Nice Guys Finish First

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One night at school, Terry and Tim sneak downstairs to the school pantry and one of them, we know not yet which, steals some biscuits. Naughty, naughty. Very pleased with themselves, they scuttle back up to their dormitory and have a midnight feast.

Suddenly they hear a creak in the floorboards and the light turns on. They’ve been caught! Not only are they in big trouble for talking after lights out, but they will get in double trouble if Mr. Marston can find out who stole the biscuits. The teacher separates the two boys into different rooms and offers each boy a choice. They can either tell tales on the other boy for stealing the biscuits (betray) in return for a reduced punishment, or keep quiet (co-operate) and trust their partner in crime to do the same.

The potential outcomes are as follows:

 

 

Terry stays silent                (co-operates) Terry tells tales         (betrays)
Tim stays silent   (co-operates) Both get 1 strike Terry gets 0 strikes

Tim gets 3 strikes

Tim tells tales (betrays) Terry gets 3 strikes

Tim gets 0 strikes

Both get 2 strikes

Strikes are punishments – the higher the number the worse the punishment.

The odd thing about this setup, commonly known as the prisoner’s dilemma, is that no matter what Terry does, Tim can always secure a lesser punishment for himself if he betrays Terry. Thus if both boys are rational and self-interested (a big if), they will both betray each other, even though collectively they would have been better off staying quiet. Quite a conundrum…

 

The Bad News And The Good News

Last week I had the pleasure of running an afternoon of games and workshops at a summer camp for young boys. The people running the camp had kindly gave me a blank slate – I could teach them whatever I wanted. So what is it that a ten year old most needs to hear in 2017?

Rather a lot it seems. Yet all the most important bits – like how to stop our species from going extinct – don’t seem to be anywhere near the syllabus. And evolution – the most powerful, and powerfully misunderstood, idea of all – has been relegated to a brief distraction from Biology when you get to age fourteen. Worse still is the way it’s been misportrayed as a vicious struggle of all against all; in reality it is the co-operators who end up bringing home the bacon.

This is particularly true of humans. Humans are where we are because language has allowed us to work together in more ways and larger groups than any species before us. If we are to remain where we are we need to take this all the way: either we find a way for our species to work together as a single planetary organism, each of us like a cell living and working in the interests of the whole, or the ecological tragedy of the commons and international war tears us apart. Scientists reckon we have about three years to get our house in order, before the worst happens.

The good news is that all that’s really required for us to make this transition is a new story. Nations only exist because we say they exist. They’re collective fictions. If we tell our children a different story, a story about the universality of mankind, then that is the reality that we will create. And we’re good at telling stories. So that’s what I did…

If necessity is the mother of invention, it’s the father of co-operation

Playground Tactics

I gathered all the boys together in a large indoor horse nursery. Some of them were tall, some small, a Turkish boy called Koze, two Chinese brothers called Adrian and Alex, one little boy of eight with an American accent called Otto and the rest English with interesting names like Declan and Balthasar. I decided I’d work out how to shorten that one later.

I related the tragic plight of Terry and Tim, and then put them in pairs and asked them to imagine that they themselves were now in this situation. They would have to decide whether they would betray or co-operate with their partner. The only difference was that each pair would do this multiple times rather than just one, meaning that the boys would have plenty of chances to retaliate if their partner betrayed them. Each decision to co-operate or betray constitutes one “game”, and each round they would play several games with their partner.

I then gave them each two plastic cups, one with a green dot for co-operation, and another with a red dot for betrayal. I gave them a moment to have a think about their strategy and then on the count of three, asked them to lift up one of their cups so that their partner could see whether they had co-operated or betrayed.

It was beautiful. The whole show played out down to every last line in the textbook. Players who began on the right foot generally maintained trust and kept up the cycle of co-operation. Those who tried to get ahead and thought only of themselves generally drew retaliation from their partners, ending in destructive cycles of betrayal. The two brothers Adrian and Alex who had been paired together by chance, immediately began co-operating with one another and remained that way. Blood is thicker than water. Balthasar began a campaign of attrition which he was to keep up for the entire game.

In life, we can never quite be sure when we will meet someone again

After four games I had the boys switch partners. It is crucial that this comes as a surprise – if I know that the next game is our last then there is no incentive for me to co-operate because I know that you won’t have a chance to retaliate. This is why trust tends to break down in large cities; the bigger the city, the less likely it is that we will meet again if I decide to pull a fast one.

As well as a changing partners in round two there was a slight change of rules. This time they would be allowed to confer with their partner before each round, and make assurances.

The brothers, now separated, performed very differently. Alex, who began with betrayal, ended up in a destructive cycle with Luke, a player who had hardly proved his trustworthy credentials in the first round. Adrian, whether wittingly or not, employed a strategy known as tit for tat; co-operating on the first move, and then copying whatever his partner did on the previous move. This worked relatively well, earning him a better than average score of five strikes. Balthasar, like the true Machiavellian he is, continued ploughing his steady furrow of betrayal, smiling all the way as the long-suffering Declan wearily held up green cup after green cup.

On the third round I did something interesting. On impulse, I flipped the scoreboard round. Now suddenly everyone could see their scores, as well as a detailed history of how their schoolfellows had been playing. To drive home the point I asked each boy to tell the group whether their partner had been true to their word in round two. If their partner nominated them as honest then I underlined their name in green, and if they had been dishonest then I underlined their name in red. Then came the twist. The honest players would now be allowed to choose their partners for the third round.

Once again I feel that this is an accurate reflection of the dynamics of life. If Terry told on Tim for stealing biscuits, Tim will make damn sure that all their friends find out that Terry is a snitch and not to be included in any shenanigans forthwith. And if Tim were to go on another biscuit raid, you can bet your bottom dollar that Terry is just about the last person in the world with whom he would choose to share his biscuits.

Trust, so valuable when built, is easily shattered

Slander!

However, rumours are not always to be trusted, and so it is that Adrian, who I feel had led a fairly blameless game up until that point, got tarnished with the red brush of dishonesty by his also relatively blameless partner Jago. Both were therefore denied the chance to select new partners and ended up with each other again in the third round, and since each was annoyed at the other for being hung out to dry in public, a costly snitching match ensued.

On the other hand Messrs. Koze and Josh, who had earned their good reputations and built trust, opted to remain with their partners and both had harmonious third rounds. Declan, I’m glad to say, was repaid for patiently turning his cheek and chose a born-again Otto. Nino, who perhaps unwarranted had been deemed trustworthy, wisely rid himself of Ardavan and chose Seb instead, leaving Bathasar and Ardavan to slog it out in the playground.

Analysis

Scores

The numbers represent the numbers of strikes each boy receives. Strikes are punishment – the more strikes the worse the punishment.

Round 1 Round 2 Round 3
73 strikes 82 strikes 69 strikes (averaged down)
70% co-operation 63% co-operation 79% co-operation
 Boy Position Strikes  Co-operation %
Koze 1= 14 100%
Otto 1= 14 71%
B. Charlie 3 15 93%
Josh 4 16 100%
Jago 5= 17 60%
Ardavan 5= 17 50%
Seb 7 18 71%
Luke 8= 19 43%
Balthasar 8= 19 21%
Adrian 10= 20 71%
Charlie 10= 20 86%
Alex 12= 21 64%
Nino 12= 21 79%
Declan 14 22 86%

When we put our trust in someone, it brings out their better nature

Much has been written about these kinds of games and it is interesting to see how consistently the standard wisdom was born out in the games we played.

In the first place, verbal communication was not necessary for co-operation to emerge. Indeed when I gave the boys the chance to talk to one another in round two, levels of co-operation actually fell. Clearly what counts is actions and not words.

Secondly it became clear that trust, so valuable when it has been built, is easy to lose. Look at Jago who co-operated all the way through the first round, but experimented with one betrayal in round two which shattered his fragile understanding with Adrian, never to be recovered.

Thirdly, everyone who was chosen as a partner in round three responded to the call with impeccable behavior. Even Seb and Otto, both of whom had been very naughty in round one, were transformed when they were invited to sit at the green table of trust by Declan and Nino in round three. It seems that when we trust someone, it tends to bring out their better nature.

Tit-for-tat

Because there were an odd number of boys, I asked one of the members of staff to sit in as the 14th player with the instruction to employ an Old Testament style strategy of Tit-for-tat: on the first move he would co-operate, and thereafter would copy whatever his partner did on the previous move. Tit for tat is never the first to betray, responds to any betrayal with a betrayal of its own, but is quick to forgive when its partner co-operates again.

In a famous experiment run in 1984 by Robert Axelrod, tit-for-tat proved the winning strategy out of thousands, and so I was keen to find out if my assistant (Big Charlie) would prove similarly successful. Sadly, in a more-lifelike-than-life twist of fate he misheard my instructions and defected on the first move when he should have co-operated. This drew a retaliation from his partner which marred an otherwise perfect game. No doubt, Big Charlie’s position as an authority figure amongst the boys played its part in soliciting co-operation from his subsequent partner Koze. But then again Koze is just a nice guy…

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing

Otto

Otto is a nice anomaly to my theory that nice guys finish first. In the first round he was ostensibly not nice, and yet he still managed to come first alongside Koze and, but for his mistake in the first game, Big Charlie. There are two main reasons for this. In the first place, because the tag of “trustworthiness” was based only on the second round, his first round indiscretions did not tarnish his reputation as much as they might have. This is the equivalent of Terry betraying Tim without Tim finding out that it was Terry who did so.

The second reason for Otto’s success was that he was allowed to get away with murder by Charlie in the first round. The same thing happened with Declan and Balthasar, meaning that Declan came last despite a high percentage of co-operation (86%), whilst Bathasar managed to scrape in at 8th despite the lowest co-operation percentage (21%) of all the boys.

This would suggest that whilst forgiveness is noble, and provides a vital opportunity to break destructive cycles of betrayal, simply lying down whilst people walk all over you will cost you dear. Worse still, it allows selfish players to prosper, which ends up hurting us all.

 

Reflections

Most gratifying of all were the responses in our reflections about the games afterwards. The boys talked about the importance of trust, friendship, and the value of a good reputation. I asked them to think of real life situations when the lessons we’d learnt would be relevant.  They agreed that having seen how the game played out, they would be more likely to help a friend with his homework, more likely to share a packet of sweets with their friends (Balthasar disagreed – but then again look how well that strategy worked out), more likely to pick up litter and more likely to give money to a homeless man.

Winning strategies in the game are winning strategies in life

Life is a Game

Varieties of the prisoner’s dilemma crop up not just in the playground, but in the board room, in the savannah, under the sea, at the conference table, indeed in all areas of life. The precise ratios of risks and benefits can change, but the simple structure of the dilemma, where selfishness pays off on a one-off basis, but collectively everyone is better off working together, remains the same.

What this means is that winning strategies in the game are winning strategies in life. Take a moment to absorb this.

Imagine: there are two lions hunting wildebeest together. Each lion can choose either to get stuck in, but risk getting kicked, or hang back and hope to steal a meal later. If they both go for it, the chances of injury are reduced, but if they both hang back, neither of them get any lunch.

Or consider two supermarkets aggressively pricing bananas. Easyshop might decide to advertise a fabulous banana bananza in order to attract more consumers. But if Eveneasiershop does the same thing, then there’s no incentive to switch supermarkets, and yet both supermarkets will lose money. However if they can both work together to price fix bananas (illegal) then they both retain customers without losing any money.

Or two environmentalists considering giving up meat. If Lavender gives up beef to reduce her emissions, but her friend Skyler keeps eating burgers, then Skyler will benefit from Lavender’s sacrifice, but without having to make her lunch any less tasty. But if Lavender inspires Skyler to do the same then everyone wins. Of course if both Lavender and Skyler keep eating beef then humans may go extinct.

And so on and so forth.

 

The Balloon Game

Whilst I felt it important to stress to the boys the precariousness of our ecological situation, the last thing I wanted to do was to leave the little blighters on a downer. Despondency can lead to denial, and this is a major part of the problem.

So I ended with an uplifting exercise to demonstrate how effective we can be when we all pull in the same direction. I gave the boys a bunch of red balloons and bamboo skewers and asked each of them to blow a balloon up and write their name on it. I then asked them to play with their balloons until they were thoroughly mixed up. Then I told them to look for their balloons again. If they found someone else’s balloon they should knock it away. But if they found their own balloon they should pop it.

This took a few minutes as boys ran screaming, knocking balloons about and brandishing their skewers like little jousters. I found myself wondering whether this would have passed a health and safety test, as the sound of cries and the popping of balloons filled the echoey space.

I then asked them to repeat the game with fresh green balloons, except this time, they were to pick up the nearest balloon and give it to the person whose name was on it so that they could pop it.

This time they cleared the room in 20 seconds.

Except Balthasar, who had somehow managed to insert his skewer all the way through his balloon like a magician with a sword, and then holding it aloft, ran all the way round the horse nursery chased by an angry mob of boys wielding skewers like a village of cannibalistic midgets out for lunch. Well at least they’re working as a team, I thought.

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The Smartphone Diaries

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In the 15th Century China shut its doors to foreigners and new technologies. In 2017 Rod Coddold, a foreigner who had long since shut his doors to new technologies, went to China and bought a smartphone. What followed is described here.

Day 1

Don’t know how to use it. It’s like everything is written in Chinese.

Day 2

Everything I wanted a smartphone for turns out to be censored here. Google Maps, Facebook, Gmail, all banned. And everything else that I need – Uber, food delivery, and all the alternatives to Google Maps are all in Chinese. I don’t know whether I’m ordering dinner or calling the police.

Day 3

I now have a Chinese bank account which means all the smart payment methods they have here (they are way ahead of us on this one) are now operational. I have just paid for a meal by getting the waiter to scan a barcode on my smartphone. Mind blown.

Day 4

My bank account and smartphone have also enabled me to sign up to the Shanghai equivalent of Boris bikes, except here they are a hundred times better. I can find a bike, scan its barcode and be bicycling merrily, perilously, down the street within 5 seconds. And when I’ve arrived where I need to be I can hop off, lock it with a single gesture and leave it on the pavement or wherever I please. No docking stations or any faffing around with debit cards. Makes Boris bikes look decidedly 20th century.

Day 5

I am now listening to podcasts (often whilst riding a bike – this has led to one or two hairy moments). I listen to them on my way around town. This seems like a wonderful use of my commuting time. I can still look around and enjoy the sights of a rain blurred Shanghai road, and my chances of getting hit by a car are only marginally higher.

Day 6

Because my phone was bought in China the predictive text it comes with was not meant for English. Which means that either I’m typing at about ten words per minute or my messages end up looking something like: “pkeass csn yoi help.me.wigh.my.smarrpponr.”

Day 7

For the first time I have sat through dinner looking at my smartphone. This isn’t a faux pas in China. No-one even remarks on it.

This makes me a terrible hypocrite. When people did this to me back in England I hated it and never hesitated to point out how rude it was. Not that this was necessary – I feel most people in England are aware that staring at a screen is not allowed at mealtimes.

But in China nobody seems to care. It’s like they’ve just replaced pudding with smartphone time. I look up for a moment. There are eight of us round the table for dinner: all of us are on our smartphones. It’s a strangely compelling sight. I would keep watching but I was just in the middle of something…

Day 8 (written on my smartphone) 

I have discovered the horror of the failing battery icon in tge top rifht hanf of my screen. Will I havr enough to last the night.  Will I be able to find my friends tonight I have nit.written down their address becausr I didnt  thunk i had to. nor coukd i. Its in chinese. Even if I coyld who would I ask?  Nor have I memoris.the map for.thesame.reason.  The only.place.I.can go.without assistance  is.home or.the.officwneither bide.  wrll for a food sarurdya nifht. Oh.duck.it.

Day 9

With the help of a nightclub bouncer I manage to order a cab using the Chinese equivalent of Uber. I copy and paste the address from my notes without any problems, but then it comes up with 10 suggestions, none of which I can read. If I click the wrong one who knows where I will end up?

Day 10

Shit just got real. I now have Swype. I can now type Kierkegaard, Postmodernism, Defenestration and Confucianism all without taking my finger off the screen. How extravagant. Quite Splendiferous. Percolate.

Day 11

The little blinking light which alerts me to the fact that I have mail has come to seem like the all-seeing eye of Sauron. I think that I am busy working, or fully engrossed in a conversation, but somehow the little blinking eye always catches my attention. And somehow, no matter whether I have unread messages or not, IT’S ALWAYS BLINKING. Even now I check every communication app and find nothing, lock the screen to go back to writing and THE LIGHT IS STILL BLINKING. It’s like an ulcer in my mind. I cannot ignore it. My brain is hardwired to get a dopamine hit from social approval and this light is playing havoc with my expectations. I now check my phone about once every 5 minutes.

Day 12

With the help of kind Chinese contacts who send me the occasional Chinese address to copy and paste I now have maps and public transport down. This is making my professional and personal life immeasurably easier. I am a private tutor so I have lessons at clients’ homes all over the city, generally two or three a day. Normally I’d have to look up all the addresses beforehand and memorise the routes. And it’s not as if I can stop and ask for directions because nobody speaks English. God knows how many times I would have got lost without it.

Day 13

Today I did that thing where I walked into someone because we were both looking at our screens.

Day 14

No one reads books in China. Look up and down the metro carriage you I can see hundreds and hundreds of smartphones and not a single book. Is this a precursor of what’s to come for the next generation? Imagine a world where no-one has read 1984 because they’re too busy playing candycrush. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Day 15-20

Have not had time to write my smartphone diaries as I’ve been playing candycrush.

Day 21

I am loving these podcasts. This is perhaps the only thing about my new smartphone that I don’t feel slightly conflicted about. Podcasts soak up those moments of the day when I could not conceivably be bettering myself in any other way. Walking to the metro, and walking through the streets, I drink in all sorts of interesting information, but lose nothing of the view. I have learnt amazing, wonderful things and have had my mind opened up in all sorts of ways. This truly is time won. And when I get to the station I’ve learnt now to put my phone away and pick up my book. That way I don’t have to sacrifice any reading time either. I might change my mind if I get run over because I couldn’t hear a car coming through my noise cancelling headphones, but so far I am 100% on board.

Day 22

The pudding/smartphone replacement is now a confirmed fact. The main courses get cleared away and out come the smartphones. I try and do both by looking up pictures of a sherry trifle.

Day 23

It’s ironic. Smartphones are supposed to save you time. But because I get bored and fidgety I end up checking Facebook or writing emails during the day that could happily have waited till the evening when I’m in front of my laptop and could type them up far quicker. Or I find myself walking incredibly slowly as I try to reply to a message whilst walking down the street, a message that was most likely of no importance anyway.

Of course I could simply be disciplined, cut out unnecessary messaging and save up e-mails till the end of the day. But other than pissing off my girlfriend this is simply against my nature. It’s like having an open bottle of beer in my hand. Sure I could wait, but I’m just not going to.

If the time spent walking down the street was truly wasted time then you could say that I was still saving time. But the truth is that I like looking around me as I go about my day, taking in the small details, watching people. It’s valuable mental space. And I value it much more highly than time spent looking at a screen.

Day 24

I have now been added to my family whatsapp group. This is lovely. All day long I am cheered up by little snapshots into their lives and sweet photos of baby cousins. I can share in their accomplishments, enjoy their engagements and envy their holidays. And there is nothing of the social-media-my-life-is-better-than-yours-dynamic going on here. It’s just taking pleasure in others’ pleasure. Which is one definition of love I feel.

But even here there is a darkside. I am the youngest member of a large family and a born and bred attention seeker. I start to notice that I turn to whatsapp the moment I feel lonely (this is happening increasingly often here). I start to use the group as a way to seek approval, or make myself feel better.

It works like this. I’ll make a joke or share a link, and then spend the next half an hour obsessively checking whether any of my older cousins have laughed or replied. And when they do I always want more. This is addiction pure and simple.

Conclusions

I feel lucky to have gone into the whole thing with my eyes open. Seven years late to the smartphone bandwagon, I have had plenty of time to notice the effects on my peers. I had a rough idea of the good and the bad side of smartphones. I knew what to expect and what to watch out for.

Not so for the vast population of young users seven years ago, unconsciously conscripted into a dependency they could neither have seen coming, nor resisted even if they had. Adolescence is an age in which we are evolutionary programmed to seek the approval of our peers, and suddenly we have highly addictive handheld devices through which we are connected to everyone anywhere. Is it any wonder that insecurity is the hallmark of our generation?

I’m not saying that all this is necessarily a bad thing. It’s just that no-one had seriously thought about the consequences before we were already hooked. We were the guinea pigs of the internet revolution, and it’s still not clear whether the experiment has worked.

There are winners and losers all over the place and change is happening faster than the dust can settle. What we lose in interpersonal skills we gain in empathy across borders. Time wasted on clickbait is gained on Citymapper. And apathy through clicktivism is won back in the excitement of crowdfunded charity campaigns and decentralised political power.

In any case it’s pointless to moan. Smartphones aren’t going anywhere and the technology is only going to get better. The important lesson to learn is that all this technology is only as good as the people using them. So use them positively. Use your social media pages as tools for social change. Draw people’s attention to positive action that they can take. Share something beautiful, not something vile.

If we do this then we will soon see that a better connected species is a wonderful thing for co-operation and cultural evolution. I can find out whether a politician has lied, watch footage of a 70 year old man seeing in colour for the first time in his life, and help fund a well in Equatorial Guinea all from my bed. And as information travels faster evolution accelerates, and valuable ideas and new behaviours spread throughout the population like wildfire.

But then again so can pictures of Kim Kardashian’s bum.

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The fact would seem to be, if in my situation one may speak of facts, not only that I shall have to speak of things of which I cannot speak, but also, which is even more interesting, but also that I, which is if possible even more interesting, that I shall have to, I forget, no matter.

 

 

I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer way.

           Clean-washed sea

                                                                                         The flowers were.

These are examples of leaving out. But, forget as we will, something soon comes to stand in their place. Not the truth, perhaps, but —yourself. It is you who made this, therefore you are true. But the truth has passed on

                                                              To divide all.

 

 

Because life is short improvisatory requiring grooves: handed a random page of itself sounds the sticks playing across the drums in shades of idiom in cadences and starts technique not so gone from his memory idiom derived from ear and formula addresses set in marching band “where we learned to play ‘cadences’.” Genetic emulsion of brushes eddies derived from ear’s internal workings gain acquire a small fortune in overture to catch strength from the non-declarative installment by heart from the same issue, and so much we must remember to keep asking it the same question followed by all the rest the lion’s share.

 

 

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

 

 

…only standing for (revealing and concealing at the same time) some ‘other’ thing, some different source of revelation, the reality, the presence of which we are always on the verge of grasping…the gaps between, or beneath words come to seem more important than the words themselves…

 

-Samuel Beckett—John Ashbery—Marjorie Welish—Wittgenstein—David Punter-

Free yourself from your programming.

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Here’s something that’s unlikely to feature on your average new year’s resolution list: this year, free yourself from the dictates of your evolutionary past.

Most organisms don’t have desires and preferences. All their behaviour is determined by genetic predisposition. A bacterium does not seek out pastures with higher glucose concentrations because it likes the taste of sugar – it moves towards them based on mechanical responses from its flagella, predetermined by its genetic material. What a gripping first paragraph.

But as organisms evolved that were more complex and more conscious, they developed the ability to learn adaptive behaviour during their lifetimes. In an experiment a rat can learn to avoid a brightly lit doorway which gives it electric shocks. This is not down to any change in its DNA sequence. This is a learned response. The rat has developed a phobia of brightly lit doorways.

When this rat dies, the aversion to brightly lit doors will die with it.*[1] But after several generations of similar exposure the rats will eventually evolve a permanent aversion to bright lights in much the same way that most wild animals are born with an instinctual fear of humans. As George Romanes pointed out as far back as 1884, desires and fears serve evolutionary purposes:

“Pleasure and pain must have been evolved as the subjective accompaniment of processes which are respectively beneficial or injurious to the organism, and so evolved for the purpose or to the end that the organism should seek the one and shun the other.”

This works both ways: humans have aesthetic preferences for flowers and greenery because these preferences led our ancestors to gravitate towards these kinds of landscapes, thus increasing their chances of finding water in the wilderness. A caveman who preferred hanging out in deserts would not have had this advantage, and thus the aesthetic preference for deserts would have been less likely to spread through the human population. Put simply, our aesthetic taste for brightly coloured flowers and lush green grass evolved because it helped us survive. The same will be true for nearly all behavioural traits that are widely spread throughout the human population. This is evolutionary psychology in a nutshell.

But just because our tastes and preferences served some adaptive function once upon a time, this does not mean that they all continue to be helpful in our radically altered modern contexts. Some of them we are stuck with, even when they are now directly detrimental to our evolutionary fitness.

Consider cheesecake. Humans have developed a sweet tooth and a taste for fat and salt because it was rare in our ancestral environments. It paid to love salt and fat and sugar because that ensured that when our ancestors did come across it, they took the chance to stuff their faces whilst they could. In fact this love of sweet things was so helpful for our survival that our brains evolved to react to a combination of fat and sugar in much the same way that it now reacts to cocaine.[2] Eat a mouthful of cheesecake and your brain literally screams at you: “YES, DO MORE OF THAT!”

In clinical trials, sugar is more effective in soothing the distress of infants than the mother’s breast.

But in a world where salt and fat and sugar are readily available, this obsession becomes a drawback. Eat too much cheesecake and you get diabetes.

The same goes for pornography. Men have evolved to like the look of naked ladies because…well, you know. But this has spilled over into a weakness for pornography which isn’t helping us reproduce at all. Our evolutionary hardware is being hoodwinked.

It is incredibly important that we get a handle on this: a colossal amount of human activity is wasted on evolutionary red herrings of this kind, masquerading as activities which improve, or used to improve, our evolutionary fitness.  Just think how many hours and dollars we waste on computer games. Computer games don’t help us survive and reproduce. Who ever got laid off the back of a good score at Tetris? But we play them anyway because they push the same buttons as activities like hunting – it is surely no coincidence that boys love Call of Duty whereas girls tend to prefer games like Sims, which cater to their nesting instinct. These games may even stimulate the same chemical rewards as the adaptive behaviours which they parrot. The fact that hunting itself is no longer necessary for our survival only goes to underline the point – our understanding of what makes us healthy and happy moves many times faster than our physical bodies and chemical wiring can adapt.

Eating meat is another classic example. Our brain chemistry is designed to jump for joy when we insert a mouthful of steak. But the reality is that eating meat is not only detrimental to our individual health it is also catastrophic for the welfare of our species as a whole.

We don’t have to be enslaved by our evolutionary programming. Because evolution has also blessed us with foresight and reason. We have the ability to make ourselves aware of the hidden forces which drive our choices – and then break from them once we realise that they no longer serve us.

When we cultivate an awareness around our choices we turn our intelligence towards its true purpose. Instead of being blind victims of forces beyond our control, we become conscious agents, deliberately designing our lives to unleash our evolutionary potential.

A healthier, happier and more fulfilling life awaits you if you do.

 

[1] Or so says scientific materialism. Actually, the children of such rats learn to avoid brightly lit doors faster than their parents. Even more astonishingly, rats of the same breed will learn the same trick faster on the other side of the world, despite having never met the trained rats. More here: http://www.sheldrake.org/about-rupert-sheldrake/blog/rat-learning-and-morphic-resonance

[2] http://natmonitor.com/2014/12/12/food-addictions-to-fat-and-sugar-similar-to-cocaine-and-heroin-in-brain-response/

As is the microcosm, so is the macrocosm.

As is the microcosm, so is the macrocosm.

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As is the human body, so is the cosmic body

As is the human mind, so is the cosmic mind

As is the microcosm, so is the macrocosm

As is the atom, so is the universe

– The Upanishads

4.1 billion years ago the first single celled life appeared on earth. After another 2 billion years, two of these cells combined to form more complex eukaryotic cells, such stuff as you and I are made of. Another billion years and groups of these cells got together to form multicellular life. Roughly half a billion years further on and groups of these multicellular organisms started to form hives, shoals, and herds.[1] Evolution is accelerating.

The process was repeated with humans. Bands got together to form tribes, tribes got together to form city states, city states got together to form nations, nations got together to form trading blocs and global organisations.

The tendency for life to co-operate over ever increasing scales is not a fluke. It is driven by the logic of game theory: at all stages of evolution the potential is always there for co-operating groups to do better than competing individuals.[2]

Today climate change is providing the stimulus for the cycle to repeat itself. The environmental crisis is a tragedy of the commons – all the economic benefits of burning fossil fuels accrue to individual nations, whilst the costs of global warming are shared by all.[3] Thus as a competing nation the self-interested course of action is always to pollute more. And as Milinski demonstrated with his climate change game, countries aren’t going to do enough purely out of a sense of duty, even when the worst is threatened.[4]

Make no mistake: our survival is at stake here.[5] We have repeatedly failed to stay within the modest targets politicians have set themselves. Humanity’s only way out of the problem is to form a united global co-operative that spans the planet.[6] Then the tragedy of the commons disappears. In many ways this is already happening.[7] As the Ancient Greeks imagined, we must be as cells in the great body of humanity.[8]

This is not an idealist’s pipe dream. This is the natural trajectory of evolution, something that has been achieved again and again at all stages of life on this planet.

I fully understand that some people don’t think this way, that some people only care about “them and their own”. Others have broadened this circle to include members of their nation as “their own”. But an increasingly vocal minority are waking up to the understanding that unless “their own” comes to mean humanity as a whole, then there won’t be any of “us or them” left at all.

Viewing humanity as one family does not require you to be a saint. No one’s asking you to give away all your possessions. The transition can be embodied by a few small changes. Animal agriculture is an environmental catastrophe, accounting for 15% of all man made emissions.[9] That’s more than all the cars, trains, boats and planes combined. On the level of a unified humanity, eating meat is selfish behaviour. All the benefits of eating meat accrue to the individual, while we all pay the price.

Cancerous cells are cells that have stopped working for the whole organism and have started working for themselves. At the level of the individual organism cancer is cellular selfishness. Just as eating meat at the level of the global superorganism is individual selfishness.

Animal protein is carcinogenic.[10]

As is the microcosm, so is the macrocosm.

If you behave selfishly, so will your cells.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_the_evolutionary_history_of_life

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOvAbjfJ0x0

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WYA1y405JW0

[4] http://www.nature.com/climate/2009/0911/full/climate.2009.112.html

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTMOaI4NZFA 5:00 minutes in

[6] https://oneglobaldemocracy.com/vision/

[7] http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/Papers/Superorganism.pdf

[8] http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140701-the-superorganism-engulfing-earth

[9] http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/197623/icode/

[10] https://www.cancertutor.com/china-study/

WWIII is being waged inside your heads

WWIII is being waged inside your heads

George Orwell is rolling in his grave. The telescreens from 1984 seem benign in comparison to the present day domination of life by screen. Even as you read this you are staring at one. Above it is a webcam which various government agencies can access at will, just as he predicted.

Through these screens pour an endless river of shit, manipulating us in ways that Orwell at his most pessimistic could simply never have imagined. The algorithms deciding which results we see when we make a Google search, or which of our friend’s posts we are fed on Facebook are among the most closely guarded corporate secrets in the world. Just through a process of re-ordering content, Facebook and Google have the power to influence our emotions, change our opinions, and even to flip elections, entirely without risk of detection.[1]

Should we be worried that Google have quietly dropped their slogan “Don’t be evil?” I would have killed to be at the board room meeting for that one:

CEO: You know this “Don’t be evil” slogan is really tying our hands.

NON EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: Yes, I can see that. What about, “Only occasionally be evil”?

CEO: Hmm, doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

NON EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: “Evil is relative”?

CEO: Maybe we could just fiddle the online dictionary definition of “evil?”

It would be funny if it wasn’t so scary. In the end they settled on: “Do the right thing”. It’s Animal Farm par excellence: “Don’t worry, all animals are still equal, BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS”.

Woe is us:

There is something circular about watching a film in which we are told not to watch films. The film is telling us that films do not tell us the truth. Which means that the film itself is not telling us the truth. Which means that the film was right all along.

The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves is prophetic indeed. His warning rings as true as ever in the age of the internet:

“The next revolution—World War III—will be waged inside your head. It will be a guerrilla information war fought not in the sky or on the streets, not in the forests or even around the scarce resources of the earth, but in newspapers and magazines, on the radio, on TV, and in ‘cyberspace’… It will be a dirty, no-holds-barred propaganda war of competing worldviews and alternative visions of the future.”[2]

Cyberspace, a term which no longer needs inverted commas, has become the most fiercely contested of these. Fake news and viral videos battle for our attention. TV may have been disputed territory in the 70’s, but this has long ago ceased to be the case. TV isn’t a battleground, it is a procession, a consumerist parade. Anything genuinely insurgent has been relegated to brief slots on the Beeb, and a cult classic film every now and again.

Whether we are aware of this or not, we continue to watch all the same. How many of you did turn off The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves in the middle of his sentence? We are simply powerless to resist television’s glitz.  As in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest we are transfixed, compelled to keep watching even as it kills us. The average American watches over 5 hours of TV a day.[3] We switch on the TV so that we can switch ourselves off. Our guard is down. We are at our most suggestible.

Advertising campaigns now use neuro-linguistic programming and fMRI scans to measure the brain’s responses to various triggers. No wonder our mouths water at the sight of soft drink cans glistening with condensation in the summer sun.

But my concern is not so much adverts. However shamelessly they may play on our hopes and fears, you know what you are getting with an advert. You know you are being manipulated and to what end. The agenda is out in the open.

The same cannot be said of films and TV shows, which sell us ideology under the guise of art and entertainment.

Examples are rife but here are a couple of more blatant examples:

Here we have a psychopathic mass murderer espousing the political philosophy of anarchy, along with a hint of Zen Buddhism suggested by the words “I just do things” before blowing up a hospital.  You don’t have to be Noam Chomsky to see what’s going on: associate these powerfully liberating concepts with madness, violence and terror, and you prime impressionable young minds against them. The take-home message is clear: “Be afraid, let us control everything, or look what happens.”

The cumulative effect of constant indoctrination of this kind is that most people can’t even think about a concept like anarchy. Just the mention of the word is enough to make most people’s rational minds shut down and automatically regurgitate a stream of negative associations. Anarchy may indeed be a flawed political ideal, but it is downright dangerous that most people have never had the chance to think freely about it.

I don’t wish to impugn Christopher Nolan. Whether these clips are what I think they are is not really the point. I just want people to be more guarded against the terrifying shadow that media casts over our worldviews. Every day we are being bombarded by largely unchallenged ideological assumptions. If this happens under our watch then fine, that is what healthy debate is all about. But that is not remotely the case. And just as with the search engine manipulation effect, the startling realisation is that if this power were being wielded maliciously, we would have absolutely no way of knowing.

A formula is starting to emerge. Step 1: present a spine-chilling psychopath. Step 2: have him espouse any idea considered a threat to the establishment.

Again the intended effect of the scene is obvious. We are supposed to empathise with Nicholas Cage and block our ears against Steve Buscemi’s dangerous madness. But take away his preamble about murdering people for pleasure and Buscemi’s sentiments about the relativity of insanity have been articulated by some of the most respected thinkers throughout history.[4]

Still, better not question the status quo or the next thing you know you’ll be chopping up families for fun.

[1] This is known as the Search Engine Manipulation Effect: https://aeon.co/essays/how-the-internet-flips-elections-and-alters-our-thoughts

[2] Marshall McLuhan (1970) Culture is Our Business (New York: McGraw-Hill)

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/01/business/media/nielsen-survey-media-viewing.html?_r=0

[4] http://www.happierabroad.com/Quotes_Insanity.htm

Keep your mind open and your enemies’ opener.

22libya8-articlelarge-v4

A friend’s dad is a hereditary member of the House of Lords. I stayed the night at his house not long after he had been re-elected after a period of absence. Out of politeness I asked to read his maiden speech. He began with some platitudes, echoing the comments of a few previous speakers and so on, and then in good faith went on to declare that he owned a private security company that worked on contracts for the Russian government. I think it’s probably customary for politicians to declare potential conflicts of interest in their maiden speeches.

Nothing could have prepared me for his concluding remarks which I remember almost verbatim: “And just to add an original point of my own, I feel we should follow the example of France and America in aligning our commercial and military interests.” And with that he sat down.

None of the subsequent remarks suggested even a modicum of concern about this. I was so startled I had to go back and re-read the exact words to make sure.

There was no escaping it. He was arguing, in broad daylight, in the place where big decisions are made in our name, that we should try and make money out of war.

I caught him just as he was leaving early next morning.

“No we wouldn’t go to war with profit as a motive,” he replied assuredly, briefcase in hand, the front door ajar, “but if we did decide to go to war for legitimate reasons then there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do business while we’re there.”

“But can’t you see how that could be abused?” I asked from the kitchen table, at pains to keep my voice even, “When the people who decide whether we go to war are the same people who would stand to profit?” I was looking at one of them.

“Yes I can see how it could,” he replied, pausing to think in a moment of honest reflection, “but I don’t think that’s how it works.” And with that he walked out the front door.

Reading this it must be tempting to assume that the man in question is thoroughly evil, or at best dangerously stupid. I assure you he is neither.

I am quite sure that he genuinely believed what he said about going to war for the right reasons; that he himself would never consciously have let his private security firm be a factor in a decision to vote in favour of an invasion. And, having this neatly sewn up in his mind, he honestly trusted other politicians to do the same.

I almost envy him. How wonderfully straightforward life must be for the man under the impression that everyone is quite capable of reasoning their way cleanly to the utilitarian decision when their own millions are at stake. How truly reassuring to believe that human rationality is a kind of objective force of its own, working for the pursuit of truth and the greater good, entirely independent of our self-interest.

The conversation revealed to me perfectly clearly how democracies can commit terrible acts without anybody being deliberately evil. Political debates are nuanced affairs with multiple factors and unforeseeable consequences. Sifting our way through the screaming cacophony of opinions in the media in search of the buried truth of the matter is a difficult and lengthy process which very few people undertake.  In any given article 60% of people don’t read beyond the headline. Even for those who have the time and interest, an honest inquiry is sure to involve flux and vacillation before reaching anything remotely resembling a balanced view.

Far easier, and quicker, to read a headline or two and draw a straight line of argument between your bank account and one particular way of looking at things.

We delude ourselves that our political opinions are based on facts and logic. The truth is that in nearly all cases we ascertain the selfish position first and construct a rationalisation for it afterwards. And as soon as our viewpoint is well bedded, cognitive bias kicks in. We begin to read the world from that standpoint alone, selecting the facts to fit it until it becomes clear and unassailable.

We must mistrust our reason wherever our self-interest is concerned.

I write about this story in the hope that it demonstrates the danger of placing too much faith in our reason. Rationality is the voice within our head. It is ego. As such it serves our self-interest first and truth second. Scientists are just people who have made a career out of aligning the two.

But most of us are not scientists, and politics is not particle physics. When it comes to politics we are never simply disinterested observers. Even when our pocket it not at stake there is still plenty to play for. After all, the airing of political views is socially strategic as much as anything else. Taking up a certain position can increase our evolutionary fitness by signalling our membership of an ‘in’ group. This is the intellectual 21st century equivalent of painting your face to identify yourself as member of a tribe. Both are attempts to solicit the co-operation of other members of that tribe or subculture. A common worldview thus acts as a kind of gravitational force which draws friendship groups together. This is why a big agreeathon can be so enjoyable: we are identifying and securing allies. It also explains why so few people are willing to stand out from the crowd.

Now in a way this is all blindingly obvious – it’s not a coincidence that rich people tend to be right wing. Nor does it twist one’s melon to realise that lefties stick to lefties like shit to a blanket.

The point I’m driving at is that we must mistrust our reason wherever our self-interest, material or social, is concerned.

When we’re really honest with ourselves, this extends to almost everything we are likely to hold an opinion about. Fine – so hold it all lightly. Be prepared to change your mind about everything at the drop of a hat. I change my mind about my free will, the free market and the existence of God about once a week. It’s fun – try it.

In a fast evolving world a closed mind is death.