Saturday, March 24, 2012

TED Talks

But which TED lecture is this taken from? Would you believe it's a puzzle? Figure it out and win a prize if you give me the right answer! OK, how about, I lost the specific address. Sorry.

TED now has a series on The Science Channel. Premier March 30. (TED Talks)

TED notes

Interesting presentation! Thanks for sending that over to me. I responded to it by making a running series of comments while shifting back and forth between TED's presentation and my own dictation on Dragon. Ipads are wonderful! Anyway here's what I wrote:

The lecturer comments that reciprocity is clear in humans but not so clear in animals. I disagree. The evolutionary roots of reciprocity are very clear. Consider the vampire bat. The bat which had a bad hunting night will beg a meal from his fellows. This is generally granted. However, the bat which consistently begs meals but never reciprocates finds that he can no longer depend upon the safety net.

Then there is a species of monkey, sorry can't remember the name, in which, as the troop spreads out through the forest, an individual who finds a rich source of food is supposed to issue a certain call bringing others along. Naturally, this means that he gets only a little of the resource found and most of it goes to the higher ranking. Therefore, it is to his benefit to get as much of his discovery into his own stomach as he can before making the call. But, if he is caught doing this, the other monkeys beat him unmercifully. This is both kind of group reciprocity and a kind of primitive moral sense. One might even say, a system of justice.

Consider chimpanzees who are extremely dedicated to reciprocity. They regularly trade grooming, babysitting, and other favors for political, and sometimes even physical support in fights.

On authority and respect: While it is true that most other primates give authority or respect based on violence, that is not entirely true. Again, consider chimps. They are extremely violent creatures, yet even among them, it is necessary to build relationships. Violence and brutality help to gain dominance , but so does the support of the older females in the matriarchy, which is why sometimes the brutal chimp leader is seen being nice and sweet to somebody else's baby. Yeah, human politicians are not the only ones who kiss babies.

Furthermore, consider the case of a troop of monkeys featured by the Discover or Science channel. An usually savage individual bit and brutalized his way into the alpha male position. The observers, although trained in objectivity, clearly hated this individual, but of course, they were not permitted to interfere. These are the rules of scientifically studying animals. Field biology does not allow for human intervention. As the television program continued, the troop wandered off and was not seen for several months. When they returned, the brutal individual was not only no longer alpha male, he had disappeared. Of course, it was impossible to determine why. Perhaps a predator killed him, perhaps he died due to some disease or accident, or perhaps he was simply killed by the other males who had had enough and, supported by their female networks, ganged up and put an end to him.

Finally, consider bonobos. The hippies of the primate world. They truly do make love not war. Ritual sex acts, most which are not necessarily actually sexual in nature, dominate their interactions. Their alpha females are generally more powerful than the alpha males and, compared to chimps and humans, they are remarkably peaceful.

It is quite interesting that the speaker chose Pinker's, The Blank Slate, as an example to support the assumption that our moral mind has a framework which is innate, as Pinker and Chomsky before him assume that there is a framework for language development.

TED also makes interesting comments on the problem of the commons. I had an illuminating experience with this problem personally as an administrator, a long time ago. But also I have found that it is an engaging concept which conveys telling philosophical points. It is especially useful in understanding human behavior. Consider the Soviet Union's People's Apartments in which residents would not turn the heat down to adjust the room temperature since heat was free. Instead they would adjust the temperature in the home by leaving the heaters on full blast and opening the windows to the subzero temperatures.

I'm also very interested in the importance of religion as well as punishment as a means of mitigating peoples' tendency to abuse the Commons. Consider Gobekli Tepe which so radically changes our view of exactly why human beings first entered into societies. It seems to indicate that we gathered together at the earliest stages of post hunter gather societies in order to express our religion; and that perhaps religion is the force which drove us from hunter gatherers into settled, civilized people. Of course, one could question if this was actually a valuable move. Still, the fundamentalist evangelical atheists might need to reconsider their opinion that everything religion does always wrong.

Interestingly, I seem to have paused at just the right time in my commentary to go back to TED and see where the speaker is headed with this. As soon as I went back to his presentation I found out that he was wondering why people gather together and begin to live in a settled manner and related the impulse to religion. Seems he and I think somewhat alike some some issues.

Well, he took that to an excellent place. Yin and yang, balance -- you know me and balance. It is interesting that he contrasts liberal and conservative endpoints,but does not mention that crossover areas in the center of the the lines. Clearly, drawing those lines leads to a crossing between the two groups at a central point, which point is occupied by a perhaps small number of people, but at least some are there! I would say it is better to be the fulcrum which provides the balance than to be one of the obstinate extremists at either end who unwittingly collaborate in creating the problem.

Critics of Zimbardo and his prison experiment have said that it is entirely invalid because both the prisoner students and the guard students were simply acting out the roles that were expected of them. I find this ironic, because it seems to me that these critics are actually making Zimbardo's point! We do more than simply play out roles when we are dressed in a certain way, or when we have a sense of membership any particular group, especially if it is a well-defined group. We feel we belong to a certain subset. We are aware of that we must meet the standards of that group. We act out what we believe is expected of us. This is because we are social animals. This is not just casual play acting. It is instead a deep reality about what it means to be a human being.

This is indeed an instinctual reaction. Chimpanzees, while patrolling their territory, are seeking out and brutally killing any intruders. They are acting on the same basic impulse. Social rules are to social animals what meat is to a carnivore. It is a basic functionality of our species. A biologist would describe it as obligate, not facultative, behavior. We cannot all be leaders. There must be followers, and the followers will follow and do what is expected of them. We may love it; we may hate it. We may find it beneficial, or we may find it horrific. But we cannot change this behavior without ceasing to be human. As long as humans are, well, human, this is the way we will behave. If this ever ceases to be a part of us, we will cease to be human beings and become some other species.

I find it interesting that this is now called this individuation. We used to call it mob psychology. I recall at least one science fiction story in which humans and an alien species went to war. In the heat of combat the crews of the human ships became unified into a super organism. That is to say, they deindividuated. The aliens did not understand this as they were not as much social animals as we. They considered it to be a mysterious and strange force against which they were helpless. The humans won the war, of course. That, naturally, was partly John Campbell's influence on the field! His impact on science fiction was both beneficial and malignant. It all depends on which aspect of his influence we are discussing.

It is also interesting to note that the author points out the mob psychology controlling individuals who were reacting violently at Woodstock. It works both ways of course. Consider the reactions of say the Oakland police to the 99!%. The protesters are being remarkably peaceful, this is a real tribute to the effects of Martin Luther King on American society. The police, on the other hand, seem to be the rioters. They regularly use grossly excessive force against helpless individuals. In other words, we find the police using brutal force in order to protect the people from exercising their constitutional right to seek the redress of grievances.

And now to confess some ignorance and ask for a little information. 4Chan? Reddit? Digg? I googled them and found out that they are some kind of social groups but I am not certain of any details. I'm wondering why they would exact justice as the author indicates. I am curious as to exactly what that justice might be. Just wondering .

If I had more time, I would explore such issues as the often discussed banality of evil as represented by perfectly nice individuals were good kind, loving fathers when they were at home but got up in the morning to go run a death camp for Adolf Hitler. After all, it was their job.

To sum it all up, from my point of view, the issue does not excuse us from responsibility . While these facts demonstrate a severe limitation on human free will, it is also clear that one of the issues which this suggests must be addressed is who we choose to follow. The author noted that individuals dressed as a nurse were kinder than individuals dressed a more threatening costume. While on the one hand it is natural to be lead, on the other hand, you do have the option to choose whom you follow. It follows that if you choose to be led by forces which insist upon no facts, no rational thought, and a defiance of reality, then you still must take responsibility for the awful actions which inevitably result . It is you who chose to follow those particular leaders and it is you must accept responsibility for the consequences of that choice.

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities -- Voltaire

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