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 ;-)


Konamiuss said...


Unknown said...

Ben, just realized this at the same time as you. I'm working with a group trying to get to decisions over several matters. Every time we vote the group gets more fragmented. I realized that people tend to be closed to ideas that are against their initial beliefs. It is a common behavior pattern as you presented. I'm think if democracy is only an utopia. Humans really have some software bugs. While I don't agree with changing the behavior by manipulating our brain (brain waves, chemically, whatever), but we can delegate some important decisions to machines or we may try to overcome this problem applying a processes framework. About my group, I will try to use the decision by consensus, the main problem is to have the agreement for adopting it.

Tim Tyler said...

William Hamilton had something to say about this. He pictured humans as a shifting allegiance of genes (and memes) - all pulling in different (and often conflicting) directions.

IMO, his vision was broader, earlier and better articulated than that of E. O. Wilson - and he had a much better understanding of cultural evolution than Wilson does.

Anonymous said...

Another attempt to put this together is Marcuse's 1951 book Eros and Civilization. Eros drags us into organic growth and complexity till we are swamped by it and we turn destructive to break out, but bring down the system we have created. He looks for a more erotic loving less "productive' mechanized world as a possible solution.

It reads well after 60 years, still a good narrative of where we are.

David Hart said...

I was just listening today to a related interview with evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson.

Hruy said...

Ben, it is an interesting theory and it totally makes sense within the theories of developmental and evolutionary approach to the Philosophy of Morality.

Yet it totally ignored one angle: the divine Ethics approach. Indeed, science has proved to us that the hard-wired moral traits of the human race are no longer the champions of the divine theory argument on human morality.So far, The Philosophy of Morality has immensely benefited from science and what we used to think as the uniquely hard-wired moral traits of the human race are now proved to be the results of the collective impacts of our evolutionary phase.

Countless researches showed us that other mammals share many of these uniquely hard-wired moral traits of the human being. Altruism, rudimentary instincts of being just and fair, not to inflicting pain knowingly or even the ‘golden rule’ (to do to others what you want the others to do to you) are no more unique characteristics of the human race and its moral philosophy.

However, there are still traits that cannot be defined (so far) with the developmental and evolutionary approach.

Modern Philosophers of Morality labelled these as 1) the Ethics of the divinity (a term coined by Richard Shweder) on purity and other matters 2) the 3rd party sentiments and 3) extending morality to strangers. The real problem with these is that their source cannot be traced; it is as if they are ‘true mystery’.

Of course there are some other traits that are still a mystery from both angles, developmental and evolutionary theory of morality, but these three are studied intensively as they happen to exist in the universal structure for human morality. The source for such kind of morals is still unsolved and modern philosophy of Morality (which is totally secular) still label them as ‘the mysteries’. Some even suggest that they should be left as mystery because a) there is no rational explanation capable of explaining their source in the developmental approach and b)despite the fact that there is no hint of such traits in other animals, modern evolutionary approach cannot find a reason nor an environment in which these traits are developed as part of our survival instinct then eventually turn to be part of our behavior and parts of our morality. Hence both the developmental and evolutionary theory totally failed to explain this.

In Addition to the conflict between Individual versus Group Selection and The Discontents of Civilization (which can be pretty much summarised under the theories of developmental and evolutionary approach to Human morality), could there be a third option as a source to our Screwiness? An option uniquely and innately limited to human? Is there an out of this world source (alien origin, which can be associated with our DNA as a source code to our human nature, or the divine origin, which can be a source to our psyche) I think you should give it a chance. Why?

Hruy said...

Why do I think that you should give it a chance?

Because of the obvious reason that you believe in the next phase of humanity we can change this screwiness with a short cut solution. Because of your faith that we can change humanity and our nature using the technological modification. Because of your belief that instead of passing through evolution to maturity, one can alter nature using technology as a short cut.

You believe that,using technology, we are going to modify our brains and bodies according to our wishes. What makes you so sure that this has never been done by something else long before today? In the short cut approach to life, everything is possible. The singularity is possible and so is a simulated reality. What makes you so sure that this has not been done long before our time; using more than one variation of the already accepted theoretical physics and their ground, one can prove that (with valid mathematics) the world we live in could be a simulated reality. (I am not talking about religion I am talking about the ‘ability to modify the nature of humanity’! )

To me, the most fair and accurate answer to the origin of life is “inconclusive data” ;) and when one is studying possible sources of the traits of a certain life form the source of that life form is indirectly addressed too.

In our case, the data is still inconclusive ;)

Unknown said...

"Screwy" attribute of humans is mercuric rise and fall of endorphin.

Ben Goertzel said...


Thanks for the reply, which is thoughtful and erudite as usual ;)

About the difficulty of explaining every human trait via evolutionary selection: Don't forget genetic drift! ... and don't forget spandrels.... Plenty of traits, in any evolving organism, can emerge as indirect side-effects of other traits, or can emerge just via the genetic drift that comes along with having a finite-size population. Evolutionary theory does not imply that every single trait in an organism must have a direct explanation in terms of fitness increase. Organisms are complex self-organizing systems, and "differential reproduction based on fitness" is perhaps best viewed as nudging their self-organization, rather than as fine-tuning each of their traits.... Group selection is very much this way too, as social systems are also complex self-organizing creatures...

As for the divine spark of screwiness -- as you know I'm not a strict materialist. The fact that psi appears to be a real phenomenon, indicates fairly strongly that our current physical model of mind/brain is incomplete. Our inability to handle consciousness thoroughly within the modern scientific world-view is additional evidence of this sort of incompleteness.... So I am quite willing to accept that there's likely some additional "mysterious" aspect to mind/universe, that current science has not comprehended. Fair enough.

Is this extra divine spark screwy in some way? The data on psi would indicate that it probably is. Phenomena like psi-missing and the decline effect are evidence in this regard. Diverse shamanic traditions regarding transdimensional tricksters fit into this view as well.... Just ask Terrence McKenna's machine-elves...

So, sure, there may be some additional source of screwiness, related to psi and the subjectivity of consciousness and other currently unclear factors, which I didn't mention in my blog post.

I also didn't mention the original underlying source of all the screwiness, which is the existence of entities without access to infinite memory and processing power. The theological/philosophical part of my mind always wants to ask: Why did the universe divide itself from itself? Why are there finite being like ourselves, whose finiteness is sustained precisely by their own illusions of being finite -- why not just one big fluid timeless point/moment of infinite bliss or Brahman or whatever? But then the asking of this question is sort of the answer to the question --

Evolution on both the individual and group levels is about scarcity of resources. Psi is about lamely, partially, temporarily bridging the physical separation of portions of a fabric that, at some level (so quantum theory says, along with various spiritual traditions) is all one.... If not for the Original Sin of the void separating itself from itself, these consequences of scarcity and separation would be irrelevant....

In short there are many many layers of screwiness in the Cosmos, and in this blog post I was just attempting to elucidate a couple of the more concrete ones that are most closely allied to our physical and cultural instantiation...

Screwily ...

Unknown said...

Excerpt from Wilhelm Reich in Hell (Act I)
Early on in the trial, Dr. Reich introduced as evidence a Computer which continually monitors the growth of the worldwide nuclear weapons stockpile. The Computer emits an ear-splitting whistle every time there is an increment in firepower equivalent to the original Hiroshima bomb…..)

SADE: Why did you rebel against Freud?

REICH: (slowly) I rebelled against Freud because he was a coward.

The Computer whistles again.

SADE: A coward? The man who challenged all the taboos of his age?

REICH:He back-tracked, he evaded, he weaseled. He would not say flatly what his theories all implied.

The Computer whistles again.

SADE: (shouting over whistle) You mean he did not share your Utopian fantasies.

Read on -

Anonymous said...

"Now under the play of Maya, the One becomes the Many; But why; to what purpose?" asks Aurobindo. His answer is philosophical and utterly preposterous!

Why are there so many psychedelic substances in the botanical kingdom, and so many more which have been successfully synthesized by humans, all of which seem to have similar effects on the human psyche? Is this just random chance? It would seem as though the odds that we humans should ingest said chemicals were somewhat weighted in the positive! And what about the new research suggesting that the brain actually acts as an information filter to dumb us down while these psychedelic substances retard the brain's/neurosystem's effectiveness leading to sometimes overwhelming sense perceptions and feelings of oneness?

Perhaps tribes function so well because they utilize rituals which culminate in the self-ego being transcended to the tribe-ego? The ego of the part becomes the ego of the whole; it's interesting to note that many of these rituals include psychedelic states either induced by the ingestion of botanical substances or physical depravation and hardship.

Maybe the play of Maya is just a ritual of enrichment. Maybe it's just an omniscient paradox exploring mathematical structure for no reason other than it finds the set of such structures fascinating and mysterious. Perhaps the omniscient paradox is searching for Omega simply because it has time on its paradoxical hands? I, personally, blame Christians for my own screwiness . . .

starrdusk said...

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.

Ideally that person who is expected to take one for the tribe instead of looking for self will be able to come up with some way to help him or her self in such a way that it will actually be helping the whole tribe.

starrdusk said...

Well, I finished reading the entire post and ultimately you have answered my above statement and it seems that we agree with pretty much everything there.

Concerning you comment to Hruy, how are they coming along with the whole consciousness thing being developed into the AI?

Stephen Paul King said...

" Why did the universe divide itself from itself?" So that we would have an arrow of Time. Check out Hitoshi Kitada's Local Time interpretation of QM. In order to break the timelessness we have from Wheeler-Dewitt's H = 0, the number of QM systems, that is the universe, must decompose from One into many incomplete - and thus open - systems. Each having its own arrow of time.