“Covid-19, and Our Tribal Identities | When Our Moral Psychology Turns on Itself” by Hector Garcia [Psychology Today]

“Covid-19, and Our Tribal Identities

When Our Moral Psychology Turns on Itself

Hector A Garcia Psy.D.
Hector Garcia, Ph.D., is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. [Alpha God: The Psychology of Religious Violence and Oppression; Sex, Power, and Partisanship: How Evolutionary Science Makes Sense of Our Political Divide]

Posted Apr 27, 2020



As examples, golf courses around the nation were allowed to remain open, along with beaches in Florida. Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbot decreed that religious services are allowable, despite the obvious risks (churches were already defying previous restrictions). With emboldening tweets from Donald Trump, anti-lockdown rallies have proliferated, touting the pandemic as a liberal media conspiracy, and containment efforts as anti-freedom—one protestor’s sign read “Social Distancing is Communism!,” another, “Liberate America!”. Notably, these are gatherings of potentially infectious people in close contact with one another, and perhaps unsurprisingly the virus has begun to kill protestors. While the common thread of churches, Trump, Texas governance, and even golf courses may be political conservatism, how do we make sense of this dangerously irrational behavior?

It is ironic that our sensible, science-based efforts to remove ourselves from corona’s onslaught push against ancient instincts designed to help us survive infectious disease. In other words, our pathogen-survival instincts may have outlived their utility, and today may be helping to actually spread COVID-19 rather than contain it. It may be surprising to learn that these very instincts drive our political behaviors. Given that our strategic responses to infectious disease are utterly dependent on political processes, understanding our evolved responses to germs is now literally a matter of life and death. To ensure our future, we may start with a look to our past.

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors knew nothing about what diseases really were. The microbiologic world was invisible to them. They had no vaccines. They had no antibiotics. But they were (as we are now) equipped with what is known in the evolutionary sciences as a behavioral immune system—a set of emotional responses such as disgust, fear, and hostility that helped them withdraw from potential pathogens. Given that humans were the biggest vectors of disease, that immune system included a prejudicial psychology against outsiders; strangers potentially carried pathogens for which the tribe had no immunity. We already know the devastating impact that contact between distal peoples has had on human populations—that is, before the advent of vaccines, and an understanding of physical distancing. As one crushing example, diseases brought by the European invasion of the “New World” sent up to 90% of Native Americans to their graves.

Fear of germs, like so many other traits, falls on the natural curve. Just as there were advantages to xenophobia in our ancestral environments, there were advantages to xenophilia (an attraction to outsiders), which afforded our ancestors greater access to new technologies, and mates outside their gene pool.  One of the most robust findings in the science of our political psychology is that those who are more germ-and-xenophobic tend to be more politically conservative. It makes sense, then, that today those with greater xenophobia would be drawn to politics that are hawkish in their foreign policy, take tough stances on border security, and posture against affirmative action (which helps people who may be seen as outsiders).

Interestingly, those on the conservative end (on average) tend to be not only more fearful of germs and outsiders, but to be generally more fearful. Imaging studies even find conservatives tend to have larger amygdalae, a brain structure that generates our fear responses.2 Yet, those protesting on the streets, violating isolation orders, putting not only others but also themselves in mortal danger, tend to be overwhelmingly far right. The explanation to this stunning contradiction—tribalism.


Sometimes the signals are visual. Think of aboriginal tribes that wear similar regalia to signify belonging—similar headdresses, similar colors, or even tribal scarring or tattoos. Today’s maga-hats, protest signs, political bumper stickers, and T-shirts, tell other members of the group that you’re with them. At other times the signal is showing agreement, and an alarming degree of this kind of conformity happens below the level of conscious awareness.  There is important research on this tendency worth pondering.


Indeed, that tendency to mentally suppress information that runs contrary to group consensus appears to be related to the fact that humans are exquisitely talented at detecting liars, cheaters, or even insincerity. And so, the capacity to self-deceive may have developed to conceal our true beliefs. Indeed, if Wrangham is right, this ability to self-deceive may have kept our ancestors from getting murdered by their peers.


One revealing study examined how highly partisan liberals and conservatives respond to fabricated newspaper stories on welfare programs.5 One program was exorbitantly generous, the other inflexibly stingy. The researchers then queried which program subjects supported. Given what everyone already knows about our political stances, you might guess which side supported which policy. However, before subjects rated their support, they were told that House Democrats (or Republicans) strongly endorsed each of the two welfare policies, and that the rival partly strongly rejected them. If conservatives believed their party supported the lavish welfare policy, they too supported it, and vice-versa for liberals. This shows us that the impulse to go with the tribe can override our own strongly held principles. Tellingly, subjects reported that their own policy perspectives influenced them most, and that the stances of lawmakers least, despite going with the flow in a way that so blatantly contradicted their own values. In other words, they were blind to their own tribalistic blinders.  And therein lies the problem.


When protestors see each other in their tribal regalia, when they chant in unison, they feel an ancient, emotionally intuitive sense of belonging. And that they’ve identified an outside force (represented by the liberal media, science, etc.) it draws their emotional ties to each other even tighter. Moreover, by cohering to the preposterous idea that the need for physical distancing is a liberal conspiracy, they reaffirm each other of their commitment to the tribe. But this puts everyone, including themselves, at grave risk. It’s antisocial. It’s dangerous. It’s asinine. But it is explainable. We are social animals operating in groups inclined to show commitment to one another through agreement. What we agree on can be like a virus itself. And critical thinking gets swallowed up by our ancients fears of rejection.”

“Pandemics and the great evolutionary mismatch” by Guillaume Dezecache, Chris D. Frith and Ophelia Deroy [Current Biology]

“Pandemics and the great evolutionary mismatch

Guillaume Dezecache, Chris D. Frith and Ophelia Deroy

Current Biology Magazine 30, R1–R3, May 18, 2020



What increases in times of anxiety and threat is not a drive to help the self at all costs, but an intuitive drive to help others. The unfortunate consequence is that, in response to the current threat of infection, we desire social contact, particularly with the loved and the vulnerable.

Pandemics and the ‘breakdown of social order’ narrative

When describing the behaviour of people living in countries affected by the spread of covid-19, the media has rapidly adopted a ‘Hobbesian’ view of human nature [4]. This is the expectation that exposure to threat makes people abandon social niceties and, being naturally rivals, fall back into ‘brutishness and misery’. Major newspapers report panic, with people running to shops to collect masks, hand sanitizers and food. Those behaviours are routinely qualified as irrational: why rush to buy food when we are told that there will be no shortages? We do not doubt that humans can be irrational (we misevaluate large magnitudes; underestimate risks and value shortterm gain [7]). At the individual level, however, it is rational to hoard food and toilet paper when we are told that we will have to stay at home for an indefinite amount of time. It’s not that we do not trust politicians, but we are right to be uncertain about the resilience of institutions, and the social contract in general, in the face of an unprecedented, unknown, and growing threat. Similarly, it is perfectly rational, at the individual level, to run for the exits when the building is on fire. However, these self-oriented rational decisions are the ones on which we have to consciously reflect [8]. Our initial, intuitive responses are, on the contrary, to be cooperative [9].


The coming of covid-19 is being met with inertia and placidity, rather than mass panic. The French population was (and is still being) criticized by their own authorities for their laxity and nonchalance. Some weeks ago, the French continued to gather in bar terraces and break the obvious rules of social distancing. The German state of Bavaria took stricter confinement measures on March 21st, after finding that many individuals, despite the explicit instruction to stay away from others, were still gathering in groups as if nothing had changed. Similar violations of official advice are occurring everywhere.

An alternative to the accusation that people are irrational and irresponsible is the suggestion that people are ignorant of the threat. We are not suggesting that these effects are not in play (more below), but we want to suggest that knowing the threat is perfectly compatible with seeking company of friends and loved ones. Being with others and getting but also providing social support is how we cope with stress [10]. Increasing threat is only likely to reinforce this social inclination.


Contactseeking may be a ‘natural’ drive which is embedded in our physiology. Social touch contributes to the physiological regulation of the body’s responses to acute stressors and other short-term challenges. Close social support is not an extra for getting additional rewards. It constitutes our baseline [15]. Our brains do not respond positively to its presence, but negatively to its loss. People can crave for social cues just like they crave for food [16]. The policy implications of decades of research in social neuroscience are clear, but widely ignored: asking people to renounce social contact is not just asking them to abstain from pleasurable activities; it is asking them to diverge from a point of equilibrium, toward which they normally all gravitate.


One major issue is that diseases are largely invisible, particularly diseases (like covid-19) which remain asymptomatic in a large part of the population. This imperceptibility means that it is not even detected, let alone recognized as a collective threat. Hence, the defensive avoidance mechanisms associated with fear and disgust will not operate. Similarly, our social tendencies simply continue as, in the absence of symptoms, we don’t perceive that we may carry the infection. Even if we believe that the threat is widespread within our own group, the implications for oneself are challenging. Recognizing that one is likely to become a deadly threat to others is incongruent with our self-image, leading to dissonance and denial of the danger.

There is, however, a second issue: a threat stemming from infection, in societies with optimally functioning health systems, may be detected and yet recognized to be severe only for a small fraction of the population. Unless we feel we belong to that fraction, the threat may not be construed as collective: it is them, not us. A threat that remains invisible, and is thought to apply only to some individuals, is unlike other threats (such as predators, enemies or hurricanes) which are clearly menacing everyone in a given location. More than physical proximity and covulnerability is needed for a threat to be recognised as collective. Some actual or potential understanding of aspects of the threat as shared by us all, in a collective ‘we’ [2,19], is also required.


In all likelihood, the mismatch between our misperception of the severity of the threat and its consequences is likely to become even more destructive in dense urban areas in which social isolation is a costly good.


So why don’t we avoid each other in times of infections? It is because our infection-avoidance mechanisms are overwhelmed by a much stronger drive to affiliate and seek close contact.”

“Political attitudes vary with detection of androstenone” [Politics and the Life Sciences]

“Political attitudes vary with detection of androstenone

Amanda Friesen, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis
Mike Gruszczynski , Indiana University Bloomington
Kevin B. Smith, University of Nebraska–Lincoln
John R. Alford, Rice University

Politics and the Life Sciences


DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/pls.2019.18

Published online by Cambridge University Press: 22 January 2020


Building on a growing body of research suggesting that political attitudes are part of broader individual and biological orientations, we test whether the detection of the hormone androstenone is predictive of political attitudes. The particular social chemical analyzed in this study is androstenone, a nonandrogenic steroid found in the sweat and saliva of many mammals, including humans. A primary reason for scholarly interest in odor detection is that it varies so dramatically from person to person. Using participants’self-reported perceptions of androstenone intensity, together with a battery of survey items testing social and political preferences and orientations, this research supports the idea that perceptions of androstenone intensity relate to political orientations—most notably, preferences for social order—lending further support to theories positing the influence of underlying biological traits on sociopolitical attitudes and behaviors.

Our understanding of the origins of public opinion has expanded from elite messaging, socialization, and group membership to include the possibility that attitudes toward group life may have some basis in our biology. That is, the social signals humans have generated and interpreted throughout the history of our species may continue to influence complex social behaviors like politics.


The odor of politics? Given the central role that olfaction plays in disgust detection and disgust’s link to politics (Aarøe, Petersen, & Arceneaux, 2017; Balzer & Jacobs, 2011; Inbar et al., 2009; Smith et al., 2011a), we have borrowed its theoretical organizational scheme to think about how olfaction may also connect to political opinions. Recent research has identified three primary functions of disgust: pathogen avoidance, mate choice, and social interaction— sometimes labeled microbes, mating, and morality (Neuberg et al., 2011; Tybur et al., 2009; Tybur et al., 2010). As mentioned, the precursor to olfaction originated as a mechanism for identifying substances that singlecelled organisms should approach or avoid.



We first investigate androstenone detection and political orientations using the aforementioned personality, psychological, and political batteries. In addition to the three measures of political ideology, the survey also tapped cognitive and personality patterns, including the Big Five personality inventory (conscientiousness, emotional stability, openness, agreeableness, and extroversion), the BIS/BAS (behavioral inhibition and activation, respectively) scales, preference for literalism, and tendencies to be both disgust and threat sensitive. We have no strong expectations for the nature of the relationship between androstenone detection and these concepts, but we do expect positive relationships for all three of our political batteries and particularly for the “preferences for social order” battery, a finding that would indicate that those with politically conservative and “authority-attuned” positions tend to be more sensitive to androstenone.



In our sample, variations in androstenone detection appear to be relevant to variations in political orientations—specifically, preferences for order—but not psychological orientations. Economic and sexual morality issues appear to be unconnected to sensitivity to androstenone. As we noted earlier, the absence of a relationship with sex items is particularly interesting given that other research has demonstrated that sensitivity to pathogen-relevant disgust is indeed related to issue stances on sexual matters. Sensitivity to the human odorant androstenone appears to manifest itself politically in quite a different fashion than sensitivity to pathogen-indicating odors (e.g., human excrement, vomit, or spoiled food). Certain individuals are sensitive to the odor of androstenone, and they also tend to be the people who are attuuned to and eager to squelch threats to the social order


Psychologists, biologists, and geneticists have demonstrated human variation in every sensory system just as social scientists have been examining differences in social and political orientations and attitudes. Our work seeks to bridge these worlds in the hope of contributing to the understanding of the nature and origins of human political behavior and, broadly, public opinion. Few, if any, disciplines treat biological and behavioral variation as completely unrelated, yet much of the political science research does just that. This is a matter of empiricism. Just as parents, schools, peers, culture, and time periods may influence sociopolitical attitudes and behavior, we posit that the manner in which individuals process these environmental inputs may be just as important as the inputs themselves (Gonzalez et al., 2015). Combined with the growing body of work connecting politics to behavioral genetics and physiology, we demonstrate olfaction should not be ignored in the examination of political attitudes and orientations.”

“How Neuroscience Helps Us to Understand Human Nature” By Antonio Damasio [Brain World Magazine]

“How Neuroscience Helps Us to Understand Human Nature

April 14, 2020

Antonio Damasio


[This article was originally a lecture given at the Fourth International Brain Education Conference held at the United Nations. It has been edited for length.]

The area that I come from is that of neurology and neuroscience. My work is about trying to understand how the brain works. My hope is that some of the neuroscience that is taking place right now will help those of you who teach, and those of you who want to make each individual and the world as a whole better than they are today.


What has only been happening quite recently is that neuroscience can have a role in our culture. Neuroscience also talks about the fields of economics, moral behavior, politics, aesthetics, and education.


Most of what we know now from neuroscience that has an impact on society and culture actually comes from understanding human emotions, decision-making, and processes of consciousness.


Why such an interest in neuroscience now? Well, Largely for two reasons. One, there is a revolution going on in biology and two, there is an enormous rise in cognitive neuroscience.

The revolution in biology goes all the way back to 150 years ago and what has been learned since the days of Darwin. We now have a very clear idea of the structure of DNA. DNA is a fundamental element in the transmission of traits through genes. We know about the genetic code. We even know how it operates through molecular genetics and we have a fairly good idea of how the human genome is organized.

At the same time we have something very interesting happening in neuroscience: a hybrid of psychology and of large-scale systems neuroscience. New disciplines with funny names like experimental neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, neuropsychology, and last but not least, human neuroimaging, which has allowed us to have a clear view of the human brain in living individuals.


Living a life that has reduced stress and a great amount of happiness and harmony is also related. This is not just my desire to whistle in the dark and tell myself that because I’m active and I’m reasonably happy, I’m not going to have Alzheimer’s disease. Stress is inevitable if you live in a large urban center and have to cope with the reality of life. When you are under stress, you’re engaging a number of brain mechanisms that release certain hormones that are anything but helpful to us in our current cultural and historical situation.

They are the hormones that are connected with fear and with anger and they not only damage, for example, your arteries and the heart — bringing the possibility of hypertension — they also damage receptors that are on the surface of cells — nerve cells, neurons — in this region in particular.


The brain, the source of our memory, our mind, our behavior, and what we consider our self, is nonetheless an organ system that exists within the body. Because we pay so much attention to the brain and the mind, we start talking about brain and mind and behavior as if they were disembodied — as if they existed on some kind of vat and not inside the body. But from the point of view of evolution and biology, we have brains because we have bodies that the brains need to maintain.


The social structure in which the individual is inserted depends on the life of others. There is no such thing as leading an independent, individual life. From the get-go, we are born and are dependent on our parents. We clearly cannot walk out and run our lives, go to school and get to the university. It’s perfectly obvious that dependence is a state for human beings. They depend throughout life on others.

Spinoza was a major philosopher of the 17th century who I believe was one of the great forerunners of modern thinking in biology. The man could not know anything about the brain. Yet in the 1650s he was honing in on ideas that we now find perfectly sensible in terms of our modern understanding of life and of the brain in particular. He clearly identified, as a source of happiness and more importantly as a source of moral systems, the fact that you cannot be happy by yourself if you do not contribute to the happiness of others.

Here’s a man who was writing all this between Amsterdam and the Hague in the 17th century, and he has very interesting philosophies that were not at all connected with the Christian and Jewish roots that were his education. It is much more connected to other parts of the world where such thinking is more accepted. He had an interesting spiritual view of the world in which there was a God that was nature. He actually talked about God or nature as if they were virtually interchangeable.

How one leads one’s life, and the lives of others that surround one, can influence many diseases of the brain, all the way from stroke to Alzheimer’s disease.

I also wanted to say something specifically about emotions and feelings. Emotions and feelings are two different things.  Emotions turn out to be programs in our brain that we inherited through evolution that are devoted to the management of our life. They’re devoted to a process that is known as “homeostasis.”

Emotions are action programs. When you have fear, your face becomes startled, your body posture changes, your heart races, your gut contracts, your pulse races as well, your respiration changes and on and on. All of that is an action program that exists not just in our brain, but in the brains of many other species. Some of these programs go all the way down to invertebrates, to little creatures like a snail that do not even have a skeleton.

These programs achieve something very important. For example, fear allows you to take action, even without thinking, so that you can remove yourself from harm’s way. There are emotion programs that are negative on the surface, such as fear or anger, but that nonetheless are very positive in the outcome that they produced for us. Probably fear has saved more lives than any other emotion.


The very important thing to remember is that feelings are not those action programs. Feelings are what you perceive in your mind as a result of being in a state of emotion. Although in everyday language, we confuse one with the other, it’s important — and you have no idea how important this is for research strategy — it’s important to distinguish between an action program that does not even need to be conscious, that animals as have, from feelings. Feelings are conscious and feed this enormously beautiful edifice that we call culture.


The important thing for you to remember is that emotions are biological processes that are fundamentally about governing life, and administer either punishment or reward. If you’re happy, if you’re leading a great life, then you are administering rewards to yourself.”

“Political Beliefs affect Compliance with COVID-19 Social Distancing Orders” By Marcus Painter & Tian Qiu

“Political Beliefs affect Compliance with COVID-19 Social Distancing Orders

Marcus Painter
Saint Louis University – Department of Finance

Tian Qiu
University of Kentucky – Gatton College of Business and Economics

Date Written: April 8, 2020



Social distancing is vital to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus. We use geolocation data to document that political beliefs present a significant limitation to the effectiveness of state-level social distancing orders. Residents in Republican counties are less likely to completely stay at home after a state order has been implemented relative to those in Democratic counties. We also find that Democrats are less likely to respond to a state-level order when it is issued by a Republican governor relative to one issued by a Democratic governor. These results are robust to controlling for other factors including time, geography, local COVID-19 cases and deaths, and other social distancing orders. We conclude that bipartisan support is essential to maximize the effectiveness of social distancing orders.


Potentially due to the recent increase in political polarization in the US (Boxell, Gentzkow, and Shapiro, 2020), there are concerns regarding how political beliefs would heterogeneously affect compliance with social distancing orders. For instance, a pastor from Arkansas told the Washington Post that “in your more politically conservative regions, closing is not interpreted as caring for you. It’s interpreted as liberalism, or buying into the hype.” The same report also documents that people from more liberal areas show more distrust in President Trump’s initial message and are more proactive about social distancing.1 The press has also highlighted that President Trump initially downplayed the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, suggesting that Republicans may not take social distancing orders seriously.


Next, analyzing differential responses to state policies, we find that Republican counties respond less to social distancing orders relative to Democratic counties. A one standard deviation increase in the county-level share of votes for Donald Trump in the 2016 election is associated with a 3pps lower percentage of people who stay at home after a state social distancing order relative to the average county. This finding is robust to subsample tests designed to adjust for county population and density.

Our final tests focus on whether the political affiliation of the governor announcing a state-level social distancing order affects compliance. If Republican’s lower response to social distancing orders is due to President Trump’s early dismissal of the pandemic, we may likewise find that Democrats’ response to orders may vary based on the political affiliation of who gives the order. We identify “aligned” counties as those with the same political affiliation as the governor and “misaligned” counties as those with conflicting political identities. We find that misaligned counties have a 2.9pps lower response to state policy social distancing orders relative to aligned counties. This difference is driven by misaligned democratic counties. These results suggest that the difference in compliance to social distancing orders based on partisanship is likely due to how credible residents find government officials and not an information transmission channel. Taken together, our results suggest that political polarization is a major roadblock on the path to full compliance with social distance measures. Republicans and misaligned Democrats are less likely to adhere to these orders, suggesting that bipartisan support for social distancing measures is a key factor in how quickly we can mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus.”

“Explaining the Emergence of Coronavirus Rituals” By Dimitris Xygalatas [Sapiens]

“Explaining the Emergence of Coronavirus Rituals

An anthropologist illuminates how both old and new rituals can provide a sense of comfort during times of uncertainty.

Dimitris Xygalatas is an anthropologist at the University of Connecticut.


Responding to the coronavirus pandemic, most American universities have suspended all campus activities. Like millions of people all around the world, the lives of students all over the U.S. has changed overnight.

When I met my students for what was going to be our last in-class meeting of the academic year, I explained the situation and asked whether there were any questions. The first thing my students wanted to know was, “Will we be able to have a graduation ceremony?”

The fact that the answer was no was the most disappointing news for them.

As an anthropologist who studies ritual, hearing that question from so many students did not come as a surprise. The most important moments of our lives—from birthdays and weddings to college graduations and holiday traditions are marked by ceremony.

Rituals provide meaning and make those experiences memorable.


Anthropologists have long observed that people across cultures tend to perform more rituals in times of uncertainty. Stressful events such as warfare, environmental threat, and material insecurity are often linked with spikes in ritual activity.

In a laboratory study in 2015, my colleagues and I found that under conditions of stress people’s behavior tends to become more rigid and repetitive—in other words, more ritualized.

The reason behind this propensity lies in our cognitive makeup. Our brain is wired to make predictions about the state of the world. It uses past knowledge to make sense of current situations. But when everything around us is changing, the ability to make predictions is limited. This causes many of us to experience anxiety.

That is where ritual comes in.

Rituals are highly structured. They require rigidity and must always be performed the “right” way. And they involve repetitition: The same actions are done again and again. In other words, they are predictable.

So even if they have no direct influence over the physical world, rituals provide a sense of control by imposing order on the chaos of everyday life.

It is of little importance whether this sense of control is illusory. What matters is that it is an efficient way of relieving anxiety.


By aligning behavior and creating shared experiences, rituals forge a sense of belonging and common identity that transforms individuals into cohesive communities. As field experiments show, participating in collective rituals increases generosity and even makes people’s heart rates synchronize.


It is not surprising, then, that people around the world are responding to the novel coronavirus crisis by creating new rituals.

Some of those rituals are meant to provide a sense of structure and reclaim the sense of control. For example, comedian Jimmy Kimmel and his wife encouraged those in quarantine to hold formal Fridays, dressing up for dinner even if they were alone.


People are coming up with a host of rituals to maintain a broader sense of human connection. In various European cities, people have started to go to their balconies at the same time every day to applaud health care workers for their tireless service.”

“Why Social Distancing Feels So Strange” By George M. Leader [Sapiens]

“Why Social Distancing Feels So Strange

Humans are wired through millions of years of evolution to be social creatures. Faced with the COVID-19 virus, can we stay connected at a distance?

George M. Leader is a visiting assistant professor of anthropology at The College of New Jersey.


Why does intentionally avoiding physical interaction with other humans during our daily routine feel so strange? The answer may lie in millions of years of behavioral and cultural evolution.

Since our evolutionary split from chimpanzees around 7 million years ago, humans have become increasingly dependent on complex social cooperation to survive and thrive. People sometimes think of humans as fundamentally selfish or violent, but anthropological research shows that we have evolved to work cooperatively and live in supportive communities.

Some of the earliest evidence for the importance of cooperative behavior in our species comes from a surprising event: the evolution of walking on two legs. Among the earliest evidence of bipedalism in the hominid linage is Sahelanthropus tchadensis, an upright ape-like primate from Chad dating to about 7 million years ago.

There are plenty of possible reasons for why our ancestors began to stand upright: It might have helped them regulate their body temperature, decrease their exposure to natural radiation from the sun, or increase their range of sight to watch for predators, among other reasons. But one hypothesis proposed by American biological anthropologist C. Owen Lovejoy in 1981 suggests that our ancestors freed up their hands for food sharing, specifically so that a male could carry food back to a female raising their young. This type of social cooperation is much more difficult for quadruped knuckle-walkers like chimpanzees.


By about 1.9 million years ago, around the time of the appearance of Homo erectus, cooperative behavior may have greatly increased again. By this time, females were facing significant challenges giving birth: Their upright bodies had a hard time delivering big-brained babies. This physical burden might have prompted dramatic shifts in hominin social structures, with a bigger division of labor between males and females, and additional collaboration between childrearing females.

Along with this change in society seems to have come stronger social supports within these communities. Physical evidence for this can be found in the femur of an 800,000-year-old H. erectus from Java. The femur was badly broken—an injury that almost certainly means a quick death for someone trying to live alone. But, incredibly, this fracture healed. That means the injured hominin received an enormous amount of support from their social group. Our ancestors really took care of one another.


As a result of humanity’s evolution for social tendencies, we have a problem: loneliness. This feeling may act as a driver to pull people back together, much as thirst makes people drink and hunger makes people eat. But it has negative consequences too.

People who perceive themselves as being without social support, living in a world without beneficial social interaction, can become irritable and depressed. Lonely people—and animals—tend to adopt more selfish behaviors, putting their own needs first. The more a human thinks there is a lack of beneficial social interaction around them—in other words, the lonelier they feel—the more they adopt these behaviors.

The consequences of isolation and the ensuing selfish behaviors can be high. Persistent loneliness can reduce our capacity to look after ourselves and even harm our physical health. According to one 2018 study, loneliness in people is associated with a 26 percent increase in the chance of premature death.


But can we entirely override our long-programmed interactive cooperation and replace it with distant cooperation? Will virtual interaction be a suitable replacement in fulfilling the need for physical interaction? It remains to be seen.”

“Isabel Behncke: “El pánico al contagio, a lo infeccioso, es uno de nuestros miedos más atávicos” [La Tercera]

“Isabel Behncke: “El pánico al contagio, a lo infeccioso, es uno de nuestros miedos más atávicos”


La primatóloga chilena, eminente por sus investigaciones en el Congo acerca del comportamiento social de los bonobos, afirma que la biología evolutiva puede ayudarnos a comprender tanto las causas de la pandemia como la manera en que reaccionamos a ella. Doctorada en Oxford y hoy miembro del Centro de Investigación de la Complejidad Social de la UDD, Behncke propone enfrentar la crisis con “ojo de ecólogo”. Nos serviría para pensar mejor -y moralizar menos- sobre los sacrificios que debemos elegir para mitigar distintas fuentes de sufrimiento.


La discusión actual sobre las zoonosis −las enfermedades que pasan de animales a humanos−, y que si el virus provino de un murciélago o de un pangolín, y que no puede haber mercados de fauna silvestre como el de Wuhan, tiene que ver con advertencias que se venían haciendo hace rato sobre el consumo de biodiversidad y la salud de los ecosistemas. Y si seguimos destruyendo los hábitats naturales, hay muchos animales más para futuras zoonosis. Esta pandemia, ciertamente, no va a ser la última.


La cuenta gigantesca que vamos a pagar ahora es el precio de no entender cómo funcionan esas barreras. Quizás porque ya no nos sentíamos parte de la red de la vida que compartimos con otros seres. Como dice Harari en el título de su libro, nos veíamos pasando de animales a dioses. Ya estábamos pensando en Marte, nos íbamos de acá. De algún modo, perdimos el respeto por nuestra casa. Y ha sido muy impresionante que un simple virus nos devuelva a la naturaleza en tan pocas semanas. Gastamos trillones de dólares en sistemas de defensa y nos tiene de rodillas una hebra de ARN.


Es que ahí hay una ironía profundísima: el virus nos obliga a ir en contra de lo que somos para poder protegernos de él. En ese sentido, uno podría decir que este es un virus brillante. A mí me tocó vivir en el Congo lo del ébola, que era mucho más mortífero, pero no tan contagioso, por su método de transmisión. El Covid-19, al matar poco y no tan rápido, se aprovecha muy bien de nuestro comportamiento social. Es como si dijera: “Yo sé que estos animales son incapaces de no interactuar entre ellos durante 14 días, están hechos para eso, así que me voy a quedar aquí piola y dejarlos hacer lo que siempre hacen para pasarme de un humano a otro”. Es un gran estratega, por lo menos. Y otro aspecto que la biología evolutiva puede ayudar a entender son los fenómenos de contagio a través de redes de interacciones. No solo de contagio biológico, también de ideas y de emociones. Como el pánico.


¿Dirías que la competencia entre la razón y el pánico pone a prueba qué tan sapiens somos en estas circunstancias?

Es que la dicotomía entre emoción y razón no nos ha servido de mucho, porque ser sapiens también es tener emoción, no las puedes disociar. Y si bien hay que decir con mucho énfasis que, por favor ,no cedamos al pánico, porque nos cierra cognitivamente y trae consecuencias graves, reconocer el rol del miedo en nuestra historia es útil para entender lo que nos está pasando. El miedo existe porque ha servido para algo. Y el pánico al contagio, a lo infeccioso, es uno de nuestros miedos más atávicos. En parte, estamos vivos porque tenemos ancestros que alguna vez vieron a alguien muy enfermo y dijeron “uy, qué horror”, y se alejaron. O sea, es muy comprensible que el coronavirus nos aterre más allá del cálculo racional. Porque si fuéramos tan sapiens, tendríamos una planilla Excel en la cabeza que nos diría que es mucho más probable morir de enfermedades cardiovasculares. Y les tendríamos terror a las hamburguesas. Pero como arrastramos miedos atávicos, no tenemos los miedos bien calibrados. Les tenemos más terror a los aviones que a los autos, lo que estadísticamente es absurdo. Y le tenemos miedo a la sangre, a las arañas, a las culebras, mucho más que a un auto. Así que sentir este pánico al contagio es un poco inevitable. Pero tenemos que ser conscientes de él y regularlo, porque darle rienda suelta es peligroso.


La experiencia, al menos, dice que las épocas de desastres muestran lo mejor y lo peor de la naturaleza humana. Lo que pasa es que la dicotomía entre cooperación y conflicto también es un poco engañosa. Las sociedades operan en muchos niveles de organización −el individuo, la familia, el barrio, la empresa, la nación, la sociedad global, etc.− y los ecólogos te van a decir que, para observar los fenómenos de la naturaleza es clave entender que en todos esos niveles hay cooperación y conflicto al mismo tiempo. Tú mismo eres un ecosistema -en tu cuerpo hay más bacterias que células humanas− dentro del cual hay muchos conflictos. Ahora, lo que sí tiende a ocurrir ante amenazas graves es que aumenta la cooperación en los niveles altos, los grandes bandos se agrupan. Y en las últimas semanas han surgido ejemplos de cooperación a gran escala, de coordinación colectiva, bastante interesantes. ¿Cuándo fue la última vez que la humanidad se agrupó bajo un mismo propósito, con la mayor parte de los humanos al tanto de eso? Pero también han saltado a la vista los conflictos de interés. Y la polarización política, por supuesto. Yo creo que nos serviría mucho, para tener una conversación más amigable, observar lo que está pasando con ojo de ecólogo, viendo sistemas complejos en acción.


Jonathan Haidt, un psicólogo social al que es muy interesante seguir, cree que ahora vamos a cooperar más porque en los desastres aparece lo mejor de las personas, pero también está diciendo que estas situaciones incrementan el moral disgusto, el asco moral. Así como los miedos atávicos, la emoción del asco es parte de nuestro repertorio evolutivo. Y existe el asco físico ante lo que percibimos como cochinada, como las fecas, pero también tenemos asco moral, y eso es lo que está aflorando en muchas de estas peleas. Hay gente que dice “usted es un asco, quiere salvar la economía y no le importa la vida”, o al revés, “usted piensa en los enfermos, pero no le importa la cantidad de gente que va a quedar sin sustento, qué aberración”. Ese sentimiento de repulsión moral es muy humano.”

“Why Republicans Are Less Likely to View the Coronavirus as a Serious Threat” By Nigel Barber [The Human Beast/Psychology Today]

“Why Republicans Are Less Likely to View the Coronavirus as a Serious Threat

Survey results demonstrate that the two parties view the pandemic differently.

Nigel Barber Ph.D.
The Human Beast


Political conservatives fear disease as more of a threat and are more fearful of dirt and contamination in a variety of contexts from using public restrooms to eating unfamiliar foods (1). They have greater disgust sensitivity. This phenomenon is interestingly demonstrated by the fact that conservatives are four times more likely to have a mudroom in their homes compared to liberals (2).

Conservatives manifest a high degree of submission to authority figures such as the head of state. They are deferential towards authoritarian leaders who tell them what they want to hear (according to research on Right Wing Authoritarianism, a personality trait very correlated with political conservatism (1). Perhaps the tendency to credit the views of authority figures in this instance is stronger than fear of infection.

The fact that this is a new threat may also be significant because conservatives are more closed to new experiences as they adhere to long-established social conventions (1).

The coronavirus may be interpreted differently by Republicans and Democrats because they belong to different demographic groups. Republicans tend to be rural, older, groups that may be less receptive to information on novel threats. The coronavirus is also more likely to strike in cities because they are travel hubs and reservoirs of infection.

But it is hard to avoid two probable explanations. The first is that liberals and conservatives are exposed to differing information pools. This is often because their social media news feeds, particularly those on popular sites such as Facebook, or Twitter, feed them with the sort of news that they enjoy reading.”

Learning from Animals by Antoine Doré & Jérôme Michalon | About: Dominique Guillo, Les Fondements oubliés de la culture. Une approche écologique, Seuil, 2019 [La Vie des Idées]

“Learning from Animals

About: Dominique Guillo, Les Fondements oubliés de la culture. Une approche écologique, Seuil


by Antoine Doré & Jérôme Michalon, 19 March

translated by Michael C. Behrent



Neither the social sciences nor the natural sciences are currently invested in studying the cultural relations between humans and animals. If we are to understand them, we must reconsider all our categories, and free ourselves once and for all from the nature-culture divide.

To use the relationship between humans and animals to rethink culture: this is the goal of Dominique Guillo’s book. A sociologist and research director at the CNRS, Guillo offers a structured and thorough synthesis of more than a decade of research. A specialist in the history and epistemology of social sciences as they relate to life sciences, Guillo maintains that the way in which these two disciplinary domains have approached culture suffers from an identity bias, which prevents them from conceiving of the existence of cultures constructed by and between different animal species.

The identity bias diagnosis

Guillo devotes the book’s first three chapters to establishing this epistemological diagnosis. He gets the ball rolling with the natural sciences (behavioral ecology, ethology, and neo-Darwinian biology), in a first chapter that proposes a highly pedagogical synthesis of research from the past forty years on animal sociability and culture. First, we encounter the neo-Darwinians’ unusual definition of the social (i.e., behavior that seeks to perpetuate the genes of individuals other than their producers); then, an ethological definition of culture understood as a set of traits transmitted by social learning, rather than by the genetic mechanisms of natural selection.


Guillo thus calls for a better connection between the social and the natural sciences, as they seem to suffer from the same problem: their inability of studying culture except in terms of animal groups belonging to the same species (whether human or non-human). They suffer from a tropism or identity bias, apparent both in their research’s focus (intraspecific and intragroup relationships) and results (culture takes place solely between similar entities and accentuates their similarities to one another). Thus, according to Guillo, these “classic” approaches to culture proceed from (i.e., postulate) and produce (i.e., accentuate) shared identity. In a world in which understanding the interdependence of creatures as different as earthworms, whales, and molecules is becoming more and more crucial, identity bias constitutes a major epistemological obstacle.


This diagnosis of a forgetting of culture’s foundations, which is itself based on several omissions, is accompanied by over-adherence to the epistemology of the behavioral sciences. The sole definition of culture used and discussed in this book is borrowed from this discipline, as is Guillo’s key concept (social learning) and the regular appeal to “parsimony.” Furthermore, it is the social sciences rather than the behavioral sciences that the author holds responsible for the impossibility of a synthesis in the study of interspecific cultures. In contrast to what they assert, the social sciences are most inclined to validate the nature-culture dualism and the boundaries between disciplines, whether because of ideology or disciplinary loyalty. Conversely, sociobiology, behavioral ecology, and evolutionary psychology, by considering humans as one living being among others, abolish the frontiers between these dualisms and appear, in Guillo’s account, as progressive theories, while the social sciences are noticeable only for their conservatism. He notes, for example, that by restricting cultural phenomena to identity, the social sciences risk fueling the rise of “’identitarian’ political discourses” (p. 302).”

“3 Reasons for the Rise of Fake News | Cailin O’Connor explains the shift in American politics By Walter Veit [Science and Philosophy, Psychology Today]

“3 Reasons for the Rise of Fake News

Cailin O’Connor explains the shift in American politics.

By Walter Veit


Walter Veit: You recently published The Misinformation Age together with your husband and fellow philosopher James Owen Weatherall. What motivated you to write this book?

Cailin O’Connor: Around the time of the Brexit vote and the 2016 election in the US, I was working on several projects in formal social epistemology — using models to represent scientific communities. Social epistemology puts a big emphasis on the importance of social connections to knowledge creation. At the same time, we were seeing some serious issues related to public misinformation through social media. Many responses to this misinformation seemed to focus on the role of individual psychology and reasoning in the spread of false belief. For instance, confirmation bias, where individuals trust evidence that supports an already-held belief, is obviously relevant. But we think that understanding social ties and behavior is even more important to understanding false belief. For that reason, we wanted to bring some of the most important lessons from social epistemology, and from models of scientific knowledge, to bear on these social problems.

Walter Veit: How do you explain that despite all the evidence, demonstrably false beliefs are able to spread and persist?

Cailin O’Connor: There are many reasons that false beliefs spread, often in spite of good evidence refuting them. One reason is that we all are used to trusting other humans as sources of information. This is, to some degree, a necessity. We certainly cannot go do the work ourselves to guarantee that all our beliefs are good ones. Even when we look to scientific journals for evidence supporting our beliefs, we are ultimately trusting others (the scientists who share their data). And sometimes even these good sources lead us astray. The social sharing of data is powerful, but always opens the possibility that falsity can spread. In addition, there are various social biases that can make us more or less likely to share false beliefs. For example, in our book, we talk about the role of conformity bias — when individuals want to conform their actions or beliefs to their peers — in sometimes preventing the spread of useful or accurate knowledge. Our heuristics for social trust, such as placing more trust in those who are more similar to ourselves, or who share our beliefs, can mislead.


This interview originally appeared in Psychology Today [Apr 17, 2019]”

“A Global Health Crisis and the Storytelling Brain; the brain may have evolved for entertainment” by Michael Karson [Feeling Our Way | Psychology Today]

“A Global Health Crisis and the Storytelling Brain

The brain may have evolved for entertainment.

Michael Karson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Denver.


The brain is thus like the peacock’s tail, which evolved for its appeal to peahens, who presumably evolved increasingly discriminatory preferences for tails. But with brains, both sexes put selection pressures on each other to tell better stories. The brain being built for storytelling and story-appreciating rather than for rational thought or for remembering solutions to geographical problems explains a lot of our difficulties with rational thought and memory and turns our cognitive biases on their heads from geographical pathologies to reproductive strategies. Our poor memories, in this view, are not deficits in brain functioning any more than creative license in rewriting history is a deficit of Shakespeare’s in his Richard III or Henry V. It’s not a problem reproductively that we sacrifice accuracy for the story we are telling ourselves; the story is all.


 We are not animals built for truth-seeking but for face-saving and entertaining. To deploy critical thinking during a story is like interrupting a comedian and asking whether she is really married when she is trying to tell a joke about husbands. Also, of course, we were built to live in small groups, and in a social sphere of 90 people, you can just all agree on whom to take with a grain of salt when they are making claims about reality. Learning to read strangers was largely irrelevant.

This whole truth-seeking enterprise called science has been a remarkable success, responsible for living past forty in large measure, and for creating the kind of intellectual environment that gave rise to Netflix (which, I note, capitalizes on how our brains are built to appreciate stories). But science is an unexpected benefit of big brains, not their purpose. Brains were not built to do math any more than backs were built to sit all day at a computer or arms were built for throwing sliders. You can sit or throw baseballs until you injure yourself, but you can only forego storytelling for about a day before you fall asleep and start dreaming. Dreaming is the primary outlet of the storytelling brain, like having your own blog every night.”

“The Problem with the Way Scientists Study Reason” by Sacha Altay [Nautilus]

“The Problem with the Way Scientists Study Reason

Psychologists studying reasoning extensively rely on logic and philosophy, and neglect psychology’s more natural ally: biology.

Sacha Altay is a Ph.D. student in cognitive science at École Normale Supérieure in Paris. He works on argumentation, misinformation, and how we evaluate communicated information. Follow him on Twitter @Sacha_Altay.



Ethologists evaluate their experimental paradigm, or set-up, in light of its ecological validity, or how well it matches natural surroundings. An animal’s true habitat, and its evolutionary history, have always centered the discussion. In contrast, most experimental paradigms in human reasoning, such as the Cognitive Reflexion Test (CRT) or syllogisms, are based on logic or mathematics.


Psychologists studying reasoning extensively rely on logic and philosophy, and neglect psychology’s more natural ally: biology. The neglect stems in part from the ease with which humans can seem to understand one another. Our psychology is equipped with specialized cognitive systems, like theory of mind, that help us negotiate social life. We spontaneously attribute intentions, reasons, and beliefs to others. These heuristics help us to predict behavior, but they also parasitize our scientific understanding of the mind, blinding us to the necessity of using biology when studying ourselves.


Humans are, in other words, too familiar with one another. Fundamental laws of biology, like evolution by natural selection, are falsely believed to have weak constraints on human psychology—particularly for high-level cognitive functions, like reasoning. But the human brain, just like the turtle brain, has been shaped by millions of years of evolution. Reason is unlikely to have escaped its influence.


Our big brains likely evolved to solve tasks related to social interactions, not abstract logical problems. The Cosmides-Tooby selection task was ecologically valid; the first one wasn’t. Using the wrong experimental design, whether it’s the task itself or the stimuli, exposes researchers to many problems—the main one being that the results become hard to interpret. You don’t know if what you found reveals an interesting feature of the human mind—such as that human deductive reasoning is biased in the classical Wason selection task—or if it’s just a methodological artifact because the stimuli were not ecological.


But Hugo Mercier, who I work with at École Normale Supérieure, and Dan Sperber recently ventured there in their 2017 book, The Enigma of Reason. According to them, reasoning is not a capacity to correct false intuitions or solve problems. Nature is full of problems that organisms have to solve (like finding a mate, or food for dinner) and they constantly update their priors, or beliefs, about their environment in a broadly rational fashion.”

“Does Science Lead to Atheism? Alex Rosenberg discusses his views on atheism, science, and Bas van Fraassen By Walter Veit [Science and Philosophy | Psychology Today]

“Does Science Lead to Atheism?

Alex Rosenberg discusses his views on atheism, science, and Bas van Fraassen.

Walter Veit



Walter Veit: In your book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, you argue that there is not much reason to provide arguments against God’s existence. Nevertheless, you don’t shy away from debating creationists. Did you regret your discussion with William Lane Craig? I imagine that you might have received a lot of reactions from committed theists. Did you get any positive reactions or were you able to convince anyone of a naturalist worldview?

Alex Rosenberg: I said I didn’t need to provide arguments against god’s existence because there were already so many good ones, and lots of evidence against god’s existence too. The aim of the book was to sketch out what else we atheists should endorse, if we endorse atheism owing to scientific considerations. I debated Craig for the money and the chance to plug my book. I only wish I had taken a more mocking tone and had a lighter touch. There were some non-theists in the crowd, and I think I did move one or two people who reached me afterward by email.”

Ernst Haeckel’s ‘Kant Problem’: metaphysics, science, and art” by Stefan Forrester [Biology & Philosophy, 2020]

“Ernst Haeckel’s ‘Kant Problem’: metaphysics, science, and art

Stefan Forrester

Biology & Philosophy volume 35, Article number: 27 (2020)

Published: 05 March 2020



Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919) has become famous, and perhaps infamous, for many reasons. Presently, he is probably most widely-known for his paintings of plants and animals in his very popular book, Art Forms in Nature, originally collected and published in 1904. However, in addition to Haeckel’s art, he is also well-known for his advocacy of Darwinism and Social Darwinism, for first coining the term ‘ecology,’ for having his work utilized by Nazi pseudo-scientists (Dombrowksi in Tech Commun Q 12:303–319, 2003), and for famously (perhaps fraudulently) producing drawings of animal and human embryos so as to confirm his biogenetic law (Gould in Nat Hist 109:44–45, 2000). Something Haeckel is not as well-known for today is the fact that he seemed to be both a strenuous critic of the metaphysical and moral philosophies of Immanuel Kant and yet also something of an adherent to Kant’s aesthetic views. In terms of metaphysics and morality, Haeckel sought to exorcise Kant’s ideas as much as possible from twentieth century views on science, humanity, and nature; however, in terms of aesthetic theory, Haeckel seemed to embrace a distinctly Kantian approach to art and artworks. This essay proposes to: (1) carefully examine Haeckel’s refutations of some of Kant’s central metaphysical concepts, (2) explore some of the, arguably Kantian, assumptions underlying Haeckel’s approach to aesthetics and his artistic practice, and (3) combine these two lines of inquiry into a portrait of Haeckel’s mind as one that is conflicted about the role Kantian philosophy, and more specifically Kantian noumena, should play in twentieth century science and art. This unresolved tension in Haeckel’s mind regarding Kant’s noumenal realm is what I propose to call his ‘Kant Problem’.


Haeckel’s refutations of Kantian metaphysics and morality

Ernst Haeckel had a complex relationship with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. While Haeckel respected Kant’s thinking and his position as a highly important figure in the history of ideas, he also wanted very much to dispute several of Kant’s central philosophical claims. Haeckel wanted to do away with much of Kant’s epistemology and metaphysics, and most of his ethical theory as well. It is clear that Haeckel studied Kant during his beginning years as a professor at Jena in the early 1860s. Robert Richards in his book The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle Over Evolutionary Thought cites reliable evidence that Haeckel read Kant’s works with Kuno Fischer (1824–1907), the then rector of the University at Jena, and that Haeckel was also reading the works of Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), a renowned Kant and Schelling scholar who worked to suffuse the sciences with philosophical ideals, much like Haeckel himself would do later in his career (2008). The important difference being that Humboldt sought to conjoin modern science with Kantian-style metaphysical concepts, whereas Haeckel thought that Kant’s views were incompatible with the progress of scientific knowledge and with a scientific worldview.

In his own philosophical works some 35 years later, such as The Wonders of Life: A Popular Study in Philosophical Biology (1905), and The Riddle of the Universe at the Close of the Nineteenth Century (1901), Haeckel advocated vehemently for a kind of philosophical monism. A monism which set nature, i.e., scientifically-analyzable nature, as the one and only component of existence that encompasses and expresses all the properties of the universe, both physical and mental. Haeckel says clearly in Riddle of the Universe, “We adhere firmly to the pure, unequivocal monism of Spinoza: Matter, or infinitely extended substance, and spirit (or energy), or sensitive and thinking substance, are the two fundamental attributes or principal properties of the all-embracing divine essence of the world, the universal substance” (pp. 33–34).Footnote3 The main idea of monism is generally that there is only one substance that has properties: nature. Moreover, for philosophers like Spinoza, this substance is also identical to God, they are one in the same thing, the substance in which all the properties of the universe inhere. Haeckel, interestingly, also refers to his version of monism as a thoroughgoing ‘practical materialism.’Footnote4 The most controversial consequence of this view is that it eradicates the metaphysical possibility for the supernatural. If we are to conceive of God, souls, angels, the afterlife, etc., as essentially a different kind of substance than nature, then they are all rendered philosophically impossible by Haeckel’s monism; partly because God et al. are defined as being non-natural, which means that by definition they cannot exist apart from nature, and also because non-natural entities are not subject to scientific analysis. On the other hand, the philosophical benefits of monism, Haeckel believed, were many. First, scientific monism finally rids the world of all forms of superstition and supernatural religious beliefs. Haeckel thought that this result would be a great boon to humanity, he says quite bluntly in The Wonders of Life, “For my part, I hold that superstition [here he is discussing the belief in miracles] and unreason are the worst enemies of the human race, while science and reason are its greatest friends” (p. 56). Second, Haeckel saw monism as laying the philosophical groundwork for a fully scientized understanding of both the external world we explore with our senses and the internal world we explore with our minds, both of which are, simply, nature. Furthermore, Haeckel claims that all of nature is governed by rigid, universal laws, and that only science and the scientific method allow us to discover these laws. Finally, Haeckel contends that non-Monist philosophical systems, like dualism, only serve to confuse and conflate the true nature of reality and lead us to make distinctions, e.g. between the body and the mind, where none actually exist.


Haeckel’s rejection of Kant’s metaphysical views comes from two directions: (1) Since the knowledge of noumena must be a priori and since there is no way for science, which is based solely on knowledge from sensation, i.e., a posteriori knowledge, to prove the existence of a priori knowledge, we must reject noumena if we are to maintain a scientific worldview. (2) If we were to accept the existence of noumena, that would amount to a kind of dualism about the mind and external reality, which is tantamount to just another form of spiritual superstition; a superstition that is philosophically grounded instead of faith-based, but a superstition nonetheless. Haeckel’s argument for his first thrust against Kant is basically that what Kant understood as reason, or the pure a priori faculty of the mind, is in fact something that physiological studies of the brain in Haeckel’s era has explained in purely scientific terms. Namely, that the vast collection of neurons in the brain are the physical basis for consciousness, and that the uniquely human faculty for understanding what appear to be a priori truths and concepts actually has an a posteriori basis in terms of how the human brain evolved. If we understand the a posteriori history of the human brain’s development, Haeckel argues, we will then be able to dispense with the idea that our perceived faculty for a priori truths (i.e., reason) is anything more than a scientifically measurable, a posteriori, phenomenon:

Kant regarded this highest faculty of the human mind as innate, and made no inquiry into its development, its physiological mechanism, and its anatomic organ, the brain….it was impossible to have at that time a correct idea of its physiological function. What seems to us to-day to be an innate capacity, or an a priori quality, of our phronema, is really a phylogenetic result of a long series of brain-adaptations, formed by a posteriori sense-perceptions and experiences (1905, p. 69).

Haeckel argues for the second prong of his attack by stating simply that any appeal to a reality beyond what can be perceived by the senses amounts to superstition regardless of whether it comes from a religion or a powerful philosophical thinker like Kant, “The sense world (mundus sensibilis) lies open to our senses and our intellect, and is empirically knowable within certain limits. But behind it [according to Kant] there is the spiritual world (mundus intelligibilis) of which we know, and can know, nothing; its existence (as the thing in itself) is, however, assured by our emotional needs. In this transcendental world dwells the power of mysticism” (1905, p. 68). In this quote I think we see Haeckel distilling down his frustrations with Kant’s metaphysics quite sharply. Haeckel implies here that Kant’s arguments for the noumenal realm amount to some sort of emotional appeal, or the idea that it is only as a result of our psychological need for a deeper level of reality beyond the phenomenal, that we are tempted to believe in a ‘mystical’ transcendental world at all. Nevertheless, since this emotional need is very strong, it manifests itself as very powerful religious, spiritual, and mystical beliefs and practices, all of which I think Haeckel would classify as forms of superstition. Kant’s views leave the door open for a spiritual realm that is distinct from the phenomenal world that comes to us through the senses and is thereby impenetrable to the methods and modalities of science. Accepting this “mundus intelligibilis” as an integral part of reality is, I think for Haeckel, a basic philosophical mistake that is tantamount to embracing superstition.

Moving now to Haeckel’s criticisms of Kant’s moral theory, those objections emerge directly from his criticisms of Kant’s metaphysics. Haeckel argues that once Kant left open the door to the “mundus intelligibilis” in his metaphysical theory, it was easier for him to import some traditional ethical assumptions through that door to function as the basis for his moral views, namely the notions of God, free will, and the immortality of the soul, i.e., Kant’s three archetypal ideas of reason. Thus the foundations of Kant’s moral theory, says Haeckel, rest on that same fundamental mistake of affirming the existence of the noumenal realm in addition to the phenomenal realm (the realm of science). Haeckel bemoaned the fact that most other philosophers and theologians in his day were still in Kant’s camp when it came to morals, stating, “They affirm, with Kant, that the moral world is quite independent of the physical, and is subject to very different laws; hence a man’s conscience, as the basis for his moral life, must also be quite independent of our scientific knowledge of the world, and must be based rather on his religious faith” (1901, p. 348). In this passage we begin to see a kind of crystallization of Haeckel’s fears about Kant’s decision to accept the noumena as real. As a result of these fears Haeckel’s purely philosophical objections to the phenomena-noumena distinction were not altogether well-formed. He objected to the noumena mostly on the grounds that they conflicted with his preferred worldview of monism. Haeckel did not necessarily attack the noumena on logical grounds as being self-contradictory or incoherent, thus he could not advocate for their elimination from metaphysics based only on reasoning. But now we see Haeckel showing us the damaging results of allowing the noumenal level of reality into the world. Basically, all of what Haeckel saw as the destructive impact of religion and religious belief was facilitated by the noumena. The most important areas of human experience: knowledge, morality, truth, and reality all become different sorts of divine mysteries because of the noumena. Moreover, the scientific study of nature (the phenomena) becomes inherently secondary and limited compared to the conceptual understanding of the noumena. In other words, with the noumena allowed into our worldview, science can play no role in some important areas of human experience, like morality. Instead, science must remain silent, and clearly, Haeckel wishes to argue that this result is detrimental to humanity.

Lastly, while still addressing Kantian morality, Haeckel repeats his strategy of attacking Kant’s views both philosophically and scientifically. In The Wonders of Life Haeckel claims that modern science has understood the human brain to such a degree that Kant’s appeal to the unique human faculty of reason no longer holds any weight. By studying the brain, science has rendered what Kant thought was a noumenal entity (reason) into a phenomenal entity (the brain). Therefore, there is no longer any need for noumena. Likewise, in Riddle of the Universe, Haeckel asserts that various modern sciences have either explained or dispelled all of Kant’s noumenal ethical concepts. Haeckel says that modern anthropology has “…dissipated [the] pretty dream…” (1901, p. 349) that all humans have an identical set of ethical faculties because they are based on the universality of reason. The study of other cultures has told us clearly, Haeckel argues, that peoples and cultures differ widely on what constitutes a good ethical person, and what constitutes good ethical judgment. He also claims that “comparative and genetic psychology” has shown that there cannot be a soul and that modern physiology has proven the impossibility of free will (Haeckel 1901, p. 349). Although Haeckel does not fill in much scientific detail about these claims, he clearly sees them as decisive arguments against Kant’s moral theory. The final blow from modern science that Haeckel deals to Kantian morality is that its central tenet, namely Kant’s much vaunted categorical imperative,Footnote5 has been replaced by the biological understanding of human beings as social creatures. Without going into too much detail, Kant thought that the categorical imperative could be proven using a “transcendental deduction of pure reason (see especially Part I, Book I, Chapter I of the Critique of Practical Reason). This deduction, being transcendental and not empirical, involves several noumenal ideas, such as the notion of the “good will”, “autonomy”, and “freedom of the will” to name a few. Hence, when Haeckel says, “[This]…shows that the feeling of [moral] duty does not rest on an illusory ‘categorical imperative,’ but on the solid ground of social instinct, as we find in the case of all social animals” (1901, p. 350), he is casting serious doubt on Kant’s use of noumenal ideas, going so far as to call them “illusory” in this context. So here, just as Haeckel earlier dispensed with Kant’s notion of the noumenal mind with neurology, he dispenses with Kant’s noumenal ethical notions with anthropology.”

“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


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.


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.


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 neural processes behind our desire for revenge” [Neuroscience News]

“The neural processes behind our desire for revenge

Neuroscience News


Summary: During a conflict between two groups, oxytocin levels increase, influencing the medial prefrontal cortex. This results in a greater feeling of empathy among the group and a desire to seek revenge on rivals. The findings shed light on how conflict contagion can occur in social groups.


The study suggests that the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin is increased during conflict between groups and influences the medial prefrontal cortex, the section of the brain associated with our decision-making activity. This leads to a greater feeling of love and empathy among a group and the desire to seek revenge when attacked by an outside group. The findings may help explain how a process called ‘conflict contagion’ can occur, where a conflict that starts between a few individuals ends up spreading among entire groups.


They found that the conflict encountered by the revenge group was associated with an increased level of oxytocin compared to the control group. Additionally, they saw that these increased levels of oxytocin predicted the medial prefrontal activity associated with ingroup pain. This activity in turn predicted the desire to seek revenge upon the outgroup, regardless of whether some of the individuals were directly involved in the conflict.


“A neurobiological association of revenge propensity during intergroup conflict”.

Xiaochun Han, Michele J Gelfand, Bing Wu, Ting Zhang, Wenxin Li, Tianyu Gao, Chenyu Pang, Taoyu Wu, Yuqing Zhou, Shuai Zhou, Xinhuai Wu Is a corresponding author, Shihui Han.

eLife doi:10.7554/eLife.52014.


A neurobiological association of revenge propensity during intergroup conflict

Revenge during intergroup conflict is a human universal, but its neurobiological underpinnings remain unclear. We address this by integrating functional MRI and measurements of endogenous oxytocin in participants who view an ingroup and an outgroup member’s suffering that is caused mutually (Revenge group) or respectively by a computer (Control group). We show that intergroup conflict encountered by the Revenge group is associated with an increased level of oxytocin in saliva compared to in the Control group. Furthermore, the medial prefrontal activity in response to ingroup pain in the Revenge but not Control group mediates the association between endogenous oxytocin and the propensity to give painful electric shocks to outgroup members regardless of whether they were directly involved in the conflict. Our findings highlight an important neurobiological correlate of revenge propensity which may be implicated in conflict contagion across individuals in the context of intergroup conflict.

“How Did Belief Evolve?” – Agustín Fuentes [Sapiens]

“How Did Belief Evolve?

An anthropologist traces the development of Homo sapiens’ most creative and destructive force, from the making of stone tools to the rise of religions.

Agustín Fuentes
is the chair of the anthropology department at the University of Notre Dame.


About 20 years ago, the residents of Padangtegal village in Bali, Indonesia, had a problem. The famous, monkey-filled forest surrounding the local Hindu temple complex had become stunted, and saplings failed to sprout and thrive. Since I was conducting fieldwork in the area, the head of the village council, Pak Acin, asked me and my team to investigate.

We discovered that locals and tourists visiting the temples had previously brought food wrapped in banana leaves, then tossed the used leaves on the ground. But when plastic-wrapped meals became popular, visitors threw the plastic onto the forest floor, where it choked the young trees.

I told Acin we would clean up the soil and suggested he enact a law prohibiting plastic around the temples. He laughed and told us a ban would be useless. The only thing that would change people’s behavior was belief. What we needed, he said, was a goddess of plastic.

Over the next year, our research team and Balinese collaborators didn’t exactly invent a Hindu deity. But we did harness Balinese beliefs and traditions about harmony between people and environments. We created new narratives about plastic, forests, monkeys, and temples. We developed ritualistic caretaking behaviors that forged new relationships between humans, monkeys, and forests.

As a result, the soils and undergrowth were rejuvenated, the trees grew stronger and taller, and the monkeys thrived. Most importantly, the local community reaped the economic and social benefits of a healthy, vigorous forest and temple complex.

Acin taught me that science and rules cannot ensure lasting change without belief—the most creative and destructive ability humans have ever evolved.


In my recent book, Why We Believe,* I explore how we evolved this universally and uniquely human capacity, drawing on my 26 years of research into human and other primates’ evolution, biology, and daily lives. Our 2-million-year journey to complex religions, political philosophies, and technologies essentially follows a three-step path: from imagination to meaning-making to belief systems. To trace that path, we must go back to where it started: rocks.


By 500,000 years ago, Homo had mastered the skill of shaping stone, bone, hides, horns, and wood into dozens of tool types. Some of these tools were so symmetrical and aesthetically pleasing that some scientists speculate toolmaking took on a ritual aspect that connected Homo artisans with their traditions and community. These ritualistic behaviors may have evolved, hundreds of thousands of years later, into the rituals we see in religions.

With their new gadgets, Homo chopped wood, dug deeper for tubers, collected new fruits and leaves, and put a wider variety of animals on the menu. These activities—expanding their diets, constructing new ecologies, and altering the implements in their environment—literally reshaped their bodies and minds.

In response to these diverse experiences, Homo grew increasingly dynamic neural pathways that allowed them to become even more responsive to their environment. During this time period, Homo’s brains reached their modern size.


The advent of cooking opened up a new landscape of foods and nutrient profiles. By boiling, barbecuing, grinding, or mashing meat and plants, Homo maximized access to proteins, fats, and minerals.

This gave them the nutrition and energy necessary for extended childhood brain development and increased neural connectivity. It allowed them to travel greater distances. It enabled them to evolve neurobiologies and social capacities that made it possible to move from imagining and making new tools to imagining and making new ways of being human.


Once groups are attributing shared meaning to objects they can manipulate, it is an easy jump to give shared meaning to larger elements they cannot change: storms, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, eclipses, and even death. We have evidence that by at least a few hundred thousand years ago, early humans were placing their dead in caves. Within the past 50,000 years, distinct examples of burial practices became more and more common.”

“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


FEBRUARY 16, 2020



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?


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.”


The Emotional Mind – The Affective Roots of Culture and Cognition

Stephen T. Asma, Rami Gabriel


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.”

“The dark side of social movements: Social identity, non-conformity, and the lure of conspiracy theories” – Anni Sternisko, Aleksandra Cichocka & Jay J. Van Bavel [Current Opinion in Psychology]

“The dark side of social movements: Social identity, non-conformity, and the lure of conspiracy theories

Anni Sternisko
Aleksandra Cichocka
Jay J. Van Bavel

Current Opinion in Psychology

Available online 21 February 2020



• Conspiracy theories claim that a powerful group is secretly pursuing an evil goal.

• Conspiracy theories can foster anti-democratic social movements.

• Conspiracy theories attract people with both their content and qualities.

• Content and qualities appeal to people differently based on their motivations.

Social change does not always equal social progress–there is a dark side of social movements. We discuss conspiracy theory beliefs –beliefs that a powerful group of people are secretly working towards a malicious goal–as one contributor to destructive social movements. Research has linked conspiracy theory beliefs to anti-democratic attitudes, prejudice and non-normative political behavior. We propose a framework to understand the motivational processes behind conspiracy theories and associated social identities and collective action. We argue that conspiracy theories comprise at least two components – content and qualities— that appeal to people differently based on their motivations. Social identity motives draw people foremost to contents of conspiracy theories while uniqueness motives draw people to qualities of conspiracy theories.


What motivates social movements that threaten social health, economic prosperity, and democratic principles? We argue that conspiracy theories — theories that a powerful group of people are secretly working towards a malevolent or unlawful goal [8**] can be one reason. Though not all conspiracy theories are wrong, irrational, or harmful for society, many of them are in fact closely intertwined with some of today’s most powerful, destructive social movements.


Recent reviews [30,8**] distilled three main motivators behind conspiracy theory beliefs: conspiracy beliefs are higher when people want to (1) feel good about themselves and the groups they belong to [31,32, 21], (2) make sense of their environment [33–35], or (3) feel safe and in control [36–38].


Conspiracy theories can be understood as a genre of belief systems that is defined by certain qualities. Each individual conspiracy theory is a film with a unique content. Content refers to the unique narrative elements of each conspiracy theory. While conspiracy theories all share the premise that a nefarious group is secretly working towards a malicious or unlawful goal, individual conspiracy theories vary in the specific group (e.g., Illuminati; government), which goal is pursued (e.g., New World Order, war) and which events can be explained (e.g., 2008 financial crisis, 9/11 terrorist attacks). This is similar to the contents of specific movies that people find appealing, like your favorite actor.


… the belief in a flat earth might primarily emerge from the psychological benefits of holding contrarian beliefs rather than compelling physical arguments. This is consistent with findings that participants who believed in one conspiracy theory were also more likely to believe in others, even when they were contradictory [42, 43]. We illustrate our argument by the means of discussing two motives behind conspiracy theory beliefs in more detail: social identity motives and uniqueness motives.

2.1. Content drawn motives: Social identity motives

People are prone to form social identities in which group membership becomes part of the self. Social identities are connected with different motives including the need to hold positive beliefs about ingroups and negative beliefs about outgroups [44]. We argue that these motives draw people primarily to certain contents of conspiracy theories.


In these cases, conspiracy theory beliefs psychologically greatly overlap with other kinds of false beliefs and can be explained by affiliated psychological models. For instance, in line with the identity-based model of political beliefs [46**], social identity motives increased participants ’likelihood to believe in fake news that represented their own political party as moral [47]. Likewise, participants were more likely to believe conspiracy theories that aligned with their party’s political stances and vilified the opposite party [39–41,48,49,50]. Sometimes people may be predominantly drawn to conspiracy theories because their content allows them to legitimize and enforce pre-existing beliefs and attitudes.


”Indeed, research suggests that people who believe in their group’s superiority but are anxious about its recognition are drawn to conspiracy theories about outgroup members [21, see also 22,23*].


For instance, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to endorse Qanon – the far-right theory that a Deep State is conspiring against President Trump [53]. In contrast, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to believe that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were an inside job [54]. These differences might emerge from motivations to defend one’s ingroup from external threats and represent outgroups as morally inferior. Together with evidence that conspiracy theories that implicate outgroups can further prejudices, discrimination, and inter-group hostility [23,25–29] social identity motives might foster a vicious cycle where conspiracy theories intensify inter-group conflict and inter-group conflict fosters conspiracy theories.”