Friday, April 18, 2008

In the News - Are We Rational Creatures?

There seem to be a lot more stories in the news of late on thinking, rationality, and consciousness. Since I love this stuff, I am a happy camper. Here are a couple of book reviews, and some other fun stuff.

First up is a review of Why Think? Evolution and the Rational Mind, by Ronald de Sousa (Oxford University Press) that appears in the Literary Review of Canada (this book was published in the US in 2007).

In Why Think? Evolution and the Rational Mind, Ronald de Sousa—a long-time member of the University of Toronto Philosophy Department, now cast out into the knackers’ yard of retirement—discusses two cases of people instructed by God to kill their children. First there was the wretched Texas housewife Andrea Yates, killer of her five kids, who was found guilty of deliberate murder on the grounds that, having got her divine instructions, she planned carefully how she could drown her babies. Second, there was Abraham, no less of a planner and whose son Isaac was saved only at the last moment thanks to another message from above, not to mention a handy ram ensnared in a thicket. The one was condemned for a vile crime; the other is venerated as a founder of no fewer than three different religions. De Sousa remarks: “When enough people share a delusion, it loses its status as a psychosis and gets a religious tax exemption instead.”

At that point, I knew I was going to love this book—and it is indeed a lot of fun. Why Think? is also good and clever. I have always said that the reason why philosophers are so disliked on university campuses is that we are brighter than anyone else and have trouble concealing the fact. Ronnie de Sousa does nothing to change this perception.

Of course, that does not mean that I am going to agree entirely with his book. De Sousa and I are very much on the same wave length: we are both committed evolutionists, and we are both convinced that Darwinism—and this means the theory of natural selection—is an important tool, perhaps the important tool, to be used in analyzing human thinking. While we do start to come apart in places, in other words we are both pretty hard-line Darwinians—with a point of exception to be made in a moment.

The author starts us off with a significant point, namely that most organisms do not think. Most organisms certainly are not rational. Yet they do all right. Moreover, rationality is not necessarily a key to success. Well thought-through courses of action can go wrong; daft decisions can lead to success. How else does one become a university president? De Sousa might have compounded the paradox a bit by pointing out that thinking is expensive. It requires big brains and they in turn demand lots of protein, which, outside modern yuppie societies, generally means meat. As the late evolutionary paleontologist Jack Sepkoski used to say: “I see intelligence as just one of a variety of adaptations among tetrapods for survival. Running fast in a herd while being as dumb as shit, I think, is a very good adaptation for survival.”

So why do we think? I think de Sousa has the right idea, although I would like to see a bit more biology thrown in here. Thinking gives us options—we are not stuck on one course of action, or with very limited strategic alternatives. Of course, as de Sousa points out, this is partly to do with our being social—in a social situation like ours you need big brains to deal with the various relationships and so forth. “Does Jimmie like me?” “Can I trust him?” “Would it be better to work with Mary instead, even though I know she doesn’t much like me?” On the other hand, being social cannot be all. Ants are social and they don’t do much thinking. I suspect that the real importance of thinking is indeed the fact that we need to make choices, but this comes from the fact that we have got ourselves into a situation where making choices counts.

Read the rest of this fascinating review (although, I'm not so sure philosophers are as smart as they think they are). I tend to like the emphasis here on the socio-cultural nature of thought and its evolution. We humans are social creatures and I am becoming increasingly convinced that our individual subjectivity cannot be viewed as anything other than a consciousness embedded within a social matrix.

The central part of de Sousa’s book looks at collective thinking versus individual thinking. When is something that is rational for the individual not necessarily the most rational move for the group? One of the main things about thinking from an evolutionary perspective is that one does not necessarily expect nice, neat answers. If a good god did everything, ultimately one would expect no conflicts between individual and group goods. If evolution through natural selection does everything, such harmony is not guaranteed and hardly to be expected at all. I might say, speaking somewhat regretfully as a male interested in those sorts of things, that sexuality is one case where the individual and the group come apart. It would be better for the group of sexual organisms to have just a few fertilizing males and many nurturing females. Whatever the benefits of sexuality—and this is a much-debated question in evolutionary circles—just a few males can do the job, and in fact in most species just a few males do, since the rest get pushed to the side lines. Unfortunately, natural selection works at an individual level and so, if there is an imbalance of males, it tends toward the interests not of the group but of the parents—and it is in a parent’s interest to have male children if males are the minority sex. This prevails until equality is achieved. It will be interesting to see in China and India, countries where policies have led to a surplus of males, whether nature now reasserts itself, makes daughters more valuable and hence causes the number of females to rise.

Finally, de Sousa moves us on to irrationality. There is a nice discussion of superstition and also of why we sometimes flub even quite simple calculations. Here’s a good one. Suppose you take a test for a certain kind of cancer. The cancer is not common. It affects 0.01 percent of the population. In other words, one person in ten thousand. The test is 98 percent reliable. You get a positive reading. What are the chances that you have that cancer? I suspect most people (me!) would conclude that you are doomed. But, in fact, statistically the chances are less than half a percent. (Buy the book if you want to find out why!) In other words, we can work out the right answers, but it is not easy—and there is a good reason why it is not easy. Human reason is a faculty evolved to help us survive in certain contexts, rather than reach the truth on every occasion, and historically we have rarely been challenged to work things out at such abstract levels.

Ah yes, irrationality. This brings us to the next book.

Here we have a review of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions, by Dan Ariely (HarperCollins), that appears in The San Francisco Chronicle. Ariely is a professor of "behavioral economics" at MIT.

In "Predictably Irrational," Ariely describes experiments that pertain to general conclusions ("Why we often pay too much when we pay nothing," "why we can't make ourselves do what we want to do," "why options distract us from our main objective," etc.), and then offers extrapolations of why these tendencies are important. He then offers ideas on how to get ourselves under more rational control, individually and by changing organizational or societal structures.

Some of this research is eye-opening, particularly the experiments involving the suggestibility that words can have. In one experiment, Asian American women took a math exam. Half were given a preliminary questionnaire with innocuous survey questions relating to gender (opinions on coed dorms, etc); the other half, questions relating to their racial heritage (family history, etc.) The women who got the race-related survey did better on the subsequent math exam than the women who got the gender-related survey, apparently confirming the stereotypes of women as bad in math and Asian Americans as smart in math, as suggested just by the topic of whichever survey they were given.

Another group was given a scrambled-sentence puzzle with words "priming the concept of the elderly," such as "Florida, bingo, and ancient." Then when they were dismissed, they walked more slowly down the corridor than members of a control group. They weren't, Ariely notes, "themselves elderly people being reminded of their frailty - they were undergraduate students at NYU." Yet another experiment found that after being asked to list the Ten Commandments - or when they were reminded of the Honor Code they'd agreed to - subjects were more honest.

Other topics include how we judge (and misjudge) relative value, the power of placebos, the power of price (more ailments are allegedly cured when the subject believes that the medicine is expensive), and the gently subversive idea that market forces don't always regulate the market for the best outcomes.

The marketing and advertising people have known for years that we are irrational in so many ways, but the extent to which we can be manipulated is often surprising even to those of us familiar with much of this research. One area where
Ariely seems to err, based on the review, is in assuming these decision-making processes are universally flawed -- in all of us.

As I mentioned the other day, most of us are essentially unconscious when it comes to how we make decisions, but that need not be the case. Through a variety of techniques, not least of which is meditation, we can become more conscious and more "awake."

You can read another review of this book in The Toronto Star.

Despite our propensity to be less than conscious a lot of the time, we are unique at the top of the evolutionary ladder of consciousness (although the relative consciousness of some sea mammals and elephants remains to be determined).

In the recent issue of Edge (242),
Michael Gazzaniga asks, Are Human Brains Unique? This is a very long and informative article, well worth the time it takes to read it and absorb it.

The human mind is so generative and given to animation that we do things such as map agency on to almost anything, our pets, our old shoes, our cars, our world. It is as if we don't want to be alone up here at the top of the cognitive chain, the smartest things on earth. We want to see our dogs charm us, appeal to our emotions, imagine they too can suffer and have pity, love and hate and all the rest. We are a big deal and we are a little scared about it.

Thousands of scientists and philosophers over hundreds of years have either recognized this uniqueness of ours or have denied it and looked for the antecedents of everything human in other animals. In recent years clever scientists have found antecedents to all kinds of things that we had assumed were purely human constructions. We used to think that only humans had the ability to reflect on their own thoughts, possess what is called 'meta-cognition". Well, think again. Two psychologists at the University of Georgia have shown that rats also have this ability. It turns out rats "know" what they don't know. Does that mean we should do away with our rat traps? I don't think so.

Everywhere I look I see tidbits of differences and one can always say a particular tidbit can be found in others aspects of biological life. Ralph Greenspan, the very talented neuroscientist and geneticist at the Neuroscience Institute in La Jolla studies, of all things, sleep in the fruit fly. Someone asked him at lunch one day, "Do flies sleep?" He quipped, " I don't know and I don't care." But then he got thinking about it and realized maybe he could learn something about the mysterious process of sleep, a process that has eluded understanding. The short version of this story is that flies do sleep, just like we do and more importantly, flies express the same genes during sleep and awake hours that we do. Indeed his current research suggest even protozoans sleep! Good grief. Maybe when I get up at night to urinate, I actually get up, because of other forces.

The point is that any human activity can be seemingly atomized. But to be swooned by such a fact is to miss the point of human experience. In the following chapters, we will comb though facts about our brains, our minds, our social world, our feelings, our artistic endeavors, our capacity to confer agency, our consciousness and indeed our growing knowledge that our brain parts can be replaced with silicon parts. From this jaunt one clear fact emerges. Although we are made up of the same chemicals, with the same physiological reactions, we are very different from other animals. Just as gases can become liquids, which can become solids, phase shifts occur, shifts so large in implications, it becomes almost impossible to think of a foggy mist being made up of the same stuff that makes up an ice berg. And yet the different substances have the same chemical structure. In a complex relationship with the environment, very similar stuff can become quite different in its reality and structure. Indeed, I have decided something like a phase shift has occurred in becoming human. There simply is no one thing that will ever account for our spectacular abilities, aspirations and capacity to travel mentally in time to almost the infinite world beyond our present existence. Even though we have all of these connections with the biologic world from which we came, and we have in some instances similar mental structures, we are hugely different. While most of our genes and brain architecture are held in common with animals, there are always differences to be found. And while we can use lathes to mill fine jewelry, and chimps can use stones to crack open nuts, the differences are light years apart. And while, the family dog may appear empathetic, no pet understands the difference between sorrow and pity.

These complex emotions are what the hardliners in neuroscience will have a hard time reducing to simple epiphenomena of electro-chemical processes in the brain. Although, even if they do solve that mystery in physical terms, it can never reduce the majesty of such an evolutionary trait.

Finally, as we learn more and more about the irrational illness of eating disorders, our understanding is being forced to change. For many years, it was thought that eating disorders were pathological responses to trauma, either intrafamilial, interpersonal, or cultural. But new research suggests that eating disorders may be contagious.

A study of U.S. high school students provides additional evidence that eating disorders may be contagious.

In a study, researchers found that binging, fasting, diet pill use and other eating disorder symptoms clustered within counties, particularly among female students.

"These findings confirm the strong social influences on female adolescents in the U.S. to be thin, sometimes using unhealthy behaviors to achieve this goal," the researchers write in the current issue of the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

Research in the 1980s in female college students first suggested that disordered eating behavior spread through "social contagion," demonstrating that binge eating clustered within sororities, Dr. Valerie L. Forman-Hoffman and Cassie L. Cunningham of the VA Iowa City Health Care System note in their report.

In the current study, they looked at whether a similar pattern would be seen among high school students at the county-wide level by analyzing nationally representative data on 15,349 high school students.

There was indeed a small but significant clustering effect, the researchers found. A pair of students from the same county was 4 percent to 10 percent more likely to share an eating-disordered behavior when compared to pairs in which each person came from a different county.

Severe food intake restriction, dieting, exercising and diet pill use all showed clustering by county, as did any weight control symptom overall or any eating disorder symptom. But no clustering was seen for purging, possibly due to the "secretive," less socially acceptable nature of this behavior, the researchers suggest.

Clustering patterns were the same in rural, suburban and urban counties.

While the study wasn't designed to look at why these behaviors might be clustering in certain counties, the researchers suggest that peer pressure, information sharing or students modeling their behavior on one another are possible mechanisms.

This is alarming, to say the least. But then, as I mentioned above, we are not isolated consciousnesses existing in a vacuum -- we are social creatures.

No comments: