Posts Tagged ‘TED.com’

Evolved Hip Hop

Monday, July 18th, 2011

Recently I’ve been listening to The Rap Guide To Evolution (Revised) by Baba Brinkman. I know, I know, I would have preferred The Metal Guide To Evolution, but I guess I can make do with this for now (but seriously metal bands, get on that already). It’s interesting stuff, and it’s nice to listen to music where the lyrics actually align with my interests for a change (for the most part, anyway…). Here is my favourite passage, from “Worst Comes To Worst”:

In the South Pacific Islands, there’s certain animals that don’t
Experience fear, like Galapagos iguanas
They never had predators, so their adaptive responses
Evolved to be as calm as a pack of Dalai Llamas
So then, why do we have to live with violence
When this whole planet could be like a pacifistic island?
Do we need fear to escape invading aliens?
The only predators here are called Homo sapiens
And yeah, we can be dangerous, but we can also be
Motivated by affection and positive reciprocity
Stop the violence, right? We can all agree!
But violence comes from the fear of predators stalkin’ me
See, violence is never entirely senseless
Natural selection, that’s how you make sense of it
We just gotta identify what triggers a threat switch
And redesign society to disconnect it
And then instinct will take care of the rest of it
It’s a simple idea, but when it’s widely comprehended
Then I predict a world of aligned interests
Where the people are as peaceful as Galapagos finches.

Pretty sweet, huh? Another highlight is “Survival Of The Fittest”, in which he remixes the classic Mobb Deep song of the same name but puts the subject matter in more literal evolutionary terms (Brinkman explains his approach in this TED Talk, which features earlier versions of both that song and “Worst Comes To Worst”). The result is a fairly compelling examination of the evolutionary roots of violent behaviour and other crime amongst the lower socio-economic classes.

It’s not all good, though – much like Brinkman’s feminist sister (mentioned in “Creationist Cousins”), you know I’m going to take issue with some of the ev-psych gender theories he puts forward. To be fair he does a good job of explaining the theories, so it’s not his treatment I’m worried about, it’s the ideas themselves. But since I’m here suggesting that you go and listen to this stuff, I would like to balance it out with my own views. The thing is, these theories are often useful explanations of how the gender binary manifests in the context of a patriarchal dominance hierarchy (which is the kind of underlying scaffolding that has shaped our cultural evolution, although it manifests in many different ways) – but they usually don’t carry this qualifier; instead, they are put forward as explanations of the intrinsic nature of gender, which is another thing entirely. Admittedly I have noticed this trend as a result of reading popular accounts of research rather than the original research itself, but unless that research is being systematically misrepresented (which is not all that farfetched in discussions about gender), then it is based on a flawed assumption of bizarre inflexibility of gender and gender roles. Certainly, it is still important to understand our evolutionary past and the reproductive strategies which shaped it, because this gives us a better understanding of the ways in which our behaviour can be inadvertently manipulated or distorted – but tired old suggestions that women are “choosier” than men because they have to worry about babies just don’t make any sense in the age of contraception and birth control, and the idea that humans won’t rapidly adapt to this new environment is fairly naive, I think. It’s like assuming that people will instinctively avoid eating too much junk food because being overweight could put them at a disadvantage if they have to run away from a lion. We don’t live in that environment anymore, and more to the point, unnatural satiation of biological responses which evolved to deal with scarcity (and therefore compel people to take advantage of every opportunity) will always leave past strategies in the dust, even when the results aren’t optimal (or the case of sex, they are super-optimal and totally sweet).

I hate to go on about this, but it’s just really jarring when he puts forward lines like: “Especially women – on you the pressure is greater [to be sexually selective] / ‘Cause men will always do what it takes to get into your favour / That’s just in our nature“. If this was actually true then men would have been leading the feminist movement, not trailing petulently behind it, resisting every step. Besides, the pressure for women to be selective only exists because men create it! And there is nothing in our “nature” that forces men to be constantly pressuring women for sex in this fashion. Indeed, if men actually did want more sex then the ideal approach would be to relieve this pressure, so women could be more forthright in expressing their own desires without having to worry about a subsequent avalanche of propositions and general creeper-tude (not to mention judgment and slut-shaming). The result would be more sex for everybody, men and women alike. But of course, this approach would require cooperative foresight and, much more alarmingly, freedom for women to make their own choices and have those choices respected – so, you know, goodbye patriarchal dominance hierarchy. The fact that alleged male hypersexuality often results in less sex than may otherwise have been possible reveals its true nature: this behaviour is not about increasing mating opportunities, it is about maintaining control (ie. dominance) over women.

Incidentally, I’m certainly not suggesting that there is anything malicious in this regard about the views Brinkman is expressing or indeed the similar views held by quite a lot of men in our culture – and more importantly, the reasons why they hold these beliefs are irrelevant. We are discussing imitated behaviours that have been passed down from a far less enlightened time. Each generation picks up on them and puts forward their own justifications, but in the end it is behaviour, not belief, that we should concern ourselves with if we want to see positive changes on these issues. Belief is just the past tense of behaviour, and it is often next to meaningless, especially when it is being used to justify harmful behaviour.

An important thing to note here is that evolution, by its nature, is engaged in an eternal battle with entropy, which means that in order for evolved traits to be maintained over long periods of time, there must be a sustained source of “pressure” which will cause natural selection to favour these traits over and over again (for example, gazelles exist under constant threat of predation by cheetahs, so only the ones fast enough to elude these threats will be continuously selected as time goes on, and any mutations to the contrary will be swiftly weeded out. If cheetahs were suddenly removed from the environment and could therefore no longer act as selecting agents for fast gazelles, the gazelles’ subsequent evolutionary path would be drastically altered). An obvious example of what happens when this pressure goes away is cave-dwelling animals whose eyes have degenerated to the point of being no longer functional, because they are no longer a beneficial adaptation – indeed quite the opposite, they simply consume resources unnecessarily. The traditional human gender roles, even if they were necessary for our survival in the past, can now be seen in this same light. Once the sources of evolutionary pressure which shaped this dynamic are lifted – and not only has this already started to happen, but the change is gathering momentum – then gender will start to manifest in increasingly diverse and unexpected ways, and in principle there is no rational reason to see this as anything other than a good thing.

Aaaaanyway, I doubt we will resolve this argument anytime soon but it’s just something I find rather annoying, mainly because I personally don’t fit it with most of the stereotypes being traded here. I can understand why people who do possess these traits, and encounter them regularly amongst others, might latch on to these theories as a relatable explanation, though. I am reminded of Hitchens’s infamous Vanity Fair article from a few years back, in which he argued that men are funnier than women because humour is just a way for men to attract mates – an argument which on one hand is almost self-evidently wrong, but on the other hand, quite possibly matches up with a lot of Hitchens’s past experiences and observations. If he had mustered similar evidence and instead concluded that this was how people had been taught to behave, rather than suggesting that this was their inherent nature, then the article may well have been praised instead, at least by the feminist critics who quite rightly tore it to pieces afterwards.

Okay I’ve gotten way off track here, so let’s finish with this: even if like me you don’t agree with all of it (and I didn’t even touch on the potentially even more controversial subject of group selection, which I am somewhat more sympathetic towards, as is Brinkman), The Rap Guide To Evolution is certainly worth checking out, and it’s always nice to see people popularizing science and getting Darwin’s message out there. I can’t really speak authoritatively on how musically accomplished it is, considering I hardly ever listen to hip hop anymore, but it kept me entertained, at least.

And finally, speaking of music, I came across some strong evidence recently for one of the other theories that Brinkman deals with: the idea that music evolved through sexual selection. I think you will agree, it all adds up. ;)

Positive Psychology

Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

If you follow my twitter or liverjournal then you’ve probably seen me linking to videos from TED.com in the past. I love that site. It is basically an ideas forum, featuring short speeches by a variety of experts on diverse subjects relating to technology, entertainment and design (ie. T.E.D.). Some of the speakers are quite prominent (Al Gore, Richard Dawkins, etc) whilst others are simply there for being experts in their field, even if they aren’t celebrities. Because the speeches are generally short (usually around 18-20 minutes), I find it’s a convenient site to visit when you need to take a quick break from whatever you’re doing, or if you need something to do over lunch or whatever. Taking this approach, I’ve gradually worked my way through a large number of speeches, most of which have been really fascinating, and some of which have even been quite astounding (mushrooms! Who knew?!). There are inevitably a few weird and silly ones which really don’t seem to belong there, but for the most part, the quality has been high. I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a long post linking to a whole bunch of my favourite talks, but for today, I’m just going to focus on one: Martin Seligman On Positive Psychology.

So, uh, it would probably help if you went and watched that now, but if you can’t be bothered or if you’d rather find time for it later or whatever, then here’s a quick summary: Seligman is a psychologist working on the idea of positive psychology, ie. studying what makes people happy, as opposed to the more traditional approach to psychology, studying what makes people unhappy. He briefly runs through some points on why this seemingly-minor switch in focus is actually quite important to psychology in general and has opened up new areas of understanding about what makes humans tick, but he also makes note of the advances made by the older model of psychology and why they are still important as well, even though they were only part of the larger picture which is beginning to unfold. He then explains that there seems to be different types of happiness, which can be approximated by three broad categories. The first and most obvious category is things that provide an immediate pleasurable reaction, the second revolves around activities which you can lose yourself in and become completely immersed by, and the third relates to the desire for meaning and knowledge. This is the part that I found most interesting, and the reason why I decided to write this blog entry, because I can really relate to a few of the unexpected findings his studies have revealed.

Perhaps the least surprising of his findings is that the first category – things that provide an immediate pleasurable reaction – is the most superficial and short-term form of happiness. The example he provides is the experience of eating something which is delicious to start off with, but you’re sick of it by the time you’re done eating it. This is a very fleeting form of happiness, and interestingly, you can’t really stretch it out by continually moving from one pleasurable activity to the next – it is simply not enough to provide real and long-term satisfaction. This is probably a conclusion that most people eventually reach on their own anyway, even if they don’t give it much conscious thought. People tend to naturally gravitate towards certain things which provide a deeper and more fulfilling sense of happiness, and gradually leave behind more superficial pursuits. Or else they don’t, and can’t figure out why they are unhappy.

The second category is kind of a subtle one. Again, it’s not something that usually receives much conscious thought, but I can certainly relate to the idea of losing yourself in an activity and feeling better afterwards. For me, I can most easily accomplish this through playing videogames, especially a platforming game like Mario, which doesn’t require too much planning and forethought, and instead revolves around simply being in the moment. But I can also reach a similar state of flow through writing, and occasionally, when I am drawing, though I’m still not very good at that one. There have, however, been times in the past when I’ve spent several hours in Photoshop bringing some silly comic to life, and then I look back at the time that has passed and wonder how the heck that happened. It’s easy to understand why people would seek out activities which provide that feeling of accomplishment, even if it’s not always easily obtained.

The third category, though, is the one that really caught my attention. There is a definite sense of satisfaction and contentment that comes from having an understanding of how the world works, and from searching for the meaning behind what you see around you. The important thing to remember, though, is that this feeling is subjective, and entirely separate from reality – ie. it doesn’t matter if your explanations are objectively correct, it only matters that you can convince yourself that they are accurate. And because your head only contains a finite amount of knowledge, it is often very easy to convince yourself to believe in the accuracy of your own thoughts. I think a good illustration of this is religion. As an atheist, you will often find me arguing that religion is illogical, but from a certain point of view, that isn’t really accurate – all religions contain their own internal logic, and that is what makes them so appealing. They offer answers to just about any question you can think of, so if you accept that internal logic, you are essentially given a complete worldview, which is a very basic human desire. I think this stems from the fact that our brains evolved to understand the real world, and it wasn’t until they had grown much more powerful that we started turning our thoughts towards abstract concepts. Hence, we had no mechanisms for discerning objective truth, because until then, everything had been literal and there in front of us. Additionally, because we lacked a true understanding of the world anyway, we really relied on illusions for much of our development, until we could finally advance far enough to supplant these illusions with the real answers. Modern scientific progress is largely just a process of stripping those illusions away, one by one, so that hopefully we can make some progress towards a more accurate understanding of the universe.

So uh basically, the problem is not that religion is illogical, but that in order to accept the logic it offers, you need to ignore reality, which inevitably contradicts it.

But I’m digressing from my original point here. Regardless how and why this desire for understanding developed, it’s safe to say it definitely exists. We have an undeniable curiosity, and a need to at least feel like we understand things, even if we are merely operating under illusions because we’ve reached the limits of our comprehension. This desire to learn is what makes us so intelligent, but also what leads us into logical traps that provide that contented feeling, despite being built around inaccurate logic. In many ways, the goal of a skeptic is to avoid that feeling of contentment, because there are still so many things that we don’t know, so however much we feel like we understand the world, the only thing we can really know for sure is that we are still held under the thumb of illusions that we don’t even know are there. That, I think, is the real strength of a skeptical worldview: not that it explains everything, but that it reminds you that you can’t explain everything. In spite of our awesomely powerful ability to rationalize abstract concepts, we are not truly rational beings, and our preconceptions can’t be trusted.

Interestingly, there could well be a fine line between this type of happiness, and depression. According to one possible explanation, depression is the result of a breakdown of that feeling of understanding, so that the world doesn’t quite make sense anymore. It stems from encountering a problem or problems which can’t be easily solved, thus sending the mind off in all different directions in an effort to find that elusive explanation, so that a more stable worldview can be reestablished (hence, depression of varying levels being common amongst teenagers, as their childish illusions crash headlong into the real world). This often happens on a much deeper level than we are consciously aware of, which is why it can be difficult for depressed people to really articulate what the problem is, even though they are acutely aware of it. This makes illusions such as religion even more attractive, because without that feeling of understanding, we are lost and confused. So an explanation, even if it is merely an illusion, becomes a much more agreeable alternative… until that illusion becomes the source of the next problem, of course.

The main reason I brought up this possible link with depression is because even though the pursuit of knowledge can be a deeply satisfying form of happiness, it doesn’t necessarily result in the smiley-cheerful kind of happiness. As I said, the line between happiness and depression in this sense seems quite fine, and is largely dependent on whether your search for knowledge is yielding any results. Staring down the barrel of a particularly large problem can be quite daunting and frustrating, blurring this line even further. But just because the outward indicators of happiness are absent, doesn’t necessarily mean that a person is unhappy. Personally, I am often told that I need to smile more, or receive enquiries as to why I am not all happy and cheerful. Often these comments are motivated by genuine concern, of course, but it can still be kind of annoying, because I actually find it far more satisfying to search for knowledge than to content myself with illusion, even if the result is that I’m sometimes too distracted to be appropriately, superficially happy. And certainly, I don’t want to discourage people from speaking up if they think someone really is depressed, because sometimes it can be vitally important to intervene when a person’s problems are getting the best of them, but just keep in mind that there are other forms of happiness aside from the more obvious and friendly kinds.

So anyway, how do you build up a stable worldview, as free from illusion as possible, when there are still so many things that we don’t know yet? You need to recognise what beliefs actually are. Despite the significance that religious folk place on their faith, the fact is, the brain processes thought and belief in the exact same way. Beliefs are merely thoughts that we hold to be unquestionably true, so much so that we don’t even really reflect on them. Which, again, makes sense in the context of brains that evolved to deal with real-world problems – once you’ve established that your prey behaves in a certain way or that certain weather cues indicate an approaching storm or a variety of other things, then it is helpful to have a method of mental categorisation that allows you to recall these tried-and-true facts immediately. So we build up webs of belief, interconnected thoughts which operate as a filter for new information, allowing us to immediately recognise familiar patterns and to interpret new patterns to the best of our existing knowledge. But when beliefs are built up around illusions, it distorts the way we view the world. An easy example is stereotypes, which cause us to place greater significance on behaviour which lines up with the prescribed stereotype, even if it is not actually typical or significant at all. Once illusions have distorted our worldview, they pave the way for further illusions, burying us under the weight of false belief.

The answer, then, is to ensure that no beliefs are held to be unquestionable. And instead of desperately clinging to our existing beliefs, we need the courage to let go of them, and search for the truth, as best we can determine it. Which, in the short term, may mean letting go of that feeling of contentment that comes from having a working understanding of the universe. Illusions, ultimately, are just another form of fleeting happiness, which cannot be sustained. And if I’m really honest, I think the ability to be consistently, superficially happy in such a flawed world as ours is something of a delusion anyway. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t think it’s worth pursuing, or anything like that. I just think it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the bigger picture when trying to carve out our own little place in the world.

And you’d be surprised at how much happier you feel when you let go of your illusions, and make peace with your incomplete understanding of the universe, safe in the knowledge that there are still so many things left to learn – for an animal with a natural sense of curiosity, that is perhaps the most exciting prospect of all.