Right now I’m watching the Korean show True Beauty, about a high school girl who is bullied and discriminated against because she is perceived as physically ugly. This got me thinking about something that I have wondered about for a long time. One might think that after millions of years, natural and sexual selection would have produced humans that all look very much the same – to each other, that is. If humans have mate preferences based on physical characteristics, we should expect that departure from those “norms” would have been selected out long ago. But physical beauty, like so many things about humans, is not so simple.
Human beings are indeed very similar to one another physically. But we are VERY good at distinguishing each other’s faces, and in every culture there are “standards” of physical beauty. Those who are deemed beautiful have undeniable advantages. Those who are deemed ugly receive undeniable punishments.
One of the surprising things about human faces is that newborn babies are not only equipped to recognize them, but show unmistakable preferences for faces that are widely deemed to be attractive. Since very beautiful people are uncommon, and their features rather specific, one might assume that they represent one extreme as regards facial characteristics, with “ugly” at the other extreme. This turns out to be quite wrong.
Digital technology allows us to construct average human faces from large numbers of individual faces. When we do this, a surprising truth emerges. Average faces are perceived as attractive, more attractive than the faces used to construct them. Here, for example, are some country-by-country average male faces:
And here are some average female faces:
In fact, you can create average faces of your own at the website faceresearch.org. The result is quite startling and instructive. I think you will find that it is quite likely that most any average face, no matter what faces are used to construct it, is more attractive to you than its constituent faces.
It’s interesting to note how similar the country-by-country average faces are to each other. Compare the Puerto Rican average male above to the Saudi Arabian average male. Or the Polish average female to the Indian average female. East Asians are pretty distinct because of the epicanthic folds on their eyes. But it’s striking how little geographic variation exists among these average faces. And how consistently beautiful they are.
It has long been understood that physical attractiveness is related to symmetry. We tend to find symmetric faces attractive, and this is undoubtedly part of the reason that average faces tend to be attractive – they average out the lack of symmetry in individual faces. Perfect symmetry, however, is not judged attractive, probably because our brains expect at least a slight asymmetry – beyond this, the face looks unnatural. We can produce perfectly symmetric faces simply by mirroring each side of the face. When we do this, the 2 results tend to look a bit strange.
One might conclude from all of this that the ultimate in facial attractiveness would be an average of as many faces as possible. But again, it’s not that simple. Research has shown that an average face constructed from 60 “random” faces is less attractive than an average face constructed from 15 faces already judged to be attractive. The second face has higher cheekbones, a smaller jawline, and larger eyes than the first. When these features are exaggerated digitally, the face is perceived as even more attractive. This “hyper-attractive” face is the least average of the 3.
Nevertheless, if we try to deviate too far from the average, we will find that the face becomes unattractive. We can get away with a lot of eye enlargement, as we see in the face of the digital character Alita, from the movie Alita: Battle Angel.
But other features, such as high cheekbones and a small jawline will quickly start to look strange if we exaggerate them too much. And even the eyes have their limit. Our brains expect human faces to look a certain way. Too much deviation gets us into the so-called “uncanny valley” – a face that is too close to looking human but clearly isn’t.
The admonition not to judge by appearances is quite old. Beauty and the Beast is a story that goes back centuries and is told in many different versions in different cultures. At the same time, there is a strong human tendency to do just that. If even a newborn baby has a preference, can we hope to get past the superficialities? I think so. Just as with any human tendency, the solution is to be well aware of it and take steps accordingly. Understanding the nature of our own preferences is an important first step.
Recently, conservative columnist David Brooks authored an essay in The Atlantic entitled “How the Bobos Broke America.” Now, if you’re like me, the first thing that pops into your head when you read that title is “What the hell is a bobo?” And this kind of makes his point. Bobos are the so-called “creative class,” the educated elite. The journalists, the scientists, the information technology specialists, the architects. Brooks himself is one of them, and he can’t help but notice that the institutions these people frequent have lost a lot of the trust they once had. The bobos don’t connect with “ordinary” folks. Even the term bobo, which was created by a bobo, namely Brooks, is unfamiliar to working class Americans.
The bobos, unlike the conservative elite that dominated the ruling class before them, seem to value justice, equality, and tolerance. The problem is that their actions only seem to amplify inequality and alienate the working class. They cluster together in high-tech communities and drive up housing costs. More than anything, they promote meritocracy. And it is becoming increasingly clear that meritocracy is tearing America apart.
On its face, meritocracy seems beneficial and logical. Martin Luther King famously said that he dreamed of the day when his children would be judged “not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.” Many of us have grown up believing that in an ideal society, discrimination would only be based on merit. That’s fair, right? Merit. If you win, fair and square, that’s good. If you lose, fair and square, that’s fine too.
Only it’s not fine. The meritocracy merely becomes one more excuse to maintain, even amplify, injustice, inequality, and intolerance. Even if the criteria for inclusion and exclusion are “fair,” what does it matter if it increases human suffering? If meritocracy is the way to go, why doesn’t it apply to voting? Shouldn’t voting be a privilege that has to be earned? One person, one vote is imposed equality. Equality is imposed because each person should have an equal chance to control their own life. But when it comes to economics, which have just as big an influence on one’s life, we accept meritocracy.
The result of America’s meritocracy is that one person gets a first class ticket and 10 others get lifetimes of struggle. As Brooks puts it, the meritocracy “determines who gets included in the upper echelons of society and who gets excluded; who gets an escalator ride to premier status and worldly success and who faces a wall.” The bobos ended up protecting their privilege just as assiduously, if not more so, than the WASP elites that preceded them. Working class America gets the shaft. “Some 60 years after its birth, the meritocracy seems more and more morally vacuous,” Brooks concedes. “Does the ability to take tests when you’re young make you a better person than others? Does a society built on that ability become more just and caring?”
The last section of Brooks’ essay is entitled “How the Class War Ends.” His solution is partly economic: Close the income gap and provide good jobs to people without college degrees. But Brooks goes farther. He maintains that the meritocracy itself, the sorting mechanism that leaves so many behind, must change dramatically. I think he’s right. But this is really no different than what Franklin Roosevelt envisioned with his Second Bill of Rights. That every American would be guaranteed the basics so that they can strive for the privileges. A decent home. A decent job. Decent health care. A decent education. No one should have to have a college degree in order to have access to the basics.
Where Brooks and I probably differ is on what has been the real instigator of America’s vast inequality. The bobos may have played a big role in maintaining it, but it was Ronald Reagan who gave us the church of the almighty trickle-down. It was Ronald Reagan who led the country into a profound distrust of government and the degradation of public spaces. And only by breaking the back of Reaganomics will we be able to restore trust. Brooks speaks of a society in which people are rewarded for the ability to work in teams, to sacrifice for the common good, to be honest, kind, and trustworthy. It is precisely the public good that has been allowed to wither in the shadow of Ronald Reagan, and only a self-conscious national movement is going to restore it.
To me the meritocracy is much like eugenics, an idea that was once popular and seemed very reasonable to many smart people. Like eugenics, the meritocracy seeks to improve life by sorting people. And like eugenics, it ends up increasing human misery. I have to judge it by its results. It doesn’t work. People have to be able to trust their government, their schools, and their scientists. Exclusion and massive inequality create resentment. The meritocracy has to go.
I do not mean that privileges should be eradicated. As I have said before, I don’t really care how much wealth Jeff Bezos controls. What I care about, and what I think Brooks cares about, is that we have a healthy middle class in which people don’t have to struggle just for the basics. You can’t adequately compete for the privileges if you have to constantly struggle just for the basics. Everyone should be guaranteed the basics. That’s how the class war ends.
The new census data are out, and they clearly show the continuation, if not the acceleration, of a trend that has been apparent for a few decades now: Rural America is slowly hollowing out. Although the vast majority of states saw population increases, in many cases these were quite modest. The population of my home state of Louisiana, for example, increased only 2.7% in 10 years. 22 states saw increases of less than 5%, and 3 states saw declines.
What is more significant is that the vast majority of the increases were concentrated in urban and suburban areas, with particular locations being focal points. Huge swaths of middle America are slowly losing population. 76% of the 105 counties in Kansas lost population, and almost half saw declines of more than 5%. In my home state of Louisiana, 72% of parishes lost population, and 42% lost more than 5%. Even in the Northeast, rural areas generally lost population.
Meanwhile, many cities saw increases, some quite dramatic. Florida and Texas were particularly noteworthy. Austin, Houston, the Orlando metro area, and the coastal cities of the Florida peninsula saw dramatic increases. Osceola County, just south of Orlando, increased 45%. Hays County, just south of Austin, increased 53%. Strikingly, Los Angeles County in California increased only 2%. Cuyahoga County, Ohio, containing the city of Cleveland, actually declined 2%.
A prevalent media narrative has it that Californians are abandoning the state in large numbers, while Texas is growing rapidly. But a closer look reveals that most of Texas is slowly depopulating. While the big cities in Texas grow rapidly, white rural Texas is losing population. Most rural Texas counties have seen population declines exceeding 5%. Many have declined more than 15% in just 10 years. Meanwhile, in California only 11 counties have seen population declines, and only 4 of these have exceeded 5%. These are concentrated in the northern, rural part of the state, which is overwhelmingly white.
In another 10 years, many baby boomers will be gone. The white population of America is already declining and this will accelerate. The rural/urban divide has largely become a partisan divide in America, and the increasing urbanization of the country means big trouble for Republicans. Texas is already majority non-white, and non-whites in Texas are overwhelmingly Democratic. Texas will soon gain 2 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, and there will be a huge battle over redistricting in that state. Texas will likely be the focal point of a national shift in politics over the next 20 years. It is virtually inevitable that at some point Texas will turn blue, probably by 2030. When Texas turns blue, it will be over for the Republican party nationally.
As I have said previously (here), the word history contains the word story, and history is just that. It is not a thorough recounting of past events. It is a story, a narrative that is built from conscious decisions about what to emphasize and what to exclude. It is a narrative with a purpose, which is why there are constant battles over it. What we emphasize and what we exclude shapes our understanding of how we got to where we are and where we might be headed.
A recent interview in Vox, Sean Illing asks Harvard historian Jarvis Givens about the ongoing controversy over Critical Race Theory. He says, “the complaint is that it’s not really an academic discipline or an approach to education — it’s a political ideology.” Givens points out, rightly so, that ALL history is ideological: “Any approach to framing history is going to have some political commitments baked into the narrative. The choices we make about what to highlight or omit, all of that reflects certain values and biases. It’s just that we often take these for granted when it’s the ‘preferred’ or ‘dominant’ history. In the end, I don’t see how you can completely remove politics from the work of education or the production of history. I don’t think it’s ever fully possible, and that’s something that isn’t usually acknowledged in these conversations.”
History has a PURPOSE. Givens more or less assumes that one of the most basic purposes of an educator in a democracy is to promote justice and equality. But this really gets at one of the most fundamental divides in America, between 2 very different visions of what America is and what it should be: 1) America is a culture. America looks a certain way, dresses a certain way, speaks a certain language, has a certain sexual preference, worships a certain god. To the extent that you do not conform, you do not deserve to be considered a genuine American. 2) America is not a culture. It is a set of values. The values of justice, equality, and tolerance. If you are willing to embrace these values, you deserve to be called an American. Everything else is irrelevant.
Many if not most of the ugly episodes in American history can be traced to the first of these visions. Slavery. Jim Crow. Lynchings. The genocide against Native Americans. The internment of Japanese Americans. The propping up of dictators during the Cold War. The suppression of America’s ugly past is all about cultural supremacy. This is precisely why those who want to expose the ugliness are branded “America-haters.”
Recently an article appeared on the site time.com entitled “We’ve Been Telling the Alamo Story Wrong for Nearly 200 Years. Now It’s Time to Correct the Record.” What is the “Alamo story”? That “settlers” moved into the northernmost province of Mexico, called Tejas, and faced oppression from the Mexican government. They revolted and demanded independence. The Mexican government tried to suppress the revolt. A small group of Texians and volunteers faced an overwhelming force of the Mexican army at the Alamo. They defended the fort bravely but were massacred to the last man, buying time for Sam Houston to marshall his forces and ultimately defeat the Mexican army in the Battle of San Jacinto, resulting in Texas independence.
Here is a different version. Anglo slave owners invaded a foreign country which threatened to outlaw slavery. Unwilling to give up their slaves, they instigated a rebellion. Supported by American money and volunteers, they shot Mexican soldiers who tried to collect taxes. Ignoring warnings that the Mexican army was on its way, a small group of rebels found themselves trapped at the Alamo. Most of them were killed there but a sizable number tried to flee and were hunted down. A small number surrendered but were executed. The delay was irrelevant to the subsequent victory of Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto.
Both of these are stories. They are interpretations. There are documented facts associated with the Texas Revolution, but many things will probably never been known for certain. Did Davy Crockett die fighting at the Alamo? Written testimony from some of the Mexican soldiers tells us that he surrendered and was subsequently executed. This of course has been vehemently contested. Like so much historical “documentation,” it is subject to challenges about its authenticity and accuracy. Did the siege at the Alamo actually buy time for Sam Houston to raise an army? That is very much a matter of interpretation. After the attack on the Alamo, Sam Houston steadily retreated from the Mexican army’s advance and seemed to be losing the fight. The new Texas government now considered him a coward and was forced off the mainland with no way to communicate with him. At San Jacinto the tables were suddenly and unexpectedly turned. The Mexican army made a terrible blunder and were completely taken by surprise. Sam Houston’s men massacred them mercilessly.
It could be argued that a slightly different scenario would have produced a very different result. The revolutionaries might well have failed. On the other hand, only 10 years later America was at war with Mexico over the disputed southern boundary of Texas. So it could be argued that Texas would have become part of America within fairly short order regardless of the events at the Alamo and San Jacinto. The particular historical facts are not mainly the point. There are 2 very different stories America tells itself about Texas. One is that America’s westward expansion was the bringing of civilization and freedom to an untamed wilderness. The other is that white Americans, often supported by slavery, shamelessly invaded other countries and Native American lands, driving their residents nearly to extinction.
What is “the truth”? Well, history cannot be extricated from ideology. If you see America as a culture, you are going to justify westward expansion as a greater good. If you see America as a set of ideals, you will see the subjugation of African Americans, the genocide perpetrated against Native Americans, and the shameless invasion of other countries as ugly reminders that the country has never lived out the true meaning of its creed. The bottom line is that history is not merely the recitation of facts. Yes, facts are important, and any attempt to cover them up should be fiercely resisted. But we should never try to delude ourselves that history is an exercise in objectivity.
America is full of contradictions. On the one hand it is built on notions of freedom and equality, yet its beginnings feature enslavement and exclusion. On the one hand it is a nation of immigrants, yet it often treats immigrants harshly. On the one hand it tries to spread democracy across the world, yet it often cozies up to brutal dictators. Some observers seem to think these contradictions are quaint and charming – although these observers are generally people in positions of profound privilege, who don’t have to worry much about how these contradictions impact their own lives.
One of the most obvious contradictions has to do with personal responsibility. On the one hand, Americans have this strong belief that individuals are in control of their own thoughts and behavior. UNLESS they can slap a label on them, like autistic, mentally disabled, senile, psychotic, the list goes on. In these cases the mindset totally changes, and there is wide acceptance that undesired behavior should be excused, that the person is incapable of control to a significant degree. Naturally, this approach assumes that only a small fraction of the population will “deserve” a label and thus get a dispensation.
The problem, of course, is that labels often impose typologies on phenomena that follow a continuum. Psychologists have long recognized this. Autism is not an all or nothing, which is why it is actually called autism spectrum – a continuous spectrum of disability. It is the same with psychoses like schizophrenia, and of course, intellectual skill. Psychologists now recognize numerous disorders which exist along continuous spectra – narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, bipolar disorder, seasonal affective disorder, melancholic depression, the list goes on and on. Whether a given person suffers from one or more of these disorders is a matter of degree. Ultimately they are based on one’s ability to integrate into the broader society, and this is always a matter of degree, not to mention a function of society’s expectations.
While psychologists are aware of all this, the average American strongly believes in the power of free will for most, and with it, the importance of personal responsibility. The human will is indeed capable of great power. But a moment’s consideration reveals that so-called “free” will is far from limitless. Human beings are not blank slates. We are all products of our genes and our experiences. All of us suffer from addictions, obsessions, delusions, and neuroses. None of us can completely control our thoughts, our emotions, or our actions. Yet I can almost hear the collective retort. “Sure I can! I have control!” Really? Try not thinking about a pink elephant for the next 10 seconds. Or watching something really funny without laughing. Or beating a grand master at chess. If you have free will, then you should be able to will yourself to understand quantum mechanics as well as Niels Bohr, or relativity as well as Einstein. You should be able to think whatever thought you want to and feel whatever emotion you want to, whenever you want. Pleasure, misery, ecstasy, rage, it should all be under your control. The things that really, really annoy you? Why, you should just be able to turn those emotions off. Who wants to feel annoyed? You should be able to suppress those emotions as you choose.
The whole concept of free will was ludicrous from the start. Much of what we do is the product of subconscious motivations we aren’t even aware of. Neurological research clearly shows us that a large portion of decision making is subconscious, even when we are convinced that it isn’t. Freud himself used the analogy of an iceberg to describe the mind – the conscious mind being only the tip of the iceberg. We are easily manipulated to feel this or that emotion, to make this or that decision. It could be argued that the promotion of the idea of free will is itself a form of manipulation – it encourages the manipulated to believe that they are in complete control at all times. In the wonderful series The Mentalist, FBI consultant Patrick Jane explains, “The key to a good con is always making the mark feel that he is in control.”
Experiments have even shown that we can be fooled into thinking we made a decision we didn’t make, and will then try to rationalize it. In 2005, 4 psychologists published a paper describing experiments in which they presented subjects with photos of 2 faces, and asked them to choose the more attractive one. They then used sleight-of-hand to give the subjects the photo they DIDN’T choose, and asked them why they chose it. Only 13% of the subjects realized that this wasn’t the photo they chose. The other 87% proceeded to give reasons why they made a choice they didn’t make in the first place.
4 out of 10 American males have been arrested at least once by the time they’re 23. This doesn’t exactly encourage me to believe that an inability to cope is limited to only a small fraction of the population. Large numbers of Americans, particularly young American males, at one time or another seem to fall outside of our society’s requirements of personal responsibility.
And what constitutes “disability,” anyway? What constitutes pathology? Kevin Dutton is a British psychologist who specializes in psychopaths. In 2011 he published his Great British Psychopath Survey, which examined the frequency of psychopathy in different occupations. His top 10 list, in decreasing order of psychopath prevalence, is as follows:
Needless to say, most of these are positions of considerable authority. So is psychopathy a disability, or is it a virtue? Psychopathy is characterized by limited empathy, poor impulse control, and propensity for violence. Studies of domestic abusers have estimated that 15-30% are psychopaths. Yet some traits of the psychopath often seem to be rewarded in a workplace context, especially in positions of leadership. Dutton himself was asked by Scientific American in 2016 to rate some prominent leaders, including some infamous ones, on psychopathy. Not too surprisingly, Saddam Hussein received a very high score (189), and Adolph Hitler as well (169). George Washington rated much lower (132) and Abraham Lincoln lower still (123). Bernie Sanders rated a bit lower than Washington (129), while Hillary Clinton rated considerably higher (152). And Donald Trump? A little above Hitler at 171.
How can a pathology be an advantage? The apparent contradiction is resolved by realizing that the ability to manipulate and the ability to empathize are 2 entirely different things. Psychology does not give you points for your ability to manipulate nor dominate. Psychology considers a manipulative, domineering, unfeeling person to be unhealthy, regardless of how “successful” he is. There is always a fine line between white collar “success” and white collar criminality, as our previous moron-in-chief may soon painfully discover.
The argument could be made that a society, any society, can no more tolerate a lot of “successful” psychopaths than it can a lot of criminal psychopaths. Psychopathic authorities are only tolerated because they are few in number. In this sense such people aren’t really coping, because they don’t “fit in” to the larger society. Admittedly they are more integrated into society than criminals are, but feigning sincerity and having genuine sincerity are not the same. People in positions of authority are often described as being of good character. Many of them are. But we tend to equate “success” with a high sense of personal responsibility, rather than merely an ability to play the social game, particularly in a system devoted to competition. What we call “success” in some contexts actually flows from an INABILITY to feel certain emotions. This may lead you to antisocial behavior – or it may lead you to a position of great authority.
As always, the issue of “coping” is very much a function of how the particular society is organized. Behavior that was considered quite normal and desirable among participants in the People’s Crusade of 1096, namely mass murder, would quickly land you in jail in that very same part of the world today. Not so very long ago, lynchings were popular local gatherings, even the subject of postcards, in America. It must be difficult for psychopaths to understand why lying through your teeth will often get you to some of the most powerful positions on earth, while selling someone a worthless “cure” is criminalized as fraud. Behavior that is tolerated, even encouraged, among the “successful” in America today may find itself quite marginalized and even criminalized in the future.
It should not be surprising that our economic system encourages psychopaths to believe they can be “successful.” Many of them are. But they are always walking a fine line. Playing the game without feeling the emotions is tricky. Human beings are pretty good at spotting insincerity, and it is far too easy to make the leap from friendly competition to pathological competitiveness.
The argument could be made that a charming, manipulative, ruthless, domineering psychopath can create tremendous group cohesion, and that group cohesion has been the key to group success throughout most of human history (and likely prehistory as well). In any case, it is quite obvious that personal responsibility has very little to do with “success” in today’s America. Determination yes. Ruthlessness certainly. Honesty, integrity, sincerity, empathy, fairness, tolerance – the things that we associate with personal responsibility, and teach our children – not so much.
Does this mean that we should throw personal responsibility out the window? No, I don’t think so. It merely means that we have to have a more realistic, less caricatured view of human beings, one that accepts that we are not blank slates, nor are we in total control of ourselves. We should realize that “coping” is always a matter of degree, and that the ability to play the social game does not tell us much about a person’s character. We should realize that none of us, not a single one of us, is in total control of ourselves. The false dichotomy that separates “good guys” from “bad guys” is not grounded in reality. We should realize that we have been heavily propagandized for generations to encourage us to have one standard of personal responsibility for the impoverished and another for the “successful,” no matter how unprincipled they are.
In the field of addiction it seems that we are finally beginning to come to grips with this as a society. When addiction interferes with coping, it must be treated. But “coping,” in the sense of skill at playing the societal game, is not character. If winning is everything, human beings get hurt. As I have said before, capitalism has proven itself as a driver of human happiness. But not unbridled capitalism. Uncontrolled capitalism discourages empathy and tends to keep us atomized from each other. The notion that the almighty free market will somehow magically produce a greater good is nothing more than superstition.
In a previous post (here), I discussed the disconnect between Americans’ perception of trends in crime and the reality of same. Crime has decreased substantially since the early 1990’s, both property crime and violent crime. In recent years there has been a very modest increase in violent crime nationally, nothing approaching the levels seen 30 years ago.
There has been a rather sharp increase in murders in the last few years, fueled by an increase in certain cities, particularly Chicago. But again, nationally the levels are far below those of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.
Why was there some much crime in America 30 years ago, compared to today? One factor that has been suggested is simply this. There were far more young people, as a percentage of the population, than today. Here is America’s age pyramid in 1990:
Notice the large number of Americans between the ages of 15 and 40. At this time, 20% of the population was in this age range. By contrast, only 13% of the population was over the age of 50. Now compare this to today:
Today, only 17% of the population is between the ages of 15 and 40, while 18% is over the age of 50. And the fact is, crime rates among Americans aged 15-40 are much higher than those for older Americans. Interestingly, as the American population has aged, the peak age for crime rates has shifted somewhat. In 1980, violent crime rates peaked at about 17 years of age. Today the peak rate is between the ages of 20 and 30. Nevertheless, crime remains concentrated in youth.
But it isn’t just youth that exhibits a high crime rate, and especially a violent crime rate. It is specifically male youth. Males account for more than 73% of those arrested in America, and 80% of those arrested for violent crimes. 90% of those arrested for homicide are male. 99% of those arrested for rape. 83% of those arrested for arson. For less violent offenses, males still predominate, but far less so. 60% of those arrested for fraud are male. 51% of those arrested for embezzlement are male. Incredibly, by the age of 23, more than 4 out of 10 American males have been arrested for SOMETHING. About 58% of the men in America’s state prisons have been convicted of violent crimes. By contrast, about 62% of the women in these prisons have been convicted of non-violent crimes.
It isn’t just in the realm of crime that young males turn up more frequently. We have long known that they have a much greater propensity for risky behavior than other demographic groups. In practically all cultures, young males show these tendencies. Furthermore, risk taking is much more likely to occur when young males are in groups. It is also more likely in the presence of an attractive female. This is almost a cliche but it happens to be true. Interestingly, young males in stable romantic relationships tend to be more cautious than unattached young males. But even these “attached” young males tend to engage in risky behavior in the presence of an attractive female.
Young males exhibit higher levels of aggression than those in other demographic groups. This is particularly true of single males, and again, among groups of single males. Alcohol consumption is higher in men than women. A 2018 study of 8 countries found this to be true in every one of them. Higher-risk drinking is more prevalent in young men, and younger men tend to consume more alcohol than older men. Men are more likely than women to use almost all types of illicit drugs, and this usually begins at a young age. Even in more mundane areas of life, young males tend to take more risks. In gambling, finance, sports, travel, young males are more prone to risky behavior than other demographic groups.
Even when attempting to end their own lives, men tend to use more violent methods than women. 4 out of 10 American men own at least 1 firearm, compared to only 22% of American women. A firearm is by far the preferred method of suicide in American men. 56% of male suicides are by firearm. Only 8% are by poisoning. By contrast, only 32% of female suicides are by firearm. Poisoning accounts for 29% of suicides in women. The differences in preferred method explain why the suicide rate in men is much higher than that in women. Women actually attempt suicide more often than men, but since men tend to use much more lethal methods, their rate of suicide completion is higher. It should be noted that the suicide rate in men rises dramatically with age. Clearly, it isn’t that young males are more prone to straightforward self-destruction than older males, or for that matter, females. They don’t INTEND, as a rule, to cripple themselves or die in flaming cars. They do, however, tend to engage in behavior that puts them at risk.
Naturally, psychologists have a name for the tendency of young males to engage in risky behavior and aggression: Young Male Syndrome. Remarkably, there is no Wikipedia page devoted to this. Risk-taking is something that is very familiar to me. At the age of 15 I caught my first venomous snake, with no tools. In my youth it was not unusual for me to simply take off on my own on a trip over hundreds of miles, in unfamiliar territory, without telling a soul. No one knew even what state I was in or far how long I would be gone.. I often trespassed on private land and journeyed in remote areas. For 12 years I worked in the reptile department of a major zoo, dealing with rattlesnakes, cobras, Komodo dragons, and crocodiles. I once made a trip to Veracruz, Mexico, all alone, when I spoke hardly any Spanish and knew virtually nothing about the area. I have done storm chasing on a number of occasions. I have worked completely alone from dawn to dusk in remote swamps surrounded by cottonmouths and feral hogs. I could cite other examples. Most of these activities were done when I was considerably younger. I am much more cautious now, not least because I am married.
Young males are more prone to mental illness and self-inflicted injury than other demographic groups. Obviously, risk-taking and aggression are often self-destructive. Why, then, do young males have these tendencies? Evolutionary biologists have their answer, and it seems hard to deny – risk-taking for young males is a “winning” strategy, even though it is harmful to many of them. It has been selected for over evolutionary time because the rewards of successful risk-taking outweigh the risk. Natural selection does not care whether most individuals are harmed or helped. It does not even care whether the most “successful” individual is harmed, in the modern sense of the word. It only “sees” the RELATIVE DIFFERENCE in fitness between individuals.
Human beings are social beings. Everything we do must be understood in that context. A woman cannot increase the number of her offspring by mating with more than one man. A man, by contrast, can greatly increase the number of his offspring by mating with multiple women. Ismail Ibn Sharif, the Sultan of Morocco 300 years ago, fathered at least 800 children. In various cultures at various times it has been considered perfectly acceptable for a man to have mistresses, harems, “second wives,” or simply multiple wives. Even today, polygyny is perfectly legal in most African and Middle Eastern countries, and is widely practiced. And throughout the world, wealthy, powerful men often expect to have multiple female sex partners. Throughout the existence of the human species, there has been selection for male behavior that tends to increase the number of surviving offspring, even if it increases the likelihood of death. This is especially true for young males, since most of their reproductive years are ahead of them.
The most extreme examples of this kind of phenomenon occur in species (elephant seals for example) in which the females are crowded together at breeding time. A single male can control access to many females. As a result, competition between males is usually intense. Males are often much bigger and stronger than females, and engage in combat with other males, which is sometimes fatal. Even if they survive the combat, males are often badly injured. Natural selection doesn’t care that this behavior is “bad” for them. It only sees who produces the most surviving offspring, and will relentlessly favor behavior that produces that result. Human beings are a less extreme example of this, since it is much harder for a single male to control access to a large number of females. But natural selection only sees who produces the most surviving offspring, and will favor those who do.
Cooperation, of course, can result in every single male in the group doing “better” by modern standards – being healthier, avoiding injury, having less stress, living longer. But merely encouraging cooperation without active measures to counter inherent tendencies is clearly not enough. It is now well established that young males are more prone to actions that harm their health and put them at risk of death. Given this, why don’t we take measures to counter their self-destructive propensities? Over time, I think we will, more and more. But we still live in a barbaric age, when those in power cling to outdated notions of how societies operate. Powerful people still believe that might makes right. In America we often give risky behavior and aggression a pass. “Boys will be boys.”
As I have said before, America is a young country, with a recent frontier. This has everything to do with our approach to society and especially competition. We still have a high tolerance for cheating, aggression, sexism, racism, and a lot of other -isms. We cling to the notion that what has made America great is aggressive, even pathological competition between a few powerful white men. But this is changing and will continue to do so.
In the American electorate as a whole, there are approximately 1.2 Democrats for every Republican. Large numbers of voters are Independents (about 40%). There are significant differences related to gender and ethnicity. 39% of women, but only 26% of men, are Democrats. The ratio of Democrats to Republicans among American women is about 1.4:1. 70% of African-Americans and 47% of Hispanic Americans are Democrats, but only 26% of white Americans. The Democrat:Republican ratio among African-Americans is about 23:1.
Among those with at least a Bachelor’s degree, the ratio of Democrats to Republicans is 1.33:1. As college graduates have become more diverse, they have shifted toward the Democratic party. Not very long ago, Republicans outnumbered Democrats among college graduates. In 1994, there were 54 Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents for every 38 Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents among college graduates. Today that ratio is almost exactly reversed. There are 54 Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents for every 42 Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents.
What is even more striking, however, is the partisan makeup of university professors. In a study published last year, 12,372 college professors were sampled. The Democrat:Republican ratio was found to be 8.5:1. Among biologists the ratio was found to be 9.4:1. Among anthropologists an incredible 42.2:1. Even among economists the ratio was 3.0:1. Not a single field was found to have a preponderance of Republicans, or even anything close to that.
Among male professors, the ratio was 6.4:1. 6 Democrats to every 1 Republican! Keep in mind that among men in America generally, there is a slight Republican advantage (about 1.2:1). Among female professors, the Democrat:Republican ratio is 16.4:1. As I have noted above for American women generally, the ratio is only about 1.4:1.
For highly ranked schools, the ratios are even more extreme. At Princeton, for example (ranked number 1), the ratio is 40:1. At Yale (ranked number 4), 31.3:1. At Harvard (ranked number 2), 88:1. At the highly influential Georgetown University in the nation’s capital, not one of the 75 professors surveyed was a Republican! The most extreme ratios tend to be in the Northeast, but even in the South, Democratic professors tend to greatly outnumber Republicans. At the University of Florida, the ratio is 10.7:1. At LSU, 8.7:1. At the University of North Carolina, 48:1. There is a unmistakable relationship between the ranking of schools and the prevalence of Democrats amongst their faculty. Ever heard of Augustana College? Me neither. It’s ranked number 96. Its ratio is 3.2:1. The prevalence of Democrats among highly-ranked schools is even higher than that among historically black schools, with predominantly African-American faculties. The faculty of Howard University, for example, is 57% African-American. Yet the ratio of Democrats to Republicans is only 29.5:1, less than that of Harvard, Princeton, or Yale. 68% of the faculty of Harvard is white. Nationally, well over 70% of college faculty are white. Why is it that college professors lean so strongly Democratic?
The truth is that this is not a recent phenomenon. Since the Second World War, there has been a preponderance of liberal-leaners among college faculty. It is no accident that the countercultural movements of the 1960’s largely originated at universities. Prior to 1960, college was a destination for only a few privileged intellectuals. In 1960, only 7.7% of Americans 25 years and older had a least 4 years of college. A study published in 1958 argued that the academic mind is by nature critical and probing, a fact that leads professors to be suspicious of calls to preserve the current social order at all cost. A later study, published in 1976, argued that criticism is the natural posture of the intellectual. An attachment to tradition for its own sake is simply not compatible with this.
The baby boomer generation was the first to go to college in large numbers. By 1980, the percentage of Americans 25 years and older with at least 4 years of college had risen to 17%. By 2000 that number had risen to 26%. Today it stands at about 35%. College students and faculty have become much more diverse. Whereas white males constituted about 52% of all college students in 1970, today that number is only about 24%. A college student inevitably comes into contact with people of varying backgrounds and perspectives. This in itself is often enough to kill parochialism. American grade schools are hardly places where academic freedom reigns. They primarily engage in socialization and avoid controversy. Academic freedom is constantly under attack, often successfully, from conservative parents and organizations. Since college is not compulsory, colleges are largely shielded from such attacks.
The argument has been made that intellectualism does not necessarily lead to liberalism. After all, many high-ranking Nazis were intellectuals. Some very conservative Americans are intellectuals. This is true as far as it goes. Human beings have an almost infinite capacity to rationalize. Ideology can blind you to inescapable realities. Yet the trajectory of history is unmistakable. Many universities, particularly the older ones, started their lives as religious institutions. College professors were expected to defend orthodox views on religious and political matters. In the late 19th century, the demand for research changed that. A rapid process of secularization began. Professors were increasingly expected to advance the pursuit of knowledge rather than spout religious doctrine. Clashes between these academics and those who controlled the purse strings lead to a mobilization in the early 20th century to demand academic freedom. The result of all of this has been increasing liberalization in the academic world, just as it has happened in America as a whole. There is greater religious tolerance, less racism, less sexism.
The thing is, getting things done in the real world requires an unflinching commitment to reality. And contrary to popular perception, high-powered universities are quite involved in solutions to real world problems. Real science and real engineering come out of them. The advanced technologies that most Americans take for granted come from them. The unwillingness of such institutions to tolerate ideology-based rationalization is exactly why a number of “think tanks” sprung into existence in the 1970’s, such as the Heritage Foundation, created by Paul Weyrich and Joseph Coors. These largely replaced thoughtful, non-partisan research (such as that conducted by much older organizations like the Brookings Institution) with thinly veiled ideological advocacy, and actively pursued connections to mass media. These think tanks are often well-funded and highly influential in American politics.
The contrast between the political positions of college professors and those of the average American is striking. In a study of 1417 American professors, at 927 institutions, published in 2007, 69% of college professors reported that homosexuality was “not wrong at all.” Only 17% considered it to be “always wrong.” In a 2021 Gallup poll, 30% of Americans reported that they considered homosexuality to be morally wrong. 18% said it should be illegal! 75% of professors agreed that it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain an abortion for any reason. In a Gallup poll in 2021, only 32% of Americans reported that abortion should be legal in all cases. 56% of professors strongly disagreed with this statement: “It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.” Another 31% disagreed but not strongly. Only 4% strongly agreed. In a Pew poll in 2012, 51% of Americans reported their belief that children are better off with their mother at home.
Of course, it is quite possible to conduct real science and real engineering without having any opinion on abortion, homosexuality, or gender roles. In fact the Democrat:Republican ratio among chemistry professors is relatively low (4.5:1). But the problem is that an unflinching commitment to be guided by evidence and reason is fundamentally incompatible with what American conservatism demands. It demands an attachment to tradition for its own sake. The Heritage Foundation does much more than advocate for the free market and low taxes. It sees itself as defending traditional Christian values in public spaces, and this inevitably translates into positions on abortion, homosexuality, and gender roles. American conservatism is much more about culture than ideas per se.
Recently, economist Paul Krugman authored a NY Times editorial entitled “Only the Incompetent Need Apply.” He points out that self-promoting “experts” with half-baked ideas and bad predictions often achieve positions of authority in conservative think tanks and media outlets. A case in point is Stephen Moore, who has only a Master’s degree in economics. Wikipedia does not even describe him as an economist, but rather a “writer,” and a “television commentator.” He has never published a peer-reviewed paper in economics. He is a climate change denier and has advocated for getting rid of prohibitions on child labor. In 2018 he stated that the 2017 tax cuts were paying for themselves in government revenue, when in fact tax receipts were down 31%. Despite all of this, he is CHIEF economist (!) at the Heritage Foundation, and has written many columns for the Wall Street Journal and National Review.
Krugman, who has a Ph.D. in economics from M.I.T. and won a Nobel Prize in 2008, points out that this kind of incompetence is rampant among conservative “experts,” and that conservative ideology by its nature excludes unflinching commitment to evidence and reason. “Accepting evidence and logic is a sort of universal value, and you can’t take it away in one area of inquiry without degrading it across the board,” he writes. I think he’s right, and this explains why Republicans become increasingly rare on the faculties of the highest-ranked universities. Conservatives insist that tax cuts promote long-term economic growth. But the evidence is clear that this isn’t so. Conservatives insist that higher taxes and higher government spending inhibit economic growth. But the Heritage Foundation’s OWN DATA tell us that countries with greater prosperity tend to have higher taxes and higher government spending. Conservatives insist that climate change can’t be happening. But the scientific consensus is overwhelming. When you deny unmistakable evidence, you shouldn’t be surprised that you have a hard time getting a position at Harvard or Yale.
Even in the field of finance, where we would surely expect some economic conservatives at least, the faculties at colleges are dominated by Democrats. A recent study of 25 highly-ranked schools found an average Democrat:Republican ratio in finance of 4.62:1. At Harvard (ranked second in finance) the ratio was 10:1. At the University of Chicago (ranked third in finance), supposedly a bastion of conservative financial thought, the ratio was 9:1. What’s more, there are strong indications that the future will be even less hospitable to Republicans. Among faculty older than 65 years, the Democrat:Republican ratio was 3.1:1. As you move down the age brackets, the proportion of Republicans declines. For faculty aged 35 to 45, the ratio was 6.5:1. And for faculty 35 years old or less? Of 120 professors, not a single Republican was found. In finance!
America is becoming increasingly diverse and increasingly educated. The white population is expected to start declining within 3 years, and that decline will accelerate over the next 20 years as the baby boomers die out. Men will die out faster than women. Women, who tend to be considerably more liberal than men, have greatly increased their presence in the halls of power and will continue to do so. And higher education is increasingly devoid of conservatives. The Republican party seems to be relying on voter suppression to sustain itself. It won’t work.
American history consists of long periods of relative stability punctuated by troubled times of rapid transition. Slavery was the serpent sleeping under the table in the country’s early years, eventually springing to life in the American Civil War. Unbridled capitalism ran rampant for decades, until the Great Depression brought it to its knees, ushering in the New Deal. After decades of rising inequality in the shadow of Ronald Reagan, America is now facing another great transition.
Just recently, an article was posted by political scientist Lee Drutman on the web site FiveThirtyEight entitled “Why the Two-Party System is Wrecking American Democracy.” Pretty strong words, and of course hyperbole is no stranger to our media system. Still, on the same day, Thomas Edsall authored an editorial in the NY Times entitled “Trumpism Without Borders.” Both of these articles paint a rather grim picture of political trends, and not just in America. Edsall quotes a number of sociologists, economists, and political scientists, who share a view of democracy slipping away. Are things really that bad?
Every year, the non-profit organization Freedom House publishes a report on the state of democracy worldwide, called Freedom in the World. During the late 20th century, democracy gained considerable ground. In 1975, Freedom House rated 41% of the countries of the world as “not free.” By 2000 that number had dropped to only 25%. But since then it has not dropped further. In fact it has risen slowly since 2013 and now stands at 28%.
The Freedom in the World 2016 report was entitled “Anxious Dictators, Wavering Democracies: Global Freedom Under Pressure.” The 2017 report was called “Populists and Autocrats: The Dual Threat to Global Democracy.” The 2018 report was entitled “Democracy in Crisis.” 2019? “Democracy in Retreat.” 2020? “A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy.” 2021? “Democracy Under Siege.” Not encouraging.
The Economist Intelligence Unit also issues an annual report on the state of democracy worldwide, and produces a Democracy Index. Since 2005 this index has dropped rather steadily. A number of countries, including America, have lost their status as “full democracies,” and are now considered “flawed democracies.” America now ranks 25th in the world on the Democracy Index. Every region of the world except Asia/Australasia has seen its Democracy Index drop.
These trends are alarming, but a 3% rise in the number of “not free” countries over 20 years, compared to a 15% drop over the previous 25, is not the end of democracy. The real question is why democracy is in retreat after such dramatic gains in the 20th century. Edsall points to a pervasive sense of loss within a certain segment of the population, which has been exploited by populists eager to point to other segments of the population as gaining from this loss. While big tech companies have become increasingly globalized, resource extraction and manufacturing have become increasingly automated. In Europe and America, white grievance has become a major political force. This is particularly strong in America, and has produced a Republican party that is quite sympathetic to white minority rule. America’s electoral system is quite conducive to this, and Republicans are now attempting to go full force with Democratic voter suppression.
How close did America come to losing its democracy last year? Well, there were challenges to the outcome of elections all over the place. But the courts rejected them and election officials, most of them Republican, refused to bend to political pressure. The U.S. Senate refused to overturn the results of the election, and when an insurrection was attempted, the police and the National Guard supported the Constitution. Large social media companies finally stepped in to cut off the bullhorns of those spreading lies about the election. All of this would seem to point to the resilience of American democracy. But the problem is that large numbers of grassroots Republicans still refuse to accept the results of the election, and Republican legislators are working to subvert election officials the next time around.
Are we heading toward another civil war? Edsall quotes George Mason University professor Jack Goldstone: “If Biden fails, God help us, we are headed back to the world of the 1930s, with steep political polarization, ethnic hatreds and cleansings, powerful anti-immigration sentiments and spreading fascism.” I don’t think we’re going to slide into civil war, but I do think things will get worse before they get better. Republican voter suppression laws are going to be challenged in the courts. They will almost certainly stimulate a grass roots backlash which will result in greater voter participation. When the situation gets bad enough, some Republicans will very likely switch parties. And every year, the number of white, rural, conservative Americans declines. The state of Georgia is already turning blue. When Texas turns blue, it will be the end of the road for the national Republican party.
There is a world of difference between a shrewd politician and a conspiracy theorist. Those who seek to discredit election results have consistently been marginalized and ridiculed. The absurd Arizona “audit” is a case in point. America will not fall back into a Jim Crow-style minority rule scenario. What will happen is that partisan polarization will continue and the Republican party will try to challenge election results that don’t go its way. If it actually succeeds in overturning a national election there will be a fierce backlash from the media and establishment politicians. There will be likely be a peeling away of moderate Republicans from the party. We have already seen this on a very modest scale. The Republican party as an antidemocratic force will lose power one way or the other – either because it accepts the results of elections that will have increasingly blue results, or because it becomes a marginalized party of fringe conspiracy theorists and white nationalists.
In my opinion, a course in philosophy should be required in high school, and in college, regardless of major. Philosophy has been criticized as a lot of unfalsifiable, impractical self-indulgence. I couldn’t disagree more. Philosophy is very practical. Human beings require meaning in their lives. Without it we fall into self-destructive nihilism. Philosophy provides meaning without resorting to appeals to authority. Philosophy takes a lot of vague ideas about profound mysteries and provides us with tremendous clarity. It sharpens our focus and challenges our preconceptions. For example, most people have seen at least one of The Matrix series of movies, which introduced many to the philosophical concept of a brain in a vat. The basic idea is that if your brain were disembodied, sitting in a vat somewhere, with its inputs and outputs connected to the proper electrical signals, you would experience exactly what you are experiencing right now. There is absolutely no way to tell the difference.
Philosophers have spent a lot of time pondering the mystery of consciousness, and to a great extent it remains a mystery. Even defining it is tricky. On the one hand there is panpsychism, the notion that every piece of matter has some degree of consciousness. At the other extreme are philosophers like John Searle, who assert that only an organic brain is capable of generating consciousness. And then there is the zombie issue.
A philosophical zombie is an entity that behaves exactly the way a conscious being behaves. But it lacks consciousness. The argument has been made that since we can conceive of such an entity, this in itself means that it is possible in principle. But of course many philosophers suggest that this is a flawed argument. The brilliant philosopher David Chalmers agrees that zombies are logically possible. But he rejects the idea that they are possible in our universe. Because something doesn’t raise any contradictions does not mean it can actually exist in our reality. The concept of infinite speed doesn’t raise any logical contradictions. (And in fact, in a sense there IS no cosmic speed limit – see here). But this does not change the fact that no human being (or any object) can travel faster than light.
The zombie thought experiment really revolves around the debate over physicalism. Physicalism asserts that nothing non-physical exists. Therefore consciousness, which clearly exists, must be physical. But Chalmers, among others, argues that when we remove the functional aspects of consciousness, we are still left with something – experience. Explaining consciousness in terms of function is what he calls the easy problem. Function can indeed be accounted for in physical terms. The hard problem is accounting for personal experience. A zombie is an entity that does everything a conscious being does, but does not have experiences. The subjective character of experience, in this view, cannot be accounted for by physicalism, which requires that everything be objectively real.
It might seem obvious that there is a difference between the subjective and the objective. Objective reality, by definition, is something independent of the observer. But it is not at all obvious that thoughts, feelings, and experiences are not part of physical reality. The argument is made that these are merely higher-level ways of describing processes that are clearly physical. For example, take a chess-playing computer program. Hardly any thinking person believes that what it does cannot be described in physical terms. At one level, it is a matter of electrons moving through circuits. But it can also be described at a much higher level, in term of chess strategy – openings, sacrifices, and so on. Perhaps what we call subjective experience is just another way of describing physical processes – electrical impulses passing through the nervous system, neurotransmitters jumping across synapses, and so on.
Many philosophers reject the whole zombie idea. If you behave as if you can think, you are thinking. If you behave as if you are having experiences, you’re having them. There’s no such thing as simulated thinking. There’s no such thing as simulating having experiences. And all of it can be described in physical terms at some level. Keep in mind that a philosophical zombie version of Chalmers would behave EXACTLY as he does. It would laugh, cry, describe its dreams, and insist that it has experiences. It would carry on debates about philosophical zombies and the hard problem of consciousness. But it would be lying, to itself at least. It would just be simulating having experiences.
The issue arises all of the time in the field of artificial intelligence. Can a machine think? Can a machine have genuine emotions? Can a machine have experiences? There are those who insist that there is something about human consciousness that machines can never match. That the best they can do is give the APPEARANCE that they are matching it.
More than 70 years ago, computer scientist Alan Turing suggested a simple test to determine whether a machine is thinking. Have it answer questions. If a human being cannot distinguish between the machine and thinking human being, based solely on the answers, the machine is thinking. Obviously, the Turing Test is built on the belief that thinking cannot be simulated. That you can judge whether something, or someone, is thinking by their behavior. You don’t have to cut them open and see what they’re made of. It doesn’t matter what they’re made of. You can’t fake thinking.
There are other philosophers who insist that philosophical zombies are possible in our universe. That it is possible for a machine to give the appearance of thinking and having experiences, without actually thinking or having experiences. As a biologist, I’m surprised that a consideration of the characteristics and abilities of animals does not appear more often in these discussions. Is personal experience such a special thing? Can something have experiences without the ability to abstract?
Experiences, it seems to me, are, are intimately connected to the phenomenon of attention. Every moment we are awake, our senses are bombarded with lots of stimuli. Most of it does not get our attention. We are not CONSCIOUS of it. A lot of the reasoning performed by human beings is subconscious. In the process of solving a problem, many things just “come to us.” Often our brains are hard at work analyzing problems around us while our attention is elsewhere. There is the phenomenon of procedural memory; most of us have entered password or passcode while our attention was elsewhere. Our fingers “know” what buttons to push. Right now I am using procedural memory to type these words. Of course it isn’t our fingers that know, it’s our brains, but the information is being retrieved and utilized subconsciously.
And then there are dreams. Most of us dream, most of the time, without realizing we are dreaming. We are having “experiences,” but a big part of us is “not really there.” I am often struck by the fact that VERY unusual things happen in my dreams, yet it rarely seems to occur to me that I’m dreaming. It’s as if some part of my awareness has been turned off, and things that would never happen in my waking life are accepted as somehow normal. I’m not understanding the context. Yet the fact that I can usually remember at least some of my dreams demonstrates that I had some degree of awareness of what was happening. On the other hand, there is the phenomenon of lucid dreaming – dreaming with full awareness that one is dreaming. This has happened to me numerous times, and it’s as if a switch in my head suddenly turns on. Even in our waking lives, we sometimes daydream. If someone is talking to us and we are not paying attention, they might say, “You’re not really here.” It’s an interesting phrase, which acknowledges that a big part of who we are, or at least who we think we are, is our awareness, our attention.
If so much of what we do can be done at a subconscious level, doesn’t this argue that philosophical zombies are possible? Aren’t all of us “partial” zombies, limiting our conscious attention to specific things, while our subconscious minds are constantly taking in much more, analyzing problems, and even guiding some of our actions?
Many animals clearly show evidence of attention. Just watch the behavior of a mantid when a cricket walks nearby. It’s hard to believe that the insect isn’t having experiences. But is it conscious? My answer is yes and no. First of all, consciousness is not an all or nothing. It’s a matter of degree. Second, what we think of a consciousness really should be broken down into separate mental abilities – behavioral flexibility, personal experience, the ability to abstract. Perhaps the mantid is having an experience something like that we have in our dreams – giving its attention to stimuli, and responding to them, but not really understanding the context. The mantid doesn’t abstract. It doesn’t understand things like, “I am a predatory insect. The animal before me is also an insect. Insects include beetles, flies, and butterflies, among others. A caterpillar is an immature moth or butterfly. A spider is not an insect.” It doesn’t understand things like, “I am on the leaf of a tree, on the North American continent, on the planet earth, in a spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy.” All of these things are about context, categories, relationships.
A human infant is probably much the same. It has experiences. It responds to stimuli. It can focus its attention on particular things. But its ability to abstract is quite limited. It doesn’t understand the big picture. It doesn’t understand very many categories or relationships. All of this comes about gradually, over time. The basic building blocks of consciousness are there, even in an earthworm. It responds to stimuli. It has rudimentary experiences. But its has very limited flexibility. It cannot abstract. A crocodile is more flexible. A gorilla more still. A gorilla has the ability to abstract in a limited way, much as a newborn human. The necessary basic elements are the ability to store and process information, and some kind of sensory system to acquire information about the environment. As these become more sophisticated, experiences become richer, and flexibility increases. Eventually a point is reached where the organism is able to abstract. The organism creates a mental model of itself. All of these are different abilities – mental flexibility, experiences, the ability to abstract. But they arise from the basic structure – the ability to acquire, store, and process information.
There is one realm of human activity that does seem to give considerable credence to the idea of philosophical zombies. Acting. Actors can give responses and display emotions that do not reflect their internal thoughts and emotions. It is a simulation. Related to this is the phenomenon of the psychopath. Psychopaths do not seem to feel certain emotions that most of us feel, most notably empathy. But they are able to give the appearance of feeling these emotions, at least sufficiently to cope. They seem to do this by observing the behavior of others in specific contexts and imitating it. Does this demonstrate that philosophical zombies can exist in our reality? Well, yes and no. It does appear that human beings can behave in such a way as to simulate specific emotions and experiences. Presumably an intelligent being can learn to mimic human behaviors by studying humans carefully. But there remains a problem.
In one of the episodes from the old Star Trek series, 4 of the officers get flung into a mirror universe, while their counterparts in that universe get thrown into ours. In the mirror universe, there is no United Federation of Planets. There is an empire filled with barbarians who routinely stab each other in the back and employ terror to keep individual planetary systems in line. The 4 officers are able to blend in, at least for a while. But their counterparts in our universe are discovered immediately. When the captain returns to his own universe, he asks Mr. Spock how he was able to identify his counterpart so quickly. “It was far easier for you, as civilized men, to behave as barbarians, than for them, as barbarians, to behave as civilized men,” Mr. Spock explains.
The same principle applies to thinking, conscious experience, and the ability to abstract. A human being can behave in a robotic fashion, as some very talented mimes can demonstrate. For a robot to behave like a human, and do it without actually thinking, having experiences, or abstracting – well, that’s a good trick. Many of the cues we use to identify a thinking human being involve flexibility, the hallmark of intelligence. Human beings use what is called commonsense reasoning. This is the ability to make assumptions about how the real world operates and apply those assumptions to specific problems. Human minds are packed full of general knowledge and assumptions about the world, most of which turn out to be correct, and this enables us to navigate our surroundings with great ease. It gives us tremendous flexibility and the ability to quickly interpret novelties in the environment. Human beings use what are called heuristics – shortcuts that enable us to quickly generate solutions that are approximate, rather than trying to do a time-consuming analysis driving toward a “perfect” solution. Human beings are able to see the big picture – every time we examine a specific object or do a specific task, we have an idea of how it fits into a much broader context.
Most animals are slaves to their behavioral programming. This is why a moth flies into a flame. It is why billions of animals are killed every year on roadways. Human beings are much better at avoiding cars than dogs are, even though dogs are faster. They often panic when a car approaches, darting out at the last moment. Panic is an ancient flight response, built into many species, including ours. But a human being understands that the car will very likely stay along a very specific path. A psychopath may not feel a particular emotion. But the argument could be made that only because the psychopath has tremendous mental flexibility AND experiences AND the ability to abstract is he able to convincingly simulate those emotions that he doesn’t feel.
When we create systems of sufficient complexity, programmed with goals and the ability to learn, I think we will find that thinking, conscious experience, and the ability to abstract are inevitable results of what these systems do. That conscious experience and the “self” are merely virtual realities created by such systems, just as virtual realities can be created by computer systems today. I often think of a flight simulator. When a flight simulator is running, and we turn off the monitor, where is the plane? It is exactly where it was, in a virtual landscape. The simulator creates virtual space, virtual time, and virtual objects. If the plane were equipped with a sufficiently sophisticated brain and sense organs, it would have experiences within this virtual reality – a secondary virtual reality within the larger one. It would create a mental model of itself within this virtual reality in relation to its environment. It would have thoughts, experiences, and a sense of self regardless of whether we turned on the monitor. To the plane, its virtual reality and its sense of self would be as real as ours are to us.
The mere fact that we can create virtual realities should tell us that the basic elements are there. The next step is to create virtual “organisms” which respond to stimuli and use information processing to reach specific goals. This will lead to virtual beings that have experiences, and eventually, consciousness. None of this will require the construction of these objects in our physical reality, only the information processing systems to produce them in virtual reality.
Suppose you and I are playing Monopoly. There’s an element of skill, but also a big element of luck. Inevitably, one of us is going to gain an advantage. One of us will end up being an “owner,” while the other is a “renter.” This will create a positive feedback. The owner will get progressively wealthier and the renter will get progressively poorer.
Let’s say that I gain the advantage. And after I do, we pass the game on to our children. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to predict what will happen. My child will get progressively wealthier while your child gets progressively poorer. This happens because of the nature of the game, not because your child is being discriminated against. The game neither knows nor cares about the personal attributes of my child or your child. The game doesn’t have an agenda. It is simply the nature of the game that one child will get richer while the other gets poorer.
I grew up in an overwhelmingly white neighborhood. Crime was low and I had plenty of social support from family and neighbors. My family was what I would call lower middle class. Our cars were forever on the verge of breaking down and there were times that our electricity was cut off for a while because my father couldn’t pay the bill on time. I was a poor student until the fifth grade, when I was fortunate to have a very good teacher who motivated me. When I was a teenager I spent a lot of time in the woods, and had more than one encounter with police officers who treated me disrespectfully. Although he could barely afford it, taking us on trips was important to my father and he tried to give us those experiences as often as possible. As an adult I have lived in 30-foot travel trailers and eaten baloney sandwiches for a week to get to the next check. I have had all kinds of jobs, from roofer to zoo keeper to research technician. But thanks to federal grants in the 1970’s I was able to go to college, eventually obtaining a Master’s Degree. I inherited a house and lands worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from my father and grandfather. Today I have a good job with health and retirement benefits, and my wife and I own some stock. We still worry about finances but we live in a 3-bedroom house and are doing pretty well.
It is not hard for me to imagine what my life would be like if I had grown up in a different neighborhood, with gangs trying to recruit me, police harassing me and my father, and an underfunded school with teachers who were more concerned with order than education. There’s a pretty good chance I would have ended up in jail. Even if I hadn’t, there would have been plenty of other young people eager to lead me onto self-destructive paths. Would I have been able to go to college? I doubt it. I probably would have run away from home at some point, and ended up dead or on the street.
Similarly, it’s not hard for me to imagine growing up in a very safe, wealthy neighborhood, going to very good schools with very good teachers, and having my interests in nature very much catered to from a young age. Since my father liked to travel, we probably would have gone on lots of adventures all over the country and the world, which I would have eaten up, and which would have stimulated me to pursue a scientific career. I would have had no difficulty going to college and might have done volunteer work at a zoo. Finances of course would have never been a concern.
A lot of people like to argue that they have worked hard for what they have. I have certainly worked hard over the years, using my muscles as well as my brain, to navigate the ups and downs of life. But I also understand that I am in a position of privilege compared to many others. That I have taken a lot of risks in my life, made some bad decisions, and that there is a large element of luck in whatever “success” I have achieved. In a previous post (here), I discussed intergenerational earnings elasticity, a measure of economic mobility. America has low mobility compared to many European countries. The Scandinavian countries particularly have high economic mobility. The United Kingdom and some southern European countries have lower mobility. Low economic mobility is directly related to the college earnings premium. The Scandinavian countries have low college earnings premiums. The United Kingdom and America have much higher college earnings premiums.
Economic mobility in America started to decline around 1980. Labor unions began to be gutted and good-paying manufacturing jobs were slowly disappearing. Not surprisingly, it was around this time that the college earnings premium began to increase.
In many European countries, particularly the Scandinavian countries, labor unions are very strong. Even if you don’t have a college degree, you can have considerable financial security and your opportunity for economic mobility is there. In America, a worker without college is pretty much screwed. You will likely struggle from one paycheck to another and have to go into debt just to keep your head above water. There is a good chance you will have poor credit and have to go to predatory loan companies to survive, which will create a vicious cycle of destitution. You are the one who will have to be shelling out money for late payments on this and that, fees for having a low balance on your checking account (assuming you have a checking account), and of course astronomical interest rates on your predatory loans. You are the one who will have to pay a high percentage of your income in taxes, particularly sales taxes. Those who have money do not have to pay all of these things. They never pay late payments or fees for low balances. They are the ones who are collecting interest on bank accounts, as well as dividends and capital gains on equities. Since there are lots of tax loopholes for them, they pay a much lower percentage of their income in taxes. When you already have the money, you don’t pay. You collect more money. That’s how the system works.
The system, of course, depends on a well-oiled propaganda machine to maintain itself. This is provided by the constant lionization of the “hard-working” American who supposedly drives the engine of economic prosperity. America is a young country, with a recent frontier. This has an enormous impact on the way we view ourselves. The frontier is largely seen as a place where white American families struggled mightily against nature and hostile Indians to build a civilization. This narrative has never seriously considered the role that slavery, low-wage factory jobs, and mechanization played. Steam power. Cotton gins. Plantations. Railroads.
In my view, the Protestant work ethic is more fundamental to white Protestant culture than xenophobia, homophobia, an attachment to guns, a desire for prayer in schools, opposition to abortion, or any particular religious doctrine. I believe that those who defend it would be willing to peel away all of these things, if it came to it. But not the work ethic. It is key to their identity and their self-worth, and the one element that all of the others can be traced back to.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having a strong work ethic. The problem is that it quite generally gets folded into a whole mythos about the relationship between hard work and financial success, and who is deserving of such success. Such beliefs run very deep and are often unspoken, because they don’t need to be expressed. Everyone in the culture takes them as givens. Hard work has always been, and still is, rewarded in this mythos. It is the foundation of America’s economic might and political power. Freedom largely consists of making sure that nothing stands in the way of these rewards. Those who push themselves to work hard are the backbone of the country. To the extent that their work is parasitized by others, the country suffers.
In an international social survey conducted between 1998 and 2001, 69% of Americans agreed with the statement “people are rewarded for intelligence and skill,” the highest percentage among 27 countries in which people were polled. The median for the 27 countries was only 40%. Only 19% of Americans agreed with the statement “coming from a wealthy family is essential/very important to getting ahead.” The median among 27 countries was 28%. Only 33% of Americans believed that the government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality. The median for the 27 countries was about 70%.
In a Pew survey published in 2009, 55% of Americans disagreed with the following simple statement: “In the United States, a child’s chances of achieving financial success is tied to the income of his or her parent.” Notice that this isn’t soliciting an opinion. It is testing one’s knowledge. It isn’t just that Americans tend to reject a government role in reducing inequality. It’s that they really believe that America has high economic mobility, which simply isn’t true. When you don’t even have your facts straight, when you don’t even realize that there is a problem, it isn’t surprising that you reject solutions. The propaganda machine has done its job well.
An interesting consequence of the cult of meritocracy was revealed by a study published in 2010. In the study, 445 managers were given employee profiles and asked to make recommendations on bonuses, promotions, and terminations. Some managers were from companies that emphasized meritocracy in evaluations and compensation. The researchers found that managers from those companies tended to give men greater rewards than equally qualified women. Managers from companies that did not emphasize meritocracy did not favor men over women. The authors called this “the paradox of meritocracy.” And emphasis on meritocracy did not, in the end, reward employees based on merit alone. Instead it maintained gender inequality. The authors suggested that this occurs because an emphasis on supposed impartiality tends to blind us to our own inherent biases.
The belief that America is a land of social mobility is undoubtedly tied to people’s personal belief that, whatever they have, they earned by their own efforts. None of it is luck. It all ties together in a nice neat package. Hard work is rewarded. The wealth of parents has no bearing on the financial well-being of their children. Whatever I have, I earned every bit of it with my own hard work. Only those who are unwilling to make the effort are left behind in America. The American dream is within the reach of everyone.
Closely tied to the cult of meritocracy and the recent frontier is the tolerance American society exhibits for charlatans and hucksters of every stripe. We accept that those who want to sell us something will use deception and distraction and fudging the facts to get what they want. We sympathize with cheaters on some level, because we value winning more than fairness. It is very American to do this, and again, it is closely tied to our recent frontier. We think cheating is bad but fudging, which is the worst kind of cheating, is acceptable. Why? Because cheating is an act of desperation when you’re almost bound to lose. Most of the time it won’t work. Fudging is what you do when the contest is close. That’s when cheating really matters, when it’s likely to work. And nothing is as important as winning. This kind of pathological competitiveness defines much of our economic system and our approach to human relationships. Large numbers of our fellows can be written off as “losers,” just one of many varieties of “them,” not “us.” And around we go, allowing hucksters to keep us atomized while they laugh all the way to the bank.
This in turn is closely tied to a belief in the primacy of personal responsibility. Of course, if we put a label on someone, suddenly this attitude changes. If they have a syndrome or a disability or some vulnerability that we can slap a label on, suddenly responsibility shifts to the fraudsters. Its much harder for us to believe that we all have some degree of vulnerability.
In the political realm, “hard-working American” has become code for white, rural American. Never mind that obesity rates are higher in small town and rural America than in cities. The stereotype of a rural American is a rugged farmer or rancher, or perhaps a coal miner or logger, who works tirelessly from sunrise to sunset. Definitely white. But then the vast majority of farmers, ranchers, coal miners, and loggers are white. And male. White rural and small town America is often referred to as the “real” America, even though the country is 80% urban.
So what’s the alternative? If not merit, then what? Should we just have employers hire and promote people randomly? Of course not. There’s nothing wrong with friendly competition based on merit. But there’s something very wrong with a system that perpetuates and even magnifies inequalities that come about for reasons having nothing to do with merit. There’s something wrong with a system that puts a child at a huge disadvantage educationally and economically, because he happened to grow up in an impoverished, high-crime neighborhood. There’s something wrong with a system that keeps squeezing the middle class so that people who already have too much can have even more.
The demographics of professional baseball players in America are not all that different from those of the general population. 59% of players are white. 62% of America is white. There is a high percentage of Hispanic players, but then 27% of the players are not American, generally from countries like Venezuela and Cuba that emphasize baseball. If you can perform, you’re in. If you’re really, really good, you will make big bucks. Some people seem to be appalled that professional baseball players make so much money. But the money is already there, provided by fans. Who do you want it to go to, the owners? The average career of a player in MLB is less than 6 years. Even the poorest players do not get thrown under the bus, because the players have a powerful union that maintains salaries and benefits. The minimum wage for MLB players is more than half a million dollars.
America’s GDP per adult is about $99,000/year. Even the combined incomes of myself and my wife do not come close to that. Most of my life I have made less than $30,000/year. And, as I said, I consider myself to be in a privileged position. The vast majority of people employed in my town are grocery stockers, cashiers, waiters, hamburger flippers, hotel maids, and so on, who make considerably less than I do. The median HOUSEHOLD income in the parish where I live is about $40,000/year. About a quarter of the population is below the poverty line. My home state of Louisiana ranks 29th in educational expenditure per student. Almost a third of the population of my town is African American.
Compare this to New Haven County, Connecticut. The median household income is about $61,000/year. Only 11% of the population is below the poverty line. Only 13% of the population is African American. In the town of Woodbridge in this county, which is about the same size as the city in which I live, the median household income is about $137,000/year, and less than 3% of the population is below the poverty line. The school district is rated as the 6th best in the state, in a state that ranks 2nd in educational expenditure per student. This town is less than 2% African American.
The issue is not friendly competition based on merit. It is whether people are assured the basics. If they don’t have a safe environment, access to a decent education, and decent health care, how are they supposed to compete for the privileges? This was Roosevelt’s point with his Second Bill of Rights, which has been all but forgotten in post-Reagan America. I have known people who have worked their entire adult lives as grocery stockers or zoo keepers, always making close to minimum wage. Are they supposed to be able to afford a decent home and go to a hospital if they need to? The solutions are not really that complicated. Strengthen organized labor so that it can effectively negotiate with owners for decent pay and benefits. Make the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes and use the revenue to ensure that every child has access to decent education. Invest in impoverished communities that are the result of decades of discrimination. Abandon trickle-down economics.
With its seemingly baked-in cult of meritocracy, one might conclude that America will never budge from its trend of ever-increasing economic inequality and declining economic mobility. Yet if the propagandists were so invincible, how did progress ever come about? How did the 40-hour work week ever come about? How did compulsory education and social security ever come about? America seems to go through these periods of stagnation, even reversal in some cases, punctuated by progress. One way or another, the squeezing of the American middle class is unsustainable. The cult of meritocracy and the mythos of the American dream will be tough nuts to crack. There will be a lot of political maneuvering and a lot of culture war battles. But automation will not disappear, the browning of America will continue, and many Americans will be pulled, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.