Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Evolution of Delusion (a Thanksgiving Day Message)

Today is Thanksgiving. But it is also the fortieth anniversary of Yukio Mishima’s seppuku.

Yukio Mishima was a Japanese writer who sometimes wrote feel-good novels (e.g. The Sound of the Waves) and very rarely even humor (e.g. the short story Tamago, or Eggs). But he was most famous for writing fiction with angst, much of which was focused on the loss of the spirit of Japan (Yamato damashii). As I understand it, his mind was in the grip of a delusion that Japan had a glorious samurai past, where warriors had total honor and would rather commit ritual suicide than to submit to any loss of face. The ritual suicide was, of course, seppuku, which is the same as harakiri—the former is the fancy, the latter the ordinary, way of saying it in Japanese. He had a small cult of young men who followed him, like a band of samurai, or perhaps like ronin, the wandering samurai who had no home after Japan entered the modern world in the nineteenth century. But this was post-World-War-II Japan, with no room for either samurai or seppuku.

To Mishima, Japan’s defeat in World War II was an intolerable loss of face. And quite possibly he was influenced by his own cowardice during World War II: when he was drafted, he told the doctors at his physical exam that he had tuberculosis, and he was relieved from Army duty. It was not until 1967 that he joined the postwar version of the Japanese army (the Self Defense force; Japan’s constitution, written by the United States, forbade an army capable of international expansion). He considered this army to not be patriotic enough, so he formed the Tatenokai (Shield Society) in 1968, which upheld bushido (the way of the warrior) and swore to uphold the Emperor. However, he did not think that even Emperor Hirohito was patriotic enough, because Hirohito had renounced his own divinity at the end of World War II.

Mishima was one of the last holdouts of the delusions that were widespread in Japan before and during World War II. Such delusions can, as the Hakko Ichiu principle (Japanese world dominion) did, grip an entire nation. But even this was not enough for Mishima and his followers. On November 25, 1970, Mishima and four members of his Tatanokai visited the commandant of the Tokyo headquarters of the Self-Defense Force. Once inside, they barricaded the office and tied the commandant to his hair. Then Mishima stood on a balcony and delivered a prepared speech, about returning Japan to its glory, to the soliders who had gathered below. He asked the soldiers to join him in a coup d’etat, but they just jeered him. He finished his speech, went into the commandant’s office, and committed harakiri. After he had partially disemboweled himself, one of his assistants was supposed to behead him, in the traditional manner; but this assistant was unable to do so, and another assistant had to finish the job for him. It is now generally believed that Mishima had not intended the coup to be successful, but had planned his ritual suicide for years, and he had made sure his legal affairs, including money for the legal defense of the remaining Tatenokai members, were in order before his final battle.

Delusions can completely determine what a person considers to be reality. Every piece of sensory information is interpreted as a reinforcement of the delusion. This might seem to be an imperfection of the brain that evolution would have gotten rid of. But delusions can sometimes provide evolutionary advantages to the people who have them and to the societies in which these people live. If you have two tribes, one of which has delusions of being God’s chosen conquerors of the world and the other of which values reason over emotion, guess which one will win the war. If a delusional tribe wins territory and resources, its individual members, to varying degrees, will have greater evolutionary fitness. The human mind is capable of intense delusion, and this is the product of natural selection.

Well, I have tied this story in with evolution and religion. Let me finally tie it in with Thanksgiving. Americans have a delusion, even if only mildly held, that the Pilgrims were heroic pioneers who came to the New World from England for religious freedom. But after leaving England, they mad moved to the Netherlands, where they had religious freedom—but so did everyone else. The Pilgrims wanted the “freedom” to enforce their religion, so they had to form their own colony, in Massachusetts. When they got there, they nearly starved, but were rescued by the welfare provided to them by a socialistic Native American tribe. Later, they showed their gratitude by carrying out genocide against this tribe. Pilgrim leader William Bradford describes the way the colonists surrounded a Pequot village at sunrise. They set it ablaze and killed anyone who fled. Bradford wrote, “It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they [the colonists] gave praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully.” They were able to ignore the suffering that they inflicted on their fellow humans because their brains were deluded with the idea that they were God’s chosen people upon the face of the Earth and had the right, even the responsibility, to slaughter anyone (at least any Indian) who questioned their delusion.

But let me end with something to be thankful for on this day. Evolution has given our species the ability to create, in our minds, a beautiful world based upon the sensory information that those minds receive—brilliant color, wonderful scents of food, beautiful music. They are illusory creations of our minds, but let us enjoy them anyway. They are more beauty than we, the products of natural selection, have any right to have expected.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Suppression of Altruism

As explained in earlier entries, altruism is one of the most important human evolutionary adaptations. But administrations of governments, universities, and corporations have institutionalized the repression of altruism to a breathtaking extent. Very commonly, they are so hostile toward altruism that they make decisions that cost them dearly in profits and reputation. They create a fortress of secrecy within which the leaders demand absolute loyalty. Administrators restrict access, so that only one or a few persons can address them. It is not uncommon for altruistic employees, as soon as they have a good idea, to be swiftly suppressed by administrators as in a giant game of Whac-a-Mole. Sounds like the Dilbert world, but it is not imaginary—it is the world in which many of us live. The climate of intimidation and secrecy was one of the main reasons that illegal activities progressed within Enron to the point that it collapsed.

One result of the suppression of altruism in both public and private sectors is that self-correction becomes impossible. The illegal financial activities of Enron, and the deceptive economic practices of the top investment banks in the United States, were revealed only when they became so large that they could no longer be hidden. The worldwide financial “meltdown” began in the United States and the administration of President George W. Bush and major financial corporations are largely responsible for it. The current financial crisis has demonstrated, not for the first time, that corporate selfishness is a recipe for not only moral but financial chaos. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in 1937, “We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics.”

It is not the desire for profits that has caused the centuries-long decline in altruism and the current financial crisis. Every business that has ever existed has tried to make as much profit as possible. That’s what business is about. But when businesses existed within communities, they could not get away with dishonest practices, or if they did, their collapse was localized. But now that community businesses have become global corporations, dishonest and destructive practices can spread along the tendrils of administration and management and infect their offices all over the world. Rather than being accountable to their neighbors, they are accountable to no one but themselves. When this happens, we reward them. They declare themselves to be “TBTF,” or too big to fail; they demand, and receive, billions of dollars of government aid.

Meanwhile, the CEOs of the top financial corporations in the United States seem to be utterly oblivious to the resentment of millions of Americans. Many of these executives received millions of dollars of compensation even while their corporations were losing money and receiving government assistance. When the leaders of the top three American automakers first came to Washington, D.C. to ask for government assistance, they flew in corporate jets. They were genuinely surprised that Congressional leaders reacted in anger. These executives then drove to Washington in the smallest cars their companies manufactured (according to one cartoonist, these were the Ford Implorer, the Chevrolet Grovel, and the Chrysler Mendicant). Some CEOs paid back small amounts of their compensation, but their corporations quickly went back to paying them huge bonuses. Americans are angry.

Altruism requires fairness. The emotion that reinforces fairness is sometimes called “sweet revenge,” and sometimes goes by its German name Schadenfreude. Intelligent animals derive pleasure from seeing the humiliation, and sometimes even the suffering, of other animals who have gained their advantages unfairly. It has been observed in chimpanzees. On one occasion, two male chimps who observed another male chimp receiving special treats from human visitors escaped from their enclosure and attacked the man. The chimps chewed off most of the man’s face and buttocks, ripped off his foot, and bit off both of his testicles, before they were shot. I wonder how many Americans would like to see something like this happen to the CEOs who profit from their destruction of our economy.

A passage similar to this appears in my book Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World, to be released soon by Prometheus Books. See my website for more information.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Altruism in Recent History

In recent decades, evolutionary altruism appears to have become more common in the human species. Even as recently as World War Two, people of civilized countries thought that there was absolutely nothing wrong with killing thousands of civilians who happened to live in an enemy country. The Firestorm of Dresden and the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki seemed reasonable to Americans, even though very few of the victims were actually responsible for German and Japanese aggression. The Rape of Nanking and the conquest of Europe seemed reasonable to Japanese and German citizens. While many soldiers had a hard time shooting fellow human beings, most soldiers and civilians approved of mass bombings of civilians whom they did not have to look in the eye. Somewhere around the time of the Vietnam War, this attitude changed. It was no longer acceptable to massacre a village, such as My Lai, just because there might be some enemy combatants there. Today, whenever an American bomb kills civilians in Afghanistan, there is a worldwide uproar. All around the world, people of every religious conviction or of no religious conviction are uniting in their rejection of torture, genocide, and war-related cruelty. This sounds like good news. I cling to it, because it is almost the only good news about the direction the world is headed.

But we must remember that this altruistic progress is the result of the beliefs and actions of individuals rather than of governments. Governments, at best, acknowledge the human rights that their people demand, and at worst suppress them. Government administrations do not advance human rights. The American government responded to civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., first with hostility, then with acquiescence, and only after many years with admiration. The progress of altruism has always and only come from the bottom up. When altruists find themselves in positions of power, they also find themselves in positions of frustration, and seldom accomplish very much.

And it is usually not facts and figures that stir people’s hearts to create a change. It was not the list of deaths and battles in Vietnam that altered American opinion; it may have been a single Associated Press photograph of children running from the village of Trangbang on June 8, 1972, screaming in pain from the burning napalm with which they had just been doused. We are still an altruistic species, and when we see something like that, it moves the hearts of everyone—with the exception of psychopaths.

A passage similar to this appears in my book Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World, to be released soon by Prometheus Books. See my website for more information.

Friday, November 12, 2010

I Humbly Suggest that Scientists Should Rule the World

Politicians rule the world. They claim that they know how the world works, how to get things done, how the economy runs, and that is why they should be the ones to rule the world. Well, I guess this is why everything is just fine in the world—because it is in the competent hands of politicians.

But politicians consider us scientists to be impractical. Our scientific minds focus on the natural world, whether it is human brain cells or the growth of forests. They think we do not know what “the real world” of laws and political deals is really like.

This is, however, blatantly untrue. Politicians live in a fake world—in which “truth” is determined by whatever will get them elected, which means that “truth” is whatever their major corporate donors want them to believe. Politicians do rely on data from the real world, but then they filter and twist it into a pretend-world, for example a world in which we can dump our carbon dioxide and Nature will clean it up for us. Will Rogers said, as I recall, “My jokes don’t hurt nobody. But when Congress makes a law it’s a joke, and when they tell a joke it’s a law.”

Here are some reasons why scientists could competently run the world (at least, more competently than politicians):

· Scientists base their assertions on verifiable facts.
· Scientists demand to do things that have been previously proven to work.
· Scientists follow a protocol that (almost always) ensures honesty.
· Scientists really do know how the world works, from atoms to organisms to societies.
· Scientists have had international cooperation for centuries; American and Soviet scientists worked together (not, of course, on war-related topics) even during the Cold War.

The Obama administration is noticeably more open to input from scientists than any preceding Republican administration, especially the Bush administration that was openly hostile toward science. But Obama’s administration is still mostly politicians doing political things based on their pretend-world of political rules. Even Obama listened a lot more to Rahm Emanuel than to his cabinet-level scientists.

Would a society run by scientists be a utopia? I don’t know, but it might. It would certainly be an improvement over what we have.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Henry David Thoreau, Prophet and Scientist

The following essay appeared on my website on July 11, 2009.

A prophet is not someone who just predicts the future. Since the most ancient times, prophets have been men (and women; even when women were excluded from official religious positions) who have predicted disastrous outcomes to the way most people in their society lived; called for repentance from that way; and themselves lived in a way that was a constant reminder of the way of repentance. Repentance is not just a religious word; it means to turn around and utterly change the direction of your life.

This is exactly what Henry David Thoreau did in Concord, Massachusetts in the 1840s and 1850s. He continually wrote and spoke (mostly at the Concord Lyceum) about how happiness does not come from the accumulation of material comforts, especially at the cost of debt, but from quiet contemplation of the wonders with which the natural world is continually filled. He is most famous for living in the woods for a couple of years, which was when he put his ideas into practice, and which time is recounted in his classic Walden. He reveled in building a comfortable cabin for very little money, and living on a very small income, the details of the budgets being shared with his readers. Thoreau was an inconvenient man. Though by no means a hermit (he went to town every couple of days even during his cabin phase), he was always separated from the normal crowd: when in town, he observed people as might an anthropologist from another planet. His presence was a prophetic denouncement of his materialistic society.

There was financial unrest then—as the agricultural economy of Massachusetts was being driven aside by the farms of the Ohio Valley and the railroads that brought their produce to the east—as there is now, and his example is valuable to us today. There are many prophets today, who write books, but who also live frugally, to prove that it can be done and as a challenge to the rest of society.

But Thoreau was also a scientist, though without formal training. The peace that he experienced came from close and quiet observation of the natural world, which is what scientists do. Nature suggested hypotheses to him, which he (however imperfectly) investigated. He was passionate about observing (the colors of ice and the stages by which it thawed) and measuring (the depths of Walden Pond). Scholars puzzle that his last writings were all “mere observations” of seed dispersal and spring budburst dates of plants. But, as one who like Thoreau has a big database of budburst dates, only on a computer instead of in a notebook, I am not puzzled at all. His observations were the basis upon which important ecological science was later based. Even his cabin in the woods was an experiment.

Without Ralph Waldo Emerson, there would have been no remembrance of Thoreau. It was Emerson’s woodlot in which Thoreau briefly lived (and it was almost the only forest remaining in the vicinity). Emerson popularized Thoreau after the latter’s death. But they were very different. Emerson was full of hot air. He would write long flowery-tongued passages about things, whether about the world of nature or the breathlessness of love, which he had not bothered to study. To Thoreau, nature was a living world from which to learn; to Emerson, it was a canvas upon which to paint his grand ideas. For example, Emerson said that “savage” languages were simple and consisted mostly of nouns. Had he even bothered to ask anyone who had learned Native American languages, and there were plenty in his scholarly circle, he would have known this was wrong. But Thoreau was fascinated by what he could learn from Native Americans. (His last words were “moose” and “Indian.”)

For our survival, we need to heed the example of the prophet Thoreau. In our technological arrogance, we have had enough of Emersonian projection of our ideas upon the world.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Some More Thoughts About Altruism

Today is election day, and I am posting this entry before the results are in. The election forms the backdrop for yet more comments I will make about one of the best human adaptations, the capacity for altruism. Across the country, observers have noticed the overwhelming flood of negative campaign ads. While surveys have shown that the candidates themselves favor positive ads, the “independent” groups that support them funnel a seemingly unlimited amount of money into negative ads. These groups have such names as “Fund for Freedom, Love, Goodwill, and a Bright Future,” or something like that. I might note that, since I do not have television, my own estimate relies on the large amount of campaign mail that I receive in Oklahoma. In this reddest of red states, I am surprised that the campaign mail seems mostly positive. Republican Tom Coburn is running for Senate again, and I have seen none of his ads; but in 2004 his negative ads were really vicious. But in general, even if not in Oklahoma in 2010, altruism seems buried by negativity.

Midterm elections usually favor the minority party, and this one will almost certainly be no exception. This means that, at least on the national level, altruistic cooperation will be more important than ever. If Congress goes Republican, it will have to participate in a give-and-take with the Democratic president (direct reciprocity), if anything is to be done; and the reputation of both parties will depend on their display of goodwill (indirect reciprocity). At least, this is my hope. But I remember the government shutdown in 1995, because Newt Gingrich’s Republicans demanded that President Clinton do everything they wanted, and I suspect that something at least this bad will happen again.

Altruism is an instinct, and like most instincts it operates at an almost subconscious level that would be nearly impossible to codify into rules. Imagine programming a computer to be altruistic. Altruism cannot be legislated. Let me give an example. When I sit in my backyard, I can hear the bleating of a goat down the alley. Remember, this is in the city limits of Durant, Oklahoma. I imagine that one goat is no problem: not much noise, not much waste. But how many goats are too many? You could make a law about this but it would be complex: how many goats per unit area could be allowed, relative to waste disposal processes. I can imagine city officials spending hours on a goat ordinance. But altruism makes it simple: don’t have so many goats that it bothers your neighbors. You can probably think of a nearly unlimited number of examples of legal complexity that could be avoided by altruism. No matter how complex the laws may be, a non-altruist can find a technicality around them.

It can get even worse. Yugoslavia, during the Soviet era, was at peace not because of altruism but because of Tito’s dictatorship. As soon as the dictatorship was gone, all hell broke loose. The nearly total absence of altruism virtually ruined that part of the world. An unstable altruistic truce exists in Rwanda, one which totally broke down in 1994. My point is simply that nothing can take the place of altruism.

And in upcoming years, our politicians will need to remember this, especially the Republicans who are clearly less altruistic than Democrats, and who have promised that, if they take power, they will offer no compromise. John Baynor has declared the number one priority of a new Republican majority to be the destruction of Barack Obama’s presidency. I fear that altruism will not just be ignored but be shunned by the hyperventilating Republicans.