Essentialism On the Decline

Before getting to the topic of essentialism, let me take an indirect approach. In reading about paleolithic diets and traditional foods, a recurring theme is inflammation, specifically as it relates to the health of the gut-brain network and immune system.

The paradigm change this signifies is that seemingly separate diseases with different diagnostic labels often have underlying commonalities. They share overlapping sets of causal and contributing factors, biological processes and symptoms. This is why simple dietary changes can have a profound effect on numerous health conditions. For some, the diseased state expresses as mood disorders and for others as autoimmune disorders and for still others something entirely else, but there are immense commonalities between them all. The differences have more to do with how dysbiosis and dysfunction happens to develop, where it takes hold in the body, and so what symptoms are experienced.

From a paleo diet perspective in treating both patients and her own multiple sclerosis, Terry Wahls gets at this point in a straightforward manner (The Wahls Protocol, p. 47): “In a very real sense, we all have the same disease because all disease begins with broken, incorrect biochemistry and disordered communication within and between our cells. […] Inside, the distinction between these autoimmune diseases is, frankly, fairly arbitrary”. In How Emotions Are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett wrote (Kindle Locations 3834-3850):

“Inflammation has been a game-changer for our understanding of mental illness. For many years, scientists and clinicians held a classical view of mental illnesses like chronic stress, chronic pain, anxiety, and depression. Each ailment was believed to have a biological fingerprint that distinguished it from all others. Researchers would ask essentialist questions that assume each disorder is distinct: “How does depression impact your body? How does emotion influence pain? Why do anxiety and depression frequently co-occur?” 9

“More recently, the dividing lines between these illnesses have been evaporating. People who are diagnosed with the same-named disorder may have greatly diverse symptoms— variation is the norm. At the same time, different disorders overlap: they share symptoms, they cause atrophy in the same brain regions, their sufferers exhibit low emotional granularity, and some of the same medications are prescribed as effective.

“As a result of these findings, researchers are moving away from a classical view of different illnesses with distinct essences. They instead focus on a set of common ingredients that leave people vulnerable to these various disorders, such as genetic factors, insomnia, and damage to the interoceptive network or key hubs in the brain (chapter 6). If these areas become damaged, the brain is in big trouble: depression, panic disorder, schizophrenia, autism, dyslexia, chronic pain, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are all associated with hub damage. 10

“My view is that some major illnesses considered distinct and “mental” are all rooted in a chronically unbalanced body budget and unbridled inflammation. We categorize and name them as different disorders, based on context, much like we categorize and name the same bodily changes as different emotions. If I’m correct, then questions like, “Why do anxiety and depression frequently co-occur?” are no longer mysteries because, like emotions, these illnesses do not have firm boundaries in nature.”

What jumped out at me was the conventional view of disease as essentialist, and hence the related essentialism in biology and psychology. This is exemplified by genetic determinism, such as it informs race realism. It’s easy for most well-informed people to dismiss race realists, but essentialism takes on much more insidious forms that are harder to detect and root out. When scientists claimed to find a gay gene, some gay men quickly took this genetic determinism as a defense against the fundamentalist view that homosexuality is a choice and a sin. It turned out that there was no gay gene (by the way, this incident demonstrated how, in reacting to reactionaries, even leftist activists can be drawn into the reactionary mind). Not only is there no gay gene but also no simple and absolute gender divisions at all — as I previously explained (Is the Tide Starting to Turn on Genetics and Culture?):

“Recent research has taken this even further in showing that neither sex nor gender is binary (1234, & 5), as genetics and its relationship to environment, epigenetics, and culture is more complex than was previously realized. It’s far from uncommon for people to carry genetics of both sexes, even multiple DNA. It has to do with diverse interlinking and overlapping causal relationships. We aren’t all that certain at this point what ultimately determines the precise process of conditions, factors, and influences in how and why any given gene expresses or not and how and why it expresses in a particular way.”

The attraction of essentialism is powerful. And as shown in numerous cases, the attraction can be found across the political spectrum, as it offers a seemingly strong defense in diverting attention away from other factors. Similar to the gay gene, many people defend neurodiversity as if some people are simply born a particular way, and that therefore we can’t and shouldn’t seek to do anything to change or improve their condition, much less cure it or prevent it in future generations.

For example, those on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum will occasionally defend their condition as being gifted in their ability to think and perceive differently. That is fine as far as it goes, but from a scientific perspective we still should find it concerning that conditions like this are on a drastic rise and it can’t be explained by mere greater rates of diagnosis. Whether or not one believes the world would be a better place with more people with autism, this shouldn’t be left as a fatalistic vision of an evolutionary leap, especially considering most on the autism spectrum aren’t high functioning — instead, we should try to understand why it is happening and what it means.

Researchers have found that there are prospective causes to be studied. Consider proprionate, a substance discussed by Alanna Collen (10% Human, p. 83): “although propionate was an important compound in the body, it was also used as a preservative in bread products – the very foods many autistic children crave. To top it all off, clostridia species are known to produce propionate. In itself, propionate is not ‘bad’, but MacFabe began to wonder whether autistic children were getting an overdose.” This might explain why antibiotics helped many with autism, as it would have been knocking off the clostridia population that was boosting propionate. To emphasize this point, when rodents were injected with propionate, they exhibited the precise behaviors of autism and they too showed inflammation in the brain. The fact that autistics often have brain inflammation, an unhealthy condition, is strong evidence that autism shouldn’t be taken as mere neurodiversity (and, among autistics, the commonality of inflammation-related gut issues emphasizes this point).

There is no doubt that genetic determinism, like the belief in an eternal soul, can be comforting. We identify with our genes, as we inherit them and are born with them. But to speak of inflammation or propionate or whatever makes it seem like we are victims of externalities. And it means we aren’t isolated individuals to be blamed or to take credit for who we are. To return to Collen (pp. 88-89):

“In health, we like to think we are the products of our genes and experiences. Most of us credit our virtues to the hurdles we have jumped, the pits we have climbed out of, and the triumphs we have fought for. We see our underlying personalities as fixed entities – ‘I am just not a risk-taker’, or ‘I like things to be organised’ – as if these are a result of something intrinsic to us. Our achievements are down to determination, and our relationships reflect the strength of our characters. Or so we like to think.

“But what does it mean for free will and accomplishment, if we are not our own masters? What does it mean for human nature, and for our sense of self? The idea that Toxoplasma, or any other microbe inhabiting your body, might contribute to your feelings, decisions and actions, is quite bewildering. But if that’s not mind-bending enough for you, consider this: microbes are transmissible. Just as a cold virus or a bacterial throat infection can be passed from one person to another, so can the microbiota. The idea that the make-up of your microbial community might be influenced by the people you meet and the places you go lends new meaning to the idea of cultural mind-expansion. At its simplest, sharing food and toilets with other people could provide opportunity for microbial exchange, for better or worse. Whether it might be possible to pick up microbes that encourage entrepreneurship at a business school, or a thrill-seeking love of motorbiking at a race track, is anyone’s guess for now, but the idea of personality traits being passed from person to person truly is mind-expanding.”

This goes beyond the personal level, which lends a greater threat to the proposal. Our respective societies, communities, etc might be heavily influenced by environmental factors that we can’t see. A ton of research shows the tremendous impact of parasites, heavy metal toxins, food additives, farm chemicals, hormones, hormone mimics, hormone disruptors, etc. Entire regions might be shaped by even a single species of parasite, such as how higher rates of toxoplasmosis gondii in New England is directly correlated to higher rates of neuroticism (see What do we inherit? And from whom? & Uncomfortable Questions About Ideology).

Essentialism, though still popular, has taken numerous major hits in recent years. It once was the dominant paradigm and went largely unquestioned. Consider how early last century respectable fields of study such as anthropology, linguistic relativism and behaviorism suggested that humans were largely products of environmental and cultural factors. This was the original basis of the attack on racism and race realism. In linguistics, Noam Chomsky overturned this view in positing the essentialist belief that, though not observed much less proven, there must exist within the human brain a language module with a universal grammar. It was able to defeat and replace the non-essentialist theories because it was more satisfying to the WEIRD ideologies that were becoming a greater force in an increasingly WEIRD society.

Ever since Plato, Western civilization has been drawn toward the extremes of essentialism (as part of the larger Axial Age shift toward abstraction and idealism). Yet there has also long been a countervailing force (even among the ancients, non-essentialist interpretations were common; consider group identity: here, here, here, here, and here). It wasn’t predetermined that essentialism would be so victorious as to have nearly obliterated the memory of all alternatives. It fit the spirit of the times for this past century, but now the public mood is shifting again. It’s no accident that, as social democracy and socialism regains favor, environmentalist explanations are making a comeback. But this is merely the revival of a particular Western tradition of thought, a tradition that is centuries old.

I was reminded of this in reading Liberty in America’s Founding Moment by Howard Schwartz. It’s an interesting shift of gears, since Schwartz doesn’t write about anything related to biology, health, or science. But he does indirectly get at environmentalist critique that comes out in his analysis of David Hume (1711-1776). I’ve mostly thought of Hume in terms of his bundle theory of self, possibly having been borrowed from Buddhism that he might have learned from Christian missionaries having returned from the East. However he came to it, the bundle theory argued that there is no singular coherent self, as was a central tenet of traditional Christian theology. Still, heretical views of the self were hardly new — some detect a possible Western precursor of Humean bundle theory in the ideas of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677).

Whatever its origins in Western thought, environmentalism has been challenging essentialism since the Enlightenment. And in the case of Hume, there is an early social constructionist view of society and politics, that what motivates people isn’t essentialism. This puts a different spin on things, as Hume’s writings were widely read during the revolutionary era when the United States was founded. Thomas Jefferson, among others, was familiar with Hume and highly recommended his work. Hume represented the opposite position to John Locke. We are now returning to this old battle of ideas.

36 thoughts on “Essentialism On the Decline

  1. All very interesting. Needless to say I’m especially drawn to your thoughts on Hume, et al. Closing in on the end of Rousseau’s Dog – about Hume’s fight with Rousseau – and it’s worth noting the context of Hume’s development (in addition to Spinoza) is Bishop Berkeley. Of course Berkeley, knowingly or not, echoes the Greeks;-)

    Also, re: Hume: in his letters he mentions (without irony) that he finds the state of philosophical discourse/debate to be a mess – full of endless arguments that are nothing but repetitions of previous arguments. He declares that he will (definitively!) break that cycle;-)

    • What stands out about essentialism is that it can be shaped to almost any view and bent to almost any end. From race realism and the ego-mind to Chomskyan linguistics and natural rights.

      It doesn’t matter the form it takes for the main purpose it serves in the social order is as the dominant paradigm by which all else is defined and formulated, all choices determined and framed. When the various essentialist ideologies compete, it is the essentialist paradigm that rules them all.

      I might argue, in light of Jaynesian post-bicameral consciousness, that the essentialism of ego-mind (and its monotheistic precursor of eternal soul) is the ultimate essentialism or else a central pillar: one God as Truth, one pathway to salvation, one voice inside the mind-space. It is the mindset and worldview of essentialism that is the key to its power, the details of individual ideologies being a bit of a distraction.

      And a Jaynesian view of essentialism brings us back to the insight that authoritarianism is the flip side of individualism. Essentialism is always singular and totalizing in its impetus and aspiration. That brings us then to your thoughts on the repeating mindset that claims definitive and original theories of everything.

      As for Hume, that of course was thrown in with a nod in your direction. I figured that part would contribute to some good discussion. So I look forward to your thoughts on Hume and related topics. Your comment about Berkeley has me intrigued, as I’m unfamiliar with his life and work.

      Ah, silly Hume. Everyone knows that only the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior, can break the cycle during the End Times.

    • This was another post tossed together right before work. It was a basic thought I wanted to put down, specifically as it related to what I’ve been reading along with some authors I was reminded of from past readings. But I didn’t have the time to fully develop the argument.

      Mostly, it was brought back to mind how certain themes run through history. And how these themes transcend single areas. It’s not only about health or philosophy or what have you. The same basic patterns of mind play out over and over again. Repetition always catches my attention.

      This post is actually just an offshoot of a larger piece I’m writing. It’s about how a number of fields (with a focus on linguistics and nutrition) were able to be derailed for about a half century because wrong theories came to power. How does that happen?

      Let me point out something that could be extended. You speak of Berkeley echoing the Greeks. That fits into where my own mind was pointing. It wasn’t until the Axial Age transition ended that essentialism took center stage. In the ancient world, even as essentialism was being developed, non-essentialism remained common and compelling. This is largely because abstract thinking was still limited at the time and essentialism is dependent on abstract thinking.

      Below is another angle. Essentialism is closely related to compartmentalization and categorization.

  2. Here is something a bit tangential. But I’ll connect it back to the post. Corey Robin tweeted:
    “You say norm erosion. I say the birth of a new order.”

    Then Ross Douthat responded:
    “I find the @CoreyRobin framework here consistently useful, if also a touch too optimistic about how long we might be “stuck between regimes” and what the next one might look like:”

    And Robin apparently was convinced:
    “This, I agree with, and it’s one of the objections that gives me considerable pause about my own view. Not just the intellectuals but also the disruptive social movements, particularly of workers, don’t just seem to be there, in the same way they were in the 1930s.”

    My suspicion is that Robin was closer to right with his first comment. But probably not in the way he intended it. This is a far different situation. Not a push toward reform within the system but the potential ending or transformation of the system. It likely won’t happen as easily this time around. This could be the quiet before the storm. As I’m pointing to here, what if the change is not so much standard sociopolitical change but part of a more extensive paradigm change?

    It’s not about any single thing. That is what makes it hard for many to grasp, maybe even harder for public intellectuals like Robin and Douthat most of all. The education system doesn’t prepare the modern intellectual for understanding such complex shifts. The birth of a new order won’t likely come as expected by most people.

    I don’t know what that could mean. I just have feeling we are in the middle of a shift that has been going on for a while. An increasing number are beginning to take notice, even as they don’t know what it is that is going on. It can feel like nothing is happening at all, as the pressure builds unseen below grinding tectonic plates. Dominant theories in multiple fields are being taken down and yet it can’t be felt by most people because it will be a while before it finally all comes together.

    The Enlightenment Age preceded the early modern revolutionary era. New ways of thinking, being, and relating had to filter out through the larger population. That is the process that has been going on. The new paradigm is barely recognizable because it’s limited to something here and something there, each seeming separate for the time being. Either we are in something akin to another Enlightenment Age or we are coming to the end of the larger shift that included but wasn’t limited to the Enlightenment Age. Maybe the Enlightenment ideas have been pushed as far as they could go.

    In speaking of non-essentialist thought, I’m trying to tease out the form emerging from the darkness. It might not fully emerge in our lifetimes. But it very well might. My guess is that climate change is going to force the paradigm change into more systemic/environmentalist thinking. Depending on larger conditions, it could happen quickly and abruptly. Or it could happen in halting steps of catastrophe and reaction followed by more catastrophe, a slower decline. Either way, it will get harder to ignore.

    • I’m not sure about Douthat. But Robin, though presenting himself as a leftist, always comes across more as an old school liberal.

      This stands out in his pining for the good ol’ days of influential activist intellectuals and industrial-age labor organizing. In hoping that the future could be like the past, these kinds of people feel disappointed and frustrated for they’re smart enough to realize that isn’t the scenario.

      They’d be better off taking the shift happening on its own terms.

    • I posted about this Twitter exchange because its about politics. And I was wondering how essentialism might relate to other areas of society, beyond scientific research and pseudo-scientific ideologies. What does essentialism mean as a societal paradigm?

  3. To demonstrate that this has been on my mind for a while, below is the same kind of post written 6 years ago.

    Actually, my sense of this kind of shift goes back to the Bush era. It became particularly clear as we went into the Obama administration, about when I first took notice of Steve Bannon in watching his documentary on generations theory. I could viscerally feel the gears clicking into place. It made me feel agitated and unsettled.

    My thoughts here also fit into another post from a couple of years ago.

  4. There’s a tremendous amount here and I’m not sure I can adequately respond to all of it but: ” If I’m correct, then questions like, “Why do anxiety and depression frequently co-occur?” are no longer mysteries because, like emotions, these illnesses do not have firm boundaries in nature.””

    This reminds me of Foucault who owes a great deal to Hume but, in the time-honored tradition of philosophers everywhere he doesn’t mention Hume;-)

    But it’s gestalt vs the narrow if often useful methodology of the scientific. From a Hume-ian perspective the “disease” and the “system” of it are one and the same. Of course it’s also true that Hume was living in the era right before Jenner and inoculations – there is a lot to be said in favor of the scientific method but of course it has its limits.

    I was struck by your comments on high functioning autistics. The politics of it wants to have a view that doesn’t allow or curbs “criticism” where as I agree with you we should not limit the discussion and we should ask “what’s happening and why?”

    Gondii toxoplasma is fascinating. As a cat person I’ve read a little on it and the connections (or possible connections) between the cat the rat and the gondii is stunning in its implications.

    I’ve been watching a steady stream of videos on youtube of a British show called Qi – it’s sort of a high end quiz show but being on Brit tv people can say pretty much whatever they like. But to the point at hand they did a segment on the symbiosis between certain animals and plants. Bees for example vibrate at a certain frequency that causes certain flowers to release pollen which the bees of course scoop up and there’s a small rodent like animal that defecates into the purposely designed opening of a particular plant – that is t’s designed to suit that animal and the plant gives off a nectar the animal eats and the plant breaks up the dropping to get minerals which then help the plant secrete more nectar and grow and so on.

    The multitude of systems humans have designed that are predicated on separation and thus exploitation vs symbiosis and sustainability are of course well documented.

    But of course philosophy (using the word broadly) is full of counter examples based on the idea that we are linked to and with that which is falsely thought o be distinct.

    Which is a good place to mention a bit about Bishop B. He really was repeating Parmenides’ notion that the “world” was only what we thought and that the idea of some distant fact (i.e., you’re in “America” and you “know that England exists”) is actually false. There is only what can be thought and if you are not thinking it, it does not exist and even if it does it is irrelevant to such an extent it amounts to a state of non-existence.

    Per Karl Popper, that’s identical to Parmenides.

    Aristotle extends it to say that thinking of x creates consciousness for x.

    But it’s no small matter that Bishop B was in the era right before the major tech revolution in lenses. There were some in his time but the quantifiable leap in the era of the Dutch “Golden Age” and then in Hume’s time was significant and played a profound role in expanding the sense of worlds/realities/consciousness beyond the self.

    But for Hume of course it meant not separation but a kind of contradictory state. as you say – the Bundle theory (and its echoes of Buddhism).

    But regardless of the details there’s this mysterious meta pattern of repetition. The same arguments, the same claims of being definitive and the same claims of originality or just not mentioning what/who has come before.

    Very strange.

    Re: Douthat and Robson. Douthat irritates me.

    I ranted about him in the context of the media’s hypocrisy (as I saw it) about Playboy when Hefner died (

    But what seems missing from their exchange and I think accounts for the absence of a 1930s style movement is the advent of the connected society of systems and mass surveillance.

    A friend in his mid 60s was in LA (UCLA) circa 1966-70. The sorties he tells include and are defined by a meta reality of less successful surveillance (despite obvious issues with the LAPD and the Hoovers) and the ability one had to just pack up and vanish – hit the road in the classic sense.

    Now with the fully integrated tech system and “Big Brother” it’s a radically (sic!) different landscape.

    And I think surveillance not being discussed for its impact on social movements and political outcomes is a kind of dog that didn’t bark. that is the very absence of it as part of the discussion is a kind of proof of its effect.

    The alternative would be to say Snowden et al were/are wrong and when Obama said we’re not listening to your phone calls is true.

    That hardly seems likely.

    I mentioned recently how media coverage of a biography of Arthur Koestler smugly dismissed the passionate political arguments of his era – arguments with Camus, Sartre de Beauvoir etc.

    The absence of such arguments is portrayed as being down to contemporary cynicism/sophistication but it seems more likely that it’s down to both indirect and direct disruption of attempts at organization.

    I agree about the impact of climate change. We could easily see a mass migration start in the US coastal cities and the “refugee crisis” will be internal and not “about Africa” and that could cause a sudden (even though there’s nothing sudden about it) shift.

    And backtracking to Hume (because it just occurred to me;-)) his argument with Rousseau is truly epic. the details are far too convoluted but it was both a misunderstanding and an extraordinary social/political dust up that involved everyone – the king of England, the French philosophes, the king of Prussia and the media of the era.

    It was of course identical in many respects to media shit shows of our time.

    Thus more repetition.

    And as a fascinating side note it seems clear that Rousseau was what we would now call clinically paranoid but – per Joseph Heller in Catch 22 – just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you – it is also very likely that R was correct when he said he was under surveillance and people were plotting against him.

    Arguably the most famous writer/agitator of his time hounded by the man in multiple cities, he would have been on numerous lists.

    So again echoes and parallels to other eras. And in keeping with those parallels, the book while full of contextualizing details has nothing about the increasingly large and effective police apparatuses of England and France.

    So key details are elided and as a result the pattern repeats both tautologically and objectively.

    Back over to you:-)

      • Hmm. “Ghost in the machine.” Well just reread it – everything does seem to repeat. And I’ve been reading some Hesiod which really matches the Jaynesian idea and goes some way towards explaining repetition and how narrative systems are created and why.

        • You put a lot into that comment. I’ve lost the thread of thought that led up to it. I went back to read the post and comments. I might be able to respond better later on.

          I forget. Did we previously talk about “Ghost in the machine”? If so, what was the context? And what specifically in Hesiod got you thinking?

          While I’m here, let me throw in something. I’m reading Darwin’s Pharmacy by Richard Doyle. It’s about psychedelics, but he take an unusual tack. He explores it through rhetoric and discusses repetition. There might be something in it that might apply to what we’ve been talking about.

          • I should have clarified my “Ghost in the machine” comment. I meant the way computer systems consistently have glitches,

            As to Hesiod: It was tangential; from the “GintM” in that in The Theogony he describes how the Muses tell him they tell lies as often as the truth. the duality of it seemed Jaynesian in that it suggests they (or at least “Hesiod” whoever he or they were) were wrestling with the external voices and were beginning to record the experience of duality. Then I stumbled on Hesiod having a brother – Perseus.

            This is seemingly an early version of Prometheus and his brother again perhaps representing the experience of the bicameral reality.

            “Hesiod” etymologically derives from he who throws the word or sings the word and “Pegasus” is he who destroys.

            There could be multiple meanings but it does fit the Jaynesian model of doubles, external voices of command, etc.

            Darwin’s Pharmacy sounds very interesting. Pass on anything you think is interesting/relevant. I’ll add it to my ever-expanding list of books to read.

    • This does make me curious about Rousseau. And I should read about him and Hume. It would be useful historical context. I’m always interested in the personal side of ideas and the social side of the conflict between ideas.

      Surveillance has played a major role as time goes on. But it is easy to forget how much role it played in centuries past. Paine was hounded in his travels, specifically when in England. And Marx was constantly being troubled by the powers that be. I’m sure that has long been common for radical thinkers, as well as some of those who have since become part of the respectable Western canon.

      There is a lot more to it. Surveillance isn’t simply something the powerful do. It creates a particular kind of mindset and cultural worldview. The paranoia of it further rigidifies ego boundaries, further isolates people into hyper-individualism. It creates the opposite of a culture of trust, and that is significant considering a culture of trust has been the norm of humanity for most of human history and evolution.

      No social order can last long once trust is weakened. The only reason our own society has managed to hobble along is that all alternatives have destroyed in practice, silenced in debate, and erased from memory. It has created a sense of ideological realism and inevitability. Yet it remains immensely unstable, far beyond what people realize. The social order is a teetering tower of stones barely balanced, no matter how solid stone may seem.

      • If you can find it, get a copy of, Rousseau’s Dog. It’s a good overview and dives into detail about the truly epic argument between Hume and Rousseau. Rousseau could go from cordial to enraged in the blink of an eye and did so with almost everyone. But, clearly he was also under surveillance. Here’s a great quote regarding the surveillance atmosphere of the era from Charles Tilly:

        “From that point on, the extraordinary system of spies and informers which has played an important part in the political work of the French state into our own time took shape. (Sartine, who became lieutenant general de police in 1759, is supposed to have said to Louis XV, “Sire, when three people are chatting in the street one of them is surely my man.”) Eighteenth-century police manuals like those of Colquhoun in England or Lemaire in France are no less than general treatises on the government’s full repertoire of domestic regulation, coercion, and surveillance.”

        Significantly, Rousseau’s Dog has nothing about the rise of surveillance. During Hume’s life, and during the time Rousseau was in England, the Royal Post Office spy network was established and expanded. Their job was to read people’s mail and break codes and inform, and place under or be part of the surveillance of people deemed “suspicious” etc.

        There is a small mention in the book about R flying into a rage when he discovered a letter he had mailed had gone to the wrong person and another had apparently been “tampered with.” But no mention of the surveillance network.

        Clearly mass surveillance is a self referential system that justifies itself to those who benefit from it with no sense of its negative impact because the data points that show negative results are not admitted as evidence of harm but, if admitted at all, are used as further evidence that the system works or should be expanded.

        This in turn breeds not just narrow thinking but increases systemic paranoia and outright delusional thinking. Strangelovian attitudes are given psychological oxygen and the process cascades. There was a snippet yesterday about Mitch McConnell accusing former DCIA Brennen of colluding to help HRC by inventing intel about Russian interference, That any reasonable person would/should have suspicions about the spooks is one thing but if true McConnell’s comment is pure paranoia and not just a reflection of his personal instability but is a symptom of a systemic breakdown.

        My theory is that mass surveillance is the missing ingredient in all discussions of “Trump” – that is, all the issues dealing with his advent. There are clearly other factors and we’ve discussed many of them but conspicuously, the one thing that no media to my knowledge has discussed (and that includes “alternative” media) is the caustic effects of mass surveillance.

        And MS is not just being watched. It is crucial to contextualize the issue by referencing COINTELPRO and disruption/infiltration and “agent provocateur’s” as reasons for the vortex of “Trump” which includes group and individual paranoia, pathological distrust of “authority” and consistent reference to “conspiracy” as the explanation for x, y or z tension or dilemma both personal and social.

        Obviously the corporate media wont discuss this for a variety of reasons but the two I would consider the most significant would be a culture of collaboration and a corollary culture of believing themselves to be apex analysist when in fact they are utterly banal.

        Ironically the groups most likely to be aware of these issues have so far said nothing about it except in a similar banal manner. Here I mean TYT and Sam Seder etc. If they “discuss” it at all its always the same talking points: some bungled operation by federal and or state cops, references to “Orwell” interview with ACLU lawyer, and that’s it.

        Which brings us back to Rousseau. R was in several respects a kind of Neo-Platonist ne-fascist. The impact of The Republic on 18th century thinkers and then from them to 19th century thinkers is profound. R’s impact on 19th century French utopianists is striking and one finds consistently that their vision was of communes devoid of patriarchy (mostly), small police forces, well regulated working conditions, equitable distribution of resources, and, in each case, the suppression of the arts.

        In other words, Rousseau 101. R made serval notable calls to close theaters and suppress publications while of course being a playwright (and very successful) and a member of the very community that was most engaged in writing and writing as agitation of the social order.

        But your comments have sparked me to see him as an example of a distinct alternative narrative system in which his sense of himself, his self reflexive consciousness, was formed as a result of a Hume-ian bundle contextualized by mass surveillance. in other words, “Rousseau” can be read as “mass surveillance” with the result being as one should expect, a profound distrust of the then dominant social system – not just in its bureaucracies but it the network/bundle of stories it told about itself. R was constantly getting into arguments over “honesty” or the lack of it.

        One part personal paranoia, but also one part authentic response to an atmosphere of systemic dishonesty.

        Hmm, I feel a lengthy blog post is in order;-)

        • What mass surveillance makes me think of is legibility. And that of course goes back to grain agriculture.

          Considering that schizophrenia seems to be connected to a grain-based diet, maybe paranoia in general is related to or exacerbated by a modern diet and the corresponding lifestyle/social order. Large-scale agriculture requires a bureaucratic state to oversee and control production to maintain large populations. Mass surveillance is a natural extension of this.

          A similar kind of point is made by Ara Norenzayan in his book Big Gods. The idea of an all-seeing god watching our every move was a new invention. Prior to that, gods interacted with humans in a way not all that different to how humans interacted with other humans. But the idea that god could see into your heart, mind, and soul is truly creepy and would make anyone feel paranoid. It’s unsurprising as the state grew so did the church.

          • Hitchens has a line where he compares contemporary (meaning stretching over several centuries) organized religion as a kind of celestial North Korea.

            My guess (purely subjective) is that “insanity” is a network of causes and effects. When we say “diet” we are of course describing a bundle (sic) of association. What one eats is a network of multiplicities.

            Mass surveillance is woven into any large bureaucracy – from food distribution, to road maintenance, to waste “management” and of course on into the more nefarious and deliberately sinister forms but, each one supports the other, contextualizes the other and together they all form a kind of hive-mind.

  5. It’s too bad that the cognitive revolution ended up being such a blind reaction to behaviorism. The thing about behaviorism is that it wasn’t limited to simplistic ideology and simplistic research. Behaviorists weren’t actually ever denying consciousness. Besides, not all who became dissatisfied with mainstream behaviorism felt the need to fall into the reactionary trap of dismissing the entire field and anything close to it.

    Consider verbal behavior as part of what is called radical behaviorism, which indeed was a much more radical hypothesis than that of Chomsky’ language module/universal grammar and probably also closer to the truth. Verbal behavior was part of the thinking that was challenging conventional views. Other examples of this challenging were linguistic relativism and Jaynesian consciousness studies.

    These non-essentialist hypotheses looked at the world, human and non-human, in terms of environments, systems, and interrelationships. They were radical views earlier last century, such as anthropologists using culture to demolish race realism. And they remain radical to this day. But the difference is that we are finally coming around to realizing this radicalism is a better explanation of reality.

    The anthropological is key. We forget the popularity and power anthropology had in the early 20th century. That also connects the problems of Chomskyan linguistics and conventional medicine.

    Chomsky had the bizarre essentialist belief (based on no evidence) that all languages were fundamentally the same and so, in dismissing social science, that linguists didn’t need to leave academia to study other languages in the field. Neither did Chomsky see it as worth his time to even bother to study the accounts of anthropologists and field linguists, as he assumed they couldn’t tell him anything new, but a quick perusal of the literature of linguistic relativism would have demonstrated how misguided was his thinking.

    As with Sapir and Whorf studying linguistic relativism, there were those like Weston A. Price who traveled the world to study the diet and health of traditional communities. Much that conventional medicine assumed to be true about disease was easily refuted by even the most casual knowledge of non-WEIRD societies, in particular isolated hunter-gatherers. People didn’t get sick simply by coming into contact with tuberculosis, a parasite, or whatever. They didn’t get sick because of a single gene or a single anything else. Human bodies are systems that are part of larger complex sociocultural systems and natural ecosystems.

    Western essentialism had multiple strategies in dealing with these challenges. The non-WEIRD could be dismissed out of hand and so ignored as irrelevant and wrongheaded. Failing that, the non-WEIRD could be kept at a distance by either demonizing or romanticizing the other. Yet it turns out that not only are these others relevant to us and our society but also are not fundamentally (i.e., essentially) different than us. Teach someone a new language and they will think in similar patterns to anyone else who learns that language. Change someone’s diet and they too will experience the same health results. Genetics, race, language modules, etc don’t explain the differences nor explain them away.

    In discussing Weston A. Price in his book Primal Nutrition, Ron Schmid clearly asserts that “a racial difference this was not”. There is an old racist argument that non-whites are essentially a different species or sub-species that is of hardier stock (like a mule), that Westerners made an evolutionary bargain of exchanging genetics of physical health for the genetics of intellectual and social superiority; hence, supposedly why non-whites make good slaves/workers and whites make good masters/bosses; an inventive if bizarre rationalization for Western sickliness.

    Schmid was specifically writing about Price’s travels throughout the African continent. There was no reason to turn Africans into some strange other, an oddity that doesn’t apply to us, as Price found the same patterns of diet and health in early twentieth century rural communities in Europe. About Africa, Schmid writes (pp. 44-45):

    “Price’s most indelible impression: the contrast between the rugged resistance of the natives to their harsh environment and the fragility of foreigners.

    “A racial difference this was not, for when the natives abandoned primitive foods for refined foods, they developed dental decay and became susceptible to infectious processes to which they were previously immune. These included malaria, dysentery, and tick-borne diseases such as sleeping sickness. The immunity experienced when eating native foods extended to chronic disease; an interview with the doctor in charge of a government hospital in Kenya revealed that in his several years of service among native people eating the native diet, he had seen no cases of appendicitis, gallbladder problems, cystitis, or duodenal ulcer.

    “In several tribes studied, no evidence of tooth decay was found, nor a single malformed dental arch. Several other tribes had nearly 100 percent immunity to decay, and in thirteen tribes no irregular teeth were found. Where some members had moved to cities and adopted modern foods, however, extensive decay was found. Children born of these individuals often showed narrowed dental arches with crowding of the teeth.”

    This leaves us with two related conclusions. First, specific diseases aren’t essentialist, that is to say all of these diverse health conditions are overlapping and tied together by common causes to be found in diet and lifestyle. Second, the diseased state in general isn’t essentialist, that is to say it isn’t an inherent and inevitable fact of human genetics and biology.

    That these healthy indigenous people also had very different cultures and languages brings us to the further point that it was a difference not only of degree but of kind. It is our essentialist thinking that is at the heart of our sickly minds and bodies. Essentialist thinking is at best a powerful tool and at worse a dangerous weapon, destroying and denying all differences in seeking universal and ultimate truths, the dark impulse behind monocultural hegemony.

  6. I came across an intriguing example of non-essentialism. Ants are simple creatures with behavior most would assume is determined by genetics. Yet evidence indicates something more going on.

    Although clonal raider ants are genetically identical, they take on different roles in the colony. This means social behavior, even among simple species, can be emergent artifacts of the social system.

    Genes obviously play a role, but non-essentialist factors are important as well. In fact, it’s the non-essentialist factors that gives context and determines how genetics is expressed. An isolated gene without an environment to determine expression doesn’t exist.

  7. Here is another great example of non-essentialism.

    Weston A. Price observed that people who ate the healthiest diets had similar healthy features, no matter their ancestry and culture: broad square jaws, no underbite or overbite, no crooked teeth and cavities, symmetrical features, strong bone structure, tall in height, straight posture, etc.. Likewise, people who ate an unhealthy diet also shared similar features. It isn’t genetics alone that determines appearance because genetics themselves are determined in their expression by dietary, microbial, environmental, and epigenetic factors.

    This point was emphasized in reading Ron Schmid’s Primal Nutrition. On page 57, there are some photographs showing healthy individuals from traditional communities. In one set of photographs, 4 Melanesian boys are shown who look remarkably similar. “These four boys lived on four different islands and were not related. Each had nutrition adequate for the development of the physical pattern typical of Melanesian males; thus their similar appearance.”

    Three is an even more dramatic example of this seen with the Piraha, demonstrating the power of cultural lifestyle and other environmental conditions. I wrote about it earlier this year:

    How Language Began:
    The Story of Humanity’s Greatest Invention
    by Daniel L. Everett
    pp. 220-221

    Culture, patterns of being – such as eating, sleeping, thinking and posture – have been cultivated. A Dutch individual will be unlike the Belgian, the British, the Japanese, or the Navajo, because of the way that their minds have been cultivated – because of the roles they play in a particular set of values and because of how they define, live out and prioritise these values, the roles of individuals in a society and the knowledge they have acquired.

    It would be worth exploring further just how understanding language and culture together can enable us better to understand each. Such an understanding would also help to clarify how new languages or dialects or any other variants of speech come about. I think that this principle ‘you talk like who you talk with’ represents all human behaviour. We also eat like who we eat with, think like those we think with, etc. We take on a wide range of shared attributes – our associations shape how we live and behave and appear – our phenotype. Culture affects our gestures and our talk. It can even affect our bodies. Early American anthropologist Franz Boas studied in detail the relationship between environment, culture and bodily form. Boas made a solid case that human body types are highly plastic and change to adapt to local environmental forces, both ecological and cultural.

    Less industrialised cultures show biology-culture connections. Among the Pirahã, facial features range impressionistically from slightly Negroid to East Asian, to Native American. Differences between villages or families may have a biological basis, originating in different tribes merging over the last 200 years. One sizeable group of Pirahãs (perhaps thirty to forty) – usually found occupying a single village – are descendants of the Torá, a Chapakuran-speaking group that emigrated to the Maici-Marmelos rivers as long as two centuries ago. Even today Brazilians refer to this group as Torá, though the Pirahãs refer to them as Pirahãs. They are culturally and linguistically fully integrated into the Pirahãs. Their facial features are somewhat different – broader noses, some with epicanthic folds, large foreheads – giving an overall impression of similarity to East Asian features. ‡ Yet body dimensions across all Pirahãs are constant. Men’s waists are, or were when I worked with them, uniformly 27 inches (68 cm), their average height 5 feet 2 inches (157.5 cm) and their average weight 55 kilos (121 pounds). The Pirahã phenotypes are similar not because all Pirahãs necessarily share a single genotype, but because they share a culture, including values, knowledge of what to eat and values about how much to eat, when to eat and the like.

    These examples show that even the body does not escape our earlier observation that studies of culture and human social behaviour can be summed up in the slogan that ‘you talk like who you talk with’ or ‘grow like who you grow with’. And the same would have held for all our ancestors, even erectus .

    Dark Matter of the Mind:
    The Culturally Articulated Unconscious
    by Daniel L. Everett
    Kindle Locations 1499-1576

    Thus while Tooby may be absolutely right that to have meaning, “culture” must be implemented in individual minds, this is no indictment of the concept. In fact, this requirement has long been insisted on by careful students of culture, such as Sapir. Yet unlike, say, Sapir, Tooby has no account of how individual minds— like ants in a colony or neurons in a brain or cells in a body— can form a larger entity emerging from multi-individual sets of knowledge, values, and roles. His own nativist views offer little insight into the unique “unconscious patterning of society” (to paraphrase Sapir) that establishes the “social set” to which individuals belong.

    The idea of culture, after all, is just that certain patterns of being— eating, sleeping, thinking, posture, and so forth— have been cultivated and that minds arising from one such “field” will not be like minds cultivated in another “field.” The Dutch individual will be unlike the Belgian, the British, the Japanese, or the Navajo, because of the way that his or her mind has been cultivated— because of the roles he or she plays in a particular value grouping, because of the ranking of values that her or she has come to share, and so on.

    We must be clear, of course, that the idea of “cultivation” we are speaking of here is not merely of minds, but of entire individuals— their minds a way of talking about their bodies. From the earliest work on ethnography in the US, for example, Boas showed how cultures affect even body shape. And body shape is a good indication that it is not merely cognition that is effected and affected by culture. The uses, experiences, emotions, senses, and social engagements of our bodies forget the patterns of thought we call mind. […]

    Exploring this idea that understanding language can help us understand culture, consider how linguists account for the rise of languages, dialects, and all other local variants of speech. Part of their account is captured in linguistic truism that “you talk like who you talk with.” And, I argue, this principle actually impinges upon all human behavior. We not only talk like who we talk with, but we also eat like who we eat with, think like those we think with, and so on. We take on a wide range of shared attributes; our associations shape how we live and behave and appear— our phenotype. Culture can affect our gestures and many other aspects of our talk. Boas (1912a, 1912b) takes up the issue of environment, culture, and bodily form. He provides extensive evidence that human body phenotypes are highly plastic and subject to nongenetic local environmental forces (whether dietary, climatological, or social). Had Boas lived later, he might have studied a very clear and dramatic case; namely, the body height of Dutch citizens before and after World War II. This example is worth a close look because it shows that bodies— like behaviors and beliefs— are cultural products and shapers simultaneously.

    The curious case of the Netherlanders fascinates me. The Dutch went from among the shortest peoples of Europe to the tallest in the world in just over one century. One account simplistically links the growth in Dutch height with the change in political system (Olson 2014): “The Dutch growth spurt of the mid-19th century coincided with the establishment of the first liberal democracy. Before this time, the Netherlands had grown rich off its colonies but the wealth had stayed in the hands of the elite. After this time, the wealth began to trickle down to all levels of society, the average income went up and so did the height.” Tempting as this single account may be, there were undoubtedly other factors involved, including gene flow and sexual selection between Dutch and other (mainly European) populations, that contribute to explain European body shape relative to the Dutch. But democracy, a new political change from strengthened and enforced cultural values, is a crucial component of the change in the average height of the Dutch, even though the Dutch genotype has not changed significantly in the past two hundred years. For example, consider figures 2.1 and 2.2. In 1825, US male median height was roughly ten centimeters (roughly four inches) taller than the average Dutch. In the 1850s, the median heights of most males in Europe and the USA were lowered. But then around 1900, they begin to rise again. Dutch male median height lagged behind that of most of the world until the late ’50s and early ’60s, when it began to rise at a faster rate than all other nations represented in the chart. By 1975 the Dutch were taller than Americans. Today, the median Dutch male height (183 cm, or roughly just above six feet) is approximately three inches more than the median American male height (177 cm, or roughly five ten). Thus an apparent biological change turns out to be largely a cultural phenomenon.

    To see this culture-body connection even more clearly, consider figure 2.2. In this chart, the correlation between wealth and height emerges clearly (not forgetting that the primary determiner of height is the genome). As wealth grew, so did men (and women). This wasn’t matched in the US, however, even though wealth also grew in the US (precise figures are unnecessary). What emerges from this is that Dutch genes are implicated in the Dutch height transformation, from below average to the tallest people in the world. And yet the genes had to await the right cultural conditions before they could be so dramatically expressed. Other cultural differences that contribute to height increases are: (i) economic (e.g., “white collar”) background; (ii) size of family (more children, shorter children); (iii) literacy of the child’s mother (literate mothers provide better diets); (iv) place of residence (residents of agricultural areas tend to be taller than those in industrial environments— better and more plentiful food); and so on (Khazan 2014). Obviously, these factors all have to do with food access. But looked at from a broader angle, food access is clearly a function of values, knowledge, and social roles— that is, culture.

    Just as with the Dutch, less-industrialized cultures show culture-body connections. For example, Pirahã phenotype is also subject to change. Facial features among the Pirahãs range impressionistically from slightly Negroid to East Asian to American Indian (to use terms from physical anthropology). Phenotypical differences between villages or families seem to have a biological basis (though no genetic tests have been conducted). This would be due in part to the fact Pirahã women have trysts with various non-Pirahã visitors (mainly river traders and their crews, but also government workers and contract employees on health assistance assignments, demarcating the Pirahã reservation, etc.). The genetic differences are also partly historical. One sizeable group of Pirahãs (perhaps thirty to forty)— usually found occupying a single village— are descendants of the Torá, a Chapakuran-speaking group that emigrated to the Maici-Marmelos rivers as long as two hundred years ago. Even today Brazilians refer to this group as Torá, though the Pirahãs refer to them as Pirahãs. They are culturally and linguistically fully integrated into the Pirahãs. Their facial features are somewhat different— broader noses; some with epicanthic folds; large foreheads— giving an overall impression of similarity to Cambodian features. This and other evidence show us that the Pirahã gene pool is not closed. 4 Yet body dimensions across all Pirahãs are constant. Men’s waists are or were uniformly 83 centimeters (about 32.5 inches), their average height 157.5 centimeters (five two), and their average weight 55 kilos (about 121 pounds).

    I learned about the uniformity in these measurements over the past several decades as I have taken Pirahã men, women, and children to stores in nearby towns to purchase Western clothes, when they came out of their villages for medical help. (The Pirahãs always asked that I purchase Brazilian clothes for them so that they would not attract unnecessary stares and comments.) Thus I learned that the measurements for men were nearly identical. Biology alone cannot account for this homogeneity of body form; culture is implicated as well. For example, Pirahãs raised since infancy outside the village are somewhat taller and much heavier than Pirahãs raised in their culture and communities. Even the body does not escape our earlier observation that studies of culture and human social behavior can be summed up in the slogan that “you talk like who you talk with” or “grow like who you grow with.”

  8. Some other examples of non-essentialism — from the transcript of a Youtube video:

    James Gilligan:
    “Gene’s give us different ways of responding to our environment. And in fact it looks as if some of the early childhood influences a kind of child rearing affect gene expression — actually turning on and off different genes to put you on a different development developmental track which may suit the kind of world you’ve got to deal with.

    “So for example, a study done in Montreal with suicide victims looked at autopsies of the brains of these people. And it turns out that, if a suicide victim (these are usually young adults) had been abused as children, the abuse actually caused a genetic change in the brain that was absent in the brains of people who are not being abused. That’s an epigenetic effect. Epi means on top of so that so that the epigenetic influence is what happens environmentally to either activate or deactivate certain genes.

    “In New Zealand, there’s a study that was done in a town called Dunedin in which a few thousand individuals were studied from birth up to their into their 20s. What they found was that they could identify a genetic mutation an abnormal gene which did have some relation to the predisposition to commit violence but only if the individual had also been subjected to severe child abuse. In other words, a child with this abnormal gene would be no more likely to be violent than anybody else. And in fact, they actually had a lower rate of violence than people with normal genes as long as they weren’t abused as children.”

    Robert Sapolsky
    “A great additional example of the ways in which genes are not be all. And all fancy technique where you can take a specific gene out of a mouse, that mouse and it’s descendants will not have that gene. You have knocked out that gene. So there’s this one gene that codes for protein that has something to do with learning and memory. And this fabulous demonstration knock out that gene and you have a mouse that doesn’t learn as well. Oh a genetic basis for intelligence.

    “What was much less appreciated in that landmark study that got picked up by the media left and right is take those genetically impaired mice and raise them in a much more enriched stimulating environment than your normal mice in a lab cage and they completely overcame that deficit. So when one says in a contemporary sense that oh this behavior is genetic, to the extent that that’s even a valid sort of phrase to use, what you’re saying is there is a genetic contribution to how this organism responds to environment.

    “Genes may influence the readiness with which an organism will deal with a certain environmental challenge — you know that’s not the version most people have in their minds. And not to be too soapboxing, but run with the old version of its genetic and it’s not that far from history of eugenics and things of that sort. It’s a widespread misconception and it’s a potentially fairly dangerous one.”

  9. Below is the granddaddy of all non-essential studies. Genetically identical mice involved in highly controlled experiments in multiple labs showed dramatically different results.

    There has never been a human study that was this well controlled. It demonstrated that even the slightest environmental differences could become magnified into large divergent results.

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