September 20, 2014

Nature and Nurture

Nature and Nurture

Humans evolved from primate ancestors and retained features of brain construction, mind and behavior that have been present in animals for hundreds of millions of years. Each one of us is the reincarnation of a long-lineage of ancestors. Species memory, perceptual skills, needs, drives, feelings, desires and behaviors are built into us and begin operating in utero. The human brain is most evolved organ with the most complex assemblies of old and new parts.

The first principle of bodybrainmind is that each person has a repertoire of innate programs and some choice how the programs are going to be expressed. Innate programs have been called "instincts."  The old definition of "instincts" - behaviors that arise spontaneously and are not learned – needs modification since innate programming has to be practiced and is molded by learning. The distinction between strictly innate and strictly learned behavior is artificial. Some of the systems in our brain are designed to be modified and elaborated by the experience of the individual. Bodybrainmind is to some extent an open-ended system that will evolve a unique identity in the lifetime of each individual. Humans live in a tense matrix of innate tendencies that tend to prevail forces that modify and elaborate these tendencies.

Bodybrainmind has evolved in interaction with world-events and is indistinguishable from world events. The modification of brain structure and function is "learning." Learning involves all experience and not just time spent in school. Learning is dependent on the availability of innate programs that organize the acquisition of skills and knowledgeable.  A newborn baby cannot talk in coherent sentences even if both parents prompt him 24 hours a day. The baby and the parents have to wait until the brain has grown and organized the language circuits which come on line in a predictable sequence.

Innate Tendencies

Innate tendencies are constant features of human nature, buried deeply in the human psyche. Innate tendencies are not rigid forms but are patterns of organization that collect individual, biographic content. Innate programs are the form and biographical details are the content. There are two essential principles:

1. Innate tendencies exert a persisting motivational force even though new learning may override them.

2. New learning is added to, but cannot replace old tendencies.

Recurrent patterns of behavior in human societies reveal innate tendencies. Similarities in emotional expressions in animal and humans reveal innate tendencies. Brain function has evolved conservatively so that old features of the reptilian brain remain intact in modern humans and the best new features such as detailed, declarative languages have evolved naturally by the elaboration of older communication systems shared by many animals. The more cognition is studied in other animals, the more obvious it is that most "thinking" is nonverbal and is well distributed in nature. We have to assume that at some level or other, dinosaurs were thoughtful. Other animals may not think in the same way humans do and no other animals rely on language, but all animals communicate using different strategies for encoding and decoding information. Most animals are specialized for specific environments and, if we competed on their turf, they could probably beat us in many ways. 

The mind of a Bonobo and a chimpanzee exists in our mind; we have some modifications and a few added features. Old programs include some of our most negative qualities such as predatory and territorial aggression and anger. Some of our most positive qualities are also innate such as the tendency to bond, care for infants and form cooperative social units with altruistic features. The old brain remains in control of our bodies and often controls our minds. Schools have emphasized learning reading and writing, but no school is capable of designing and installing language processors in the brain. Schools add content to and exercise the already-existing language processors. Children learn spoken language naturally and spontaneously but, left on their own, most will not read and write. Human destiny as a species still lies with the programs in the old brain. Individuals can transcend the old programs by diligent learning and practice but individual effort and learning does not change the genome. Whatever we value about civilized human existence - culture, knowledge, social justice, respect for human rights and dignity must be practiced anew and stored as modifications of each person's neocortex.

From Neuroscience Notes   by Stephen Gislason MD

July 26, 2014

Surviving Human Nature

Surving Human Nature


Aging brings some  wisdom and some acquiescence to the world of Samara – the swarming of humans in ephemeral groups, driven by needs and desires that can never be satisfied. I am convinced that human nature involves a collection of tendencies and contradictions what  have prevailed for hundreds of thousands of years and will not change in the foreseeable future. The huge increase in population and the spread of new global ideas and methods of wealth creation should moderate and sometimes overwhelm human nature but only the names and places change – the behaviors remain the same.  I am impressed by optimistic humans who work to solve the world's problems even when successes are modest. Problems recur. Success turns to failure. In this 21st century, a more realistic philosophy of human life is required as we recognize that it is impossible to permanently change human nature by social and political means - by education, persuasion, coercion and law. Technological innovation may reduce carbon emissions, for example, but the energy needs of a growing human population will be difficult to satisfy.
Leaning and Guha-Sapir summarized the threats to humans in the 21st century:” The effects of armed conflict and natural disasters on global public health are widespread. In the years ahead, the international community must address the root causes of these crises. Natural disasters, particularly floods and storms, will become more frequent and severe because of climate change. Organized deadly onslaughts against civilian populations will continue, fueled by the availability of small arms, persistent social and political inequities, and, increasingly, by a struggle for natural resources. These events affect the mortality, morbidity, and well-being of large populations. Humanitarian relief will always be required, and there is a demonstrable need, as in other areas of global health, to place greater emphasis on prevention and mitigation... armed conflicts persist, with entrenched internal violence lasting for years, in countries such as  Sudan, The eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya.) Advances in small-arms technology and struggles over natural resources of international value (oil , natural gas and rare minerals) make conflict resolution challenging.
Civilians bear the burden. Families are forced to move from their homes to escape internecine violence. Refugees cross national borders and are legally entitled to assistance in United Nations (UN)–managed camps. But increasingly since the mid-1980s, people have been unable to cross international frontiers and so remain internally displaced  They are often at higher risk for malnutrition and disease than residents or refugees." 

[i] Natural Disasters, Armed Conflict, and Public HealthJennifer Leaning, M.D., and Debarati Guha-Sapir, Ph.D. N Engl J Med 2013; 369:1836-1842 November 7, 2013


September 27, 2013



Stephen Gislason MD    

The challenge is to become intelligent about intelligence. Humans have a great interest and ability to create nonsense. You could argue that many of the features of intelligence are deployed in the cause of nonsense but nonsense is not intelligent.

Intelligence is really about survival in a threatening world. Humans survive because of the genius abilities such as vision, hearing, skilled movement and speech; abilities that are built into their brain, innate gifts from nature. Humans do not learn how to see or how to hear what is going on out there, but they do have to learn what it means to them today. This is an interactive process. Speech is a form of sound interaction.

Although modern humans tend to emphasize individual thought and expression, most “thinking” is talking in groups. The value of speech is to connect individuals in “thinking” groups. Books and other publications link large numbers of humans in common patterns of language-dependent thinking.

The newest human abilities are more dependent on learning and are the least reliable. Reasoning, planning and learning to tolerate other humans in a friendly constructive manner require the most sustained practice.  The term, “nice,’ refers to these characteristics and therefore nice people require sustained learning to remain reasonable, to tolerate others and to behave in a friendly, constructive manner. To become nice and to remain rational and skilled, a human must belong to and work within a supportive group that shares these characteristics. Human groups often have the opposite effect, supporting intolerant and irrational thinking and behavior.

In the recent past new knowledge and abilities have proliferated in every human population with only a few humans doing well at cultivating the new abilities. In higher education and other life contests, general ability has been traditionally desirable. The "well-rounded" individual was a generalist, good at everything but perhaps not outstanding in one skill.

The key to human survival is group cooperation and individual specialization. The group tends to smooth out the negative effects of individual limitations and irrationality. In an affluent urban society, a small subpopulation cause most of the trouble and consume most of the social and medical resources available. Often the understanding and solution of “social problems” involves the interaction of elite and educated group with a sick, aberrant, dysfunctional group. Their interaction involves a persistent, inevitable misunderstanding arising from incongruent needs, values, information and capabilities. Human societies involve increasing specialization of individuals who are skillful at performing single tasks. The income of an individual often depends on this specialization and does not depend on a general or comprehensive understanding of how their society works and his or her place in it.

A similar description applies to individuals in many animal groups, beginning with the social insects. Humans and ants have much in common; the most compelling similarity is that individuals achieve viability on the planet, not by solitary activities, but by participating in a meta-order that involves the entire group.

Most humans live at a minimum level of overall comprehension and, even if they become more or less civilized, they will tend to regress to old and innate patterns of intolerance, hostility, aggression and conflict if the supportive infrastructure is inadequate to sustain external controls over competitive and hostile behaviors. It is to argue that many to most humans can remain misinformed and unreasonable as long a small number of more intelligent and skillful humans build and maintain infrastructures that support the others.

Neuroscience views minds as manifestations of the living processes found in brains. Brain science does not "explain" mind, or consciousness, but does give us strategies for understanding the properties of mind. Neuroscientists have made rapid progress in the past few decades and some of them are asking the same sorts of questions that only philosophers used to ask. The difference is that neuroscientists are sometimes able to ask more specific questions that may lead to more insight into the basic principles of the human experience. Neuroscientists are motivated and equipped to find real and practical answers to philosophical questions, leaving philosophers behind in an anachronistic philological niche, repeating discussions of what philosophers said hundreds to thousands of years ago.  This is not to argue that all neuroscientists are philosophers or that all neuroscientists understand the human mind, since many are focused on highly specialized tasks that reveal little or nothing about how the whole system works.

Humans are born with a somewhat defined intelligence potential. The spread of IQ scores in any population represents a combination of genetic determinants that cannot be changed and environmental determinant that operate in a sequential manner and can be changed.

Environmental determinants can be separated into two groups:

  1. determinants that are sequence critical and
  2. determinants that operate all the time.

Key nutrients must be supplied as the brain forms in utero on a daily basis. Deficiency may cause irreversible damage. If the same nutrients are deficient in an older child or an adult temporary and relatively milder functional impairment occurs that can be reversed by correcting the nutrient deficiency. The most common cause, in third world terms, of low intelligence is iodine deficiency during pregnancy and infancy.  Iodine deficiency has profound implications in terms of economics, politics, human rights and dignity. Low intelligence populations will not do as well as smarter populations and will not be capable of fully participating in a technological 21st century. In affluent populations children may still be malnourished and suffer from neglected problems such food excess, nutrient disproportion and food allergy.  We can equate normal intelligence with normal brain function. Not all brains are created equally and some brains are not constructed properly or are damaged before and during birth. The world offers abundant opportunities to interfere with normal brain function. The overwhelming task is to avoid foods, drugs, and environmental chemicals that make people less smart and even demented. Alcohol intoxication for example is a temporary dementia that becomes permanent if it is repeated too often. Brain injury adds to the negative effects of using alcohol and other psychoactive chemicals.

Leda Cosmides and John Tooby suggest:[i]  “The brain is a naturally constructed computational system whose function is to solve adaptive information-processing problems (such as face recognition, threat interpretation, language acquisition, or navigation). Over evolutionary time, its circuits were cumulatively added because they "reasoned" or "processed information" in a way that enhanced survival....our minds consist of a large number of circuits that are specialized. For example, we have some neural circuits whose design is specialized for vision. All they do is allow you to see. Other neural circuits are specialized for hearing -- they detect changes in air pressure, and extract information from it. Still other neural circuits are specialized for sexual attraction -- i.e., they govern what you find sexually arousing, what you regard as beautiful, who you'd like to date, and so on.… you can view the brain as a collection of dedicated mini-computers -- a collection of modules… whose operations are functionally integrated to produce behavior...So it is with your conscious experience. The only things you become aware of are a few high level conclusions passed on by thousands of specialized mechanisms: some that are gathering sensory information from the world, others that are analyzing and evaluating that  information, checking for inconsistencies, filling in the blanks, figuring out what it all means.“

Smart people learn faster and learn more than not so smart people. Smart people also are more curious, seek more diverse experiences and absorb more information. Intelligence is manifest in the ability to acquire complicated skills and excel in performance by practice and progressive improvement. Competent people are smart people who have the discipline to practice and improve their performance.

There is a relationship between being nice person and being a competent person. In demanding, professional environments the nicest people tend to be the smartest and most competent. There are exceptions. 
Read Neuroscience by Stephen Gislason and Intelligence and Learning

[i] Leda Cosmides & John Tooby Primer of Evolutionary Psychology: Center for Evolutionary Psychology University of California, Santa Barbara

March 14, 2013



Childhood ends with the onset of puberty. Teenagers undergo profound changes in mental tendencies and abilities as their brains change during and after puberty. Puberty raises the ante so that the relatively safe play of younger children is replaced by the more dangerous and consequential play of teenagers. Parents are often unprepared for the major transformations that occur after puberty and feel estranged from the new person emerging awkwardly and contentiously in their own home. I noticed a bumper sticker that said: "Teenager for sale cheap - take over the payments." 

Parents of teenagers will often doubt that they have any role to play except to offer custodial support and then recognize that their jurisdiction is limited.  I have attempted to help many parents change the diet of their sick adolescents and often failed. The reasons for failure are apparent to most parents. Let us review the status of adolescents hoping for some insight:

The time-honored principle of adolescent management is to fill idle time with useful work, learning and supervised play. Otherwise, teenagers use idle time to hang out in groups and engage in activities that frighten the adult community. Idle time is dangerous time. 

Teenagers are in the business of separating from their family and are drawn to the values, activities and norms of their peer group. They seek role models in the media and imitate examples of costume, values and behavior that seem attractive to them. You could argue that other teens, movies, “music” and television programs are strong influences, stronger than parental example or advice.

Old and New, The Teenager's Limbo

Teenagers have a tense mix of old primitive features in their mind and new modern ideas. They tend to manifest old primate group behavior and at the same time develop individual, modern personalities. Adolescent society is stratified, competitive and relatively unforgiving. Teenagers cluster in small groups with strict inclusion/exclusion rules. They manifest ancient human social patterns spontaneously and the importance of group affiliation with their peers takes precedence over family affiliation. Family values and teenager group values often conflict and the conflict is seldom resolved in favor of the family unless parents are determined and on the job 24 hours a day.

The parents’ main task is to locate their children in peer groups that have the most congruent values with their own. Teens who hang out on the street inevitably resist, oppose and challenge societal values. They get into trouble fast. Individual teenagers may have a well-developed understanding of the adult rules, but even those with a well-developed sense of local mortality will participate in behaviors that the adult community finds unacceptable.

Girls, like boys, cluster in small tribal groups with strict inclusion/exclusion rules. Teenagers tend to invent their own vocabulary and use jargon to identify members of their own social group. Teenage groups are not kind to outsiders and adolescent society reflects all the strengths and weaknesses of an adult society sometimes in exaggerated, dramatic ways.

Teenagers of both sexes are narcissistic and are often trapped in selftalk and case making. Girls are gossips and use language as a weapon. Some teenagers are kinder than others and develop an idealistic view of human life and may be at risk because they are too trusting and suggestible. Other teens are more cynical and aggressive and practice power politics in school hallways and cafeterias.

Group Membership

The greatest cause of teenage suffering is to be excluded from a desirable group. Members of inferior groups are treated badly by members of superior groups and outsiders emerge who are isolated and alienated individuals. Inferior or isolated individuals are taunted, threatened, pushed, bullied, ridiculed, sexually harassed, beaten, robbed and sometimes killed, even by nice children in affluent Canadian and American suburbs. Alienation pushes an unwanted teenager toward one of four destinations:

1.    Creative alienation – poetry, music, art, political activism

2.    Withdrawal, depression and sometimes suicide.

3.    Revenge, antisocial ideas, and affiliation with groups that express hatred

4.    Crime

Alienated individuals can form groups that express their disappointment and anger in destructive ways. Often these groups borrow costumes, ideology, ritual and values from old malevolent ideologies. The skinheads, for example, adopt fascist values and admire German Nazis of the 1930’s and 40’s who now epitomize, to most reasonable adults, evil intentions and despicable deeds.

 The greatest cause of suffering among teenage girls is to be excluded from a desirable female group. The next greatest cause of suffering is to be rejected by a desirable male. Members of inferior groups are treated badly by members of superior groups and outsiders emerge who are isolated and alienated individuals. Inferior or isolated individuals are taunted, threatened, pushed, bullied and ridiculed even by nice female children in affluent suburbs.

According to Campbell:[i]Campbell found that female adolescent disputes often center upon three issues relating to successful mate choice: management of sexual reputation, competition over access to desirable males and protecting established relationships from take-over by rival females. Interestingly, the peak age for female assault occurs at ages 15-19 compared to the male peak at 20-24 reflecting girls earlier sexual maturity… suggesting that the rise in female aggression during adolescence, like that of males, is associated with mate selection. Nanci Hellmich,[ii]  writing about mean teenage girls in the USA suggested: “Experts use the term "relational aggression" to describe the cattiness, meanness and nastiness that happens between some people, but especially among girls… Girls may gossip, spread malicious rumors, write nasty e-mails, give the silent treatment, exclude people from social events, betray secrets, snicker about someone's clothes or mannerisms behind their backs. They may tell a girl that they're not going to be friends with her unless she does what they want.”

The process of become a civilized, competent, compassionate human is arduous and some teenagers do not make it.  Teenagers tend to invent their own vocabulary and use jargon to identify members of their own social group. Teenage groups are not kind to outsiders and adolescent society reflects all the strengths and weaknesses of an adult society sometimes in an exaggerated, dramatic way. Food sharing is one the most basic tribal bonds and teens with deviant (i.e. healthy) food habits are not well-tolerated. Parents who want their teenage children to follow a rational family plan, for example, will have two choices:

1. To separate their teenager from his or her peer group

2. Involve the peer group in the rational plan

Teenagers are prone to anger and question the values of their parents. They are sensitive to cheaters and some become disillusioned with the values of their family and community when they discover discrepancies and deception in the stories they have been told. This is the Santa Claus/God problem. Some teenagers become contemptuous of adult society that appears to them to be shallow, hypocritical and futile.

A young child will be eager for reassurance and gifts from apparently benevolent characters in adult stories, but teenagers feel cheated or betrayed when they fully comprehend the deception involved. Disillusionment may push a sensitive teen into an angry withdrawal, seeking escape from the deceivers or occasionally, teens seek revenge by engaging in criminal and random, destructive activity.

JD Salinger's Catcher in The Rye, published in 1951, remains a contemporary description of the sensitive, disappointed adolescent who finds himself or herself in limbo, the transition from child to adult. The book begins with Holden Caulfield stating: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” [iii]

Dougan, a teenager writing in a New York Times 2010 discussion had this to say:" Asking a bunch of adults whether or not Catcher in the Rye will really reach teenagers is pretty funny, if you ask me. This only helps prove Salinger’s point — adults were once young and disillusioned themselves, but they’ve grown out of it, and they assume the rest of the world has grown with them. I’m 18 years old and every bit as confused and wandering as Holden. When I read this book for the first time, I laughed so hard I cried and cried so hard I could barely breathe. Yeah, my generation has Twitter and Facebook and cellphones and what-have-you. The world is always changing in little ways like that. It’s the big things that don’t change — and even in an era of such impossible interconnectedness, there is no way to circumvent the feeling of being utterly alone and misunderstood. Plenty of teenagers still love Catcher in the Rye. In fact, my Facebook feed was full of tributes to Salinger the day he died. If that doesn’t prove that this book has got appeal that spans generational differences, I don’t know what could." [iv]

From Children and the Family. Stephen Gislason Persona Digital books

[i] Anne Campbell Staying alive: Evolution, culture and women's intra-sexual aggression. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, XX (X): XXX-XXX.

[ii] Hellmich, N Girls' friendships show aggression at younger ages. , USA Today. 04/09/2002 

[iii] See Obituary by Charles Mcgrath. J. D. Salinger, Literary Recluse, Dies at 91. NYT. January 28, 2010

[iv] C. M. Dougan. Crying and Laughing With Holden. NYT Feb. 1, 2010.

November 26, 2011

Governments and Disappointment

Governments and Disappointment

An African chief stated that there are only two problems in Africa – rats and governments. The chief’s obvious disappointment with governments is shared by people all over the world. There are different kinds of governments based on different assumptions.

A reasonable argument is that humans prefer autocratic leadership in the form of kings and queens or charismatic leaders with a military background. Humans have an impressive tendency to form hierarchies with groups, large and small. This is a tendency derived from an instinctual social order that relies on groups organizing around leaders, alpha animals, who by ability or inherited status can control others. In small groups, leaders are more visible and more accountable to other members of the group. Small group leaders must court favor on a daily basis or rely on intimidation of critics and competitors. As groups enlarge, leaders are less visible and less accountable and hierarchies become better defined and more fiercely defended. Dictatorship is the oldest and most prevalent form of government. The Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy index 2010 reported on 55 authoritarian regimes in the world. They suggested that democracies were in decline.

The hope, of course, is that the autocratic leader is benevolent and shares the wealth with his or her devoted subjects. Hopeful citizens are usually disappointed. History tells us that wealthy aristocrats who fail to share the wealth can be deposed and killed by rivals or revolutionaries. Governments in Africa are often corrupt and belligerent. They sometimes organize mass killings to remove groups that are no longer wanted or needed. Any opposition is rewarded by imprisonment or death. The aberrations of African countries are consistent with human history and mirror the worst conduct prevalent in Europe over many centuries. Recent events in Arab countries are further repetitions of age-old struggles with ruthless elites using force to suppress dissent.

The invention of more or less stable civil service organizations is the real basis of government and the key to social stability. In democracies, politicians are elected to pass laws and may act as temporary executive officers of government institutions. They are seldom qualified for the responsibilities they assume. In the best case, government institutions are staffed by well-educated, well-informed experts who advise and guide elected administrators, accept some of their ideological biases without compromising the conduct of the institution's business.  Seldom is the best case achieved and instead, in many countries, citizens discover that they are victims of the worst case mismanagement of institutions – often a product of political meddling and nepotism. You could argue that the real result of elections is guaranteed incompetence of elected lawmakers.
Democracy Flaws

Democracy and freedom are not necessarily linked. An alert, well-informed citizenry and a politically independent judiciary are essential to the preservation of some personal freedom. A civil society develops multiple overlapping levels of dispute resolution with the right to appeal bad decisions that are common and inevitable when local tribunals decide who is privileged and who is not. A champion of civil rights is often in the uncomfortable predicament of defending the rights of humans he or she disagrees with, dislikes and even fears.
All governments are inefficient and are prone to corruption. In every large institution, there is a tendency to fascism, the dictatorial rule of an elite group who believe only they know what is right and true. A fascist displays innate tendencies, modified by learning, but devoid of compassion. A fascist promotes arguments and dissension, developing the idea that only some citizens have rights and privileges and others become outsiders who must be constrained, imprisoned, deported or eliminated.  A fascist leader is a dictator. The idealistic notion that governments only exist to serve the needs of the people turns out to be a denial of human nature. Attempts within governments to regulate themselves appear in the most affluent nations where the people are well educated and well informed. Well qualified citizens often demand better performance from their elected officials and their media often broadcast news of wrong-doing. An elected official representing well qualified citizens has a vested interest in protecting his or her reputation by behaving correctly and following ethical rules.  This peer pressure dynamic is essential for small group regulation and may work to some degree in larger groups because of the increased ability of private citizens to broadcast disapproval.

Elections are often thought to be the essence of democracy, but as human groups grow larger and social organization more complex, the ideal of citizen controlled government becomes impossible.  The Economist Intelligence Unit assessed the kind and quality of governments in 167 countries during 2008. Only 30 countries had full democracies, representing 14.4% of the world population.



 % countries

 % population

Full democracies




Flawed democracies




Hybrid regimes








Five European countries Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Netherlands and Denmark had the highest ratings for fully functional democracies. Canada was eleventh and the US 18th on the list. North Korea had the lowest ratings as a dysfunctional authoritarian regime.[i]

By the end of 2010, full democracies decreased to 26 (12.3% of world population) and flawed democracies increased to 53 (37.2%). The democracy score was lower in 2010 than in 2008 in 91 countries out of the 167 they surveyed. They attribute the decline to economic distress in the afflicted countries.  [ii]

The Economist democracy report of 2008 stated: “Flawed democracies are concentrated in Latin America and Eastern Europe, and to a lesser extent in Asia. Despite progress in Latin American democratization in recent decades, many countries in the region remain fragile democracies. Levels of political participation are generally very low and democratic cultures are weak. There has also been significant backsliding in recent years in some areas such as media freedoms. Much of Eastern Europe illustrates the difference between formal and substantive democracy. The new EU members from the region have pretty much equal levels of political freedoms and civil liberties as the old developed EU, but lag significantly in political participation and political culture—a reflection of widespread anomie and weaknesses of democratic development. Only two countries from the region—the Czech Republic and Slovenia (just)—are in the full democracy category. Hybrid and authoritarian regimes dominate heavily in the countries of the former Soviet Union, as the momentum towards "color revolutions" has petered out.”

The Economist's 2010 report stated that:" The dominant pattern in all regions over the past two years has been backsliding on previously attained progress in democratization. The global financial crisis that started in 2008 accentuated existing negative trends in political development."

Kershaw recalled Hitler’s rise to power, exploiting democracy to create a demonic dictatorship. Other countries continue on a fascist course in the 21st century. Kershaw asked: “Could something like it happen again? That is the first question that comes to mind when recalling that Hitler was given power in democratic Germany 75 years ago. With the world now facing such great tensions and instability, the question seems more obvious than ever. Hitler came to power in a democracy with a liberal Constitution, and used democratic freedoms to undermine and then destroy democracy itself. That democracy, established in 1919, was a product of defeat in a world war and revolution and was never accepted by most of the German elites, notably the military, large landholders and big industry.  The Nazis’ spectacular surge in popular support reflected anger, frustration and resentment that Hitler was able to exploit among millions of Germans. Democracy had failed them, they felt. Their country was divided, impoverished and humiliated. Scapegoats were needed. It was easy to turn hatred against Jews, who could be made to represent the imagined external threat to Germany by both international capitalism and Bolshevism. Internally, Jews were associated with the political left which was held responsible by Hitler and his followers for Germany’s plight. These distant events still have echoes today. In Europe, in the wake of increased immigration, most countries have experienced some revival of neo-fascist, racist movements. Skillful politicians around the globe have proved adept at manipulating populist sentiment and using democratic structures to erect forms of personalized, authoritarian rule.” [iii]

From Surviving Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

[i] Democracy report 2008 Economist Intelligence Unit
[ii] Economist Intelligence Unit’s  Webinar.  Democracy In Retreat: The EIU's Democracy Index 2010 . December 15, 2010  Online.
[iii] Ian Kershaw. How Democracy Produced a Monster. NYT February 3, 2008

November 24, 2011



When all the arguments about human needs and tendencies subside, one simple idea always works. Humans want to be well fed and safe. Happiness begins with shelter, healthy air, adequate food, and clean water available in a secure environment. To remain happy, each person must be accepted by a social group that provides access to resources, employment and human rights. Do humans understand how to become happy? Yes and no. Humans have restless minds and generate dissatisfactions at a greater rate than they generate contentment. The restless, nomadic human is driven every day to emerge even from a stable, comfortable home to satisfy these relentless urges and drives.

Happiness may be equated with affluence but there are problems with affluence. I occasionally visit people who are rich and live in big houses. You can tour someone's elegant mansion and admire his or her couches, paintings, lavish bathrooms, wardrobes and swimming pool. While I live simply, I do have an appreciation for domestic comforts, interior d├ęcor, art and finely crafted art and artifacts, I know that being rich does not increase mind space nor does it decrease the constantly regenerating drives that sustain a state of dissatisfaction in all humans. A rich man with a big house may find that he is most comfortable sitting in his smallish study, in an old leather chair that is a little beaten up but fits his body after many years of daily contact. He might spend his leisure time watching videos, especially old movies that he has collected. The other 10,000 square feet of his mansion sits idle, except when he has parties but he does not enjoy those much anymore; he is tired of the ingratiating behavior of relative strangers, their idle chatter and malicious gossip. This is not to argue that having money and property will always make you miserable, as some poor people like to think.

One problem of affluence is that humans repeat behaviors that were once gratifying and successful. It makes sense to repeat drinking a glass of water when thirst recurs, since water flows through us and must be replaced continuously. If you add alcohol to the water, having the second and third drink turns a pleasurable experience into to pathological experience: a nice person may become a monster; a healthy person becomes mentally and physically ill. The absurd consequences of typical human behavior have been broadcast by centuries of literature and self-help advice.

As soon as an object becomes “mine”, its value increases. An object possessed becomes an object that possesses the owner. If you enjoy buying objects and taking them home, the numbers of objects increase over time and you have to buy a bigger home. If buying one pair of shoes made you happy, you go back for a second and a third pair. If one car makes you feel good, buy two or three. This tendency to repeat acquisitive behaviors is built into marketing strategy- merchants offer "two for the price of one" or "buy one at the regular price and get one free."

Some individuals rationalize their compulsive acquisitive behaviors and refer to themselves as collectors. They promote interest in their collections and inflate the value of their objects. Others simply fill the space available to them with inexpensive junk and then rent storage to handle the overflow. Others fill small living spaces with newspapers and magazines until their dwellings resemble the underground burrows of acquisitive rodents. We know from common observation and formal study that acquisitive behavior is an old animal pattern that is built into our innate tendencies and is not going away. Some individuals thoughtfully regulate their consuming habits, having understood and learned to control their innate tendencies to hoard and consume more. The best advice for humans is "do more with less."

Philosophers have noticed the human tendency to desire anything and everything. As soon as you have satisfied one need, another arises. They have recommended less material preoccupations and a more contemplative life. In contrast to constant preoccupation with devouring the world out there, a contemplative human needs spaciousness and contentment rather than consumption. You need a few hours to relax at home and say (with a sigh of relief) I have, at least briefly, everything I need.

One of the Buddha's insights is stated simply: "The cause of all suffering is desire." He would suggest that the route to happiness is to decrease expectations and needs and not to consume more of everything. Appreciating one flower, one friend, or one precious artifact is more gratifying than trying to have a hundred of each. Money does not buy happiness, but, if spent wisely; more money can achieve comfort, and relative security in healthier more pleasant environments. In the best case, more money gives you more options and more freedom denied to less privileged people, including the philanthropic option, helping others by donating money to worthy causes.

From Human Nature by Stephen Gislason. The book a 21st century description of anthropology, sociology, psychology and neuroscience - disciplines that need to be integrated as they are in this book. The topics are essential to understanding human nature, its origins and its problems.

November 21, 2011

Error and Limitations

Human cognition is inherently fuzzy. Human performance is also fuzzy and mistakes are common if not inevitable, even with advanced skills and years of experience. It makes sense that there should be some slack in the evaluation of human performance and conduct. One of the common themes of storytelling is the incompetence of others and humans take pleasure in recounting the errors that others make.

An industry of litigation has emerged around human error and the pretense is that there are perfect humans who make no serious errors. The legal case for damages is built on the assumption of a standard of care and due diligence that exceeds the standards achieved in actual performance. If a surgeon amputates the wrong leg, a lawsuit against him is likely to succeed.

But surgeons, like all other humans, make mistakes everyday – they forget to do things; they jump to conclusions when there is too little evidence and fail to make decisions when there is enough evidence; they misinform patients; they write undecipherable notes; they get tired, irritable and impatient. The problems that physicians and surgeons face are universal human problems. They face a constant barrage of events that are complex and uncertain. Their tools and understanding are limited and their own needs are often neglected so that their performance is compromised. On the plus side, you can argue that, given their limitations, medical doctors do well most of the time, creating some order out of random and chaotic events. However, not all doctors do well all the time.

When humans make mistakes, they often claim: “I am only human.” Of course, that is a redundant statement since we already know that they are human, but the statement does suggest that someone, somehow expected them to perform at a superhuman level. The protest “I am only human” refers us to the principle that all humans have imperfect performance but judge others more harshly than they judge themselves. The indignant storyteller assumes the disguise of the perfect one who knows no error or sin.

A complex fantasy of superhuman performance emerges in every culture that supports the delusion that humans do better than they actually do. This is a collective self-deception on a grand scale. Leaders and aristocrats with various pedigrees are often given unearned prestige and superhuman abilities may be attributed to them. All humans, regardless of status, share basic tendencies and limitations. Inflated attribution will lead to disappointment sooner or later.

Self-deceiving and unrealistically high standards for others have a social value and appear in every human group. Claiming a high standard makes it easy to shame, blame and discredit others who make mistakes. High standards are used to motivate group members to work harder, compete and achieve more. In the best case, high standards operate as attractors that align individuals with learning experiences that can improve performance.

Another function of high standards is to support claims of elite groups that they possess special qualities that others cannot attain or can only attain by seeking membership in the elite group. Humans can be described as animals with material ambitions and moral aspirations whose performance inevitably fails to meet their own expectations, but they ignore their own limitations and deny their own errors. A more realistic view is that even the smartest, nicest humans have distinct limitations, will routinely make mistakes, and occasionally, one of their mistakes will have major and tragic consequences.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the US is a prototype of interacting groups of smart people who sometimes cannot get it right. In NASA, the smartest scientists and engineers collaborate on making space flights and other projects. NASA is also a showcase for US technology and has a major public relations responsibility. NASA failures are highly visible tragedies that are well-studied. When the regular orbital flights of NASA’s shuttle began, managers estimated the risk of failure to be 1 flight in 100,000. After the explosion of the shuttle, Challenger, in January 1986, Feynman declared that NASA exaggerated the reliability of its product to the point of fantasy. In 1988 when flights resumed, the revised estimated risk of catastrophic failure at 1 flight in 50.

After a decade of successful flights the estimate of risk was improved to 1 in 254 flights. The shuttle, Columbia, disintegrated on re-entry in 2003, and the risk estimate became 1 in 100. A piece of insulating foam fell off the fuel tank 82 seconds after liftoff and struck one wing edge with sufficient force to punch a hole in the wing. On re-entry, hot gases entered the wing causing progressive damage and the eventual disintegration of the shuttle. All astronauts perished. NASA teams worked for two years and spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to fix the foam problem. When the next shuttle took off in July 2005, again pieces of insulating foam broke off the fuel tank two minutes after launch but drifted away in the thin atmosphere. The shuttle completed its mission, but NASA, displaying appropriate caution and concern, announced that further flights would be suspended until the problem had really been fixed.

The actual risk of catastrophic failure of the shuttle as of 2005 was 2 flights in 113 or 1 in 56.5 flights. In his report on cognitive problems at NASA after the Challenger disaster, Feynman stated:” It appears that there are enormous differences of opinion as to the probability of a failure with loss of vehicle and of human life. The estimates range from roughly 1 in 100 to 1 in 100,000. The higher figures come from the working engineers, and the very low figures from management. What are the causes and consequences of this lack of agreement? Since 1 part in 100,000 would imply that one could put a Shuttle up each day for 300 years expecting to lose only one, we could properly ask: “What is the cause of management's fantastic faith in the machinery?” We have also found that certification criteria used in Flight Readiness Reviews often develop a gradually decreasing strictness. The argument that the same risk was flown before without failure is often accepted as an argument for the safety of accepting it again. Because of this, obvious weaknesses are accepted again and again, sometimes without a sufficiently serious attempt to remedy them, or to delay a flight because of their continued presence. “ Feynman concluded that a successful technology requires that reality takes precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

From Intelligence by Stephen Gislason.

October 23, 2011

Protests and Mobs

We have recognized that humans are social animals who interact continuously. There is a constant tension between self-identity and group membership; between self-interest and group interest; between bonding, belonging and being a free independent person. There are important differences between acting alone and acting within a group. Group size also influences behavior. We have also recognized that humans do best living in working in small groups and become dysfunctional when they join larger groups. Social grooming is one of the most common everyday social interactions among chimpanzees and other primates. Chimpanzees allocate a large portion of their daytime hours grooming each other.

Humans often form social gatherings and interact with multiple partners at the same time in everyday interactions, such as conversation. Adult male chimpanzees compete for higher status by forming coalitions. Males have to renew or confirm their relationships with each other by frequent grooming sessions in relatively small clusters. Adult females do not compete for higher status by forming intimate allies and do better by having wider interactions with many individuals and tend to groom in larger groups.
Some primate species, including humans, come together in groups of several hundred individuals for conventions. These are temporary congregations that may have enduring benefits or adverse consequences for the participants. Humans also assemble in-groups to protest, to seek revenge and to attack real or imaginary enemies. Well-focused mobs with effective leaders can be agents of change. Authoritarian rulers are sometimes disposed when large numbers of people protest injustices on the street, risking their lives to demand rights, freedoms and justice. Democracies need activism and public displays of disapproval to survive corrupt and incompetent politicians who tend to disregard human rights.

Even in polite societies, mobs may become disorganized and destructive, transforming more or less well-behaved humans into combatants, who push, shove, raise their arms in the air, show fist gestures and shout meaningless slogans. Soccer fans, for example, will gather in large stadium to enjoy the game and then riot as they exit, crushing each other and destroying property down the street. Mass movements of humans occur regularly and often operate at the lowest level of intelligence with none of the moral restraints that are available when individuals act alone according to the rules and peer pressure of the local community.

Street Mobs with Opposing Views

Mobs of people have assaulted each in passionate encounters that lead to mass deaths. Kakar describes an ethnic riot as-the intense, sudden physical assault by civilians of one group on civilians of another group. He stated that: “In the 20th century, the number of dead claimed by the primitive weaponry used in ethnic riots was second only to the number killed by sophisticated armaments. Ethnic riots can be followed by secessionist warfare, terrorist violence, and a general undermining of democratic institutions.” Dictators often use protests as an opportunity to kill large numbers of disobedient citizens either by uniformed police shooting at the crowd or by more surreptitious attacks by mercenaries who form counter protest mobs.

Horowitz studied 150 ethnic riots in 50 countries and concluded that lethal riots combine passion and calculation. He identified four factors that lead to killing: a hostile relationship between two groups; a response to events that engages the anger of one group, a response dominated by outrage or wrath; a sense of justification for violence, such as viewing it as self-defense, part of a long drawn-out war, or punishment of the other group for wrongdoing. The participants in lethal riots believe that that their aggression will not be punished.

Societal assets that reduce outbreaks of violence include more liberal, humanitarian attitudes that negate ethnic animosity and increase the aversion to violence of all kinds. Increased personal risk assumed by would-be rioters is an important deterrent. Even in polite societies such as Canada, the deployment of riot police has become routine for crowd control. The politicians and police will argue that dangerous riots often escalate over days and even weeks so that early intervention and detention of aggressive rioters will prevent escalation toward property damage and of loss of life. Crowd control is not an easy task.

Suppression of Dissent

Despite token support of human rights, the right of free speech and the right to assemble and protest peacefully, governments everywhere prepare to suppress dissent by using force, arrest and detention. You could invent a scale to rate governments according to their tolerance for public protest and their willingness to abrogate human rights to stay in power. One of the problems with mob control by riot police is that legitimate and peaceful protest may be suppressed with the same vigor as potentially dangerous riots. Public protest is a citizen’s right in a free society and a necessary option when governments become corrupt and autocratic. A citizen concerned with civil rights will insist on strong civil control of police actions. Otherwise, corrupt governments will use police and military power to further their fascist goals.

Autocratic governments stay in power by limiting or banning public protest, suppressing free speech and using lethal force to punish individuals and groups for challenging their authority.

From Surviving Human Nature by Stephen Gislason.

October 5, 2011

Failing Economies

There has been a remarkable proliferation of euphemistic, metaphoric and deceptive descriptions of economic events in the 21st century , peaking in 2011 as global economic crises proliferated. Even the Economist Intelligence Unit, usually a reliable source of data and analysis, used euphemisms such a "soft patch" in economic recovery to describe an impending global disaster.

In the US, when Ben Bernanke sat at his computer and typed 800 billion US dollars into current government accounts, his action was described as "Quantitative Easing." In this century of economies as numbers in computer databases, printing money is old fashion. With the proper endorsements from high-ranking government officials, you just type in numbers and all is well. Not that quantitative easing is such a bad idea -- should be available to all hard-working citizens with increasing debt burdens.

Not to be outdone by US extravaganzas, the countries of the European Union began to fail as individual countries such as Ireland, England, Italy and Greece accumulated increased debt burdens with threatened defaults on paying both the interest and principal owed. By mid 2011, global economic recovery appeared to be a wish, a fantasy, a delusion more that a realizable goal. Krugman wrote: "These are interesting times — and I mean that in the worst way. Right now we’re looking at not one but two looming crises, either of which could produce a global disaster. We can only hope that the politicians huddled in Washington and Brussels succeed in averting these threats. Even if we managed to avoid immediate catastrophe, the deals being struck on both sides of the Atlantic are almost guaranteed to prolong the economic slump . In fact, policy makers seem determined to perpetuate what I’ve taken to calling the Lesser Depression, the prolonged era of high unemployment that began with the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and continues to this day, more than two years after the recession supposedly ended. "

I admit that I admire Krugman's social and political analysis. He favors governments spending their way out of recession to avoid stagnation or worse, depression. He confronts opposing economic strategies that demand fiscal restraint, debt reduction, increased taxation, and reduction in the size of government. To some extend my simplistic understanding of human nature restores reality but not optimism about the prospects for economic recovery.

Just to review the main dynamics at work:

Humans do best living and working in small groups. Their cognitive limitations become obvious when they attempt to manage large groups, corporations and countries.

Large systems will reliably reach an avalanche state and tend to fail suddenly and dramatically.

Economies are complex, somewhat chaotic systems that no-one understands well enough to manage from the top down.

No-one can know what will happen next.

Burning cheap fossils fuels was essential to wealth generation and environmental destruction in the 20th century. Cheap fossil fuels are becoming scarce. The environmental degradation they helped cause will become more threatening and more expensive.

Environmental degradation with extreme weather events, declining resources and increasing populations will not allow a return to the easy affluence enjoyed by a few in the 20th century. Reduced growth, reduced consumption, reduced expectations will be good for everyone.

Government leaders do not have the knowledge, skills, power or political will to rescue us from the impending crises they help to create.

The 2011 civilian revolts began in Northern African and the Middle East but were not signs of progress towards civil societies, new affluence and justice for all as some starry-eyed  politicians believed. They are recurrences of inevitable social chaos that arise from increasing populations and decreasing resources to sustain those populations.

There are many mechanisms that cause inequitable distribution of resources. Large numbers of educated, unemployed, frustrated young men in many countries are protesters, rioters, potential revolutionaries waiting to be inspired to take action against oppression. The combination of wealthy, armed dictators, expanding numbers of poor and defenseless citizens, with the overwhelming adverse forces of nature creates death and destruction that has no obvious solution. The role of climate change as an overwhelming force that threatens the survival of entire countries is generally ignored by economic theories. Events so far in the 21st century point away from all idealist visions toward the harsh realities of human conflicts and suffering that have prevailed as long as humans have walked the earth.

From Surviving Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

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