Delirium of Hyper-Individualism

Individualism is a strange thing. For anyone who has spent much time meditating, it’s obvious that there is no there there. It slips through one’s grasp like an ancient philosopher trying to study aether. The individual self is the modernization of the soul. Like the ghost in the machine and the god in the gaps, it is a theological belief defined by its absence in the world. It’s a social construct, a statement that is easily misunderstood.

In modern society, individualism has been raised up to an entire ideological worldview. It is all-encompassing, having infiltrated nearly every aspect of our social lives and become internalized as a cognitive frame. Traditional societies didn’t have this obsession with an idealized self as isolated and autonomous. Go back far enough and the records seem to show societies that didn’t even have a concept, much less an experience, of individuality.

Yet for all its dominance, the ideology of individualism is superficial. It doesn’t explain much of our social order and personal behavior. We don’t act as if we actually believe in it. It’s a convenient fiction that we so easily disregard when inconvenient, as if it isn’t all that important after all. In our most direct experience, individuality simply makes no sense. We are social creatures through and through. We don’t know how to be anything else, no matter what stories we tell ourselves.

The ultimate value of this individualistic ideology is, ironically, as social control and social justification.

The wealthy, the powerful and privileged, even the mere middle class to a lesser degree — they get to be individuals when everything goes right. They get all the credit and all the benefits. All of society serves them because they deserve it. But when anything goes wrong, they hire lawyers who threaten anyone who challenges them or they settle out of court, they use their crony connections and regulatory capture to avoid consequences, they declare bankruptcy when one of their business ventures fail, and they endlessly scapegoat those far below them in the social hierarchy.

The profits and benefits are privatized while the costs are externalized. This is socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor, with the middle class getting some combination of the two. This is why democratic rhetoric justifies plutocracy while authoritarianism keeps the masses in line. This stark reality is hidden behind the utopian ideal of individualism with its claims of meritocracy and a just world.

The fact of the matter is that no individual ever became successful. Let’s do an experiment. Take an individual baby, let’s say the little white male baby of wealthy parents with their superior genetics. Now leave that baby in the woods to raise himself into adulthood and bootstrap himself into a self-made man. I wonder how well that would work for his survival and future prospects. If privilege and power, if opportunity and resources, if social capital and collective inheritance, if public goods and the commons have no major role to play such that the individual is solely responsible to himself, we should expect great things from this self-raised wild baby.

But if it turns out that hyper-individualism is total bullshit, we should instead expect that baby to die of exposure and starvation or become the the prey of a predator feeding its own baby without any concerns for individuality. Even simply leaving a baby untouched and neglected in an orphanage will cause failure to thrive and death. Without social support, our very will to live disappears. Social science research has proven the immense social and environmental influences on humans. For a long time now there has been no real debate about this social reality of our shared humanity.

So why does this false belief and false idol persist? What horrible result do we fear if we were ever to be honest with ourselves? I get that the ruling elite are ruled by their own egotistic pride and narcissism. I get that the comfortable classes are attached to their comforting lies. But why do the rest of us go along with their self-serving delusions? It is the strangest thing in the world for a society to deny it is a society.

Symbolic Dissociation of Nature/Nurture Debate

“One of the most striking features of the nature-nurture debate is the frequency with which it leads to two apparently contradictory results: the claim that the debate has finally been resolved (i.e., we now know that the answer is neither nature nor nurture, but both), and the debate’s refusal to die. As with the Lernian Hydra, each beheading seems merely to spur the growth of new heads.”

That is from the introduction to Evelyn Fox Keller’s The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture (p. 1). I personally experienced this recently. There is a guy I’ve been discussing these kinds of issues with in recent years. We have been commenting on each other’s blogs for a long while, in an ongoing dialogue that has centered on childhood influences: peers, parenting, spanking, abuse, trauma, etc.

It seemed that we had finally come to an agreement on the terms of the debate, his having come around to my view that the entire nature-nurture debate is pointless or confused. But then recently, he once again tried to force this nature-nurture frame onto our discussion (see my last post). It’s one of these zombie ideas that isn’t easily killed, a memetic mind virus that infects the brain with no known cure. Keller throws some light on the issue (pp. 1-2):

“Part of the difficulty comes into view with the first question we must ask: what is the nature-nurture debate about? There is no single answer to this question, for a number of different questions take refuge under its umbrella. Some of the questions express legitimate and meaningful concerns that can in fact be addressed scientifically; others may be legitimate and meaningful, but perhaps not answerable; and still others simply make no sense. I will argue that a major reason we are unable to resolve the nature-nurture debate is that all these different questions are tangled together into an indissoluble knot, making it all but impossible for us to stay clearly focused on a single, well-defined and meaningful question. Furthermore, I will argue that they are so knitted together by chronic ambiguity, uncertainty, and slippage in the very language we use to talk about these issues. And finally, I will suggest that at least some of that ambiguity and uncertainty comes from the language of genetics itself.”

What occurred to me is that maybe this is intentional. It seems to be part of the design, a feature and not a flaw. That is how the debate maintains itself, by being nearly impossible to disentangle and so not allowing itself to be seen for what it is. It’s not a real debate for what appears to be an issue is really a distraction. There is much incentive to not look at it too closely, to not pick at the knot. Underneath, there is a raw nerve of Cartesian anxiety.

This goes back to my theory of symbolic conflation. The real issue (or set of issues) is hidden behind a symbolic issue. Maybe this usually or possibly always takes the form of a debate being framed in a particular way. The false dichotomy of dualistic thinking isn’t just a frame for it tells a narrative of conflict where, as long as you accepts the frame, you are forced to pick a side.

I often use abortion as an example because symbolic conflation operates most often and most clearly on visceral and emotional issues involving the body, especially sex and death (abortion involving both). This is framed as pro-life vs pro-choice, but the reality of public opinion is that most Americans are BOTH pro-life AND pro-choice. That is to say most Americans want to maintain a woman’s right to choose while simultaneously putting some minimal limitations on abortions. Besides, as research has shown, liberal and leftist policies (full sex education, easily available contraceptives, planned parenthood centers, high quality public healthcare available to all, etc) allow greater freedom to individuals while creating the conditions that decrease the actual rate of abortions because they decrease unwanted pregnancies.

One thing that occurs to me is that such frames tend to favor one side. It stands out to me that those promoting the nature vs nurture frame are those who tend to be arguing for biological determinism (or something along those lines), just like those creating the forced choice of pro-life or pro-choice usually are those against the political left worldview. That is another way in which it isn’t a real debate. The frame both tries to obscure the real issue(s) and to shut down debate before it happens. It’s all about social control by way of thought control. To control how an issue is portrayed and how a debate is framed is to control the sociopolitical narrative, the story being told and the conclusion it leads to. Meanwhile, the real concern of the social order is being manipulated behind the scenes. It’s a sleight-of-hand trick.

Symbolic conflation is a time-tested strategy of obfuscation. It’s also an indirect way of talking about what can’t or rather won’t otherwise be acknowledged, in the symbolic issue being used as a proxy. To understand what it all means, you have to look at the subtext. The framing aspect brings another layer to this process. A false dichotomy could be thought of as a symbolic dissociation, where what is inseparable in reality gets separated in the framing of symbolic ideology.

The fact of the matter is that nature and nurture are simply two ways of referring to the same thing. If the nature/nurture debate is a symbolic dissociation built on top of a symbolic conflation, is this acting as a proxy for something else? And if so, what is the real debate that is being hidden and obscured, in either being talked around or talked about indirectly?

False Dichotomy and Bad Science

Someone shared with me a link to a genetics study. The paper is “Behavioural individuality in clonal fish arises despite near-identical rearing conditions” by David Bierbach, Kate L. Laskowski, and Max Wolf. From the abstract:

“Behavioural individuality is thought to be caused by differences in genes and/or environmental conditions. Therefore, if these sources of variation are removed, individuals are predicted to develop similar phenotypes lacking repeatable individual variation. Moreover, even among genetically identical individuals, direct social interactions are predicted to be a powerful factor shaping the development of individuality. We use tightly controlled ontogenetic experiments with clonal fish, the Amazon molly (Poecilia formosa), to test whether near-identical rearing conditions and lack of social contact dampen individuality. In sharp contrast to our predictions, we find that (i) substantial individual variation in behaviour emerges among genetically identical individuals isolated directly after birth into highly standardized environments and (ii) increasing levels of social experience during ontogeny do not affect levels of individual behavioural variation. In contrast to the current research paradigm, which focuses on genes and/or environmental drivers, our findings suggest that individuality might be an inevitable and potentially unpredictable outcome of development.”

Here is what this seems to imply. We don’t as of yet understand (much less are able to identify, isolate, and control) all of the genetic, epigenetic, environmental, etc factors that causally affect and contribute to individual development. Not only that but we don’t understand the complex interaction of those factors, known and unknown. To put it simply, our ignorance is much more vast than our knowledge. We don’t even have enough knowledge to know what we don’t know. But we are beginning to realize that we need to rethink what we thought we knew.

It reminds me of the mouse research where genetically identical mice in environmentally identical conditions led to diverse behavioral results. I’ve mentioned it many times before here in my blog, including a post specifically about it: Of Mice and Men and Environments (also see Heritability & Inheritance, Genetics & Epigenetics, Etc). In the mice post, along with quoting an article, I pointed to a fascinating passage from David Shenk’s book, The Genius in All of Us. Although I was previously aware of the influence of environmental conditions, the research discussed there makes it starkly clear. I was reminded of this because of another discussion about mice research, from Richard Harris’ Rigor Mortis with the subtitle of “How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions” (pp. 79-81):

“Garner said that mice have great potential for biological studies, but at the moment, he believes, researchers are going about it all wrong. For the past several decades, they have pursued a common strategy in animal studies: eliminate as many variables as you can, so you can more clearly see an effect when it’s real. It sounds quite sensible, but Garner believes it has backfired in mouse research. To illustrate this point, he pointed to two cages of genetically identical mice. One cage was at the top of the rack near the ceiling, the other near the floor. Garner said cage position is enough of a difference to affect the outcome of an experiment. Mice are leery of bright lights and open spaces, but here they live in those conditions all the time. “As you move from the bottom of the rack to the top of the rack, the animals are more anxious, more stressed-out, and more immune suppressed,” he said.

“Garner was part of an experiment involving six different mouse labs in Europe to see whether behavioral tests with genetically identical mice would vary depending on the location. The mice were all exactly the same age and all female. Even so, these “identical” tests produced widely different results, depending on whether they were conducted in Giessen, Muenster, Zurich, Mannheim, Munich, or Utrecht. The scientists tried to catalog all possible differences: mouse handlers in Zurich didn’t wear gloves, for example, and the lab in Utrecht had the radio on in the background. Bedding, food, and lighting also varied. Scientists have only recently come to realize that the sex of the person who handles the mice can also make a dramatic difference. “Mice are so afraid of males that it actually induces analgesia,” a pain-numbing reaction that screws up all sorts of studies, Garner said. Even a man’s sweaty T-shirt in the same room can trigger this response.

“Behavioral tests are used extensively in research with mice (after all, rodents can’t tell handlers how an experimental drug is affecting them), so it was sobering to realize how much those results vary from lab to lab. But here’s the hopeful twist in this experiment: when the researchers relaxed some of their strict requirements and tested a more heterogeneous group of mice, they paradoxically got more consistent results. Garner is trying to convince his colleagues that it’s much better to embrace variation than to tie yourself in knots trying to eliminate it.

““Imagine that I was testing a new drug to help control nausea in pregnancy, and I suggested to the [Food and Drug Administration (FDA)] that I tested it purely in thirty-five-year-old white women all in one small town in Wisconsin with identical husbands, identical homes, identical diets which I formulate, identical thermostats that I’ve set, and identical IQs. And incidentally they all have the same grandfather.” That would instantly be recognized as a terrible experiment, “but that’s exactly how we do mouse work. And fundamentally that’s why I think we have this enormous failure rate.”

“Garner goes even further in his thinking, arguing that studies should consider mice not simply as physiological machines but as organisms with social interactions and responses to their environment that can significantly affect their health and strongly affect the experiment results. Scientists have lost sight of that. “I fundamentally believe that animals are good models of human disease,” Garner said. “I just don’t think the way we’re doing the research right now is.”

“Malcolm Macleod has offered a suggestion that would address some of the issues Garner raises: when a drug looks promising in mice, scale up the mouse experiments before trying it in people. “I simply don’t understand the logic that says I can take a drug to clinical trial on the basis of information from 500 animals, but I’m going to need 5,000 human animals to tell me whether it will work or not. That simply doesn’t compute.” Researchers have occasionally run large mouse experiments at multiple research centers, just as many human clinical trials are conducted at several medical centers. The challenge is funding. Someone else can propose the same study involving a lot fewer animals, and that looks like a bargain. “Actually, the guy promising to do it for a third of the price isn’t going to do it properly, but it’s hard to get that across,” Macleod said.”

This is the problem with the framing debate as nature vs nurture (or similar framings such as biology vs culture and organism vs environment). Even when people are aware of the limitations of this frame, the powerful sway it holds over people’s minds causes them to continually fall back on them. Even when I have no interest in such dualistic thinking, some people feel it necessary to categorize the sides of a debate accordingly, where apparently I’m supposed to play the role of ‘nurturist’ in opposition to their ‘biology’ advocacy: “feel your life-force, Benjamin. Come with me to the biology side!” Well, I have no desire to take sides in a false dichotomy. Oddly, this guy trying to win me over to the “biology side” in debate (about human violence and war) is the same person who shared the clonal fish study that demonstrated how genetics couldn’t explain the differences observed. So, I’m not entirely sure what he thinks ‘biology’ means, what ideological commitments it represents in his personal worldview.

(As he has mentioned in our various discussions, his studies about all of this are tied up with his experience as a father who has struggled with parenting and a husband who is recently separated, partly over parenting concerns. The sense of conflict and blame he is struggling with sounds quite serious and I’m sympathetic. But I suspect he is looking for some kind of life meaning that maybe can’t be found where he is looking for it. Obviously, it is a highly personal issue for him, not a disinterested debate of abstract philosophy or scientific hypotheses. I’m starting to think that we aren’t even involved in the same discussion, just talking past one another. It’s doubtful that I can meet him on the level he finds himself, and so I don’t see how I can join him in the debate that seems to matter so much to him. I won’t even try. I’m not in that headspace. We’ve commented on each other’s blogs for quite a while now, but for whatever reason we simply can’t quite fully connect. Apparently, we are unable to agree enough about what is the debate to even meaningfully disagree about a debate. Although he is a nice guy and we are on friendly terms, I don’t see further dialogue going anywhere. *shrug*)

When we are speaking of so-called ‘nature’, this doesn’t only refer to human biology of genetics and physiology of development but also includes supposed junk DNA and epigenetics, brain plasticity and gut-brain connection, viruses and bacteria, parasites and parasite load, allergies and inflammation, microbiome and cultured foods, diet and nutrition, undernourishment and malnutrition, hunger and starvation, food deserts and scarcity, addiction and alcoholism, pharmaceuticals and medicines, farm chemicals and food additives, hormone mimics and heavy metal toxicity, environmental stress and physical trauma, abuse and violence, diseases of affluence and nature-deficit disorder, in utero conditions and maternal bond, etc. All of these alter the expression of genetics, both within a single lifetime of individuals and across the generations of entire populations.

There are numerous varieties of confounding factors. I could also point to sociocultural, structural, and institutional aspects of humanity: linguistic relativity and WEIRD research subjects, culture of trust and culture of honor, lifeways and mazeways, habitus and neighborhood effect, parenting and peers, inequality and segregation, placebos and nocebos, Pygmalion effect and Hawthorne effect, and on and on. As humans are social creatures, one could write a lengthy book simply listing all the larger influences of society.

Many of these problems have become most apparent in social science, but it is far from limited to that area of knowledge. Very similar problems are found in the biological and medical sciences, with the hard sciences having clear overlap with the soft sciences considering social constructions get fed back into scientific research. With mostly WEIRD scientists studying mostly WEIRD subjects, it’s the same WEIRD culture that has dominated nearly all of science and so it is WEIRD biases that have been the greatest stumbling blocks. Plus, with what has been proven from linguistic relativity, we would expect that how we talk about science will shape the research done, the results gained, the conclusions made, and the theories proposed. It’s all of one piece.

The point is that there are no easy answers and certain conclusions. In many ways, science is still in its infancy. We have barely scratched the surface of what potentially could be known. And much of what we think we know is being challenged, which is leading to a paradigm change that we can barely imagine. There is a lot at stake. It goes far beyond abstract theory, hypothetical debate, and idle speculation.

Most importantly, we must never forget that no theory is value-neutral or consequence-free. The ideological worldview we commit to doesn’t merely frame debate and narrow our search for knowledge. There is a real world impact on public policy and human lives, such as when medial research and practice becomes racialized (with a dark past connecting race realism and genetic determinism, racial hygiene and eugenics, medical testing on minorities and the continuing impact on healthcare). All of this raises questions about whether germs are to be treated as invading enemies, whether war is an evolutionary trait, whether addiction is biological, whether intelligence is genetic, whether language is a module in the brain, and whether the ideology of individualism is human nature.

We have come to look to the body for answers to everything. And so we have come to project almost every issue onto the body. It’s too easy to shape scientific theory in such a way that confirms what we already believe and what is self-serving or simply what conforms to the social order. There is a long history of the intentional abuse and unintentional misuse of science. It’s impossible to separate biology from biopolitics.

Worse still, our imaginations are hobbled, making it all that more difficult to face the problems before us. And cultural biases have limited the search for greater knowledge. More than anything, we need to seriously develop our capacity to radically imagine new possibilities. That would require entirely shifting the context and approach of our thinking, maybe to the extent of altering our consciousness and our perception of the world. A paradigm change that mattered at all would be one that went far beyond abstract theory and was able to touch the core of our being. Our failure on this level may explain why so much scientific research has fallen into a rut.

* * *

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. My thoughts here aren’t exactly new, but I wanted to share some new finds. It’s a topic worth returning to on occasion, as further research rolls in and the experts continue to debate. I’ll conclude with some more from Richard Harris’ Rigor Mortis. Below that are several earlier posts, a few relevant articles, and a bunch of interesting books (just because I love making long lists of books).

Rigor Mortis:
How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and
Wastes Billions

by Richard Harris
pp. 13-16

There has been no systematic attempt to measure the quality of biomedical science as a whole, but Leonard Freedman, who started a nonprofit called the Global Biological Standards Institute, teamed up with two economists to put a dollar figure on the problem in the United States. Extrapolating results from the few small studies that have attempted to quantify it, they estimated that 20 percent of studies have untrustworthy designs; about 25 percent use dubious ingredients, such as contaminated cells or antibodies that aren’t nearly as selective and accurate as scientists assume them to be; 8 percent involve poor lab technique; and 18 percent of the time, scientists mishandle their data analysis. In sum, Freedman figured that about half of all preclinical research isn’t trustworthy. He went on to calculate that untrustworthy papers are produced at the cost of $28 billion a year. This eye-popping estimate has raised more than a few skeptical eyebrows—and Freedman is the first to admit that the figure is soft, representing “a reasonable starting point for further debate.”

“To be clear, this does not imply that there was no return on that investment,” Freedman and his colleagues wrote. A lot of what they define as “not reproducible” really means that scientists who pick up a scientific paper won’t find enough information in it to run the experiment themselves. That’s a problem, to be sure, but hardly a disaster. The bigger problem is that the errors and missteps that Freedman highlights are, as Begley found, exceptionally common. And while scientists readily acknowledge that failure is part of the fabric of science, they are less likely to recognize just how often preventable errors taint studies.

“I don’t think anyone gets up in the morning and goes to work with the intention to do bad science or sloppy science,” said Malcolm Macleod at the University of Edinburgh. He has been writing and thinking about this problem for more than a decade. He started off wondering why almost no treatment for stroke has succeeded (with the exception of the drug tPA, which dissolves blood clots but doesn’t act on damaged nerve cells), despite many seemingly promising leads from animal studies. As he dug into this question, he came to a sobering conclusion. Unconscious bias among scientists arises every step of the way: in selecting the correct number of animals for a study, in deciding which results to include and which to simply toss aside, and in analyzing the final results. Each step of that process introduces considerable uncertainty. Macleod said that when you compound those sources of bias and error, only around 15 percent of published studies may be correct. In many cases, the reported effect may be real but considerably weaker than the study concludes.

Mostly these estimated failure rates are educated guesses. Only a few studies have tried to measure the magnitude of this problem directly. Scientists at the MD Anderson Cancer Center asked their colleagues whether they’d ever had trouble reproducing a study. Two-thirds of the senior investigators answered yes. Asked whether the differences were ever resolved, only about a third said they had been. “This finding is very alarming as scientific knowledge and advancement are based upon peer-reviewed publications, the cornerstone of access to ‘presumed’ knowledge,” the authors wrote when they published the survey findings.

The American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) surveyed its members in 2014 and found that 71 percent of those who responded had at some point been unable to replicate a published result. Again, 40 percent of the time, the conflict was never resolved. Two-thirds of the time, the scientists suspected that the original finding had been a false positive or had been tainted by “a lack of expertise or rigor.” ASCB adds an important caveat: of the 8,000 members it surveyed, it heard back from 11 percent, so its numbers aren’t convincing. That said, Nature surveyed more than 1,500 scientists in the spring of 2016 and saw very similar results: more than 70 percent of those scientists had tried and failed to reproduce an experiment, and about half of those who responded agreed that there’s a “significant crisis” of reproducibility.

pp. 126-129

The batch effect is a stark reminder that, as biomedicine becomes more heavily reliant on massive data analysis, there are ever more ways to go astray. Analytical errors alone account for almost one in four irreproducible results in biomedicine, according to Leonard Freedman’s estimate. A large part of the problem is that biomedical researchers are often not well trained in statistics. Worse, researchers often follow the traditional practices of their fields, even when those practices are deeply problematic. For example, biomedical research has embraced a dubious method of determining whether results are likely to be true by relying far too heavily on a gauge of significance called the p-value (more about that soon). Potential help is often not far away: major universities have biostatisticians on staff who are usually aware of the common pitfalls in experiment design and subsequent analysis, but they are not enlisted as often as they could be. […]

A few years ago, he placed an informal wager of sorts with a few of his colleagues at other universities. He challenged them to come up with the most egregious examples of the batch effect. The “winning” examples would be published in a journal article. It was a first stab at determining how widespread this error is in the world of biomedicine. The batch effect turns out to be common.

Baggerly had a head start in this contest because he’d already exposed the problems with the OvaCheck test. But colleagues at Johns Hopkins were not to be outdone. Their entry involved a research paper that appeared to get at the very heart of a controversial issue: one purporting to show genetic differences between Asians and Caucasians. There’s a long, painful, failure-plagued history of people using biology to support prejudice, so modern studies of race and genetics meet with suspicion. The paper in question had been coauthored by a white man and an Asian woman (a married couple, as it happens), lowering the index of suspicion. Still, the evidence would need to be substantial. […]

The University of Washington team tracked down the details about the microarrays used in the experiment at Penn. They discovered that the data taken from the Caucasians had mostly been produced in 2003 and 2004, while the microarrays studying Asians had been produced in 2005 and 2006. That’s a red flag because microarrays vary from one manufacturing lot to the next, so results can differ from one day to the next, let alone from year to year. They then asked a basic question of all the genes on the chips (not just the ones that differed between Asians and Caucasians): Were they behaving the same in 2003–2004 as they were in 2005–2006? The answer was an emphatic no. In fact, the difference between years overwhelmed the apparent difference between races. The researchers wrote up a short analysis and sent it to Nature Genetics, concluding that the original findings were another instance of the batch effect.

These case studies became central examples in the research paper that Baggerly, Leek, and colleagues published in 2010, pointing out the perils of the batch effect. In that Nature Reviews Genetics paper, they conclude that these problems “are widespread and critical to address.”

“Every single assay we looked at, we could find examples where this problem was not only large but it could lead to clinically incorrect findings,” Baggerly told me. That means in many instances a patient’s health could be on the line if scientists rely on findings of this sort. “And these are not avoidable problems.” If you start out with data from different batches you can’t correct for that in the analysis. In biology today, researchers are inevitably trying to tease out a faint message from the cacophony of data, so the tests themselves must be tuned to pick up tiny changes. That also leaves them exquisitely sensitive to small perturbations—like the small differences between microarray chips or the air temperature and humidity when a mass spectrometer is running. Baggerly now routinely checks the dates when data are collected—and if cases and controls have been processed at different times, his suspicions quickly rise. It’s a simple and surprisingly powerful method for rooting out spurious results.

p. 132

Over the years breathless headlines have celebrated scientists claiming to have found a gene linked to schizophrenia, obesity, depression, heart disease—you name it. These represent thousands of small-scale efforts in which labs went hunting for genes and thought they’d caught the big one. Most were dead wrong. John Ioannidis at Stanford set out in 2011 to review the vast sea of genomics papers. He and his colleagues looked at reported genetic links for obesity, depression, osteoporosis, coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, asthma, and other common conditions. He analyzed the flood of papers from the early days of genomics. “We’re talking tens of thousands of papers, and almost nothing survived” closer inspection. He says only 1.2 percent of the studies actually stood the test of time as truly positive results. The rest are what’s known in the business as false positives.

The field has come a long way since then. Ioannidis was among the scientists who pushed for more rigorous analytical approaches to genomics research. The formula for success was to insist on big studies, to make careful measurements, to use stringent statistics, and to have scientists in various labs collaborate with one another—“you know, doing things right, the way they should be done,” Ioannidis said. Under the best of these circumstances, several scientists go after exactly the same question in different labs. If they get the same results, that provides high confidence that they’re not chasing statistical ghosts. These improved standards for genomics research have largely taken hold, Ioannidis told me. “We went from an unreliable field to a highly reliable field.” He counts this as one of the great success stories in improving the reproducibility of biomedical science. Mostly. “There’s still tons of research being done the old fashioned way,” he lamented. He’s found that 70 percent of this substandard genomics work is taking place in China. The studies are being published in English-language journals, he said, “and almost all of them are wrong.”

pp. 182-183

Published retractions tend to be bland statements that some particular experiment was not reliable, but those notices often obscure the underlying reason. Arturo Casadevall at Johns Hopkins University and colleague Ferric Fang at the University of Washington dug into retractions and discovered a more disturbing truth: 70 percent of the retractions they studied resulted from bad behavior, not simply error. They also concluded that retractions are more common in high-profile journals—where scientists are most eager to publish in order to advance their careers. “We’re dealing with a real deep problem in the culture,” Casadevall said, “which is leading to significant degradation of the literature.” And even though retractions are on the rise, they are still rarities—only 0.02 percent of papers are retracted, Oransky estimates.

David Allison at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, and colleagues discovered just how hard it can be to get journals to set the record straight. Some scientists outright refuse to retract obviously wrong information, and journals may not insist. Allison and his colleagues sent letters to journals pointing out mistakes and asking for corrections. They were flabbergasted to find that some journals demanded payment—up to $2,100—just to publish their letter pointing out someone else’s error.

pp. 186-188

“Most people who work in science are working as hard as they can. They are working as long as they can in terms of the hours they are putting in,” said social scientist Brian Martinson. “They are often going beyond their own physical limits. And they are working as smart as they can. And so if you are doing all those things, what else can you do to get an edge, to get ahead, to be the person who crosses the finish line first? All you can do is cut corners. That’s the only option left you.” Martinson works at HealthPartners Institute, a nonprofit research agency in Minnesota. He has documented some of this behavior in anonymous surveys. Scientists rarely admit to outright misbehavior, but nearly a third of those he has surveyed admit to questionable practices such as dropping data that weakens a result, based on a “gut feeling,” or changing the design, methodology, or results of a study in response to pressures from a funding source. (Daniele Fanelli, now at Stanford University, came to a similar conclusion in a separate study.)

One of Martinson’s surveys found that 14 percent of scientists have observed serious misconduct such as fabrication or falsification, and 72 percent of scientists who responded said they were aware of less egregious behavior that falls into a category that universities label “questionable” and Martinson calls “detrimental.” In fact, almost half of the scientists acknowledged that they personally had used one or more of these practices in the past three years. And though he didn’t call these practices “questionable” or “detrimental” in his surveys, “I think people understand that they are admitting to something that they probably shouldn’t have done.” Martinson can’t directly link those reports to poor reproducibility in biomedicine. Nobody has funded a study exactly on that point. “But at the same time I think there’s plenty of social science theory, particularly coming out of social psychology, that tells us that if you set up a structure this way… it’s going to lead to bad behavior.”

Part of the problem boils down to an element of human nature that we develop as children and never let go of. Our notion of what’s “right” and “fair” doesn’t form in a vacuum. People look around and see how other people are behaving as a cue to their own behavior. If you perceive you have a fair shot, you’re less likely to bend the rules. “But if you feel the principles of distributive justice have been violated, you’ll say, ‘Screw it. Everybody cheats; I’m going to cheat too,’” Martinson said. If scientists perceive they are being treated unfairly, “they themselves are more likely to engage in less-than-ideal behavior. It’s that simple.” Scientists are smart, but that doesn’t exempt them from the rules that govern human behavior.

And once scientists start cutting corners, that practice has a natural tendency to spread throughout science. Martinson pointed to a paper arguing that sloppy labs actually outcompete good labs and gain an advantage. Paul Smaldino at the University of California, Merced, and Richard McElreath at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology ran a model showing that labs that use quick-and-dirty practices will propagate more quickly than careful labs. The pressures of natural selection and evolution actually favor these labs because the volume of articles is rewarded over the quality of what gets published. Scientists who adopt these rapid-fire practices are more likely to succeed and to start new “progeny” labs that adopt the same dubious practices. “We term this process the natural selection of bad science to indicate that it requires no conscious strategizing nor cheating on the part of researchers,” Smaldino and McElreath wrote. This isn’t evolution in the strict biological sense, but they argue the same general principles apply as the culture of science evolves.

* * *

What do we inherit? And from whom?
Identically Different: A Scientist Changes His Mind
Race Realism, Social Constructs, and Genetics
Race Realism and Racialized Medicine
The Bouncing Basketball of Race Realism
To Control or Be Controlled
Flawed Scientific Research
Human Nature: Categories & Biases
Bias About Bias
Urban Weirdness
“Beyond that, there is only awe.”

Animal studies paint misleading picture by Janelle Weaver
Misleading mouse studies waste medical resources by Erika Check Hayden
A mouse’s house may ruin experiments by Sara Reardon
Curious mice need room to run by Laura Nelson
Male researchers stress out rodents by Alla Katsnelson
Bacteria bonanza found in remote Amazon village by Boer Deng
Case Closed: Apes Got Culture by Corey Binns
Study: Cat Parasite Affects Human Culture by Ker Than
Mind Control by Parasites by Bill Christensen

Human Biodiversity by Jonathan Marks
The Alternative Introduction to Biological Anthropology by Jonathan Marks
What it Means to be 98% Chimpanzee by Jonathan Marks
Tales of the Ex-Apes by Jonathan Marks
Why I Am Not a Scientist by Jonathan Marks
Is Science Racist? by Jonathan Marks
Biology Under the Influence by Lewontin & Levins
Biology as Ideology by Richard C. Lewontin
The Triple Helix by Richard Lewontin
Not In Our Genes by Lewontin & Rose
The Biopolitics of Race by Sokthan Yeng
The Brain’s Body by Victoria Pitts-Taylor
Misbehaving Science by Aaron Panofsky
The Flexible Phenotype by Piersma & Gils
Herding Hemingway’s Cats by Kat Arney
The Genome Factor by Conley & Fletcher
The Deeper Genome by John Parrington
Postgenomics by Richardson & Stevens
The Developing Genome by David S. Moore
The Epigenetics Revolution by Nessa Carey
Epigenetics by Richard C. Francis
Not In Your Genes by Oliver James
No Two Alike 
by Judith Rich Harris
Identically Different by Tim Spector
The Cultural Nature of Human Development by Barbara Rogoff
The Hidden Half of Nature by Montgomery & Biklé
10% Human by Alanna Collen
I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong
The Mind-Gut Connection by Emeran Mayer
Bugs, Bowels, and Behavior by Arranga, Viadro, & Underwood
This Is Your Brain on Parasites by Kathleen McAuliffe
Infectious Behavior by Paul H. Patterson
Infectious Madness by Harriet A. Washington
Strange Contagion by Lee Daniel Kravetz
Childhood Interrupted by Beth Alison Maloney
Only One Chance 
by Philippe Grandjean
Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky
Resisting Reality by Sally Haslanger
Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference by Justin E. H. Smith
Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You by Agustín Fuentes
The Invisible History of the Human Race by Christine Kenneally
Genetics and the Unsettled Past by Wailoo, Nelson, & Lee
The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould
Identity Politics and the New Genetics by Schramm, Skinner, & Rottenburg
The Material Gene by Kelly E. Happe
Fatal Invention by Dorothy Roberts
Inclusion by Steven Epstein
Black and Blue by John Hoberman
Race Decoded by Catherine Bliss
Breathing Race into the Machine by Lundy Braun
Race and the Genetic Revolution by Krimsky & Sloan
Race? by Tattersall & DeSalle
The Social Life of DNA by Alondra Nelson
Native American DNA by Kim TallBear
Making the Mexican Diabetic by Michael Montoya
Race in a Bottle by Jonathan Kahn
Uncertain Suffering by Carolyn Rouse
Sex Itself by Sarah S. Richardson
Building a Better Race by Wendy Kline
Choice and Coercion by Johanna Schoen
Sterilized by the State by Hansen & King
American Eugenics by Nancy Ordover
Eugenic Nation by Alexandra Minna Stern
A Century of Eugenics in America by Paul A. Lombardo
In the Name of Eugenics by Daniel J. Kevles
War Against the Weak by Edwin Black
Illiberal Reformers by Thomas C. Leonard
Defectives in the Land by Douglas C. Baynton
Framing the moron by Gerald V O’Brien
Imbeciles by Adam Cohen
Three Generations, No Imbeciles by Paul A. Lombardo
Defending the Master Race by Jonathan Peter Spiro
Hitler’s American Model by James Q. Whitman
Beyond Human Nature by Jesse J. Prinz
Beyond Nature and Culture by Philippe Descola
The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture by Evelyn Fox Keller
Biocultural Creatures by Samantha Frost
Dynamics of Human Biocultural Diversity by Elisa J Sobo
Monoculture by F.S. Michaels
A Body Worth Defending by Ed Cohen
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes
A Psychohistory of Metaphors by Brian J. McVeigh
The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist
From Bacteria to Bach and Back by Daniel C. Dennett
Consciousness by Susan Blackmore
The Meme Machine by Blackmore & Dawkins
Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari
Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel L. Everett
Dark Matter of the Mind by Daniel L. Everett
Language by Daniel L. Everett
Linguistic Relativity by Caleb Everett
Numbers and the Making of Us by Caleb Everett
Linguistic Relativities by John Leavitt
The Language Myth by Vyvyan Evans
The Language Parallax by Paul Friedrich
Louder Than Words by Benjamin K. Bergen
Out of Our Heads by Alva Noe
Strange Tools by Alva Noë
From Bacteria to Bach and Back by Daniel C. Dennett
The Embodied Mind by Varela, Thompson, & Rosch
Immaterial Bodies by Lisa Blackman
Radical Embodied Cognitive Science by Anthony Chemero
How Things Shape the Mind by Lambros Malafouris
Vibrant Matter by Jane Bennett
Entangled by Ian Hodder
How Forests Think by Eduardo Kohn
The New Science of the Mind by Mark Rowlands
Supersizing the Mind by Andy Clark
Living Systems by Jane Cull
The Systems View of Life by Capra & Luisi
Evolution in Four Dimensions by Jablonka & Lamb
Hyperobjects by Timothy Morton
Sync by Steven H. Strogatz
How Nature Works by Per Bak
Warless Societies and the Origin of War by Raymond C. Kelly
War, Peace, and Human Nature by Douglas P. Fry
Darwinism, War and History by Paul Crook

Fallen State of America

The Language of Pain, from Virginia Woolf to William Stanley Jevons
by Corey Robin
(from comment section)

Glenn wrote:

Americans account for 99 percent of the world’s hydrocodone (Vicodin) consumption, 80 percent of the world’s oxycodone (Percocet and Oxycontin) consumption and 65 percent of the world’s hydromorphone (Dilaudid) consumption, according to the New York Times.

The federal government’s health statisticians figure that about one in every 10 Americans takes an antidepressant. And by their reckoning, antidepressants were the third most common prescription medication taken by Americans in 2005–2008, the latest period during which the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) collected data on prescription drug use.

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better was published in 2009. Written by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, the book highlights the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption”. It shows that for each of eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries.

Donald Pruden, Jr. wrote:

Let me introduce the “World Happiness Report 2017”.

Yes, this is a thing. The Report, published under the auspices of the United Nations, states boldly that (in its words) that “Happiness Has Fallen in America”.

Below is an excerpt from Chapter 7, titled “Restoring American Happiness”, it is written by Jeffrey D. Sachs and it focusses on the United States:

“The predominant political discourse in the United States is aimed at raising economic growth, with the goal of restoring the American Dream and the happiness that is supposed to accompany it. But the data show conclusively that this is the wrong approach. The United States can and should raise happiness by addressing America’s multi-faceted social crisis—rising inequality, corruption, isolation, and distrust—rather than focusing exclusively or even mainly on economic growth, especially since the concrete proposals along these lines would exacerbate rather than ameliorate the deepening social crisis.”

And this from a footnote at the end of the Chapter in question:

“5. It is sometimes suggested that the degree of ethnic diversity is the single most powerful explanation of high or low social trust. It is widely believed that Scandinavia’s high social trust and happiness are a direct reflection of their high ethnic homogeneity, while America’s low and declining social trust is a reflection of America’s high and rising ethnic diversity. The evidence suggests that such “ethnic determinism” is misplaced. As Bo Rothstein has cogently written about Scandinavia, the high social trust was far from automatically linked with ethnic homogeneity. It was achieved through a century of active social democratic policies that broke down class barriers and distrust (see Rothstein and Stolle, 2003). Social democracy was buttressed by a long tradition and faith in the quality of government even before the arrival of democracy itself in Scandinavia. Moreover, highly diverse societies, such as Canada, have been able to achieve relatively high levels of social trust through programs aimed at promoting multiculturalism and inter-ethnic understanding.”

[I especially like this last as some have tried to suggest that social strife in the U.S. is, bluntly, to be blamed on the (disruptive) presence of Blacks in the United States — Michael Moore’s “Bowling For Columbine” made a point of exposing this belief that Americans seem to hold by displaying it in a montage of person-on-the-street interviews. That film goes on to challenge that view. D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of A Nation” was probably the very first broadly distributed cultural product in the U.S. to issue such blame at Blacks.]

* * *

See my previous post:

What kind of trust? And to what end?

There is one book that seriously challenges the tribal argument: Segregation and Mistrust by Eric M. Uslaner. Looking at the data, he determined that (Kindle Locations 72-73), “It wasn’t diversity but segregation that led to less trust.”

Urban Weirdness

In a summary of a study from this year, it was concluded that “young city-dwellers also have 40% more chance of suffering from psychosis (hearing voices, paranoia or becoming schizophrenic in adulthood) is perhaps is less common knowledge.” The authors in the paper claim to have controlled for “a range of potential confounders including family SES, family psychiatric history, maternal psychosis, adolescent substance problems, and neighborhood-level deprivation.”

These are intriguing results, assuming that the study was successful in controlling the confounding factors and so assuming they were making a genuine comparison. Some of the features they noted for the effected urban populations were adverse neighborhood conditions and community breakdown, but I’d point out that these are increasingly found in rural areas. For example, if they further focused in on the hardest hit areas of rural Appalachia, would they find the same results? Is this really a difference between urban and rural areas? If so, that requires explaining, maybe beyond what the authors articulated.

Some of that might be caused by physical factors in urban environments.

Lead toxicity, for example, is worse in cities these days (although a century ago it was actually worse in rural areas because of heavy use of lead paint for barns). Lead toxicity has major impacts on neurocognitive development and mental illness. Also, keeping pets indoors is more common in cities. And where cats are kept as house pets, there are higher rates of toxoplasmosis which is another causal factor that alters the brain and leads to mental health issues.

Neither lead toxicity nor toxoplasmosis was mentioned in the paper. Those are two obvious confounders apparently not having been considered. That could be problematic, although not necessarily undermining the general pattern.

Other factors might have to do with crime or rather the criminal system.

There are actually lower violent crime rates in urban areas, both big and small cities, as compared to rural areas (the rural South is even worse). But it is true that specific urban communities and neighborhoods would have more crime and violence, meaning greater levels of victimization. Beyond crime itself, a major difference is that there are greater levels of policing in cities, which means more police targeting of particular populations (specifically minorities and the poor) and so more police harassment and brutality for the victimized populations. Many poor inner cities can feel like occupied territories, far from optimal conditions for normal psychological development.

Furthermore, there are more video cameras, public and private, watching the citizenry’s every move. Cities are artificial environments, highly ordered in constraining and controlling human behavior, with more walls than open spaces. In tending toward inequality and segregation, cities create divided populations that have separate life experiences. This undermines a culture of trust and makes it difficult to maintain community-based social capital. It’s understandable that all of this combined might make one feel paranoid or simply stressed and anxious. But we should be careful about our conclusions, since cities in more equal and well functioning social democracies might be far different than cities in a country like the United States.

Besides, there might be more going on than these external issues of urban environments.

Urban populations are larger and more concentrated than ever before. Maybe there are psychological changes that happen to populations under these conditions, as urbanization increases. Being in near constant close proximity to so many people has to have major impacts on human development and behavior. And this might go far beyond issues of stress alone.

This could relate to Julian Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism, as he argued that people hearing voices became more common with the emergence of the first city-states. Urban environments are atypical for the conditions under which human evolution occurred. It shouldn’t be surprising that abnormal conditions would lead to abnormal results, whatever are the specifics involved.

So, maybe it should be expected that “mental health deterioration” would follow. If the bicameral mind actually did once exist in the ancient world, I’m sure the first urban dwellers initially experienced it as negative and threatening. Any major societal change takes many generations (or centuries) to be fully assimilated, normalized, and stabilized within the social order.

But humans are so adaptable that almost anything can eventually be integrated into a culture. Recent research has shown how highly atypical is our WEIRD society (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) and yet to us it is perfectly normal. Maybe these neurocognitive changes from increased urbanization are simply our WEIRD society being pushed ever further down the path its on. The WEIRD might get ever more weird.

A new mentality could be developing, for good or ill. If our society survives the transition, something radically different would emerge. As has been noted by others, revolutions of the mind always precede revolutions of society. Before the earthquake, the tectonic plates must shift. The younger generations are standing on the faultline and, in being hit by urbanization the hardest, they will experience it like no one else. But as it goes on, none of us will escape the consequences. We better hope for a new mentality.

“News from the guinea pig grapevine suggests that whatever it is, we won’t know until it’s way too late, you see? You see that we’re all canaries in the coal mine on this one?”
~ Barris, A Scanner Darkly

* * *

Cumulative Effects of Neighborhood Social Adversity and Personal Crime Victimization on Adolescent Psychotic Experiences
by Joanne Newbury, Louise Arseneault, Avshalom Caspi, Terrie E. Moffitt1, Candice L. Odgers, & Helen L. Fishe

Does urbanicity shift the population expression of psychosis?
by Janneke Spauwen, Lydia Krabbendam, Roselind Lieb, Hans-Ulrich Wittchen, & Jim van Os

Schizophrenia and Urbanicity: A Major Environmental Influence—Conditional on Genetic Risk
by Lydia Krabbendam & Jim van Os

Brain Structure Correlates of Urban Upbringing, an Environmental Risk Factor for Schizophrenia
Leila Haddad, Axel Schäfer, Fabian Streit, Florian Lederbogen, Oliver Grimm, Stefan Wüst, by Michael Deuschle, Peter Kirsch, Heike Tost, & Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg

City living and urban upbringing affect neural social stress processing in humans
by Florian Lederbogen, Peter Kirsch, Leila Haddad, Fabian Streit, Heike Tost, Philipp Schuch, Stefan Wüst, Jens C. Pruessner, Marcella Rietschel, Michael Deuschle & Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg

 

Clusters and Confluences

A favorite topic in my family is the personality differences, psychological issues, behavioral traits, and other idiosyncracies among family members. In the immediate family and on both sides of the extended family, there are patterns that can be seen. Some of this might be genetic in origin, but no doubt there is much involving epigenetics, shared environmental conditions, parenting style, learned behavior, etc. Besides, nature and nurture are inseparable, in terms of actual people in the real world.

One example of a familial pattern is learning disabilities. I was diagnosed with learning disabilities when younger, but before my generation such diagnoses weren’t common. There appears to be some learning disabilities or rather learning style differences among some of my mother’s family. Another example is a dislike of physicality that was passed down from my paternal grandmother to my father and then to my older brother.

That latter one is interesting. My older brother has always been physically sensitive, like my dad. This to some extent goes along with an emotional sensitivity and, at least in the case of my brother, the physical sensitivity of allergies. His daughter has also taken on these psychological and physiological traits. All of these family members also have a hypersensitivity to social conditions, specifically in seeking positive responses from others.

I, on the other hand, have had an opposite cluster of factors. I was socially oblivious as a child and still maintain some degree of social indifference as an adult. My psychological and social insensitivity, although compensated for in other ways, goes hand in hand with a physical hardiness.

Unlike my paternal grandmother, father, brother, and niece, I am big-boned and more physical like my mother’s family. I even look more like my mother’s family with thicker hair, big feet, a bump on my nose, an underbite, and hazel eyes. About my physicality, it goes beyond just my body type, features, and activity level. I have such a high pain tolerance that I commonly don’t notice when I get a cut. I also don’t worry about cuts when I get them because I’m not prone to infections. I’ve always had a strong immune system and rarely get sick, but neither do I have an over-active immune system that leads to allergies.

All of this is the opposite of my older brother. He and his family are constantly getting sick, even as they constantly worry about germs and try to protect themselves. I played in filthy creeks as a child with exposed cuts and was far healthier than my cleanliness-obsessed brother who, when younger, panicked if his new shoes got scuffed.

It’s strange how these kinds of things tend to group together. It indicates a possible common cause or set of causes. That would likely be some particular combination of nature and nurture. I not only take more after my mother’s family for I also spent more time with my mother as a child than did my brothers, since she took time off from work when I was born (I was the third and last child, although fourth pregnancy following a miscarriage). My brothers didn’t get the same opportunity. So, I was also more likely to pick up behaviors from her. Between my brothers and I, only I am able to relate well with my mother. In particular, my older brother’s sensitivity is in constant conflict with my mother’s insensitivity. But I’m used to my mother’s way of relating, allowing me to better understand and sympathize, not to mention be more forgiving, partly because I share some of her tendencies.

Why is one kind of high sensitivity often related to other high sensitivities: emotional, social, pain, immune system, allergies, etc? And why is the opposite pattern seen with low sensitivities? What causes these clustered differences? And how can two such distinct clusters be found among siblings, sometimes even identical twins, who shared many factors?

It makes me curious.

It’s not just conditions like allergies and intolerances. There are similar clusters of neurocognitive, behavioral, and health conditions observed in various immune system disorders, the autism spectrum, fragile x syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome and other nutritional/dietary/intestinal issues, migraines, ADHD, toxoplasmosis and parasite load, heavy metal toxicity such as lead and mercury, etc. When there is one abnormal symptom or developmental issue, there are often others that show up at the same time or later on. This can involve such things as depression, anxiety, IQ, learning disabilities, irritability, impulse control issues, emotional instability, suicidal tendencies, accident proneness, etc along with more basic issues like asthma, diabetes, obesity, and much else.

In some cases, such as lead toxicity, the causal mechanisms are known as the toxin impacts every part of the body, especially the brain and nervous system. Or consider toxoplasmosis which apparently can alter the rates of personality traits in a population, along with differences in health consequences and social results, whatever is the exact chain of causation. But sometimes the correlations are far less clear and certain in their causal relationship. For example, what is the possible connection(s) between depressive tendencies, anger issues, addictive behaviors, learning difficulties, and physical hardiness among my maternal family?

There was a particular conversation that inspired this line of thought. My parents and I were discussing many of the above issues. But a major focus was on sleep patterns. My brother, like my dad, has a difficulty getting up and moving in the morning. They both tend to feel groggy when first waking up and prefer to remain physically inactive for a long period after. They also both find it hard to fall asleep and, in the case of my dad, a problem of waking up in the middle of the night. My mom and I, however, don’t have any of these issues. We fall asleep easily, typically stay asleep throughout the night, and wake up quickly. So, the difference between sensitivity and insensitivity impacts every aspect of life, even sleeping and waking.

Oftentimes, in our society, we blame individuals for the way they are. We act like people have a choice about how they feel and what motivates them. But it’s not as if because of moral superiority and strength of will that I’ve chosen to sleep well, have a strong immune system, feel physically energetic, and generally be insensitive. No more than I chose to have a learning disability and severe depression. It’s simply the way I’ve always been.

There is obviously much more going on here than mere genetics. And so genetic determinism is intellectually unsatisfying, even as some might find it personally convenient as a way of rationalizing differences. We have too much data proving environmental and epigenetic causes. A recent study could only find a few percentage of genes correlated to intelligence and, even then, they couldn’t prove a causal connection. The same thing is seen with so much other correlation research. The way various clusters form, as I argue, implies a complex web of factors that as of yet we don’t come close to understanding.

One intriguing connection that has been found is that between the brain and the gut. There are more neurons in the lining of the gastrointestinal system (the enteric nervous system) than in either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system. This is often called the “second brain,” but in evolutionary terms it was the earliest part of the brain. This is why there has been proven such a close relationship between intestinal health, diet, nutrition, microbiome, neurotransmitters, and mood. The human brain isn’t limited to the skull. The importance of this is demonstrated by introducing a new microbiome into the gut which can lead to physiological and pyschological changes.

Much else, however, remains a mystery. Seemingly minor changes in initial conditions, even epigenetic changes from prior generations, can lead to major changes in results. There can be a cascade of effects that follow. As I’ve previously stated, “This is because of the cumulative effect of initial conditions. One thing leads to another. Lowered nutrition or increased toxicity has its impact which gets magnified by such things as school tracking. Each effect becoming a cause and all the causal factors combining to form significant differences in end results.”

Later conditions can either lessen or exacerbate these results. Even epigenetics, by way of altered environmental conditions, can be switched back the opposite direction in a single generation with results that we know little about. Now consider the complexity of reality where there are millions of factors involved, with only a tiny fraction of those factors having been discovered and studied in scientific research. Those multitudinous factors act in combined ways that couldn’t be predicted by any single factor. All of this has to be kept in mind at the very moment in history when humans are ignorantly and carelessly throwing in further factors with unknown consequences such as the diversity of largely untested chemicals in our food and other products, not to mention large-scale environmental changes.

We don’t live at a society ruled by the precautionary principle. Instead, our collective ignorance makes us even more brazen in our actions and more indifferent to the results. The measured increase in certain physical and mental health conditions could be partly just an increase in diagnosis, but it’s more probable that at least some of the increase is actual. We are progressing in some ways as a society such as seen with the Moral Flynn Effect, but this is balanced by an Amoral Flynn Effect along with many other unintended consequences.

Along with this, our society has a lack of appreciation for the larger context such as historical legacies and a lack of respect for the power of larger forces such as environmental conditions. We are born into a world created by others, each generation forming a new layer upon the ground below. We are facing some tough issues here. And we aren’t prepared to deal with them.

As individuals, the consequences are laid upon our shoulders, without our realizing all that we have inherited and have had externalized onto our lives, as we grow up internalizing these realities and coming to identify with them. Each of us does the best we can with the hand we’ve been dealt, but in the process we get more praise and blame than we deserve. The individual, as the product of collective forces, is the ultimate scapegoat of society. The lives we find ourselves in are a confluence of currents and undercurrents, the interference pattern of waves. Yet, in our shared ignorance and incomprehension, we are simply who we are.

* * * *

The Ending of the Nature vs Nurture Debate
Heritability & Inheritance, Genetics & Epigenetics, Etc
What Genetics Does And Doesn’t Tell Us
Weak Evidence, Weak Argument: Race, IQ, Adoption
Identically Different: A Scientist Changes His Mind
What do we inherit? And from whom?
To Put the Rat Back in the Rat Park
Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park
Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition
On Welfare: Poverty, Unemployment, Health, Etc
From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations
The Desperate Acting Desperately
It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!
Facing Shared Trauma and Seeking Hope
Society: Precarious or Persistent?
Plowing the Furrows of the Mind
Union Membership, Free Labor, and the Legacy of Slavery.
Uncomfortable Questions About Ideology

“First came the temple, then the city.”

“Landscape is memory, and memory in turn compresses to become the rich black seam that underlies our territory.”
~Alan Moore, Coal Country, from Spirits of Place

Sense of place. This place I live in is my home, where I spent much of my childhood. No matter how far I stray, I’ve always returned here. It’s the place I know. In fact, I know it so well that I can conjure images in my mind of buildings, fountains, and streets that no longer exist and, in some cases, disappeared long before I was born (via the magic of old photographs I’ve come across). The human world is built out of memory, personal and shared.

This is easy to forget, at least for many of us in modern society. We are constantly on the move. I lived in four states before I even made it to high school and this is not unusual for an American. It was all the leaving and returning that more fully imprinted this place onto my brain matter, seeping deep down into my sense of self. That is what makes me different than so many others. I daily see the haunts of my childhood and regularly visit with my childhood friend, a rare experience in an era when few people live in the communities in which they grew up.

For all of that, my sense of place is superficial. Many indigenous societies have a profound grounding in and knowledge of the world around them. In some cases, this communal experience goes back millennia. There are indigenous people who are still telling stories that accurately describe what their immediate environment looked like during the Ice Age. Now that is a sense of place, a collective memory more ancient than even the most faint traces of Western Civilization.

Lynne Kelly, maybe more than any other author I’ve recently read, has provoked my intellect and imagination. I first came across her in reading Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies. It’s about mnemonic traditions in indigenous cultures, which she initially explored through her study of Australian Aborigines. I’ve yet to finish it, as it is one of those books that is so interesting that I keep going back to it, sampling passages as they catch my fancy. She has a more recent book on the topic, The Memory Code, where she gives more detail about how these mnemonic systems work and she further delves into their significance.

It is fascinating, to say the least. What is shown in those two books explains so much about what it means to be human in the world, not just what it means to live in an indigenous tribe. And various aspects resonate far and wide, not just landscape and sense of place but: the city as social construction, temples as mnemonic devices, songlines as symbolic conflation, state-dependent and context-dependent memory, revolution of mind preceding revolution of social order, radical imagination and moral imagination, embodied experience and extended mind, etc. It speaks to the interconnection of natural resources and hunting techniques, tool-making and structure-building, relations and culture, mythology and rituals, language and symbolism, song and dance, space and accoustics, knowledge and history, astronomical observation and astrotheology, calendars and and natural cycles, and much else.

Looking at an even more basic level, I was reading Mark Changizi’s Harnessed. He argues that (p. 11), “Speech and music culturally evolved over time to be simulacra of nature.” That reminded me of Lynne Kelly’s description of how indigenous people would use vocal techniques and musical instruments to mimic natural sounds, as a way of communicating and passing on complex knowledge of the world. Changizi’s argument is based on the observation that “human speech sounds like solid-object physical events” and that “music sounds like humans moving and behaving (usually expressively)” (p. 19). Certain sounds give information about what is going on in the immediate environment, specifically sounds related to action and movement. This sound-based information processing would make for an optimal basis of language formation. This is given support from evidence that Kelly describes in her own books.

This also touches upon the intimate relationship language has to music, dance, and gesture. Language is inseparable from our experience of being in the world, involving multiple senses or even synaesthesia. The overlapping of sensory experience may have been more common to earlier societies. Research has shown that synaesthetes have better capacity for memory: “spatial sequence synesthetes have a built-in and automatic mnemonic reference” (Wikipedia). That is relevant considering that memory is central to oral societies, as Kelly demonstrates. And the preliterate memory systems are immensely vast, potentially incorporating the equivalent of thousands of pages of info. Knowledge and memory isn’t just in the mind but within the entire sense of self, sense of community, and sense of place.

Let me explain the quote used in the title of this post: “First came the temple, then the city.” It comes from Klaus Schmidt who led the excavation of Göbekli Tepe. The discovery of this archaeological site has overturned prior assumptions about the archaic human societies. It’s the earliest known example of permanent structures and they were built before the development of agriculture. That requires some explaining. The only domesticated animal these people had was the dog and so they had no beasts of burden to help haul the large stones. They hadn’t even yet developed the making of pottery. Their tool use and technical skills were limited with no prior stone masonry and probably not much specialization. These structures seem to have come out of nowhere.

Most perplexing is that there is a telling lack of evidence that this was a human settlement. It appears to have been a meeting place. Schmidt theorized that it was for communal rituals and so would have been the first temple complex. Julian Jaynes made similar arguments about early societies, in speculating that the first houses were built for the gods. This would have meant a place to store the mummified corpse or skull of a once revered leader, either having been considered divine during his life or having become deified in death, the worship of the leader maintained through visceral memory of his voice, at least until that memory faded. Only later did humans settle down to build their own houses and from this formed a priestly class. That then required the development of farming to support the population.

In whatever variation of this theory, civilization as settled lifestyle began from ancestral worship and a cult of the dead. This interpretation is supported by the dead buried under floor/benches in Jericho and Catal Hayak and cremated human remains at Stonehenge. Further excavation needs to be done at Göbekli Tepe, but some evidence already points in this direction. The temple complex has prominent vulture images and headless human figures, both associated with death in early cultures. For example, there was the archaic practice of removing skull for veneration and so the relevance of portrayals of the headless. Humans have long been obsessed with death. Elders were those who carried and passed on cultural knowledge, those who embodied and gave voice to gods, spirits, and ancestors. They were accordingly revered. In shared memory, their knowledge and voice lived on.

That is how authority operated long ago, by what an individual embodied and represented. Both Jaynes and Kelly see ancient authority as having originally been less hierarchical or else based on different forms of power, such as voices and knowledge. What makes knowledge into power isn’t just that it is information controlled by the few but because it is knowledge given form and voice through the force of personal presence. Ancient knowledge systems were visceral, not abstract, although incipient forms of abstraction had emerged, such as how physical mnemonics once learned could be accessed in the mind without the external triggers.

In these societies, the individual is so fully enmeshed within the world that the world is exists within the individual. These aren’t just systems of memory and knowledge. They are entire lived and embodied worldviews. The person is inseparble from the place. Everything would be integrated in such a community: tradition, knowledge, language, culture, ritual, religion, worldview, environment, etc.

It’s hard to know what that would have meant. The still existing societies with this kind of system have been in contact with modern societies for generations or centuries. In some cases such as the Australian Aborigines, they’ve taken the lessons learned in dealing with white Westerners and incorporated them as songs into their cultural knowledge. We have no way of being able to observe a society prior to contact and contact inevitably brings changes. Sometimes changes come far in advance of direct contact by way of intermediary tribes and environmental alterations. We can only guess at what is indicated from limited evidence.

I become aware of this difficulty sometimes while reading books like that written by Lynne Kelly. There is often the assumption that people in other societies are basically like us with the differences being mostly superficial. So, for example, behaviors and motivations are interpreted according to modern Western experience. But we know from research, that WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) subjects are among the least representative populations in the world, which is problematic as they are the most commonly used in scientific studies.

Related to this is when Lynne Kelly discusses the power held by those who control knowledge in indigenous societies, It occurs to me that this is very much a WEIRD way of understanding human nature. That is projecting an intention onto others that she cannot possibly know. She is arguing, so it seems, that they lack sincerity in performing their ritual. But maybe sincerity and insincerity is not a standard framework for the oral cultures of indigenous tribes.

John Beebe defines sincerity as the aspiration toward integrity, by which he means that you can only aspire toward what you lack. In that case, sincerity and hence insincerity can only exist among those who have lost the ancient inheritance of an integrated worldview (i.e., integrity). This would make sense, if indigenous mnemonics actually is an inseparable structure to a cultural experience of reality, rather than being a mere memory technique. That is what the Australian Aborigines appear to be claiming when they state that they sing the world into existence.

This is not to romanticize tribal people, but it is a serious consideration of the possibility that we modern Westerners would not recognize full integrity if we saw it. If anything, this is to counter the romanticized ideal of integrity that sincerity evokes, as differentiated from the lived experience of integrity. A number of thinkers have seen an opposition between cultures of ritual and cultures of sincerity, sometimes used to contrast Catholicism and Protestantism but maybe it goes much deeper when considering societies where ritual is entirely dominant. It’s just something to keep in mind as a possible point of misunderstanding.

This leads to a stumbling block for many in imagining the bicameral mind that Julian Jaynes describes. From the modern Western experience, such a mindset seems absurd or impossible. But it might be more plausible within a worldview of ritual and integrity.

If songlines originally were an expression of bicameralism or else something similar, each song would be a distinct voice (or set of voices). These songs would express the voices of gods, spirits, and ancestors as passed down by the song teachers across the generations. The songs would invoke not just landscapes but also narratized worlds with specific worldviews, mindsets, personalities, and histories. This internalized public space would be the precursor for the post-bicameral interiorizing of private space, both being metaphorical but the former connecting the individual to the concrete and the latter freeing the individual through increasing abstraction.

In building structures in the world, what if early humans were building structures in their minds? Creating a radically different mindset might have offered greater survival value than even building a permanent house to live in. An entire world would have been formed where new possibilities were made available. Maybe humans had to change their way of thinking before they could imagine civilization into existence.

* * * *

Making Gods, Making Individuals
Building and Battling in Ancient Europe
Music and Dance on the Mind
Choral Singing and Self-Identity
Development of Language and Music
Radical Human Mind: From Animism to Bicameralism and Beyond

Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies
by Lynne Kelly
Kindle Locations 441-464

Knowledge is power

Or so it used to be. Australian Aboriginal cultures in their traditional state, American Indian cultures resisting the influence of the colonisers and African cultures still practising their ancient knowledge systems all provide ample examples of the way in which those who controlled the knowledge also controlled society. The role of knowledge in the exercise of power is underrepresented in archaeological interpretation of prehistoric social structures.

Mike Parker Pearson, the British Neolithic archaeologist, and Ramilisonina wrote:

We employ cross-cultural generalizations as a means of assessing the likelihood of certain aspects of social organization being shared between different cultural contexts. We may define these generalisations as probability analogies since they work on the principle that, if a certain relationship is found amongst most traditional societies today, then there is a probability that this relationship probably obtained in most societies in the past (1998a, p. 309).

Archaeologists describe monument building eras, such as the British Neolithic, the Archaic of the American Southeast and the Ancestral Puebloan era of the American Southwest, as showing no signs of a wealthy elite, no physical signs of a hierarchy. Yet, to build such monuments as Stonehenge, Poverty Point and Chaco Canyon there must have been an organising hierarchy. It is this feature which leads to the first, and the most definitive, of the ten indicators of a mnemonic monument described below. I propose that, as in contemporary Australian Aboriginal hunter-gatherer cultures and Pueblo sedentary societies, the power granted to elders in these cultures was based on their access to knowledge.

I acknowledge that, as Renfrew says, ‘Modern hunter-gatherer societies are the product of forty centuries of sapient evolution, just as much as urban ones. They should not be regarded as living representatives of the Palaeolithic past’ (1998, p. 4). Methods found in contemporary Australian Aboriginal knowledge systems can be traced back for over 40,000 years (Haynes 2000, p. 53). Hence, it is considered justified to propose that the generalisations about oral knowledge systems can be translated into prehistory, as archaeologists currently transfer generalisations about human physical attributes and needs. It would be highly speculative to transfer the beliefs of any contemporary culture into the prehistoric era. However, it is logical to consider that the technologies by which they formally taught and painstakingly memorised their knowledge might have analogies in the more distant past. A deeper appreciation of the demands of knowledge retention and transmission in oral cultures opens up possibilities for radical reinterpretation of archaeological sites and artefacts globally.

Kindle Locations 4906-4927

The organisation of labour, degree of planning, structuring of space and caches of exotic materials all point to a complex Chacoan political authority over a large region over a long span of time (Lekson 1999, p. 48; Sebastian 1992, p. 57). It is generally agreed that the time of great house construction in Chaco Canyon itself was a time of low violence; coercive force was not an integral part of Chacoan society (Frazier 2005, pp. 2, 74– 82; Mahoney 2000, p. 16). Pueblo Bonito has disproportionately few infants in the burial sample (Saitta 1997, p. 15), as would be expected if the privilege of burial at Chaco was awarded to members of the knowledge elite.

Social inequalities increased between ritual leaders in the great houses of Chaco Canyon and the other Ancestral Puebloans over the course of the tenth century (Van Dyke 2007, pp. 98– 101). During the latter half of the eleventh century, some elite burials occurred at Pueblo Bonito, in rooms that were nearly 200 years old at the time (Van Dyke 2007, pp. 121– 2). In Room 33 of Pueblo Bonito, two males were interred with thousands of turquoise pieces (Saitta 1997, p. 15). However, the number of burials in great houses is so small that some researchers question that much can be concluded from their context (Saitta 1997, p. 5; Sebastian 1992, p. 51). Nevertheless, analysis of those interred in the great houses indicated that they had a better level of nourishment than those in the villages (Saitta 1997, pp. 14– 15; Van Dyke 2007, p. 3).

It can therefore be stated fairly reliably that there was an elite with power in Chaco Canyon during the Classic Bonito phase, but that there is minimal, if any, sign of individual wealth or coercion. This chapter argues that power was due to control of knowledge, and the centre of the knowledge was Chaco Canyon. Knowledge specialists from the outliers would have come regularly to the canyon to maintain existing, or gain new, knowledge from the elite in the great houses. The implementation of knowledge spaces was also localised in each outlier. Control of esoteric knowledge is so integral to the power structure in contemporary Pueblo society that Sebastian argues that ‘it would be surprising if such control were not a component of ancestral Puebloan societies as well’ (2004, p. 95).

The Memory Code
by Lynne Kelly
Kindle Locations 94-109

Orality, I soon discovered, was about making knowledge memorable. It was about using song, story, dance and mythology to help retain vast stores of factual information when the culture had no recourse to writing. It was the first step to understanding how they could remember so much stuff. The definition of ‘stuff’ was growing rapidly to include not only the animal knowledge I was researching, but also the names and uses of plants; resource access and land management; laws and ethics; geology and astronomy; genealogies, to ensure they knew their rights and relatives; navigation, to ensure they could travel long distances when there were no roads or maps; ideas about where they had come from; and, of course, what they believed. Indigenous cultures memorised everything on which their survival—physically and culturally—depended.

I wasn’t far into my research when I began to understand that songlines were key to the way Indigenous Australians organised this vast store of information so that it would not be forgotten. Songlines are sung narratives of the landscape, singing tracks that weave across the country and enable every significant place to be known. At each location, rituals are performed that enact the knowledge associated with that specific place. In this context, rituals are repeated acts and no more should be implied by that word. The degree to which they are religious ceremonies depends entirely on the specific ritual. One elder explained to me how singing the names of the sacred sites along the songlines created a set of subheadings to the entire knowledge base, a place for knowing about every animal, plant and person. The songlines could be sung when moving through the space in reality or in imagination.

By repeating the stories of the mythological beings through songs and dances at sacred landscape sites, information could be memorised, even if it was not used for tens, hundreds or thousands of years. Songs are far more memorable than prose. Dances can depict animal behaviour and tactics for the hunt in a way no words can do. Mythological characters can act out a vivid set of stories that are unforgettable.

Kindle Locations 231-241

In oral traditions, dance acts as a complementary memory cue to the sung narratives. Not only do the dances entertain but information can also be encoded in dance that defies clear expression in words. As a natural history writer, I doubt I could accurately describe details of the movement of a kangaroo—the flick of an ear, the subtle change in stance as it detects an approaching human—despite having observed them for most of my life. Australian Aboriginal dancers can represent this behaviour in a matter of moments.

Rituals performed before a hunt are often referred to as ‘hunting magic’, the word ‘magic’ implying that they are simply superstitious acts performed in the belief that they increase the fortune of the hunt through a call to supernatural beings. A little more investigation shows otherwise. Many of the songs reinforce details of animal behaviour, such as indicators that the animal may be aware of the hunters, or the way in which a mob of animals may disperse in fleeing. These rituals confirm planned hunting strategies and so, exactly as claimed, enhance the likely success of the hunt. When I discussed ‘hunting magic’ informally with Australian Aboriginals and Native Americans, they indicated that they were well aware of this rational link. The songs, for them, combine practical and magical aspects.

Kindle Locations 376-390

I found the concept of singing the road map, with paintings and sand drawings to help visualise it, mightily impressive, but I had yet to glimpse the power of the songlines. They were so much more than navigational tools. At each sacred place along the route, songs were sung and rituals performed. Rituals, by definition, are simply acts that are repeatedly performed. Those performances include the songs and dances that encode knowledge of a wide range of the practical subjects I was exploring, not just the navigational routes. What intrigued me was the way the songlines acted as an organiser, a table of contents to so much of the knowledge.

Each location acted as a subheading for the knowledge encoded in the ritual performed at that location. Vivid stories at each of these sacred sites told of the mythological ancestors who created the landscape, the animals, plants and everything in Country. Everything was linked. Everything had a place and was named and known. The traditional Aboriginal landscape is a memory space on a grand scale.

Non-Indigenous observers have mentioned their surprise at the depth of the emotional response in a singer when chanting a set of placenames, a seemingly unemotional task. Within the singer’s mind are all the associated stories. I have set up a series of ‘songlines’, a few kilometres of locations to which I have encoded information such as countries of the world, history and families of birds. When I list the locations, my head is full of all these associations, vivid images, funny stories and a precious store of knowledge. But even more than that, my songlines are now so familiar and so much a part of everyday life, I am extraordinarily fond of them. I have an emotional response as well as an intellectual one when I think of my songlines. I could not have understood this had I not done it myself. For elders with their entire culture tied to the knowledge embedded in the landscape, the effect must be extraordinarily intense.

Kindle Locations 484-495

Mythology certainly reflects spiritual beliefs, but what is pertinent to the story being told in this book is that it also encodes a vast store of practical information and rational knowledge of the world. Mythology, in this context, is an incredibly effective memory aid.

If the story carries knowledge about a particular plant, for example, then the plant will often be cast as an animated character. The plant-character will have human-style adventures and experiences, setbacks, difficulties and successes, acting as a metaphor for the events of a normal life. The character or personality of a medicinal plant, say, will be easily remembered while often telling a moral tale as well. If a plant is poisonous, then the story will involve its deathly quality. Realising that mythological stories are memory aids is not a revelation from Western researchers. Non-literate people are well aware of the role of story. […] Traditional peoples would not have survived had they been, as so often portrayed, living in a fog of superstition and irrational thinking.

Kindle Locations 515-522

One problem with trying to understand something as critical as the wangarr is that we have no equivalent in Western culture and no appropriate words to describe the concept. A viewer who watches the three long films, a number of short films and listens to the narrative about the Djungguwan learns that there is nothing in the wangarr that can be called a god. The mythological ancestors are not worshipped nor are they the objects of prayers. Their stories are told and through those stories cultural knowledge is imparted and cultural values sustained. It is simplest to accept the term and describe, granted in simplistic terms, that the wangarr are those who travelled through the land, creating the landscape, plants, animals and people. The wangarr gave the Yolngu languages, ceremonies, sacred designs and laws and, critically, the songs, dances and stories that encode all the knowledge and beliefs of the culture.

Kindle Locations 1355-1365

Unfortunately, Göbekli Tepe was labelled a temple by Schmidt and everyone discussing it since has used the term, leading to the assumption that it was primarily a religious building.2 With no sign of habitation, it was not domestic. Situated on what was a forested plateau, but is now desert, there was no nearby water. There are no burials and no sign of a wealthy hierarchy. However, there are signs of feasting, public and restricted performance spaces, and stone pillars in clear sequences. Göbekli Tepe has all the indicators of a memory space.

Göbekli Tepe was built by non-farming people. It has long been assumed that to build monuments, people needed to be farming to free the time for such labour-intensive activities. I believe that in order to settle, it was essential that indigenous peoples found some way to create a local memory space. This would gradually replace the knowledge system embedded in the broader landscape. Any strongly sequenced set of objects, such as standing stones or posts, could be used to replicate the locations along the songline or pilgrimage trail. The fact that many of these monuments are circular is indicative of the way time is cyclic for indigenous cultures when they talk of resource management and agriculture. The monuments need to represent the landscape locations while also providing both public and restricted performance spaces.

Kindle Locations 1812-1815

All these theories are consistent with the concept that Stonehenge was primarily a knowledge space, and that death rites, astronomical observations, timekeeping and healing were all part of the complexity that is seen in historical indigenous knowledge systems.

Kindle Locations 3398-3403

This monument was built by hunter-gatherers, as was the far more sophisticated Louisiana site of Poverty Point, which emerged nearly 2000 years later. Poverty Point was the centre of a hunter-gatherer culture spreading over nearly 2000 square kilometres. It demonstrated that a large complex monument could be created by hunter-gatherers.4 The fact that these sites were built without any sign of agriculture challenges accepted wisdom that communities needed to settle and farm in order to free up the time required to build monuments. I believe that the reverse is true: people needed to build monuments in order to preserve the knowledge system to enable them to settle.

Kindle Locations 3488-3491

The archaeology of the Poverty Point monuments demonstrates that essentially egalitarian hunter-gatherers attained levels of organisation and integration once only attributed to advanced farming cultures. Hunter-gatherer people may be less complex in terms of their hierarchies, cities and politics; it should never be assumed that they are less complex intellectually.

A Million Years of Music
by Gary Tomlinson
Kindle Locations 4252-4272

From the recent end of the timescale also there are indications that the institutionalization of ritual power may extend back into the Paleolithic, even in monumentally structured ways. The excavations since the 1990s of Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey have uncovered a project of staggering scope of stone quarrying, carving, and building that resulted in a long-lasting center of activity starting about 11,000 years ago. With little sign of on-site habitation yet found, Klaus Schmidt, the lead archaeologist, and others posit this as a sacred locale for groups of foragers in the surrounding areas, periodically gathering to celebrate essential rituals. It is, to say the least, not the kind of project hunter-gatherers have usually been thought to mount. For Schmidt it points to a new, ideological stimulus for the beginnings of the transition to sedentism: religious ritual and institution. In this view it is metaphysics that drove settlement patterns and eventually brought about farming, not the reverse.

A recent revisionist account has taken issue with this interpretation, seeing in it an anachronistic distinction of shrine from house and envisioning Göbekli Tepe as a sacred settlement, along the lines archaeologists have now and then perceived elsewhere. 7 (Inca Cuzco is a much more recent example.) This new interpretation suggests that the real message of Göbekli Tepe might instead be that what counted most for early Neolithic humans was life integrated with incipient ritual, not separated from it. It is hard not to imagine this as a repeating of earlier, Paleolithic lifeways.

Whatever our interpretation of the site, however, we are left with the construction of a special center, built and used across centuries and involving daunting technological challenges— all some seven millennia before Stonehenge or the Great Pyramid of Giza. We must contemplate that arresting date in prospect, so to speak, from the vantage of Paleolithic developments, not merely in retrospect. It places the earliest monumental construction at Göbekli Tepe closer in time to the painting of Lascaux than to the building of the pyramids. The famous decorated caves from the end of the Paleolithic propose themselves to us as ritual spaces just as eloquently as Göbekli Tepe does; this similarity is inescapable. To entertain it is, however, to locate Göbekli Tepe in a history of the making and use of such sites reaching far back into the Paleolithic period, if on smaller scales. This history includes not only Lascaux, Altamira, and many other sites from after the Last Glacial Maximum but Chauvet also, painted much earlier, in Gravettian or even Aurignacian times; and it includes many open-air and enclosed sites of rock painting and sculpture from Africa, the immense antiquity of which has only recently begun to be appreciated.

Inside the Neolithic Mind
by David Lewis-Williams & David Pearce
Kindle Locations 544-587

Most sensationally, Schmidt found that the pillars had images carved on them (Pls 2, 3, 4; Fig. 6). They include wild boar, gazelles, wild cattle, foxes, snakes and birds – no domesticated animals. Nor is there sign of any domesticated plants or animals in the deposits. These people were hunters and gatherers, albeit socially and economically complex.38 One pillar appears to have a human arm carved on it, and this feature, seen in association with the armed pillar at Nevali Çori, seems to confirm the impression that the stone columns are all somewhat anthropomorphic. Here was an early Neolithic, pre-farming community that, like their Upper Palaeolithic predecessors in Europe, most definitely had image-making as a practice that went beyond practical matters of making a daily living – though such a distinction is probably ours rather than one made by the people themselves.

The pillars came from a quarry about 91 m (300 ft) away. There, the limestone bedrock was cut and the pillars shaped, at least to some extent. One pillar still in place in the quarry would, had it been removed, have been as much as 6 m (20 ft) long and would have weighed 50 tons. What drove the people of Göbekli Tepe to make these pillars, to drag them to the rock-cut structures, to embellish them with images and to raise them up?

Schmidt has found no traces of early Neolithic houses nearby. He therefore concludes that Göbekli Tepe was a ritual centre to which Neolithic people came for religious purposes. It may have been a site of intense religious experiences that reinforced beliefs and social networks. Perhaps ‘pilgrims’ came regularly from as much as 100 km (62 miles) away, from a site known as Jerf el Ahmar, where there are comparable round structures with benches and also images of animals, but no rock-cut structures with stone pillars.

While contemplating Göbekli Tepe, the English archaeologist Steven Mithen had an idea that supports what one of us had previously advanced for the domestication of cattle at Çatalhöyük and which, in general terms, followed in Cauvin’s footsteps.39 Mithen concluded that the religious beliefs embodied in the massive stone structures and associated carvings came before and eventually led to agriculture. How could this inversion of the sort of scenario that Childe would have recognized have happened?

Schmidt pointed out to Mithen some hills about 30 km (18.6 miles) to the south. These are known as Karacadag (‘Black Mountains’). Phylogenetic DNA studies had shown that this area was the origin of domesticated einkorn wheat. To put the matter more forcefully, Karacadag was the place of origin of domesticated grain and therefore the origin of the Neolithic.40 Mithen suggests that the switch to domestication came about as a result of frequent ritual and construction activities that took place at Göbekli Tepe, in our terms, religious practice. Large numbers of people, possibly measured in hundreds, would have been needed to make the Göbekli Tepe structures and pillars, and this would have necessitated the gathering and processing of much wild grain to sustain the workers. This activity would, in time, have resulted in fallen grain springing up, being gathered again and thus becoming domesticated. Mithen concludes that a drier climatic spell may not have been the trigger that set off Neolithic agriculture, as many researchers believe: ‘It may have been a by-product of the ideology that drove hunter-gatherers to carve and erect massive pillars of stone on a hilltop in southern Turkey.’41

The good quality of Karacadag grain may have led workers returning home to take some with them to sow in their own gardens at Jerf el Ahmar and other settlements, eventually step-by-step even as far as Jericho itself. In addition to seashells and shiny obsidian that we know Neolithic people traded, the first domesticated strains of grain may also have spread across the Near East. Indeed, there is more obsidian at Jericho than one would expect for a town of that size; it may therefore have been a trading centre and one of its commodities may have been the Neolithic itself.

More than environment: preternatural seeing

The rock-cut structures and carvings at Göbekli Tepe and the highlighted eyes of the Jericho skulls point to an unavoidable part of human life, one that Childe, as a Marxist, and more recent environmentalist archaeologists have tended to ignore, or, at any rate, to deprive of any causal influence. We suggest that ‘conversion’ from one belief system to another means accepting new understandings of the functioning of the human brain and the mental states that it produces (though, of course, the people themselves do not see it that way). What were once regarded as aberrant, meaningless mental states may, with a change in religious perspective, become central divine intimations. In short, we need to examine human consciousness, not just in the alert, problem-solving state that we cultivate today, but also in the more mysterious states that, in some circumstances, become the essence of religion.

Kindle Locations 2948-2951

we note the significance of stones as oracles: they link the initiate to supernaturally vouchsafed information about cosmology. One of the stones is like a mouth and has a hollow in it. We recall the standing stones at Göbekli Tepe, ‘Ain Ghazal and other sites. Working in west European Neolithic tombs, Aaron Watson, an archaeologist at Reading University, found that ritually produced sounds can ‘induce enormous stones to appear to shake and become alive’.41

Places of the Heart
by Colin Ellard
pp. 14-15

The business of designing environments that affect human feeling and action is so ancient that it actually predates any other aspect of human civilization, including written communication, the design of cities and settlements, and even the birth of agriculture, which is traditionally considered to be the seminal event that set into play most of the other forces that shaped modern humanity. The roots of such endeavors lie in southern Turkey, near the city of Urfa, at the ancient ruins of Göbekli Tepe. This structure, more than eleven thousand years old, consists of a series of walls and pillars constructed of stone slabs, some weighing more than ten tons.1 As architecture, the site represents the oldest building, other than simple dwellings, that we know to have been built by human beings. Indeed, the construction of Göbekli Tepe predates Stonehenge by about as much time as separates the origin of the Stonehenge from the present day. As artifact, Göbekli Tepe is even more important than this. It turns on their heads long-held truths about the origins of architecture. Before Göbekli Tepe, the conventional wisdom was that it was domestication, settlement, and agriculture that spurred the development of architectural practices, and eventually cities. Now it’s clear that this story drives the cart before the horse. These stones must have been laid down by hunter–gatherers who lived by killing and eating prey animals rather than by farmers living in settled groups. The walls that have been unearthed here may well be the first ever constructed for a purpose other than to shield the contents of one’s possessions and one’s family from enemies, the elements, and the prying eyes of neighbors.

Over such a long reach of human history, it is almost impossible to know what purpose the massive columns and walls of Göbekli Tepe might have served for their builders, but the scant evidence of human activity found at the site—the bones of animals and the remains of fireplaces along with the iconography of human figures and large birds, snakes, and carnivorous mammals carved into the columns—suggests that the place served as a kind of religious sanctuary, and most likely, a site of pilgrimage that was visited, modified, built, and rebuilt over a span of hundreds of years. What is clear is that nobody actually lived at Göbekli Tepe. It was a place to visit, perhaps to encourage thought and worship. Possibly, the carvings of the fearsome creatures found there were meant as totems to help manage the fears of the terrible dangers that their designers faced in their day-to-day lives as hunters. It’s also possible that, like Stonehenge, Göbekli Tepe was built as a healing place—an indication that one of the earliest human drives that led to building was a response to our awareness of our own finitude and that these early structures represent a nascent struggle against mortality. In some ways, much of the history of architecture, but especially religious architecture, can be seen as a concerted effort to find a way to cheat death—prima facie evidence of our early understanding of the power of the built structure to influence feelings.

Regardless of what can be known about the thinking that lay behind the careful construction of Göbekli Tepe, six thousand years before the invention of the written word, one thing is clear—what happened there may represent the very beginning of what has now become a defining characteristic, perhaps the defining characteristic of humanity: we build to change perceptions, and to influence thoughts and feelings; by these means, we attempt to organize human activity, exert power, and in many cases, to make money. We see examples of this everywhere, scattered through the length and breadth of human history.

Big Gods
by Ara Norenzayan
pp. 118-121

Göbekli Tepe is the world’s oldest known religious structure. It’s made of massive, humanlike, T-shaped stone pillars, arranged into a set of rings, and carved with images of various animals such as gazelles and scorpions (see figure 7.1). Long mistaken for a medieval cemetery, this ancient monumental architecture in present-day southeastern Turkey dates back to about 11,500 years, which makes it at least twice as old as Stonehenge (4,000 to 5,000 years old), the Great Pyramid of Giza (4,500 years old), and a few thousands of years older than Armenia’s Karahunj, another ancient megalithic structure with religious significance. Göbekli Tepe’s importance is magnified by the fact that no evidence of settled agriculture has been found so far. This could be explained by the fact that Göbekli Tepe is old enough to have been one of the world’s earliest temples built by hunter-gatherers. If true, it may hold clues to one of the deepest puzzles of our time, the question of how the Neolithic Revolution got off the ground, and gave rise to the origins of human civilization itself.2

Who built these structures, and how did they do it? The sheer scale of the operation must have been unprecedented—the stones in the Göbekli site weigh between 7 and 10 tons each, located on a site far away from any other known settlements, at a time when sedentary life, and its benefits, was still nonexistent—there were as yet no writing, masonry, metal tools, and domesticated animals to carry loads. And for what purpose would these hunter-gatherers—if indeed they were that—have built these monuments, which must have incurred spectacular costs in calories, time, and effort?

There are many puzzles and unanswered questions about this ancient site that will wait for more evidence and will be debated for a long time. The current picture that this site paints is incomplete, and open to multiple interpretations. Perhaps these were agricultural peoples, and it will take time to find evidence of domesticated plants and animals in Göbekli. To add to the mystery, the reasons behind the transition from hunting game and gathering wild foods to domestication of grains and animals remain somewhat puzzling and are hotly debated by archeologists. Unlike the more reliable supply of daily calories from hunting and gathering, domestication is a long-term affair fraught with risk. The diet of early agricultural peoples was poorer in protein content than the diet of hunter-gatherers. Evidence from prehistoric human remains suggests that early farmers were less healthy and less well fed than were hunter-gatherers.3 Despite negative effects on health and diet, early agriculture had one advantage over hunting and gathering: in the long run it could feed more mouths and sustain larger populations.

What we do know, with some confidence, is that in the cradle of agriculture that is the Middle East, not far from Göbekli Tepe, clear evidence of this transition is found to be about 11,000 years old. We also know that this transition coincided with population explosions. However, in more than 15 years of careful excavation, archeologist Klaus Schmidt, who first discovered these stone structures on top of a mound buried in earth, and others who have worked there since then, have not found any in Göbekli. If the builders and early worshippers of Göbekli Tepe were indeed hunter-gatherers, then we face the intriguing possibility that early forms of organized religious activity predated the agricultural revolution and the massive cultural transformations it ushered. This scenario, if confirmed, would turn on its head the conventional wisdom that organized religion, with priesthood classes, elaborate rituals, and sacrifices to powerful Big Gods, was a mere consequence of the transition to agricultural societies.

Göbekli Tepe suggests the idea that early stirrings to worship Big Gods motivated people to take up early forms of farming, and not the other way around.4 An analysis of the blades made of volcanic ash found on the site suggests that it attracted pilgrims from a wide range of locations. This raises the possibility that the temple was an early cosmopolitan center.5 Schmidt argues that the initial religious impulse to periodically congregate and worship among at least some hunter-gatherer groups in the Middle East might have led to semipermanent settlements around the sacred area. People likely continued to lead a hunter-gatherer existence, possibly for a long time. Eventually, however, settlements swelled. Hunting and gathering cannot feed large populations. This might have created the impetus for experimentation with an agricultural lifestyle in addition to hunting. Animal and plant domestication, in turn, would have led to food surpluses, and larger population sizes. In turn, this demographic growth, along with conquest or absorption of smaller groups, would have facilitated the cultural spread of these peculiar religious beliefs.

This hypothesis, which sees prosocial religions with Big Gods as a contributing factor (rather than merely as a side-effect of settled agriculture), fits better with the other observations discussed in this book. It is consistent with the psychological evidence that supernatural monitoring, and credible displays of faith to watchful deities, encourage cooperation, contribute to trust, and enable collective action among groups of strangers. It is also consistent with the historical evidence from the written record pointing to the role that these belief-ritual religious complexes played in the establishment of long-distance trade. This hypothesis accounts for the cultural spread of prosocial religions at the dawn of the agricultural revolution by assuming that, at the very least, Big Gods were one critical causal factor that contributed to the rise of large groups unleashed by agriculture. It would also explain the glaring absence of evidence for domesticated grains and animals in Göbekli Tepe.

The Well-Tempered City
by Jonathan F. P. Rose
Kindle Locations 974-984

These early settlements also required a new degree of large-scale cooperative behavior. Although they were built by hunter-gatherers, there was something different in their culture that brought them to work together at a scale never before achieved in human history. The psychologist Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia proposed that the transformation came with the emergence of a new belief system, one he called “big gods.” Prior to that time, humans believed in gods who created the universe, or local spirits, who had little interest in people’s behavior. In small-scale societies, cooperative behaviors were monitored by the group. Free riders were expelled from the community. But larger groups are harder to monitor, and to get to cooperate. Norenzayan believes that the belief in judgmental deities, or “big gods,” provided the cooperative glue necessary to build places such as Göbekli Tepe. A watchful, punishing god or gods proved to be a very good monitor of behavior, particularly if the god had authority over your after- or future life. “Big gods” tempered human behavior.

Edward Slingerland, a historian at UBC Vancouver, observed that all-knowing big gods are “crazily effective” at enforcing social norms. “Not only can they see you everywhere you are, but they can actually look inside your mind.”

Birth of the moralizing gods
by Lizzie Wade

Norenzayan thinks this connection between moralizing deities and “prosocial” behavior—curbing self-interest for the good of others—could help explain how religion evolved. In small-scale societies, prosocial behavior does not depend on religion. The Hadza, a group of African hunter-gatherers, do not believe in an afterlife, for example, and their gods of the sun and moon are indifferent to the paltry actions of people. Yet the Hadza are very cooperative when it comes to hunting and daily life. They don’t need a supernatural force to encourage this, because everyone knows everyone else in their small bands. If you steal or lie, everyone will find out—and they might not want to cooperate with you anymore, Norenzayan says. The danger of a damaged reputation keeps people living up to the community’s standards.

As societies grow larger, such intensive social monitoring becomes impossible. So there’s nothing stopping you from taking advantage of the work and goodwill of others and giving nothing in return. Reneging on a payment or shirking a shared responsibility have no consequences if you’ll never see the injured party again and state institutions like police forces haven’t been invented yet. But if everyone did that, nascent large-scale societies would collapse. Economists call this paradox the free rider problem. How did the earliest large-scale societies overcome it?

In some societies, belief in a watchful, punishing god or gods could have been the key, Norenzayan believes. As he wrote in Big Gods, “Watched people are nice people.” Belief in karma—which Norenzayan calls “supernatural punishment in action”—could have had a similar psychological effect in the absence of actual gods, a proposition his colleagues are investigating in Asia.

History and archaeology offer hints that religion really did shape the earliest complex societies. Conventional wisdom says that the key to settling down in big groups was agriculture. But “agriculture itself is a wildly improbable cooperative activity,” notes Slingerland, who studies ancient China. “Especially in places where you can’t get agriculture off the ground without largescale irrigation or water control projects, the cooperation problem has to get solved before you can even get the agriculture ramped up.” That’s where religion came in, he and Norenzayan think.

A case in point, they say, is Göbekli Tepe, an archaeological site in southeastern Turkey. Huge stone obelisks carved with evocative half-human, half-animal figures dot the 11,500-year-old site, which the late Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute, who excavated there, called “the first manmade holy place” (Science, 18 January 2008, p. 278). Moving and decorating the great obelisks must have required a huge community effort. But signs of agriculture don’t appear nearby until 500 years later, meaning that the builders of Göbekli Tepe were likely hunter-gatherers who had come together to practice shared religious beliefs, Slingerland says. As Schmidt has said, “First came the temple, then the city.”

Ultrasociety
by Peter Turchin
pp. 10-11

Like the creators of Stonehenge, the people who built Göbekli Tepe left no written explanation of their motives. But, as the Oxford anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse writes in Aeon Magazine, “a consensus is emerging among archaeologists that this was a hugely significant ritual center: not a permanent home but a sacred place where people gathered at special times.” The “Göbeklians” did not live on, or near, the hill; instead they traveled to it from many semi-permanent settlements within a large area, some coming from 100–200km (roughly 100 miles) away. We know this because archaeologists find the same kinds of symbolic objects from widely dispersed sites, from the T-shaped pillars, so characteristic of Göbekli Tepe temples, to peculiar-looking scepters.6

The Göbeklians carved T-shaped pillars from the side of the hill (a few of them are still there, unfinished), then transported them to a circular enclosure and installed them in carefully excavated rectangular pits. A typical temple has a dozen T-shaped pillars, with the two largest placed in the center, surrounded by the rest, almost like a group of people standing around two leaders. In fact, the pillars are clearly meant to represent people (or perhaps gods). The T-part looks like a head. Many pillars have arms carved into their sides and a loincloth in front.

Once the job of the construction was over, the fun part began. Göbeklians feasted on roasted gazelles and aurochs and drank copious amounts of beer. During their excavation of the site, the archaeologists Oliver Dietrich, Jens Notroff and their colleagues found large numbers of burned bones. They also found many large barrel-like and trough-like vessels, carved from limestone, with dark grayish residue coating the sides. Chemical analysis indicated the presence of oxalate, which precipitates during the fermentation of mashed barley (remember, this was not a cultivated cereal). Some of these vessels could hold 160 liters (40 gallons) of beer, or almost three kegs. Quite a party! A carved stone cup, found in the nearby site of Nevali Çori, depicts two people with raised arms, dancing. Between them cavorts a fantastic turtle-like creature, which Dietrich and colleagues think “might well hint at the dancers’ altered state of conscious.”

The archaeologists aren’t sure how long each temple was in use. At some point, however, the Göbeklians destroyed their temples by burying the monoliths in rubble. Clearly, the purpose was not to create a monument that would last forever; everything was in the service of the ritual.

Perhaps all the megalith-building cultures felt the same way. A retired carpenter and construction worker named Gordon Pipes recently recruited a team of volunteers to help him demonstrate how a small group of people could have moved the Stonehenge megaliths.7 Pipes estimates that 40-ton stones can be erected using Stone Age technology with fewer than 25 people. Placing lintels on top could require no more than a dozen workers. But such calculations and experiments seem to miss the point. At least as far as Göbekli’s temples were concerned, the idea wasn’t about erecting monuments in the most efficient manner, with the fewest possible workers—that’s the rationalistic thinking of a 21st-century engineer. The purpose was to bring people together.

This is an argument put forward by Jens Notroff and colleagues in an article titled “Building Monuments, Creating Communities.”8 These archaeologists look to recent ethnographic accounts of monument-building, such as the construction of megalithic tombs on the Indonesian island of Nias. There, a crowd of 500–600 share the work, hauling the megaliths—which are a bit smaller than the Göbekli pillars—using Stone Age technology (with a wooden sledge, rollers, and ropes made from lianas). It takes three days to move the stones a distance of 3km (two miles) to their destination. Many more people participate than is necessary. But it’s not about efficiency. It’s about having fun. And then, after the monoliths have been installed, everybody has a party with lots of food and (of course) beer. The tangible result—the monument—is not important. The intangible but lasting feeling of community and cooperation is what the whole thing is about.

pp. 171-172

Bringing together the various strands of the argument, I see the following sequence of events leading to the despotic archaic states. With the end of the Pleistocene around 12,000 years ago, the climate grew warmer and, more important, much less variable. Human populations began to increase everywhere. Migrations and colonization peopled new areas as they became habitable, and over the next few thousand years, the Earth’s landscapes filled up with foraging bands. Eventually, few places suitable for human habitation remained unoccupied. Areas where people were already present in substantial numbers during the last Ice Age, such as the Near East, filled up first.

According to the standard archaeological model, this is what happened next. Around 10,000 years ago, human beings started to domesticate plants and animals. This allowed them to increase production of food dramatically, which in turn enabled greater population densities, sedentary ways of life, villages—and then cities, complex societies, states, writing—in a word, civilization. The adoption of agriculture, then, created a resource base capable of sustaining high population densities and an extensive division of labor. It also generated a “surplus” capable of supporting craftsmen, priests, and rulers. At this point, the standard theory branches out into several different models, with some emphasizing the need to manage the economy, others focusing on warfare, and still others stressing the role of ritual and religious specialists. Details vary, but the common denominator is that a rich resource base is not only a necessary condition, but also a sufficient one for the rise of complex societies.

I call this the “bottom-up” theory of the evolution of social complexity, because it treats social complexity as a sort of “superstructure” on the material resource base. In other words, if you stir enough resources into your evolutionary pot, social complexity will inevitably bubble up.

The problem with the bottom-up theory is that in several places where we can date the key stages in this process, we see a different sequence of events. The two sites with early monumental architecture that we discussed in Chapter 1, Göbekli Tepe and Poverty Point, arose before agriculture.

So here we have an inverted sequence of events. First, a fairly large-scale society arises, with quite sophisticated ritual activities and buildings requiring the mobilization of large numbers of workers. Only later comes agriculture. Has the standard theory reversed cause and effect?

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
by Julian Jaynes
pp. 143-151

This was a paradigm of what was to happen in the next eight millennia. The king dead is a living god. The king’s tomb is the god’s house, the beginning of the elaborate god-house or temples which we shall look at in the next chapter. Even the two-tiered formation of its structure is prescient of the multitiered ziggurats, of the temples built on temples, as at Eridu, or the gigantic pyramids by the Nile that time in its majesty will in several thousand years unfold.

We should not leave Eynan without at least mentioning the difficult problem of succession. Of course, we have next to nothing to go on in Eynan. But the fact that the royal tomb contained previous burials that had been pushed aside for the dead king and his wife suggests that its former occupants may have been earlier kings. And the further fact that beside the hearth on the second tier above the propped-up king was still another skull suggests that it may have belonged to the first king’s successor, and that gradually the hallucinated voice of the old king became fused with that of the new. The Osiris myth that was the power behind the majestic dynasties of Egypt had perhaps begun.

The king’s tomb as the god’s house continues through the millennia as a feature of many civilizations, particularly in Egypt. But, more often, the king’s-tomb part of the designation withers away. This occurs as soon as a successor to a king continues to hear the hallucinated voice of his predecessor during his reign, and designates himself as the dead king’s priest or servant, a pattern that is followed throughout Mesopotamia. In place of the tomb is simply a temple. And in place of the corpse is a statue, enjoying even more service and reverence, since it does not decompose. […]

Let us imagine ourselves coming as strangers to an unknown land and finding its settlements all organized on a similar plan: ordinary houses and buildings grouped around one larger and more magnificent dwelling. We would immediately assume that the large magnificent dwelling was the house of the prince who ruled there. And we might be right. But in the case of older civilizations, we would not be right if we supposed such a ruler was a person like a contemporary prince. Rather he was an
hallucinated presence, or, in the more general case, a statue, often at one end of his superior house, with a table in front of him where the ordinary could place their offerings to him.

Now, whenever we encounter a town or city plan such as this, with a central larger building that is not a dwelling and has no other practical use as a granary or barn, for example, and particularly if the building contains some kind of human effigy, we may take it as evidence of a bicameral culture or of a culture derived from one. This criterion may seem fatuous, simply because it is the plan of many towns today. We are so used to the town plan of a church surrounded by lesser houses and shops that we see nothing unusual. But our contemporary religious and city architecture is partly, I think, the residue of our bicameral past. The church or temple or mosque is still called the House of God. In it, we still speak to the god, still bring offerings to be placed on a table or altar before the god or his emblem. My purpose in speaking in this objective fashion is to defamiliarize this whole pattern, so that standing back and seeing civilized man against his entire primate evolution, we can see that such a pattern of town structure is unusual and not to be expected from our Neanderthal origins.

From Jericho to Ur

With but few exceptions, the plan of human group habitation from the end of the Mesolithic up to relatively recent eras is of a god-house surrounded by man-houses. In the earliest villages,1 such as the excavated level of Jericho corresponding to the ninth millennium B.C., such a plan is not entirely clear and is perhaps debatable. But the larger god-house at Jericho, surrounded by what were lesser dwellings, at a level corresponding to the seventh millennium B.C., with its perhaps columned porchway
leading into a room with niches and curvilinear annexes, defies doubt as to its purpose. It is no longer the tomb of a dead king whose corpse is propped up on stones. The niches housed nearly life-sized effigies, heads modeled naturalistically in clay and set on canes or bundles of reeds and painted red. Of similar hallucinogenic function may have been the ten human skulls, perhaps of dead kings, found at the same site, with features realistically modeled in plaster and white cowrie shells inserted for eyes. And the Hacilar culture in Anatolia of about 7000 B.C. also had human crania set up on floors, suggesting similar bicameral control to hold the members of the culture together in their food-producing and protection enterprise.

Göbekli Tepe
by Wikipedia

Schmidt’s view was that Göbekli Tepe is a stone-age mountain sanctuary. Radiocarbon dating as well as comparative, stylistical analysis indicate that it is the oldest religious site yet discovered anywhere.[8][32] Schmidt believed that what he called this “cathedral on a hill” was a pilgrimage destination attracting worshippers up to 150 km (90 mi) distant. Butchered bones found in large numbers from local game such as deer, gazelle, pigs, and geese have been identified as refuse from food hunted and cooked or otherwise prepared for the congregants.[33]

Schmidt considered Göbekli Tepe a central location for a cult of the dead and that the carved animals are there to protect the dead. Though no tombs or graves have been found so far, Schmidt believed that they remain to be discovered in niches located behind the sacred circles’ walls.[8] Schmidt also interpreted it in connection with the initial stages of the Neolithic. It is one of several sites in the vicinity of Karaca Dağ, an area which geneticists suspect may have been the original source of at least some of our cultivated grains (see Einkorn). Recent DNA analysis of modern domesticated wheat compared with wild wheat has shown that its DNA is closest in sequence to wild wheat found on Karaca Dağ 30 km (20 mi) away from the site, suggesting that this is where modern wheat was first domesticated.[34] Such scholars suggest that the Neolithic revolution, i.e., the beginnings of grain cultivation, took place here. Schmidt believed, as others do, that mobile groups in the area were compelled to cooperate with each other to protect early concentrations of wild cereals from wild animals (herds of gazelles and wild donkeys). Wild cereals may have been used for sustenance more intensively than before and were perhaps deliberately cultivated. This would have led to early social organization of various groups in the area of Göbekli Tepe. Thus, according to Schmidt, the Neolithic did not begin on a small scale in the form of individual instances of garden cultivation, but developed rapidly in the form of “a large-scale social organization”.[35]

Schmidt engaged in some speculation regarding the belief systems of the groups that created Göbekli Tepe, based on comparisons with other shrines and settlements. He assumed shamanic practices and suggested that the T-shaped pillars represent human forms, perhaps ancestors, whereas he saw a fully articulated belief in gods only developing later in Mesopotamia, associated with extensive temples and palaces. This corresponds well with an ancient Sumerian belief that agriculture, animal husbandry, and weaving were brought to mankind from the sacred mountain Ekur, which was inhabited by Annuna deities, very ancient gods without individual names. Schmidt identified this story as a primeval oriental myth that preserves a partial memory of the emerging Neolithic.[36] It is also apparent that the animal and other images give no indication of organized violence, i.e. there are no depictions of hunting raids or wounded animals, and the pillar carvings generally ignore game on which the society depended, such as deer, in favor of formidable creatures such as lions, snakes, spiders, and scorpions.[8][37][38] Expanding on Schmidt’s interpretation that round enclosures could represent sanctuaries, Gheorghiu’s semiotic interpretation reads Göbekli Tepe’s iconography as a cosmogonic map which would have related the local community to the surrounding landscape and the cosmos.”.[39]

Cathedrals Built on Water: An Institutional View of Religion, Scholastic Discipline, and Civilization
by Robert Wyllie

Civilization involves a widespread belief in ideas, and is actualized through effective discipline. Nietzsche called this ideal basis of Roman civilization, for example, a Begriffsdome or “concept-cathedral” constructed “upon a moving foundation, as it were, on flowing water.”[5] In the less poetical terms of modern sociology, civilization is a social imaginary, broadly including the “images, stories, and legends” shared by large groups of people.[6] The temple typically comes before the city because disciplining a population with a social imaginary drastically lowers the costs of extending and maintaining power. […]

The lesson of Göbekli Tepe is that civilization is cheaper than we once thought. Even without a substantive economic base, or the perfect environmental conditions, a foundationless religious idea is enough to launch a civilizational project. Modern nomads, from sixteenth-century Calvinist radicals with their pamphlets, to twenty-first-century militant Islamists on YouTube and social media, have done the same. Civilizations emerge in effective discipline, which we see in the Reformed consistories’ emphasis on compulsory schooling and the emphasis on new strict school curricula by the Islamic State.

What we see on the news from Syria and Iraq is neither anomalous nor retrograde in any “grand scheme.” To the contrary, it seems possible that Western political tendencies to either underestimate radical Islam (usually on the Left) or essentialize it as Other (usually on the Right) might be related to an inability to understand the religious origins of Western civilization.

The Göbekli Tepe Ruins and the Origins of Neolithic Religion
by Biblical Archaeology Society Staff

The Göbekli Tepe ruins and enclosures—the earliest monumental ritual sites of Neolithic religion and possibly the oldest religion in the world—are causing experts to rethink the origins of religion and human civilization. Until recently, scholars agreed that agriculture and human settlement in villages gave rise to religious practices. The discoveries at the Göbekli Tepe ruins, however, indicate that earlier hunter-gatherer groups that had not yet settled down had already developed complex religious ideas, together with monumental ceremonial sites to practice the sacred communal rituals of Neolithic religion.

Indeed, excavations at the Göbekli Tepe ruins uncovered tens of thousands of animal bones, indicating that many different species—including those depicted on the pillars—were slaughtered, sacrificed and presumably eaten at the site. While it is uncertain to whom these sacrifices were made, it’s possible they were offered to the enclosures’ stylized human pillars that, as some have suggested, may represent priests, deities or revered ancestors in Neolithic religion. Given that human bones were also been found, others believe the Göbekli Tepe ruins may have been a Neolithic burial ground where funerary rituals and perhaps even excarnations were practiced.

The First and Oldest Temple in the World? – Göbekli Tepe
by Bryce Haymond

Probably the biggest indicator that this may have been a temple lies in the fact that there has been no substantial evidence of any settlement at the site – no homes, no trash pits, etc. – the usual markers of human habitation. In other words, this wasn’t a site where people lived, so they must have been doing something else. The dating of the site indicates that the people were nomadic hunter-gatherers, so many archaeologists think that what was likely going on here was some sort of ritual – it was a shrine, or place of worship. This has changed many archeologists’ theories about the beginning of mankind. The history books have stated for a long time that people did not gather together and establish communities or centers of gathering (cities) until agriculture developed, sometime after 9,000 B.C. But this complex shows otherwise, which has provoked lead archaeologist Klaus Schmidt to say, “Our excavations also show it is not a domestic site, it is religious – the world’s oldest temple”6. The interpretation is that “first came the temple, then the city”7. I think Hugh Nibley would have agreed with that argument. Furthermore, Schmidt gives another Nibleyesque statement on the “terrible questions” which these temples were made to answer: “In my opinion, the people who carved [the pillars] were asking themselves the biggest questions of all… What is this universe? Why are we here?”8. It may have been the very rituals that these people were gathering to perform that led them to develop agriculture. Andrew Curry in Science Magazine notes:

Archaeologists once hypothesized that agriculture gave early people the time and food surpluses that they needed to build monuments and develop a rich symbolic vocabulary. But Göbekli Tepe raises the alternative possibility that the need to feed large groups who gathered to build or worship at the huge structures spurred the first steps toward agriculture.9

The site is on the top of a hill/mountain, which is the highest point in that area. We learn from the scriptures and modern revelation that mountains are synonymous with temples. People always ascended to their sanctuaries. As Nibley often said, the temple is the cosmic mountain, the primordial mound or hill. Moses ascended Mount Sinai. Nephi was caught away to a high mountain. The temple has even been referred to as “the mountain of the Lord’s house” (Isa. 2:2). So it is not surprising to find a temple on a high hill.

Evidence indicates that people traveled from great distances to come to the site. Many bone remnants have been found at Göbekli Tepe, indicating that animal sacrifice was performed.10

Klaus Schmidt suspects another reason why this might have been a temple:

Though he has yet to find them, he believes that the first stone circles on the hill of the navel marked graves of important people. Hauptmann’s team discovered graves at Nevali Çori, and Schmidt is reasonably confident that burials lie somewhere in the earliest layers of Göbekli Tepe. This leads him to suspect the pillars represent human beings and that the cult practices at this site may initially have focused on some sort of ancestor worship.11

Indeed, Sean Thomas has said that “human skeletons have been found, in telling positions, which indicate that Gobekli was possibly a funerary complex, a shrine that celebrated the life and death of the hunters”12.

Schmidt has also noted that this was not only the first man-made monument, but “the first manmade holy place” ever built13. Gary Rollefson, another archaeologist from Washington, also agrees – “Certainly it was a major focus for regional celebrations or ritual activity”14. While there are several such ritual sites in the region, Rollefson notes, “Göbekli Tepe’s really the only one with that megatemple approach”15. Schmidt continues, “Here we have the religious center for settlements at least 50 kilometers away… Those were village churches; this is the cathedral on a hill”16. Andrew Collins likewise agrees: “Göbekli Tepe can be described as sacerdotal, in that it was clearly utilised as a place of veneration and perhaps communication with supernatural entities and domains”17.

Uncovering Civilization’s Roots
by Andrew Lawler

Some archaeologists argue that crop irrigation and the resulting food surplus spurred that rise, while others cite the appearance of kings, colonial domination, or spread of a common religion. But the new Ubaid finds add weight to the hypothesis that growing contact among different groups—a so-called interaction sphere—was the spark that eventually ignited the urban revolution. “There is a direct correlation between an increase in cultural interaction and an increase in cultural complexity,” says Harvard archaeologist Carl Lamberg-Karlovsky.

The Beginning of the End for Hunter-Gatherers
by Graham Chandler

Traditionally, theories of the origins of food production have been based on human need: response to population pressures or other causes of resource imbalances. But as studies have advanced, no evidence of resource stress or malnutrition has been found in places where farming has bloomed, fueling new theories and debates.

But there’s little debate that the Neolithic period was truly a time of revolutionary change for humankind, not only in technology and ways of life, but religiously and spiritually. Jacques Cauvin, the late director emeritus of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, a leading scholar of the early Neolithic period in the Near East, called it a complete restructuring of human mentality, expressed in new religious ideas and symbols. Göbekli Tepe was front and center in that timeline.

The Neolithic revolution saw both highly developed religious ideology and mixed farming take a firm hold throughout the Middle East. Cauvin viewed the finds at Göbekli Tepe and the later sites of Çayönü and Nevali Çori as evidence of rooted communities with a religious bent. “We encounter for the first time simultaneous evidence for public buildings and for the collective ceremonies of a religious character that took place in them. These must have served as a strong cement for the psychological cohesion of these sedentary human groups,” he wrote in The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture. “It is also quite probable that they were addressing … a personal divinity.”

As agriculture took root, it had a powerful impact on these religious themes. “It seems probable that at sites such as Göbekli Tepe and ‘Ain Ghazal [an early Neolithic village in Jordan], myths featured protagonists who mediated the hunting/farming dichotomy…,” write David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce.

The switch from pure hunting and gathering to farming was surely a profound change. Says another Neolithic researcher, Peter Bellwood of Australian National University, “There are obviously many aspects of mobile hunter-gatherer society that are antithetical to adoption of the sedentary lifestyle of the cultivator. On top of this, we have the attitudes of the farming and pastoralist societies themselves, often ranked and status-conscious, with whom some of the ethnographic hunter-gatherers have come into contact and by whom many have eventually been encapsulated.”

First came the temple, then the city
by Christopher Seddon

Many of the pillars are carved with bas-reliefs of animals, including snakes, wild boar, foxes, lions, aurochs, wild sheep, gazelle, onager, birds, various insects, spiders, and scorpions. Where sexual characteristics are present, they are always male. The images are large, often life-size, and semi-naturalistic in style. Some pillars exhibit pairs of human arms and hands, suggesting that they represent stylised anthropomorphic beings. However, it is unclear as to whether they represent gods, shamans, ancestors, or even demons. There are also a number of mysterious abstract symbols that have been interpreted as pictograms (Schmidt, 1995; Schmidt, 1998; Schmidt, 2000; Schmidt, 2003; Peters & Schmidt, 2004).

Pictograms are graphic symbols used to convey meaning, often by pictorial resemblance to a physical object. They are widely used in present-day road and other public signage to denote traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, speed cameras, etc. If the Göbekli Tepe symbols were indeed pictograms, then the origins of writing may extend back into the early Neolithic, thousands of years before the appearance of writing systems such as cuneiform and hieroglyphic script.

No traces of houses have been found and there is little doubt that Göbekli Tepe was a ritual centre, possibly the first of its kind anywhere in the world (Schmidt, 1998). Unlike Stonehenge, the people who built Göbekli Tepe lacked a mixed farming economy. This overturned the conventional wisdom that such major projects could only be realised by fully-established farming communities. “First came the temple, then the city”, as Schmidt put it. How are we to interpret this temple?

One possibility is that the animals depicted in the various enclosures are totemic. It could be that the site was frequented by a number of groups, each of which identified itself with a different animal or animals and travelled to the site to perform rituals in its own particular enclosure (Peters & Schmidt, 2004). Another possibility is that Göbekli Tepe was associated with shamanistic practices (Lewis-Williams & Pearce, 2005).

A project on the scale of Göbekli Tepe would have required a large number of labourers and craftsmen. Coordinating the activities of all these people, to say nothing of providing them all with food and shelter, would have been a major undertaking. It should also be remembered that unlike the builders of Stonehenge, the Göbekli Tepe people were still not yet full agriculturalists. Such an undertaking was almost certainly beyond the capabilities of a few shamans and their communities. Instead, it seems likely that the monument was constructed by a hierarchical, stratified society, with powerful rulers. The shamans might have had more in common with priests (Peters & Schmidt, 2004). The link between rulers and religion, so prevalent in later times, might have already started to take shape.

The totemic and shamanistic explanations are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and if the totemic view is correct, then it possible that animals depicted in each enclosure could provide clues as to the origins of particular groups. For example, wild boar depictions predominate in Enclosure C. This suggests a group originating from the north, where pigs account for up to 40 percent of the animal remains found at PPNA sites. Combinations of wild boar with aurochs and cranes, as seen in Enclosure D, suggest an ecotone of steppe and river valley, such as along most water courses in the Euphrates and Tigris drainage regions (Peters & Schmidt, 2004).

All Mixed Up?
by Andy Ornberg

I once read an account by a researcher who spent time with a group of aboriginal people in Australia. He insisted that there was a kind of mental telepathy going on between these people. He noted that there were times he would observe an individual drop what she was doing to respond to a command, summons, etc. she received when no one else was around. The only way this modern westerner could interpret this was to attribute it to telepathy, though it sounded much more to me like they were experiencing command auditory hallucinations ala Jaynes.

The Pirahã and the Bicameral Mind
by Merlijn de Smit

More strangely, the Pirahã have, according to Everett, a strong cultural taboo against talking about anything not within their immediate sphere of experience. No creation myths, or epic stories of any kind – or indeed no art of any kind. And finally entering bizarre territory: according to Everett in his Current Anthropology article, the Pirahã, despite any lack of actual religious belief or myth, do see forest spirits. Meaning, they see forest spirits. Everett recounts being woken from his tent one night by shouting and hollering – and found the whole tribe gathered at the river side, shouting at something on the other side. When Everett inquired what it was they seemed to upset about, the Pirahã incredulously asked whether he could not see the forest spirit that was obviously on the other side.

All of this is far from the “smoking gun” for Jaynes’ hypothesis. Jaynes regarded a total lack of deceit as a hallmark for the “bicameral” mind. The Pirahã seem to be well enough aware of the possibility of being cheated in trade, and, by Everett’s account, are very humorous, joke-loving people. But the apparent restriction of any communication to the immediate sphere of experience, and the actual, externalized perception of forest spirits, rather than imagining them, or divining their workings from inanimate nature, would, if indeed valid, at least bring to mind Jaynes’ thesis.

Mythologizing Landscape
by Andrea Green

Paul Devereux in Symbolic Landscapes (1992) suggests that prehistoric people experienced the landscape in a way alien and inaccessable to contemporary westerners . According to Devereux, prehistoric people were “more easily able to enter trance conditions then we are” (1992: 38) He refers to Julian Jaynes’ theory of the “bicameral brain” – a mode of consciousness that Jaynes ascribes to prehistoric peoples where the brain was “wired” differently and therefore affected sensory perception. (1992: 39) Devereux uses this theory to suggest that the relationship of prehistoric (in this case early bronze age) people with their landscape and environment was experienced through a different consciousness – one which was often hallucinatory and which swapped easily between normal awareness and altered states. In such a state the landscape moved, spoke and gave instructions. The siting and purpose of ritual sites was decided upon through direct communication with the landscape.

Songlines in the City? Hearing the spirit dimension
by Lloyd Fell

Songs and singing are a combination of words and melody – that which separates and that which draws together. Zuckerkandl regarded folk songs and chanting as the most fundamental forms of music because they blend word and tone to integrate our rational and emotional aspects. Purce claimed that using the voice and listening to the sound at the same time enables us to ‘go beyond the dualism of language and separation from the world.’

Jaynes (1990) developed a provocative explanation that consciousness actually originated in ‘the breakdown of the bicameral mind’ which refers to a stage in the evolution of the human brain when the two hemispheres performed distinctly different functions. One side, usually the right hemisphere, produced voices, which directed the other side that controlled speech and conscious thoughts. These were interpreted as voices of the Gods and only as their influence waned did the human responsibility of decision making and reflection that we know as consciousness develop. He argued that the vestiges of this are evident today in the considerable number of people who do hear voices at certain times, in schizophrenia and in the ‘quest for authorisation’ which manifests itself in both religion and science today.

It is widely accepted that brain function is lateralised in that the so-called dominant hemisphere mainly controls speech and rational, linear, thought whereas the other hemisphere is more concerned with creativity, intuition, holistic perception and music. Many anthropologists think that song came before speech in our evolution and Jaynes reviewed evidence that very early poetry (and the voices of the bicameral mind) were invariably sung. There is good evidence that singing requires the opposite brain hemisphere to speaking and that listening to music is also highly lateralised. People with brain lesions that prevent speech can often sing. Jaynes argued that the experience of music is a vestigial operation of the bicameral mind therefore stemming from our historical belief in the sacred Muses.

Musical performance often occurs in groups, sometimes in an improvisatory manner. Improvisation in musical performance has been described as not so much a skill to be developed as ‘the unlearning of habitual patterns of nonawareness and disconnectedness’ (Borgo 1997). The skill of music improvisation is an apt metaphor for the awareness of holonomy in everyday living

Authoritarians in Authoritarianism

Recent articles I’ve read point toward a typical confusion about authoritarianism, what it is and what causes it. The confusion seems built into the way we frame and measure authoritarianism, in particular as seen in the earliest research. Some social scientists speak of ideological mindsets and personality traits in the way that race realists talk about races, such that there are ‘authoritarians’ and ‘non-authoritarians’ as clearly defined and demarcated types of people. But it’s beginning to occur to some of them that this is inadequate.

Maybe unintentionally, Amanda Taub gets at this point in her Vox piece, The Rise of American authoritarianism. She states that, “Non-authoritarians who were sufficiently frightened of threats like terrorism could essentially be scared into acting like authoritarians.” This is based on “researchers like Hetherington and Weiler, Stanley Feldman, Karen Stenner, and Elizabeth Suhay, to name just a few.”

It’s interesting research and I’ve read many of the scholarly writings on this and so I’m already familiar with what Taub is discussing, but my understanding of such things has shifted these past years. When we label something, we tend to reify the underlying concepts and forget that they are social constructs we project onto the data (and hence onto the world) in trying to make sense of complexity, which then can lead to increasing simplification as the reified concepts are fed back into further research design and analysis.

The quote above about ‘non-authoritarians’ gets at this. If non-authoritarians can act like authoritarians, then maybe there is no such thing as authoritarians and non-authoritarians. Instead, a more reasonable conclusion is that all people possess within their common humanity a wide variety of potentials for psychological traits, social behaviors, and ideological tendencies. If so, it wouldn’t be helpful then to speak of subsets and subgroups as if that adds further clarity and insight. To be fair, Taub touches upon the issue rather directly, albeit briefly:

“More than that, this early research seemed to assume that a certain subset of people were inherently evil or dangerous — an idea that Hetherington and Weiler say is simplistic and wrong, and that they resist in their work. (They acknowledge the label “authoritarians” doesn’t do much to dispel this, but their efforts to replace it with a less pejorative-sounding term were unsuccessful.)”

Immediately after that, Taub goes right back to the assumption that authoritarianism is an inherent “psychological profile” that can get activated. From this view, seeming non-authoritarians don’t become authoritarian but were secretly authoritarian all along, just waiting for the right conditions to make their true nature manifest. Sleeper agents of societal madness ready to be unleashed on the naively innocent, Manchurian candidates waiting for a trigger from an evolutionary demiurge lurking in human synapses. At any moment, so goes the dark fantasy, alt-right trolls could transform into goosestepping Nazis who will suddenly take over the country. But in reality that isn’t how it ever works, as these things gradually build up over time and involve the entire society. Authoritarianism is far from being a strange relic of abnormal psychology and social deviants, like an infectious Darwinian maladaptation that must be quarantined and studied by the intellectual elite standing above it all. Even if we were to think of it as a mind virus, the greater threat would be those intellectual elites becoming carriers and spreading it into polite society, as has happened throughout history.

Projecting authoritarianism onto individuals or narrow groups is the opposite of helpful. It’s a way for people like Taub to maintain their belief that authoritarianism is something that only involves those other people, not good liberals like herself. Here is the problem. Taub is a Democrat and has strongly supported Hillary Clinton. The Clinton campaign has shown how strong the authoritarian tendencies are built into the Democratic Party. In supporting corrupt oligarchs like Clinton, Taub demonstrates how easily supposed non-authoritarians can act like authoritarians and defend authoritarianism. It does appear that authoritarianism closely tracks with social conservatism, but social conservatism comes in many forms. Democrats, for example, can be extremely socially conservative in their defense of the status quo, no matter how ‘liberal’-sounding is their empty rhetoric.

The reality is that no individual is an authoritarian. Rather, it’s social systems that are authoritarian, whether we are talking about organizations or movements or parties. In the US, the two-party system has long had an authoritarian streak. Both parties create the conditions for increasing neoliberalism and neoconservatism, increasing inequality and police-surveillance state. And those conditions in turn create an oppressive atmosphere of fear that, for the general public, elicits authoritarianism. It’s a great means of ensuring submission and social control. Social dominance orientation types, such as the lesser evils of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, then attempt to use that to their advantage. If you’re looking for the least authoritarian Americans, you’d need to look entirely outside of the two-party system.

In a fairly authoritarian society such as ours built on a long history of oppression, it is meaningless to talk about ‘authoritarians’ as if they were a distinct group of people. Nor does it help to blame it all on a single issue like racism, as a way of dismissing the larger context of authoritarianism. Obviously, as Taub explains, various forms of bigotry and other factors can elicit and activate authoritarianism. It’s difficult, maybe impossible, to separate out all of the tangled threads of dysfunction.

Let me return to the significance of the racial order. It is true that, as we live in an authoritarian society, we also live in a racist society. Both authoritarianism and racism become internalized by everyone within this society, even if normally these remain hidden. It’s there in the background, shaping and informing our worldview. Research shows that it’s easy to find racial biases in almost anyone, but more than that it is how racism is woven into the social structures and institutions we are part of. Not as much research of this sort has been done on underlying authoritarianism, but it has become more of a focus and it would be expected to operate in a similar way. There is pervasive racism with a rather small minority of overt racists, and so it should be unsurprising that there can be pervasive authoritarianism that is not primarily dependent on the authoritarianism of individuals. The continuation of systemic problems don’t require vocal, active support since silent, passive complicity can be so much more powerful.

This is hard for people to grasp. We can’t see clearly the society we are inseparably a part of, that defines our entire sense of identity and experience of reality. This makes it difficult for researchers who are trying to understand the very problems they are implicated in, as members of the society under scrutiny. Many researchers, as with many journalists like Taub, are good liberals which creates another bias. Obviously, authoritarianism will operate differently among liberals than among conservatives or right-wing reactionaries. Yet we know from history that authoritarians often come to power when good liberals, out of fear, turn to authoritarian leaders. Clinton in calling her enemies deplorables (just like she did when calling young blacks ‘superpredators’) was intentionally provoking an authoritarian response of fear from her followers, framing the other side as an existential threat to the ‘liberal’ way of life… and it worked, even though it turned out that her establishment authoritarianism was less effective as she lacks charisma and raw force of personality.

It’s not hard, though, to understand the likely reasons for authoritarianism manifesting differently throughout the social order. Growing inequality (of wealth and opportunity, of power and influence) inevitably will lead to authoritarianism, but that authoritarianism will be expressed in disparate ways according to demographics and the historical legacies that they represent; lower classes or upper classes; or if middle class, downwardly mobile lower middle class or stable upper middle class; populations with high or low rates of unemployment, food deserts, incarceration, and lead toxicity; those directly impacted or not by the numerous negative externalities of neoliberalism and neoconservatism; et cetera.

The liberal class tends to be relatively more economically secure and comfortable, and so authoritarianism is less often to be seen in overt ways on the personal level. Instead, good liberals will support the authoritarianism of the system that their lifestyle is dependent on. That way, their hands are kept clean. They let the professionals like the Clinton New Democrats do the dirty work of forcing punishment on minorities through racialized tough-on-crime laws, drug wars, and mass incarceration… through corporatism that maintains the class system and keeps the poor in their place… through war-mongering, CIA interventions, and neoliberal foreign policies that ensures the American Empire runs smoothly.

In basic ways, the liberal class even on the lower end of the economic spectrum are protected from what the rest of the country experiences. The greatest of privileges is never having to acknowledge one’s privilege. It is all taken for granted, not just as a privilege but a right — if required, to be protected from the dirty masses that demand to be treated with equality and fairness. When that privilege is challenged, the authoritarianism of good liberals becomes very much overt. It’s just that in recent history good liberals have been kept comfortable and content while the lower classes have been kept disempowered and silenced, but that has begun to change and so we are beginning to hear authoritarian rhetoric from establishment Democrats, in their fear of the coming backlash of righteous justice, outraged vengeance, and populist unrest. Status quo Democrats know that they have been on the wrong side of history and this all-encompassing anxiety has led them to lash out blindly, making them a dangerous animal (e.g., their paranoid conspiracy theorizing and war-mongering about Russia that could initiate World War III).

Sadly, liberals tolerate, help to create, and often defend the very conditions that make authoritarianism inevitable: hyper-partisanship, identity politics, increasing inequality, stagnating wages, weakening organized labor, loss of good job benefits, worsening job insecurity, scapegoating the poor, law and order politics, racist dog whistle rhetoric, war hawk policies, militarization of the police, drug wars, mass incarceration, etc. Major figures such as President Jimmy Carter have voiced concern that the United States has become a banana republic and, based on the overwhelming evidence, it is impossible to argue against those concerns. In Taub’s article, she discusses this as if the conditions of authoritarianism are new, but the reality is that they’ve been building for decades and generations. Democrats have done little if anything to stop this, often promoting policies that make it worse. Both parties have embraced a corporatism that somehow balances the requirements of an oligarchic police state and the demands of plutocratic inverted totalitarianism, all the while maintaining the endless spectacle of a banana republic.

What motivates supposed liberals to promote the policies that undermine liberal-mindedness and strengthen authoritarianism? That isn’t to scapegoat liberals, in opposition to those who would like to scapegoat some other group, but obviously many who sound liberal-like aren’t the enemies of authoritarianism that they pretend to be. This faux liberalism is what one would expect in an authoritarian society born out of classical liberalism. Most people on all sides don’t understand the kind of society they are in or how it shapes them. As with faux liberals, Trump’s followers and his election to the presidency are symptoms, not the disease. No single group can be blamed for what has become of this society. All of it has to be taken as a whole, including the role of good liberals and every other sector of society. It is the society that is authoritarian. In a non-authoritarian society, individual authoritarians would be powerless and insignificant. The source of of the problem is systemic and institutional.

There is no inborn psychological profile of authoritarians, just as I’d argue that there are no genetic-based personality traits of addictiveness, neuroticism, etc. There are simply authoritarian conditions, no different than there are conditions for other mindsets and behaviors. Authoritarianism along with so much else is latent in everyone, as a potential within a shared human nature.

I’ve long been fascinated by personality traits/types and other areas of social science. Myers-Briggs personality theory was what initially drew me toward using web searches to find info. The first website I ever became an active member of was a Myers-Briggs discussion forum, although such things as trait theory was also regularly discussed. Most fascinating of all was the research and the many correlations shown, but over time I’ve grown more circumspect.

These days, I feel less certain about what correlations might (or might not) indicate. It partly comes from years of seeing how research can be misused by race realists, but that is only possible because much of the research itself is problematic. Correlations are dime a dozen, whereas proving causation is often near impossible. It’s not easy to determine that a correlation is not spurious, that it is significant and meaningful, and then articulating a falsifiable hypothesis that leads to useful results that don’t merely confirm one’s biases and expectations.

My interest here goes far beyond only authoritarianism. This involves my growing appreciation for the power of all kinds of environmental influences. Not just influences, though. To be more accurate, we are environmental creatures to the core of our being. We are inseparable from our environments, both physical and social. This has become a major theme of my writing. It comes out in my discussions of race realism and capitalist realism, of rat parks and high inequality, of toxo plasmosis and lead toxicity, WEIRD research and ancient societies.

Authoritarianism is yet another lens through which to peer into the social nature of humans. Living in this society, all of us are products of our environment while also being participants in the social order. What if studying authoritarians holds up a mirror to our own psyche, individual and collective? What does this say about us?

* * *

Human Nature: Categories & Biases
Bias About Bias
Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition

Social Disorder, Mental Disorder
To Put the Rat Back in the Rat Park
Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park
Sleepwalking Through Our Dreams
Dark Matter of the Mind
Investing in Violence and Death
An Invisible Debt Made Visible
From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations
America Is Not Great For Most Americans
The Comfortable Classes Remain Comfortable
Immoral/Amoral Flynn Effect?
Uncomfortable Questions About Ideology
Bias About Bias

Inequality leads to authoritarianism: Why Trump is acting like “a generalissimo with a giant brass eagle on his hat”
by Edward McClelland

Everyday Authoritarianism is Boring and Tolerable
by Tom Pepinsky

The Social Origins of Authoritarianism
Frederick Solt

Authoritarianism’s Hidden Root Cause
by Matthew Wills

The Rise of the Servant Society
by Michael J. Thompson

Authoritarian capitalism in modern times
by Peter Bloom

Culture of Cruelty: the Age of Neoliberal Authoritarianism
by Henry Giroux

Neoliberalism, Austerity, and Authoritarianism
by Riad Azar

Inequality causes rise of authoritarian leaders
by Hamid Ansari

The Preschooler’s Empathy Void
by Alia Wong

People With This Personality Trait Literally See the World Differently
by Cari Romm

Creative people physically see and process the world differently
by Alice Klein

“illusion of a completed, unitary self”

The Voices Within:
The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves
by Charles Fernyhough
Kindle Locations 3337-3342

And we are all fragmented. There is no unitary self. We are all in pieces, struggling to create the illusion of a coherent “me” from moment to moment. We are all more or less dissociated. Our selves are constantly constructed and reconstructed in ways that often work well, but often break down. Stuff happens, and the center cannot hold. Some of us have more fragmentation going on, because of those things that have happened; those people face a tougher challenge of pulling it all together. But no one ever slots in the last piece and makes it whole. As human beings, we seem to want that illusion of a completed, unitary self, but getting there is hard work. And anyway, we never get there.

Kindle Locations 3357-3362

This is not an uncommon story among people whose voices go away. Someone is there, and then they’re not there anymore. I was reminded of what I had been told about the initial onset of voice-hearing: how it can be like dialing into a transmission that has always been present. “Once you hear the voices,” wrote Mark Vonnegut of his experiences, “you realise they’ve always been there. It’s just a matter of being tuned to them.” If you can tune in to something, then perhaps you can also tune out.

Kindle Locations 3568-3570

It is also important to bear in mind that for many voice-hearers the distinction between voices and thoughts is not always clear-cut. In our survey, a third of the sample reported either a combination of auditory and thought-like voices, or experiences that fell somewhere between auditory voices and thoughts.

* * *

Charles Fernyhough recommends the best books on Streams of Consciousness
from Five Books

Charles Fernyhough Listens in on Thought Itself in ‘The Voices Within’
by Raymond Tallis, WSJ (read here)

Neuroscience: Listening in on yourself
by Douwe Draaisma, Nature

The Song Of The Psyche
by Megan Sherman, Huffington Post

Race Realism and Symbolic Conflation

My last post, in response to a race realist, was mostly written for my own amusement. It wasn’t a particularly serious post. Something about that kind of intellectual dishonesty is compelling. But I wonder how much of it is self-deception, being taken in by one’s own ideological rhetoric.

I had no desire to analyze race realism to any great degree because it ultimately isn’t about race. It’s similar to how, when conservatives argue for pro-life, it isn’t really about abortion. And it’s similar to how, when apologists argue about the Bible, it isn’t really about historicity.

When you accept their framing, there is no way for the debate to go anywhere because the purpose of the frame is obfuscation, as much to cloud their own mind as to defend against criticism. This is particularly clear with apologetics in being used as a tool of indoctrination for young missionaries, since the purpose isn’t so much to convert unbelievers as to further convert the already converted, the missionary strengthening their own ideological worldview. Maybe there is an element to this with any ideological debate.

This is something that has fascinated me for a long time. I’ve pretty much given up on online debates. I’ve been involved in too many of them and they rarely if ever go anywhere. I’ve changed my mind about many things over my lifetime. And on most issues, I don’t have a strong opinion. But it’s hard to argue with an ideologue when one isn’t an ideologue. The problem is that most people interested in ‘debate’ are ideologues.

There is no way I can ‘win’ a debate with an ideologue because there is no way for a real debate to even happen. As long as the ideologue determines the frame, he can never lose and he will simply go around and around in circles. Try to debate a religious apologist sometime and you will quickly see the power of ideological rhetoric. Apologists can be masterful debaters for the very reason that intellectual honesty isn’t their motivation. They will never concede any point nor fairly deal with any criticism.

Here is the problem for me about race realism. I’m neither an anti-environmentalist hereditarian nor an anti-hereditarian environmentalist. The entire nature vs nurture frame of the debate is meaningless, as it can’t speak to what we actually know in terms of scientific research. Such a debate within such a frame becomes a battle of ideological rhetoric, having little to do with seeking truth and understanding. Ideologues tend to like meaningless frames because they are more interested in the frame and the agenda behind it than they are in the topic itself. To be fair, these frames aren’t entirely meaningless, just that they don’t mean what they superficially appear to mean.

This is the only part that interests and concerns me. I want to understand what motivates such behavior, what makes such a mindset possible, what locks in place such a worldview. It isn’t just ideologues or rather everyone has the potential to be drawn into an ideologue’s mindset. Our minds are constantly being bombarded by ideological rhetoric. Few people ever learn to escape the frames that have been forced onto them, often since childhood. We pick up frames from parents, teachers, ministers, reporters, politicians, etc. And these frames are immensely powerful.

I’ve been trying to understand what this all means for years now. It’s the main project of my blogging. It is what led me to formulate my theory about symbolic conflation.

I realized that race realism is a great example of how this works. Race realism effectively uses political correctness, just-so stories, social constructs, etc… and all of this fits into symbolic conflation. Ideas are taken as reality, speculations as facts. The purpose isn’t to argue about the science but to use it for purposes of rhetoric, to shore up the racialized social order. This is why the race realist can never honestly deal with heritability and confounding factors, since it really has nothing to do with the science taken on its own terms.

Race is used as a proxy for other things: class, social control, etc. What makes a social construct so powerful is that it is taken as reality. The symbol is conflated with the world itself. The symbol becomes embedded within every aspect of thought and perception. It is unimaginable to the race realist that race might not be real. It is at the core of their entire sense of reality.

So, why is race so useful for this purpose? Like abortion, it touches upon the visceral and emotional, the personal and interpersonal. The symbol isn’t just conflated with reality but is internalized and felt within the body itself, expressed through embodied thought. The symbol becomes concretely real. Then the symbol takes on a life of its own. Only personal trauma or other severe psychological experience could cause it to become dislodged.

Social constructs aren’t just ideas. Or to put it another way, ideas aren’t mere abstractions. We are embodied beings and social animals. Ideas always are deeply apart of who we are. The most powerful ideas are those that aren’t experienced as ideas. An idea, as a symbol, may not be objectively true. But that doesn’t stop it from being experienced as though objectively real.

Something like race realism can’t be debated. This is because it is the frame of debate. The frame of debate can’t be changed through debate. As I once explained, “Rationality must operate within a frame, but it can’t precede the act of framing.” The moment the frame is accepted as the basis of the debate, what follows is inevitable. Debate becomes a way of making it difficult to challenge the frame itself. As such, debate is a distraction from the real issue. It isn’t about race realism. It’s about an entire worldview and social order, an entire identity and way of being in the world. The more it is debated the stronger the frame becomes, the more deeply the symbol becomes conflated with everything it touches.

This isn’t just about those other people. This happens to the best of us. We all exist within reality tunnels. But some reality tunnels are more useful and less harmful than others. The trick is to learn to hold lightly any and all symbolic thought, to catch yourself before full conflation sets in. The imaginative mind needs to be made conscious. That is the closest humans ever come to freedom.