moldada por eventos históricos, heranças culturais e tabus de incesto que remontam a séculos ou mesmo milênios.

Compreender como a história moldou nossas mentes faz parte de explorar e abraçar nossa diversidade.”

“Rick Shenkman – Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics” [ The Dissenter]

“#417 Rick Shenkman – Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics

14 de jan. de 2021

The Dissenter

RECORDED ON NOVEMBER 9th 2020.

Rick Shenkman is the founder of George Washington University’s History News Network, the website that features leading historians’ perspectives on current events. He is a New York Times best-selling author of seven history books. His latest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics. Mr. Shenkman is an Emmy award-winning investigative reporter and the former managing editor of KIRO-TV, the CBS affiliate in Seattle. In 1997 he was the host, writer and producer of a prime-time series for The Learning Channel inspired by his books on myths. In 2008 he was elected a Fellow of the Society of American Historians. He gives lectures at colleges around the country on several topics, including American myths and presidential politics.

In this episode, we talk about Political Animals. We go through topics like evolutionary mismatch; how good we really are at reading politicians, and if it is easy for them to lie to us; self-deception in politics; the role the media play in politics; the problem with presenting information in the form of stories; empathizing with strangers in modern large-scale societies; relying on gut feelings; and solutions to current political problems.

Time Links:
00:48 Political evolutionary mismatch
07:32 Can people know politicians well enough?
20:40 Is it easy for politicians to sell us lies?
25:26 Self-deception
30:12 The media, and presenting information in the form of stories
38:44 Can we empathize with people that are not part of our group?
44:07 Should we rely on our gut feelings?
53:11 Solutions to these problems
1:04:27 Follow Rick’s work!”

“Why a Universal Society Is Unattainable” By Mark W. Moffett [Nautilus]

“Why a Universal Society Is Unattainable

Our minds evolved in an Us-vs-Them universe of our own making.

JANUARY 13, 2021

BY MARK W. MOFFETT

Mark W. Moffett, Ph.D., is the author of The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, & Fall, from which this essay is adapted. He has a Lowell Thomas medal from the Explorers Club for his work in over 100 countries on the questions about the structure of rainforests, social organization in ants, and the stability of societies across different species.

https://nautil.us/issue/95/escape/why-a-universal-society-is-unattainable

(…)

In the 2016 vote, the majority of British people stubbornly chose for their country to be on its own and not part of a more encompassing group of societies. The vote appeared to run against the broader trend of European nations loosening their boundaries in acknowledgement of an identity that outweighs, or erases, the importance of the societies themselves. With the number of societies in general declining century after century,1 we might take seriously the assertion that the internationalization of culture (think Star Wars, tequila, Mercedes-Benz) and connections (with Twitter linking people from Aa, Estonia, to Zu, Afghanistan) are a harbinger of a Berlin Wall-type border collapse, making, as the British sociologist Morris Ginsberg once put it, “The unification of mankind … one of the clearest trends in human history.”2

Whatever the ultimate relationship of Great Britain and Europe may be, the current breakup underscores how deeply national identity runs through human psychology. Both psychological literature and anthropological research on societies ranging from the ethnolinguistic groups of hunter-gatherers to tribes, chiefdoms, and states (less formally, “nations”),3 reveal that a universal society is unattainable. Populations across the globe today may devour Starbucks, KFC, and Coca-Cola. They may enjoy Italian opera, French couture, and Persian carpets. But no matter how many exotic influences each absorbs or what foreign connections they make, nations don’t just fade away. They retain their citizens’ fierce devotion.4 Societies have always traded, gifted, or taken what they want from the outer world to claim as their own, and grown all the stronger for doing so. While the erasure of borders may be laudable, nothing we know about the workings of the human mind suggests it is a realistic vision.

(…)

A failure of alliances to supersede people’s affiliation to their society holds true universally. Intergovernmental organizations like the European Union and the United Nations don’t earn our primary emotional commitment because they lack ingredients that make them real for the members. The EU may be the most ambitious attempt at societal integration conceived, yet few members see the EU as an entity worthy of their loyalty the way they do their countries, and for several reasons.

(…)

To top all that off, the EU offers no grand foundation story, no venerable symbols or traditions, and there’s little sense anyone would fight and die for Europe as they might for their nation.7

(…)

Analysis of the 2016 Brexit vote shows that those who most strongly think of themselves as English went against staying with the EU. Voters saw what was intended foremost to be an economic and peacekeeping tool as a threat to their identity.9 The fact is the consequences of Brexit will be mostly commercial, setting into action a myriad of obstacles to trade.10

(…)

One possible means of attaining that unity might be to shift people’s perception of who’s an outsider. It was a point Ronald Reagan liked to make. “I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world,” he remarked in an address to the UN. Indeed, science-fiction tales like The War of the Worlds depict humankind acting as one against a common enemy.

Yet even then our societies would endure the space aliens. The arrival of Martians wouldn’t make nations irrelevant any more than Europeans arriving in Australia caused the Aborigines to drop what had been several hundred clear-cut tribal groups (actually, many Aborigines first guessed that the Europeans were otherworldly, i.e., ghosts16). That would be so regardless of how much the aliens shattered the beliefs people held about their own societies, whose beloved differences would look trivial by comparison to those with the Little Green Men. Cosmopolitanism, the conviction that the diverse people of our planet will come to feel a primary connection to the human race (the term means “citizen of the cosmos”),17 is a pipe dream.

(…)

The human reliance on particular traits, or “markers,” to identify with our societies, ethnicities, and other groups may trace back far into the human past, but what comes naturally isn’t always desirable. Fortunately, our intelligence gives us some prospect of breaking free from our biology and history. When changes concern the matter of how we mark off our identities, though, any alteration would be extremely arduous and require more than education. While casting off ethnic and societal markers may sound good at first blush, the move would undoubtedly mean the loss of much of what humans cherish. Our markers are two-edged swords, causing us to discount those who differ from us, yet at the same time imparting an esprit de corps with complete strangers who fit our expectations, as when we take delight in conversing with a fellow American when traveling overseas.

To abandon our differences would strike against timeless yearnings. People care about their memberships and few would want to give them up. Nor could we simply dispose of them. Research in psychology shows that our responses to the most entrenched of our social groups, and the characteristics that define them, take place faster than the blink of an eye, and are involuntary.18 No doubt if a mass hypnotist caused us to forget our current differences, we would scramble to discover or invent new differences to hold dear.

(…)

The mind evolved in an Us-vs-Them universe of our own making. The societies coming out of this psychological firmament have always been points of reference that give people a secure sense of meaning and validation.

(…)

Social marginalization has been a motivator stronger than religious fanaticism, explaining why many terrorists originally took to extremism only after being excluded from the cultural mainstream. For the socially dispossessed, radical views fill a void.21 Organized crime groups likewise commandeer some of the properties that give a society its vitality by providing social pariahs with common goals and a sense of pride and belonging.

(…)

Being in a society (indeed, in multiple societies) is a more indispensable and ancient quality of our species than faith or matrimony, having been the way of things from before we were human.”

“Polarização se revela como fator de risco na pandemia” [Javier Salas, El País]

“Polarização se revela como fator de risco na pandemia

Ideologia e partidarismo atrapalham a resposta à expansão do coronavírus, segundo muitos estudos. Um novo trabalho encontra correlação entre posicionamentos políticos e as mortes por covid-19 em certas regiões

JAVIER SALAS
08 JAN 2021 – 13:19

https://brasil.elpais.com/ciencia/2021-01-08/polarizacao-se-revela-como-fator-de-risco-na-pandemia.html

O vírus se tornou um indicador de identidade tribal”, advertia recentemente o psicólogo social Jonathan Haidt nas páginas do The New York Times. Referia-se à sociedade norte-americana, onde muitos estudos observaram que o cumprimento ou não das restrições para frear contágios de coronavírus está intimamente ligado ao voto dos cidadãos: o partidarismo influi mais no comportamento que a gravidade dos contágios no entorno. Um novo estudo aproxima agora esta realidade tribal ao contexto europeu e, pela primeira vez, mostra uma correlação direta entre as mortes por covid-19 e a crispação política em 153 regiões de 19 nações do continente. “Uma maior polarização social e política pode ter acabado por custar vidas durante a primeira onda da covid-19 na Europa”, conclui esse trabalho.

“Observamos que maiores níveis de polarização predizem [um excesso de] mortes significativamente maior. Por exemplo, a diferença no excesso de mortes entre duas regiões, uma sem polarização das massas (2,7%) e outra com níveis máximos (14,4%), é mais de cinco vezes maior”, aponta o estudo, em processo de publicação por uma revista científica. “Queríamos testar essa possibilidade da que tanto se falou e observamos que há uma associação bastante clara, correlações que vão nessa linha. Há indicadores claros de que [a polarização] prejudica seriamente o desempenho”, afirma Víctor Lapuente, da Universidade de Gotemburgo (Suécia), que assina o trabalho com seus colegas Nicholas Charron e Andrés Rodríguez-Pose, da London School of Economics.

***

Uncooperative Society, Uncooperative Politics or Both? How Trust, Polarization and Populism Explain Excess Mortality for COVID-19 across European regions

https://gupea.ub.gu.se/handle/2077/67189

***

Ou seja, os estragos decorrentes da pandemia aumentavam em regiões europeias onde havia mais divisão entre apoiadores e detratores dos seus respectivos Governos. A polarização é entendida como tribalismo identitário e animosidade contra o outro. Porque, como mostra este estudo, as maiores diferenças em excessos de mortalidade por covid-19 não se dão entre países, e sim entre os territórios dentro dos próprios países. Os autores propõem três mecanismos que explicariam esse fenômeno. Primeiro, que é mais difícil para os Governos construírem um consenso político sobre as medidas; segundo, que as prioridades são definidas em função das exigências dos grupos de pressão (empresários, por exemplo), em detrimento da saúde pública; e, terceiro, porque com a polarização as políticas se tornam mais populistas e menos baseadas em critérios de especialistas.

(…)

Um estudo publicado na Nature Human Behaviour detecta “uma forte associação entre os níveis de animosidade partidária dos cidadãos e suas atitudes sobre a pandemia, assim como as ações que adotam em resposta a ela”. Outro, no Science Advances, é mais taxativo: “Nossos resultados apontam para uma conclusão inequívoca: o partidarismo é um determinante muito mais importante da resposta de um indivíduo à pandemia que o impacto da covid-19 na comunidade desse indivíduo”.

(…)

“A incerteza sobre a falta de informação nos leva a procurar soluções na liderança. Não é estranho que esses tribalismos tenham se acentuado, durante milênios funcionou nos refugiarmos em nossa tribo para sobreviver”.”

“James C. Scott : l’expansion de l’Etat a-t-elle standardisé le monde ?” [France Culture]

“James C. Scott : l’expansion de l’Etat a-t-elle standardisé le monde ?

France Culture

LA GRANDE TABLE IDÉES par Olivia Gesbert

https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/la-grande-table-idees/james-c-scott-lexpansion-de-letat-a-t-elle-standardise-le-monde

L’anthropologue James C. Scott poursuit sa réflexion sur les Etats modernes et la relation qu’ils entretiennent avec les communautés qu’ils gouvernent dans un livre de 1998 enfin traduit en France sous le titre “L’oeil de l’Etat” (La Découverte). Il est notre invité aujourd’hui.

On le connaît pour Homo domesticus. Une histoire profonde des premiers Etats (La Découverte, 2019), un ouvrage explorant les conditions d’émergence de l’Etat. James C. Scott est professeur émérite de science politique et d’anthropologie à l’université de Yale. Figure majeure de l’anthropologie anarchiste, il se penche sur les rapports de domination et les stratégies des populations rurales ou montagnardes pour échapper au pouvoir de l’Etat.

Paraît en français L’œil de l’État. Moderniser, uniformiser, détruire (traduit de l’anglais par Olivier Ruchet) à La Découverte. Publié en 1998 sous le titre Seeing Like A State. How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, il est à l’époque reconnu par The New Yorker et le Sunday New York Times.

“Origins of Human Cooperation” | Speaker: Professor Michael Tomasello [LSE]

“London School of Economics and Political Science

Origins of Human Cooperation

Public Lectures and Events

Origins of Human Cooperation

19 Nov 2020 | 1 Hour 4 Minutes

https://www.lse.ac.uk/lse-player?id=791f4140-9098-4b8e-8381-845f36cac1a9

Speaker: Professor Michael Tomasello

Published on: 19 Nov 2020

Humans are biologically adapted for cultural life in ways that other primates are not. Humans have unique motivations and cognitive skills for sharing emotions, experience and actions, whereas our nearest primate relatives do not.

Michael Tomasello, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University, is one of the world’s leading researchers on social learning, communication and language in human children and great apes.

Sandra Jovchelovitch is a social and clinical psychologist by training and her research focuses on human development under contextual adversity, the social psychology of public spheres, community development and the socio-cultural context of knowledge. Sandra is a Professor of Social Psychology in the Department of Psychologyical and Behavioural Science.”

Agustín Fuentes — Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being [Science salon/Skeptic]

SCIENCE SALON # 144

Agustín Fuentes — Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being

Agustín Fuentes — Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being

Why are so many humans religious? Why do we daydream, imagine, and hope? Philosophers, theologians, social scientists, and historians have offered explanations for centuries, but their accounts often ignore or even avoid human evolution. Evolutionary scientists answer with proposals for why ritual, religion, and faith make sense as adaptations to past challenges or as by-products of our hyper-complex cognitive capacities. But what if the focus on religion is too narrow? Renowned anthropologist Agustín Fuentes argues that the capacity to be religious is actually a small part of a larger and deeper human capacity to believe. Why believe in religion, economies, love? Fuentes employs evolutionary, neurobiological, and anthropological evidence to argue that belief — the ability to commit passionately and wholeheartedly to an idea — is central to the human way of being in the world.

The premise of the book is that believing is our ability to draw on our range of cognitive and social resources, our histories and experiences, and combine them with our imagination. It is the power to think beyond what is here and now in order to see and feel and know something — an idea, a vision, a necessity, a possibility, a truth — that is not immediately present to the senses, and then to invest, wholly and authentically, in that “something” so that it becomes one’s reality. The point is that beliefs and belief systems permeate human neurobiologies, bodies, and ecologies, and structure and shape our daily lives, our societies, and the world around us. We are human, therefore we believe, and this book tells us how we came to be that way.

Shermer and Fuentes also discuss:

– what it means to “believe” something (belief in evolution or the Big Bang is different from belief in progressive taxes or affirmative action),
– evolution and how beliefs are formed…and why,
– evolution of awe, wonder, aesthetic sense, beauty, art, music, dance, etc. (adaptation or exaptation/spandrel?),
– evolution of spirituality, religion, belief in immortality,
– Were Neanderthals human in the “belief” sense?
– human niche and the evolution of symbolism/language,
– evolution of theory of mind,
– how to infer symbolic meaning from archaeological artifacts,
– components of belief: augmented cognition and neurobiology, intentionality, imagination, innovation, compassion and intensive reliance on others, meaning-making,
– dog domestication and human self-domestication,
– Göbekli Tepe and the underestimation of ancient peoples’ cognitive capacities,
– the development of property, accumulation of goods, inequality, and social hierarchy,
gender role specialization,
– monogamy and polyamory, gender and sex, and continuum vs. binary thinking,
– violence and warfare,
– political and economic systems of belief, and
– love as belief.

Agustín Fuentes is a Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University. He is an active public scientist, a well-known blogger, lecturer, tweeter, and an explorer for National Geographic. Fuentes received the Inaugural Communication & Outreach Award from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, the President’s Award from the American Anthropological Association, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Video: the science of morality – Dr. Liane Young [John Templeton Foundation]

“Video: the science of morality

Video: The Science of Morality

Right and wrong, good and evil — when viewing the world, our moral judgments often feel clear-cut and consistent. Research shows, however, that we’re willing to be more forgiving and flexible with those who are socially close to us, while applying sterner judgments to those who are far away. Why do we make these exceptions? And how can we broaden our sense of morality to be more fair to people outside of our tribes? Learn more about the science of morality in this interview with Dr. Liane Young, professor of psychology at Boston College. Young is the project co-leader with Fiery Cushman of the John Templeton Foundation-supported project on “Reasoning in moral thought and action,” which examines when, how, and why reason plays a role in morality, alongside other emotional and situational influences on our moral judgments.

This is the third video in our series of interviews produced by the independent media company Freethink. Watch the first episode here, which features Dr. Uri Maoz discussing the neuroscience of free will and its implications for human freedom. Then watch the second episode and explore the latest research in the science of forgiveness with Dr. Amrisha Vaish, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and leader of a project studying the development of forgiveness supported by the John Templeton Foundation.”

“É um disparate as pessoas convencerem-se de que a inteligência vem do cérebro” – António Damásio [Diário de Notícias]

“É um disparate as pessoas convencerem-se de que a inteligência vem do cérebro”

Vinte e seis anos após O Erro de Descartes, António Damásio tem um novo livro, em que nega a frase do evangelho “no início foi o verbo”. Sobre a pandemia, alerta: “O grande problema da velocidade a que se pode criar uma vacina é ter a garantia de que não se transformará num problema ainda maior.”

https://www.dn.pt/edicao-do-dia/05-dez-2020/e-um-disparate-as-pessoas-convencerem-se-de-que-a-inteligencia-vem-do-cerebro-13104356.html

***

Sentir & Saber – A Caminho da Consciência
António Damásio
Editora Temas e Debates
292 páginas

(…)

“Aliás, é mais fácil escrever muito do que pouco, porque o trabalho de redução é extremamente difícil”, acrescenta, rematando com a experiência de um colega que dizia:”Não tenho tempo para escrever tão curto.”

(…)

Se lhe perguntar qual é o legado de um trabalho de décadas, este livro é a resposta?

Existem vários aspetos no meu trabalho: o científico e o de pensamento, portanto dizer que este livro é o legado seria um exagero. É, muito especificamente, uma maneira de tratar assuntos que me apaixonam – problemas científicos e filosóficos – e uma tentativa de os expor sob uma forma mais clara. Por boa sorte, enquanto fui construindo o livro também tive a oportunidade de descobrir que algumas das soluções que tenho apresentado para certos problemas são, de facto, soluções novas e sob certos aspetos – digo eu e vários dos meus colegas – muito convincentes. Então, posso dizer que é ao mesmo tempo uma tentativa de pôr a claro e de uma forma mais direta temas importantes do meu trabalho e deixar claro que existem questões em bom caminho de serem resolvidas. Muito especificamente, no que respeita à consciência e aos sentimentos.

(…)

Aliás, com o tremendo sucesso do que hoje se chama a neurociência, a preocupação dominante tem sido o cérebro, propriamente dito. Questiono se o cérebro é capaz de resolver todos os problemas que existem em torno do que é a mente humana. Para perceber o que é a mente, necessita-se de entender o que se passa com o cérebro, mas, muito antes disso, compreender o que se passa com o corpo, vivo e inteligente. Diria que esta é a resposta completa à pergunta.

(…)

Pode parecer paradoxal, porque quando se pensa na inteligência artificial o que vem à ideia é que são criaturas absolutamente invulneráveis, feitas de aço e de plástico em vez da nossa pobre carne humana. À primeira vista pode parecer uma asneira introduzir vulnerabilidade numa coisa que é robusta, no entanto, só a introduzindo teremos a possibilidade de fazer qualquer coisa de mais rico em matéria das reações que esse “organismo” poderá tomar.

(…)

O que quero é mostrar, tanto quanto for possível, que as respostas que hoje estamos a dar podem ser diferentes mas o mesmo não se passa com as perguntas. Desde que temos mentes conscientes – uma mente consciente é a que tem sentimentos e se estes não existirem, provavelmente, não haveria consciência -, é importante termos a ideia de como o corpo está a funcionar e essa é a porta de entrada para as grandes perguntas humanas, aquelas que são as de sempre e desde que uma pessoa se lembra de que a vida tinha uma problemática extremamente complexa. Mas só desde que existem sistemas nervosos é que foi possível transformar essa problemática em consciente. É um quase paradoxo que, ao pensarmos no tempo da vida humana no planeta, apenas no último quarto desses quatro biliões de anos se deu a entrada dentro do sistema nervoso e que só nos últimos 200 milhões de anos é que, quando muito, há qualquer coisa que venha a parecer-se com aquilo que é o nosso sistema nervoso. A conclusão é que grande parte do tempo dos seres vivos sobre o nosso planeta tem sido vivida de uma forma inconsciente.

O que quer dizer?

Que havia vida complexa e evolução, mas ninguém sabia que existia. É espantoso pensar que isto só começou a ser conhecido no momento em que começámos a ter consciência do que estava a acontecer no nosso corpo e com a nossa vida. Depois, à medida que os sistemas nervosos evoluíram, conseguiu-se ter um conhecimento através da observação e das ciências do que é a vida em seres vivos como nós. É uma história muito complexa, mas uma vez que chegámos à idade da consciência e da razão, foi possível fazer as perguntas e as pessoas puderam olhar umas para as outras, olhar para a história delas próprias, e então fazer essas interrogações e questionar o sentido da existência.

Alerta para o facto de uma teoria que ignore o sistema nervoso para justificar a mente e a consciência estar condenada ao fracasso, mas, diz, uma teoria que dependa exclusivamente do sistema nervoso está também condenada a falhar. Enquanto cientista, como é viver num equilíbrio investigatório?

Sem dúvida que essa é uma das ideias principais deste livro – como já era no anterior,
A Estranha Ordem das Coisas -, a de que a vida começa antes do cérebro. Neste momento é muito comum que estejamos constantemente a ser bombardeados com novos factos e ideias sobre o cérebro, daí que as pessoas acabem por se convencer de que aquilo que é a sua inteligência vem do cérebro. Isso é um disparate e é completamente errado dizer que a inteligência vem do cérebro. A nossa inteligência é complementada pelo cérebro! Porque a nossa inteligência começou há biliões de anos com a própria vida e tem vindo a desenvolver-se com processos que antecedem o aparecimento dos sistemas nervosos. Em inglês, tenho no livro uma frase que é assim: “Brains are an after thought of nature”, traduzindo: “Os cérebros são o último pensamento da natureza.” O que quer dizer que a natureza pode funcionar perfeitamente sem cérebros, contudo o que os cérebros lhe trouxeram foi um melhor funcionamento. Portanto, a razão por que temos cérebros – e mente e consciência e raciocínio – é porque nos ajuda a viver melhor. Ajuda a vida e permite a vida com a grande complexidade como é a dos seres humanos. Não esquecer que, antes de existir essa grande complexidade, já havia vida, inteligência e funcionamento.

Daí que dê como título ao primeiro capítulo “No início não foi o verbo”, contrariando a abertura do Evangelho de João?

Claro, só podia ser assim. A frase clássica é bíblica e tem que ver com a maneira como os seres humanos de há alguns milhares de anos descrevem a sua própria situação. Evidentemente, eles confrontavam-se com a sua realidade e a palavra, como forma de descrever fenómenos diversos, era o modo principal. Hoje, sabemos que temos milhões de anos de evolução, que começaram e mantiveram-se com a inteligência – mas não havia nem cérebro, nem mente, nem capacidade verbal; portanto, é muito importante afirmar que no início não foi o verbo. Trata-se de uma leitura perfeitamente aceitável, mas devemos entendê-la como uma leitura parcial, que é a sua realidade.

(…)

Choca o leitor, e vamos à página 3, quando compara o ser humano aos seres unicelulares ; que nos diferenciamos por ter uma inteligência baseada no raciocínio e na criatividade mas somos iguais no aspeto de uma competência não explícita como acontece com as bactérias. Somos assim tão iguais?

Somos iguais e não somos. Nessa característica somos, mas depois existem todas as outras que vieram juntar-se a essa e que nos dão uma capacidade extraordinária. Não podemos fazer a comparação entre o ser humano e uma bactéria, pois um tem inteligência, capacidade de criação e uma autonomia completamente diferentes, mas ao mesmo tempo devemos reconhecer que a humilde bactéria tem vida, tem de a regular e confronta-se com o problema de se alimentar, de se defender do excesso de frio ou de calor… Uma vez que há vida, existe uma complexidade e uma novidade extraordinárias e é isso que se encontra na bactéria e em nós. Não é que os seres humanos devam ficar ofendidos por serem comparados a uma bactéria, é um pouco ao contrário, pois devemos reconhecer que aquilo que a bactéria tem é um aspeto fundamental para o que nós somos e deve ser respeitada se não quisermos que dê cabo de nós. Seria bom que pudéssemos fazer isso com os vírus, o que não é neste momento de todo possível como se vê com a pandemia com que nos confrontamos.”

“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.

(…)

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.

(…)

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

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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.

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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.

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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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).

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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.”