Allies, Altruism, Anthropology, Bad Ideas, Behavioral Genetics, Community, Competence, Competition, Cultural Traits, Culture, Ethics, Evolution, Fairness, Human Nature, Hunter/Gatherers, Ideas, Justice, Life, Memes, Morality, Morals, Nature, Obligations to Society, Quality of Life, Science, Society, Values

Lessons About Human Nature Learned From a Spider

(About a 6 minute read)

The spider had been stalking the fly for minutes.  There didn’t seem to be anything on the barren patch of ground to attract a fly.  I expected it to finish its investigations and leave.  But it would only buzz away a few inches when the spider approached it, then in a minute or two return.

Sometimes it would allow the spider to get very close before flying off.

Continue reading “Lessons About Human Nature Learned From a Spider”

Anthropology, Behavioral Genetics, Belief, Biology, Creative Thinking, Cultural Change, Cultural Traits, Culture, Feminism, Genetics, Human Nature, Ideologies, Life, Morality, Science, Talents and Skills, Teresums

How the Internet Changed My View of Human Nature

(About a 7 minute read)

Back when I was in high school, I read B.F. Skinner’s Behaviorism, and was quickly converted to philosophical behaviorism — the deterministic notion that our behavior is solely decided by all that we learn from the moment of our birth onward.

There is no room in behaviorism for the notion of free will, but neither is there room for the notion that we might have an universal human nature rooted in our genes — or even a genetically based individual nature also rooted in our genes.

So by the time I got to university I was ripe to discover that all ideas were inventions. That each idea had a history, and that there was a time before it had been cooked up by someone, and then spread to other people.

Continue reading “How the Internet Changed My View of Human Nature”

Anthropology, Bad Ideas, Community, Cultural Change, Cultural Traits, Culture, Democracy, Equality, Freedom, Freedom and Liberty, Human Nature, Hunter/Gatherers, Oppression, Political Ideologies, Politician, Politicians and Scoundrels, Quality of Life, Religion, Society

How Our Egalitarian Ancestors Became Elitists

(About a 7 minute read)

Three days ago, I posted on how the division of societies into elites and non-elites was a relatively new thing in human history that began as recently as 5,500 years ago on the plains of Sumer.

Before that, our ancestors had lived in small hunting/gathering groups, and were fiercely jealous of their freedoms — so jealous that they resented and opposed any attempts by someone, or some group, to rise up above the others. In short, they were non-elitists, egalitarians. You can find that post here.

My post prompted the astute Sha’Tara to observe that there must have been some reason why the ancient Sumerians suddenly (in historical terms) decided to surrender their freedoms to a small group of elites, despite their egalitarian instincts and customs. That is an excellent question, a question I hope to address in this post.

Continue reading “How Our Egalitarian Ancestors Became Elitists”

Allies, Anthropology, Bad Ideas, Belief, Competence, Education, Epistemology, Honesty, Human Nature, Ideologies, Intellectual Honesty, Intelligence, Knowledge, Learning, Liars Lies and Lying, Logic, Obligations to Society, People, Political Ideologies, Psychology, Reason, Scientific Method(s), Teacher, Teaching, Thinking, Truth, Values, Village Idiots

My High School Math Teacher was a Space Alien!

(About a 7 minute read)

Often, when I think of the people in my life who have most deeply — some might say “most traumatically” — impressed me as smart in some ways and stupid in others, I think of my high school math teacher, Mr. B.

No one — not even I — questioned Mr. B’s competence as a mathematician.  I will submit, however, that Mr. B, despite his smarts in math, was twenty years ahead of his time in some kinds of stupid.

I had Mr. B as a teacher in the early 1970s.  William F. Buckley was alive, and Buckley was frequently a very smart man.  He also had the clout to be the intellectual guardian of the Republican Party.  That is, if he decided someone or some group was too stupid to fit in as a Republican, Buckley would use his considerable influence to exile them from the Party.  The Republicans have no one like him today. Today,. the crazies have become the Party.

The John Birch Society was one of the groups Buckley succeeded in kicking out of the Party.  The “Birchers” believed — in the way stupid people fanatically believe things — all sorts of nonsense.  For instance, they thought Dwight D. Eisenhower was a willing tool of the Soviet Union and a deliberate traitor to America.  Buckley thought the Birchers were in danger of sliding into fascism.  Perhaps he was right.

My math teacher subscribed to the John Birch Society, and perhaps to other Radical Right organizations as well. We knew whenever he had received in the mail another one of their newsletters — he would put aside teaching mathematics for the day and instead lecture us on themes that were rarely enough heard in the early 1970s outside of certain circles.

I can still recall a few of his more memorable pronouncements: “Pollution never killed anyone”.  “Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Communist out to destroy America. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”  “The Soviets will invade us any year now. Maybe any day now.”  “Women don’t need equal rights.  Men do!  Women are smarter than men.”  “Negroes are shameless whiners. They haven’t been discriminated against since the end of the Civil War.”

I am a strong believer in the notion that, although everyone has a right to his or her opinions, not all opinions are created equal.  Some opinions are forged of sound logic and a weight of evidence.  Some other opinions are forged of logical fallacies and nonsense.  Many people believe that differences of opinion never reflect differences of intellect.  I’m not so sure.  It seems to me some opinions are so stupid their owners, if not merely ignorant, must be stupid.  But then I’m no psychologist, so maybe I’m wrong about that.

Yet, it is simply true that — often enough — the same one of us who is so stupid as to believe the Theory of Evolution is a conspiracy of the world’s 500,000 biologists, is nevertheless a brilliant (or at least competent) engineer.  How can we account for that?

Mr. B once said something that I think is about half true: “No matter how good you get at math, you will never cease to make mistakes. But if you practice, you will catch your mistakes as you make them, and then correct them yourself, instead of needing someone else to correct them for you.”

I think it sometimes happens that way.  But I also think very few — if any — of us ever get so good that we catch and correct every one of our own mistakes, whether in math or in any other field.  We will always need the help of others.  Indeed, it seems one reason the sciences have been so successful at establishing reliable facts and producing predictive theories is because they employ methods of inquiry that encourage people to correct each other’s mistakes.  That is, science is a profoundly cooperative endeavor.

Buckley once described some of the notions of the John Birch society as “paranoid and idiotic”.  To some extent, those two things go together.  A “paranoid” person is typically unwilling to accept anyone correcting his ideas.  Quite often, the result is his ideas drift into idiocy.  That’s to say, it seems one of the best ways to become stupid is to systematically reject or ignore the efforts of others to correct us when we are wrong.

But why are we humans so often wrong in the first place?

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have come up with a rather interesting theory that could go far to explain why our species of great ape seems prone to cognitive errors.  It’s called “The Argumentative Theory”, and it is well worth reading up on.

The gist of it is that our ability to reason evolved — not to figure out what is true or false — but to (1) evaluate arguments intended to persuade us to do something, and (2) to persuade others to do what we want them to do.  Consequently, our ability to think logically and evidentially is imperfect — one might even say, “somewhat remedial”.

Part of the evidence for the Argumentative Theory is our species built in cognitive biases.  By “built in”, I mean that the biases seem hereditary.  The fact our thinking is inherently biased is strong evidence our thinking evolved for some other function than to merely figure out what is true or false.  Mercier and Sperber would say that function was to persuade people by arguments and to evaluate their efforts to persuade us by arguments.

Regardless of whether the function of reason is to discern reality or to win arguments, the fact our species is so prone to cognitive error might go far in explaining how it happens that the same person can be smart in some ways and stupid in others.  That is, perhaps we are smartest — or at least, we tend to act smartest — when we have some corrective feedback.

That feedback might come in the form of ourselves “checking our work” — as when we check a mathematical solution.  It might come in the form of  whether we achieve our intended outcome — as when we fix a car so that it runs again.  Or the corrective feedback might come in the form of constructive criticism from  well trusted others.

Perhaps the less corrective feedback we have, the more likely we are to adopt stupid opinions.  Or, in other words, we should not expect our own reason alone to take us where we want to go.  Rather, we should expect our reason plus some form of corrective feedback to take us there.

I think my high school math teacher, if he were alive to read this essay, would be appalled by my suggestion that — no matter how good we get — we are still wise to listen to the critiques of others.  It seems to me Mr. B cared so little to hear the opinions of others that he might as well have been a space alien orbiting his own little planet and all but totally out of touch with earth.  He seemed to think he was his own sufficient critic.  And perhaps his lack of concern for the input of others explains why he found it so easy to harbor so many “paranoid and idiotic” notions.  Notions that, in a sense, were more stupid than he was.

Anthropology, Bad Ideas, Behavioral Genetics, Biology, Deity, Evolution, Genetics, God, God(s), Human Nature, Ideologies, Late Night Thoughts, Myth, Neuroscience, Psychology, Religion, Science

Why Did Humans Invent the Gods?

I think I’m headed in the direction of becoming a very disagreeable old man.  I think that might happen to me because I have a number of pet peeves.  Peeves that are meaningful only to me — but which I increasingly lack the wisdom to keep to myself.  And one of those pet peeves became inflamed tonight.

I have for years held the opinion — rabidly held the opinion — that E. B. Tylor was mistaken. Tylor, who was born in 1832, was the anthropologist who coined the notion the gods were invented to explain things.

I don’t think Tylor had any real evidence for his notion the gods were invented to explain things.  I agree with those folks who say he was speculating.  Yet, his notion can seem plausible.  And I suppose that’s why his notion has caught on.  So far as I can see, Tylor’s notion is the single most popular explanation for the invention of deities.

Basically, his notion goes like this:  Primitive humans did not have the science to know what caused thunder, so they invented a god that caused thunder.  In that way, their natural curiosity was satisfied.  Again, primitive humans did not know what caused love, so they invented a god that caused love.  And so forth.

Tylor’s views spawned the notion the gods would sooner or later go away because science would sooner or later replace them as an explanation for things.  Of course that hasn’t happened.

A number of scientists have come up with much more interesting theories about the origins of deity than Tylor came up with.  But those theories haven’t had the time to catch on as widely as Tylor’s. Nevertheless, the gist of the current thinking is that our brains are somewhat predisposed to belief in supernatural things — from ghosts to gods.  I have posted about those new notions here and here, but for a more comprehensive look at the new notions, see the recommended readings at the end of this post.

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Recommended Readings:

Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili, Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief.

Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion.

Anthropology, Behavioral Genetics, Biology, Cultural Change, Cultural Traits, Culture, Evolution, Extended Family, Family, Genetics, Human Nature, Hunter/Gatherers, Marriage, Nuclear Family, Psychology, Relationships, Sexuality, Society

Traditional Marriage, Circa: Stone Age.

In many small-scale societies, there’s an institution that looks like marriage, where people “pair bond,” but there’s philandering on the side by both men and women. They’ll often just cycle to another pair bond. It’s not uncommon for hunter gatherers to have three, four or five pair bonds in the course of their life, while getting children from each one.

Joseph Henrich

So far as I know, our species of human has been around for about 260,000 years.  According to several scientists, it’s a reasonable guess that, for most of that time, we lived as hunter/gatherers and had marriages that resembled those Henrich describes as common in small-scaled societies today.

It also seems a reasonable guess that people in our ancestral societies most often married for romantic love.  Hunter/gatherers tend to have very few possessions, so marrying someone for their goods is a relatively bad idea.  People might have married to create alliances between families and groups, but hunting/gathering marriages tend to be comparatively short lived — so marrying to create alliances between groups might not always be an especially attractive idea.   And humans seem emotionally tailored by evolution for romantic love.  For those and other reasons, I think it’s safe to say our ancestors most often married for love.

I suspect that was not only the traditional pattern of marriage in our own species of human, but also the traditional pattern of marriage in our precursor species.  In other words, when we think of traditional marriages — the kind of marriages we would have if left to nature — we should think of folks most often marrying for love, now and then screwing around on each other, and eventually traveling on to a new wife or husband.   All within the context of having kids who would — to a large degree — be raised with help from the entire band.

In my opinion, marriages were very unlikely to differ from that model until about 10,000 years ago, with the beginnings of agriculture.   Once you start growing crops, owning the cropland is not far behind.  And once you have landowners — and inheritances — then you have all sorts of pressure to marry for possessions, or for alliances, and not necessarily for love.  You also have extraordinary pressure to stay married at almost all cost.  And you now have agricultural surpluses that can support extra wives.  The extended family becomes more important than the band, but the nuclear family — a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution — is still more than 9,000 years in the future.

Anyway, just some Sunday morning thoughts on traditional marriages.

Anthropology, Bad Ideas, Behavioral Genetics, Belief, Biology, Evolution, Faith, God(s), Ideologies, News and Current Events, Religion, Science

What Is This Guy Up To?

Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires.

Sigmund Freud

All religions, with their gods, their demigods, and their prophets, their messiahs and their saints, were created by the credulous fancy of men who had not attained the full development and full possession of their faculties.

Mikhail Bakunin

If you’ve got something so deep-rooted in human nature [as religion], thwarting it is in some sense not enabling humans to fulfill their basic interests.

Roger Trigg

It seems Roger Trigg wants you to believe some things about human religiosity.  Only one of those things is that opposing religion is bad because it deprives people of the ability to “fulfill their basic interests“.  Apparently, he also wants you to believe:

But, perhaps most of all, Roger Trigg wants you to believe that a recent series of 40 different studies conducted in association with the University of Oxford support his convictions.  Trigg is the Co-Director of the Cognition, Religion and Theology Project, which is the outfit that conducted the 40 studies.  The Project’s other Co-Director is Justin Barrett.

Trig and Barrett quite recently released to a very select three or four journalists the merest whiff of concrete information about their Project’s findings.  And it now appears that whiff of information was simply an excuse — a mere vehicle — to allow the two of them (but especially Trigg) to place a spin on the Project’s findings well before the findings themselves are to be released. So, I would like to take a much closer look at Trigg’s claims.

Let’s begin by looking first at his notion that, “If you’ve got something so deep-rooted in human nature [as religion], thwarting it is in some sense not enabling humans to fulfill their basic interests.”  Is Trigg trying to suggest it is somehow wrong to oppose religion?  I suspect he is.

If so, Trigg’s argument is probably a variation of the naturalistic fallacy.  But merely because some trait is deep-rooted in human nature does not make it right, or all wars — without exception — would be right because war is obviously deeply rooted in human nature.  Again, rape occurs in all known societies and in all periods of recorded history.  It is as obviously deeply rooted in human nature as war.  But does that mean thwarting rape is in some sense not enabling humans to fulfill their basic interests — and therefore wrong to do?

Frankly, I’m a bit surprised anyone would ever argue that opposing religion was wrong simply because religion is deeply rooted in human nature.

Again, we have Trigg’s notion that, “…attempts to suppress religion are likely to be short-lived….”  If Trigg means to suggest that people should not oppose religion merely because such efforts will prove to be largely futile, then he is on shaky ground for at least two reasons.

First, there are all sorts of things people oppose even though their efforts are some extent — or even largely — futile.  People routinely oppose robberies, murders, and political corruption even though their efforts are to varying degrees unsuccessful.  Should they cease to do so?

Second, the prevalence of religion varies from one place and time to another.  Some countries, such as Norway, are significantly less religious than other countries, such as the US.  And Norway was once more religious than it is today.  Both those facts suggest there might be practical means of reducing human religiosity.

Last, we have Trigg’s point that, “…human thought seems to be rooted to religious concepts, such as the existence of supernatural agents or gods…”.  But does that provide adequate grounds for not opposing religion?

I’m pretty sure it does not.  Human thought also seems to be rooted in a number of various cognitive biases.  Does the fact human thought is rooted in a number of cognitive biases mean that we should not oppose them?  It seems Trigg might might once again be falling victim to the naturalistic fallacy.

I think it is safe to say that, to the extent Trigg’s comments can be taken as arguments against opposing religion, they fail.

Unfortunately, I think Trigg intends more by his comments than merely to argue it is somehow wrong to oppose religion.  He also seems to be making at least two more points — and getting these points across might be his real agenda.  First, that we humans have an innate predisposition to belief or faith in deity.   Second, that today’s dominant forms of human religiosity are the natural or default forms of human religiosity.  Assuming Trigg is indeed trying to assert those claims, I believe he is factually wrong about both of them.

That is, I do not think it is the case that belief in god is natural nor the case that today’s religions are natural.

So far as I understand it, scientists nowadays generally agree that religion evolved very early in human history, and many scientists even suggest there is evidence religion predates the origin of our own species.  The earliest religions, however, are not thought to be much like the many ideologically elaborate, hierarchical religions that are so common today. Instead, they were most likely ideologically simple, and more or less egalitarian.  Their core beliefs might have amounted to little more than the notion that most things — including inanimate things — have a spirit or life force, and that those spirits live on after death.  It is entirely possible those ancestral religions contained no god concepts.

A few years ago, PZ Meyers nicely summed up a few of the cognitive processes that most likely provided the psychological foundation for the ancestral religiosity of our species:

There are human universals. We are curious or concerned about the world around us; we look for causal explanations for events; we like explanatory narratives that link sequences of events together; we tend to anthropomorphize and project our motivations and our expectation of agency on objects in our environment.

Meyers then added, “That’s human nature, and religion isn’t at all intrinsic to it.”  Today’s religions have roughly about the same relationship to our ancestral religiosity as a automobile has to walking.

It seems to me — and I could be very wrong about this — that Roger Trigg’s recent statements about the findings of the Cognition, Religion and Theology Project are to a meaningful extent attempts to frame those findings as providing grounds to believe that today’s elaborate, organized religions and their ideologies are natural expressions of human religiosity.  And if that is his message, then frankly, I don’t think he’s got it right.

Our species has been around for about 260,000 years.  For only a tiny fraction of that time have we had ideologically elaborate, hierarchical religions.  And no matter how fond we might be of those newfangled religions, they do not seem to represent humanity’s natural or default religiosity.

It is almost certainly true that humans have a natural predisposition to certain cognitive processes that, taken together, usually result in something we call “religiosity”.  But — and it’s a huge “but” — that religiosity is not the religiosity of, say, Christianity, most Hinduism, or Islam, but rather the religiosity of our ancestral hunting/gatherers.  And their religiosity was most likely ideologically simple — perhaps even to the point of being godless — and more or less egalitarian.

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Other bloggers are discussing this same issue.  Here are four:

The Cognitive Dissenter:  New Oxford Study: Belief in god is natural.  Thinking takes more work.

Paradise Preoccupied: God in Genes?

Why Evolution Is True: New Oxford Study: Religion pervasive, ergo impossible to eradicate.

Friendly Atheist: Is Religious Belief Part of Human Nature?

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I also have earlier posts on this issue here and here.