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Mapping Behavior to Environment

About 1.5 million years ago, a large group of chimps were separated by a growing Congo river. One side of the river had more abundant food sources than the other. 

The chimps on the abundant side are known today as bonobos, and they're very mellow. The women run things. They're neighborly, sharing territory with other bonobo groups. When tensions rise, they have sex instead of fighting.

Chimps on the side with less abundance are known today as chimpanzees, and they're much more aggressive. They're very territorial, patrolling their borders in gangs, merciless in fighting, hierarchical and patriarchal.

These behavior patterns map to their environments.

In times and places of scarcity, competition is more intense. Strength and force become the rule, escalating violence.

In abundance, a flat, cooperative society works fine. 

Violence within our communities is not our default. It's turbulence that emerges when people can't meet their needs.

To maximize choice, work for community-wide abundance.


Written by Influential Prose

June 15, 2021 at 6:21 am

Posted in evolution, science, sociology

Tagged with

Columbus Day 2016

We all have basic needs. Clean air, clean water, clean food, clothing, shelter, safety, security, good health and a healthy social environment. We all have wants. Social environments become toxic when we permit the wants of some to interfere with the needs of others.

524 years ago, a group of people from Europe crossed the Atlantic ocean in search of things they wanted. Their basic needs were adequately met at home, but they wanted more.

When the European group arrived, led by Christopher Columbus, they discovered other people living on the lands they explored. That contact was fatal for many, because it led to an exchange of microbes. This exchange affected both groups, but the effects were devastating for the indigenous peoples. They lacked immunity to some of the diseases that spread, and in many communities it killed most of the people living there. This effect, for the most part, was accidental and unplanned.

This massive loss of life made it easy for the Europeans to move in and take whatever they wanted. The indigenous people fought back, as was their right. They had a right to their resources, their way of life, their system of meeting needs.

The European desire to fulfill their wants was fine. There’s nothing wrong with wants. It was only when they began deliberately destroying what remained of the indigenous people – their warriors, their homes, their independence, their means of living – that the wants of the European visitors became toxic.

And despite knowing it was wrong, they rationalized it for centuries. They still do. Not only the Europeans, but all of us. We exploit others to meet our wants and we rationalize it. It’s not exclusive to Europeans, or the West.

All living things have needs, and all those who wish to survive do what they must to meet those needs. Work, steal, fight, cooperate, trade and exploit – they’re all strategies seen throughout the animal kingdom. We’re part of it.

One of the things that makes humans unique is that we’re aware of the difference between needs and wants. We recognize that when we say “My right to swing my fist ends at your nose.”

Our right to use force ends where other people begin. We do it anyway, of course – we always have. That doesn’t make it right.

524 years ago, one group of people used force to satisfy their wants. In the process, they largely destroyed what remained after disease ran its course. They not only rationalized it, they celebrated it. They still do. It’s called Columbus Day.

In the past few decades, the awareness that it was wrong has spread. The indigenous peoples always knew it was wrong. Their descendants know it was wrong. Peoples in other lands recognized it was wrong.

The descendants of the Europeans are very late to this understanding, but they’re coming around. There is – justified – bitterness at how long it’s taken for this to happen. But it is happening, and that’s progress.

But not in Standing Rock, North Dakota.

We have one group of people with power and wants, and another with existential needs, including clean water. The indigenous peoples are fighting to protect their resources, and the group with wants and power has deployed it in the form of attack dogs, pepper spray and lawyers.

So here we are again. We can rationalize this and seize what belongs to others, or we can respect the needs of people living in Standing Rock. The power is there, as it was before. The ability to rationalize it is always present. It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now.

If we really wish to celebrate something this day, let us celebrate a new approach. Let us leave the people of Standing Rock in peace and meet our energy needs elsewhere. Let’s harvest the sun and the wind. Let’s stop pouring poison into the atmosphere we all share. Let’s meet our needs and wants in ways that respect the needs of others.

Let’s acknowledge that we are all in this together. Let’s exercise enough discipline over our endless desires to live with self-respect. Let’s cultivate the ability to live without making excuses for bad behavior.

Achieving that – learning from our mistakes – would make Columbus Day worth celebrating.

Written by Influential Prose

October 10, 2016 at 8:06 am

The Roots of Social Conformity

Life on earth has spread from the same DNA base as far back as we can see, from the simple single-celled extremophiles lurking in undersea volcanic vents. There’s a lot of change from that point to us, but along the way life repeatedly encounters similar patterns and relationships. Our genes are shaped by these patterns. Predator/prey relationships, for example, are a biological universal. I’m going to argue they are a key factor in defining human temperament.

Social species that cluster in large groups gain advantages in fending off predators, especially in rough neighborhoods. Social fish species remain together in groups because survival in their neighborhood is a numbers game. The bigger the crowd, the easier it is to hide from danger. Fish that don’t get this don’t last.

Over time, this strongly tilts instinctual fish behavior towards cooperatively defensive groups. But there are also advantages in breaking from the crowd, such as locating food and mates outside the group. So what happens in a population? A distribution develops toward the optimal mix of temperaments to keep population balanced. This mix adjusts to prevailing economic conditions.

Social species need some funky renegades temperamentally capable of taking risks to find opportunities, while the core of the group remains tightly bound to tradition to protect the bulk of the population. Populations need both rigidity and flexibility. Over time, this is what temperamental variation provides.

Much human behavior is essentially monkey-see, monkey do – it’s imitative. There’s a reason for that. Think back to the school of fish; they swarm together tightly when predators lurk. Behavioral instinct; the hardwired genetic imperative says do it this way or die, no second chances.

And so it goes as social animals emerge on land. Everywhere you go, from the anthill to the elephants, there are strict local rules; don’t eat that or you die. Stay out of this area during floods. Winter comes; stock up. Whatever rules are needed to avoid becoming prey or a victim of environmental conditions fall into this category.

This creates a built-in bias toward absolutes as key to survival. It is acquired, haphazardly and not always successfully, among animals through imitation; the trait persists among humans and is most strongly expressed among conservative fundamentalists and nationalists. Notice that absolutes are usually binary – do this or die; don’t do this to live. Binary thinking is characteristic of conservatives.

In an economic contraction, conservatives gain more power. In expansions, progressives gain. In the context of the animal kingdom, this makes sense; when times are hard, security becomes a deeper concern; you’re competing with all the other life forms in the neighborhood. Aggression becomes a positive.

When times are good, we can wiggle and giggle and agree that soft-serve ice cream is simply the greatest. Abundance gives us the luxury of broader cooperation, and it’s also smart survival strategy – cooperation makes harvesting abundant resources easier and more effective.

Herds only endure when they contract and expand in tandem with available resources.

When a herd is fragmented, it exposes a larger attack surface to predators.

Which is a pretty good description of the Republican party’s mode of operation. Divide and conquer.

Written by Influential Prose

August 4, 2016 at 12:55 am

Posted in evolution, sociology

A Crackpot Theory

This is an observation borne from life experience, and it may not be correct. I call it my crackpot theory because I’ve never taken time to dig deeply into it, so take it for what it’s worth.

Certain personality traits tend to cluster among people on different sides of left-right political spectrum. Among conservatives, I see greater focus on and anxiety about security. I also see an intense focus, often bordering on obsession/compulsion, on the issues that matter most to them. They like hierarchies and clearly defined roles.

People on the left tend to exhibit creative impulses. They don’t worry much, and perhaps consequently, they don’t plan ahead very precisely, preferring to take things as they come. This results in some disorganization, and it manifests in personal behavior as well – it’s tougher to get people on the left all the same page. Herding cats is the common refrain.

Now of course not everyone fits neatly into a left/right divide, and some people will be somewhere in the middle. But I see these differences in personality even among people who pay no attention to politics at all.

That said, it strikes me that maybe a major factor that distinguishes the left/right worldview in any culture is attention span.

People with a shorter attention span will absorb a broader range of information, because they don’t dwell too long on any one thing. The appetite for stimulation and novelty spurs them to skim from topic to topic and because they are exposed to more information, they’re more readily able to see patterns.

Conservatives prefer to dig deep. They examine a subject or several subjects throughly, seeking to develop a firm grasp on each one, and show less interest in unrelated topics.

So you can see where this is going. Conservatives have longer attention spans. Viewed in terms of access to resources and information, conservatives focus narrowly and drill deep. Progressives survey a broader territory, but more shallowly, and can more readily form a “big picture” view.

The key thing is, *both* strategies are effective in the right time and place.

I don’t want a creative, absentminded progressive running a nuclear power plant. I’d prefer¬† a conservative who is absolutely obsessed with his job, knows it inside out, and is ready to react when something goes wrong.

By the same token, conservative authoritorian impulses don’t work well in areas that require flexibility, creativity and willingness to try new approaches.

We spend a lot of time and energy demonizing and belittling people on the other side of the spectrum, regardless of where we sit. That’s inevitable. Power, like any resource, is attained by some mixture of cooperation and competition, and we tend to cooperate with people most like us and compete with people most different.

But we would do well to recognize that simple differences like attention span can influence a wide range of behavior…including our own.

Written by Influential Prose

August 25, 2014 at 6:50 am

Posted in behavior, sociology

Time and Temperaments

I’ve long struggled to understand how Thomas Jefferson could declare all men are created equal, how he could condemn slavery as a slaveowner himself, and simultaneously have a relationship with at least one of his slaves. The contradictions between conviction and behavior seems impossibly hypocritical and alien for an otherwise brilliant man.

But we ourselves do something very similar. Most of us have eaten meat our entire lives. We don’t dwell too much on the idea that the animals we kill, clean, cook and eat are herd animals with some social and emotional sense – they know who among them is aggressive, who is cooperative, who leads. They recognize external threats, feel fear and contentment. Their temperaments vary; they have personalities.

We grew up on a culture that normalized eating cows, chickens, fish and more. That’s not a judgment, merely an observation. We grew up thinking of it as normal. (Unless, of course, you have vegetarian parents!)

Jefferson grew up the same way with respect to slavery. It was a given. It was the way the world worked if you had a farm in the South. His entire generation grew up in that world. It wasn’t a world they created, and at the time it didn’t seem possible to create a world without it, because so much of the early U.S. was economically dependent on slavery. It took a war, hundreds of thousands of lives, and several generations for change to come.

Slavery was always wrong, but we see it much more clearly in hindsight. Yes, there were people who saw it clearly at the time, too…just as we have vegetarians among us today.

Circumstances change, but large-scale social patterns persist.

Written by Influential Prose

August 1, 2014 at 8:13 pm

Posted in behavior, history, sociology

What I Would Tell My Grandchilden

I would tell them they will be disappointed, that they will someday see the world in its entirety and be appalled that humanity wastes so much energy on conflict and greed, so much time fighting ignorance and apathy. You get to a certain age and level of awareness and it’s “Oh, goodness, what a mess.”

I would tell them they will experience disappointment with the people closest to them, their family and friends, that their behavior will not always be what it can or should be. And that they will also sometimes feel frustrated and disappointed with themselves, that they will not consistently be the person they aspire to be.

¬†But also…I would tell them that, imperfect as we are, that we can choose our company carefully and band together with others who strive toward the good. That not everyone is a lying manipulator, that there are many who are earnest and sincere. Not perfect, but thoughtful, positive, interesting. Not naive, but knowledgeable, striving, bold.

That we can be those people, we can light the way for others. That we can leave the world maybe just a little or a lot better than the condition we found it. That our task is to promote kindness and encourage persistence, to keep trying, to improve with patience and practice.

I would tell them: you will feel disappointment. But set that aside. There are pleasures to enjoy and goals to work for. That’s what living is.

– K

Written by Influential Prose

October 16, 2013 at 2:57 am

Posted in sociology