Too Much Success

It’s amazing the abilities some species have. But that brings up a question. If they are such an advantage, why doesn’t every species have equally amazing abilities? This particularly comes to mind with perceptual abilities.

Human senses are fairly mediocre. We can’t sense much of the world that many other species can. We make up for it with opposable thumbs and cognitive development. Just imagine how much more bad ass humans would be if we could see like a hawk, hear like an owl, and smell like a wolf.

Maybe there is no evolutionary advantage to having the best possible abilities in all ways. It might actually be a disadvantage, both for the species and for the ecosystem or even biosphere. Any given species being too successful might throw off the balance between species. Evolution isn’t only seeking the survival of species but also the survival of complex relationships between species.

Consider one of the earliest microbes, cyanobacteria. They were so successful that it led to what is called the Great Oxygenation Event. Most other microbes at the time were anaerobic and oxygen was toxic to them. It caused earth’s first mass extinction. Even the cyanobacteria didn’t benefit, as there numbers also precipitously dropped.

Too much success can be a dangerous thing, for all involved. This is a lesson of evolution. It’s the success of the entire system of species that matters, not the success of a single species. The survival of the fittest species is secondary to the survival of the fittest ecosystem and biosphere. As Phil Plait put it (Poisoned Planet):

“It’s an interesting tale, don’t you think? The dominant form of life on Earth, spread to the far reaches of the globe, blissfully and blithely pumping out vast amounts of pollution, changing the environment on a planetary scale, sealing their fate. They wouldn’t have been able to stop even if they knew what they were doing, even if they had been warned far, far in advance of the effects they were creating.

“If this is a cautionary tale, if there is some moral you can take away from this, you are free to extract it for yourself. If you do, perhaps you can act on it. One can hope that in this climate, change is always possible.”

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Marshmallow Test vs Candle Test

I just saw this video about the marshmallow test.

The first thing I noticed was that the emphasis was on the belief we should teach our kids more self-control because it leads a to a more focused mindset and so increases the probability of traditional success. My immediate response was that psychological research shows that people are born with such traits and there is a limit to how much you can cause your child to change. It’s good to teach kids self-control, but I don’t think it’s good to force the ideal of “success” on young children. Kids should to an extent be allowed to be kids and allowed to be their natural selves.

I’d heard of the marshmallow test before, but I decided to post about it because it connects to another video I recently saw (and posted about: Rise of the Creative Class & Second Axial Age).

In the second video, another study shows an interesting contrast to the Marshmallow test. The more that the self-controlled, success-focused mindset is increased the more that innovative thinking decreases. Traditional schooling has focused on self-control, but as I described in my other post innovative is gaining a higher priority in our society. If you want to know who will be the geniuses, I’d bet on the kid who didn’t follow the rules in the marshmallow test and instead did something unexpected.

Rise of the Creative Class & Second Axial Age

Profit, greed, selfishness… are these the primary motivations of human nature?

I’ve always thought that humans aren’t primarily selfish. Going by my studies of psychology, humans seem to be primarily social animals. However, modern society forces people into a self-centered mentality. The problem is that this isn’t natural. It worked well enough in the past when society was hierarchical and when the central ideal of society was merely that of success. Using this mindset, many people became filthy rich and very powerful. But we no longer live in the times of the Robber Barons.

The Industrial Age attitude of individualism is being replaced by the very different view which is encouraged by this new Technological Age. All you have to do is look at the Millennials who grew up on technology. They have much more of a group mentality. They’re more interested in cooperation than competition. It’s not that they don’t want to succeed, but they just are less likely to define success as being the result of the isolated actions of an individual. The technological Age is slowly creating a less hierarchical society. Out of this, a creative class is arising.

I’ve always found it strange that conservatives are so embracing of Social Darwinism. This is particularly strange with Christian fundamentalists who believe their culture is superior and often this is identified with “white culture” or “Western culture”. It’s the idea that we genocidally destroyed the Native American cultures and so our culture is superior. We deserve our superior position because our culture is superior (i.e., stronger, more dominant, more forceful, more successful). We won. You lost. The same for the African-Americans. Conservatives whites love to complain about the black culture being dysfunctional which is rather convenient since the black culture was destroyed by whites.

I wonder how much this has to do with Christianity. Not all Christians have this superior attitude, but it has been a far from uncommon attitude throughout the history of Christianity. Christians have always been about “spreading the Good Word”. Unlike the views of many Eastern religions, not everyone is guaranteed of being saved in Christianity. In fact, there is the idea of an elect few who will be saved and this idea has been popular since the beginning of Christianity. There were other views within the Christian tradition. Universalism (i.e., everyone is saved) has also been a part of Christianity from the beginning, but unlike Buddhism or Hinduism it never gained much traction within mainstream Christianity.

It’s interesting that “white culture” Christian fundamentalism is on the decline at the very same time that the creative class is on the rise. But it isn’t surprising. My guess is that the creative class tends to be liberal and open to alternative lifestyles such as atheism and agnosticism. Buddhism, or certain traditions of Buddhism, have become very popular as well in the creative class, the educated class, the liberals. The greatest spokesperson for this new attitude is probably the Dalai Lama who is of course a Buddhist.

At the same time, the developing world is simultaneously embracing both the model of materialistic success and the modern attitude of religious fundamentalism. I’ve always thought that Karen Armstrong was correct when she identified religious fundamentalism as a modern phenomenon, a reaction to Industrialization and demographic shifts forcing the mixing of cultures. In the US (along with Europe and countries such as Japan), we’ve assimilated this change and it has become a part of our identity. Particularly, the US demographics are shifting so quickly that the newest generation is already past much of the old racial/cultural conflicts.

The Industrialized West is entering terra incognito. There are some people (*ahem* conservatives *cough cough*) who don’t want their world to change, but like it or not the world is changing and there is no going back. As a liberal, I’m very curious where it’s all heading. I don’t see Western Culture as a static artifact or a set of laws set in stone. The entire history of the West has been of progress. The very idea and ideal, the very narrative of progress is at the heart of the Western Culture.

I should add that this doesn’t mean that Christianity is simply being left in the dust of the 21st century. If there is one thing that Christianity has proven itself to be, it is that it’s an evolving tradition which is very flexible and adaptable (the grand ideal of cultural mixing of the Greco-Romans). Christianity is shifting partly because the culture wars are shifting. It used to be the God-fearing Americans versus the Godless Commies. However, we no longer have a great enemy like the Soviet Union and the enemy we are focused on is even more religiously fundamentalist. The atheists and agnostics have gained a foothold and are growing, but more importantly even religious Americans think about religion differently. When Christianity was politicized by conservatives it became a competition of values where one side had to win at the cost of the other side. The young generations no longer see it that way and they don’t like the way religion has become politicized.

Why has Christianity been shifting so dramatically in recent decades? The most obvious explanation is that biblical studies itself has changed as it became free of church control and as new texts were discovered.

What is taking place of politicized Christianity? That is easy to figure out. Just listen to what the religious right is complaining about. Presently, the most vocal defender of the religious right is Glenn Beck. So, what is Glenn Beck complaining about? Social Justice Christians. What is different about these liberal Christians? For one, they tend towards the ideas of Unitarianism and Universalism. Many Christians have been fighting for these ideals for centuries, but only in this last century have they had great impact on US culture (although there was a Universalist European country in the past). My basic point is that this is a less competitive and more inclusive view of religion. It’s what Martin Luther King, jr was speaking about when he said he had a Dream. The Social Justice Christians argue that this was the very message that Jesus spoke of.

Of course, this Dream is older than Christianity. To speak of it broadly, this is the vision and ideal of human rights.

Many people have spoken of a world that wasn’t or shouldn’t be just dog eat dog. There is an ancient idea that humans, all humans have inherent worth.

One thing I’d is that of the Axial Age. Many cultures around the world developed along similar lines at about the same time. It wasn’t that the idea of human rights simply spread out from a single point. There was something inherent to human culture that hits a tipping point where human rights become a collective ideal and aspiration.

It’s been more than a couple of millennia since the beginning of the Axial Age. We Westerners like to think we’re so advanced and yet we’re still processing the radical change, the cultural shift that happened so long ago. Some argue that we’re in a Second Axial Age.

I’m not exactly optimistic. I do feel that something is trying to be born, but the birth pangs are going to be painful.

I can’t speak of certainties in the context of global society and what it may become. My point is simply that culture itself is shifting, attitudes are changing. It’s something that is happening on the level of relationships and communities, on the level of everyday communication and interactions. More important than anything else, people are changing on a fundamental level. It’s not about what is happening in politics, not about what leaders are deciding, not about what the plans and agendas international corporations project into the future. 

No one knows what is coming. There is no one at the top who is in control.

Will you cheat? Check your fingers

Finger length may reveal your financial acumen
By Linda Geddes

He found that traders with a longer ring fingers, and therefore higher prenatal testosterone, made on average six times the profits of traders exposed to low levels of the hormone, and tended to remain traders for longer.

Previous studies have also suggested a link between a low index-to-ring-finger ratio and autism, and better sporting ability.

“This study provides evidence for human beings of what we know from studies of animals, that exposure to sex hormones early in life predisposes the nervous systems and resulting behavior to develop in certain ways,” says Bruce mcEwen of the Rockefeller University in New York. “In this case the development of the risk taking, visual-motor skills, etc that make for success in this kind of rapid stock trading.”

Finger Length Key to Female Athletic Potential

“Previous studies have suggested the change in finger length was due to changes in testosterone levels in the womb,” he said.
 
But he said the unit had found in a separate study of twins that finger length was largely inherited, possibly explaining why sporting parents often have sporting children.
 
“We found that finger length was 70 percent heritable with little influence of the womb environment,” he said.
 
“This suggests that genes are the main factor and that finger length is a marker of your genes.”

Status Anxiety

Here is a fairly nice documentary. 

Many great points are brought up about the ideal of a meritocratic society.  One point made that I highly agree with is that if the rich deserve to be rich, then the poor deserve to be poor.

Where I think this documentary missed out is on the details.  The narrator states that American meritocracy doesn’t assert that all are equal but that all are given equal opportunity.  The problem I had is he didn’t analyze this in any great detail (environment, pollution, health, nutrition, medicine, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc.).  The inequality between people is so vast in the world that any theoretical equal opportunity is just a joke.  It’s quite easy to criticize the very notion of equal opportunity on any number of grounds.

A very small minority hold most of the world’s wealth and power, and the vast majority of this wealth and power is passed down from generation to generation within a very small set of families and bloodlines.  A teacher that was interviewed stated that meritocracy was an eternal goal which implies it’s a goal that never is actualized in the real world.  So, it’s a pleasant fantasy to keep the masses contented.

Furthermore, the wealth and power of the developed industrialized nations is built on the very poverty and disempowerment of the rest of the world.  Does the slave-wage worker in a sweatshop deserve his lot?  Do Americans deserve the cheap products the get through the suffering of the poor?  Do Middle Easterners deserve all the conflict that the West bestows upon them simply because we think we deserve their oil?  Does South and Central America deserve all of the political unrest caused by the CIA and the American War on Drugs?

For further information on how to be included among the elite who deserve all of their power and wealth, see the following:

How to be Successful

Also, check out Barbara Ehrenreich’s view presented in her book Bright-sided.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=113758696

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/10/books/10ehrenreich.html

http://www.statesman.com/life/content/life/stories/books/2009/11/01/1101ehrenreich.html

The inspiration for her writing about positive thinking was her experience with cancer.  She saw the darkside of positive thinking within the cancer community.

This brings to mind my own grandmother who died of cancer.  It’s because of her that I was raised in New Thought Christianity where positive thinking is very popular.  She was diagnosed with cancer.  She embraced the whole alternative medicine field and she had great faith in positive thinking.  My dad says she was utterly crushed when doing all the right things didn’t make her cancer go away.  She died of cancer.  She was a woman who had a great sense of faith, and apparently I inherited my spiritual interests from her.  I’ve seen all aspects of positive thinking and so I have a personal sense of what Ehrenreich is talking about.

But what is different is that positive thinking has become mainstream like never before.  It’s not just alternative types.  Positive thinking has become merged with the early American ideals of meritocracy, and together they create something greater than either alone.

In one video I saw of Ehrenreich, she made an interesting connection.  She was talking about the meritocracy ideal, but I don’t think she was using that term.  She was just talking about the ideal of positivie thinking in general within American culture.  She connected this with Ayn Rand’s libertarians.  If I remember correctly, she was making the argument that Rand was a one of the factors in popularizing positive thinking.  She mentioned the book The Secret and how it’s representative of our whole culture.  She blames the economic troubles we’re having now with the business culture of positive thinking, and it makes a lot of sense to me.