Why is eyewitness testimony proven so fallible in courts? How do we account for emotional outbursts which, at their worst, cost us relationships?
Why are we so inept at gauging probabilities? Why do we have to be taught methods for developing an unbiased sample in research projects? Supposedly, in the scientifically evolved West, many people in Mordor can still believe in ghosts and millions sincerely believe that they’ve been abducted by space aliens. If we know that superstitions are silly why do modern architects systematically avoid calling the 13th floor the 13th floor?
Haphazard nature of human body construction
I think it is safe to say we have very mixed feelings about our asses, vaginas and penises. The bio evolutionary reasons for this are that the pleasure centers and elimination centers are inseparable to the naked eye. If you believe in a Creator who designed the universe, wouldn’t it have made sense to have our pleasure centers in a separate part of the body rather than in our elimination centers? If God really was a good engineer, this is what he would have done.
Gary Marcus in his book Kluge informs us that the human spine is a mediocre solution to the problem of supporting the load for an upright, two-legged creature. Marcus says it would have made a lot more sense to distribute the weight across four equal cross-braced columns. Instead, all our weight is born by a single column. The cost for many people is agonizing backpain. Why is this? The spine’s structure evolved from that of four-legged creatures. But standing up in a rickety way for creatures like us is better than not standing up at all right? The human spine arose, not because it was the best possible solution imaginable, but because it was built on top of the quadruped spine, that already existed. Some of us who are knowledgeable about evolutionary biology may grant this haphazard arrangement when it comes to the body, but somehow when it comes to the mind, people feel more resistant. Sure, my spine may be built haphazardly, but my mind?
Haphazard nature of the human mind
Marcus proposes to us that if humans were the product of some intelligent, compassionate designer, our thoughts would be rational and our logic air-tight, like Spock. But why do we plan things and then abandon them before they are even tested? Why do we spend so many hours watching television when it does our genes so little good? Why do working class people blow a good portion of their paychecks at gambling casinos where their chances of winning are so small? Why do attractive people get better breaks in job interviews, promotions and admission interviews even though we know that there is no correlation between physical appearance and skills in doing a job? When we believe something is true, why do we need special training in critical thinking skills to search for evidence that would falsify what we believe? Why does individual racism continue long after it has been scientifically proven that there is no connection between race and intelligence?
Where we are going
In this article I will begin with an overview of the difference between the ancestorial and the deliberative brain. Then I spend most of the article outlining how their conflicts are played out in memory, language, beliefs, mental disorders, pleasure and even attempts by market fundamentalists to imagine capitalism as a rational system.
Towards the end of this article, I try to see how the haphazard brain might be connected to Aristotle’s fallacies, Francis Bacon’s four idols and Petty’s and Wegener’s central and peripheral brain routes. At the end of this piece, I ask how the haphazard nature of the brain might be connected to people’s susceptibility to propaganda.
Ancestral vs Deliberative Parts of the Brain
Human beings have two sides of the brain, what Marcus calls the ancestral system and the deliberative system. The ancestral system is what we’ve had throughout our primate evolution. It roughly corresponds to the limbic and mammalian parts of the brain. The human genome is 98.5% identified with the chimpanzee. The vast majority of our genetic material evolved within the context of primates who didn’t have verbal language, culture or deliberative thinking. The ancestral brain works quickly, automatically and operates at an unconscious level.
The deliberative system is a recently developed system that began with the neocortex and then thickened, especially with the rise of science and the scientific method 300-400 years ago. The deliberative brain works slowly, operates through calculation and is conscious. It is tempting to think that the ancestral part of the brain is irrational and emotional. But this is not necessarily the case. The deliberative brain certainly is more rational (the home of the formal logic of Aristotle) but the deliberative system produces irrational systems such as capitalism, obesity, drug addiction and world wars as we shall see.
What is Kluge?
A Kluge is the result of the haphazard way the two parts of the brain are organized.
Marcus says Kluge is clumsy or inelegant, yet an effective solution to a problem. It arises out of a combination of desperation and resourcefulness. Biology builds on what came before, a system set up haphazardly. It is a product of conflicting adaptative strategies rather than being engineered:
If power plant engineers could afford the luxury of taking the whole system offline, they would no doubt prefer to start over. But the continuous need for power precluded such an ambitious redesign. Evolution can no more take its products offline than human engineers could. So we are stuck piling new systems on top of old ones (13)
In other words, evolution cannot start over and integrate what has gone before. The deliberative part of the brain cannot weed out, streamline and eventually make the ancestral brain disappear into a single deliberative system as the founders of the Enlightenment had hoped. Instead, it must have been built on the genetic bedrock originally adapted for very different purposes.
The deliberative part of the brain invites a local possibility of optimalization and this optimalisation is possible, but neither necessary nor sufficient. Brain evolution can make lemonade (deliberative system) out of lemons (ancestral system) but it cannot erase the bitter taste of the lemon. Those who are naïve optimists about the human brain act as if lemons could be sweet. Moreover, it is one thing for a deliberative system to be out of sync with the ancestorial system but another for the two to flip-flop arbitrarily in their bid for control. This makes matters worse.
Haphazard Nature of Memory
Our first stop in the function of the brain is memory, which is contextual. I am more likely to remember which spices go with which recipe when I am in the kitchen than when I am in a book store. I am more likely to remember the differences in the painting style of Renoir and Monet when in an art museum rather than a museum of natural history. This contextual memory is more primed for speed rather than reliability. It involves situations which include grouped commonalities, recency and frequency. We are good at remembering the gist of happenings but not their detail.
Another common problem is that our memories are not signed, sealed and delivered. As time passes it becomes harder to keep particular memories straight. This is true not just because personal memories are blurred together over time. It is also because they get mixed up with movies we’ve seen and articles we’ve read that might resemble our experience of past events.
Yet in spite of this, remembering detail is precisely what the courts demand of eye witness testimony. They require a precision that was not necessary or adaptative for our ancestors. Thank goodness for DNA evidence that has overturned many court decisions based on eye witness testimony. Expecting human memory to have the accuracy of a video camera is evolutionally insensitive.
What is the opposite of this? Since the 17th century our deliberative brain went into high gear learning statistical reasoning, scientific methodology and critical thinking which forced us out a little bit away from the habits of our ancestral brain. In addition, through mathematics and scientific method we have built technologies which express the deliberative brain in material objects and systems. For example, computer memory is based on a postal code memory that treats all memories equally, regardless of time, place or circumstance. The contextual ancestral brain treats memory in terms of time, place, circumstance, frequency, recency or commonalities of situations. Marcus writes:
Computer memory works well because programmers organize information into what amounts to a giant map – postal code memory. (20) Search engines start with an underlying substrate of postal code memory and build contextual memory on top. The postal code foundation guarantees reliability (36).
The Haphazard Nature of Belief
We do not understand the origin of our beliefs. In other words, I cannot name the exact dates and the people who were instrumental in developing my interests in critical thinking and socialism. Furthermore, I cannot do a spring cleaning in my mind to clear our old ways of thinking that no longer serve me but are still clunking around, fouling things up. Whether I like it or not, these leaves become mulch for the next seasons’ planting of beliefs.
The Barnum effect works very well because its generalities are vague and because they are positive. Because we are hard-wired to see patterns, the Barnum effect floats some clouded generalities and we rush to fill in the pattern even if there isn’t one. This is how horoscopes, palm reading, communicating with the dead and other systems of divination work.
We also have a tendency to believe that what is familiar is good, even in the face of what is good is turning south. Further, the confirmation bias is a common cognitive error. Once we make a claim we seek evidence that supports it. Other times we don’t even bother to look for confirming evidence. We just make up reasons for supporting what we believe (rationalizing). Our perceptions are not accurate reflections of our senses but they are selective based on past experiences, needs, anxieties and hopes about the future. This is all part of the ancestral system.
As I said, our deliberative system requires a systematic education to challenge our beliefs. It requires courses in scientific methods and critical thinking to have a fighting chance. But even with this, as Carl Sagan said, deliberative scientific reasoning is a candle in a demon-haunted world. The demons of the ancestral brain are never far away
Ambiguities of Language
All language is filled with ambiguities, imperfections and idiosyncrasies. Let’s take the phase “I love you”. Think of all the misunderstandings, hurt feelings, bitterness, ruminations and irrational actions that have taken place between people because they meant different things by this phase. What about the term “support”. Do lovers mean the same things when they say to each other “I support” you? Probably not. Similar confusions may exist between parents and children, employers and workers and teachers and students. Often, we don’t say what we mean or mean what we say.
But what if each sentence was as clean as a mathematical formula? Language would be completely analytic and show at a glance its logical structure. Instead of changing over time, language would remain exactly the same. Ideally, we would say what we mean and mean what we say. As Marcus says, if language were designed by an intelligent engineer, interpreters would be out of a job.
Attempts by philosophers like Gottfried Leibniz at devising a universal language or Bertrand Russell’s attempt to mathematize philosophy have not worked out. This is because language has to be loose and flexible for dealing with a variety of situations while still maintaining communication between people across situations.
If pleasure is supposed to guide us to meet the needs of our genes, why do we humans fritter away so much of our time in activities that don’t advance those needs? Marcus points out that most things that give us pleasure don’t actually do much for our genes. No other species spends as much time playing and a large part of human activity does something that risks reproductive fitness.
In an ideal world, Marcus informs us, the parts of our brain that decide which activities would be pleasurable would be extremely fussy, responding only to things that are truly good for us and our genes. As it is, our pleasure center consists not of some set of mechanisms perfectly tuned to promote the survival of the species, but of a collection of crude mechanisms that are easily tricked. Pleasure is only loosely correlated with reproductive fitness.
The desire for happiness goes with the complexity of our deliberative system and is not necessarily connected to sex. Research shows having children doesn’t make us as happy as not having children does, despite its adaptive advantage. While it is true that people above the poverty line are happier than people who aren’t, if we move from middle class to upper middle-class there is no increase in rates of happiness. In spite of this, way more people continue to kill themselves striving to be richer in despite the fact it doesn’t make us happier. Pointing to studies in Japan Marcus says:
The average family income in Japan increased by a factor of five from 1958-87 but self-reports on happiness did not change at all. What seems to matter is not absolute wealth but relative wealth. (138)
While we say we want to maximize our long-term happiness, we are not good at anticipating what will make us happy. This is a sign of the haphazard brain at work.
When mentally or emotionally strained we become more prone to stereotyping, more egocentric and more paranoid. Procrastination is a sign of our Kluge with regard to decision-making. Evolution has made us rational enough to set long-term goals but not so rational to predictably follow through on them.
Evolutionary psychiatry deals with mental disorders by attempting to explain particular disorders in terms of hidden benefits. But as Marcus claims, some disorders may appear not as direct adaptations, but simply from inadequate design. They may result from little more than genetic noise, random mutations that convey no advantage at all. Could it be that the reason some aspects of mental illness persist not because there is of any specific advantage, but simply because evolution couldn’t readily build us any other way? If we humans were built from the ground up, anxiety, procrastination, paranoia and prejudice wouldn’t exist. Our mental instability gives us even more reason to doubt that we were not are the product of chance, adaptation and sexual selection rather than deliberate design.
Why Capitalist Rationality Doesn’t Work
For most of human history Karl Polanyi tells is that our economy was inseparable from social structure, politics and culture. Economic exchanges were organized in a substantive way. This means the economy was conceived of simply as provisioning and circulating goods at a societal, macro level. This was true not only in tribal societies but in the redistribution systems of the ancient empires. However, as part of the capitalist revolution, the economy began to be understood by intellectuals as a separate domain from the rest of society and economists began to imagine the economy was subject to autonomous laws. In addition, the economy was understood not as a provisioning society as a whole. Rather the real economy was imagined to be the exchange between isolated self-interested individuals. Society as a whole was the result of a blind interaction of supply and demand of markets for these individuals. This resulted in the invisible hand guiding capitalist relations.
For market fundamentalist theory the individual is a hyper-rationalist who:
- Desires wealth (as opposed to community)
- Avoids unnecessary labor (as opposed to enjoying work)
- Can clearly see the choices available (as opposed to being motivated by lust or emotion)
- Can make decisions on those choices with a clear understanding of costs and benefits (as opposed to costs and benefits being unclear and not quantifiable)
- Are driven by conscious forces (rather than unconscious forces)
- Are rational creatures tracking how we spend our money, how we allocate their time and how we plan for our retirement (as opposed to not closely tracking our expenses, being unskilled in managing our time, and most people’s inability to be able to plan their retirement). Marcus points out that nearly two thirds of all Americans save too little for retirement.
- “Calculate your expected utility or expected gain” and then averaging the amount you would gain across all possible outcomes”
This is so unlike what people actually do. Working class people virtually never do this and most the upper middle class don’t do this but hire financial planners to do this for them.
The truth is human beings didn’t evolve to think quantitatively about numbers or money. As Marcus points out our brains did not evolve to cope with money but to cope with food.
Instead, the deliberative brain is collectively recruited by capitalists to do ideological duty in order to justify a right-wing libertarian economic policies. It fails miserably since:
- Most people hate their economics courses and avoid them like the plague.
- Most people to not track economic reports in the news.
- Most people cannot explain the capitalist system even though their lives depend on it.
Connecting the Haphazard Brain to Aristotle’s Fallacies, Bacon’s Idols and Heuristic biases
Now that we have contrasted the bio evolutionary conflicts between the ancestral and deliberative brain, it is fair to ask what this has to do with other ways of explaining contradictions within the mind. Are Aristotle’s fallacies simply an expression of sloppy thinking on the part of individuals? Is it due to a bad educational system which does not teach critical thinking before college? Is it the result of mass and electronic media which shortens the attention span? Or is it all these things along with some bioevolutionary conflicts that underly these other explanations?
Aristotle’s Fallacies, Bacon’s idols, Heuristic Biases
I have taught critical thinking classes in colleges for over 20 years. In virtually every textbook there are what is called “thinking fallacies”. Aristotle grouped fallacies into major categories and most of them are still operating over 2500 years later. Aristotle also claimed that a complete and balanced argument contains three parts which he called the rhetorical triangle:
- A Logos component – how tight is the claim relative to the evidence, usually facts or reports.
- An ethos part which is the quality of the source.
- A pathos aspect which appeals to emotions and imagination.
Some rhetoricians have grouped fallacies according to violations of the three parts of the rhetorical triangle. Here is a sampling:
- Logos fallacies – false dilemma; genetic fallacy (if you know the origin, you know current conditions); overgeneralization; arguing from ignorance; confusing correlation with cause; two wrongs make a right; slippery slope; straw man and statistical fallacies
- Ethos fallacies – appeal to false authority; abusive ad hominen and guilt by association
- Pathos fallacies – faulty analogy; bandwagon; appeal to tradition; appeal to pity; appeal to flattering
It seems to me that Aristotle’s logos fallacies would go with the deliberative brain. Fallacies in formal logic would also go here. Fallacies linked to Ethos and Pathos are much older and are more closely linked with the authority of witch doctors, priests and priestesses. Pathos fallacies have their roots in the emotion required for magical rituals along with the use of imagination and saturation of the senses.
Later on Francis Bacon, trying to stay away from both blind empiricism and arid rationalism identified four sources of error scientists can commit. These include idols of the cave, idols of the tribe, idols of the marketplace and idols of theater. Of these the first three are old and would seem to go with the ancestral brain. The idols of the marketplace have more to do with the dogma that comes out of philosophy such as empiricism and rationalism and are more appropriate for scientists working with the deliberative brain.
Finally, psychologists today have identified the following cognitive biases
- Exaggerating the improbable and minimizing the probable
- Avoiding loss
- Fairness bias
- Hindsight bias
- Confirmation bias
- Need for cognitive consistency
I am not going to try to categorize these according to the ancestral or deliberative brain. Why not try your hand at this.
Use of the Central vs the Peripheral Brain Route
There are two methods for deciding how to interpret incoming data, one is the long route (the central route). The other is taking short-cuts (the peripheral route).
We use the central brain route:
- When the message involves a high personal stake
- When the person has previous experience with the topic
- When the message is complicated but comprehensible with an underlying structure and direction
- There is no time pressure
- There is a perceived abundance of resources
- There is sensory moderation
- Attention is focused
- There is emotional depth being demanded
- The person is physically rested
We use the peripheral brain route when:
- We have little personal stake in a topic
- We have no prior experience with the information
- The topic is convoluted with little apparent structure or direction
- There is time pressure
- There is scarcity of resources
- There is distraction so attention is diffused
- The appeal is to superficial emotions: gossip, insecurity and superstition
- The person is fatigued
There is nothing wrong or unreasonable in using the peripheral brain route. Under the eight conditions above, the central brain route would be too slow and cumbersome.
The problem arises when the propagandist tries to get the targeted audience to use the peripheral brain route when a person should be using the central brain route. For example, in the case of buying a house the person has a personal stake, should take their time and should be well rested before making a decision on something as important as buying a house. A real estate agent might consciously or unconsciously influence the person to use the peripheral brain route.
Petty and Wegener (1999) identity the central brain route as attending to content issues (the why and what of a message). The peripheral brain route deals with form or context of message, the who, how, where and when of a message. As you might imagine, the central brain route deals with the logos part of Aristotle’s triangle. The peripheral part is focused in the ethos and pathos part of a message. When dealing with the grounds for a claim, the central brain route addresses the evidence, the soundness and verifiability of the evidence. The peripheral brain route focuses on the quality of the source, its credibility, likeability (in the case of a person) and the articulateness of the message.
The central part of brain is engaged with the reasoning process in the mind. The peripheral part of the brain is subject to the sensual atmosphere such as colors, sound, touch, taste and smell. When we proceed to making judgments, what do we find? Using the central brain route, we try to make judgments before we check with our peers. When we use the peripheral brain route because we might be less experienced in the situation so we use peers to help us decide what to do.
At the end of this article is a summary of the haphazard nature of brain, the rhetorical triangle, Bacon’s idols, and the two brain routes. Analyze the table by first looking in the center for the categories of comparison. Then move to the left to the ancestral brain which is old, then the deliberative system which is new. I would read this horizontally rather than vertically for the highest contrast.
Is There a Bio Evolutionary Foundation for Propaganda?
Thirteen commandments of propaganda
How might the conflict between the evolutionary brain be applied to people’s susceptibility to propaganda? In my article Thirteen Commandments of Propaganda, I defined propaganda as the deliberate, systematic and often covert attempt by institutional elites to control perceptions, cognitions, emotions and behaviors while censoring, hiding, restricting, distorting or exaggerating the claims of the opposition. The ultimate purpose of virtually all propaganda is to persuade the lower classes that the upper classes deserve to rule. Propaganda can be found in economics textbooks, political campaigns, religious recruiting, news reporting, advertising campaigns, movies, sports and even educational textbooks. The commandments are the following:
- Control the information flow by becoming a source or distributor of information
- Use black and white absolutes
- Craft the message so it resonates with what is already in people’s heads in terms of their values and beliefs
- Address psychological, spiritual and social needs of the population
- Censor stories or contrary information
- Use group pressure to horizontally shape beliefs and behaviors
- Cognitively penetrate and stick
- Personalize events with anecdotes and case studies
- Bureaucratize events
- Demonstrate good ethics
- Dispense selective interpretation of facts
- Distance the propaganda from its source by using front groups such as foundations, think-tanks and research patronage
- Accommodate informational needs and habits of professionals in the media
Why the haphazard mind is a necessary but not sufficient condition for propaganda
There is no question that if the deliberative mind could ideally be reengineered, the mind would not be suspectable to modern propaganda. However, as our brains are currently configured, it makes sense that propaganda exploits the conflicts between the ancestral and deliberative parts of the brain. A good example of this is the attempt by advertisers, specifically car salesmen, to get the consumer to use the ancestral brain rather than the deliberative brain when purchasing a car. However, because the definition of propaganda is so calculated and conscious, all propaganda is the use of the deliberative system of ruling class to create a system where the population accepts its subordinate role. Because modern propaganda is so recent (500 years old), it is too new to have a bio evolutionary basis.
Let us look at some of these commandments. In our first commandment, propaganda controlling the information flow is mostly a product of mass media and state propaganda which did not exist in tribal societies where the ancestral mind was forming. The same is true with censoring information. Censorship is far more severe in industrialized societies and broad than it was in tribal or ancient societies.
The creation of black and white thinking goes with false dilemma fallacy in critical thinking. This is rooted in the ancestral brain in the fight or flight syndrome. However, until the rise of class societies and the monotheistic religion, black and white thinking was not widespread. In the last 500 years black and white thinking has become widespread with the use of mass media especially during wars between nation-states and in demonizing whole countries even when not at war. An example is the Yankee demonization of Russia, China and Iran.
Also the spread of propaganda horizontally to the group is very old and supports the ancestral evolutionary need to depend on the group. However, propagandistic advertising has created group conformity not just on a local level, but on a mass level. “Keeping up with the Jones” would be foreign to times where the ancestral brain was predominant.
Our susceptibility to storytelling also goes back very far. Today in news propaganda for war we are always treated to the personal story of a poor Iraq woman in full make-up running with her dead pet towards the camera. Remember the scene in the “Wag the Dog” movie? Here storytelling is the name of the game to propagandize war on a mass scale. Unless we are dealing with bureaucratic propaganda, propagandists stick with stories and stay away from statistics.
The ability to first diffuse attention and then focus (the commandment of cognitively penetrating and sticking) it on a mass scale has to do with technological innovations of propaganda far from the ancestral brain. As we saw on the section of this article on capitalist rationality, here is a propagandist technique used by free market economists using economic propaganda to convince the general population that an irrational system such as capitalism is actually rational.
The existence of bureaucratic propaganda is also a product of the modern age. Bureaucratic statistics as a way to snow people into thinking whatever is happening politically is beyond their control is no older than 300 years. It is another re-creation by the deliberative system that has no direct evolutionary connection. Lastly, organizations like front groups, foundations and think tanks are all products of the deliberative mind propaganda techniques that are also a product of the modern age. They have little to do with conflicts between the ancestral and deliberative minds.
What is important here is that the existence of propaganda is the product of a collective deliberative brain of the ruling class to create a rational system for justifying irrational creations which go against the evolutionary self-interest of individuals and our species as a whole. Large scale wars, capitalism, the pharmaceutical industry and the food industry which produces diabetes are just the tip of the iceberg.
In conclusion, it is safe to say that the haphazard conflicted nature of the brain is a necessary but not sufficient condition for propaganda. Without the ancestral-deliberative conflict there would be no susceptibility to propaganda. However, the haphazard brain is not a sufficient condition for propaganda. If we understand propaganda as a tool of the ruling classes to control their populations, the recent use of modern propaganda meant that even if we go back to the class societies of Egypt and Mesopotamia these societies were not old enough and the conflict between the ancestral and deliberative brain was too new to be an influence.
Table A Contradictions Within the Haphazard Brain
|Category of Comparison
|Limbic and mammalian system?
|Triune categorization of the brain
|Pre-rational (not irrational)
|Type of rationality
|Rational or irrational
Postal code memory
|Ambiguous to deal with a variety of situations Often doesn’t mean what they say or say what they mean
|Clear. To deal with special situations
Say what you mean, mean what you say
Universal language (Leibniz) Russell (mathematize logic)
|We don’t know the origin of our beliefs
Horoscope, divination systems
|Knowing the origin of every belief
Special training in scientific methods and critical thinking
|Stereotyping, more egocentric, paranoia
|Procrastination and anxiety, paranoia would have no place
|Maximization our genes
success, well regarded by peers
|Neurotransmitters Dopamine and serotonin
|Irrational: Chemical substances like alcohol, nicotine and drugs like cocaine and heroin
|Type of economy
|Irrational formal economy
Formal rationality of neo-classical economics
|Part of Aristotle Rhetorical Triangle
|Cave, tribe, marketplace
|Idols of the theatre