Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

2.12.2011

From the "That Makes So Much Sense" Files

Using two groups of twins, from the United States and Australia, the investigators concluded that about half the difference between any two humans' ideologies results from genes. Family influence and the social environment account for the other half. This is big news to a species that considers itself autonomous and intellectual. And just as gob smacking as the numbers was the authors' analysis: Humans don't divide neatly into liberals and conservatives, they concluded. Rather, some of us are "contextualists," who tend to be empathetic and tolerant of others, who consider the context before punishing those selfish wolverines, who are suspicious of certainty when they encounter it in others, and who question authority and inequality. Others of us are "absolutists," who prefer a strong group unity with clear leaders, appreciate strict and forceful punishment systems, distrust human nature and outsiders, and are not distressed by inequality. Each of us leans one way or the other, regardless of reason, and these leanings color our behavior.

If you want to know which way I lean, all you have to do is read the header at the top of this blog. Things need context and are almost never absolute. I've preached often we should embrace contradiction and paradox, that my favorite punctuation mark is the semicolon because it allows for nuance and complicated connections, and so much more. When I rant about those I disagree with, it's often to complain that they need things unrealistically simple and black-and-white, that they can't deal with ambiguity but would rather have someone spell it all out for them so they don't have to think for themselves.

It's less overtly political, but an earlier section of the chapter had me thinking politics as well. If I'm not ranting about simplistic thinking, then I'm most likely worked up about either short-term, reactionary thinking or selfish thinking. I believe most of the bad political decisions I see are the result of at least one of those three things. I think we should always try to orient ourselves to bigger thinking, to the long-term common good, not the small, immediate, individual good. So I found all of this quite intriguing:

The behavior of sharing is so fundamental to human interaction that we do it from dawn till dusk without noticing. Every group of humans that forms a culture forges rules of conduct, then conforms to them, more or less. (More when someone's watching, less when unobserved.) . . .

Humans are particular about their partners in these efforts. I won't trade twice with someone who takes advantage of me . . .

Altruistic behavior is that which costs me effort, risk, or resources, but which doesn't benefit me. The problem is, it's hard to find an altruistic act that doesn't ultimately strengthen my hand. . . .

What if altruism isn't selfless at all, but rather a sly, long-term investment strategy? . . .

For one thing, it appears that we are hardwired to behave benevolently
when we're being watched. . . .

Reputation is now strongly suspected as the engine that drives altruism: Because I am such a social animal, it's important to me that other humans trust and respect me. . . . What goes around comes around, in human groups. . . .

First of all, let's dispense with the girl-down-the-well syndrome. This is the phenomenon in which humans will donate one thousand dollars to aid one human infant, but won't donate one thousand dollars to save one hundred infants in Bangladesh. The difference is that the girl down the well has a reputation. Alas for those one hundred Bangladeshis, their faces and reputations are unknown. . . .

What exactly happens to my brain when I hand a PowerBar to a homeless human? For one thing, based on MRI experiments, my trusty dopamine receptors rev up, just as they do for great food, sex, and other life-prolonging goodies. Apparently kindness is addicting. A separate brain region simultaneously dampens my urge for instant gratification, so that I can act in favor of the long-term result. . . .

I join my dog and find that my pulse is racing. I have taken a huge social risk. I've punished a noncooperator. Theorists have argued since Darwin over why human niceness persists in spite of cheaters. . . .

Punishing is crucial to the survival of cooperation, because punishment erodes the cheater's precious social support. However, punishing also looks like a purely altruistic act: I confront the cheater, and all I get out of it is a racing heart and a peeved wolverine. No dopamine rush, even. Why, then, should I make such a sacrifice for the common good? Once again, the behavior looks biologically bankrupt at first glance. And once again on closer inspection, it appears punishing the cheaters is part of a long-term strategy wherein I trade today's stress for tomorrow's social support. When I volunteer to punish a cheater, I advertise my own high standards for trustworthiness and decency. I attract a better class of allies. My stock rises. . . .

Anyway, the sad truth about cooperative behavior seems to be that we're all wolverines inside, wolverines in bonobo clothing. If we consider only the short term, it undeniably serves me best to blow through stop signs, lie to the IRS, and ignore the little girl in the well. But in the long term, I rely on my fellow humans in so many ways that such cheating (in front of them, at least) just doesn't pay.


The Well Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself by Hannah Holmes

Update: More thoughts about these quotes here.

1 Comments:

At 2/12/2011 3:37 PM, Anonymous Colleen Cook said...

I was talking along a similar line earlier today with my son. People in general are selfish and greedy, but many choose to tamp down those more base aspects because we recognize that by making the world better for all we make the world better for one. Unfortunately, it seems too many with power and means revert to greed and selfishness. All this came about from a discussion of why I prefer to not spend my money on Nike products. :)

 

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