Are we born evil? Being Human Conference 2013

FORA.tv – Being Human Conference 2013.

Recent findings on the neuroscience of human nature.

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Reluctant Misanthrope

A misanthrope is one who has a general hatred, distrust or disdain of the human species. There are all kinds of reasons why someone might become a misanthrope. Many of those reasons are irrational and/or based on highly subjective, personal experience rather than on rational principles or scientifically defensible facts.

Plan of the area of Midsummer Common designate...

Plan of the area of Midsummer Common designated under the Anti-Social behaviour act. Designated Area Hatched (Grey). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am a pro-social, humanistic, tolerant, and generally broad-minded sort of person. Nevertheless I am also a reluctant misanthrope for reasons I think are not only rational but possibly even logically inescapable.  There is scientific justification for my arguments, but I’d rather save supporting evidence for another time and just present the basic outlines of my case against humanity here:

Basic Arguments

1.  Humans can be sorted into three broad behavioral categories or bio-psycho-social phenotypes that are established through the interplay of nature and nurture:

2. In the USA nowadays our population is divided between the main behavioral phenotypes (SPS, SAS, and OS) roughly  in these proportions:

SAS (10%) |<——>|<—————————- OS (70%) —————————->|<————->| SPS (20%)

3. People in all three types can be highly intelligent, creative, resourceful, and competent but for convenience I’ll characterize the strongly anti-socials (SAS) as “the wolves;” the omni-socials (OS) as “the sheep;” and the strongly pro-socials (SPS) as “the cats.” Wolves, although they are anti-social towards the other two categories, often act in large, well-organized, hierarchical packs. Sheep operate in herds of many sizes, shapes, and types and form various kinds of relations with wolves and cats.

Cats tend to be intelligent, creative, liberal, and progressive but they also tend to be idealistic to a fault and to have big egos. This leads to conflicts among themselves over relatively minor differences. They have many core values and beliefs in common, but they have difficulty pulling together and synchronizing their political and economic actions. While paying very pious lip service to the common good, they tend to place things like creative autonomy,  self-actualization, personal enlightenment,  etc. (i.e. being “mavericky” free thinkers) far ahead of intellectual, political, and social norms which they may even find repugnant and confining (even if those norms are highly utilitarian and pro-social).

Cats have a broad spectrum of ideological specializations (competing “boutique” ideologies) that tend to keep further splintering into smaller and smaller factions. Examples (to mention only a few) include relatively mainstream classical liberals, progressives, leftists, socialists, trade unionists, etc., as well as:

A similar degree of political and socioeconomic fragmentation is produced as cats follow their individual artistic muses, social and cultural preferences, career paths, etc. We are addicted to our mavericky idiosyncrasies. They make us feel special, superior, and they stimulate the endogenous neurochemical intoxicants to which we are addicted. As “cultural creative” types we preach collective consciousness and the common welfare but in fact we are more often occupied with distinguishing ourselves, “going our own way,” etc. than in harnessing ourselves to pragmatic social standards or norms no matter how universal.

The collective forest (our ethical common ground, our commons of basic enlightenment values, standards, and norms) is often lost for all our diverse intellectual, political, and social trees and branches. In this regard, in our ego-stimulating self conceits,  we are just as bad as (perhaps worse than) the wolves and the sheep.

4. In the end our fierce, creative independence; our idealism; and our social conscience all fail us. The wolves use corporate media, public relations, legal and political influence, shiny consumer objects, wages and salaries, etc. to exploit the obsessive-compulsive, narcissistic, and self-indulgent aspect of a cat’s nature. They keep us chasing laser pointers and toys on strings– and  thereby they divide and rule even the most fiercely independent cats.

5. But its not the wolves and sheep that I’m most disappointed in. It isn’t the predictably predetory behavior of wolves; or the foolish, irrational behavior of sheep  (driven by instincts, emotions, and unconscious calculations of self interest) that makes me a reluctant misanthrope. I’m most disappointed– no, disgusted– at we cats. We artfully avoid coming to grips with the widening gap between 1) our hopes and ideals for civilization and the planet, and 2) our actual collective accomplishments as cats. Despite progress in certain areas of social and cultural development, if we take honest stock of the big picture we find that civilization has moved closer to disaster and dystopia in our generation, on our watch.  Our institutions are increasingly helpless to cope with trends like peak oil, peak minerals, peak food, peak water, peak habitat, peak biodiversity, peak equality, peak justice, etc.  Despite the fact that fairly obvious (often empirically proven) solutions to these problems have been around for decades we seem helpless to turn the ship of civilization far enough and fast enough in the right direction. Why? Our usual answer is that we are outnumbered and overpowered by the wolves and the large percentage of  sheep they control.

The real answer is that we are outmaneuvered and outplayed. As 20% of the population (and in many ways the most enlightened and resourceful 20%) the 60 million or so of US cats might have the potential and the means to turn civilization on a dime if we played the game a certain way.

We are, after all, each trying to put his or her best foot forward–it just isn’t the same foot at the same time making the same size step in the same direction. Despite the fact that most cats are all pulling in a progressive general direction, our timing, our exact compass bearing, and our precise quanta of effort are all over the place. Cats are not synchronized swimmers. We’re more like drunken sailors. Nevertheless, 60 million cats pulling in unison as one virtual tugboat probably could move the ship of civilization in any direction we chose. The problem is not insufficient means–it is inadequate method. The problem is entirely one of coordination. A virtual machine made up of sixty million cats acting in their historically default manner has no functional command and control system. Cats aren’t like ants or bees who stigmergically act in concert. Sheep are a lot like that but cats are (if anything) just the opposite. Throw a stone at a group of cats and each will bolt off in a different direction. We can’t hold a virtual tugboat of cats together for very long, much less steer a coherent course, unless we do something different– say invent a new set  of cat-compatible social design and engineering methods with empirical quality controls. Otherwise, any virtual tugboat made of cats will immediately begin to fall apart as it runs in erratic circles and zigzags. It is on us– if we don’t alter our historically typical cat nature the wolves and sheep will keep pulling us towards the edge of the world. If we do alter ourselves in whatever way necessary to act both rationally and in concert we might well be able to alter that course. In order to succeed, cats must be able and (more importantly) willing to see ourselves as we truly are–creatures of ego, vanity, and self-indulgence. Yet typically we look in the mirror of our mind’s eye and imagine ourselves as beings of enlightenment and high moral sensibility. Of all creatures I think we cats have the greatest potential ability to see ourselves as we truly are–but do we have the courage and the will to submit to such mental and emotional self-discipline? Each of us is by nature already willing to endure great suffering and sacrifice in order to pursue his or her own personal heroic, idealistic, and esthetic narratives. But are we willing to endure equal suffering in the service of a collective norm, a standard narrative with measurable objectives and rigorously empirical quality controls? That’s not normally, naturally, or historically how we roll– which is why I’m currently a reluctant misanthrope. Can that change?

There are hundreds of good pro-social plans, solutions, projects, organizations, movements, tactics, etc. We each have our favorites. But are there any two or three of those that all 60 million of us will commit to act upon in some measurable way (say by contributing ten dollars or ten hours per month)? If so–if that would happen–then those efforts would probably succeed and ALL the other pro-social, progressive projects (including your own pet projects) might follow like dominoes.

My suggestion for a simple, initial, common agenda for the 60 million most pro-social humans in the USA:

1. Organize into 12-member consciousness-raising circles or juntos (clubs) to meet physically in person at least once a month. These clubs would network with each other to form bioregional, national, and international networks. This club of clubs would operate democratically and follow the principle of subsidiarity (i.e. any matter should be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralised agency or authority capable of addressing that matter effectively). The core theme of “consciousness-raising” spans all pro-social agendas, organizations, projects, etc. but also specifically focuses on developing real cognitive and metacognitive group practices.

2. Also contribute time and/or money on a regular monthly basis to the occupy (OWS) movement  and your local Democratic Party organization.

Are you as disappointed in the overall net accomplishments of your generation (and yourself) as I am?

Is individual and collective effort of a different quality and different order of magnitude possible?

I don’t think adequate consciousness-raising is very likely, but I do think its possible.

Your reluctant misanthrope,

Poor Richard

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Mind at the End of its Tether

Image: amazon.com

“in sœcula saeculorum” [Latin: the end of the ages]

In Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945),  H. G. Wells last book, I think the ever-prescient Wells anticipates the demise of optimistic science-futurism. For most of his life Wells was such a futurist, but his later work became increasingly dark and pessimistic. Ultimately his powers of prediction seemed to fail him and he imagined some underlying existential change in the universe as the cause. Some critics explain this as Wells projecting his own approaching death on the world itself. I have an entirely different take on it. Wells (referring to himself as “the writer”) tries to express his growing frustration with a curtain that seems to be drawn between him and the future that he has constantly striven to scientifically and rationally foresee:

“It requires an immense and concentrated effort of realization, demanding constant reminders and refreshment, on the part of a normal intelligence, to perceive that the cosmic movement of events is increasingly adverse to the mental make-up of our everyday life. It is a realization the writer finds extremely difficult to sustain. But while he holds it, the significance of Mind fades. The secular process loses its accustomed appearance of a mental order. The word “secular” he uses here in the sense of the phrase “in sœcula saeculorum”, that is to say, Eternity. He has come to believe that that congruence with mind, which man has attributed to the secular process, is not really there at all. The secular process, as he now sees it, is entirely at one with such non-mental rhythms as the accumulation of crystalline matter in a mineral vein or with the flight of a shower of meteors. The two processes have run parallel for what we call Eternity, and now abruptly they swing off at a tangent from one another—just as a comet at its perihelion hangs portentous in the heavens for a season and then rushes away for ages or for ever. Man’s mind accepted the secular process as rational and it could not do otherwise, because he was evolved as part and parcel of it. ” ( Wells, HG; Rucker, Rudy; Wilson, Colin (2013-04-02). The Last Books of H.G. Wells: The Happy Turning: A Dream of Life & Mind at the End of its Tether (Provenance Editions). Monkfish Book Publishing. Kindle Edition Kindle Location 810)

What Wells imagined as a cosmic tangent of some kind that was rendering the future world obscure and unpredictable is better framed as a radical divergence between the accelerating pace of anthropogenic changes to the environment and the maximum effective speed at which a) the biosphere and b) the human bio-computer can adapt to those changes. Humanity seems to have passed the point of peak fitness right along with peak oil and peak water.  Our increasing “adaptive lag” relative to environmental change is likely to prove catastrophic. Humanity is producing its own virtual asteroid or iceberg impact. Even though many see it coming (and have seen it coming at least since Wells’ day) the time to fatal impact is too brief for us to turn the Titanic ship of human nature (i.e. the operating system of the unconscious mind) and human culture out of harm’s way. We are increasing the scope and severity of our intellectual, emotional and social challenges (e.g. environmental destruction, overpopulation, resource bottlenecks, etc.) far more rapidly than we are increasing our effective problem-solving capacity. The irony is that our inability to increase our effective problem-solving capacity is in stark and glaring contrast to what our potential problem-solving capacity might be.  The optimism of Well’s earlier work and the optimism of futurists like Buckminster Fuller and Ray Kurzweil comes from a well-justified estimation of the enormous creative and rational potential of the human brain–but optimists turn a rather blind eye to how refractory the unconscious brain (that creature of slow evolution that determines most of our behavior) tends to be. We mostly repeat unconsciously generated behavior patterns regardless of their decreasing utility under changing conditions. If only we could learn to apply to politics and economics the kind of empirical evidence-based practice we apply to things like smartphone engineering or even to modern sports training… But, alas, behavioral economics has shed startling new light on the predictable irrationality of human behavior and the degree of “artistic license” we take with the explanatory  narratives with which we rationalize our irrational, corrupt, and anti-social behavior.

In short, the problem is not so much some metaphysical change in the universe as an inability of the unconscious mind to keep up with (much less get ahead of) its own growing impacts on the physical world.

Wells circa 1945

Wells circa 1945

“Of everything he [Wells referring to himself] asks: “To what will this lead?” And it was natural for him to assume that there was a limit set to change, that new things and events would appear, but that they would appear consistently, preserving the natural sequence of life. So that in the present vast confusion of our world, there was always the assumption of an ultimate restoration of rationality, and adaptation and a resumption. It was merely a question, the fascinating question, of what forms the new rational phase would assume, what Over-man, Erewhon or what not, would break through the transitory clouds and turmoil. To this, the writer set his mind. He did his utmost to pursue the trends, that upward spiral, towards their convergence in a new phase in the story of life, and the more he weighed the realities before him the less was he able to detect any convergence whatever. Changes had ceased to be systematic, and the further he estimated the course they were taking, the greater their divergence. Hitherto events had been held together by a certain logical consistency, as the heavenly bodies as we know them have been held together by the pull, the golden cord, of Gravitation. Now it is as if that cord had vanished and everything was driving anyhow to anywhere at a steadily increasing velocity. The limit to the orderly secular development of life had seemed to be a definitely fixed one, so that it was possible to sketch out the pattern of things to come. But that limit was reached and passed into a hitherto incredible chaos. The more he scrutinized the realities around us, the more difficult it became to sketch out any Pattern of Things to Come. Distance had been abolished, events had become practically simultaneous throughout the planet, life had to adapt itself to that or perish, and with the presentation of that ultimatum, the Pattern of Things to Come faded away. Events now follow one another in an entirely untrustworthy sequence. No one knows what to-morrow will bring forth, but no one but a modern scientific philosopher can accept this untrustworthiness fully. Even in his case it plays no part in his everyday behaviour. There he is entirely at one with the normal multitude. The only difference is that he carries about with him this hard harsh conviction of the near conclusive end of all life. That conviction provides no material at all for daily living. It does not prevent his having his everyday affections and interests, indignations and so forth. He is framed of a clay that likes life, that is quite prepared to risk it rather than give way to the antagonistic forces that would break it down to suicide. He was begotten by the will to live, and he will die fighting for life. He echoes Henley:

“Out of the night that covers me Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul…

Beyond this place of wrath and tears Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.”

There, for all his philosophical lucidity, in his invincible sticking to life and his will to live, he parallels the normal multitude, which will carry on in this ever contracting NOW of our daily lives—quite unawake to what it is that is making so much of our existence distressful and evasive and intensifying our need for mutual comfort and redeeming acts of kindliness. He knows, but the multitude is not disposed to know and so it will never know. The philosophical mind is not what people would call a healthy buoyant mind. That “healthy mind” takes life as it finds it and troubles no more about that. None of us start life as philosophers. We become philosophers sooner or later, or we die before we become philosophical. The realization of limitation and frustration is the beginning of the bitter wisdom of philosophy, and of this, that “healthy mind”, by its innate gift for incoherence and piecemeal evasion and credulity, never knows. It takes a priest’s assurance, the confident assertion of a leader, a misapplied text—the Bible, bless it! will say any old thing one wants it to say if only one picks out what one needs, or, better, if one lets one’s religious comforters pick out the suitable passages—so that one never sees it as a whole. In that invincible ignorance of the dull mass lies its immunity to all the obstinate questioning of the disgruntled mind. It need never know. The behaviour of the shoal in which it lives and moves and has its being will still for a brief season supply the wonted material for that appreciative, exulting, tragic, pitiful or derisive comment which constitutes art and literature. Mind may be near the end of its tether, and yet that everyday drama will go on because it is the normal make-up of life and there is nothing else to replace it. To a watcher in some remote entirely alien cosmos, if we may assume that impossibility, it might well seem that extinction is coming to man like a brutal thunderclap of Halt! It never comes like a thunderclap. That Halt! comes to this one to-day and that one next week. To the remnant, there is always, “What next?” We may be spinning more and more swiftly into the vortex of extinction, but we do not apprehend as much. To those of us who do not die there is always a to-morrow in this world of ours, which, however it changes, we are accustomed to accept as Normal Being. A harsh queerness is coming over things and rushes past what we have hitherto been wont to consider the definite limits of hard fact. Hard fact runs away from analysis and does not return. Unheard-of strangeness in the quantitative proportions of bulk and substance is already apparent to modern philosophical scrutiny. The limit of size and space shrinks and continues to shrink inexorably. The swift diurnal return of that unrelenting pendulum, the new standard of reference, brings it home to our minds that hard fact is outpacing any standard hitherto accepted. We pass into the harsh glare of hitherto incredible novelty. It beats the searching imagination. The more it strives the less it grasps. The more strenuous the analysis, the more inescapable the sense of mental defeat. The cinema sheet stares us in the face. That sheet is the actual fabric of Being. Our loves, our hates, our wars and battles, are no more than a phantasmagoria dancing on that fabric, themselves as unsubstantial as a dream. We rage in our dreaming. We may wake up storming with indignation, furious with this or that ineffectual irremovable general, diplomatist, war minister or ruthless exploiter of our fellow men, and we may denounce and indict as righteous anger dictates. ’42 TO ’44 was made up of that kind of outbreak. But there are thousands of mean, perverted, malicious, heedless and cruel individuals coming into the daylight every day, resolute to frustrate the kindlier purposes of man. In CRUX ANSATA again, this present writer has let himself boil over, freely and violently. Nevertheless it is dream stuff. “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, creeps in this pretty pace from day to day…and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death… Life… struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more…a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing…” It passes and presently it is vague, indistinct, distorted and at last forgotten for ever. We discover life in the beginnings of our idiot’s recital as an urge to exist so powerful that every form it takes tends to increase in size and numbers and outgrow its supply of food energy. Groups or aggregates or individuals increase not only in numbers but in size. There is an internecine struggle for existence. The bigger aggregations or individual eliminate the smaller and consume more and more. The distinctive pabulum of the type runs short, and new forms, capable of utilizing material which the more primitive were not equipped to assimilate, arises. This inaugurates a fresh phase in the evolving story of Being. This idiot’s tale is not a tale of yesterday, as we, brief incidents in the story of life, are accustomed to think of yesterday. It comprehends the whole three thousand million years of Organic Evolution. All through we have the same spectacle of beings over-running their means of subsistence and thrusting their fellows out of the normal way of life into strange habitats they would never have tolerated but for that urge to live, anyhow and at any price, rather than die. For long periods, in our time-space system, a sort of balance of life between various species has existed, and their needless mutations have been eliminated. In the case, however, of a conspicuous number of dominating species and genera, their hypertrophy has led not only to an excess of growth over nutriment, but also in the case of those less archaic forms with which we are more familiar to a loss of adaptability through the relative importance of bigness over variation. The more they dominated the more they kept on being the same thing. The continual fluctuations of normal Being in time, and its incessant mutations, confronted each of these precarious hypertrophied unstable dominating groups with the alternative of either adaptive extension of their range or else replacement by groups and species better fitted to the changing face of existence. Astronomical and internal planetary shrinkages in this universe of ours (which are all a part of the Time process) have, for example, produced recurrent phases of world-wide wet mud and given away again to the withdrawal of great volumes of water from a desiccated world of tundras and steppes, through the extension of glaciation. The sun is a variable star, but we can fix no exact term to its variations. The precession of the equinoxes is a wabble in the sequence of our seasons. The same increasing discordance with the universe which we regard as real being, grows more and more manifest. Adapt or perish has been the inexorable law of life through all these ever intensifying fluctuations, and it becomes more and more derisive as the divergence widens between what our fathers were wont to call the Order of Nature and this new harsh implacable hostility to our universe, our all. Our universe is the utmost compass of our minds. It is a closed system that returns into itself. It is a closed space-time continuum which ends with the same urge to exist with which it began, now that the unknown power that evoked it has at last turned against it. “Power”, the writer has written, because it is difficult to express this unknowable that has, so to speak, set its face against us. But we cannot deny this menace of the darkness.” (Wells, ibid., Kindle Locations 826-905).

The dark, unknowable power that has set its face against us is is not some cosmic “Antagonist” as Wells imagines it. As I suggested before, it is really the dark power of the unconscious, which makes up by some estimates well over 90% of our brain and rules most of our behavior. We might make that dark universe much more visible and tractable to enlightened cultivation (e.g. cognitive re-engineering) if we explored it with the same urgency and fantastic levels of resources that we pour into our struggles for wealth and power and into all the other efforts that we devote to “daily life”.

But that, in fact, is what we all dread and resist the most–seeing ourselves as we really are and taking responsibility for our irrationality. We conflate the dark unconscious with our individuality, creativity, spontaneity, and “freedom”. It is just the opposite–it is the tyranny of biological evolution and the haphazard, ad hoc development of an unconscious brain reacting in  “wild” instinctive ways to random experience despite the thin veneer of “civilization” and “learning”. While we hope for social justice we reflexively pursue individual advantage and immediate gratification.

The unconscious brain resists domestication like a wolf resists captivity. Of course there is much that we love about our dark, wild, unconstrained wolfishness. Among other things it is the source of what some call the Ego. We shall continue to indulge it in exorbitant excess, regardless of the  disaster we know that overindulging the Ego invites. The apex predator (or the apex artist, engineer, economist, or politician) will not domesticate itself. A higher power is required. Some hope for the intervention of gods, some for enlightenment, others for better science or artificial intelligence, and still others place hope in the invisible hand of markets.

Unfortunately the science that might help enlighten and save us (make us better fit for modern life as in the optimistic science-futurist’s imagination) is more likely to be used to further brainwash and enslave the majority of us. That’s how we roll.

“The writer is convinced that there is no way out or round or through the impasse. It is the end.” (Wells, ibid., Kindle Location 823)

However, as Wells also observes, “in sœcula saeculorum,”  the end of the ages, i.e. the end of the future, is not the end of daily life or daily cares. No amount of future-anchored existential absurdity eclipses the eternal present. Our cares persist. Except for the most pathologically depressed among us, those with extreme existential and philosophical neuroses, the effort to “make the best” of even the worst possible circumstances is the only rational approach. This can be described as maintaining psychological hardiness under stress. What often matters most is how we go about adjusting our emotional balance controls to fit the circumstances. There is a fine line between down-regulating negative emotions or cognitive dissonance, or moving unpleasant signals to the “background,” and constructing a full blown delusion or personality disorder. Cognitive filters and biases can be useful adaptive mechanisms when artfully applied; but unpracticed, careless, or excessive application quickly becomes pathological.  Unfortunately, given our unfamiliarity with our own brains, the latter is most often the case. Again, that’s just how we roll.

Poor Richard

H. G. Wells later non-fiction works from Project Gutenberg Australia

  • World Brain (1938)– HTML
  • The Fate of Man [a.k.a. The Fate of Homo Sapiens] (1939)–HTML
  • Utopias (1939)–HTML
  • The New World Order (1940)–TextZIPHTML
  • The Common Sense of War and Peace (1940)–HTML
  • Crux Ansata (1943)–HTML

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xTopia

The Earthly Paradise (Garden of Eden) by Hieronymus Bosch. (Wikimedia) (Note: You can click the image, then click again on the image in the new window for a VERY magnified view)

“Welcome to your introductory tour of xTopia University.”

The emphasis of xTopia U is on the YOU— the student, faculty member, staff person, or other valued member of the xTopia University community!

My name is Podkayne and I was born here on campus, in the xTopia U-Natorium! And I’ve lived here all my life–15 years (that’s a bit over eight Martian years)!

Visitor #6: Podkayne, if you were born and raised here, and you’ve been in this place all your life, don’t you ever want to get away from it?

Podkayne: Oh, I like to explore other places, but I always want to come home to University. I feel more alive here than anywhere I’ve ever been. We are told that our project was named University because our purpose is to facilitate a universe of possibilities. xTopia University started as one of those possibilities, a project conceived and carried out by, for, and of a conscious community of artists, engineers, scientists and philosophers. I grew up in this community, and wouldn’t have it any other way.

We learn in the histories, and know that in many places still today, education has been separated from general life, often made compulsory and relegated to specific times, places and procedures. Corporations took on the tasks of research and product development for a profit, while politicians were responsible to craft projects of benefit to the community. At University projects are constantly being started, executed, sent out to find those who can now benefit from what has been accomplished. Someone or ones snag onto an idea and start to figure out the steps from here to there. A call is given out to anyone who is interested or has relevant skills to join in. We learn what we need to know each step of the way and bring in others as the project progresses. We have the background structure of xTopia University to draw upon, where learning of all kinds is constantly in session.

From the time I was very young, from my first moments of remembered consciousness, I knew any of my questions would find serious response at University. There are the libraries, record chips of any subject imaginable, everything explained from the simplest child’s vantage point up through the most learned of scholars in the field, fully illustrated in animation and live action, as appropriate. More importantly, there are the people, the scholars, engineers, scientists, artists, each with their passions that they are so very happy to share.

University is the busiest, bubbliest, energized and enthusiastic environment to grow in. No one says: “it can’t be done.” It’s always: “well, what’s the next step we need to get there?”

Well, are you guys ready to get started?

[Nods, grins, eager murmurs, and a few blank stares]

OK. But before we actually start the tour, I want to give you some background on the beautiful and somewhat exotic  name of our alma mater. (BTW that’s Latin for our bountiful mother.)

If you don’t have your Google-eyes on, please put them on now so you’ll get the video and hyperlinks and stuff as I talk.

Ready? OK. The name of xTopia U is derived (obviously) from the word Utopia.

Sir Thomas More coined the word from the Greek οὐ (“not”) and τόπος (“place”), or “no place” for the title of his 1516 book.

The English homophone eutopia, derived from the Greek εὖ (“good” or “well”)  and τόπος (“place”), means “good place”. The identical English pronunciation of “utopia” and “eutopia”, gives rise to a double meaning– a good place that is no place.

Thus a Utopia is an ideal community or society possessing a perfect social, political, economic and legal system . . . that doesn’t exist.

Utopian societies don’t exist on terra firma, either because they are places described only in works of philosophy, fantasy, or satire; or because the Utopian communities which have actually been founded from time to time here on planet earth have utterly failed to thrive or to persist.

“Chronologically, the first recorded utopian proposal is Plato‘s Republic. Part conversation, part fictional depiction, and part policy proposal, it proposes a categorization of citizens into a rigid class structure of “golden,” “silver,” “bronze” and “iron” socioeconomic classes. The golden citizens are trained in a rigorous 50-year long educational program to be benign oligarchs, the “philosopher-kings.” The wisdom of these rulers will supposedly eliminate poverty and deprivation through fairly distributed resources, though the details on how to do this are unclear.”(Wikipedia/Utopia)

Utopias in Economyland

Among the many varied species of Homo Utopianus, some have invented perfect economic systems that never existed, or which existed in humanity’s distant, romanticized past.

“[C]apitalist utopias do not address the issue of market failure, any more than socialist utopias address the issue of planning failure. Thus a blend of socialism and capitalism is seen by some as the type of economy in a utopia. . . .  According to the Dutch philosopher Marius de Geus, ecological utopias could be sources of inspiration for green political movements.” (Wikipedia/Utopia)

Holy Utopia!

Yet other Utopian visions have been based on religion, science, or a combination of both.

“Inter-religious utopia is a condition where the leaders of different religions accept science as a part of human life and agree to abolish all baseless superstitious beliefs. In more extended theories it goes up to the level of different religious leaders setting-aside their differences and accepting harmony, peace and understanding to unite all religions within one another. . . .

“Intra-Religious utopias are based on religious ideals, and are to date those most commonly found in human society. Their members are usually required to follow and believe in the particular religious tradition that established the utopia. Some permit non-believers or non-adherents to take up residence within them; others (such as the Community at Qumran) do not. . . . In the United States and Europe during the Second Great Awakening of the 19th century and thereafter, many radical religious groups formed utopian societies in which all aspects of people’s lives could be governed by their faith. Among the best-known of these utopian societies were the Shakers . . . . (Wikipedia/Utopia)

(Credit: Wikipedia)

Scientific Utopias are set in a future day when science and technology have created all manner of wonders and cured all human maladies.

“Buckminster Fuller presented a theoretical basis for technological utopianism and set out to develop a variety of technologies ranging from maps to designs for cars and houses which might lead to the development of such a utopia.” (Wikipedia/Utopia)

Extropianism, also referred to as the philosophy of Extropy, is an evolving framework of values and standards for continuously improving the human condition.

“Extropianism describes a pragmatic consilience of transhumanist thought guided by a proactive approach to human evolution and progress.

“Originated by a set of principles developed by Dr. Max More, The Principles of Extropy,[1] extropian thinking places strong emphasis on rational thinking and practical optimism.

In 1988, Extropy: The Journal of Transhumanist Thought was first published. This brought together thinkers with interests in artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, life extension, mind uploading, idea futures, robotics, space exploration, memetics, and the politics and economics of transhumanism.” (Wikipedia/Extropianism)

Where does xTopia University fit in all this?

We have taken this historical sidetrack so I can put xTopia U in context and explain what it is and is not. It is not a Utopia. It is not based on a preconceived idea of perfection. There is no preset formula, blueprint, or master plan. Instead, the ongoing evolution of xTopia University is symbolically represented by the mathematical variable “x”, which also stands for “experimentation“.

“The true method of knowledge is experiment.” (William Blake)

But xTopia is not a single experiment– it is an evolving place and resource base through which we cultivate an endlessly-developing and diversifying ecosystem of experiments, observations, discoveries, connections, and production processes. One metaphor for this physical and intellectual ecosystem and its ever-spreading,  interweaving networks of roots, branches, and nodes is the great Tree of Life.

Yggdrasil – The Tree of Life (Wikipedia)

The scientific method and the art of empirical experimentation was first pioneered in ancient times by gifted individuals. It gradually developed into a systematized and teachable craft, and then evolved into a science and a technology. I don’t refer to technologies employed within particular experimental fields but to the evolving and recursive science and technology of experimentation itself. By experimenting on experimentation xTopia extends the science of science. At xTopia, continuous improvement applies to the methods as well as to the products of science.

On the other hand, from the outside xTopia doesn’t look or act much differently from other communities centered around a large college or land-grant university. In ancient Rome a collegium  was roughly analogous to a corporation, a club or society, or a group of persons living together under a common set of rules (con- = “together” + leg- = “law” or lego = “I choose”).

“Land-grant universities …are institutions of higher education in the United States designated by each state to receive the benefits of the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890. The mission of these institutions as set forth in the 1862 Act is to focus on the teaching of practical agriculture, science and engineering (though “without excluding … classical studies”), as a response to the industrial revolution and changing social class. This mission was in contrast to the historic practice of higher education to focus on [Religious or] abstract Liberal Arts curricula. Ultimately, most land-grant colleges became large public universities that today offer a full spectrum of educational opportunities. However, some land-grant colleges are private schools, including Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.” (Wikipedia)

In addition, xTopia U has intentionally copied many of the features of the University of Virginia, the school established in 1819 by the third U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson. More than 200 years later UVA is still considered one of the best universities in the US.

University of Virginia (Wikipedia)

On January 18, 1800, Thomas Jefferson…alluded to plans for a new college in a letter written to British scientist Joseph Priestley: “We wish to establish in the upper country of Virginia, and more centrally for the State, a University on a plan so broad and liberal and modern, as to be worth patronizing with the public support, and be a temptation to the youth of other States to come and drink of the cup of knowledge and fraternize with us.”

Other universities of the day allowed only three choices of specialization: Medicine, Law, and Religion, but under Jefferson’s guidance, the University of Virginia became the first in the United States to allow specializations in such diverse fields as Astronomy, Architecture, Botany, Philosophy, and Political Science. Jefferson explained, “This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind.”

“For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

(Wikipedia/University of Virginia)

Keep that last sentence in mind. I’ll be coming back to that after I say just a little more about Jefferson’s approach at UVA.

Jefferson centered UVA around the “Academical Village” consisting of a vast, terraced green surrounded first by the residential and academic buildings and then by the gardens, The Range, and the larger university. The common bonding of faculty and students in residency is considered integral to establishing peer discourse. And of course Jefferson’s university was originally surrounded by extensive lands which provided local sources for many of the economic necessities of life.  xTopia U is  fortunate to have adequate land holdings of our own. When we purchased our campus (then it was called the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University) from The State in 2019, we were able to acquire nearly 22,000 additional acres surrounding the property. Much of the area around xTopia U still remains largely undeveloped and rural. In addition to the pre-existing towns nearby, a number of Eco-villages have grown up around us.

In all these ways xTopia U is very similar to Jefferson’s vision which in some respects may have been a pretty darn good approximation of a Utopia. The big difference is that xTopia might have started in almost any arbitrary configuration because its core principle is innovation, adaptation, and evolution. It doesn’t hurt to start with a great foundation, but the emphasis is not on a preexisting design–the emphasis is on continuous improvement.

Colleges and schools

xTopia’s initial organization was patterned after Jefferson’s UVA in the arrangement of its colleges and schools.

  • College of Liberal Arts
  • College of Arts & Sciences
  • School of Architecture
  • School of Business Administration
  • School of Commerce
  • School of Continuing and Professional Studies
  • School of Education
  • School of Engineering and Applied Science
  • School of Law
  • School of Medicine
  • School of Nursing
  • School of Leadership and Public Policy
  • Center for Chemistry of the Universe and Radio Astronomy Observatory

Of course we continuously extend and improve all the curricula and add new schools and centers of our own design which I will go into a little later on.

Now, when The State put Alabama A & M up for sale it was a historically black university with a lot of history. It was originally established by an act of the Alabama State Legislature in 1873 as the State Normal School and University for the Education of the Colored Teachers and Students. By the time it was purchased by us, it had about 6,000 undergraduates and graduate students from 44 states and 11 countries and a faculty of about 300. Quite a few of the A&M faculty and staff are still here at xTopia U, but now there are about 10,000 students, 2,000 faculty, 5,000 people on staff, and about 10,000 other independent free-lancers and family members in residence. The folks here now are of every imaginable ethnic, cultural, and national origin.

We’ve done a lot of new construction but we also retained some of the original Alabama A&M facilities. The original Learning Resources Center is a 75,000-square-foot building with over 50,000 real paper books. There were originally half a million hard-copy books in there but we had to get rid of most of them to make room for the necessary digital equipment and facilities  like the interactive Distance Learning Auditorium and the conference rooms, study lounges, labs, multimedia production studios, etc. We also kept:

  • The State Black Archives Research Center and Museum, housed in the James H. Wilson Building, a national registered historical structure.
  • The Small Business Development Center (now specializing in incubating Co-operative enterprises)
  • The Agribition Center, designed to host almost any kind of event, including trade shows and agricultural events.
  • The Campus Health and Wellness Center
  • Louis Crews Stadium is now the home of the xTopian Olympic Association and the Better Angels Football Club. The multi-purpose stadium seats 21,000 and is the sixth largest stadium in Alabama.

Credit: Wikipedia

The Alabama Cooperative Extension System which was based here when we bought the school back in 2019 is still here working in partnership with xTopia U. They work with our scientists, farmers, and foresters on developing and testing sustainable, organic practices and providing research, education, and technical services around the world. We are a major permaculture center and there are so many other sustainable and ecology things I don’t even have time to talk about it on the tour. You can get the details that interest you online.

Solar Power Station (Wikipedia)

We have also added some things Jefferson’s UVA or Alabama A&M never dreamed of. We have two concentrating solar-thermal power stations that supply all the power for the campus. We produce the bulk of our own food and forestry products. We have our own water wells and rainwater catchment systems. We have a variety of cottage industries and light manufacturing facilities that make things like electric vehicles, solar roofing tiles, and photovoltaic films and coatings.

xTopia has become a leader in the production of ethanol from grasses and waste cellulose. We not only sell ethanol in our local market but we also export our ethanol technology around the world.

Visitor #2: “My brother in law is a rocket scientist, and he told me it takes more energy to make ethanol that you can get out of it.”

(Rolling her eyes) We don’t have time to get into that side track right now, but when you get a chance, look at this debate between Doubting Thomas and my father, Poor Richard: Fermenting the Ethanol Debate.

Democratic Economics

A large number of xTopians from many disciplines participate in R&D for sustainable, ecological economic models. Consistent with our experimental approach to everything, we test a hypothesis with controlled trials in real-world situations. We often experiment on ourselves because the entire xTopia campus is a laboratory, wired for massive data collection, and we carry on a wide variety of economic activities that provide convenient test-beds for new ideas. (For a quick intro to sustainable, scientific economics, check this link: Escape from the Planet of the Economists.)

xTopia is, in part, a federation of co-operatives.  Many of xTopia’s tangible and intangible assets are collectively owned by  members of its cooperatives. In many cases workers participate in collective bargaining, although in some cases (such as certain xTopia faculty and staff positions) the pay scale is computed according to an algorithm (I’ll explain in just one minute).

A janitor who has worked at xTopia for 10 years may earn considerably more than a janitor in the mainstream economy, so many people might want to compete for the job. What keeps xTopia from firing a highly paid janitor and replacing her with a low-paid janitor? Something akin to a tenure policy. Most xTopia labor contracts permit firing only for “just cause” as determined by democratically governed labor councils of working xTopia peers. Labor councils also deal with issues of labor standards, job descriptions, workplace conditions, etc.

Although our experimental orientation leads to a lot of diversity, fringe benefits are often provided through member-funded mutual benefit associations. A fringe benefit that everyone loves is the sabbatical. For every five years I work, I get a year of paid leave. We consider this as much a benefit to the community as to the individual.

xTopia is a also a leader in the development of alternative and complementary currencies and banking methods. Many xTopia members and contractors who work with xTopia have agreed to be compensated in xTopia Happy Hours (HH) for their labor. Several coops use a scheme in which each hour worked earns one HH (plus an additional .00033HH times the total cumulative number of hours a person has worked for xTopia in their lifetime), up to a maximum hourly rate of 30 times the hourly rate of the lowest paid member,  regardless of the nature of work performed. Thus each successive hour worked earns slightly more HH than the hour before, and the rate doubles approximately every three years (6,000 hours). The maximum rate is reached in about 15 years.

Additional HHs may be paid for certain finished products, goods, or services over and above the labor involved. These rates are negotiated on a case-by-case basis. HH credits can be exchanged for a great variety goods and services on the xTopia campus, at many places in the surrounding communities, and at numerous sites online.

Naturally other schemes are constantly emerging and evolving as much (or more) through trial and error as by design.

(BTW, at xTopia U we are constantly developing the art, craft, and science of the experimental method itself. In other words, we even experiment with the process of experimentation, so new and different experimental methods and styles are always emerging and evolving here.)

Advanced Social R&D

The last thing I’ll include in this part of the tour is just a brief mention of some of xTopia’s unique social R&D centers. In addition to basic research, these centers help to develop new pedagogic methods and curricula and provide guidance for public policy:

  • The Center for Intentional Community
  • Center for Cognitive, Social, and Cultural Re-engineering
  • Center for Self-Study (study of, by, and for the self)
  • Center for Ecological Economics and Re-localization
  • The Center for Open Source Government and Culture
  • Center for Peer-to-Peer Process and Organization (C3PO)
  • Center for Social Entrepreneurship

So that’s the bird’s eye view of the xTopia campus with some of our history and organization in the physical sense.

The xTopia approach

The group that started xTopia, including my father, Poor Richard, came from many walks of life: Occupy Wall Street, MIT, UC Berkeley, Harvard, The Wikipedia Foundation, Google, the Integral Institute, the AHA! Foundation, the Gurdjieff Foundation, the Annenberg Foundation, the Fellowship for Intentional Communities, and too many others to list. They were a community of collaborators with expertise in psychology, linguistics, media studies, education, neuroscience, strategic planning, entrepreneurship, and innovation design.

A few minutes ago I quoted Thomas Jefferson: “For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” That’s really the key to xTopia U. We don’t know what a Utopia might look like or how it might work, but here we are working towards a happy and sustainable future, as close as we can come to Utopia perhaps, one day and one experiment at a time. You might say its an enlightened trial and error approach.

Of course we always have lots of experiments going on all at once. Its a massively parallel multiplayer game. And almost everyone here at xTopia is a volunteer guinea pig, including the faculty and the families. Every school, college, research center, and every other organization and individual on campus is both a conductor of research and a subject of research. At the same time that we study math or science or music, or work in the labs, farms, or other facilities, we also study ourselves. We capture, analyze, and experiment with everything about ourselves– everything we do, everything we say, and a lot of what we think and feel– all the time.

This approach evolved out of various “Extreme Life Logging” projects back in the 2000’s. In 2003 it was estimated that as much new data was being generated about every two days as had been accumulated in all of history up to that year. By 2015, the rate of accumulation reached about 8 zettabytes (1 ZB = 10^21 bytes) per year, or about 18 million times the total digital assets held by the Library of Congress just five years earlier. At our current logging rates the xTopia community is generating that much new data on a monthly basis.

Such volumes would have been utterly toxic to the Metanet 20 years ago, yet it was the expanding “data deluge” (or “Great Flood”)  that initially lead to major advances in artificial intelligence and turned the scientific method on its head for about a decade while machine learning systems churned through growing backlogs of undigested data. This was called the Fourth Paradigm of Science. In those days about the only “science” that could get funded in the Corporate States of America was experimental data mining methodology and new human-readable presentation techniques. Until fairly recently the financial return on investment for improvements in data utilization remained orders of magnitude higher than for data collection.

The Virtual xTopia

The Google-eyes we use here are our own special design. We call them “peepers”. They do all the things your regular Google-eyes do and a lot more. They constantly record what I look at and what I say, and they record my brainwaves,  blood pressure, pulse, temperature, galvanic skin resistance, and lots of other bio-metric stuff. We call it the quantified self. They also record things going on around me for context.

Visitor #5: “Don’t you ever have any privacy, Podcayne? It sounds like Big Brother is always watching. How can you stand that?”

It isn’t like that, really. All the information my peepers collect is psuedo-anonymized. That is, recorded under an encrypted account. The audio and video that is collected of me, and other people around me, is stored in a way that protects the real identities. If a scientist views the data from my peepers today, or from any of the other millions of recording devices around campus, she will see and hear realistic, computer-generated, anonymous avatars instead of seeing and hearing the actual people. The body language, facial micro-expressions, voice metrics, bio-metrics, etc. will be equivalent but she won’t be able to identify the actual people involved unless she has access to the encrypted reference data in someone’s personal profile to compare it with. That personalized data is very carefully protected, and personal identities can only be accessed and used with each person’s permission. I’m sending your Google-eys some of the computer-rendered video of us right now so you can see what its like.

Visitor #8: “Wow, Podcayne. I love your costume!”

(Grinning) Thanks! I designed that Avatar myself.

Visitor #1: “Doesn’t that give away your identity, then?”

Only to you guys right now and other people who know me and know how I have customized my avatars. A lot of us do it. But our customized avatars are only used when and in ways we allow.

BTW our hypergrid is the best three-dimensional virtual world in the known virtual universe. Its a lot like the Star Trek holodeck, but with our peepers we access it from anywhere. We use it for recreation, research, and education. We have a hypergrid version of the whole campus, and most of our distance learning is done “in-world”.  After our tour is over, you’ll be able to continue exploring xTopia U in-world all you like.

Visitor #1: “Hey, I look like a dork!”

Podcayne looks at an image that her peepers project on the floor and makes a few gestures: How’s that?

Visitor #1: “Ahh, sick! Thanks.”

With virtual reality we do a lot more than teaching and learning (or goofing off). Its more like coaching, training, and practicing. There is only so much you can get from a text or a lecture. You sure can’t learn how to play basketball from a book.  But with VR we can put you on location and in the action. You don’t just get information, you develop skills. One of my favorite xTopia massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) is the Hunchback of Notre-Dame. The whole setting, including the Notre-Dame Cathedral and the surrounding area of 1482 Paris, represents the landscape of the mind. All the characters are potentially parts of your own identity. Playing roles in the game helps you to to see yourself in others and others in yourself.

For kids of all ages we have some fun things like the Virtual Fables. These are based on classic fairy tales and folk tales like Aesop’s Fables, Tales of Br’er Rabbit, or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. One of our most popular games is Animal Farm 2.0, based on George Orwell’s classic allegory. The players can become any of the characters in the stories. The stories that we select to make into games all have important morals, lessons, cognitive skills, or social skills for the players to discover and practice.

Our role-play games all give individualized feedback on the players’ social and cognitive skills, cognitive biases, implicit associations, etc. This feedback helps players develop skills and capabilities very rapidly.

xTopia’s secret sauce

That brings me to the point where I can explain the special mission of xTopia U. The recipe of our secret sauce: self awareness. xTopia is founded on the belief that humanity does not face a crisis of the environment or energy or population or even a lack of ideas. Technical solutions to our economic, political, and environmental problems have been sitting unused on the shelf for a long time. Instead, humanity faces a crisis of human nature.

Human nature is a product of evolution. The Origins of Human Nature are found in the evolutionary contest between individual and group selection. We also have a lot of cognitive idiosyncrasies, such a tendency towards certain kinds of predictable irrationality.

Human culture has always evolved more rapidly than our anatomy. But even the rapid progress of our culture in the past few centuries has begun to fall behind the pace of changes and challenges we now face in our crowded societies and  our ravaged environment. Rather than rising to meet these challenges, our social institutions show signs of actually breaking down and becoming less effective. Increasing competition over land, water, food, and other resources is likely to favor increasingly authoritarian institutions. While technology offers solutions to resource problems in theory, in practice it also favors greater stratification of wealth and power. If recent trends continue we may be faced with a future of highly authoritarian corporate neofeudalism (privatized government).

“Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” by Paul Gauguin

Faced with such prospects, some of us should be choosing to explore the boundaries of the brain’s ability to examine and extend itself and to accelerate the evolution of culture with the same kind of intensity and effort that it takes for the military occupation of the Middle East or sending a spacecraft to the Moon.

If we live or work together long enough and closely enough we may begin to establish what we call human broadband connections. This may evolve further as we keep house, interact with nature, travel, solve problems, share adventures, meet challenges and survive crises together, until we can finish each others sentences. We are beginning to realize that such intimacy can gradually change the chemistry and structure of the nervous system and allow for progressively increasing inter-personal communication bandwidth and synchronization. One example is menstrual synchrony.

Neural connections in the brain – bigthink.com

Some might consider this an interpersonal spiritual connection, but it is a natural phenomenon that we call bio-cognitive development (bio-cognitive = body + brain) and psycho-neuro-synchronization.

To achieve continuous improvement and positive quality control, we systematize and instrument our intentional community of self-study and self-development. We consciously formalize our group dynamics in a context of systems science and rigorous experimental design.

In addition to the shared activities mentioned above, some of the possible tools and techniques for bio-cognitive development and psycho-neuro-synchronization include:

These and many other tools can be used for increasing adult brain plasticity and promoting emotional and physiological states that enhance learning, memory, and neural network integration. Conducted in groups they can also promote  psycho-neuro-synchronization and bio-cognitive group intimacy.

“Self Observation”

All this provides a matrix for accelerated cultural and cognitive evolution that is independent of gross  brain anatomy. (Lets face it, we aren’t getting bigger brains any time soon.)  Nonetheless, there is good reason to hope that radical self-knowledge, bio-cognitive development,  neuro-physiological practice, and psycho-neuro-synchronization may all work together to promote developmental changes in the brain’s micro-structure and its operational patterns. In other words we can re-engineer and re-program the brain’s operating system and its “apps”, even though much of all that is unconscious. We can try to examine and consciously modify various aspects of our irrationality, automaticity, implicit associations, cognitive biases, etc. With all these tools and techniques we may have a shot at developing a kind of persistent group consciousness capable of hosting perceptions and representations of reality and establishing behavioral innovations and capabilities well beyond the confines of the mainstream culture and language.

Micro-cultural Exchange

We need a diversity of experimental colleges and universities that aim to combine life-long continuing education with original research and scholarship, which aim to support themselves sustainably on their own local resources, not just as institutions but as diversified micro-cultures; and which aim to reinvent the art of being human for the modern age of anthropogenic disaster.

“Originally, college meant a group of persons living together, under a common set of rules (con- = “together” + leg- = “law” or lego = “I choose”)” (Wikipedia: college)

Not everyone wants to be a student or a scholar. Fewer yet want to be scientists and engineers. Still, at xTopia U we see no reason why every one of us can’t live and work within communities designed to be experimental, educational, and mindful at every level.

Poor Richard

[Portions of Podkayne’s dialog by libramoon.]

Related PRA 2010 topics:

Additional Resources:

a quiet revolution unfolds

Virtual Worlds, Avatars, free 3D chat, online meetings in Second Life

RSA Animate – The Power of Networks (YouTube)

The Origins of Human Nature

Charles Robert Darwin, Natural Selection from ...

Charles Robert Darwin, Natural Selection from Cartoon portraits and biographical sketches of men of the day (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Human cultures are as much a product of the human genome (and epigenome) as are individual human beings.  Genes influence “human nature” and human nature influences culture (and the reverse). Charles Darwin guessed this 150 years ago, but only recently has scientific evidence reached a critical mass in support of a general model of multilevel selection. Multilevel selection is a set of dynamic and recursive interactions between various “units” of natural selection such as individual selection and group selection.

“A unit of selection is a biological entity within the hierarchy of biological organization (e.g. self-reproducing molecules, genes, cells, individuals, groups, species) that is subject to natural selection. For several decades there has been intense debate among evolutionary biologists about the extent to which evolution has been shaped by selective pressures acting at these different levels. (Wikipedia)

In theory such co-evolutinary relationships between units of selection could extend from the molecular level all the way to the biosphere as a whole. Mathematical models for such generic co-evolution are works in progress, with the current concentration of effort directed at the individual-group level. In “The Social Conquest of Earth” (amazon.com),  Dr. E. O. Wilson (Wikipedia) describes for a broad audience the available evidence for an individual-group model of multilevel selection including its ecological and social aspects. Among other things, multilevel selection offers a framework for understanding the evolutionary origins of the “varieties of human experience”, including the effects of natural variation and selection on different “phenotypes” of human personality, morality, and culture. As a rule of thumb (an admitted oversimplification), Wilson attributes “selfish” characteristics to individual selection and altruistic or cooperative characteristics to group selection. The constant, dynamic tension between these “magnetic poles” of our nature may account for much of our cognitive and cultural dissonance. I’ll close my introduction to this topic with the final words of Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address:

“We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Poor Richard

Charlie Rose interviewing Dr. Edward Wilson (two-minute excerpt): http://youtu.be/j4Ltmy4DvNg

Videos:

“The Righteous Mind”Jonathan Haidt, C-SPAN BookTV:

“Jonathan Haidt, psychology professor at the University of Virginia, presents his thoughts on the current political and social divisions that he contends separate the Left and the Right. The social psychologist examines the origins of these fissures and explains that people’s moral intuition, the initial perceptions we have of others, propagates the idea that people who view the world differently from how we do are wrong.” (full video)

Video excerpt (10 min):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gHSAXyBg8h0 How do Conservatives and Liberals See the World? (vimeo.com)

“Bill Moyers and moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt talk about the psychological underpinnings of our contentious culture, why we can’t trust our own opinions, and the demonizing of our adversaries.”

Know Then Thyself

by Alexander Pope

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan The proper study of mankind is man. Placed on this isthmus of a middle state, A being darkly wise, and rudely great: With too much knowledge for the sceptic side, With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride, He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest; In doubt to deem himself a God, or beast; In doubt his mind and body to prefer; Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err; Alike in ignorance, his reason such, Whether he thinks to little, or too much; Chaos of thought and passion, all confus’d; Still by himself, abus’d or disabus’d; Created half to rise and half to fall; Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all, Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d; The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

TIMN in 20 minutes: social evolution — past, present, and future, (YouTube.com) This video offers an overview of the TIMN framework: its focus on social evolution (past, present, future), its construction around four cardinal forms of organization (tribes, institutions, markets, networks), its system dynamics, and its future implications.

Dr. Gabor Maté: Attachment and Brain Development (46:21) (youtube.com) and a longer version

1:21:49 Dr. Gabor Maté

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