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This is my personal blog. This is the place where I rant and witter inanely about all sorts of things that take my interest from opposition to odious far right groups to personal learning projects such as my intermittent studies on evolutionary psychology.

If you’ve arrived here looking for information on my mental health and social care training and consultancy services you might want to click this link instead. That’ll take you to my commercial website: The Care Guy

You might also enjoy taking a look at Care To Share Magazine while you’re about it. That’s not affiliated with my business at all (or indeed anyone’s business). It’s a community of people who are interested in sharing ideas and insights into social care without any distractions from political ideologies, corporate agenda or media ‘fashion’.

Hard wired 23: Group selection

In the last post we considered kin selection, the tendency of humans to favour close relatives (those with whom share the most genetic material) over strangers, regardless of how deserving of our help those strangers may be. However, whilst there is much to support the idea of kin selection it’s clearly not the whole story. Humans help all sorts of people, not just close relatives and kin selection just can’t account for that. But group selection can.

As hominid populations grew our human and pre-human ancestors must have come into contact more and more with non-relatives and they will have had to decide to co-operate (or not) with others from outside their immediate group of relatives. They needed a way to recognise who to help and who to ignore, or even attack.

In an earlier post I described ‘Tit for tat’, the simple but incredibly effective programme of responses that won the evolutionary competition to decide who to co-operate with, without becoming an easy mark for exploiters.

The idea was remarkably straightforward. In short it consisted of just 4 rules to apply to co-operative relationships with other programmes:

  1. Never be the first to defect (defecting means ‘cheating’ to you and me)
  2. Retaliate only after your partner has defected
  3. Be prepared to forgive after carrying out just one act of retaliation
  4. Adopt this strategy only if the probability of meeting the same player again exceeds 2/3.

This simple protocol which could easily have evolved out of pre-existing kin selection protocols provides an effective (and unthinking) system for deciding who to work with and who to avoid. It relies upon repeated meetings to work, of course but in the Pleistocene the chances of repeated meetings would be pretty high. After all – lone humanoids weren’t likely to survive for long so group living was pretty much the only option. Consequently a Tit for tat protocol meant that those who were trustworthy survived to reproduce whilst those who were not trustworthy were ostracised, rejected or cast out.

This elegant little heuristic isn’t just neat – it’s also still going strong. Think about modern human emotions and social morality in terms of Tit for tat:

  1. At first meeting do unto others as you would have them do unto you;
  2. If slighted feel anger and ‘righteous outrage’;
  3. Punish or ostracise the wrongdoer;
  4. Forgive the wrongdoer if he changes and repents (including undertakes not to do it again);
  5. Forgiveness is divine (and self-serving if you need co-operation to survive).

Silver jubilee street partyAs groups developed Tit for tat strategies (or rather became filled with increasing numbers of unconscious ‘Tit for tat’ operators) a different kind of group loyalty began. Kin selection was joined by ‘group selection’. Indeed – it is very likely that the shift from kin selection to group selection was the beginning of altruism. We can be nice to other members of our group (effectively everyone we’d ever meet during most of the Pleistocene era) because they can be relied upon to be nice to us in return. The payoff may not be immediate but it is owed – and it will be paid. It’s not just a free gift – it’s reciprocal altruism which, like most human behaviour is driven by emotion (in this case sympathy, empathy and compassion) rather than a rational calculation of the odds.

This indiscriminate emotional driver which evolved in the context of small groups of familiar people looks rather different in the modern world where human altruism is directed not just at those we know but also at those we have never known. That’s because however reciprocal the original mechanism was the urge to help those in need is emotional. It feels unconditional. So altruism can be directed outside our own group, ironically because when it evolved our own group was effectively all there was. There is however a downside to the drive for group selection and altruism…..

I know that I can trust members of my own group but I can’t necessarily trust members of your group. So I’ll favour my own group over yours. In times of hardship and scarcity I’ll even seek to destroy your group to increase my group’s chances of obtaining precious resources. It’s easy to see how a small tribe of early humans might seek to drive away or even destroy a rival tribe during times of famine when food supplies dwindled. What many people don’t realise is that the same unconscious drive toward ‘group selection’ is still going strong today.

The more pressured and threatened a group feels the greater its hostility to other groups. The greater its xenophobia. This is as true for families as it is for social demographics, those whose livelihoods are threatened and, of course nation states. Jingoism, national pride, religious conflicts, political arguments and even football rivalries all become more vicious and heated as one or both side begins to feel threatened. You may feel good about flying your national flag but the reason it feels so positive is because you need to be able to ignore or even hurt immigrants or other foreign nationals without remorse.

GuiltNot that there’s no benefit to feelings of remorse and guilt. When dealing with our own group it’s absolutely vital that we can feel bad if we’ve harmed another. That feeling of guilt and remorse will drive us to make amends – the conditions that allow us to be forgiven in a predominantly Tit for tat environment.

If we don’t show remorse we don’t get forgiven. And let’s face it – we really need to be forgiven. That’s why convicted criminals who don’t show remorse in court receive harsher sentences than those who do. It makes no difference to the severity of the offence they committed but it prompts compassion and forgiveness from the judge.

Make no mistake – guilt is a self-serving emotion. That’s why it’s so easy for most people to get past their initial feelings of guilt after a transgression once it becomes clear that they’ve ‘got away with it’. It’s also why guilty feelings increase as the likelihood of discovery grows. The emotion of guilt drives us to confess (when discovery is imminent) and try to make amends. But when discovery is not imminent most humans can justify most of their actions to themselves and move on without much remorse at all. The emotion has nothing to do with notions of right and wrong per se and everything to do with our own social standing. After all – the last thing we want is to de de-selected by the group. In the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation that would almost certainly have resulted in a hasty death.

Hard wired 22: Kin selection

As we know there is much, much more to reproductive fitness than merely having sexual intercourse. We increase our chances of reproducing by ensuring longevity (dead animals don’t breed), by increasing social status for males (high status males fertilise more females) and by ensuring effective nurturing in females (dead babies are an expensive waste of biological resources). If that last sentence seems sexist it’s because it is – at least it is by modern standards.

Pleistocene family groupRemember that our evolved traits and tendencies didn’t arise in the modern world – they evolved in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA) otherwise known as the Pleistocene era. This is the period that began around 2.5 million years ago with the arrival of Homo erectus and ended around 12,000 years ago. The Pleistocene predates civilisation as we know it today with the first cities only arising between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago, let alone modern notions of sexual equality. What seems sexist today was less of an issue then.

The adaptive division of labour along gender lines would have been much less problematic than it is today. The differences between men and women so strenuously denied by some in today’s world evolved precisely because they helped our species to survive and thrive in the distant past. Small bands of hunter gatherers engaged in a constant battle against predation, starvation and the elements had little time to worry about the perceived unfairness of gender divisions. Indeed – the only divisions they were likely to consider were around kin and tribe. Little else matters very much in small, interdependent, subsistence economies. So for now we’ll talk about male status and female nurturing. Later we’ll consider the proprietary attitude of males to females, the constant male paranoia relating to cuckoldry and the remarkably unfair sexual double standard that leads to the remarkably irrational ‘Madonna/Whore dichotomy’. But for now we’ll keep it simple.

  • Strong, high status males get more sex.
  • Chaste, nurturing females get more male parental investment for their kids.

Add to this a simple equation about relatives and we have the basis of mutual co-operation within family groups (tribes) intended to boost genetic fitness among those who share genetic material at the expense of those who do not. It’s important to remember that there is no need for individual Homo erectus, Homo habilis, or even Homo sapiens consciously to calculate these odds. They simply need to behave as if they had and that’s where emotions come in. Natural selection favoured those Hominids who favoured relatives because their genes survived more often than the genes of Hominids who did not.

The equation is based upon genetic closeness and it works like this….

  • I carry 100% of my genetic material.
  • My son or daughter carries half of my genetic material.
  • My brother shares approximately half of my genetic material.
  • My brother’s son or daughter carries approximately a quarter of my genetic material.
  • My nephew’s son or daughter carries approximately one eighth of my genetic material.

Since natural selection favours those animals who protect their own genetic material it makes sense for me to favour my closest relatives (in descending order) before I even consider helping those not directly related to me. Consequently, by favouring close relatives (even without understanding the genetic calculation) I make it more likely that my own genetic material will survive. As more of that genetic material survives (inevitably at the expense of the genetic material of those Hominids who do not survive) the species moves more and more toward a bias of helping relatives until eventually there is nobody left who thinks differently. Once this universal saturation of aiding relatives is reached the practice of favouring relatives can be described as a part of ‘Human nature’.

This is why females are more likely to nurture, adopt or share the care of close relatives than the children of strangers.

This is why men are more likely to defend the ‘honour’ of female relatives (even committing murder) than that of non-related women.

This is also why step-children are significantly more likely to suffer neglect, abuse or even murder at the hands of step-fathers who would otherwise be expected to expend their parental resources nurturing somebody else’s genetic material.

This whole process of favouring relatives for special consideration is known as kin-selection. It’s one of the evolutionary forces that leads to loyalty (in this case family loyalty) and is expressed in less formal language with maxims such as….

“Blood is thicker than water” or

“Charity begins at home”.

The fact that this kin selection has nothing to do with the personal qualities or deservingness of the relative to be helped is irrelevant. The deciding factor is genetic closeness. That’s what natural selection favoured and that’s what we’re stuck with today. We’d rather see a deserving stranger starve to death than a thoroughly unpleasant relative, especially a close relative. That may not be particularly fair or rational but it is the most viable option for our genes and that, in the final analysis is all that matters for natural selection purposes.

Hard wired 21: Emotion and morality

In the previous post I made the claim that emotions drive our behaviour and that morality is in fact much more self-serving than most of us would like to admit. I gave an illustration of this in an earlier post (part 15 of the series) when we discussed loyalty. This human drive which links both to emotionality and to morality is actually one of the basest of our inbuilt behaviours, born as it is out of xenophobia and paranoia. It is useful only in so far as it allows us to feel good about doing bad things.

The fact that loyalty feels moral is precisely the point. It’s the psychological rule of thumb (be loyal) that gives rise to emotions (guilt, anxiety) whenever we consider being disloyal. Those irrational emotions allow us to behave badly to those outside our own group with a clear conscience. We are convinced by the emotions we feel that loyalty is good, even though the behaviours that loyalty prompts are inherently unfair and even cruel.

It would be bad enough if it was only loyalty that so confused our moral sense – our notions of right and wrong. However, as shall see, loyalty is but one example of a much more widespread psychological problem. The reality is that human beings are not only irrational – we are essentially hypocritical, self-serving, cruel and gratuitously vindictive. What’s worse, most of the time we don’t even know it.

That’s another purpose of the unthinking mental short-cut, the heuristic we discussed earlier. It hides our true motives not only from others but from ourselves as well. Indeed – self-deception is a recurring and extremely important part of our evolved survival strategies. If we actually knew what we were doing we’d find it much harder to convince others that our intentions were pure. By deceiving ourselves about our true motives we become much better at deceiving others who, like us, are evolved organisms with a particularly sophisticated system for spotting liars and cheats. So we fool ourselves in order to fool others into trusting us as we lie and cheat our way through life.

Morality signpostThat’s precisely why the main drivers of behaviour are emotions rather than thoughts. Thinking things through makes it harder for us to deceive ourselves and that makes our attempts to deceive others easier to spot. We’re not rational creatures at all. We’re emotional animals with a peculiar knack for fooling ourselves into believing in the illusion of rationality. Such is the subtle deception that natural selection favoured so completely.

The best liars convince themselves. Through self-deception they don’t just act sincere – they ARE sincere. This makes them easy to trust which gives them a reproductive advantage in terms not only of sexual activity but also in status and longevity. Consequently their DNA is more likely to make it through the generations at the expense of genes providing greater insight whose living, biological vehicles (apes and humans alike) just couldn’t compete in the mutually exploitative arenas of primate society and selective sexuality.

Remember that the ‘aim’ of natural selection (so far as unthinking processes can have an aim – and, of course they can’t) is never to raise self-awareness – it’s just to raise genetic/reproductive fitness and replicate genetic material. That’s it. As Dawkins put it in The Greatest Show On Earth: The evidence for evolution’, we really are nothing more than elaborate DNA replicating machines. Everything we do and everything we feel has evolved to increase our prospects of transferring our DNA into the next generation.

Hard-wired 20: Heading into dangerous territory

I haven’t updated the Hard-wired blog series for a long time. That’s partly because I’ve been busy doing other things, partly because I’ve been learning more about the subject of evolutionary psychology and partly because I’m actually a little reluctant to put what I’ve been learning ‘out there’ in an easily accessible blog.

That’s because I know what might happen. I may well find myself under attack from a range of ideological groups (some radical, some not) who may well react defensively to the insights I’ve learned over the last year or so. Ironically I even understand more fully than before why that might happen in evolutionary terms – not that such insight will make the attacks, should they happen, any easier to deal with.

Nevertheless – the series really can’t progress without some understanding of these basic principles of universal human nature and the less than pleasant realities of many of societies most treasured institutions and ideological assumptions. So I’m going to rely upon the relative lack of comments that my blog usually attracts (or indeed doesn’t attract) and press on anyway. Who knows – I might just get away with it!

In any event I’m about to attack many of the underlying principles of morality, social organisation, the judiciary, political systems, religion and the family unit. Don’t expect it to be pretty. It will, however be sincere.

The universal emotion

emotion arrayMuch of our ‘morality’, our sense of right and wrong is driven by emotions. Emotions are the sticks that natural selection used to drive us to take particular courses of action in particular circumstances. And those behaviours won out in the natural selection ‘race’ because they increase reproductive fitness. That’s it. That’s all natural selection ever responds to. The greater your genes’ chances of reproducing, the greater will be those same genes’ chances of being selected in the ongoing process of evolution. That’s why all humans experience the same set of emotions – they’re universal because they’re hard-wired. Indeed they’re so hard-wired that most people never even consider the possibility that they might have been different.

We’re all familiar with frustration, guilt, anger, sadness, anxiety and the many incremental emotions leading directly to sexual intercourse from simple lust and the urge to possess to more complex feelings of love, protective urges and jealousy. We all know and understand these emotions because we have all experienced them – and we know that other humans experience them too. What we rarely consider is the idea that there might be other emotions that we don’t experience but that others do.

Of course there aren’t any variations here. Human animals experience the same emotions across all races or cultures. Even the occasional aberration (sociopaths for example) remain the same from race to race and culture to culture. For emotions to be different from what they are is unthinkable. That’s because they’re genetically determined – they evolved in our DNA and they have been as they are for a very long time indeed. And they exist not to help society as a whole, nor are our emotions (and the behaviours they prompt) there to ensure the survival of other people or animals, although that may well be their immediate effect. Our emotions evolved purely to help increase out reproductive fitness. That is all.

Have you ever stopped to wonder why you feel empathy or sympathy, for example? Have you ever asked yourself what feelings of guilt are for or why guiltiness increases when the likelihood of discovery also goes up? What is the purpose of sadness or depression and why is it a good thing to be paralysed with fear like the stereotypical ‘lamped rabbit’?

Why do we feel moral indignation and what’s the purpose of gossip? For that matter why on earth would hostility be more common when there’s an audience to witness it? And why do humans get so wound up about ‘the principle of the thing’ when they feel slighted?

Perhaps more significantly, why is it that extremist ‘street movements’ like the far right ‘English defence League’ and ‘Britain First’ draw so much of their support from single young men who seem to have such limited ‘reproductive potential’? Why are some young women attracted to promiscuity and polygamy whilst others hold out for lifelong commitment with a single man instead?

For that matter why is that lifelong commitment so hard to maintain? What’s the real cause of the ‘7 year itch’ and why can’t we believe even our own protestations of undying love? To put it another way – have human beings more in common with Gibbons or with Bonoboes?

If you’re interested in the answers to these and other questions then read on – but prepare to be offended. This is far from a politically correct blog series but it will be a sincere (and I hope scientifically sound) one.

European Court upheld French veil ban

Today the European Court of Human Rights has struck a blow for freedom by, er… erm…. well…..
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The European court has stood up for the freedom of religious expression through its decision to…. to…. well it….. er….

In a bid to protect devout Muslim women who wear the veil as a religious observance from isolation the ECtHR has made it easier for them to show their faces in public by er…. well… by making it harder for them to leave their homes. This upholds their freedom of conscience because….. er….

Still – it’ll please these nice Britain First guys who never hide their own faces at all.

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Can you say “Hypocrisy”?

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Why I won’t go quietly

I’ve lost another friend tonight. Or at least I will soon. Either she will unfriend me or, assuming that she continues to advertise funding links to Britain First on her facebook page, I’ll unfriend her. Fortunately this one is just a facebook contact, not a real life friend, but it’s still sad.

A few people have asked me why I’m so adamant about this. After all, “it’s only their opinion” to support this neoNazi group – can’t I respect their right to their opinion?

The answer is, of course, “Yes, I can”. I respect their right to finance a group of neoNazi street thugs by posting paypal links on their social media accounts. But I also have the right not to associate myself with such people.

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This is more than just a difference of opinion. This is about supporting either street militia or human rights. It’s not possible to support both. Nor, in my view is it acceptable or realistic to pretend that it doesn’t involve all of us….

“First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.”
(Pastor Martin Niemoller)

Britain First attacks my Muslim and non white neighbours. I’m neither black, Asian nor Muslim but I am a member of this society. And divisive, neoNazi bigotry affects us all equally. We cannot be neutral. We can only act or look the other way.

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If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
(Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

To look the other way when friends advertise funding links for this group of thugs is to pretend that it’s OK. That’s the wrong message. It’s not OK at all. It’s divisive, destructive and I genuinely think that opposing these fascists is a duty.

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (Edmund Burke)

That’s why I’ve ended a few relationships. It’s also why I’m very clear with the other person about why. There should be a social consequence to antisocial behaviour. I can think of few behaviours more antisocial than funding groups who victimise innocent citizens on the grounds of skin colour, nationality or religious beliefs.

Some people just quietly unfriend people and ‘slink away’. To my mind that’s inadequate. People need to understand why they’ve been rejected. How else will we encourage them to reconsider? Slinking away may well be easier but it’s hardly effective.

We need to stand up and be counted.
We need to oppose the neoNazi scourge.
And we need to have the courage to tell our contacts (and sometimes our former friends) why.

United we stand,
Divided we fall!

I want to be part of a peaceful society so I’ll stand shoulder to shoulder with my black, Asian and Muslim neighbours in open defiance of all those who seek to harm them.

Will you?

Britain First: The far right ‘Dad’s Army’

In case you missed it last night. This was Channel 4 news’ broadcast exposing the reality of Britain First. Don’t be fooled. They’re not about saving puppies or respecting old soldiers.

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Britain First is a fundamentalist Christian group engaged in what they see as a Holy war against Muslims. They exist to start a conflict within British society (and car park barriers).

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Yes – they’re a joke now but let’s not laugh so hard that we forget the damage that Britain First can cause. Please spread the word and ensure people don’t fall for their lies.

Please watch the video (it’s quite short) and follow ‘Exposing Britain First’

Facebook

Twitter @ExposingBF

Here’s the link to that video once again

http://www.channel4.com/news/britain-first-far-right-anti-muslim-extremists-mosques

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