Tuesday, May 29, 2012


It seems clear we're reaching, or have already reached, the breaking point of the human mind. The world has outpaced our ability to keep up. Designed or evolved, humans aren't built for this.

People are cracking up right and right, and I'm trying to figure it out. It'd be pretty interesting if we were, in fact, creations of some sort of intelligence, in which case, you'd have to wonder WTF he/she/it/they had in mind. By the time the rapture rolls around we'll have killed each other off. If the sky-guy put us together with this in mind, what does it say? Well, among other things, it'd say there's no point in considering it: the plan is in place, it's playing out piteously, we're pre-programmed pitiful pawns.

But I'm trying to understand what's happening based on reality. Observing the steady decline, at least in the US, I've taken some solace in believing that a society needs only a small number of brilliant people in order to keep itself moving forward; and I've noted that -- at least until teabaggers get their way -- we have a steady stream of smart and motivated immigrants who still believe in the American dream, winning contests, scholarships, pushing boundaries of knowledge. But it's not enough: we need a quantity of intelligent voters, too; forward-thinking ones, unselfish ones, ones who see change and embrace it, enough of them to elect sane politicians. In that, we seem increasingly bereft.

In study after study we've learned there are innate differences between liberals and conservatives; in how they think, in how they react to certain stimuli, in the very wiring of their brains. We seem to have evolved in two separate strains, two subspecies as it were, brains and guts, and there must be a reason. The gut-thinkers must have come first; primal, the trait remains more deeply embedded than reasoning. The question is whether it's become a liability in these metastable times. Having developed ways to band together, tribal instincts in the face of dangers great and small must be a big part of what got us here. Tigers. Crocodiles. Neighboring tribes. Volcanos. (Okay, sure, you wanna throw in T. Rex, Sarah? Why not?) But did this evolution prepare us for modernity, or has it left us unable to cope? I'm thinking the latter. The instincts we've developed -- half of us, anyway -- are causing us to implode. We're just not made for it.

Tribalism must have had great survival benefits as humanity emerged: developing a sense of community based on likeness, shared rituals, banding together for protection. Finding "otherness" threatening; not venturing too far from what's known and safe: these things must have kept the species intact. And these traits, I'd guess, were more select-worthy early on than those of dreamers and seekers. But -- speculating -- at some point, as societies became safer and more stable, more able to defend themselves, needing to spend less than full-time on survival, other human needs became important, too, allowing striving to appear; wonder, curiosity, invention.

Gut-thinkers, tribalists, suspicion and paranoia got us past the dangers of a few hundred thousand years ago, and continued to do so as long as scattered tribalism was the dominant form of society. In an increasingly borderless world, though, one in which assimilation is becoming the norm, one in which science is taking us places we never could have imagined at speeds impossible to comprehend, change is far outpacing the rate of evolution. We need more mental horsepower, more facility of thought, and we just don't have them; we're stuck in the savannas as the world whizzes by. Tribalism runs deep, and we should be thankful for where it once took us. Maybe we still need it: maybe if the speed of cultural and scientific evolution had been slower, gut-thinkers would have been able to keep up and remain useful.

Keeping guard, maybe, outside the gates.

In fight or flight situations, you only need to assess a couple of facts: that moving object looks different from me, smells different, makes un-me-like sounds. The slow gathering of information, careful making sense of things, planning ahead, considering pros and cons -- none of that applies. But as the world has become complex, threats less immediate and far less clear, that fight-or-flight thinking becomes the danger. It's a new world: science is calling your magic into question; people are increasingly moving past your tightly-held prejudices; your stone-age need to maintain a sense of superiority is threatened all around. Tribalist genes are screaming for action, convincing you you're right, calling you to react with force, and you neither can nor feel the need to resist. Your notions of order are falling apart: you see conspiracies, threats, you make up imaginary enemies (wait past the first moments of the video); you can't help it, you can't withstand the force of your nature.

There's a name for prehistoric tribalists, genetically driven, searching for touchstones in the modern world: teabaggers. We see it's not their fault that they are who they are. Let's say thanks for all they've done through all those eons, but we can't re-cork the bottle for them. The question is whether we can find a way forward together before their kind of thinking blocks all the roads. When they think it's life or death, gut-thinkers have the advantage over cerebrators. It's that evolution thing they don't believe in.

And suddenly it all make sense. Teabaggers are doing what they were programmed to do, calling up fears through millennia long past. Blacks, gays, yellows, browns, immigrants, people who don't believe in the things that they do. Science. Free-thinking. Equality: all of them ringing primordial alarm bells, so much a part of them that they can't see it for what it is.

Which, to me, is not a hopeful realization. It's too deep, it can't be changed. Humankind's creations have outpaced its abilities to keep up with them, and are at cross-purposes with deeply ingrained (in half of us, anyway) ancient instincts for self preservation. In the end, rocks thrown by cave men still break heads.


  1. Thank you for linking that Bill Maher episode, I've been seeing uncited quotes from it for a while.

    Also, there is a way to link to a particular time-index of a YouTube video (the video, when loaded, will start playing some way in). I don't know what it is, though; I've never used it and can't immediately find an example. Good luck.

  2. Along these lines, if you have the time, Robert Sapolsky's lecture on a putative evolutionary association between religiosity and schizophrenia is quite interesting. If valid (and Sapolsky makes a good case) it's seems reasonable to suppose conservative-type thought processes [1] may have emerged in an analogous way.

    (Available here; about an hour and 20 minutes long.)

    - Molly, NYC
    [1] I would have said "or progressive-type processes," out of fairness--but progressives consistantly perceive things correctly, and (in matters on which they disagree)conservatives usually have to be dragged kicking and screaming, over the course of decades, to the glaringly obvious. As you point out, the question isn't why liberals--whose evolutionary value is obvious--are in the gene pool. It's why the terrified and willfully ignorant are retained.

  3. "Innate Differences between Liberals and Conservatives"?!?!?!
    Sid, I'm a big boy, if you think I'm an A-Hole, just call me an A-Hole, I mean thats what my Mom does.
    Seriously, it's like saying certain "Ethnic" groups are more prone to criminality, just because some "Ethnic" groups commit crimes at 10 x the rates of other "Ethnic" groups.
    Your own Blue State for instance, with barely 4% Afro-Americans but 10 x that many in your Blue State Prisons.
    and besides, I got an MRI of my Right Wing Brain, and it's just like yours,
    well maybe without the Neurofibrilary Tangles...

    Frank "It's all Pink on the Inside" Drackman

  4. Follow the links, Frank. Read the studies. And your post hoc ergo propter hoc comparison to actual research fails and falls on its face.

    But it's okay. You can't help it, and, as a liberal, I feel your pain.

  5. Molly, I've seen that lecture before, and it's very much along the lines of my own thinking: the association of religious delusion with schizophrenia is noteworthy. I guess it's a spectrum.

  6. You feel my Pain?
    Surgeons get hemmorhoids too? wierd...
    So how WAS it taking physics from William Shockley?


  7. "The question isn't why liberals--whose evolutionary value is obvious--" ?????
    Little room for compromise or enlightenment or understanding exists when "labels" are used to define people or groups (e.g. conservative, liberal, teabagger). Labels narrowly define.

    It is possible that our society is devolving because polarizing ideologies create "tribes" with members who stubbornly refuse to consider any other perspective. They (tribe members) become fanatics. Fanaticism exisits around politics, sports, religion, art, science or almost anything.Definition of FANATIC: marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion
    The key word is "uncritical".

    To continue this way makes us collectively more stupid.
    Definition of STUPID
    1a : slow of mind : b : given to unintelligent decisions or acts : acting in an unintelligent or careless manner c : lacking intelligence or reason
    2: dulled in feeling or sensation
    3: marked by or resulting from unreasoned thinking or acting
    4: lacking interest or point


  8. It's a fair comment, DD. And I've never claimed liberals are above reproach, and I've criticized them many times here.

    But I think it's pretty obvious who's been the more willing to compromise, including -- to the dismay of many liberals -- our president. Compare to that guy who beat Dick Lugar, saying the era of compromise is over (as if it hadn't already died at the hands of congressional Rs.)

    Rs have dug in, and they're seeing monsters under their beds. That's the point of my post, and of the speculation as to why. I don't see much good coming, in these times, from that attitude; and whereas there are extremists at each end of the political spectrum, on the R side there's no other color throughout the party.

  9. Sid, My Left-brained Surgical Colleague..
    Well if Evil-lution is really true, doesn't that mean there's(:) a reproductive advangtage to Homo Sapiens having, shall we say "variations" in our thinking?
    That way, when the Kanamits come with their(see!)death ray, and your(yay!)side's negotiating doesn't work, there'll be some illiterate West Vir-ginny Hillbilly who can blow up Darth Vader's Spaceship with nothing but barbed wire and used motor oil.
    And I read your "study", comparing who can type "W" or "M" with fewer mistakes, WOW, thats Soooooo........... Scientiffic.



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