I am going to pick on Mormonism for just a moment, because we have a Mormon running for President for the first time. However, I think Mormonism is un...moreI am going to pick on Mormonism for just a moment, because we have a Mormon running for President for the first time. However, I think Mormonism is unexceptional in the pantheon of religions, save for its relative youth.
To be a Mormon requires that one believe all of the things a typical Christian believes, such as that Moses parted the Red Sea so the Hebrews could pass (then closed her back up over the top of the Romans), that Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water, rose from the dead, and (as Bill Bryson would say) a good deal else. If you're a Mormon, you add a litany of other magic to the pot. For instance, as a Mormon, you have to believe that Native Americans are descendants of the lost tribe of Israel, your magic underwear stops bullets, and that Joseph Smith actually translated golden plates by staring at stones in a hat. Now, in my opinion, believing the Mormon-only set of magical ideas doesn't add very much to the absurdity score. You're already at the end of the scale and adding another point or two doesn't make much of a difference.
So, I think we'd be better off immediately if we all took a more rational view of the world, and so does Matthew Hutson. His objective in The 7 Laws is to lay out the primary ways in which we humans typically engage in magical thinking, present the research about where such thinking comes from, what function it likely served, and then encourage us to recognize and move beyond this irrationality. I think he does the job wonderfully. Magical thinking and irrationality in general is one of my favorite subjects, and I have read deeply on the subject, including much of the original research in the areas Hutson covers, so I was prepared to be a bit disappointed. I was not. In fact, I found myself quite taken by the breadth of his scholarship and the seeming ease with which he shoehorned so much of it into easily digestible chapters.
So, the 7 laws are: 1) Objects carry essences 2) Symbols have power 3) Actions have distant consequences 4) The Mind knows no bounds 5) The Soul lives on 6) The World is alive 7) Everything happens for a reason
I'll provide just a quick explanation and example for each.
Objects carry essences. This is one of my favorites. Lots of research shows that humans are essentialists. We think that there is something fundamentally different and special about a baseball that David Ortiz once hit out of a baseball park and we are willing to pay more for it. Of course, there is nothing special about it except that it has a history, but that history matters a great deal to all of us. See here for a brief blog post on how this informs our shopping decisions. Essentialism is important to understand, however, not because it informs how we value objects, but because it informs how we value people. When we hold prejudices, those prejudices are instances of essences. We think, for instance, that because someone is a member of a particular group, that person carries the essence of that group in their soul (we will get to the issue of souls momentarily). Because we believe that people and things have unchanging essences, we tend to believe that being a member of a group is permanent. We also tend to think that essences can be contagious. Once Barack Obama caught some black from his father, no amount of having a caucasian mother or being raised in a caucasian world could make him white. Barack Obama is black. What Hutson doesn’t get to, perhaps because I may be the only one who’s thought of this yet, is that falling in love requires essentialist thinking. When we fall in love, we imbue the object of our affection with a great variety of special qualities. When we fall in love, we come to believe that there is something special about this particular person and that none other will do. Well, thank goodness for that, but it doesn’t seem to be that way for other animals and didn’t need to be that way for us. We are essentialists!
Symbols have power. We act as though objects can stand in for people, even whole countries. Voodoo dolls are the most salient example of such thinking, but lest we think that such goofiness is the domain of primitive people, modern research on American college students demonstrates that we have a very difficult time throwing darts at the faces of people we like but not at someone we don’t like. People aimed badly when asked to hit JFK or some other nice person in the face, but were pretty good at nailing Hitler. Try burning a picture of your beloved. It feels bad and wrong and maybe even dangerous. My only objection to this law of magical thinking is that it is really a special case of essentialism. We think that these objects carry the essence of the person or thing we care about, and it is for that reason that people go crazy when a Koran or flag is burned. Another aspect of this law is the law of similarity, which suggests that we analogize forces the world, and the great example Hutson adduces is that when gamblers need to roll a high number in dice, they tend to throw the dice harder. Bigger = harder, even though, of course, it doesn’t. Hutson also points out how this causes collateral damage. For many years, people didn’t believe that a mosquito could be responsible for something as awful as malaria because the mosquito is very small and malaria is very bad. We know better now.
Actions have distant consequences. I used to have an inkling of a sense that how I was sitting and where I was sitting actually had some sort of impact on whether the Red Sox would win a ball game. I am not alone of course. The world is full of rally caps, for instance. We don’t like to step on cracks, etc. We are a superstitious lot. But, we are not alone. Virtually all animals are subject to some sort of superstitious behavior. We are wired to look for causality in the world. In the classic experiments with pigeons pecking at levers to release pellets of food, if the food is released in an absolutely random fashion, completely unrelated to when the pigeon pecks the lever, the pigeon does not give up. The pigeon does not simply sit back and wait. The pigeons concoct elaborate rituals that they believe (anthropomorphizing a bit here) are causing the food to be released.
The mind knows no bounds. This law simply takes actions at a distance and moves the action inside our heads. Where action at a distance requires a rain dance, boundless minds require only prayer. Pray and it shall be given unto you. Well, who wouldn’t want the world to work that way? Here’s my favorite instance, and I bet you’ve thought this at some point. I had a friend who one day told me, Oh, the craziest thing happened this morning. I had been thinking about my dear friend Soandso and then suddenly she called. This happens to me all the time. I just have a special connection with people. So, I asked, This is a close friend? A very dear friend, my friend said. So, you think of her all the time? Of course! So, when was the last time you talked with her? Oh, six months or so. How many times do you think you might have thought about her but she didn’t call… Well thanks for pissing in my corn flakes!!!
The soul lives on. This is the problem of dualism, and Paul Bloom (the essentialism guy) has another book on this subject, called Descartes Baby. Dualism is the belief that people are two things, body and soul. The problem is, we don’t feel like just our bodies. We feel like we are IN our bodies, not that we ARE our bodies. We can have thoughts that seem to be quite disconnected from the physical. We have dreams. We can’t imagine not existing. From a very young age, we tend to believe that personalities are permanent but physical entities are not. Young children think their dog may still be hungry even if it is dead. Much of the best poetry has to do with eternal souls. There is no evidence for any of it, of course, and dualism runs into the problem of the wiring. If body and soul are different things, how exactly does soul make flesh do its bidding? Where’s the connection? I rather prefer the Walt Whitman approach to transcendence: I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles. You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, But I shall be good health to you nevertheless (Walt Whitman, Song of Myself).
The world is alive. We anthropomorphize. We attribute intentions to nearly everything. We attribute a mind to nearly everything. We call our computers stupid and even yell at absurdly innate things like doors if they get in our way at inopportune moments. Some people posit that the universe as a whole has intentions (ie, The universe is against me.). To believe and act as if the world is full of entities that have intentions toward us is called the “intentional stance” in philosophy, and it has served us well from an evolutionary perspective. Here’s why: If we sense a rustling in the leaves at our feet and assume it is a snake and so jump out of the way, we are not likely to be bitten. If it’s not a snake after all, well, so what? We have not lost much. But if we were to NOT assume it was a snake when it actually was a snake, then we may very well get bitten by said snake, in which case we might die. So, in the course of evolution, the tendency to assume that the world was alive with things that we could eat or that might eat us would have been highly beneficial.
Everything happens for a reason. This last is one of my favorites. This very phrase is a slogan of the positive thinking types in the world. Again, it’s an adaptive response. It’s demonstrably not true. And when I see it written in response to someone’s misfortune on a facebook update, I think, Awww… But I also think, you can’t be thinking very clearly. I mean, we read all the time about the horrible things that are happening to perfectly innocent people all over the world. Try convincing a mother whose children have been kidnapped by the Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army that everything happens for a reason. If you do, I hope that 1) she believes you, and 2) that you are not within reach, because surely she will have a go at ripping your insensitive head off, and rightly so.
So, that’s the list. Hutson is thorough in his exposition of these 7 laws. If you are unconvinced by what I have written, not to worry. Hutson lays out the research in detail. I am not a good one to say how convincing he is, because I was already onboard, but he writes concisely and with humor. If you are not already familiar with the concepts above, you will be by the time you finish The 7 Laws. You will look at the world a little differently -- that is to say, a little more clearly. If you are not familiar with the research Hutson uses to support his arguments, you may very well come away from The 7 Laws with a deep appreciation for the cleverness of the research being done, as well. There are smart people out there asking very interesting questions and devising ingenious methods for getting at the answers. Hutson does a superb job of pulling it all together.(less)
By and large, I think this is a good and even an important book. In it, Haidt very clearly lays out the research that supports the view that human bei...moreBy and large, I think this is a good and even an important book. In it, Haidt very clearly lays out the research that supports the view that human beings have been endowed by evolution with 6 moral intuitions, or foundations. The moral intuitions are innate, which Haidt clearly explains does not mean fixed and immutable, but, rather, arranged in advance of experience. We don't all have a fixed set of moral intuitions, but there is a limited palate from which experience may paint the picture of how we perceive the world.
The most important part of Haidt's research and the argument of this book is that liberal and conservatives share these moral intuitions but tend to emphasize them very differently, and it is the different emphases that cause the divisions among us. In brief, liberals tend to assign moral weight to issues of justice (is it fair - does everyone have an equal chance) and harm/care (does it cause harm to another - bad; or does it help another - good). Conservatives share these intuitions, but their take on justice is different. For a conservative, justice is determined by proportionality. Each according to his/ her contribution, not his/ her need. In addition, everyone, but conservatives to a much greater extent than liberals, also feel that questions of loyalty (to one's group/family/country), authority (obedience), and purity/ sanctity (as in not mixing this with that) are moral issues. A sixth intuition concerns liberty. Here again, however, liberals and conservatives differ in how they think about liberty. Liberals wish to be free of constraints applied by other members of the group, while conservatives think of liberty as freedom from government.
As a framework for parsing arguments between liberals and conservatives, I think this is extraordinarily helpful. What Haidt and colleagues argue is that when we disagree with our ideological counterparts, the disagreements arise from differences in the weight we apply to these moral intuitions. For liberals, there really are just two primary moral issues, fairness and harm/care, while conservatives also value authority, loyalty, purity and liberty to a great extent.
Importantly, Haidt argues that each of the moral intuitions has been vital to the evolution of human culture. While those among us who are liberals care more about justice and care, without the other intuitions, we would never have achieved the groupishness and hence the culture that separates humans from other animals. It is primarily the conservative intuitions that have been responsible for providing the glue that held groups together over our evolutionary history, and it is as groups that human beings have generated a culture that has distanced us from our primitive ape cousins.
Not much to take issue with there.
Ultimately, however, Haidt explains that his study of morality produced in him a sort of conversion from liberal to moderately conservative, having discovered the value of groupish moral intuitions. He also cites research showing that conservatives are better able to take the view of a liberal into account that vice versa, and invites liberals to try to broaden their view to include these other intuitions. His suggestion in this book and elsewhere is that more conservative voices should be added to the intellectual debate over the role of moral intuitions in society.
So here's my problem with that. 1) I am liberal and have a hard time, as he says, understanding how the groupish intuitions might continue to retain their value as moral intuitions in the modern world. It seems to me that many of our greatest problems today have to do with the oversized role of these moral intuitions in buttressing parochial concerns (issues of importance to my group only), leading to inter-group conflict. 2) I am a member of a group (gays) that has been and still is legally disenfranchised in this country, and that disenfranchisement is largely justified by referral to the moral intuition purity. I can't marry my partner, because too many people in this country believe that to allow me to do so would somehow violate the purity/sanctity of heterosexual marriage. So, I can't get behind it. Of course, that is my parochial concern, but I can point to similar concerns that would affect nearly everyone. Purity/Sanctity, in my view, is a moral intuition that has outlived its useful life. 3) Too much of Haidt's argument has the flavor of a naturalistic fallacy. One is committing the naturalistic fallacy when one deems something to be good on the basis of it being natural. Another way it is expressed is when a person assumes that something ought or should be a certain way solely on the basis that it is that way in nature. Haidt's argument is more subtle than saying that because people are endowed with six moral intuitions, therefore all six ought to be valued equally. But, for may taste, his argument still relies mostly on the argument that because these six moral foundations were all critical for the development of what we consider to be civilized society, that they are all to be consulted in policy- and decision-making now. Much of our civilization consists of norms and rules for curbing natural instincts. The instincts that continually reify parochial groupishness, ie, the conservative moral intuitions, are among the natural instincts that I believe must be curbed. An alternative take is that the moral foundations are fine as is, but the groups to which they are applied must be continually enlarged to include everyone, and then perhaps everything. Clearly, this circle-enlarging has been occurring and will likely continue. That's great. But, shouldn't we also work to limit the sway of the intuitions that, while historically vital, are presently harmful or at best of dubious value for large swathes (i.e., anyone not in the majority) of our society today?(less)
Once upon a short while back in history (mid-19th Century), it was not uncommon for people to believe in stories such as this one about the giraffe's...moreOnce upon a short while back in history (mid-19th Century), it was not uncommon for people to believe in stories such as this one about the giraffe's neck:
Because for the longest time giraffes made their living reaching up into trees, stretching for all they were worth to get those last sumptuous leaves, during the lifetime of each giraffe its neck would gradually be stretched and (here's the important part) they would pass on these gradual improvements in neck length to their off-spring. Eventually, you get a species of long-necked creatures called giraffe's. In technical parlance, it was called the inheritance of acquired characteristics.
This notion that characteristics acquired during a lifetime could be passed along to the next generation fit nicely with the zeitgeist of the time, which envisioned history as the story of the gradual progression of life toward some sort of eventual perfection. This conception of evolution was named Lamarckian evolution after its principal 19th century proponent, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.
Today, this hopeful version of evolution sounds harmless, if impossibly naive, but in the Stalin-era Soviet Union, it (like much else) turned deadly. Stalin loved the idea that the fruits of hard work today (bigger muscles, fuller brains, workier workers) would be passed along intact to the next generation, and Trofim Lysenko took full advantage. You might work this generation of comrade's to death, but their children would last a bit longer and work a bit more. And their children the same, ad paradisium. With Stalin's blessing, Lysenko transformed the Soviet Union's agriculture through a series of "reforms" that were based on the wildly wrong idea that wheat (or anything else) would 'learn' how to thrive in hostile environments, pass along that learning to a next generation, and eventually feed the Soviet Union's millions. It didn't. As a result of Stalin's all-in investment in Lysenkoism, millions died of starvation (not to mention the hundreds of scientists who spoke out against Lysenko and were shot or sent to Siberia). The damage was not limited to the Soviet Union. Lysenko's politically motivated pseudoscience was also widely adopted in China, contributing to the great famine of the late 1950s and early 1960s, which took as many as 15 million lives and probably many more.
So, by now we are well past sucky Lamarckian, Lysenko-eque notions of evolution.
Or were. Because now the idea that we can acquire characteristics as a response to our environment, which we then pass along to our descendants, is making a come-back.
This time, the science makes sense. It's the science of epigenetics, and the latest book by geneticist Richard Francis does an excellent job of recapping and explaining the science. Here's the deal in a nutshell: For deeply historical reasons, our genes are first transcribed into a chemical, RNA, which is eventually translated into proteins, which then do pretty much all the work of making and caring for our bodies. Mutations in genes over time produce changes in the proteome (the set of proteins that make up a body), which results in different creatures. But now we know that there's more to the story. Chemical markers that are attached to genes, and which often end up there as a result of things experienced during a lifetime, can dramatically alter how genes are expressed. As an example, when a child is raised in a stressful environment, epigenetic changes may cause the child to more readily produce stress-related hormones, and those epigenetic changes may last throughout the person's lifetime. Even under low stress situations, that same child may produce more of the harmful stress hormones as an adult.
In rare (but frequent enough) cases, these epigenetic changes may be passed on to the unfortunate person's children, who may be born with the chemical markers that cause excess production of stress hormones. Because the parent was stressed out as a child, the next generation is born a stressed out child and may very well pass along that inherited characteristic. And so on down the generations.
It is Lamarckian evolution in action, and Francis does an excellent job laying out the story of how it works, how big a deal it is, and what kinds of problems are caused epigenetically, including (for some) a tendency to get fat.
Mukherjee is a physician, a cancer researcher and he writes splendidly.
What I learned in The Emperor of All Maladies that has remained in the back of...moreMukherjee is a physician, a cancer researcher and he writes splendidly.
What I learned in The Emperor of All Maladies that has remained in the back of my mind for the last couple months is that cancer is not really a disease. I think it's more appropriate to call it a syndrome, though that may not be correct scientifically. The reason cancer is not "a" disease is that there are many hundreds of different ways for cells to become cancerous. Cells become cancerous when the normal cellular signaling that tells a cell to stop dividing breaks down. When the signals to stop dividing are not turned off, cells begin to proliferate and form a tumor. Along the way, other mutations in the cells may combine to allow the cell to escape its local environment and to penetrate other parts of the body - to metastasize. That's when cancer becomes cancer, really. What Mukerjee explains so well, and with so many illustrative examples, is that there are very many communication channels through which normal cellular functioning may be turned off, and others through which it may gain the ability to metastasize. All of this depends upon what type of cell we are talking about - brain cell, liver cell, etc. The possible ways that a cell can become cancerous, therefore, grows to a great number quickly.
The unfortunate take-home message from the emperor of all maladies is that "a cure" for cancer is not something we can hope for. Specific cancers can be treated and even cured in some cases, however. There are already many effective treatments for common cancers. Drugs have been found that target the specific breakdowns that occur in particular types of cells, and these drugs can treat those specific cancers effectively. That's the good news.
The bad news is that there are a seemingly infinite list of other ways to "get cancer."
What I thought was particularly compelling in this rather bleak book: Mukherjee does a wonderful job of weaving the stories of the key players in the battle against cancer into the story of what we know about cancer itself. How we came to know what we know is fascinating. The politics and personalities of the people involved in getting us to where we are are at times inspiring at other times infuriating. Mukherjee does as good a job of blending the two streams of narrative together -- search for cure with nature of disease -- as any writer I've read, up to and including Bill Bryson and Carl Zimmer.
So, overall, this is a fascinating review of the history of cancer and cancer research. However, having just read another book that touches on the same subject from a different angle, I uncovered a gap in Mukherjee's coverage of the science, which stands also as a cautionary tale.
The other book to which I refer is called, Epigenetics, How Environment Shapes Our Genes, by Richard Francis. In it, the reader is introduced to another theory concerning the origin of some cancers (and cancer cures), along with much else to do with how genes make creatures. Epigenetics is an excellent read in itself. One learns in Epigenetics that the non-genetic chemical markers that help regulate the expression of genes are yet another source of cancers. EoAM does not mention epigenetics at all, and I suspect that is simply because Mukherjee doesn't do epigenetics. It is true that epigenetics is a much younger, less well developed field of study, but it is far from unknown, and so it is disappointing that epigenetics receives such short shrift in Mukherjee's otherwise excellent book. The cautionary tale, of course, is that even a very thorough book such as Mukherjee's cannot stand alone in one's library.
Self comes to mind is not a terribly accessible book, which is unfortunate, because the subject and the author are both very important. However, there...moreSelf comes to mind is not a terribly accessible book, which is unfortunate, because the subject and the author are both very important. However, there are a number of other books that treat the same subject but do it in a way that is considerably easier to follow.
I would recommend The Self Illusion, by Bruce Hood, which is a much more interesting presentation of the same essential material. For a deeper read on the same subject, Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works and the Stuff of Thought are both extremely lucid, even funny reads. Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained makes an excellent companion to Pinker's books if you've made it through and still want more. (less)