Archive for March, 2007

A New Narrative on Human Nature

Sunday, March 25th, 2007

A Crowd of One – The Future of Individual Identity

Saturday, March 17th, 2007

This book is an attempt to instigate a new kind of “Post Enlightenment” narrative about how we think about human nature, our social economic and political institutions – and our individual and collective identities. The goal is get beyond simplistic Enligthenment dualisms – individual verses group – emotion verese reason – determinism verses free will – self-interested verses other regarding – rationality verses “irrationality” – Hobbesian ” state of nature” verses civilized order.

It is not that Enlightenment thinking is a thing of the past – it still is vital part of current understanding of ourselves – how we frame our political and cultural debates, how we imagine our futures, how we define and defend who we are. Yet it is wrong, profoundly wrong, and as long as it is unconsciously or blindly adhered to and reflexively obeyed – we will not meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Once a mysterous “black box”  – the the workings of the human brain are becoming documented – visible – comprehensible – accessible. Reason is not separate from emotion – Descartes was wrong.  The most important decisions we make – whom we trust – give our lives for – marry – etc are more often than not the product of rational thought but emotive reflex from one of the oldest – parts of the brain – the Amygdala. We are not inherently selfish creatures – but more often than not cooperative creatives – not becasue we are inherently good or bad – but because it leads to what are called Evolutionary Stable Strategies – outcomes that further the welfare of the group and the species. At great expense, we have evolved “mirror neurons” that give us the capacity for empathy – something that Adam Smith in his book, Moral Sentiments, felf was a key requirement for markets and social cooperation. Note that Smith did not extol rationality as the key motivator and glue of human sociality – and economic specialization – but moral sentiments – emotions.

Next Americans tend to think of individuality as something that is indiviudally constructed and asserted. Certainly, the Libertarian view – is that I alone am responsbile for what I am – that the group – the state – is something that infringes upon and dilutes idnvidual freedom – and that individual alone should reap the fruits of their own efforts – any less is theft.  From an evolutionary and neuroscience point of view – the identity and proficiency of an indivudal is derived from their interaction with a group – from family, clan, tribe or society. Feral children – those raised in the a real state of nature without benefit of human interaction do not develop the most elmental traits that we regard as human – language – higher level cognition – sense of self as a human being – are even severely stunted in the physical development.  Individual identity is embedded, contextual and mutually constructed through ones actions and intereactions in the different social networks one is born into or participates. Even one’s role in a social network – especially early childhood networks are allotted by the more influential and powerful members of the network – parents, relatives, alpha members.

Even David Brooks  – conservative U of Chicago grad -in a recent editorial in the New  York Times – acknowledges – begrudingly that a new narrative is in the making..

“The logic of evolution explains why people vie for status, form groups, fall in love and cherish their young. It holds that most everything that exists does so for a purpose. If some trait, like emotion, can cause big problems, then it must also provide bigger benefits, because nature will not expend energy on things that don’t enhance the chance of survival.

Human beings, in our current understanding, are jerry-built creatures, in which new, sophisticated faculties are piled on top of primitive earlier ones. Our genes were formed during the vast stretches when people were hunters and gatherers, and we are now only semi-adapted to the age of nuclear weapons and fast food.

Furthermore, reason is not separate from emotion and the soul cannot be detached from the electrical and chemical pulses of the body. There isn’t even a single seat of authority in the brain. The mind emerges (somehow) from a complex light show of neural firings without a center or executive. We are tools of mental processes we are not even aware of.”

I for one welcome this insight into our natures and actions – because we no longer need to be automata of our species. By understanding the workings of our natures and the forces that shape our natures – we can now use science to break the “cycles of violence” in Hobbesian traps – get beyond our Pliestocene relfexes and start to evolve ourselves and our institutions in a way that is neither destructive our our planet ourselves for that matter.

By and experimenting and evolving in digital time – through virtual worlds – we can accelerate our learning.