Monday, November 24, 2008

Thinking frontal and backward

I am always interested in the human condition. Why do people behave the way they do? Not only the way people behave as individuals but as societies. More than that, why do we make the same damned mistakes over and over?

There was a science paper out recently that theorized that there was an egalitarian revolution in human behavior during the Pleistocene (1.8 million to 10,000 years ago) during the period when hominids' frontal lobes grew to their current size.

[Here is the original paper. Good luck with the math formulas. Here is an article about the paper, which is a little more digestible. Here is a podcast from Radiolab, a neat public radio science show, about how the brain makes choices. It relates to this discussion.]

If you go back five million years ago to when we and the great apes had a common ancestor our apelike social life was hierarchical. There was an alpha male at the top of a group. He was on top because he could beat up the lesser males. He got to mate whoever he chose. The rest of the relationships in a group were based on the big guy: who was on the ins with him, who was on the outs. Eventually someone knocked him out of being the top dog and became the alpha male himself. And so it went for millions of years.

As the apes separated and evolved, speciated if you will, some apes exploited the jungles of Africa, others the savannas. Some spent more time in trees and became climbers, others became better walkers and runners. And the apes that became humans grew bigger brains.

If you look at pre-civilized hunter-gatherer groups the people are quite egalitarian. In fact, leaders in such groups are mostly only nominally leaders. Hunter-gatherers make consensus decisions. (Compare this to the "Tarzan super male" fantasies of primitive societies that Western culture has generated over the years.)

So at the beginning of the Pleistocene hominid societies were hierarchical, with the big tough guy ruling, and at the end we were democratic socialists. How did that happen?

The theory says that as the human brain evolved and our frontal lobes expanded it allowed hominids to develop empathy towards others and to create alliances within the group. As hominids could remember past favors and slights within the group they could keep a mental scorecard as to whom each could trust. Within a group alliances could be built that weren't based on the alpha male, whose role as leader was based on power and fear. Even the biggest alpha male is no match for two or three other males. And, of course, female hominids were even more inclined to egalitarian behavior based on their maternal roles. The survival of the group was the ultimate goal and once there was no alpha male decisions quickly fell to the group at large.

It was only when more complicated societies began developing with the beginning of agriculture and the raising of livestock that there was a swing back towards the hierarchical again, buttressed by religio-civil impositions on the individual. The individual was again subservient for two reasons.

First, the leadership of a group (whether a village, a city or a nation-state) had control of the granary and had the best weapons. A farmer with a wooden plow was no match for a soldier with a sword. And now a person could not go off and pick berries or hunt a rabbit. He was dependent on the people who controlled the food. His role in life was often bound to the land he worked or the trade he plied. The structure of society created an imbalance of power greater than the fists and teeth of any alpha male.

The other great power held in the hands of the rulers was the power of religion. As the human mind began figuring out how things worked it was left with no answers for the larger issues. What causes thunder and lightning? What causes the seasons? Why don't the crops grow some years? What happens when you die? Curiosity about the unknown pushed human intellect to look for the Great Alpha Male, the guy who ruled the regions in the back of the head. And it's no surprise that all those civilizations linked religious power with the rulers. Most rulers proclaimed that they were gods' representatives on earth if not gods themselves. (Today the Queen of England rules by the grace of God, Iranian mullahs claim the blessings of Allah and even George Bush claims God's personal guidance whenever he's about to invade a country.) As gods the pharaohs and kings were far more powerful and presumed infinitely wiser than a simple man who toiled the land or made pottery or hammered wood could imagine himself being.

And so a new hierarchy was created for man.

The egalitarian theory tied with brain development has some parallels to Paul MacClean's "triune brain" theory, which divided the brain into three regions: the reptilian brain, the "limbic system" and the "neocortex"; the reptilian brain handled the most basic brain functions (like a pulse), the limbic system handled more complex tasks (like fight or flight), with the neocortex handling the higher intellectual functions.

The brain turns out to be a lot more complicated than that. Certain tasks may be performed in certain regions of the brain, but at any moment the brain is working on many levels, some absolutely primitive and others handling highly complex thought. The different levels of the brain work together seamlessly. The most highly intellectual thought is tempered, maybe even created, by the most basic fears. Without fear I may never have learned my times tables. Our brains have expanded and we have gained the gift of rationality, empathy, compromise and a host of other tools to help us work with others. And yet we (the editorial "we") find ourselves fighting wars based on fear and hate. In fact, our leaders like it that way.

Today all brain-healthy humans walk around with brains firing in both the frontal lobes and back in the amygdala. But we are trained, in certain areas of our life, to rely on our fears when we make decisions.

Take a look at this recent election:

The general Democratic message was: "Things are bad (fear, but an acknowledgement of the reality of the current economic crisis) and we know how to fix this mess caused by Bush and the Republicans."

The general Republican message was more disjointed, but it had things like "palling with terrorists", or "Muslim" or, in more pejorative terms, "black guy". Everything the Republicans offered was fear. It's not surprising that the Republican Party is the more hierarchical political entity. Or rather, it serves the hierarchy. We got into a war with Iraq with the use of fear. If it wasn't "9/11" being waved to the fearful and angry crowds, it was "anthrax". Each individual felt fear in those dark days and the Bush Administration rode that fear into a war to secure the oil fields in Iraq.

Ultimately, the real fear of the economic crisis with (vague) plans to get out of the crisis were more convincing than unfocused fear. Republican rule had itself become something to fear.
Back in September of 2001 I was a field director for my postal union. On September 12th I visited one of the many mail facilities in San Francisco. Everyone was still in shock over the events of the day before. One guy with an overactive amygdala came up to me trembling, his eyes bugging out, sure that Osama was going to target that very building for destruction, as if bin Laden and his henchmen were gathered in some cave in Afghanistan thinking, "Hmm, first we take out the World Trade Center. Then we follow up with a U.S. mail sorting facility in San Francisco."

Now it turns out that several postal workers (in the District of Columbia) were the victims of terrorism, anthrax infection, but the source turned out to be domestic, and evidence and logic points away from a lone nut working for the Defense Department as the source of evil. It was almost as if, dare I say it, the fear was generated by people within the hierarchy to push Americans into supporting a phony war to make people at the top of the hierarchy even richer and more powerful.

Fear can and usually does overwhelm logic in politics. People who think that Obama is the anti-Christ have already been imbued with a religiosity that allows for a supernatural bad guy to scare them. (Maybe there were people years ago who thought Walter Mondale was the anti-Christ, like the giant Pillsbury Doughboy in "Ghostbusters"). People who think that having a person with black skin as President spells ruin for our country are filled with the hierarchy of racism and every fear that goes with it. If you try to explain anything to them logically you are faced with a truly reactionary wall of hate and fear.

These days whenever there is a Democratic victory it appears to be a victory of the frontal lobes over the brain stem. Unfortunately, in times of crisis fear usually trumps logic, and the party of reaction (the Republican Party) owns fear. Every election cycle Democrats worry about another "October Surprise", shorthand for a dirty trick or some threatening event on the world stage that causes fear in the hoi polloi and inevitably drives them to vote Republican.

Of course, it's never absolutely clear who will own fear. While Eisenhower warned America about the military-industrial complex, the ground zero of fear itself, his Secretary of State and Director of Central Intelligence were the personifications of it. Kennedy Cold Warred Nixon in the 1960 election and then found himself unable to control that same military-industrial complex. After that it was always there, in control.

And it stayed in control by generating fear. Fear of Communism and the Soviet Union kept us spending money and giving up our rights for a long time. When the USSR collapsed we needed something to fear. Panama? Hardly, although I bet some did. After all, Reagan talked about how close those Nicaraguans were to Texas. But something that had a longer shelf life. How about Iraq, and Islamofascists?

Investigative reporter Jonathan Kwitny once wrote a book named Endless Enemies. It could easily have been called "Endless Things To Fear". It was about manufacturing enemies for our military-industrial complex. Right now the majority of Americans are afraid of the economy, and that makes the military-industrial complex something to fear. In six months maybe we will all be afraid of another manufactured enemy. But right now this is a chance for America to grow up.


Post a Comment

<< Home