Beliefs Are Not Always in the Driver’s Seat

I am not a religious person. I can explain to you all the reasons why I don’t believe there is a deity who created the universe or interjects into our lives, but according to Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, that might not be a particular meaningful thing to try to communicate. If I set out to explain what I believe about the world as a rational for the beliefs that I hold, I might be missing a more fundamental but less appealing reason for my atheism. I don’t come from a religious family, and to be a good part of my familial group and our friend groups, I adopted their beliefs and have found justification for those beliefs through the years. I may think those justifications are sound, but that doesn’t mean I should ignore the part of my brain that set me down the path I am on.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain, Simler and Hanson write, “as we’ve seen throughout the book, beliefs aren’t always in the driver’s seat. Instead, they’re often better modeled as symptoms of the underlying incentives, which are frequently social rather than psychological. This is the religious elephant in the brain: We don’t worship simply because we believe. Instead we worship (and believe) because it helps us as social creatures.”

 

Hanson and Simler explain the ways in which both theists and atheists approach religion following a belief-first model. In this model, we develop beliefs about the world and universe from what we see and experience and then we adjust our behaviors to align with those beliefs. This is the model, the authors suggest, that is at work in debates between most theists and atheists. This is why we argue over the veracity of religious claims and the implications of ever growing scientific understandings of the universe.

 

But what might really be going on, and this is a view you might see from an anthropologist but might not hold front and center in your views, is that religious views help us be part of a social group and community of people who cooperate, share common values, and can provide support to one another. Religion has social values that can draw people toward it, and increasingly today, atheism seems to have many of  the same social qualities.

 

I have been in very religious contexts and circles though I am most comfortable among atheists. In both groups I have noted a tendency to characterize the other group as deviants. Religious people are mocked as morons while atheists are scoffed at as selfish and amoral trouble-makers. Both groups use the other as an out-group of villains to create more cohesion internally.

 

There is surely a part of religious beliefs that is driven by our experiences and how we think about and understand the world, but whether we want to admit it or not, a large part of our religious identity is shaped by our relationships and social groups surrounding the idea of religion. We can use religion as a model and a guide for our lives that provides us with social connections and social benefits, and we can also use our lack of religious beliefs to do the same. The true nature of the universe and the reality of the world around us often come second, and that is part of why it is so hard to change someone’s religious beliefs and why we tend to hold the same beliefs as our parents and family.

Weapons for Our Early Ancestors

Weapons are in interesting consideration for early human evolution and how we ended up in the place we are with large brains and strong social groups. Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson address the importance of weapons in their book The Elephant in the Brain. Weapons change the value of physical strength and the nature of conflict on the individual and group levels. They altered the threats and defenses that our early ancestors faced and could mount.

 

“Weapons are a game changer for two reasons.” write Hanson and Simler, “First, they level the playing field between weak and strong members of a group. … Another way weapons alter the balance of power applies to projectile weapons like stones or spears. Such distance weapons make it much easier for a coalition to gang up on a single individual.”

 

Physical force has been a dominating aspect of human relationships (and probably early proto-human ancestors’ relationships), but we don’t live in societies where just the most physically dominant individuals rule. Weapons are a big part of why this is the case. Once we could hurl projectiles, even just heavy or sharp rocks, at opponents, our social grouping had to change. Coalitions could push back against a dominant individual who did not care about the well being of the group or of others. The role of politics and cooperation could naturally be expected to rise in a system where physical dominance was not the sole determinant of leadership and power.

 

What weapons did, Hanson and Simler argue and I will discuss more tomorrow, is create a system that favored brain development. Social intelligence and intellectual capacity became more valuable when coalitions could rule with weapons, and that created a space where the brain could evolve to become larger and more complex. If pure physical dominance was the best predictor of power and of passing along our genes, then we would not have expected our early ancestors to begin evolving in a way that favored the development of a large and highly energy dependent brain. By bringing physical prowess down a level, weapons it seems, helped further the evolutionary growth of the human brain.

Social Brain Hypothesis

The California Redwoods are amazing trees. They stand taller than any other tree, scraping at the sky as they compete among each other for sunlight. The trees can be packed together in a dense manner, all competing for the same light, all pulling massive amounts of water from the ground up enormous heights. What is interesting, however, is that the redwoods are geographically isolated, not stretching out across huge swaths of the continent, but contained within a fairly narrow region. They don’t compete against other species and spread, but mostly compete for sunlight, water, and resources among themselves.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson introduce the redwoods as a way to talk about the Social Brain Hypothesis in humans. The idea is that our brilliant brains developed so that we could compete against each other, not because our brains really helped us outsmart lions or obtain more resources than other animals. The authors write,

 

“The earliest Homo Sapiens lived in small, tight-knit bands of 20 to 50 individuals. These bands were our “groves” or “forests,” in which we competed not for sunlight, but for resources more befitting a primate: food, sex, territory, social status. And we had to earn these things, in part, by outwitting and outshining our rivals.

    This is what’s known in the literature as the social brain hypothesis, or sometimes the Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis. It’s the idea that our ancestors got smart primarily in order to compete against each other in a variety of social and political scenarios.”

 

I find this super interesting because in many ways we are still fighting among each other as if we were part of a small band of 20 to 50 individuals. We live in a world where food is relatively bountiful (for many but certainly not all) in the United States. We live in a world of online dating where finding a mate is more open to more people. Our “territory” today can be more private than ever and online niche communities can give us a new sense of social status that we could not have obtained in the past if we did not conform to the small groups of our high school, family, or work.

 

We seem to be in a place where we can let go of the pressures that the social brain hypothesis put on our early ancestors, but I don’t see people shedding those pressures very often. We can look at what has driven our species to behave the way we do and see that we don’t need to compete in the same way. We can recognize the great possibilities available to us and move in our own direction, but so often we chose to just show off and do more to impress others as if we still lived in small tribal bands. Rather than branching out, we seem to often retreat back to a group of 20 to 50 and compete internally in a way that wastes resources on our own selfish motives. I think that we should talk more openly about the social brain hypothesis and the ideas that Hanson and Simler present so that we can have a real discussion about how we move forward without pushing everyone to compete for things that we should be able to provide openly with new systems and organizations.

 

Humans will always be competing against each other in one way or another, but I think we are at a point where we can begin to decrease our competition. Our societies are at a point where we can be more constructive and inclusive if we can decide that we don’t need to participate in so many of the competitions that drive the world today and ruin so many of our lives. Changes along these lines would probably encourage us to live in smaller homes, live in a more community focused way, show off less, and help each other more. How we get there and give up some of this competitive nature I am not sure, but I think that we need to move in this direction to act as a global species and solve major problems such as climate change.

Our Brains Don’t Hold Information as Well as We Think

Anyone who has ever misplaced their keys or their wallet knows that the brain can be a bit faulty. If you have ever been convinced you saw a snake only to find out it was a plastic bag, or if you remembered dropping a pan full of sweet potatoes as a child during Thanksgiving only to get into an argument with your brother about which one of you actually dropped the pan, then you know your brain can misinterpret signals and mis-remember events. For some reason, our hyper-powerful pattern recognition brains seem to be fine with letting us down from time to time.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write, “There’s a wide base of evidence showing that human brains are poor stewards of the information they receive from the outside world. But this seems entirely self-defeating, like shooting oneself in the foot. If our minds contain maps of our worlds, what good comes from having an inaccurate version of these maps?” 

 

The question is, why do we have such powerful brains that can do such amazing things, but that still make basic mistakes all the time? The answer that Hanson and Simler propose throughout the book is that having super accurate information in the brain, remembering everything perfectly, and clearly observing everything around us is actually detrimental to our success as a social species. Our view of the world only needs to be so accurate for us to successfully function as biological creatures. We only need senses that satisfice for us to evade predators, avoid poisonous mushrooms, and get enough food. What really drives the evolution of the brain, is being successful socially, and sometimes a bit of deception gives us a big advantage.

 

It is clear that the brain is not perfect at observing the world. We don’t see infrared wavelengths of light, we can’t sense the earths magnetic pull, and we can’t hear as many sounds as dogs can hear. Our experience of the world is limited. On top of those limitations, our brains are not that interested in having an accurate picture of the information that it actually can observe. We must keep this in mind as we go through our lives. What can seem so clear and obvious to us, may be a distorted picture of the world that someone else can see as incomplete. A good way to move forward is to abandon the idea that we have (or must have) a perfect view and opinion of the world. Acknowledge that we have preferences and opinions that shape how we interpret the world, and even if we are not open to changing those opinions, at least be open to the idea that our brains are not designed to have perfect views, and that we might be shortsighted in some areas. We will need to bond with others and form meaningful social groups, but we should not accept that we will have to delude our view of the world and accept alternate facts to fit in.

Deception is Expected

Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler consider it normal and expected that humans are deceptive creatures. We evolved, according to the authors, to be deceptive so that we could get a little bit more for ourselves and have a slightly better chance of reproducing and keeping our genes in the mix. We don’t boldly take things and openly cheat to get what we want (most of the time), but instead we do our best to be a team player, with some marginal cheating and stealing under the table. As they put it,

 

“Deception is simply part of human nature–a fact that makes perfect sense in light of the competitive (selfish) logic of evolution. Deception allows us to reap certain benefits without paying the full costs. And yes, all societies have norms against lying, but that just means we have to work a little harder not to get caught. Instead of telling bald-faced lies, maybe we spin or cherry-pick the truth.”

 

This leaves us in an interesting position as we think about how we should act at an individual level and how societies should organize themselves at a larger level. We want to have norms in place that deter cheating and lying to help protect people’s property, to prevent fraud, and to create a system where people can meaningfully engage with one another and trust their institutions. But at the same time, we recognize that there is going to be a substantial amount of deception and a natural urge to be deceptive in order to obtain a little more benefit with a little less cost. Individuals will behave this way, and so will the families, social groups, communities, states, and nations that individuals create.

 

A solution that I would explore would be to accept Simler and Hanson’s views openly, and then begin looking closely at externalities. Externalities (usually discussed in the negative sense) are the additional things that stem from the original action. Deceptive behavior can have negative externalities, such as wastes of money when we buy sports cars to show off rather than using our money for more productive and charitable uses. At the same time, deceptive behavior can have positive externalities, such as the benefits of charity when we donate large amounts of money, again to show off.

 

If we accept this is happening, then in our own lives and in our societies we can try to add additional costs (such as taxes) on deceptive behaviors with negative externalities, and we can do more to encourage deceptive behaviors that produce largely positive externalities. We don’t have to abandon our human nature, but we can collectively decide to shape the consequences we might face for being deceptive in certain situations. This can help bring our behaviors and actions in line with the outcomes we want, but it does require that we accept what is taking place inside our brains and accept that we are not always as wonderful as we would like to appear.

Reputation

How do norms shape our behaviors? As social animals we rely on a good reputation which helps us gain allies, build coalitions, and have close bonds between family and friends. A good reputation increases trust, convinces others that they should invest in our friendship, and tells the social group give us a hand every now and then if we need help. When it comes to building and maintaining a good reputation, norms are crucial.

 

As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “It’s rarely in people’s best interests to stick out their necks to punish transgressors. But throw some reputation into the mix and it can suddenly become profitable. Someone who helps evict a cheater will be celebrated fro her leadership. Who would you rather team up with: someone who stands by while rules are flouted, or someone who stands up for what’s right?”

 

Standing up to point out things that are wrong can be dangerous. The person breaking the rules could fight back, people close to the rule breaker might retaliate, your time could be wasted, and you might lose social status if people don’t really care about the rule breaker’s actions. Being the person who enforces norms is not always the best on an individual level.

 

However, as a social group, our reputation helps us maintain the norms and institutions which help us function and allow us to have whistle-blowers, police, and people who generally care that rules, laws, and regulations are actually being followed. We often have a temptation to slack off, to do something that we enjoy but know to be bad for ourselves, or to engage in some sort of activity that is fun but reckless. Knowing that we will have to interact with people in the future, that we will rely on social groups in the future, and that we will need others for anything we want to do later constrains our actions and behaviors in the moment. We try to be the type of person that society favors because we know it will benefit us at a future time. We care about our reputation because we might need substantial assistance from others at some point in our life, and we know that if we have a negative reputation, people are less likely to trust us and assist us in our time of need. As social creatures, developing an invisible system of reputation is what helps bond our norms together and hold them in place.

The Role of Gossip

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson have an interesting idea about gossip in their book The Elephant in the Brain. Instead of seeing gossip as some terrible moral failure on the part of human beings, the authors take a more deep and close look at gossip to try to understand just what is taking place. By understanding the role gossip plays, the authors are able to provide a more concrete reason for why we gossip.

 

They write, “Among laypeople, gossip gets a pretty bad rap. But anthropologists see it differently. Gossip–talking about people behind their backs, often focusing on their flaws or misdeeds–is a feature of every society ever studied. And while it can often be mean-spirited and hurtful, gossip is also an important process for curtailing bad behavior, especially among powerful people.”

 

Some discussions are hard to have out in the open. It is hard to go around openly asking people if the president’s behavior is crossing a line and is inappropriate. It is hard to openly ask the office if a co-worker’s clothing is unacceptable, and it is hard to openly ask the world if someone else is trying to do something just to show off. If we are on the wrong side in these situations, we can look really bad ourselves, and we can be very embarrassed if our opinions and ideas are rejected by the rest of the group.

 

Instead of putting ourselves out in a vulnerable place, gossip allows us to test the waters. We can quietly get a sense of other people’s opinions and ideas without actually revealing our thoughts and ideas completely. We can start to moderate our ideas and opinions and update our model of what is and is not acceptable, tolerable, or popular at a given time. Gossip lets us connect with others in a way that broad publicity does not. It can encourage social bonding between small groups within larger groups and it can help enforce the norms that our culture develops. These can all be positive and negative aspects of gossip, but it happens because we live in a complex and confusing world where we develop opinions socially as opposed to just individually. Sometimes, we need some cover to develop opinions that align with our social group to reduce our vulnerability to attack and isolation.

More on the Role of Weapons for Evolution

Weapons reduce the distance between the strongest and weakest members of a group, especially projectile weapons, and change what it means to become a powerful and dominant leader within a social group. When weaker individuals can band together in coalitions with the use of weapons to topple a physically dominant alpha, new skills become more valuable than physical dominance alone.

 

“Once weapons enter the picture,” write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain“physical strength is no longer the most crucial factor in determining a hominid’s success within a group. It’s still important, mind you, but not singularly important. In particular, political skill – being able to identify, join, and possibly lead the most effective coalition – takes over as the determining factor.”

 

Political skills are not so important if your species rarely interacts in groups. If you live mostly in isolation, occasionally meet another member of your species to mate or fight over food, being politically skilled is not too important. Hanson and Simler argue that weapons and a change in power dynamics is what set the human brain on a path toward ever greater evolution. Political skill requires mental acuity, deception, the ability to signal loyalty, and the ability to relate and connect with others. The better your brain is at doing the complex work required for these skills, the more likely you will survive long enough to reproduce. This created the environment for our brains to begin to enlarge, since individuals with bigger brains and more intelligence were generally favored over those who were a little less cognitively capable and therefor less politically and socially skilled.

 

I think it is interesting and important to consider the factors that shaped human evolution. Understanding how our brain came to be the way it is helps us understand why we act the way we do, why we see certain types of biases in thinking, and how we can overcome mistakes in our ways of thought. By acknowledging that our brains developed to be devious, and that our brains did not develop to give us a perfect view of reality, we can better think about how we design institutions and settings to help us think in the most productive ways possible.

The Political Role of Weapons for Our Early Ancestors

Weapons are in interesting consideration for early human evolution and how we ended up in the place we are with large brains and strong social groups. Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson address the importance of weapons in their book The Elephant in the Brain. Weapons change the value of physical strength and the nature of conflict on the individual and group levels. They alter the threats and defenses that our early ancestors faced and could mount.

 

“Weapons are a game changer for two reasons.” write Hanson and Simler, “First, they level the playing field between weak and strong members of a group. … Another way weapons alter the balance of power applies to projectile weapons like stones or spears. Such distance weapons make it much easier for a coalition to gang up on a single individual.”

 

Physical force has been a dominating aspect of human relationships (and probably early human ancestors’ relationships), but we don’t live in societies where just the most physically dominant individuals rule. Weapons are a big part of why this is the case. Once we could hurl projectiles, even just heavy or sharp rocks, at opponents, our social grouping had to change. Coalitions could push back against a dominant individual who did not care about the well being of the group or of others. The role of politics and cooperation could naturally be expected to rise in a system where physical dominance was not the sole determinant of leadership and power.

 

What weapons did, Hanson and Simler argue and I will discuss more tomorrow, is create a system that favored brain development. Social intelligence and intellectual capacity became more valuable when coalitions could rule with weapons, and that created a space where the brain could evolve to become larger and more complex. If pure physical dominance was the best predictor of power and of passing along our genes, then we would not have expected our early ancestors to begin evolving in a way that favored the development of a large and highly energy dependent brain. By bringing physical prowess down a level, weapons it seems, helped further the evolutionary growth of the human brain.

A Sense of Demotion

Since I read Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain, I have become really interested in ideas and thoughts about status. We are social creatures living in an interconnected and social world. In order for us to move through this world we need friends, allies, and an ability to impress people around us with our valuable skills, abilities, and knowledge. These social pressures have created an evolutionary reason for why we desire status: the higher our status (historically and ancestrally) the better our chances of passing along our genes.

 

Hanson and Simler argue that as social creatures, direct efforts to raise our status generally don’t work, so we need to raise our status indirectly. When we directly set out to show our dominance by making a lot of money, when we go to the gym and make it explicit that we are doing so to attract the hottest mate, and if we were to admit that we made a large donation just to look good socially, we actually lose status. Instead of being direct about our self-interest and desire to increase our status, we hide our motives behind motives that sound legitimate and are far more admirable. We are making lots of money to provide for our children’s future, we go to the gym to be healthy (again possibly to help improve our children’s lives and not our own), and we made that big donation because we believe in the benefits it will have for other people in society.

 

It is clear from the argument that Hanson and Simler make that much of our behavior is status seeking behavior and that there can be many negative externalities stemming from our status seeking behavior. We will be depressed if we can’t buy a bigger house than our brother-in-law, we may get physically injured by overdoing it at the gym to show off for that hottie, and our large donation to that important sounding cause may be less effective than other less visible means of doing good with our financial resources.

 

These thoughts of status seeking behavior and the dangers of status seeking behavior came to mind this morning as I returned to a quote from Colin Wright in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. Wright says the following about some of the angst we see in our country and across Europe as society changes:

 

“Some political scholars have chalked up contemporary support for crypto-authoritarians in the early 21st century as the consequence of older, nationalistic people realizing that in an increasingly interconnected, globalized world, young people and immigrants and people who don’t look like them suddenly have as many rights and privileges as they do. Lacking the advantages they’ve had over these other people for their entire lives, they feel as if they’ve been demoted, when in reality, everyone else has been promoted to a status closer to that which these people always enjoyed. This is a misinterpretation of what’s happening, but their feeling of demotion is still very real, and we’ve seen some very tangible consequences of that.”

 

I think that Wright’s analysis is clearly correct but it is hard to say that it is the only factor or the main factor in the world today. I certainly think people should make an effort to get beyond their own status desires, but the point of bringing this quote in is not to write about the evils of some out-group. What I am thinking about as I write this is the importance of recognizing that our own status seeking behavior can be negative for society and the world. We should make an effort to engage with the world in a way that solves problems, recognizing that addressing big problems will raise our status, but not making our status the main reason we are trying to tackle such large problems. We can also recognize that the people Wright criticizes are no different from us, they are looking to maintain and increase their status just a we are. We don’t need to concede to them, but we can better understand the pressures they face and acknowledge that we would likely feel the same way if we were in their shoes and if our own status was being leveled in the same way.