“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.”

“Politics is visceral” By Manos Tsakiris [Aeon]

“Politics is visceral

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

Manos Tsakiris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Taxonomy of Human Evolved Psychological Adaptations” By Niruban Balachandran, Daniel Glass [The Evolution Institute]

“The Taxonomy of Human Evolved Psychological Adaptations

By Niruban Balachandran, Daniel Glass

https://evolution-institute.org/the-taxonomy-of-human-evolved-psychological-adaptations/

This article accompanies a This View of Life Podcast with PsychTable co-founders Niruban Balachandran and Daniel Glass. Listen here: https://pod.link/1484281813

In 1992, the evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby predicted, “Just as one can now flip open Gray’s Anatomy to any page and find an intricately detailed depiction of some part of our evolved species-typical morphology, we anticipate that in 50 or 100 years one will be able to pick up an equivalent reference work for psychology and find in it detailed information-processing descriptions of the multitude of evolved species-typical adaptations of the human mind, including how they are mapped onto the corresponding neuroanatomy and how they are constructed by developmental programs.”

Classification systems like the one Cosmides and Tooby envisaged indicate the maturity of a scientific discipline because they enable the organization and labeling of entities under observation (i.e., taxa). Like chemistry’s Periodic Table of Elements, zoology’s Linnean classification system, and psychiatry’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the evolutionary behavioral sciences were still in need of a taxonomy of evolved psychological adaptations (EPAs)—which are defined as cognitive, emotional, behavioral, or perceptual traits that were functionally designed by the process of evolution by selection—such as the eyeblink, thirst, and startle responses.

However, by the start of the 21st century, evolutionary behavioral scientists had already proposed and amassed an international stock of hundreds of EPAs. Furthermore, other factors signaled that the timing was right for establishing a classification system for EPAs: an abundance of affordable global computing power, the explosion in web-based scientific collaboration and social networking, increasingly testable hypotheses, exciting new research methods from advanced neuroimaging to behavioral genetics, and the international emergence of a core of young, transdisciplinary researchers. Therefore, finding it unnecessary to wait until 2042 or 2092, Niruban proposed and published a taxonomy of human EPAs in 2011. We then teamed up in 2012, co-founding and announcing the launch of PsychTable.org together. It was a terrific moment.

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As E.O. Wilson wrote, “To maintain the species indefinitely, we are compelled to drive toward total knowledge, right down to the levels of the neuron and the gene. When we have progressed enough to explain ourselves in these mechanistic terms, and the social sciences come to full flower, the result might be hard to accept.” Therefore, to address this imperative, our goals are fourfold:

1 – Increase awareness of the role evolution has played in shaping our minds, brain, and behavior.

2 – Create a simple and intuitive taxonomy of proposed and supported EPAs.

3 – Help identify gaps in current EPA research.

4 – Provide a reference tool for scientists, students, and laypeople studying human behavior.

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https://www.psychtable.org/ is, therefore, an open-science taxonomy devoted to uncovering the richness and complexity of our evolved human behavior. We hope it will help contribute to a fuller understanding of ourselves and our world. As W.D. Hamilton put it, “The tabula of human nature was never rasa, and is now being read.”

“The Emotional Mind – The Affective Roots of Culture and Cognition” by Stephen T. Asma & Rami Gabriel [The Brains Blog]

“The Emotional Mind: The affective roots of culture and cognition

STEPHEN T. ASMA AND RAMI GABRIEL

FEBRUARY 16, 2020

http://philosophyofbrains.com/2020/02/16/the-emotional-mind-the-affective-roots-of-culture-and-cognition.aspx

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In our new book The Emotional Mind: The Affective Roots of Culture and Cognition (Harvard University Press, 2019), we argue that emotional systems are central to understanding the evolution of the human mind (as well as those of our primate cousins). Following the pioneering affective science of researchers like Jaak Panksepp, Antonio Damasio, and Fran de Waal, we bring together insights and data from philosophy, biology and psychology to shape a new research program –an alternative approach to the algorithmic assumptions of cognitive science and the post hoc stories of some evolutionary psychology.

A sufficient account of the evolution of mind needs to go deeper than our power of propositional thinking –our rarefied ability to manipulate linguistic representations in a lingua mentis. We will have to understand a much older capacity – the power to feel and respond appropriately. We need to think about consciousness itself as an archaeologist thinks about layers of sedimentary strata.

Affective science can demonstrate the surprising relevance of feelings to perception, movement, decision-making, and social behavior. The mind is saturated with feelings. Almost every perception and thought is valenced, or emotionally weighted with some attraction or repulsion quality.[3] Moreover, those feelings, sculpted in the encounter between neuroplasticity and ecological setting, provide the true semantic contours of mind. Meaning is foundationally a product of embodiment, our relation to the immediate environment, and the emotional cues of social interaction, not abstract correspondence between sign and referent. The challenge then is to unpack this embodiment. How do emotions like care, rage, lust, and even playfulness enable the social world of mammals, an information-rich niche for human learning, and a motivational system for higher-level ideational salience?

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The biological and psychological sciences have historically isolated or focused on one layer of mind to the exclusion of others, and thereby presented partial and sometimes conflicting pictures of mind and behavior. Many computationally oriented cognitive scientists tend to focus on tertiary-level processing, while behaviorists focus on secondary-level processing.

We think the lowest layers of mind permeate, infiltrate, and animate the higher layers. The evolution of mind is the developmental story of how these layers emerged and acted as feedback loops on each other. Such feedback, however, is not strictly a brain process, but an embodied, enactive, embedded, and socio-cultural process.”

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The Emotional Mind – The Affective Roots of Culture and Cognition

Stephen T. Asma, Rami Gabriel

https://www.amazon.com.br/Emotional-Mind-Affective-Culture-Cognition/dp/0674980557

Tracing the leading role of emotions in the evolution of the mind, a philosopher and a psychologist pair up to reveal how thought and culture owe less to our faculty for reason than to our capacity to feel.

Many accounts of the human mind concentrate on the brain’s computational power. Yet, in evolutionary terms, rational cognition emerged only the day before yesterday. For nearly 200 million years before humans developed a capacity to reason, the emotional centers of the brain were hard at work. If we want to properly understand the evolution of the mind, we must explore this more primal capability that we share with other animals: the power to feel.

Emotions saturate every thought and perception with the weight of feelings. The Emotional Mind reveals that many of the distinctive behaviors and social structures of our species are best discerned through the lens of emotions. Even the roots of so much that makes us uniquely human―art, mythology, religion―can be traced to feelings of caring, longing, fear, loneliness, awe, rage, lust, playfulness, and more.

From prehistoric cave art to the songs of Hank Williams, Stephen T. Asma and Rami Gabriel explore how the evolution of the emotional mind stimulated our species’ cultural expression in all its rich variety. Bringing together insights and data from philosophy, biology, anthropology, neuroscience, and psychology, The Emotional Mind offers a new paradigm for understanding what it is that makes us so unique.”

Petersen, Michael Bang. “The evolutionary psychology of mass politics”. In Applied Evolutionary Psychology (Oxford, 2012)

Applied Evolutionary Psychology

S. Craig Roberts (ed.)

Print ISBN-13: 9780199586073

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2012

Chapter 8 – The evolutionary psychology of mass politics

Michael Bang Petersen

https://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199586073.001.0001/acprof-9780199586073-chapter-0008

A number of modern political issues mimic ancestral problems of social living. By implication, our evolved social psychology is engaged by mass politics and helps facilitate the formation of public opinion and behaviour. Yet, the contextual differences between ancestral small-scale interaction and mass politics are many in terms of scale. On the one hand, the automatic operations of our evolved psychology prompt individuals to disregard these differences: individuals effectively think about mass political issues as small-scale social problems. On other hand, in the large-scale setting of mass politics, individuals cannot rely on directly available cues but are left with cues provided by media and political elites or, when these too are absent, on internally-generated cues. In these situations, our evolved social psychology will not so much facilitate a clear choice as produce ambivalence and attitudinal inconsistencies.

Keywords: evolutionary politics, leadership, voting, social behaviour

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“Whenever an individualturns on the television, picks up a newspaper, or browses the Internet, it is likely that he or she willbe confronted with the developments in national or international politics. In this chapter, I will investigate how lay individuals process these developments and form opinions on them using evolved decision-making mechanisms. As will be seen, ancestral life in small hunter/gatherer groups has selected for a suite of mechanisms that are engaged by mass politics, but at the sametime these mechanisms evolved to function within a radically different context. By implication, whenever a mass political problem engages the evolved mind, it seems to be psychologically reduced to a problem of small-scale interaction.

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The political animal

As group-living animals, a range of social problems such as sharing decisions, formation of collective action, punishment of free-riders, management of intergroup relations, and hierarchy formation would directly have impinged on the survival and reproduction of our ancestors (Buss 2005). The evidence supporting this assertion is overwhelming. Anthropologists have, for example, carefully compiled a list of human universals (i.e. traits that are present in all known human cultures). This list features inherently collective traits such collective identities, conflict, conflict mediation, cooperation, ethnocentrism, government, group living, law, leaders, property, sanctions for crime, and trade (Pinker 2002). Furthermore, the fossil record provides evidence that many of these activities are not only universal but have deep evolutionary roots. Hence, archaeological findings document that our ancestors have cared for the crippled and injured at least since 1.77 million years ago (Hublin 2009), have had elements of social organization at least since 750,000 years ago (Alperson-Afil et al. 2009), have hunted cooperatively and shared meat within groups at least since 400,000 years ago (Stiner et al . 2009), and have used weapons to engage inconspecific aggression since at least the Middle Palaeolithic (Walker 2001).

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These insights from evolutionary psychology are important for our understanding of political behaviour because ancestral problems related to social living carry structural similarities to modern political problems such as welfare, tax payments, criminal sanctions, immigration, warfare, race relations, and redistribution (Alford and Hibbing 2004; Schreiber 2006; Petersen 2009). Both sets of problems are, essentially, about distributions of costs and benefits within and between groups. By implication it is plausible that, during normal development, the human mind builds a tool box of mental programs directly applicable to the issues of mass politics. This toolbox should facilitate the formation of political attitudes and the execution of political decisions.

To the evolved mind, all politics is local

Our social decision-making apparatus was designed by natural selection to produce decisions that would constitute adaptive ‘best bets’ in the particular environment in which it evolved (Toobyand Cosmides 1992). In this respect, it is notable and important that modern politics is played out in large-scale nation states comprising millions of individuals, because large-scale societies are extremely recent evolutionary phenomena. States first emerged in the world around 5000 before present (BP) and, while state technology rapidly diffused to some parts of the world, states inother parts of the world were only formed within the last centuries (Petersen and Skaaning 2010).For millions of years prior to that, human evolved as hunters and gatherers in small-scale groups with between 25 and 200 individuals (Kelly 1995). Most parts of our species-typical social decision-making apparatus are, in other words, designed to be operative within the causal structure of a small-scale social environment rather than a large-scale mass society. This implies, first,that the input this apparatus is designed to extract and process from decision-making contexts would be cues causally relevant for adaptive choice in small-scale interaction and, second, that the cognitive and motivational output this apparatus produces is that which would solve a given problem in a small-scale context.

We have no reason to believe that modern individuals should be particularly aware of these built-in assumptions and, hence, they may not be able to correct for them. Rather, prior research in other fields suggests that evolved decision-rules operate in an automated fashion. This has important consequences (Price 2008), for example, argues that because of their automated nature, evolved decision-rules are switched on by any cues that mimic ancestrally recurrent cues even when these are present in a novel situation and, upon triggering, cause individuals to misapprehend the novel situation as a related evolutionarily recurrent one (see also Hagen andHammerstein 2006).

(…)

to the extent that individuals’ attitudes on modern political issues are formed using evolved decision making mechanisms, these attitudes will implicitly assume that mass politics are in fact played outin a local small-scale setting. In other words, to paraphrase an often heard expression about politics: to the evolved mind, all politics is local. The information that people find intuitively relevant when producing political choices will be information of relevance in small-scale social environments; and the political solutions that people will find intuitively correct will be solutions that work within such environments. This effect, it must be stressed, does not arise because modern individuals are not consciously aware that the problems of state-centred politics are different from the problems they encounter in local settings with, for example, their wife, friends, neighbours, and colleagues. Rather, it is because the automatic operations of evolved decision-rulesswamp the opinion formation process of individuals and make the differences seem irrelevant and uninteresting.

(…)

individuals think about mass politics in terms of ancestral small-scale interaction–whether or not this is rational from a modern-day perspective. Hence, males react as if disputesover national policies were a matter of direct physical confrontation among small numbers of individuals, rather than abstract electoral dynamics among millions.

(…)

Ancestral coalitional conflict and political groups

(…)

Our evolved coalitional machinery should be activated in all contexts containing cues that ancestrally would have disclosed the existence of group-based cooperation and conflict. In modern politics, one such context is conflict between political parties. Political parties are characterized by high levels of within-party cooperation and between-party conflict. By implication then, some of the above mechanisms should also take effect in modern party politics. In one study, affiliations with a political party were found to be psychologically represented as coalitional affiliations — atleast for males. Stanton et al. (2009) followed party supporters on the night of the 2007 US presidential elections, measuring their testosterone levels. Studies of humans and other animals have demonstrated that male testosterone levels fall in response to losing status, presumably to motivatea de-escalation of conflict. The same hormonal pattern was observed among supporters of the Republican party immediately after Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate, was announced as the winner. Having voted for the losing party felt just like losing a direct status competition.

Another study focused on the notion that, if political affiliation is conceptualized as a coalitional identity, political attitudes can come to serve as coalitional badges (Petersen et al. in prep.). That is, individuals can come to have certain attitudes to signal that they are loyal partisans. If parties change position on an issue, voters usually do not shift allegiance to another party but rather change their position too (e.g. Goren 2005; Zaller 1992). In support of an evolutionary interpretation of these effects, Petersen et al. (in prep.) identified sex differences in the way citizens’ attitudes are used as coalitional badges. Subjects were primed with demeaning statements about a party attributed to a spokesman from another party. After priming, they were asked about their opinion on a policy proposal that was either attributed to the attacked party or the attacking party (keeping the content of the proposal constant) and, hence, were provided withan opportunity for signalling coalitional loyalty. As expected, males reacted in a highly coalitional manner to the primes. When their preferred party was attacked in the statement, they became more willing to support policy when attributed to their party, and less willing to support it when it was attributed to the other party. Females, however, reacted in a conciliatory fashion. When their preferred party was attacked by another party, they become more willing to accept the policy proposal by this other party, as if to appease the attacker. Female appeasement strategies have been observed among females in small-scale conflict situations (Salter et al. 2005) and make evolutionary sense in this context given the lack of female physical strength. In modern party politics, however, there seems to be less, if any, rational reason to back off in this manner.

The anonymity of mass politics and processing implications

The above examples illustrate situations where modern humans misapprehend political issues as ancestral adaptive problems. From this, one obvious expectation would be that people intuitively find politics interesting and engaging. After all, the argument implies that politics is implicitly represented as about matters of survival and reproduction. While there is certainly truth to this, it is, however, not the whole truth. The human political animal is, in fact, one with a paradoxically low interest in day-to-day affairs of modern politics. Since the first studies of public opinion and voting behaviour, political scientists have repeatedly documented how little citizens know, think, and care about politics (e.g. Converse 1964; Zaller 1992). Specifically, researchers have demonstrated that citizens do not know basic facts concerning their political system, such as the numberof seats in the legislature or the identity of those holding specific office (Carpini and Keeter 1996).Furthermore, a number of studies have demonstrated that a large number of people find it difficult to decide on political issues. On issues such as abortion and criminal justice, the public are ambivalent and most see merits in the arguments of both sides (Craig and Martinez 2005). Finally, a large number of studies have revealed that citizens have difficulties in sticking to their principles. Even though individuals in general support freedom of speech for everybody, they are often quite willing to limit the freedoms of specific groups (McClosky and Brill 1983). Similarly, individuals who support harsh punishments for crimes can be quite lenient towards specific criminals (Roberts 1992).

Any attempt to apply evolutionary psychology to the study of modern political attitudes and behaviour needs to reconcile the conclusion from evolutionary biology that humans are political animals with these observations from political science. If humans were endowed with a natural sense of politics, would citizens not think of mass politics as an interesting and intuitive affair?

Processing without cues

One reason that this turns out not to be the case is that some modern issues bear little relation ship to recurrent adaptive problems and, hence, do not activate natural intuitions. Technological advances in modern society have spawned a range of new issues (e.g. regulation of the macroeconomy). From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, such novel issues that do not fit evolved decision-mechanisms should indeed appear uninteresting and difficult to grasp. Yet, the technological advances of modern societies are insufficient to explain the lack of political attention among modern citizens. In addition, one needs — again — to focus on the contextual differences between modern mass politics and ancestral social interaction. Hence, the key to understanding how a political animal can be quite politically inattentive lies in the fact that our social decision-making mechanisms evolved in information-dense situations characterized by repeated face-to-face interactions. By implication, to disclose and solve adaptive problems of social life, our decision-making mechanisms are designed to rely on intimate social cues such asfacial expressions, knowledge of past interactions, and so on.

In the context of mass politics, these myriad subtle cues will often be lacking. Given that modern politics is played out in large-scale nation states comprising millions of individuals, the majority of citizens do not know and will never meet each other, and most often, citizens are required to form opinions and impressions of anonymous strangers. Modern politics, in other words, is characterized by information scarcity and our decision-making apparatus is unable to extract the detailed information necessary for its execution.”

“Why Face Masks Are Going Viral” by Gideon Lasco [Sapiens]

“Why Face Masks Are Going Viral [Sapiens]

As the new coronavirus epidemic spreads, more and more people are wearing surgical masks—despite their questionable effectiveness. An anthropologist explores the reasons why.

Gideon Lasco is a senior lecturer of anthropology at the University of the Philippines.

https://www.sapiens.org/culture/coronavirus-mask

(…)

People’s motivation for wearing these masks goes far beyond simple considerations of medical efficacy. Cultural values, perceptions of control, social pressure, civic duty, family concerns, self-expression, beliefs about public institutions, and even politics are all wrapped up in the “symbolic efficacy” of face masks.

(…)

Scholars have proposed various additional explanations for the popularity of face masks in Japan. Some say the practice conforms with the country’s notions of cleanliness and purity. One study suggested Japanese society has lost trust in public institutions in recent decades, prompting people to become more self-protective. In another survey, Japanese people said they primarily used masks to protect themselves but that the practice also demonstrates consideration for others and a respect for etiquette. For many, masks are a kind of “safety blanket,” and the simple act of putting them on is a “risk ritual” that provides comfort and quells anxiety.

(…)

Perhaps the perception of control also informs the narratives of Filipino people I have spoken with about their decision to wear masks. “I don’t want to infect my children,” Fely (a pseudonym), a mall worker in Quezon City, told me. “Even if doctors say it’s not necessary, I will wear it anyway because my family is at stake.”

“I feel uneasy when I see others wearing masks and I’m not,” said Justine (a pseudonym), a college student in Manila, adding that “there’s nothing to lose” by wearing them.

(…)

Disease epidemics set off an “epidemic of explanation,” in which societies search for a cause of the contagion, according to medical sociologist Philip Strong. At the same time, outbreaks heighten preexisting fears of societal dangers, which can cause flare ups of racial, social, and economic prejudices. The subsequent symptoms can include stigma, exclusion, and what cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas calls a politicized “blaming system.”

(…)

Anthropologists have explored these varying responses. In times of scarcity, some groups become more selfish. Others uphold reciprocity, a powerful and universal human value. And many communities practice “need-based transfer”—based on the idea that, in times of trouble, people help because they assume others would do the same for them.

Following the eruption of the Taal volcano in the Philippines, face masks became the currency not just of greed but also of goodwill. One of the most iconic images of the crisis is a photo of a man distributing free masks to help protect people from inhaling ashfall.

Face masks are likely to become increasingly common as the climate crisis exacerbates wildfires and other natural disasters, as air pollution worsens in many cities, and as global connectivity heightens the risk of pandemics. As masks become more integrated into everyday life, they will continue to reveal facets of human cultures as much as they conceal our faces.”

“Individuals are more optimistic about their own political parties or sports teams than others” [Medical Xpress]

“Individuals are more optimistic about their own political parties or sports teams than others

by Michelle Klampe, Oregon State University

https://medicalxpress.com/news/2020-02-individuals-optimistic-political-parties-sports.html

People tend to be irrationally optimistic about the future success of their sports team or political party, while supporters of their rivals hold similar overly positive views about the performance of their own group, a new study from Oregon State University has found.

“People hold biases about their own groups that lead them to believe good things are more likely for their team or party,” said Colleen Bee, an associate professor in OSU’s College of Business and one of the paper’s authors. “But the rival group also believes this about their team or party. These distorted and diametrically opposed points of view can lead to tension among rival groups, as we see in today’s political and sports worlds.”

The research, published recently in the European Journal of Social Psychology, shows that these biases are based on close affiliations people have with certain groups and these groups are an important part of how they define themselves. Previously, these biases have only been observed at the individual level.

The findings have practical implications for intergroup relations such as conflict resolution and negotiation as well as for communications strategies for group-related entities such as workplace organizations, sports teams or rival brands, said Bee, whose research interests include sports marketing and consumer behavior.

(…)

Given that group membership is an important part of how individuals define themselves, King and Bee wanted to better understand whether people’s individual biases extend to the groups they affiliate with, even though group members don’t have access to the internal thinking of a political party or a sports team.

(…)

The researchers surveyed Democrats and Republicans prior to the midterm election in 2018, asking them to evaluate one of the two political parties. Some evaluated the party they belonged to, while others evaluated their rival party. Again, the participants indicated they were more optimistic about their own party and its chances in the upcoming election than the other party’s chances.

“We tend to think our team or political party is more capable of change and improvement than the rival group,” Bee said, “and that our team or political party will be better in the future.”

***

“European Journal of Social Psychology

Better in the (near) future: Group‐based differences in forecasting biases

Jesse S. King, Colleen C. Bee

First published:30 September 2019

https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.2634

Abstract

Social identities are an important component of an individual’s self‐concept. In the current research, we examine how identification with a group can lead to biased intergroup judgments similar to those made when evaluating the self, relative to others. We compared evaluations of in‐ and outgroups in order to examine differences in temporal perspective and optimistic evaluations. Our findings suggest that compared to an outgroup, ingroup members more strongly consider the future potential of their group, are more optimistic when considering future ingroup outcomes, and hold a more uniformly positive view of an ingroup’s future. Furthermore, we find that when evaluating ingroups, shifts in temporal perspectives are related to greater optimism. We conclude by discussing theoretical implications and future research related to temporal judgments and social groups.”

“George Lakoff: ‘Liberals do everything wrong’; ‘Oxford philosophy is killing the world'” [2014]

“George Lakoff: ‘Conservatives don’t follow the polls, they want to change them … Liberals do everything wrong’ [2014]

Interview

By Zoe Williams

First published on Sat 1 Feb 2014 08.45 GMT

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/feb/01/george-lakoff-interview

“The progressive mindset is screwing up the world. The progressive mindset is guaranteeing no progress on global warming. The progressive mindset is saying, ‘Yes, fracking is fine.’ The progressive mindset is saying, ‘Yes, genetically modified organisms are OK’, when, in fact, they’re horrible, and the progressive mindset doesn’t know how to describe how horrible they are. There’s a difference between progressive morality, which is great, and the progressive mindset, which is half OK and half awful.”

George Lakoff, professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Berkeley, has been working on moral frames for 50 years. In Communicating Our American Values and Vision, he gives this precis: “Framing is not primarily about politics or political messaging or communication. It is far more fundamental than that: frames are the mental structures that allow human beings to understand reality – and sometimes to create what we take to be reality. But frames do have an enormous bearing on politics … they structure our ideas and concepts, they shape the way we reason … For the most part, our use of frames is unconscious and automatic.”

Lakoff is affable and generous. In public meetings he greets every question with: “That is an extremely good question.” But he cannot keep the frustration out of his voice: the left, he argues, is losing the political argument – every year, it cedes more ground to the right, under the mistaken impression that this will bring everything closer to the centre. In fact, there is no centre: the more progressives capitulate, the more boldly the conservatives express their vision, and the further to the right the mainstream moves. The reason is that conservatives speak from an authentic moral position, and appeal to voters’ values. Liberals try to argue against them using evidence; they are embarrassed by emotionality. They think that if you can just demonstrate to voters how their self-interest is served by a socially egalitarian position, that will work, and everyone will vote for them and the debate will be over. In fact, Lakoff asserts, voters don’t vote for bald self-interest; self-interest fails to ignite, it inspires nothing – progressives, of all people, ought to understand this.

(…)

Lakoff predicted all this in Moral Politics, first published in 1996. In it, he warned that “if liberals do not concern themselves very seriously and very quickly with the unity of their own philosophy and with morality and the family, they will not merely continue to lose elections but will as well bear responsibility for the success of conservatives in turning back the clock of progress in America.”

(…)

Much of cognitive linguistics concerns itself with how we build the mental apparatus to understand everyday situations: a hospital, or a date, or a cash machine. Erving Goffman, commonly cited as the most influential sociologist of the 20th century, wrote Frame Analysis in 1974, defining and exploring exactly how this happens. Having built the frames to understand life, we no longer deliberately plug back into it. It is unconscious; what we think of as “common sense” is merely an act or notion that resonates with one of our deep frames.

Lakoff’s work on the conceptual systems around morals and politics (and how they show up in language) has yielded two-dozen metaphors for morality, most of them universal across cultures. Of those, the two key frames informing political judgment involve the idea of government as a family: the strict-father model (conservative) versus the nurturant-parent model (progressive).

(…)

“Progressives want to follow the polls … Conservatives don’t follow the polls; they want to change them. Political ground is gained not when you successfully inhabit the middle ground, but when you successfully impose your framing as the ‘common-sense’ position.”

(…)

A classic liberal pitfall is the idea that by repeating one of the opposition’s ridiculous lines, you make it look even more absurd. “There was an election in Wisconsin,” Lakoff says, “there was a horrible governor there, and the Democrats were so stupid that they put up billboards all over the state with a picture of him smiling. They had his name in large letters next to the picture, and it says, ‘Why is this man smiling?’ And then in smaller type, it has a list of his positions, all from his point of view? As if everybody will recognise that this is a horrible man. Instead, it is a billboard in his favour. It’s about time progressives got out there and said what’s true about themselves, as well as what’s true of the other side. If you have a strong position, let’s hear it.”

(…)

It is, plainly, the longstanding failure to protect nature that powers Lakoff’s exasperation with liberals. “They don’t understand their own moral system or the other guy’s, they don’t know what’s at stake, they don’t know about framing, they don’t know about metaphors, they don’t understand the extent to which emotion is rational, they don’t understand how vital emotion is, they try to hide their emotion. They do everything wrong because they’re miseducated. And they’re proud of that miseducation. Oxford philosophy reigns supreme, right? Oxford philosophy is killing the world.”

“Scientism Versus the Theory of Mind” by Alex Rosenberg [Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective]

Scientism Versus the Theory of Mind – Alex Rosenberg (Department of Philosophy, Duke University)

––––––––––––––––––

Rosenberg, Alex. 2020. “Scientism Versus the Theory of Mind.” Social Epistemology Review and
Reply Collective 9 (10): 48-57.

https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-4Mf

Those who, like me, accept scientism adopt this definition with two elisions easy to spot: we delete the word ‘unwarranted.’ Scientism has obvious and important implications for what an American humorist, Garrison Keeler, called “life’s persistent questions.” Here is a list of some of them, and the answers I believe scientism requires us to give them.

Is there a God? No.

What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.

What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.

What is the meaning of life? Ditto.

Why am I here? Just dumb luck.

Does prayer work? Of course not.

Is there a soul? Is it immortal? Are you kidding?

Is there free will? Not a chance!

What happens when we die? Everything pretty much goes on as before, except us.

What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them.

Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.

Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes.

What is love, and how can I find it? Love is the solution to a strategic interaction problem. Don’t look for it; it will find you when you need it.

Does history have any meaning or purpose? It’s full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing.

Does the human past have any lessons for our future? Fewer and fewer, if it ever had any to begin with (from Rosenberg 2011, 2-3).

(…)

Until Darwin (1859) came along things looked pretty good for Kant’s (2007, XVII) pithy observation that there never would be a Newton for the blade of grass—that physics could not explain living things, human or otherwise, because it couldn’t invoke purpose.

But the process that Darwin discovered—random, or rather blind variation, and natural selection, or rather passive environmental filtration—does all the work of delivering the means/ends economy of biological nature that shouts out ‘purpose’ or ‘design’ at us.

(…)

Hardly anyone accepts scientism. Why not? Distaste? Implausibility? Too hard to understand?

All of the above, but all three of these factors are rooted in the same cause. The rejection of scientism is bred in the bone, as close to hard wired as it can be. It’s caused by our unswerving devotion to the theory of mind, a theory we carry with us and use everywhere and always.

The theory of mind (hereafter TOM) has other names—folk psychology, common sense psychology, the belief/desire model of human action. It has been formalized as the starting point of empirical cognitive social psychology.

(…)

Why does the TOM block acceptance of scientism? To begin with it does so, because it blocks the understanding and acceptance of science. The TOM makes us story-tellers and story-consumers. It’s what makes us love narratives with plots—human motivations fulfilled or thwarted. It’s what facilitates our remembering them, we even use them as devices to remember non-narrative information (cf. techniques for memorizing random lists). The TOM turned humans into hyperactive motivation detectors. Because we can’t escape relying on the TOM, we anthropomorphize everything. But of course, science doesn’t come packaged in stories about good guys, bad guys and their motives, narratives with plots.  Science is delivered in laws, equations, models, data-assembles, things we can’t keep in our heads because we can’t assemble them into stories. Our devotion to the TOM obstructs our uptake of science.

(…)

Our reliance on the TOM makes understanding science difficult just because science doesn’t come in stories with plots and motives and stories that we are hard wired to crave, to be satisfied with, to remember. Insofar as science banishes purpose, teleology, design and thus their well-understood causes—desire and belief—from nature, it makes itself hard to accept. More important, the TOM is among the presuppositions of most of our philosophically deep questions, and one of most indispensable building blocks of most of the alternative answers to these questions. Pull the TOM out from under the questions and the answers and they can’t even really be stated or answered in terms we can or will accept. But, as we will see, pulling the rug out from under the TOM is what science does. And that is what makes scientism so hard for people even to understand or contemplate.

(…)

It hardly needs saying that TOM underlies much that scientism rejects just because science makes scientism reject the TOM. Without the TOM, there is no space of reasons in our heads, no place were meanings can lodge and have a role in thought or action. That implies there’s no will, and so no free will, no agency or responsibility, no enduring self that can entertain or respond to reasons, not to mention the interpretations that we overlay on events to give them meaning. Neuroscience banished purpose from our heads as completely as Darwin banished from the rest of the biological domain. Without reasons in our heads, or anywhere else, there are no resources to scientifically construct what Sellars called “the manifest image” required by our culture, civilization, its legal, political, moral, creative, artistic subsystems. The costs of surrendering the TOM are huge, so huge we can’t do it for the practical purposes of everyday life, indeed for civilization as a whole. This fates us to the use of a highly imperfect (predictively unreliable, explanatorily baseless) instrument in the construction and operation of the institutions of our culture. The TOM’s baselessness explains many of their failures, defects and deficiencies.

But all this is too much for science to overthrow. And if creatures like us have a hard time understanding science in the first place, because the TOM that’s bred in our bones obstructs science, then we’ll have an even tougher time even understanding, let alone accepting scientism.”

Philosophy of Immunology by Thomas Pradeu

Philosophy of Immunology

Thomas Pradeu, Université de Bordeaux

Series: Elements in the Philosophy of Biology

Access: Open access

https://www.cambridge.org/core/elements/philosophy-of-immunology/06F0C341035299674EECF0406E5D8E31

Immunology is central to contemporary biology and medicine, but it also provides novel philosophical insights. Its most significant contribution to philosophy concerns the understanding of biological individuality: what a biological individual is, what makes it unique, how its boundaries are established and what ensures its identity through time. Immunology also offers answers to some of the most interesting philosophical questions. What is the definition of life? How are bodily systems delineated? How do the mind and the body interact? In this Element, Thomas Pradeu considers the ways in which immunology can shed light on these and other important philosophical issues. This title is also available as Open Access on Cambridge Core.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108616706
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Online publication date: January 2020
Online ISBN: 9781108616706

“Death of the individual. There is no such thing as self, argues professor Tom Oliver” [The Telegraph]

“Death of the individual. There is no such thing as self, argues professor Tom Oliver”

Neither our bodies nor our minds represent us, claims Prof Tom Oliver

18 JANUARY 2020 • 8:00PM

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2020/01/18/death-individual-no-thing-self-argues-professor/

John Donne, the English cleric and poet, wrote in the 17th century: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”

And now a British academic has claimed that human individuality is indeed just an illusion, because societies are far more intertwined at a mental, physical and cultural level than people realise.

In his new book, The Self Delusion, Professor Tom Oliver, a researcher in the Ecology and Evolution group at the University of Reading, argues that there is no such thing as ‘self’ and not even our bodies are truly ‘us’.

Just as Copernicus realised that the Earth is not the centre of the universe, Prof Oliver said society urgently needs a Copernican-like revolution to understand that people are not discrete beings but rather part of one connected identity.

“A significant milestone in the cultural evolution of human minds was the acceptance that the Earth is not the centre of the universe, the so-called Copernican revolution,” he writes.

“However, we have one more big myth to dispel: that we exist as independent selves at the centre of a subjective universe.

“You may feel as if you are a discrete individual acting autonomously in the world; that you have unchanging inner self that persists throughout your lifetime, acting as a central anchor-point with the world changing around you. This is the illusion I seek to tackle. We are seamlessly connected to the world around us.”

Prof Oliver, who is also a government adviser, said his journey as a scientist had led him to believe not only that supernatural powers do not exist, but individual humans do not either.

He argues that there are around 37 trillion cells in the body but most have a lifespan of just a few days or weeks, so the material ‘us’ is constantly changing. In fact, there is no part of your body that has existed for more than 10 years.

And the majority of cells in the body are not human, as we contain more bacterial cells than human cells.

Likewise recent findings in psychology and neuroscience suggest that even our minds are simply an echo-chamber of previously learned beliefs.

“Findings across a wide range of scientific disciplines increasingly support the idea that the central, discrete ‘I’ we obsessively nurture, protect and talk to throughout our lives is just an illusion,” said Prof Oliver.

“Since our bodies are essentially made anew every few weeks, the material in them alone is clearly insufficient to explain the persistent thread of an identity.

“We are like a thread in a tapestry that is unaware of the majesty of the whole interconnected piece. We are not sovereign individuals but part of a deep interconnected universal network.”

Prof Oliver claims that individualism is actually bad for society, and only by realising we are part of a bigger entity can we solve pressing environmental and societal problems.

Through selfish over-consumption we are destroying the natural world and using non-renewable resources at an accelerating rate.

“We are at a critical crossroads as a species where we must rapidly reform our mindsets and behaviour to act in less selfish ways,” he said

“Loosen your grip on the illusion of an independent ‘I’ and open your eyes to the hidden connections all around you.”

The self Delusion: The Surprising Science of How We Are Connected and Why That Matters, W&N are publishing on 23rd January 2020.

***

“The Self Delusion: The Surprising Science of How We Are Connected and Why That Matters (English Edition) eBook Kindle

Tom Oliver

Weidenfeld & Nicolson (23rd January 2020)

https://www.amazon.com.br/Self-Delusion-Surprising-Science-Connected-ebook/dp/B07SZL5H4S

We like to believe that we exist as independent selves at the centre of a subjective universe; that we are discrete individuals acting autonomously in the world with an unchanging inner self that persists throughout our lifetime.

This is an illusion.

On a physical, psychological and cultural level, we are all much more intertwined than we know: we cannot use our bodies to define our independent existence because most of our 37 trillion cells have such a short lifespan that we are essentially made anew every few weeks; the molecules that make up our bodies have already been component parts of countless other organisms, from ancient plants to dinosaurs; we are more than half non-human, in the form of bacteria, fungi and viruses, whose genes influence our moods and even manipulate our behaviour; and we cannot define ourselves by our minds, thoughts and actions, because these mainly originate from other people – the result of memes passing between us, existing before, after and beyond our own lifespans.

Professor of Ecology Tom Oliver makes the compelling argument that although this illusion of individualism has helped us to succeed as a species, tackling the big global challenges ahead now relies on our seeing beyond this mindset and understanding the complex connections between us. THE SELF DELUSION is an explosive, powerful and inspiring book that brings to life the overwhelming evidence contradicting the perception we have of ourselves as independent beings – and why understanding this may well be the key to a better future.

Do Political Campaigns Change Voters’ Minds? By Hugo Mercier

“Do Political Campaigns Change Voters’ Minds? By Hugo Mercier

Evidence shows that ads almost never affect us the way a personal conversation can

By Hugo Mercier

— Prof. Mercier is a cognitive scientist at the Jean Nicod Institute in Paris. His new book, “Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe,” will be published by Princeton University Press on Jan. 28.

Updated Jan. 17, 2020 2:02 pm ET

https://www.wsj.com/articles/do-political-campaigns-change-voters-minds-11579282258?mod=e2tw

(…)

For nearly two decades, political scientists have systematically tested the effectiveness of political campaigns. To find out whether a campaign strategy works, the best solution is to use randomized control trials. For example, you can randomly select certain neighborhoods to receive a campaign mailing supporting a particular candidate. If those areas vote for the candidate in greater numbers, it should be because the mailing influenced their choice.

This is what Alan Gerber of Yale University, a pioneer in the field, did in one of the first such studies, published in the journal American Behavioral Sciences in 2004. Nearly 100,000 households received mailings in favor of a congressional candidate. Were these people more likely to vote for the candidate? Not one bit. (More precisely, they were 0.2% more likely to do so, which is statistically insignificant.) The study was convincing because it was big: As a rule, the larger the sample, the more solid the conclusion.

In some of the other studies that Prof. Gerber conducted, he found that campaign mailings did have an effect on votes. But these experiments had smaller sample sizes, and their results were contradictory—in one of them, mailings seemed to make people less likely to vote for the candidate. The best way to make sense of such studies is to pool them in a meta-analysis, a statistical test that aggregates the results of many experiments to see if robust patterns emerge.

Last year, in a paper published in the American Political Science Review, political scientists Joshua Kalla of Yale and David Broockman of Stanford looked at all the studies that used randomized trials to test the effectiveness of political campaigns, adding nine of their own studies for good measure. The whole spectrum of campaign tools was covered—mainly canvassing, phone calls and mailings, with a few studies focusing on TV and online ads. The researchers’ conclusion was unambiguous: “The best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero.”

(…)

These experiments might seem dated. Who uses snail mail or answers their landlines anymore? The internet is the future, and online campaigns can buy data by the cartload to better aim their targeted messages.

Yet there is no evidence that online political ads are any more powerful than old-fashioned TV spots. Indeed, there are good reasons to think that all online ads, not just the political ones, have little impact. Randall Lewis, a researcher at Google, a company that makes 90% of its money selling online advertising, found (in an unpublished paper co-authored with Justin Rao of Microsoft ) that the effects of online ads are so small and variable that it is essentially impossible to measure their return.

(…)

When we encounter a message that challenges our views—like being asked to vote for a candidate we don’t already favor—our first reaction is usually to reject it. We change our minds only if we are provided with good arguments, ideally in the context of a discussion and from a source we perceive as competent and trustworthy. Gaining voters’ trust or engaging them in proper discussion is very hard to do en masse, which is why large-scale persuasion nearly invariably fails to convince us.”

“Personality is not only about who but also where you are” – Dorsa Amir [From aeon]

From aeon.

“Personality is not only about who but also where you are”

Dorsa Amir
is an evolutionary anthropologist and postdoctoral research fellow at Boston College. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, on Buzzfeed and in TEDx talks.

https://aeon.co/ideas/personality-is-not-only-about-who-but-also-where-you-are

The first challenge is casting doubt on the tendency to see personality traits – patterns of behaviour that are stable across time – as parts of our identities that are inevitable and arising from within. While it’s true that people are the products of genes interacting with the environment (the answer to the question ‘Is it nature or nurture?’ is always ‘Yes’), work by the psychologist Nick Haslam at the University of Melbourne and other researchers has shown that people err in the direction of nature, seeing personality traits as much more fixed. In other words, you’re more likely to say that your friend Jane just is a patient person and always would be, even in an environment where it’s not the best strategy – for example, in a dangerous situation where tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. Patience, you might say, is something that comes from within her, not from the world around her.

The other challenge concerns whom psychologists have been studying for the past century. While scholars know a fair amount about how traits develop, that knowledge derives from research on a very specific and peculiar subset of humans: those living in industrialised societies. As quantified in a now-landmark study called ‘The Weirdest People in the World?’ (2010), the anthropologist Joseph Henrich and his team at the University of British Columbia showed that roughly 96 per cent of subjects in psychology studies came from so-called ‘WEIRD’ societies – or those that are Western, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic.

A bias toward WEIRD societies is problematic for a number of reasons. First, people in these societies are a poor proxy for the average human, representing countries that make up only about 12 per cent of the world’s population. But this asymmetry toward industrialised societies is problematic for another reason: it represents an environment that’s fundamentally different from the ones in which human beings evolved.

(…)

To understand why industrialisation might be an influential force in the development of behaviour, it’s important to understand its legacy in the human story. The advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago launched perhaps the most profound transformation in the history of human life. No longer dependent on hunting or gathering for survival, people formed more complex societies with new cultural innovations. Some of the most important of these innovations involved new ways of accumulating, storing and trading resources. One effect of these changes, from a decision-making standpoint, was a reduction in uncertainty. Instead of relying on hard-to-predict resources such as prey, markets allowed us to create larger and more stable pools of resources.

To understand why industrialisation might be an influential force in the development of behaviour, it’s important to understand its legacy in the human story. The advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago launched perhaps the most profound transformation in the history of human life. No longer dependent on hunting or gathering for survival, people formed more complex societies with new cultural innovations. Some of the most important of these innovations involved new ways of accumulating, storing and trading resources. One effect of these changes, from a decision-making standpoint, was a reduction in uncertainty. Instead of relying on hard-to-predict resources such as prey, markets allowed us to create larger and more stable pools of resources.”

“Social influencers: what can we learn from animals?” [Oxford University]

[From Oxford University]

“Social influencers: what can we learn from animals?

http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2019-12-05-social-influencers-what-can-we-learn-animals#

Research from Oxford University calls us to reconsider how behaviours may spread through societies of wild animals, and how this might provide new insights into human social networks.

Our social connections to one another, whether it be online or in real life, give rise to our ‘social networks’. Previously, it has often been assumed that the individuals with the most social connections are the primary ‘social influencers’ and most likely to acquire, and spread, new behaviours. Behaviours were viewed to spread simply based on the amount of exposure to others, just like contracting a contagious disease might depend on exposure to infected individuals. This viewpoint has not only been applied to humans, but also a range of different animal species too.

However, a new study from Oxford University suggests our understanding of animal behaviours are enhanced by drawing on the latest findings in human systems, which show that the most influential individuals are not necessarily the most social ones. Instead, the most important individuals often tend to be those occurring in tight knit friendship circles. Even though these individuals may have relatively few social connections, they wield high influence within their cliques and promote the rapid spread of new behaviours.

The new study, published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, shows how these recent insights, coming from contexts as varied as how new technologies are adopted, how political movements occur, and even how social media hashtags spread, can now be harnessed for furthering our understanding of animal societies too. The study presents examples showing how even in the most basic systems, small changes in how behaviours spread can enormously affect which animals might adopt a behaviour, and which might be important to spreading it.

The author of the study, Dr Josh Firth, said: ‘Just like in humans, various animal species are known to be capable of social considerations, such as when to adopt a behaviour, or who to learn from. These choices mean that behaviours don’t spread like diseases.’

***

The study:

Considering Complexity: Animal Social Networks and Behavioural Contagions
Josh A. Firth

Published:December 03, 2019

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2019.10.009