This post will largely be a catalog of the books I have been reading in the past two years about the brain, what we’re given, how much we’ve done with it, and how difficult it has been to get past ourselves.
From what I have been able to gather about our bodies, we are the amalgamated result of millions of years of evolution. Because of that we have some built in tendencies, like desires for food and sex, and we have intuitions like in-group bias. They can be beautiful. They can be quite ugly.
The reason we view these intuitions as ugly is because we have done so much with cultural evolution to hijack biological evolution. The Enlightenment has done its work to spring us forward, yet our bodies are trying to catch up.
That’s the sort of TL;DR, and if you want to head out now, this is as good a time as ever.
Plenty of what I have uncovered could probably start with The Distracted Mind, published by MIT. We are not simply foragers for food, but we are also foragers for information. Because of that, we tend to constantly search for knowledge or concepts that allow us to analyze and synthesize it apart and together respectively (to borrow many of Bloom’s Taxonomy) into a cohesive narrative that we use to make sense of the world. The benefit of this system is that our brains have become explanation machines that we rely on to make temporal or spatial sense of the world around us.
The downsides for this are plenty however. First of all, as Donald Hoffman says in his Case Against Reality, the way in which we gather information is based not on truth, but on fitness. The way we judge attractiveness in a mate, or even the way we view light, is not based on personality or atoms, it is based on corner-cuts our mind takes with the world. Staying alive and benefiting society sometimes do not overlap.
Not only that, but our current technology takes advantage of our foraging minds. Surely you must have had that sickening feeling of scrolling YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, or Reddit infinitely, and when it is all over, you hardly remember what just happened. The world clearly did something to you, and the neuroplasticity involved in this infinite scroll must be doing something to the way we interact with the world. I don’t think it’s good…
The myriad ways that our brains are simply a repository for organic systems and the environment is what makes Alan Jasanoff’s The Biological Mind one of the most impressive books I have read in years. His thesis is that most people have a very computer-like interpretation of the mind, or they still believe in this mind/body dualism that assumes that our thinking can rest above the world. Time and time again, he presents anecdotes and research that our brains are simply the conduit of our bodies.
Recipients of organ transplants report cellular memory swapping with their donor.
Just that one fact alone highlights that there’s clearly more going on in our bodies and minds that rest at the cellular level. While the previous books provide theoretical and historical proof, Jasanoff’s book finally cements into our heads that the mind cannot live without the body. Uploading your consciousness is out.
Fortunately, the Enlightenment gave us some incredible new ways of incentivizing progress through the scientific revolution. Enlightenment Now and From Bach to Bacteria and Back are two great books that help bring about this bottom-up idea of evolution. Our care for humanity and the growing welfare state has helped to bring about exponential change. Education brings about a society willing to go after new discoveries, and it critiques problems and dismisses them as unacceptable. Despite the fact that we cannot really prevent our minds from growing and dying, we have sort of co-opted the evolutionary system with cultural evolution, which is to say that we have developed species wide abstract tools that allow us to perform better as an individual, group, and society.
This is sort of where my reading ends, but I hope that I did these books justice. What I wanted to say with these words was to suggest that now, in 2020, we seem to be facing a wide range of problems. These are necessarily new problems either: we have faced racist policies in the past, we have faced pandemics before. We have even faced globalization before. The world of the industrial revolution and growths in trade and communication in the late 19th and early 20th centuries spawned much of the heightened and fearful rhetoric of the “other” that we face today.
Keep in mind that America had slavery as a legal institution only 155 years ago. That might seem like a lot from our parochial perspective, but in evolutionary terms that is barely a blink. What that means is that our ancient and biological minds are fighting some very well-established stupid policies of in-group bias, binary thinking, and fatalistic notions. A lot of this was discussed in Factfulness by Hans Rosling, but it is worth repeating here. We have the opportunity to experience unprecedented progress. We have made substantial improvements in renewable energy, and we have developed cheaper and common alternatives to goods that used to be necessary, but now are just crap. Case in point, you have a smart phone that acts as a voicemail machine, an alarm, a messaging system, and a GPS all at once!
We have decoupled information from their analog anchors. I mean, just the fact that I can type this on a computer, and then type again on a different blog post using the same matter would be miraculous to someone just 50 years ago. Compare that to a journal, where once it is handwritten, the page is lost. This subtle difference is incredible!
But in order to rake in the immense prosperity, we have to do an autopsy on what behaviors are dead on arrival when it comes to our bodies. What I am asking for is sort of impossible, which is that we step outside ourselves.
Instead of doing this alone, cultural evolution has taught us that institutions are where it’s at. Institutions like courts, schools, and safety nets like healthcare, these provide the foundation for people to recognize the “better angels in their nature” to quote Abraham Lincoln. If it were not for public school, I may very well be illiterate. Without advances in science by public institutions, I may very well be dead.
So even though I cannot trust my own intuitions without doing a significant amount of reading and research (as I’ve tried to do here since 2016), institutions are the repository for data and statistics that can help us better understand each other.
Sorry for the preaching.
I want to believe that the future of humanity looks bright. But I have also been genuinely worried recently that our lack of trust in one another and our ability to build a mutual reality could bring about terrible results.
Wherever you are, I hope you have the time and energy to learn. Do you have to read the books I want you to? Of course not. But you should read something. I have realized how easy it is to be fooled, as Richard Feynman has reminded me. This post suggested why, and how I might circumvent that in the future. Learning has never let me down.