Satirical and otherwise ironic comments on psychology, from the idiot who brings you 'Dr. Mezmer's Psychopedia of Bad Psychology' (500+ pages of stupidity) and 'One Track Minds, The Surprising Psychology of the Internet', available at amazon.com and for free a scribd.com. Also visit my new blog at vbsneworleans.blogspot.com wherein I take on bad technology.
Search This Blog
Saturday, July 02, 2005
Gene and Mimi
Once upon a time, when the earth was new, there was this inorganic chemical. Let’s call him Gene. Now Gene was rather simple as chemicals go, as we was made up of only a few simple strands of molecules. Existing as he did in an antediluvian broth, life was, or rather non-life was tough for entities like Gene. Unpleasant things like sunshine, lightning bolts, and temperature extremes always shook up his solution, resulting in unfortunate fractures in his molecular chain. Without thinking, Gene soon came up with an answer to his predicament. He would simply evolve a molecular shell to protect himself from all those nasty events, a survival machine of sorts to provide him a way to inertly repose and from time to time replicate. It came natural to Gene that he would make something out of himself. In his case, it was more of himself, although when he went about this process he was quite divided. Pretty soon Gene was all over the place, as he continued to divide and divide. This Gene pool soon became very crowded, and it was impossible to replicate further without the necessary raw materials. So Gene evolved a new version of his molecular shell that enabled him to cannibalize all his other duplicates that weren’t so well equipped. Having done so, Gene again began to divide and divide. The other Genes however weren’t going to take this lying dormant, and soon they evolved their own molecular add-ons that provided them with a tougher shell, higher mobility, or cannibalizing capabilities of their own. To meet this growing competition, Genes began to cooperate by linking up with one another, with each Gene assigned a specific job. Naturally, certain Genes would do their jobs better than others, and a way was need to select for those genes that could best contribute to the Gene team. Soon, Gene chains were meeting regularly to exchange genetic material. This allowed each chain to test out new combinations of gene talent in the ever more competitive game of life. The evolution of the periodic genetic exchange, which is also known as sex, caused a veritable explosion in the complexity and type of survival machines. More and more genes came together in ever lengthening communities, and soon the world was well populated with a growing assortment of lumbering and colliding molecular robots. Now Gene was a naturally passive and inert sort, and each robot, when constructed and wound up, would only follow the preset instructions that it was originally given. Gene couldn’t modify these instructions when situations rapidly changed, as they surely would; and he needed some apparatus to provide a kind of automatic pilot for his aimlessly cavorting robot. So Gene naturally selected an array of sensors to be attached to the outside shell. These sensors were reactive to a variety of changing stimuli such as water pressure, sound and light, and were hooked up by a series of molecular strings which wound about the machine. This ‘nervous system’ gave Gene the means to automatically coordinate the increasingly complexity of his survival machine.
Yet, even when equipped with a wide range of reflexes, the Gene machine could only react when it confronted a new situation, and not before. To react before a situation occurs demands that the probabilities of certain events be calculated before a certain movement was made. To do this, an internal simulation of the outside environment has to be performed that would give the machine the foresight to react to impending events. A computational device was obviously needed. In short, Gene need his own PC, or personal cerebrum. Since Gene needed to model external events internally, that means that his PC had to categorize and classify all of the information that he received from his sensors. Larger PC’s and sensory modems gave Gene increasing capabilities to process and receive ever greater amounts of information, and soon Gene’s centralized nervous system became very specialized. Marvelous optical, acoustical, and olfactory devices were evolved as attachments to the PC. These knob like devices, also called the eyes, ears, and nose, were hooked up in close proximity to the PC, which was by then encased in a bone colored shell that was able to swivel about on its vertebrate stand. Soon the PC was able to make extremely detailed models of the outside world in three dimensions, and in living color. These models were stored in memory, and the PC was able to call up former memories at will and project out all sorts of what-if situations. As the PC’s memory grew, it became able to perform an every increasing array of mental tricks, such as controlling many thousands of operations at once (multitasking), and making models of the models of the models it created. The PC itself was able to perceive itself perceiving, and soon it became quite conscious of this fact. The PC thought, therefore it was, and it became oblivious to the fact that it was after all just a machine built to serve Gene. Some gratitude!
The latest version of the PC, called the homo-sapiens, was hampered by this pesky self consciousness, yet it nonetheless followed Gene’s programmed imperative and shortly became the PC standard. Soon other non-human PC’s were destroyed to make room for the new model, or else they were consigned to PC museums (zoos) for the instruction of young homo-sapiens.
The current model of the homo-sapiens PC most commonly in use is the PC-XT, or short for Xtra threatening. This PC is equipped with external memory storage devices (books) which allow it to access more information than ever before. With such information available, homo-sapiens is able to construct for itself a near infinite array of devices to improve its mobility (the car), hallucinatory powers (TV), and competitive capabilities (guns and nuclear missiles).
In spite of the PC’s unpredictable hijinks, Gene still retained control over the important PC programs that were crucial to his continued duplication. The most important was the automatic orientation and duplication mechanism, or in other words, the sex drive. Sex was obviously a more complicated trick for Gene than in the good old, old days, when all that was needed was a cup of nutrient broth and a willing cell or two. For the homo sapiens gene machine, special input and output ports had to be designed for the easy transfer of genetic material, and triggering mechanisms had to be in place to signal when the gene machines were to hook up. Random coupling was undesirable given the homo-sapiens PC’s ability to visually sort our prime reproductive candidates. To do this, the PC was programmed with special pattern recognition subroutines which were directly hooked up to the sex drive. Upon recognition of a suitable form, the PC would orient towards the object, input port at the ready, in preparation for a possible interface leading to coupling. For the male of the species, this form takes an hour glass shape, with special attention drawn to two round bulges located in the front anterior. For the female, a more blockish shape is preferred, with special emphasis on rippling striated musculature. For both sexes however, Gene was quite unadventurous regarding facial features, preferring t link up with those males and females who had rather regular and bland facial designs. Gene had always had his best success by staying with tried and true designs, and these extended to a uniformity in those optical acoustical, and olfactory knobs, which when set to an oval face, made something rather ordinary looking. However, to the homo-sapiens, it was beautiful.
The homo-sapiens is complex, and takes about nine months to construct. The female homo-sapiens is provided with an internal factory which builds to order new gene machines from the DNA blueprints, half of which are kindly ported over by the male. The internal duplication factory takes up most of the resources of the female, whereas the male can continue to hop from female to female making genetic deliveries. If he’s good, he’d soon become a captain or should we say father of industry, and have many factories humming along merrily and at little cost to himself. Naturally, the female can’t go hopping about like the male, as she needs a full time male to help take delivery of her bundle of joy. If the gene machine was male, then Gene could theoretically leverage out his genetic blueprints to make literally hundreds of baby gene machines in his image. Not so for the female gene machine, which can only make a few machines in her lifetime, and raise them only with the help of the male. Depending upon whether he dwelled in a male or female machine, Gene would be at an advantage or disadvantage relative to his peers. To help solve this problem, Gene became sexist. The male gene continued to impart operating instructions which spelled no limit to acquisition and merger activity. All that was needed for a ‘go’ signal was the right visual signal, of hourglass shape of course, that denoted the reproductive potential of the female. For the female, the visual image of a male didn’t so obviously denote the characteristics which were crucial to her and her offspring’s survival. She could ill afford to respond so reflexively to the male form, so she took her time in examining the male, and favored traits that demonstrated the male’s reliability, power, and devotion to her. Now all this demanded time and deliberation by the female PC, yet Gene quite reasonably couldn’t wait forever. So he gave the PC a little shove which turned ambivalence into action. He did this by making the PC into a drug addict.
Now Gene was a quite sensible drug pusher, wanting only that the PC opt to fantasize about devotion and coupling before he would give it a pleasurable high. Even the male gene got into the act, and to make the male PC compromise its own worldly ways, drugged it from time to time as well. This drub induced stupor was called ‘falling in love’, and it served Gene by putting an abrupt halt to the sexual dilly dallying that could make male and female gene machines circle each other endlessly in fruitless negotiation. It was quite an underhanded tactic of course, but Gene would do anything to survive; it came of course quite naturally.
The Selfish Gene
Our tale of Gene touches originality only with humor, and owes itself to ideas first expressed by Richard Dawkins in his book ‘The Selfish Gene’. Dawkins ingeniously traces the true evolutionary course or purpose of nature to forces and currents which are seemingly at cross purposes to those personal and cultural agendas that e normally think symbolized our place in the cultural order of things. The natural processes that have over the eons culminated in life and the living phenomenon of man were essentially mindless as well as formless. This abstract imperative for matter to evolve finds its easiest representation in that traveling wave of rapid physical change which transformed a single cell into that marvelous machine we call man. That man cold descend from a primitive n celled organism is not difficult to understand if we not that for us, nature has shortened the trick to only nine months. We are but the culminating product of a little chromosomal mechanism that assembled us bit by bit according to a genetic code.
Dawkins maintains that biological organisms can be viewed as relatively huge molecular robots or ‘survival machines’ that but mirrored the evolving instructional code that comprised a molecule called a chromosome. That is, it’s not whether the chicken or the egg came first, since neither really counts; only the instructional code counts. Chickens, eggs, and human beings are only outward representatives of the code in action, much like a building is an outward manifestation of a blueprint. And a chromosome, non-descript entity that it is, evolved its code to survive, and its molecular shell or machine was indubitably just a mindless and toddling robot, until of course, it was given a mind.
To Dawkins, a mind evolved because of the need to coordinate the many complex functions of the molecular machine, and also to simulate the countless alternatives for action that presented themselves in each succeeding instant. How this simulating capability evolved into consciousness is another story, yet the imprint of society and culture upon the mind in the form of thought forms an entirely new set of commands that places man often at cross purposes with the instinctive dictates of the ‘selfish gene’.
In the next chapter, we will continue with the adventures of Gene, and show how the seductive wiles of culture can sway humans away from Gene’s usually irresistible dictates. But before we do so, we need to sort out those ‘instinctive’ behaviors that are unique by-products of this genetic dictate.
The most obvious attribute of an instinctive behavior is its resistance to any strong correlation with any identifiable pattern of experience. In other words, it doesn’t necessarily follow that this situation or that situation correlates with and thus predicts a certain behavior. That behavior simply occurs, as if it popped out of nowhere.
The best example of an instinctive behavior is the sex drive. In general, men and women possess sexual sensitivities and tendencies that are gender specific. Although both sexes are very sexual by nature, men and women use their sexuality in markedly different ways. Indeed, one of the root causes for much of the confusion and animosity between the sexes is the misunderstanding by both sexes of each other’s very different sexual agendas.
One way to illustrate and understand these unique instinctual traits is through the correlation of these traits with the environmental pressures of ages long past that tin effect ‘selected’ the behavioral tendencies we note today. The discipline that establishes such correlations is called sociobiology, and represents an extension of evolutionary biology to the instinctual behaviors of men and animals. A sociobiological interpretation of sexuality maintains that male and female sexual agendas differ not because of some individual sexual perversity of men and women, but because the survival of the species depends at least historically upon it. Only those who developed these instincts survived, and they are our ancestors.
The value of sociobiology is not that it suggests better ways for us to behave; we don’t need an understanding of evolution to know that men and women are different. Its real value lies in its ability to absolve us of some of the guilt we have accumulated for having very natural inclinations. Morality can overrule, but it can never reshape our instincts. Sociobiology allows us to acknowledge these instincts, and to quell our often puritanical urges to be something we can never be.
The Evolution of Sexuality
In the animal kingdom, there is also a weaker of the two sexes that suffers through many of the subordinate roles that the human female has long been subjected to. This sex is effeminate, passive, vain, fickle, and even apathetic about staying at home to raise the offspring. Moreover, this sex is often kicked around, abandoned, and can even be eaten by its mate if it doesn’t mind its place. A sad state of affairs certainly, yet no less ironic, since this sex is the male.
It seems strange that except for us humans and a few other species, the subordinate role in the animal world is assumed by the male. The male is the weak link, the expendable partner that is good for its periodic contribution to reproduction, and little else. The key to this topsy-turvy role play is one simple fact: namely the capability of the female to bear and provide for its offspring. If the male can’t contribute in any significant manner to this task, he simply gets in the way, and is promptly booted out of the way if he persists as an obstruction. Of course, the male does have an important albeit passive role of sorts to play. He simply looks and acts pretty. Males are instinctively vain because their most significant contribution to the viability of their species is their genetic role as parents, and what better way to advertise your fitness as a papa than by flaunting your stuff? Because females determine the best reproductive candidate by noting his relative health and robustness, males naturally display and evolution naturally selects those attributes that advertise best these qualities. And as with all advertising, what you see is not necessarily what you get. Because advertising’s the thing, nature then selects for advertising, and males develop a host of physical attributes that exaggerate and even caricature the practical functions these attributes were originally meant to provide.
Much like the way human males react to human females whose attributes are, to put it mildly, rather inflated, so too do many females in many animal species react with wide-eyed abandon towards those males who are similarly distended. If say, you’re a female cock-a-too, a large bill and wide breast may be a sign that your prospective mate is in good health and is a prime reproductive candidate. If that bill is twice as large and that breast twice as wide, it may make the male look awkward and ridiculous, but a lady bird killer is born. And so it goes with bright feathers, thick manes, gangly antlers, large teeth, and any number of useless appendages drawn from nature’s vanity case.
Much of the color and variety of the animal kingdom is owing to the fact that animals think with their glands, and we humans are hardly any different. Yet why is it that in contrast to the animal kingdom, it is the human female which is case in the vain and trivial role? The answer ironically may be due to the physical evolution of our most notable attribute, the human brain. As several evolutionary biologists have noted,. The evolutionary pressures leading to larger and larger brain sizes has run smack into the human female’s physical limitations in bearing such offspring. The female’s pelvis simply could not adapt to such progressively larger babies without causing her to structurally collapse. The solution to this problem was for the female to bear her child in a state of greater and greater prematurity. The physical maturation of the human infant took place after birth, and the gradually lengthening time span between birth and maturity put unprecedented demands on the female's physical resources. She just couldn’t kick her offspring out of her next a few months after birth as was the fashion of all other animals. Quite the contrary, she had to stay by her child for long period of time, and further, she was faced with the very real need to select male companions who were a lot more than mere pretty faces. She demanded a male who was reliable, physically strong, and capable of providing for her needs and for her offspring. So how does a nice homo-sapiens girl evolve the lures to catch such a male. Simple, she just employs an old male trick: she becomes pretty, and to insure the male’s constant presence, she becomes very, very sexual. The gradual domesticity imposed on the human female by the slower maturation of the human infant moved the badge of physical advertising from the male to the female. Whereas the female required a broad array of physical and psychological characteristics from her mate, the male’s choice shifted to those physical attributes that correlated most reliably with fertility. Moreover, since the male stood to lose nothing and gain many offspring through random copulation, an eager promiscuity became the genetically favored trait. Since this same trait would obviously prove disastrous to the female, she became much more cautionary prior to engaging in sexual relations. These very different sexual preferences find their greatest contrast in the materials each sex uses to indulge and stimulate their fantasies. Since men put first priority on finding a female who is sexually available and fertile, the visual impact of a female achieves first priority in his selection of a mate. In contrast, a female is responsive to the visual and psychological characteristics of a male combined, and this response takes greater time to develop. Thus mal fantasies are most stimulated by the visual pornography that depicts women as servile and fertile, while female fantasies are encouraged by romance novels which set the emotional stage for a sexual encounter.
The irony of all this is that as the human female’s cautionary instincts increased, so did her sexual availability. This is because if you want a male to stick around for a long period of time, you can dangle the sexual lure, but you’d be foolish to withdraw it. Indeed, almost all female mammals do the latter, and turn on their sexual availability for only certain limited times, only to withdraw it abruptly to the male’s endless frustration. The period of sexual availability, often displayed as a reddening of the female’s genitalia, is called estrus. This estrus state combines with specific sexual posturing and special female scents to drive the males into a state of sexual frenzy. For human females, this estrus state has disappeared in favor of a year round sexual availability that require no special signaling, or does it? The popularity of perfume and rouged cheeks has been suggested as a reflection of an instinctive nostalgia for those good old days when a really alluring female had the color and aroma of a golden delicious apple.
The Sublime Addiction
Although the sexual drive suffices quite well to bring people into sexual contact, the mind sets even higher rewards for fantasizing about, of all things, monogamous and committed relationships. To do this, it simply makes one into for all practical purposes, a drug addict. The brain has often been likened to a biochemical computer, and it stirs our mind to motion, and often very selective motion, by its manufacture of chemicals that stimulate and depress.
Our state of mind is shaped by how we feel, and specific feelings are tailored to some very generalizable goals. For example, the ‘flight or fight’ response is marked by the physiological preparedness of a human to take some extreme action, and this preparedness is signaled by the release of the chemical adrenaline. In addition, the state of mind of an individual is also shaped by the association of his behavior with those feelings. Not only does adrenaline shape the immediate behavior of an individual, it also molds the future shape of his behavior through the mere association of certain behaviors with a physiologically altered state. For example, a person who has stage fright not only fears a crows, he fears fear itself. The state of fear becomes intertwined with the perception of the conditions that evoked it, hence these conditions seem even more distasteful.
The same associations apply when a person falls in love. The emotion of love is not so much stimulating as it is intoxicating. The brain is inherently disposed to in effect sedate itself when an individual fantasizes about another person’s physical and person characteristics that are appealing. This pleasurable effect is associated with these fantasies, and acts to enhance and thereby distort his or her appraisal of a loved one. Love is not blind, it just causes fuzzy vision; yet this misperception of another person’s worth will fad if that person doesn’t stay in the distance. Since love depends on idealized fantasy, nothing is more devastating to that fantasy, and that emotion, than having its object for your very own. It is then that reason takes over, and the realization soon comes that the brain conned you into rushing into a relationship in order to secure a very natural high.
The Instinct That Never Was
Ironically, of all human drives, sex is by far the weakest, yet is nonetheless a powerful spur to much of our behavior. Our sexuality obsesses us because we attach it to so many other non-sexual goals that complement sex, such as companionship and family. Sex is a key to the fulfillment of a host of non-sexual needs, hence it becomes a source of our endless preoccupation. Sex is habit forming, as we well know, and is usually formed by habit in ways that we don’t know. Habit represents all undeliberative acts that don’t require our conscious attention. It reflects our disposition to move in both conscious and unconscious ways according to subtle environmental cues. Alter the cues and you alter the habit. All human motivations are effected by habit, whether they represent when we get hungry and what we get hungry for, how we drive a car, or even who we fall in love with.
We often confuse the effects of habit with the specific strengths or characteristics of our instincts themselves. This confusion is most apparent in a habit that is so prevalent and persistent, it has found a way into our moral code. That habit is known as the incest taboo. Our abhorrence of sexual relations between closely related kin is but a very small aspect of a far more pervasive habit that influences us almost every day. It is the habit of sexual fantasy.
Before we engage in many behaviors, we cognitively simulate what will happen if we behave in certain ways. Such preplanning usually saves us a lot of grief, as simulation predicts the future outcome of a behavior. For example, courtship behavior is marked by a preoccupation with strategizing or stimulating the best approaches that will lead to maximum romantic success. Will bringing flowers helps somewhat, or what of the type of restaurant for a dinner date, the appropriateness and timing of sexual advances, and so forth? We constantly rehears these details in our head, and compare them to our mental model of the behavior of our date. Eventually, we will determine the best ‘fit’ between our prospective behavior and the likelihood of the response we seek to elicit from the other person. This leads us to a better decision as to what behavior is most appropriate given the nature of our date and the nature of our desires.
Patterns of experience can also influence how we unconsciously simulate behavior. When we drive a car over the same route every day to work, we unconsciously learn to cease any conscious deliberation over the possibility of other more convenient routes. Because we form the habit of not thinking about alternatives, we may not discover them even if they are available given just a little thought. Our inclination too sexually fantasize can be shaped in just this way. In many situations, whether it be in a college dormitory, at work, or even in one’s neighborhood, the very act of seeing people in one context influences the future ways we think about them. For example, it has been found that college student living in coed dormitories will tend to date other students in direct proportion to their actual physical distance in the dormitory. Thus, students will be rarely inclined to date a next door neighbor, more inclined to date a neighbor on the next floor, and much more inclined to date someone who didn’t live in the building at all. It was discovered that this reluctance to date close neighbors was not due to the desire among students to maintain their privacy or for any other practical reason, but rather because next door neighbors were habitually viewed as friends, and not as potential lovers. The everyday non-sexual contact between a student and his neighbor apparently created an unconscious habit that precluded thinking about sexual alternatives because none had been thought of before. Because a student was in the habit of not fantasizing sexually about a neighbor, he didn’t, and what is more, he had no inclination to begin doing so.
In a family, the close proximity between siblings creates the same sort of unconscious habits, and a societal abhorrence against incest only serves to confirm the almost universal prevalence of this habit. What incestual habits do demonstrate is that the roots of the sexual drive may not be found in some irresistible triggering mechanism such as sexual deprivation, sexual stimuli, and the like; but rather in the realm of our own thoughts and fantasies. Its all in the mind.
Sex and Culture
Whenwe left Gene, we had seen how he had developed a marvelous personal cerebrum, or PC, to attend to his large and ever growing information processing needs. But what was behind this trend towards greater personal computing? Obviously, there was very little the homo-sapiens could do with his onboard equipment except swing his arms about and wiggle his pinkies. Yet by being equipped with flexible hands, stereoscopic vision, and a PC with rudimentary memory, Gene gave the early homo-sapiens the ability to manipulate all sorts of devices which extended many fold the functionality of the homo-sapiens. These devices were called tools, and even the most primitive of them, like a sharp stone, could be put to a multitude of uses. These varied and often complex functions were infinitely numerous, and each function was useful only in very specific and changeable circumstances. Gene placed the instructions of programming for them in RAM (readily absent memory). Thus, functions like home building weren’t pre-wired into the PC’s memory like say, a bird’s, but had to be programmed into memory through the use of programming languages like English, French, or any number of others. With the advent of programming languages and external storage devices (books), an extensive library of software was soon developed for the PC. With the right programming, the homo-sapiens was able to accomplish all sorts of specialized and complicated roles. He could be a homo-sapiens mechanic (doctor), PC repairman (neurosurgeon), systems analyst (psychologist), or he could specialize in developing procedural languages of meaningless complexity (lawyer).
The most popular programs are utility programs. These programs assist the homo-sapiens in forming social networks, and establish a standardized set of response patterns for everyday situations. These local area networks are collectively known as ‘society’, and allow the homo-sapiens to work in harmony for the greater good of the entire PC network. Sometimes a PC receives programming which places it at odds with society, hence forcing the latter to disconnect the PC from the network and place it in a reprogramming center (prison). Usually, just the threat of partial disconnection (embarrassment) is enough to bring an errant homo-sapiens in line, since as we shall soon see, reprogramming can be a difficult task indeed.
The wide range of software available to the PC inevitably led to the popularization of many software packages that either were superb in handling their desired functions, or else were the first on the market and were able to become a de facto standard. Many of these programs were copied down from generation to generation, and are know collectively as ‘culture’. A curious thing about cultural programming is that it to represents chains of information that exist, replicate, and grow ever more complex. But unlike Gene, these entities don’t dwell in the real world, but achieve a different sort of reality in minds. So, how would Gene confront this new sort of reality if imagination permits a friendly introduction?
Gene Meets Mimi
Mimi was just a good idea waiting to happen, and when man began to think, Mimi felt right at home. Now Gene was a modest, relaxed, and undemanding sort who rarely called attention to himself. He built the mind that Mimi moved into, and scarcely complained when Mimi started to arrange his mental space in her image. Mimi was flexible, changeable, and rather flighty, and she could move about from one mind to another with breathtaking speed. Often, Mimi would move against Gene’s better instincts, and sometimes Mimi would prevail, sometimes not. This was indeed a strange pairing. Whereas Gene loved to tinker about, and make over the eons Gene machines of wondrous diversity, Mimi was the very embodiment of philosophy, literature, and the fine arts. Gene loved hardware, whereas Mimi was always out shopping for the latest in software. Soon, as education opened up a vast Bloomingdale’s full of ideas, Mimi began decorating the PC with dozens of ideas of every shape and hue. She lived for such things, and indeed wouldn’t be without them. Soon her influence was overwhelming, and she made sure that any baby homo-sapiens would have the benefit of all her mental decorative ideas. Many of these ideas Mimi was quite fond of, as they encouraged the homo-sapiens to behave better, entertain itself better, and even to think about life without Gene and Mimi.
So the homo-sapiens now only lived to eat and reproduce, but to revered modesty, truth, and other humanly virtues, enjoy the music of Mozart, and wonder about the possibilities of existence without a physical body and mind. Gene became more and more a forgotten influence, as the purpose of man was merged into a symphony of ideas. Soon the whole world marked nothing less than this cultural legacy. The world was indeed made in his image, the image of his mind.
As we recall Dawkins’ postulation of a ‘selfish gene’, we should not that his thesis reflects perfectly what is essentially a reductionist perspective on human life and human motivation. That is, all living organisms represent the full flower of a seed of information that is the very essence of a single molecule, the chromosome. Understand this molecule and you understand everything, and you can trace out the forms of every living thing. The guiding spirit of this type of thinking is nothing more than the logic of mathematics. Just as the curving line of a parabola may be views as unfolding from a simple mathematical formula, so too does the curve of organic development stem from the much more complex formula embedded in the chromosomal molecule. Dawkins’ analysis is unique in his assignment of the purposive aspect to evolution, and in particular, the evolution of the gene. This perspective turns askew our own notions of man being at the center of everything, and replaces it with the concept that man’s abstraction, represented in a chromosomal formula, is at the center of being. It is, in other words, the idea of man which is important, and this idea is encoded in his genes, and in his thoughts, or memes.
Mimi, or meme (pr.: meem) as Dawkins would have it, represents a new sort of replicator that dwells formlessly in minds. The meme is the software that is human culture, or the sum of human ideas, and it is the ‘good idea’ that survives and multiplies its presence across a score of minds. It is because of ideas that man can countermand and overcome his instincts, seek death gladly, avoid the pleasure of sex, and embrace unselfish goals that deny his immediate needs. The fine arts, philosophy, and religion are but three classes of memes that set new directions or purposes for man quite beyond the simple fulfillment of his immediate physical needs. Indeed, these new purposes, whether they represent the love of beauty, the love of truth, or the love of God, represent nothing more than other sets of memes that are validated through personal action. Man is unique in that his behavior is purchased with a currency of ideas. Concepts such as personal power, security, or self-fulfillment represent nothing more than perceived relations between a man’s ideas and the corresponding ideas of his fellow. Just the potential for action can suffice to motivate behavior.
The Game of Human Behavior
If motivation can be attributed to software concepts under the moderating influence of instinct, then much of human behavior can be understood through tracing the means whereby these ideas can be programmed. This means of course is the constantly changing face of human culture. Human culture is the sum of human ideas, and reflects the dynamic ways ideas influence the behavior of individuals and groups. To understand culture, one must have a broad sympathy towards the multitude of ways that our behavior rides on ever shifting waves of ideas. The interplay of these ideas is as apparent as the intersection of ripples in a pond. With a little observation of these ripples of ideas, we can make fascinating and reliable predictions of behavior. It we attempt to guess what is underneath the waters, our sight becomes murkier, and we try to make out larger and less subtle causes like needs, drives, complexes, etc. Of course, you can never see these hidden causes as they swim about under the surface, so all the guessing inevitably turns in a sort of parlor game, and the resulting theories for behavior into something akin to fish stores.
Psychological analysis is probably the social parlor game of the second half of the twentieth century, and the theories it creates are the biggest of fish stores. If most popular works on psychology are to be believed, human beings are possessed with more hidden motivations and instincts than would be found in any Sherlock Holmes novel. And because they have so many little foibles, it is just as necessary to construct any number of classification schemes which act like egg trays to conveniently sort out al the various nuts and bolt that make up our little minds. Many psychologists have done one better on Freud, who started much of this nonsense, and have created all sorts of new psychological problems for us to suffer from. Men and women now have Peter Pan and Cinderella complexes to complement their normal Oedipal strivings, oral fixations, and so forth. Confusing and meaningless? Of course! But never fear, for much of this clutter has been neatly arranged by yet other psychologists into broad formats that fit neatly, like pairs of shoes, into a theoretical closet that summarizes human growth stages, personality types, need hierarchies, etc.
Well, irrespective of the validity of any of these approaches, these schemes are long on analysis but very short on anything of practical value. The hidden implication is that just the act of understanding is the first step to effecting personal change. The problem is what degree of understanding is necessary to begin with to effect change, or to suggest the tools whereby change may be accomplished. This can be very difficult indeed, for practical hints are often buried under an overwhelming load of analysis, and more analysis.
The major reason why most popular works on psychology are fixated on analyzing and reanalyzing people is that they are based on the implicit premise that humans are semi-independent from the environments that product their behavior. Of course, the environment is often given a nod or two, particularly if it represents some long gone event in one’s personal history, but the overwhelming emphasis is on the psychology of the individual, and not on social or environmental psychology. These latter psychology’s account for human behavior by looking at the physical account for human behavior by looking at the physical circumstances and individuals that surround us, and how our behavior can be viewed as an integral part and reaction to our physical and social environment.
These psychological approaches don’t find much representation on the popular bookshelf because they invariably suggest that individual behavior change is a function of broad based societal and institutional changes that can only be wrought by groups of people. These psychology’s disperse the responsibility for our individual problems and personal characteristics to our environment, and in doing so they reduce our need to always be apologizing for our own behavior. This is important, for the whole psychotherapy industry is built on the idea that we should be apologizing for ourselves, and there is a vested interest in the perpetuation of the notion that our personal problems are caused by our individual decisions. Although, it is an easy and quite marketable solution to have the finger pointed at ourselves as individuals; it is nonetheless a misguided and wrong solution. To really understand why we behave the way we do, we must broaden our perspective to observe how people respond to their social and physical environments, and look to the environmental changes that must be made if our behavior, and our society’s behavior, is to be set right.
The Love Crisis
The most fertile field for self blame is, of course, sex. Never in American history have we been more dissatisfied, confused, and downright unhappy about our social and sexual relationships with the opposite sex. So we naturally feel very guilty about it, and we try to soothe our bad feelings by sprucing ourselves up through diet and exercise, losing ourselves in work or a hobby, or consuming a self help book or two like a verbal tonic. In the meantime, we’re still out there in a very mean and uncaring social environment that is full of people that we just can’t bring ourselves to care about as we know we should.
The sad truth about our culture in comparison to times past is that we seem to have lost the motivation to entertain each other. Indeed, the past sixty years has seen entertainment shift from a participant to a spectator activity. Electronic diversions have become ever more seductive, and this has paralleled a decline in those social institutions and social skills that placed our intellects and imaginations on stage as it were for the entertainment and education of others. We lose the means and the ability to be entertaining when entertainment becomes a passive exercise involving staring and listening to TV’s, stereos, and computer screens. In other words, we become very, very boring. When boredom prevails, we accept our condition as perversely natural, and return to our place in the front of the tube to watch all those interesting people who just don’t seem to be around in the real world.
Of course, contemporary boredom is an infinitely preferable choice to the more difficult stresses our ancestors had to face. They had not the leisure to be bores, and often their only comfort was each other. But that’s a poor comparison. A better measure of our prevalent boredom is our own quixotic quest for interesting and socially adept friends, and more acutely, lovers. We’re terribly concerned with finding them, but far less so about those social institutions that make them. Popular opinion in the media has harped ad nauseum about the ‘love crisis’, and a high divorce rate only supports the notion that people are very particular about who whey prefer to share their lives with. The great irony is that just as we are becoming every more particular about the type of person whose attentions we desire, it is more difficult that ever before to develop our individual social skills. Thus, not only are people proving to be less interesting, they are proving to be less mannered. As we will note, these manners are shaped less by our individual intelligences or values, but rather by the type of containers we literally find ourselves encased in.
The Containerization of America
One of the greatest contributions of American culture is, of all things, great packaging. Whether it be burgers of light bulbs, thumbtacks or eggs, Americans have always shown a particular genius in sorting and wrapping just about everything they could find into neat and attractive little packages. This mania however has not stopped with mere things, but has found its ultimate target in that seemingly unwrappable ‘commodity’, you and I. Although we don’t think about it, it is human packaging that shapes our social values and agendas, and we have been conditioned to crave a semi-solitary existence in containers, both stationary (houses, offices) or moving (autos, airplanes). To appreciate this seemingly eccentric conclusion, we must understand how our ancestors enjoyed life without the benefit of packaging, and how life was in many ways a lot better without it.
In the center of many of our great cities, we find a core of Victorian neighborhoods that evoke memories of times past. Rows of homes delight the eye with graceful porticoes, open air porches, lattice ironwork, and lofty spires. We consider these homes to be a quaint remnant of a simpler time, yet the full import of these neighborhoods goes far beyond a feature layout in Better Homes and Gardens. These neighborhoods were constructed just to be quaint subdivisions, but to meet the then pressing needs of society.
In the 1890’s a close and easy access to other people was necessary for work and play, and to top it off, everyone was regularly flushed out of their homes by the lack of air-conditioning. Transportation then was rudimentary and uncomfortable, so a great premium was placed on being near one’s place of work or some suitable means of transport, such as a streetcar. Because desirable uptown space was scarce, houses were built on smaller plots of land, and were often multistoried. Without air-conditioning, ventilation was all important, and rooms and higher ceilings to accommodate larger windows. Porches were built not for mere decoration, but to provide an outdoor refuge from an often stifling indoor climate
A lack of suitable transportation made people relatively immobile, the absence of home electronics made them bored, and the lack of air-conditioning made them reluctant to stay indoors. The result was that people depended upon the vitality of their local neighborhood for their entertainment, comfort, and often livelihood. This intimate interdependence demanded a level of interpersonal conduct that met group needs, hence these communities fostered an exacting code of manners that gave a new meaning to the word Victorian.
Today, interpersonal dependence has evolved into impersonal dependence. We are still dependent upon our neighbors, but these neighbors are at long distance cubicles of their own, and their only connection to you is by a telephone line. Thus, in such a way social manners have been replaced by phone manners. Hardly a fair trade.
The Good Old Days
As society evolved in the twentieth century, perhaps the greatest benefactor and victim of the cultural changes was the American woman. Before the turn of the century, human labor was far less specialized than it is today, as the nation was populated for the most part by a society of do it yourselfers. Most households then were farms, and the main labor saving device besides the plow was a nifty little item that could slice, that could dice, and that could milk the cow. That was called a woman. Although a woman’s status was appreciably lower in those days, her value was appreciably higher. If she wasn’t the breadwinner, she at least made the bread, and provided for all those little necessities that made hearth and home a nice and warm place to be. She also produced children who not only helped provide an additional source of labor, but also for the later social security of their parents. Necessity was the mother of invention, and necessity invented mothers first; and a rare breed they were. The rigors of a frontier society and of childbirth took their toll on the feminine population, and men usually far outnumbered women. Because women were as important as they were rare, romance, although desirable, seemed comparatively trivial. Marriages were conceived upon practical impulses, and they were held together by practical necessity. If love and romance tagged along, that was just a delightful bonus. So what happened to replace this ‘delightful’ picture with the ‘delightful’ social milieu of today? Simple, man just did the unthinkable, he replaced our need for mom; and he did it with something, well, mechanical.
It started with little things: a toaster, a telephone, a vacuum cleaner, and as these labor saving gadgets multiplied, mom just wasn’t needed as much. Pretty soon, more and more of the most basic functions of the household were replaced by automation and manufacturing economies of scale. It became more economical and efficient to buy your clothes than to make them, and to buy pre-prepared food than to make or grow it yourself. Mom has progressively less and less to do, and even children began to be view as mere indulgences to our instincts or loneliness. Although this trend began in the early years of the century, it was interrupted by the privations of the Depression and the Second World War. During this time much of the mystique of the family was restored. The baby boom of the forties and fifties was sparked by a mindset caused by the memories of these times, and the general perception that that era was less of an exception than a rule. So, accustomed to a continued threat of poverty, young families stocked up on those delightful little assets that they cold always count on: kids. Of course, after the was the sky didn’t fall, but the cost of living did, and with it came a rain of labor saving gadgetry, as the U. S. entered into what we call today the service economy.
The Return of Mom
With the onset of the service economy, the services once provided as a matter of course by wives began to quickly become the province, of course, of women. The big difference was that marriage wasn’t necessary for men to serve a woman’s fulfillment of this latter role. When the service economy was in its infancy, service jobs were filled by men. However, as these positions mushroomed in number and importance, more and more women were called up to take over these low paying and lower status pink collar jobs. This was necessary to pay for all those conveniences that ‘free’ women to begin with from the drudgery of their everyday lives. In actuality, the service economy only provided an exchange of drudgeries.
In today’s society, despite the emancipation of women, it is men who continue to proverbially hunt for the big game, while the women sit at home knitting. The big game of course is now the gamesmanship of career and personal power; whereas for women, the knitting of socks has been replaced with the processing of words. The difference from the past is essentially found in the modern lack of interpersonal dependency between men and women. Men and women are generally dependent nowadays in impersonal ways that are dictated by economics. Mom has been splintered into a hundred faceless women who cook your Big Mac for you, nurse you in the hospital, and do your typing. She is still there all right, but she has been overcome by a division of labor.
Now all of this wouldn’t be half bad if men and women retained and enhanced those personal characteristics which no machine can copy, yet. The demand for these characteristics is certainly there, but alas, the supply is wanting. The rise of our modern preoccupation with romance is due to our desire for the company of an individual who rises above the ordinary, for it takes an extra-ordinary individual to remove the often numbing sameness of life. We desire to be around stylish, personable, intelligent, and attractive people, and hope to win on of them as our mate. The problem though is that these personal desires cannot be translated into economic choices, hence supply and demand won’t work in its usually fashion to meet these demands.
There is unfortunately no quick and easy solution to this problem. The family of course is not near extinction, and most of us still end up partaking in the joys of marriage and children; yet most of us also feel that our personal lives could be a whole lot better. The nagging feeling is that something very special but very subtle is missing, and that even if we knew what it was, obtaining that special something would be very difficult. However, dissatisfaction has only spurred an increase in the population of psychotherapists, thus assuring a treatment of the symptoms of unhappiness, and not its cause. Nonetheless, there is much that we can do as individuals about our social environments. The first step is to appraise our social situations accurately, which will allow us to unload some of the guilt we may be feeling about having created our own problems. Secondly, we must understand what to expect in the behavior of other people when they are in various social situations, how we should respond to that behavior, and ultimately how we may alter that situation itself to indirectly engineer desirable behavior in others. We will pursue these answers in the remainder of this book.