November 23, 2010

Anthropology from Neuroscience Notes

Anthropology means the study of man, anthropos. Man means in this context humans, male and female, young and old. I first encountered anthropology in two forms, the study of human origins and the study of other societies, especially distant ones who had not acquired all the complications and vices of urban industrial society. Stones and bones are the evidence used by paleoanthropologists to study early humans going back millions of years. Archaeologists study the stones, bones and artefacts left by humans in the past 10 thousand years. You might consider sociology to be a division of anthropology that studies contemporary societies at close range.

One of the tools of anthropology is ethnography, descriptions of kinship, language, organization and dynamics of local groups. You could argue that all human studies are studies of human nature and that anthropology should grow to embrace all other disciplines or all disciplines should incorporate anthropology. Since anthropology existed as a department within universities, competing for funds, students and recognition, the discipline has remained a specialty, more or less confined to a limited set of tools and assumptions. European colonization of distant countries led to studies of the local flora and fauna, using descriptive taxonomies, drawings and hand written notes. A similar approach was taken by early anthropologists in their studies of human groups.

Harris reviewed the history of anthropology in his book, The Rise of Anthropological Theory'. Harris considered ecology and demographic dynamics as determinant factors in sociocultural evolution. In his later works, he and others considered the importance of food as a social determinant. In his book, Cannibals and Kings he considered the vices of centralized control of essential natural resources that lead to institutionalized oppression, an inevitable characteristic of imperial states throughout history. His ”cultural materialism” focused on the practical concerns that support survival, on the infrastructures of food production, reproduction, and local group cohesion.

The desire to discover truly innate features of human nature has been a main feature of anthropology and the arguments that prevailed in the 20th century. While ethnographies reveal a remarkably diversity of human expressions, underlying themes emerge that are common to all. My strategy is to use Anthropology resources, selecting the best ideas that are most compatible with 21st century understanding, avoiding polemics and historical debates.

Anthropology involved critically disputatious humans who invested much of their time and energy arguing with each other. Ideas useful in the 21st century idea developed with increasing, multidisciplinary sophistication. You could divide essential ideas into two groups. The first group involves general principles that can be applied in every situation. The second and largest group involves science and technology complete with a growing repertoire of concepts and techniques that promise to make older approaches to understanding human conduct obsolete. One essential idea is that human nature is animal nature, somewhat modified in the past million years.

Another idea implicit in all viable explanations is that the details of human systems change continuously and technologies evolve. The critical disputatious nature of humans does not change. The basic dynamics of competition, copying and conflict do not change. We can now state with confidence that every group organizes around kinship and ad hoc affiliations.

Every group has technologies of tool making, food production and distribution. Every group has hierarchies and rules. Every group has internal conflicts and conflicts with neighboring groups. Every group has methods of resolving conflicts without killing.

When conflict resolution fails, humans kill each other. Killings tend to multiply since humans seek revenge for harm done to members of their local group. We must also recognize that humans are best suited for living in small groups and become dysfunctional in predictable ways when groups get bigger.

Neuroscience Notes by Stephen Gislason

November 12, 2010

Modern Humans, Ancient Creatures

Both the good and the bad tendencies of mindbodybrain are innate properties that have useful functions, were not invented by modern society and are not going to change until the construction of brain changes. The dialogue between good and bad in human affairs is constant, predictable and universal.

When a baby is born, the family and local community begin to teach the emerging being what is going on here and now. They provide the local language, costumes, customs beliefs and the local science and technology. All adult humans have a technology to teach. While the local culture has an obvious impact on the appearance and behavior of emerging adults, the constant features of the human mind are pervasive and persistent. The variance in mental abilities within a local group will often be greater than inter-group variance.

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" refers to behaviors that arise spontaneously and are not learned – needs modification since evidence suggests that some innate programming has to be practiced and is molded by learning. The distinction between strictly innate and strictly learned behavior is artificial. Some innate programming is relatively fixed and cannot be changed by learning.

The distinction between constant features of the human mind and variable features is useful. Constant features are manifestations of innate brain structure and function. Variable features manifest the range of tendencies and abilities within a human group, the variations introduced by physical environments and the variations introduced by learning. Speech, for example, is a constant feature of the human mind; a variable feature of speech is the language(s) learned. A range of linguistic competence is determined by aptitude, learning and the physical environment.

All brains are equipped to learn. We can use computational metaphors to sketch in the territory of mind study, using concepts that are becoming generally known. The metaphors are not actual or real descriptions of how the brain works. When you are using a computer, you do not invent the programs themselves but you do learn how to use them. You do not have program a word processor, but you do have to learn how to use it. The more you learn about and use your word processor the better you get at using it

If you buy a computer with software installed, the operating system and the word processor seem innate to the system. This is roughly analogous to the human brain that comes with a word processor installed or, more precisely, it comes with installation routines that activate sequentially over several years, progressive “software” installation that is modified by practice. If a baby does not practice using the installed word processor, however, the progressive program installation will be abbreviated or aborted.

In the brain, hardware and software are properties of the same physical entities. The distinction is helpful to recognize that the inborn properties of mind are modified by learning and learning is, in part, similar to software. Many of the programs built into our brain have a special feature. They can be modified and elaborated by the experience of the individual. Brainbodymind is, therefore, 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 and experiential forces that modify or elaborate these tendencies.

Individuation occurs as experience modifies some brain structures and coexists with old programs that persist regardless of the individual experience, because the older brain structures resist modification. We talk in terms of freedom, free will, and self-determination. These are all attributes of the open-ended possibilities of bodybrainmind.

As much as we might try, we are not going to able to show a distinction between sound and the experience of sound or light and the experience of light. As much as we might try to elevate objective evidence as existing separately out-there, we will never be able to go beyond the for-me-ness of human experience. The distinction between subjective and objective is relatively useful as long as you do not examine the distinction too closely. With close scrutiny, subjective and objective are similar and the only issue is how many humans agree on what it was that they experienced.

The modification of brain structure and function is "learning". Learning involves all experience and not just time spent in school. In fact, the learning achieved in school classrooms is relatively unimportant. Learning is dependent on the availability of the innate program that organizes and supports the acquisition of skills and knowledge. There is no chance of a newborn baby talking 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 developed the language circuits; they emerge in a predictable sequence. Every normal baby first blows bubbles, coos and babbles, practicing language modules as they come online until the whole system is fully functional.

To modify innate mind programs:

1. Everyone has to practice using his or her innate abilities to become good at anything. If you want to become a good killer, buy a gun and practice killing – an electronic simulator will do.

2.If you want to win the Nobel Peace Prize, practice communication skills, appeasement, and reasonable negotiation and learn to be compassionate.

3. Everyone has to learn tolerance and must practice controlling anger and aggression. If you want to become good at hate, practice telling inflammatory stories about other humans.

4. If you want to love and be loved, practice acceptance, appreciation and gratitude; stop developing malicious stories and blaming others.

5. Understanding how people and the natural world really work does not come easily.

6. If you want to understand, you observe, explore, study and protect the natural environment. You form and sustain alliances with other intelligent people.

7.Dedication to learning is required - sustained study, self-scrutiny and continuous practice of tolerance and understandings are the prerequisites to develop an insightful, compassionate, modern person. Learning is a life-long process.

From Neuroscience Notes and The Good Person - Ethics and Morality, two books by Stephen Gislason.

November 9, 2010

The Military Mind - Can It be Fixed?

Governments tend to include military organizations which have grown large and complex with an abundance of machines and electronic communications. A sober realist who studies weapons technology and the mind set of the creators will have serious doubts about the prospects for peace in decades to come. For the foreseeable future, competition to establish military dominance would seem inevitable.

It is easy to argue that most humans seek dominance, are ready to fight, and support governments with advanced weapons. When US President Eisenhower retired in 1961, he warned US citizens of the military industrial complex. He stated prophetically: “The conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

When all is said and done, the military has two functions:

1. Destroy property
2. Kill other humans

Soldiers are rewarded for destroying property and killing other humans; they cannot make independent evaluations based on deeply felt, personal expressions of caring, concern, justice and freedom. Military personnel have ethics or rules of conduct that control their behavior within military organizations.

There are also “rules of war” that are often ignored in combat situations. An ethical soldier may do great harm to others as long as he protects his comrades and follows orders. Some soldiers are sociopathic criminals who take advantage of war to commit atrocities against civilians.

While you could argue that many soldiers are basically good people who commit socially sanctioned crimes, there is an equal argument that soldiers are the agents of evil and cannot be excused. There is another argument that soldiers are also victims. They are killed by the people they are supposed to kill, but more, they are agents of a political elite who chose war over negotiation and compromise. The politicians do not go to war, nor do their family members. High ranking officers stay at a safe distance from the battles and order others to kill and be killed.

In Canada on November 11 every year, people gather to remember soldiers who died in past wars. There is a collection of veterans, current military personnel, politicians, media people and ordinary citizens. An assumption is made that remembering the victims of the war serves the interests of living Canadians. The same misleading platitudes are repeated every year. There are references to honor, courage, valor, freedom, even references to fighting that will end all wars.

One of the clashes in every society occurs between hawks and doves. While one group is directly or indirectly approving of solders killing others in defense of “freedom” another group is opposing combat roles. Weapon lovers talk about the enemy with great enthusiasm. They want to use freedom destroying weapons to defend freedom. Without an enemy, expensive weapons look ridiculous. Hopeful idealists imagine a different nonviolent world with an external nervous system that links minds in grooming and altruistic information sharing that will render the two military activities (killing and property destruction) obsolete.

Every country that can afford high tech weapons makes a substantial investment in armaments. As new weapons are manufactured in more affluent countries, older weapons are sold to poorer countries so that the ability to destroy property and kill humans is well distributed over the planet.

The Kalashnikov AK-47 is a hand-held automatic rifle; an agent of death that sprays bullets in the direction it is pointed. Little or no training is required to kill other humans. Several countries manufacture and export them. They are sold to governments, criminals, civilians, terrorist and are used by child soldiers. Hodges described Kalashnikov societies where the proliferation of the weapon “makes it impossible for civil society to assert itself and halt the killing.”

A report compiled by the US Congressional Research Service stated: "We are at a point in history where many of these sales are not essential for the self-defense of these countries and the arms being sold continue to fuel conflicts and tensions in unstable areas...Where before the principal motivation for arms sales by foreign suppliers might have been to support a foreign policy objective, today that motivation may be based on economic motives."

In 2008, the United States was responsible for two-thirds of all armaments sales to other countries, valued at $37.8 billion, increased from $25.4 billion sales in 2007. Italy was second, with $3.7 billion in weapons sales in 2008. Russian sales were down from the $10.8 billion in 2007 to 3.5 billion in 2008. Sales from the US to developing nations included a $6.5 billion air defense system for the United Arab Emirates, a $2.1 billion jet fighter deal with Morocco and a $2 billion attack helicopter agreement with Taiwan. Other large weapons agreements were reached with India, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, South Korea and Brazil.

India and China, the two most populous nations on the planet are creating large, powerful military organizations with nuclear weapons. China has advanced missile and submarine technology that gives them the offensive capacities that rival the worst that the US and Russia have to offer. The balance of power is shifting to Asia. The idea is not avoid war, but to avoid losing a war. Eisenhower was right. The military industrial complex is a powerful and atavistic force that absorbs inordinate wealth, dedicated to destruction and death. The cover of national security and military honor keeps most citizens confused and docile. At home, military personnel wear attractive uniforms adorned with badges, and medals. They have bands, marches, and perform impressive funerals. Their cemeteries and national monuments to honor dead soldiers are often visited by patriotic citizens.

Anyone who really wants peace will have to confront and constrain governments that spend their money on weapons. They will have to reduce and redefine the nature and conduct of military organizations. The power of the military industrial complex must be reduced. The international sale of surplus armaments must eventually cease. Guns at home must be banned. The problem, of course, is that no country will disarm unilaterally. In the USA, few citizens will give up their own guns. They are ready to fight. Everyone has to disarm at the same time to the same degree and so far, this is impossible.

Transforming the Military Mind

Canadian military organizations have undertaken peace-keeping roles in several countries and have contributed to disaster relief at home and abroad. If you change the enemy from people you do not like or fear, to human vulnerability with a growing list of natural threats, then military organizations become valuable assets to countries that have them. Although the military mind has developed from innate tendencies that are not going to disappear, a shift in focus and priorities is already underway in the 21st century. This shift requires better education of participants, more cooperation among agencies within countries, more international cooperation, less secrecy and a big dose of compassion.

Since I am convinced that human nature includes competition, conflict and killing, I do not expect as miraculous cessation of hostilities. I cannot expect that a minority of well-informed, well-intentioned peace keepers can restrain their more belligerent and less informed neighbors. If there is hope, it lies in the impracticality of war and the pacifying effect of sustainable affluence.

The notion of national security as a discrete, definable goal is already obsolete, but lingering devotion to this archaic concept is an important obstacle to transforming the military mind. The smart people within the military realize that the world is changing; interdependencies are growing, vulnerabilities are increasing and threats are well distributed. Nations are porous with little or no hope of defending even well-defined boundaries.

Resources are limited and the cost of paranoid defense preparations is becoming an luxury even for affluent countries that are running deficits just to keep going. Many countries are living on loans that they will either have to pay back in the coming decades or join a growing list of failed states who defaulted on loan repayment.

It is cheaper to abandon enemy- based thinking and to cooperate with other nation states to cope with catastrophes to come. While there many humans that blow up assets and kill others, the belief that terrorists as a special and most important threat is an expensive, paranoid delusion.

Surving Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

November 1, 2010

Insults, the Opposite of Polite Talk

The opposite of polite talk is insulting talk. Insults are names and attributions designed to hurt others, to arouse anger and ultimately to start fights. Children are often taught:” Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” While the intention is to alleviate some of the suffering a child feels when others hurl insults, the statement is not true. “Names” can be harmful and are often remembered for years; whereas pleasant experiences are forgotten.

You could ask why insults are potent as expressions of aggression and as triggers for fights. Proud males, for example, so reject insults that a scrappy fight, a formal duel, or a declaration of war follows insult. If you are a skilled peace maker, you learned to deflect insults and inhibit anger. But even the most skilled pacifist will still be hurt by insults and will require strategies of self-defense that do not depend on anger or revenge.

An important meaning of an insult is: ”I don’t like you and intend to do you harm.”

The term “profanity” originated with religious authorities to describe words and expressions not approved by the church. Blasphemous language opposes the authority of the church. Insults are often expressed with profanity, using words and gesture that are rude and disrespectful. Synonyms for profane speech are cussing cursing, swearing, obscenity, dirty words. Words that refer to the anus, feces and sexual organs are often used as insults. Disrespectful words that refer to ethnic origins, religion, and occupation are also used as insults. Referring to people as animals with low status is insulting.

Offensive and Taboo Words

The meaning of every word is context dependent and every local group has rules about good words and bad words. Social status determines the tolerance for offensive words. High status usually requires strict language discipline; any deviation from polite speech will lead to rejection. If you are a stranger entering a new group, it is a good idea to learn and use polite speech, avoiding words that would offend.

Fuck is the most used and most versatile English swear word, used as a noun, verb, adjective and adverb. The verb, fuck, refers to sexual intercourse. Even polite girls in the heat of passion will say “fuck me” to their lover, but in other contexts may never use the word. I have occasionally kept the company of working men who often say fuck; the frequency of fuck in their conversations can be as high as every third word. Most of the fuck words are simply part of the prosody of their languages, but there is an underlying hostility to the whole approach to communication. One man who becomes annoyed with another will shout “fuck you” with his index finger raised, an obvious insult. He may walk away with a disgusted look, repeating fuck many times as he disappears into the distance. Fuck is not acceptable in polite conversation and is taboo in respectable newspapers and on television.

Some taboo words describe objects of disgust that are not mentioned in polite talk: feces, urine, vomit, menstrual blood, pus are high on the list of disgusting things. Street words for sexual parts and acts are usually taboo, even when proper terms are seldom used and casual terms are common and numerous. Ethnic slurs express the human tendency to discriminate against others that are different.

Discrimination is multifaceted, begins with insults and extends into fights which are sometimes lethal.

One reason to reject vulgar words in civil society is to suppress the tendency to fight and kill.

You could argue that trading insults is a substitute for actual fighting and may be permissible, but the tendency for verbal battles to escalate is real and dangerous.

From Language and Thinking by Stephen Gislason