[extropy-chat] Side note (was Are vaccinations useless?)

Keith Henson hkhenson at rogers.com
Tue Mar 21 16:19:16 UTC 2006

At 06:38 PM 3/20/2006 -0800, you wrote:
>Keith writes
> > I wrote a follow up paper (so far unpublished) where I made the case that
> > humans have a psychological trait to go non-rational that is switched 
> on by
> > either needing to go to war because of a resource crunch or when their
> > tribe is attacked.
>I'm at a loss to understand what "non-rational" means here. (Or maybe 
>these days.) How could the usual response of people "when their tribe is
>attacked" be any more non-rational than the response of bees when you disturb
>their hive?
>Or are you addressing non-rationality of an *individual*? (It certainly
>is perfectly sensible and effective behavior for the genes.)

Right.  But a gene (or a whole mess of them) can't be "rational" as in 
thinking the situation out and taking a considered best choice.  All genes 
can do is built a brain with that capacity for survival/reproduction.  Most 
of the time, rational behavior is good from both the genes viewpoint and 
the individual's.

But not all the time.

>Let me illustrate what I mean by "individual": one might say (are you?)
>that it may not benefit a particular person to rise up in his tribe's defense
>because his own private standard of living may instead be maximized by, say,
>feigning illness or becoming a CO. So loyally joining the fight on behalf
>of his tribe is in this case an instance of non-rationality?  Might we say
>the same (loosely speaking) of an individual bee defending the hive?

Your example of bees is appropriate, especially since Hamilton first 
understood inclusive fitness in insects.

The key thing about bees and tribes is genetic relatives.  It made genetic 
sense for a warrior to die defending his tribe or attacking another tribe 
when resources were short because there were more copies of his genes in 
other closely related tribe members than in his own contribution to the 
gene pool.  It is exactly the same evolutionary forces that gave us 
suicidal attacking worker bees.

"Rational" thinking is what raises a flag "Whoa, if I to that I am going to 
be hurt or killed!"  Over evolutionary time, genes became more common that 
constructed behavioral switches to turn off this mode of thinking when it 
was in the interest of the gene to do so.  ("Gene" in the extended 
inclusive fitness sense.)

> > In a report early this year Dr. Drew Westen using fMRI identified the 
> brain
> > structures and circuits involved in "partisan mode" which I feel is along
> > the continuum to full blown warrior-insane.
>An excellent way of putting it.
> > So:  When you see people going Mau Mau on Robin's ass, you are seeing the
> > partial activation of brain circuits for war mode right out of our bloody
> > hunter gatherer past.
>Well, the overt behavior is not readily distinguishable from mere outrage:
>Some people here reacted to what Robin wrote exactly as if he had submitted
>a long proof that heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.

I think outrage is in *all* cases is a manifestation of the same 
psychological traits Westen was looking at.  It does not matter if it was 
justified or unjustified or about defending ideas or defending relatives.

That's not to say that we should not be outraged at times, just that being 
outraged is an emotional state that for deeply rooted reasons interferes 
with our ability to think rationally.  And I think there is a good case to 
be made that the more outraged you are about something the more mucks up 
your ability to think rationally.

Keith Henson

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