I’ve been simultaneously looking at two books: This is Your Brain on Parasites by Kathleen McAuliffe. And Stranger Than We Can Imagine by John Higgs. The two relate, with the latter offering a larger context for the former. The theme of both might well be summed up with the word ‘strange’. The world is strange and becoming ever stranger. We are becoming aware of how utterly bizarre the world is, both within us and all around us.
The first is not only about parasites, despite the catchy title. It goes so far beyond just that. After all, most of the genetic material we carry around with us, including within our brains, is non-human. It’s not merely that we are part of environments for we are environments. We are mobile ecosystems with boundaries that are fluid and permeable.
For a popular science book, it covers a surprising amount of territory and done so with more depth than one might expect. Much of the research discussed is preliminary and exploratory, as the various scientific fields have been slow to emerge. This might be because of how much they challenge the world as we know it and society as it is presently ordered. There are other psychological factors the author details such as the resistance humans have in dealing with topics of perceived disgust.
To summarize the book, McAuliffe explores the conclusions and implications of research involving parasitism and microbiomes in terms of neurocognitive functioning, behavioral tendencies, personality traits, political ideologies, population patterns, social structures, and culture. She offers some speculations of those involved in these fields, and what makes the speculations interesting is how they demonstrate the potential challenges of these new understandings. Whether or not we wish to take the knowledge and speculations seriously, the real world consequences will remain to be dealt with somehow.
The most obvious line of thought is the powerful influence of environments. The world around us doesn’t just effect us. It shapes who we are at a deep level and so shapes our entire society. There is no way to separate the social world from the natural world. This isn’t fatalism, since we also shape our environments. The author points to the possibility that Western societies have been liberalized at least partly because of the creation of healthier conditions that allow human flourishing. All of the West not that long ago was dominated by fairly extreme forms of social conservatism, violent ethnocentrism, authoritarian systems, etc. Yet in the generations following the creation of sewer systems, clean water, environmental regulations and improved healthcare, there was a revolution in Western social values along with vast improvements in human development.
In terms of intelligence, some call this the Moral Flynn Effect, a convergence of diverse improvements. And there is no reason to assume it will stop and won’t spread further. We know the problems we face. We basically understand what those problems are, what causes them and alleviates them, even if not entirely eliminates them. So, we know what we should do, assuming we actually wanted to create a better world. Most importantly, we have the monetary wealth, natural resources, and human capacity to implement what needs to be done. It’s not a mystery, not beyond our comprehension and ability. But the general public has so far lacked this knowledge, for it takes a while for new info and understandings to spread — e.g., Enlightenment ideas developed over centuries and it wasn’t until the movable type printing press became common that revolutions began. The ruling elite, as in the past, will join in solving these problems when fear of the masses forces them to finally act. Or else the present ruling elite will itself be eliminated, as happened with previous societies.
What is compelling about this book are the many causal links and correlations shown. It matches closely with what is seen from other fields, forming a picture that can’t be ignored. It’s probably no accident that ethnocentric populations, socially conservative societies, authoritarian governments, and strict religions all happen to be found where there are high rates of disease, parasites, toxins, malnutrition, stress, poverty, inequality, etc — all the conditions that stunt and/or alter physical, neurocognitive, and psychological development.
For anti-democratic ruling elites, there is probably an intuitive or even conscious understanding that the only way to maintain social control is through keeping the masses to some degree unhealthy and stunted. If you let people develop more of their potential, they will start demanding more. If you let intelligence increase and education improve, individuals will start thinking for themselves and the public imagining new possibilities.
Maybe its unsurprising that American conservatives have seen the greatest threat not just in public education but, more imporantly, in public health. The political right doesn’t fear the failures of the political left, the supposed wasted use of tax money. No, what they fear is that the key leftist policies have been proven to work. The healthier, smarter, and better educated people become the more they develop attitudes of social liberalism and anti-authoritarianism, which leads toward the possibility of radical imagination and radical action. Until people are free to more fully develop their potentials, freedom is a meaningless and empty abstraction. The last thing the political right wants, and sadly this includes many mainstream ‘liberals’, is a genuinely free population.
This creates a problem. The trajectory of Western civilization for centuries has been the improvement of all these conditions that seems to near inevitably create a progressive society. That isn’t to say the West is perfect. Far from it. But imagine what kind of world it would be if universal healthcare and education was provided to every person on the planet. This is within the realm of possibility at this very moment, if we so chose to invest our resources in this way. It’s nothing special about the West and even in the West there are still large parts of the population living in severe deprivation and oppression. In a single generation, we could transform civilization and solve (or at least shrink to manageable size) the worst social problems. There is absolutely nothing stopping us but ourselves. Instead, Western governments have been using their vast wealth and power to dominate other countries, making the world a worst place in the process, helping to create the very conditions that further undermine any hope for freedom and democracy. Blowing up hospitals, destroying infrastructure, and banning trade won’t lead to healthier and more peaceful populations; if anything, the complete opposite.
A thought occurred to me. If environmental conditions are so important to how individuals and societies form, then maybe political ideologies are less key than we think or else not as important in the way we normally think about them. Our beliefs about our society might be more result than cause (maybe the limited healthcare availability in the American South being a central factor in maintaining its historical conservatism and authoritarianism). We have a hard time thinking outside of the conditions that have shaped our very minds.
That isn’t to say there is no feedback loop where ideology can reinforce the conditions that made it possible. The point is that free individuals aren’t fully possible in an unfree society where individuals aren’t free on a practical level to develop toward optimal health and ability. As such, fights over ideology miss an important point. The actual fight needs to be over the conditions that precede any particular ideological framing and conflict. On a practical level, we would be better off investing money and resources where it is needed most and in ways that practically improve lives, rather than simply imprisoning populations into submission and bombing entire societies into oblivion, either of which worsens the problems for those people and for everyone else as well. The best way to fight crime and terrorism would be by improving the lives for all people. Imagine that!
The only reason we can have a public debate now is because we have finally come to the point in society where conditions have improved just enough where these issues are finally comprehensible, as we have begun to see their real world impact in improving society. It would have been fruitless trying to have a public debate about public goods such as public healthcare and public education in centuries past when even the notion of a ‘public’ still seemed radical. The conditions for a public with a voice to be heard had to first be created. Once that was in place, it is unsurprising that it required radicals like socialists to take it to the next level in suggesting the creation of public sanitation and public bakeries, based on the idea that health was a priority, if not an individual right then a social responsibility. Now, these kinds of socialist policies have become the norm in Western societies, the most basic level of a social safety net.
As I began reading McAuliffe’s book, I came across Higgs’ book. It wasn’t immediately apparent that there was a connection between the two. Reading some reviews and interviews showed the importance Higgs placed on the role (hyper-)individualism has played this past century. And upon perusing the book, it became clear that he understood how this went beyond philosophy and politics, touching upon every aspect of our society, most certainly including science.
It was useful thinking about the issue of micro-organisms in a larger historical context. McAuliffe doesn’t shy away from the greater implications, but her writing was focused on a single area of study. To both of these books, we could also add such things as the research on epigentics which might further help transform our entire understanding of humanity. Taken together, it is clear that we are teetering on the edge of a paradigm shift, of the extent only seen a few times before. We live in a transitional era, but it isn’t a smooth transition. As Higgs argues, the 20th century has been a rupture, what having developed not being fully explicable according to what came before.
We are barely beginning to scratch the surface of our own ignorance, which is to say our potential new knowledge. We know just enough to realize how wrong mainstream views have been in the past. Our society was built upon and has been operating according to beliefs that have been proven partial, inaccurate, and false. The world is more complex and fascinating than we previously acknowledged.
Realizing we have been so wrong, how do we make it right going forward? What will it take for us to finally confront what we’ve ignored for so long? How do we make the strange familiar?
* * *
Donald Trump: Stranger Than We Can Imagine?
by David McConkey
Why Jeremy Corbyn makes sense in the age of the selfie
By John Higgs
Stranger Than We Can Imagine:
Making Sense of the Twentieth Century
by John Higgs
In the words of the American social physicist Alex Pentland, “It is time that we dropped the fiction of individuals as the unit of rationality, and recognised that our rationality is largely determined by the surrounding social fabric. Instead of being actors in markets, we are collaborators in determining the public good.” Pentland and his team distributed smartphones loaded with tracking software to a number of communities in order to study the vast amount of data the daily interactions of large groups generated. They found that the overriding factor in a whole range of issues, from income to weight gain and voting intentions, was not individual free will but the influence of others. The most significant factor deciding whether you would eat a doughnut was not willpower or good intentions, but whether everyone else in the office took one. As Pentland discovered, “The single biggest factor driving adoption of new behaviours was the behaviour of peers. Put another way, the effects of this implicit social learning were roughly the same size as the influence of your genes on your behaviour, or your IQ on your academic performance.”
A similar story is told by the research into child development and neuroscience. An infant is not born with language, logic and an understanding of how to behave in society. They are instead primed to acquire these skills from others. Studies of children who have been isolated from the age of about six months, such as those abandoned in the Romanian orphanages under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu, show that they can never recover from the lost social interaction at that crucial age. We need others, it turns out, in order to develop to the point where we’re able to convince ourselves that we don’t need others.
Many aspects of our behaviour only make sense when we understand their social role. Laughter, for example, creates social bonding and strengthens ties within a group. Evolution did not make us make those strange noises for our own benefit. In light of this, it is interesting that there is so much humour on the internet.
Neuroscientists have come to view our sense of “self,” the idea that we are a single entity making rational decisions, as no more than a quirk of the mind. Brain-scanning experiments have shown that the mental processes that lead to an action, such as deciding to press a button, occur a significant period before the conscious brain believes it makes the decision to press the button. This does not indicate a rational individual exercising free will. It portrays the conscious mind as more of a spin doctor than a decision maker, rationalising the actions of the unconscious mind after the fact. As the Canadian-British psychologist Bruce Hood writes, “Our brain creates the experience of our self as a model – a cohesive, integrated character – to make sense of the multitude of experiences that assault our senses throughout our lifetime.”
In biology an “individual” is an increasingly complicated word to define. A human body, for example, contains ten times more non-human bacteria than it does human cells. Understanding the interaction between the two, from the immune system to the digestive organs, is necessary to understand how we work. This means that the only way to study a human is to study something more than that human.
Individualism trains us to think of ourselves as isolated, self-willed units. That description is not sufficient, either biologically, socially, psychologically, emotionally or culturally. This can be difficult to accept if you were raised in the twentieth century, particularly if your politics use the idea of a free individual as your primary touchstone. The promotion of individualism can become a core part of a person’s identity, and something that must be defended. This is ironic, because where did that idea come from? Was it created by the person who defends their individualism? Does it belong to them? In truth, that idea was, like most ideas, just passing through.
* * *