Basic Insight: Understanding Human Society Is Maladaptive

I don't have the patience to express this clearly. But here's what I am driving at:

  1. Everybody is doing the best they can.

  2. Realizing that the other tribe is full of people doing the best they can is maladaptive.

Daniel Dennett's new book on the evolution of human consciousness raises an important point: 

Our genes were selected because the humans who inherited them tended to survive. Our conscious brain evolved because the humans who inherited it tended to survive. The elements of our cultured evolved because the groups that practiced them tended to survive.  

There is only one criterion: survival.  

People generally sort of know this in the positive sense of survival of the fittest. The critical insight is negative: everything else in NOT a reason why we evolved this way.

Being correct is not the criterion. Natural selection cares not one whit whether we are insightful or confused, perceptive or blind. Survival is the only criterion.

"Ah ha," people think, "but being correct helps people survive. Being correct about bear behavior, for example, is an adaptive trait that allows people to avoid bear attacks and thus pass on their genes."

True enough.

But what about the areas of understanding that are maladaptive? This might seem to form a problem of infinite regress: if we have evolved to be wrong about something, wouldn't that imply that we've evolved not to notice that we are wrong?

In reality, it's generally a matter of perspective. Individuals can step outside our big picture general human behavior and discover our wrongness.

This has resulted in the growing list of cognitive biases. Specific ways evolution has given us brains and cultures that consistently produce wrong answers. We did not evolve this way because it produces humans who correctly understand our fellow humans and the way they organize themselves into societies and cultures. In fact, to the extent that a correct understanding would hurt our survival chances, then we have evolved to be wrong, not right. 

The diagram above is basically a list of all the situations when being wrong is more adaptive than being right.

If life is a fight for survival, kill or be kill, win or go home, then being correct about the basic humanity or our enemies would be deadly.

  • Everybody is doing the best they can.
    • I've represented mass-murders as an attorney. No matter how horrible you think someone is, how evil or delusional, they have their reasons. And they are doing the best they can.
  • Realizing that the other tribe is full of people doing the best they can is maladaptive.
    • Trump voters and BernieBros are doing the best they can. They have their reasons. But mobilizing against them is not served by nuance. Hating them is harder when you know they are just like you.

Paul Ryan is the Clarence Thomas of Poverty

Probably the fiercest critic of affirmative action on the Supreme Court is Clarence Thomas. Clarence Thomas is, of course, black. Doesn't he believe racial discrimination hurts black people? Doesn't he think that racial discrimination would keep black people out of positions of power if the Federal Government let people get away with it?

The key to understanding Clarence Thomas is to remember two things:

  1. He is most concerned (like all humans) about people he identifies with, and
  2. He believes that the people who succeed in this world are simply better people.

So Clarence Thomas is a superior human who got into Yale Law School. Fine. I'm sure most people at Yale Law School imagine themselves to be naturally superior to their fellow man. What's the problem? The problem is that because Affirmative Action exists, he is not recognized as a superior human being, despite the name "Yale" on his degree:

Thomas graduated from Yale Law School, and in 2007 he attacked his alma mater's affirmative action policies in his memoir and in an interview with ABC News. Thomas argued that what he called the stigmatizing effects of affirmative action put him at a huge disadvantage when he was trying to find work as a lawyer.

Thomas said he went on interviews with one "high-priced lawyer" after another who didn't take him seriously because they thought he got special treatment.

"Many asked pointed questions, unsubtly suggesting they doubted I was as smart as my grades indicated," Thomas told ABC News.

Affirmative action also made him miserable while he was actually attending the law school, Thomas writes in his book, according to the Yale Daily News.

“At least southerners were up front about their bigotry: You knew exactly where they were coming from,” he says in the book. “Not so the paternalistic big-city whites who offered you a helping hand so long as you were careful to agree with them, but slapped you down if you started acting as if you didn’t know your place.”

Just Like Paul Ryan, the successful poor kid from Janesville, Wisconsin.

Now that Ryan is closer than ever to enacting his Ayn Rand inspired plans to slash government benefits to the poor, he's getting a lot of attention. The standard liberal take is that Ryan says he cares about poverty, but he's really just a lying asshole.

But didn't Paul Ryan say he really was driven by his Catholic faith to help the poor?

The key to understanding Paul Ryan? The same two things as Clarence Thomas:

  1. He is most concerned (like all humans) about people he identifies with, and
  2. He believes that the people who succeed in this world are simply better people.

Paul Ryan is not quite the success Clarence Thomas is, but he thinks he's pretty special. His dad died young, but Ryan saved up his money and was able to go to college. Now he's the Speaker of the House. How did he do it? As they said at the Republican National Convention that nominated him for Vice President: I built this. Paul Ryan is a rags to riches pulled up from his own bootstraps American Success Story.

But there's a voice in the back of Ryan's head telling him that he's a fraud. That voice sounds a lot like Charlie Pierce. 

Charlie Pierce is now a liberal blogger at Esquire Magazine and frequent guest on NPR's "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me." Back in the day, however, Charlie was a sportswriter in Boston. He is concerned that Paul Ryan Doesn't Understand How Insurance Works, especially Social Security:

Let's say that, in 1986, a 16-year-old lad loses his father to a sudden heart attack. Despite the fact that the family's construction firm is relatively prosperous due to its generous share of government contracts, the family's finances are considerably straitened. For the next two years, the young man and his mother receive Social Security survivor's benefits. Of course, these came from millions of people who had Social Security withheld from their paychecks and whose fathers did not die young due to a sudden heart attack. One of them was, say, a 32-year-old sportswriter for the Boston Herald, who had Social Security withheld from what he was paid to watch the Red Sox blow the '86 World Series, and whose father was still alive, but slipping fast into Alzheimer's. Some of his money went to make sure Paul Ryan could complete high school and go on the college and get the BA in economics that made him the smartest man in the world.

Got it now?

Also, you're welcome, rube.

Just like Clarence Thomas, Paul Ryan thinks he would have succeeded no matter what because he's, you know, really smart. The problem is that jerks like Charlie Pierce won't give him the credit that he deserves.

And what's worse, thinks Paul, is all the little poor kids who are smart enough to succeed if only they knew that Paul Ryan showed them they can do it. Those poor little kids on SNAP don't get the empowerment that comes from knowing that the Speaker of the House rose from poverty thanks to his own smarts. They believe, unfortunately, that SNAP keeps them alive by allowing them to eat food. The poor souls! Doomed to poverty by having enough to eat. It's really sad. The "hammock of dependency" Paul calls it (in between made up stories). And a good Catholic should do something about it.

And that is why Paul Ryan believes he's being the best Catholic he can be, really, truly helping the poor, by literally taking the food out of their children's hungry mouths.

How Our Politics Could Change

The reason our political system is dysfunctional is the Republican Party. Parties are created by primary voters, and the most consistent and coherent voting block in GOP primaries is Neo-Confederate non-college whites. The chickens of the 1965 Voting Rights Act have come home to roost. Trumpism will continue to win elections in Alabama for the foreseeable future. 

The opening for change lies in districts that are solid red but meet two important criteria:

  1. Lack a Neo-Confederate base AND
  2. Have other potential voting blocks that could become coherent and consistent voting identities. 

Lots of places meet condition number one. It's condition number 2 that's hard.  

One place that might fit the bill is Utah. It's very white, and Mormons are typical social conservative, but they also travel the globe helping people in developing countries. Mormons have been refugees and they have a strong tradition of welcoming others. And a lot of them seem to understand that poverty is not caused by bad choices, but is a consequence of not having enough money to buy the things you need. 

Enter Jason Chaffetz, an invasive reptile species brought into Utah to kick footballs for BYU, where he acquired a wife, a religion and a desire for the approval from his adopted neighbors. But true to his reptile DNA, Chaffetz has turned into the exact kind of intolerant asshole who ran Brigham Young out of Nauvoo. How should the uninsured buy chemotherapy meds? With the $500 they spent on their phone. Duh!


Per Huffington Post, one of Chaffetz's non-reptile constituents has had enough

By dismissing an angry crowd of constituents as paid, out-of-state protesters last month, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) helped convince a very real constituent in the audience that it was time to run for office.

And when the congressman said Tuesday that low-income Americans shouldn’t buy iPhones if they are unable to afford coverage under the new GOP health care law, he may very well have ensured he’ll have a viable challenger come 2018.

Kathryn Allen, a Democrat and family physician from Cottonwood Heights, Utah, had been toying with the idea of running against Chaffetz, whom she recently described as a “terrible excuse for a public servant.” But it was Chaffetz’s iPhone blunder, Allen’s public response and the explosive groundswell of support — and funding — she received afterward that provided the final boost.

It's About Not Having The Money You Need To Buy The Things You Want

Our new digital media has some big bright successes where it highlights truth that--while well documented--is too far outside the conventional wisdom to be printed in the New York Times.  

The monthly murder of unarmed black men by local police continues, but thanks to camera phones and digital media, the WaPo started paying attention. The absolutely vital development: govt now keeps track of these murders.  

Another truth--that leaded gasoline is behind both the rise and dramatic fall of crime over the past 6 decades--still hasn't cracked the thick, fossilized skulls of the folks at the NYT who write about cops and crime, but it will, thanks to the work of Kevin Drum. 

 It matches up internationally, too.  

It matches up internationally, too.  

Another critical insight is that the problem of not enough money is solved by... money. A ton of credit on this goes to Dylan Matthews, first at Wonkblog, now at Vox. He's got a new piece on the giving people free money program in Kenya that I highlighted recently. He uses the example of a woman named Jacklin Okotch Osodo to lay out how free money solves poverty:

Jacklin’s choice flies in the face of a persistent myth propagated about the poor, both in the developing world and in rich countries. This myth says that poor people can’t be trusted with money — that it’s better to give them concrete things like food or bednets or school supplies.

And yet Jacklin is being given cash with no strings attached, and choosing to use it in the way that she feels will most benefit her family in the long run. She isn’t frittering it away, or wasting it, or hoarding it for herself. The myth of the irresponsible welfare recipient just doesn’t apply.