To follow this blog by email, give your address here...

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Why Humans Are So Screwy

Aha!!! ... Last night I had the amusing and satisfying feeling that I was finally grokking the crux of the reason why we humans are so screwy -- I never saw it quite so clearly before!

Here's the upshot: A big factor making human beings so innerly complicated is that in our psyches two different sources of screwiness are layered on top of each other:

  1. The conflict between the results of individual and group (evolutionary) selection, encoded in our genome
  2. The emergence of civilization, to which we are not adapted, which disrupted the delicate balance via which tribal human mind/society quasi-resolved the above-mentioned conflict

I.e.: the transition to civilized society disrupted the delicate balance between self--oriented and group-oriented motivations that existed in the tribal person's mind.   In place of the delicate balance we got a bunch of self vs. group conflict and chaos -- which  makes us internally a bit twisted and tormented, but also stimulates our creativity and progress.

Screwiness Source 1: Individual versus Group Selection

The first key source of human screwiness was best articulated by E.O. Wilson; the second was best articulated by Freud.  Putting the two together, we get a reasonably good explanation for why and how we humans are so complexly self-contradictory and, well "screwy."

E.O. Wilson, in his recent book The Social Conquest of Earth, argues that human nature derives its complex, conflicted nature from the competitive interplay of two kinds of evolution during our history: individual and group selection.  Put simply:

  • Our genome has been shaped by individual selection, which has tweaked our genes in such a way as to maximize our reproductive success as individuals
  • Our genome has also been shaped by group selection, which has tweaked our genes in such a way as to maximize the success of the tribes we belonged to

What makes a reproductively successful individual is, by and large, being selfish and looking out for one's own genes above those of others.  What makes a successful *tribe* is, by and large, individual tribe members who are willing to "take one for the team" and put the tribe first.

Purely individual selection will lead to animals like tigers that are solitary and selfish.  Purely group selection will lead to borg-like animals like ants, in which individuality takes a back seat to collective success.  The mix of individual and group selection will lead to animals with a complex balance between individual-oriented and group-oriented motivations.

As Wilson points out, many of the traits we call Evil are honed by individual selection; and many of the trains we call Good are honed by group selection.

That's Screwy Human Nature, Part 1.

Good vs. Evil vs. Hierarchy-Induced Constraints 

These points of Wilson's tie in with general aspects of constraint in hierarchical systems.   This observation provides a different way of phrasing things than Wilson's language of  Good vs. Evil.   As opposed to adopting traditional moral labels, wonder if a better way to think about the situation might be in terms of the tension and interplay between
  • adapting to constraints


  • pushing against constraints and trying to get beyond them
In the context of social constraints, it seems that individual selection (in evolution) would lead us to push against social constraints to seek individual well-being; whereas group selection would lead us to adapt to the social constraints regardless of our individual goals...

Much great (and mediocre) art comes from pushing against the constraints of the times -- but it's critical to have constraints there to push against; that's where a lot of the creativity comes from. You could think about yoga and most sports similarly ... you're both adapting to to the particularities of the human body; and trying to push the body beyond its normal everyday-life limits...

From the point of view of the tribe/society, those who push against the constraints too much can get branded as Evil and those who conform can get branded as Good..... But it all depends on what level you're looking at.... From the point of view of the human body, the cell that doesn't conform to the system will branded as Evil (non-self) and eliminated by the immune system!!

In any hierarchical system, from the perspective of entities on level N, the entities on level N+1 impose constraints -- constraints that restrict the freedom of the level N entities in order to enable functionality on level N+1; but also have potential to guide the creativity of level N entities.  Stan Salthe's book Evolving Hierarchical Systems makes this point wonderfully.   In some cases, like the human body vs. its cells, the higher level is dominant and the creativity of the lower level entities is therefore quite limited.  In thhe case of human society vs. its members, the question of whether the upper or lower level dominates the dynamics is trickier, leaving more room for creativity on the part of the lower level entities (humans), but also making the lives of the lower level entities more diversely complex.

Screwiness Source 2:The Discontents of Civilization

Moving on -- Screwy Human Nature, Part 2 was described with beautiful clarity by Sigmund Freud in his classic book Civilization and its Discontents.

What Freud pointed out there is that neurosis, internal mental stress and unhappiness and repression and worry, is a result of the move from nomadic tribal society to sedentary civilized society.  In tribal societies, he pointed out, by and large people were allowed to express their desires fairly freely, and get their feelings out of their system relatively quickly and openly, rather than represssing them and developing complex psychological problems as a result.

A fascinating recent book encountering one modern linguist/missionary's contact with a modern Stone Age society in the Amazon, the Piraha, is Daniel Everett's Don't Sleep There Are Snakes.   A book I read in the 1980s, recounting an average guy from Jersey dropping his life and migrating to Africa to live with a modern Stone Age pygmy tribe in central Africa, is Song From the Forest.  (The phoos below show Louis and some of his Bayaka friends.  Some recent news from Louis Sarno is here, including an intriguing recent video, a trailer for a forthcoming movie.) These accounts and others like them seem to validate Freud's analysis.  The tribal, Stone Age lifestyle tends not to lead to neurosis, because it matches the human emotional makeup in a basic way that civilization does not.

Wilson + Freud = Why We Are So Screwy

I full well realize the "noble savage" myth is just that -- obviously, the psychology of tribal humans was not as idyllic and conflict-free as some have imagined.   Tribal humans still have the basic conflict between individual and group selection embedded into their personalities.  BUT it seems to me that, in tribal human sociopsychology, evolution has worked out a subtle balance between these forces.  The opposing, conflicting forces of Self and Group are intricately intermeshed.

What civilization does is to throw this balance off -- and put the self-focused and group-focused aspects of human nature out of whack in complex ways.  In tribal society  Self and Group balance against each other elegantly and symmetrically -- there is conflict, but it's balanced like yin and yang.  In civilized society, Self and Group are perpetually at war, because the way our self-motivation and our group-motivation have evolved was right for making them just barely balance against each other in a tribal context; so it's natural that they're out of balance in complex ways in a civilization context.

For example, in a tribal situation, it is a much better approximation to say that: What's good for the individual is good for the group, and vice versa.   The individual and group depend a lot on each other. Making the group stronger helps the individual in very palpable ways (if a fellow hunter in the tribe is stronger for instance, he's more likely to kill game to share with you).  And if you become happier or stronger or whatever, it's likely to significantly benefit the rest of the group, who all directly interact with you and are materially influenced by you.   The harmony between individual interest and group interest is not perfect, but it's at least reasonably present ... the effects of individual and group selection have been tuned to work decently together.

On the other hand, in a larger civilized society the connection between individual and group benefit is far more erratic   What's good for me, as a Hong Kong resident, is not particularly the same as what's good for Hong Kong.   Of course there's a correlation, but it's a relatively weak one.   It's reasonably likely that what's good for Hong Kong as a unit could actually make my life worse (e.g. raising taxes, as my income level is above average for HK).  Similarly, most things that are likely to improve my life in the near future are basically irrelevant to the good of Hong Kong; in fact, my AGI research work is arguably bad for all political units in the long term, as advanced AGI is likely to lead to the transcendent of nation-states.   There is definitely some correlation between my benefit and Hong Kong's benefit -- if I create a successful company here in HK, that benefits the HK economy.   But the link is fairly weak, meaning that my society is often going to push me to do stuff that goes against my personal interest; and vice versa.  This seems almost inevitable in a complex society containing people playing many different roles.

Another interesting case is lying.   Lying of course occurs in tribal societies just like in advanced civilizations -- humans are dishonest by nature, to some extent.   Yet, only in complex civilizations do we have a habit of systematically putting on "false fronts" before others.  This doesn't work so well if you're around the same 50 people all the time.   Yet it's second nature to all of us in modern civilization -- we learn in childhood to act one way at home, one way at school, one way around grandma, etc.

As we mature, the habit of putting on false fronts -- or as Nietzsche called them, "masks" -- becomes so integrated into our personalities that the fronts aren't even "false" anymore.   Rather, our personalities become melanges of subselves, with somewhat different tastes and interests and values, in a complex coopetition for control of our thoughts and memories.  This is complex and stressful, but stimulates  various sorts of creativity.

Sarno reports how the interaction of the Bayaka pygmies with civilization caused them to develop multiple subpersonalities.  A pygmy's personality while living the traditional nomadic lifestyle in the bush, may be very different from that same pygmy's personality while living in a village with Africans from other tribes, drinking alcohol and doing odd jobs for low wages.

Individually, we have a motive to lie and make others think we are different in various ways than we actually are.   Tribally, group-wise, there is a reason for group members to tell the truth -- a group with direct and honest communication and understanding is likely to do better on average, in many important contexts, because deception often brings with it lots of complexity and inefficiency.   The balance between truth and lying is wired into our physiology -- typical people can lie only a little bit without it showing in their faces.   But modern society has bypassed these physiological adaptations, which embody tribal society's subtle balance between self and group motivations, via the creation of new media like telephones, writing and the Internet, which bypass telltale facial expressions and open up amazing new vistas for systematic self-over-group dishonesty.   Then society, and the minds of individuals within it, must set up all sorts of defense mechanisms to cope with the rampant dishonesty.   The balance of self versus group is fractured, and complexity emerges in an attempt to cope, but never quite copes effectively, and thus keeps ramifying and developing.

In Freudian terms, civilization brought with it the split between the Ego and Super-ego -- between what we are (at a given point in time); and what we think we should be.  It also brought with it a much mor complex and fragmented Ego that was present in tribal peoples.

What Wilson makes clear is: the pre-civilized human mind already had within it the split between the Self-motivation and Group-motivation.  Freud somewhat saw this as well, with his Id as a stylized version of the pure Self-motivation and his Ego going beyond this to balance Self versus Group.

The Freudian Ego and Super-ego are different ways of balancing Self versus Group.  The perversity and complexity of civilized society is that each of us is internally pushed to balance the conflict of Self vs. Group in one way (via our Ego, which is largely shaped for tribal society), while feeling we "should" be carrying out this balance in a different way (via our Super-Ego, which comes from civilized culture).  Of course these Freudian terms are not scientific or precisely defined, and shouldn't be taken too seriously.   But they do paint an evocative picture.

How much of this kind of inner conflict is a necessary aspect of being an intelligent individual mind living in a civilization?  Some, to be sure -- there is always going to be some degree of conflict between what's good for the individual and what's good for the group.  But having genomes optimized for tribal society, while living in civilized society, foists an additional layer of complexity on top of the intrinsic conflict.  The fact that our culture changes so much faster than our genomes, means that we are not free to seek the optimal balance between our current real-life Self and Group motivations, consistent with the actual society we are living in.  Instead we must live with methods of balancing these different motivations, that were honed in radically different circumstances than the ones we actually reside in and care about.

A Transhumanist Punchline

This is Benjamin Nathaniel Robot Goertzel's blog, so you knew there would be a transhumanist angle coming eventually, right? -- Once we achieve the ability to modify our brains and bodies according to our wishes, we will be able to adapt the way we balance Self versus Group in a much more finely-tuned and contextually appropriate way.

To the extent that layers of conflict within conflict are what characterize humanity, this will make us less human.  But it will also make us less perverse, less confused, and more fulfilled.

Our Screwiness Spurs Our Creativity and Progress

The punchier punchline, though, is that what is driving us toward the reality of amazing possibilities like flexible brain and body modification is -- precisely the screwiness I've analyzed above.

It's the creative tension between Self and Group that drove us to create sophisticated language in the first place.   One of the earliest uses of language, that helped it to grow into the powerful tool it now is, was surely gossip -- which is mainly about Self/Group tensions.

And our Self and Group aspects conspired to enable us to develop sophisticated tools.  Invention of new tools generally occurs via some wacky mind off in the corner fiddling with stuff and ignoring everybody else.  But, we do much better than other species at passing our ideas about new tools on from generation to generation, leveraging language and our rich social networking capability -- which is what allows our tool-sets to progressively improve over time.

The birth of civilization clearly grew from the same tension.   Tribal groups that set up farms and domesticated animals, in certain ecological situations, ended up with greater survival value -- and thus flourished in the group selection competition.  But individuals, seeking the best for themselves, then exploited this new situation in a variety of complex ways, leading to developments like markets, arts, schools and the whole gamut.  Not all of these new developments were actually best for the tribe -- some of the ways individuals grew to exploit the new, civilized group dynamics actually were bad for the group.  But then the group adapted, and got more complex to compensate.  Eventually this led to twisted sociodynamics like we have now ... with (post)modern societies that reject and psychologically torment their individualistic nonconformist rebels, yet openly rely on these same rebels for the ongoing innovation needed to compensate the widespread dissatisfaction modernity fosters.

And the creativity spurred by burgeoning self/group tensions continues and blossoms multifariously.  Privacy issues with Facebook and the NSA ... the rise and growth and fluctuation of social networks in general ... the roles of anonymity and openness on the Net ... websites devoted to marital infidelity ... issues regarding sharing of scientific data on the Net or keeping it private in labs ... patents ... agile software development ... open source software licenses and processes ... Bill Gates spending the first part of his adult life making money and the second part giving it away.   The harmonization of individual and group motivations remains a huge theme of our world explicitly, and is even more important implicity.

I imagine that, long after humans have transcended their legacy bodies and psychologies, the tension between Self and Group will remain in some form.  Even if we all turn into mindplexes, the basic tension that exists between different levels in any hierarchical system will still be there.   But at least, if it's screwy, it will be screwy in more diverse and fascinating ways!  Or beyond screwy and non-screwy, perhaps ;-)