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How to Reunite a Nation

I have recently published an article which describes a solution to divisive politics in the USA. The conclusion I arrived at was a consequence of the social theory set out in this blog, and it is interesting that my predictions already seem to be coming to pass. The article is longer than my normal posts and I have, therefore, created a pdf which can be downloaded here.

I hope that you find it interesting.

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Admin Uncategorized

Rational Understanding’s First Birthday

On 4th June, 2022, I will have been posting articles on rational-understanding.com for a year. To celebrate, I have compiled the first 42 Articles into a small pdf booklet that you can download at https://rational-understanding.com/my-books#allarticles.

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e. Basic Emotions Uncategorized

Basic Emotions

In this article, I discuss what are thought by most researchers to be our core or basic emotions: Joy, Anger, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Surprise. Love is omitted by most but there is strong evidence that it too is a basic emotion. I have, therefore, included it at the end.

Joy

Joy is often cited as our only positive emotion. On the scale strong to weak, it can manifest as exhilaration, joy, happiness, pleasure, or satisfaction. When extreme, it is associated with positive stress and the release of hormones. We can then act precipitately and overconfidently. Facial displays of happiness signal approachability and can de-escalate tension.

Anger

Anger is a negative emotion associated with the harms caused specifically by people, or other agents with choice regarding their behaviour. It targets them with blame and will, for example, be aroused when we face an injustice. On the scale strong to weak, it can manifest as rage, anger, annoyance, or irritation. Facial displays of anger towards the target are a signal that alteration of their behaviour is required. When extreme, anger is associated with negative stress, the release of hormones, and precipitate behaviour. Because anger causes us to move towards its cause, it can result in aggression.

Sadness

Sadness is another negative emotion but differs from anger in that it targets circumstances, rather than agents, with the blame. In situations where we are unable to experience anger, we will experience sadness. On the scale strong to weak, it can manifest as grief, sadness, or unhappiness. This, of course, suggests that it is the opposite of the positive emotion, joy. We can sometimes enjoy a mild state of sadness. This is because its contrast with happiness enables us to appreciate the latter emotion more fully. Facial displays of sadness, rather than signaling that the observer is the cause, can be a signal that we want them to make us happier. In the same way as other basic emotions, we can also experience empathic sadness and the facial display can also be a signal of this.

Fear

Fear is another negative emotion normally associated with threats to our more basic existence needs. Its strength varies on the scale: terror; fear; nervousness. When extreme, it is associated with negative stress, the release of hormones, and precipitate action. Fear triggers the fight or flight response in the face of a threat. Little is known about the signals given by its associated facial expression, but the purpose may be to alert others to the presence of a threat, to mitigate aggression, or both.

Disgust

Disgust is also a negative emotion. It causes avoidance behaviour and is thought to have evolved as a defence against potential sources of illness or disease, e.g., spider bites or rotting organic material. However, disgust, in its learned form, can also target people who engage in harmful behaviour. It can even target oneself in the form of shame or guilt. It varies on the scale: abhorrence; disgust; aversion. Again, little is known about the purpose of the associated facial expression, but it seems likely that it signals to others the presence of a potential source of illness or disease. In its learned form it is likely that it signals unacceptable behaviour.

Surprise

Surprise is probably regarded as basic because of its associated facial expression. It is an unusual emotion because it is neither positive nor negative. We can be surprised both by unexpected satisfiers and by unexpected contra-satisfiers. This results in greater attention being given to them. Thus, our facial expression, which can of course be feigned like that of any other emotion, is a signal of interest and attention. We can be very surprised or mildly surprised depending on how unexpected the cause is. We can also move quickly from surprise to the relevant positive or negative emotion. However, depending on the nature of the surprise, this will be at some point on their respective scales. Our response to surprise is learned depending on whether our experience has been largely positive or negative. Some of us will wish to avoid surprises if experience has been negative. Others will embrace them if it has been positive.

Love

Until the mid-20th century, love was regarded as a core emotion, but, largely because it lacks an easily identifiable facial expression, it has since been omitted from the lists of most psychologists. They do not deny its existence, but rather believe it to be a combination of other emotions or not to be classified as an emotion at all. Nevertheless, it is popularly regarded as a core emotion. A more detailed discussion of this topic can be found in: https://www.academia.edu/20456548/Is_love_a_basic_emotion

The word “love” is used in a wide variety of contexts. In its inherited form, it is a positive emotion associated with others. It varies on the scale: love; affection; liking. As we age, its focus moves from our parents to our siblings and close childhood friends, followed by our sexual partners in the form of romantic love, and finally to our children and grandchildren in the form of parental love. It generates true altruism, tolerance, and forgiveness. These create a strong social bond between the giver and receiver, facilitating the survival and propagation of our genome. It almost certainly has an evolutionary basis, therefore. Further evidence of love’s evolutionary basis lies in the fact that it is experienced as a “surge” or “upwelling” which seems to have a physical component.

It is possible that, in its learned form, it can also be an emotional attachment to places and objects of value.

The absence of a clearly identifiable facial expression can be explained by the fact that such expressions elicit a response. However, true altruism expects no response, except perhaps the absence of an injustice which might elicit anger, and a facial expression would have no purpose, therefore. Furthermore, unconscious facial expressions of love could also make us vulnerable to exploitation. For these reasons, a facial expression is unlikely to have evolved.

In the next few articles, I will discuss the part that emotions play in our decision making and behaviour, including how we can be influenced by external factors.

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Event date change – Ask the Experts: Live discussion on consciousness

This upcoming online event is now being postponed to Thursday 9 December 2021, 5.30pm to 6.30pm. 

Chaired by Sussex alumna, BBC broadcaster and Psychology Visiting Professor, Claudia Hammond. The panel includes:

  • Dr Alexa Morcom, Senior Lecturer in Cognitive Neuroscience 
  • Anil Seth, Professor of Cognitive & Computational Neuroscience, and Sussex alumnus 
  • Jamie Ward, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience 

Register at:

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Uncategorized

Ask the Experts: Live discussion on consciousness

Thursday 2 December 17:30 until 18:30

This is a free online event hosted by the University of Sussex

Details and registration at: https://www.sussex.ac.uk/alumni/news-events/events?id=56585&amp%3bid=56585

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c. The Tree of Needs Uncategorized

The Tree of Needs

Although Maslow did not describe it in this way, the hierarchy of needs is usually represented by a pyramid. However, in my view, a tree may be more appropriate.

The trunk represents the existence and procreation needs or contra-needs that we all share. The branches and twigs represent our higher needs and contra-needs. Satisfying our needs can be likened to climbing this tree. As we ascend, from the trunk to its outermost twigs, our needs become higher. The highest needs are those at the outer twigs and the lowest those nearest the trunk. The higher the need the more branches or twigs there will be. It is this diversity which gives us our own unique personalities and motivations.

Representing needs and contra-needs in this way helps us to understand several things:

  1. Initially, we must satisfy our existence and procreation needs. We begin climbing at the trunk therefore, and, as we ascend to satisfy higher needs, they become ever more personal and diverse.
  2. We must continue to maintain the trunk and branches that we have already ascended if we are not to fall from the tree. This means that we must regularly attend to our lower and more basic needs even whilst focussing on higher ones.
  3. The diversity of higher needs has implications for empathy. We all share common existence and procreation needs. It is, therefore, relatively easy to understand these needs in others and to empathise with any difficulties they have in satisfying them. However, as we climb higher and choose branches which satisfy our own more personal needs, our understanding of the branches occupied by others begins to diminish. Thus, we have less empathy for people who are having difficulty in satisfying their higher needs. Rather, it is easy to behave in a manner which restricts diversity and to believe that others should be like oneself.
  4. As one ascends the tree there become fewer people on each branch and it becomes harder to find others with whom to share an interest. Thus, the risk of feeling isolated becomes greater.
  5. We must have aims to be motivated and as we ascend the tree it becomes ever more difficult to find and settle on these. The tendency is, therefore, to do more of the same. For example, wealthy people may seek ever more wealth, and politicians ever more power.
  6. Representing needs in the form of a tree also has implications for diversity. The diversity within the branches of the tree reflects the diversity within societies. Societies in which people can satisfy their higher needs are more diverse than those in which they cannot.

In my next post I will describe Manfred Max-Neef’s theory of how we satisfy our needs and some of the ways in which this may not succeed.

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i. Is Mankind Still Evolving? A Summary. Uncategorized

Is Mankind still Evolving? A Summary.

The question of whether we are still evolving can be answered if we look at multi-level selection theory. Our continued evolution relies on there being long-standing, not merely transitory, selection pressures which cause individuals with certain mutations to better survive and procreate than others. Because of our large population, any changes will take far more time to predominate than was the case when we numbered in the tens of thousands. Even when accelerated by feedback between cultural and biological evolution, biological change will still be very slow.

Individual Level Selection. In recent years, social values, and norms, e.g., “thou shalt not kill”, have reduced individual level competition. Improved medical, agricultural, and economic practices have significantly reduced the external selective pressures on mankind. On the other hand, globalisation and increasing population density is leading to an increased risk from pandemic diseases. These are highly significant factors in natural selection at the individual level and, together with our reliance on vaccination and other medical technology, they are likely to lead to changes in our immune systems. An example of recent selection at individual level is the predominance of sickle cell anaemia in populations exposed to malaria. When the genes causing this disease are inherited from only one parent, they act as a defence against malaria but, when they are inherited from both, they result in anaemia.

On balance, therefore, it seems likely that natural selection at individual level does still exist but to a much lesser extent than in the past. If so, then natural selection may have shifted more towards the higher levels described below.

Kin Level Selection. We do of course continue to favour our kin, but it is notable that, in the West, the large extended families of the past are in decline and that families are now largely nuclear, i.e., parents and children. There have been several experiments involving raising children outside of nuclear families, e.g., Israeli Kibbutzim, but all have failed. Nuclear families exist throughout the animal world and are strongly established in our genetic inheritance. It is unlikely, therefore, that there will be any change in the future which might lead to genetic adaptation.

Group Level Selection. Global society is moving towards one in which destructive competition between groups is ever more unacceptable. Unfortunately, wars and the abuse of one group by another continue to take place. There also remains an element of cultural competition. However, due to increasing global organisation and centralisation, despite the existence of cultural differences between groups, based primarily and belief, there is also a process of convergence towards a monoculture taking place. We may still be evolving slowly due to group level selection, but again, not at the pace experienced in the past.

An example of human evolution due to group level selection is the gene that controls lactase production. This enables us to consume milk into adulthood. It emerged among tribes with a long history of cattle herding, and appears to be spreading through the global population alongside the consumption of dairy products.

Species Level Selection. Although species level selection may, in the past, have taken place between hominins, Homo Sapiens is now the only one remaining. Our closest relatives are the chimpanzees and bonobos, and we face no interspecies competition for our ecological niche. Different ethnic groups are currently experiencing different growth rates. However, they are all members of one species. Due to globalisation, the finite size of the planet, and ease of travel, there is ever less separation between them. We are almost certainly no longer speciating and, therefore, not subject to species level selection.

Eco-system Level Selection. The human economy is evolving culturally at a very rapid pace and competition between it and the natural eco-systems is fierce. However, it is only enduring changes that will lead to human genetic evolution. An example may be our ability to communicate using technology. Currently, this seems to be the strongest selection pressure on human evolution. Our economy or artificial eco-system is altering the natural environment and we, in turn, are adapting, first culturally, but ultimately genetically, to these changes.

Of course, if an existential catastrophe were to occur, then this situation would change. Those best suited, by random mutation, to the post catastrophic circumstances may survive and continue to procreate. Group separation, and thus speciation, would re-emerge and biological evolution would pick up speed due to new, stronger pressures and the dramatically reduced population. Individual level selection is also likely to come to the fore, once more. We do not know the future nor the genetic mutations that we carry, and so, cannot predict the outcome. However, some of the risks that we face are clear. Climate change and failure of food supply are two examples. It would, therefore, be sensible to act now to eliminate these risks.

This is my final post on evolution. I hope that you have found it interesting. In my next post, I will begin a series on human needs and how they motivate our behaviour. This next series is underpinned by the evolutionary theory discussed so far.

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g. Species and Ecosystem Level Natural Selection Uncategorized

Species and Ecosystem Level Natural Selection

Species Level Natural Selection

Natural selection at species level relies on there being a geographical separation between groups within a species so that they can follow their own independent evolutionary path. Eventually, the genomes of two groups will become so different that they have difficulty interbreeding. For example, a male donkey and a female horse will produce a sterile mule. Ultimately, they will become separate “child” species and incapable of interbreeding. This process is known as speciation.

Population pressure among successful “child” species can cause them to migrate and come into contact with “sibling” species. There can only be one species in each ecological niche. If there are more, then competition for the niche will result in the fittest species, normally the migratory one, prospering and the least fit one becoming extinct. It is theoretically possible for this process to take place but, because millions of years would be required and there is, therefore, relatively little evidence of it, not all evolutionary biologists believe that it does. It may, however, have occurred among hominins.

Hominins are human-like species that evolved after our predecessors and those of the chimpanzees speciated between 12 and 5 million years ago. Since then, there are believed to have been 15 to 20 species of hominins, all of which, apart from our own, have become extinct. The migration of homo sapiens from Africa, where we originated, into Asia may have resulted in the demise of Homo Erectus, and our migration into Europe in the demise of the Neanderthals. Neanderthals were a sub-species, and some are known to have been subsumed by modern humans through interbreeding. This is confirmed by the existence of part of the Neanderthal genome in non-African branches of our species. However, most were probably outcompeted by modern humans. It is unclear whether Homo Erectus was an entirely separate species and became extinct or whether it too was subsumed in a similar way.

Presently, it is difficult to identify any behavioural traits which may have evolved in modern humans as a result of species level selection as this would require a comparison with other, now extinct, hominin species.

Ecosystem Level Natural Selection

The final level in the organisation of life comprises the world’s ecosystems. These are the final, and largest, Russian dolls on which individual organisms depend for their survival and ability to procreate.

A natural ecosystem comprises all the non-living ingredients for life, e.g., a source of energy, water, minerals, atmospheric gases and so on. It also comprises numerous species, each of which has its own niche or role to play, and each of which interacts with other species to form a complex system. Each ecosystem is adapted to its own habitat, and these can be highly variable to include, for example, freshwater, marine, tropical, mountainous, and desert habitats.

The roles played by species are classified using the food chain. Generally, there are only up to 4 or 5 levels, which typically comprise:

  1. Producers: organisms that produce food for all other species in the ecosystem, e.g., green plants which convert inorganic substances into organic material through photosynthesis.
  2. Primary consumers or herbivores: animals that consume plants, e.g., sheep and goats.
  3. Secondary consumers or carnivores: animals that feed on others, e.g., the big cats and sharks.
  4. Tertiary Consumers. These are also carnivores but ones that consume other carnivores, e.g., polar bears and crocodiles.
  5. Decomposers: organisms which feed on dead organic material and help in the recycling of nutrients, e.g., fungi and earthworms.

The flow of energy in a natural ecosystem is largely unidirectional. Plants, which take their energy from sunlight, were the first to evolve and altered the environment, thereby permitting the evolution of herbivores, which take their energy from plants, followed by carnivores, which take their energy from herbivores.

Some species do not fit neatly into these classes. For example, humans are omnivorous, consuming both animals and plants. There are also parasites which feed on a living host. Nevertheless, the above classification is a helpful guide.

All levels of natural selection exist within an ecosystem: individual, kin, group, and species. However, for ecosystem level selection to be possible, there must be more than one ecosystem competing to control the same habitat. This is not apparent in the natural world. Rather, it appears to have been introduced by mankind, as will be discussed in the next post.

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f. The Influence of Group Level Natural Selection on Humanity Uncategorized

The Influence of Group Level Natural Selection on Humanity

One of the main criticisms of group level natural selection has been that we know relatively few examples in which group behaviour has led to biological evolution. However, among them is one now regarded as being a rare and significant evolutionary transition: the evolution of the human brain. Another objection has been that groups reproduce and die off at a far slower rate than individuals and, thus, biological evolution driven by group behaviour will take place at a similarly slow rate. However, this is contradicted by the relatively rapid evolution of our brain.

The human brain differs from that of our ancestors not only in size but also in attitudes and skills. Examples of the latter include our relative Finally, Wilson, Timmel and Miller, in their study of cognitive co-operation found that groups perform better at problem solving tasks than individuals, and that the gap increases with the difficulty of the task. In other words, groups perform better than individuals when solving complex problems.

Large brains consume a great deal of energy, approximately 20% in humans. Their growth probably began approximately 2.6 million years ago, when our previously vegetarian ancestors shifted to a higher reliance on meat. At the same time, it became more efficient to occupy a campsite and send out hunters than for the entire tribe to hunt. In return, the hunters benefitted from the protection of the campsite in which their young were raised. Family based social groups did exist prior to the shift to meat eating but the changes brought about by meat consumption began a process of increasing co-operation between families, initiating a shift to less kin-reliant groups.

An important factor in whether a group forms is its ability to benefit its members. Unlike kin selection, each member requires reassurance that the others have a similar outlook and takes their reciprocal support as evidence. Co-operation requires the individual to have an understanding of other group members and their motives together with considerable negotiating skills. It also requires an ability to recognise exploitation of the group by individual members; this necessitates moral systems, and processes for dealing with intransigence. It is important to mention that competition between individual group members and families is not extinguished but merely suppressed.

Within groups a culture develops comprising several memes, i.e., agreed values, norms, beliefs, and symbols. Values are those things that we hold “good”, norms are forms of behaviour expected from group members, beliefs those things that we hold true, and symbols are ceremonies, ornamentation, etc., which identify us as being members of the group. Memes are subject to a process like that of gene selection. They will survive and propagate if they are fit for their environment or fall into disuse if they are not. It is not necessary, however, for a group to become extinct for a culture to expire. Nor is a culture necessarily linked to an ethnic group as multi-ethnic cultures are also possible.

Culture propagates from generation to generation but, unlike biological inheritance, it can also propagate from group to group through social learning. If a culture is successful, it can be transferred by imitataion or by coercion. Thus, cultural evolution takes place through the exchange of ideas and practices, with the most successful cultures surviving and propagating whilst the less successful ones expire. This process is far more rapid and adaptive to changing circumstances than biological evolution. Significant changes can occur within a few generations or less. This has, for example, allowed us to populate different environmental niches, from the arctic to the desert.

The evolution of our large brains has been very rapid and is thought to have been brought about by a process of positive feedback between cultural evolution and biological evolution with the former taking the lead. As groups became more complex and effective, they needed the greater skills and pro-social tendencies provided by larger brains. These, in turn, enabled groups to become yet more complex and effective. Because groups that co-operated well were more successful than those that did not, the individuals with the brains, skills, and attitudes needed to facilitate this were subject to natural selection and, thus, came to predominate. Although this process is speculative, mathematical modelling by Luke Rendell et al., of the University of St. Andrews, has shown it to be capable of producing strong selection pressures and the rapid evolution of biological traits.

Successful group co-operation relies on individuals knowing one another and limits on an organism’s ability to do so mean that there is a maximum group size which varies from species to species. In the 1990s, the anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist, Robin Dunbar, found a correlation, in primates, between brain size and social group size. From this he proposed a maximum social group size for humans of about 150.

In the last 5000 years, human society has become more complex. It now comprises numerous inter-dependent groups, each with its own specific purpose. They are not necessarily kin groups and are often based entirely on mutual co-operation. Some even prohibit nepotism. Most of us now occupy cities whose populations can be in the tens of millions. Cities are co-operative groups on a very large scale. We even describe them as organisms, using phrases such as “the beating heart” or “the veins and arteries”. There is no doubt that urbanisation, and the greater specialisation and co-operation that it brings, have resulted in an explosion in our population. Although this is probably a result of cultural evolution, in time, biological adaptations may follow.

Most of the changes arising from group behaviour that we can observe This raises many questions about our future, of course, such as “Is the process accelerating?” and “Where will it ultimately lead?”.

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d. Kin Level Natural Selection Uncategorized

Kin Level Natural Selection

An early precursor to kin selection was the theory of inclusive fitness. This was proposed by J.B.S. Haldane in 1932 but developed and named by William Donald Hamilton in 1964. Hamilton’s theory is the basis of Richard Dawkins famous book, “The Selfish Gene” and argues that it is the survival and reproduction of genes, rather than organisms, that is the principal driver behind evolution. As a result, an organism can display altruism if this leads to a greater propagation of the genes it holds than would be the case if it acted solely out of personal self-interest. This relies on the individual organism being able to identify those genes in others. There are two main ways of doing so. Firstly, by knowing its kin or related family members and, secondly, by recognising external characteristics displayed by others with the relevant gene. However, there are several difficulties with the latter, for example whether the gene does in fact express itself in the form of recognisable traits and whether the organism can see those traits. Because such traits are often only skin deep, there is the potential for imposters to display them to benefit from altruistic behaviour.

The more specific theory of kin selection developed from Hamilton’s work. This theory states that an organism can behave in a way which maximises the propagation of its genes by behaving in an altruistic manner towards close relatives likely to hold the same genes.

Individuals in a species have approximately 99% of their genes in common. The remaining 1% constitutes their variable genome which accounts for physical variation within the species. The fitness of the 99% is well established and, thus, only genes in the variable genome, including any mutations, compete to propagate themselves. 50% of the variable genome is inherited from each parent. On average, therefore, an individual will share 50% with each parent, child, and sibling and, on average, 25% with each grandparent, uncle, aunt, nephew, niece, or grandchild. The theory of kin selection proposes, therefore, that it is advantageous in terms of the propagation of the variable genome to favour the survival and reproduction of three siblings over that of the self. Thus, genetically driven behaviour which facilitates this will propagate within the species.

Kin selection behaviour relies on the ability of an individual to recognise its kin. Nurture kinship, i.e., having raised, been raised by, or having been raised with another nuclear family member, is clearly an important factor, and can be observed in other species. However, the recognition of more remotely related kin, e.g., aunts, uncles, and other members of the extended family, requires considerable cognitive skill and, so, is probably limited to the more intelligent species.

As individuals become more remotely related, it only becomes possible to recognise kinship through physical appearance and, in the case of humans, cues such as language, dress, beliefs, etc. Thus, kin selection suggests that an individual is more likely to behave altruistically towards others of similar appearance and culture because these factors also suggest a similar variable genome.

Intuitively, kin selection operates within humanity. There is also a great deal of objective evidence for its presence. For example, research has shown that non-reciprocal help is far more likely to occur in kin relationships than non-kin relationships. It has also been shown that, when wills are written, there is a close correlation between kinship and the proportion of wealth passed on.

A small number of species can be described as eusocial. These species co-operatively rear their young across multiple generations. They also divide labour through the surrender, by some members, of all or part of their personal reproductive success to increase the reproductive success of others. In this way they benefit the overall reproductive success of the group. Eusociality arose late in the history of life and is extremely rare. Only nineteen species are known to display this characteristic: two species of mole rat, some species of brine shrimp, insects such as wasps, bees, and ants and, of course, mankind. In eusocial species, group level natural selection takes place due to competition between groups. In the case of the eusocial insects, the group is the nest or hive. Individual workers will lose their lives in the interest of the hive as a whole. It can be argued that this form of behaviour in insects is entirely altruistic and an inherited form of kin selection. However, in the case of humanity, this argument does not hold true because human groups display both kin altruism and non-kin co-operation.

However, there remain doubts whether individual and kin selection fully explain natural selection and human social behaviour since natural selection may also occur at higher biological levels. This will be explored further in subsequent posts.