Posts Tagged ‘Evolution’

The War for Kindness

January 29, 2020

The War for Kindness is the title of a new book by Jamil Zaki. The subtitle is Building Empathy in a Fractured World. Saki is a professor of psychology at Stanford University and the director of the Stanford Social Neurosciences Lab. Using tools from psychology and neuroscience, he and his colleagues examine how empathy works and how people can learn to empathize more effectively.

Zaki writes, “Most people understand empathy as more or less a feeling in itself—I feel your pain—but it’s more complicated than that. “Empathy” actually refers to several different ways we respond to each other. These include identifying what others feel (cognitive empathy), sharing their experiences (emotionally empathy), and wishing to improve their experiences (empathic concern).

Empathy’s most important role is to inspire kindness, which is our tendency to help each other, even at a cost to ourselves. Actually, kindness is one of the animal kingdom’s most vital survival skills. Newborns are little bundles of need, and remain mostly helpless for days (geese), months (kangaroos), or decades (us). If parents do not sacrifice to help them survive, they risk leaving no offspring to inherit their selfish nature.
When one creature shares another’s emotions, seeing pain feels like being in pain, and helping feels like being helped.

Zaki writes, “Empathic experience undergirds kind action; it’s a relationship far older than our species. A rat will freeze—a sign of anxiety—when its cage-mate is zapped with electric shocks. Thanks to that response, they also help each other, even giving up bits of chocolate to relieve the casemate’s distress. Mice, elephants, monkeys, and ravens all exhibit both empathy and kind behavior.”

Empathy took an evolutionary quantum leap in humans. Saki notes, “That’s a good thing for us, because physically we’re unremarkable. At the dawn of our species, we huddled together in groups of a few families. We had neither sharp teeth, nor wings, nor the strength of our ape cousins. Moreover, thirty thousand years ago, at least five other large-brained species shared the planet with us. But over millennia, we sapiens changed to make connecting easier. Our testerone levels dropped, our faces softened, and we became less aggressive. We developed larger eye whites than other primates, so we could easily better express emotion. Our brains developed to give us a more precise understanding of each other’s thoughts and feelings.”

We developed vast empathetic abilities as a result of this. We travel into the minds of not just friends and neighbors, but also enemies, strangers, and even imaginary people in films or novels. This helped us become the kindest species on Earth. Humans are world class collaborators helping each other far more than any other species. This has been, and still is, our secret weapon. We are not much to behold as individuals, but together we’re magnificent—the unbeatable super organisms who hunted wooly mammoths, built suspension bridges and took over the planet.

Peter Singer writes in his book The Expanding Circle that though we once cared for a narrow group of people—our kin, perhaps a few friends—over time, the diameter of our concern has expanded beyond tribe, town, and even nation. Singer continues, “The food we eat, the medicine we take, and the technology we use are sourced globally; our survival depends on countless people we will never meet. And we help people we will never know—through donations, votes, and the culture we create. We can learn intimate details about the lives of people half a world away and respond with compassion.”

Singer writes, “WE CAN, but we often don’t, and this raises an important truth about empathy. Our instincts evolved in a world where most of out encounters were, in every sense familiar. Small, tightly knit communities were empathy’s primordial soup, packed with ingredients that made caring easy.”

The modern world has made kindness harder. For the first time in 2007 more people lived in cities than outside of them. By 2050, two-thirds of our species will be urban, but we are increasingly isolated. In 1911, about 5% of British citizens lived alone; a century later that number was 31%. In the United States, ten times as many eighteen-to-thirty-four-year olds live alone now than in 1950—and in urban centers. In parts of Manhattan and Los Angeles, more than 90% live alone.

For the past four decades, psychologists have measured empathy using questionnaires. Empathy has dwindled steadily. The average person in 2009 was less empathic than 75% of people in 1979.

Decreases in empathy foster tribalism and tribalism creates still deeper problems. Look at the political wreckage that has occurred in America. Fifty years ago, Republicans and Democrats disagreed on policy over dinner, but still ate together. Now each side sees the other as stupid, evil, and dangerous. Trolls work tirelessly to provoke as much suffering on the other side as they can. Zaki concludes, “In this bizarre ecosystem, care doesn’t merely evaporate; it reverses.

The philosopher Jeremy Rifkin writes, “The most important question facing humanity is this: Can we reach global empathy in time to avoid the collapse of civilization and save the Earth?”

Whether this has to be is the question Zaki explores in this book.

Zaki believes that we can grow our empathy and become kinder as a result. He notes that there are decades of research suggesting that empathy is less like a fixed trait and more like a skill—something we can sharpen over time and adapt to the modern world. Saki explores this research in his book.

Origin Story: A Big History of Everything

August 14, 2018

The title of this post is the title of an impressive book by David Christian. It begins with the big bang and ends with the hope for a new universe after this one ends. Christian writes, “To understand the history of humanity, you have to understand how such a strange species evolved, which means learning about the evolution of life on planet Earth, which means learning about the evolution of stars and planets, which means knowing about the universe.”

Later, he writes, “Within the creative hurricane of modernity, there is emerging a new, global origin story that is as full of meaning, awe and mystery as any traditional origin story, but is based on modern scientific scholarship across many disciplines. There are two problems with this statement. One problem is that it is unrealistic to think that many people will be able to read this entire tome, although HM has a high opinion of his readers and hopes that many of them will read this book for reasons provided later. The second problem regards the criticism that Michael Gerson offered in his review of the book: epistemological imperialism. HM likes this term and it is right on the mark. Science is extremely valuable and is largely, if not exclusively, responsible for the standard of living that most of us enjoy. But science is not the only means of knowing. No effort will be made to outline the many different ways we humans have of knowing. People can come to know God through many contemplative practices. However, a distinction needs to be made between religions and a belief in God. HM could never bring himself to affiliate with any particular religion because he was being told to believe. He reasoned that God had given him a brain and that he was given that brain for thinking, not believing. And the law of parsimony precluded belief in any specific religion. They all had problems, primary among them being that they claimed they were speaking for God. Well, God can be contacted directly through prayer, meditation, and contemplative practices. So religions are not necessary and can be bypassed entirely, perhaps for the good.

When what you encounter directly conflicts with scientific findings, such as the world was created in seven days, go with the scientific finding rather than a religious book written by men that purports to be the word of God. Previous healthy memory blog posts have argued for teaching both creationism and evolution in the schools, as this provides a good means for contrasting scientific understanding with religious belief. Science can be proven wrong and the theory of evolution undergoes continuous updates. There a loads of data indicating that creationism is wrong, yet that belief persists. Schools should teach the scientific method not just conclusions from scientific research and the contrast between creationism and evolution provides a good subject area to teach a scientific method.

There is so much interesting information in “Origin Story” that posts will of necessity be forthcoming. However, HM hopes that for the purpose of a growth mindset and the engagement of system 2 processes, that readers will read this book itself. And the entire book needs to be read. One can devote different amounts of attention depending on one’s interests, and can skim. But reading the whole book will provide an appreciation for the methods of science and for what is involved in acquiring scientific knowledge. It will also provide an appreciation for physical processes, biological processes, economic forces, plus an appreciation of how humanity developed and the dangers we face in the future.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Science

April 18, 2018

Dr. Pinker argues in “Enlightenment Now” that the greatest accomplishment of our species is science. HM strongly agrees with this statement. It is certainly responsible for our standard of living. Most of the progress documented by Dr. Pinker would not have occurred without science. This being the case, what could possibly be the problem.

One problem comes from religions who believe scriptures that are clearly wrong and deny Science. The Amish do this, but HM admires the Amish in that they adopt, for the most part, a standard of living commensurate to their ignorance of science. However, most accept the fruits of science while denying scientific findings.

Perhaps the best example of this is their denial of evolution and their embracement of intelligent design. Unfortunately, too many people argue against teaching intelligent design in schools, and for the teaching of evolutionary theory. HM dislikes this because science should not be taught as dogma. Moreover, comparing intelligent design with evolutionary design provides a good means of illustrating the essence of science.

Intelligent design cherry picks species that they argue could only be done by the hand of God. One can easily find living species that make one wonder why they were created, but it is the dead and extinct species that are most informative. What are they? Failures of God? Did God screw up millions to times trying develop the remaining species? What explains them? Don’t they point to an evolutionary process? And what about geological data? Those data, that came to us through many years of research by the more intelligent of our species is to be ignored because of what is said in the bible?

The conflict between science and religion is unnecessary. HM believes in God and there are many religions that do not claim for the literal interpretation of the bible. When there is good scientific data, that should be believed rather than some religious scripture. The Dalai Lama provides a good example. He uses science to inform his religion. And he sends his followers to learn science.

The disrespect of science among American right-wing politicians has led even stalwarts (such as Bobby Jindal) to disparage their own Republican party as the “party of the stupid.” This reputation grew out of policies set in motion during George W. Bush’s administration including the encouragement of the teaching of intelligent design in lieu of evolution, and a shift from the longstanding practice of seeking advice from disinterested scientific panels to stacking the panels with congenial ideologues, may of whom promoted flaky ideas (such as that abortion causes breast cancer) while denying well-supported ones (such as condoms preventing sexually transmitted diseases).

The highest point of this stupidity has been reached with the Incompetent who is currently serving as the President of the United States. Not only is he not using science and denying science, but he is both making scientific information difficult to access and even destroying scientific information.

Dr. Pinker makes every effort to be fair. He notes that there are those on the left of the political spectrum who have stoked panics about overpopulation, nuclear power, and genetically modified organisms. It is important that these potential problems be brought to public attention, but people must do their own reading to get a more balanced understanding of the issues.

There are many criticisms of science that are just irrelevant. One is reductionism. Reductionism is not the aim of all science. Some areas of research employ reductionism. But at different levels, new processes emerge. And research areas are designed for particular areas that emerge at different levels. So one can study neuroscience, but then others study the processes that emerge from neuroscience, such as cognition.

There are also criticisms of science by intellectuals. Frankly, HM attributes most of these criticisms as intellectual jealousy. Although their studies might be interesting, they are not that relevant to the rest of society, and do not contribute much to public welfare.

Regarding public welfare and political disagreements, a scientific approach should be embraced. When a problem is identified and there is disagreement about how to deal with the problem a scientific approach is recommended. Design a study to evaluate the alternative approaches. This could also provide the data for the possible quantification of the magnitude of the benefit or problem, depending on what is being studied. Do not argue “I believe.” Beliefs should be left at home. Points should be argued with logic and data.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith andhealthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Intelligent Design

August 12, 2016

Intelligent Design provides an excellent example of what defines science and the importance of different domains of knowledge staying within their domain of knowledge (see the healthymemory blog posts “Domains of Knowledge,” and “A Longstanding heated Debate That Can Easily Be Resolved”).  Advocates of intelligent design point to all the wonders of nature and conclude, how could such things emerge without an intelligent designer, who is God.  What they fail to acknowledge are all the extinct species that didn’t survive.  When they are considered, some sort of random selection process is needed. Or, as the humorist Tony Kornheiser noted when he was simultaneously suffering from nausea and diarrhea, “what a perverse sense of humor God had when he designed the human body.”  For intelligent design to be a science, there must be a means of disproving intelligent design.  Absent that, it is no science.

Actually religious people would be better off arguing the anthropic principle.  The conditions under which the universe was created were quite specific and absent these specific values of critical factors, it could not be created.  Apparently few religious people have the knowledge of physics or cosmology to make this argument.

Intelligent Design provides a good example of why different domains of knowledge need to stay in their appropriate domains.   People are entitled to whatever  beliefs they may hold, except when their beliefs have adverse effects on other domains of knowledge and on their fellow human beings.  Actually HM is in favor of teaching both intelligent design and evolution in the public schools, as that shows, unless improperly taught, the essence of science.  Evolution should not be taught as a dogma, but as a finding from science and an example of how science is done.  Students should be taught how to think rather than what to believe. Absent evolution, biology and medicine, at the very least, would be severely constrained.

James Flynn, the author of “How to Improve Your Mind:  Twenty Keys to Unlock the Modern World,”makes the following interesting observation, “Obscurantist churches talk about “intelligent design” as an alternative science, and some university lecturers say, “reality is a text.”  The latter have less excuse for talking nonsense.  The universities are fields on which a great battle rages.  It is a contest pitting those who attempt to help students understand science, and how to use reason to debate  moral and social issues, against those of whom it might be said that every student who comes within range of their voices is a bit worse off for the experience.  It is up to the rest of us to point out the error of their ways, so that students can think clearly enough to filter their words and distal something of value.”

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Evolution vs. Creationism

April 5, 2014

The previous post was on the stupidity pandemic. A specific example of this pandemic is on whether evolution or creationism should be taught in the public schools. The Scopes Trial, commonly called the Scopes Monkey Trial, and technically termed The State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes took place in 1925. The state claimed that Scopes had violated Tennessee law by teaching evolution is a state-funded school. Inherit the Wind is a movie on the Scopes trial. Scopes was found guilty, but his conviction was overturned on a technicality. Nevertheless, the debate has continued. Some argue that evolution should not be taught, or that creationism should be taught instead of evolution, or that both evolution and creationism should be taught. Frankly I am strongly in favor of the final option. My friends tell me that I am wrong, that creationists would use this option to legitimatize their position or perhaps, with biased teaching, to discredit evolution.
What my friends fail to realize is that they are advocating teaching evolution as dogma, which is the very thing that creationists are doing. What is important is that students understand what science is and how it is conducted. The evolution vs. creationism debate provides an ideal means to do this. However, the following points need to be made.
The first point is that scientific theories can be disproved. So, however unlikely it might be, evolution could be disproved on the basis of overwhelming new evidence. In fact evolutionary theory is constantly undergoing refinement. Creationists regard this as a refutation of evolution, but this fine tuning process is a vital part of science. So creationists need to be asked, if there were significant evidence to the contrary, could creationism be disproved? If it cannot be disproved, then creationism is most definitely not a science.
The second point regards the scientific method as well as a bias in the way we humans process information. The human tendency is to look for information that confirm one’s beliefs or hypotheses. However, in the scientific enterprise it is important to look for disconfirming information. In the case of creationism, one can find evidence of an intelligent creator, but looking at the historical record, an enormous number of species have failed and become extinct. True, if the creator were seriously flawed, this could be a reasonable result. But isn’t it more reasonable to propose a random selective process?
The third point is that science does express beliefs, and in probabilistic terms in statistics, but they are based on data and logic. So consider the relevant geologic information. That is based on theory and data. What is the basis for what is presented in the religious source? Arguments based on authority, regardless of the presumed status of that authority, are not acceptable.
Students should be free to draw their own conclusions. But these are the points it is important for students to understand about science.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Beliefs vs. Facts and Knowledge

February 6, 2013

According to Rebecca Costa, civilizations collapse when beliefs do not keep up with facts and knowledge.1 Of course, the facts and knowledge must be accurate. Facts and knowledge change and grow. The rate of growth of facts and knowledge has become exponential, so it is quite difficult for beliefs to keep up. Moreover, we grow comfortable in our beliefs and are reluctant to change them. So the deadlock and stagnation many of us are experiencing is not surprising. Nevertheless, to achieve the ends of both a healthy memory and an advancing civilization it is important, to the extent possible, to try to keep our beliefs in correspondence with ever changing and developing facts and knowledge. We have to be like the great economist, John Maynard Keynes who said, when the facts change, I change my mind.

In science, tentative beliefs, called hypothesis, are tested by looking for facts and by designing experiments to determine the correct facts. The facts and knowledge in science are never certain and continually growing. Indeed, if there is no means of falsifying a belief, then it is not science. New facts lead to new knowledge and new beliefs. New knowledge identifies new problems that need to be addressed. Before the advent of science, beliefs changed slowly as facts and knowledge accumulated slowly. However, since the advent of science, finding new facts and knowledge has increased at an exponential rate. Unfortunately, beliefs are falling further and further behind .

For example, free markets are extolled. Although, there is no doubt regarding the benefits of free enterprise, the notion of a free market is an ideal. Free markets do not remain free in the real world. There are eight centuries of data proving this point.2 Markets are manipulated and monopolies are formed. Most of the world came close to a financial collapse due to ill behaving markets that were insufficiently regulated. Although it is true that regulation can be stifling if done improperly, it is almost a certainty that if they are unregulated, serious problems develop. Given the limited corrections that were implemented as a result of the previous market crisis, there is no reason to be confident that there is not a market collapse in the future.

Another example is global warming. There seems to be a scientific consensus that global warming is a serious problem. Now science is never certain. Facts and knowledge can be change. But the ramifications of global warming should not be ignored and considerations need to be given to how global warming could be mitigated or eliminated. Even in the unlikely event that the predictions of global warming are wrong, we would have erred on the side of caution. But it is easier to cling to the belief that there is no global warming, as it avoids the inconvenience and costs of taking action. Our situation is analogous to the Mayans who failed to deal with their conditions of drought.

Evolution is another belief widely held in the scientific community. Nevertheless, there are people who disagree with evolution and do not want it taught in the schools. They offer an alternative theory, creationism. It should be understood that a belief in God does not preclude one from believing in evolution. Nevertheless, some religious people do find the concept of evolution uncomfortable. Frankly, I think both creationism and evolution should be taught together in school because it provides an ideal means of explaining how science works. The first question to ask a creationist is whether creationism can be proven false, and if so, how. If it cannot be proven false, then it is not science. An evolutionist should also admit that evolution could be proven false. The evolutionist certainly can explain how the theory of evolution has been changing over the years, but the fundamental premise remains. I find it ironic that one of the proofs, a teleological proof, for the existence of God is the human eye. But when you examine the eye, it appears that the retina is designed backward. Before light hits the cones and rods it first goes through the neurological wiring from the eye to the brain. Although it is true that there are many beauties in nature, there are also many uglies. And there are millions and millions, perhaps billions of extinct species that did not survive. It was the humorist and sports maven Tony Kornheiser, I believe, who remarked, after he had experienced vomiting and diarrhea at the same time, what a perverse sense of humor God had when he designed the human body! One of the primary deficiencies we humans have is that we look for confirmations of our beliefs, but fail to look for disproofs of our beliefs.

1Costa, R.D. (2010).The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse. Philadelphia: Vanguard Press.

2Reinhart, C.H. & Rogoff (2009). This Time is Different. Princeton University Press.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

What Can Pharmacology Offer for a Healthy Memory?

February 1, 2012

For some people, the answer might be everything, or given time, everything. They believe that pharmacology will eventually provide a cure and/or a preventative to Alzheimer’s and dementia, and that it will enhance cognitive performance so that we can learn more and master more difficult subjects. This is to say nothing about the eventual beneficial effects to the economy and society. A recent article1 has motivated this blogger to post some cautionary remarks. It should be remembered that our cognitive abilities are the product of evolution. A common misconception is that evolution produces optimal results. No, evolution satisfices, that is provides a satisfactory solution to environmental challenges. These solutions involve trade-offs. For example, a woman’s pelvis is the sized so that it can both support bipedalism and the large cranium of an emerging baby.

Although our cognitive abilities might not be optimal, they have been shaped by evolution. We have two systems for processing information, System 1, which is fast, and System 2 which is slow but more thorough (See the Healthymemory Blog Post, “The Two System View of Cognition”and “Thinking Fast and Slow). Without System 1 we would have become extinct a long time ago. But without System 2 both our cognitive and cultural achievements would be extremely limited. One way of thinking about trade-offs is to think of an inverted U. Initially more of a factor is beneficial. However, at some point (the apex of the inverted U) more of this factor is causing losses someplace else.

Robert Bjork has suggested that there is a symbiosis of forgetting, remembering, and learning.2 John Anderson has written an entire book3 documenting how human cognition has been shaped to deal with the environment in an effective manner. Luria’s famous book, The Mind of a Mnemonist, about an individual referred to as “S” who had a phenomenal memory and earned his living by giving performances using his fantastic memory, had too much of a good thing. For example, he had difficulty remembering faces, which appeared to him as changing patterns. Research has also indicated that savant-like abilities such as S‘s can be induced in normal participants by turning off particular functional areas of the brain via repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation.4

There are also individual differences determining whether pharmacology will be beneficial. Individuals of normal or above-average cognitive ability often show negligible improvements or even decrements in performance from certain drugs. One study5 found that modafinal improved performance only among individuals with lower IQs. In another study6, low-performing individuals showed enhanced performance, but high-performing individuals showed reduced performance after taking amphetamines. Inverted U shaped dose-response curves are quite common.7

This is not to say that there is no role for pharmacology in fostering a healthy memory. Clearly in the preceding examples low-performing individuals were showing benefits. But more is not necessarily better. Long term side effects of medication must also be considered.

1Hills, T. & Hertwig, R. (2011). Why Aren’t We Smarter Already: Evolutionary Trade-Offs and Cognitive Enhancements. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20:373. http://cdp.sagepub.com/content/20/6/373

2Bjork, R.A. (2011). On the Symbiosis of Forgetting, Remembering, and Learning. In A.S. Benjamin (Ed.) Successful Remembering and Successful Forgetting: A Festschrift in Honor of Robert A. Bjork. (pp 1-22). London, England:Psychology Press.

3Anderson, J.R., (1990). The Adaptive Character of Thought. Psychology Press.

4Snyder, A. (2009). Explaining and Inducing Savant Skills: Privileged Access to Lower Level Less Processed Information. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 364, 1399-1405.

5Randall, D.C. Shneerson, J.M., & File, S.E. (2005) . Cognitive Effects of Modafinil in Student
Volunteers May Depend on IQ. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 82, 133-139.

6Farah, M.J., Haimm, C., Sankoorika, G., & Chatterjee (2009). When We Enhance Cognition with Adderall, Do We Sacrifice Creativity? A Preliminary Study. Psychopharmacology, 202, 541-547.

7Cools, R., & Robbins, T.W. (2004). Chemistry of the Adaptive Mind. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society London, A, 362, 2871-2888.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.