Saturday, January 23, 2010

It's that old devil called Human Nature again

One of the most stubborn and frequently reoccurring truisms to emerge when people of all ideologies and levels of intelligence discuss what might make the world a better place is that old chestnut “human nature.” Human Nature, that coiled, double-helix curse of imperfection, that ever-present Murphy's Law, that permanent spanner in the works, ruining everything, crushing dreamers, thwarting progress, draining hope. Things can only get worse, because we're human. Human nature gets in the way, and there's nothing we can do about it. We are [fill-in-cynical-list-of-negative-attributes here], always have been, and always will be. Get over it already, wake up and smell the coffee. You idiot.

I am an idiot, I freely admit it. I believe no one knows what human nature really is, in direct opposition to the constant gene-this and gene-that discoveries trumpeted at us almost daily, left, right and centre. There's nothing more idiotic than disagreeing with common knowledge, right? Everybody just knows human nature is what it is, right? I mean, duh. We're all made of genes, they control us, make us do the things we do, and that's that. Case closed.

But please contemplate the following: There is a God and she/he/it causes, on a whim and to see what happens, the behaviour of the planet to change from one second to the next. Suddenly, every act of aggression or violence, every theft, every lie, is returned to the perpetrator or to someone the perpetrator loves, immediately. You shoot someone, a stone shoots out from the soil and shoots you. You punch someone, something from the environment punches you. You torture someone, a member of your family suffers exactly the same fate. You start a war, the people you command suffer exactly the same fate as the people you attack, one for one, and you die too. Not one human gene would be changed, but within days this environmental change would cause us to change our behaviours radically. It would put an end to all war and crime within weeks. We would quickly learn a new way of treating one another under that environmental pressure. Things would get better, for everyone, everywhere.

Please consider this too: A baby taken at birth and placed in a magic box, completely dark, but able to keep the baby physically alive and clean. Keep the baby in the box for 10 years. Then take it out. Would it be greedy? Ambitious? Violent? Would it be able to walk? Crawl? Speak? See? Ever? It could be absolutely perfect genetically speaking, the child of Albert Schweitzer and Marie Curie, or any two people you want to choose, and yet without any environmental input whatsoever the ten year old child would be nothing but a useless, barely-alive collection of flesh, blood and bones.

So, how should we change our environment so as to get the best out of us? I think abundance is the answer, and I've said so before. What do you think?


Thai said...

I didn't read the post on abundance so would if you would share the cliff note version I would appreciate it.

Personally I think of "morality" or "human nature"- or whatever other similar word you want to use- is a template or matrix in our brain which is partially formed by genes and partially formed by environment.

This moral matrix as it were is connected to every other part of our brain and acts as filter/benchmark to process all the information of the world that our brain receives.

This filter sets our mental boundary conditions on everything we see in the world.

In other words, it is literally part of the system that allows us to make distinctions where we might otherwise not.

And when one of these mental boundary conditions as it were are violated (symmetry is broken and a fractal is formed), our moral matrix rejects it, etc... and tell the rest of the brain what to do.

... How many times have we heard we make our decisions up before we actually know the facts, etc... and that the brain often looks to justify its actions?

I tried to address the basic issue here

And of course the problem is we all have different moral filters and to make it even more difficult the moral matrices are somewhat genetically predetermined making it all that much more difficult.

And different moral matrices make the viewpoint/perspective discussion we had all the more relevant.

For if you and I literally have different moral matrices and therefore think the world actually looks differently/want the world to look differently, how to we reach common ground?

For the way you might want the world to look might be quite different than the way I want it to look. And while both will likely work fine, my way is not compatible with yours, etc...

It is insoluble imo

Be well

Toby said...

Hi Thai,

cliff notes on abundance look like this:


I agree with you on morality, but morality is itself an interpretation, not a behaviour. If you're saying there are people who want war in sufficient numbers, as a way of being so to speak, sure, there probably are a few, and many other from-my-point-of-view unsavoury types too, but I'm not arguing for total consensus, nor uniformity of moral outlook. Variety is the spice of life, and perfection in the sense of utopia is impossible, not to mention undesirable. What I'm talking about is a behaviour change at a very general level that could be brought about by a societal change at the general level.

There are societies that have lived without war and crime (there's a link in my links bar to The Original Affluent Society by Marshall Sahlins which looks at some of what I'm saying here), and it looks to me like cooperation and sharing as opposed to competition and hoarding is what makes these cultures last. A post-scarcity economics or a resource-based economy is a way of moving towards producing goods and services in abundance, such that the material side of society is taken care of. Manufacture abundance, perceive abundance, built it in to the roots of society and human behaviour would change radically.

Morality is rules of behaviour that arise out of the coming together of the social animal in its environment, that's about it. Of course you can study morality at far finer granularity and hit upon all sorts of points for discussion, but coarsely speaking my definition is accurate. Pursuing abundance is a direction change not designed to alter morality per se, but set up a societal environment which encourages sharing and cooperative behaviours. I do not believe we are doomed to destroy the top soil down to sand and waste all the planet's good water, nor crush civilisation for want of a replacement to oil. There are other ways of setting things up. Capitalism, consumerism, liberal free market economics are as much constructs as anything else might be. We could set things up differently if we wanted to. The problem is wanting to, and understanding why we ought to in sufficient numbers. There's the rub. Our crass understanding of "human nature" is one of the things in the way of this.

However, I must go and cook breakfast and begin my day.


Thai said...

The problem is scarcity is built into the very fabric of the universe.

Don't forget the conservation of energy

let me plant a thought: is a thought (in your head) energy?

Think about it

Toby said...

"The problem is scarcity is built into the very fabric of the universe."

Can you prove that? That's a perception, not a fact. The universe is neither scarce nor abundant in its content. It makes no sense to claim one way or the other is "the truth", except to observe that our management of ourselves and the environment via our societal models leads to particular behaviours and long-term outcomes. Abundance and scarcity are qualifiers we deploy in shaping our relationship with the ecosystem.

There is nothing which is not energy. I believe there is no "Nothing" too. Thoughts are patterns that are possible thanks to language, language emerged out of the process of intelligent animals needing to communicate with one another to improve survival chances. But then, matter is made of patterns, or energy-as-shape, which then "is-what-it-is" due to relationships that arise out of interactions. In a way, matter is "hard" thought, and thought is "non-hard" matter. Either way, both are energy. Scarcity and abundance are perception-based. The Original Affluent Society sets this out nicely.

However, I am fascinated by how thought, seen collecitvely and as stored in language in the form of books etc., is different to matter because it is non-entropic. It grows in cohesion and complexity. What are your thoughts on thought?

Thai said...

All energy is the same and we perceive differences within it

re: can I prove scarcity is built into the fabric of the universe

No, but I can provide examples to suggest my point

#1- If there is a small piece of land which overlooks a lovely cove in the ocean, and a single house is put on that small piece of land, and a single family lives in this single house, and there are many families in the area, not all will get to live in the best piece of land. Even if you put a high rise building on this spit of land, there are differences between floors

#2- If you share a bed with your wife, and you both get up frequently in the middle of the night to use the toilet, so the side of the bed closest to the bathroom is the more desirable, only one will get it. You can build a second bathroom on both sides of the bed, but now the other side of the room will loose its window that overlooks the garden, etc...

#3- You can drink coffee before you eat your eggs in the morning or you can do it the other way around, but you can't do both without altering the flavor of either into something unsavory, etc...

One decision always closes an infinite number of other choices, etc...

Scarcity is built into the fabric of the universe

Now it is my turn to make breakfast

Be well

Toby said...

Ah yes, the top floor flat. I've addressed this before elsewhere (at my website). My argument is not that there is no scarcity, but that scarcity is an issue whose importance depends on how we perceive it and deal with it.

The first example you give includes ownership in the form of a property on a particularly pretty spot. Only one family can live there, but there are many families who want to. That is scarcity dealt with via the price mechanism and private property. There are other ways. There are many beautiful spots all over the world, and others can be built. Most beautiful land is owned by a tiny proportion of the global population, so in terms of absolute scarcity of beautiful living areas we have a system which accrues ownership to the few and exacerbates the situation. Another system (e.g. a resource-based economy) could transcend onwership by pursuing abundance and encouraging the perception of abundance, whereby families would not live forever in one spot, and there would be far more rotation. And because such a system would not be a huge competition to see who has the most beautiful spot to live in, or the top floor flat, it would instead be more flexible, fluid, in flux, cooperative. There is a lot on this to explain that space does not permit me to include.

Your second example is an extension of the first and is trivial. I share a bed with my wife, and my attitude to having the side furthest from the toilet is not to care two hoots about it. That type of scarcity is unproblematic. Only in situations where the relationship is on its way to being doomed would it be a problem. Again, this is about perception and creatively/cooperatively dealing with "problems."

The third is oppotunity cost which I don't really equate with scarcity on the problem side of things. That I cannot do everything that there is to be done in my life is a good thing. Time-scarcity, the physical limitation of me being in one place at one time, mean there will always be new things for me to do. That's just great.

Scarcity is in the fabric of the universe in the way that abundance is, or anything else for that matter. When we look at scarcity through the lens of classical economics we end up with money, greed and markets distributing scarce goods and services to consumers via the price mechanism. This is but one solution which comes with costs. Terrible costs now that human population is approaching 7 billion, socioeconomic systems are predicated on perpetual growth, and technology is able to produce in abundanace while rendering the need for human labour less and less. To continue dealing with the problem of scarcity as instructed by classical economics is to doom our species to civilisational collapse.

I hope you enjoyed you breakfast. ;-)

Thai said...

Re: the "change your perception" solution

This is a very old idea

My only response is the road to Hell is paved with good intentions

Toby said...

Oh but I hate that expression. It means, logically, either that we should not have any good intentions, which is absurd, or that the road to heaven is lined with bad intentions, which is also absurd!

This is not about heaven and hell, even metaphorically, this is simply about adapting to changing conditions. If we don't continually question, deeply, the things we think we know, I would say we are no longer human. Status quos calcify and seek to sustain themselves at all costs. They deploy a variety of means to do this. Currently the voodoo of economics is one of their main weapons. My efforts, the efforts of yet another nobody, are to question the assumptions of this voodoo: scarcity, human nature, enlightened self-interest, competition, perfect markets, "free" markets. They're all assumptions built on assumptions, causing huge and unnecessary suffering.

Thai said...

Good luck

I do know the following. I have four boys and whenever I buy my boys an ice cream, I usually ask if I can have a taste first. I have noticed they are not always happy to say "yes", even if I am buying.

The human mind is not a blank slate. I am not sure we absolutely know what human nature is, but I think it fair to say there is probably something to the idea.

Toby said...

Yes, we need luck, that's for sure!

I have two girls and they squabble too, over almost everything. But they threw tantrums when they were younger, and now they don't. We grow up, we adjust, we learn, we get socialized. We are social animals, shaped massively by the society we grow up in.

Yes of course we are not born with minds as blank slates, but what's in us at birth finds expression and takes form as behaviours through what we learn, which includes language, concepts, philosophies, TV, advertising, school and so on.

What would an exact copy of you be like had he been born in Pakistan and raised in a madrassa? Or raised by pygmies deep in the Amazonian rain forest? How would that you cope with your life if you swapped places with him, and how would you cope with his?

Thai said...

There would be differences if I were raised in Pakistan but I think they would be more of the superficial than fundamental nature. Our differences are not as great as one might imagine.

This issue has been endlessly examined by scientists and to the point science can settle any issue (a big "if" I'll admit) the answer is clear: the mind is not a tabula rasa.

Your cannot make the mind think, believe, etc... anything you want it to think or believe and to the extent you spend a lot of energy changing it from one more innate form to another through some process of social molding, you still have to expend a significant amount of energy to do so. This energy (or these resources) must come from somewhere else in the system.

In the end it is zero-sum and can actually be negative sum of you ask it to be something it truly is not.

One thing is abundantly clear from the research, the human mind is designed to fool itself.

Toby said...

"There would be differences if I were raised in Pakistan but I think they would be more of the superficial than fundamental nature. Our differences are not as great as one might imagine."

I said in a madrassa. The differences would be fundamental in terms of your behaviours. Physiologically you and your twin your be more or less the same, depending on your diets and exercise levels etc. But in terms of philosophy and ideologies you would be chalk and cheese, and even more different had your twin been raised by pygmies.

In the blog we are discussing I ask the reader to imagine a baby kept magically alive in a lightless box for ten years. After ten years that child would not be able to see, nor to develop sight, speech, nor crawl or walk. It would be useless, a vegetable, even had it been YOUR identical twin. ;-)

There is a story from history, I believe a true one, in which a king gathered a group of babies from various villages for an experiment. They were to be raised by a team of carers, but were to hear not one word spoken, ever. The king wanted to find out which was humanity's first language, and believed whatever word the children spoke first would be the clue he needed. The children never learned to speak, they never uttered one word. Indeed, the carers, fearing a slip of the tongue should they get too emotionally close to the children, refrained from all physical and emotional contact with them. The children got good food, clothing, warmth etc, but nothing else. They all died in childhood.

We have agreed that human nature is there; we cannot raise humans to sprout wings and fly like eagles, but the power of society is enormous. Otherwise, explain suicide, or necrophilia, or pedophilia, or foot fetishes etc etc. We are by nature highly malleable, social, intelligent, and other generic things of that nature, including greedy, selfish, ambitious. But all such qualities need to emerge in the right conditions, or the behaviours will not be reinforced by the environment and will fade away. That's why I ask the question I put at the end of the blog entry: what kind of a world do we want? We're busy trying to fix things left, right and center already, but in a crazy, incohesive, haphazard way. We should be going at ourselves as zoologists might, and design the right kind of zoo to bring out our best behaviours. I know this would be a process fraught with danger and error, but the aim is not utopia. The aim is learning to do things better. Always has been, always will be.

Thai said...

Agreed but 2 points:
1. Preventing humans from learning to do things is much easier than teaching them
2. There still has to be common areas of agreement. So while diversity of viewpoints has its strengths, it also has its weaknesses. If we are art of a family and have $100 to use as we will as a group and I want to build new kitchen while you want to get piano lessons, we cannot have both. And if we become rich enough that this choice is not a problem, the new sources of disagreement will emerge where we still have fundamental limitations (like the penthouse suite)

We kick the can down the road but we still always kick the can.

But if you and I both agree on something (say we both want a kitchen or we both want piano lessons), then there is not any trouble reaching consensus (this is your "reeducation/socialization" issue only seen from another viewpoint).

The only way to achieve common viewpoint is to destroy diversity and this too has its own issues.

Scarcity is built into the fabric of the universe and no matter what you do there is always a gotcha.

As the developers of sugarscape discovered. And most significantly, as they discovered they needed to destroy diversity in order to eliminate inequality

Think of it like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle for the social and behavioral sciences: you can control (to some degree) multiple pairs of social outcomes, but the more you wish to control one, the less you control the others.

You cannot control all of them as much as you want simultaneously

Toby said...

There have been societies without crime, or next to no crime (see "St Kilda, Island at the Edge of the World", and "Mutual Aid" in which the author discusses crime amongst the Alouette eskimos), and hunter gatherers such as aboriginal Australians lived in a sustainable system for 80,000 years. The aim is not to control anything, bet to set up conditions such that no medium of exchange is necessary. There would be neither poverty nor riches. We could set up a system which just takes care of material things. We get to deal with emotional/intellectual/spiritual problems. Kind of like Greek Civilisation but with mechanical slaves.

A resource-based economy -- an idea worth exploring, not a ready and waiting system just needing to be switched on -- has never consciously been tried. On Tua Motu, an island chain in the South Pacific, the people lived without money or trade, happily and for centuries as far as I know. Theirs was a sort of resource-based economy that arose in conditions of easy abundance. No medium of exchange was necessary to distribute via price scarce goods and services. They weren't lazy either. However, to WANT to explore this idea deliberately from where we are now, to try and set it up by pursuing automation, renewable energy, far more energy efficient houses, transport and cities etc., would be one hell of an undertaking. There is no precedent in human history. Most likely we may never try. It can only work on a global scale too, so the challenge is daunting to say the least.

And yes, agree 100%, there is always a gotcha, but we should not want to remove all gotchas. This is about incremental improvement, not leaping over to some perfect nirvana. Capitalism has run out of stuff to monetize. Technological unemployment will continue to undermine the consumer's purchasing power. Debt-fueled growth can take us no further. The old way is dead. We need a new one and tinkering at the edges of the old ain't going to cut it. New and seemingly strange ideas are where the good juice is to be found. The husk of the old has nothing left to give.

Thai said...

You are clearly very bright and have thought of these things as much/mor than I.

Do you have any links I could read about these violence free societies?

I do not know much about the topic of violence in other societies (I know you have less in Berlin than we do here in the US) but I have watched the following video.

But I have read a fair bit of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy who does talk about how her research shows that a great many of the societies that have the appearance of greater communal resource sharing (at least to us Westerners) also have very different family/sexual structures. Indeed you cannot have one without the other- I highly recommend Mother Nature if you have never read it.

Again, I am not opposed to change per say but I am never quite sure that what some see as change for the better is really seen as being the same by everyone- it still always gets back to that issue of "from whose viewpoint".

Take this issue of health care reform. The Democrats had a supermajority as they came together on their unified idea of change. Yet still they haven't been able to agree on a unified version of where the change from the status quo should actually go.

Change is the easy part, change to what is where it gets difficult.

As my hero Jonathan Haidt clearly understands (watch at min 14 onward)

Be well my friend

When you talk about something like "better for everyone", this is why I fall back to morality as everyone first has to agree on what this actually means. I am not sure we all have the same view of what is best for everyone.

Toby said...

"When you talk about something like "better for everyone", this is why I fall back to morality as everyone first has to agree on what this actually means. I am not sure we all have the same view of what is best for everyone."

That's a very good point, I should watch my enthusiasm while writing! However, in a very general way I think history, though rhyming by virtue of war, conquest, and the cyclicality of rise and fall, is also a record of progression, call it an ethical evolution. I've watched Pinker's talk on violence maybe three times, and love it because it suggests (to me) we humans are not genetically doomed to destroy one another (he's also very interesting on twin-studies in the human nature debate). The point he makes at the end of the talk which resonates most strongly with me is about the expanding circle of reciprocity (aka ethical evolution). Marshall Sahlins discusses this in Stone Age Economics (have to buy the book I'm afraid -- it's not available online, although "The Original Affluent Society" is, and linked to in my link-list).

Having had a circle of reciprocity that did not, at the beginning, spead much beyond the family, humans have ethically evolved, by various unintended means and through the millennia, to the point where we can now feel sympathy even for other species, let alone weird foreigners who don't look like us. This too at the institutional level, e.g. Green Peace, Friends of the Earth, the United Nations etc. None of them are perfect, but they simply would not be possible if humans were only violent and competitive.

As for violent stone age tribes and hunter gatherers as referenced by Pinker, I'm sure they existed and exist still. This is not a simple, black and white subject (are there any?), but there have been others "crime-free" societies, and though exceptions, they prove that the animal homo sapiens sapiens can live that way.

Toby said...

[Part II]

Regarding crime: "Mutual Aid" by Peter Kropotkin (1902) discusses the Alouette eskimos and their crime rates (among other things), but it's not online. "St. Kilda, Island on the Edge of the World" by Charles Maclean discusses the people that lived on St Kilda for about 2000 years -- upto about 1920 or so -- without money (though they traded with Scotland via barter and payed rent to the MacLeods in cloth and oil I believe) and without crime. It is also not available online. Tua Motu came to my attention via Jacque Fresco, whose writings (most of them) you can find at his website

Otherwise, if you're interested, I have written a long article on crime (referencing Pinker and others): I think it is a strong article ;-)

And I've listened to 2 of Jonathan Haidt's talks and agree with him strongly. There are a bunch of people coming through now who are talking sense at last. There is a paradigm shift talking place at some speed (change is the only constant), he and others (check out Charles Eisenstein and John Ringland) are evidence of this. The Internet is spreading the information far and wide at lightening speed.

In terms of improving things, we should not be seeking to tell people what to do or what morality to have, but setting things up in such a way that our better, more sustainable, more cooperative behaviours emerge. I don't see this as morality, more as a functional analysis of how to progress civilization beyond the current impass. It's that, or we destroy ourselves. Either we make it past these problems, or we don't. That has nothing to do with morality per se. Buckminster Fuller has an appropriate analogy: in a theater the audience claps and laughs and is happy as the play proceeds. But should a fire break out these same people will quickly transform into a stampeding mob that tramples the weak to death. The fire does not expose "human nature" in all its ugliness, it is a change of conditions that illicits a particular response. I don't care about ugliness and beauty, I just love life and want my children to enjoy theirs as much as they can. Our current system is rapaciously greedy, but that is not because humans are rapaciously greedy by nature, they are rapaciously greedy when the socioeconomic environment makes that behaviour sensible in the short term.

I also strongly recomment "The Spirit Level" by Wilkinson and Pickett (2009), sadly also only available in book form (maybe paperback by now).