Sunday, June 26, 2005

Blind Spots

It struck me this week how little we humans differ from other animals on this planet.

We pride ourselves on our civilization, our technology, our ability to communicate - all apects we believe are unique to humans. We pride ourselves on our sentience (without really defining what this means, possibly to make it easier to deny it exists in other animals). And although there are examples of complex social structures, engineering, and communication in other species, it's easy to agree that the human versions of these are of an order of complexity higher than these other examples.

But our brains have blind spots. Concepts or ways of thinking about things that do not come naturally, and in such a way that it never occurs to us that other ways of thinking about a topic exists.

For those who are rigorous enough in their pursuit of knowledge, hints of these blindspots emerge. An obvious physical example is the blind spot in our vision caused by the place on the retina where the optic nerve has to pass through. Our brain "fills in" the missing information so that we don't even notice that we have a blind spot.

It seems that we have similar blind spots in many categories of information processing in the brain, some of them internal. All are a result of the vagaries of natural selection (ie, some because they offer a selective advantage and breed true, others as a random result of some other adaptation).

What's interesting is that we as a society (in the U.S. and other countries, anyway) have decided that some traits that are not species beneficial should still be tolerated, even at the expense of society. Medical procedures and devices are an obvious example.

Take the fact that I wear contacts as a case in point. In a time prior to the very recent, I would have been lion food long before the ripe old age of 40 (or more likely, killed by a competing tribe, or left behind by my own tribe as a burden they couldn't afford). But our society has not only determined that it is okay to have poor vision, but that it will expend resources to help offset this maladaptation.

We have determined that it is okay to carry these genes along to following generations. Although not beneficial to society, this is part of what it means to have civilization, part of what we say sets us apart from other species on Earth.

But we have also decided, perhaps not deliberately or consciously (but with the same end result) that other traits that are not species beneficial should not be condoned, and in fact should be left to natural selection to weed out in each generation.

An example of traits that are not tolerated well by society are those that cause an individual to be poor at earning enough for food and shelter. This could be extreme, such as cases of mental disorders like schizophrenia, or even mild mental retardation. This could be selfish, such as those who decide that begging or social welfare programs are an easier way of life than working for a living. This could be subtle and environmental, such as children in single parent households, where the choice or the parent is to starve or to abandon the children for long periods to work multiple low paying jobs to afford food and shelter.

Regardless of the reason, most societies on earth have made the effective decision that it is not the responsibility of that society to food and house these individuals. Our own society here in the U.S. struggles with this quite a bit, torn between an intellectual position that perhaps an enlightened society should let no one starve, and an inner voice that fights against this, saying that those people should find their own way to get food - "after all, I had to work hard to get what I have, right?"

I believe this inner voice has a perfectly valid basis in evolutionary biology. As I've discussed before in prior posts, the concept of a trait favoring "altruistic punishment" is one that appears to be a necessary trait for a stable society [subscription required for this link]. I won't revisit this concept in depth, but it is a trait that evolves to punish selfish behavior that may be detrimental to the group. Without a fair number of individuals feeling a sense of outrage and injustice at behaviors perceived to be taking advantage of the group's resources, it isn't possible to establish societal structures larger than a few tens of people.

I believe this is a large factor that creates the blind spot regarding how we treat individuals with respect to food and shelter. And man, being a rationalizing animal, creates all kinds of "logical" reasons why we should deny food and shelter to another individual, even if we can afford it.

We say that it is a moral value to encourage others to get a job, to take care of themselves, and that it is just laziness and moral turpitude that prevents these individuals from doing so.

Or we say that it's too bad that these individuals don't have the food and shelter they need, but that our society just can't afford to take care of the problem (while spending $300 billion on military offensives on the other side of the world).

We come up with multiple fine sounding reasons not to help these individuals, even if the evidence shows that the society may in fact be better off by providing it. (More on this later, but there is a tremendous body of evidence that extreme poverty of the sort we're talking about, where individuals must expend most of their energy on securing the basic animal needs, leads to a large amount of anti-social and pathological behavior, from crime to abuse that perpetuates through generations. And that the societal cost of this result is huge.)

But who is to say that this instinct is wrong? It got us this far, didn't it? It's probably fair to say that from a pure Darwinian winnowing of the species that society overall is better off if these individuals cannot perpetuate their genes (and maladaptive traits) to further generations.

But... if we're truly honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we as a society are pretty damn arbitrary about which maladaptive traits we agree to expend resources to compensate for, and which ones we rationalize not to. We pick and choose where we want evolutionary processes to continue, and where we want to step in to stop the selection process.

And I don't think we're making these decisions rationally. Or in many cases, even consciously.

Because we're blind to the fact that there is a choice to be made.

And we're blind to the fact that we have these blind spots.

Because we're only human, after all, which means that we're just another random evolutionary byproduct.

Unless we choose to be something more.


At Monday, June 27, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is one thing that I'm not sure you gave enough credit to. If we as a society decided to take 150B of the 300B and develop social programs, how would we have any sort of guarantee that those on the receiving end wouldn't all together adapt to live on what they were given and never strive to be off. Can we actually provide enough to help those for long enough to become something better?
How many will never strive to be off of the handout? This has been one of the fundamental problems with our existing set of welfare programs: We are smart enough to be lazy, and being lazy too easy to deny.

At Monday, June 27, 2005, Blogger A Muser said...

Rather than getting drawn into the debate of the "welfare society", the point of the post is that we choose to support those with "evolutionarily disadvantaged" traits all the time. (glasses, asthma, transplants, autism, etc.) But there are some traits that we seem to put in a different category, because they evoke a different emotion (resentfulness rather than pity).

The question I was exploring was the blind spot - why (and how) do we decide that supporting some poor adaptations is okay, but supporting others (like the inability to provide food and shelter for self) is not?

As with the traits listed above, not only is there no guarantee that some people given food and shelter would never strive to "get off the dole", it's almost a sure thing that some would fall into this category. Just as we have more and more people in the population who need glasses, or who have asthma.

Is it your assumption going in that, given food and shelter, all those helped would provide nothing at all back to society in some form? (Is the only valid thing we have to contribute to our society this thing we call "work"?)


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