Cognition & Reality

Monday, 25 April 2011

The Survival Instinct

Filed under: Basic Goodness,Human Evolution — drtone @ 5:59 pm

Sometimes we do things that are hard to explain at the time, only to understand their significance later. It could be that this represents some kind of instinctive response that, because it arises from deep inside one’s being, does not respect time and space. I have had at least one experience of this phenomenon.

Anyone who knows me knows that, outside of the written page, I am “organizationally challenged.” I somehow managed to acquire a doctorate, although I can’t take notes to save my life (no matter how strong my survival instinct); the same problem with note-taking has arisen again in connection with my clinical practice. My “files” are a ridiculous, musty mess. Most of the time, every horizontal surface in my place is at least partially obscured with papers, magazines, and other crap. I am the opposite of “detail-oriented” and am the world’s worst clerk. Nevertheless, years ago, I accomplished a difficult clerical task, involving repeated attention to boring details, that promises to make it possible for me to live without having to flip burgers.

When I was working for Western Psychological Services, in LA, I found out that I could count my hours at my job toward the 3000 clinical hours required to obtain a psychology license. In order to accomplish this, I had to submit an application to the state Board of Psychology to be a “psychological assistant.” This involved asking my department head to be my “supervisor,” something I was loathe to do, because I never liked owing him anything. In addition, I had to send the Board a passport-sized photo and my fingerprints, which involved spending a few bucks at some Kinko’s-like place. If the business had not been farther than only a couple of blocks away, I might never had gone there. I also had to fill out a long form and have my transcripts sent from UCSD (and perhaps other places). Furthermore, I had to reapply each year to renew my status as a psych assistant, which I managed to do, as well. After I accumulated my hours, I also studied for and passed the national examination, the name of which escapes me, that is part of the California licensing process.

I did all of this stuff, although it was entirely out of character for me to do so, something I recognized at the time and mentioned to more than one person. Further, I filled out the applications, paid various fees, and maintained my status in spite of not needing a license for my work and without intending–ever!–to become a psychotherapist. At the time, nothing in my life was forcing me to act in ways I would normally not act unless forced. I even went to state orals exam, which I failed miserably (scoring 7-1/2%!), although it cost money and involved spending an absolutely horrible day at an airport hotel. I proved that I didn’t care whether I had a license by not finishing the process, because I knew I would have to study for real to have a chance of passing the orals.

Nearly a decade after abandoning my desultory quest for a license, I found myself in Silver City, New Mexico, facing both a divorce and the prospect of starting my life all over again. I knew that it was impractical for me to stay in Silver City, where there were no job prospects. Desperate for a sign to tell me where I should go next, I called up the California Board of Psychology, sure that they would tell me that my application was void and that, time having passed, my hours had expired. They told me no such thing. In fact, everything I had accomplished, the hours and passing the national test, remained in place. Miraculously, they told me that the state had abandoned the oral exam that had stood in my way previously, replacing it with a multiple choice test!

Having passed the national exam and aced many other multiple choice tests, I assumed that I would be able to pass the new exam easily. I was wrong: It took me over a year to prepare for the test. Once I passed it two years ago, however, I was a licensed psychologist in the State of California. It would never have been like that if I had not engaged in the bureaucratic dance years before. It was as if I had known, almost a decade in advance, that I would need and want to have a psychology license.

I’m not sure what this all means. At minimum, it warns that the feeling one has that one’s actions are transparent may be wrong. Sometimes, at least, our motives are hidden, and sometimes they’re downright mysterious.

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Saturday, 5 March 2011

Date Rape Drugs And Other Evil Spirits

This article from a couple of years ago sums up nicely the factors contributing to the urban mythology around so-called “date rape drugs.” It is interesting that, as the article mentions, the response in some quarters was to perceive the reports debunking the role of drugs other than alcohol in “date rape” as blaming the victim and as ignoring a danger that, however rare, remains real. No matter how many studies demonstrate that the only “date rape drug” of any consequence is alcohol, the false message about the threat posed by other substances remains strong. For example, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) blankly (and falsely) states, “Memory loss can result from the ingestion of GHB and other ‘rape drugs.'” As I have indicated elsewhere, a substantial threat of being “roofied” is often assumed on TV and in films. The argument is essentially over, and the side with the false, hysterical message has prevailed.

Fear of “date rape drugs” clearly serves purposes so important that, confronted with the evidence that they are a tiny problem compared with the “date rape” potential of alcohol, society as a whole persists in maintaining that they represent a severe hazard requiring stringent precautions. As I thought about what those purposes might be, I realized that they are the same ones served by the persistence of other myths I find troubling, those about “chemical imbalances” and behavioral genetics. All of these combinations of myth and metaphor have in common their dependence on alleviating guilt while elevating powerful institutions. Because belief in them is therefore identical with a deep faith in the powers at the center of our culture, to deny their truth is an attack on those same powers.

These quasi-scientific constructs involving chemicals and other elements of medical science are the modern version of identifying what is fearful with invisible demons that can only be quelled through rituals dictated or performed by an authoritative elect. They not only resemble religious beliefs in being dependent on little else but faith and repetition; they are religious beliefs, embedded in our culture because they derive from a widely shared system of doctrines, values and commitments. Just as humans have always done with regard to cherished practices sanctioned by the powerful and believed in by the many, our modern society marginalizes anyone who questions such articles of faith.

I did not realize it until I started Googling about this topic, but young women are now instructed, when at a bar or other public place, to carry any drink with them wherever they go, even into the ladies’ room, accept drinks only from a bartender, drink only from freshly opened bottles, and use available test kits for “date rape drugs.” Thus, they ward off evil spirits who might invade their otherwise harmless alcoholic spirits, transforming the latter into a supernaturally potent, honor-destroying sex potion. In addition to involving young women in established forms and beliefs, these restrictions serve alcohol manufacturers in two important ways: First, they assure that young women consume alcohol in its most expensive, “safe” form, straight from individual bottles and cans; second, they distract attention from the “date rape drug” of the ages, the alcohol they sell.

According to beliefs descended directly from alchemy and other pre-scientific systems, disequilibrium within the fluids of the body produces spiritual disorders that can be cured only by using mysterious concoctions dispensed by medicine men. As I have discussed perhaps more than many of my readers might like, belief in “chemical imbalances” as the cause of at least some forms of emotional disturbance persists as a social and literary trope despite having been abandoned by most of those who originally promulgated it. The reason for that may be that it addresses primitive fears while justifying forms of treatment that satisfy the imperial requirements of the medical profession, save insurance companies money and fatten the purses of pharmaceutical companies. To believe in “chemical imbalances” as the cause of “mental disorders” is therefore a way of paying obeisance to the powers that be.

It all seems rather silly until you confront the fierceness with which these notions are defended. To believe that a child is psychotic because of some physical substance inadvertently passed on through the “blood” is unpleasant, but it is infinitely preferable to believing that his or her condition is the result of bad parenting . Likewise, to believe that one’s daughter was raped by a man who slipped her a mickey is far more tolerable than to believe she made it easier on the rapist by choosing to get shitfaced on Jack Daniel’s at the local bar. One need hardly say that a drug that destroys memory is the perfect antidote to a night one would rather forget, and the perfect explanation for a police report long on histrionics and short on details. No wonder belief persists in some manifestly crude, naive, and false explanations of behavior that serve a host of social and cultural functions.

(BTW, this is in no way intended to let rapists off the hook. Far from it: I find it difficult to imagine circumstances in which it is OK to fuck a semi-conscious woman. In another post, I unpack this issue more fully.)

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Not In Our Genes II

Filed under: Behavioral Genetics,Books,Human Evolution,Propaganda,Race,Science — drtone @ 1:03 pm

I posted recently regarding the 1985 book Not In Our Genes, by R.C. Lewontin, Steven Rose & Leon Kamin. In that previous post, I discussed the reasons, despite its fame, that the book failed to block the increasing popularity of sociobiology. The authors’ criticisms of the latter are trenchant and occasionally funny, but they are couched in neo-Marxist language virtually guaranteed to turn readers off.

In addition, the chapter on the state of the debate, at the time the book was written, regarding the role of women is, thankfully, somewhat dated. Even if they believe it, no one of any substance currently argues that women can’t fill roles in society previously held exclusively by men. Advances in the quarter century since the book was written have favored the inclusion of women in the professional world, which is not to say that true gender equality has been reached, but only to say that it has increased noticeably. Indeed, it could be instructive for young people to read that chapter in order to gain some appreciation of the the character and pace of what was then called “women’s lib.”

That said, Not In Our Genes is a good book, well-written, well-argued and entertaining.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Not In Our Genes: Why It Failed

Filed under: Behavioral Genetics,Human Evolution,Propaganda,Science — drtone @ 9:40 am

Not In Our Genes, a famous book, notorious in some circles, is a well-written argument against, as the title suggests, the concept that human behavior can be explained as a function of genetics. The authors are all distinguished academics with credentials galore. Despite all that it had going for it, and despite having remained in circulation (if not in print), the book clearly has not had the kind of impact one would have hoped: Since its publication in 1985, the hegemony of the biological reductionists has grown much stronger. There are probably many reasons Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon Kamin failed to persuade the world that behavioral genetics is bunk. A chief factor is the steep rhetorical gradient presented by the multifaceted attractiveness of genetic explanations of behavior, a topic I have discussed numerous times. Nevertheless, one reason for the book’s failure to persuade is, as the Beatles announced, “If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.”

Although the authors’ Marxist account of biological reductionism is interesting and, in some respects, cogent, it came at the wrong time and is addressed to the wrong audience. Neither Brits, nor especially Americans are or were prepared to accept arguments based on Marx about anything whatsoever. That would go double or triple in the period immediately before and after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Not In Our Genes is sprinkled with references to “bourgeois” society and values; it returns again and again to the tired language of class struggle. Rather than basing their argument simply on the manifest incoherence of behavioral genetics, they based it on an admittedly interesting Marxist historical analysis of behavioral genetics as a reflection of capitalism. As if to demonstrate that they adhere to Lenin and therefore reject John Lennon’s injunction, the authors actually refer positively to Mao as a social “theorist.” So blinded were Lewontin, et al., by their ideology that they could not see how such a remark regarding one of the great mass murderers of all time would land like a clunker with their intended readers, the educated English-speaking public. In addition, they opened themselves up to dismissal as confused commies by those, such as Richard Dawkins, who would rather not respond to the substance of their argument. It’s a shame.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The Book Circle

Filed under: Behavioral Genetics,Human Evolution,Psychomyths,Race,Science — drtone @ 10:10 am

The other day, passages in the book I just finished, The Metaphysical Club, regarding the succession of “truths” in science triggered me to look up “sociobiology” in Wikipedia, and I wrote a short post on the subject. In a striking coincidence, the Wikipedia article on sociobiology referred to a New Yorker review of a Steven Pinker book by Louis Menand written about the time he finished the The Metaphysical Club, suggesting to me that perhaps he saw a connection between the content of his book and foolishness of evolutionary psychology. Indeed, Menand’s book is filled with discussions of Darwinian evolution and its uses within debate about social issues, discussions that had stimulated me to post on scientific racism and specifically on Louis Agassiz, making the point that the scientific consensus is often misleading, The same Wikipedia article referred to a 1985 book I had long meant to read, Not In Our Genes, by Lewontin, Rose & Kamin, a famous work deeply critical of  biological reductionism. I decided that it was past time for me to read it, given my own longstanding interest in the subject, and I ordered a copy from Amazon. Almost before they start, the authors of this latter book discuss both Agassiz and the often bogus authority of “science.” It is as if an invisible teacher is guiding my reading.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

“Heroes,” Genetics And Nonsense

Mainly because Netflix said I might like it, I streamed the first two episodes of the first season of “Heroes,” the NBC science-fiction drama. The basic idea of the show is that, scattered across the globe, there are individuals whose genetics gives them extraordinary powers, flight, invulnerability, teleportation, mind-reading, etc. The faith that the creator of the show, Tim Kring, places in genetic science is touching, puzzling, and fucking frightening.

The larger theme of the show, that evolution has produced people whose DNA is the key to the next step in human evolution, places genetics within a magical context. Because their heredity dramatically determines the destinies of the main characters in the show, who are among the genetic elect, genetics is portrayed as a mystical force, not unlike the force determining that only Arthur can draw Uther Pendragon’s sword from the Stone. Just as people once took for granted the divine right of kings, which was a theological construct, they now take for granted a scientific construct, thoroughgoing genetic determinism. Each construct is culturally coherent: The medieval creators of the King Arthur legend could not have accepted an explanation of his gifts based on genetics; nor could members of modern industrialized society, including most of the very religious, accept an explanation of someone’s gifts based on mystical election by God.

The writers have bolstered the show’s “scientific” basis by including a subplot involving the “genetics” of depression. When one of the mother of one of the main characters, Peter, tells him that , although Peter had not known it previously, his father had been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder at age 25, resulting in suicide, decades later. She is concerned about Peter because, as she says in AMA-approved language, “the disorder may have a genetic component,” and Peter is a sensitive, susceptible type. Sadly, we live in a time when such drivel has entered the very warp and woof of our culture.

The best propaganda does not, of course, appear to be propaganda. Propagandists know that a genuine argument is not the most persuasive form of communication. Rational discussion confuses people, and furthermore blunts the point at issue. That is what makes “Heroes” such a strong piece of propaganda. Like any decent piece of fiction, it requires suspension of disbelief. In order to enjoy the drama, one must accept genetic determinism, including the possibility that there are, as the show postulates, seemingly ordinary people whose DNA brings them extraordinary powers.

Monday, 8 November 2010

“Real” Empathy

Filed under: Emotion,Human Evolution — drtone @ 10:14 am

I suppose it’s a good thing to have someone like Jeremy Rifkin out there promoting  peace and human togetherness. Nevertheless, it does matter what means he uses. If he begins with distortions and confusions, he will end up propagating a confused, distorted view of the world.

In this talk about empathy, Rifkin begins his argument by citing the existence of “mirror neurons,” implying that they are the basis of empathy in higher animals. Notice that there is not a single subsequent point in his argument about the ability of humans to identify with larger and larger social entities that depends on the existence of mirror neurons or their role in producing the phenomenon of empathy. Whether mirror neurons are responsible for it or not, the existence of empathy is not in question. Indeed, Rifkin’s seemingly well-ordered argument has a missing middle: Mirror neurons are near the beginning of the pathway to perception and cognition, but empathy is an affective phenomenon.

Humans everywhere experience empathy all the time. (I am about to go to my office to empathize with clients.) It is as if, just in case there is someone in authority out there who has never experienced empathy, Rifkin must “prove” to that person that empathy is “real” because it is caused by some identifiable physical structure. If you ever wondered whether materialism has triumphed, now you know.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Promissory Materialism

Sir John Eccles, the Nobel-winning Australian neurophysiologist, coined the term “promissory materialism” for the doctrine that all mental states can be reduced to and explained by physiological states in the nervous system. Eccles  famously defended a theistic scientific position, but his insight need not be confined to the terms of debates about the existence of God. Much of what passes as “science” today depends on extrapolation from murky results to a description of life as a mere unraveling the strands of DNA.

Daniel Dennet, Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins, among others, have promoted a theory of mind as a highly specialized organ that evolved as the human race evolved. Such a mind is a collection of specific faculties or modules almost literally designed for specific tasks, with its origins in the workings of the brain. This theory confuses levels of being, and draws its conclusions based largely on literally murky photos of the brain taken using advanced radiological techniques.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

How Dogs Appeared: Wolf And Boy

Filed under: Human Evolution — drtone @ 6:52 am
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Two main explanations are offered for the evolution of dogs from wolves. The first is that humans took wolf puppies and reared them for reasons unknown. The second is that some wolves sought to ally themselves with humans, and that humans recognized the value of the wolf as a hunting partner. This second, more plausible explanation is usually accompanied by the assumption that the wolves originally domesticated were “bold,” because they were not afraid of humans, but were willing to hang out near humans to pick up their scraps. The problem with this scenario is that it  does not explain the wolf’s choice of human scraps over hunting with the pack, the wolf’s family. It also does not account for the close interaction of humans with a “bold” competing predator.

Instead of the boldest wolves, the best “dogs” would have been the more timid wolves. The “omega” members of a wolf pack, the lowest in the dominance hierarchy, are already conditioned to submit to the demands of an “alpha” individual. They are often the younger, more malleable members of the pack, as well. Therefore, these omegas would have been the easiest to domesticate. They would also have the greatest motivation to stray from the pack for food and better treatment. In addition, because they are relatively young, the most submissive wolves would have been more appealing to humans, with their greatest appeal being to the younger humans. A boy and his dog might be one of the longest running shows on earth.

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