[extropy-chat] Hatfields and McCoys: When Rational, when Irrational?

Lee Corbin lcorbin at rawbw.com
Sat Dec 9 19:49:18 UTC 2006

Keith writes

>>But still---here---I am interested in *finding* not only the truth, but the
>>most appropriate terms to describe it.  And if you are right, I *want* to be
>>persuaded (as I think are Rafal, Jef, and Al and many others here I could
> Everything having to do with living things has a foundation in evolutionary 
> biology.  You have a good point that the terminology may have to shift and 
> either old words acquire specific in context meaning or new words may have 
> to be coined for such things as "mental state induced by lethal memes."

>From here on out, I'm dropping the term "rational" as descriptive of
people's behavior or decisions. The term has caused too much trouble;
and when that happens, people *must* stop using it or just waste their

>>Now mind you, any act of kindness is very likely to be deemed
>>"irrational" by those who interpret the MRI studies aggressively.
>>We can all tell when it's happening---whether engaging in a dig
>>at a coworker at the office who you just can't stand, or suddenly
>>overcome by charitable feelings at Christmas time---one is not
>>using the same "cold-blooded" parts of the brain that one is
>>using while doing his income taxes.  Do you agree?
> Only partly.  I suspect that most charitable acts are done to enhance a 
> person's status.  Talk to Bill Gates about that.

And many uncharitable acts are done to enhance a person's status!
Threats, for example.  And angry behavior also serves as a warning
to others not to mess with one.  Even dogs and monkeys act as if they
knew this.

>>And here is one breakdown:  let's say that X commits an act through
>>anger that he almost immediately regrets, and one that under careful
>>interrogation he admits is not in either his own self interest nor in the
>>interest of his goals.  I will agree that such anger is an example,
>>just as is impulsive compassion, of irrationality.
> Not from the viewpoint of his genes selected in the EEA.

We were talking about "rational" as an adjective describing behavior,
or decisions, no?   Hence it doesn't matter how it obtained back in the

But as I say, I'm giving up the term, and anybody I hear using it
is going to be asked for a definition!

>  Read up on the Yanamano.

Who're they?   (Just joking, for God's sake. They're everybody's
favorite example of how extreme agression pays off in some 

>  Lashing out in anger may be an extremely stupid, even fatal 
> thing to do in these times, but it is wired into the way our brains 
> work--which means it must have been adaptive in the past.

Yes, exactly so.  Good point.  And it is easy to see why it is/was
adaptive.  Animals lash out in anger, and in many cases this helps
them.  (But probably not around humans, who are prone to seek 
Final Solutions beyond the ken of lower animals.)

>>Where I disagree is if the behavior is very calmly and very carefully
>>considered:  even though it's at huge personal risk and won't help
>>him or his family, Jeb Hatfield will go find a McCoy and kill him.
>>He simply wants to do this very badly, and in total alignment with
>>his values, and no matter how carefully or how long you interview
>>him, he'll never admit to it being anything but what he really and
>>sincerely wants to do.
>>How can you find it appropriate to call his desire "irrational", or the
>>dangerous mission he embarks upon to realize it?
> As an external observer I can call his desire anything I like, including 
> stone crazy.  :-)

Well, this is further proof that we need to abandon these terms in
our discussions. We know all the facts here.  We know what is
going on in the minds of the Hatfields and McCoys, what their
goals are, and how effective their solutions are. (Not that we are
without advice---one nice thing about living comfortably ourselves
is that we have plenty of advice to dispense.)

> But if I want to *account* for this behavior it (or something related) must 
> have been adaptive in the lawless past.

Of course.  It could not be otherwise.


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