Monday, December 17, 2007

Emotions as genetic instruments

I finished one of Steven Pinker's books yesterday, "How the Mind Works". The final chapters are a wonderful excursion into an explanation of emotions, the raison-d'etre of those and how DNA are the potential building bricks for having these emotions.

In the explanation about emotions in this perspective, Pinker and others assign the reason for having emotions to better chances for survival and reproduction. The explanation is that genes are building bricks that lead to having emotions. As usual with science, philosophy and especially cognitive science, all sorts of basic questions pop up on things that you generally take for granted when you grow up.

Marriage is a very common concept all over the world in almost any society or community. The explanation is that marriage is an "intelligent" method to reserve the attention of a spouse or to reserve the use of an uterus for the reproduction of your own genes. Marriage is, in this context, also a contract of property on a woman. This paragraph is very unromantic. It is very much viewing the concept of marriage from a biological perspective. Please don't consider this an attack on morality or ethics or that those things should be forgotten, they are entirely different discussions. Marriage is a public declaration of both spouses that a woman is dedicated to the reproduction of the sharing of the genes. The man dedicates his attention and protection to the reproduction as well. The idea of marriage is that this treaty cannot easily be broken by outsiders, further demonstrated by the carrying of a wedding ring. We construe further laws around the idea of marriage. I can imagine different social structures, for example harems and letting the men fight amongst themselves, where the non-winners become expendable armies that are driven by the leader to protect the pack of women. A full explanation of marriage and the social structure we have ultimately developed is written in the book, so I urge people to read those chapters instead of this blog for further clarification.

Men don't "feel" that they should flee when war breaks out. Women generally try to find the first hiding place. Men are thus biologically equipped to fight threats. Whereas, if you think rationally, war doesn't provide good odds for survival. Men are generally more violent than women (I did not say however that women are always non-violent). In most societies, only men are expected to go to war. Women are expected to stay at home with the children. It is morally repugnant to murder children and women. It is only a shame, but morally acceptable and not that shocking, that men are killed in the course of violence. In the context of gene reproduction and evolution, a woman is far more attached to the consequences of the decision than men. It takes 9 months and much more afterwards dedication for a woman. It is only natural for women to seek out partners that are willing to provide the after-care and attention and protection. Hence courtship. Courtship is the declaration of a man that he is willing to make the investment. A better courter makes better chances. It is thus not always the strongest man that has the best chances of a group, although other zoological families prefer the strongest. Since humans have different problems to solve after birth, the (biological) needs are different.

Which brings us to further interesting points, pornography for example. Why is almost all of pornography men-focused? Pornography for women is much less abundant, almost non-existent. Playgirl is mostly read by gays. There are plenty of bars with female exotic dancers. How many bars are there with dancing males? An explanation from a genetic perspective is that men can in theory mate with many women, but only so far that they are still able to guarantee protection for the upbringing. So this is not unlimited. The point here is that the possibility is there. A woman can typically mate with one man, but after that is tied to her decision for at least a number of years. Some research has been done on this topic. A naked, anonymous, unknown woman was felt by men as an opportunity and aroused almost all of them. Women however felt a naked, handsome, unknown, anonymous man not instantly as an opportunity, but firstly as a threat. This doesn't mean that women always need men around them that they know. But the first reaction to naked men isn't generally immediate and uncontrollable attraction.

Another point in the book is regarding adultery. A man's worst fear is the act of adultery itself by his spouse. But for the woman, the worst fear is not necessarily the act itself, but the loss of commitment and attention by the husband, if the husband decides to redirect his attention to someone else. This is "worst fear", I did not say that committing adultery by men is something that women would typically allow.

Wealth, status, dominance are all measures of fitness. Beauty is a measure of health. When you bring these factors together in our society, we still pursue wealth like crazy, compete strongly with other men, women dress up nicely and make themselves beautiful and thus compete with other women. If we were solely rational and thinking beings without emotions having a strong say in the forming of our thoughts, we wouldn't need to compete and make ourselves beautiful, it would surely save a lot of time in a day.

In another blog post I mentioned that we thought we were smart, but are actually still very much subject to emotions. This shows up sometimes when whole societies or nations go to war with one another. Why feel strongly about the piece of earth where you grew up on? If someone attacks you, it might be much more efficient to just pack up and leave. We like to think that our actions are 100% determined through intelligence. Yet if you think rational and consider the same situation for someone else, a radical thinker might just discover that for a host of generally accepted reactions, the best course of action might just be different. Some of our mundane and dark desires still bubble up all the way to the surface. And where we notice they are rather basic, we often try to cloud them through "reason". Can reason be an initiator for an action? I think of reasons as explanations for behaviour, or demonstrations that certain instinctive behaviors (emotionally driven actions) also make sense from an intelligence perspective.

It'd be rather difficult to think of a human being to be 100% guided by intelligence. The reason is that intelligence doesn't really provide a goal. As soon however as a goal is set, intelligence helps enormously in achieving it (consider how humanity evolved over the past decades and millenia). But to set a goal...? Are goals set by intelligence or are these actually set by some emotion, some underlying biological drive? If all our goals are based on emotion somehow, than it is fairly logical to conclude that we cannot be 100% intelligence driven. So when I say that humanity is emotionally driven and probably cannot act solely on intelligence alone, does this make the picture look bleak? Namely, ethics and morality are intellectual constructs, not emotional or instinctive ones. Why do we want humanity to be intelligence-driven? And does justice take into account emotional actions/reactions and does it protect those, or does it counter direct emotional actions? Is intelligence then, in this context, partly a plot in our brain to counter/control our biological purpose?

It is far easier for humans to remember negative events. We have a twice larger vocabulary for negative emotions than we have for the positive ones. Humanity has been subject to a large number of very negative events that encompassed all the world in certain cases, for example World war I and II. If you have seen the film "The Fifth Element", it creates a picture of a human and humanity as wild savage beasts that do nothing but engage in warfare. We do see frequent wars and atrocities. Books like "Humanity" from Jonathan Glover are interesting reads on the sociological causes for war and the circumstances in which war can occur. When thinking entirely and 100% rationally, war doesn't make sense. There are always ways to avert it, if both sides think rational. We may feel the urge to submit another tribe/nation to our will, religion or ways of living, but is it sensible? Intellectually, war is rather stupid. Then where does that feeling of "pleasure" or "need" in war originate?

On a positive note however, other things can be said about wars. The impact, size and involvement in wars has risen due to our possibilities of communication. ally-seeking, treaties and agreements. Worldwide mass-media and communication definitely helps to involve every country. Just think about it... Global war, a world war, how it is a direct demonstration of reciprocative aggressive behaviour that doesn't make much sense if you think about it rationally. However, how does the picture look when we remove the very effects of worldwide communication and globalization from the equation. Has war really become "worse" as compared to other centuries? And the frequency? And what about the reasons for going to war?

Some experiments have been conducted where a class of students was divided by some imaginary or real construct. In one case even, a coin was flipped in front of all the people in a class. Being part of a tribe or some imaginary construct seems to be very important for people. People will modify their behavior accordingly and in many cases will try to subvert others to the same division or murder them. That, to me, is the strongest evidence that we are very much guided by our emotions and that are goals are not determined by our intellect. In these experiments, fights have broken out or tortures have taken place by people that would not normally torture in other circumstances. The Rwanda atrocities happened, because the people were divided by their height. This division occurred through the Belgian colonization, where the Belgians called one side Hutu's and the other Tutu's. The sad part is that these were people of the same tribe. It was an intentional division of the Belgians. Years later... based on this artificial division, the people killed each other. Because of a division in height and resulting propaganda and behavior by those who felt part of this new "tribe".

Continuing on the positive note, there are also great positive achievements in humanity that are not often highlighted. Health care plans, women's right to vote, abolishment of torture (even though not practiced everywhere), welfare rules, government public services, courts and the justice/legal system. Free speech. Free thought. Free press. And so forth. So before anyone doubts that humanity itself is doomed, since the wars don't stop and continue, there are other thinks to consider as well that are not as easily remembered, but are very important to insert into the equation. We like to think negatively in many cases, but we should also think positively about achievements and not take those for granted, but treat them the same as the negative events and celebrate them more.

It will be difficult to understand to which degrees our thoughts, opinions and declarations are based on our emotions rather than our intelligent thought. I'm not sure you can even ever consider that there is a separation possible, since thought is given a direction by goals. A goal to convince, a goal to entertain, a goal to improve status, a goal to...? I am not sure therefore, where the future will bring us. Should we aim to think 100% rational or is that just going to destroy us since emotions are better guarantors for survival? Can we develop methods in the future to separate emotion from rationality?

Since at the very depth of our being, we are driven by emotions and this gives us goals, then would a life without emotion and only pure intelligence become meaningless?

1 comment:

Saulo said...


Nice post ;) I enjoyed this book very much. Another author I recoomend is Frans de Waal, as far as I remember he's Dutch. His books, like Our Inner Ape and Chimapzee Politics are great ;)