How culture tailors human variety to fit its own needs
Human behavior is notable for predictable patterns …and a predictable range of variations and exceptions to those patterns. Culture bends those patterns in its own favor, and even acts as a mechanism of selection.
Humans are meta-adapters capable of evolving and re-evolving strategies to changing circumstances. This is in stark contrast to the “one-trick” ponies, sticklebacks, emus, etc, all around us: Humans HAVE a strategy, other species ARE their strategy. Not that our behavior is infinitely plastic. There are baseline human default behaviors that are always on, they involve grouping up, organizing, and adapting to each other. Every ecosystem presents us with a unique set of survival challenges and historically, each human group facing these challenges has been small and closely related. Every wandering, exploring group shared a constellation of what we would think of as racial traits partly selected for by their adventures and partly by sexual selection. It may be that the sense of personality or style displayed by any culture is the echo of what has worked out long ago as a social compromise by their ancestors. Continue reading
Take a million rats.
Raise them in a strange high tech “ratatarium” full of rooms and environments where every positive experience is profoundly associated with clear-cut brightly colored shape pulsing on screens all around. Every wall and ceiling is a display screen. Local events of feeding, play, nurture or sex all generate a clear instance of the specific happy sign nearby. Periodically the whole place is electrified or bombarded with terrifying noises and rumbles. The happy lights are always off during these events, replaced by vivid and consistent alternate shapes and colors.
Never mind how it’s possible, I got a grant.
These million rats have a shared language of symbols. Being rats, they don’t speak of the symbols or scrawl them on things but if one day the system stopped mirroring what the rats were enjoying with a symbol and instead just turned the symbol for food on in one room and the symbol for sex on in another, hungry rats and horny rats would self-sort into each room, hoping to get lucky. Hungry AND horny rats would face a dilemma, and my heart goes out to them. Rooms displaying the BAD symbols would empty out. The experimenters would only rarely do this proof of concept, because “false advertising” might diminish the power of the symbols.
I didn’t mention it, but there are actually 2 of these Ratatariums ©, and each contains a million rats. I have spared no expense. They are exactly alike except that the shapes, colors etc. of the symbols are associated to mean something very different. A warm fuzzy symbol to one group is a cold prickly symbol to the other. A green pentagon to one group means “playtime ending in sex!” while to the other it means “horrible shaking with bang sounds”. Continue reading
The most intractable problems of this jittery moment come from the human sweet-tooth for conflict and excitement. The sweet-tooth is natural, it is good or bad by context. If you are an ancient human and opt to look at the exciting thing, you are better at staying alive. If you are an ancient human and your clan starts getting pumped up over increasing tension with another clan, you are your clan are more cohesive and motivated. In this context the “sweet tooth” is a healthy (pro-survival) relationship to your environment. It’s a bit like our love of actual sugar, fat and salt: That love becomes destructive when these go from rare, random windfalls to a superabundance. When we can have as much of something as we like, we keep mashing the button till we find out how that ruins us. Morbid obesity is what THAT button does. What does this other one do?
Our hunger for excitement and conflict became more complicated when our “news” input went from direct observation and word of mouth to massive information pumps like newspapers that could flood a large city in a day with a single message and point of view. Thousands of opinions could be massaged and tweaked at once. “Yellow journalism” was the click-bait of that time. The radio hit people like a massively purified version of the newspaper drug. Music and voices could hit sweet spots in our monkey guts that letters on paper could only dream about and rather than the isolated one-at-a-time experience of newspapers, radio could flow like a connecting current though everyone in earshot. And everyone was within earshot. Then the television became a cultural charging station in the center of every home. At night we were quietly filled with a homogeneous informational snapshot of the day. Of course we felt more united, any axes we were grinding were not wirelessly communicating with all the other axes. You couldn’t make that world combust because there was no connecting medium of petrol fumes.
The issue now is that we are a different organism as flashing, participating virtual neurons on a network then we were as slow-moving, disconnected creatures who got the news from kids on bikes, or in the mail, god help us, or arriving on the TV like a friendly little train at the same time every day.
The organism we are now is constantly lit up, alert and watching for movement like meerkats on crack. The news equivalent of plasma waves erupting from the sun flare and sweep endlessly across the internet. Our new atmosphere is a highly combustible, volatile medium. The ignition behind these flare-ups is mostly outrage, as one group or another does a “football stadium wave” of alarm in response to some stimulus. Tsunamis of cortisol are washing over us 24/7, leaving us feeling hypervigilant and weary.
Why? Because we are idiots who like that sort of thing. We can’t help being idiots who like that sort of thing…BECAUSE WE LIKE THAT SORT OF THING. Part of the rush is certainly negative but part of it is the fun of holding hands with like-minded neurons and cascading as a gigantic wave across the world. It’s thrilling because we are playing with a new level of complexity and connection.
We are a new species variant of humans and we are figuring out what this human is, what it does and what it can do.
And because we are the only animal enemy we have left, we are looking for its weaknesses; feeling around for its windpipe, thumbs and eyes.
The danger from this all-out competition for eyeballs and clicks is low except where real territorial stuff is on the line. There, virality means masses of people losing control of themselves and losing all sense of proportion. You know, like angry mobs.
The original meaning of the word outlaw was a person excluded from the benefit or protection of the law.
“Although humans exhibit strong preferences for equity and moral prohibitions against harm in many contexts, people’s priorities change when there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them,'” says Rebecca Saxe, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at MIT. “A group of people will often engage in actions that are contrary to the private moral standards of each individual in that group, sweeping otherwise decent individuals into ‘mobs’ that commit looting, vandalism, even physical brutality.” (MIT Parent Herald When good people do bad things. )
This is intuitively easy to grasp but we are so naive in regard to our apparent rationality that most of us don’t think we would caught up in the madness. The couple pictured here (below) are Jose Ismael Torres and Kayla Rae Norton. They terrorized a child’s birthday party with shotguns and confederate flags and vicious racist threats. The picture links to an article.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying they are lovely people momentarily caught up in madness. I am saying they are kind of shitty people momentarily caught up in madness. She is a mother of two kids and her contrite sobs in court are not simply convenient, at least they don’t sound convenient to me. She’s lost everything; she’s lost her children, she’s done being happy. And at this moment in court she is honestly baffled at how things got so out of control.
She had a pre-existing condition as someone closely aligned with an “ethnic identity” group. She had a head full of terrible ideas years before this but the crucial vulnerability was her lifestyle of pack-bonding with this group and against the outsiders defined as such by the group. It’s easy to imagine she was nasty and insulting to random black Americans all her life but she was probably rather passive, giving the “stink eye”, muttering just above a whisper and such. The peaceable social norms of individual people in public places protected her from herself until she stepped outside of them with her pack to proudly show off the confederate flag only a little over a month after Dylan Root’s Charleston massacre of black church goers. Continue reading
The scientific model is a glorious invention for exploring our universe. The simple rules, if honestly applied, are self correcting, grounding us always in a testable connection to truth. In establishing any fact, it unburdens us of ignorance about that fact not just now, but forever. It moves our piece that many squares forward. Best of all, new and meaningful questions arise which can be explored from that knowledge. Science fractures the unknown, then explores all the cracks and finds unforeseen goodies everywhere: Telescopes, antibiotics, vaccines, better food. You could say “Like magic!” except, you know…it isn’t. As science got rolling, and gained momentum it also gained the respect that comes from undeniable results.
Science is earthy and practical and performed by people with an improbable and hard to explain love for things like soil or beetles or cancer cells. To the extent that any of us not actively working in science actually “Fucking love science” it’s probably due to the purity, passion and goodness of these nerds. They are the real and lovable thing. (my later complaints about “sciencey culture” are not about these guys) I don’t mean they are all adorable geeks out of central casting, but they have the temperament and interest to patiently keep close company with small simple details of experiments as they change across time, recording them accurately, and leaving a trail that could be followed later. They always understand what the experiment COULD mean in this outcome or that one but they play no favorites, knowing that to do so IS NOT SCIENCE. Therefore there is a core of disciplined virtue within every well conducted experiment. Every honest recording of a disappointing outcome is a public service, promoting the health and strength of the community. There’s no big reward for that, it’s just doing the job as it must be done. How many jobs utterly depend upon carefully documenting and sharing the truth? Continue reading
These are screen grabs from Saudi television. I know that Memri TV attempts to make Arabic/Muslim culture more transparent to the west but I don’t know how these stack up in terms of intensity. Are they average moments of television or extreme? I can’t place them solidly in context where they belong but I also know that liberal westerners under-imagine the hostility to humanistic cultures and how far outside our norms of accepting diversity conservative Muslim cultures are.
I can tell you you that this is not like selecting the very worst of Christian broadcasting in the United States – this is much closer to mainstream in Saudi Arabia which makes no pretense of loving those outside its cultural signature.
An incomplete list ~
- A municipal code: the naming of sins, the punishments that follow.
- The rules of forgiveness and mercy. An official cultural conscience. An opening for individual conscience, and a wall limiting it. The technicalities, loopholes, and escape clauses from conscience.
- Shelter from fear. The source of fear.
- Awakening. Sleep.
- A road to power. Reliable safe employment.
- Government. Bureaucracy, Police.
- A creation story or myth. History.
- Business. Charity. Club. Social scene.
- Virus. Immune system.
- The explanation of people. A pricing guide to their worth.
- Hypocrisy. Sincerity. Strength. Weakness.
- Criteria for goodness.
- Bullying. Protection.
- The roles of men and women. Expectations. Obligations.
- A cultural pheromone granting or denying access.
- Reform. Corruption.
- A safe hiding place for evil.
- Poison. Antidote.
- Social glue. Social tar pit.
- Buckets of black and white paint for black and white thinkers.
- Justification for all acts and assertions. An excuse.
- Context. A Map. A path.
- The opiate of the masses.
- Home. Family. Enemy.
- Carrot. Stick.
If a person describes themselves as Religious, all they have told you is that one or more of these things is important to them.