Reflections on the Costs of Evolved Self-Awareness: Comparing Trajectories of Davids—Foster Wallace & Insurgent


Dave Insurgent (By Sailorsoul2846 [CC BY-SA 3.0 ])

I’m going to be writing on the costly implications of self-awareness in a forthcoming book & was walking around listening to Reagan Youth on Spotify & David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest on Audible when some parallels occurred to me. I’ll be writing about the relationship between marijuana & heroin addition. The general public, I think, does not consider marijuana addiction in the same league of seriousness as heroin addiction, but they both have at their roots depression, which is a biopsychocultural overweening self-focus (unpack that!).

David Foster Wallace was considered, I think, the most famous fiction writer of his generation & Infinite Jest is already considered a classic. Or it should be. I’m late to the DFW fan club but only because I found reviews of his work at the time of his life & death off-putting & academic & pretentious-sounding. (I should have recognized myself in those analyses.)

In Infinite Jest, DFW chronicles 12 Step Recovery with an eye toward paralleling the experiences of alcohol, narcotic, & marijuana addiction, which indicates to me he had some personal knowledge of all their roots in depression & self-obsession. I don’t know if he was a marijuana addict, but I can tell from my own experiences in NYC Marijuana Anonymous & AA that DFW (in writing about Boston recovery groups) knew something whence he wrote. And he wrote a lot about addiction, depression, & suicide. And then, despite his enormous successes, he committed suicide at, really, his intellectual & career height.

"David Foster Wallace headshot 2006" by derivative work: Pabouk (talk)The_best_people_you_will_ever_know.jpg: claudia sherman - The_best_people_you_will_ever_know.jpg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

David Foster Wallace (claudia sherman [Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0])

On the other hand, Spotify suggested I listen to “Degenerated” by  Reagan Youth, which is raw & sloppy & not at all the blitzkrieg speedfest aural kronk of so much of later hardcore that I have never been much a fan of. So I went down a rabbit hole of Reagan Youth & found that lead singer Dave Insurgent (née Rubinstein) had parents who were Holocaust survivors, that he became a heroin addict & dealer, & that he was beaten into a coma over a drug debt within hours of finishing vocals for the last Reagan Youth tracks of that era & had to have a lobotomy to relieve the brain trauma. He would never recover from that beating, &, despite relative success of RY over a 10-year period, they were financially busted when Reagan left office in 1990 (& ended the relevance of their political peace-punk schtick) & broke up.

Rubinstein started dating a fellow addict who prostituted on Houston St. to support their habits & was ultimately picked up & slain by infamous serial killer Joel Rifkin (you can find your own links about him—they’re all disturbing). It was, in fact, Rubinstein’s description of the vehicle that picked her up—familiar among Allen St. prostitutes & junkies—a high speed chase of Rifkin’s vehicle by police, & the smell of her decomposing body in his vehicle that led to Rifkin’s arrest. A week or so later, Rubinstein committed suicide.

Rubinstein’s decline & the arrest of Joel Rifkin happened the year after I moved to NYC. I didn’t grow up on Reagan Youth, but they were a CBGB’s fixture & broke up right before I moved to there  & started going, working, & playing at CBGB. I have several stories about CBGB’s & the seedy streets of that neighborhood (the infamous Bowery, which is rather sanitized these days). The first involves the beating I took right out in front of the place on my very first night in NYC. Basically, I was drunk & tried to distract some meatheads from messing with Brent, but, in my drunkenness I laced subtlety. So they turned their attention to me & were waiting outside the club when we came out & gave me a beating right there on the sidewalk while characters like you see below (Reverb Motherfuckers are out on the same spot, essentially) looked on. Later, the first time I smoked crack was when Brent took me to a spot a block from CB’s to score it (but discovered he’d forgot his wallet back on the bar, so I think we smoked some on the street with the dealer then couldn’t actually buy any—lucky we didn’t get another beating).

So I worked & played in this area & very well may have crossed paths with these people. The Bowery area (Bowery becomes Allen below Houston St.) was a seedy, grimy area of NYC from the days when an elevated train ran above it & blocked out the light. I had learned all about it as a punk rock fan intrigued by the history of CBGB’s, from listening to music & reading about their lives, &, before that, the stories of Jack KerouacJim Carroll, Henry Miller, &, a little further back, Herbert Asbury‘s Gangs of New York, which tread much of the same ground. I can visualize it perfectly.  One of my favorite bands before moving to NYC was the Lunachicks, & you can see the griminess of that part of NYC at the beginning of this video & a sense of the…I dunno…precariousness of life down there from the attitudes of these characters. I say precariousness because not everyone made it out. Some of them are still performing, some are alive & doing other things. Some are not.

The death of rock stars & artists & the mixture of drugs & depression can be charted back over time with no end in sight, but they resonate most, I think, when they are people active & inspiring YOU in YOUR LIFE & then they die. I missed the boat on DFW, but Infinite Jest is the book my high school best friend & lead singer of my NYC band, Brent Colyer, would have written had we the moxie & chops. We had a writing group at one point that always dissolved into blind drunkenness, but professional writers is what we both wanted to be. I have never related so much with a book as I do with Infinite Jest, so it is startling even in retrospect that DFW killed himself & that I cannot have a conversation with him (‘cuz, you know, I chat with famous people all the time…). And because Brent also suffered mental health problems & essentially pulled a Leaving Las Vegas & drank himself to death, I cannot talk with him about DFW as I would like to.

Less than one year after Dave Insurgent killed himself, I was shocked when mega-rich superstar, heroin addict, & clinical depressive Kurt Cobain committed suicide. I was 22, working at Tower Records in NYC & playing music; & Nirvana were a tidal wave of success. The shock of his death cannot be understated. Nirvana were not my favorite band, but they were a band of my generation. I was an early member of the Sub Pop Singles Club when I was an 18-year-old college freshman at Indiana University, & I bought Bleach right around the time it came out. Frankly, I preferred Mudhoney, but I have a poignant memory of planning to drive with my friends to see Nirvana play at either Bogart’s or Murphy’s Pub in Cincinnati, since not much of note came to Bloomington, IN in those years. However, we never made the drive because we could not score any weed for the drive & could not face the prospect of a cold turkey 2-hour drive each way. I was already a marijuana addict, as it was obviously impairing my normal functioning & resulting in shame—straight-up definitions of addiction. The only consolation was that, as I recall, Nirvana cancelled the show at the last minute because they were having delays in the studio working on their next record, which would turn out to be “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

And the rest is history…

Take-home lesson:

Self-awareness can be costly, so we look to blinder it. That doesn’t always work, but we find our culture in the details.

Posted in Anthropology, Evolution & Pop Culture, Evolution and Psychology, Evolution in Arts, Exaptation, Hypotheses, Literary Darwinism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reflections on the Costs of Evolved Self-Awareness: Comparing Trajectories of Davids—Foster Wallace & Insurgent

Darwin’s Daily & Hourly Dharma

I’m just going to leave this right here…

Ernest Rossi's "Darwin's Daily & Hourly Dharma" (from Rossi, Schirmer, & Rossi 2010, European Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 10(1):63).

Ernest Rossi’s “Darwin’s Daily & Hourly Dharma” (from Rossi, Schirmer, & Rossi 2010, European Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 10(1):63).

Yes, I know, I should explain, but my mind is reeling a bit right now. Ever have those experiences when you stumble across a literature that advances a model that runs parallel to your own thinking & that is FAR OUT AHEAD OF YOU in the race? If you’re like me, it probably happens a lot, which means we probably need to read more & talk less. Like that’s going to happen.

Anyway, I will write more later about the exciting new gene-trait/environment study I’m embarking upon with friends & colleagues Francois Dengah & Jeff Snodgrass, but in the meantime I wanted to share this so I don’t forget it. I was reacquainting myself with the neurobiological models of dissociation that have been proposed by Stanley Greenfield, Tanya Luhrmann, & Rebecca Seligman as my part in our literature review. Greenfield wrote a fantastic ethnography of Brazilian espiritismo called Spirits with Scalpels & has always been a supportive voice at meetings when us young bucks talk about our models of consciousness & such & a refreshing reminder that most considerations of so-called “altered states of consciousness” are ethnocentric. So, I’m rereading his chapters on his model of a cultural biology of healing & he draws heavily on Ernest Rossi, including a similar version of the model above.

Short story long, I look up Rossi’s magnum opus The Psychobiology of Gene Expression: Neuroscience and Neurogenesis in Hypnosis and the Healing Arts in my university library system & stumble across an article entitled “Mapping the 4-stage creative process onto spontaneous eye-roll dynamics in hypnosis, mediation, and yoga” Rossi, Schirmer, & Rossi 2010, European Journal of Clinical Hypnosis 10(1):60-75). This article integrates a psychobiology of gene expression with the eye-roll associated with so-called ASC.

This made me poo myself a little because we have been using the eye-roll test for hypnotizability for years in my fireside relaxation study & only just gave up on it because I wasn’t sure it was actually measuring anything. I had not been able to find anything but criticism of it in the literature of the last 20+ years, even though it’s the best tool I’ve been able to find for field-based rapid assessment of hypnotizability.

Here’s an eye-roll from our fireside relaxation study data to give you an idea of what I’m talking about:

eye-roll test for hypnotizability

eye-roll test for hypnotizability

I must get back to reading, but I’m getting a much better understanding of the distinctions among concepts like hypnosis, absorption, & trance. It sucks to be humbled, but it’s great to be validated when you’re studying crazy, fringey shit that used to get people blackballed from the Ivory Tower. Tcha to that crap anyway…

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A dialogue concerning political correctness and its discontents

Aletheia: I shall make two somewhat related contentions. First, science should never be suppressed, distorted, or otherwise manipulated for ANY reason. And second, political correctness has become a suffocating force on many college campuses, in many segments of society, and in many newspapers and magazines. At best, this political correctness is a burden, a cumbersome code that stultifies spontaneity and freedom by forcing students, professors, and journalists to translate their thoughts into acceptable platitudes. At worst, it is an intolerable tyranny, a Stalinist-like suppression of freedom of inquiry and expression that should be immediately eradicated. You can see, I presume, how these are related.

Justitia: Certainly! Well, I shall attempt to defend two basic propositions, then. The first is that science is a social tool; it is not an absolute, autonomous human activity. If a certain root of the sciences bears bad fruit, then that root should be inspected and possibly extirpated. I have no problem, in other words, with regulating science. And the second is that what many derisively call “political correctness” is actually an informal and organic system of rules that allows us to function together more harmoniously. We live in a multicultural society, a society of multifarious values, ideals, and peoples. Political correctness recognizes this and urges sensitivity. It is an organic code of caution. And it is certainly not the tyrannical force you depict.

Aletheia: Very good. I trust we will have an animated discussion then! Let me begin with this contention: Scientists should pursue only the truth. They should not be concerned with social justice, social fads, or political ideologies; at least, they should not be concerned with these things when acting AS scientists. Furthermore, they should not be pressured by outside forces to suppress their results, however disturbing to our sensitivities those results might be. Science is, I think, an enterprise that creates by first destroying. It is like a fire that purifies a forest by clearing the old and withered limbs of old and withered trees. Impervious to our hopes and desires, science, this radical fire, often destroys ideas we have come to love. And science therefore is often painful.

Darwin, for example, destroyed our notion that we were the center of creation, that we were different from other animals, higher than other animals, more “heavenly” than other animals. Many Victorians were disturbed by this Darwinism, this attempt to reduce us to mere creatures, mere matter, mere physical stuff!! William Jennings Bryan in the United States railed against Darwinism. An ardent moralist, Bryan believed that Darwinism’s crude materialism would ineluctably lead to moral decay, to selfishness, adultery, profligacy, a turning from responsibility and charity. And he tried to ban its teaching. Imagine that! Imagine a world without the theory of evolution by natural selection! And, imagine further the utterly ridiculous despair of this man! He truly believed Darwinism would erode society as he knew it. Of course, it did nothing of the sort.

Justitia: True, true! Poor William Bryan. He certainly picked the wrong side of that debate! But, his example does not vitiate the argument against absolute scientific freedom. Before making that point, however, please allow me to note that I am not against science. I think science is an absolutely wonderful tool. It has improved our lives in myriad ways. I am quite thankful for science.

Aletheia: Very well. I recognize your caution and your expression of admiration for science!

Justitia: Yes. But, unlike you–or what I understand of your argument–,I do not think science is a sacred pursuit that should transcend or somehow escape the cost and benefit analysis that we apply to other human practices. Take a different example. Consider an engineer. Would we suggest that an engineer should pursue his task without regard for the consequences, that he should, in other words, design buildings or bridges without concern for social consequences. I don’t think we would use this kind of thinking for any social activity, and I don’t think we should. It is religious, this absolute devotion to the “purity” of the scientific enterprise. Consider a different example. Suppose that we knew that the creation of a certain virus could absolutely destroy mankind. Would we encourage its creation simply because science should be “free” from the fetters that regulate all other human activities, should be limited, apparently, only by the blind pursuit of truth?

Aletheia: Well, I think the engineering example is different from the scientific enterprise. Science is the pursuit of the truth. Engineering is not. And truth is often offensive–it often shatters our hopes and expectations. That is why science needs protection. The most important scientific discoveries have been coupled with lamentations and hysteria, with calls for suppression, and if we had heeded those calls, we would have deprived ourselves of the greatest, most revolutionary scientific ideas of history. We should never let our petty emotions, our inability to cope with difficult ideas, bury freedom of expression and inquiry.

Justitia: I don’t deny that we are sometimes a shortsighted species. However, I think you read history incorrectly. Many revolutionary scientific discoveries required years of social adjustment. Prudence, I think, dictated caution to the founders of such discoveries. Darwin, for example, was judicious in his presentation of human evolution. He waited many years before he specifically addressed human evolution; and, he even waited many years before he published his first work on evolution by natural selection. Now, you may throw caution to the wind, insult the sclerotic conservatives who urge slow change, and encourage that we present science without sensitivity for social sensibilities, but I don’t think that is a productive strategy. And, moreover, I think it is positively wrongheaded from a moral perspective. I am, you see, a utilitarian. I think outcomes matter. I don’t believe any sphere of social activity, including science, should be removed from the world of difficult cost/benefit analyses.

Aletheia: Well, let me say that I do not think we should ignore social sensibilities. I am not, for example, urging that we write science articles without any respect for the current norms of society. I do not think we should write a headline that reads, “Men simply better than inferior women at spatial rotation.” Even if some of the substance of the headline is true, the expression is horrible and is certain to provoke hostility. Upon the other hand, I think the research itself should be conducted and that the results should be disseminated. And, this, I think, makes the connection to political correctness salient. Political correctness creates an atmosphere that discourages the dissemination of “dangerous” ideas, that softens people’s emotions and sensitivities, and that encourages the parading of injustices and offenses. In other words, it creates a social environment that cannot tolerate the truth.

Justitia: Great! We agree on at least one thing. We should at least be cognizant of current social norms. But I think that the very real sensitivities about many issues that have become “politically correct” preexisted the label; they are the result of years of real injustice. For example, for many, many years, women were treated as inferior creatures, soft, delicate, irrational–certainly too fragile for the tough pursuits of mathematics and science. This attitude still lingers like a miasmic cloud, poisoning many men’s (and possibly women’s) views of women. We should be cautious anytime we forward results that might appear to justify this belief. I know that you do not support such despicable beliefs, but many people are not so educated and privileged as you are. They do not have the luxury of a sophisticated understanding of bell curves and statistical distributions.

Aletheia: But isn’t that a kind of intolerable paternalism? I don’t think we should decide for people what they can and cannot handle or understand.

Justitia: But we do this all the time. We make smoking regulations, for example, and propagate powerful narratives about how unlikable and disgusting smoking is. This is straightforward manipulation. We could coolly and calmly disseminate the results of studies on smoking, abstaining from more conspicuous propaganda crusades. But we don’t. And I don’t think we should.

Aletheia: I am not sure that these are the same. But let me set that complaint aside for a moment. And let me raise an important, perhaps fundamental, challenge to your position. How do you know what is good or bad for society? How do you know the costs and benefits of scientific exploration? We can see how hysterical the early thinkers who confronted Darwinism were, and we can see how silly their alarmism appears in retrospect. Don’t you think some of your concerns about sex and race (typical topics of political correctness) will appear similarly ludicrous to later generations? Why not just guide science with a simple exhortation: seek the truth. We don’t know what will come of truth, but I generally tend to believe that the truth is better than a convenient or morally expedient fiction.

Justitia: I am sympathetic to your position, but I disagree with your fundamental hypothesis; or, put another way, I am not so convinced as you are that the consequences of our research are obscure or mysterious…are somehow shrouded or hidden from us. Of course, our predictions about future consequences are always tentative and uncertain. But that doesn’t mean we should entirely give up the project. Let me give you a concrete example. Suppose you lived in the antebellum South in the United States. Would you conduct research on race differences? My guess, before I let you answer, is that you wouldn’t. And the reason is clear. Any research you conducted would be twisted and appropriated by racists and would be used to aid and abet an unjust and horrific system of slavery. In other words, you would do a cost/benefit analysis of your research, and you would conclude that the costs of the research would outweigh whatever benefits it might offer. I would not consider that censorship; rather, I would consider that simple prudence.

Aletheia: Excellent point. But the fault in your example is the unjust social system, not the science, right? I mean, presumably the racists in the South would use anything to justify their racism, so the science would neither help nor hurt their cause. Put another way, if you removed my research, nothing would change about the social system. Or, let’s even adjust your example. Suppose that I conducted research that showed that blacks were more intelligent than whites. Would that change the social order in the South? Almost assuredly not. In fact, it might just convince the Southern plantation owners that their slaves should be eternally removed from books and learning because educated and intelligent slaves would pose a threat to the plantation system. In fact, this is exactly what many plantation owners did argue. Uncertain and underdetermined, the effects of science depend upon myriad social and cultural factors, and those factors should be the targets of those concerned with social justice, not science.

Justitia: Well said. And I do agree, at least to a large degree, that there are many other social factors that we should target to increase justice in the world. But I don’t see why we should exempt science from this list. The effects of science on society might even be as rain in a large sea, but they are not invisible. Even raindrops add up. Why not subject it–science–to the same considerations we subject other institutions and activities?

Aletheia: Well, I think we should. The institution of law, for example, is dedicated to principles of legality. A lawyer does not ask herself about the contribution of her defense to the greater justice of the world, or at least, she should not. She should only ask herself about the law in a particular, circumscribed case. And she would not (or should not) sacrifice a case for what she perceived as the greater good. Such behavior would, in fact, be a dereliction of her duty. In other words, institutions are designed to pursue their tasks, to entertain, to protect, to inform, et cetera, without a greater calculus of social justice. Science is no different. It should pursue the truth. If the consequences are pernicious, the fault is not with the science, but with the people who use the science. We do, in other words, hold science to the same standards that we hold other institutions. They are just not your lofty standards.

Justitia: I think many would object to your description of the law!! I realize lawyers aren’t always the most popular people in the room, but I think many do contemplate the greater good. And they should. We all should. Contemplating the moral consequences of a behavior or practice is not at all lofty, ethereal, majestic, or somehow beyond the reach of mortal minds. Part of our biological inheritance, moralizing behaviors and institutions is, rather, something we do automatically. Just as many plants grow to the sunlight, so too humans strive toward the good.

Aletheia: Allow me to interrupt your elevated rhetoric!! I am not at all convinced that humans strive toward the good. In fact, I think humans strive for power, prestige, status, and control. Morals might be, in some sense, natural–but they are not all that noble. Our history, after all, is bespattered with blood; it is full of grisly tortures, rapes, and desecrations.

Justitia: Ha..ha! I figured you would correct me my morose friend. I certainly agree that our history is full of examples of humans behaving badly. And that is, perhaps, precisely why we need to be careful about what we research. But allow me to broach the topic of political correctness again. I have read many articles lately lamenting the rise of the politically correct college campus. And I am afraid that I don’t think this is such a bad thing. Perhaps I might put it this way: The real alarmists are those who are repining about the supposed erosion of free speech on college campuses.

Aletheia: Well, first, allow me to make my final point about science. I do not think we can predict the consequences of our research. We simply have no idea. The future is a dark, black night stretching out before us, illumined here and there by flickering thoughts and speculations. Often, we do more violence when we attempt to suppress or manipulate science for a noble end than when we simply leave it alone. In fact, this is the fault of all utopian thinking.

Justitia: And if we could? I mean, would you in principle support suppressing some research if it could be shown that it would lead to positive consequences or that it could avert a disaster?

Aletheia: I simply cannot imagine such a scenario…

Justitia: Well, challenge your imagination! What about the nuclear bomb?

Aletheia: I think the nuclear bomb is a great example. And it illustrates precisely why we must pursue the science to its bitter end. Suppose the Americans had decided that the bomb was simply morally impermissible, a terror that should be aborted and then forgotten. What then? We now know that the Germans were nowhere near developing a functional nuclear weapon, but what if they were? Certainly they had no moral qualms about creating and using such a bomb. We simply cannot protect ourselves from knowledge. Reality is like an unkillable horror monster. It is always there, waiting. We can ignore it, perhaps deny it….but we cannot destroy it.

Justitia: Well said. I do not agree, but I do applaud your answer! Let us turn, now, to political correctness before ending this entertaining conversation. Do you really believe that political correctness is as deleterious as you suggested at the beginning of this conversation? Do you feel that you cannot be spontaneous, cannot engage in persiflage with your peers or friends, cannot really say what you think around most people at college?

Aletheia: I absolutely think that political correctness is pernicious. I am not sure I would say yes to your last questions, but there are many things that I do not feel comfortable doing because I am an academic. For example, I do not feel free to exchange ideas on social media because I am afraid that it will hurt my academic career. I am afraid to offend students ()because I doubt that the university would protect me. And there are many topics that I leave unexplored because I know that if I pursued them I would be slandered and stained by the obloquies of a very, very vocal minority.

Justitia: Well, I certainly do not support denigrating researchers or injuring their careers, at least I do not support those tactics in most cases. But that is not the focus of many articles that I read. These seem to object to the emotional emasculation of college kids. These fret and huff and bemoan the persistent coddling of college kids. These fear that college kids are too cowardly to confront dangerous or offensive ideas anymore. I simply disagree. This is not my experience. And, for what it is worth, I think sensitivity is a good thing. We should have safe spaces for formerly (and currently) persecuted minorities, for gays, lesbians, rape victims, et cetera. If students want to watch films of puppies and eat oatmeal cookies, I don’t see the harm. Especially if it makes them feel safe.

Aletheia: Well, I am certainly not going to judge a trauma victim. But I do think we have promoted a certain narrative that praises and encourages students to express offense and that weakens the mind. Students want to hide in a comforting cocoon, safe from challenging ideas. But the job of college instructors is to shatter that cocoon, to expose students to new ideas, to challenge their beliefs, to discomfit them! A professor should not be a nanny who babysits and protects students; she should be a stirring lecturer who provokes them with dazzling and sometimes dangerous ideas.

Justitia: Can we separate two distinct but often conflated practices, then? On the one hand, we have real support systems, safe places, and institutional structures designed to protect victims. And on the other we have the softening of ideas. The first you do not object to. The second you appear to abhor? Is that correct?

Aletheia: Not entirely. But I do think the distinction is important. It is not entirely correct because I believe that the first issue is somewhat related to the second. That is, we have begun to coddle students too much. And this coddling bleeds, inevitably, into the realm of ideas. Students expect to be comforted and pacified at every moment, so they naturally react with horror when they feel the discomfort of challenging ideas because, let us be honest, ideas can be disconcerting. It hurts to have one’s worldview shattered. I can still vividly recall losing my belief in the pieties of my youth. It was a wound more profound and more painful than any I have yet suffered physically. (Perhaps that says more about my luck than anything!)

Justitia: Ha..ha. Well, we are probably both lucky! I do agree that the first issue bleeds into the second, but I am afraid my calculations arrive at different conclusions from you. I think it is an almost untainted–and, note that I said almost!–good that students expect to be comforted and pacified at every moment. That is what progress is about, is it not? Of course, one could imitate a man from the 1600’s wildly raging about the complacency and narcissism of men from the 1950’s. “He has a refrigerator; how dare he complain that his coffee is not always hot. I had to work for twelve hours a day just to plant and harvest enough to eat for the winter!” How do you know you are not just one of these antiquated curmudgeons!?

Aletheia: I hope I have not yet become antiquated! I will confess that smart phones are almost too complicated for me.

Justitia: Oh shame! They are very user friendly!

Aletheia: I agree that it is a dubious practice to condemn the new generation for their comforts and luxuries. However, I think we should approach this scientifically.

Justitia: Of course you do!

Aletheia: The only way! So, we know that isolating trauma victims from possible trigger sources can actually prolong the healing process. Sometimes a wound needs a painful wash of disinfectant. So, in this case, it might actually harm people to hide them from all the dangerous and threatening things in the world.

Justitia: But who should decide? Should the student decide when he or she is ready to experience a potential trigger?

Aletheia: I do not object to some freedom for the student, but it must be reasonable. We should not have to sprinkle our lectures with trigger warnings. The Great Gatsby does not need a trigger warning for misogyny. All Quiet on the Western Front does not need a trigger warning for harrowing war scenes.

Justitia: But why object to providing students, the consumers, with information about material with which they are going to grapple? I don’t see the harm in providing a quick label to a lecture about war that it will contain lurid and grisly scenes and descriptions. Is that really a bad thing?

Aletheia: I am somewhat more comfortable with providing those kinds of warnings than I am with providing warnings for any potentially discomforting discussion. So, let me give a different example. What about a psychology professor who wants to discuss sex differences? Or, let us get more concrete and more controversial, what about a psychology professor who wants to discuss the adaptive value of rape? Should he have to caution his students?

Justitia: I don’t see why not.

Aletheia: Because it propagates the notion that such a topic is somehow forbidden or risky. It is not. It is a scientific question. We need to teach our students about the moralistic fallacy, and about how science works so that they learn not to see such topics as controversial. Rape may or may not be an adaptive strategy. Whether it is has nothing to do with its moral significance. I absolutely despise tornadoes. But they do exist. And it would be utterly idiotic to deny their existence.

Justitia: Well said. Again, I am not certain that I agree, but I will praise your thoughtfulness. Shall we continue this discussion in the future?

Aletheia: Most certainly. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Tattooing Primes the Immune System

Watching a Jerry Coyne video seemed to influence enhanced evolution knowledge but also increased misconceptions relative to a Baba Brinkman video (Lynn, Friel, Evans, & Brinkman 2015).

Watching a Jerry Coyne video seemed to influence enhanced evolution knowledge but also increased misconceptions relative to a Baba Brinkman video (Lynn, Friel, Evans, & Brinkman 2015).

…But First, a Test of the “Rap Guide to Evolution”…

A few weeks ago I presented a poster at the Human Biology Association annual scientific meeting about the roles of emotions in learning about evolution via a performance of Baba Brinkman’s “Rap Guide to Evolution.” We found that emotions matter, but the kind of emotions influence WHAT you learn. We looked at skin conductance as a proxy of emotional salience & compared it to the differences between pre- & posttests on the Evolutionary Attitudes & Literacy Survey (EALS) & compared those to the comments of the participants.

What we found is that if you’re a white intellectual who is already inclined favorably toward evolution, your knowledge & attitudes seem to be positively influenced. (Actually, we didn’t control for white intellectualism, but that’s my demographic suspicion.) To participants not already biased toward evolution, Baba seems to come off as unfairly snarky about religion & that’s what they tend to remember.

This is, in retrospect, not rocket science, but then I’m not a rocket scientist. For some reason (read: from my superficial listening to some audiobooks by Antonio Damasio), I thought emotions might have a more generalized salience in improving knowledge & acceptance. Like going to a horror movie to scare yourself actually can influence liking the person you’re with because the boundary between the meaning of the feeling you have slips or is indistinct. If you’re interested, here is a link to our poster, & we will be writing up these data more systematically as we continue to poke at them.

Tattooing outside in a vacant lot in Guayaquil, Ecuador, January 2002 (Photo by author).

Tattooing outside in a vacant lot in Guayaquil, Ecuador, January 2002 (Photo by author, all rights reserved).

Tattoos as Costly Honest Signaling

However, I was actually more excited at the time about the presentation on our Ink and Immunity Study of one of my master’s students, Johnna Dominguez. Several years ago, I hypothesized that tattooing should signal gene quality by providing an opportunity for people to see visible healing. The idea is that, much like the coloring of bird feathers is believed to signal resistance to parasites (though not empirically demonstrated, as far as I can tell—e.g., as this study of Steller’s jays by Zirpoli et al suggests), a well-done tattoo that is vibrant, heals quickly, & maintains form or color tells me that you have a good immune system.

If you’ve ever gotten a big tattoo, you know they can knock the piss out of you. I have a decent-sized back piece that took 12ish hours over two sittings. One of those sittings lasted 9 hours because I had driven from NY to GA to get it done & wasn’t going to be getting back down South anytime soon. Another one by the same tattooist took over 5 hours to get the outlining & shading of a half-sleeve (still unfinished 15 years later—see why it’s sometimes worth doing a 9-hour sit?). In both cases, I felt like I’d fallen off a moving motorcycle & skidded down the concrete on the respective body part. For days after, I felt rundown afterward, like recovering from a flu or other nasty respiratory virus. In my case, the tats healed up & have been emblematic of my otherwise good health, still bright & shiny after many years. Others I have seen ooze & scab & show patchy signs of having been infected. The sanitation of the tattooist is certainly an issue, as is her or his skill with the tattoo gun. But some people hold ink & heal better than others, according to tattoo lore.

Johnna Dominguez presenting her talk on tattooing & SIgA at the Human Biology Association meeting, St. Louis, MO, March 26, 2015 (Photo by author).

Johnna Dominguez presenting her talk on tattooing & SIgA at the Human Biology Association meeting, St. Louis, MO, March 26, 2015 (Photo by author).

Yet very little has been written about tattooing as a signal of health. Most of the research conducted links tattooing to dermatological problems, skin cancer, lesions, & risk factors merely correlated with the ‘type’ of person who would get a tattoo. (I did a big review/theory paper on this that I’ve been sending around for a while seeking a good home, which is in revise & resubmit or I’d share it—email if you’re interested in reading—one reader called it the “Rosetta Stone of tattoo background.”) So there’s a lot of data about tattoo & associations with drug & alcohol use, promiscuity, teen pregnancy, etc. Of course, those factors are not inconsequential. It is probably true that many people who are heavily tattooed are also more likely to enjoy lifestyles that are otherwise beyond the ken of mainstream models (realistic or not) of chastity & moderation.

Several studies out of Europe a few years ago (notably, the dissertation of Silke Wohlrab,which was published as a series of journal articles but can be read in its entirety here) found that, indeed, despite the increasingly mainstream nature of tattooing in Euroamerica, most males AND females still perceive tattooed females as more likely to engage in promiscuous sex or be drinkers. On the other hand, most males AND females perceived tattooed males as more attractive. Interesting, right? Another study from Poland found an association between tattooing & fluctuating asymmetry (FA) but NOT between piercing & FA. FA refers to deviations from bilateral symmetry, which many studies have found to be associated with attractiveness. We have many small deviations from absolute symmetry across our bodies, which seem to be related to our immunological resistance to developmental insults. So, back to the pathogens & feathers. Good looking tattoos may signal health.

Testing the Inoculation Hypothesis

So, we tested that. Johnna was also interested in retesting this idea that tattooed men are still viewed as more attractive & females as more promiscuous, since the aforementioned Wohlrab study was conducted in Germany, while we are in the U.S. Deep South. Instead of the questionnaire & WEIRD psych lab approach used in the Euro studies, Johnna went out & sat in hair salons & tattoo studios, talking to women & developing cultural consensus models of attraction relating to tattooing. A few things emerged that I won’t go into a tremendous amount of detail about here because she’s still hammering away at her interpretations, but what became clear is that (1) cultural attitudes have shifted but (2) they haven’t shifted that much yet. Variables that matter when determining attractiveness, which are obvious but must be considered: (a) tattoo location on the body, (b) tattoo content, (c) attitudes of the tattooed, & (d) attitudes of the tattooeds’ friends and family. These attitudes make a difference in self-esteem but didn’t seem to be related to generalized perceived stress or the immunological response to getting tattooed, but there is certainly more there to explore.

A taster from this tattoo study, showing that greater tattoo experience is associated with a smaller decrease in SIgA. The difference is significant with an effect size that knocked me out of my chair.

A taster from this tattoo study, showing that greater tattoo experience is associated with a smaller decrease in SIgA. The difference is significant with an effect size that knocked me out of my chair.

However, Johnna also collected saliva samples before & after the tattooing sessions & quantified the number of tattoo sittings, hours tattooed, & number of tattoos people had. She compared salivary immunoglobulin A (SIgA) to these indices of lifetime tattoo experience & found a robust effect. IgA is a metabolically expensive, highly conserved frontline defense against gastrointestinal & respiratory infections. Because it is produced continually, somatic energy depletions should result in drops in IgA production. We predicted that the immune systems of people with more tattoo experience would have adjusted over time, allostatically, & be less negatively effected—that it would provide an inoculation-like effect. And that is exactly what we found.

We reason that people who don’t heal up well after tattooing aren’t likely to get a lot of tattoos, so tattoo experience should be a good signal of something like that. That warrants testing, of course, & we also collected handgrip strength & FA measures to compare vis-a-vis these quality-signaling hypotheses but have not analyzed those data yet.

In the Q&A at HBA, Ines Varela-Silva pointed out that we should replicate the study in Latin America, where tattoo infections happen much more often due to poor tattoo hygiene. That caused me to recall the time I saw tattooing in a vacant lot on a street corner in Guayaquil, Ecuador. The tattooist was getting power from a long extension cord run into a neighboring business, & there was a long line of people waiting to be tattooed. I should have been rather horrified, but I must admit I’ve been tattooed several times under similar circumstances. Perhaps I wasn’t outside in the elements, but there was nothing legal, sanitary, or sober about the tattoo parties I went to when I was young.

I remember one in Bloomington, IN, when a squatter-punk friend of mine had organized a party. He invited a tattoo artist from South Bend, IN to come down to Bloomington & tattoo a bunch of folks over the course of a night. For giving her so much business, he got a free tattoo. The artist was an older woman who arrived in an RV with her husband & son. About an hour or two into the evening, before I’d got my tattoo, the party was raided by cops because one underage kid who the artist refused to tattoo without permission tried to get his older brother to pose as his parent. His brother called the police instead. The police had us all line up, present our IDs, &, for those of us not legal to drink, breath in his face (I was 20 at the time). Somehow he couldn’t tell I’d just drunk a 40 ozer. We moved the party out of town to place in the boonies I’d barely be able to drive back from, continued our revelry, & finished our tattooing. I healed up but later needed that tattoo touched up when the outlining faded…

Barry Bogin asked a question about the height (I think) of Johnna’s participants, which puzzled us all. He was referencing a paper by Charles Super & Beatrice Whiting about height variation in tattooing & painful rituals practice. There’s some other signaling studies out there that I’ve run across & written about in previous posts or that mysterious review paper I reference above, but the Super/Whiting one doesn’t ring a bell. We’re trying to track it down & may have to shoot Barry an email, but if it anyone knows it, drop us a comment below.

And if you wanna know more about this tattoo study, Johnna is wrapping up her thesis now & would likely be happy to share more info. Contact me if you want to get in touch with her or know more about our future plans with this project.

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The Endemicity & Pervasiveness of Sexual Harassment

I just came back from great presentation & networking conferences, as usual elated by the collaborative opportunities & feedback about my work & the performances of my students & rejuvenated to push envelopes. I also returned slightly less oblivious to the subtexts that are no doubt pervasive at such events that I, as a white male with a PhD & a job, have the privilege of not seeing if I don’t want to. And herein lies the problem.

Two years ago, the SAFE13 team dropped this science on us about the endemic nature of sexual harassment in anthropological field settings. Now, having been to three conferences in a row (American Anthropological Association in DC, Human Biology Association/American Association of Physical Anthropology in St. Louis, & NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society in Boston) where female friends, colleagues, & graduate & undergraduate students were sexually harassed by male scientists & researchers my age (40ish) & position & older (much older) & higher ranked, some rules of thumb obviously don’t go without saying. This shouldn’t be happening. This shouldn’t be happening at anthropology conferences. This shouldn’t be happening at evolution conferences.

Why does it matter that these were anthropology & evolution conferences? On the one hand, it doesn’t because it is a problem everywhere. On the other hand, these are disciplines focused on diversity & evolved sexual behavior. From talking with my friends in the Feminist Evolutionary Perspectives Society (FEPS), it appears that some of my male colleagues have internalized findings from sex differences in mating strategies studies as though they were lessons by “The Pickup Artist” (remember that schmaltzy reality show?). Behavioral correlations are not destiny, guys. And by the way, the EEA is bullshit. We don’t really know how people behaved in the past. We made that shit up. It’s an academic fiction or, as we tell our audiences, a “simplifying model” to operationalize research, not to justify behavior.

There’s no justification for sexual coercion. It’s the kind of behavior that gives physical anthropology, evolutionary psychology, & evolutionary studies bad names & reduces the fields to associations with reductionism without libinal control. Some of you will note that “physical” anthropology developed to justify racial differences—so, changing our name to biological anthropology isn’t quite enough it seems. I’m not concerned that consenting adults screw each other at conferences or whatever goes on among peers. But sexually targeting professional subordinates is exploitation, & the targeting of undergrads makes me want to lose my motherloving mind!

Culture changes, so maybe there are excuses out there for some of the bad male behavior, but that doesn’t make it OK. Maybe males really don’t know what is not OK. Maybe their parents didn’t teach them. Maybe they didn’t have appropriate role models. So, let’s be explicit. We apparently need rules. Frankly, since conferences seem to be places some colleagues feel they can behave in these ways beyond the bounds of their employers’ harassment officers, including lifetime achievement award-winning professor emerita seemingly beyond reach, I think professional organizations need to start stepping up to the plate & finding ways to sanction colleagues who cross these lines. Take their awards away. Blackball them. Something. We need repercussions.

In the meantime, fellow males, let’s change culture. Let’s learn. We can start off with a few rules of thumb posted by our friend & colleague, Jason DeCaro:

And I will add to this. Professors/instructors SHOULD NOT:

  • Hit on ANY undergrads in the bars in your own town, field site, or when you’re away at conferences.
  • Put hands on the shoulders of undergrads—even for a photo. Even if you think it’s harmless—you don’t know how it will make them feel. All it says to them is, “I can do this because I have authority over you.”
  • Don’t encourage your undergrads to drink more alcohol. If they want to drink, that’s their business.
  • Don’t comment on anything having to do with the attractiveness, size, or the bodies of students—just stick to things that promote intellectual & academic confidence & maturation.

Maybe you’re thinking, damn, I’ve done stuff like that without even really thinking it crossed a line. I have too. That’s why I’m putting this in writing. Let’s stop. Let’s not do those things. Let’s change culture. Let’s create safe places within our disciplines. Sexual antagonism is not an inevitability. It doesn’t have to happen.

Posted in Anthropology, Biological Anthropology | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The Evolution and Art Interface: New Paltz’s 10th Anniversary of Darwin Day!

Here’s a puzzle:

Humans around the world create visual art, music, and dance. None of these activities are particularly helpful at facilitating survival. How did these features come to so strongly embed into our species? Why are we the artistic ape???

Please join New Paltz’s EvoS program for our 10th Annual Celebration of Darwin Day – a day dedicated to celebrating the advances in our understanding of life that have followed from Darwin’s awesome work! This year, our celebration will take on an artistic flair, featuring:

* Keynote Address by NYU’s Dr. Gabrielle Starr, author of Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience. Dr. Starr is Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at NYU and her work focuses on how a scientific/evolutionist account of the arts can help us best understand why we are the artistic ape.

* Dr. Starr’s talk will be followed by a panel of local scholars with interests in the evolution and art interface, including:

Glenn Geher, Psychology / EvoS

Andrew Higgins, English / EvoS

Paul Kassel, Theatre Arts / EvoS

Andrea Varga, Theatre Arts / EvoS

DATE: 2/12/2015 – Darwin’s 206th Birthday (Thursday)

Time: 5pm – 8pm; including FREE reception

Location: LC 108


Official Event Poster

Sponsors: Office of Academic Affairs, Evolutionary Studies Program, School of Fine and Performing Arts





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The Royal Opposition: Why We Should Seek Contrary Opinions

“Without contraries is no progression.” William Blake


 1. The Owl of Minerva

 History, according to the idealist philosopher, Friedrich Hegel, is not a disconnected jumble of accidents; rather, it is the purposeful and progressive ascent of the absolute spirit (Geist) to absolute knowledge. This ascent is achieved through a series of ideological clashes or contradictions. These contradictions are obstacles that discipline and propel thought (the spirit?) to a new stage, never allowing it to complacently settle. Without such contradictions, the spirit (thought?) would stagnate. Don’t ask me exactly what this really means, because I do not have the faintest clue, despite reading plenty of books with titles like “An idiot’s guide to Hegel,” or “Hegel for the metaphysically challenged.” However, grandiose (or obscurantist) metaphysics aside, Hegel’s argument that progress requires dynamic clashes between apparently contradictory ideas is appealing. In fact, I will try to convince you that Hegel’s philosophy is exactly correct, if, of course, we eliminate his rather preposterous metaphysics. Reason (a less metaphysical alternative to Hegel’s “Geist,” or “absolute spirit”) progresses only through opposition. Without opposition, reason becomes a swampy still water, a breeding ground for the poisonous flies of dogmatism and superstition. I will do this by arguing that (1) cognitive processes come in two broad varieties (fast and slow: system 1 and system 2); (2) most of our conclusions are reached through system 1 processes (fast, not deliberative); (3) reasoning evolved to facilitate argumentation, not to reach truth; and (4) only strong opposition can reliably compel us to change mistaken or misguided beliefs.


 2. How one arrives—fast and slow

 Most of us probably believe that the mind is like one of those spectacular grandfather clocks with a glass facade. We can look through it, as it were, and observe its internal machinery. We can know why we believe this or that simply by carefully introspecting about those beliefs. Psychologists and philosophers, however, have spent the last several centuries dismantling this intuitive image of the mind. Not only is the mind not transparent, but also it is not even unified. It is not a single substance or thing; rather, it is probably comprised of a number of specialized mechanisms designed to solve recurrent evolutionary problems. These seem to operate without conscious reflection and appear impervious to (conscious) cognitive input. For example, take the Müller-Lyer illusion, a well known perceptual illusion:



My guess is that you could tell yourself that these lines are the same length all day without altering your perception (they are the same length; check the red lines!!). They don’t seem the same length; they never will. Your perceptual system is like a intractable child—it will not listen to the stern rebukes of your consciousness telling it “but these are the same, damn it!”

To make things simple, we can say that the mind is composed of one reasonably flexible system (roughly: consciousness or the executive system, but not quite) and a series of relatively inflexible systems. To make things simpler, we can call the flexible system system 2, and we can call the entire bundle of inflexible systems system 1. System 1 is quick, dirty, and parlays “rules of thumb” called heuristics. System 2 is relatively slow, deliberative, and creative. To illustrate, consider this problem:

What is the answer to the following question:
Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Which is more probable?

  1. Linda is a bank teller.
  2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

If you are like most people, you probably answered that the second option is more likely. If so, think about the problem more carefully. Option two is actually logically impossible because option one is contained in option two, and option two adds more, not less, information about Linda. If Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement, she is still a bank teller, and option one is still correct. Upon the other hand, if Linda is just a bank teller, then option two is incorrect. At most extreme, these two options could be equally likely (although that is highly implausible). Option two can never be more probable.

So what gives? Why are we so likely to pick option two despite its impossibility? According to Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, who originally forwarded this example, we are prone to getting the question wrong because system 1 relies upon certain cognitive shortcuts called heuristics (Tversky & Kahneman, 1983). In this case, system 1 relies upon the representativeness heuristic. The description of Linda seems more representative of a feminist bank teller than of just a bank teller; therefore, system 1 spits out that answer. Kahneman and Tversky (see Kahneman, 2011) have documented many of the heuristics that system 1 relies upon, but they are not important here. What is important is that the brain might be composed of two (probably more, as noted) minds. One mind (system 1) is fast and uses shortcuts; the other (system 2) is more plodding but is capable of creative feats that escape the talents of the first.

System 1 cognition results in gut intuitions, intuitions that are difficult to shake. For example, I know the answer to the Linda problem from above; I have known it for a long time. And yet, some part of me feels very strongly that option two must be correct. Evidence suggests that these intuitions guide most of our beliefs, behaviors, and reasoning. In other words, we don’t calmly and dispassionately deliberate about problems, mysteries, puzzles, or moral dilemmas. We have intuitions. And these intuitions then conjure reason to plead, to explain, to persuade. We think our beliefs and conclusions are reached through this process:

Reason ——> Conclusion/Belief ——> Passion/Emotion/Commitment

But they are actually reached through this process:

Intuition/Passion/Commitment——-> Conclusion/Belief——->(Reason)——->Stronger Passion/Emotion/Commitment

Reason is not the general of a well-disciplined army who decides where and when the army will attack; reason is the public relations officer who justifies the actions of the army after they attack.

Consider another question—this time, a moral question:
Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer

vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At very leastit would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth controlpills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, butthey decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makesthem feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that, was it OK for them to make love?

 If you are like most people, you do not think it was all right for them to make love. In fact, you think it was outrageous, disgusting, and very wrong. If you read this alone, then you might end your thought process there. It is disgusting and wrong. Nothing more needs to be said.

  3. The public relations officer

 But what if you read this in the context of a debate? What if the debate coach said, “This is what we will debate. You have to take the position that this is wrong.” What then? Well, then you would probably marshal the best possible argument you could. You wouldn’t be content to forward facile arguments such as “it is gross.” Why? Because you can run the simulation in your mind. You assert that it is wrong because it is gross. Slyly smiling, your opponent counters, “people often have the same response to homosexual relationships. Do you think those are wrong?” And your argument would sink. But, can you continue to defend the indefensible? And what is the point of reasoning in this case if you have already decided, via system 1, that incest is utterly wrong, and is utterly wrong no matter what precautions the incestuous participants used.

Haidt, Bjorklund, and Murphy (2000) asked the incest question from above, among others, to college undergraduates. After, they had the student engage in a discussion with an interviewer who was asked to play “the devil’s advocate.” Whatever answers the student gave, he was supposed to gently contradict them. The incest story elicited strong disapproval. Only 20% of the students originally said that it was all right for Julia and Mark to have sex. After their discussions with the devil’s advocate, several students changed their opinions and said that it was all right. Even so, the final group who said that the incestuous sexual encounter was all right was small. Some of the students were quite clever. They immediately noted that incest might cause genetic defects (see Haidt, 2012 for more details). “Yes, but the story indicated that they both used contraception.” At this point, some of the students noted that the sex might irreparably damage Julie and Mark’s relationship. “Yes, but the story indicated that it actually brought them closer together.” After forwarding and discarding a number of arguments, some of the students finally dropped all pretenses: it just seems wrong! Again, intuition appears to lead reason, which attempts, often defiantly, to defend whatever goal intuition desires.

So maybe some are incapable of defending the indefensible and changed their opinions after conversing with an opponent—but most students remained adamant that incest is just wrong*. These students still couldn’t really defend it. In the end, they simply asserted that it was wrong. But why did they defend it at all? Why did they not reason before arriving at a conclusion? And why not drop the moral outrage once deciding that, at the very minimum, it is very difficult to argue that consensual incest is a crime with an obvious victim? Well, according to Mercier and Sperber’s provocative suggestion (2011), reason did not evolve to guide us to the truth; rather, it evolved to equip us for persuading others. Reason is about arguing. We reason so that we can convince others that our beliefs are sound; and, just as importantly, we reason to protect ourselves against being manipulated by others. Reason is just one more tool in our armamentarium for changing the beliefs and behaviors of other people.

So, according to Mercier and Sperber, your original answer to the incest problem was probably not arrived at through reason. However, if you knew you would have to defend your belief about the problem, you would deploy reason to prepare a compelling case. And others would use reason to refute your case. This explains why we are quite good at discovering flaws in arguments with which we disagree, but relatively poor at discovering flaws in arguments with which we agree. When we are committed to some position or another, we are designed to protect ourselves against manipulation. We are designed to defend our commitment. This makes us skeptical of contrary opinions and warm to similar opinions. A good public relations officer doesn’t say to the press, “Yes. That is a good point Bob. We were wrong. We hereby change our opinion.” Instead, she comes equipped with good rebuttals to possible arguments. When she runs out of good rebuttals, she, like the students in the Haidt et al. experiment, simply shrugs her shoulders and says, “We are just right because we are.”

 4. Cognitive dissonance, scientific institutions, and progress

 Okay. So far we have learned that Freud was reasonably right about at least one thing. Many of our cherished thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and opinions are the output of the impenetrable machinery of our system 1 mind. We did not carefully reason about them. We had an intuition, a feeling, and that was good enough. If we did reason about them at all, we probably only did so to anticipate possible objections to them. Our rational mind is not an impartial arbiter; rather, it is an advocate, a dedicated votary of our intuitions. We don’t care about truth. We care about convincing and manipulating others.

But, if we are all irrational and passionate creatures, clashing like ignorant armies in the night, then how can we possibly achieve knowledge? Well, Hegel argued that it was precisely this passionate clashing that allows progress. And, as I noted, I agree. This because of two important things. First, we have a desire for cognitive consistency, especially when presenting ourselves to others. And second, we can create institutional structures that incentivize truth, that pay the passions for submitting to facts and data.

In his excellent book “The Expanding Circle,” Peter Singer argued that reason might allow for genuine moral progress (1981). It evolved because it helped us survive and reproduce (possibly by manipulating others). However, once it evolved, it developed a life of its own. When we use reason, we enter and ride an escalator. It may take us beyond survival and reproduction and into loftier regions of philosophical exploration and truth, allowing for both moral and scientific progress. Is this somewhat majestic vision of reason (at least compared, say, to the view of reason espoused by irrationalists) congruent with Mercier and Sperber’s arguments? I think so.

Reason creates a demand for consistency (which is effective for thwarting others’ attempts at manipulation). Social psychologists have long noted that holding two incongruent beliefs or behaviors causes mental tension, called cognitive dissonance. If you believe that rain makes people wet, it is difficult to believe also that it makes people dry. Suppose you saw a woman standing in a rainstorm without an umbrella. You were watching her form under a balcony. She walked under the balcony to ask you a question, and you noticed she was completely and utterly dry. Not a bead of water. You would probably be shocked and disconcerted. Did you really see that? Was it really raining? Your cognitive systems (both 1 and 2) desire some consistency. It is alarming when consistency is challenged.

Some have argued that this desire for consistency is more about self-presentation than about cognition (Baumeister, 1982). So, if we were left alone on an Island, we would not experience intense cognitive dissonance. Nobody would call out our inconsistencies, and we would be blissfully unaware of the incongruities in our cognition. There are thirty gods. There is only one god. Doesn’t really matter. Nobody would object. We could believe both things at the same time. This is consistent with Mercier and Sperber. We are designed to spot inconsistencies in another person’s attitudes and behaviors to protect ourselves from possible manipulation.

Suppose, for example, that a cult leader rails against the sin of sexual relations while having myriad sexual affairs with his followers. It would be useful to note this hypocrisy and to resist the cult leader’s ideology—which is designed to thwart your reproductive fitness while enhancing his! A plausible corollary is that we should be sensitive to accusations of hypocrisy or inconsistency. If we want to convince others that our moral system is the right moral system, we, at the very least, should adhere to it. None of this matters if we are alone. The same holds for a favored hypothesis. To really convince others that a theory is correct, one must show that it is entirely consistent with the evidence. If it is not and opponents are allowed to assail it, then it will be replaced by a better theory. This is an important if.

If someone is not calling out an inconsistency or flaw in a belief, opinion, or theory, then most of us will just keep believe what our intuitions or what previous commitments tell us. And it is truly astonishing what humans will believe when the jarring notes of dissonance are silenced by force or custom. Without contraries, as Blake noted, there is no progress. We become stultified and complacent. Opposition forces us to confront contradictions and to change our beliefs or theories if they cannot assimilate such contradictions.

This process works better at the institutional level. As I have noted, and as we all know, individuals don’t often change their minds. However, uncommitted observers do. Max Planck, the great physicist, noted “science progresses one funeral at a time.” The old generation, devoted to its theory, refuses to listen to the arguments of the new generation. But they die. And the institution of science perseveres. And the best way to achieve status in science is not to adhere to dying dogmas; it is to forward a new theory, one that better explains the available data. We have, then, created an institution that incentivizes the pursuit of truth. Scientists might just check their immediate intuitions because it actually pays to be right. Of course, plenty of scientists will continue to support flawed theories. But they will be replaced by other scientists who forward new (and also probably flawed!) theories.

 5. Conclusion: Seeking contradictions

 Hearing an opinion that is different from one’s own is often irritating. Our immediate reaction is often to question the person’s sanity or motives. How could a sane and decent person possibly oppose higher taxes? How could a sensitive and tolerant person possibly oppose affirmative action? How could a morally scrupulous person oppose abortion? How could a reasonable person believe that men and women are biologically different? Because of this, we often surround ourselves with people who share our moral and ideological worldviews. We click our favorite websites, and ignore the “bad” websites where “bad” people espouse stupid beliefs that contradict our own. If the argument in this blog is correct, however, this common practice is almost guaranteed to stunt intellectual growth. Rather than avoid opposition, we should seek it out. If we are conservative, we should read Mother Jones, the Nation, and the New York Times; if we are liberal, we should read the National Review, the Wall Street Journal, and the Weekly Standard.

We will never be disembodied agents contemplating the truth without passion or prejudice. We are not manifestations of the world spirit. Progress is not a metaphysical inevitability. However, if we invite contradictions and opposition into our intellectual lives, if we demand that others assail our favorite theories and opinions, if we click on those “stupid” websites where people fatuously disagree with our preferred politics, then we might progress, both intellectually and morally.


* It is, of course, possible that the incestuous relationship is wrong. However, I haven’t yet heard a good reason. And I have asked many people.



Baumeister, R. F. (1982). A self-presentational view of social phenomena.Psychological bulletin91, 3.

Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review, 108, 814-834.

Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by religion and politics. New York: Pantheon.

Haidt, J., Bjorklund, F., & Murphy, S. (2000). “Moral dumbfounding: When intuition finds no reason.” Unpublished manuscript, University of Virginia.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Macmillan.

Mercier, H., & Sperber, D. (2011). Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory. Behavioral and brain sciences34, 57-74.

Singer, P. (1981). The expanding circle. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1983). Extensional versus intuitive reasoning: The conjunction fallacy in probability judgment. Psychological Review, 90, 293-315.


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Fire Up Your Hearth: Relax & Stay Warm (While Being Energetically Inefficient)

My lab & I have presented on & written about fireside relaxation so many times by this point that I’m running out of clever titles. However, now that our first paper has finally been published &, as it happens, at the perfect time of year, I want to share an annotated press release.


Press Release

“Hearth and Campfire Influences on Arterial Blood Pressure: Defraying the Costs of the Social Brain through Fireside Relaxation”

A University of Alabama anthropologist has found that, consistent with anecdotal reports, hearth and campfires can be relaxing and suggests this influence on the stress response system may have been important in the evolution of the human social brain.

In a recent article in Evolutionary Psychology (, Christopher Lynn, a medical and psychological anthropologist, reports preliminary results from a three-year lab-based study.

Lynn isolated the sensory aspects of fire to study its influence on blood pressure before and after subjects watched a variety of simulated conditions, including a Yule fire DVD with no sound, or a Yule fire DVD with sound, a blank computer screen, and a static upside down picture of a fire. They found significant decreases in blood pressure associated with the more naturalistic conditions and longer exposure duration. On the other hand, fire with no sound and the upside down picture of a fire seemed to agitate subjects and increase stress.

Lynn and other researchers believe the relaxing influence of fire may have been important in human evolution. As claimed in the 2013 Coke Zero ad “Civilization,” featuring fur-clothed males in front of a fire, “man has always been captivated by watching stuff. And as civilization progressed, man was able to watch even more riveting stuff. And now scientists have developed HD to romance your eyeballs. How can you look away? So relax and do what your brain was meant to do, watch stuff.”

Tongue in cheek as this commercial may have been, recent findings suggest the human relationships with watching fire may have begun as early as 1.7 million years ago. Surprisingly though, no studies have examined the influence of fire on human cognition until now, confirmed that fire is a source of relaxation as commonly ascribed, or investigated the elements that produce its relaxing effects.

Lynn also found that greater relaxation effects were experienced by those who scored higher in prosociality. This finding supports speculation that manning perpetual fires before humans developed the ability to kindle them may have led to enhanced cooperation.

Stress-related disorders are among the leading causes of disability in the modern era and pose significant economic impacts worldwide, so it is important to better understand evolved mechanisms and environmental triggers of stress reduction like that of fireside relaxation. Firelight may enhance capacities to become absorbed in an object of attention and influence relaxation via autonomic nervous system effects, especially at night.

In addition to this fine press release that I wrote about myself in 3rd person, some astute journalists & bloggers have found their way to the article in advance of my shameless self-promotion.

The blog “Seriously, Science?” posted a somewhat snarky piece (I think?) pointing out what an obvious finding it is that fire is relaxing (I think—& which I agree with, btw). S/he also is savvy enough to point out that an alternative conclusion might be that all participants were culturally conditioned to find fire relaxing. We did control for that, though in a way that might not be obvious & is not stated specifically as such. We controlled for growing up with a fireplace, going camping, & hours spent staring at computer screens & other—ahem—flickering light & sudden sound phenomena (smartphones).

I like the piece by Mail Online even more because it overinterprets the findings in a way that I wasn’t quite willing but which I think most of us evolutionists feel is not quite true. However, I do need to point out that I’m suspicious there is a quiet minority whose interest is fire is ‘meh.’ Hopefully, we’ll address this variation better in our next paper.

I’ve also had a few cool papers sent to me in just the few days since the article came out by others researching fire or fire-related aspects. One I like that peripherally relates but is something I’ve never ever thought about is by Keith Stephens-Borg, who, I believe, is a practicing anesthesiologist in North Devon, UK. His essay, “The Crystal Chalice: Investigating the Source of Fiberoptic Science,” traces the medically transformative science of fiberoptics (thank you, endoscopy Gods, for aiding in the diagnosis of my Barrett’s esophagus, which used to bring me debilitating pain & now is largely check with Prilosec)  to the changes in human perception & consciousness that came with the manipulation of fire.



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Is Cunnilingus an Adaptation to Increase Intercourse Length & Increase the Probability of Fertilization?

Several years ago a student of mine (Christy McGee) in my “Anthropology of Sex” class was studying highly promiscuous women with the hypothesis that they would be averse to cunnilingus. She suggested that cunnilingus was a male means of detecting infidelity. I will admit my skepticism at the time, not because it seemed far-fetched but because it seemed so difficult to test. Instead, I pushed her toward considering a bonobo model to test whether there was any adaptive basis (read “phylogenetic” basis) for cunnilingus to begin with.

In querying the only person I knew who might have thought about this, Gordon Gallup, who was one of my grad advisers, had actually blogged on this very topic & posited that cunnilingus was a human cultural practice. He posited that bonobo (& chimp) vaginas would collect sweat & be the site of chemical warfare (between pathogens trying to get in & vaginal acids staving them off) that produced unsavory byproducts, such that, even if cunnilingus was experimented with by young apes, they would develop a learned taste aversion.

After visiting the Memphis Zoo & observing their bonobos, I concluded from the shape & position of bonobos labia that this scenario is highly unlikely. The orientation makes it physically implausible. I seem to recall discussing this in an early blog with photos, so I direct you there.

The only other experts I’ve ever mentioned this to looked at me like I was nuts (Frans de Waal—yeah, right? Frans de Waal of all people—even though he has the only data I could find on the topic, which he didn’t seem to recall publishing) & ignored me (someone at AAPA whose name escapes me). Nonetheless, after years of speculating about this in class & lab, one of my excellent & ambitious HBERG students, Erica Schumann, took on the project I’ve been proposing for years. She took videocameras to the Fort Worth & Memphis Zoos to record bonobo behavior & code specifically for cunnilingus!

On a sad side note: The lone male at the Memphis Zoo was unexpectedly separated from the several females when Erica went to collect data & subsequently died before she could return.

Okay, how do I follow that with what I’m excited about today? Well, more on her exciting (& arousing!) research later. But relevant to it, I saw this tweet earlier tonight:

And replied with a comment only a primatologist interested in sexual behavior could appreciate:

Male bats are using cunnilingus to render females receptive to copulation, either stimulating vaginal secretions or, you know, other stuff (what other stuff?).

Figure 1. Relationship between duration of pre-copulatory cunnilingus and copulation. Circles and numbers indicate average duration of copulation and n value, respectively. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0059743.g001

Figure 1. Relationship between duration of pre-copulatory cunnilingus and copulation.
Circles and numbers indicate average duration of copulation and n value, respectively.

Watch them go! This is fascinating. And, honestly, is it possible that we’re unaware of the breadth of mammalian fellatio & cunnilingus because it’s practically impossible to see what’s going on when small furry animals in trees are doing the nasty? I mean, most don’t hang upside down like two shirts (with penises & vaginas) tangling up on a clothesline for us to watch.

(I can’t get the damn video to embed, so here is the link to it)

And this has me thinking, is human cunnilingus an adaptation to make females more sexually receptive? This seems like a stupid question, but, I guess what I’m asking, is it more than a cultural adaptation? Is it a case of convergent evolution, wherein two species have converged on the same adaptation to increase female receptivity where sperm competition is relatively high? And how can we test this?

Posted in Adaptation, Anthropology, Biological Anthropology, Hypotheses, Mating and Sexuality | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Tuscaloosa is BEST: Prosociality in Tuscaloosa

This past spring I started a study called the Belongingness Ecology Study Tuscaloosa (BEST). Like the Religious Ecology Study Tuscaloosa (REST) before it & over which I consider it an umbrella project, it grew out of the readings & activities in an Honors seminar I teach called “Primate Religion & Human Consciousness” (PRHC; see the blog for that course here). More specifically, it grew out of reading the work of David Sloan Wilson & his students & collaborators. In the mid-2000s, David began the Binghamton Neighborhood Project (BNP) to apply evolutionary principles to improve communities in the city of Binghamton, NY. In the wake of this project, which has resulted in several papers & book on the work they’ve done, similar projects have sprung up in Boston (Boston Area Research Initiative), Flint, MI (see Dan Kruger’s publications for info on this study), Newcastle-on-Tyne (Tyneside Neighbourhood Project), & Madagascar (Positive Education Action-Research).

Inspired initially by hearing David speak about BNP at the EvoS Summit a few years ago (here is a link to the actual talk), when he said (paraphrasing here) that the application of evolutionary principles to improving the quality of life for people in his community feels more real & thus more important than any of the other evolutionary research he has done (which is massive & expansive) & is now his primary interest (forgive me, David, if I don’t have that quite right, but readers should watch the presentation & let me know if I got it right!). Generally, I like to be helpful, but I especially like it if what I already like to do is something people find helpful. As I often tell students, I’m not out to save the world—I study what interests me, but I try to find ways those interests can be of interest to others because it’s how I get funding. If it also improves my community, that’s an added bonus & increases the probability of funding. It’s this type of attitude that leads David & his coauthors to prefer the use of the term “prosocial” in their Evolution and Human Behavior paper “Human prosociality from an evolutionary perspective: Variation and correlations at a city-wide scale” (2009), which has led me to write this post.

…the term altruism has a strong connotation of self-sacrifice in addition to helping others. While helping others sometimes requires extreme self-sacrifice, often it is possible to benefit others at a low cost to oneself or to benefit along with others in the provision of public goods (Sober & Wilson, 1998)…We prefer the term “prosocial” to “altruistic” because it focuses on other- and society-oriented behaviors while remaining agnostic about the degree of individual self-sacrifice that might be involved. Thus, an individual who routinely does favors for others or who agrees with the survey item “I am helping to make my community a better place” qualifies as prosocial, regardless of the degree of self-sacrifice involved.

Our initial BEST efforts (ha ha) have been exploratory. I stepped back from encouraging students in the PRHC course to use the church-by-church study model we developed based on David’s book Darwin’s Cathedral (2002) &, following Barbara King’s model for the evolution of religion outlined in Evolving God (2007), I assigned them simply to study any group that inculcates “belongingness” & to assess the degree to which it does that. (Ironically, while past classes have shied from choosing churches as the focus of their study, this past semester’s class all chose churches.) The methodology they used combines cultural consensus & religious-commitment signaling theory, which I outline in an article currently in review (so I can’t spill the beans yet, but email if you’re interested in reading the current draft).

The biggest problem with this approach is that it requires a lot more work than can be accomplished in a semester. So, while I believe it is great experience for the students, the data are scant & ultimately lack utility for the larger project I have in mind. So, over this past summer & after conversation with Dan O’Brien about the BARI project at NEEPS 2014, which featured a whole session on these evolution-community projects, I switched gears & decided to focus attention on specific groups, based on some hanky-panky that went down here a year ago (see my post “University Greek Systems are Natural Experiments for Multi-Level Selection Theory (Waiting to be Investigated)” for more info on that). This semester, I have a student in my research group & another student I am supervising as part of a local government internship doing social network analysis of the University of Alabama Student Government Association & the City of Tuscaloosa City Council. Our hypothesis is that, analogous to brains, more networked groups are “smarter”—e.g., more capable of flexibility & getting more done. However, this project requires more people-power, so, as with my last post, I’m in need of a grad student to help handle the day-to-day running of the project & expand it beyond those initial two groups (please contact me for more info or apply!).

But, as I say, it is reading David & Dan’s 2009 article on the BNP that inspired this post. I’m intrigued by this principle & how we can use it to study the efficacy of cooperative groups:

Game theorists refer to a “replicator dynamic” as any process whereby the most successful behavioral strategy increases in frequency through time, which can include such things as learning and imitation in addition to genetic evolution (Bowles 2003; Gintis, 2000). Any replicator dynamic counts as an evolutionary process, vastly expanding the relevance of evolutionary theory to contemporary human affairs.

In the 2009 article, David & Dan outline a study of prosociality in Binghamton that involved analysis of data collected using the Search Institute’s “Developmental Assets Profile (DAP)” survey among Binghamton school children & replication of the lost-letter study to objectively validate self-reports re neighborhood quality. In the spring 2015, I am implementing a “service-learning” component of the PRHC course, which I intend simply to be an expansion on & elaboration of the BEST endeavor, so that the students can collect information that will be of use to policy makers in our municipality (which is the overall purpose of BEST). I am thinking of replicating David & Dan’s study, which will require the students to contact the school superintendent & BOE to request permission or assistance in collecting DAP data, writing up an IRB proposal (that will be unlikely to be approved before the end of the semester but could set up conditions to continue the study during the following semester), & conducting the lost-letter study, which a service-learning fellowship I received can subsidize.

We can do this for Tuscaloosa. How cool would that be?

Mapping Binghamton's prosociality with two different methods. On the left is a continuous map using kriging; on the right the city is split into discrete census block groups with scores. Both use the responses from the DAP. (From Wilson et al. 2009, DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2008.12.002)

Fig. 2. Mapping Binghamton’s prosociality with two different methods. On the left is a continuous map using kriging; on the right the city is split into discrete census block groups with scores. Both use the responses from the DAP. (From Wilson et al. 2009, DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2008.12.002)

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